A LOW HUMMING NOISE filters through the wall. At first I think it’s the neighbour’s vacuum. James tells me different, face pressed against the wire meshed glass on the back door. His nose is flattened and his eyes are wide.
‘There’s a fat man on the balcony, Ma.’
‘What’s he doing?’
‘Just sitting there, singing.’
It wouldn’t be the first time James has unleashed his imagination. We’ve already spent three weeks in the company of a wardrobe monster and his invisible friend Jake seems to appear every time something is smashed or broken.
‘What’s he singing?’ I ask.
‘Not sure,’ he fidgets with his pocket, twisting the material between pudgy thumb and forefinger.
‘Ask him what he’s up to.’
He circles his mouth with his hands, creating a loudspeaker.
‘What do ye want?’ he shouts.
‘I don’t want you,’ a voice replies from outside.
‘Jesus.’ I rush to the back door and look out through the glass.
The balcony is small, a vertical lip of concrete with gaps on both sides. It wasn’t designed for children so I keep the back door locked at all times. It wasn’t designed for pets either. Mrs Rafferty on the eight floor found this out the hard way, losing poor little Sniffy to an unplanned skydive. After time had dampened the loss, she began to see a funny side to the accident. Living in the complex you have to find a funny side to everything, the hilarity of the vandalised stairwells, the comical eviction notices and the side splitting unemployment rates. It is a dark humour, as dark as the shadowed landings which house clever, scurrying rats.
A man sits on the concrete lip. He is fat.
‘Where is she?’ he yells, turning towards the door.
I recognise him. His name is Ted Maroni and he works in the local chip shop, a building sandwiched between the sleepy Laundromat and the rolling hackney-cab depot. The chip shop is a bright place, with a blinding metal counter and shiny tiles. Aged, unappetising posters line the walls, survivors of the sixties.
Have a groovy meal.
Right on, a hip, happening hamburger.
Ted has a short beard and wears a white smock with stained sleeves. The scent of grease forever hangs about him, on his hair and clothes. Depending on your leaning towards chips you are either hungry or ill in his presence. His Italian genes have been diluted to the point that he now resembles an Irishman with a touch of jaundice.
I remember the family used to work from an old van perched on a grass verge outside Pappin’s Tower. The tyres were ripped and gouged, bubbled solder ripples ran along the rear and side doors. They served from a crude hatch to customers who queued on a flattened patch of grass. On blustery days the scent of vinegar would waft across the whole town through a tunnel formed by the row of flats. It was a lure to stray mutts and men who fell from the local pubs.
Ted’s father looked after that van. He was a man aged beyond his years. He had a face like a mouldy turnip, sunken and lined.
‘Giz a free single,’ my friend Ann-Marie would plead with him. Her hair was a peroxide mess and she was lost in a frumpy bomber jacket. She wore make-up at eleven, blue eyeliner and masses of blush. She was going for the artist’s pallet look.
‘Fifty pence,’ Mr Maroni would bark.
‘Ah, I don’t have fifty pence.’
‘Then get a job.’
He was one of the few adults we didn’t fear. Another was Mr Crowley, the skinny bus driver, who once tried to stop kids jumping on the back of the bus by giving them lollipops. It was a bad move. The place was swarming with kids the following evening, hanging around his bus waiting on a free lollipop.
I would loiter at that chipper van asking Mr Maroni questions, along with the other dirty faced kids, a bored group with sticky fingers and toeless shoes.
‘No, no, no, Irish potatoes are useless for chips,’ he would argue with us. His Italian accent had a cockney sound to it, drawing out vowels and squeezing consonants. ‘Too much starch. The chip goes all bendy, like a piece of wet bread. The best potatoes are Italian. Hey, the best of anything are Italian.’
He would wiggle his tiny hips for effect, flipping a hamburger at the same time. It is hard to see the resemblance between him and his son. Then again, the weight could be disguising the similarities.
I open the back door slightly, foot at the base.
‘What are you doing out here?’ I ask.
‘Me, what are you doing here?’
I pause, thinking he is joking. I quickly realise he is not.
‘Seriously, what are you doing?’
Ted turns back towards the purple sky so I am staring at the back of his head.
‘You shouldn’t be here,’ he moans. ‘Maureen should be here.’
‘I live here.’
‘In this exact spot? He throws his hands into the air for dramatic effect.
‘In this flat, you moron.’
‘Ah, in this flat or in another flat?’
‘Are you drunk?’
‘Drunk with love.’
James presses his weight into my leg in an effort to see. I close the door and usher him into his room. When I return to the balcony I hear his bedroom door opening, the little nosey parker.
‘It’s too late to be messing about,’ I explain to Ted. ‘Whatever you’re up to, I want you to do it somewhere else.’
‘I’m giving up. Tell Maureen she has won the war.’
‘There’s nobody called Maureen here.’
