Friday, 12 April 2013

The Watcher: A Short Story


Judy Pringle had always considered herself to be a tolerant and reasonable woman, but she had her limits and a peeping tom was a step too far. For years she had been vaguely aware of the goings-on in Mangrove Crescent but she had chosen to turn a blind eye, believing it wiser to keep to oneself and stay out of other people’s business. Meddling in things which did not concern one only led to complications and this was something she tried to avoid at all costs.  When her mother told her about the latest scandals, witnessed from her chair in the front sunroom, Judy quickly changed the subject or left the room.

“Looks like the Fletcher woman’s pregnant, and who knows who the father is….. Judy, where did you go? Judy, I was talking to you!”

Some might consider this behaviour towards a frail old lady with no other companions somewhat harsh, but Judy had little appetite for gossip and enough on her mind as it was.  Although she had lived in the same house for over sixty years she barely knew the neighbours and this was perfectly satisfactory as far as she was concerned.

It was only after her mother passed away that Judy started gravitating towards the front window to enjoy her cup of tea in the morning, and her curiosity grew. She watched her neighbours through the lace curtains, becoming aware of their routines and discovering things about them that were much more shocking than she could have imagined.  Before long she was sitting in her mother’s Jason recliner for most of the morning, and then well into the afternoon. She began to understand why Mrs Pringle had been so interest in the things taking place in their cul-de-sac and she wished she had not been so quick to shut her down when she tried to talk about them.

First there was the teenage boy at number 7 who never seemed to go to school and had visitors at all hours of the day and night. Although he still lived with his parents he was clearly up to no good.” Drug dealer,” was Judy’s considered opinion. Then there was Mr Allenby who spent a great deal of time attending to the garden of the recently widowed Mrs Johnstone and chatting with her out the front of her house. “I’m sure the garden’s not the only thing he’s attending to,” she thought and laughed knowingly. There was much activity and so many cars in the driveway at number 9 that she became convinced that one of the illegal car-re-birthing schemes she’d read about in the newspaper was operating out of the garage. As for the goings-on at number 11, they didn’t even bear mentioning.

These things were dreadful enough but they didn’t directly affect her so she could simply observe them in silent disapproval, occasionally calling in anonymous tip-offs to the police. Far more disturbing were the two men who regularly passed by her house and threatened to infringe on her peaceful existence.  It had not taken her long to notice the young fellow who rode his bike by the house twice a day, except on weekends, trying to look inconspicuous. He always appeared at the same times and almost without fail he would glance at the house to see if she was home. Once she had realised what he was up to she made sure she was standing at the front door or in the garden where he could clearly see that his plans were foiled again.

 He was nothing if not persistent though and he continued to ride past even when it was obvious he was never going to catch her out. The whole thing was terribly annoying and inconvenient; especially on her shopping day when she had to make sure she was home by five. That was until she hit on the idea of having her groceries delivered, and she began phoning in her order each week. After this she rarely had to leave the house at all. The daily ritual had become like a game between the two of them and occasionally she even waved at him and he waved back. “The sheer audacity,” she said, smiling in spite of herself.

It was one thing to wave at a potential young thief but another to court the attention of a pervert, and that was why she had never acknowledged the older gentleman from number 8 who walked his dog past the house every evening.  His actions had seemed innocent at first until Judy noticed that he always came out just as dusk was falling,. It was no accident that at this time of day people began turning on the lights inside their houses but left the curtains open for a while longer, giving him a bird’s eye view into their lives. Judy soon put two and two together.

 “A peeping tom. I knew it!” she said out loud, frightening the cat. From behind the curtains she watched him loiter outside each house in the cul-de-sac, pretending to let his dog sniff around trees and shrubs, all the time glancing surreptitiously towards the lighted windows. When she realised that he spent more time lingering out the front of her house than any other she’d had to take a sip of brandy and lie down for a good ten minutes to calm herself.

