Nearly midnight. From where she sat Shelly Cunningham could see the flickering shadows on the dividing wall. She tightened the belt of her dressing gown as if the action would protect her from evil. The pink robe was cosy, a little too warm for the time of year but she needed the comfort it afforded her.
The wall was new a couple of months ago; the neighbours had got rid of rickety fencing in favour of solid brick. Easier to climb than a wobbly wooden fence. The flat was situated on a main road, bedroom at the front, lounge at the rear with views side and back. The Star Inn was on the opposite side of the road. Even at this late hour the busker played his spoons outside the pub, a regular sight when special functions were held. Shelly used to sit on her bed and watch through the window but not so much these days. In any case, now that the nights were drawing in, the pub gardens would soon be empty and the customers either closeted inside or at home.
She hated this area. It was a main thoroughfare, noisy, untidy, and alive with traffic. Pizza boxes and cigarette packets were strewn ad infinitum and nobody gave a damn. Shelley and nearby residents were forever clearing their front gardens after the revellers had gone.
Shelley’s flat occupied the entire ground floor of a converted old house. She and Daniel had been lucky to get it at a time when housing was in short supply. Daniel lasted a year; he couldn’t stand the noisy neighbourhood. It was the best thing, really. They did nothing but argue and, apart from that, he didn’t get on well with the guy upstairs. Continually moaned about him. Shelley suspected he was jealous of Reg Carney’s laidback approach to life.
The upstairs flat had been empty since Reg died. He was killed by falling from some scaffolding, an unfortunate accident considering he was a scaffolder by trade and should have known better than to step into thin air. Still, accidents do happen. At least she had been able to take care of Lisa, his cat, and even she had now departed from this world.
For all his faults Reg had represented security, another soul in their rambling building. He didn’t intrude on Shelly and she kept her distance as much as she could. However, having a man nearby was a comfort when drunks were at large. When he found one totally inebriated man roaming in the yard he dealt with him pretty swiftly. The yard was shared, Reg had his own section of the garden and Shelley had hers. They had their own sheds and took turns mowing the grass. The arrangement was good. Nowadays Shelley wished she could go back to it; if only Reg hadn’t died.
Every night for a week she had seen the shadows dancing on the wall. Every night she willed herself not to panic, especially when she heard a disturbance at three o’clock in the morning. At first she thought there was an animal outside but the noises seemed more human: subdued breathless gasps as if someone was climbing the wall. Yet there was no-one there. She was braver in the beginning, now she was reluctant even to peer through the window.
The wall was about five feet high, easily seen from both main room and kitchen. That first night she was too scared to go to bed, imagining the worst, like someone breaking in while she lay sleeping? For hours she sat in the darkened room, breathing erratically, unwilling to switch on the light. She didn’t want to be seen ...watching.
Tonight, while taking a bath, she heard noises outside: footsteps, the rasping bolt on the side gate, someone entering the yard, the clang of metal against metal. Whoever it was had put something in the galvanised bin and let the lid crash down. Reg used to dispose of rubbish like that, raising the lid and letting it fall without any thought that she might be startled by the noise. It crossed her mind that the culprit could have been a boozed-up patron from the pub, in which case a request would have to be submitted to the landlord for additional security. Only padlocks and barbed wire would keep drunkards out.
Shelly was irate, wished she’d not chosen to take a bath at that time. In a bold moment she felt that nothing would have given her greater pleasure than to accost the person who was using her yard as a rubbish dump. Yes, it was easy to be heroic behind closed doors. She considered calling the police. The only thing that stopped her was the foolishness of her story. Could you come round, officer, I think there’s someone putting rubbish in my bin. She rang a couple of friends but neither of them answered the phone. Eventually, during a lucid flash, she reminded herself that the doors were all locked and bolted so nobody could get into the house.
For the first time in ages she wished Daniel was still around. For all his faults he would have protected her from intruders. He would have put those enormous fists to good use, and probably arrested for it. He wasn’t the gentlest of men when roused, as she knew to her cost. It had taken a long time for the mental bruises to fade.
Thinking a cup of tea would calm her she went into the kitchen to fill the kettle. Almost immediately fear overtook her. The sink was too near the back door ... if anyone was out there she would be seen. Oh how she wished she’d thought to put a curtain up at the window. Tomorrow, she would definitely buy some material. Dismissing the idea of tea, she grabbed a bottle of Evian from the fridge and went back to the lounge. Settled in the armchair, tugging the gown closer to her body, she wondered why she didn’t just go to bed. But she knew sleep would not be forthcoming while her nerves were raw. She would only toss and turn and worry herself silly.
