Thursday, April 15, 2021

Volume Control by Grace Tierney

 Rose Street is the quietest road in the country. I’d been lucky to afford my tiny, terraced home and given the “mature residential setting” I suspected I was the youngest occupant. A week later a timid knock sounded on my newly-glossed front door and I found a pair of white-haired ladies on my doorstep.

 
“Oh,” said one, cowering behind the other from my scary five-foot frame and baggy jumpsuit.
 
“Hello, I’m Enid. This is my sister, Olive. We live next door,” announced the other,
taller sister.
 
“How nice of you to call. Would you like a cup of tea? I’m a bit all over the place, but I’ve found the kettle and Mum bought me a teapot and mugs as a
housewarming gift. Come in.”
 
I fought the urge to be rude and close the door. My latest attempt at erecting a curtain pole had failed before their knock and Enid’s rather pointy nose had twisted into a sneer at my mention of mugs. Clearly only china tea-cups would do for my uninvited guests.
 
Enid stalked past me. “Down here, is it?”
 
Olive scurried after her.
 
I brewed my millionth pot of tea. Half the country had visited me in the last week, including second cousins. Everyone wanted a peek behind the silent windows of Rose Street. Both sisters peered at my scattered belonging as I hunted for biscuits. Olive tried to conceal her curiosity but her eyes returned to my work repeatedly.
 
“Do you like them?
 
“What?” she jumped, “Eh, yes. That one is fantastic.” She pointed.
 
“It’s a spice stall in the Grand Bazaar. Amazing place. I’ve sold it a few times to food magazines. I’m framing it for the kitchen.”
 
“You’re a snapper, eh?” interrupted Enid. “Yes. I’m a professional photographer.”
“Do you hide in bushes and catch the stars on their holidays?” she enquired,
casually including me with the paps and ensuring my undying dislike.
 
“No. Landscapes and still life mostly.”
 
We struggled through the visit with dry small talk. Enid monologued for five minutes about the youth of today and their terrible grammar. Olive, however, sipped her tea like a dormouse while drinking in my photographs with greedy eyes.
 
“Are you interested in photography, Olive?” I tried to stop Enid’s rant. She looked down at my kitchen table and mumbled, “I like to paint.”


“Oh yes, our Olive likes to daub a bit.”
 
“That’s an amazing talent to have,” I enthused just to irritate Enid. “I did some in
college, but photography is my thing.”
 
We ran out of things to say shortly afterwards and the sisters excused themselves, their curiosity satisfied, and I returned to my curtain pole.
 
I waved at the sisters from my car whenever I saw them. I was busy working on a cook-book layout in the city and we didn’t speak again until the spring. The sunshine tempted me to unearth my bike and cycle to the park.
 
I braked to a stop at the end of Rose Street. The old dears were lugging shopping back home. “Hi, how are you two? I haven’t since you in ages. Would you like a hand with those?”
 
Enid prickled. “No, we’re well able to fend for ourselves. Aren’t we Olive?”
 
“Yes,” she mumbled but looked ready to collapse under the weight. Enid’s bags
looked lighter.
 
“We were wondering actually,” Enid paused. “Yes?”
“Will the hammering go on for much longer?”
 
What hammering? I’d put up the curtain rails ages ago. I had assembled some flat- pack furniture the weekend before, but it only took an hour.
 
“I have the house mostly sorted now. But I always try to avoid DIY late at night.” “It was 8p.m. last Sunday, dear. I couldn’t hear the television.”
I must have been bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood. Next thing you knew they’d have the residents’ association on my case or the noise pollution police dragging me off in chains to a dungeon.
 
“Right. I’ll bear that in mind.” I managed a tight smile. “I should hope so. Come along, Olive.”
Olive shot me a quick sympathetic glance and dragged her bags towards their house. I pitied the poor woman having to live with that grumpy old cow. I cycled around the block again until my blood pressure simmered down and I could talk myself out of an irrational urge to take up drumming.
 
When I spotted the leaflet in the local library I couldn’t resist stirring up Enid. The  local secondary school was hosting an exhibition in aid of renovating their gym-hall and they were seeking local artists to display or sell their work on the night. I stuck      it in an envelope addressed to Olive and snuck it into next-door’s  shiny  brass letterbox after seeing Enid depart for her bridge class.

I gave the school two of my prints to sell on the night as an excuse to attend and see Olive’s paintings. Sure enough her white bobbed hair drew my eye as soon as I entered. She appeared to be surrounded by several of the parents and the vice- principal who’d organised the night. No sign of Enid.
 
I strolled around, amazed as always by the amateur talent on display. Two of my favourites, wild splashy watercolours of harbour scenes, already sported the red sticker dots which indicted they’d been sold, but one by the same artist, whose signature I couldn’t decipher, remained for sale and I hadn’t gathered enough art   for my new house yet, so I headed straight to the cash desk.
 
“I’d like number 107 please. Who is the artist? I couldn’t read the name.”
 
“Olive Ratcliffe. She’s over there.” The woman gestured towards my neighbour. I’d expected her paintings to be twee cottage scenes and perhaps a flower still-life, not impassioned sketches of storms and struggling fishermen. I gave my credit card details, checked on my own prints and their reassuring red-dot status, and headed home without disturbing Olive. She caught my eye as I passed the group en route to the exit and I think she winked. She gave me a thumbs up anyhow. She must have worked out who had dropped in the anonymous flyer about the exhibition.
 
Later I was brewing a cup of hot chocolate during a TV ad-break when I noticed the shouting. I popped my head back into the sitting room to adjust the volume control but the ad was for a new car, complete with quiet classical music. I went back into the kitchen and could hear the voices again. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was fierce, venomous even. I switched off my milk on the hob and walked into the hall. There each word spoken resounded into my home. My hallway shared a
wall with the sister’s hallway and they must have been standing just inside their
neat front door.
 
“I was worried sick about you!” yelled Enid. “I left a note,” retorted Olive.
They were having a blazing row and I could hear the entire thing. Should I listen? I didn’t think Enid would hit Olive, but at the same time she had a nasty way with her and Olive looked cowed every time I met them. I sat on the bottom step of my stairs, glued to their argument.
 
“You and your silly dabblings,” sneered Enid.
 
Olive’s voice dropped but her determination carried it through the wall to my ears
nonetheless.
 
“My dabblings raised 800 quid tonight for the school.” “They sold? That rubbish? Some people have no taste.”
Steps ran upstairs and a door slammed. There would be no emergency calls tonight.
 
I turned back to the kitchen and then jumped when Olive’s voice screamed again. She was yelling to her sister in triumphant tones. “…and the gallery on the high street wants to stock more of them!”


I punched the air and went back to my telly. Good for you Olive.
 
Ten minutes later the sibling screaming restarted. Something about Enid being a saint to put up with her younger sister and then retaliation from Olive about Enid never letting her speak for herself. They probably hadn’t had a good row in decades in that silent house with its lace curtains and sparkling brass letterbox.
 
I didn’t want to listen anymore, and it was after 8p.m., shocking.
 
I turned up the volume on the television, pulled my toolbox out, and started hanging some photographs, with the biggest hammer I could find.

© Grace Tierney

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