by Anika Carpenter
WHEN THE WALLS inside our apartment building vanished, Alan, from number fifteen, who’d complained about my music and the kind of people I brought home and the way I slammed my windows shut, felt compelled to build back his privacy. He built screens from two-by-four and plasterboard, and makeshift doors from blankets. Overnight, it all disappeared. As he hunted under his neighbours’ beds, behind their sofas and in their wardrobes for his missing materials, we heard him muttering to himself to stay positive, to be the better man.
Alan employed presumptuous thoughtfulness to ease his dislike of open-plan living. He handwrote mindfulness notes and slipped them between the empty wine bottles that Julia, from number thirteen, had arranged on her counter tops. Mark and Ruben, from number sixteen, woke from sleeping off their double shifts to find that Alan had cleared takeaway boxes from their kitchen table, and emptied their fetid bin. At number twelve Oona, found all her children’s toys tidied away. Me? I came home to discover my once stained soft furnishings washed and pressed, the cloying smell of Meadow Breeze in place of my ex’s cologne. I was kind about it. ‘Alan,’ I said, ‘I understand what you’re trying to do, but I wasn’t ready to move on.’ I understood what he was trying to do, and I knew the sour look on his face came from adding up what he’d spent on cleaning products, and from knowing he’d get no gratitude from me, ever. Any hint of thanks stayed lodged in my throat. I’d have choked on it before I offered him any encouragement.
Alan eased up on his carefully curated altruism for a bit after that, but weeks of Julia complaining at Ruben for snoring, Ruben yelling at Oona’s kids, Oona swearing at Julia for setting a bad example, and Oona’s kids whining about my jar of sweets, and how unfair it was that I put them where they can see them, drove Alan to appoint himself Head of Convivial Living and to establish “rules for considerate cohabitation.” In the absence of a suitable vertical surface to pin them to, he sacrificed the fabric of his lovingly ironed slacks to kneel and write them out on the floor. His curling script took well to the easy-clean carpet of what once was the communal corridor, the text elegant in its insistence that:
The consumption of fish be confined to dining out.
Foul language be written, not spoken.
Children be exercised properly outside, so they can play quietly indoors.
Anyone caught watching a neighbour bath be tasked with building a wall.
Night workers relocate to the top floor.
Sexual relations take place undercover with minimal noise.
There were no rules prohibiting Alan from broadcasting his motivational CDs or adopting a rescue bird—a half-feathered cockatoo that, anytime someone got upset by its habit of crapping on their furniture and clean clothes, would squawk, ‘Pressure makes diamonds. Enjoy your lemons. Shoot for the moon.’
‘I’d like to serve that dumb bird up in a stew,’ Julia said to me one night, stabbing a fork into pan-fried salmon. Over bottles of Merlot, we created a recipe for perroquet à la provençale, and when we saw Alan was asleep, stuck it to his fridge. He raged in the morning, no swearing per the rules, but plenty of slamming cupboard doors, pacing and screaming into freshly plumped cushions. His actions disturbed the architecture; the foundations shuddered, panes of glass shook, the floor vibrated so violently it felt like our own bones might crumble, like we all might lose our footing for good. But, through bloodshot eyes and lead-heavy headaches, Julia and I watched doors snuggled back into their lintels. We watched Thermafleece sidle up to wooden frames. We watched each other disappear from view as gypsum boards sprung up from the floor like a sped-up film of fungi growing, stretching up towards the ceiling, closing the gap with a sweet stucco kiss.
I called in sick, spent the day pressing my cheeks against cool smooth plaster, dancing to the tap, tapping of my neighbours rehanging pictures. For a couple of days, our lives were peaceful, exclusive. Then Julia came banging on my door. ‘Friggin’ Alan is stuck,’ she said. ‘His front door won’t budge. He’s been hammering on it for hours. It’s driving me nuts. He’s saying he’s run out of food, says he can’t breathe properly.’
We tried everything to get Alan’s door open; Ruben took a run at it, Oona forked out for a locksmith, Julia tried forcing it with a crowbar. After a battering ram failed to make a dent, Alan shouted at us to bring sheets. We stripped our beds; no one was giving up fresh laundry. We folded and fed our bedding through Alan’s letterbox. His parrot screeched non-stop the whole time, ‘The horse’s mouth gathers no moss. You can’t lead eggs to baskets.’ And we yelled back to, ‘stick a cuttle fish in it.’As soon as he had enough length, Alan clambered from his kitchen window and descended fifty-feet to freedom. He left his parrot tethered to its perch and our bed linen flicking against red brickwork like an angry cat’s tail.
The day it became obvious there was no point checking on the parrot any more, we started checking on each other. Julia would knock gently rather than ring my bell and I’d holler back, ‘I’m all good sweets.’ I’d stick messages through Oona’s door and the next day she’d reply with a Post-it note decorated with a smiley face. Others made plenty of noise when they passed by in the hallway, so we knew they were doing okay—their footsteps slowly wearing away Alan’s caveats for cooking and lovemaking.
Anika Carpenter lives and works in Brighton, UK. Her stories can be found in Ellipsis Zine, The Molotov Cocktail, Reflex Fiction and Janus Literary. Her work has been shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Prize and the Bridport Prize. You can find her via her website www.anikacarpenter.com or Twitter @stillsquirrel.