Ben parked the van outside the apartment block and looked at his watch.
“Two hours and a half,” he said. “Not too bad for packing your entire life into a van.”
Nicola adjusted her woolly hat and shook her head. “Can’t believe I’ve left that old place though.”
“Well, at least you own this one.”
“Or I will,” she grinned. “In twenty-five years.”
She pulled the handle, turned and jumped out of the van. Opening the front door with her key, she bound up the stairs, two at a time, to the first floor.
In the fading afternoon light, the flat somehow looked a little empty and forlorn. Waiting for someone to give it life, she thought. Trying to find a way to make itself live again. And now, it was home. Her home.
She spent a moment looking round, imagining where the furniture was going to go. The only room that was smaller than her old flat was the windowless kitchen. At least it was newly refitted, and so was the bathroom, although she suspected she’d paid far more than the renovations cost for the privilege.
The large front room had a TV aerial coming in at one corner, as well as a satellite dish. That made it obvious where the sofa should go, at least.
Propping the front door open with some junk mail (courtesy of a pizza delivery company, a local supermarket and a mobile phone shop), she turned back and headed down the stairs.
“No it’s my sister moving in,” she heard Ben saying.
“Oh I see,” came the reply. As she turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs she saw Ben talking to an old man wearing a tweed suit, who turned towards her and smiled.
“Just been talking to your new neighbour,” Ben said.
“Hello there,” the old man said. “I’d offer to shake hands but I’m afraid my arthritis would be complaining for the rest of the night. I live at number six, Rohmer is the name, but you can call me Bill.”
“I was just asking if he was any relation to Sax Rohmer,” explained Ben.
Bill chuckled. “Fu Manchu and all that. Surprised you know about these things today.”
“If it’s ever been made into a film, Ben knows about it,” she said.
Ben nodded. “Although Fu Manchu is considered a bit racist these days though – doesn’t the phrase ‘the yellow peril’ come from there?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Bill said. “I never saw it. Someone told me that in the books he’s called the yellow peril because he always dresses in yellow, but whether there’s any truth in that I don’t know. People will say anything if it suits them, won’t they?”
Nicola paused, then nodded. Ben mumbled something in agreement. The old man nodded.
“Well, I best not keep you,” he said, starting to move. “Hope it all goes well.”
He started to walk off and then turned back to face them.
“Oh and one more thing,” he said. “Better get your cholesterol checked, young man, I think you’re a little on the high side.”
They watched him for a moment or two.
“Bye for now, then,” Bill said, and walked away.
“Nice old man,” Ben said.
“Yep,” Nicola replied.
“But,” Ben shook his head and smirked. “Cholesterol though…”
“Can’t hurt to check, can it?” Nicola shrugged.
“I suppose not,” Ben said, lifting up a box. “Come on then. Let’s get started.”
In the next few days Nicola saw Bill coming and going in the hall. He never seemed to be still, although he walked slowly. But it was another month before they again had anything approaching a conversation.
“Hi Bill,” she said, passing him in the hall. “Listen, I’m having a package delivered this afternoon – if I’m not back by the time they arrive, can you sign for it for me?”
“Well I don’t know,” he frowned. “Maybe I won’t hear them. I am eighty-two, you know, my ears are not to be relied on.”
“I see.” Nicola’s face fell.
“Are you off anywhere important?”
“Got to go meet a friend for her birthday,” she explained. “I’d wait for the parcel myself, but I promised months ago.”
“Well I’ll do me best,” he said, and broke into a smile. “With a bit of luck we’ll sort it out. You just go enjoy yourself.”
She thanked him and walked down the stairs, and he went back inside his flat. She wondered whether he actually owned another suit, or whether he had two or three exactly the same.
What was supposed to be a small birthday lunch turned into a long birthday lunch, and Nicola arrived back much than she’d thought she would. Sitting outside the front door when she got back was the parcel.
“Morning Bill,” she said.
“Morning,” he replied. “Off to work?”
“’Fraid so. Six till two shift. No rest for the wicked.”
“Eh lass,” Bill frowned, head tilted on one side. “That’s been every day this week.”
“I need the money,” Nicola replied. “Moving is expensive and my savings are… well, gone. And this mortgage is frightening.”
“Not to mention that I have a monster of a credit card bill that needs paying.”
Bill carried on looking at her, stone faced.
“It’s mainly moving expenses,” she explained. “Van hire, boxes, parcel tape, stuff like that. So I don’t begrudge it, really, but… you know…”
She shrugged and Bill nodded and scratched his chin with one finger.
“Oh, a message for you from my brother,” she said. “He says thank you – he did get the cholesterol check and he was dangerously high, apparently. They’ve put him on something or other to bring it down.”
“That’s grand,” Bill smiled. “Glad I could help.”
Nicola nodded, and turned to go.
