‘Mathew – hello?’ Mr Peters answered his door, peering at me from inside his cardigan. ‘If this is about the bins son, it’s not really a good time-’
‘Quickly!’ I demanded. He relinquished the door handle and I was in his hall before his letterbox stopped rattling. ‘Hush.’ I put a commanding finger too my lips, peered outside and closed the door firmly behind me. I leant against its frosted glass panel and inhaled deeply.
Mr Peters blinked owlishly. ‘Are you alright?’ he asked. ‘Whatever’s the matter – it’s not the Mormons again is it?’ I heard concern in his voice and that he hadn’t put his teeth in.
‘Mr Peters,’ I fixed him with my gaze and said sternly. ‘I’ve seen the way you look at Sandra.’
‘What?’ Mr Peters face quivered, his jowls flushed crimson then went ashen. ‘Whatever do you mean Mathew?’
‘Quiet!’ I flared my nostrils, ‘that’s how it starts.’
Mr Peters steadied himself, his meat pie hand griping the flock wallpaper. ‘Mathew, I don’t know what you mean, really I don’t – but you can’t just come in here and -’ he squirmed under my gimlet stare, ‘you can’t possibly imagine that I’d-’
‘Oh I don’t.’ I said, flaring my nostrils. ‘That’s just it, Mr Peters I don’t imagine - I know.’ I hissed. Stepping forward I asked more calmly. ‘Would you like to sit down?’
‘Sit down - shall we?’ I took hold of his elbow and gestured toward his sitting room with my free hand.
‘Mathew, I really don’t think that I…’
‘Trust me Sebastian – may I call you Sebastian?’
‘My names’ Wilfred.’ He said.
‘There’s no time for details Sebastian – you need to hear this.’
‘Look, what ever this is there’s been a mistake -’
‘It’s for your own good man – believe me,’ I propelled him down the hall, pausing only to run a finger along the top of the sitting room door.
‘Bugs,’ I raised an eyebrow at him, ‘you never know.’
Mr Peter’s sitting room was the same shape as mine but had been spared the merciless spotlight of Sandra’s decorators eye. It had been allowed to moulder, eschewing zeitgeist for brown floral comfort.
‘I won’t beat about the bush,’ I said, my hand on the red brick mantelpiece. ‘I’m not here out of misplaced jealousy.’
‘Now look Mathew,’ Mr Peters sank into his vinyl armchair like a portion of trifle on too small a plate. ‘I … I know I came round about the recycling last week and accidentally – accidentally mind - caught Sandra in her bath robe but believe you me, no one regrets that more than I do and-’ I let out a slightly hysterical laugh and pressed my knuckle to my teeth. Mr Peters gawped; chewed over a selection of words and settled on, ‘look lad - if you and Sandra are having problems, it’s – it’s just one of them things. No need to … you know, get all unnecessary about it?’
‘It’s not me that has the problem,’ I said and turned on my heel to face him. ‘This is just the start, believe me, I’ve seen it before.’ I threw myself onto the sofa and sat, elbows on knees and head in hands, fingers matted into my hair. The orange glass mantle clock bravely attempted to fill the silence until I raised my head.
‘Good God son,’ he choked, ‘whatever this is please, I … I really don’t think I’m the person you should be talking to.’
‘Don’t you see Sebastian- ’
‘Exactly Sebastian – it’s her, she’s insatiable man, insatiable!’
‘Oh crumbs!’ Mr Peters swallowed. I hugged myself and rocked backwards and forwards.
‘You don’t understand – one man is never enough for her, never!’ I fought back a sob. ‘It’s alright when you’re young, you know, when you first meet her – it’s great even.’
‘You are young son …’ Mr Peters lent forward. ‘You’re not forty yet are you?’
‘You’re joking?’ I laughed and scratched my head furiously for an instant. ‘I’m twenty-three – twenty-three. That’s what she does to a man – she leaves a husk, a hollow, empty shell – I’ve seen it before,’ I darted toward him – he yelped as I clasped his hand. ‘You’re not the first,’ I whispered.
‘The first what?’
I nearly let my tears break through, then tore away and went back to the mantle. I cleared my throat and smoothed my hair, looking at my reflection in the sunray mirror on the wall.
