apple-squire (noun): a male companion of a woman of ill-repute
Glyn knew that they talked about his wife. Not just the houses immediately next door, but the ones either side of those too. And further. It was what came of living in a cul-de-sac. Gossip swilled back-and-forth, with no through-road.
She made it worse for herself, Joan, by staring out at the children playing on the street; the six-year-old from number twelve and the seven-year-old, with the three-year-old brother, from number seventeen. They saw her peering from the edges of the curtains and they squealed and ran to tell their parents.
He heard the kids talking in stage-whispers. The woman in number fourteen, they said, has three baths a day. Her recycling is all empty wine bottles. She eats spiders from the corner of the ceiling and snails from the plant pots. The hoover stands in the hall all day, unused. The lights are on at 3am because darkness turns her into a creature with bat’s wings and dragon’s breath.
The parents were initially kind. That was quite a few years ago. They offered to do a shop, to save Glyn from going, and invited both of them over for a drink on New Year’s Day. Soon, though, there’d been a note through the door asking them to trim the front grass and then another suggesting the name of a man who could clear the gutters.
‘We could move,’ Glyn suggested. ‘A bungalow, maybe?’
‘I’m not ready.’
‘Of course not, love.’
Part of him was relieved. A bungalow was best saved for retirement. That was what the others at his firm would do. So he settled for calling the gutter-man and negotiating a fixed price that included repainting the back fence and fixing the cracks in the driveway.
‘She’s still young,’ Edwina from number six said, one evening as she took out her black bin bag. She’d also had notes through the door, because she didn’t use the wheelie bin. ‘You’re still young.’
‘We’ll have to see,’ Glyn said. ‘It’s Joan’s choice.’
‘Shall I call in for her, in the daytime? For coffee, maybe.’
‘I’ll ask her. Thank you.’
‘She has my phone number.’
The foxes would get at Edwina’s bags. There would be further complaints, the council might even be called. She didn’t seem to mind, though. Her house was at the curve of the street, she could see a slice of the main road.
The Fultons, in number fifteen, moved out and the teenagers were replaced with eight-year-old twins. The other kids migrated into their garden. There was a climbing frame and a trampoline. They kept one eye on Joan, at the window, and she was integrated into their games whenever there was a call for a villain – wicked witch, spy, assassin, Prime Minister. It would have been useless to explain that Joan was staring only at the bare, uneven flowerbeds in her own garden.
It all got worse in Autumn. Not just the nights drawing in, but also overactive imaginations at Halloween. No guiser called at number fourteen. They knew they wouldn’t get any sweets, any chocolate.
Two days into November, Joan sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a card. She sealed it, in a red envelope, before Glyn had the chance to read it or even glimpse the message on the front. Later, when she was in the bath, he opened the drawer beneath the kettle and found four other envelopes, one for each year that had passed.
‘Love,’ he tried the next day. ‘Would you like to try for a job, maybe, or you could go back to studying? An exercise class, even…?’
‘I don’t need exercise, Glyn.’
‘It might help.’
‘You tell me I don’t eat enough, then that I need to lose weight.’
‘It’s not about weight.’
‘Quiet,’ she closed her eyes. ‘Please.’
The house deteriorated further. The quince bushes grew too big and pushed through the fence into next door. The twins started to lob the fruit up towards Joan’s window. The double-glazing rattled and she stepped away.
In the utility room was a disorderly regiment of glass bottles, upright among the chaos of cardboard and the towels which hadn’t made it into the dryer. Glyn felt he could only leave out a few at a time, with the recycling. One dark evening, he’d pile the rest of them into the quince bushes or bury them at the edge of the grass.
The three-year-old, from number seventeen, was now an inquisitive five. He ran lengths of the cul-de-sac in bare feet. As Glyn walked home, he sprinted up behind.
‘You’re the man from that house,’ he said, pointing.
‘My sister says there are cameras. That you record us.’
‘I can assure you we don’t.’
‘She says you write down every move we make.’
He shrugged, ‘I’m too fast anyway.’
He turned and ran off. Glyn found that it took three attempts to fit his key into the lock and when he tried to call Joan’s name there was a quiver to his voice.
‘What is it?’ she called back.
‘We need to do something.’
Glyn walked into the hallway. He lifted the hoover and set it back in its cupboard. Then he went to the kitchen and got a black bag from beneath the sink. He shoved all of the bottles from the utility room in it, then the cardboard and the mouldering towels. As he lifted the bag, there was a noise like a window shattering.
Five years ago, he would have eased the front door open only wide enough for him and the bag. He would have made sure it was closed behind. There wasn’t much traffic in the cul-de-sac, but the young lad at number eighteen swung his Audi around the corner at quite a speed.
Glyn lifted the bag into the grey wheelie bin, the one for general waste. He tipped the bin onto its wheels and walked it to the kerb. Edwina was there, black bag in hand.
‘I never did hear from Joan,’ she said.
‘No, she still struggles.’
‘All of that though…’ Edwina avoided his eye. ‘Seems an awful fuss to make over a wee dog.’
Glyn looked back at the houses behind them. The twins at number fifteen were up at the window, looking out. The one from number twelve was there too. She didn’t duck away like the others.
‘The question that torments Joan,’ Glyn said slowly. ‘Is how he got the chocolate? We should have been more careful.’
Edwina tied another knot in her black bag. ‘One of those things,’ she said.
‘We should have taken better care of him.’
‘No one blames you,’ Edwina replied. ‘I shouldn’t think.’