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The Woman In The Window

The view from my desk

Some windows

An acquaintance of mine once joked, ‘Why doesn’t Nick look out the window in the morning? Because then he’d had have nothing to do in the afternoon.’ But the truth is that throughout the working day, while I type, I frequently look out my window to check the windows opposite. From my desk I can see twenty-two windows in which a person might sit or stand, smoking, speaking on the phone, or gazing into the quiet, dead-end street that lies between our buildings. But while I imagine people, populate rooms, create voices, invent emotions, these rectangles stay empty. No bulb brightens those spaces. There is no glow from a TV or computer. If anyone is in there they must be doing something that requires little light. They cannot be reading, drawing, chopping carrots or knitting. Perhaps they are lying on their floors, in shadow, breathing slowly and deeply, trying to summon calm. Or they gather in stairwells, leaning on banisters or sitting on steps while chatting and laughing because their partner works nights or they’re friends with their neighbours or are simply in no hurry to enter rooms where they will be alone.

Only when day starts to ebb is there proof of occupancy. Lights come on. A window opens. As the sky goes from light blue to deep blue to dark the rectangles become orange, white, yellow. Smokers present themselves for inspection; silhouettes helm the sink. Occasionally I hear a snatch of music, a gust of laughter, see a man leaning on his forearms as he looks up and down the street as if on sentry duty. I would not need to do much to get his attention. I could murmur ‘Alright’ or ‘Evening’, I could cough, sniff, clear my throat, sigh deeply. We could have a brief conversation without needing to shout. And yet in the evening it is unthinkable to make any attempt to communicate with anyone in those windows. After dusk the gap between our buildings appears too great. Darkness and distance make it seem as if we are living on opposite banks of a river impossible to cross. Any words coming out of the dark will seem as unwelcome and threatening as a fist on the door.

Only once has there been someone in the windows during the day. Three years ago, during the winter, a woman appeared in the window nearest to mine. She had brown hair, was in her late thirties, and throughout the day wore a bulky white dressing gown. Like me, she sat right by the window. She was usually staring at something, perhaps also a computer, and would frequently laugh so loudly that even through her closed window and my closed window the noise rose like the cry of the ravenous gulls that roost on the chimneys of her building. I was used to their noise, and liked their different moods; eventually there would be the ordinary, impossible sight of them launching into flight. But I could not get used to her shrieks. Her ordinary speaking voice was so loud I had to turn on music to create a white silence against which words could form. Often they refused.

Occasionally I would open my window and then conspicuously eavesdrop on what she was saying, hoping to either learn enough about her to create a more empathetic and forgiving conception of her, or that my visible presence would make her lower her voice. Yet, after two months of listening, she still spoke at the same volume; I knew nothing about her, not even her name. The conversations sounded personal but were not. Although she spoke in a cheerful, friendly manner, none of these conversations were with friends. She was talking to colleagues, possibly customers, though it was impossible to tell whether she was in human relations or customer support or one of those other jobs whose duties I cannot imagine. All I can remember about these hundreds of conversations is her repetition of the phrases ‘That’s right!’, ‘You’re very welcome!’ and ‘You have a good day!’ Though she must have been aware of my existence, neither my presence nor my opening the window, then shutting it loudly, ever distracted her from the unseen, distant people she was presumably speaking to. I do not think that at any moment she imagined that her voice might be disturbing someone else.

I didn’t want much from her. We didn’t need to become friends. Some acknowledgement that I was alive would have been enough. An occasional wave, a ‘Hello, how are you?’ That would have been sufficient to balance the unexpected intrusion of her voice. But I do not think she ever made even the briefest eye contact. Perhaps she saw no reason to signal to a ghostly shape on the other side of the river.

Spring put foliage between us but this did not help. Being unable to see her made her voice even more startling because now it attacked without warning. Yet as the days lengthened and the weather improved I was unwilling to close my window because I didn’t want to be deprived of the cooling breeze that lifted my piles of paper. As soon as I heard her I turned up my music. She didn’t seem to notice. For her, I did not exist.

During the day I still checked the other windows, all of which stayed dark. Sometimes this upset me; sometimes it was a relief. And yet on the first of May someone must have been in one of those rooms because on that day a bullet hole appeared in my bedroom window. I did not hear the sound. Nor could I find the pellet. But given the angle, there was nowhere else it could have come from except one of the high windows opposite. And yet I still sat by the window. It never occurred to me to sit somewhere else. Though my flat has other chairs, the one by the window felt like my only option. I could not work elsewhere.

A few days later it occurred to me that there were other ways to make contact with the woman opposite. I could put a note through her door. Or something else. An egg, a rotten apple. She would never connect it with me because for her I didn’t exist. There would be other people to blame. Neighbours, colleagues. She might have friends, or sort of friends. But whatever I put through her letterbox, I didn’t think it would make her stop shrieking in the window. The only way she’d connect this harassment with her behaviour was if the note directly stated her offence, which would make me not only a possible suspect, but by far the most likely one.

By June, when the foliage was even thicker, I assumed she was always there. And yet I still needed to know. To find out I kept my window open and stopped playing music. I waited to hear the protest of her chair, a mug being put down. Confirmation was usually swift. Her phone would ring and then her voice would sharply rise into a noise of greeting that stretched like bubble gum. And although it made me clench my fists, swear, I never doubted her sincerity. Whoever these people were, she was genuinely delighted to hear from them.

One day, near the end of summer, I heard a different ‘hi’. A short croak. Then she was crying, her words tripping over each other. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘But it’s so awful, I can’t stand it, I can’t, it’s awful.’ I sat and listened but she was too distraught to say anything expository. And yes, I was pleased. Now we had something in common.

After this there were blissful weeks during which she remained mute. I quietly made my characters talk, struggle, sing. At night the light didn’t go on. I had to remind myself that she was probably on holiday. She’d be coming back.

But when the leaves began to drop and I could see her window again there was no one there. Her absence was almost as much of a distraction as her presence; every time I glanced at the empty space I felt a quiet satisfaction, as if I had won a competition in which no one else had taken part.

It was another two weeks before I saw, late one evening, a light blink on inside. A grey-haired man shuffled into view. He was holding a plate and a book. He sat where she had sat, eating slowly, consuming the pages with more interest than his food. When he glanced in my direction, then raised a hand, I hid.

Nick Holdstock is the author of three books of nonfiction (The Tree That Bleeds, Chasing the Chinese Dream, and China’s Forgotten People), and three books of fiction (The Casualties, The False River, and Quarantine). He writes for the TLS, the Guardian, the LRB and other publications.

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