She wakes and listens: there is a distant footfall, muffled by the deep carpet of the hallway outside her apartment. Strange sliding sounds, indistinct. A light tap on the door. She stiffens. Is it him?
She reaches a hand out to the bedside lamp, switches it on, listening all the time. The tap on the door grows louder, more insistent. She draws back the bedding and rises smoothly to her feet, reaches for the dressing gown from the back of a chair and slides her arm in, then the other. She moves quietly over the carpet, belting the gown as she does so.
The tapping has subsided by the time she reaches the door. She turns the knob silently and looks out. She sees nothing. ‘Who is it?’ she asks, but there is no reply. Cautiously she releases the chain and opens the door wider, leans forward to see into the hallway. She sees a leg on the ground, leans further forward to identify it.
He is slumped against the wall, head to one side. His shirt tails are out, his hair matted, one shoe missing. She moves to his side. ‘Matthew,’ she says quietly, ‘are you alright?’
Silly question. He is far from alright. His breath carries the stench of a night’s beer and tobacco. It is five o’clock in the morning. She listens to his breathing, takes his wrist and feels his pulse. He is in no danger, she decides. Simply paralytic. She tries to lift him, but it proves to be impossible. She returns to her apartment, takes the telephone and asks for help. Nods at the response and returns to his side, the door left ajar.
A bell signals the return of the lift to her floor, and André, the night Super stands before her, shaking his head. ‘Are you sure you want him in there?’ he asks, but he has seen this before and is already moving to help him to his feet. André puts one arm around his shoulder and holds the body tightly to him, turning his head to avoid the breath. She holds the door wide and André, staggering slightly under the weight, follows her into the bedroom. He sits him on the edge, then lowers him to the mattress.
'Do you mind, André, if I...' she gestures to the buckle of his belt.
André grimaces, despite his training. 'Would you like me to do it?' he asks.
'Would you mind?' she says, nodding self-consciously.
André leans over him and loosens the belt, slides down the zip, removes the remaining shoe, and pulls down the trousers. He looks at the shirt and socks, but decides he can leave them; lifts him higher up the bed, pulls the bedding over him and looks at Carol for approval.
‘Want me to hang around?’ he asks, but she shakes her head.
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘Don’t hesitate to call if… well, if you need me.’
‘You’re so kind, André. Thank you so much. I could never have managed.’
He nods. ‘That’s what I’m here for,’ he tells her, and leaves the apartment.
He awakes slowly, falling back into snoring sleep a few times before eventually sitting up and coughing loudly. He looks around, realises where he is, smiles a lopsided smile then leans back against the pillows again.
She puts down her book and leans forward. ‘Are you alright, Darling?’
He nods half-heartedly. ‘Think so,’ he says. ‘Can you get me a cigarette?’
She smiles. ‘Where are they?’
He thinks. ‘My pocket?’ he suggests.
She opens the wardrobe door and feels in the pockets of his trousers. ‘I’m so sorry. None here.’
‘Bugger,’ he says.
‘I’ll get you some,’ she says gently. ‘But perhaps some coffee first?’
He draws his hands down over his face. ‘Christ,’ he says, ‘what a night. What time did I get in?’
She smiles. ‘A few hours ago. Why don’t I get you some coffee, and then I’ll go and find you some cigarettes.’
He nods, and yawns, slumping back and closing his eyes.
She rises quietly, goes to the kitchen and switches on the coffee machine.
She prepares a large mug, heating and frothing the milk, and places it on a large saucer. She thinks for a moment, then reaches for some paracetamol and places three beside the mug.
He seems to be asleep again. She takes his foot and squeezes it gently.
‘I’ve brought your coffee, Darling. I’ll go and find you some cigarettes.’
He nods and takes the mug, holding it carefully.
Steph looks at her in amazement. ‘He did what? And you just helped him, I suppose? Jeez, Carol, you’re a mug.’
‘That’s just him,’ she says helplessly. ‘He’s always been like that.’
Steph snorts. ‘And he’s never going to change, is he? Why should he? He’s got it made. Bloody Hell! An apartment like yours, money when he asks for it, you treat him like a god, and how does he treat you? Huh, like an idiot.’
