Tanya Farrelly is the author of three books: a short fiction collection When Black Dogs Sing (Arlen House), which was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and named winner of the Kate O’ Brien Award 2017, and two novels: The Girl Behind the Lens and When Your Eyes Close (Harper Collins). She holds a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from Bangor University, Wales, and teaches at numerous institutions, including the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin, and the People’s College. She is the founder and director of Bray Literary Festival and has recently been appointed Writer-in-Residence at NUIG. Her second short story collection Nobody Needs to Know is forthcoming from Arlen House.
‘You know you could die in this place. Ding-Dong-Johnny-Johnny could take an axe to that door, bash both our heads in and not one neighbour would fuckin’ hear.’
It had been going on for at least half an hour, intermittent roars starting off sing-song-like only to convert, in seconds, to a bellowing crescendo. ‘A quarter past bloody one,’ Roz said, throwing the covers back and swinging her bare legs onto the floor.
‘What are you doing? You’re not going out to him?’
‘Damn right I’m not,’ she said, pulling on her robe, ‘I’m ringing the guards is what.’
“Ding-dong-Johnny-Johnny-whatsit-ding-dong-day” the strange nursery rhyme accompanied Roz’s form out the door. I sat up and turned on the bedside lamp. ‘Turn it off,’ she hissed. ‘We don’t want him knowing we’re here.’ “Ding-dong-Johnny-Johnny…” The voice was getting louder, brasher. It felt like he was in the goddamn spare room. I opened the door to make sure he wasn’t, was relieved to see the usual mess. ‘Fuck’s sake.’ I pulled on a t-shirt and followed Roz into the front room.
‘Yeah, look, I’m ringing about a neighbour. He’s been shouting non-stop for the past hour. Sounds like he’s having some kind of meltdown. I don’t know, some weird nursery rhyme, then he starts into this string of obscenities. Listen, you’ll hear him yourself if I go out to the hall.’
We sat in the dark and waited for them to come. ‘What the hell is he saying anyway?’ I said. Scrunch of tyres on gravel had us out of our seats. ‘Fair play,’ Roz whispered, ducking the headlights on the wall. ‘That was fast.’ I went into the hall, waited for the buzzer to go – ‘Do you hear that,’ I whispered to the uniformed pair in the porch. “Ding-dong-Johnny…” was going at full volume. The reply was running steps on the stairs outside, a bang on the door opposite, and all went quiet. Roz and I jostled for space like players in a rugby scrum, ears fixed against the door.
‘Tommy. Are you alright in there?’
‘Are you alright, Tommy? We heard shouting?’
The door opened. ‘What do you want?’ In the voice, not a trace of the hysterics of the moment before. ‘I didn’t call you. Did someone call you?’
A struggle as Roz and I tussled for the lock. ‘Don’t’ I whispered, but she threw my hand off and flung open the door.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I called. You’ve been screaming in there for nearly an hour. Have you any idea what time it is?’
Roz, hot-headed Roz. I pulled the door open to stand behind her, all five foot nothing of her ready for combat. ‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘You were shouting, Tommy. Some nursery rhyme…’
The guards waited, patient. Tommy loomed in his doorframe, swollen belly protruding from under a stained vest. ‘I’ve no idea what these two are talking about,’ he said, measuring us with albino eyes. He stepped forward, wagged a finger at me. The smell of piss and stale sweat nearly made me gag. ‘I could have you charged,’ he said. ‘For harassment.’
‘Now Tommy, there’s no need for that. These people were just concerned about you, that’s all. I heard you myself from out in the street.’ The ban garda’s voice, soft, cajoling. ‘Listen, do you want me to call someone?’
‘What for?’ he said. Then, pausing. ‘I could call a solicitor; this is an infringement on my rights. I know the law, you know. Don’t think I don’t.’
‘Ah, I don’t think there’s any need for that Tommy. So long as you’re alright… that’s all anyone’s concerned about.’ The male guard this time. I’d say he’d taken one look at Tommy and was sorry he was the one got the call.
‘And getting some sleep, that’s what concerns me,’ said Roz. ‘Some of us have to get up in the morning.’
The male Guard sighed. ‘Right, well if there’s no more trouble…’
I pulled Roz inside the door and closed it, lest we were left facing Tommy while the other two belted it down the stairs.
