An Awkward Silence takes place in the same universe as The Office of Lost and Found
Click the link to download this story for free.
An Awkward Silence
An Awkward Silence
She blocked the hallway with desperation writ large upon her face. When she spoke, she did so in an urgent whisper.
“Please, Sam, you can’t leave me here alone!”
Sam did not share her concern. His eyes were untroubled, his posture casual and the weary sigh he allowed to pass his lips only served to aggravate his girlfriend’s tension. He stepped aside to give Natalie a clear view of the unkempt man sitting in the lounge through the doorway at the end of their entrance hall.
“That awkward silence in sandals is the reason why you’re not going out that door,” hissed Natalie.
Sam looked longingly at the front door behind her. It promised escape, but the exit was blocked by feminine stubbornness.
“Oh, stop being such a drama queen,” said Sam, his tone of exasperation softened by the hint of a smile. “Listen, I got you something. I was going to give it to you later, but…”
As his words trailed off, Natalie’s eyes were drawn down to his jean pocket, from which he produced a glittering necklace. It wasn’t anything fancy, a simple gold chain with a teardrop crystal pendant, but Natalie could barely contain her delight at the surprise. She tried to of course, pouting her continuing displeasure as Sam slipped it around her neck. Only when Sam was behind her fastening the clasp did she allow herself a self-satisfied smile. His fingers lightly stroked her skin and he kissed her cheek.
“Now best cover up that cleavage in case Evelyn gets any ideas.”
Natalie’s smile vanished and the dark glance she shot him prompted a chuckle from Sam. Even so, she hurriedly turned up the collar on her cardigan and fastened the buttons to the top. By the time she was done, Sam was already out the door.
Realising she’d been tricked, Natalie dashed over, but the door shut the second before she grabbed the handle. She threw her weight against it, but it wouldn’t budge. As soon as she heard the key turning in the lock, she had the letterbox open and was spitting promises at Sam’s crotch.
“You better run like stink, buddy, because when I get my keys…”
“These are your keys,” said Sam, dropping down to her level. “Remember? I left mine at work. Look on this as your big chance to get to know Evelyn better…”
It was Sam’s turn to stare through the letterbox at Natalie’s crotch.
“See this? You are now officially barred.”
Sam laughed and let the letterbox snap shut. When Natalie opened it again he was walking away from the apartment along the corridor to the stairs.
“I’m not joking,” Natalie called after him. “No sex for a month! No, a year! Not even a year – never again! ‘Cause I’m castrating you the moment you set foot back in this flat!”
She couldn’t hear his footsteps any more. He was gone. Natalie let the letterbox close, dropped her bum onto the floor and pulled her knees up to her chest.
“All of which is a little unfair on me, because it means I don’t get to have sex either,” muttered Natalie to herself. “Though I suppose we all know that resolution will go out the window next time I go on a merlot bender.”
She fell silent and realised Evelyn’s silence had been lying in wait. Evelyn’s silence was not like a normal silence. It drew attention to itself. It dared you fill it with noise and mocked you if you tried.
Natalie bum-shuffled away from the front door and craned her head forward. She could just make out Evelyn through the living room doorway. He was still sitting there, hunched over, staring into the middle distance. If he’d heard what Natalie had yelled out into the corridor he didn’t show it. Then again, he didn’t show anything much. He was as emotive as a shop store dummy, yet lacked the dress sense.
Natalie shuffled back against the wall. Sooner or later she would have to go in there and… talk to him? About what? He never managed more than a mumble and that would just lead to Natalie asking what he said, which would prompt another unintelligible mumble and she’d ask again and… she’d been there before; she didn’t want to go there again. Equally, she couldn’t just stay here in the hallway until Sam got back and took the awkward silence away. Well, she could, but she was bigger than that and she had pride – she wasn’t about to become a prisoner in her own home.
Natalie waited for her body to prove it, but it seemed unwilling to do so without some prompting from her brain. Crap, thought Natalie, I’m going to have to do this myself.
Reluctantly, she stood up. She composed herself. She psyched herself up. She gave herself a countdown and a count of three. Mentally, she ran a marathon, but her slipper-shod feet moved not an inch.
Natalie leaned forward again. He was still sitting there, hunched forward, staring into space. Didn’t he get bored doing that all the time? Or was his head so full of fantastic things that he didn’t need external stimulus? Natalie stared at his head for a bit. No, she couldn’t imagine anything fantastic residing in a head like that. Creepy maybe, geeky definitely, but fantastical was off the cards.
