Awake again. Alive again. It happened every morning. Terry had no reason to be surprised. Really, no reason at all. But still he spent a little time staring at the artex swirls on the ceiling and feeling his heartbeat and checking that the sky was still there in the split through the curtains. His fear of dying in his sleep had been a lifelong thing. Sometimes he felt as if the air were thick, as if it would choke and drown him in his lungs. Sometimes he feared the air would all be breathed away, or that his heart would just stop beating. It never did. It was all illogical, very illogical. But still, he feared.
He sat up and pushed back his duvet. He put his feet on the floor and felt how very alive he was. There was still the corn on his left big toe, but that wasn’t fatal.
Being vertical helped to shift the fear. He couldn’t say it eradicated it, but it put it on a different plane. He saw other things then. Other things that made him forget how thick or thin the air was or how hard his heart was beating. He could see the telegraph wires that hummed. He could see the run down brick wall at the end of the garden and the failing wooden fence at the side. He could see next door’s lawn and those hateful terriers running themselves in circles, and the hateful man who owned them.
He didn’t want to possess his neighbour. It was the last thing he wanted to do. But hating someone makes them a part of yourself. They become part of your mind. Your thoughts are tangled in with thoughts of them. Their flesh is as intimate to you as your own. You know the clothes they wear and where they love to walk. It was the same with things. The things that he feared became part of his being. He was the cracks in the pavement. He was the drop of a kerb. But those things didn’t breathe. They didn’t live. They didn’t watch him with grey eyes as he walked down the road or call out to his tightened shoulder blades as he sought to get away quickly, more quickly. Not like the neighbour. There was nothing as hateful as that man next door.
The terriers were yapping already. He saw through slightly blurred eyes that it was ten past seven, and those damn dogs were yapping already. Twenty minutes before the alarm was supposed to go off, and it was the high pitched barks that had woken him, as always. He stumbled over to his window and saw them out there in the garden next door running circles on the scratty lawn, and Him, he, the neighbour, standing with his bare feet perched on the edge of the grubby white plastic of the double-glazed door frame, an arc of liquid spraying out from the blurred pink member he held in his blurred pink hands.
He pushed his own window open with the palm of his hand and shouted, ‘You’re fucking disgusting.’
He left the window open while he went to the bathroom and ignored the vitriol that was shouted back. It filtered in through the bathroom window too. Terry put the battery powered radio on and cranked the volume up, and the voice of Chris Evans was amplified against the brittle artexed walls. The jackdaws that were nesting in the air vent up above started up their morning chatter, and Terry closed his eyes briefly as he peed and hummed along to Uptown Girl. The sun through the frosted glass window was golden and beautiful, and for a moment he forgot about Him Next Door in the swell of the music and the chatter of the birds and the music of his own arcing liquid hitting the water in the bowl.
He opened his eyes to shake off the drips and moved to wash his hands, and through the gap around the opened frosted window he saw the white movement of those damn terriers, and the lawn next door spotted with darker green patches where urine had urged the grass on stronger, and brown ones where the dog turds had lain for weeks.
He’d found his glasses by the time the kettle had boiled, on the side table by the sofa where he’d left them last night. He’d been watching Question Time, and Him Next Door had been listening to some kind of soppy music that had moaned and slurred inarticulately through the wall. He’d been drinking whiskey and water, and he imagined Him Next Door drinking tea steeped so long the spoon could stand up in it. That was the trouble with Him Next Door. Terry had never been into his house, but he still saw it; the sloughed off articles of clothing on the floor, the empty packets dropped by the armchair, the ash tray that badly needed emptying, the little drifts and swirls of white dog hair on everything.
He hated him. As he stirred his spoon in his All Bran he hated his neighbour. As he dropped a spoonful of sugar into his tea and felt guilty about it he hated his neighbour. As he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and put on his tie he hated his neighbour. He was still hating him as he got into his car and the terriers yapped and jumped against the front fence and fell back onto the gravel behind. If there was a way to do away with the terriers without being caught, he’d do it. That was the next best thing to bumping off Him Next Door. He thought about rat poison, but the trouble was that Him Next Door knew that Terry hated him, and he was the first person he’d tell about to the RSPCA, or worse, the police.
The thought of the police made him shudder a little. He’d never been involved with them, but that didn’t mean he wanted to. The thoughts in his head alone would get him arrested a million times. All they needed to do was get a look at his external hard drive and he’d probably be slung in pokey for fifty years. Was it illegal to download stuff from YouTube? It probably was. All Terry was focussed on was acquiring the stuff that made himself happy, because being happy was a sure way of keeping himself alive. But at the back of him was always that cardboard cut-out of fear, hovering. If he turned too fast he’d see someone from the copyright board shaking their fist.
When he got home from work the terriers were still out there in the garden, on chains this time. Him Next Door was out. His car was gone, an oily patch on the road where he usually parked. The sun was August hot, and when Terry poked his nose over the fence he could see there wasn’t any water in reach. Sod poisoning the dogs. Him Next Door was going a fair way towards killing them himself. Their ratty tangled hair was always filthy, and the bitch was all stained around her back end.
Terry went inside and looked up the number for the local RSPCA shelter on his laptop. He called them and they promised to stop by. Terry remained anonymous, but he peeked out from behind his curtain when the van arrived and a couple of them mooched over the fence and muttered to each other. They put a bowl of water down and a slip of paper through the door, and they left without taking the dogs. Terry’s heart sunk, and he went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
Later that evening Him Next Door came home. Terry could tell that without twitching the curtain because of the noise his old Vauxhall made. The door opened, and then it slammed, and then it opened again and slammed harder. Then music started, very loud, with a hard beat. He heard a chair scrape on the floor, probably where the kitchen was. He heard those god damn terriers start up yapping and yapping, and then he heard a sob. When the music came to an end he could still hear the sobbing, and Terry started to feel vaguely uncomfortable.
He went to bed with earplugs in. He gave a brief glance to the religious sampler his mother had made at school, the one that hung on the wall opposite the bed. That was his protection against thick air and choking and death in the night. He didn’t read tonight. He took in a deep breath and turned out the light and closed his eyes, and slept until the alarm went off at seven thirty. It was the first time the dogs hadn’t woken him up in years.