Our homework for writers’ group last week was to write a short story about neighbours from hell. The title of mine is: Smoking is bad for your health
‘Hi,’ I said shyly to the new neighbour.
‘Hi,’ she replied, and smiled.
This was the extent of our pleasantries for about a week, until somehow, we got chatting. I can’t remember what about now, but oh how I wish I had looked the other way; just got on with my life and never said anything to her. However, here were these new neighbours and they were about the same age as us and it’s so difficult making friends with other people our age; and they just seemed so nice! ….
Her name was Kerry and she worked in the small Currys in the middle of the High Street. His name was Holland – it might have been a nickname, or a surname, I’m not sure – and he worked just a few shops down from Kerry, selling vegetables. They were the sort of people who knew everybody. They were friendly, out-going and good looking; I suppose my husband, David and I were flattered that they actually seemed to genuinely want to be friends with us.
Everything was lovely at first. We got to know each other well and all had loads of things in common. They’d come over to ours to watch films and play x-box games, and we would go to their flat to make home-made pizzas and share a spliff. I hate smoking. At least if there’s a bit of marijuana in it, there’s sort-of a reason; but I just don’t see the point in regular smoking. It divides groups and it’s still always the cool people that go outside for a quick fag. Anyway, Kerry smoked, but Holland didn’t. Neither David nor I smoked, but David used to, so he decided to take it up again, just to keep Kerry company in the garden. And that’s when the trouble started really. David found himself listening to Kerry’s history. She told him tales of eating disorders and self harm, so David did the decent thing and was kind and offered helpful advice. Meanwhile, Holland and I would sit awkwardly watching the telly knowing full well our respective partners were having deep and meaningfuls outside.
One day I stood by the library, almost opposite Holland’s veg shop and watched him serve the customers in his usual over-friendly manner. I wondered if he realised his girlfriend was falling in love with my husband? Should I mention it to him? David and I had discussed it – he always told me everything they’d said while smoking outside. All the time he was telling me everything, I knew I didn’t have to worry.
David of course laughed it off when I first pointed out that she was flirting with him. “Don’t be silly,” he said, “it’s just what she’s like.” However, it wasn’t long before he couldn’t deny I was right. One weekend they brought over quite a lot of alcohol and Kerry tried to instigate some sort of wife-swapping type thing. It wasn’t successful. How do you end a friendship? Looking back it seems like that was the ideal time to simply sit down and tell them we didn’t think it would be a good idea if they came round any more. It wasn’t as easy as that at the time though. Kerry was relying on David more and more as her counselor, telling him of abuse and childhood horrors and he was the only one she could talk to about it. Etc. etc.
Then she and Holland started arguing. She would knock at the door about half an hour after David came home from work, crying and pouring her heart out. He felt obliged to be sympathetic, but I could tell he was secretly slightly enjoying the attention she gave him. I trusted David completely, but I kept a close eye on Kerry. The arguments she had with Holland continued and it wasn’t long before he moved out. We stayed sort-of friends, but didn’t see much of him after that.
It was when I was walking to the library one day that I was alerted to something being wrong. Kerry had a close group of friends in Currys, and when I walked by a couple of them, instead of a passing hello, I received the strangest of looks. This coincided with David going quiet. He was brooding on something and wouldn’t tell me what. I knew nothing could have happened between him and Kerry – I wasn’t stupid enough to give her the chance, but even so, there was something…some secret thing I didn’t know about. The strange looks I received seemed to spread through the High Street from Currys to other shopkeepers I knew quite well; and then to the people at my college course and even to my aerobics class. Eventually it was my friend Rachel who asked me about it and I found out what was going on.
“I suppose you’re going to be joining the divorcees club,’ she said, more as a statement than a question. “Well at least you haven’t got kids to worry about,” she continued, “I can give you lots of advice about the whole divorce procedure if you want it, but without some bastard trying to get custody just to spite you…” I had to wait for her to rant about her ex-husband for a while, until I got to the bottom of it. It turned out, everyone was under the impression that David was having an affair with Kerry. It was apparently a well known fact. She’d said to her colleagues David had told me all about it and wanted to leave me and go off with her. I was taking it badly and being an all-round nuisance.
“Those weren’t my words,’ Rachel put her hands up in defence. “Just what I heard.”
“But it’s not true!”
“What do you mean, “yeah” like that?”
“Well, they said, even though David had told you, you didn’t believe him.”
“But it really isn’t true!”
Rachel just gave me a hug. As she walked away she told me she’d text me her lawyer’s number.
