Sandra must have left the door open behind her. Frank turned around and got a fright. Standing in the doorway staring at him with black eyes that sat on a wrinkled, gaunt face, patchy with white stubble, a black hat clasped to his chest, was a man with shoulder length black hair. He stood in the door way looking at Frank saying nothing, cocking his head from side to side as if listening. Frank didn’t know what to say. Was this the ‘crow man’ Sandra had talked about? There was something about his eyes, tranquil and yet full of dark, dead mystery that scared him.
‘Excuse me,’ Frank managed to force out. ‘Can I help you?’
But the man just smiled and dashed away, leaving an empty doorway that seemed to darken as if he had left his shadow behind. Frank’s feet didn’t want to move but his mind willed them along slowly. He crept to the doorway. The man had left a sickly scent, like a mixture of old-fashioned soap and soured milk. Frank peered cautiously down the corridor only to see Sandra hopping back out of her flat a few doors down wearing a small black dress, and struggling with some high heels.
‘Sorry, it took me so long. It’s been a while since I’ve worn this one. Not much occasion now you see. You know what I mean? How do I look?’
Frank clammed up his lips, forced a smile through them, and shrugged.
‘Great! Thanks!’ said Sandra.
This was maddening, thought Frank. Why couldn’t he just be a man about it, chuck her out. Put his foot down. There must be a small bit of him somewhere that was capable of action and cruelty; some part of him that still allowed him to dictate his own life, rather than being pushed around by circumstance. He searched and searched, but found nothing.
Sandra helped him put the aubergines in the oven, reminding him not to add salt, and overdid it with the pepper in compensation.
‘Pepper protects, mum used to say!’
‘Will you stop it!’ Frank felt something welling up inside him that compelled his voice and made it louder. ‘Just bloody stop it! I don’t give a shit what your mom used to say! This is a private meal, do you understand? Private. Me and my wife. I didn’t invite you. You’re not wanted. Now please,’ Frank closed his eyes, trying to find some happy composure. ‘Please, thank you for the help, but this is not the time. Please leave, before my wife comes.’
‘Wow! Sorry. You’ve got issues. You should get it checked out.’ said Sandra. ‘Maybe I should go.’ Sandra’s face became shocked and sad. She put the pepper mill on the side, and walked out of the kitchen muttering to herself.
Frank breathed a sigh of relief. That was all it took. A little anger to get things done, perhaps he should do it more often. But then he remembered that book Mary had written and he struggled to read, where she kept talking about how bad anger was; anger fuelled more anger, it was the sewage that clogged up the drains of our lives, Mary had said. Well it worked here, how about that Mary dear? Put that in your book and publish it. He had no complaints about anger at that moment. Not one, it empowered him; it had bought him the freedom from his strange, needy neighbour to give him space to worry about the new, creepy one while he tried to patch things up, and grovel with Mary.
After a few minutes, Frank heard a noise and rushed back into the living room. ‘Oh! Fuck! No, no, no, no! Sandra, you can’t lie down here! Sandra!’ But Sandra couldn’t hear him, she had fallen asleep, snoring with her mouth open on the sofa, one leg up, and one leg trailing on the carpet. After Frank failed to wake her, he draped a blanket over her, perched on the armrest, and hated himself again.
An extract from my current work in progress, entitled Flat 21.