black noise

Terry jerked awake in the middle of the night, it must have been around 3am.  He lived in a small second floor flat in the middle of the city.  His wife always liked to crack a small window “so the air could circulate”.  It did get stale otherwise, he admitted.  But she wanted it open even in midwinter, when it was bloody freezing.  He was sure it had a part to play in his seasonal colds, but he never accused her directly.  Just shivered.  And it was loud too, really loud.

As well as living a short walk from the city centre, they also lived near a small canal.  Terry was never sure if canal was the accurate term for it, because it wasn’t very long.  It was man-made, linked up to a larger dock and was often filthy with rubbish and waste.  Despite this, it homed a strong population of wildfowl.  Mallards, swans and coots mixed with seagulls and other birds he could less readily identify.  Some nights one or two would loudly sing, or aggressively caw, for what seemed like all night.  Mating season was hellish, as if their noise was coordinated with violently pulsating testicles, if they had testicles. They must have testicles.  You never think of mallards having testicles.

Terry felt very awake now.  He actually felt like going out there with a gun.  It could go on and on.  Not that she’d ever stir next to him.

That Saturday night they were properly going at it on the canal, a couple of birds – screeching and yakking back and forth.  Maybe they were in the act.  Who knew?  Terry intermittently heard handfuls of people making their way back from town too, kicking and scuffing and clip-clopping their way home alongside the path.  Somebody stumbled into their poorly soundproofed building, doors slamming in their wake.  A car or building alarm went off in the far distance.  That turned out to be mercifully brief, although they could go on forever too, those alarms.  Even after they actually stopped, that urgent piercing wee-oo wee-oo could keep echoing round in your head so you weren’t even sure if it had stopped or not.

Slowly the competing birdsong and screech and squawk grew less regular.  Half wishing his hearing would start going, or that they could afford somewhere nicer, better, quieter, Terry drifted off again.


It was around 4am the next time Terry woke up.  4.04AM the bright LCD clock told him.  This time he was stunned, stunned by the quiet.  He could hear nothing from the outside.  Just the breeze.  Was that possible?  The tail of the window-blind flapped in a light wind, kicking the window-sill.  Fresh air was coming into the room.  That was it though.  Outside there was not a bird or duck noise, no human drunk or alarm, not cats fighting, not even the distant drone of the major arterial road, tyres kissing asphalt away into the distance.  And yet Terry felt very awake.

He decided to go and relieve his bladder, being sure not to turn the bathroom light on, which was inextricably linked to an embarrassingly loud extractor fan.  The hallway light was enough to ensure he directed his stream accurately.

After shaking off and splashing his hands he went into the kitchen to refill his water glass.  As he did so, Terry looked over the residential courtyard and was suddenly he was struck by a panic.  His car wasn’t there!  He’d always lived in fear of this and now finally..  But wait.  Nobody’s car was there.  In fact, there wasn’t a single car in the whole car park, a car park which usually contained a good fifteen to twenty vehicles.  Had someone done an audacious clean sweep of the place?  Looking beyond, out onto the road, Terry couldn’t see any vehicles there either, where cars ordinarily lined the road alongside other houses.  But here, now: nothing.  Like a giant swab had been taken of the whole neighbourhood.  He swallowed a mouthful of water and rubbed his left temple with the palm of his left hand.

Gently, so it didn’t slam loudly and wake the whole building, Terry rested the building’s front door back into place.  His slippers made that scratchy flip-flopping sound on the concrete slabs as he walked out into the courtyard for a closer inspection.  Definitely not a single vehicle in sight.  How had they pulled this off?  In the middle of a city?  It was impressive, he had to admit.  You couldn’t fail to be impressed by it.  He looked down the road.  Nothing.  The whole area looked remarkably clean without them, immaculate.  Absurdly immaculate.  Was there anything else missing?  There were no bin liners left out, several days early or late, no wheelie-bins irritatingly placed where they shouldn’t be, in everyone’s way.  It really was like a giant swab had been..   By what?  And no noise at all.  Compacted silence, like it had snowed.  No litter or cats, or ducks or birds or drunks.

A silent, starry night.

Terry started to feel giddy.  Everything slowed down, although nothing was moving anyway so he wasn’t sure how that could be.  Even so, it did.  All stilled, he felt a strange kind of bliss.

That was when he heard the creak and clank directly above him, the looming exhaust of what appeared to be a white van hurtling to the ground at a startling rate of knots.  At a handful of feet away, its alarm began screeching: wee-oo! wee-oo! wee-oo!


doorstep challenge

I pocketed my keys and glanced down the stairs.  Through the front door’s lower pane of glass I saw feet and legs, horizontally splayed across the doorstep.


Was someone trying to extract a letter from one of the flat’s letterboxes?  Was it a labourer working at a meter I didn’t know was there?  I descended the short flight of steps and opened the flimsy door.  Ours was a block of flats tucked into a missable corner of the court, but it had long concerned me that the lock was weak, the door easy to break if you wanted to.  One not especially hard, well-placed kick could see you inside without much problem.

On the doorstep I discovered a man in his mid twenties, lying prone across the doorstep.  He wasn’t addressing the letterboxes or any concealed meter.  He wasn’t addressing anything at all.  Closely cropped hair, unshaven and wearing dark clothes – a black shellsuit-type top, he wobbled unsteadily on his knees, neither conscious nor unconscious.

“Hello mate!” I addressed him, wondering if he posed me any immediate threat.  I didn’t want to touch him but carried on talking loudly at him, trying to rouse him.  “What’s going on here?!  You alright pal?!”

Gradually he stirred, facing away from me, heavily concussed, never looking directly at me but aware I was there.  His face was bleeding; crusty red, caramelised-marks scarred his face from a beating he’d taken maybe an hour or two earlier.  He slowly found his unstable feet and staggered away from the building.

I followed close behind.  This wasn’t good but did it merit an emergency call?  I gestured the sign of telephone to him as he sketchily looked back at me, tottering off in zigzags, knock-kneed.  He walked squarely into a bush and bounced out of it.  “You sure you’re all right?  You want me to call anyone?  Ambulance?”  He found the narrow gap out of our courtyard and away, towards the canal, perhaps retracing the same route he’d used to get in.

Maybe it didn’t warrant blocking up an emergency phone-line, but it needed reporting.  I remembered seeing an Ambulance parked out the back before I left the flat, just over the footbridge.  It struck me as peculiar because if it had been for a hotel resident – the only building in that immediate vicinity, it would have driven into the hotel car park, not outside.

Compelled to report it I decided to walk in the direction of town, rather than in the direction of the bay, as planned.  I’d find a policeman or car or ambulance soon enough.  A police van overtook me and stopped at a set of traffic lights fifty yards ahead.  I broke into a run to catch up with it, knocked on the window and, faintly embarrassed to feel breathless after what was a short run, quickly explained my findings to a distinctly nonplussed looking driver.  “Oh yeah, we’ve just come from there,” he said, looking pissed off.  “I’ll turn round now.”  Clearly something had happened but he wasn’t going to tell me what.  Our short exchange concluded before the lights changed from red.

While I’d clearly judged the character as unsavoury from the outset and might have extended more basic human sympathy had he not fit a certain type quite so well, I’d done my bit.

As I was headed in that direction, I walked on into town, a taste of unsettling violation permeating within.  Whatever criminal violent shit had brought that guy to my doorstep?  What actually goes on a stone’s throw from where I live, work and sleep?  A cosmetically safe, respectable place where other singles, couples and families live?  It’s city living.

Even so, you don’t really want those things happening so very close to home.  They’re just for films and fiction.  Not for what happens when you open your flimsy front door.