Friday, April 16, 2021

The Neighbour by Lynne Couzins

 Ester sat in her armchair, needle poised above her embroidery, counting each head as it thumped onto the floor above. There would be a pause, then the sawing would resume.  The new neighbour, a middle aged, grey haired, smoking man liked DIY, liked hammering and sawing, pounding and dragging.

As the days turned to weeks Ester found her mind wandering.  Sometimes the saw was the gasping dying breath of his latest victim.  Sometimes he was an executioner sawing off people’s heads.  She didn’t know who the people were or what they had done but she was certain they didn’t deserve to be beheaded.

The noise wheezed and grated through all her days.  The days piled up like patchwork squares around her chair.  They were a puzzle that she tried in vain to piece together, to form into a cohesive pattern but they warped and twisted and defied her shaking hands.  Occasionally she wondered if she was going crazy and still the saw shuddered and juddered through the ceiling and down the walls and across the floor into her slippered feet.  She thought maybe she had turned to stone, was a statue of herself sitting in a red armchair, and that the vibration of the saw might eventually cause cracks to run up her legs, to spider across her whole body until she shattered.

She woke in the dark to a door slamming somewhere in the building.  She lay listening and heard a rhythmic swish, swish, swish.  She got up and crept to the window.  She could make out familiar shapes in the garden but the woods at the back of the flats were inky black.  The swishing seemed to be rounding the end of the building.  The grey haired man came into view dragging a large sheet of thick plastic behind him.  She could see a winking red glow as he puffed on his cigarette. He stopped to open the gate into the woods and vanished into the darkness, the noise trailing away behind him.  Ester waited, swaying slowly from foot to foot.  She thought she heard a muffled thud and thought of all the beheaded in the flat above her.  Then an uneven rasping, gasping sound was coming back through the woods.  The man appeared walking backwards hauling a great swathed lump along. Ester wondered if this was a new victim, clubbed and felled and pulled helpless into his lair.

She lay long into the night, shivering beneath her blankets.

After breakfast she knew she would have to mount a rescue mission.  She couldn’t just sit counting any more heads.  Her feet had swollen from sitting immobile in her chair for so long and her shoe laces refused to tie so she pulled on her stretched slippers.  Her hair hung lank around her shoulders.  She armed herself with a broom from the hall cupboard, then wondered if she looked like a witch.  She wrapped a thick black shawl around her shoulders and hoped it would disguise her trembling.  

Ester pounded on his door with the broom handle and jabbed it towards him when he opened the door.  

“Where are they?” she cried, “what have you done with them?”

Her voice sounded thin and cracked and dusty.  The man stepped back in alarm as she swept in through the door.

“I heard them all,” she said, “every one.”

“I’m sorry about the noise” the man stammered, shuffling along the hall behind her like a chastised child.  He was running his hand nervously through his hair, leaving it standing in sweaty clumps.

Ester became aware of a trail of dirt on the floor, earth and bits of bark.  She followed the trail through the open living room door and stopped, wide eyed, looking around in bewilderment.  There were no heads, no victims.  In the middle of the room was a workbench and on the bench a huge log with it’s centre hollowed out.  She turned slowly.  All around the edge of the otherwise empty room were little houses made from logs and tree stumps. Fairy houses, enchanting houses with tiny furniture and windows.  She stepped forward and peered in through a window.  There was a spiral staircase inside with an ornate bannister, all carved from twigs.

“You make these?”  She was breathless with surprise and relief and awe.  She let the broom drop.  

“They are beautiful, so skilled and perfect” she said.  Tears prickled behind her eyes.  The man smiled.

Ester sits in her armchair embroidering tiny bedspreads and drapes, listening to the singing of the saw and the staccato percussion of the hammer as the craftsman creates fairy worlds from fallen trees.

© Lynne Couzins

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