Not being one to act rashly, Judy decided to simply observe him for a while and hope he changed his walking route, however when he brazenly looked up to where she was standing in the window one afternoon and nodded at her he took things a step too far. The next evening as dusk fell she was in the front yard with a garden hose in her hand waiting for him. When the man appeared she intended to show him with just one look that she was onto him and possibly spray him with the hose for good measure.  She saw him leave his house and cross the street with his King Charles Cavalier as he always did, coming up the footpath towards her. She turned her back on him and when he was almost level she spun around suddenly, but before she could give him her harshest glare he smiled.

 “Hello,” he said. “It’s a lovely evening.” She didn’t reply but that wasn’t enough to deter him.
“How’s your mother? I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“My mother ‘s dead. She died six months ago.”
 “Oh, I’m terribly sorry to hear that. I only spoke to her a few times but she seemed like a lovely lady.” The silence grew between them but still he didn’t move on. “I’ve seen you around quite a bit but I don’t believe we’ve ever been introduced. My name is Simon.” Again she said nothing but he continued unperturbed. “It’s such a shame that we’ve been neighbours for so long and we don’t even know each other after all these years. If you ever want to pop over for a cup of tea or something please do. I’m home alone most of the time except on Thursdays.” His invitation was so unexpected that Judy almost dropped the hose and she forgot all about her plans to flick him with it. Instead she mumbled something about being too busy and then retreated inside the house.

 Once inside she sat in the darkened living room and tried to forget the unsettling encounter by listening to her favourite music. The familiar old tunes brought back memories of her younger years and her mind wandered back to the time she had spent living with some girlfriends in the city after she had started her first job. It had been a fun, carefree period in her life but all that ended when her father died and she moved home to be with her mother.  “It’s your duty,” everyone had told her and she hadn’t known how to argue with that. When her mother got sick she’d given up work to become a full-time carer and somehow the life she always thought she’d have slipped through her fingers. Where had the years gone? With a sigh she got up and went into the kitchen to rinse her cup before shuffling into her bedroom and turning down the bed. The sheets were cold as she slipped between them and closed her eyes.

 When she awoke Judy’s melancholy mood of the previous evening had been replaced by anger and she briefly considered calling the police to report the horrible man. From past experience though she knew a person would have to lie murdered in their bed before the police would act, but she had to do something. How would he like it if someone invaded his privacy and watched him without his consent? He needed to be taught a lesson on behalf of the neighbourhood and it looked like she would have to be the one to do it.

 He had told her he was home every day except Thursday and she knew this was true because he did volunteer work in the morning and then in the afternoon he went shopping, meaning he was gone for most of the day.  She also knew he kept a spare key in a pot plant near his front door because she’d seen him use it more than once when he’d locked himself out.

  Judy’s anticipation was such that by the time Thursday came around she almost forgot about her bicycle boy and she had to dash to the front door to catch him in a time. A short time later she watched Simon get into his little white car and drive away. Dressed in tracksuit as if going for a walk, she made her way across the street and when she was certain no one was looking she ducked into his front yard. She quickly found the key and slipped inside the modest brick home. It was sparsely furnished and tidy but with a thin layer of dust over everything. “Typical bachelor,” she said, her voice sounding loud in the unfamiliar room.

 There were a few scattered photos of family in the living room and some books on a shelf that she glanced through. She perched on the edge of the sofa for a few seconds before getting up and moving some of his things around on top of the TV unit. Her hand brushed against a glass of water on the side table and “accidentally” tipped it over, spilling its contents onto the floor. Judy put her hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle and rushed for the door. As she made her way back across the street her heart was racing and she couldn’t remember feeling so alive. She waited for him to walk past that evening, but to her disappointment he didn’t even glance at the house. She would have to go back again and make her presence more obvious.

