It was 2AM and daylight felt forever away. Janie lay in her bed, staring at the lines of shadow cast around the room as the sodium light outside burned ceaselessly through the slat blinds.
She couldn’t sleep. The house felt new and strange and empty, and the sound of a guitar vibrated through the wall from the unit which adjoined hers.
What sort of person played guitar at 2AM? It wasn’t even a tune, just a twanging sound. Like he was plucking at the strings with his fingers. A small sound, as if he was trying not to be too loud.
As if on the other side of the wall was a man (it had to be a man, she couldn’t imagine a woman doing this), awake in the night like she was, who thought everyone else was asleep. It was a sad sound. As if on the other side of the wall was a man who was all alone.
She touched her fingers to the wall. The sounds took on a cadence as she listened, in time to the thought beating inside her. You are not alone. You are not alone.
That morning she saw him leaving the house beside hers. There were four units in a row, opening to a gravel parking area. She was in the kitchen, drinking coffee before work and looking out the window toward the street and the endless line of cars parading past.
She was surprised by it every day, the city. The traffic jams, the people everywhere, hordes of school children in the street, buildings rising into the sky.
She watched him opening the door of a silver Ute. He wore jeans and a dark jacket. His hair was dark and looked unbrushed, it was too long. He looked like someone who pulled on clothes and left the house without looking in a mirror. She’d been here five days and he was the only neighbour she’d seen. The others were ghostlike, cars there and then gone. Rubbish bins wheeled out. Letterboxes empty.
She washed her cup and turned to put it back in the cupboard. She had left almost all her things behind when she moved here, determined to start anew. To become a new person.
On the fridge was the photo of Laura and her husband on their wedding day and she straightened it in the magnetic frame, her fingers brushing across her sister’s face. Laura had left first, on a plane, and then their mother had died. When she was the only one still there in that house in the tiny town, she left too.
That evening she arrived home right after he did. Pulled in beside his Ute, so newly parked the engine was still ticking. He was ahead, his boots crunching over the gravel as he walked to his house.
She pretended not to notice him as she unlocked her door just meters from him. She was in the city now. City people ignored each other. But he turned from his own front door.
“Hey, you just move in?”
She thought he was older than her but not by too much. If he had said to her, how old do you think I am? she would have said, early thirties.
“I moved in on Saturday,” she said. The term seemed too grand for what it had been. The house came furnished. She had dragged in a suitcase of clothes and carried in a couple of boxes of crockery and some towels.
“Where’d you move from?”
“Reefton,” she said. There was a moment where she saw the slack look in his expression. From where? “West Coast,” she added.
“Cool, so did you move for work?”
“Yes, work,” she said. “I’ve just started a new job here.”
“Just you living here?” he asked.
“Yes, just me,” she said. Regretting it a second later. There was something unnerving about the way he looked past her then, into her empty house. As if he was some kind of pervert. Maybe she should have pretended to have a boyfriend.
Before Laura went travelling, she bought a cheap ring to wear on her wedding finger. She said it was so men wouldn’t harass her. But then Laura ended up marrying a man she met in Morocco. My sister’s husband is Moroccan. She loved the way it rolled off her tongue, so easy to say and yet so exotic.
“It’s a good spot here, pretty quiet most of the time,” he said.
As if he had never played his guitar at two in the morning. Maybe he didn’t realize how thin the walls were and would be embarrassed if she told him she had heard.
He’d shut his front door quietly, when he left that morning for work. It seemed like he was a considerate person. She didn’t know why she’d wondered if he might be a pervert, he wasn't that sort of person.
She wondered if he could see Laura’s photo on the fridge, as he looked in. The colourful dress she wore, her husband’s white suit. My sister lives in Casablanca. She hoped he would ask but he didn’t.
She hadn’t gone to the wedding, her mother couldn’t have, and it wouldn’t have been fair to go without her. Her mother would have been terrified in Casablanca, that city of 3 million people. She couldn’t imagine so many people all in one place, speaking their unknown language, living their unknowable lives.
“I’m Ben, by the way,” he added. And he went into his house before she realized she should have offered her own name in return. I’m Janie.
That night the guitar started again at 12.23AM. She’d been lying not quite asleep, too aware of the shadows and the drip of the kitchen tap and the hum of the fridge. A man outside shouted and she startled, then a dog barked and another answered. Sirens wailed somewhere. It reminded her of the day her mother died, collapsed in the hallway, clutching her chest. Waiting for the ambulance to come and the silence as she prayed to hear sirens.
