The opening of ‘Cold Sweat’, the third story in Cherries
Tanya stood with her back to the wall between the two large windows of her basement flat. She pressed the palms of her hands against the wall behind her and a cold sweat was on her brow. There were real figures moving about in the area beyond the windows and there could be no doubt about it this time. She could hear them.
A week ago she had been woken suddenly by indistinct muttering and the shadows of running human forms had been thrown onto the curtains of her bedroom. Judging by their size, they were very close. The whispering voices faded and the shapes did not return. Her heart still knocking hard, she lay rigid for a long time. She was in the hazy margin between sleep and waking and presently she began to wonder if she had not dreamt it all, or even, whether or not she was still dreaming.
In the coming days and nights, she began to try to rationalise it. Tanya lived in the basement of a Georgian terraced house in Canticle Street in Islington, North London. The Regent’s Canal was not far away, and in the other direction, Islington Green with its shops. The tube station and the Angel pub were within easy walking distance. Now, in 1963, the gentrification of the area was just beginning but had not yet touched Tanya’s immediate neighbourhood. No-one could afford to occupy the once elegant town houses and they had been split into flats for art students, young couples, office girls and the elderly.
Number 17 had three storeys – four, if you included Tanya’s basement. Five steps led up to the front door but a separate, very steep flight of steps led down to the area, a kind of courtyard below pavement level, and the door to Tanya’s flat. The house was much larger than the street view might suggest and even the basement rooms were very high. This would have been ‘below stairs’ in the hey-day of the building, housing kitchen and servant’s hall, pantry, wine cellar, still room, scullery and domestic offices. Tanya occupied only a part of this floor, on the street side, the rest having been bricked up as unsuitable for conversion.
It was very deep, so much so that if you stood at the windows you were faced with a wall of stained yellow brick, broken only by the stone steps from the front door. Above you were the railings, black spikes mounted by fleurs-de-lys, and behind them you could sometimes see passers-by greatly foreshortened. Opposite was a convent, now mostly demolished. Along its whitewashed walls was an avenue of lime trees. In summer they threw a shifting dappled light into her flat which did a little to alleviate its current embarrassing dinginess.
On the night following her initial scare, Tanya went to bed reluctantly. She had left it as late as she could and lay down at first with her back to the windows. Before long an itchy shoulder forced her to turn over and immediately she saw shapes moving over the thin curtains. This time she did not panic because the shapes were not human.
It was a windy night. She could hear it. Shadows were moving up the curtains, wavering for a while and sinking again. It was mesmerising. She lay for a while watching and than she cursed herself for a fool. A little further up Canticle Street was a street lamp which shone through her curtains and made her bedroom lighter than she would have liked. With recent expenses she couldn’t yet afford lining. What was happening now was simply a case of branches passing over the light and throwing moving shadows. Relief flowed through her like a draught of wine.
So convinced was she of her hypothesis, that she slipped out of bed, put on her dressing gown and went into her living room which also had two large windows. The curtains were open and she could see clearly that the lime trees outside the convent opposite were thrashing about in the high wind. The street light was alternately obscured and revealed as branches rose and fell in front of it. That would explain the amplified shapes moving on the bedroom curtains.
She thought too, that if someone were passing at street level, shadows with human form might well fall on her curtains, dramatically enlarged. What had spooked her the previous night could easily be explained by these factors. She felt a little foolish as she went back to bed and lay for a while watching the shifting patterns on the curtains: darkness would rise up from below the shapes of the windows and fill the frames, plunging the room in gloom, and then it would subside, leaving the curtains illuminated from the other side. Or the shadows would fall, filling the folds in the curtains, and then spring back. The effect was quite hypnotic and she soon fell asleep, much relieved.
Over the next few nights, the wind dropped and there was no repeat of the phenomenon.
But tonight there could be no doubt at all. There really were figures outside. The shadows were sharp and life size. They were not at street level but down in the area. She could hear muted talk and laughter, the voices of young males, teenage lads. What were they doing?
Suddenly, there was a loud bang on the window. One of them must have hit the glass with the flat of his hand. Trembling all over, Tanya only just managed not to scream. She stood, pressing her whole body against the wall, the sweat chilly on her temples, as if her being silent would make it all stop happening, make it all go away.
At length she heard the boys go up the stone steps to street level still talking, though she could not make out the words. There could be no doubt now that they had not just been playing in the area. The slap on the window made it clear that they were out to intimidate her and the fact that it seemed so random and motiveless made it all the more frightening.
Not until a sickly dawn began to seep through the curtains into the room, giving the furniture edges and dimension, and restoring colour to the backs of books in the bookcase and the handprinted jug on top, did she creep back into bed and curl up into a foetal position. Sleep, however, eluded her.
There was no-one she could appeal to for help. Old Betty in the flat above was out of the question. She spent most of her time in bed, reading. Since Betty had never learnt to read silently, Tanya could often hear her through the ceiling, declaiming some Mills and Boon bodice-ripper at the top of her voice but very slowly. Because of her inactivity, she had become grossly fat. On the rare occasions when she did go out, she had trouble negotiating the five steps down from the front door because of her dropsical ankles. On these occasions, she would wear a revolting fur coat and a blue hat with broken feathers in it.
Betty was in her early eighties and not all there. When Tanya took her the sliced white bread, tinned tomato soup and chocolate biscuits that she had asked for and seemed to live on, Betty would tell her about the phone calls she had been receiving from ‘that woman at number 13’ who had been threatening to break into her flat and ‘cut off her head’. Tanya had wanted to yelp with laughter at this but Betty’s fear was so genuine she had to try to contain herself and reassure Betty that it was really unlikely. But Betty would not be reassured. She had rung the police several times and Tanya thought they must be getting fed up with her.
Above Betty lived a man whom Tanya thought looked like Dr Crippen. She had seen a documentary on TV and the round spectacles and thick moustache were identical. He went off to work early and came back late so he was rarely seen. When Tanya did bump into him he seemed very courteous, softly spoken and far too gentle to be a murderer. Betty said he was a shipping clerk from Bootle and declared that he was probably a ‘homo sapiens’ because of his solitary ways. Whether or not he was of an alternative sexuality was of no interest to Tanya. All the same, she did not feel she could ask him to protect her from her persecutors. He was little more than a stranger.
In the top flat lived a single mother, Laura, and her two teenage boys. It would be hard to put an age to her. Tanya suspected she might be in her mid-thirties though hardship had aged her and she could easily have passed for forty. She was friendly enough and she and Tanya would often chat by the front door. Betty said she was ‘no better than she should be’ and that there was a constant stream of men going up to her flat ‘at all hours’ but Tanya had seen no evidence of this and was inclined to rate it as one of Betty’s fantasies. The children were noisy and rude, Betty said, but again Tanya put this down to the older woman’s jaundiced view of the world.
Tanya could hardly appeal to Laura. She lived too far up the house to be in a position to witness anything and besides she had enough on her plate trying to bring up a young family.
Nor could Tanya go to the police. She wasn’t even entirely sure that a crime had been committed but, even if it had, what could she offer as evidence? Given the nuisance Betty had made of herself, she rather thought her tale of shifting shadows and a bang on the window pane would make her sound as dippy as the old woman herself.
Sometimes London, despite its teeming millions, could seem the loneliest place on the planet.
‘Cold Sweat is great! What an ending!’