LISTENING AND LEARNING by Corylus Monk

PAPER CEILING

Have you got earplugs?...Oh, I do, love, I assure you! You wouldn’t believe the noise in the night. It never used to be a problem. The young man who was on top of me before – well, he was an accountant, you see. He had no life. I expect you know the chap I mean – spindly, pasty looking man, used to come in here for his paper. I had no complaints then. He was quiet as a mouse. No life, as I say. But perhaps he’s finally got himself one now. Apparently he’s moved in with a woman who has her own house in – oh, what’s the name of that area in London where the exclusive people go? With the big shop where you can buy a pot of face cream for eight hundred pounds? Not like here, dear! …Yes, that’s the one!
Now, tell me how they work. I just squish them in, do I? Is there a right one and a left one or are they the same?... I certainly will. The couple who have moved up there now are a very different sort all together. They definitely have a life; maybe a bit too much of a life. Nice-looking but noisy. You’ll have seen them around, no doubt? He’s a great big man with bushy eyebrows. He always seems to be in shorts no matter what the weather’s like. She’s tiny. It’s funny, when you see them together she only comes half way up him. I wonder about her health actually. She’s got dark circles around her eyes and has such skinny arms and legs, like a doll. Lovely hair, though. I think it’s what they call strawberry blonde. Nobody’s introduced us but I know their names because there are sometimes letters for them. Different surnames, I noticed. He’s a Mr John something and she’s a Miss Katie Spurling. Pretty name, don’t you think?
They’ve got a boy too… I don’t know, about four? Looks like his mum, big round eyes, but he seems shy. Quiet except when he cries. Then he has a voice on him! What with that and the banging and the music…Didn’t I say, they’re musicians? Well, I suppose that’s what they’d call themselves. The chap plays the drums and the lady plays the guitar and sings. She’s got a low, rasping voice, a bit like that woman on TV, you know, the one with all the yellow curls and the hot-pants?... Not really my kind of music, no. I don’t like to complain though. The ceiling’s paper thin, it can’t be helped. And I’m not blameless myself. Rusty sometimes barks in the night, so it’s all give and take, isn’t it?
How much?... Well, cheap at half the price, as they say… Let’s hope so. I’ve nothing against young love, but I do hear rather too many - er, details. And all that banging gives me a headache.


Hello, dear. I bought these here a couple of weeks ago, but they’re not much good, I’m afraid. It’s not so much the bed-banging now, or even the music; more the arguments. She gets very high-pitched sometimes. Proper shrieking I’d call it. And him! All the effing and blinding. He should be ashamed of himself, and with a youngster in the house, too. 
And I’ll tell you something else: I’ve seen all their bottles put out for recycling. Unbelievable how many they get through. I’m not averse to a little tipple myself - I like a spot of brandy on a Friday evening, just to celebrate having seen another week of life. You’ll understand when you get to my age, dear. But I do think the amount those two have is rather...mmm…
She can play guitar nicely when she tries, but a lot of the time it sounds like she’s hurting the instrument. And he’s trying to murder those drums. How the child puts up with it all I have no idea! I’d complain, but then they might complain back about Rusty’s barking, and then where would I be? No, love, it’s not worth it.
Last night was the worst. Stomping up and down so much I thought they’d come crashing through the ceiling. Shouting. Insults…Oh, all sorts of things, dear. “What’s it got to do with you?” and “You leave the boy out of it!” and “I hate you!” and “For God’s sake, put that down!” Great long caterwauls from the woman and fits of crying from the boy. Then footsteps marching down the stairs. They stopped right outside my flat. There was a sharp rap on my door. I was terrified, I don’t mind telling you. I looked through the peep-hole and it was him, the man John. His face under those shaggy eyebrows was bright crimson. 
“Mrs Stevens!” His voice was like thunder. “Mrs Stevens, I know you’re there!” I didn’t want to open up but then I saw through the peep-hole that the little lad was with him.
I opened the door a chink and peered round. “Is everything all right?” 
His mouth was all twisted. “Bit of an emergency,” he said, struggling to compose himself. “I wonder if you could do us a favour and keep an eye on Gavin for an hour or two? He’s a good lad, he won’t be any trouble. I’ve brought a film for him to watch and a packet of crisps.”
I looked at the tear-stained face of the boy and put out my hand to him. “Of course! If there’s anything else..?” The man - John - could see I was concerned and made even more of an effort to look normal. “No, no, it’s fine. I just need to sort out a few things with Katie. We’re very grateful. I’ll pick him up later. See you, Gavin!” 
The boy didn’t say much, but he came into the kitchen and stroked Rusty. Luckily Rusty is good with children. He licked the boy’s knees, which made him smile anyway. I poured out a glass of orange juice, put the crisps in a bowl and wrestled with the film. I managed to get it to play in the end…Yes, quite proud of myself! It was that under-water cartoon thing with gaudy colours and all the speaking fishes. We sat side by side on the sofa and ate the crisps and watched it all the way through. But even with the volume turned up high we could still hear his parents yelling at each other through the ceiling.
It’s odd, really. They both seem so nice whenever I bump into them in the hall. They smile and say hello, and he often has his arm round her. Very strong arms he’s got. He helped me with the shopping once. I get a bit creaky these days and it was quite a load – lots of dog-food tins and some milk and jars of pickle and stuff. You know how it mounts up. It was a real struggle for me, but this John man, he whisked it out of my hands and had it in my flat and on my kitchen table quicker than you can say thingamabob. It was nice of him. I’m not taken in easily though. There’s something in his eyes I don’t like. And those eyebrows, they almost meet in the middle. I don’t mind telling you, I always double check that my door is locked at night.
Yes, I’ll have the Victoria sponge. Is it cream or buttercream?... That’s fine, dear… No, I don’t think I’ll bother with the earplugs. You can tell the manufacturer they leave a lot to be desired.

