The Good Neighbour
The thing about neighbours is: two completely different creatures can exist alongside each other perfectly well, so long as both are provided the right amounts of space and light, and that neighbourly goodwill flows between them. It is, I’ll admit, the last point that’s the trickiest. Goodwill in my experience is always a bespoke arrangement, hard to suss, and by that I refer to it being a feeling that persists so long as one gets back from the other equivalent to what he gives (and who’s ever a good judge of that?).
I have had a succession of bad neighbours. Recently, my thoughts are occupied by Mykov, the new neighbour, who moved here perhaps six months ago. He has not made any attempt at neighbourliness at all. Before Mykov came the orchids – a most unneighbourly plant that spread everywhere overnight, tearing into the brickwork and lancing my gutters with their spiteful, prodigious fronds. Mykov ignores me; the world is covered in orchids. I’ve never felt so dejected.
I do try to do something about it. For example, I greet him (Mykov) every morning when I take out my rubbish. I wear a lovely plum sarong, picked out for the ivy stitching along the sleeves (and because it clings to my tush, shapes it into a marvellous round of bread), and I’m very careless with the scraps of orange peel, which often drop onto the garden path mid bin-transportation, so what you get is: greet Mykov, bend down, collect. But does he see? Does he care?
The orchids are a source of pain in a different way. I like a trimmed lawn and a clean gutter. And the orchids grow, and overwhelm, and simply don’t take no for an answer. Wise Mykov has given up – the crazy blooms run riot across his lawn, up the walls of his house, his roof. I call to him when I’m hewing at the clumps that crown my driveway. Cooeee, Mykov. I could do your place, if you like. Save you the effort. No response. Only the sound of the secateurs, the orchids’ hissing.
Mykov, Mykov. He must have come from Eastern Europe. A builder, the sort of man who demolishes a cigarette in a single muscular inhale. Takes out the rubbish, leaves, returns from work, shuts the door. No signs of life from his house. Never a party to which I might bring my sparkling wit. His windows covered by curtains.
One morning I decide to faint. It’s all very last ditch. On the lawn I heap a load of cut flower stems in a big pile (these herbaceous vermin have their uses) and then wait for Mykov to chuck, as normal, a bag of rubbish through his front door. To my embarrassment I’m stood expecting him for 10 or so minutes, feet soaked in dew, as my neighbour takes his sweet time to emerge. But then what a surprise: shirtless, brawn, pure man, as he steps out with fag clamped in mouth. I wave hello. Hello, Mykov! Hello – then I faint, with a yelp, into the orchid pile. Nothing. No rush to my aid. Not even a query.
When he leaves I find I can’t control myself. What does it take? I tear the orchids from the fence separating my house from his. What does it take? Freed from the invasive floral morass, the fence, I see, is actually rather mangled, warped, broken in several places. I can’t stand to look at it. A symbol of – well, a symbol of something. The barriers between us. I’d be a perfect neighbour, Mykov. Why can’t you see that?
I’ve almost given up the next morning when Mykov approaches me (he walks down my garden path!) and asks me, very casually, if I’d like him to fix my fence. I’m not even wearing a kimono – just a violet sports-singlet that, while brilliant for sculpting the tum, is hardly an apparatus of seduction – but no matter. I nod, perhaps too much, and ask him how much he wants.
—I charge nothing. I do it for neighbours, he says. His accent is to me like strong, fatal pollen.
So that’s how Mykov starts working on my fence.
I watch him. By god, I watch him hammer every pole. He winks when he’s done, then silently returns inside.
I’m not one to miss a trick, you see, so the next thing I do is to savage the orchids that drip from my roof in heavy green ropes. Chop, chop, chop. They sense what I’m up to – how, lord knows, but after all they came to us out of nowhere, spread themselves across the planet, so who’s to say such mad specimens aren’t also psychic, evil brewing in their pretty heads. They whimper noisily as I thin them back. I climb up and down my ladder in tight underwear and a summer wrap, a cloud of aquamarine chiffon. Needs must.
When I’m done, when the ruin of my gutter is exposed, I propose to Mykov a continuation of his neighbourly activity. I’ll even set the ladder up.
