It’s 6.03 am when I’m woken up by him next door, moaning for help through the wall in a deep disturbing slur: ‘Jes-sie, ca-ca-call am-bu-la-lance. Feel…wrong…’
The wall pounces with an earthquake-like thud. My framed Courtney Love picture flies onto the bare floorboards, shattering into glass knives. My heart drums in my ears like never before – bu-bum…bu-bum…bu-bu-bum – like someone else’s heartbeat through an old stethoscope. Oh my god. Did Frank just collapse against the wall? I hear relaxed vomiting that sounds almost satisfying; I think of cake mix oozing out of a pipe tube.
I lie still in bed. I recall walking through the narrow brick corridor that leads to our tenement flat balconies on the day that I moved here. His enormous body blocked my way; stained tracksuit trousers stretched with desperate elastic. His little rodent tongue suggestively licked his scabby upper lip. ‘Moving in, Blondie?’ he wheezed with a husky pervert’s voice. I ignored him and trotted quickly through to my ground floor flat.
The next day, our paths crossed there again as I tried to squeeze passed him with Mr Scruff’s cat carry-box. His exposed stomach layers pressed against my bare arm, but it was impossible to free myself without dropping Mr Scruff. The intimacy of the moment sickened me: warm, skin-to-skin contact that left a rash of man-sweat itching my forearm. I had to scrub to get rid of the smell: nasty, cheesy sweat, like a hairy armpit that hasn’t been washed in weeks.
I’m still in bed. Every muscle is tense. My ankles twitch involuntarily. I stare up at the tobacco-yellow ceiling, too frightened to glance at the pink wall on my right that he struggles behind. My daze prevents me from entering into a full-on panic; I spent the majority of the night in an artificial sleep brought on by pills, although I never managed to fully escape consciousness.
Two weeks into the move, the one-on-one sleaze stopped. Instead, he started screaming through the wall every time I made a sound. Almost every move I made induced banging and shouting from the other side of the wall. It started with him complaining about sounds that could be considered unreasonable if you’re a bit of a twat – for example, the sound of my vacuum cleaner, or the food blender whizzing when I made soup – but gradually, he began to rage at everything I did. My noise crimes include: opening and closing my front door (‘ARRRGGGHHH! I’ve been on NIGHT SHIFT!’), watching a Kate Nash video quietly through my tinny laptop speakers (‘I’d just got to SLEEP then! Put some FUCKING headphones in!’), my landline phone ringing (‘Hurry up and fucking answer it!’), and sneezing three times in a row (‘Get your cold sorted, you selfish COW!’).
Mr Scruff hid away the first few times that Frank threw his tantrums, his tangerine face sheepishly peeping out from underneath the coffee table. When silence returned, he’d hop onto my knee and purr with motorbike vibration, both of us feeling less anxious for simply having each other.
Once, in shock, I dropped a bowl of Ready Brek all over Mr Scruff’s back when Frank shouted through the wall. The poor babe skipped around in a shaky craze, ears flattened in disgust, giving him that Chinese bamboo hat look that cats get when they’re seriously upset. I called Mr Scruff back to me, ‘Psshh-wsshh-wsshh,’ and he came immediately trotting, ears upright again, rubbing his body porridge against my calf and ruining my pink tights. Total trust. Anyone who says that cats are not loving has simply never met Mr Scruff.
As you’ve gathered, the sound-travel in this building is insane. It’s as if we’re all sharing one large, fucked up house together, rather than occupying individual homes. Frank’s aggressive response to the situation has turned me into a nervous wreck, but the council don’t give a fuck. He’s a private tenant, they say. Nothing to do with them.
Frank sounds seriously unwell now, his slurred words are becoming indecipherable, ‘It’s…eeeeh, unt….ach’. Fuck. Should I call for help now? Shit. Shit. Shit!
What makes Frank really angry is noise related to Mr Scruff. He despises cats. It was particularly bad this summer when a feline war was raging between Mr Scruff and a gummy stray who I occasionally fed. I’d dread it when Mr Scruff refused to come home at night; he’d scream at 2am like a newborn baby having its arm twisted. Trying to tempt him inside with a saucer of Felix, I’d tip-toe around the shared garden in total darkness whispering, ‘Pssshhh-wssshhh-wssshhh, c’mon Scruffy, c’mon babes’. Frank would stick his fat head out of his front door and scream, ‘FUCKING SICK OF THIS JESSIE!’ or ‘I’m on DAY SHIFT tomorrow!’ He’d slam his front door like a grounded teenager, and lights would then appear from the other flat windows. Judging from the tuts and daggers I later received from my neighbours, it’s clear that they blamed me for all of the commotion, whilst letting Frank off with it completely.
