When Gary went into the bedroom Kate was sitting with her ear pressed against the bottom of a tumbler. The open top of the tumbler was pressed against the party wall.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘It’s going to start,’ she said.
‘What’s going to start?’
‘The people next door and their damn noise, that’s what’s going to start.’
‘I can’t hear anything.’
‘Then shut up and listen.’
‘Why would I want to listen? We’ve got noisy neighbours. Lots of people have noisy neighbours,” he said.
‘This is how it starts. This is how it starts every time,’ Kate said.
Gary put ear plugs in as he got into bed and asked, “How? How does it start every time?’
It starts with a curse. Or the chink of a glass. Or the hiss of a can being opened. Or a laugh. Or a guffaw. Always there are guffaws. A man shouts, another shout, another man, a scream. A woman’s voice. Slowly it rises, all the time it rises. Everything now, every assertion, every reprimand, every accusation, every riposte is clearly heard, but none of it is intelligible, none of it can be understood or translated because the words are deranged and have taken on new intonations and adopted new meanings. It will not end until exhaustion or the grey light of dawn is encountered. Then it will fade; it will slip into a tense and expectant slumber for a short time before some encroachment intrudes upon the fragile peace to stir the ashes of anger and recrimination or madness and only when this latest episode ends in an outrage of violent abuse or physical injury will a dangerous, fearful silence descend and she will sink into a dark and fitful sleep until she hears again the first curse against God, against humanity, against the world.
Kate got into bed and lay awake listening to the murmur of voices through the party wall.
‘It’s always the same, it’s like a diabolic formula,’ she whispered.
‘Stop listening, put your ear plugs in and go to sleep,’ Gary said.
Kate put her ear plugs in, but as she lay there in the dark she could feel the different timbres of sound vibrate through the bricks and plaster of the party wall that separated them from the house next door.
She woke at five thirty. She had slept almost four hours. She took out her earplugs and listened and heard the low listless drone of voices occasionally punctuated by a cough or a low grumbling groan. And then she heard a woman’s cry of passion. She lay on her back listening for a while and then put her earplugs back in and turned on her side and tried to sleep but couldn’t.
Gary got home early from work that afternoon. Before having a shower or laying out clean clothes or making his lunch for work the next day, before doing anything else, he put a tumbler to his ear and pressed it against the party wall and, concentrating hard, listened. He removed the tumbler from the wall several times before putting it back and listening again, until he thought he was sure he could hear Kate amongst the welter of voices on the other side of the party wall.
JAMES COFFEY is a retired Civil Servant who lives in Coventry, England.