Photograph by Suzanne Plunkett, Story by Emma Vandore
Adam woke, fully reclined, on his battered old leather armchair. On the pavement outside his sitting room, his ex-wife and Gary from next door were flirting and bickering. The familiar lilt in Sarah’s voice dragged Adam, half asleep, to happier times. She’d laughed like that with him once, hadn’t she?
Sweat sprouted under Adam’s arms and his throat tightened. Don’t go there, son. He reached for a button on the right arm of the chair. To calm his mind, he focussed on the dull drone of the chair righting itself. Time for a cup of tea.
He stood up, but staring right back at him was Sarah’s chair, cold and unused. A hand-me-down from her parents when they first moved in together, fifteen years ago. They used to sleep on the chairs together, side by side, until they’d saved up enough for a bed. Being skint hadn’t seemed to matter then….
He tried to shake the thought from his head, but the trouble with living next to your ex-wife is she just won’t go away. On the doormat, he found a note signed in Sarah’s scratchy handwriting. It informed Adam that Gary’s patio was being redone this weekend. They “hoped the digger wouldn’t make too much noise.”
Adam sighed. He wished they would stop tarting their place up and just move. Being homeowners, they had the choice. He, on the other hand, was dependent on the council. Not only had his request for a new house been rejected, but his benefits had been cut when they found out Sarah had moved out. Fucking bedroom tax, he said, shivering. Winter was coming, and the electricity meter would be getting hungry again soon.
When the mechanical whirring of the digger began, Adam whistled with relief. For a few minutes, at least, he didn’t have to hear them. Terraced houses like theirs have thin walls, which is why he’d taken to sleeping in the sitting room.
To give himself a bit of distance, Adam took his tea to the boxy spare room at the front of the house. It was full of clutter, the only use they’d ever found for the room, whose walls were still decorated for the baby that never came home. Sarah hadn’t bothered to clear out her stuff when she left, but he didn’t blame here. There’s a suitcase in there somewhere, full of little outfits, that was best left buried. Yellow and white there were, because they hadn’t known they were expecting a girl.
Adam peered out of the lace curtain that Sarah put up, must be almost ten years ago now. She’d retreated to the front porch, where she stood in silent, high-heeled glory while Gary pranced around, puffed up like a peacock. Adam imagined how she’d react if one of Gary’s fancy flowerpots got smashed. It was those damn pots that had first caught her attention. Made her realise the bloke next door had nicer stuff. She kept finding an excuse to be in the front garden when Gary was watering… and it wasn’t long before she’d been invited indoors.
In the afternoon, a car horn announced the arrival of one of Gary’s mates from the local golf club. He’d brought with him a few rolls of top-quality turf that “fell off the back of a lorry,” according to Garry. He thought that made him astute and he couldn’t help showing off to Sarah. “Do you know how much these would have cost if we’d bought them at the garden shop?” he said. Twice.
When the turf was rolled, Sarah produced a picnic hamper “to christen the lawn.” She spread a checked white and red rug on the ground, and Garry made a loud joke about not letting the neighbours see. Adam grimaced and looked away.
In the bathroom mirror, he peered at his lined and stubbly face. Slapping his cheeks, he decided it was time to shave. Doesn’t do to let yourself go mate. He didn’t want to give her the satisfaction. That Gary was richer than him didn’t make him a better man. In fact, he thought everybody should see just what sort of a man Gary was.
That night, he lay down on the bed that he hadn’t slept in since Sarah left. Though there was a wall between them, her snoring was almost as loud as he remembered. He waited until he was sure they were both asleep, then crept outside with a can of petrol. Working quickly to avoid being seen, he got artistic.
There wasn’t much to see on Sunday morning, but by that evening the grass that Adam had treated was dead and yellow. As he admired his handiwork, a brunette with long hair knocked on Gary’s front door. Adam’s stomach hardened. What was it about that man that women were attracted to?
Whatever it was, on this occasion Gary rebuffed her, and to Adam’s delight she moved to his porch. He slapped on some aftershave and went down to open the door.
She introduced herself as Dawn from No. 23 “Sorry to bother you, but I think my boiler’s on the blink. Would you mind having a look?”
“Of course,” said Adam, stepping out to join her. Raising his voice in the direction of Gary’s house, he added: “Always liked a bit of DIY, me.”
She understood exactly what he was getting at. Lowering her voice, she flicked her head towards Gary’s. “Unlike him next door, you mean. Too posh to get his hands dirty.”
When she smiled, something shifted inside Adam’s stomach. The feeling, although uncomfortable, wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
Together, they paused for a moment to admire the flag-sized replica of the Harrowdurn Golf Club’s distinctive crossed irons logo emblazoned on Gary’s front lawn.
“Do you think it’s nicked?” Dawn whispered.
Adam supressed a grin. Depending on how they got on, he’d tell her later.
“He looks the type,” she continued. “A right thief I reckon.”
Adam sighed with pleasure. He lifted an arm which Dawn accepted, and together, they walked down the street. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sarah watching from her spare room. Her face was red and blotchy, as if she’d been crying.
Emma Vandore is a writer and journalist who has reported from over 30 countries on six continents. Her storytelling consultancy www.kagisha.com and toddler keep her busy – but she insists on finding time for her debut novel, AND, BREATHE. She developed the idea with Arts Council funding after winning a place on the National Centre for Writing’s Escalator talent development scheme. Follow her at @emmissima
Suzanne Plunkett is an award-winning freelance photojournalist, portrait and corporate photographer based in London. In an international career spanning 20+ years, I've worked as a staff photographer for Reuters, Bloomberg and the Associated Press and contributed to the New York Times. I have been based in Boston, New York, Kabul, Jakarta and London. Find her here @suzanne_plunkett