My freshly washed bed sheet has blown off my balcony. A sudden gust has ballooned it from my railing, dropped it sunshine-fresh and crisp onto the balcony below. I can see it lying twisted among the pot plants.
This is my chance to meet the woman who lives on the first floor and quickly I run downstairs, taking two steps at a time. But my knock is unanswered although fragments of music filter from the room. When I lean out from my balcony I can just see the sliding door. It’s shut.
From the garden pathway, I jump upwards to her balcony, trying to feel the cotton beneath my fingers, but it’s too high. I laugh, and think that if anyone’s watching, how ridiculous I must look: a man in a suit, apparently leaping at nothing. Even with a chair, it’s too high.
It’s my only good sheet. I consider my options. None. Only the woman below can help me. I stick a note on her door saying, Help! My sheet has blown onto your balcony . . . giving my name, Steve, and flat number.
During the day I monitor both the still-shut door below and the sky. Early morning blue has turned into heavy cloud cover that threatens my sheet with a second, unwanted wetting. And it rains. A gentle drizzle begins and the crisp white peaks of my fallen sheet subside into puddles.
She will arrive home tonight, finger the note as she unlocks the door. Hmmm. Then she will open the sliding door to check on this phenomenon. Yes, there’s a sheet there, rather draggly-looking from the rain. Who is this person upstairs who has lost his bed linen? Gently the door slides shut again as she shakes then folds the sheet, climbs the stairs with it neatly over her arm, knocks on my door.
But she doesn’t knock on my door. It’s two days before I hear the woman below again. Arriving home from work I find the sheet dropped in a still-damp pile at my door. If only I’d been there when she knocked, I’d have said, thanks very much . . . mad, hey? and I would have met the woman below. Could I have said, Come in for a coffee?
But there is my sheet, looking a bit stained from its ordeal among the pot plants, with weather marks like a stenciled spatter painting.
I hear her playing jazz or blues and sometimes rock. It gives me a comfortable feeling to hear the sounds of this separate existence in the flat below. Some days, maybe when she’s melancholy, I hear over and over the same passionate, moody piano. What is it, lady below, that makes you so sad?
These days of melancholy music and smell of burning milk are days when I’m sad too. It seems that these days everyone on the bus is deep in gloom, or perhaps just the abstraction of their headphones. On these days I notice the small, disused doorways filled with windblown detritus of the street. These are the nests of the homeless ones. I see them, a dark hunch on a park bench; a stooped load-bearing shape competing with birds to peer and peck in a rubbish bin. Sunlight strikes through late summer leaves along park and street, touches the rough, damp shoulders of those who sleep outside; touches hat and cheek and raggy coat, the backs of hands. I would like to stare, wondering how, or why. Instead, I turn my face away, reading notices on the validity of bus tickets. These are long days when I look forward to five o’clock.
Going home to the woman below is almost like going home to someone. It’s the anticipation. As I climb the stairs past her door, I smell garlic and mushrooms and I decide to cook my piece of steak tonight. We’ll eat together, although the floor is between us.
Does she have a tidy room, or is it like mine with accounting papers scattered among cushions and books? The way she dropped the sheet at my door indicates she’s fastidious. She picked up the damp grey thing between finger and thumb, held it out and away from her body. Yuk! Often I hear her washing up late at night, with china and cutlery clunking in the sink. It sounds like a cafeteria.
There is a narrow arc of sky between these units and the block of brick next door. One morning I’m both stunned and fascinated to discover projected on the wall opposite – by a freak combination of sun and glass – the reflected image of the woman below on her narrow balcony. She is doing her exercises. I see the geometry of her elbows, knees and curving back as she stretches, bends and twists. She wears a leotard, or nothing much – the larger-than-life image of her body in sharp focus shows limbs as smooth and strong as a dancer. I hear her rhythmical breathing to a count of four. Suddenly embarrassed, I retreat from my balcony, flip shut my venetian blind. Now that I know about this occasional fluke, it’s difficult not to look for it.