I was no coward, but Tommy O’ Keeffe was over six feet tall and could have been a rugby player in his day. The slack belly didn’t take away from the strength in those shovel-like hands, and to find myself backed into a corner with him looming over me was, to say the least, the stuff of nightmares.
He’d been living next-door for a while. Certainly, he’d been there before Roz moved in two years before and in so far as we could, we both avoided him. We exchanged looks when we heard him coming up the stairs with his shopping, shouting in frustration if something happened to tumble from one of his bags and onto the floor, while he fumbled his key in the space between his apartment and ours.
Most of his time, he spent outside in the complex car park. He marched up and down in a hi-visibility vest with nothing underneath, threatening any of the day trippers brave or stupid enough to try to get free parking when the seafront was jammed. Personally, I’d have circled the area ten times rather than have his red face roaring into mine. Sometimes, he’d sit sentry on the wall outside, eating a sandwich, or a ninety-nine from one of the kiosks over the street and it dripping down his front as he watched and waited – a troll blocking the main entrance to the building.
Roz had had a number of run-ins with him. There was the time he’d left his mountain bike in the small hallway between our two doors. Attached to the bicycle were two pannier bags, and the smell was as if something dead lay inside them. Roz, with a pair of marigolds on, had shunted the bike so that it barricaded his doorway, and had then taken a bottle of Febreeze and saturated the air with it to make her point. Another time, and although we hadn’t seen him first-hand, we knew that he was the one responsible for the blood stains on the handle of the main door downstairs. Blood was smeared too on the glass where he’d placed his palm when opening it. Enraged, Roz had stomped into the apartment and typed up a sign: Whoever is responsible for these bloodstains, you are vile. Disgusting!’ That night we saw him peering at the glass – a rag of some kind in his hand. Proof of our assumption.
I thought Roz was going to lose her reason when we were awakened the following night with the same nursery rhyme belting through the wall. “Ding-Dong Johnny, Johnny…” It began the same as the previous night – a chant that became a roar. ‘That’s it, they’re going to have to do something… this is fucking ridiculous,’ Roz said, climbing over me and out of the bed to get to the phone. This time they took longer to come around. We’d been through fifty renditions of the dreaded rhyme and there was still no sign of them. Roz had gone into the spare room and begun hammering at the wall. ‘Shut the fuck up,’ she yelled. ‘Shut. The. Fuck. Up.’
The management committee of the complex had said they’d have a chat with him, which we knew was good as useless. No one else had complained. They were clearly, as Roz had put it, either deaf or terrified. The Guards, when they finally showed, could do nothing either. Tommy, who had shut up as soon as they’d pulled into the car park, refused to answer the door. ‘We could arrest him,’ a Guard told us when we’d been driven to going around to the station. ‘But he’d be back home in an hour, and it wouldn’t change a thing.’
‘But what about mentally?’ Roz asked him, ‘Couldn’t he be sectioned or something, for his own good? The man is clearly off his rocker.’
The guard sat back in his chair and studied us. ‘It’d be the same thing. I could bring him in, get a psychiatrist to see him. Most likely he’d sweet talk the psych and he’d be back home that evening.’
‘But the noise? I mean there has to be some law about the noise, surely?’
The guard sighed. ‘That’d be very hard to prove. He’d have to be recorded, the ratio of decibels. I wouldn’t bother if I were you. Best thing you can hope for is he stops. What about family? Is there anyone goes in and out? Someone might convince him to see a doctor?’
We shook our heads. No one darkened the door of number ten.
Roz and I hadn’t particularly paid attention to the absence of the post. I’d been expecting a journal I subscribed to, which hadn’t turned up. Apart from that, we weren’t exactly seeking bills in our mail box. It wasn’t until Roz came home one day, and called me, her voice shaking, that we realised what had been going on.
Roz had got home before me and as she was climbing the stairs she’d noticed something outside our door. She figured one of the neighbours had taken in a package for us, they often did. On closer inspection it was a filthy toilet roll package smeared with faeces on the outside, and inside letters addressed to both of us, including my arts journal, which had been ripped into smithereens.
Disgusted she’d dropped the package, kicked it inside our door and gone into the apartment as quickly as she could and phoned me. ‘Talk about an indirect threat,’ she hissed down the phone. ‘He’s got it in for us now. God know what he’s going to do.’
‘Is he there now?’ I said. ‘Was there any sound of him?’