‘It’s not like that, Steph. He’s kind. He loves me. He’s always sorry when he comes home like that.’
‘And the next time it’s exactly the same. What the hell do you think he’s been doing when he comes in at five in the morning?’
Carol knows what he’s been doing. She smells the perfume on his clothes. She finds things in his pockets. She is accepting by nature, but despite what she tells Steph, the resentment is building.
Next time, she tells herself. Next time…
André helps again, though it is clear from the looks he gives her that … well, she shouldn’t put up with it. She leads him up the stairs to the mezzanine level and into the spare bedroom there. He approves of that, rather than putting him in her own bed.
It is three thirty. She will not sleep. She calls Steph.
Steph is angry. ‘Again?’ she cries. But she listens carefully.
‘Don’t come in the front door. I don’t want them to know you’re helping me.’
‘Why not? I’m your best friend. They already know me there.’
‘I know,’ Carol says. ‘But look,’ and she lowers her voice as though she might avoid being heard, ‘much better if we don’t draw attention to ourselves.’
Steph pauses, works it out for herself. ‘What are you planning?’ she whispers.
‘Never you mind. I’ll tell you when you get here.’
Steph gets up and dresses, excited that at last her friend might be planning to assert herself, drives over to Carol’s apartment and calls her when she is outside the block. Carol tells her where the emergency door is around the back of the building, and goes down to let her in. Together they quietly climb the stairs to the first floor then take the lift to Carol’s penthouse. They check the spare bedroom, then go to the kitchen for coffee. Carol adds a shot of scotch. They’re going to need it.
‘You’re sure about this, then?’ Carol nods. It’s been a long time building. She shows Steph the g-string she found in his pocket.
Steph nods, understanding. She’d do the same. If she had a bloke, that is, which she hasn’t at the moment. They take their time over the coffee, enjoying the scotch, wondering if they should have another shot. They look at each other, smiling in conspiracy. They pour a second shot.
When he wakes he is in agony. The light is too bright for him and he closes his eyes. He is hurting all over. He calls out in pain, but nobody comes. He calls out again, louder this time. Nothing happens.
How long it has been he can’t tell. He has been in agony for hours and hours, it seems. Through half-closed eyes he sees that he is not in a bedroom, but somewhere white and bright. Strange beeping noises seem to surround him. He calls out weakly from time to time, but it makes no difference. He realises after a while that he is held rigidly in place. He can move his left arm a little, but everything else seems fixed, immovable. He feels completely at the mercy of something malevolent. He starts to cry, very quietly.
At last someone is coming. He can hear footsteps, loud and firm somewhere near. He hears a door sliding open very close to him. ‘Is he alright?’ he hears someone say. He thinks he knows the voice, but can’t think who it is.
‘Not really.’ This is a male voice. ‘He’ll survive, but he’s had a lot of damage. Bones. Internal organs. Head. It’s going to take some time.’
‘I’ve got plenty of time.’ He realises that the voice is Carol’s.
‘Carol,’ he whimpers. He feels a hand on his forehead.
‘I’m here,’ she says. ‘I’ll make sure they’ll look after you.’
He hears pages being turned. The male clears his throat. ‘You fell down a flight of stairs. You had a hell of a high blood reading.’
Carol cuts in. ‘It was my fault. I really shouldn’t have put him upstairs, not in the state he was in.’
The doctor looks at her sympathetically. ‘You couldn’t have known.’ He smiles and pats her hand. She beams at him and he feels his heart do something extravagant.
Outside the hospital, Carol rings Steph. ‘He’s going to be okay,’ she says.
Steph sounds relieved. ‘Thank Heavens. That was a bit much, you know.’
Carol nods. ‘I know,’ she agrees. ‘I think he’ll be a good boy from now on, though.’
‘Does he know it was us?’
‘No. I’ll be dropping a few tiny hints over the period of his rehabilitation. Just enough so that he’ll never be sure.’
Steph whoops with laughter.
Inspired by 'It's a Thin Line Between Love and Hate' by Annie Lennox
Maurice Corlett writes: 'Just read Accidents Speak Louder than Words. It's good. You got the drunk/womaniser well. And Carol who doesn't want to shut him out. Steph is a strong character who helps bring things to a head. A well rounded piece, Michel'