The fence ran the whole length of the garden front and back, about 40 metres in all. Jenny stood in the driveway and raised her vintage designer sunglasses to better view it.
She sniffed. What a sorry state of affairs.
A few weeks earlier the second big storm of the year had battered all but the wooden posts, splitting several sections into pieces and flinging them up into trees, around the garden and across the street without a care. Her husband Lonny cheerfully rescued every little bit and then reconstructed what was now in front of her, a botch job of a fence wedged in behind a row of newly planted tiny shrubs.
‘I’m not buying a new fence Jen,’ he said, ‘They’re no good for the environment. The old one will have to do till the hedge has grown.’
She looked at the tiny shrubs and said, ‘What hedge? I can’t see a hedge!’
‘You wait, duck, before you know it, that lot will be six foot tall and full of wildlife!’ he replied with his usual exuberance.
Lonny’s stubborn refusal to upgrade the fence wouldn’t matter too much except that new neighbours were moving in any minute and really...well she wouldn’t blame them if they complained. People do have standards after all.
She patted her forehead with the back of her hand before putting her sunglasses back on. This heat was getting crazy. If she stayed out in it much longer she would wilt. If only the new neighbours would hurry up and arrive. She meandered up the drive and casually strained her neck towards the sound of distant traffic. No, there was nothing coming this way.
She turned back to the house where scaffolding had been erected to enable the addition of further solar panels on the roof. Lonny was up there sorting it all out, busy as usual. He caught her glance and leant over the top rail.
‘Come on, Jen,’ he called, ‘come up and see the view.’
She squinted up at him in the dazzling sunshine. At fifty-one, her petite figure hadn’t changed much over the years but the lines on her face now suggested more worry than laughter. She put a cautious hand on the scaffolding ladder to feel how steady it was. It felt firm but she resisted. Their three bedroom semi on the southern tip of Stoke on Trent wasn’t a big house, but still that roof was high up and scary. Lonny would be up there for the next few weeks installing the extra panels as part of his ongoing efforts to make the family plot more self-sufficient, ready for when ‘it all kicks off.’ She tried to be interested in his prepping and environmental projects, but it wasn’t really her cup of tea. Plus the scaffolding annoyed her because it made the house look ugly. She had gone to great lengths to choose the right shutters for the front windows, to make the house seem more south of Paris than south of Stoke. Now the stupid scaffolding was covering them all up.
Still, the view from the roof must be good, it must stretch across Manor Lane and Meir Park on the one side, to the countryside beyond on the other. That would be nice. Lonny called her again.
‘Come on, duck, you can do it.’
She put her foot on the bottom rung, but the sound of a car approaching distracted her. In Bramfield Drive, a quiet cul-de-sac, any car had the potential to be a bit of news. Sure enough, the engine sounded like it could belong to a van which might mean the long awaited tenants were finally moving in next door. She would go up on the roof later, plenty of time for that.
After fifteen years of living next door to dear old Myrtle, Jenny couldn’t help but feel a rush of excitement at the thought of nice new neighbours moving in. Younger people and hopefully a lovely woman she could be friends with. Just a nice warm female face over the fence, to wave and chat to each day and maybe get a text from every now and then: ‘Fancy a coffee?’ It wasn’t too much to ask was it? She wasn’t asking to win the lottery was she?
She peered over the patchwork fence to where the van was coming round the corner and into view. But at the first sight of it, the look of happy expectation on her face collapsed. She retreated into the shadows of the scaffolding in haste.
‘Newlyweds’ the letting agent had described the new neighbours, conjuring up romantic images of white weddings and honeymoons, while admitting later that they already had a couple of young children. Well that was par for the course these days, that didn’t mean anything. Also they were renting the house off Myrtle’s son despite house prices in Stoke being the lowest in the country, but everyone has to rent now and then so that didn’t tell her much either. But this filthy old van churning out thick smoke from the exhaust told her a lot more. And this big, thuggish bloke stepping out and aggressively shouting parking instructions to the driver, that told her a lot too.
She peered closer at the driver. A big, fat tattooed woman. Shouting back at her husband and calling him a cunt.
God Almighty. That told her everything.
She rushed inside.
In the hallway, away from the dazzling light of the sunny garden, she put a hand on the wall to steady herself as the comparative darkness of inside enveloped her. Another knock back. Another disappointment. Why had she been so stupid as to expect more?
She walked into the kitchen, poured a glass of water from the filter jug and leant back against the units. Her hand was shaking as she drank a few sips. A hideous foul-mouthed woman was moving in next door, it was just typical. She might have guessed it would happen. I mean could her life get any worse? Could it?
She caught sight of the calendar on the wall and the numerous Saturday night bookings coming up in her role as a Marie Osmond impersonator. Oh God, each one of those was like a booking for a dentist’s drill. Clearly it could get worse. In fact, it seemed out of control now, it was ridiculous. She never wanted it to be like this. Trapped in an awful life. In a cage. And now with a pair of gorillas running loose next door.
A notification sounded on her phone and she grabbed it hoping it was Annie or Katie or Emily messaging to say hello or even better, that they were coming back to Stoke for a visit.
But no, it was the weather app saying to take care because it was getting hotter.
For God’s sake, she didn’t need an app to tell her how hot it was. She tossed the phone aside. It brought no relief these days.
