Authors: Robert Shearman
“Alice Through the Plastic Sheet” © 2012 by Robert Shearman
All rights reserved.
Published by ChiZine Publications
This short story was originally published in
Remember Why You Fear Me
by Robert Shearman, first published in print form in 2012, and in an ePub edition in 2012, by ChiZine Publications.
Original ePub edition (in
Remember Why You Fear Me
) October 2012 ISBN: 9781927469224.
This ePub edition November 2012 ISBN: 978-1-77148-017-8.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Alan and Alice liked Barbara and Eric. Barbara and Eric were good neighbours. Barbara and Eric were quiet. Barbara and Eric never threw parties—or, at least, not
parties, not the sort of parties with music and loud noise; they’d had a dinner party once, and Alan and Alice knew that because they’d been invited beforehand, inviting them had been such a good neighbourly thing for Barbara and Eric to do. And Alan and Alice had thanked Barbara and Eric, and said that it was a very nice gesture, but they wouldn’t accept, all the same—they gave some polite reason or other, probably something about needing a babysitter for Bobby (although Bobby was a good boy, he didn’t need a babysitter). But the real reason they didn’t go was that they
know Barbara and Eric. They liked them, they liked them perfectly fine. They were good neighbours. But they didn’t want them to be
. As good neighbours, they worked. Good neighbours was good.
Barbara and Eric had a dog, but it was a quiet dog, it was just as quiet as Alan and Alice’s own. They had two children, but they were grown-up children, and the three times a year the grown-up children visited Barbara and Eric (Christmas, both parents’ birthdays) they did so without fuss or upheaval. Some weekends Alan would see Eric, out clearing leaves from the front garden, out mowing the lawn, and Alan might be out tending to his own lawn, and the two of them would recognize the mild coincidence of that, Eric might raise a hand in simple greeting over the fence and Alan would do the same in return; for her part, Alice might smile at Barbara in the supermarket. And when Barbara put the house up for sale, Alan and Alice didn’t know why—“Hello!” said Alice cheerily one day when she saw Barbara at the checkout queue, “So, where are you off to then?” And Barbara had told her that Eric was dead, Eric had had a heart attack, Eric was
—months ago now, and she couldn’t bear the loneliness any longer, she worried quite honestly that the loneliness would drive her mad. And she’d broken down in tears right there in front of Alice. Shrill, with lots of noise, it wasn’t like Barbara at all. And Alice said she was sorry, she offered Barbara her condolences, she offered Barbara her handkerchief, she said she and Alan had had no idea, “how dreadful!” and “we had no idea!” And later she told Alan she’d felt a bit embarrassed, how
they have had no idea? How could all that death and suffering being going on not thirty feet away without their knowing? She supposed they hadn’t been especially good neighbours after all.
“We’re going to miss them,” said Alice, as the family gathered around—Alice, Alan, little Bobby, even the dog got in on the act—and peered through the curtains to watch the removal men take the last pieces of Barbara’s life away.
“I suppose we will,” said Alan. And let the curtains twitch back.
“They’re never going to sell it like that,” said Alan one night at dinner. Alan worked in sales, he was an expert on sales. He was pretty much Head of Sales really, or would have been had Old Man Ellis not nominally still been in charge, but Alan was pretty much
Head of Sales, even Ellis had said so, pretty much everyone accepted that. “The first rule of sales,” said Alan, “is you have to let the consumers know you’ve something to sell in the first place. There’s no point in being coy about it.”
There was a “For Sale” sign stuck into the lawn of the house they all still thought of as Barbara and Eric’s, but, as Alan said, it wasn’t well displayed. It was positioned right beside the largest of the trees so it was permanently obscured by shadow; from the road you could barely see it at all. “It’ll never sell,” said Alan, and sliced into his potatoes with an air of smug finality—and it did the trick, this was certainly where the conversation ended, neither Alice nor Bobby nor the dog showed any inclination to contradict him.
