Friday, 19 November 2010

THE NEW TENANT - a short story by GC

A noise woke Teddy Bigelow. 2am and Hattersley Court should have been wrapped in blissful silence. The apartment block was showing its age but its flats could honestly boast “peaceful seclusion yet walking distance of Archway tube” in any rental ad.
No dogs, no loud music, no noisy parties, and definitely no children. As chairman of the residents’ association he had no difficulty in imposing a ban on the latter even though it was not an actual clause in the letting agreement.
Yet he lay in bed listening to a disturbing noise much closer than the distant traffic.
It was penetrating rather than loud. Minutes of silence punctuated by seconds of a whine that was at first mechanical and then human. The source was as mysterious as the sound itself.
The bedrooms of the 20 apartments in the three storey building overlooked a small communal garden. There could be no other explanation than that the cause was close by.
Even more bizarre Bigelow decided his sleep had been disrupted by the cries of a baby. At first he wondered if a child could have been abandoned in the garden but promptly dismissed the idea.
Bigelow reminded himself he lived on the ground floor and the security lights would have been blazing if there had been any movement outside his window. In any case as he strained his ears the cries seemed to be coming from within the building.
One of the flats must be playing host to a mother and her child. How very inconsiderate. It had never happened before. There had been a girl cellist six or seven years earlier but she soon left to continue her midnight practices elsewhere.
As sleep began to return Bigelow prayed that the disturbance had nothing to do with the new tenant of 12A. Five of the flats were owned by the residents’ association and it was his task to advertise vacancies and vet the applicants. The new man had seemed ideally suited for the year’s lease on the furnished flat. But there was always the fear of some hidden vice that only became apparent after the ink on the contract had dried.
The residents of Hattersley Court looked to Bigelow to find someone like themselves – nice people who valued their privacy.
Bigelow believed in taking up references. David Halliday, however, could only offer a banker’s one. But that was because he had lived many years in his own house until its recent sale. Bigelow reasoned as he showed Halliday around that the man would have no problem meeting the pricey rent and appeared to be ideal in other respects too.
Halliday said he was a retired widower with no close dependants, and whose hobby was reading. He came with an advantage which secured his selection from a short list of applicants.
Bigelow would be 70 next birthday. For 14 years since he had sold his small public relations company, his life had centred on chairmanship of the association. Though unpaid and mostly unappreciated, he couldn’t imagine how he would fill his time without the responsibility. Yet he was forced to admit to himself that the book-keeping was getting beyond him.
He’d heard rumours that Mr Tapscott in No. 10 might stand against him for the chairmanship at the next annual meeting. It would be the first time his authority had been challenged.
So when Halliday said he had been an accountant, Bigelow saw a natural ally. Together they would complete the books in time for the meeting. The arrival of Halliday just weeks before the mystery noise must be pure coincidence.

Bigelow was determined his lost sleep wasn’t going to interfere with his morning routine. He bathed, shaved, breakfasted, ironed his clothes, and then set off for his brisk walk to the newsagents.
There were many shops closer but Bigelow’s strict health regime required a daily minimum of an hour’s walking. Only the worst of weather would cause him to miss the exercise.
Back at his apartment he had just picked up two handwritten notes which had been dropped through his letter box, when there was a knock on his door.
Miss Stephenson from No. 27 stood before him. The tall grey-haired woman must have been worried because she accepted Bigelow’s invitation to enter. There was an unwritten code between residents that Christmas was the only time they might visit each other – and then only briefly for a festive drink.
“Mr Bigelow it has always been my understanding that the keeping of pets is forbidden in Hattersley Court.”
“That is quite correct Miss Stephenson.”
The woman in Bigelow’s armchair clapped her hands together in an impatient gesture. “Then why has someone given home to a dog, more a puppy I should judge.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” said Bigelow.
“Then you must be a very sound sleeper if you didn’t hear it again last night. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep all week. Probably being bottle-fed and doesn’t like it.”
“I’ll look into it immediately,” said Bigelow showing her to the door.
One note was from Mr Hargreaves of No. 17. “Dear Mr Bigelow,” it read, “Please could you ask the as yet unknown person who has been using a mechanical tool in the middle of the night to desist forthwith.” Hargreaves had been a solicitor.
The second note was from Mr Tapscott, Bigelow’s likely rival. In a scribbled hand it read, “Can’t be sure but I think there’s something odd about your new man at 12A. Suggest you re-check references.”
That night Bigelow found it difficult to sleep because he had been obliged to take a nap in the afternoon. At 2.20am he was listening to a baby crying.
The night’s disturbance prompted two notes of complaint in the morning. One was from a tetchy Miss Stephenson and the other a repeat from Mr Hargreaves.
Bigelow spent most of the day patrolling the lobby but there was no sign of any baby. But every resident who spotted him had a story of disturbed sleep. He was relieved to bump into David Halliday without a pram in tow.
Halliday was a small man dressed in a long fawn raincoat, buttoned and belted though showers weren’t forecast until the weekend. This eccentricity worried Bigelow less than the fact Halliday had neglected to shave that morning.
“How are you settling in? No problems, I trust?” Bigelow asked. Halliday made a stumbling reply.
“No everything’s fine. I’m just going out…to the library…to get signed up.”
“You might need a referee. I’ll be happy to sign for you.”
“Thanks, I’ll remember. Thanks.”

