Tuesday 16 June 2020

The Man Next Door

 by David Gower

iced tea

Mrs. Woodley, had moved into the semi-detached property a few months earlier following the death of her husband. He had not been the nicest of men but she had taken the marriage vows and stuck with him for ‘better or worse’. Most of that time had been for the latter. He had been a man who knew only two means of communicating his feelings moody silence or shouting. Not a nice man.

Since his death Mrs Woodley had blossomed into an individual rather than a servant in her own home. She had ‘downsized’ and for the last month had been busy making her new house into a home. All was lovely in the metaphorical garden with the exception of The Man Next Door.

Mrs. Woodley was a quiet woman cowed by years of living with Mr. Woodley. The Man Next Door kept himself to himself. He had acknowledged her when she spoke to him in the garden but not been over friendly. He tended his flowers and vegetables but made no attempt to engage with her otherwise. She felt sorry for him living alone.

The wall separating Mrs. Woodley from the Man Next Door was thin. She believed him to live alone but very often she would hear him shout at unknown people. She never heard these people reply to his hurtful comments.

Over the weeks since moving in she had noted some of these insults to unknown people next door. These included “How can you be so stupid!” and “I knew that when I was seven years of age, did they teach you nothing at school?” The Man Next Door became especially annoyed with his mystery companions about sport or music. “How the hell do I know who played centre half in the Cup Final? What does it have to do with the price of fish?”

Mrs. Woodley had become more concerned. Not only for The Man next Door but for her own safety. The shouting reminded her of Mr. Woodley and she feared that her neighbour might be – she hesitated to think the unthinkable – unbalanced and dangerous. After wrestling with her conscience her hand picked up the telephone handset.

“Hello, can you send the Police please? I am worried about my neighbour. He lives alone but I am frightened. I hear him shouting most days.” Her voice was nervous, as she had never dialled the Police before.

She did not want to ‘interfere’ but at the back of her mind was the phrase she had seen in an article in a magazine. Some actress had reported a family ill treating their child and had used the phrase ‘safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility’. If a soap star said that was the case then who could argue against it? It was not an ‘emergency’ but she justified to herself that she had concern for the gentleman’s welfare rather than her own.

When the young policeman arrived his first action was to speak to Mrs. Woodley.

“What seems to be the problem?” asked the officer. Mrs. Woodley looked at this young man.  Policemen certainly did seem to be getting younger. This one had cropped hair, tattoos on his arms and a belt heavy with the tools of his trade – handcuffs, gas spray and a mobile phone. Nevertheless, he looked so young. Should he really be in such a job?

Mrs. Woodley began to voice her concerns.“Well, officer. I am just a bit worried about the man next door. He keeps himself to himself but he seems to shout very loudly most afternoons and I know he lives by himself. I am concerned for him and well, you know for myself. I am not sure whether he is right in the head. He might be dangerous.”

P.C. Eldridge – the young policeman - had taken someone to a ‘place of safety’ before under mental health legislation. He had not been popular with his sergeant. Everyone understood the need to protect the vulnerable but the system was strained. Once at the police station they had called the out of hours social worker who arrived to begin an assessment. The process – if done properly - was always a lengthy one. P.C. Eldridge hoped this would be a simple ‘welfare’ check, perhaps with ‘words of advice’ given to The Man Next Door.

Stepping across the low hedge which separated the woman from her elderly neighbour he rang the door-bell. No reply. He rang again and banged the door with the flat of his hand. Still no reply.

No sign of anyone in the rooms to the front of the house. He followed the pathway running along the side to the rear garden. Looking through the window he saw a male figure slumped on the couch. The head lolled, the grey hair was untidy and the screen of a television flickered but without a conscious audience. An arm hung limp.

No response to banging on the window frame and the back door of the house was locked. P.C Eldridge gave a start as he realised Mrs. Woodley was close behind him. Her curiosity had overcome her fears. The sudden movement of the officer made Mrs. Woodley step back. Both were tense. Eldridge made his decision.

“Step back, please. Have you a key or do you know of any relatives with a key?”

She shook her head.

Eldridge saw himself as the man of action, his fellow officers referred to him behind his back as Action Plod. Older coppers had learned to let those in pub fights tire themselves before wading in. Young bloods like Eldridge were still keen and not yet cynical as their ‘old sweat’ colleagues.

He broke a pane of glass on the back door and put his arm through feeling for a key. There was no key. This door was not one of those plastic multi lock doors that would need a ‘big key’ battering tool used in raids. This door should give with a good shove from the shoulder of authority.

Eldridge stepped back and then barged the door. Wood splintered noisily; more glass broke but entry had been gained. He was in. It took a few seconds for Eldridge to make his way through the clutter towards the room where he had seen the old man. Here was the home of a hoarder. Probably a dead hoarder but a hoarder nevertheless.

Eldridge woke several minutes later. His head ached. Mrs. Woodley’s face was above him. The old man who Eldridge had thought dead was red faced and agitated. Full of life now. Mrs. Woodley had tracks of tears on her face as she fussed over Eldridge holding a cloth to the officer’s temple. The remains of a heavy glass bottle lay on the floor amid a general litter of small change.

Like some Greek play the tragic actions could be explained in hindsight. The elderly man had dozed – as he often did whilst watching the television. Having lost much of his hearing he watched television with subtitles. This was in part to avoid noise disturbing his new neighbour, Mrs. Woodley. Better to not to give neighbours cause for complaint and keep his privacy.

It was the vibration, rather than the noise, of the breaking door which had woken the old man. Not seeing who it was but fearing the worst he had grabbed the bottle of coins and standing behind the door had brought it down on the head of the ‘intruder’. Too late to stop the swing of his arm the heavy bottle felled the powers of law and order with a knockout blow.

When the dust settled it was felt no charges could be brought against the old man. The door was repaired and paid for by the police. P.C. Eldridge took some sick leave and suffered the teasing of his colleagues. Now the worried neighbour understood that why the old man shouted. Now she realised that he usually shouted in the late afternoon and during the news. He shouted at the people on quiz shows when he knew the answers. He shouted at the politicians who ducked and dived with weasel phrases. If he knew the answers then how could they not know? Why go on a quiz programme in front of millions? The more frustrated he became the louder he shouted not realising how his voice carried and knowing nothing of Mrs. Woodley’s traumatic marriage.

Simple ingredients mixed together are a recipe for complicated outcomes!

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