And how are you?... It is nasty, isn’t it? Rusty hates it, even with his coat on! But the forecast for next week is much better. 
…Well may you ask! …Yes, it got worse and worse. Whenever I saw her in the hall she looked so jumpy. And I actually saw bruises on her, poor thing. It looked like a burn on her arm, dark red and full of puss. I know, awful! The other night around six the shouting started up again. After a bit I heard their door bang and the thud-thud-thud of him coming downstairs, then the hall door banged too, so he must have gone out into the rain. Then there was a mad scurrying above. I’d just opened my door to let Rusty out for his late night run when the lady came catapulting down the stairs. I don’t think she saw me. Her hair was straggling loose all over her shoulders. She had her guitar slung over her back and was pulling the boy along. The boy was pulling back, whining “Mum, where are we going?” and she was telling him to shut up and hurry up, dragging him along. And they plunged out into the wind and rain as well. They weren’t dressed for it at all. I don’t think she even had a coat on.
I haven’t seen those two at all since then. I heard the heavy tread of the man coming back an hour later. Now I hear him playing his drums all by himself, crashing away for hours on end. Do you think I should go to the police? I’m scared of meeting him every time I go into the hall… No, you’re quite right. I far preferred the accountant… Yes, I’ll take the paracetamol. And a pot of honey, please.

Yes, it’s been a while! Well, not so much now. Just the drumming, which still goes right through the floorboards and into my skull. Bash bash bash. At least there’s no shouting and screaming, thank goodness. 
There’s another pretty lady who comes round, though. He seems to like them slim and waif-like. I’ve seen her a few times going up to his flat. She came yesterday. I saw her from the window. Very smart she was, in a buttony black coat, with her hair piled on top of her head and lots of pink lipstick. She went up to him straight away. I could hear her high heels click-clacking on the stairs. 
I did wonder if I should pop out and warn her but we’ve never been introduced and I can’t just come out with it, can I? It’s not really my place to do that and I’ve never been one to interfere in other people’s affairs. I have to admit I worry for her, though. I’m sure he’s very nice indeed to her as yet. Poor thing, she probably hasn’t the faintest idea about his true nature. 
There’s no bed-banging yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. I’ll have to enjoy my sleep while I still can. Better not stay and chat now, dear. Rusty is getting impatient. You’re needing your walkies, aren’t you, boy! 

Isn’t it lovely? So nice to see the sun again!
... Ah, now that was interesting. I did actually stop her in the hall yesterday to introduce myself. Very pretty she looked with a floaty blue scarf that showed up the colour of her eyes. I’d happened to notice that she was wearing a wedding ring, too. She looked a bit startled that I’d spoken to her. She said, “Oh, so you live in the downstairs flat, do you?” 
“Yes,” I said. “And you’re John’s new girlfriend, are you?”
She shook her head. “Oh no!” She looked appalled at the idea. “I’m the social worker. A lot of problems upstairs, as I expect you’ve gathered.”
“Yes!” I told her. “The battles that used to go on!”
She looked at me anxiously. “Hopefully things will be a bit better now. The son, Gavin is coming back next week. It took us a long time to locate him – and his mother.”
I was surprised. “Gavin’s coming back? And his mother – um -” Her name had escaped me for the moment.
“Katie.”
“Katie. Is she OK?” 
There was quite a long pause before I got my answer. Then it all came out. “Well, she’s as OK as an alcoholic can be. Nasty childhood she had, and she’s never known how to deal with it. She’s in a rehab centre at the moment, but she still has violent mood swings and bouts of self-harming. It wasn’t safe for little Gavin to be around her. He’s much better off with his dad. John always tried so hard to protect his son, and when Katie took him away he was devastated - and worried sick. Poor guy, he’s been through an absolute nightmare. Hopefully, with our help, he’ll be all right now. You’ll be supportive when you see him, won’t you?”
John, the dear man! Always so kind, helping with my shopping and things. I said I would of course.
As I said it, the drums started going again upstairs. But I’ll tell you something, love. It was almost a pleasure to hear. A much calmer, steadier beat than I’d heard in a very long while.