The walls of my council flat are nearly as thin as the girl across the stairwell in 55b. She’s a fashion model and can’t be more than about nineteen. I think she’s from Serbia or Slovenia or somewhere else I don’t really know where to find on a map. I meet her when we are waiting for the lift but I never say more than a couple of words to her because she doesn’t really speak much English, and I don’t speak any Armani or Versace.
My daughter, Melanie, visits me at weekends. She is about twice model-girl’s age – and size – and I think she speaks a little Prada. However, she has never said more than a few words to my neighbour, either. Mel complains that ‘girl-with-panda-eyes’ never smiles, rarely nods a greeting if they happen to pass each other. Maybe she’s not got much to smile about.
Nevertheless, I like to think that, in one sense, me and model-girl are almost friends. You see, much earlier I meet her down by the mail boxes on the ground floor and I smile and say hello. She seems startled behind those enormous sunglasses which she wears summer and winter and she mumbles what I assume is a greeting in her own language. It sounds like “prepechty”.
Mel tries to look up the word for me on her smart-phone so we can find out what she is saying in which language but, apparently, it’s Bulgarian for teaspoons so I have probably misheard her. But I have learned her name: “A. Toth” is on the official, brown envelope she is holding. Of course, I don’t know what the ‘A’ stands for – I doubt her English will cope with that kind of question. But even though we don’t meet often or share a common language, I know a surprising amount about Ms Toth. For one thing, she marks her territory with scent, like an anxious whippet. Several times a day, I hear the metal grating sound when her door opens onto our narrow, shared balcony. Moments later, I smell the grassy smoke of her thick, lumpy hand-rolled ciggy – even now, in early November, with my windows taped-closed ’til the spring so as to keep a bit of heat in. I might as well smoke myself – the odour, which I have to admit I quite like, hangs around for hours.
But it is the sounds I hear through the wall which are the most revealing. Every movement, every creak. Or else she is speaking and laughing on the ’phone using her prepechty words. And when she’s off the ’phone, she turns up her weird music and the walls start to tremble. It is as if you are being buffeted by a convoy of Eddie Stobart lorries. Up here on the fifth! Late, late into the night. Every. Single. Night.
The first time it happens, right after she moves in, I want to duck under the table, the way we were taught to survive a nuclear attack. Eventually, I find out she’s dancing, prancing, stretching because one Sunday, Mel sees her from the balcony and tells me she’s doing exercises to music.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “Why does she need to do exercises? And at night? All bloody night. She needs to put on weight, not lose it.”
Mel, who has what they nowadays call a fuller figure, sniffs. “Catwalk models. All they ever do is prance.”
Actually, I think A. Toth does more than just the catwalk. I’m pretty sure it’s her I happen to see in a magazine advertisement for very expensive Swiss watches. She is sitting, legs coiled demurely under her with her back facing the camera, wearing nothing but a wristwatch, her head turned to one side and her lips slightly parted in a deliberately provocative way. My first reaction is to be outraged: how disgusting to use a sepia image of a naked, emaciated teenager in an advert. But naturally I look again and my breath catches: the hint of a breast, the curve of her hips and the downward glance of her eye are, of course, erotic.
Then the thought strikes me. The photo must have been altered in the sly way they do nowadays. It is impossible for those sensuous hips to belong to the tall, brittle, bony thing I see struggling up the stairs in improbable platform shoes and skinny jeans, carrying a lumpy supermarket shopping bag.
And that’s where there is another mystery. The bag reveals that she does buy food from the shop around the corner. But I never hear or smell any cooking. I will know if she ever turns on her electric cooker because the light on my ceiling will dim and my TV will go funny. Same thing if she even boils a kettle. They say they are rewiring the whole of Shepherds Court, but they’ve certainly not got to our floor yet. So, I know Ms. Toth doesn’t cook or even make coffee, which perhaps explains why she is too thin for a size 8. Can anyone live on salad alone?
Then today, unusually, she’s been out the whole time and comes in long after six: the party-wall shakes when she shuts her door too firmly. And almost immediately there is that grassy, citrus, smoke-smell. Extra strong now. But no music, no prancing, no prepechty ’phone call. Do I hear her choke, sob? Then it really starts, a dull, trembling, braying noise which becomes a deep moan so loud and terrible that I am ashamed to be hearing it and heartbroken for her pain. It is one-hundred-per-cent pure grief. I sit on my couch and pull up my knees to my chest, wrapping my arms around them. I really should put my hands over my ears, but I don’t. I listen to her wail and I, too, become miserable and alone. I just sit, frozen-still in my grey cardigan and corduroy slippers. It is now dark but I have no lights on and the heating’s gone off. But I don’t want to move.
Eventually, I hear a second voice, slightly deeper. She has company. A man? A sound I have not heard before. The sobbing stops. Instead, there’s lots of prepechty. Then some quieter music. Certainly not Eddie Stobart.
I am still very sad for her. But perhaps, just perhaps, tonight I will get some sleep without being disturbed by round-the-clock prancing.