Perdita would never have used the phrase “My real name is Karen”. If anyone asked, which they almost never did, she’d say: “Karen is my given name, my chosen name is Perdita”.
Given, to be fair, was pushing it a bit. Allocated, more like: stuck on like a luggage label. Her mother’s choice, who had stood by the mirror in the hallway, and said, But those clothes aren’t you, Karen, they’re for someone…..glamorous. Or Are you quite sure you’re up to doing that job?
Karen maintained sullen silence; but Perdita was defiant. She was Shakespeare’s abandoned princess, triumphantly returned: Perdita – often translated as ruined, squandered, lost; but actually Latin past participle, – having been lost – a backward glance to chaos once order was restored.
Perdita knew what it was like to inhabit many selves. Which was perhaps why she was the first to notice the changes in the apartment block.
The building was a mansion block of ageing Victorian brick; it stood on a tree lined road in a well-appointed suburb. Decades ago, every one of its four storeys had housed a single, sprawling dwelling, but now only the top floor retained its undivided grandeur. Ninety-year-old Celia had lived there before she’d passed away last Christmas, and now the flat stood empty while Celia’s family settled its fate.
The fourth floor held an air of mystery for Perdita, who had never ascended the stairs that far. Still, she had liked Celia. Before fragility had rendered the old lady immobile, the two would often meet emptying the bins or by the letterboxes. Celia had detained Perdita with anecdotes, and not in an annoying way. She had memories of the apartment block which long pre-dated Perdita’s birth, and with few but vivid words she’d conjure worlds now long forgotten.
As for the remainder of the block, each of its storeys was divided into three separate apartments, small, medium sized and larger, as if for Goldilocks’ three bears. The flats were expensive, and therefore it was obvious – at least following her mother’s logic – that the neighbours were what you might refer to as quality. Only Perdita, as far as she knew, paid well below market rates. She lived in the smallest of the three flats on the first floor, its owners being the wealthy parents of a sort-of-friend-from college, who prized her reliability above her financial means. Claudia, the sort-of-friend, had clapped her hands, her eyes shining. “You are the perfect tenant, Perd. Clean, dependable, not too exciting.” And then she’d paused and frowned. “I mean that in a good way.”
And that was totally fine, actually, because Perdita adored the flat, and woke every morning with a swell of pleasant surprise. In the adjoining apartment lived a professor of metaphysics named – confusingly, amusingly – Karen, and the two got on well. Some of the other neighbours were more distant, a bit like the too-cool girls at school, but Perdita didn’t mind, or at least not really, anyway. She loved the view from her tiny kitchen of lushly groomed suburban gardens; the slanting light into the bathroom that gave her mirrored image cheekbones.
Generally speaking, things couldn’t have been better. Until the day that unexpectedly everything changed.
She first heard the noise one evening, going to bed after watching Newsnight. It was like a wild, whistling sound, not quite wind or water. She couldn’t put it down to either a draft or clanky plumbing, and her first inclination was to roll over and ignore it.
But after a while it got so loud that she got out of bed and opened her front door. In the communal hallway, there stood Professor Karen. Both of the women smiled coyly in their night clothes.
“Did you hear that?” asked Professor Karen. She appeared both worried and quizzical.
Perdita had a sudden inexplicable urge to deny hearing anything, but in the end she just nodded which seemed to satisfy her neighbour.
“Quite disturbing,” said Professor Karen, and tilted her head pleasantly. “Never mind, I’m sure it’s nothing, probably just the wind.” And she stepped back from the doorway and closed her flat door softly.
But Perdita went into her kitchen, and stood by the window. She heaved the sash upwards, feeling its weight upon her forearms. The night air was balmy; spring was on its way. There wasn’t a hint of a breeze.
When the same thing happened the next night, and then the next, some of the other neighbours started appearing on their landings. There was a rather fancy young couple, Clarke and Alicia, who’d moved into the largest of the flats on the second floor and kept arguing with the freeholder about their dog. They materialised in their pyjamas looking slim and casually rumpled. They didn’t say much, but wrinkled their noses.
It was the day after this that Perdita spotted the man. There was nothing strange about him, it was just his unfamiliarity. He was medium height, slim, and wearing overalls; this suggested to Perdita he must be a workman, someone sent by the freeholder. She passed him on the landing on her way out to work, and he turned and looked at her and tipped his head respectfully.
“Good morning,” said Perdita, suddenly a little flustered. “You must be….” And she couldn’t be quite sure but she thought the man said Dean. He had thick, close-cropped hair, it had flecks of grey but was mostly dark brown and healthy looking. His skin was tanned –if he was a workman, he was probably outdoors a lot – and his frame was wiry. He appeared neither young nor old. “I expect you’re here about the noise,” she said, and then, “well, thank you, good morning.”