Later that evening, Alan was giving Bobby a game of Super Champion Golf Masters IV on the Xbox, and Bobby was playing as Tiger Woods and Alan was playing as Jack Nicklaus but frankly would rather have played as Tiger Woods, but Bobby had been a good boy and had done his homework promptly and done the washing-up without being asked and was in consequence allowed first pick—and as all this was going on, Bobby said he had an idea. Alan said, well, champ, I’m all ears. And Bobby suggested that maybe he and his Daddy could move the “For Sale” sign away from the tree and into a more prominent position. That would help everybody, wouldn’t it? Though he didn’t use the word ‘prominent.’ And Alan thought about it as he made Jack Nicklaus putt, and then said that they really shouldn’t bother; after all, wasn’t it quite nice that they didn’t have any neighbours, wasn’t it nice that it was all so quiet? Wouldn’t it be nice if no one moved in ever, couldn’t it be their little secret? And Bobby shrugged, and said okay, and made par. Bobby was really a very kind and considerate child; Alan had been warned by his friends at work that children could start getting snippy when they got older, and Alan was watching out for it, but here was Bobby eight years old already and there was no sign of it so far. Bobby would say that playing golf with his father on the Xbox was the best part of his day, and Alan would like that, sometimes Alan was touched. What did his friends at work know anyway? Maybe Bobby would always be like this. Right then Alan decided he liked Bobby as a person, not just as a son but a Person in his own right—one day, when he was older, he looked forward to sharing a pint with him in a pub, men together, he’d be so much better company than his friends at work, he didn’t like his friends much. He looked forward to playing golf with Bobby for real.
Anyway, Alan was wrong. The house was sold within the week.
The van arrived early in the morning, before Alan went to work, and stout uniformed men began unloading boxes and furniture on to the next door lawn. When Alan returned home nine hours later they were still at it; and Alice was
watching it all from behind the curtains. “You haven’t been here all day, have you?” asked Alan, and Alice said, “Of course not!” and looked a bit cross. “Alan,” she said, “there’s so much
, how do they have so much stuff? How are they going to fit it all in the house?” “I’m hungry,” said Bobby, and he sounded unusually plaintive—and the dog began to yip for food as well—“It’s all right, champ,” said Alan, “let’s go and see what’s in the fridge, shall we?”
After supper Alan went back to join Alice at the window. “They’ll have to stop soon,” said Alice. “It’s getting dark. You can’t go moving stuff in the dark. That makes no sense, does it? You won’t be able to see what the stuff is.”
Now the removal men were offloading from the van a green Chesterfield sofa. It was large and heavy, and the men struggled with it in the summer evening clamminess. At last it was out, and down—and joined three other sofas on the lawn, just as big and cumbersome, all in different colours—one was black, one was burgundy, one was a beige so lurid it could hardly be called beige at all. All four of them were still covered in their protective plastic sheets, not a single sofa had ever been used.
“It’s all been brand new,” said Alice. “All the televisions, the washing machines, the hi-fi system. All still in their packaging. Isn’t that peculiar?”
“I expect so,” said Alan, “if you like. And what of our new neighbours themselves? What do they look like?”
“I haven’t seen them yet,” said Alice. “I keep on looking, but there’s been no sign. I might,” she admitted ruefully, “have missed them,” and she turned to Alan for the first time since he’d come home, her eyes so full of apology as if she’d let him down somehow. Then she started, she realized she’d taken her eyes off the game, and back whirled her head towards the chink of opened curtain.
“Maybe,” said Alice suddenly, “I should go over there.”
“Maybe,” Alice said, “I should take them a cup of sugar.”
“It’d be the neighbourly thing to do.”
“They probably have sugar,” said Alan. “They have four sofas and, look, three widescreen TVs. Look.”
“I’ll take them some sugar,” said Alice, and she tore herself away from the window, and hurried to the kitchen. Alan followed her. She poured the sugar into a cup—not one of the best cups—she wasn’t offering them the cup to keep, the cup was merely a receptacle for the sugar, she wanted the cup back—but she didn’t want any awkwardness, if the cup were to be accidentally sacrificed in the spirit of good neighbourliness then it was going to be a cup she didn’t like all that much. And then, now appropriately armed, she went outside and up the driveway to the next door house. Alan watched her from the window. He was surprised to see that in the little time it had taken Alice to fetch the sugar that the removal van had gone; the lawn was bare; the garden was deserted; night had fallen. Alan saw Alice knock at the door. He saw Alice pause, then knock harder. He saw her bite her lip and chew it, it was what she always did when she couldn’t make up her mind. Then she set the cup down gently, carefully, upon the welcome mat; she stood up, waited expectantly, as if that very act alone might have attracted the neighbours’ attention.
“Can we play golf, Daddy?”
“Isn’t it a bit late?”
