The wretched sound began on a Monday morning just before dawn. I'd been sitting up in bed, trying to decide whether I’d done the right thing by unplugging the phone the night before. It began as a scraping noise, as though someone were slowly making their way through the plaster on the other side of the wall. Every now and then I heard faint but distinctive taps. A couple of times it was more like a loud thud, which I could only imagine was an attempt by the person doing the scraping to remove a build-up of dust and debris. It wasn’t until I’d shuffled over to the window to take in the moodiness of the orange sky that the noise struck me as troubling. It suddenly came to me that the flat on the other side of my wall was supposed to be empty, the last family having moved out months before.
I immediately turned my thoughts to something rational. Maybe there were workers in there, getting an early start. Maybe the flat had been let without me knowing, and I’d missed the noise of the new tenants moving in. I checked the clock on top of the fridge to make sure it was indeed well before six o’clock on a Monday morning. I was now absolutely ready to deal with this terrible intrusion.
I took a glass and put it up against the wall, just above the photo of my dear Caroline, whose death nine years before still seemed like just a month earlier. I listened for voices, but there were none. Just that persistent noise. I took a deep breath and then rapped my knuckles on the spot where I thought the sound was coming from. I knocked lightly at first and then more confidently, but the scratching continued, accompanied by the little taps. I knocked on the wall again, louder this time, almost to the point where my knuckles hurt. It seemed absolutely incredible that the scratching continued and my knocking was being ignored.
It didn’t take long for me to start feeling upset and out of breath, so much so that I had to use my inhaler and take a couple of tablets. If I hadn’t been wearing my dressing gown, and forgotten where I’d put my slippers, then I may have just found the nerve to walk out the front door and down the hall. I may very well have picked up the courage to ring the bell on the door of the flat next door.
Of course, I didn’t. I sat there on a stool in the kitchen, resenting the fact that someone could be so inconsiderate. I also hated myself for the state of things, the realisation that I had no strength to even consider making a cup of tea. I stared at the phone again. I’d decided the night before that I no longer wanted Sally, my daughter, to get through to me. It was no longer possible to go on feeling like a burden. She had her own problems, her own life. Everyone did. I could no longer stand the fuss everyone made. I’d decided that if she came ringing the buzzer downstairs I would just refuse to answer, just like I’d been refusing visits from one or two others who felt the need to check in on me. How long had it been since my last visit? Five weeks? Six? I simply told people that I preferred to be left alone.
After two hours, with no let up in the scraping and the tapping, I finally decided to plug the phone back into the socket and fish around amongst my papers for Mrs Lubic’s number.
‘Mrs Lubic? Can you hear me?’
‘Hello, Mister Raymond, Sir.’
‘I keep telling you there’s no need for the sir.’
‘Sorry, Mister Raymond. Are you going for nice walk today? Very good morning with birds ... and good shiny sun.’
Her way of speaking almost brought a smile to my face – she’d moved to London from the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s but still had a sweet, child-like grasp of English. Then I remembered why I was calling.
‘There’s a terrible noise. Someone is scraping and knocking on the wall next door. Would you mind coming up here to tell them to stop?’
‘There is nobody, Mister Raymond. There is no one on your floor now. Just you Mister Raymond.’
I sat down on the chair by the phone, my hand shaking as I struggled to keep the receiver up to my ear.
‘Well, that’s very strange indeed,’ I said, as politely as I could, ‘because someone is in there next door doing some kind of work, scraping into the wall, as though they’re slowly making their way into my apartment.’
‘Ha! I don’t think so Mister Raymond. I have all the keys. There is no one. You are safe.’
‘Then who is making that noise, Mrs Lubic?’
I stood up, careful not to raise my voice.
‘I will come and see Mister Raymond. Don’t panic.’
I unplugged the phone, annoyed that I’d had to use it. Ten minutes later I heard her walking past my door, causing the floorboards in the hallway to moan, and then I could hear her struggling with her keys as she opened the neighbouring flat. After just a few minutes she walked back down towards my front door.
‘There is no one, Mister Raymond, Sir.’ She spoke right up close to my door, but I didn’t want to open it and let her see me.
‘Are you sure,’ I said. While I didn’t want to be rude, I couldn’t believe that she’d found nothing. ‘Someone must be there ... if there is all that scraping and thumping.’
‘It is very very empty,’ she said. ‘Maybe it’s a thing in the wall. Mouses maybe?’
‘We say mice ... mice, Mrs Lubic!’ It seemed strange to be yelling through the door, yet I really didn’t feel that I could open it. ‘No mouse would make that kind of tapping sound ... that kind of thud that I’m hearing.’
‘Is it in the roof, Mister Raymond?’
‘I may be old, Mrs Jubic, but I think I can tell the difference between a sound in the roof and a sound that’s coming through the wall.’
‘It also may be the water pipes are chattering,’ she said, obviously moving off now towards the stairs.
I figured she must have picked up that expression from the friendly plumber everyone used to talk about, the Irishman who brought her daffodils and invited her to go on holiday with him. I smiled as I repeated what she said, trying to imitate her accent. ‘Yes, the water pipes are chattering.’
‘I will bring your new groceries on Wednesday, Mister Raymond, Sir. This week you leave me just 20 pounds under the door.’
