The security lamp in the hall cast a sickly green light under the door, so John had put a rolled-up towel across the gap to block it out.
He could not, however, block out the sounds of human life around him. There was a family down the hall who never seemed to go to sleep. Initially curious, John had kept an eye on them for a few days and had counted at least six children, though he wasn't sure if they all lived in the flat or belonged to the same parents. The children were grubby and neglected; snotty noses and grazed knees and clothing that was never clean and never fit them. They cried a lot more than John would have expected ordinary children to. But then, it had been a long time since he'd had anything directly to do with children. These urchins seemed shy of him, but whenever he passed them in the hall or on the stairs he was acutely aware that they were staring at him with their big eyes, curious and unafraid.
There had been an elderly lady living across the way for a few weeks toward the end of the summer. She'd been very kind to John in an annoying, pitying sort of way. She'd found out he was a war veteran and had invited him into her flat to introduce him to her budgie, Oscar. She'd told him her father had been a war veteran himself, and then shown him dozens of faded photographs of a serious, proper-looking World War Two fighter pilot. They'd had tea together a few times. It was sort of pathetic and sort of nice. He'd liked her. Her name was Alice.
And then one night an ambulance had come and taken Alice away. Days later, there were relatives in the flat; cleaning out her things, taking Oscar with them. The flat had been empty since then.
John had heard some colourful expressions in the military, but the guy living in the flat directly above his introduced him to several more, by way of bellowing them at his girlfriend day and night. There were constant heavy footsteps, dragging sounds like furniture being moved, and always, the constant string of profanity. Sometimes she returned it with interest. Sometimes John could hear her crying. Other times there was no response from her at all. and John wondered if the man was shouting at an empty room.
One night there'd been more shouting than usual; then a sharp crack that sounded like a slap, and a dull thud.
He'd called the police that time.
After the police had gone away- nothing happened here, officers, we were just having an argument, that's not illegal, is it?- there'd been a knock at the door. Not him. Her. She'd put him on blast for half a minute without breath, telling him to mind his own… adjectival… business.
As for him, he'd waylaid John in the stairwell the following day and threatened to "end him" if he interfered again. How either of them knew it was he who'd called the police was beyond John, but he never called them after that.
Months before, he'd never have tolerated some girlfriend-beating low-life saying things like that to him. It was different now.
And there were times that he'd lie awake at night, flooded over with the light from the outside streetlight that even the ragged curtains couldn't entirely block out. Listening to the sounds inside the building - shouting, laughing, swearing, crying. Footsteps. Doors opening and closing. The furtive gasping, the rustle of bedclothes and gentle creaking of bed-springs as the couple next door made furtive love. And there were other sounds, more constant, outside. The click of heels on the footpath. The rustling of wind in the trees. The distant purr of traffic.
Tomorrow, perhaps. Tomorrow he'd wake up and there'd be nothing wrong with him, because there was nothing wrong with him.
In the half-light his cane, resting up against the chair of his desk, seemed to look accusingly at him.
It was half past two, and restless dreams had murdered his sleep. The usual performance upstairs had abated, and while the low growl of far-off traffic reminded John that life had not ceased to be, all was otherwise quiet and still.
He turned the bedside lamp on, squinting in its sudden glare and sitting up awkwardly. He rested his heavy head on his hands for a few seconds, trying to ignore the cane still sitting where he'd left it propped up against the desk chair.
There's nothing wrong with me.
Unsteadily, he got to his feet. Sharp icicles of pain shot up his leg almost the moment he put weight on it. But the pain was imaginary; there was nothing wrong with his leg. He'd been told so. John neither knew nor cared the difference between psychosomatic and imaginary. He hadn't cared about it at the military hospital, and he certainly didn't give a damn about it now.
He was going to go to the kitchenette, and get himself some tea, despite the hour. He had nowhere in particular to be the next day, and it wouldn't have been the first day he'd spent hazing in and out of a restless doze on the meticulously-made bed.
He looked down to where he was clutching at the bedside table with one white-knuckled hand.
Thumb first. Then index finger. A wobble; clinging again. Thumb. Index finger.
And then he was standing on his own. Of course he was. There was nothing wrong with his leg. Nothing except the ungodly amount of pain that sliced through it whenever he tried to bear weight.
One step, and every nerve in his leg screamed in protest. He shifted his centre of gravity to compensate, wobbling slightly as he took another hesitant step. There were at least ten steps left now before he'd reach the kitchen. Eight. Four. Two. And then the safety of the sink. He clung to it like a drowning man would clutch at a life-buoy. The sharp icicles of pain in his leg had now ignited into soft licks of flame; but he'd won that round, at least.
He was still acutely aware of the cane propped innocently up against the chair.
Yeah, nice work. But how are you going to carry the tea back again?
He only half-filled the cup, crossing from the refrigerator to the kettle without much difficulty. There was still more tea in the cup than his balance could cope with; on his third step back it splashed painfully over his fingers.
A hot sweat. Don't drop it. For God's sake.
And then the bedside table again, like a beacon to a lost mariner. He grabbed at it with his free hand. Setting the dripping cup down, with only a mouthful or two of tea left in it, he sank back down onto the bed.
The spilled tea and burned fingers didn't matter. Weren't the point at all.
He glanced again at the cane. Then he reached out and picked up the dripping, scalding-hot cup beside him.