I have often been frightened by the thought that, no matter how long I know someone, no matter how intimately, there is always a part of them I will never know, and can never second guess. I have always tried to look inside people, to find out what made them what they were, how their mind worked, so that I could predict their next action or thought. I considered myself quite adept at this skill and have, over the years, been quite successful at it.
This skill have proved helpful in both my life and my profession.
(My profession is not your concern, and I do not wish to disclose it. I will not give you any clues in that area. There are no hints in this text. You will, no doubt, read this text looking for clues. Because this is in a criminal publication, you will be suspicious. At this stage, you may even go so far as to speculate whether I am either a criminal, a policeman, a writer, or a combination thereof. You will never know - it is irrelevant. I need my anonymity.)
This story starts with a friend. I have known this friend, on and off, for many years. I met this person, whom I shall call A, whilst I was at B University. We were an odd couple, and people commented that we had nothing in common. This was true, but I have found that most friends are different from each other - the differences allow us to see each other in a different light, and hence grow as people. The worse kind of friend is one similar to ones self - people hate to be constantly reminded of their own faults.
After University, we worked together at C Ltd for a while, and then lost contact. I moved to D City, married E, moved to F Street before settling in G Road. It was a good time for me. Everything was simple and life was sweet. Then, after ten years, I accidentally bumped into A again and my life fell apart.
How do two people bond? There is no quick application of superglue, and instant symbiosis - it is a long, invisible process where millions of emotional gifts and favours are exchanged. Before you know it, you have reached a compromise, an equilibrium, an understanding. You can spend hours in the company of the one with whom you have bonded, and it feels like seconds.
This was my feeling towards A when we met. However, as I was later to understand, A had obviously changed. We had been meeting regularly for a little time when, over a drink, A said:
“I’d like to ask a favour.”
“Do you know the people across the road from you?”
“Not really. You know, just a nodding acquaintance.”
“Could you keep an eye on them for me? You know, make a list of people coming and going from the house, times, that sort of thing.”
“I know it’s a bit of a weird thing to ask, but it’d be a great help to me. I’m… I can’t really tell you what’s going on, but it’ll make sense at the death.”
Although I was more than a little confused by the request, I agreed. A was always a bit more eccentric than I, and I was always too ‘square’ for most people’s tastes. Besides, it was kind of exciting to be spying on someone else.
At first, E was somewhat sceptical about the whole thing and wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Our road was in a respectable neighbourhood - nothing much happened and, if it did, it was behind closed doors. Nevertheless, over the first four weeks, I established my neighbours, H and J, had a kind of routine: a) first thing in the morning the children (K, M and N) would be sent off to school; b) during the day packages would arrive via delivery vans; c) throughout the evening people would arrive with ring binders, knock on the door, enter, spend a few minutes inside, leave, and drive off.
I did not find any of this suspicious. Obviously, my neighbours worked at home, they ordered their clothes and other items from catalogues, and they had friends or relations around of an evening. They even had grocers and video libraries coming to the door. The window cleaners were around every couple of weeks. The other day I even had a guy offering to clean out my guttering for £12.
You would think that watching people would be boring, that there would be long periods of nothing happening, that your interest would waiver. I didn’t find that to be the case. It became a habit to watch them. I would watch television, do some cooking, gardening, clear out the garage, and always one eye would be kept on my neighbours. Inside the house, my clipboard was always by my side, ready for the next scrap of information. When outside, I would surreptitiously look at my watch and memorise what to write down. (I was able to develop my own set of standard phrases and short-hand initials because H and J had a very rigorous routine.)
E would come home from work and ask me what news I had, what was going on, having caught the bug too. Ritually, E would look through my notes before coming into the kitchen and kissing me. When I told A about this, A laughed knowingly.
“It always happens,” A said. “Curiosity always gets the better of them.”
One day, when I went for a walk down to the newspaper shop, I forgot my money, went back, and realised my neighbours had gone out. It was instinctive. I didn’t know how I knew - there must have been some subtle change that only my senses realised - but when I looked over to their house it was empty. I was shocked.
I thought for a moment. What should I do? I have to know, for certain, if they are there or not. Otherwise, there’d be a gap in my notes, something unknown.
Although, I had never visited the neighbours, I decided to knock on their door. Knock, knock. Wait, wait, wait. No answer. No sound of movement from within the house. Where have they gone? What are they doing?