‘Ah, you women and your games. I am nothing more than a ball of string to your sharp claws. If it is not the mind games, it is the sex. I am just one man. I am not a machine. You tell Maureen that I am not a sex machine.’
I spy James’s blue and white striped pyjamas in the opening of his bedroom door.
‘Come on, bed,’ I shout while closing the door.
‘Ah, Ma,’ he moans.
‘Ah Ma nothing.’
I tuck him in. Moments later and air softly whistles from his nostrils. He is asleep.
Ted still sits on the balcony. His shoulders are hunched forward and his head is down, the pose of the dejected. I’ve often seen him pottering around the base of the tower block, throwing bread to the cracked pigeons that think the grey, concrete structure is a cliff. Ted fits in with the pigeons. He has a similar waddling step and ducking neck.
‘The little fella’s asleep,’ I utter softly through the gap in the door. ‘You’ll have to clear off.’
‘She orders a portion of chips and two chicken pieces every Friday,’ he announces. ‘Every single Friday. I wait and wait but there is no sign of her. I tell you what, nobody stands Ted Maroni up.’
‘Look, maybe she’s sick or something. There’s probably a good reason for her not showing up.’
‘Carl Bridges, that’s her reason.’
‘I really don’t have the time or the patience for this.’
I squeeze the bridge of my nose. I’ve been getting these blinding headaches lately. There’s no point going to the doctor. There are many names for what I have, repetitive annoyance syndrome, excessive responsibility attacks or otherwise known as Parentitis. It lasts for at least eighteen years and will certainly lead to an early death.
‘Who does he think he is?’ Ted loudly questions the sky. ‘He says he’s a chef. Ha, he cleans dishes in Giuseppe’s on the main street. He doesn’t even clean them well. I’ve often seen smudges on the glasses and stains on the plates. Of course I wouldn’t tell Giuseppe. He’s a good friend. You never tell a good friend bad things.’
‘It’s alright to tell a stranger?’
‘You’ll never see a stranger again and if you do you won’t recognise him.’
‘I hope I never see you again.’
‘Get Maureen and you never will.’
‘I’m warning you, you better not wake that child.’
‘I’m going to jump.’
‘Go ahead, jump,’ I encourage him. He won’t do too much damage leaping from a first-floor balcony.
He rests his palms on his crown.
‘It’s the little battles that get me. If only I could win just one. You can come out, Maureen,’ he shouts. ‘I’m not going to jump.’
‘I told you, there’s no Maureen here.’
Laughter erupts from the balcony above. It is Jay Staunton, a brown haired teenager with too much time on his hands.
‘Oh, I’ll be your Maureen,’ he imitates a lady.
‘Get out of here, ye little shit,’ Ted isn’t impressed.
‘I live here. You get out of here.’
‘I will when I see Maureen.’
‘Does this look like Maureen?’
Ted’s chin drops in a cartoonish expression of shock. I can only guess as to what part of Jay’s anatomy is now dangling from the balcony above.
‘If you don’t get off the balcony I’m going to call the police,’ I threaten before closing the door.
I pull the curtains across. The intercom crackles. It is just the noise of a plane overhead. The legs on the ironing board screech in resistance as I open them, the light on the iron flashes from amber to green. The steam smells fresh. I flatten the fabric in arcs, ignoring collars and cuffs. I have no time for details.
There is a pile of dishes in the sink and mashed potato trampled into the kitchen floor. A terrible whining sound comes from outside. He is singing again. I feel like killing him or worse, making him finish the ironing.
‘Tell her it was a misunderstanding,’ he wails as soon as I open the door.
‘I’m sure she’s told you about the police. She’s partially to blame. Why couldn’t she have just ordered her usual single and two pieces of chicken? None of this would have happened.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘She’s probably fed you a load of rubbish, about the restaurant and Giuseppe. Let me set the record straight now. It’s not my fault.’
‘Jesus Christ. You’re doing my head in.’
‘I’ll probably be arrested. Carl Bridges is to blame for this.’
‘Blame for what? What are ye talking about?’
‘Marko told me he saw Maureen hanging around with Carl Bridges. Marko says they were heading towards the restaurant, practically holding hands.’
‘How can ye practically hold hands?’ I quiz. ‘You’re either holding someone’s hand or you’re not.’
‘I don’t know. Maybe their fingers were touching or something.’
‘So they were holding fingers?’
‘I don’t fuckin’ know. Marko is the one that saw them. Holding hands or not, she was supposed to be at the chipper with me, eating her chicken portion. Bastards.’
‘This doesn’t explain why you’re on my balcony.’
‘I lost it, I mean really lost it. It was like my mind was on fire or something. I grabbed a knife from the backroom.’
I immediately take more notice of the stains on the sleeve of his smock. They are red in colour. They are splatters.
