by Bruce Holland Rogers
he Really Horrible Neighbors Upstairs had made life miserable for
Sanjay and Jamila. The mother in her cloud of tobacco, the father who
never answered a smile with a smile, the dirty children—they all
apparently wore boots and never took them off. Ever.
Clomp-clomp-clomp-clomp! The children getting up in the night for a
drink of water made it sound as if there were a pony upstairs. And
Sanjay and Jamila really needed their parking space. Jamila worked a
late shift, putting Sanjay through school. By the time she came home
the town was dark and silent. Their parking space was well lit and
close to the building, but the neighbors upstairs had always parked
in the reserved spot. Jamila would have to park in one of the
unmarked spaces in the dark corner of the lot. There was no reasoning
with the neighbors. Jamila spoke to them politely. Sanjay talked to
them a little less politely, but was nonetheless civil. Still, clomp
clomp clomp at all hours. Still, the neighbors' car in the reserved
space. Even when Sanjay took it up with the manager, who wrote a
letter, the neighbors still parked where they pleased. Worse, Sanjay
suspected them of throwing birdseed from their balcony into his
little flower garden. How else to explain the tiny yellow seeds, the
constantly sprouting weeds?
When Sanjay completed his degree, they resolved that in their next
apartment they would be on the uppermost floor. But they would not be
the Horrible Neighbors to someone else, just because they were on
top. They would take their shoes off inside the house, naturally, as
any civilized person does. But even in their stocking feet or
slippers, they would tread the wooden floors gently.
And so it was. In their new apartment, they lived on the third floor.
They did not play loud music. They did not even own a television.
One day, when Sanjay was at work there was a knock at the door.
Jamila answered to find an elderly woman in the hallway. Jamila had
seen her before in the foyer, where the mailboxes were. "My dear,"
said the woman, "I'm terribly sorry, but could you ask your husband
not to put his shoes on until he has come all the way down the
stairs? He makes such a racket in the morning."
"Oh, dear," said Jamila. "We had no idea. Of course I will speak to
him. I'm Jamila, by the way. Would you like to come in for tea?"
"You must speak up," said the woman, holding a hand to her ear.
"Would you like a cup of tea?"
"Tea?" said the old woman, making sure. "Thank you, yes. Thank you,
that's very kind."
The old woman's name was Varek. Jamila could not guess how old she
might be. She had the translucent skin of someone very old indeed,
and she asked Jamila to repeat herself so often that Jamila marveled
that Sanjay's footsteps could be disturbing her in the least.
Nevertheless, Jamila took up the matter with her husband that night.
"Of course, it's no trouble to carry my shoes down the stairs," he
said. "Which apartment does she live in?"
Jamila told him. He thought it was curious that his footsteps on the
stairs should bother her. She wasn't that close to the stairwell.
The next time Mrs. Varek complained, it was about the creaking floor.
"But," said Jamila, again pouring tea like a good neighbor, "there is
an entire floor between us. Are you sure it's not the neighbors
directly above you?"
"The people in that apartment are quiet as mice," said Mrs. Varek.
"I'm terribly sorry, but you know how these floors squeak. If you
could only be a little careful not to step too often in the places
that make noise."
Later, Sanjay said, "Well, it's a little strange. She's hard of
hearing, you say? Yet the squeaking floor two flights above troubles
her? Still, it's not much trouble to take care where we step."
For several weeks after that, Jamila did not happen to see Mrs. Varek
at the mailboxes. She was surprised, then, to answer her door and
find Mrs. Varek leaning against a walker. "I am not well," the old
woman said. When she took one hand from the walker, her whole arm
shook. "I'm terribly sorry. Terribly sorry. But I need my rest. The
sound of your voices keeps me up!"
She declined tea this time.
Home from work, Sanjay said, "How can our voices carry that far!"
"Shh," said Jamila. "Perhaps through the water pipes."
"It's absurd!" Sanjay said.
"Please, lower your voice," Jamila pleaded. "Let's not be like those
people who lived above us."
Softly, Sanjay said, "We are nothing like those people."
"You used to speak to me mostly in whispers," breathed Jamila.
"I remember," Sanjay whispered. He smiled.
They woke one night to the flashing lights of the ambulance. Mrs.
Varek had suffered a stroke. Even though they had seen the paramedics
take her away on a stretcher, Jamila and Sanjay still walked gingerly
and whispered for a time. Then, at the mailboxes, Jamila heard from
another neighbor that the old woman was dead.
"Well," said Sanjay in a voice that now seemed loud, "we were good
neighbors to the end."
"We were accommodating! You had her in for tea! Why are you wearing
such a face? You look guilty!"
"It's sad," she said. "We should have asked her to dinner," she said.
"And if we had, would she have lived forever?"
They did not speak of the old woman after that. But one night, very
deep in the night, when a ringing telephone is almost always a
mistake or terrible news, the telephone rang. Sanjay picked it up. He
cleared his throat. "Hello?" he said. "Hello?"
The phone line hissed and crackled.
"Hello," he said. Then, "Hello!"
Faintly, barely audible under the static of solar wind and the
crackle of stars came a voice he didn't recognize, saying his wife's name.
"It's a bad connection," he said handing the phone to her. He got back in bed.
"Yes?" Jamila said into the phone. "Hello? Yes? Hello? Are you there?"
"Your husband," said a familiar voice that Jamila could not place at
first. "I'm terribly sorry. Your husband is snoring."
Bruce Holland Rogers lives in London. His fourth collection of short
stories, The Keyhole Opera, won the World Fantasy Award for 2006. Additional stories can be found at www.shortshortshort.com.
His story, "Witness," appeared in Issue 12 of The Cafe Irreal.
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story copyright by author 2007 all rights reserved