Dolly hadn’t exactly been glad to see them go but she wouldn’t miss the noise of thundering footsteps up and down the stairs outside her flat. When she had complained to the landlord she wasn’t expecting that they would be evicted but it couldn’t really be said that it was her fault. Not really. After all she had only complained when they had been particularly noisy. The worst had been the birthday party they’d had for their two-year old. How could a toddler have more friends than her and how could they make such a racket? Well, there was no need to worry about that now. They were gone and she could enjoy the quiet of her flat again.
She got out of bed and pulled back the curtains, the ones she had seen in a magazine and loved straight away. They had large, brightly coloured seed heads splashed over them and she had known the minute she’d seen them that they would make her life better. They hadn’t. The view from the window was still of the same street with its identical houses, spindly trees and concrete lamp posts. The buses still stopped outside her house and annoyed her with their spluttering idle. She looked down as the P16 pulled up and coughed out its black diesel germs. Mrs Robertson was trying to lift her walking frame onto the step of the bus but couldn’t heave it off the pavement. The driver seemed to say something and Mrs Robertson stepped back. Typical, thought Dolly, all he needs to do is step out and help her onto the bus. Is that too much to ask? Whatever happened to human decency? She waited for the bus to drive off but it didn’t. Instead, the driver stepped down and offered Mrs Robertson his arm with a flourish. She laughed and Dolly was fairly sure she saw a flirty tilt of the old woman’s head as she gazed up at her gallant saviour and was guided onto the bus. A moment later a hand reached out and effortlessly lifted the walking frame onto the bus. The doors closed with a hiss and the bus hummed on its way.
Dolly remembered with a pang that it was Friday. It used to be her day for visiting Mum at the nursing home and she still missed the weekly visits. She’d go after work at the end of each week to eat the same comforting supper; mashed potato so soft that it was almost liquid, sausages of pink, reconstituted meat that tasted of nothing but were smothered with the richest gravy you could imagine, and vegetables that were generally over cooked but melted into the gravy so well that they were almost a delicacy. She’d tell her Mum about her week while they watched whatever was on the TV and remembered programmes from the past. Gordon, her supervisor at work, told her she really oughtn’t to go, ‘You need to meet people,’ he would say. ‘Come to the pub with us. Can’t you see your Mum any other day than Friday for God’s sake?’ But Dolly had liked her weekly ritual. It reminded her of when she was a kid and Barney and Dad had been around. They’d always had sausage and mash on a Friday night and would play games until bedtime. It was their family time and she’d loved it but now all she had left were those memories. It had all fallen apart when Dad had died. Barney was living in Australia by then and said he couldn’t come back for the funeral. He’d made up some lame excuse about being too busy with his new baby. Wasn’t that what wives were for? She’d never forgiven him.
Dolly had worked at the local supermarket for the last six years. She could have gone for a managerial position, her supervisor had encouraged her to, but she didn’t want the responsibility. She just wanted to earn enough to be comfortable and to be left alone. She liked the walk to work and found some solace in the little stretch of municipal park that she crossed to get to the main road. There were some flower beds and enough trees for her to be aware of the passing seasons. She never loitered though. There was that homeless man on the fifth bench along who always wanted to chat so she had to lower her eyes and pick up her pace as she walked by.
Her days at work were all pretty much the same; she stacked shelves all morning and then was on the checkout all afternoon. She liked working the checkouts, she liked sitting down and listening to the customers sort out their lives: ‘Harry said they would bring a dessert but you know what that means. It’ll be some dense sponge with no flavour. Everyone likes a fruit salad. At least we’ll have a healthy option.’ Or, ‘No Mummy can’t get you a packet of sweets. Because your teeth will rot and then your head will fall off and then how will you watch telly?’ These little snippets of overheard conversation made her glad that she lived alone. She missed her Mum, of course, and having someone to chat the day over with but she could do without negotiating other people’s foibles and moods. She’d had enough of that with Roger.