 The next week she felt a little braver as she opened a desk drawer in his study and looked through the contents. She found what appeared to be a diary and leafing through it one line stood out from the rest: “I wish I didn’t feel so alone.” With a start she returned the diary to the drawer and quickly left the room. She hadn’t yet decided what she would do today  but on noticing there were a couple of dishes in the sink she washed them up and put away, then she found a duster and ran it over the furniture. When he passed by that evening he again showed no sign that he knew what was going on.

The following Thursday she mended some socks, mopped the kitchen floor, did a load of washing, and by the time he returned home it was all folded and put away. He didn’t walk past that evening, but the next afternoon there was no denying it, he looked straight at her window and she could tell he had seen her. Now they had an understanding.

She spent the next few days  in a flutter trying to think of what else she could do for him and she came up with the perfect idea.  She had seen his birthday marked on a calendar in his office and by coincidence it fell on Thursday. She decided to bake a cake and leave in the oven so it would be ready just as he got home and he would be greeted by its delicious aroma as soon as he walked in the door. Who could ask for a nicer birthday surprise?

 Everything went exactly as planned and she looked forward to his reaction that afternoon, but as she was making a cup of tea and getting read to settle into her recliner in front of the window she was surprised by a knock on the door. Surely he wasn’t going to thank her in person for the cake! She opened the door to find a police officer standing there.
 “Are you Miss Judy Pringle?”
 “You’re under arrest for trespassing. Please come with me.”
 “But there must be some mistake.” She raised her hand to her heart.
 “I’m afraid not. We have video evidence of you entering a house in this street without permission.”
 “But I was only….” Tears prevented her from continuing.
 “We can sort it out at the station but you need to come with me now,” said the young officer, taking her arm.

It seemed that all the neighbours were gathered on their front lawns, or peering out their windows as she was led towards the waiting police car and Judy thought she would die of shame. Through the blur of her tears she saw Simon approaching but she couldn’t speak to him. She had no idea what one should say in these circumstances, and thankfully he turned his attention to the police man.

 “Look, I’m sorry officer,” he said as the officer opened the car door her. “But there’s been a mistake. I forgot I asked Judy to do some cleaning for me when I wasn’t home.  I’m really sorry for wasting your time but it’s all just a misunderstanding.”
 The officer clearly did not believe him and he didn’t loosen his grip on her arm. “How could you forget something like that?”
 “Senility must be setting in. It just slipped my mind.” He smiled at the policeman but he didn’t smile back.
 “Okay, well I suppose there’s nothing I can do if you’re not going ahead with the charges.” He released her arm reluctantly and got into his car, glancing from one to the other and shaking his head. Most of the neighbours started to drift away but a few lingered to find out what would happen next.

 “Just so you know, I’ve had all the locks changed,” said Simon, still not looking her in the eye. “I don’t know what you thought you were doing but please stay away from my house.”
 Her cheeks were burning. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me. “

 That night Judy sat in the darkness and silence, thinking about, what a terrible fool she had made of herself. All her life she had been the strong one, the smart one who never let anyone know how she was feeling inside even when her heart was fit to break. Now she was the laughingstock of Mangrove Crescent and she would never live it down. When the young man rode his bike past the next morning she wasn't there to see him because she was still in bed with her face turned to the wall. She spent the rest of the day in her mother's recliner with the curtains drawn and when the knock came in the late afternoon she almost didn’t answer it.

 “Hello. You probably didn’t expect to see me today,” said Simon, “It seemed like a shame to let this nice cake to go to waste so I’m returning it to you.”
 “Please, won’t you come in and share it with me, I believe I have some explaining to do,” she said, unlatching the security door and holding it open. He hesitated for just a moment before stepping into the hall.


**This short story was written for my first creative writing assigment. I decided not to rewrite Falling because it was more fun to start from scratch while drawing on the advice I was given for that story. The stories have similar themes about alienation and loneliness and they both make use of unreliable narrators. This one is written in third person but focalised through the main character, which I think works better for me with characters who are way "out there" ( as many of my characters tend to be). I have a limited word count so the ending is briefer than I wanted it to be and I'm hoping it doesn't affect the flow of the story too much.


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