Look, if he doesn’t move and doesn’t speak, he’s clearly harmless, Natalie told herself. Just pretend he’s not there. Yes. Good. Take a deep breath and go for it.
She took a deep breath and, to her surprise, walked back into the living room. Evelyn didn’t even look up. Feeling like she should announce her presence, Natalie clapped her hands and rocked back and forth on her heels.
“So, Evelyn, it’s been a while since we saw you last.”
Did he nod? Was that a shrug? If he did either, he did so with the barest minimum of movement. Or perhaps he hadn’t even heard and it was just Natalie’s imagination playing tricks on her.
“Sam talks about you, of course,” persisted Natalie. “He said how Jenny had left you and…” When her brain caught up with her mouth, Natalie stopped speaking and started cursing under her breath. Sure, reminding the social recluse of his romantic failings was really going to kick-start the conversation. Change the subject, quick. “Sam and I have been thinking of re-decorating. Well, I say Sam and I, I don’t think he could really care less, but don’t you think it’s a bit drab in here? Or maybe not drab, maybe… maybe it’s just a stale. Sometimes you just need a change…”
She was blathering. She knew it, but she couldn’t help it. At least the words offered her some comfort. While she talked, she wasn’t thinking about Evelyn’s unsettling impression of a gargoyle and the bookcase really would look better over there and the walls would look better in peach and if Sam wasn’t going to listen, Evelyn damn well was.
“What do you think? Am I right? Peach would look great, wouldn’t it?”
Natalie was going to get answer out of him on this one, even if she had to brave that vacant stare. She placed herself in front of him, bent down to make eye contact and repeated her last question. Instantly, Evelyn nervous eyes darted their gaze away into the corner.
“Do you want a cup of tea then?” she asked, exasperated. She imagined he almost shrugged again. When she stormed away to the open kitchen area at the end of the living room, Natalie thought she heard him release a weary sigh, but a glance over her shoulder showed him unmoved and possibly not even breathing.
It’s a lost cause, thought Natalie to herself. There was never dialogue with Evelyn, only monologue. If she kept on talking to him, pretty soon she’d start thinking she could hold a conversation with any inanimate object. It’d probably make the papers: ‘The woman who talks to toasters’. People would point in the street as she discussed the weather with a lamp-post. At parties, she would discuss politics with the canapés. She might even attain minor celebrity status for a few weeks before the men in white suits came to lock her up. Clearly, the only way to avoid lunacy was to switch the television on and let that fill the silence until Sam got back.
The kettle boiled and switched itself off. Natalie dropped a teabag into a cup and began pouring out the hot water. She almost scalded herself when Evelyn’s reedy voice whispered in her ear, “could I use your toilet?”
Her yelp of alarm was entirely instinctive and sent Evelyn retreating for safety behind the dining table.
“Yes, of course you can,” said Natalie, calming her jangled nerves while wiping away the hot water spillage with a towel. Evelyn duly scampered off into the bathroom.
What kind of a person would sneak up on someone when they’re pouring boiling liquids? Either a very stupid person or a very malicious one, decided Natalie, leaving the inevitable question: Which of the two was Evelyn? Natalie tried to convince herself that he couldn’t possibly have spooked her on purpose, but in truth she didn’t know him well enough to rule out that possibility. In fact, wasn’t all his other behaviour entirely in keeping with an unbalanced personality? He could be like a jack-in-the-box, all silent, static menace up until that heart in the mouth moment where the lid flips open and the fiendish surprise inside leaps out.
Natalie finished preparing her tea. She dropped an extra spoonful of sugar into the brew and took a soothing sip. She was letting herself get carried away. That’s what too much silence does to a person, she told herself, it gives them space to think and when people get the chance to think too much they invariably start thinking crazy stuff. Fortunately, a dose of television could cure that problem.
The ringing of her mobile phone stopped her en route to switching the set on.
“How’s it going?” asked Sam when she answered the call.
“Why ask that? You know it’s going terrible. You know that. You also know if you leave me here alone with him much longer, someone is going to go crazy and people will get killed. At this point, I can’t tell exactly who’s going to end up dead, but your odds aren’t looking good.”
“They’re out of Silk Cut at the newsagents, so I’ll be another five minutes or so. Reckon you can last ‘til then?”
“Oh, well. Shame. See you in five.”
