I blink my eyes to try and get a clearer picture of what I’m seeing. What looks like dozens of tiny pink mice are hanging lifeless on the washing line in our neighbour’s garden. It’s a dull, grey day, the mortar-coloured landscape exacerbated by the net curtain hanging between me and the bedroom window. I gently pull the lace back a smidge and peer through the gap to see if I can get a better look at the strange-looking phenomena next door.
The whirligig gently rotates in the wind, and after speculating whether the pink dangly objects could be baby-sized socks, it slowly dawns on me that what I’m looking at hanging blatantly on the line – like rows of Christmas decorations – is an array of condoms, each one pegged with equidistant precision to the line.
He won’t get away with it much longer, that’s for sure! Stuart Knights has been having an affair for around six months now. He and his wife, Pamela, moved in just under a year ago, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that he’s having an affair.
I first noticed something was wrong when he began popping home during the day. One afternoon, I was returning from my daily walk around 1 p.m., passing his house as he dashed out the front door – still tucking his shirt in his trousers – to rush back to work in his top-of-the-range Mercedes Estate. He bowed his head and avoided my cheerful ‘hello’, clearly riddled with guilt and not wanting to explain himself.
No doubt, he knows I disapprove, and why wouldn’t I? Sandra and I have strong Christian morals and are your regular, upstanding neighbours. We popped around to greet them when they first moved in, offering our support and a spare pint of milk should they ever need it. Sandra even offered to dog-sit for their golden retriever, Honey, which they soon took her up on.
It was apparent they were younger than us. I’m in my mid-50s and, fortuitously, semi-retired, having saved enough money for Sandra and me to retire with pensions and endowments securely in place. Sandra is forty-eight and insists on still working at the estate agents, where she is a full-time administrator. She loves her job, so it falls to me these days to run the home and keep it spic and span.
Stuart is fortyish, and it comes as no surprise that he plays away from home; he has that look about him. He’s a fitness enthusiast with a suave and somewhat sophisticated style, dressed in his Armani suits, Gucci brogues, and David Beckham-styled hair – slicked back to emphasise his chiselled features. Oh, but he loves himself! I’ve never cared for vanity, and his smarmy, confident manner brushed me up the wrong way the first time I met him. I immediately felt sorry for his more down-to-earth wife, Pamela, who dotes on him and overlooks his chauvinistic tendencies.
Their children had left home shortly before Pamela and Stuart moved to Bellevue Estate. The kids had probably trashed the family home, so they decided it was time to move upmarket to a luxurious new build with unstained carpets, freshly tiled bathrooms, and a kitchen with all the mod cons. But that’s the risky time for a marriage, isn’t it? When the children leave home, it can be a make-or-break situation for a couple, especially if their marriage wasn’t built on solid foundations, which theirs clearly wasn’t!
I do feel sorry for Pamela, though. She’s a lovely girl, and I hate seeing her made a fool of while her husband carries on with some strumpet. Still, I daresay she is about to find out the truth when she discovers the gift waiting for her on the washing line. Clearly, this strumpet wants her to find out!
Sandra lays the table while I serve up Shepherd’s pie and vegetables. I’m a meat and two veg kind of man, and tonight we have broccoli and runner beans steamed to al-dente perfection.
“Good day, Love?” I ask as we take our customary seats.
“Not bad, you?”
“Oh, you know. The usual. Did some housework, went for a walk to pick up some groceries and then spent a few hours organising my new stamps.”
“That’s nice, darling,” she says, a hesitant smile tugging at her lips.
Sandra’s never been much of a conversationalist. She’s a shy girl who likes to listen to others and dislikes being the centre of attention. Despite her lack of confidence, I love her, and our marriage is solid. We may not be the most adventurous of couples, but we both come from a Christian background, share the same values, and know how to work through any troubles in our marriage. Thankfully, they have been far and few between, largely because we never had children. It was more Sandra’s decision than mine. She’s never been the maternal type and thinks that we are helping the planet by not adding to the overpopulation it’s currently faced with. I’ll admit it took some adjusting, but now I’m thankful. It means I get Sandra all to myself and don’t have to fork out half my savings to set our kids up in life or bail them out of debt.
“Strange thing happened next door today,” I say.
“Nigel, I don’t want to know what our neighbours are up to! And you really shouldn’t keep prying; it’s not nice.”
Well, that’s told me!
Sandra’s snub takes me aback, but then she has been rather upset since Honey, their retriever, mysteriously died a few weeks ago after ingesting rat poison. It was a hideous and painful death that they never got to the bottom of. Sandra had grown rather fond of the dog, often popping in to feed it or take it on walks at weekends, and I know she misses him. She’s right about being nosey, though. I can’t help nosing around the neighbours when I’m here alone most days.
