Toby Jefferies awoke to the sound of ululation. The BBC World Service was reporting on some dreadful crisis. The mouth of the presenter was taped with sticky flypaper. The women and children were howling through sponge and soldiers fired rounds of ammunition in a soft-room. Toby’s downstairs neighbour was playing Radio Four at high volume and the alternating trill and bray punched through the new-build plaster that separated their bedrooms.
The hangover Toby had cultivated the night before ripped his head in two; he lay on his back; mouth agape and dry. Staring at the ceiling light, he listened as the noise dipped in and out; he was waiting for the bells to stop. They clanged tunelessly through the floorboards as they had done every Sunday morning since he had moved in. That was six weeks ago and he hadn’t had so much as three hours sleep a night; unless he was blind drunk of course.
The bells stopped bashing his head and the voices of BBC presenters seeped into his ears, like bees burrowing into foxgloves. The muffled voices were tolerable but then there would be a symphonic crash of opera – the Magic Flute or Wagner, it varied. Toby shut his eyes tight, licked his lips and wrestled his pillow searching for sleep; nothing worked.
Every night was the same: God Save the Queen, jangling parp parps of incidental music and ululations. Usually, he would fling one leg out of the bed and half-heartedly stamped to signal his disapproval. But right now, he couldn’t muster the coordination to do even this. It never worked anyway.
From the intercom he knew his neighbour was called Patel. He had seen the little man in the Tesco’s down the road. The back of his slick brown head bobbed in front of him in the queue. The raincoat was Aquascutum but old and frayed around the collar and dappled with dandruff.
Toby had waited with his lasagne, bottle of red and toilet rolls and watched Mr Patel unpack his basket: a large potato, soup you made in a cup and a tub of butter-substitute.
He had followed the old man along the busy high street and held the door open, stretching his arm to form an arch under which Mr Patel ducked. The old man cleared his throat and muttered a thank you before mounting the stairs. Toby saw the out-turned feet in sensible shoes ascend each step; the little blue shopping bag rustling in Mr Patel’s hand.
With the image of the culprit in his head he made a monumental effort to act. He peddled himself out of his duvet, pulled on a tracksuit, brushed his teeth and slipped into flip-flops.
He stood outside his neighbour’s door, the smell of new paint and varnish mingling in his nostrils and making his stomach churn. He rang, waited, rang again; thumb hard on the bell push. When the door opened, the noise of the radio flew at him. Gregorian chants pierced the Sunday morning silence of the hallway.
‘I’m Toby from upstairs,’ he pointed to his chest, the sound of his raised voice made his head thump. He wished he had drunk water; his teeth were furring up again.
The old man nodded but said nothing.
‘I live upstairs,’ he pointed heavenwards. ‘Your radio is keeping me awake.’
‘Come in, come in,’ Mr Patel said, with the whistle of the frail and old.
‘No, I can’t. I’m going out,’ Toby lied. He didn’t want to get involved. Old people always needed something. Can you fetch a bit of shopping? Change this lightbulb? Unblock that sink?
‘It’s your radio. It’s too loud,’ he bawled.
‘I can’t sleep,’ he placed his palms together and raised them to the side of his face. ‘It’s keeping me awake.’
The old man’s face wobbled and Toby felt as if he had kicked a dog.
‘Could you turn your radio down a bit?’
‘Yes of course, sorry to disturb.’ Slowly, the old man closed the door.
‘Thank you. Sorry, I…’
For the rest of the day, Toby felt like shit. It wasn’t just that every tiny movement made his brain rock, it was also the image of the kicked-dog, brown eyes that kept popping into his head.
He lay under a duvet and watched boxsets; microwaving a ready-meal for lunch. He messaged his mates. All agreed it was a great night and they must meet up again soon; all admitted to being as hung-over as he was. Ray had left with a guy at the last bar and Toby was dying to ask how it went but decided against it.
The effectiveness of his complaint surprised him. As he climbed into bed that night there was silence. At first, he daren’t believe that Mr Patel had stopped playing the radio. But after an anxious few moments of lying awake and listening out, Toby drifted off to sleep to the lull of nearby trains that crossed the bridge outside his window. This remained the pattern for the rest of the week; every night thereafter, sleep descended on Toby like a shroud.