—I cannot do more work for you, Sandy, he says.
—But look, I say, look how they’ve spoiled my roof.
—My wife is afraid of ladders, he says. For me. She is afraid for me.
—You have, I cough, a wife?
—If I tell her you will pay me, he says, perhaps she will accept.
—How about this, I say. I could cut the orchids on your place in exchange? It’s like a trade. A neighbourly exchange.
He takes a while to mull it over.
—This is possible, he nods. My wife will accept, I think.
A wife. How stupid of me. Mykov would attract a score of willing volunteers with ease, it’s just – I thought – well. No matter. As he shakes my hand, crushing it with delicious force, I picture his wife at home. I can see her now spread-eagled on a couch, sausage roll in greasy mitt, she doesn’t understand the television show – she laughs when the audience laughs. I name her – what? I name her Svetlana.
The work will take place at the weekend, which leaves me a day to dream up possible ways to outshine this interloper, this Svetlana. She who has been secretly foiling my schemes from the off. I bet that’s why he doesn’t answer the door. It all makes sense. I do try to keep my head. But honestly, I’ve never even seen Svetlana. Perhaps she’s housebound. Perhaps she’s so obese she’s absorbed part of the sofa’s fabric into her skin. Mykov – it’s okay, I would say, you don’t have to care for her so diligently, or at least not all the time…
All I need is a connection. Perhaps Mykov needs this too, with an obese wife. I rub his shoulders (in my little fantasy) and tell him with a soft voice he has permission to feel again. He does not want to feel. He wants my obedience. Someone to do the housework. To make him dinner. Of course, I say, of course. I am the very picture of neighbourliness. I come over every evening, clean up, feed Svetlana (who I see as an exotic houseplant), wash his vests, polish his boots. I bet he’s a monster in the sack. Massive. Unforgiving.
As I say, I try to keep my head. But it’s very difficult when you’ve felt as I have felt – surrounded by indifference, by such unwanted invaders – for so long. I go through my kimonos in front of the mirror, using lamps to judge them under a variety of lights; I also hoover my carpet in case Mykov peeps inside. He’ll know what I’m about when he sees my carpet. Much cleaner, I bet, than Svetlana’s.
While he works on the gutter outside my bedroom I offer up an array of morsels as a sort of pitstop. A pot of tea. Two rounds of toast. A dish of butter, jam, and marmalade. Yes, I baked the bread myself. I also set out breakfast meat – Mykov will learn to like his meat – and a Ukrainian cake, ‘kartoshka,’ that I’ll bet his mother made for him when he was young, a cake I have after eight or ten batches learned to perfect. He takes one look and turns back to the guttering.
—I could not, Sandy. I could not eat this. Please.
Are you sure, I say, with my insistent arms. A sliver of pastrami? I steamed the stuff this morning.
—My wife, he says. Irina. She will be unhappy if she finds me eating on a ladder.
I ease into ache that spreads throughout my fingers. I pinch my brows together. What do you mean?
—Irina hates me to climb ladders for my work, he says.
Fragments of slate fall to the ground. He pulls an orchid from its roost. I’m sure it squeaks.
—Irina, says Mykov, is very ill. She has very bad hay fever. The flowers make her very sick. She spends her whole day in one room. Can you imagine how sick this is, to spend all her time in one room? Very sick.
My hands begin to shake. But Mykov. What about the kartoshka?
—Irina grew up with many ladders around her. You know the town of Grevezny Godorok? It is all ladders. She was born in apartment reached by a ladder. Ladders for the police station. Ladders for the bank. That’s one funny thing about Irina.
He shucks a piece of gutting in half, the end of which splinters like an old biro.
—Another funny thing is this. She had a twin sister. An identical Irina. You know when it is mitosis in the womb? And because of this mitosis, he says, digging his awl into the brickwork, there is, how do you say, a psychic link.
—And the two girls are all the time running up and down ladders – wow, every day – playing little girls’ games, up and down ladders. No stairs in the whole village. Can you believe this? Only ladders. And these two twin girls with a psychic link.
