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Neighbourhood Watch 1998

Thursday, 2nd February 2012

Categories: Moving Stories

Author: Peter Barry

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition

Written by Paul Warnes

Gary moved in six months ago, January sixth to be precise. I remember the date because that’s when George passed away. Elaine was beside herself of course, she‘d always loved that dog, but I’d persuaded her to go to work as usual. Easier to have her out of the way when I dug a grave for the little fellow in the front garden.

   So I was out and about when Gary pitched up. No big lorry, just a white transit. Couple of trips and he was moved in. He was lugging a reclining, white leather chair down the garden path when I stepped over to introduce myself.

“ Hello, name’s Norman, Norman Dyson.”

“Gary,” he grunted.

His guttural response corresponded aptly with his rather simian appearance. Stolid of body, florid of complexion, he propped the chair on his balloon-like stomach. Likes a drink or two I thought to myself. Better watch this one.

“I’d give you a hand but doctor advised against any heavy lifting. One false move and the back’s had it apparently.”

“I’m alright on my own thank you.”

Not exactly forthcoming. Seemed to be struggling to maintain his grip on the furniture. Sweating profusely. Just confirmed my suspicion that he’d let himself go a bit, they don’t make ’em like they used to.

“Tricky things to drive,” I said, motioning towards the van with my trowel. Doing my bit to initiate some further dialogue.

“ Not really.”

   Well I gave up then but that frosty beginning was only the prelude. Relations worsened when I popped a note on his unwashed van. I wasn’t the first person to do so I noticed, some joker had already inscribed the legend, “ I wish my wife was as dirty as this”, across the rear doors of the offending vehicle. A universal sentiment I would imagine. My message was merely a polite reminder that parking across our shared verge would ruin the grass and that he had a perfectly good driveway at his disposal.

   He came round brandishing the note and implied in no uncertain terms that I was an interfering busybody who was too ill-mannered to speak to somebody directly if I had a problem with them. I declined the opportunity to prolong the dispute but I vowed from then on to sever all contact with the brute. I also forbade Elaine from speaking to him though I had to exaggerate the threat of physical violence in order to gain her grudging agreement.

   He started having daytime visitors. At first there was just the occasional individual but that trickle developed into one virtually every hour. Not any one particular type, they were old and young, smart and grubby, black and white. I began a log of the comings and goings with details of times and descriptions of visitors. There was a bit of a scene when Elaine got hold of one of my notebooks.

“What’s this?” she said, thumbing through the pages.

“Gary’s visitors.”

“The times?”

“When they arrived and left.”

“And why exactly are you recording this information Norman?”

“Evidence!”

“Evidence of what? That he has visitors?”

   I explained about the regularity of the calls and the variety of the people coming and going all day. I was actually longing to share my suspicions with somebody. I had developed a number of theories to explain these movements; he was a drug dealer, a black marketeer, a forger, a terrorist¼you name it, he was capable of it. Something in Elaine’s pursed lips forestalled me from elaborating.

“So I’m out working and you’ve got the leisure to spy on our neighbour all day have you! And I come home and you haven’t cleaned and the meal’s not ready. You’re not keeping your side of the bargain Norman Dyson.”

“But¼”

“And if you’ve got nothing better to do there’s the hall to be painted and¼”

I made no attempt to take Elaine into my confidence after that little scene. I didn’t stop watching but I did hide my growing collection of notebooks more carefully.

   One thing Gary’s visitors did have in common was that they all carried bulky packages- perhaps black bin bags or rucksacks or maybe an oversized briefcase. And they all left with them as well, it wasn’t as if they were making deliveries and leaving anything with him. And why did they stay for exactly an hour?

   I made the mistake of revealing my thoughts to Elaine again a couple of weeks later. She was off work with one of her not infrequent mystery ailments and was lying on the sofa with a damp cloth over her forehead. I was tiptoeing around doing a spot of token dusting when I noticed a young woman bustling up to Gary’s door. She was carrying a shopping bag emblazoned with the logo ‘ this is not a plastic bag.’ Well I could see that well enough. Anyway, I foolishly, thoughtlessly remarked,

“ Here comes another one. Look.”

Something about the urgency of my tone made the invalid rise. She shuffled over to the nets and squinted through them.

“God, you’re not still spying on him are you?”

“No! No! God no! Just wondering what she could be carrying in there.”

I’d done it now so in for a penny in for a pound.

“They all carry bags like that.”

“You are snooping again aren’t you?” she accused, turning to face me.

“No, but you’ve got to admit it’s pretty suspicious- regular callers, all with bags, we never see him. You tell me what’s going on!”

“Calm down Norman, you know you shouldn’t become agitated!”

I was tempted to point out that she was the one making me agitated, but I didn’t- it would only make me more agitated.

“Had you considered,” she went on, “ that maybe they’re carrying, I dunno, yoga mats, judo suits, gym clothes, crystal balls¼could be one of a thousand things. You‘re becoming obsessed man!”

