At the kitchen window of an upstairs flat, there is a watchman. He sits on the corrugated stairs outside his house and smokes – makes room for his neighbours to build whole pictures of him, fully aware they’re calling him a scruffy cunt. If it gets them closer to domestic harmony, then he’s at peace. From these vantage points, the watchman can look down into his neighbour’s yard or across into his bathroom. So close he can benefit from the ambience of its earthy paintwork and cardamom scents. It’s a desirable habitat – one that’d surely transform getting clean into a pleasure to be preserved rather than a reminder of pores, acne and imperfection.
There’s no reason to worry about being seen because the watchman knows that when the neighbour looks outward, from the vantage point of his own bathroom, he sees only his reflection in the darkened glass. He watches his neighbour lose thought and find it again, feeling like a guard in a panopticon prison – all the time in the world to learn his rituals and how he washes his hair. He watches him bathe. Watches piss rise from the bath, sometimes three foot high and how his neighbour strains to maximise its height and catch it in his mouth. The watchman empathised – for he too had pissed in his mouth on more than three occasions and understood the behaviours that exist when we assume we’re alone. You could say he understood the human condition.
Beyond the bathroom, the watchman looks through empty doorframes and wonders how the layout of the house matches his. It gives rise to feelings of inadequacy, that he’s been sold short on his mortgage and he questions his neighbour’s financial credibility. And why, even if he had the financial security, did the watchman lack the imagination and stylistic nous to make his own bathroom look as good?
These houses were the same for miles square – terraced. Built a century ago to accommodate the growth of an industrialised town – each separated by two yards and a lane. Aspirational one-upmanship is wagered with loft conversions and kitchen extensions while some houses still have coal hatches and the shells of outdoor toilets. Furniture wilts in the lanes, footballs smash garage doors and kids knock about on bikes and scooters.
Surrounding the streets are downhill views looking out to sea, across fields and over water towers, and whoever commits to the thoughtful ends of these views, commits to feelings of loss – profound feelings of guilt towards parents who are still alive. These streets are not recognised by their names but by their features. The curvature of their roads, the colour of a corner house wall or the way a concaved drain is suited to bike jumps. Markers that enable you to pinpoint your location in the habitat, variable depending on demographic and disposition.
There’s couples who’d been there sixty year, who’d watched their children grow and return again when their perspectives changed. Faces you’d nod at while locking ye door or scraping ice off a windshield. It meant nowt that you knew the precise minute they left for the metro if you’d never know how they raised their kids or what they liked and when. You could always speculate though, and from here was where your self-worth was built.
The watchman knew that if he could articulate it well enough, the people of the street would understand exactly what he meant when he said the air feels different in this block or that, to the point that it makes you feel lost or lonely despite being just yards away.
The watchman puts out a cigarette and drops it between the corrugated stairs onto downstairs’ dog. He trapses down to brush the ash off, carrying attitudes to life from past generations in his scowl and wisdoms found as a watchman in his behaviour. In the self-prescribed boundaries of the watchman’s lane, he sees only birds, clouds and planes. He traces the goosebumps on his arm and rides the shivers of adrenaline that impersonate feelings of peace. The world was only ever a walk away, a short walk round the corner into an idea of progressive life, but the isolation was necessary for thought to remain pure and truths unchallenged. At times it felt obsessive dreaming about a life different to his, when the red bricks darkened or when he found himself alone in a blue kitchen too distracted to turn on a light. Sometimes though, he was just smoking, sitting there watching the flight of seagulls or working through long-term ablutions, putting emotional weight to verses in Auld Lang Syne – the ones about forgetting old friends.
Today is tomorrow and tomorrow is today and the days after will be much the same until Saturday. The watchman breaks his week into a thousand internal battles that must be overcome. He’s returned home to smashed plates; the actions of an angry wife. He pauses to draw his conclusions. Tonight he’s making the tea, awaiting the judgement of its quality. The watchman worries his wife tells girls at work he’s not domesticated, that they’ll plant seeds in her mind she should leave. He didn’t know what hurt more – the threat of divorce or his rumoured lack of domesticity.
The tea went down alright tonight but there’ll always be something, always something to put the cat among the pigeons. And so he waits, waits at his window unable to relax or focus, neglecting his neighbour. His wife notices him. She asks if those black lads over the lane are up to their old tricks again. The ones with the compasses and the protractors and the non-ambient lighting who are only trying to better themselves through education, he asks. Aye themns, she says. They’re Indians them man, these people I’m watching are white, like you and me. The perceived moralisation of her racism angers her – makes her feel a loss of agency and now she’s complaining about things that confirm her doubts. He ignores it all, the complaining and the racism for fear of conflict. Racist viewpoints will never disturb his life the way domestic upheaval could. He’ll never walk away because this is love – a prolonged feeling of loss to be enjoyed, persevered and savoured.