‘I didn’t know what I was going to do. My mind was a ball of flame. One minute I’m talking to Marko, next thing I know I’m at the restaurant. Giuseppe himself is on duty. He tells me that Carl Bridges is in the kitchen. Then he laughs. I wasn’t sure if he was laughing at me so I ask him. What are ye laughing at, I says. He shrugs his shoulders, like he doesn’t know what to say. Do you know what I mean?’
I nod my head.
‘Me and Giuseppe are good friends. Who was there with free chicken nuggets when his son was sick? Who drops chips up to his house when he is stuck? I’ll tell you who. Ted Maroni, that’s who. We go back a long way.’
He runs his fingers through his hair.
‘Someone must have told Carl Bridges I was looking for him because he sends this waiter out to me, a small fella with a big red face. It gets even redder when I ask about Maureen. I’m always warning about people like him. Dangerous they are. Liars too. The waiter says he doesn’t know any Maureen. I knew he was lying. I could smell Maureen off him.’
‘That’s some nose you must have.’
‘It’s the perfume. Maureen always wears the same one. I recognised it as soon as I entered the place. It was like Hansel and Gretel, except instead of a bread trail it was perfume. This trail went right to the kitchen. He tried to stop me going in but I was like a man possessed. I pushed him out of the way and ran in. Who do I find sitting beside Carl Bridges, under the pots and pans?’
‘Bingo. She’s just sitting there, a big bowl of bolognese on her lap. I couldn’t believe it. She doesn’t like beef. She never gets a hamburger. It’s always chicken, two pieces of chicken and a single of chips. How could she do it? I don’t understand how she could pick bolognese over chicken. I completely lost it. My hand went to the knife and once I started I couldn’t stop.’
His hands slowly rise to his face. I know he’s crying because his shoulders twitch.
‘You’ll have to talk to someone,’ I try to reason.
‘What have I done?’ he sobs. ‘I’ve lost her for good.’
He lifts his feet up onto the balcony, scrunches his frame like a sad child. I think of my son and instantly feel sorry for the man.
‘I was lucky to have her in the first place,’ he moans. ‘I don’t know what she ever saw in me.’
‘You should really hand yourself in to the police.’
‘I saw this programme once,’ he ignores me. ‘It was about this tribe in South America. They each have a part to play in the running of the community. Some make boats, others build huts, hunt or catch fish. It made me think about how useful I’d be in their society. I’m rubbish with my hands and I couldn’t kill an animal. I’d be useless.’
‘You could have cooked their meals.’
‘No I couldn’t,’ he wails. ‘They don’t have a deep fat fryer.’
I give him a moment to recompose himself.
‘It was a crime of passion. They might go easy on you.’
‘I’m more worried about losing Maureen. I don’t care about the police.
They will just let me go.’
‘After stabbing a man?’
‘What are you talking about? The only thing I stabbed was that bloody hat of his. I couldn’t help it. Seeing it hanging beside those pots was the last straw. I shred it to bits, every bump and cushion on it. Maureen tried to stop me, got some of that bloody bolognese sauce on my clothes.’ He lifts his sleeve. ‘That wouldn’t have happened with a chicken dinner.’
‘For feck sake,’ I’m so angry I could explode. ‘You’re having a laugh with me. I can’t believe I wasted my time listening to you.’
‘I told you she doesn’t live here.’
Slamming the door I move back inside. James stirs at the noise. I curse Ted Maroni and his bloody chip shop.
I busy myself, frequently checking on my uninvited guest. He becomes a shadow as the evening stretches into night. The Notre Dame Cathedral has gargoyles perched to its side, grotesque and stubborn stone carvings. We have Ted Maroni.
A couple of hours later and I spot two uniformed policemen strolling along the pathway which hugs the Tower. One taps the other on the shoulder and points to the balcony. They descend the embankment. I open the backdoor.
‘What are you doing Mr Maroni?’ One of the policemen shouts. ‘We’ve been looking everywhere for you.’
‘I’m going to jump,’ Ted threatens.
‘Don’t do it Mr Maroni. It’s not worth it.’
‘Hey, don’t encourage him to stay,’ I pipe up. ‘Get him off my balcony.’
‘This is a serious matter, madam. It would be best if you weren’t involved.’
‘I’ve been trying to get uninvolved for half the evening.
‘Come on Mr Maroni. Your wife is worried about you.’
‘You were talking to Anna?’
‘Yeah, she said she wants you home.’
He inches forward on the lip of concrete. They reach up, helping him from the balcony.
‘It really wasn’t my fault,’ he tells them as he walks off. I watch them until they are lost to the darkness.
I return to the ironing. My thoughts are butterflies, soft and changeable. They land briefly on a subject, before fluttering onto something new. I consider what my contribution would be to a South American tribe. Probably not much, I think. I don’t get much time to dwell on the matter. James awakens in the room opposite and calls for me