I realize I’m tired of being alone. I miss a companion, someone to care if I wake suddenly in the night, someone to curse the noisy garbage truck with me; to compare notes and ideas at the end of the day and share our achievements. When I get up at three in the morning to go to the toilet, I hear a similar tinkle in the plumbing upstairs and I wonder if the woman below is echoing mine. Are we all setting each other off, starting from the fifth floor down, with our nightly micturition.
Each day I wake with the soft, slow sliding open of her balcony door. I am tuned to this tiny sound. I lie sprawled across my sheets listening to the early morning city, like a distant hum punctuated by sudden, closer abrasive noises. I hear the burble of the news broadcast filtering up, get out of bed and turn on my own radio. I hear her front door bang, her footsteps running down the stairs, the noisy flump-shut of the security door.
Eight o’clock and I leave too, wearing my conservative suit, with my conservative briefcase in my hand, full of late night work for my conservative job. I look okay, I reckon, but I don’t care. I’m conscious of a new, restless energy. I want to know The Woman Below. Who is she? What does she do all day? Who are her friends?
It’s a sunny Sunday when I hear her laughing. I know she’s home alone and being curious, I stand at my door to listen. She’s giggling, quite close by. I could lean from my balcony – she must be sunning herself – almost within touching distance. Very carefully, I lean. But leaning far out I can only see her feet. She lies stretched like a cat with her face in the shade. A duvet hangs over the railing to air. Her pot plants need watering; their leaves droop like sad green flags. I hear her turn the pages of a book, giggle with a throaty, rippling little sound. Her feet are bare; small pale feet with pale pink toe-nails and her toes curl under with each giggle as she waggles her feet up and down with pleasure. It must be a very funny book. I try to remember when I last read a book that made me laugh out loud. I can’t recall when I last read a book besides accounts. I make a salad sandwich for lunch and sit in my doorway to read the paper, listening to her laughter that makes me smile so easily.
Most people spend Sunday afternoon with friends, or shopping, or see a movie. The Woman Below is packing boxes. This must be her weekend job. Box on box on box with a ripping sound like brown-paper-tape. There will be boxes stacked right across the room at this rate. I lie on the floor, my ear pressed to the carpet. Riiiiip clip. Riiiiip clip. She is so busy down there, what is she doing? Who is she? What does she think . . .
I wake up on the floor, fuzz in my ear, the grey of evening outside and silence from The Woman Below. Then I hear the sudden Bang! of her door and scraping my fingers through my hair I rush out, hurrying downstairs. What for, what to say? Put out the garbage bins . . . buy some milk, a newspaper? Damn! I left my keys . . . I see her silhouette against a lamp, glimpse a quick reflection as she passes a shop window and then she vanishes. Lucky my door didn’t blow shut. There is a gentle night wind and the air is filled with the scent of frangipani.
It’s quiet tonight without The Woman Below. Somewhere, beyond this immediate silence, is the whirr of an exercise bike. I watch TV, and wonder when she’ll come home. I know I’m listening for the sound of her footsteps over the commercial gabble. Where does she work? Where does she go at night? She is walking, walking along the street, sometimes in the shadows of trees, sometimes lending a long street-lamp shadow to the footpath. Her face is in darkness. She wanders into a cafe, finds a seat near the wall, sits as long as possible over a coffee. Is she meeting someone? Her hair drops across her cheek; the silver disc of an earring gleams against her neck. I don’t hear her come home.
There will be an election soon for a new government. Television and radio are full of big, better, best. Every day the newspapers headline the latest claims or accusations. Letterboxes sprout leaflets that blow and litter. The Woman Below is very quiet. I miss her companionable noise. The leaflets jammed in her letterbox have been there for days. I think about taking them out, taking them up to her door. I leave them to blow and litter. It rains and the little papers flutter and droop, sticking to the pavement. She’s not collecting her mail. She’s gone.
While I was out she packed her things and left. I didn’t see each basket and box as everything was carried downstairs. Her cushions, her duvet, her saucepans and plates that she washed up so noisily; her neglected pot plants. What will I do without her? I’ve got used to living with her below, shutting my cupboards softly and treading quietly so as not to disturb her, turning up the radio when there’s some music I know she’d like; smiling at her laughter, wondering at her funny books.