Dolly sat at her Formica kitchen table and poured herself a cup of jasmine tea. She did the same thing every evening when she got back from work. A cup of black tea while she considered her evening ahead. Not that there was much to consider but she liked to look out of the kitchen window and watch the day turn to night as she thanked her lucky stars that she lived alone. Just as she raised the bone china cup to her mouth there was a knock at the door and she jumped. Tea splashed her cream blouse and she wiped it with the dishcloth as she wondered who it could be. Her flat was on the middle floor of a terraced house that had been converted in the nineties. The front door to the road was locked so it wasn’t as if a stranger could get in. Mrs Robertson in the ground floor flat couldn’t make the stairs and the top flat was now empty. She considered her options. Tea or door? Curiosity won.
‘Who is it?’ her voice sounded shrill in the cool of her hallway.
‘My name’s Trevor.’ It was a male voice.
Dolly reconsidered her tea option.
‘Hello?’ He knocked again. ‘Is anybody there?’
Dolly looked through the peephole and nearly let out a gasp as her eye came a door thickness away from his.
‘I can see you,’ he said. Was he laughing at her? ‘I’m moving in upstairs. Just wanted to introduce myself.’
Dolly said nothing and went back to her tea.
She hadn’t always been like this. When she was married to Roger she’d lived in a house with a front garden that she was immensely proud of. She spent most days pottering around, pruning and weeding and chatting to neighbours as they walked by. It was only after the divorce when she had been forced to move into this flat, that she’d lost her social confidence. She was desperate for a garden and when she had first arrived she had knocked downstairs and offered to help Mrs Robertson with the scruffy plot at the back of the house. It wasn’t that she wanted to own the garden but she missed being outside, talking to the plants and watching them grow. The garden was a fair size but completely overgrown with brambles and nettles. She was sure she could see an apple tree in the far corner but it was choked with wildness and she wanted to save it and make the garden beautiful again. But Mrs Robertson had been in bed that day and her daughter had answered the door and told Dolly there wasn’t any need to bother thank you very much. Ever since then she had pretty much kept herself to herself, apart from telling the landlord when the tenants were noisy. Talking of which, what was he doing up there? Her new neighbour walked heavily above her and seemed to be dragging a hefty weight across the floor. Whatever it was, she knew she wanted nothing to do with him.
It was one of those early spring days when the sun thinks it’s June and the wind stops to listen to the bird song. Dolly was in a good mood when she got home and flung open her kitchen window to look out across the gardens that backed onto Mrs Robertson’s messy patch. They were starting to sprout colour in neat rows planted around tidy lawns. Dolly pulled over a kitchen chair, sat on it and leaned onto the window sill. It was so peaceful here, that was one of the reasons she had chosen this area in the first place, just so she could sit and stare at the end of the day.
It was his laughter that she heard first. A loud chuckle that was bassy and smooth. It was coming from Mrs Robertson’s garden. She leant further out of the window and peered down.
The man from upstairs was talking to the back door. ‘I reckon we just clear up all of this and then see what’s underneath. It looks like there were flower beds either side and, I think, a pond at the back. Would be nice to keep that – brings in the birds and the frogs.’
There was a feeble murmur from inside the flat but Dolly couldn’t hear what was said. She was mortified when Trevor looked up and winked at her.
‘Hello’, he shouted up. ‘I’m your new neighbour. We nearly met yesterday.’
Dolly pulled her head back sharply into the kitchen and banged it on the window frame. She had to stifle a cry as she plumped herself on the chair. How? How had he done it? He’d been here for less than twenty-four hours and he was in the garden. She was furious. She was the one who should be in there, it was her right. She slammed the window shut and turned on the TV. She’d show him.
She didn’t, of course. What Dolly did do was to retreat further into herself. She stopped opening her kitchen window after work in case he was in the garden. She grew used to the routine of Trevor’s day and would listen to his footsteps over her bed in the morning. Bedroom to bathroom to kitchen. His front door would shut, he’d run down the stairs, skip past her door and then out into his day. Only then did she get up, only then did it feel like her home again.
