Sunday, 15 January 2012


(Justin Timberlake: SexyBack)

He always scared me, my neighbour. I was bookish and quiet, Radio 4 and light opera. He was forever demolishing things and sitting in the garden drinking from cans and whatever he did, if the temperature was a few degrees north of freezing he always had his shirt off. He did it because the kind of man he was, he wanted to show himself off, and he did it because he wanted to show her  off.

She curved over the strong muscles of his back, her head animated by his shoulder blade: when he shrugged, she looked up and down. Her dark hair coiled down the small of his back, and her eyes looked straight at you, cool and dark and hiding a lifetime of possibilities. For all it was such a primitive, debased art form, the tattoo had been executed with real beauty. I often wondered who she was. Whether he had known her. Whether he had...known her.

I tried not to look, because I am not the sort of man who looks at other men, but it was not easy. He would dig his garden, and I would sit in my first floor study, looking out of the window, watching her move as he moved. Then at night, I would dream of her. We would be at a party, and she would stand out like a rose amongst the dowdy and drooping shrubs of my colleagues. She would look around the room, and when her gaze met mine, she would stop. Smile. Take a slow drink. Not look away with contempt, like the rest.

When I woke in the morning after one of these dreams, the world seemed a little more tired and colourless than before.

My neighbour would get very drunk, and shout and fight, and throw things at his wall. He would play music late into the night, and sometimes he would bring a woman back and I would have to wear my ear-plugs so I didn't have to listen to the animal percussion of bed-frame against wall. Once, I didn't wear my ear plugs, and I closed my eyes and listened and imagined that the woman he was with was her. Afterwards though, I had to run to the toilet to be sick.

I could have moved, I should have moved, I wanted to move, to live and work in another city, but it was the house I was brought up in, and it was the house I nursed my mother in until last year, and then it was just my house. I wanted to move and start a new life. I wanted to start my life. But when I thought about all the change it scared me. Most things did. I am ashamed to admit it, but there you are.

It had been a hot day, and he had been out in his garden hammering something together all afternoon, stopping only to add to the pile of cans around his feet. The beat, beat, beat gave me a headache, so I could not concentrate on the work that I brought home, and that made me stare through the window, watching her, thinking about how a soft breeze would have caressed her hair around her neck, risen softly to my window, cooled my forehead, smelled of her perfume.

Then he turned round and saw me.

I ducked down, but my desk was in the way and I did not know if I had been quick enough. There was a loud crash outside, and I sat up to see the whole fence swaying. I was sick to my stomach and I was hot in the head and my arms and legs shivered and shook, as if I had the flu. I wanted to crawl under my bed, and curl up and put my hands over my ears.

My fence crashed and swayed again. I took a ragged breath and said, 'Be a man. For once.' At least I meant to say that, but what came out was, 'Be a man. For her.' 

I staggered downstairs and out into the garden. There was silence for a moment, and I began to hope that he had grown bored and gone inside to shout at his television, but then a whole fence panel came crashing down over my perennials, and onto my lawn. I had to step to one side, or one of the thick wooden fenceposts would have hit me. He sauntered through.

"My fence," I said, and I hated the sound of my voice, and I hated him, and I hated myself.

"Fuck your fence. I seen you," he said, "watching. Not the first time. Always watching. Fuckin' perv. Gonna tell the whole street, tell 'em to watch out. 'Specially the ones with kids."

"Don't you dare." I stepped forward, nearly tripping over the fencepost at my feet.

He made a face, and a sound like a little girl being scared. I could smell the drink on him.

"You would not believe what I am capable of," I said.

He laughed, shook his head. Then he lifted a fist, very quickly, as if to hit me. I flinched. He dropped his fist, laughed again. "You wouldn't have the bottle," he said. He looked at me as if I were dirt. Then he spat, on the ground, and turned his back to walk away.

She was laughing too.


When colleagues in my new job come to my new flat, in my new city, they often remark on it. "How unusual," they say. "Very folk art, very primitive, but all the same it's stunning execution, and that frame sets it off beautifully. She's not on canvas though, is she?"

"Goatskin," I say. "It's goatskin."


  1. you've ruined justin timberlake for me, hope you're proud of yourself. a fabulously cool and deviant story, as always.

  2. If I achieve nothing else this year, I can at least look back and think that I performed one real public service.