Natalie almost threw the phone across the room when Sam hung up but restrained herself and set it down carefully on the table. Sometimes she felt he delighted in playing sadistic little games like this. This time she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing her wound up and stressed out. She turned the television on and sat down with her cup of tea. ‘Eastenders’ had just started, but Natalie couldn’t keep her attention fixed on the screen. She kept having to look over her shoulder at the door. It was bad enough sitting in the same room as Evelyn, but it was worse with him here, yet out of sight. How long had he been on the toilet anyway? Granted, Sam often disappeared in there with a copy of FHM for ten, twenty, even thirty minutes…
What if Sam had left a copy in there?
What if Evelyn had found it?
What if…? What if Evelyn were discovering glossy photos of scantily clad women for the very first time? He might be sitting on the toilet with FHM in one hand and… Oh dear merciful Lord!
Natalie jumped to her feet and paced. She didn’t want to think what deviant things Evelyn was getting up to in her bathroom, but now the subject had been raised her imagination wasn’t going to let it drop; it was elaborating and in graphic detail. She would have to go in there afterwards and wipe down the walls, wash the floor and Sam would never prize those magazine pages open ever again.
She had to get Evelyn out of there.
Natalie hurried into the entrance hall. She was going to knock on the door and inform Evelyn that she urgently needed to pee, but sounds of activity stilled her raised hand. What was he doing in there?
Natalie put her ear up against the door, but it didn’t serve to make the noises any clearer. In fact, it located the sounds further to left, out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. The bathroom did have two doors, Evelyn could have gone out through the one leading to the bedroom. A tightening sensation gripped Natalie’s stomach. Evelyn had no right to be in the bedroom. Whatever he was doing in there, he had no right.
She looked back along the corridor to where one doorway led into the living room and a second led into the bedroom. Natalie wanted to throw open that second door and confront Evelyn, but the thought of the manic jack-in-the-box held her back. That could be her, bursting in on whatever it was he was doing and exploding with rage, but how would he react to getting caught? If his wrong-doing was exposed, what would stop him doing something even worse?
Natalie rapped loudly on the bathroom door.
“Could you hurry up in there, Evelyn? I really need…”
The bedroom door opened. Evelyn stood and there looked at Natalie. He struck her with his awkward silence. While she was still recovering he walked back into the living room.
Natalie’s heart pounding in her chest. When she lowered her hand from knocking on the bathroom door she saw it was shaking. After a few steadying breaths, she edged back up the corridor. The light cast into the darkened bedroom showed no signs of a disturbance. Everything was normal and in its place.
“I thought you really needed the toilet.”
Evelyn wasn’t looking at her, he was standing in the middle of the living room floor and staring at the television.
“I do. I’m… I’m going now,” replied Natalie.
She headed back to the bathroom.
“Does it ever scare you?” called Evelyn’s voice after her, free for once of mumbled syllables. “That you can never know what’s going on in someone else’s head?”
“No. Not usually.”
Natalie heard the creak of the floorboards in the passageway behind her as Evelyn approached. She turned around and found his hunched form before her, his head staring down at something held in his hands.
“You never met Sophie, did you?”
Evelyn’s eyes glanced upward to see Natalie’s reaction. She shook her head. His spindly fingers unfurled to hand her a photograph. It showed Evelyn standing almost upright in a dinner jacket. His hair was combed back, his greasy skin shone as it accommodated the freakish display of a genuine smile. Natalie had to concede he actually looked presentable, save for the demonic red-eye cast by the flash. More surprising than how well Evelyn scrubbed up was the fact his left arm embraced the shoulders of a pretty girl whose smile was so broad that her chubby cheeks squashed her eyes into slits immune to red-eye. She was also dressed for the occasion, with a sparkling pedant necklace and glittering earrings.
“You both look very happy,” said Natalie.
She tried to hand the photograph back to Evelyn, but he wasn’t looking. His head had dropped so far that his chin was buried up against his neck. A frown drew heavy lines across his brow.
“I thought we were. That’s why when people ask why she left like that, I can’t…”
He sniffed and shrugged and sniffed again. Was he crying? Natalie hoped not. She dropped the photograph on the letter shelf jutting out from the wall. He breathed a stuttering breath that threatened to break into a sob. Natalie reached out to offer Evelyn a consoling pat on the arm, but couldn’t actually bring herself to touch him.