I stayed where I was for a good few minutes after she left, holding on to the latch, wanting to cry out for her to come back. Had she really checked properly, through all the rooms? I couldn’t think of doing anything else but stay there attached to the door. My feet hurt on the rough lino and I could feel the cold air in the hallway coming in under the door.
No sooner had I made my way back to the bedroom, pulling the curtains together to block out the brightness of the morning, than the scraping started up again, this time louder and faster. I took a small ruler that I’d been using for my latest calculations and hit it hard against the wall, again and again. I think I must have done this for a good 10 minutes, but still the noise continued, and I had visions then of someone standing there covered in dust, hell-bent on getting through into my flat. I think at some point I might have taken a small pot and banged that against the wall as well, hitting and hitting to try to stop the scraping. But, incredibly, nothing seemed to work.
I remember lying on the bed, my inhaler close to my mouth, perspiration turning my pillow into a small marsh. Whenever I felt I had the strength I hit the ruler and the pot up against the wall, expecting any minute to see someone tumbling through on top of me. I must have slept for long periods, waking up every now and then to hear that the noise had become unbearably louder, and then to hear it later as something quite distant.
The next thing I remember was a mighty cloud of white dust in front of me, as if someone had thrown a big basin of flour into the air. It settled over my body and through my hair, turning to mush on my lips. The low rumble of the falling plaster seemed to go on and on, echoing around me.
I stretched out my arms and moved towards what I could just make out to be a huge collapsed hole in my bedroom wall. A sudden sense of fear made me stop though; I could do nothing but wait to see who might emerge through the veil of dust. I was overwhelmed with emotion, petrified that I was about to be attacked by the person who’d been scraping and bashing his way through my wall. My dressing gown had swung open and I could feel pieces of sharp debris beneath my feet. I closed my eyes when I heard the sound of someone scrambling over the plaster and bricks.
I instantly recognised her voice. Sally’s head came through the opening in the wall, her hand up over her mouth, apparently in shock, her eyes darting all over the place.
‘I can’t believe you’ve done something like this!’ I said, taking a few steps forward, relieved deep down to see it was a familiar face. ‘Have you completely lost your mind, my child? What would push you to do something like this?’
Sally didn’t say anything. She just came forward and put her arms around me. I could hear her sobbing, which I thought was pretty weird for a woman who’d just smashed her way into her father’s flat. As I tried to get my dressing gown closed and shake the dust from my hair, I caught sight of Mrs Lubic’s round, concerned face through the hole.
Later that night, after being checked over by a doctor whom Sally had called, and then sleeping for a good number of hours, I was given some astonishing information. I’d insisted that Sally tell me what was troubling her and what all this craziness had been about, even though she said I needed to get some more rest.
She told me, in a low, steady voice, that Mrs Lubic hadn’t received my call earlier that morning as I’d explained. My phone call, which had prompted Mrs Lubic to inspect the flat next door, had actually been three days earlier. She’d left the groceries on the landing on the Wednesday, as arranged, but hadn’t been up since. It was now Thursday. A whole three days had passed since that call? I’d been putting up with that terrible scraping and bashing for all that time? I didn’t have any answer for Sally.
When she eventually took me over to the opening in the wall, giving me a seat to sit down on, I hoped that she would finally tell me why she’d found it necessary to go to such drastic measures to see her father. I told her that I understood how she might’ve been upset at not being able to ring me or see me for all those weeks.
‘Dad, take a look over here.’
She crouched down beside the hole, pointing to various bits of debris.
‘Have you not noticed which way the plaster and bricks have fallen?' she asked. 'Have you not noticed the direction of this broken plaster up here around the edge of the hole? It’s pointing outwards, not inwards. The hole was started in here and you’ve busted your way through to the next flat. It was Mrs Lubic who rang me to say you were breaking your way through the wall. You’ve taken three days, apparently using that hammer and spanner over there. I don’t know how you’ve done it, but it’s bloody amazing, considering the condition you’re in.’
It seemed absolutely silly what she was saying. I wanted to laugh. I wanted her to tell me that the whole thing was some mighty joke. Mrs Lubic came in at that point, through the front door, followed by her two teenage sons. The Irish plumber appeared next and then Sally’s husband and children made an entrance. I felt even more embarrassed when two of my old chums from The Mathematicians’ Guild appeared as well, all trying very politely to ignore the gaping hole in my bedroom wall. The boys quickly got to work sweeping up the dust and plaster and stacking the bricks into a pile.
I waited until the shock from what Sally had told me eased before I spoke. I got up and stood by the hole, and then looked everyone in the eye, one after the other, causing some of them to look down into their laps.
‘I don’t think it was me,’ I said. ‘I don’t know who it was and I can’t explain the fact there was only me in here, but I can only say to you here and now that it wasn’t me. How could I do this? Why would I do this?’
Then, before anyone had a chance to respond, my eyes settled on the portrait of Caroline, and it almost seemed as though a slight twitch was visible in her upper lip, as if she were about to break out in a smile. I went and sat down again in the chair, remembering how Caroline used to enjoy it so much when she invited people around for afternoon tea.
‘Actually, I think I need to put the kettle on,’ I said. ‘What would Caroline say if she saw me now, eh? This awful state I’m in, all cooped up here, blocking all of you out. I think she would’ve been quite shocked. I think she would’ve been capable of actually resorting to something quite brazen.’
I didn’t stop to see the looks on their faces; I had tea and biscuits in the kitchen to sort out.
© Copyright, 2007. Seamus Kearney.