There’s a great view of all our neighbour’s gardens from upstairs, and I like to see how they are coming along. New builds come with a standard patch of pre-laid lawn and a small patio, nothing more. I pride myself on turning ours into a little oasis with flower beds laden with begonias and geraniums, fronted with neat rows of bedding plants. The mosaic-style path I’ve laid winds up to a small fishpond and a decked seating area covered with a pagoda that gives an oriental feel. Everything looks quite established despite only being here for two years, and it’s only natural to want to see what the neighbours are doing with their blank canvasses. Not much from what I’ve seen! Apart from number twelve (two doors up), who have had landscape gardeners in, everybody seems too busy to have bothered adding any personality to their gardens. Stuart and Pamela have added a few large pots along the fence, but that’s just lazy, in my opinion.
Sandra and I adhere to our usual evening routine. After dinner, I wash, and she dries up; she has a bath and freshens up. I watch Emmerdale. Then, she sits and reads – intermittently checking her phone – I watch Gardener’s World and The Great Bake Off. Then we come together to both watch the ten o’clock news with a cup of milky coffee and a coconut macaroon, which I baked earlier.
We both get ready for bed, chatting about what we’ll have for dinner tomorrow before having a brief hug and a goodnight kiss. Then, Sandra goes to the spare bedroom, which has recently become her habitual place to sleep. The problem is me. I snore. I’ve tried everything: mouth palettes, nose clips, special pillows and sprays, but to no avail. She’s a light sleeper, and I understand she needs a good night’s sleep, so accept our separate sleeping arrangements.
I press the touch lamp off beside my bed and just begin to settle down for the night when I hear Stuart and Pamela next door. Despite being detached by about four feet, the walls on these new-builds are paper-thin, and this isn’t the first occasion I’ve heard the two of them going at it hammer and tong. If I open the window, and their window is open, I can sometimes listen to their conversation, but I know full well what they are arguing about tonight. She’s found the empty condoms hanging on the line and is demanding to know what the hell he’s been up to. No doubt he’ll lie his way out of it, and she’ll have to find a way to forgive him and carry on.
What a swine!
It seems to me that some people are just never happy. The two of them have a beautiful home together, high-achieving children who have gone off to live their lives, and they should now be welcoming their later years to explore the world together again. But instead, he’s having some sort of mid-life crisis and risks their entire marriage and lives together for the sake of his wandering penis. I mean, I know a man has his needs, but it’s normal for the sex side of things to slow down in a marriage. Sandra and I only have sex once a week on a Saturday morning, and that’s enough for me; I’m not getting any younger and am more than a little self-conscious of my increasing pot belly and swollen man-boobs. I’ve lost most of my hair, too, which Sandra keeps nagging me to shave off, but I don’t think it would suit me with my balloon-sized head.
A series of loud thumps resonate from next door, and I imagine Pamela hurling objects around the room with Stuart ducking like some cartoon character. I wonder if Sandra can hear the commotion and creep towards her room to peer through the door. There’s a mound of duvet heaped in the centre of the bed with a small tuft of blond hair poking out the top. I hear her heavy breathing and know she’s asleep, so I return to bed. Stuart and Pamela finally quiet down, and I drift into deep sleep.
A few days later, I’m waving Sandra off to work from the front door and see Stuart and Pamela hugging on their front driveway. I can’t imagine how he wormed his way out of the condoms on the line, but it seems they have kissed and made up already. Pamela catches me out of the corner of her eye and pulls away from their kiss to smile and wave at me.
I wave back and notice Stuart’s half attempt at a wave before he gets into his polished Mercedes to head off to work.
It’s a surprisingly mild day for April, and the sun keeps trying to come out, so I put on my overalls and Crocs and head for the garden. I’m cleaning the intricate mouldings on our cast iron table set with a small, bristled brush when I hear Pamela crying on the other side of the fence. It seems to be her day off, and her happy face from earlier must have been a facade. Her stifled sobs give me goosebumps, and I’m unsure whether to peek over the fence to show my concern or not.
An acrid aroma tinges the sweet floral air, and when I see the puff of dark grey smoke from beyond the fence, I realise that Pamela must be smoking. I don’t want to be the one who discovers her secret habit and gives her reason to feel embarrassed or ashamed, so I abandon my project and go back indoors. She’s got enough to contend with.
I’m just placing all the national geographic magazines back on the bookshelves I’ve dusted when I hear a distant siren. It gets louder as I polish the French patio windows overlooking our back garden with Mr Sparkle cleaner. A bit of the cleaning liquid trickles onto a hangnail that’s been annoying me on my index finger. It’s red and swollen with a hard piece of sore skin, which I gently pick at, but it’s too sensitive to pull off.
“Nigel!” My heart pulses as I hear Pamela screaming my name, and I look out to see her face appear at the top of the fence. Something’s wrong!
I open the glass doors to be greeted by a panic-stricken Pamela, trying to clamber over the fence into our garden.