“I don’t suppose it matters what people think. It’s what they do that counts,” said Natalie, immediately regretting her lack of tact. She opted to beat a hasty retreat. “Well, I still need to go pee. Your photograph’s there and… yes.”
She hurried into the bathroom and closed the door behind her, throwing the bolt home. After a moment’s relief, she abruptly remembered the door to the bedroom and quickly locked that too.
What is wrong with me? Thought Natalie to herself. I know I’m capable of acting like a sane and rational human being, but… She shook her head. It was him. He shorted out something in her brain. He must have dodgy pheromones, Natalie told herself.
She went to sit down on the toilet. It was only a last second warning from her women’s intuition that prevented disaster. While Sam was well house-trained, a glance at Evelyn told you he was anything but. He didn’t put the seat down after doing his business. Natalie did so now, but before sitting on it decided it would be prudent to dose it with cream cleaner before chancing potential Evelyn residue.
Natalie opened the cupboard under the sink and sought out the bottle of cleaner. It should have been at the front on the left, but it was at the back. She lifted it out, telling herself that Sam must have moved it when getting out a new roll of toilet tissue.
She cleaned the seat, sat down and then stood right up again. She returned to the basin and checked the cosmetics stacked up next to the soap dish. Her lipsticks were no longer in order of shade, but her bottles of nail polish were. The brush in one of her eye shadow compacts was the wrong way round. She retrieved a small tub of concealer hiding behind Sam’s shaving mirror and found a grotesque black hair buried in the cream. It was removed with a pair of tweezers and dropped down the plug hole.
Natalie sat down on the toilet seat once more. The thoughts in her head were conflicted. On the one hand, it was obvious Evelyn had been going through their things, but on the other hand had he really touched anything or was she just desperately seeking justification for her continued dislike of him?
When her attention turned outward again, a chill ran up her spine on hearing unfamiliar voices drifting through from the living room. Then she realised it was just the television. Her paranoia really was making her jumpy. Then again, you couldn’t normally hear the television in the bathroom when the doors were closed. Evelyn must have turned the volume up. Did that mean he was trying the cover the sound of something else?
Natalie got up, flushed the toilet and unlocked the door to the hallway. She pushed at the handle, but the door wouldn’t open. She tried again, pushing her shoulder up again the door, but it wouldn’t budge.
Feeling her heart begin to race again, Natalie moved deliberately slowly over to the second door. The bolt was withdrawn and the handle turned. This door wouldn’t open either.
“Evelyn!” called Natalie.
The voices from the television provided the only reply.
“Evelyn!” called Natalie again. “The bathroom doors appear to be stuck.”
She was in doubt he knew that already, but she wanted to give him a chance to redeem himself before she started throwing accusations around.
The floorboards in the hallway creaked. A scraping noise came from outside the first door and then Evelyn’s footsteps walked around to the bedroom door. It flexed slightly in front of Natalie as whatever had been obstructing it was removed. Evelyn letting her out did not serve to calm Natalie’s nerves. It had been made clear who was in control here.
Why wasn’t Sam back? It must be five minutes now since his call, thought Natalie. Why isn’t he here?
She was tempted to slide those bolts home again and keep herself locked safe and sound in the bathroom until Sam returned, but even behind those doors Natalie didn’t feel safe. What was going on in Evelyn’s head? What was he going to do next? That second question convinced Natalie to reach out for the handle. When she could see him, she could read his body language. She could see what he was doing. Trapped in here, with him out there, left her ignorant and fearful.
She stepped out into the bedroom. It was still dark, except where the light from the living room stole through the doorway followed by the sound of the television, which sounded mute in Natalie’s ears compared to the heavy breaths she was drawing. She looked around the room, her eyes gradually becoming accustomed to the gloom. Evelyn had been in here and his passing had not been as unobtrusive as Natalie had first thought. Clothes were strewn across the bed. Drawers and wardrobes had been emptied. Ragged cuts exposed the hollow fibre filling of the pillows. Natalie’s jewellery box was upturned on her bedside table and her favourite necklace had been snapped, the gold links scattered across the rug, grey and dull in the half-light.
She drifted through to the living room, numb to the thought of what Evelyn might have done here.
Books from the shelves along the wall had been thrown wildly across the floor. The cushions on the settee were ripped open. The drawers in the kitchen area hung open and their contents had been dumped on the dining table.
Evelyn stood at the window with his back to Natalie.
“I can see him crossing the road now,” he said. “He will be back any minute.”
