Quiet enjoyment

A new short story of London life by Philip Hensher. Illustration by Toby Morison
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The Independent Culture
I handle my own business. There is not much to handle. My father was a man who didn't get out much, whose whole life was bent on preserving what he could from the daily influx and outward spewing of money; who saved. At the end of his 73 years, there was a sum both good and pathetic; good for a man who started from nothing, as he was fond of saying, pathetic in the eyes of the world, most of which could not live their lives on such a sum. It was two hundred and thirty-four thousand, one hundred and sixty-two pounds, on which I now live. He was, in the eyes of many of those people who knew him, who were not many, a classic miser; his words for himself were, by contrast, frugal, sensible, modest.

Besides this sum of money, which provides me with an income which it is my entire occupation to juggle with, he left me a flat, in which I still live. It was a flat which, when he was alive, I did not know existed; it is a comfortable flat in a respectable block with a porter. I have discovered since his death that he bought it for cash in the last years of the war, when property cost nothing, due to a daily fear of the silent rockets from overhead. In the remaining years of his life, he rented it to increasingly profligate tenants, or so I suppose; I know nothing of such tenants, only of the sums of money they paid to squat on his floors, and the last of these tenants - a woman of terrible shrillness and horribly dyed, Jewish red hair - whom it was my unlovely task to evict from what, I imagine, she considered her home.

I do not remember my mother, or rather, I do remember her, since she died only five years before my father. But she was a woman worn down by the troubles, as she saw them, of her life, and she made only a dim impression of complaining and round-shouldered exhaustion on those people she met. Myself, her son, included.

I do not work, since the money I inherited from my frugal father was enough to keep me from it. I never expected to work, since no such expectation was transmitted to me, and I was, in fact, slightly surprised when the sale of my father's house and the savings he had accumulated from a lifetime of refusing my mother money for Jif amounted to no more than this. It keeps me going; it allows the weekly journey to the supermarket to restock the freezer and the fortnightly visit to a favourite cinema to see a film, but no more.

The flat I live in is in a part of London which few people have heard of. London is punctuated with the stations of the Underground train system, like a face with freckles. However, between the familiar names of the Underground stations, there are parts which seem to many like unreal places. No train stops at Hoxton, in Hornsey, Honor Oak Park or Roxeth. And yet people live in these places and, despite the lack of a train station, think of themselves as inhabitants of a real place. Haggerston is no less real than Kensington; it is only those who do not live there who have never heard of it. It is in such a part of London that my flat is, and I welcome the lack of interest of the outside world.

The block in which I live is in general exceedingly solidly built, but there is one wall which, for a reason I have never fully understood, transmits noise from the neighbouring flat. This neighbouring flat is not lived in by the people who own it, but by a succession of respectable and well- vetted tenants. Approximately six months ago, the daughter of the owner of the flat moved into it. I saw her moving into the flat, and even stopped in the hallway and exchanged a comment or two as she came up the stairs, labouring under the weight of a potted plant. It was then that I learnt that she was a lawyer and was about to begin work for a well-known firm of solicitors in the City.

I had no reason to suppose that she was other than a perfectly nice girl, and I smiled at her when I met her.

For a week or two - for 10 days, to be precise - she lived alone in the flat. Her life, I gathered, was simple. She rose around 7.30am; showered and left the flat between 8.10am and 8.15am. This allowed her enough time to reach the office in the city by a quarter to nine. From this, although I know little of the practices of working life except what I read in books, I understood that she was either exceptionally diligent in her working life, or exceptionally keen to make a good impression by arriving early at the office. In these 10 days she mostly arrived home at seven o'clock, and twice came back at approximately 11.30pm. I would not like to convey the impression that I was observing her. It was difficult not to be aware of her movements.

Ten days after she moved in, I met two boys on the stairs of the flat struggling with boxes. I spoke to them, and learnt that they were friends of the girl, and that they, too, were moving into the flat. A week after that, a third boy began to be seen coming in and out of the flat next door, with sufficient frequency to suggest to me that he, too, was living there, although I had not seen him moving in. I knew that the flat had only three bedrooms. I speculated with a certain idle interest about the sleeping arrangements.

The trouble began soon after that. One Saturday night, I was woken up by a noise as repetitive and irritating as a washing machine. It came from the flat next door. I went to the first of my spare bedrooms, to which belongs the wall which adjoins that flat, and discovered that the noise was not that of a washing machine, but of repetitive and irritating music. It was two o'clock in the morning. I shut the door of the spare bedroom, and of my bedroom, but did not succeed in going back to sleep.