Everywhere I went people were whispering about me. They would be in their little groups, glancing at me and gossiping. I felt so isolated, it was horrible. Nobody wanted to mention anything to me and when I brought the subject up I just came across as stupid. Even though I knew our marriage was fine, I always sounded like some desperate delusional housewife trying to convince herself, as well as everyone else that her husband loves her and he is NOT having an affair with the woman next-door. No-one believed me. The whole town was laughing at me and I didn’t know what to do. Kerry wasn’t going anywhere and even if I could persuade David to move, we couldn’t afford to. And still David hadn’t told me that he knew about her lies. The library became my favourite place. It was a calm and quiet place full of books full of interesting information. Obvious information such as the dangers of smoking, which I thought I could ironically show to David, until I read a little further. I hadn’t realised quite how poisonous nicotine actually is. I didn’t know, for example, that you could in fact, extract the nicotine from several cigarettes and use it as a poison. I hadn’t known that you could in fact, disguise quite a small amount of nicotine in food and it would be enough to kill someone. It is apparently not even routinely tested for after a sudden death. Interesting. I kept this information to myself for a few days and pondered over the finer details. Just like I pondered over the little secret that Kerry and my husband shared between them. Yes, it wasn’t much of a secret; somehow David had found out that she’d told a few people they were having an affair. One silly little lie that he had chosen not to tell me about. Was he ever going to tell me? Did he assume I wouldn’t find out and was hoping this whole situation was just going to blow over?
It didn’t. When I next saw Rachel she walked right up to me and hugged me again.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, squeezing me tight.
“About what?” I asked.
“I just heard,” she said.
Rachel held me at arms length and gave me a sympathetic quizzical look. “About David’s new job in Germany. And…and Kerry’s new job in Germany.”
“Germany?” I suddenly remembered one of Kerry’s sob stories about having to move away from all her friends there when she was about 6 or something. I sighed. “Is there any point?”
“Any point in what?”
“Trying to convince you it’s not true?” Rachel gave me another one of her looks. I never realised sympathy could be so condescending and supercilious at the same time. Kerry’s popularity in the town was obviously more influential than I could ever have imagined. I suppose I’m not surprised – she looks so sweet and innocent; who wouldn’t believe her? I started to wonder whether any of the awful things she’d told David in the garden were true. Had it been all made up from the beginning as a way to tie him to her? To trap him into being felt needed by her? Was it all a manipulative way from the start to steal my husband from me, or was I just being paranoid? I had never been so depressed in my life. I even started smoking – well, that’s what I told my sister when she happened to be in Sainsburys when I bought 40 Marlboroughs.
‘Don’t worry,” she said. “When David doesn’t elope to Germany with her, people will realise it was all nonsense.”
“Will they?” I said. “I’ve just come from the sports centre. I overheard people in the changing room saying I’ve been threatening to kill myself if he left me and now he’s too scared to follow his heart.”
My sister sighed. “The problem is, he works in London, he doesn’t socialise much round here and people don’t know him well enough. I know he’d never do anything like that to you.”
“Well, at least someone believes me,” I said. “I get the feeling, even if David yelled in a megaphone outside Currys that it’s all lies, people would say I’d made him do it or I’d slash my wrists or something.”
David and I did our best to withdraw ourselves from Kerry’s company. David even closed the curtains and didn’t answer when she rang the doorbell.
“Don’t you want to see her?” I asked.
“No, she’s getting a bit clingy don’t you think?”
“Just a bit!” I laughed. “There’s nothing else then? Nothing else she’s said or anything?” I gave him the opportunity to tell me on a plate, but he didn’t take it. I refused to argue with him about it as I knew that’s exactly what Kerry wanted. A little while later she rang the doorbell again and we continued to pretend we weren’t in. It felt awkward, but she had to take the hint.
The next Saturday we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary and I forgot about everything else and we had a fantastic day out. We ate in a posh restaurant in the west end and saw the matinee of Mama Mia and it was wonderful. When we came home, however, it was to find that the door was already unlocked.
“Hope you don’t mind,” said Kerry cheerily. “I found the key in the hanging basket. I cooked us dinner.” It was the best roast beef I’d ever tasted, but one of the strangest meal times I’d experienced. Kerry acted towards me like we were still good friends. Fine, I thought, I’ll do the same and I was as nice to her as I ever was in the hope that it would unnerve her. I think it did the trick.
“So, now that Holland isn’t around,”I said casually, “do you have your eye on anyone else?”
She held my gaze for some time and I’ll never forget that look.
“Well there is someone,” she said after a long pause, “but there are things in the way.”
“Maybe it’s best to leave it then.”
“The problem is, I’m used to getting what I want.”
“Yes,” I said. “I expect that could be a problem.” I changed the subject and started talking about college. The conversation felt very forced for the rest of the meal, and afterwards, when Kerry suggested she and David went outside for a cigarette, I said I’d join them. I took one drag, coughed and put it out. It was silent for a long time in the garden and it was freezing! I knew she was holding out for me to go inside, but I wasn’t going anywhere! I politely thanked her for the lovely dinner and eventually she went home. “That was awkward,” I said, “and she didn’t even eat her pudding.” I mumbled that I might take it over tomorrow.
On Monday evening, Kerry’s friend from work found her dead in her flat. No-one could work out how or why it happened and I read in the paper that she had died from unexpected heart failure.
It’s funny; when someone’s dead people can quickly forget about a person’s sweetness and charisma. Women in the town started talking about how she had stolen their partners from them, and men admitted they had been used by her. It seemed this was the way she’d spent her life entertaining herself. I heard there weren’t many people at her funeral.
David never did tell me that he knew what Kerry had been telling people. Working out-of-town, he probably never realised the impact it had had on me. Well, he can have his little secret. And I can have mine.