The thought of Sam’s return lifted Natalie in spite of the chaos wreaked throughout the flat. She went cold again when Evelyn turned and fixed her with a blank stare and smile.
“I’m sorry for…” He gestured to the mess. “It’s all part of the game. His practical joke.”
His practical joke? But you did this, thought Natalie to herself. She couldn’t speak it, because Evelyn’s unwavering stare froze the words in her throat. She had never seen his eyes before, save for the burning red shown in the photograph. They would always flee at any sign of contact, but now they did not. Twin circles of pale blue approached Natalie and she dared not look away for fear of what he might do.
“Sam took something from me and hid it,” explained Evelyn. “I’ve been trying to find it. His little joke.”
He stepped right up to her. The smell of his stale breath filled her nostrils. His proximity exerted a force that threatened to push her backwards.
“A joke?” asked Natalie. “Is it funny?”
“No. Not really.”
A small voice inside Natalie tried to be optimistic. It pointed out that at least they were finally having a conversation, but then scuttled back into the safety of her subconscious when Evelyn’s gaze fell from her eyes and onto her lips. He opened his mouth and his tongue touched his own lips, cracked and dry as they were.
“They never found her,” said Evelyn, making eye contact once more.
Natalie could feel herself getting lost in those blue eyes. They were the placid blue of becalmed ocean and she was treading water, counting away the seconds until she drowned.
“Who?” she asked.
“The police,” replied Evelyn, “they never found her.”
And he lifted his hand and Natalie didn’t know if he was going to strike her or caress her. She never found out. The key turned noisily in the front door and Evelyn had retreated back into a huddled mass on the settee by the time Sam came bounding into the room. He looked around at his flat, now cast in disarray. His frown preceded a smile that chose not to ask the obvious question.
“You two look like you’ve been having fun.”
Natalie couldn’t answer that, she lowered her head so he couldn’t see her eyes and cast a glance at Evelyn. There was nothing to see there – a motionless figure lost in its own thoughts.
Sam clapped his hands together.
“Come on, Evelyn, we better be going or we’ll be late.”
Evelyn rose to his feet, but didn’t raise his head. Sam put a friendly on his back as he passed and guided his friend out of the front door. Then he ran back up the short passageway and gave Natalie a quick kiss and a grin.
“Don’t wait up.”
He ran back out of the flat and pulled the front door shut behind him. Natalie was left alone with the end credits of Eastenders playing behind her. She turned and wandered back into the living room. The place was a mess. It was going to take hours to tidy up and those cushions would have to be replaced.
When she began to ponder on why Evelyn did this, she gave herself a swift rebuke. The awkward silence was gone, finally, thankfully, and she wasn’t going to spend another moment thinking about him. Let’s be getting on with putting some of this stuff back, she told herself.
Natalie was putting the cutlery back in its drawer when she heard the floorboard in the hallway creak. She didn’t know whether it was coincidence or design that lead her to have that knife in hand when she turned slowly to see Evelyn step back through the door. He didn’t look at her straight away. Instead his shoulders remained hunched and his gaze swept the floor. He shuffled forward, edging aside the books splayed open in his path. Then he turned and advanced toward Natalie. He seemed unaware that she’d backed up against the worktop and held the knife pointing forward by her waist. Instead he walked right up to her and then looked up.
“Come on, Evelyn!” called Sam’s voice from the front door.
“I forgot my photograph,” said Evelyn, apologetically.
Natalie broke into a relieved smile herself. She put the knife down on the worktop and bustled past Evelyn, hurriedly telling him that she left it on the letter shelf, didn’t he remember?
She picked it up and stared at it until Evelyn gingerly took it from her. He took his turn to appreciate the picture.
“The police took everything else. It’s all I have left of her.”
Evelyn sniffed before slipping the photograph back into his pocket and shuffling past her. Sam was waiting impatiently for him outside the front door. Natalie didn’t notice. She didn’t notice Sam push Evelyn on toward the lift either. Instead she was unbuttoning her cardigan with chilled fingers, while her mind was empty save for the photograph; Evelyn standing there happy and proud next to Jenny in her fine dress and earrings and pendant necklace.
There must be thousands of necklaces like this, Natalie told herself as she pulled aside the collar of her cardigan and revealed Sam’s gift. It was coincidence and nothing more.
Sam was still standing there when she looked up. Their eyes met. She tried to read what thoughts were going through his head. He smiled, pulled the door closed and turned the key in the lock.