The Room Next Door
The Room Next Door.
"An old man in a dry month ... waiting for rain"
- T. S. Eliot, "Gerontian".
The whispering in the next room grew. In his mind' s eye he saw the scene: the young couple, he a seaman who had come to the boarding house a week ago. And she ? He wasn't sure, but he had seen him with a fair haired girl who looked like a shop assistant. But somehow, the woman's voice did not quite fit into the picture ....
Then he heard the clinking of glasses and the pouring out of liquid; the female voice rose and the other one hissed urgently for it to be quiet. He, the stranger in the next room, smiled in the darkness, and coughed loudly to show them he had heard. Once he had been young himself and had known the pleasures of a room and a woman and a strange city.
He lay back and tried to sleep. Beyond the thin wall the whispering had stopped to be replaced by the squeaking of bed springs, heavy regular breathing, isolated sighs and finally a silence hanging heavily on the night air. The wall must be very thin, he thought, and the bed placed right up against it. And the night, it's very still with a haze hidden moon. Sounds carry on such a night ....
If he listened carefully he could hear the traffic down in the city, moving away in heavy lines from the theatres and the Saturday night dances. Horns, cars in low gear grinding up the hills, sometimes a high pitched laugh from the footpath below his window. Young noises: the clamour of youth on a Saturday night, enjoying itself, not caring, not worrying about Monday but living for the moment, futureless ... Turning over uneasily in the bed, he knew he would not sleep for some time. Too much of a past he had tried to leave behind was in the sounds ... Six months ago .... A secure job with a house in a country town he had spent most of his life in, a wife, two grown up sons and a daughter just leaving her teens. Peace with a capital P. And then out of the blue, the morning he would never forget. He had just come downstairs and was waiting for his breakfast - his wife was in the kitchen.page 8
'Joan, he called. There was no reply, so he had gone to the kitchen door. His wife was lying on the floor, her head near the stove. He couldn't remember what he had done; the first thing he recalled was the doctor's voice saying, 'Angina Pectoris, bound to happen. Too much work and too much worry.' For one bitter instant he had hated the complacent voice thinking, What the hell does he know about it ? The things which had divided them, the children growing up and the god which she believed in and he could not, were all finished with this. And now it seemed, these were the only things he had really known. He felt a growing uneasiness: he imagined he saw hostility and recrimination in the eyes of his children on the day of the funeral - a sullen resentment which the church service and the downcast eyes only glossed over.
For a month he stood it. Then something seemed to give way inside him and he found himself on a railway platform with an old suitcase, buying a one-way ticket to the first place that came into his mind. Then as he waited round for the train, someone came up to him: it was his daughter Susan.
"What are you doing here ?" she asked.
"I've got to go away for a while ... On business."
"But you never said anything", she said. "What will I tell the boys ?"
He looked at her for a moment without replying ... As if you didn't know, he thought.
"You know what to tell them", he said quietly, As they stood there the train arrived. He turned and made for an empty carriage leaving her standing by the ticket office. On the step he turned round. She was still there waiting.
"I'll write as soon as I can!" he shouted. She nodded slowly as if she only half understood...
Nearly six months ago ... It seemed a long time. He remembered arriving at the main terminal. The cheap lodging house grimy with soot from the nearby shunting yards, the everlasting movement of trains throughout the night and the job he got as a cleaner on the station. Then the change of address to the boarding house on the hill slopes, the beginning of a series of lonely meals: he who had always been surounded by people. But soon he began to know a certain peace from being independent of the crowds around him. He no longer felt the need to drop into a bar after work for a couple of page 9drinks and the casual conversation he knew he would find there. Most of his workmates left him alone after that. What had at first been almost unbearable, the aloneness, was now like a protecting wall in the shadow and shelter of which he lived his day to day existance. He had no thoughts of the future; smiling in the darkness he thought: at least I'm still with the young so far as that goes.
The bed in the next room creaked loudly (it must be against the wall then, he thought) and a voice murmured. Someone got out of the bed and padded bare-foot across the floor. A door slammed, echoing down the corridor; two chimes from a clock in the town rose up the hill slope. So late, he thought, and still I can't sleep. Then he heard the door of the next room open quietly and the same bare-footed tread as before pattered over to the wall. He saw in his mind, the woman soft and relaxed in half-sleep lifting heavy arms to the man, the two of them clasped and buried beneath the blankets, soft words of contentment and satiety muffled by the wall. Straining his ears, he listened but could hear nothing. There was only silence throughout the whole house. A cat miawed suddenly; there was a brief scuffle and a howl, then too the street was silent.
The past gathered itself piecemeal in his mind and he tried to connect the fragments, finding a reason for this, a justification for that, cohesion, pattern ... What's the use he thought, I'm an old man, my life's been long, there's been many things happen to me. What if they don't all fit in ? Who will care but me ? He felt more lonely than he had ever been before. It was if his wall had broken down and a crowd of people stood gaping at him, not knowing him and not wanting to know. An old man hiding behind a shattered wall. Eyes of his children blaming. The dead familiar face in the kitchen. Neighbours. To escape ... escape. He rolled over and buried his face in the pillow, his whole body shaking ....
When he awoke the room was full of a grey light. Looking at his watch he saw it was nearly six o'clock. The house was still asleep and the street empty; he lay back and stretched no longer tired. Slowly the thoughts and happenings of the night before filtered back into his memory. The couple in the next room. He heard no movements page 10until about half past six when someone got out of the bed, and judging by the sounds raised the window. Then a woman spoke in a clear voice: The stiffened, thinking, where have I heard that voice before ...? You're really nervy he said to himself, snap out of it. Laughing, he got out of bed and quickly dressed. But still, unaccountably, the woman's voice in the next room troubled him with its vague suggestion of someone he knew or had known once. He had a sudden desire to see what she was like, if it really was the shop girl he had seen the young man with.
Now he could hear definite sounds in the room. They must be getting dressed ... She will be leaving soon, before the land lady sees them. Putting his ear to the wall he tried to follow the actions in the room: the opening of a cupboard, squeaky bed springs, a suppressed laugh and at last, the clatter of high heels on the bare linoleum, walking towards the door. Quickly he got up and moved towards the passage, his toilet gear in his hand. The doors opened simultaneously and he came face to face with the girl. He fell back a step.
Before him stood a woman he had known not six months, but nearly twentyfive years before; who had stood in the draughty country church with him, who had borne him three children — and who had died. At first she stood there, her mouth hanging open with surprise. Behind her, the young man suddenly appeared in the open doorway, in his trousers and singlet.
"What's the matter ?" said the young man. "Who's he ?" She turned shrugging her shoulders. "I don't know. Never seen him before." Her eyes hardened and she began to feel a little foolish and annoyed at the thin middle-aged man staring at her in the middle of the corridor. He must be a bit simple, she thought, they ought to lock him up ...
"Excuse me!" she said loudly, "You're standing in the way." He moved aside slowly as if deliberating something; she brushed past and walked quickly to the stairs, not looking at either of them.
"What's the trouble, mate ?" asked the young man. The voice brought him to his senses, in fact the look of comical perplexity on the young man's face made him suddenly want to laugh, loudly and without reason. "The matter ? Nothing's the matter. For a minute I thought I ... knew her, that's all. She looks like my ... daughter, almost." He turned away and went back into his room.
Wonder what this is all about, thought the young man. Better tackle her tonight and find out if she really does know him. He did not think any more about it until, he heard in page 11the next room the sounds of drawers being jerked open, a cupboard door slammed and after a few minutes, he thought he heard a suitcase snap shut...