Bigelow set his alarm for 2am. He needn’t have bothered. He was awake and dressed when the baby began to whimper.
Standing in the hall outside his flat door, it was bewildering. Every direction he took the noise seemed to become fainter. There was nothing else for it but climb to the top of the block and work his way down listening outside of every apartment.
That was until he reached 12A and discovered that Hattersley Court’s latest arrival Mr Halliday was indeed the source of the noise. Bigelow pressed his ear to the door. He paced the corridor outside and returned three times to listen again just to be certain.
Try as hard as he could, Bigelow was forced to the conclusion that on the other side of the door it wasn’t a baby crying but the new tenant of 12A himself weeping, no, sobbing. Bigelow hurried back to his flat.

During his morning walk Bigelow reviewed his situation. It wasn’t good. The annual meeting was just four weeks away and the upstairs pub room was already booked. Immediate action was called for.
Bigelow decided he couldn’t possibly make any inquiry about the cause of the man’s distress. That would be an impertinence. Rather if Halliday could be encouraged to help him examine a year’s worth of receipts to establish which should be charged against the general fund and which against the reserve one, it might help him take his mind off his troubles.
On his return Bigelow took a quick tour of the garden to establish that Halliday was probably home because his curtains were drawn.
He spent much of the day in the lobby attending to the notice board and a loose carpet tile that had been bothering him for some months. But there was no sign of Halliday.
At 6pm he telephoned 12A but there was no answer. At 7pm he knocked on the door of the apartment. There was no response. He knocked again more loudly.
Mr Tapscott opened the door of No. 10. “Need any help?”
“I am quite capable of knocking on a door, thank you. Mr Halliday, it’s Mr Bigelow.” Tapscott returned to his over-loud television.
“I thought you might need me to sign your library application.” The door opened a few inches and Halliday said, “I didn’t go. Tomorrow.”
“I need to see you on another matter. It’s quite urgent. Please.”
“Wait a minute.” Halliday closed the door. Bigelow had to wait five minutes before he was invited to enter.
He had been bracing himself for a shock. Bigelow had never seen the inside of a flat rented out by the association which hadn’t offended him with its untidiness.
Halliday had moved in two weeks before yet the apartment looked exactly as it was when Bigelow handed over the keys. A little dustier perhaps but it seemed as though Halliday hadn’t changed anything, not re-arranged the furniture, introduced a photograph, bought a magazine, nothing.
The only difference at all was that the musty smell of damp which Bigelow had tried to mask by the siting of strategically placed room fresheners was overpowered by the eye stinging presence of an unpleasant body odour which could only belong to the new tenant.
If this were not disturbing enough Halliday himself was dressed exactly as he was the day before in his long raincoat. He had clearly not shaved now for several days.
Bigelow’s first thought was to bolt back to the safety of his own flat. But he realised that his disastrous choice of tenant would reflect so poorly on his judgement that he had all but handed the chairmanship to Tapscott.
If it were just the muddle with the accounts he might survive. They were in a mess but no money had actually gone missing. No one, however, would forgive him for introducing such an unsettling presence as Halliday in to their midst. He had a clear mental picture of the petition that had been provoked by the midnight cellist.
Only by getting Halliday to pull himself together could he rescue the situation. It was a task for which he felt completely ill-equipped.
Bigelow sat down on a chair without being asked. After a pause Halliday said, “I’d offer you a cup of tea but I’m out of milk.” Bigelow doubted that there would be much of anything in the flat’s refrigerator such were the hollowness of his cheeks under the stubble.
“No, I’m fine, thank you. In fact I’ve just finished supper. Not that I had tea. After eating I don’t usually drink tea. Water. Water is good. Not that I want water. Thank you.”
Bigelow knew he was babbling but it didn’t matter because Halliday, arms folded, head bowed, had sat in a chair opposite deep in his own thoughts.
“Mr Halliday, Mr Halliday, I wonder if you would be prepared to put some of your accountancy skills to good use in aiding Hattersley Court’s residents’ association. Hopefully it would only require a few hours a month…”
Halliday looked up and gave a smile so grim that the words died in Bigelow’s mouth.
“When you saw me yesterday I wasn’t going to the library. “
“Oh.”
“I was going to throw myself under a Tube train.”
Bigelow’s jaw dropped open and he could feel his heart pound in his chest. “But…but why?”
“Reasons. Believe me good reasons.” After a pause in which Bigelow searched but couldn’t find anything to say, Halliday continued, “But I’ll tell you why I didn’t. School children. School children going home. There wasn’t a platform without them. I couldn’t let them see something like that, could I? I sat there hours before I came away.”
“Are you ill?”
“You mean terminally? Not in your sense.”
“Then why?”
“Do you really want to know?”
Bigelow wanted to flee but he felt drained by the presence of raw emotion so alien to the experience of his daily routine. He doubted his legs had the strength to stand. So instead, he heard himself say, “Yes, yes. Perhaps maybe I can help. I know where there’s a pharmacy open to midnight.”
“Does your chemist bring back the dead?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow?”
“Mr Bigelow have you ever been married?”
“Briefly, not so it counts.”
“My wife Catherine died seven months ago.” Halliday rubbed the side of his forehead as though he had been struck by a blinding migraine.
The two men sat in silence until Bigelow, unnerved, struggled to find the right condolence that might help him escape.
“Bad luck. I mean how rotten for you – and her.” Tears spilled from Halliday’s eyes. He wiped them with his coat sleeve when they reached his chin.
“We would have been married 42 years. It’s impossible, I don’t know, to grasp 42 years. She was beautiful. So beautiful.”
“You don’t have to explain.”
“Her heart gave out. Suddenly, without warning, without any chance to say goodbye. Like that.” He tried to click his fingers.
“There must be somewhere you can get help? Counselling, that’s it bereavement counselling.” Bigelow remembered seeing something of the sort in a list of emergency telephone numbers sent him by the council. Halliday blew his nose in what looked like a scrap of toilet paper.
“You mean well but you could never understand. Never understand the loss; the loss that never goes away.”
And there they sat. Bigelow wished he could cross the short stretch of carpet and offer the silently weeping man some comfort, while part of him damned the man for the misery he had smuggled in to Hattersley Court.
He rehearsed things to say. Finally the best he could do was squeezing Halliday’s shoulder before he let himself out of the flat. Back in his own apartment Bigelow realised he had only been gone 20 minutes.
The silence of Hattersley Court was unbroken during the night.

