Normally Alice loved the rain. That noise, like the hiss of a radio, the static crackle on Dad’s old vinyl in the second before the music kicks in.
She liked sheltering beneath trees, dry and safe, listening to the soft patter of rain drops on the canopy of leaves above and watching as the dark clouds droop low to the ground, sag-bellied and heavy with water, and lick at the puddled-pavements with giant wet tongues.
She normally didn’t even mind when the sky was grey, that there was no sun, that the clouds swirled like angry, muddled minds and water formed in little droplets on her bedroom window to compete down the pane in slow sputtering races
But the outside today the whole world just…
…and inside the flat Alice was trapped like a beetle that’s been kept inside a jar, circling, twitching, slowly going mad and occasionally looking out through the misted glass into the courtyard, which today felt like a prison yard.
Alice Jackson had a cold.
When she rubbed at her nose with a tissue it felt like sand paper. The skin around her nostrils was red, raw and shiny like smoked salmon. Her throat felt like something had got stuck, something like a spiked ball, and no matter how much she swallowed, no matter how much water, juice, tepid tea she drank, the spiked ball just wouldn’t cease to cause her pain.
‘Stay inside today.’ Mum had told her as she left the flat this morning, a little grumpy because she had to work and it was Saturday.
‘Alice!’ she added in a stern voice, ‘Do you her me? I mean it. Stay inside today.’
She must have read the look on Alice’s face, the glint in her eye. Of course she wouldn’t stay inside, the idea was absurd. That she would waste a day, that she would waste a Saturday at that.
Staying inside on Saturday meant Saturday TV, black and white movies, football – such a passionless, pointless game with middle aged men in a TV studio, talking and arguing politely. As far as Alice was concerned, it just wasn’t going to happen.
I have to get out, she had thought, Mum won’t be home till four, so I’ll head into town, go to the market, sneak into the Oak perhaps and see if Dad’s there. That smoky room with windows so big it was always filled with light, even on a day like today, always filled with noise too and happiness also, drunken laughter, excitement.
I’ll wait and hour and then go out, she thought, felt free, excited at the idea, but within that hour she had begun to feel worse. A suffocating fog of sickness had descended about her head.
Although she tried none the less – took her key and walked the verandah to the stairs. Wrapped up warm with a scarf tight around her neck and gloved fingers that wouldn’t allow her to get a grip on the chrome door handle.
She tip-toed silently past the old man’s flat – the old man who lived in the flat at the top of the stairs, who would probably invite her in if he were there, and of course he would be there. The old man never went out, how could he? He took his air from a blue canister next to his chair and even when it was hot, when the sun heated his living room, magnified the sun through double glazed plastic window panes and lit the dust that danced silently in the shafts of light, danced without music, without reason, without care, the old man would sit in a room so stifling hot that it would dry your throat, so hot, so badly hot that not even cups of tea and cups of tea would keep your throat wet.
It had been July and late afternoon the day Alice had been in there. The curtains had been drawn against the too bright sun and distant summer noise outside – shouts from the river and kids on bikes.
‘You’ll forgive me for thinking this story is going nowhere.’ He had said, his tone lit by a dim light of humour that at first Alice had found it hard to understand. But he had seemed nice at first, his voice friendly, ragged and quiet, tired and old.
‘It’s my old mind, you see, it goes nowhere, just in circles. I say the same thing again and again, so you better stop me if you hear me repeating myself or else you’ll be here all afternoon.’
His throat rattled when he laughed, he had yellow stains on the tips of his fingers, a yellow streak like a skunk on the front of his thick white hair, greasy and he would have smelt of sweat probably, although only if he hadn’t reeked so strongly of tobacco smoke. It was as if he had been smoked himself, hung in a wooden smoke house until his skin was the texture of jerky, as wrinkled as dried prunes, as unhealthy as Christmas, as uncomfortable as a thick home-made sweater in June or Christmas in an Australian summer.
‘It was actually worth coming here then.’ The old man had gone on, enthusiastic as if he were remembering some old memory that had just resurfaced from the deep, deep ocean of his mind.
‘People used to come down from London to spend the day on boats, you see, back then, and they came in great crowds from the station, wave after wave…as the trains arrived, you see?
‘Because it was a good spot to spend the day by the river then, in those days, or go to the park, because they’re still nice here, nicest in London.’
Alice had said she agreed, although she knew no others. She knew no other part of London really, just up town, the West-End, Oxford Street and Covent Garden. But she had never been to the park up in town.
‘It was even a park here, this very spot where the flats are now.’ The old man had gone on and Alice had wanted to leave, but when she tried to tell him, tried to say that she had to go, choosing a moment when he had stopped speaking because he had had to cough, but he had put up his hand to stop her, as if reserving the airspace between them.
‘Although not a nice park.’ He had managed to get the words out between coughs, struggling because the phlegm had quietened his tone.
‘This spot here, where the flats are, it was just an empty bit of land, nothing here but some trees and a bit of a pond maybe…’
He had trailed off after a while, as if run out of steam, out of air. His fingers had gnarled white at their hinges as he had gripped tight the notched wheel on top of the canister of air next to his chair.
Alice had left after watching his breath mist up the clear perspex of the mask he hooked onto the front of his head. The sight had made her feel sick, the sound of his breathing as well, it was too shallow to keep him alive, too weak, and when she had turned to look at him through the open door she had seen his eyes as they watched her, flicker like a baby’s when it’s fighting sleep, trying to stay awake.
There was no chance of her going in there today, no chance of her knocking on his door and asking if he needed anything, like Mum said we should sometimes do.
It was to check he was alright, the asking, to check he wasn’t dead and when Mum said ‘we’, that ‘we’ should check he was alright, she really meant just her, because it really wasn’t alright for Alice to knock on his door when Mum wasn’t there.
But as Alice passed, put her hand on the banister, rubber coated on top of painted metal poles, she turned and looked at the old man’s door. It looked different somehow. It took a moment for her to figure it out, but then it hit her.
Three of them…
…in a row outside his door, queuing like shoppers at a bus stop, old and thick and with a layer of transparency on the top. Surely they had been there for days.
Alice knocked on his door.
Then waited, feeling the silence from within and knowing no one would answer.