Dean said nothing, and, when she had reached the bottom of the stairs and stole a backward, second glance at him, he had disappeared from view.
That night, the noise returned. Professor Karen, Clarke and Alicia appeared on the landing, together with a woman with a baby whose name Perdita didn’t know.
“What the fuck,” said Alicia, which was the first time Perdita had heard her speak. “Still?”
“Dean came to fix it,” said Perdita knowledgeably, “but he mustn’t have finished the job.”
Alicia looked at her as if at a deranged person in a tube station. Perdita backed into her hallway. “At least I think his name was Dean.”
Everyone looked at her as if her speech was unexpected, as if she were an extra in a movie who wasn’t supposed to say anything.
Next morning there was a knock on the block’s front door. Perdita, who by chance happened to be collecting her post, went to open it. There was a couple on the doorstep; they reminded her a bit of Clarke and Alicia, only they were wearing day clothes – obviously – and seemed a little more friendly.
“Oh, good morning,” said the woman, smiling, “you wouldn’t be Karen, would you?”
Perdita’s heart lurched in uncomfortable confusion, but then Professor Karen appeared on the landing and called downwards.
“Hallo. You must be Frances and Howard. I’m Karen.” She bustled down the stairs. “The agent told me you were coming. Let me show you upstairs. I’m so glad you’ve come. Celia’s family have asked me to help out with the flat and things, so please feel free to ask me anything you like.”
Perdita watched as Professor Karen led the new couple up to the top floor. She heard the Professor chattering about Celia, with whom she’d been such dear friends, and she stayed hovering by the letterbox, half hoping she might spot Dean. Then, rather more quickly than she’d anticipated, the Professor and the new couple reappeared.
“I’m so sorry,” said Professor Karen, and she clasped Frances’s hands. “I really had no idea. I hope you’re not too upset.” Frances and Howard left quickly, and the Professor gave a small, sad shrug.
Over the next few nights, the noise grew worse and worse. The ritualistic nocturnal gatherings continued, and now it seemed that every single inhabitant from every one of the flats came out at night, and there was something urgent and desperate about these gatherings. No one understood what was happening. Perdita spotted dark rings beneath the eyes of her now exhausted co-residents. Alicia was looking particularly rough. She was deep in conversation with the woman with the baby.
“Where the fuck is that repair guy? How long can it take to repair one sodding broken pipe?”
“Do we actually know this is about a pipe?” said Professor Karen.
“Do we actually know he is a repair guy?” said the woman with the baby. “Has he got references? Do we know anything about him?”
“Who has seen this fellow?” agreed Clarke. “What are his credentials? Maybe he’s not fixing things at all. Perhaps he’s the one who’s caused all this.”
There was a collective intake of breath, as though Clarke had suddenly uncovered an important, uncomfortable truth that everyone had been hovering around but not quite articulated.
“Well,” said Professor Karen, “we’re not going to find out anything in the middle of the night. Tomorrow morning I shall contact the freeholder. All I can say is I got some new earplugs from Superdrug, and I’m not saying they’re perfect, but they definitely help.”
Perdita went indoors. She lay down peacefully and slept.
Outwardly, over the following days, things continued as normal. Vans came and went unloading online grocery orders; parking attendants slapped tickets on windscreens. But inside the apartment block there had been a sea change, a nudge towards the dark side. Everyone was out now on their landings, every night. They caught up on sleep by day, and so the building was unsettlingly quiet whilst it was light, as if its residents had collectively deserted, or fled.
Professor Karen got mild respite from her earplugs, and worked mostly from home anyway, but Perdita was the only one with sufficient energy, it seemed, to leave for work as usual. Heading out one morning, she came across Alicia by the letterboxes.
“How do you do it?” said Alicia. Her voice was sharp and suspicious. Perdita didn’t know what she was talking about, but when she looked at her neighbour she saw her skin was grey and her hair lank. The look of casual rumpledness that had once made Alicia model-like had since been replaced by straightforward dishevelment.
“Good morning,” said Perdita, not answering the question because she wasn’t sure what she’d been asked.
“You look so fucking good,” said Alicia, “so…awake.” She retrieved a flyer from her post-box, which she crumpled into a ball and tossed aside.
A couple of times, returning from work, when the block’s corridors were empty, Perdita thought she saw Dean again. But if ever she tried to catch up with him, or spot him after he’d turned a corner, she found she never quite managed to work out where he went.
Then, on Friday, it all became too much. Not for Perdita, who – she couldn’t help it – was finding the whole saga somewhat interesting, but for everyone else, who could bear it no longer.
Anne (which was, as Perdita discovered, the name of the woman with the baby), said,
“This is way, way beyond a joke. Karen, what have the freeholders said? Don’t tell me it’s still we’ll get back to you.”
Professor Karen nodded sadly and started to say something but was interrupted by Clarke.