“Nigel, there’s a fire… it’s…” the fire engine drowns out her voice as it pulls up outside.
I grab Pamela by the shoulders and help her over the fence, taking her into my arms. She’s shaking uncontrollably, clearly in shock. I can only assume she’s left a cigarette alight in the house, and it has triggered a fire.
We both rush through my house and out the front door, where we are greeted by firefighters unloading their hoses and already halfway up the drive by the time we arrive. Flames are leaping inside the front door, and we both stand and watch in silence as they get the fire under control, then spray foam for a good five minutes or so.
“What’s happened?” I say, keeping my arm firmly around Pamela, who’s now sobbing hysterically.
She can’t reply, her sobs engulfing her in great waves.
“Call Stuart,” she says in between sobs and passes me her mobile phone.
Whilst waiting for him to answer, a firefighter signals to Pamela, who goes to talk to him. I tell Stuart there’s been a fire and he needs to come home immediately and then I join Pamela, handing her mobile back. I feel quite lightheaded with the shock of it all. This is not how I’d planned my day to go, and dramas tend to give me terrible migraines.
“Oh Nigel, they say…” she can’t finish her sentence.
“I was just explaining to her, Sir, that this seems to be a case of arson.”
I look up at the soot-coated face of the fireman in confusion.
“We found a glass bottle with the remnants of a Molotov cocktail by the front door.”
“What?” I say, my pulse racing.
“We found some pieces of a flat bottle posted through the letterbox. A piece of wick ignited the petrol, so someone deliberately posted it and ran away. We’ve contacted the police.”
I feel queasy suddenly. Somebody must have known Pamela took a day off today. The same somebody clearly wanted to harm her or, at the very least, scare her.
“Pamela, come back with me, and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea,” I say.
“The damage could have been far worse, Mrs… er…”
“Loveday,” I reply on behalf of Pamela.
“Loveday,” he continues. “We managed to contain the fire to the hallway and stairs – it was lucky you had shut most of the doors.”
“Thank you,” I say. “I think Mrs Loveday is in shock, so I’ll take her inside for a cup of tea.” I coax her to walk with me back to mine, keeping my arm around her shoulders whilst the firefighters hang around outside, waiting for Stuart.
I sit Pamela down on the barstool in our kitchen while I make her cup of tea. She looks awful! Her makeup has streaked, her eyes stare around the kitchen like a frightened deer, and her mouth is trembling. It’s cause for a strong builder’s tea with two sugars for the shock and one of my homemade macaroons.
“What kind of nutter would do this to me?” she says as she begins to calm down.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Do you or Stuart have any enemies?” I feign all ignorance to knowing anything of their personal situation.
She looks at me in astonishment, her mouth frozen as if she can’t say what she wants to say next, so I encourage her to drink her tea and talk after.
We are both sipping our hot tea when Stuart bursts through the door. “Oh my God, are you alright?” He picks her up from the barstool like some hero who’s come to her rescue, squeezing her tight and stroking her hair. I gaze in wonder, trying to compute what is happening. Could the same person who left the condoms on the line have posted a Molotov cocktail through their front door? What kind of a bunny boiler has he been meddling with? You’d have to be unhinged, totally wicked, to do such a thing.
“Thanks, Nigel, for your help. But I’ll take over from here.” Stuart says. “Pamela’s mother is on her way to pick her up once she’s been checked over, and then, once I’ve gauged how bad things are, I’ll pop around and update you.”
After seeing them both out through the front door, I watch from the lounge window as conversations take place between police and firefighters, followed by them entering the property with Stuart. I go to bite my nail, but the hangnail catches and makes me wince. Sandra has a manicure set somewhere, with a mini pair of nail pliers perfect for nipping off the hangnail. I rush towards the stairs, eager to return as quickly as possible to see what happens next.
I carefully open Sandra’s wardrobe in our bedroom, where she keeps her manicure set somewhere. I begin opening drawers to find it. There’s a drawer for underwear, one filled with folded T-shirts and another with socks and tights. I rummage through the next drawer that contains vanity products, but to no avail. There’s one more drawer to try at the bottom. I slide it open to discover yet more underwear – some lacey bodices that I have never seen before. Are these something she was planning to surprise me with? It certainly doesn’t seem her style; she has always been too conservative to wear anything like this.
I kneel to dig deeper, and after pulling out the lacy bodices, my heart stops. There, strewn at the bottom of the drawer, are packets and packets of empty condom boxes and empty wrappers. Moving the boxes to one side, I plunge my hand into the back of the drawer and pull out what looks like a thin, short piece of rope and then a tub of what looks like some paste. There’s a skull and crossbones stamped on the tub with a label which says…. RAT POISON!
The ominous chime of the front doorbell breaks the silence as it reverberates through the house. Its deafening toll sends a chill down my spine, and I’m frozen to the spot, my heart in my mouth.