“Hey,” Bill called when she was halfway down. “How much money have you got?”
“I’m sorry?” She turned back to look at him. His face had hardened into an expression she couldn’t read.
“Today,” he said. “Right now.”
“About fifty I think,” she replied. “But it’s all I’ve got until the end of the month.”
He touched a finger to his temple. “On the way home, go to the betting shop, put the lot on Astrosonic, today in the 3:30.”
“It’ll win,” Bill’s stern expression cracked open and he smiled. “Don’t worry.”
Unsure exactly why she was doing it, Nicola headed into the betting shop on the way home from work, four notes in her hand. The fact that what was now left in her current account wouldn’t cover even a takeaway was alarming, and what was she thinking putting money on Astrosonic at what odds, again?
“Forty to one,” she whispered to herself, looking at the betting slip in her hand.
She sat down, feeling faint. Where had that time gone? She didn’t even remember going to the counter and asking, but she must have done.
“What yer got?” a man asked, filling in a coupon.
“Er, Astrosonic,” she said.
“Forty to one?” the man sneered. “Good luck with that. I’m going for Lifting Away in that race, myself. Fifty bones, even money. Romp home.”
Nicola felt the colour drain away from her. She checked her watch: twenty past. Maybe there was a pawn shop around here, she thought. It’s not too old, this watch, it’s still under guarantee, so maybe I can get something back on it. Why did I trust Bill?
She stood up and went to the water cooler at the side of the shop, filled a cup and downed it straight away. It helped. She refilled it and drank that as well.
Nicola looked at the door, crunched the empty cup in her hand and walked over to the door. She reached for the handle and hesitated. She closed her eyes, thought a moment, then turned back.
“Let’s get this over with,” she whispered to herself.
She sat back down at the table, next to the man and waited for the race to start. The television was an old CRT, and the picture was slightly green, but she watched the horses come out. Astrosonic was number three, and the jockey was mainly dressed in purple. After a few moments they lined up on the course.
“And they’re off,” said the commentator. The race barely registered with her, as though it was happening in a far away place and should could only see fragments of it at any one time. Lifting Away started well, her horse was fourth. Two horses bumped, one of them dropped back, and that means Astrosonic was now second, and suddenly it was all over. Lifting Away won it.
She looked at the ticket in her hand. That money was gone now. A week living off a single loaf of bread and the two tins of soup she’d bought during a dieting phase last year.
“Don’t tear it up yet,” the man said. She turned to look at him in surprise and he pointed at the television.
The race positions were listed on the television graphic, with the words Stewards Inquiry at the bottom.
“What does that mean?” she asked the man.
“Means the jockey cut off Love is Wild when he was coming up the inside, and they collided,” he replied. “Means I might not have won me bet after all.”
“Oh,” Nicola said. “I don’t understand any of this. I’ve never done this before,”
He shook his head. “And you put how much on Astrosonic?”
“Forty,” she said. “My neighbour recommended it.”
“Oh look!” He poked her shoulder and pointed at the television again. “Looks like you owe him a thank you.”
“And the stewards have disqualified Lifting Away for interference,” said the commentary. “So that leaves our forty-to-one shot, Astrosonic, as the winner.”
She started down at the ticket in her hands. She didn’t hear the man saying “well done”. She didn’t see where she was going. Everything seemed dream-like, automatic. The cashier took the slip, nodded, and counted money. He printed a receipt, wrapped the two in a rubber band, and handed it over. The receipt read one thousand, six hundred and forty.
“Thank you,” she said, and walked, still in her trance state, out of the shop.
“Mr Rohmer,” a voice said, “Please open the door Mr Rohmer.”
Nicola walked up the stairs to the landing.
“Is everything OK?” she asked.
“Fine thanks,” the woman said.
“I live over the landing,” Nicola went on. “Is Bill all right?”
“I was supposed to…” she broke off. “I’m his landlord. Landlady. He rents from me, anyway, whichever term you want to use.”
“Is he behind on his rent or something?”
“No, no, that just goes by standing order.” she said. “I just…”
“Usually,” the landlady continued, “I do a six-month inspection. Check for any problems with anything. Well, the flat below complained about a smell. So I sent a letter, no reply. I phoned, but no answer.”
“I saw him this morning,” Nicola said. “Maybe he’s out.”
“Hmm. I wonder.” The landlady bent down, reached under the mat, and brought out a key.
“I’m not sure that’s legal is it?”
The landlady shrugged and unlocked the door. The smell hit them the moment it opened. The landlady drew back, coughing.
“I don’t think you saw him this morning,” she gasped.
Nicola poked her head in. She never forgot what she saw – the stack of unopened letters spilling out from behind the door, the carpet that stained brown as it approached the chair, and sitting in the chair, the decayed remains of a human body wearing a white shirt and tweed suit.
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