‘I don’t know. The door was closed. What time will you get home?’
‘God, I don’t know. It’s going to be late. There’s a call I have to take from the States. We can’t go anywhere till it comes. It’ll be nine at the earliest. Will you be okay? Maybe you should go to your mother’s?’
‘No, I’ll be alright. What’s he going to do, kick the door in?’
Roz took the mail in its filthy bag round to the station. She didn’t admit to it, but I figured she’d broken down. Her eyes were still swollen when I got home. She was also livid. ‘How fucking dare he?’ she said. ‘I swear, he’ll pay for this.’
The Garda on duty, Roz told me, had known all about number ten. There’d been an incident a year ago, which we’d heard nothing about – we were on honeymoon. Tommy had left a bath running and flooded the girl who was living in the flat below – thousands of euro worth of damage. She’d complained to the management committee. Of course, Tommy hadn’t a bean to pay for it. After a liaison meeting to try to sort it out, Tommy had gone downstairs to accost the girl. He’d started banging on the door, and when she didn’t answer he’d begun kicking it. The girl, who’d been in there with her pregnant sister, was terrified. It was when he’d gone around to the front window and started banging on the glass that they’d called the guards.
‘Why didn’t they tell us that before?’ I said. ‘Why didn’t that little weed O’ Mahony say something?’
Roz shook her head. ‘Probably something to do with privacy, I suppose. Still, Neil didn’t have any problem telling me.’
‘Neil?’ I said.
‘The Garda on duty.’ She smiled. ‘He said he’d have no problem coming around here and telling Tommy he’d kick the shit out of him. Fairly brave, don’t you think?’ she said.
I felt a stab of jealousy, took in her tousled state, and red eyes.
‘I’ll bet he did,’ I said.
Roz smirked, giving me a look that said she was enjoying winding me up.
That night was quiet. ‘Thanks be to Jesus,’ I thought. Maybe whatever kind of breakdown he’d been having had passed. Probably drinking on top of the medication, Roz said. We couldn’t be sure, but it was likely he was on some type of medication. And there was no doubting the reek of booze off him.
The next day I was up north at a meeting. The company was closing a deal on the sale of land for a wind farm. So many zeros in the contract, it’d make your head spin. Afterwards the boss took us out for a meal to celebrate. We were onto the coffee stage when I noticed I had a missed call from Roz. ‘Ring me,’ she said. ‘Soon as you get this.’ I excused myself from the table and went outside.
‘Christ, where have you been?’ she said. ‘He’s been knocking at the door. Now, he’s sitting on the wall outside, waiting to catch one of us going out.’
‘You didn’t answer?’
‘Of course I didn’t answer. It’s one thing mouthing off at him in public… wait, maybe that’s what I should do. Go out while he’s still down there. He can’t do anything in a public place.’
‘Is there anyone else in the building?’
A pause. ‘Who knows? I see Nigel’s car’s there… doesn’t mean he’s in of course. Still, there’ll be people passing… better than having him outside the door and me trapped in here.’
My mind was swirling. But Roz was right, wasn’t she? He couldn’t try anything, not in public. Maybe he was even going to apologise. You never knew with Tommy O’ Keeffe. ‘Right, tell you what, go down. See if says something, but keep me on the phone… I’ll be there listening.’
‘Great, you’ll hear me getting throttled,’ she joked. ‘It’ll be like that dude got eaten by the grizzly bear with his girlfriend recording the footage.’
‘Don’t go provoking him,’ I said. Everything went muffled then as she placed the phone in her pocket.
I could hear Roz go down the stairs, the click as she opened the front door, and another as she pulled it behind her. She’d have been behind him now, standing in the porch, three more steps and they were even. I counted six, and then she stopped and turned. He hadn’t said anything.
‘Tommy, don’t suppose you saw anyone around our place yesterday, did you?’
An elongated silence.
Steps, three maybe, then a blip as Roz unlocked the car.
‘Is that a question now, or an accusation?’ The vowels drawn out. Smart arse counter-question.
‘A question,’ Roz answered. ‘It’s just someone tore up our mail and left it outside the door. The guards have it now, are fingerprinting it. I take it you didn’t see anyone?’
In fairness she’d kept her tone even. Tommy O’ Keeffe didn’t answer. But she must have been three steps from the car when he spoke again.
