A figure stands alone beneath a broken street lamp, rain and darkness conspiring to conceal it from view. A couple passes close by as they dash for a taxi, oblivious to the silent figure assessing its surroundings. Its dark eyes fix on an apartment block across the street…
“Tea ready yet?”
“Just adding the finishing touches, Nige.”
“Thank god, I’m fucking famished.” Nige lets out a yawn and scratches his crotch. “Half seven and I’ve still not eaten, I should complain to the chef.”
Cheryl sighs. “Perhaps we’d eat earlier if you’d help out for once…”
Nige stirs, as if he’s going to lift his great weight from the broken-spring divot it has created in their sauce-stained sofa, but quickly lowers himself back down, huffing and puffing. “You watch your mouth, alright? You know I’m too busy to be fucking around in the kitchen all day. That’s your problem, not mine.”
“Okay, okay. It’ll be worth the wait, I promise.” She has no desire to reopen that same, sad argument; things remain the same no matter how many times she lists the myriad tasks that work her to the bone day after day, from ironing to cooking to cleaning to looking after the baby to…
Crying starts as if on cue.
“Sort out the little fucker, Chezza. You don’t expect me to watch TV with that noise blaring out, do you?”
“It’s the adverts, though; surely you can…”
“Fuck me, look at that! You can get anything online these days, can’t you?
Cheryl grits her teeth. Things will get better soon, she’s sure of it.
After all, how could they get any worse?
Great glass doors greet the figure as it reaches the apartment block. A single gloved hand reaches out, grabbing the door handle and pulling, but it remains shut tight. The figure grunts, shaking the handle again before turning its attention to a small intercom panel next to the door. It presses the buttons one by one, slow and deliberate. It knows its destination…
The intercom rings out throughout the flat.
“Who the fuck comes round this late?” Nige says, beer dribbling down his chin.
“It’s probably Amazon,” Cheryl shouts from the hallway, voice mingling with crying baby, simmering food and ringing phone in imperfect harmony. “I’m expecting a delivery; they drop orders off at random times these days, don’t they?”
“Well, I don’t really care who the fuck it is, long as that ringing stops. I’m trying to watch the bleedin’ fourth round draw, ain’t I?”
The ringing continues.
“Are you gonna get that or what, Chezza?”
“Yes, yes, just give me a minute, I’m changing Bradley…”
“I’m missing the fucking draw!”
“Okay, okay, hang on…” Cheryl darts into the living room bringing the sounds and smells of her crying baby with her. “Hello?” she says as she picks up the intercom receiver.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Cheryl, this is worse than when the intercom was ringing. I swear to god, if I miss who we get…”
“Ssh, Brad, ssh…”
“Who was it anyway?”
“I don’t know, nobody answered,” Cheryl said, voice heavy with worry. “If it is my delivery I hope they’re not taking it back to the depot; the road there is absolute murder.”
“Spurs away!” Nige cries out over the concerns of his long-suffering wife, shaking his head as he necks the dregs of another can of extra-strength lager. “Well that’s just our fucking luck, isn’t it?”
The figure waits patiently as the lift whirs into life and descends towards it. The lobby of the building is bright; too bright after the darkness that had sheltered it outside. Voices reach the figure from above – a lift full of chattering and noise closing in. The figure looks around and spots a door, dim light flickering through a small, grimy window.
A group of drunken party goers spills out from the lift, none the wiser to the figure in the stairwell beginning its ascent…
“Grab us another beer,” Nige shouts, the same demand Cheryl has heard on repeat for eight long years.
She pokes her head through the living room doorway. “I will, I will. I just need to make sure Brad is asleep first.”
“Come on, that can wait, can’t it? I’m thirsty.” Nige grunts.
“Can you get yourself one, please? I really need to get Brad to bed before we eat.”
“Won’t hurt the little bugger if he stays awake for a bit later than usual. My dad used to keep me up ‘til all hours, especially when the footie was on. Helped make me a proper man.”
A proper man. Cheryl remembers when she saw him as that, in those bright, early days. It’s hard to remember how everything came to change, though – the weeks, months, years blur into one mess of belittling, black eyes and servitude.
“It’s just… I… I really want to get him to bed before I finish our tea…”
“Now you mention it, where the fuck is my grub? This is getting ridiculous Chez, I might even have to let you go at this rate, get a younger model in!” The fat man laughs, belly wobbling.
Cheryl closes her eyes tightly, trapped between crashing waves of crying and laughter.
The figure pushes itself upwards, onwards. Its footsteps echo and bounce throughout the stairwell like a scream, a siren, a warning. But nobody is around to hear them, tucked away in the apparent safety of their homes.
A sign reads ‘6th floor’. The figure grins…
“I think Brad’s cried himself out now,” Cheryl whispers as she comes back into the living room. “Best if we keep the noise down a bit now, though.”
“I’m not turning this down if that’s what you mean.”
