by Nick Sweeney
It was too narrow to be a balcony, and insensitive friends had cured Alex of calling it one, but there was room enough to stand and lean on the railing, a drink in his hand. The city’s skyline was visible from the thirteenth floor, and those same friends lapped up the view, but mostly Alex saw other blocks, the windows of others who dwelt in the sky. What he really liked was standing there listening to the distant growl of traffic, safe in the knowledge that he had left the city behind for the day, and was free of its storm of regulations.
He drained his glass, and stepped back into the room. He walked to the hallway, stared at the bathroom door. “Elena.” He tapped on the frosted window. “Are you going to be long in there?” He called his wife’s name again, and melancholy streaked through him. He remembered calling her name in a different way, not in enquiry, but in what passed for men of his time and place as love, in the days when he hadn’t felt afraid of the passions in his blood. The hissing of water made a secret of his wife’s answer. Alex stood there trying to make it out, but then, like a dog spoken to kindly, found himself comforted, if only fleetingly, by the cadence of words holding some promise. He went back to the living room and sank into an armchair. His hand wandered down to a loose thread along its flank, and he curled it around his finger.
The hair at the base of his skull rose, and he was taken by the feeling of being watched. He took a look around the room, was startled by the sight of a round-eyed man in need of a five o’clock shave, tie undone and shirt-tails escaping. A needle tickled Alex’s insides as he realised that the figment he saw, distorted in the fairground mirror of the television set, yet essentially true-to-life, was himself.
The alchemy of steam and cosmetics pervaded the room. Alex greeted Elena with an anxious turn of the head. She was going out to play bridge, he remembered, was busy getting ready for the weekly event. It was an occasional annoyance to him that he couldn’t play. He knew every other popular card game, and it enraged him when he was told that that was exactly the problem: bridge wasn’t just a card game, and his failure lay in approaching it as such. He thought of Elena’s painted talons moving carefully over green baize, clashing with the red suits.
“Nice day?” Elena called over his shoulder. He he saw her in the television, standing behind his armchair, fingers held up before her like those of a surgeon prepping before using the knife.
“Not bad.” He saw her blow on her nails, knew that they were out of action for the few minutes it would take them to dry. All the same, he held his glass up and said, “Get me a drink, will you.” He sensed her hesitation become irritation, and then subside.
“In a minute,” she said firmly, and then she walked past him and sat on the sofa.
Elena was wearing only a towel, wrapped around her waist. She was in good shape for her years. Alex was troubled by a spark of proprietary pride that prompted, nevertheless, just a glum stare. Elena responded to it brightly, saying, “Are you well?”
He nodded slowly, his tongue touching his bottom lip, said only, “You should put something on.”
“I’m going to.” She blew on her nails. “You don’t think I’m going out like this, do you?”
She talked about her day at work. Alex grunted responses as she itemised the talents or shortcomings of people he knew only from her chatter. In fact, he reflected, he could easily have told her the very things she was telling him. At last, she got up and took his glass, and he was reassured by the sound of tinkling ice.
“Well, no news?” she asked, as she gave him his drink. “How was work?”
“Not bad.” He waved a hand, dismissed as best he could all the people who spent twenty minutes in the shop not doing anything in particular, just killing their time, and his. “You know, same old thing.”
Elena sat down again, this time armed with a brush and mirror. She made adjustments to her hair. “Same old thing.” It wasn’t quite a mimic, more of an echo.
“Looking.” Alex said it almost to himself. “Just looking. Do they think I get commission on their looking?”
“What?” Alerted by the change in Alex’s voice, Elena looked up.
“I wish,” he said carefully, “you’d go and put something on. I’ve told you before. It’s a… bad idea to walk around the flat stark naked.”
“I’m not stark naked.” Elena picked up a corner of the towel.
“People can see in,” Alex said. Elena laughed her bright laugh that, deep down, Alex hated. “It’s true,” he insisted sulkily. “It happens all the time.”
“What does?” Elena concentrated on her hair.
“People – you know – looking.”
“You know what I mean. Men. Do you know, several women have been assaulted round here recently? Horribly assaulted. In these blocks.” He waved in the direction of the window, which displayed like strips of negatives those hundreds of other windows. “Dreadfully assaulted – grievously.” He nodded, pleased with the word. “And at least two of them have reported seeing a… man beforehand, looking. It encourages them, you see. They think you’re… exhibiting yourself. On purpose.”
“Oh, come off it, Alex.” Elena raised a thumb in the same direction. “The nearest block must be at least two hundred metres away. A man would have to have very good eyesight to see that far.”
“Or binoculars.” She laughed. “Alex, relax. People aren’t like that.” She frowned at Alex’s stare. “And people that are, they’re sick.”
Alex felt himself flush, felt his nostrils flare and his eyes lock into their sockets. The thread he was gripping broke from the chair and came away with a pop.
“All right, all right.” Elena raised hands in surrender and left the room, came back a minute later wearing a lurid dressing gown. “Good enough?” she demanded.
“Or do you want me to put a hat on?”
“I’m just… observing.” Alex sounded weary, a man drained by arguments; they always got to the point at which he simply had nothing more to contribute. “You just never know who’s looking.” Elena, who had joined in on the end of the phrase, shook her head impatiently, and he looked up, hating the line made by her lips, and the set of her chin, hating the level gaze she offered him. Words formed in his head, but they fell over themselves, led down to a tiny man inside him, screaming silently.
Elena leaned down and kissed the top of his head, saying indulgently, “Alex, dear, you’re a worrier – you really are.”
“I care about you,” he crooned. He felt calm then, and, despite the child’s voice that escaped from him, in control. “That’s all.”
“I know you do.”
Elena finished dressing and put final touches to her face. Alex watched her gather her things and put them into her bag. By the time she was ready to leave he was able to respond with a smile to her kiss, and to wish her a good evening. “You too,” she told him. “Relax a bit, why don’t you?”
“I will,” he promised. He saw her to the door, then went into the kitchen and mixed another drink, let it settle his nerves as it slipped down his throat. He laid out a game of patience, and ate his dinner as he played. The evening drew to a close around him. When it was dark he got up and put the lights out in the living room, then went to the hall cupboard, in which he kept his racing stuff. He pulled out his absurd tweed hat and his waxed jacket. His shooting stick fell out, and brought with it old betting slips and scruffy publicity freebies. He found what he was looking for.
Part of him hated people not knowing he was there, looking, but a fellow had to live with things like that, at least until it reached the point at which just looking was no good. He tried not to think about that, and was soon settled comfortably at the window, his binoculars cold but comfortable on his nose.
Nick Sweeney’s novel Laikonik Express was published by Unthank Books in 2011. Much of his writing betrays his fascination with Eastern Europe and its people and history. When he’s not writing, he plays the guitar with Clash covers band Clashback. You can find out more than any sane person would want to know about him at nicksweeneywriting.com