‘You come back here,’ he said. ‘It’s my turn to ask you a question. A philosophical question, we’ll say…’
Shuffling, a few steps more. Was she walking away or towards him? Suddenly, his voice was louder, and I knew.
‘At work, why?’
His voice low, so that I had to strain at the earpiece. ‘How long does he want to live?’
Had I heard right? Roz gave a chuckle, a nervous one. ‘What? Is that a threat, Tommy?’
The voice raised this time, so that there was no doubt. ‘You ask John how long he wants to live. Me? I could die any time, I don’t care. Question is, how long do you want to live?’
Hurried steps. I prayed to God she was going towards the car. Prayed he wouldn’t follow her, block her way as she tried to drive out of the car park.
‘You’re sick, you know that. You’re a sick fuck.’
The car door slammed, I heard the engine start and the screech of the tyres as she drove away. It was a few minutes before she took the phone from her pocket and knocked it onto speaker.
‘Did you hear that? Did you fucking hear that?’
‘Every word. Christ. What now? You can’t go back there.’
‘I’m going around to the station. That’s a threat, John. A bloody death threat! They can’t let this go. We can’t even live in our own home in peace. He’s capable of it, you know. You should have seen the way he looked at me. That fucking red face, just staring, stony like… I really thought he’d be mad enough to try…’
Neil had taken it very seriously, Roz told me, when I collected her that night from her mother’s. So seriously that he’d given her his mobile number in case she should need to contact him. He said the next time Tommy kicked off, they’d make sure to bring him in. They wouldn’t be able to keep him – but he would be able to summon him to an urgent court appearance and try to obtain an ASBO. As soon as he broke that, which no doubt he would, we’d be home and dry. Tommy wouldn’t be allowed within thirty feet of us, which meant he’d have to move out of number ten. In the meantime, Neil had said, it might be an idea not to go back there.
Roz and I crept up the stairs that night. The plan was to get some clothes, and whatever else we needed to get us through the next who knew how many days until they managed to pin him down and get him to the court. In the meantime, we’d stay with her mother. All was quiet as I turned the key in the lock. Once inside, I pulled across the flimsy chain, and Roz laughed. ‘You don’t think that’d keep anyone out?’ she said. We raced around the apartment, throwing things into our backpacks. Roz lingered at the bookshelf, wondering what she’d take to read. ‘Come on,’ I told her. ‘The quicker we get out of here, the…’
My words deadened by the sound of the knocker.
‘Fuck,’ Roz mouthed. ‘I’ll ring Neil.’
I stood dead centre of the living room, bag in my hand. ‘Maybe it’s not him. Could be one of the neighbours.’
Roz raised an eyebrow; she wasn’t taking any chances. She crept into the bedroom with her phone.
The knocker went again as she came out of the bedroom. ‘He’s not answering,’ she whispered. Why would he? I thought. Probably at home with his wife, his kids. And why should Roz have to go ringing another man anyway.
‘Fuck it,’ I said, ‘I’m not putting up with this anymore.’
I pulled open the door and there he was looming over us. ‘Do you think you can fuckin’ drive me out of here?’ he said. His face was puce, waft of whiskey on his breath. He was wearing trousers, nothing else.
‘We don’t want any trouble, Tommy,’ I said.
He advanced, driving me back into the hall. ‘Let’s talk,’ I said, ‘Like civilised…’
I don’t know if he tripped or he pounced, but I fell backwards with the full weight of Tommy O’ Keefe on top of me. I heard Roz scream. She dropped her phone as she leapt on his back, but it didn’t stop those shovel-like hands closing round my throat. I tried to manoeuvre myself out of his grip, but it was impossible. Spittle fell on my face as he roared like an animal. His words lost in my terror.
He must have turned when he felt the blow, one hand came off my neck, the big head swayed slightly to the side and she struck again. This time knocking him clear off me. I staggered to my feet. ‘Roz, fuck…’ She was shaking, about to go at him again. ‘Leave it,’ I said. It was plain he was in no state to do anything. ‘I’ll call an ambulance.’ She looked at the instrument in her hand. An iron sculpture that weighed a ton. ‘Don’t,’ she said, both of us on our knees as the blood began to seep into our carpet. The phone began to ring, it rang and rang under the table where it had fallen. Neil’s name flashing on the screen, but neither of us answered.