It hadn’t always been like this though, had it? In what now seemed like a different lifetime, she had been fortunate enough to know many, many happy days. She looked at the numerous framed photos on the gallery wall which stretched across the kitchen diner. Pictures of her and her best friend Sue and others of her and Annie and Kate and Emily, her friends from the salon. Beautiful women surrounding her, supporting her, loving her, filling every day with laughter. Now who did she have?
Even with the best husband and the most adorable sons in the world she often felt like this these days. Since Sue died, since the girls had left town, since she was forced to close the beauty salon and become a carer. Since her whole world had turned upside down, since her whole world had turned ugly; there was a gaping hole in her life the shape of which was female.
Jenny and Lonny would often get stared at when they went into Hanley, Stoke’s city centre. Lonny, the handsome youngest son of Jamaican immigrants who had settled in Stoke in the 1960’s and Jenny, the daughter of a beauty queen from South Wales, could literally turn heads. Jenny always loved to look her best whatever the occasion, even just a trip to the Potteries Shopping Centre or these days, the doctors, would see her making an effort. And for her Marie Osmond routine of course the curling tongs were on at full throttle. At least they used to be anyway. Maybe it was having such a dishy husband who was eight years younger that kept her on her toes, even though she knew he wasn’t the type to stray. Or maybe she remembered the sharp tongued criticism from her mother if she wasn’t well turned out, a cardinal sin in her books, even for five year olds. Despite this, Jenny had enjoyed her career as a beautician with her own salon for many years, the girls by her side, her clients looking pampered and fabulous. But eventually, years of grinding austerity in Stoke meant beauty treatments became a luxury and the salon began to suffer. Then there were those incidents with the dreaded botox. She never could get the hang of giving injections, especially when people didn’t sit still.
When Sue was diagnosed with cancer, Jenny used the lack of business as an opportunity to go to Cardiff to be by her best friend’s side. Then, as the recession hit and she had to lay off the girls, they had seized the opportunity to break out in a midlife change of direction; Annie went off to University on the south coast, Kate set up her own salon with her husband in Jersey, Emily hooked up with a champion weightlifter and followed him to Lanzarote.
Jenny knew that a change of career was what faced her too but coping with Sue’s illness left her unable to put much thought into it. In desperation she ended up joining a care agency because she knew that at least if she was a carer she would never be out of work. Which was true, she was never out of work. Then one day just after Sue died, she was visiting a bed-ridden old lady with Alzheimer’s and had to change her incontinence pad despite telling the agency she didn’t really want to do personal care. But no one else was available, they said, so she just had to get on with it. And the old lady wouldn’t cooperate. She thought she was back in the playground and Jenny was a young boy trying to pull her knickers down and she fought and kicked with all her might. Eventually Jenny won and then found herself having to clear up what seemed to be an open sewage works. She cried as she did it. She cried and she thought of Sue and how much she missed her and the girls and the salon and all the glamour and the laughter they used to share. And how they were now all gone and she was left drowning in shit.
Under the pretext of dusting the bathroom window ledge she looked out of the half open window, nudged the shutter open a little wider and peered down into next door’s garden. At least with the scaffolding up she could be as nosy as she liked because no one would be able to spot her.
The black van, now parked half on the drive and half on the lawn, had destroyed the flower bed border. Unbelievable. Myrtle would have risen up out of her wheelchair shaking her fists if she had seen this. And it seemed the ‘newlyweds’ had done all their packing using bin liners. One bag after another spilled out of the van, where was the furniture? It was as though they had moved the entire local rubbish collection. She winced at the sight of all that plastic, Lonny would have a fit.
She could see the woman jumping out of the back of the van, still shouting at her husband. He seemed to have disappeared. Not surprising, who wouldn’t? Oh here he was, reluctantly putting his phone away like he had a bet on at the races that was much more important. God Almighty, if looks could kill! Well, their honeymoon was well and truly over, wasn’t it? She could hear young children shouting and screaming, she hoped there weren’t too many of them. Oh Lord, there might be seven or eight. Jenny opened the window slightly wider to get a better view, still straining to see because of the scaffolding planks.
She saw her new neighbour bending over to pick up a few of the bags and noted the unsuitability of the hipsters she was wearing, given the size of her backsi -
A flood of nausea stopped her thoughts abruptly. She realised she had just turned into her mother, the biggest snob in South Wales. Her eyes filled with tears. This wouldn’t do, this wouldn’t do at all, it was obviously her depression getting the better of her. The depression that had moved into her life after Sue died. She left the window, feeling ashamed of herself.
She took a moment to look in the mirror and force a smile to try and shake off the negative vibes. A few moments went by as she tried several times to grin like a Cheshire cat. This tactic usually worked. But not today.
She heard Lonny call from outside.
‘Duck? Come and meet Dawn - our new neighbour!’
She stayed quiet. After all, she was in the bathroom. Surely here she could get away with not giving a response. She went back to the window to see if she could see them, yes there they were at the fence. Dawn had a huge smile on her face, she obviously liked Lonny. Well, that was no surprise, everyone did.
‘Sorry, duck I think she’s otherwise engaged, she’ll come and say hello later,’ he said.
Don’t say that Lon, she winced, can’t you see she’s not my type?
Just then Dawn looked directly up at the bathroom window and saw her standing there with her feather duster, though the half open pane of frosted glass. She grinned and waved.
Jenny backed away, her face flushed.