He saw Mr Patel in the Tesco’s on Thursday night. The old man passed by with his blue shopping bag clutched in purple fingers.
‘Hello,’ he shouted. Several heads rose sharply, but seeing nothing controversial, turned down to concentrate on the self-serve machines.
‘How are you?’
‘Very well, thank you,’ the old man looked up and squinted, ‘I am so sorry about my radio. I hope you are sleeping better.’
Toby heard the precision in the vowels and he associated them with a good education. He assumed the old man had retired from business or academia, rather than a life in a call centre. They had to shuffle around a rotund figure and Toby negotiated a path to the exit, with Mr Patel closely following in his wake.
‘Thank you for turning the radio down,’ Toby said, ‘I hope it hasn’t been a problem.’
But Mr Patel merely nodded as he focussed on his feet. They walked at a slow shuffle all the way home. Toby felt protective, responsible almost, as he watched the top of the old man’s head. If Mr Patel were to fall or stumble he would be there to help him.
‘I could help you with your shopping, Mr Patel. If you’d like?’ But the old man simply nodded rapidly, a bird pecking at seeds; head bowed in concentration.
When they arrived at the front door, Toby held it open, then scooted past the old man to take the stairs.
‘Bye then,’ he yelled. He saw Mr Patel raise his free hand in acknowledgement, before it clutched at the bannister. The blue shopping bag, rocking to and fro, was tangled in the fingers of his other hand. Toby turned, taking the stairs two at a time.
The week had seen him as sharp as a tack after sleeping the deserved slumber of the diligent. He was light on his feet and broke his personal best on the running machine at the gym. His boss actually smiled at him and gave him the nod that Charles Cleveland in credit control was leaving. Carpe diem, he thought, carpe diem, Toby.
It was amazing how a good night’s sleep affected your life. He had read an article about how lack of sleep raises blood pressure and cholesterol, he knew it affected concentration, too. But now, rested and with the faint glimmer of promotion within his grasp, he felt fantastic, so good in fact, he decided to celebrate.
After he had eaten his chicken salad, he got onto his dating website, selected a profile and waited. The buzz came through as he was changing the bedclothes, a guy calling himself Marcus had sent him a message. He wasn’t Toby’s first choice but Marcus was free to meet tomorrow night and that was what he wanted. He ironed his best shirt and polished his shoes. When he lay in bed nothing but the muted, double-glazed street drifted into his slumber. Another night without ululations and gunfire began and he slept like a child.
Toby met Marcus at a pub in Vauxhall. Afterwards, he would say to the police he was ferret-like and hollow-eyed, a drug addict, wearing a glossy brown leather jacket two sizes too big for him. But what he thought at the time was that Marcus was slim, a heroin-chic type and a bit of rough. That was fine. At the time.
They drank beer, then went on to gin until Toby felt bloated. Marcus seemed restless and ready to go. Afterwards, Toby would say he was in a hurry to leave because he needed to score. At the time, Toby thought his date was gagging for it. They took the underground back to Islington.
Marcus was small and wiry under the layers of clothing. Steering Toby into the living room, he pushed him down onto the sofa and unzipped him. Then he grabbed Toby’s neck and kissed him hard on the mouth.
‘Hey, slow it down, no rush,’ Toby held the shoulders of the leather jacket. He caught the smell of unwashed skin when Marcus’ body slackened to a sluggish rhythm then, as if frustrated, geared up again to a mechanical judder.
When it was over, Toby tumbled away from the supine figure under him, to get away from the carious breath and stinking underclothes. He was sobering up and knew immediately that this had been a terrible mistake.
‘I’m going to shower, perhaps you could let yourself out.’
‘No problem, can I get a beer?’ Marcus zipped up his jeans and walked into the kitchen, his belt snaked as it dangled on either side of his hips, he pulled on his jacket, patting the pockets before opening the fridge.
Toby ran the shower but stood naked, brought to a halt by the feeling that he shouldn’t leave the guy on his own, something was wrong. He smelt like a vagrant and looked more like a drug addict in the orderly beige apartment, than he had done in the pub.
