Simon guzzled greedily from a bottle and escaped to his apartment.Over the thin wall between his and his neighbour’s flats, he heard whimpers and cries for help. He flopped to the carpet and rolled over on his back, staring at the ceiling. A tear rolled down the side of his face and tickled into his ear.
He suppressed a tremor in his hands and admonished himself. How long had it been? Three months? How different was it now from three months ago? In truth, not much. It was all the same and he was back to square one.
It was time to retrospect before the police arrived, he advised himself, with a bottle of cheap whiskey firing his mind and flowery curtains blooming in his window.
Three months ago, the curtains had been black, and his flat had been a garbage dump! That night, when he had crashed to the floor drunk, breaking a bottle, he had heard a yell! Over the thin wall, he listened to his neighbours fight. He knew he’d soon hear a door bang, and Bart would go to his mother’s house for a week.
As he had predicted, a door slammed, and he heard Charlie weeping. He knew she would cry for a day and then start picking up the pieces of her dignity. She’d go out, return, smile at him, and things would be the same as before that narcissist had moved in. He’d hear her cleaning, smell her cooking, and sometimes listen to her singing in the evening.
Simon had been shattered when Bart shacked up with Charlie. Gosh! If he only had a little courage, maybe both their flats could have become one. His last thought that night was her cheerful face as he drifted into a drunken stupor. At some time in his sleep, he must have crawled onto the couch because he was sunk deep in it when he woke the following day. He sniffed hash browns and bacon frying and told himself that dreaming of food was the last thing he needed after a hard night of drinking.
Then he sat up, bewildered!
The mess in the room after two weeks of binge drinking was gone! Bottles, empty cigarette packs, stale takeaway food, soiled napkins, dirty laundry – all were gone. To convince himself he was not dreaming, he glanced at the floor to locate the pieces of the broken bottle. That, too, had gone!
Was he in his parents’ house? The Full English breakfast wafting from the kitchen suggested it. But a hard ashtray under his buttocks negated the idea. He shifted, pulled it free, and rubbed his rear to get his circulation going. The washing machine banging away told his foggy brain that a wash cycle was on. The carpet looked vacuumed at his feet, and the other couches appeared tidied. The cushion covers were missing, though! The curtains too, and he wondered what sort of thief would clean his home, cook his breakfast and yet swipe his furnishings.
The answer came a moment later when a girl entered, armed with a ladle.
“Simon,” she smiled, and he gaped at her.
Charlie, his next-door neighbour! The girl he secretly wanted!
Her eyes were swollen from all the crying, but still, she smiled brightly. Simon’s breath caught. Slack-jawed, he could only stare.
“You’re up,” she observed cheerfully. “Good. Come, I’ve made us breakfast.”
Despite his astonishment, Simon groaned nauseously at the idea of food and made a beeline to the toilet.
When he got control of his stomach and had rinsed his mouth, he gasped at the cleanness of everything. What had Charlie done? Cleaned up his home? Taken his bachelor’s establishment and flung it into the garbage?
After he had been suspended from the hospital two weeks earlier due to aggressive behaviour while on duty, Dr Simon Halliday had hit the bottle. The great Doc Halliday, he called himself when in a sarcastic and self-flagellating mood. The only thing, the real Doc Holliday was a ‘lunger’ and a gun-fighter. The fake Doc Halliday was a loser and a boozer!
When he gingerly peered into the room, he found breakfast on the table and Charlie covering the cushions with clean covers.
“Um,” Simon cleared his throat. “Charlie? You here?”
Her face clouded, and she slumped forward with the cushion on her lap.
“Please don’t tell him I’m here, Simon,” she begged. “We fought last night!”
“Yeah – I heard,” he replied. “Do you think it’s wise? I mean, you being here?”
“I’ve nowhere else to go.”
She hugged the cushion, and her eyelids fluttered down. When she turned her face up again, Simon noticed her filled with tears. “Please let me stay for a couple of days. A week tops.”
“But...” Simon wanted to tell her that Bart should have been the one to leave. Not her. It was her flat.
“I know. I know what you’re thinking,” Charlie said but guessed incorrectly. “I’ll sleep on the couch and keep very quiet. Just a few days. Please.”
Simon scratched his head. “How did you get in?”
“The door was open.”
He left the room quickly and in confusion. Why would she choose his home for a shelter? As neighbours, he barely spoke to Bart. They were two different men. Bart was a trainer at the local gym – muscled and trim. Simon Halliday was a debarred emergency doctor!
One week, he told himself. In hindsight now, he wished he had moved back with his parents. It would have been the best course to take instead of staying on at his flat and ruining his life again.
By the evening of that day, Simon recalled, both were giggling like children, hiding behind
his front door and listening to Bart’s movements in and out of the next apartment. He stoutly decided to keep away from the bottle that day, and anyway, he told himself, to drink, he’d have to replenish his supply, and for that, he’d need to leave his flat. He wasn’t sure how he’d react if he met Bart. Bart was sure to ask him about Charlie, and Simon didn’t want to lie.
