On Others

It varies, but not by much. Most often, he comes just as I have put my daughters to bed. If I am still in their room, I hold my breath. Each time, I worry the sound might wake them up. It never does. For them, this noise is only part of ‘the city’. If I have made it out into the kitchen, I hear him earlier – as soon as the vehicle turns onto our street. He drives slowly. Past the twin brick houses and the parked cars. I imagine him tilting the motorcycle ever so slightly as he navigates that turn which is too narrow for two meeting cars and where someone has hit the pavement so the stones are loose and sometimes end up in the middle of the street. Beneath our windows, he stops. The engine rumbles as he waits for the gates to the apartment complex to open. Then he’s gone and our street is silent again.

Darkness falls. The Asian family that lives in the house across the street, turn on the TV. Their balcony flashes blue, competing with the twinkling Christmas lights they never remove. They had a dark-haired baby one month before we had our two. Most nights when I came to the kitchen to warm bottles, or wash bottles, or something else – seemingly always to do with bottles – the lights in their apartment were also lit. Sometimes I saw the mother by the window. The baby was on her shoulder and she was patting its back. She rocked a little. It was too far to make out, but I thought she was singing. I was jealous of her sometimes, for her one baby instead of my two. I too wanted to hold mine on my shoulder and pat their backs, but it always seemed too hard.

I am ready for bed. I turn out the lights. If I tilt my head, I see the yellow light from the streetlamp. When I lie there in the dark, I hear the floorboards in the apartment above us squeak. My daughters call the woman, ‘Lady’. Her doorbell is strident and when it rings, one of my girls will inevitably nod, point to the roof and say, ‘Lady.’

Lady, too, is getting ready for bed. Now she is fetching a book, I think. Now she gets up again: perhaps for a glass of water. It reminds me of when I lived at home. Our kitchen was above my bedroom. At dawn, my father would put on coffee. The floorboards squeaked then, too. I could hear him whistle. Though perhaps I only imagined that.

In a village or a small town, everybody knows everyone by name and by life. My grandmother spent most of her time by her kitchen window, watching who passed on the road in front of her house, always knowing where they were going and why. But it was Iris who was most important. Iris lived in a large red wooden house up the hill on the other side of the road. Her house, and that of Harry and Greta, were the two houses you could see from my grandmother’s kitchen window. But Harry and Greta had their kitchen facing the back (facing the forest – can you imagine?) and the room we could look into (a bedroom? a spare room? I can no longer remember) was always dark. Iris’ kitchen, however, whilst far away, faced ours.

“Bah!” my grandmother would say upon waking, spotting the yellow squares on the house up the hill. “Iris is up first again.”

And before going to bed: “Iris is still up! Does she never sleep?”

And there it was, the same thing I feel, too: the comfort of the parallel lives of others.

“I think everyone has a place where they cannot bear to be touched,” a young hairdresser told me once. It was at a very fashionable hairstylist’s. She wasn’t the hairdresser but the girl supposed to wash my hair. “For me it is the inside of my arms.” She showed me white teenage skin. “I feel almost physically sick if someone touches me there. You know what I mean?”

“Yes,” I said, but knew that there was a time I would have given any such place away as a trophy. Here, take, this is where I cannot bear to be touched – it is yours.

Her older colleague, the stylist, came and brushed the girl away as if she was a hair that had caught on my shoulder. I never went back there, but I thought about that girl a lot.

Newly graduated, I left Sweden to work for a company in Paris. As a big city, it offered privacy. More importantly, it offered privacy amongst people, for I didn’t want to be alone. I still don’t. No, I want people around me – people that I don’t know, to the extent that if there were desks at Kings Cross station, I think that’s where I would write.

In Paris, there were no others. The company I worked for had put me up in an apartment hotel in a commercial district and outside my aluminium-framed window were office buildings, where the lights went out just after seven. The grey stone piazza beneath emptied. If I opened my window and hung over the window sill, I could see the mall, but that closed at eight. And so I took to falling asleep on the sofa to CNN. There were still others out there. Life was still happening. I wasn’t the only one.

We do joke about it. After nine years of marriage, if my husband wakes up first, he still finds the time to arrange his pyjama so it looks as if the person who was inside might have been snatched up by a godly being, leaving me behind. Alone.

But I listen for the sound of the motorcycle. I look for the light in the window opposite. Then there are the footsteps on that someone’s floor, which is also my roof.