He wrapped a towel around his hips and left the bathroom to find Marcus rifling through his suit pockets. He already had the phone and was opening the wallet.
‘What the fuck you doing?’ Toby lurched forward aiming to grab the little man’s thieving arm, but Marcus was slippery and dodged away, kicking over the coffee table as he escaped. Toby lunged at him and caught him in a tight grip, they fell together, in a violent imitation of their earlier tussle.
Marcus spat into Toby’s face. ‘Dirty bastard, get your hands off me.’ The little black eyes and thin hook of a nose were distorted with frustration and fear. His body jerked inside Toby’s arms then fell still.
The pain in Toby’s ribs took his breath away, the stinging sensation with the next stab of the knife loosened his arms and brought his hand down. He felt blood seep through his fingers, then he watched Marcus’ grubby trainers as they fled the room. The last thing he remembered was the smell; semen, metal and new carpet.
Doctor Patel sat on his upright armchair. His feet in slippers, his hands grabbing at the pages of his newspaper. Fingers, once deft and precise, were now thick and numb. The paper wouldn’t fold neatly in the middle and a loose sheet slipped to the floor. He watched it float away from him.
He missed the BBC World Service and, on Sundays, he missed his favourite programme. It tried to make sense of the themes of life: honesty, falsehood, loneliness and love. He would nod in agreement or dispute the broadcaster’s point. The presenter had been born in Kolkata and his soft Anglo-Indian accent reminded him of home.
But he couldn’t play the radio through the night; the big, burly guy from upstairs had complained. He didn’t want trouble.
Now, instead of being lulled to sleep by the World Service and gently led into waking at dawn by the shipping forecast, his head was filled with memories of those he had lost and who were far away. It was too painful to allow sleep. He had a notion to ring his son in Seattle.
‘Rami, how do I get BBC World Service on my radio during the day?’
‘You need to tune it to long wave, dad.’
It was the tiniest voice from over the ocean but to him it was as familiar and clear as Bells on Sunday. ‘Long wave, I see. I like that chap on the programme. What’s his name?’
‘Which programme, dad?’
‘The programme where he talks about loneliness.’
‘Sorry, dad. Can’t help you.’
‘How are my grandchildren?’
‘They’re fine. Aidan took his first steps the other day. I missed it but Rana caught it on video.’
‘I’d like to see that.’
He knew he wasn’t supposed to ask but he did anyway. ‘When are you and the family coming to London?’
‘I get some time off during Thanksgiving.’
‘That’s November, I’ll be gone by then.’ Oh shit, he had done it again, he waited for the silence to end.
‘Look, dad I’ve got to go, I’m about to take a class. Take care and I’ll send you some photos.’
Dr Patel couldn’t understand how he had ended up alone. The puzzle filled his days and now it filled his nights.
Sure, his son and daughter had been committed to their jobs abroad when their mother was alive, but when she had gone, when he had sold the family home to move to this mean little flat, they should have come home. It wasn’t right for children to be so distant.
Shunting the rest of the newspaper off his lap, he made to lift himself out of his recliner to make a cup of tea.
He felt the massive crash from upstairs. It was the light swaying and the framed photograph of his wife slipping to lay flat on the coffee table that made him jump.
Sheetal Patel smiled up at the ceiling. He followed her gaze and sensed more thudding. There was a fight going on. Twenty years in casualty had helped him to identify the rapid uncontrolled tremors of violence being played out in adjoining rooms.
He surprised himself with the ease at which he stood, he shuffled in his slippers but when he got to the door, kicked them off. He began to climb the stairs up to his neighbour’s flat. Yes, he had complained about the noise, but wasn’t his neighbour a human being? Wasn’t he, Pravan Patel, bereft of his radio, scratching for something to do? He would investigate and be of service if he could.
He stopped to catch his breath. Below him, a greasy brown head bobbed its way down to the exit. A shiny oxblood leather jacket reflected the light from the automatic security system.
Toby’s door was ajar, bloody rose petals decorated the jamb. He moved as quickly as his thin old legs would allow and saw Toby lying on the floor.
He registered the rapidly heaving chest as his neighbour fought for breath. He found a little white towel on the sofa and held it on the wound. Stretching to reach a blood-smeared mobile phone, he felt some tendon or muscle pop within his chest; he gritted his teeth and punched the nine.
