Immediately above us lived a young couple called Sandra and Nige. When they first moved in, still unmarried, I wondered how they could possibly be contemplating cementing a relationship which, judging from the frequency and volume of their arguments (confined mainly to the small hours of the morning and the exercise of a certain adjective beginning with F) was far from idyllic. But marry they did, and their arguments continued, thus sanctified, though admittedly with a temporary lessening of ferocity.
Sandra was a timid-looking young woman of about 25. She had rather nondescript brown hair of a rather nondescript length, that was occasionally teased into one of those styles that resemble baked cardboard. She tended to wear long narrow cardigans and long narrow-waisted skirts that flare out slightly around the knee and peter out around the calf. Her slippers were dark brown sheepskin moccasins, I seem to remember, and her head was usually encased in a head-scarf to protect it from the dust that she had made it her life’s work to redistribute. More often than not, under the shapeless cardigan was a white overall, probably the one she wore to work. She was a nursing auxiliary, and didn’t find enough satisfaction for her home-cleansing instincts in the long hours she spent there to prevent her indulging them to the full in the hours that remained to her in the privacy of her flat.
Did I say the privacy of her flat? This would be to mislead, for she had no inhibitions about confining the produce of her labours to the boundaries of her own space – from the noise of her hoover – poised, juddering on the lino floor above our kitchen while she beat, scraped, rubbed, prised, scrubbed and prodded the offending enemy out with all the necessary attachments – to the fluff from the bathmats, cat hairs from the cushions or straight from the flea-comb (in wads); tissues, crumbs and miscellaneous items of underwear from the bed linen; dirty water from the windows; grit from the dust pan; melting ice from the slowly defrosting refrigerator; foam in frothy clouds from the washing machine outfall…
How do I know? Because all these and many more were expunged energetically over the edge of the her balcony, to float, drift or drip their way relentlessly down onto ours below, or onto our lawn, to await their dispersal by the wind, indifferent, or their retrieval by me, resentful and morose.
When it was the turn of the sheets or the duvet cover, the kitchen of our basement flat would go momentarily dark – like a sudden intake of breath, or the visit of the black crow from Through the Looking Glass – as all the light was sucked away in an instant; and it took another instant to remember that that was all that was happening: it was just Sandra shaking her sheets over the balcony, and that we might now expect another harvest on the lawn – a festival of bras, or knickers, or dirty socks – to be followed by the knock at the door, and the plaintive, whiny voice of Sandra:
“Oooh, Rosem’ry, I’m awfully sorry, but I’ve dropped something over your balcony…”
One day, to add insult to injury, after a particularly hefty bout of vacuuming, there was a pause, a blissful hiatus of silence. But it wasn’t to last. Within minutes she had come down our area steps and knocked at the door:
“Oooh, Rosem’ry, I’m awfully sorry, but I wonder if I could borrow your hoover? I was just hovering the bathroom, and it started to smoke…”