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Fiction

Mark had lived the perfect cul-de-sac life for almost three years until that one summer, when godly providence clearly abandoned the dead end for some greener pastures.

Until then, birds would chirp at dawn without fail and sometimes, if the night was really silent, they’d stir up an anxious song even in the dark. They’d weave feeble nests between the branches of the old maple tree growing fifteen feet from his kitchen window, and he’d sometimes stop to watch them, his mind calming down at witnessing the effortless precision with which they arranged the twigs.

Until that summer, every year around the end of August, wasps would settle in the other big tree, the acacia, and buzz admonishingly whenever someone dared to approach. Mark would often stick his head out of the bathroom window to have an evening listen right before his shower. The setting sun would emit that contagious, pre-autumnal golden glow which all the leaves would soon catch like skin cancer and fall lifelessly to the ground. Mark hated winter with a passion.

Until that one summer, he would never notice his neighbours much. Sure enough, he had some pleasant, echoing exchanges in the hall, but most big-city dwellers keep to themselves reliably and he was no different. He occupied a flat on the ground floor, yet somehow, the mellow-footed tenants above him never stomped or blasted music. Now and again, he would hear some muffled moans of held-back pleasure late into the evening, but if anything, they helped him drift off to sleep. This proved particularly helpful on weekdays, when the anxious, starched thoughts of his rustling suit and noose-like tie he had to wear in the office could keep him up all night.

Things always felt wobbly at best in his workplace and every time he got called into the boss’s office, he thought he was about to be made redundant. But instead, he would be asked to take out some holidays before the end of the financial year. Or his professional opinion would be sought on an applicant for an open position at the company. This frequent need of him made him feel teased whenever he walked down the hall and knocked on the manager’s door, as if the process was meant to instil humility and remind him of all he had to lose.

It wasn’t so much that he performed badly, but he knew he was distinctly beside — if there was a loop, he definitely stood out of it. He was pretty sure that the water cooler turned into a mythological creature, charming people into opening up to each other, only after he’d filled his cup and walked out of earshot. He did best without people around to shed light on his awkwardness. And at home, the birds chirped, the wasps buzzed, and the water tasted wetter and less metallic than it did at work.

The Big Shift (which abbreviated to BS, as he liked to note with perverse satisfaction) was caused entirely by the new couple who moved into one of the top-floor flats. As is so often with devil’s spawn, they worked in cunning ways, slapping everyone with their apparent innocence and neighbourly kindness. They’d put cookies out for delivery drivers and handle the front door so carefully nobody ever knew their comings and goings. They were handsome enough, if it wasn’t for the fact that the woman had pink, wig-like hair and the man seemed glued to his old-fashioned trilby hat. At the beginning, Mark found himself enjoying the newcomers’ lively attitude and their harmless quirks.

But his vigilance couldn’t be lulled with smiles and small talk, and he may have been fooled at first, but soon enough, their real intentions became clear to him.

It all started with the filthy chain smoking. Mark had quit years ago and since then came to judge smokers harshly, as so often lies within the habit of ex-addicts. The couple would linger under the maple tree, huffing and puffing and whispering in hushed tones, seemingly not to disturb their neighbours. Mark could swear whenever he happened to hear them out of the kitchen window — and no, he wasn’t eavesdropping, sometimes he would just naturally happen to come to a stand so still he appeared like a statue — that the language they spoke sounded foreign, harsh and otherworldly like some devilish dialect.

When he heard the drill one evening and saw the man tampering with the tree, he ran out.

‘Excuse me!’ he yelled over the electric humming. ‘Excuse me!’

The man put down the drill and looked at Mark with polite, studied curiosity.

‘What are you doing? This is common property.’

The woman, whose hair only seemed to be getting more and more pink every day, rushed forward, extending a strange metal vessel to Mark as if it was supposed to contain helpful information.

‘We’re just putting up an ashtray, you see,’ she offered, fiddling with the box to demonstrate it to him from all angles.

Mark stared at it and then back at her until she backed away a little.

‘We’ve got permission from the groundskeeper. She said better to get the butts contained than to litter.’

The woman shrugged and the three of them stood there helplessly, guarding the tree for conflicting purposes.

‘Do you know there are birds nesting up there?’ Mark came up with finally, a note of triumph in his voice. This would surely dissuade them.

The man exchanged a quick glance with his wife.

‘I’m sure they’ll be fine. It’ll only take a minute to install.’

Mark bridled like a disgruntled horse. ‘You’ll smoke them out!’ he yelled and pointed at the nest. They followed his shaky finger with their eyes, but they couldn’t see anything in the evening’s shadows.

He gave up, went home and wrote a note to the old lady on the mews who volunteered as their groundskeeper. She called on him the next morning.

‘Mark,’ she started patiently, with a patronising undertone she was usually forgiven because of her post and age. ‘Let the new tenants have some room. The birds will be fine, I promise. They’re city creatures, a little smoke can’t scare ‘em.’

But the truth was the birds sang less and less and the nest looked emptier every time he looked at it, until he couldn’t hear the busy chirping anymore. Instead, he could only tune into his new neighbours’ snake-like hisses.

If they had only stopped at that, he would have counted himself lucky. But the initial victory seemed to sharpen their appetites, and soon, they lugged a rattan table and a couple of matching chairs out to the empty car park behind the house. They would sometimes bring their morning coffee out there — and they had it posh, in little porcelain cups with saucers, which clinked against each other unbearably and disturbed his breakfast routine.

One sunny morning, he decided to put an end to it. He tightened the belt on his dressing gown and put on a pair of boxer shorts just in case the garment decided to play an exhibitionist trick on him, and then headed out.

‘Excuse me!’ he said in a raised voice. ‘This is common property.’

The man turned to face him in his chair, which creaked in a way only rattan does, a way Mark may have found pleasant in different circumstances.

‘Good morning,’ he said with emphasis, clearly alluding to the lack of greeting on Mark’s side. ‘We were told by the groundskeeper lady that nobody’s parked here for years, so we could just have the corner.’ He performed a sweeping gesture. ‘There’s still lots of space, though.’

Mark turned back without replying and set out to write another strongly-worded note to the groundskeeper, but he found himself at a loss for words which would sound normal enough. He couldn’t say the new people were evil based on a powerful premonition. He couldn’t say the clinking of their saucers was ruining his mornings. So instead, he opted for the hope that wasp season would soon end the couple’s carefree lounging — the acacia stood right by the car park like its guardian, and soon, it should unleash a mean, stinging army.

He was getting ready for work one grey morning when he heard the woman’s shrill scream out of his bathroom window. She’d abandoned her seat at the table and was running around in circles, trying to bat something away with a newspaper, which made Mark smile. There was some promise in the clumsy dance she was performing.

The unusually good mood the event had put him in dissipated only as he stumbled onto an unexpected scene upon coming home from work. The couple stood outside in the car park with the groundskeeper, all staring at the acacia with terrifyingly thoughtful expressions. Their squinting eyes and furrowed brows could only foreshadow disaster.

He strolled up to the group.

‘Good evening,’ he said in his best neutral tone, trying to feign mild curiosity. ‘Is everything alright?’

The old lady turned to face him.

‘Oh, Mark, you’re here. I’m glad. Did you know there was a wasp nest in that tree?’

He was caught off-guard and they were now all looking at him. He shook his head.

‘No, I didn’t. What makes you say that?’

They relayed the morning’s happenings to him, painting the scene he remembered as glorious in apocalyptic light. The woman was allergic to wasp venom, you see. She could have died had she been stung. They’d have to get rid of the pest somehow.

‘And there’s one more thing I’ve noticed. I don’t come here enough,’ added the groundskeeper and wrung her old, wrinkled face out into an apologetic smile. ‘The tree seems to be bending down further and further every year. I think we should bring the whole thing down.’

Mark was left speechless, but only for a few seconds.

‘But it’s common property! It’s always been here!’

The woman didn’t seem convinced. ‘We can’t have it fall over someone’s car.’

‘But…’ Mark hesitated, wondering how much harm using this argument could cause him, ‘nobody ever parks here!’

The couple exchanged triumphant looks, but they remained silent. After all, they were new here, and Mark was convinced they wouldn’t let their perfect masks of innocence slip for some time, keeping everyone oblivious as to their plans to desecrate the neighbourhood.

‘It’s still a car park, Mark,’ replied the groundskeeper, turned back to the tree and assumed the dreary, plotting face again, signalling to him that the conversation was over.

He walked away muttering about double standards and the society’s discrimination against single people. The young woman stared at his hunched back and burst into sudden laughter when he disappeared inside. She’d thought of a nickname for him, which she immediately shared with her husband and the old lady with a guilty, indulgent chuckle.

‘We should call him Mad Marx from now on,’ she said. ‘He’s like a communist, with his love of the common property and all that. And also, I hate that stupid movie!’ 

Her husband laughed heartily in response. The groundskeeper had no idea what stupid picture she meant, but either way, the alliteration sounded not only a witty, but a fairly accurate summary of Mark’s strange excesses.

They arranged for the tree to be cut down at the weekend, of course, so he’d be home, helpless to do anything other than watch from his window. The exterminator to address the wasp problem did his part first, spraying the branches with hellish poison, anointing the acacia for ritual sacrifice. He removed the big white nest in chunks, threw them into a rustling bin bag and then swept up the few wasp carcasses left behind on the ground. It took all of Mark’s self-control not to run outside and stuff the man into the plastic bag as well.

To cut down a tree was apparently a delicate surgery with little room for error. A lift was erected to tie a noose around the acacia’s neck that someone would need to pull at in order to encourage the tree to fall in a certain direction. The cut had to be made from a certain side to further increase the chances of the big trunk not crushing the fence on one side or their building on the other.

But they managed it without a problem, and as the tree was falling, Mark couldn’t help but cover his ears. The sight was heartbreaking, but it was the sound of it that truly threatened to imprint itself in his memory forever. It was like a moan from time immemorial, before humans took over with their smooth voices — creaky, mournful, final. The branches murmured all at once, forced not by the breeze but the impetus of the fall, and flattened painfully on the side facing the concrete.

When the couple came out later that night to admire the stump with their cigarettes, Mark overheard their conversation as he was brushing his teeth.

‘Hey, look, I think we’ll get more sunshine now at the table!’ the woman whispered excitedly.

‘Yeah. I think you’re right.’ Her husband gestured towards the building. ‘Do you think Mad Marx will hate us even more now?’

She giggled in response and sudden realisation almost swept Mark off his feet. They were feeding off his grief, calling him names behind his back, undercutting his trees, and bit by bit, his life.

Mad, was he? He’d show them mad. He stormed into the kitchen and grabbed a knife from the drawer without even looking at it. He’d show them mad. How exactly, he wasn’t sure, but he’d show them what it truly meant to be at a dead end.

In the frenzy, he forgot to gurgle out the toothpaste, which made him look rabid in the faint, ambient city lights. They spotted him from afar, alarmed by the sound of the slamming front door, and for a split second, they just stood there, trying to process the scene unfolding in front of them. The sharp glimmer of the weapon like some morbid, cursed jewel startled them into running in different directions and Mark instinctively pursued the woman. When she reached the end of the car park, she turned around to face her oppressor.

She had no makeup on and looked about ready for bed, her slim figure looking shapeless in pyjamas with dozing turtles on it. Another revelation loosened Mark’s knee joints and he stumbled a little. There was no way she could be acting the terror which settled on her face and in her limp body. She couldn’t be that evil. Her hands were clasped together in a mute plea, and suddenly, the world turned a curious hue of blue and then black when her husband hit him over the head with something.