‘Male, mid- thirties, stab wound. No, two stab wounds to the lower abdomen,’ he shouted the address and sat on the floor.
‘Where are you from, Toby? I’m from Delhi, I have a son your age and a daughter, I spoke to my son just now. I asked him how I could tune my radio to the BBC World Service in the daytime. I miss it at night you see. I am so sorry about the radio, but if I don’t listen to it I can’t sleep.’
Toby rolled his head from side to side, his lips moved but the doctor couldn’t hear the words.
‘I end up lying in bed thinking about my wife. You would have liked her, Toby. She was very pretty and funny. She laughed at anything. She liked Goodness Gracious, Me but I never saw the funny side of it. She was a terrible cook but a great scientist.’
Toby’s eyeballs glistened under flickering lashes. Dr Patel applied more pressure but the blood made a spider’s web on the white cotton.
‘My daughter is in pharmaceuticals and my son lectures in engineering. I’m very proud of them, Toby. Toby. Toby, what do you do for a living, Toby?’
The crucial minutes that made the difference between survival and death slipped by and Dr Patel wondered if he should shout for help. The threads of the spider web were converging, his hands were stained with his neighbour’s blood and the muscle that he had strained began to throb. Then, thankfully, green-suited paramedics appeared in the room.
There was a familiar bustle around him and Dr Patel shuffled away to sit propped against the wall. The young man began to breathe steadily. Toby would live. This much he understood.
But the effort to get up the stairs and to keep the wound covered had exhausted the good doctor. Pain shot across his chest and he was unable to move from the spot by Toby’s body. He closed his eyes and saw Sheetal.
They were sitting side by side under a mango tree in her father’s yard. The fragrance of the fruit mingled with her French soap. He looked at the side of her face. The smooth creaminess of her rounded cheek was taut, her lips a delicious irreverent pout. Her eyelashes were lush, black as night, fluttering like beetle wings against the pearlescent white of her eyes. She was heart-achingly, euphoria-inducingly lovely.
‘Why don’t you ever say anything romantic, Prav?’
‘Because it is unnecessary, you know how I love you.’
‘Try saying something romantic to me.’
‘You are… my fluffy diamond?’
Her face fell in disappointment. ‘Try again,’ she shook her hair as if ridding herself of the clumsy description. ‘Try saying something with the word ‘heart’ or, or ‘euphoric,’ she offered. ‘Do your best, don’t let me down.’ She prepared herself, adjusting the peach-coloured sari so that it fell flat against her shoulder. She turned to face him.
Prav thought for a moment. ‘My darling, Sheetal you are… heart-achingly… euphoria-inducing-ly beautiful.’
‘Oh well done, I like what you did there,’ she seemed relieved rather than stirred.
‘We’ll get married after we qualify,’ she said. Her bangles shushed on her wrist as she pushed thick brown locks behind her ear.
‘I’m going to go out to work you know. You can’t keep me at home like a little wife.’ She elbowed him in the ribs.
‘All the women work in England; the hospitals are full of nice Indian girls like you.’
‘There’s no one like me, Prav Patel.’
The brown hair faded into grey shadow. Her wedding veil – intricate crimson, silk and lace, glittering with tiny shots of silver – descended over her face and he was alone under the mango tree.
When she had the heart attack that had killed her he had not been there to save her, had not talked her through the dark, terrifying minutes between life and death.
He felt the wetness of tears on his cheeks and heard the BBC presenter, Mark Tully. Yes, Mark Tully, that was his name. He had the voice that reminded him of home, of his beautiful wife and the mango trees.
‘Hello, can you hear me?’ a light shone into his eyes and the voice called to him through monsoon rain. But it was Sheetal who stood over him in his neighbour’s living room.
‘Come on, I’ve waited so long. It’s time,’ she was impatient. She held out her hand, her skin was smooth and shining, the delicate folds of an ivory silk scarf covered her head. She was bathed in the colour of sunsets; of tawny gold and the purple of deep dreamless sleep.
Loved Yvonne Dykes’ Something Understood? Read her short story The View of the Garden in the Summer next!