Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Mark Wagstaff
My apartment was always cold. End house on an old old block, downhill winds and night frost endlessly, inventively, needled at crumbling bricks, lopsided frames; under the skirtings draughts nipped my heels like viciously playful dogs. In winter two jumpers, three pairs of socks kept me off the brink of frozen. I got used to it.
I got used to how air moved through the old building, its tempo sharpening as wind veered around and around. My apartment was small, its sitting room opened straight onto the stairs. Draughts crept beneath the street door, sidled by the landing window: my gathered shroud of rented weather. It was easy to know when the street door was open: the extra charge of prevailing cold an unfailing alert to neighbors’ coming and going.
As I flat-footed to the bathroom in early dark I didn’t expect any warmth on my skin till the shower ran thirty minutes or more, its cloud buffeting warily against resident low pressure. I went out, chasing down through the turn of the stairs; stopped cold: the street door left open. My neighbors were okay, careless: coming in some time in the night it wasn’t impossible they got slack with the door. Its lock was old, didn’t catch straight. I’d get a neighborly word with them, if and when.
Through long winter evenings I grew sensitized to how night air travelled, its patterns determining where I sat, what I did to avoid my apartment’s cold fronts. I noticed change. Cracks around my front door gave distinct texture to airflow: a sudden increase – I felt it late that night – fresh as clear-sky rain. On the stairs – as I waited the lights to flicker to life – winter blew in. From the landing I saw the street door hung open again. Ear to the wall, the neighbor apartment seemed quiet. I stayed up after midnight – eyes reeling – unwillingly tested the door frame; again, the sharp increase in cold. I pushed at the street door, leaned into it, stared at the scratched plate of the old lock. Slumped back upstairs wanting to believe the door was shut.
I went out early, sole figure in frozen north London streets. I liked being the waking moment someplace everyone else was sleeping. The neighborhood tone of struggling affluence: large houses split by dark alleys, cliffs of plaster frosted with icy air, relentlessly overpainted fractures of brick crumbled with early light. When I got back the shed to the side of my block was open, front wheels of neighbor bikes dislodged surprised into the morning. The shed door bolt had a padlock: intact, undamaged – still locked though the bolt was pulled and the door swung free. I glanced down the alley to the matt gray rear apartment. Glanced at the street, its silence chipped by birdsong. I tried to close the shed: warped wood resisted the bolt; I hadn’t strength. I gave up, went in – stared at the back of the street door. It was shut.
The downstairs girl said Hi sometimes, usually when I was elbows-deep packing garbage. I felt when she closed her front door: its respectable slam shimmied up into my floorboards. She was in her front yard when I got back that evening, slopping her hip against a broom, telling the fertile woman that she babysat for how someone she knew told somebody else they woke to their front door open. I heard her say nothing was stolen as I hung around the side of the block pretending to hunt my keys. When I went to bed I told myself air pressure around my apartment door was normal, dropping the deadbolt, fixing the chain; listening to mice and nothing much into the night.
Next morning cold sodium revealed open backyard gates – motion activated lights flushing out slivers of secret views usually blocked from the street. Rows of locked front doors seemed to me less confident – stood fat in their frames trying to prove themselves: pushing their solidity at the cameras that nervy folks rigged in their porches. Security brittle as frost.
When I told the neighbor apartment that open doors brought rats, they were more concerned at rain getting in. Careless. The downstairs girl showed me a large clear crystal hung in her window: protection from intrusion, she said. She asked did I want a crystal. When I woke around two a.m. I knew what happened – no need to check airflow; I dressed in the dark, thought about packing a knife but what would that do? In slender shadow I reached the landing, unsurprised – relieved, maybe – the street door let in a breezy strip of one more moonless night. I checked in the alley: heard footsteps, breath. Closed the door, pressing against it until my fingers numbed.
Hardly anyone spoilt my mornings. Guys wandering drunk from the night before, early cabbies, delivery drivers; figures that flickered and vanished while I walked. The hooded man in an alley between two houses, his frame filling the path, unflinching as security lights picked him out. He headed into darkness – I could make out a door. The hooded man in front of a door. I walked away.
Nothing by day was different: gray sky stormy with magpies, gray streets and yards; people went to work, stayed home sick. Grew closer with night, watching, rigging traps, awake till their eyes shot blood. Awake not to catch who picked their locks. Lights off, I saw from behind the curtain neighbors who were strangers share their fears; family men on ladders setting cameras; the slow beat of a police car roll by. Nothing stolen; and beyond our streets The Opener – a viral name – got tagged a joker, a fraud; a good citizen helping neighbors with home defense. News trucks overflowed the disabled parking zone, excitable newbie reporters scatting on whether this was some trend, an ad exec’s put-up, an eccentric trillionaire. If it was good news it was primetime; the woman whose children had nightmares missed the cut.