“No, no. I just meant that we should keep our voices down…”
“Wouldn’t be a problem if you’d stop bollocksing on, would it? Christ, if I could go back to the day you trapped me in this fucking marriage, I tell you…”
Trapped. That’s exactly what she is, now. She knows that for all his talk he won’t let her leave, not with Bradley at any rate. I’ll ruin you, he screamed at her one night, spittle flying into her face, I’ll show the world how useless you are, how unfit you are. Try to leave and they’ll take Brad away.
She knows that she’s stuck with him now, ‘til death do us part.
“Right. I’m just going to go make sure he’s sleeping fine, anyway. Can you listen out for the door? Nige?”
“I’m not getting it if the bloody delivery man does knock, you know.”
Of course he won’t, Cheryl thinks. Because when has he done anything to help her, to make her life easier, to make her feel loved?
“I know, I know. I just want to make sure I don’t miss them if they do,” Cheryl sighs, before lowering her voice. “You never answer the door when they’re knocking. Never…”
“What was that?”
Flickering light dies around the figure as it nears its final destination, dirty puddles forming around its boots with every heavy step it takes towards flat 625. It reaches the door, breath rasping, makes a dripping, gloved fist, and knocks three times…
“I’ll get it!” Cheryl cries out.
“Good!” Nige shouts out. “Not my problem, is it? You’re the one ordering things online all the time, spending my fucking money…”
Nige drifts off, returning his focus to the TV. A true-crime show is coming on, full of police chases, bank fraud and grisly murders. Nige smiles; he loves watching people get what’s coming to them.
An ad break surprises him. 15 minutes in already! Where the fuck is his useless wife?
“Chez? You alright?”
The chill of the cold night air is the only response he gets, portent of doors unlocked and open.
Nige heaves himself up, furniture trembling around him. He wheezes and grumbles to himself as he drags his stumpy legs through discarded snack wrappers and beer cans, the sediment of his life disturbed by the increasingly rare movement. “Cheryl, you there?” The light from the hallway flickers – has it always done that? He grasps for a memory of something half-heard, half-listened.
He edges closer to the hallway, panting. Closer. Begins to slow as he nears hallway corner, the corner he’ll turn to see the front door, the source of the cold. “Chez?” Nige says, voice small now.
The light continues to flicker, his clammy hand plants itself on the wall, pulls him around the corner and –
Cheryl is stood just outside the doorway, holding a clipboard and pen. A man stands next to her, eyes plastered to his phone screen.
“Sign here,” he says, barely lifting his hand to point at a line on the clipboard, “and initial at the bottom.”
Cheryl scribbles quickly and hands the clipboard back to the man in exchange for a small package. “Thanks!”
“Oh,” Nige exhales as his wife closes the door, “so it was a bloody delivery after all!”
Cheryl smiles at him. “Well, I did say I was expecting one, didn’t I?” She pats him on the shoulder, nudges him back through the hallway. “Come on, back to the living room. Brad’s asleep so we can finally eat.”
Nige groans as he sinks back into the sofa, feeling another spring prang against his backside. He flicks through channel after channel, eyes glazed. “What are we having, anyway?”
“Shepherd’s pie,” Cheryl answers, clattering around in the kitchen as she serves up the dish. Nige’s ears prick up at the sound of another can of beer being opened. “Here you are,” she says, handing her husband a steaming plate and ice cold can.
“Urgh, shepherd’s pie? You know I’m not arsed about mash,” he says, chomping down a mouthful all the same. “I suppose it’ll have to do!”
“Good, good,” Cheryl says. “I want to know what you think of it.”
Nige shovels mouthful after mouthful into his gob, barely stopping to chew. “S’alright,” he splutters, swilling his mouth with more beer. “Got a funny sort of aftertaste, hasn’t it?”
Cheryl smiles at him. “I think that’s probably the beer, actually.”
“Fuck off, you know how much I love Stella!” Nige says, clearing his throat. “You not having any?”
Cheryl’s smile widens. “Oh, no, no. I thought I’d let you have it all.” She moves to stand. “Everyone deserves a proper last meal, after all.”
“You what?” Nige says, rasping. He begins to feel his throat tightening. He downs the rest of his beer, hoping for relief that doesn’t come.
“Beer won’t help much, I’m afraid,” Cheryl says, pulling on her coat.
“What…what’s…happening…to…me…?” His eyes dart towards the kitchen. “Get…me…a…water…”
“I’m not sure that’ll help either, Nige,” Cheryl says, hoisting a backpack onto her shoulder. “Bit late for you, now.”
The man forces himself up out of his chair, every breath now an effort. “I…need…water…” he gasps, eyes wide and watering.
“You don’t look so good, Nige,” Cheryl says, pushing him back against the sofa with ease. “I did tell you that you should cut back on the beer, didn’t I? It’ll be the death of you.”
The fat man is panicked now, vision blurring as he looks around for something to drink. All he can spot is brown packaging and a discarded glass vial on the kitchen surface, empty but for a vile, white residue coating its insides.
Cheryl smirks as she walks towards the doorway to a chorus of gasps. “You can get anything online these days, can’t you?”
A different figure tightens its coat, shielding itself and the precious, sleeping cargo it carries from the rain. Noisy people dash this way and that as they try to escape the downpour, but the figure remains silent, concealed by weather and darkness as it disappears into the night.