And he then he started playing. The same soft plucking of strings. Plunk, plunk, plunk. She shut her eyes and let it become a rhythm which pulsed inside her.
Memories dropped down on her with each slow vibration. She remembered being a child in the clasp of a tiny town, living in a tiny house with her mother and sister, and how it had been the entire world. She wished she could go back and live in that time forever.
Then she realized he knew she could hear him, that slight knowing smile when he told her it was quiet here. Quiet except for me playing guitar. Did you hear me? As if he’d said that.
The next morning, she stood in the kitchen and watched him leaving again. He was wearing shorts, and a lighter jersey. It was warmer than the day before and she liked that he was someone who dressed for the weather.
He was halfway to his car when he stopped and turned around, saw her there watching him. Shame flooded her; a litany of excuses she would offer next time she saw him ran through her. This morning I was in the kitchen looking at a cat, did you see it? I didn’t notice you out there.
But then he lifted a hand in a brief wave. She waved back, bit down a smile.
Maybe he’d turned back wondering if he might see her, and he had. Maybe she should have smiled.
When she left for work, she paused outside his window, pretended to look back at her own house for something, and glanced inside his. An identical layout to hers, but more homely, with pictures on the wall and a tree of coloured mugs on the bench and little pots of herbs on the windowsill.
She wondered which mug he drank from, if he had a favourite. If he stood there preparing his meals and then reached out to take a sharply scented leaf from the mint and add it to the -. Janie couldn’t think of anything to use mint in.
In her car she pulled out her phone. Tapped into google, what recipes use mint? She imagined saying to him, I love mint, I use it in – all the time.
His Ute wasn’t there yet when she arrived back after work. When she got inside, she turned on the lights but left the blind open.
When he got back, he would see she was home, see her there in the kitchen making dinner and he might wave again, and she could wave back. She would open her door and ask him, you don’t happen to have any mint, do you? In a casual but friendly sort of way.
She was making a pasta salad with mint dressing. For a second she wondered if he would shrug and shake his head, pretend not to have mint, but then she thought of the wave he’d given her and knew he wasn’t that sort of person. He wasn’t a selfish person.
The time dragged on. He might be playing a gig somewhere. He seemed like someone who would play live music, with his sad songs and long hair and easy smile. He might be up on a stage in a dark bar somewhere with his guitar and a sea of faces before him, sat up there alone.
Her window lit up, the headlights of a vehicle pulling in. She watched the dark gleam of his Ute as he parked. He got out and a woman got out from the passenger side. He pulled a large duffel bag out and the women waited for him and then they fell into step together, walking up to his house.
It could be his sister. She could be his sister who lived in another place and she'd come to visit him. But then she moved her body against his, and he smiled at something she said, their faces illuminated in the dark, and she knew it wasn’t his sister.
He didn’t look toward her window and see her. The woman had a key and she opened his door and they went inside. Janie ate the pasta but without the mint it tasted of nothing. She added more salt and still it tasted of nothing.
Her sister messaged her and she looked at it but didn’t answer. She cleaned the kitchen and showered and went to bed.
She was lying there still awake when he started playing. Strumming softly. The woman was there and he was playing a song for her. She’d seen there was only one couch so the woman would be beside him. Watching him play and not caring it was ten at night and other people wanted to sleep.
She looked at the message from Laura again. “Are you awake? I have news!!!” She couldn’t stop looking at it, and she couldn’t reply to it.
In Morocco it would be morning and Laura would be in her house with the high ceilings and arched doors. She had a courtyard with orange and blue tiles and huge clay pots. She’d sent Janie photos of it.
She held her phone in her hand and listened to the guitar. It was getting louder. As if they thought it was funny to keep people awake. Maybe in the bag they’d had bottles of Rum and they’d made Mojitos, another use for mint.
They were the sort of people who didn't care about anyone except themselves. They were the sort of neighbour's who got drunk and played loud music every night and she’d never be able to sleep.
She wondered what Laura’s neighbours were like, if they spoke English or if Laura had to try and communicate with hand signals. She imagined Laura pointing to her stomach and then rocking a pretend baby. The neighbours would smile, throw up their hands in happy surprise. They would have no need for words.
My nephew/niece who lives in Morocco.
She got up and went to her laptop, still open on the kitchen table. The sound of the guitar filled the room, playing an aching tune. Echoing inside her. You are alone you are alone you are alone.
She opened a new email and entered the landlord’s address. Banging her fingers against the keys. Subject: Noise complaint.