“All right. Just for a little while.”
“Can I be Tiger Woods again?”
At last Alice came home. “They weren’t in,” she said.
“So I gathered.”
“I waited a bit, though.”
“So I gathered.”
She frowned. “Who are you tonight, Alan?”
“I’m Jack Nicklaus,” said Alan.
“And I’m Tiger Woods,” said Bobby.
Alice drifted back to the window. She gave a little cry of surprise that caused Alan to miss his stroke. “What?” he said.
“The cup,” she said. “It’s gone.”
“Right,” said Alan.
“They must have been in after all,” said Alice. “How very rude. I wonder,” she went on, and she pressed her hands hard against the window, as if she could force her way through it, be that tiny bit nearer, “I wonder what they’re
Alan said, “I just wonder why you care.”
They said no more about it, and when they went to bed Alice undressed silently, and went to sleep without saying good night. Alan wondered whether she was in a mood or not—but it was so hard to tell, she was usually pretty quiet in the bedroom, it had never been a place for noise or chat.
Theirs had never been a relationship based upon romance. Not even at the start, not oven on that first date. And for the first few years this had nagged at Alan a little, he suspected he was doing something wrong, missing out on something nice all his friends at work got. So he would take to giving Alice boxes of chocolates, sending her the odd bouquet of flowers every now and again. And Alice would eat the chocolates, and she’d put the flowers in a vase, and she’d do both readily enough, but never with any especial gratitude; indeed, sometimes she’d give him a look,
look, as if to say, “what do I want these for?” So he stopped.
Alan hadn’t wanted a date anyway, not after Sandra, not after what Sandra had done to him and (he supposed) what he had done to her. But Tony had said to him one day, “You could do with a girlfriend, feller,” and Alan respected Tony, Tony was very senior in sales, at that time Tony was pretty much the
head. Alan thought at first this was typical Tony banter, and Alan laughed along, but Tony assured him he was being very serious. “It shows stability of character, feller,” he said. “It shows us you’re somebody we can rely upon.” And he recommended Alan try someone he knew, he recommended Alice, and so Alan gave Alice a call, and Alice suggested they meet for dinner that very Friday. Alan could come and pick her up, early would be best, there was an Italian restaurant she liked around the corner, close enough that if the date wasn’t working to either of their advantages they could skip dessert and she could be back home without wasting the entire evening.
Alan dressed up for the date. He took a second set of clothes with him to the office, and at five o’clock got changed in the toilet. Alice had dressed up too; when she opened the door to him Alan noticed right away how immaculate her make-up was, nothing too much, nothing garish or extreme—and it took him a few long seconds to recover and look through the shininess and see the woman underneath. She looked him up and down. She nodded. She gave him a polite smile, and he gave one back, just as polite. He told her his name was Alan. She nodded again, fetched her coat.
As they were walking down the street to the restaurant, Alice suddenly stopped. It caught Alan up short, right in the middle of some smart observation he’d been making about the weather.
“Have you forgotten something?” he asked.
“Yes. No. Oh,” she said, “oh.” And looked him up and down again, and chewed at her lip. She looked quite distressed for a moment, and Alan felt a sudden desire to protect her, to assure her that everything would be okay. “Please don’t take this the wrong way,” she said.
“No, no . . .”
“But. Your tie.”
“It’s just wrong. It doesn’t go with that jacket at all.”
“Oh,” he said. And then, somewhat lamely, “It’s my best tie.”
“Would you mind?” she asked. “I’m sorry. Would you mind if? We went back? I have ties. I have a better tie for you.”
“Oh. Well. If you’d prefer.”
“If it means that much to you.”
“All right then.” And they turned around and walked back to the house. Alan resumed his weather remark from where he’d left off, but he soon stopped, his heart really wasn’t in it.
“You wait down here,” Alice said. “Make yourself at home. I won’t be a moment.” And she went upstairs. Alan looked around the sitting room. It was pretty. The wallpaper was a woman’s wallpaper, but quite nice. Everything was clean and ordered and well vacuumed, and there was the smell of recent polish, and Alan thought to himself that he could get used to that.
“Here,” said Alice. And she was smiling, and it was proper smiling this time, there was a warmth to it. “Try this one.” She held out to him a tie, quite formally, draped over her arm. It was pure black. Alan put it on, taking off his own tie with stripes. Alice gave him an inspection.