The next morning, on my way out to buy the Sunday Times, the newspaper I have always preferred, I met another of my neighbours. I asked if she had suffered from the noise the previous night, but she said she had not. I realised immediately that this was due to the fact that it was my wall which both adjoined the flat next door to mine and transmitted sound. This surmise was confirmed when I spoke both to the people who lived directly above, and those who lived below the flat, and learnt that it had only been I who had heard the noise.

I waited until I heard the four young people go out, and I pushed a note, which I had written earlier, through their letter box. It was very civil, and simply said that I was sure that they were unaware that the walls in this block were comparatively thin, and that noise was easily transmitted. I was, therefore, sure that they would not wish to play their music after 10.30 at night. I did not sign the note, naturally.

I had been sure that such a note would have the desired effect, but I was mistaken. On the Tuesday night following the initial Saturday, I was again woken by music. This time it was played with a renewed force; there was no possibility of sleeping through this. It was, again, two o'clock in the morning. I thought of what action I could take. There was none. I would not expose myself to danger by asking the inhabitants of the flat to turn the music down; they were clearly indifferent to the opinions of their neighbours, and might even turn violent if roused. I sat in my kitchen and waited for it to end, I sat trembling with rage and fear until half-past four in the morning, when the music was finally turned off.

I was certain that, at least, this late-playing music would mean that they would all oversleep and be late for their jobs. In this, however, I was mistaken. The noise of the shower, the noise of breakfast being prepared began, as usual, at 7.30am. I could hear through the wall the sound of their voices. They seemed to me to be laughing, to be discussing the events of the night before. I could not hear the words, but I was sure that this was the case. At 8.30am, one by one, they began to go out. I was exhausted, but did not go to bed in the day.

From then, my life has been turned upside down. The music begins, in general, at 11.30pm, and continues until three or four in the morning. I am prevented from sleep, and sit in my kitchen waiting for silence. Other people might be able to sleep during the day; I cannot, and even when I try, I lie and contemplate my misery, the assaults made nightly on me. I cannot imagine their lives; I do not need to leave the flat, and am not permitted to sleep; they do need to leave the flat, and do not seem to want to sleep. There is something serious about the regularity of their violence against me. It is as if their whole existence is planned around their nightly four hours of murdering music; it is as if they only live next door in order to persecute me, as if they only go to work in order to torment me with waiting for their return.

It was six weeks into this miserable existence that I began to give way to thoughts of violence. In my weekly trips to the supermarket, I started to find instruments of terrible revenge in the trolley: huge knives, inflammable liquids, hosepipes. My thoughts began to turn endlessly to the acts I might carry out, and bring an end to my suffering. Fire and destruction occupied my waking and insomniac hours. I grew to fear the turn of my thoughts, even while I was indulging them.

They were, I am sure, perfectly aware of what I must have been thinking. Once, before I understood fully the sort of people I was dealing with, I telephoned the owner of the flat, the father of the girl, to inform him of the problem. I informed him that the legal position was that I was being prevented from the quiet enjoyment of my property. This is a legal phrase which I discovered by study. He told me bluntly that I was mistaken, that they all had jobs and were decent young people, and did not stay up listening to music until the small hours. I invited him to come and listen, but he grew abusive. They must have found the information that I was attempting to speak to the landlord the best confirmation of the success of their campaign.

I met them, sometimes, in the corridor, or on the stairs. They smiled at me with their fresh faces, disguising their amusement with what anyone who knew nothing of the situation would have taken for the pleasant greeting of neighbours. I looked back levelly; I controlled my face to a mask, not acknowledging them, not, I hope, giving way to the fear I felt, nor the detestation and violence. I passed on, going back to my flat as they went on to their jobs, letting them continue onto the street, and. when I was out of earshot, begin to discuss the success of their tactics.

I see them now from my window. I see the four of them passing out onto the street, often laughing, often seeming to have an ordinary conversation, on their way to their respective places of work. I watch them with my head full of the idea of petrol and inflammation, of the construction of elaborate traps which will fall on them and injure, of the possibilities of the mutilation of the flesh. I set none of it down, I merely contemplate it in my head, sometimes weeping a little at what I have come to, at the quiet enjoyment of the acts of violence. I think about these acts which I have not carried out, and the consequences of calm and quiet which would follow them. I contemplate the four small figures, five floors below my window, as they take their identical black bags and leave the block of flats in the nameless part of the city; as they move forward briskly into the city, there to prosecute their schemes, as, for one more day before things will be changed, they begin to work against me.

Philip Hensher's novel `Kitchen Venom' is published by Hamish Hamilton at pounds 16