Of course, Frank can be as loud as he likes. No problem there. I hear the constant conversations of morons though that wall; especially when that ratty duo visit, the ones who act like rapey chimps whenever they see me. Frank is one of those people who never talks, just shouts. Even when he’s sitting next to someone, he shouts. ‘HOW MUCH WAS THAT WATCH JIMMY?’ He really likes to boast about his Jack Daniels consumption; apparently, drinking until you can’t walk is such an achievement that it’s worth boasting about weekly. ‘I wouldn’t drink anything else boys, nothing else’ll do!’ ‘Those quarter bottles of JD should be downed in one go, lads, I’ve never drank them any other way!’ Go, Frank. Yeah, buy that expensive bourbon and then down it without even tasting it. Smart guy.
The wheezing and slurring from next door is slowing down now. My fringe is stuck to my forehead with sweat, my pyjama t-shirt is soaked, but my bare legs are freezing. I step out of bed like a baby gazelle – clumsy but graceful – and I press my ear against the pink wall where Courtney Love lived, avoiding her shattered glass. The phrase ‘deathly silence’ enters my brain and I panic for the first time, holding my hand over my mouth. I start to understand the gravity of what I’ve done. The probable consequences of this are making themselves known.
I pick up my mobile from the bedside table and I dial 999. I put on a concerned yet slightly annoyed voice: ‘Ambulance please, I think there’s something wrong with my neighbour.’ I’ve gone over this at least a hundred times, but I now wish I’d have tried it out aloud; it sounded so different in my head, more authentic.
As guilt begins to threaten me, I think about the night that I found Mr Scruff lying on his side in the garden, convulsing. His four legs galloped in the air as if he was trying to run away from himself. I whispered in his face as I tried to calm him, conscious even then to avoid the tantrums of him next door. Mr Scruff’s small pink mouth foamed with white bubbles, like a washing machine that’s been overloaded with powder. Bare foot and in my pyjamas, I squatted in a cold heap of dog shit left by the insane whippet who lives with the gay guys; it squished between my toes like a fistful of mince. I noticed Frank’s curtains twitching from his living room window; I saw the shade of his head staring at us in the dimmed light, but for once, he didn’t shout at me.
The perks of working as a kennel assistant at Meadowbank Veterinary Centre meant that I was able to be seen within a three-minute cab journey, despite the ridiculous hour. Michael, the freakishly tall emergency vet, confirmed in an effeminate whisper what I already knew: ‘I’m so sorry to say this my sweets, but he’s riddled with some kind of poison. Maybe anti-freeze, I’m not sure. I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do at this stage. I’m so sorry, sweetie pie’.
I touched Mr Scruff’s soft body with my nose; my blonde hair mingled with his ginger fluff. I told him that I loved him as I held him still for Michael. Crazed with poison, he growled like a wolf as he was given the injection. I felt the life disappear from his body; his small bones morphed from tight tension into a collapsed sag.
Michael left us alone for a few minutes ‘to say goodbye’; I knew the routine. My eyes darted frantically around the bright, sterile room for the euthanasia barbiturates that Michael had injected Mr Scruff with. I swiped the huge bottle – enough to kill a horse – and threw it into my X-Ray Spex tote bag. I’ve never felt such a dizzy mix of emotions in one moment: grief, shock and fear condensed into one horrible thrill. I almost passed out as I left Mr Scruff and Michael behind in the surgery, holding my tote bag tightly.
Frank’s famous NIGHT SHIFT coincided with the eve of Valentine’s Day. As a surprise, I popped a 20cl bottle of Jack Daniels on his doorstep. The plastic cap had been delicately punctured with a rusty old school compass: a microscopic hole perfect for a needle injection. Out sucked some JD, and in went the pentobarbitone (access to surgical gloves and needles are another perk of my minimum wage job; no fingerprints). The cap was slightly dinted, but the bottle’s sealing remained immaculate.
A computer-printed valentines card, type-signed from ‘an admirer’, featured a picture of a little ginger kitten sat on a valentines heart cushion. It was a risky gesture, but I wanted to do it for Mr Scruff.
So many things could have gone wrong. They haven’t.
I go back to bed. I pop my headphones on and scroll through my iPhone, finding the song I’d chosen in advance for this moment: Bikini Kill’s ‘Double Dare Ya’. My fear boils over into hatred again as that bastard next door begins his road to nowhere. The punk rock bass revives my body as I hear ambulance sirens approach behind dirty guitars. Time to make his stomach burn…double dare ya, girlfriend.
As the final drops of life drain away from him next door, I learn one final, lucky little nugget about Frank’s drinking habits. I was really worried that he’d been exaggerating about the way he drank, but it’s clear to me that no matter what foul tasting chemical is added to his precious Jack Daniels, he really does drink those quarter bottles down in one big swig.
Thanks, Frank. I was counting on that most of all.
Happy Valentines Day, cunt.
Ste McCabe has spent most of his adult life as a DIY pop-punk musician, touring European squats and political festivals. He runs an LGBT helpline in Scotland, where he lives with his husband and three needy pets. He recently started writing short stories and ‘Him Next Door’ is one of his first ever submissions. www.ste-mccabe.