Whatever you say, Mykov.
—So that is why I cannot accept your food.
I retract the tray. Whatever you want, Mykov.
—I am not thirsty, either.
I return the proffered jug.
—I met Irina when I was studying. Her town did not believe in stairs. I try to say ‘Irina, your town is mad. This no-stair rule is impossible, how can you sustain it? And she tells me I am the one who is mad. The sister, the twin, says that if I force her up any stairs this will count as emotional abuse. Like a brick wall, her sister.
Mykov slaps the side of my house, laughing.
—Later, when we moved to England, Irina would not go up any stairs at all. She says the whole country is crazy. I tell her – it’s the other way around! But she wants proof. For a very long time she did not believe me. So in the end it is I – I who have a doctoral in particle physics – who take a job on a ladder just so she will take a job using stairs. I love my wife. So things work out for some time. Irina is a librarian, two flights of stairs every day. I clean windows. There years smashing atoms for this! For her!
He slaps the wall again, but does not laugh.
—And her sister, wow. She rang all the time. ‘Irina,’ the sister would say, ‘Irina did you use the stairs?’ I can sense you’re using them! Don’t forget, Irina, we have a psychic link! Boy, I tell you – I never forgot about their link, that’s for certain. Some advice for you. Never marry a twin. Bad for the soul is twins.
I nod. I hang on to his every word.
—So one night we wake up, very late. Irina pushes my shoulder. ‘Mykov, I have a pain in my nose!’ and I would say ‘what kind of pain?’ and she starts moaning and groaning. I say, ‘Irina, for the love of god, what is the problem?’ and she turns over in bed, back and forth, until I put the lights on. Her eyes are streaming, her face – wow, swollen up like a bread!
Mykov looks at me. He sees straight through to the back of my head, to the bedroom and beyond. I raise up the tray once more.
—I say ‘My god, Irina, we must go to the hospital! and she says, ‘no, I just – I just – I just!’, she says it like that, with the sneeze sort of coming along with the words, I just – I just – I just, and then she sneezes this most powerful explosive sneeze, I swear I have never heard anything like it – it breaks the windows, so strong a sneeze, so strong she blacks out, right there in bed-
He pushes the tray back himself. He shakes his lovely head and crosses the air, decisively, with his finger. No. The world stops. The sting of this backhand fills my gut with honey-like love. Oh, Mykov. I could do this forever.
—Of course, he says when he returns to the guttering, I phone an ambulance. When they get to us they do some CPR and shock her chest. You know how. Like in the movies. Zap. Zap. And it turns out, they say, that Irina has died from three whole minutes. Brain dead. Heart dead. Everything dead. It was the flowers that came up everywhere in the night. The orchids. Can you believe it?
Mykov tears a bunch of hissing orchids out from under an eave.
—So the doctors give Irina strong medicines, like an EPI pen, and say it will not happen again. All windows must be shut forever. The air is poison to Irina.
For a second time Mykov stops and looks into my eyes.
—But Sandy, her sister. The twin. They have the psychic link between them. This link between two parts of the same creature. It is like in atom science. A force between two separate things. Strong, weak, psychic. Do you know what I mean?
I eat the kartoshka, drink the tea, and nod, listening to his every word. Do I know what you mean? Do I know the goodwill bonding two separate things, two neighbours?
I do, Mykov. I do.
—When Irina dies for three minutes the link is put off like a light. And so the sister passes out for a moment. Which would not be a big problem, just wait some minutes and let the link switch back on. Except of course the sister is on a ladder, right at the top, chatting to her neighbour – and so when the link is put off like a light she falls from the ladder all the way down, and smack!
He hits the bricks once more.
—And that is the end of the sister.
James Hodgson has short fiction published in various web and print venues, including The London Journal of Fiction, Neon Magazine and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He has been shortlisted for the Short Fiction Journal’s 2016 Short Story Prize. He also has some poetry published. He completed a PhD thesis in Latin American Cultural Studies in 2012, with a focus on Brazil, and is seeking representation for his first novel. He can be found on the web and on twitter @hodgsonson.