His neighbour’s in the kitchen preparing a tinned pie while his wife watches the One Show on the settee. It’s on in the watchman’s too and he watches through the neighbour’s window but listens to the sound from his. A crow distracts him by tapping on the window and the watchman asks it what benefit a friendship with a backdoor neighbour serves anyone. The crow flies away without response. The neighbour’s making hard work of the pie, stabbing at it with a bread knife. The watchman considers knocking with a tin opener but concedes that it would only rouse suspicion. He considers going round under the guise of needing milk so he can broker the rapport and tell the neighbour about his youth and how he’d stand in his own back lane watching the stars and eating tinned pies too. In the days when eating a pie was an isolated act, before eating them was a weaponised class signifier by politicians akin to going down the pit or pigeon racing. One day they’ll meet while doing the bins and begin a nervous dialogue – the only way they’ll ever meet, the only way he’ll have a foot in the door of a life greater than his. You always forget, don’t ye. Aye. A never know when it’s the blackn or the recycling one me. You can check the website yena. Aye, ad only forget to do that though, that’s the thing. Haha aye. See you later, pal. Aye, so long. That’s how it’d go.
The neighbour finishes the pie in his yard under moonlight. Silty rain drips from a moss-filled drainpipe into the pie without him realising. Light shines from the kitchen giving him a biblical aura. The watchman wonders what’s wrong with his neighbour’s marriage for him to be eating alone. Why doesn’t he realise his pie’s filled with silt? Should he expect more from a man who drinks his own piss? The neighbour checks his flower baskets before turning inside. A plane distracts him and he looks to make out its flight path, whether it’s flying in or out the Tyne. He concludes that plane travel doesn’t hold the same weight of escape like it used to, that it’s rare people go missing outside of murders and kidnappings. No longer do timid men from north-east colliery towns open pubs in South London because they lived with a frustrated sense of shame. If you were that arsed about opening a pub, you’d do it locally. It’s like being a spy, you’d want people to know.
The watchman knew his assumptions were unhealthy but he’d met men like this before, men who’d escaped to London without trace. He understood the common ground he shared between them, that deep down they were both after more – love, reassurance or just something to value. These were men who’d experienced the feeling of tightening the Velcro on their daughter’s shoes, felt that love and still ran. The watchman had tried leaving too, but on the occasions he did, he’d meet paralysis at York and turn around. Even then, he was never away long enough for anyone to feel the loss of his departure, but he always managed to see life differently from that fatalistic perspective of a train window. And in those hours he felt brave, felt the romance of complete anonymity before the safety of an inevitable return. It’d always be easier to face his troubles in the place he was born, feel the familiar comforts of local anonymity than have it follow him about.
Again, the watchman’s making the tea – the second time this week. Again, he waits for his wife’s disapproval. No matter how far he goes, no matter his efforts to cook nice chips, something’s always a miss. It stems from an unhappiness within herself; stresses and worries out of her control much like his but it brings him down. Tonight, she’s made remarks about his posture and the state of his hair. He’d worked hard to mould a positive outlook that day but now he just felt like crying.
She can’t resist the temptation of bullying him, taking advantage of his pathological timidness even though it makes her sad to see him sad. He forgets it’s possible for a man like him to fall out of love and upon remembering that fact he loses trust in the feeling. Concedes that whatever the emotional discrepancy, it’s something to be resolved inside the relationship rather than out. That positive change can only be found separate to the relationship – a relationship too sacred to touch. This’d mean leaving the window behind, befriending his neighbour in person – actions that would change his life across the board. The weight of this realisation was visible on his face and his wife took it personally.
Say what’s on your mind, she says. I know nothing I do is ever good enough. C’mon love, I’m only trying me best. The last thing I want is to fall out but I just feel like you’re always disappointed in is. A feel like I’m constantly on eggshells. You saying you’re not happy, like? Nah, I’m not saying that, but I know we don’t love each other how we used to, it’s not hard to see. I wish it was like how it was. His bravery knocked the wind out a bit, showed her the first steps he was taking towards making a better life, an inclination that he would soon be willing to leave her behind whether he knew it or not. He saw her realisation too and reassured her of his commitment out of guilt. In secret, he took courage from this unprecedented vocalisation and knew that if he could sustain the courage long enough he’d be alright. He began to sulk at the thought, aware of the fleeting nature of the courage as the possibility of a life with his neighbour dissipated.