‘You’re a man of the world, Mr Peters, may I speak plainly?’
‘I thought you were?’ he rasped.
‘Indeed,’ I turned to face him. ‘You must forgive my outburst. It can be hard sometimes.’
‘I’m sure it can,’ he nodded. His chins agreed with him.
‘It’s you I’m worried about. You’ve seen the robe, that’s how it starts - but there might still be a chance for you.’
‘A chance?’ He pushed himself up against his seat. ‘Mathew – I had no idea, what - why is she like this?’ I crouched beside him, not meeting his gaze.
‘Sometimes,’ I breathed.
‘I don’t think she’s quite human.’ I whispered.
‘Good grief – does the council know?’ He put his hand on my arm. ‘They know me, I’m always on at them about the rubbish and they’re really quiet helpful – should I give them a ring for you?’
I cut him off. ‘Do you remember Janet and Geoff?’
‘What - from on the end?’ His fleshy mouth quivered at me.
‘Yes, Janet and Geoff from on the end.’
‘Wasn’t it heart failure?’
‘That’s just what she wanted him to say.’ Mr Peters smothered a gasp.
‘No! Mildred and I were wondering - it was so unexpected.’
‘Yes – and Rodger Davies from number six.’
‘What about Rodger Davies from number six?’ I stood and faced his mirror again. I heard him wheeze up behind me. ‘Not him as well?’
‘I’m afraid so.’ I adjusted my tie. ‘He’ll tell you it was just a routine hip replacement, but ask yourself - would a man who drives to the corner shop wear out two hip joints before he’s sixty five?’ I allowed myself a knowing chuckle.
‘Goodness me.’ I could see Mr Peters shaking his head. ‘I always wondered why a single man needed three bottle bins.’
I turned to him and held out my hand.
‘I’m glad we’ve had this talk.’ I said, with my face full of Dunkirk spirit. ‘It helps me get through the dark times knowing … knowing I’ve saved someone.’
‘But am I safe - what should I do?’ He said clasping my hand and letting me pump his arm. I narrowed my eyes again and held his hand a moment longer.
‘Don’t let her in - don’t talk to her - don’t look her in the eye. All it takes is for one word, one smile and you’re lost.’
‘And warn the others. If she can’t have you then … just warn the others.’
‘What others?’ He looked up eagerly.
‘Everyone,’ I intoned, ‘everyone you know.’
‘All right, well - I will.’ Mr Peters nodded furiously.
‘I’ll leave you now,’ I said as if my warhorse waited. He walked me to the door, still shaking his head. At threshold I turned back.
‘She must never know we’ve spoken about this – never.’
‘Of course – shouldn’t you try and get some help my boy?’ I closed my eyes briefly as I shook my head.
‘You’ve helped me more than you can ever know, Mr Peters.’ I clapped him on the shoulder fondly.
‘You know me,’ he smiled, ‘ like to do me bit!’ He started to close the door but I caught hold of it.
‘One more thing.’
‘Yes?’ He flinched. I raised my eyebrow.
‘You’ve never heard of - the hive.’
‘What hive?’ He asked.
‘Exactly - good man.’
He gave me a supportive ‘thumbs up’ and I let him close the door at last. I saw his shadow linger in the hall; then he padded away. I stood for a moment and surveyed the close from his front porch. The day was bright, the afternoon ripe with the promise of a six o’clock Chardonnay and vengeance.
Try to break the routine,’ the marriage councillor had said from under her earnest hairstyle, ‘perhaps try bringing an element of fantasy into the bedroom – try and rediscover a sense of humour about sex; stop it being just a chore or a duty – that can really help couples re-discover the spark they feel is missing. ’
‘Humph,’ Sandra had snorted, ‘he doesn’t have a sense of humour about anything, least of all sex!’
I surveyed the houses opposite ours, and watched Rodger Davies pull up and get slowly out of his BMW. I breathed in deeply.
‘There we go Sandra,’ I said as Rodger inched painfully past his azaleas, ‘how d’you like them apples. We’ll see who’s got a sense of humour about sex now, won’t we?’