I could have argued that Gary possessed neither the physique of an exercise guru nor the eccentric charisma of a new age seer but discretion won out. I could see that I was only likely to provoke another tirade if I didn’t change the subject sharpish.

Fortunately, Elaine’s rant precipitated a bout of coughing.

“Come on, get yourself into bed. Fancy a Bovril?”

“Thanks,” she spluttered and went upstairs.

   Was I being irrational? Obsessed? I’m not an unintelligent man- university educated ( red-brick admittedly), twenty-five years a teacher before ‘the trouble’, Times reader, quiz master, still plugged into the modern zeitgeist. No, Elaine was not going to throw me off course, make me doubt myself. I knew something wasn’t right with Gary but I had to do more than just watch.

   I needed to make contact with one of these visitors and, as luck would have it, my chance came in the guise of a character I knew only too well. I was pressure hosing the front path after my spat with Elaine when out of next door emerged the unmistakable figure of Judy Barker. Judy’s an ex-colleague, worked in the science department with me before she scooted off to greener pastures. Always got on well with her and persuaded her to join the quiz team, much to Elaine’s annoyance. You might say there was chemistry between us!

   A glance up at the closed curtains of Elaine’s bedroom confirmed that the coast was clear. Wary of shouting, I pursued Judy’s retreating form trailing the dribbling hose behind me.

“Judy!”

She continued walking with her rolling, pigeon-toed gait, a rucksack hoisted over wide shoulders. I noticed, now I was closer, that she had tinted her hair a purplish colour and was wearing large hooped earrings that bespoke a flamboyance she had kept well hidden in the past.

“Judy¼it’s Norman! How are you?”

She initially speeded up and then, obviously recognising my voice, stopped but didn’t turn round immediately. I touched her shoulder, gently pulled her back and gasped at the sight of her face. She was deathly white and pinpricks of dried blood spotted her forehead and cheeks. Her expression was unchanging and fixed into a rictus grin.

“What has he done to you?” I said.

“What are you doing here?” She slurred through immobile lips.

“I live next door.”

“You won’t tell anyone will you, I don’t want anybody to know”

“Of course I won’t. Know what Judy? What’s been going on in there? Are you afraid of something? Let me help you!”

There was a startled look in her eyes, a look of alarm and incomprehension. I realised I was gripping her by the elbows.

“I know something’s not right Judy,” I continued “What’s in your bag?”

“Norman, stop it! I must go,” she shouted, extricating herself from my grip and bustling off.

   I didn’t try to stop her. I knew all I needed to know. Now was the time to stop the watching and waiting, now was the time for action. Solo mission.

  It wasn’t long before the next visitor arrived. I waited five minutes and then crept around to the back of the house. Before I disclosed my suspicions to the authorities I needed some hard evidence. It was my duty to get it, whatever the risks- for Judy, for his other victims, for the good of society itself!

   I slipped quietly back inside and extricated Elaine’s digital camera from her bag. No idea how the things worked but they’re supposed to be idiot proof and there was only one button to press. With that stashed in my pocket I squeezed through the gap in the laurel hedge, which was badly in need of a trim I noted, that marked the boundary between our properties. Though not as lithe as I once was I navigated a route across the lawn by tacking between overgrown azaleas and was soon ensconced adjacent to Gary’s French windows.

    Net curtains afforded me protection but also obscured my view. However, the sliding door was slightly ajar and I could hear voices. Luckily the old lugholes are still in working order and I could distinguish two voices, one of them Gary’s and the other that of the female visitor.

“Are you sure you don’t want to change your mind?” Gary asked.

“Go ahead, do your worst,” she said tremulously.

   Was I man or mouse? I had to act. I’d like to say I burst in but my back and knees wouldn’t permit that degree of athleticism. No, I imperiously grasped the door, slid it back and swept the curtain aside. Gary, syringe in hand was poised over the woman. It was Laurence Olivier as the Nazi dentist in that Marathon Man film again! I was lost for words, the lady screamed but Gary stayed disconcertingly cool.

“ Mr Dyson, I was expecting you,” he grinned.

“How¼?”

He motioned to a small television in the corner of the room. The screen showed four black and white images of the outside of the house. Of course- but what did he have to protect so zealously? The woman’s pink holdall was on the floor beside her chair.

“I need to examine the contents of your bag miss.”

“What’s it to you?”

I said the first thing that popped into my head.

“Police business miss!”

“It’s just a change of clothes. Dr. Drake said I should leave with a new outfit to go with my new face.”

 I didn’t understand, new face? What the hell was going on in there?

 Gary, or Dr. Drake, moved towards me, shooting a colourless liquid from the syringe in my direction.

“A shot of botox for you too Dyson? Looks like you need it. I could arrange an appointment for your wife as well, the old prune could do with a lift.”

I stepped away from the oncoming madman and tripped backwards over the runner of the sliding door, twisting as I fell. The last thing I remember hearing was the brittle crack of my thigh bone breaking.

Written by Paul Warnes

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition