IT was during the advert break between two afternoon gameshows that Margaret muted the TV and listened.
“Vernon,” she said, looking about. “What’s that?”
Vernon, not far away in his sagging armchair, was stirred slightly in his long nap, but not enough to actually wake him.
“Vernon,” Margaret repeated. “Vernon, wake up!”
Vernon shuddered upwards and his eyes shot open.
“What is it?” he grunted, before automatically reaching for his cold cup of tea and taking an unpleasant gulp.
“I heard a noise,” said Margaret, still looking around as if there was an intruder in the room. “From next door.”
“Not bloody likely,” the old man muttered, putting his cup back down.
“Please though, can you go and take a look?”
“There it is again!” Margaret exclaimed, and stood up. She walked about in a great fear, rubbing her upper arms as though victim to a chill wind.
“Calm down, calm down,” said Vernon, getting up to lay on her a comforting hand.
Giving in to her worries, he said, “If you insist, I’ll go have a look.”
“Thank you dear,” Margaret said, deeply relieved.
Vernon glanced at the wall clock, and saw that it was a quarter past five, not long until teatime.
“Get tea started,” he said, “and I’ll go up into the loft.”
“Alright then,” agreed Margaret.
She went into the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, “You be careful now.”
Vernon, a man at the cusp of seventy and dealing with several cases of self-diagnosed arthritis, stretched his arms uncomfortably to the ceiling and prepared himself for his labours.
Technically their house was classified as a bungalow, but it still had a slim, carpeted stairway to the loft space, which Vernon ascended, taking a moment to stroke a small stuffed otter on a shelf halfway up, his own amateur creation, before fitting himself through what was more of a hatchway than a doorway.
He switched the light on, but to his eyes it seemed to somehow make the room darker.
“Bloody energy-saving bulbs,” he mumbled, and braced himself for the awkward journey over the piles of consumer goods and personal artefacts that constituted the physical record of the couple’s shared life. At the entrance to the loft, there was only a brief platform before the “floor” gave way to unprotected ceiling panels, the various boxes and other items laid across the joists.
His ankles forever aching, he slowly made his way across the central joist, his fingers lightly brushing against his and Margaret’s memories, being careful not to knock anything over. Many years back he had put his foot through a ceiling from a loft, and had made the mistake of immediately pulling it out, a lot of skin being scraped off by the sharp, cracked plastering. He knew, not trusting himself, that if he did it again he would panic and make the same mistake. Either that, or he would go through completely and end up with a broken neck.
After spending a minute edging himself over he reached the end of the joist and, narrowly avoiding toppling a pile of photo albums, lifted his leg over the short brick wall which divided the loft spaces of the two adjoined bungalow houses. He rested on the wall, his backside cold against the cement top, before lifting his left leg over to join his right.
The loft space above the neighbouring bungalow had been panelled above the joists with solid wood, so there was no need for any balancing acts. Vernon walked to the hatch on the other side of the space and put his ear to it—he was certain, if anything, that he was not going deaf in old age—his right knee creaking like it had done for the past twenty years. He listened, and, hearing nothing, gently opened the hatch and stepped onto the top of their stairway.
Vernon looked down upon the hallway and saw nothing out of the ordinary. A bit of mail had built up at the front door, which he would deal with before he left, but that seemed to be all. There was a bit of dust, and the floor probably could have done with a hoovering, but he could leave that until next month.
He made his way down the stairs, taking it one foot at a time and keeping each footstep as soft as possible.
At the bottom of the stairs Vernon surveyed the front bedroom and found everything in place. No windows were broken, and as he gathered up the mail he saw that the front door was still sealed shut, its opaque glass undamaged. He walked down the hall into the kitchen, but again, everything was the same as on his last visit.
The final thing to do was to check the lounge.
Leaving the mail on the hall table, Vernon went in and inspected the patio doors, before turning his attention to the fifty-something couple sat in their chairs in front of the TV. The TV itself had a picture of the Catalan coast glued over its screen, which Margaret had thought was as nice an image as any.
The couple were both rather stocky and short. The man was bald, scowling, as was the woman, her thin dark hair prepared by Margaret herself.
Vernon looked over each of them in turn, battered dust off their arms—he would do a proper job when he cleaned the house as a whole—stared into their cold marble eyes, cemented in brown leathery skin, and, because he was paranoid about any leaks, leaned both slightly forward to feel the slit in their backs, running his fingers along the stitch lines where the bones had been removed and the wood wool and wire added. Satisfied that his handiwork was still in good order, he put the couple back into their positions and returned to the loft space, before having to go back to retrieve the mail from off the hall table.
After navigating back across his own loft, nearly having a loose foot touch a ceiling panel and cursing himself for being so foolish, Vernon reached his own hatch and checked the mail he had collected.
“Mr and Mrs Leggett,” he read quietly off one, and saw that the remaining three letters were just circulars simply addressed to “The Occupant” or “The Homeowner”. Nothing of importance it appeared.
Vernon tried to remember the couple’s first names, but gave up and let their mail drop into a specially designated cardboard box, now close to full.
Getting back to his chair in his own front room and grabbing the remote control, Vernon saw that it was now half past five and that it was not long until their evening meal was to be ready.
“Is everything okay?” asked Margaret coming in from the kitchen.
“Fine,” he said, flicking around the channels. “Nothing to report. Just some mail. Maybe that’s what you heard.”
“Yes, maybe it was that,” she replied, and sat down.
“Is tea nearly ready?” he asked. “I’m starving.”
“Another fifteen minutes or so,” she said. “The timer will tell me.”
They sat silently while the next game show went into its second-to-last phase, the contestants completing its round, and another break of adverts beginning.
“Did we do the right thing Vern?” asked Margaret suddenly.
Vernon had no need of any context for the question. He knew what she meant.
“Right or wrong had nothing to do with it Maggie,” he said. “We did what had to be done.”
Margaret did not say anything in reply, merely nodding.
They then waited for the final quarter of the programme to start.