“Which one,” Charlie asked him the next day, holding up two sets of curtains. “This one with the tiny flowers I found in the drawer, or this black one which is now washed and free of all food grime?”
Laughing at Simon’s gaping and confused face, she added, “Yes. You were using it to wipe food off your hands! It was absolutely disgusting!”
“Not the flowers, please,” he answered and grinned sheepishly. “That’s what my mum gave me.”
“Well, she has taste,” came the immediate response. “I think the flowers are pretty and will brighten this room.”
Charlie was right, and Simon couldn’t believe how cosy the room became. Everything felt sunny and warm with the soft light from the window.
On the following day, they heard Bart speaking loudly on the phone. He paced the common area between their flats and sounded angry. Behind the door, Simon and Charlie crouched, listening intently. He couldn’t help but notice her pink cheeks and shining eyes and was amazed at the redness in her lips. Nothing, he realized, nothing suggested that here was a runaway girlfriend!
“What do you find in him?” he whispered tactlessly. “To me, he’s only a narcissistic jerk!”
Charlie giggled, and Simon detected mischief in her shining eyes. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” he mouthed. “He’s calling all your friends asking if you’re with them.”
Outside, Bart, unsuccessful with the calls he’d been making, howled in rage. They heard the phone shatter and quick footsteps shuffle across the floor. Then a door slammed shut.
Charlie bit her finger and giggled again, a soft little laugh that sounded like a note of music. On an impulse, Simon reached forward and kissed her. It took her completely off guard, and she stared at him for a moment. The next second, she flew into his lap and kissed him back.
That night Charlie moved from his couch to his bed, and the week stretched to a month, and a month stretched to two. She and Bart broke up after a stormy showdown, and he moved out – likely to his mother’s house.
With their two flats side by side, the new lovers began to look at designs to combine their homes. Simon could not have been more satisfied. All he needed to do now was to clear his name at the hospital.
“So why were you suspended?” she asked him one night.
“Long story,” he replied. “I’m under what you call suspension, pending enquiry.”
“I hit a patient’s dad who tried to tell me how to do my job.”
She stared, flabbergasted, at him.
“The kid had overdosed and was having seizures,” he went on to explain. “And the dad was dancing around telling me what to do. So, I decked him.”
She giggled. “That’s so unlike you, Simon Halliday.”
“Oh! I’m a superhero in scrubs,” he joked and pounced on her, pinning her to the bed.
At that moment, they heard a crash outside the flat. Glancing at each other bewildered, they tumbled out of bed and charged to the front door. Opening it, Simon gasped aloud. Charlie, behind him, let out a tiny scream.
Sliding down the door of her flat, Bart was bloody and beaten, his nose a mass of pulp. Simon was already by his side, checking his pulse and examining his broken nose. When he tried to lift him, the big man winced. A quick inspection of his abdomen confirmed his fears, and Simon gritted:
“Charlie, he has a few broken ribs. Call the cops. Call an ambulance.”
“No, no,” Bart whispered hoarsely. “No cops. No hospital. They’re after me.”
“Some jerks from the gym!”
“You’re a fool to come here!” Simon admonished. “Charlie, help me get him to a bed.”
She had been standing like a mass of granite by Simon’s door. At his order, she flew into action, ducking under Bart’s heavy arm and supporting him as they lifted him and helped him into her flat. Laying him on the bed, Simon immediately turned to Charlie and asked her to bring him warm water and clean sheets.
Taking care of Bart in the next flat was easy. For one, Simon knew what to do. Secondly, the stricken man had the most attentive nurse in Charlie. Within a week, Bart was able to speak, and in a month, he was already shuffling about the apartment. Charlie was his constant nurse now, most so because Simon’s enquiry into his conduct at the hospital had commenced. It was likely that he would be let off with only a warning. For Simon, it had been a week of running around, retrieving camera footage, finding witnesses and getting his rebuttals together. But at the end of it all, he was back to being Dr Simon Halliday again.
Jubilant, he came home with a bottle of whiskey to give Charlie the news. Aware that, with her patient needing attention, she wouldn’t be in his apartment, he charged into hers and into the room of convalescence. But then, at the door, he froze as if something had slapped his face. Bart might have been recovering from two broken ribs, but both his hands now were working double time as he fondled his giggling nurse and rolled on top of her.
Something exploded inside Simon, and he roared in fury. Charging wildly, he pounced on the injured man, yanked him off the screaming girl and punched him repeatedly in the ribs. When
he had reduced Bart to whimpers of agony, Dr Halliday bunched his fist and walloped the tender nose, feeling the delicate cartilage crumple under his knuckles.
As Bart writhed in suffering and Charlie screamed in terror, Simon retrieved his bottle and left the flat.
Cheap whisky, but it would do.
© Cindy Pereira