Dolly was having a horrid day at work. Gordon had obviously had a row with his wife as he’d spent the whole shift following her around and criticising: ‘You know that the organic tomato soup goes above the non-organic. I don’t know what’s got into you.’ To be fair, he was right. Ever since she’d seen Trevor in Mrs Robertson’s garden she had been out of sorts. She didn’t know where she, Dolly, had gone. She used to be the fun one, the popular one, the caring one. These days she hid in her flat and, frankly, despised everyone. Take now, for instance. She would love to bash Gordon over the head with his tin of organic tomato soup with added basil. When had she become so angry? She straightened up from the soup shelves and looked Gordon straight in the eye.
‘You know what Gordon,’ she said calmly, ‘I think you’re right. I’m not feeling myself today. In fact, I think I’ll go straight home.’ And she did, leaving Gordon to sort out the organic soup all by himself.
It was raining when Dolly left work so she decided to get the bus. It was only a few stops but she wondered if perhaps her throat was a bit dry and that she might be coming down with something after all. There was a queue at the bus stop and she nearly walked on but heard the familiar diesel hum of the P16 pulling up. There was a delay as a young girl struggled with her pushchair and Dolly bit back impatient and unpleasant thoughts about teenage pregnancies. She realised that the driver was helping the girl with her pram and remembered the kindness offered to Mrs Robertson. Perhaps Orion Buses had a new staff training regime. The driver laughed at something the girl said. It was that same bassy chuckle that she had come to know too well. She wanted to hide but Trevor had seen her.
‘Well hello Ms Poplar,’ he smiled at her and she felt herself blushing. ‘I believe I pass right by your house, would you like a lift?’ He winked at her.
Dolly was mortified. How old did he think she was? ‘No thank you,’ she said, ‘I can walk.’ And off she went, towards the park, in the pouring rain.
She was soaked by the time she got home so ran a bath and lay in the bubbles thinking about her life and how she had got here. She could see the sky brightening through the wave of the frosted glass window and wished once more for a garden, a space where she could sit outside and read a book and maybe talk to people as they passed by. Perhaps it was time for her to move.
As she dressed herself, she heard Trevor get back from work, move around in his flat and then come down the stairs again. He seemed to stop outside her door and she held her breath waiting for him to knock. It was only when he walked by that she realised she’d wanted him to. She heard him call out to Mrs Robertson, she heard the murmuring in the flat downstairs and then Trevor’s chuckle as he worked in the garden.
Dolly craned her head so she could look out of the window without being seen. The garden had changed. The beds were stripped of brambles and the apple tree had blossomed and spread its branches over the newly cleared pond. Mrs Robertson was leaning on her walking frame with one hand while pointing to the place where she wanted a hydrangea planting with the other. At just that moment the sun came out and Trevor and Mrs Robertson looked up to comment. The old lady saw Dolly at the window and waved. Dolly wanted to respond, to open the window and call down to the others but, instead, she stepped back into the shadows of her kitchen, embarrassed at being caught spying. She sat at her table, rested her head in her hands and wondered what was wrong with her.
There was a knock at the door. Dolly froze, scared to move in case she made a noise.
‘Ms Poplar?’ It was him. ‘Ms Poplar, it’s Trevor.’
Dolly quietly pushed herself up and tiptoed towards the door.
‘I know that you are in there.’ His voice was kind and Dolly wanted to call out to him.
‘I’m sorry if I offended you before.’
Dolly remembered how Trevor had helped the girl with the pushchair and the woman with her bags and wondered how she could have been so ungracious to his kindness. ‘You didn’t.’ Her voice was quiet and dry as if it hadn’t been used for a while.
‘Good,’ said Trevor and she could hear the smile in his voice. ‘Mrs Robertson says come down for a cup of tea. She says you might like to help in the garden.’
Dolly opened the door a crack and looked at Trevor properly for the first time. His dark skin was smooth but with deep lines around his eyes and mouth and one of his front teeth had a chip out of it that made his smile quirky.
‘Hello,’ he held out his hand to her. ‘I’m Trevor. Nice to meet you.’
‘Dolly,’ she said and slowly reached out to him.