I didn’t like standing there. I felt exposed. I looked up and down the street, saw nothing but neat rows of grass and tarmac. (Except for the O house - they had an old caravan decomposing on their drive, and the carcass of a car in their garden.) There was no-one around.
Quickly, I walked up to the window and looked in, shading my eyes.
It was messy. Cups and saucers all over the place. Cigarette butts, ash trays. Newspapers, plastic bags, junk mail. All strewn across the furniture and floor. It looked like they spent their lives slumped in front of the box. What a waste, I thought.
Fearing capture, I retreated back to my house and wrote down everything I could remember. There was a certain thrill, a sense of thwarting danger, in the whole exercise. E got the whole story that evening and listened intently over dinner. I remember that we made love that night.
The experience of missing the neighbours, of not knowing where they were, had the effect of making me more vigilant, more determined to chart their every move. My neighbours had done something wrong - they were to blame for something, all I had to do was find that something.
I was now rooted to the sofa in the front room. I had phone, fax, laptop, TV, video, camcorder and binoculars to hand. If I didn’t own it before, I got it delivered pronto.
I phoned libraries to get births, deaths and marriages in their family. I talked to people in the local council offices and found out about the property and the history of the land they were on. The last census gave me more information. I was hooked up to the Internet and so did some background checks on them, see if they owned any companies. I checked newspapers to see if they were mentioned in any articles. No stone went unturned, no fact unchecked.
Looking across the road at them, I knew the neighbours by the shape and movements of their silhouettes. I could predict the sequence of events in their lives. I played little games with myself, timing how long it took them to wash, dress and breakfast, when the post and deliveries would turn up, when the visitors would arrive and depart. I plotted average times of visits by visitor, trying to work out what could be said in that time. I took down the registration numbers of the visitors’ cars, traced them through P (a friend from way back), got names, addresses, and repeated the whole process for every one of them. Q, R and S were retired, lived an hour away, were in different professions, educated in different places, moved in different circles, didn’t know one another. They were completely anonymous. When I checked T, I was sure I’d hit the jackpot (even told A as much), because T’s name kept popping up, but it all led nowhere - T owned a business, was known in the community, was completely harmless.
There were no clues.
They were not suspicious in any way.
They had done nothing wrong.
I had reached the stage where I no longer went out. I had everything delivered to me. Even A started coming to the house. I was spending all my time looking, searching, excavating, digging, hewing data but finding no nuggets of information worth having.
Work around the house was forgotten. E would come home and get stinky with me. It was not a good time.
Frustrated, I tried to think in a different way. Perhaps I was looking for the wrong things? Instead of looking at what was there, what I knew, maybe I should be looking for holes in the data, for things that I did not know. I rifled through the material I had collected, looked at video footage of the visitors, their dress, their expressions, and found nothing. Wherever I went, I always returned none the wiser.
I decided to go back to the beginning. Given time to think, there were certain questions in my mind. First, what had the neighbours done to warrant me keeping tabs on them? Secondly, what had A to do with it? Thirdly, why was I keeping tabs on them?
When A came round for the daily report, I came straight out with it.
“I’ve been checking on the comings and goings of H and J for months now, keeping you up-to-date. Sure, it’s been interesting in a weird kind of way, but I’m fed up with there being no answers. I want to know why I’m doing this? Why did you ask me to do this A? What have they done?”
A looked at me. I could tell that facts were being weighed up, a decision being made.
“It’s for your own protection,” A said.
I was a little taken aback. “But, I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“No. But you might.”
A left me time to think about that. “But what has that got to do with my neighbours?”
“They are watching you. They are waiting for you to do something wrong.”
All I could come up with was a weak, “Eh?”
“When I found out they were watching you, I thought it best to tell you to watch them. I figured that if you watched them long enough, you’d find something on them, you’d have someone to blame.”
“But why me?”
“Why not? Someone has to take the blame. Why not you?”
A got up and left. I felt like a blank page.
“But I can’t blame them for anything.” I muttered. “I’ve looked and looked. They haven’t done anything wrong.”
The following morning, I saw U. U looked suspicious. I decided to find out as much about U as I could. I followed U, and photographed U. U did not disappoint me. If I do anything wrong, then I know who is going to take the blame.
(c) 2002 Paul Duncan