Elizabeth was completing Tuesday morning’s usual task of dusting her bookshelves whilst keeping an eye on the goings-on in the road, when she heard a loud commotion on the streets below. Car tyres screeching, a horn blaring, then some shouting. Carefully peering through the net curtains, she identified the cause of the commotion immediately: a small, fairly beaten-up red car had pulled up on the pavement underneath their apartments and a young woman, dressed casually in jeans and a big green jumper, lifted her hands in apology to the angry drivers screeching past her, before carefully pulling several suitcases out of the boot. Elizabeth watched as the younger woman transferred the luggage to the apartment block’s entrance area, returned to the car and made several return trips, balancing an assortment of heavy boxes, black bin liners and small items of furniture. ‘Someone should be helping her’, Elizabeth thought. ‘I wonder whether that’s my new neighbour?’
The flat opposite hers was owned by an absent landlord and Elizabeth was used to sharing the top floor of her apartment block with a succession of neighbours who never stayed long. There had been the college lecturer who kept all of the apartment lights on full most nights while he graded papers and wrote chapters for his new book. He had moved on to a tenured position on the USA, Elizabeth thought. Then there had been a marketing executive for a telecoms company. She, too, had only stayed for a year or two before leaving to set up a division in South America for the company she worked for. Next had been a nurse at the city hospital who worked shifts. He had been a thoughtful, hardworking man who tried to close his entrance door very quietly whenever he returned from a nightshift, so as not to wake Elizabeth. He could not possibly know that she heard every noise, however muffled, as she tossed and turned in bed most nights. Sleep eluded her and she found that the longer she lived her quiet life in this apartment in a busy part of town, the faster she completed her household tasks and read her library books and the longer the days stretched.
From the living room, Elizabeth now moved on to the kitchen and then tackled the few items that remained in her ironing basket. A sudden ring of her doorbell interrupted Elizabeth’s thoughts. This was unusual – her children lived abroad and her niece, who visited every other day, would always telephone in advance and let herself in with her own key. Elizabeth shuffled to the door. Too late she remembered that she had not put the chain on before opening it. In any case her unexpected visitor looked fairly unthreatening: a young woman, dressed casually in jeans and a big green jumper.
‘Good morning! I’m sorry to disturb you but I just wanted to introduce myself briefly. I’m Emily, your new neighbour from the flat across.’
‘Good morning’, Elizabeth intoned cautiously, wondering how the conversation was going to go. It had never been long before the previous neighbours had wanted something. Eggs, flour, a screwdriver, for Elizabeth to water the plants or accept some parcel deliveries or something similar. ‘How is the move going?’ she finally said.
‘Oh, brilliantly’, Emily said enthusiastically. ‘I’ve got all the furniture in place and have almost unpacked. Such a spacious, sunny flat! Fantastic for people like me who work from home!’
Elizabeth was not sure whether she liked the sound of this news. She had rather got used to the peace and quiet during the day, with her various neighbours out at work, when she enjoyed having the top floor of the apartment block to herself.
‘What do you do for a living?’ she forced herself to ask.
If Emily had picked up on Elizabeth’s clipped tones, she did not let on. ‘I’m a book illustrator’, she said proudly. ‘Children’s books mainly but also cookery books and some other non-fiction. I find I need complete peace and quiet when I’m working on a project – so I apologise in advance if you don’t see me for days! Look, here’s what I have prepared for my next pitch. Country life scenes with a twenty-first century twist!’ She showed Elizabeth a succession of images on her mobile phone. The images were very small, of course, but Elizabeth thought to herself that in their unusual colour combination and techniques, the artwork was very good.
For the rest of the week, Emily was true to her word. Elizabeth could hear her Emily moving about her flat occasionally, opening the windows and closing cupboard doors, and every now and then, a telephone rang softly somewhere within the flat. Emily carried Elizabeth’s shopping bag upstairs after they had met by chance outside the supermarket. She returned the bins to the bin store on refuse collection day and brought up a parcel for Elizabeth that the courier had tossed into the entrance hall. All things considered, Elizabeth thought, Emily was a very thoughtful neighbour indeed. One day, though, there was a knock on Elizabeth’s that she instantly recognised as a sound made by Emily. What would it be this time? A request for lightbulbs, flour, sellotape?
‘I hope you don’t think I’m cheeky, but I wondered whether I could possibly borrow your iron for a minute? Mine won’t heat up. It must have got damaged in the move. I’ve got a meeting with a publisher tomorrow about a contract for a new country homes book series. Taylor & Newman are the best in their field, so I want to make a good impression…’
No doubt this was the first of many requests to come, Elizabeth thought. But despite this realisation, she could not help but warm to this polite, enthusiastic young lady. Nevertheless, she was surprised to hear herself say: ‘Why not bring the items you need ironing round here and I’ll do them while we have a cup of tea? It’ll be faster than lugging the ironing board to your flat and back.’
‘Are you sure?’ a big smile crept across Emily’s face and she looked beautiful, Elizabeth thought. Full of energy and enthusiasm. Rather like Elizabeth’s own niece when she had been the same age and had started her career as an architect. Full of enthusiasm and energy. If only Elizabeth could capture some of this spirit.
Emily’s meeting outfit consisted of a blue trouser suit and a pale pink blouse. By the time she had retrieved the items from her flat, Elizabeth had set up the ironing board, made a pot of tea and divided the solitary slice of lemon drizzle cake she had bought for herself into two smaller portions.
‘Thank you so much!’ Emily said, happily, as she devoured the last morsel of cake, finished her tea and put her plate carefully on the draining board. ‘Would you like me to help with the washing up?’
‘No need’, said Elizabeth and found herself smiling. ‘I have all afternoon to see to the washing up. Meanwhile, you’d better get ready for your interview. There are only a few parking spaces at Taylor & Newman – make sure you secure one of them!’
‘I’ll try’, said Emily, happily skipping off to her own flat clutching her interview suit. ‘Thank you so, so very much! I’ll let you know how it goes!’
Elizabeth waited until she heard the soft click of Emily’s front door closing before she picked up the phone.
‘Taylor & Newman, good morning, how may I help you?’
‘Hello, Auntie Liz. Is everything okay?’
‘Yes, all fine, thank you. The arthritis is not playing me up today, thank goodness. But if it’s okay with you, I won’t sit in on the interviews this afternoon. Something else has come up.’
‘No problem, Auntie Liz. There are only three candidates and we’ll make sure we pick the right one. Even if we have to cope without the company owner’s input!’
Both women laughed warmly. ‘Look out for a candidate called Emily’, Elizabeth suggested. ‘I met her by chance recently and she showed me some of her portfolio. Country life scenes with a twist. Bold colours, unusual perspectives, just what we said we would be looking for. She has my vote already!’
‘Thanks, Auntie Liz, I’ll remember that!’
Elizabeth put down the phone thoughtfully. A helping hand, nothing more, she thought. Emily need never know about it, but as the owner of the publishing company, a helping hand to someone starting out in the business was definitely something Elizabeth could offer!
(c) Christina Westwood