Over the following weeks, the watchman mourned the friendship before it had even begun. He felt the fear of rejection and looked for unspoken assurances from his wife. That if it all went tits up with his neighbour, shed be there waiting. He watched from his window resigned to the fears, that it’d always be easier to discard the neighbour than it would his wife. The easy option was the only option, but he couldn’t ignore the common bond between him and his neighbour. They were kindred spirits – men looking for shortcuts and direction.
He grew nostalgic for all the things he’d learned from him, like the importance of checking for testicular lumps while the balls were warm and loose. Although, he’d never found anything more than a harmless cyst he told strangers in paper shops it was cancer and lived with the shame. It was a desire for sympathy more than anything, an unshakeable victim mentality he’d had since youth, a tactic of social integration much easier than any healthy pursuit of security and belonging.
He knew vulnerability was important but he pushed people away with it and as a consequence grew dependant on the distant lives of those he watched. Watching his neighbour would never compare to the communication and trust of a real relationship but he wanted his neighbour to feel his loneliness too, feel what it was like to watch and give for nowt in return. He reasoned with the betrayal, in and out of frustrated rationality, knowing the answers but too scared to follow them. He resented his cowardice until he began to relish it, until it was freeing. That night, for the first time, the watchman waved as the neighbour turned. And for the rest of the night, feeling progress, he watched the progress of his neighbour’s life, sketched targets in the crosshairs of an invisible gun. Whispered the sounds of pistol fire before returning the weapon to its holster and waving again. In and out of courage, unreturned gestures.
The next night, the courage remained. From the corrugated stairs, he sucked his fifteenth cigarette of the day and let the harsh figgy baccy burn his lungs. He watched as he always did, the seventh bell of the town hall chimed and he stood. Captured in that period of in-betweens known as dusk, where the faulted realities of emotional progress hide and betray. He walked down the corrugated stairs and passed the dog. He passed the bins and the lane and entered through the yard door of his neighbour, unsure of his intention. In the neighbour’s yard, he evaluated his surroundings – the flowers and tin signs nailed to the walls. He opened the door of the kitchen and moved through into a passage where a little girl was playing with a fire engine. He ruffled her hair with familiarity, assuming her to be the daughter of his neighbour – a soon to be niece to a close family friend.
Each step forward revealed the blueprint similarities of his neighbour’s house and how his delusions of inferiority were both true and false. His courage faded as he arrived at a pair of stripped French doors. Here, he watched his neighbour from an intimate perspective, watched him on the settee with his wife and solidified all his assumptions of perfection. For 20 minutes he went unnoticed, building and demolishing his resentment until the courage arrived again. He entered the room and approached pictures on the wall and put his eyes to them, clarified their strokes like a critic. After analysing the photos, he sat down and relaxed into the settee like an old friend but struggled to think of the right words. His neighbour looked to his wife, and then to the watchman – at a complete loss. All three of them sitting, disguising their emotions as they concluded the motives of the other. The watchman concluded that given his status as guest, it was down to his neighbour to make the first move. Half the onus must be shared in friendship, no matter the courage and fear you feel.
The neighbour stands up to distance himself from the watchman then moves closer and grabs his shoulders, pulling him to his feet. He pushes him down again. Face scowling and boiling his words. Eventually, he tells the watchman he’s going to hurt him, tells him that he’ll break his neck if he doesn’t get out his house. The watchman sits there in silence looking for love in his eyes. The neighbour looks to his wife and she looks back. The watchman says nowt, just sits there looking hurt and embarrassed. Are you fucking deaf, lad? The neighbour says. The watchman stares. A biblical backyard sunshine filters through the French doors casting raindrop shadows on the walls and face of his neighbour. The watchman looks to their origin, through his neighbours yard and up to his. He sees his own house from the perspective of his neighbour, basked in sunlight. He remembers all that he has, his wife and nothing more. He apologises and stands up to leave. Out the front door, where he promises to try his best.
Jake Trelease is a writer from South Shields currently living in London. His absurd stories about the north-east take inspiration from traditional Geordie folk tales to provide a relevant account of themes like identity, precarious masculinity, and relationships. All Jake’s stories are born out of career stagnancy, a lack of any real stimulation and looking at the North Sea.