Under the pillow on the unused side of my bed I laid a knife. Practiced holding it and hiding it; practiced how I’d look when I showed it for real. I hardly slept, rigged candles and feathers to watch cold stab through the rooms, to wait change: I’d dive at the stairs, disappointed on each false alarm. Early morning, sleepless eyes dazzled by arc lights flaring the color from each door, amplifying ridges and shadows of every lock. The hooded man a few steps ahead, on a path run behind tall houses: he didn’t rush, walked with purpose undistracted by lights. At a door he grew more cautious, cowled head flicking left and right, half looking over his shoulder. Maybe I choked, breathed too hard. I didn’t see his face.
The downstairs girl had crystals; how could I guess crystals said so much. They hung from her ceiling; nested in fat onyx mounts; strung daisy loops on her walls. Different cuts and colors, different tropes for faith in the invisible. Her crystals protected: her front door open to winter but nothing stolen. Her small, quietly-comfortable apartment lavish with books – physical, printed books – more than anyone could read. I didn’t link the lights on her music player to the sound of running water. I knew her music: my floorboards danced to her music on Saturday nights. On Sundays my windows buzzed the somber, sustained bass of her comedown. Dazzled by crystals and books the music was twilight: expected, half-noticed. And running water.
The water died. Music went on. Singing went on, not from speakers angled among bookshelves but somewhere behind a bead curtained door the tinkering sounds of bottles and jars, of scraping and brushing, of something knocked over and quickfire cussing should have tumbled me out in the street. Idly curious, I watched the door fold back, beads ebb apart, the girl’s blonde hair a heavy wet load on the collar of her bathrobe.
She knew me a little from round the way. Brave with music and books she stumbled only slightly to shelves where the dourest stones reclined in a fluty gold tray. She said I was some surprise, her voice barely a butterfly twitch. She said when company usually called she got wine. I knew: I heard her and her girlfriends dish in drunk, uptown voices late on Saturday nights. Bemused, I watched her weigh a tasty brick of some brilliant cut red crystal, its compound facets winking signal lanterns as she tossed it around her soft hands.
Her feet left desert island trails on the pine floor: she got a beach look, skin warmly red, wet hair: her sense of emergence onto dry land so captivating as she got close I could taste open horizons in her blue eyes. She moved very fast to break my head with that rock.
The young policeman was pleased with himself: smug when he called the nurse to come see me. It took a few stabs for her to find somewhere okay for the needle. The detective’s tub-wash suit said what happened next was contingent: I had choices – be truthful, we’d get along fine. But if I got tempted by lies that wasn’t so good. I began okay: they asked did the needle hurt, I said yes; my first honest answer. But too often the needle hung, unsure. They brought things they said were found in my room: a hooded coat, chains of keys, wire lockpicks. They asked was there anything particular I wanted to tell them. That I went out and doors were open caused the needle to falter, to suggest that wasn’t quite the truth I thought it was. I described what I saw of the hooded man; got told that was interesting, something awkward to flush from between the treads of their shoes. They preferred the knife – theatrically sealed in plastic, tagged with a barcode; they pretended to be surprised that protection got wrapped in pillows. I said I needed protection where doors got opened. They said open doors weren’t a problem where I was going.
They allowed me home, as an afterthought the nurses stuck fresh gauze to my wounds. One told me they couldn’t sweep all the rock from my skull: some dust adhered, some shards sunk in the cortex sure to reappear somehow. Little bullets of sparkle that one day – any day – would hit the sweet spot. They said not to worry.
My apartment got trashed: the door rammed by police, everything they didn’t take got stolen. They had to break a lot to find what they wanted to find. I stayed awake watching for someone to come but I had no door to open and maybe the street door wasn’t inviting the way it once had been. When I went next morning to sign at the police station everyone stared, pointed me out to their children, said I was The Opener. I was their reason the house was so cold and daddy got pains in his chest. I heard one tot ask why I did it and get told: he’s a bad man. I was a bad man, the jokey tone of the uptown channels replaced by snatched pictures of me looking desperate, pained. First time I got punched was catharsis.
The downstairs girl gave me lint and iodine, said she was claiming against me for damage. Said she hoped I wasn’t too proud to beg. She told me how one night a fox got in her back yard, nosed apart the French doors I unlocked, crept in and next morning she found it curled in the armchair, snout in its brush and so peaceful she had the knife in its neck before it could bark. I said I never picked anyone’s locks. She said don’t sell yourself cheap.
Out early to spare neighbors their fists I saw dawn get sooner: spring coming, frosty nights fleeing to wait out the summer someplace it’s always cold. Windows propped to catch a first breath of morning. I heard foxes yelp as they slid away to hunker the day in their dens, distant sirens, the rush that was blood in my veins. A good natured judge might settle on a fine: I could say nothing was stolen. Or some community penance lime-washing walls at the madhouse or taking old men to lunch at the One O’clock. A punished criminal I could do more good than I ever had as a nobody. I kept an eye for the hooded man, but all doors were locked.
I asked the downstairs girl would she be in court to see me. She touched my shoulder, said my name had dissolved: from now on I was my crime. A sunny morning, we had coffee in her back yard. I’d never noticed before the drainpipe that ran by my window down next to her French doors. Open they spread sunshine through her apartment. I was bruised, I hardly slept. The armchair looked inviting. Cozy to sleep in she told me, with an encouraging smile.