The next morning Bigelow returned from his morning walk to find two policemen waiting for him. Did a Mr David Halliday live at No. 12A?
A letter with that name and address had been found on the body of a man who had jumped under the last Tube the previous night.
Bigelow was doubly shocked – at the news and at his relief that 12A was once again available to rent.

Although unopposed the residents’ association meeting still voted unanimously to re-appoint Bigelow as its chairman. There had been so much for him to do in the wake of Halliday’s death that his apology for not being able to present a completed set of accounts was readily accepted.
Bigelow had indeed been busy. The police made several visits to 12A and he attended the inquest but wasn’t called to give evidence.
Halliday’s daughter, once with her husband and once without, came to take away her father’s few things.
She was a presentable enough woman in her thirties. Bigelow couldn’t determine whether her sour expression was grief or irritation. He presumed the latter when lost for anything to say to her, he had said, “Your father must have loved your mother very much.” To which she had muttered something like “You wouldn’t know it.”
Rather than challenge Bigelow for the chairmanship of the association, Mr Tapscott was so put off by the obvious hard work and responsibility it carried that he led a vote of thanks for Bigelow’s efforts.
At the end of the meeting he was approached by both Miss Stephenson and Mr Hargreaves. “It’s all too terrible about poor Mr Halliday,” she said. “I feel so awful complaining like I did. I thought it was a puppy and all the time it was that poor man suffering.”
She insisted Bigelow hear her explanation. “My father drowned a litter of puppies in a sack when I was a child and I’m afraid I’ve never forgotten the noise they made.”
The two men shifted uncomfortably at the confidence. “What about me Mr Bigelow you must think me pretty insensitive to mistake the chap’s wailing for a machine?”
“Not at all, Mr Hargreaves. Noises in the night can play tricks.”
“It’s just that, well, my mother was on a ventilator for a month before she died – and I swear that’s what it sounded like it. Strange how noises strike people different ways. But you knew better didn’t you, Mr Bigelow?”

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