Thursday 12 October 2023

The Flat Below by Jane Spirit, a glass of red wine or two

Anna had only heard distant sounds from the flat below in the afternoon, and, as she told Phil when he finally made it home from the office that evening, they had been hard to interpret. She had wondered from the series of thuds and scrapes, with intervals of silence, whether their neighbour had been moving furniture around, before deciding that he wasn’t satisfied with its new position and shifting it again… and again. It hadn’t really been a noteworthy event, but it had been something to tell Phil about as they sat on the sofa together chatting over their pasta and wine. Her story had led on to some diverting speculations over a second glass of wine about the ground floor flat which must have been twice the size of theirs and whose layout and inhabitant intrigued them.

They had loved their own tranquil flat from the moment they had walked into it. The rent had seemed to them to be reasonable, and the agent had told them that the flat next to theirs was used as a pied-a-terre and rarely occupied, whilst the larger flat below was occupied by a single older gentleman. They couldn’t envisage him having late night parties. It had been, and still was, perfect for them and a great base from which Anna could set about launching her own business, hand painting lampshades to enhance the decorative schemes of wealthy clients. On the day they had moved in they had of course made a point of introducing themselves to Mr Neville, the elderly man with large glasses and untidy silver hair who lived beneath them. He had answered his doorbell wearing a capacious striped apron as if they had interrupted him in the middle of cooking his supper. He had seemed friendly enough, although he hadn’t invited them in, but had wished them well before they had headed back up the stairs to their new home.

Only when Anna woke up later that night did it occur to her that the noises, she had heard the previous day might have signalled some kind of accident. Surely though she would have heard some kind of cry, however muffled, if that had been the case? Even so she fretted. Whilst her business was still rather quiet, surely it would be neighbourly to look in on him to check that there was nothing amiss. On the next morning, Phil left for his office commute at the usual time and Anna began scanning her list of outlets to contact about the pile of already decorated lamp shades currently stored in their tiny hallway. Suddenly decisive, she stood up, moved the few feet towards the door, hurriedly locked the flat and descended the stairs.

Only when she had rung the downstairs bell did she begin to feel any awkwardness, but by then she could hear a cough as Mr Neville unlocked and opened the door somewhat slowly.

‘Hello,’ she began, for once stuck for words, ‘I was just wondering… if… well if everything’s alright? I work from home, you see, and well I heard a few noises coming from your flat yesterday… oh don’t worry I haven’t come to complain, I just thought I should look in, you know, to make sure you were ok.’

Mr Neville seemed to take pity on her embarrassment. ‘That’s very good of you,’ he said, ‘As you can see, I’m fine, but do come in. I was just about to put the kettle on.’

And that was how their friendship had begun. James, as he had asked her to call him that first morning, looked rather older than she had first imagined as they sat talking over a well brewed pot of tea and bourbons extracted from the glinting copper biscuit barrel. She, of course, exuded youth and energy, enthused as she was by the prospect of running her own business. Even so she sometimes felt a little anxious on those long days spent at her table painting or on her laptop seeking to summon up marketing success.

          Perhaps that was why she had found herself frequently popping down to visit James on weekdays and not always mentioning her visits or conversations to Phil. She enjoyed telling the old man about her early life in Cornwall and about how she had come to London to study and ended up meeting Phil. Now, she confided in James, she felt she would stay for ever. She was doing well, and Phil was behind her all the way. She had wanted to be an artist since she was a little girl, but she had opted to practise her craft skills and make a living at the same time…that was the right thing for now she thought.

In the weeks that followed James had begun to tell her about his early life in Scotland and how he had come to London seeking fame and fortune like a modern Dick Whittington. He had already stayed for ever it seemed, working in insurance, and dabbling with pottery and landscape painting for relaxation. Then, on one memorable morning he had mentioned to her how he had once had a wife and a daughter. The next day he had told her that they were both gone now, but that he was still able to keep the memory of them alive.

He had told Anna that so matter-of-factly that she had been taken aback and hadn’t liked to ask whether he meant that they had died or that they had simply left him. Before she could formulate her thoughts, James had beckoned to her to come with him out into the hall. As she followed him into another room off the little vestibule, Anna noticed that the single window blind was drawn down and that the only furniture was a simple wooden upright chair in the middle of the darkened space. Up against one wall a small step ladder had been propped and next to it on the old lino floor a series of paint pots had been arrayed alongside various bottles of turps and jam jars with brushes of various sizes immersed in them or neatly balanced on their rims. Silently Anna released the breath that she had been holding and turned slowly round and round, her eyes fixed intently on the walls and on the images that covered them. She saw only two faces, one of a girl with ponytails, the other of a woman with high cheek bones and curly hair. Both had been painted interchangeably in bright shades of blue, red and yellow, occasionally purple or green, repeated in endless permutations, sometimes smiling, sometimes with cartoon tears, or laughing, or frowning, eyes shut, eyes open.

She thought she understood it now. The sounds that she had heard must have been those of James clattering his paint pots and step ladder on the bare floorboards and scraping the chair from time to time as he shifted it to sit and commune with the finished faces. She noticed also that the wall with the door was not yet covered. James stood next to her, looking at the faces, but when he glanced at her she smiled reassuringly to him, turning away, and leaving him quietly to his memories. She closed his front door quietly behind her and returned to her unopened laptop and the pile of bespoke lampshades waiting for their moment to be illuminated.

When Phil came home that evening, she greeted him excitedly. ‘Let’s go out tonight,’ she suggested. Over dinner she talked to him animatedly as they ate. She told him all about their neighbour’s secret painting and about what she knew of the story that lay behind it. Phil was fascinated. From now on, she explained, she would make sure she spent part of each day thinking about someone else’s story and retelling it in whatever medium she could. She would start tomorrow by asking James if she could help at all with the work on his mural. They laughed together when she said that she could at least offer James some help to move the paints and step ladder quietly this time.


About the author

Jane Spirit lives in Suffolk UK and has been inspired to try writing fiction by going along to her local creative writing class. 


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