It was silly that we never met, but I try to think that if something’s meant to be, it will happen. I catch myself repeating this like a mantra.
To cheer myself up I buy several CDs. I stock my cupboards with food and buy another shirt and some jeans. I visit the laundry with an armload of clothes. I tidy my papers into parallel piles. None of this is particularly cheering.
There is a new tenant downstairs. I hear her strident British accent on the phone, pulling me awake too early on Saturday with its dissonant note. ‘Ullo!’ it yells to its mate. ‘Ow are yew?’
This is no way to start the weekend.
In the subterranean tunnel beneath the station, a flute is overwhelming the recorder, is competing with the guitars. It gives me a strange walking-doppler effect. Up in the sunshine, Saturday building teams overwhelm the jazz duo on the corner and a workman letting the steam valve go on his machinery drowns the string ensemble in the mall.
I wander through an arcade, going nowhere in particular. My life has been like this lately – days without shape or form, with no direction – obsessed with a shade, a translucent image on a piece of glass, a collection of sounds and fragrances.
This morning I had looked with objective keenness in the mirror. The young man staring back had a slightly haunted look in his eyes. His cheeks had the same colour as before, his hair the same gloss, but there was some subtle, indefinable turn in the mouth. Perhaps this man takes himself too seriously, I thought. What about the tennis you used to play? You haven’t tossed a ball into your racquet for months. What about Marietta? Doesn’t she matter anymore? She’s given up leaving messages for you to call her.
I push through the casual Saturday crowd, oblivious to knocks and bumps and probably score a few of my own. Pedestrians weave among the cars banked up at the traffic lights. I lean my elbow on the button for Walk. A baby-stroller hits me in the back of the ankle. I smell hot salty chips from a straw-haired girl beside me.
I pass the Town Hall, the steps sprinkled with the rendezvous crowd of travellers, decorated students in their boots; shaved hair, long hair, trendy hair. Charity collectors shake their boxes. Just seeing myself in perspective is a start, as though all my senses have become sharper, clearer. The Woman Below has been my spark, the light to show me my unremarkable life. I see my direction etched with the precision of crystal.
My footsteps beat to the rhythm. Feel. Think. Decide. Do. I could skip in the air, I feel such a rare, incredulous pleasure of discovery. I can’t help laughing as I swing onto the bus for home.
I’m balancing two new paperbacks and the weekend paper with my bags of grapes and peaches, milk and bread, when a voice behind me says politely, ‘Hi, excuse me, are you Steve?’
I’ve never seen her but I know it’s her. She’s dressed in black with an armful of artists’ brushes, papers and boards and I probably look astonished. She shakes the white-blond hair away from her face. Her eyes are blue blue blue.
‘We’ve never met,’ she rushes on, ‘but I used to live in the flat below you—’
‘Yes . . . I remember,’ I say, shifting my bags to stop the peaches rolling out.
‘I couldn’t have a cat, so I moved. Now I’ve got a cat, a kitten. Well, I’ve seen you around—’
‘—and I thought, if you didn’t mind, I’d really like to draw your face . . .’
I can feel my face smiling hugely.
‘. . . but I was too shy to ask. Would you mind? Maybe we can have coffee?’
And I hear the mantra in my mind.
© Julia Osborne
A friend and I exchanged unpublished stories recently. I sent him this one, written some years ago and when I read his lovely comment, I decided to publish it on my site. This is what he wrote:
“… a talented observer of sights, sounds and scents – and you paint them with great talent – From the Balcony is a very sensitive story – a lovely tale of loneliness, or a longing for companionship, a wondering about matters observed, ultimately of a meeting that shows some promise…. I love your imagery – including the sheet plopping down as it settles; sunlight; sounds – I could go on analysing, but you know them all, because it was you that noticed them for me. That’s what writers are for, isn’t it? They are sort of ‘awareness raisers’, aren’t they?”
Thank you, my friend B.S.