A car’s headlights lit up part of the garden, moved slowly to reflect on the ceiling as the driver negotiated the crossing. Mesmerising! The mantel clock ticked in rhythm with her breathing, when it chimed the quarter hour she jumped. Rapid heartbeats heralding trepidation. Even as she tried to calm down there was a noise outside. A cough. A serious cry. Shelley froze, grabbed her mobile phone, remembered it was dead. If only she’d charged it when she had the chance. Still seated in the chair, she peered through the window. As if someone had flicked a switch the scene changed. The car light had gone, the flickering had stopped. Except for the distant mewing of a cat, it was deathly quiet.
An hour must have passed before Shelly plucked up the courage to look outside. There was a French window in the lounge that led straight onto the garden. If she went that way she would be able to peer round the end of the house and see if any damage had been caused by the intruder. She was pretty sure he’d gone. Maybe he’d fallen off the wall and killed himself.
Armed with an iron poker, Shelly opened the French door, lifted her robe and crept out, stepping over the single step onto paving slabs, alternate colours, a whim of her ex. A distant owl hooted. The garden looked eerie in the moonlight. A train rumbled through the valley and a sudden wind whistled through the trees; loose tentacles of Russian vine waved, one glanced against her neck. She spun round, felt the cold tremor run down her spine.
She tightened her grip on the poker. The feel of a weapon in her hand gave her the confidence to peer round the edge of the house. All quiet. Stealthily she eased her body round until she faced the brick wall, in time to see a cat leap up; black as a witch’s cat with gleaming yellow eyes. Without hesitation it disappeared to the other side.
Feeling foolish, Shelly shook her head to dismiss the weird thought.
Further up the yard, nestled between two small hydrangea bushes, was the refuse bin. Glimmers of moonlight played on the hard black plastic. Rooted to the spot she stared in disbelief, unable to believe her stupidity. How long ago was it that the council replaced the metal bin with plastic?
As if the devil was on her tail Shelly hurriedly retraced her steps, shot through the door, slammed it shut and shot the bolts. One slipper lost in her haste. She leaned against the door, beset by a series of involuntary shivers, relieved that she was safely inside. With her ice-cold hands on her cheeks, she forced herself to breathe normally. It had been Lisa, she was sure of it. She had looked after that cat long enough to know... it... was... her. Yet, how could it be when the cat had died in her arms.
With a sudden intake of breath, she remembered ... Lisa’s medallion, found in the soil when she wrenched out a bunch of creeping ivy.
... and the phone call, days after; the silence when she’d answered, reminiscent of a call when Reg died ... when his ex-wife was too choked to speak. For a few minutes all she’d heard was someone sobbing. But that recent call ... although the line was live she felt there was no-one there. Just static; indistinct and ghostly.
... and the scratching at the back door. Lisa wanting to come in. Only Lisa, like Reg, was dead. She had died in her arms. The vet said she would suffer terrible agony if he didn’t put her down. Shelley remembered thinking it was fortunate that Reg didn’t know what she had done. Reg would never have counselled the idea of killing his cat.
Slowly exhaling, she recalled the footsteps, one late evening, loud and purposeful on the floor above, around the time the landlord was paying spasmodic visits. She had gone to the front door to say hello, to check if he’d decided what to do with the property, found Reg’s door locked; the landlord ... gone? With all the strange noises she wasn’t sure he’d been there at all.
Gyrating her head to relieve the tension in her neck, she felt certain she was going mad. Normal people didn’t see ghosts or hear noises in the night; therefore she must be going off her rocker. Her sister always said there were more insane people outside the asylums than in. Perhaps she was one of them. Perhaps she was due for a visit from men in white coats?
The phone rang as that thought passed through her mind. She hesitated for a moment, then went to answer it. Nobody ever rang at this hour unless it was an emergency.
As she walked up the hall she heard music: soft, but getting louder. Pink Floyd. One of Reg’s old favourites, the one he played over and over until she felt she like screeching. Reaching the phone, she lifted the receiver, whispered into it. ‘Hello’.
The receiver crashed down so hard it almost fractured the cradle. She felt sick in the pit of her stomach. Her head pounded, her brain felt like cotton wool. She tried to scream but no sound came. Whoever it was sounded just like Reg. Groping her way down the hall, hand over hand, using the wall for support, she felt something warm brush against her leg.
Lisa moved her head against her shin, just like she did when she was alive.