“Listen,” he said, “I’m starting to think someone’s up to something. We’re gonna have to face things. There is no repair guy and the freeholders aren’t doing anything.”
“Are you suggesting,” said Anne, jiggling her baby against her breast, “that they’re neglecting us and maybe we’ll have to go to the council and complain?”
“Or maybe Citizen’s Advice,” piped someone else. “Or what about that telly programme, Watchdog?”
Clarke’s eyebrows drew down. “No,” he said darkly, “I think it might be worse than that.” Everyone hushed to listen. “I think something’s going on.” There was a rustling murmur and then a second of horrified silence. “I mean this is deliberate. Some kind of sabotage.”
A cacophony of random words poured out onto the landing. What, surely, don’t, how, that, impossible. Clarke raised an imperious, flattened palm.
“This…man,” he pronounced, “who has actually seen him, let alone spoken to him?”
Perdita couldn’t be sure, but perhaps eyes swivelled towards her. Generally, these last few days, she’d felt better than ever, but now she sensed her skin turn warm and her stomach queasy. Professor Karen started to mutter,
“I don’t think it’s fair to say….”
But the Professor’s words trailed away as Clarke held up his palm again.
“Listen,” he said. And when everyone, again, turned their expectant faces towards him, he repeated, “No. Listen. I mean, not to me. To that.”
That was obviously the noise: the strange whining, nearly human at times, that could have been blocked drains or wild drafts, or who knows some ghost in the machine - and it was getting louder and more troubling each night. But then they all knew that already. The neighbours’ faces filled with questions, they needed more explaining.
“I mean,” said Clarke, and the subtext in his voice said keep up, “haven’t you noticed? It’s not in the whole block at all.” He raised an index finger and pointed skywards. “It’s coming from up there.”
There was a collective pause, a sudden shared understanding.
“Well, someone should go and look,” said Alicia, eventually, and Anne jiggled her baby and nodded. There were mumblings among the other neighbours.
“I don’t think that would be wise,” said Professor Karen, but no one seemed to hear her.
“Well, it’s a good idea,” said Anne, “but I’ll tell you this for free. If anyone’s going up there it ain’t gonna be me.”
There was more mumbling, and then Alicia looked at Perdita.
“You go,” she said. There was a hiss of air, like a breath, like the tide drawing inward. “Wide eyed gal, morning queen. You’re the one who knows this repair guy. Maybe you know something we don’t. You should go up there.”
Again, Perdita could hear the Professor start to stutter something, but she realised something. She didn’t mind. She wasn’t afraid. Or she was – but in a good way. Excited.
“OK,” she said. “Yes. OK. I’ll go.”
The clusters of neighbours parted like the waters of the red sea as she trod forward. Once onto the final, highest flight of stairs the shadows thickened and she couldn’t find the light switch.
The fourth floor, as expected, had a different layout to all the other floors, so the patterned memory of familiar passageways could not help her through the darkness. Here was a corridor wider and longer than those below; it turned a corner in a L- shape, and then there was another turn, and Perdita bumped her nose painfully against a wall and stepped back to retrace her steps. The noise was howling louder than ever, and she thought that maybe, after all, she was just a little bit afraid, and not completely in a good way.
She took a step backwards, hoping to grow accustomed to the dimness, and then it happened.
It was the shadow. Of a man. Emerging from a side passageway. Every single hair on Perdita’s arms stood on end. She stepped forward, quickening her step.
The man, or the shadow, whatever or whoever it was, advanced ahead of her. The corridor hadn’t grown any lighter but it was no longer difficult to see. Of course, if the door to Celia’s apartment was locked, she couldn’t enter, she didn’t (why hadn’t she thought of this earlier?) have a key. But now there was a chink of light and she saw that the door was ajar.
Perdita approached the door and her pace slowed. Her heartbeat had quickened. The unfathomable noise swelled around her, so much so that her ears started to hurt. She stepped towards the open door. It was as if there was a wind, blowing her back, warning her not to enter. She bent her head and pressed on, her palm pushing the door.
And then, just like that, she was through to the other side. It took a moment to realise. The room was flooded with light. There was a hall with polished floors and a velvety, amber coloured sofa; a vast, wall hung mirror told her she did indeed look rather well.
She advanced further, and there, through an archway leading into an adjoining room, was a man with dark brown hair, healthy but flecked with grey. He was, of course, familiar, and Perdita thought that perhaps, after all, this man was not in fact a workman: he must be connected to Celia, he was something to do with the family and might have been here all along. But, in that moment, all of this seemed academic. He was making some coffee and the aroma was delicious. As Perdita went towards him she realised the noise had disappeared, but the bubbling of the coffee pot sounded like music.
The man looked towards her and nodded respectfully. He had lovely blue eyes and a welcoming smile.
“Come on in,” he said. “Perdita, isn’t it?”