***

Mark was trying to explain to the policemen that he felt much better now. He still hated the newbies, but he couldn’t be blamed entirely. It was the stir in the home he found so reassuring to be able to get back to. It made him lose it a little, temporarily of course. He couldn’t even explain why he’d grabbed the knife. He’d never do it again.

‘What knife?’ the policeman asked, but Mark barely heard him, too carried away by the relief of anger he was experiencing. He showed them mad, and now, they could call it quits. The policeman moved a little closer and gestured invitingly to his colleagues.

He needed the knife to scare them away from the sacred stump, Mark explained. The men in uniforms seemed to listen without much interest, but their expressions were too studiedly indifferent.

As they were pulling away from the car park nobody ever used with Mark in the back seat, he suddenly remembered the drawer compartment he'd got the weapon from. There were no knives in it. It only ever had spoons.

March 14, 2021 18:20

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10 comments

Courtney C
04:38 Mar 22, 2021

I found this absolutely hilarious. Your stories pull off a serious amount of wit, which is impressive. I agree with Thom: you want to hate the guy for being such a control freak, but at the same time you can't help but feel sorry for him. Well written, extremely descriptive, and funny as all get out. Great work :)

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Nina Chyll
08:56 Mar 23, 2021

Thank you so much for stopping by!

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Thom Brodkin
20:38 Mar 15, 2021

I saw a response you had given to another story and found it so thoughtful I felt I had to come and read one of your stories. The level of detail you show amazes me. You perfectly describe scenes and thoughts and emotions. I simultaneously felt sorry for Mark while also disliking him intensely. That is skillful writing. It shows thought and work. I am very impressed. I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of my stories. I have a feeling I'll be a better writer for it.

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Nina Chyll
22:43 Mar 15, 2021

Thanks, that’s really heartwarming to read! And also, thank you for the feedback. That one’s quite close to home so I find it impossible to be even marginally objective about it.

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Graham Kinross
07:54 Nov 17, 2021

"The setting sun would emit that contagious, pre-autumnal golden glow which all the leaves would soon catch like skin cancer and fall lifelessly to the ground." That is an incredibly grim metaphor for autumn. Poor Mark, losing trees in an area I like makes me feel sad as well. Seems he got a bit too obsessed though. I can see why the couple liked trolling him.

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Lore Ax Horton
18:19 Oct 31, 2021

Oh, I am Mark in this story. I've been Mark many, many times. Minus the knife-spoon; rather, I'm armed with the pen. Thank you for...speaking to a pain that is so often casually created in my neighborhood, and the effect that pain has on those whose environment changes without personal clout to argue otherwise. I just joined, and I've read more of your stories than anyone else's so far. I really appreciate how much information you pack in to each sentence, your stellar use of language, and amusing subject matters. You're a master to le...

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Marianna Mills
23:53 Apr 13, 2021

What a good read, well done on the prompt, while Mark was annoying I felt sorry for him too, cheers

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Nina Chyll
10:09 Apr 14, 2021

Thanks a lot for the very kind words!

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H L Mc Quaid
13:41 Mar 25, 2021

Hi Nina, What a delightful story! I can sympathise with Mad Marx (ha!)--especially during lockdown when I don't have a garden or terrace, and all the ground(flat)-dwellers are out, playing music and drinking cocktails in the sun. Grrr! haha. The writing is excellent. I have few small critiques about sentence structure, but they're really minor. Wondering if this sentence: "...and he’d sometimes stop to watch them, his mind calming down at witnessing the effortless precision with which they arranged the twigs." Might be stronger as: "......

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Nina Chyll
13:47 Mar 25, 2021

Oh man, I can't believe you came and did all this work! That's appreciated more than I can tell you. I too felt that some of those expressions were a little awkward and could do with small fixes, but I think I was too close to the narrative to see, and your comments help a lot. I agree there's something strange about the exterminator sentence, I felt that too but wasn't sure whether it was just me - I'll think on it. Thanks again for the kind comment.

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