Alice walked close to the hawthorn hedge as she made her way along City Road and brushed the leaves with her hand. The shrubbery poked through an iron fence with ornamental spears. She counted each railing and stopped to touch every third one.
A bus passed her by and sprayed water onto the pavement. Alice turned from the fence to splash in a puddle, wetting her legs and the bottom of her corduroy skirt. She looked up when a police car came towards her. It slowed down and she thought it would stop. They sometimes did to see if she was all right, but, all of a sudden, the siren blared and the lights flashed, and it continued on towards The Angel. The unexpected noise scared her and she darted away ignoring the puddles and the railings.
Alice stopped at the traffic lights and crossed the road when the green man flashed.
‘Green man. Green man,’ she said, as she walked.
A tower block loomed up ahead and, in the dusk, she could just make out a flock of pigeons dive-bombing each other as they circled the flats. Alice passed through the estate gate and read the sign on the side of the building.
‘Overlook House,’ she said. She looked up at the lights flickering from many windows. Up there, on the thirteenth floor, was home. She crossed the courtyard and pushed open the communal door. It was never locked, so she didn’t get her key out.
The smell of urine and stale cigarettes hit her and she wrinkled her nose.
‘Stinky,’ she said.
Once again, an out-of-order sign was hung by the lifts, so she opened the door to the stairwell and started to climb.
When Alice rested on the stairs near the ninth level, she heard a siren, probably a fire engine, and wondered if someone was stuck in the elevator, but the siren passed by and continued on to a distant disaster. She climbed over a young man, who was passed out on the concrete stairs at the eleventh floor, and continued up to the thirteenth.
Looking out at the city from her front door, she pushed her glasses up her nose and stared for a while at the lights of London. She thought they looked like Christmas ornaments on a tree. Then, the wind pushed her hood off her head and she turned away from the view.
Alice pulled her keys out of her duffle coat pocket and unlocked the front door. Once inside, she slammed it shut behind her.
‘Hi, Mum,’ she shouted.
After she hung her coat on the hook in the hall, she walked down the corridor to the front room. She stepped between the swirls of colours on the faded carpet, trying to avoid the lines, and tapped on some of the sunflower patterns on the wallpaper. Those flowers were really big.
Mum was lying on the sofa covered with a blanket that was tucked under her chin. Alice put her keys on the coffee table in front of the couch and went over to the window to shut the curtains. The telly chatted away to itself in the corner of the room.
‘What are you watching?’ she said. ‘The news is on BBC One.’
Alice switched the channel over and turned up the volume.
‘Look, Sue’s on.’ She pointed at the newsreader’s face.
‘I’ll start dinner,’ she said, and headed off towards the kitchen. She turned on the fluorescent lights and they blinked bright, lighting up the dirt on the floor and the shabby tablecloth on the kitchen table. She made two cheese sandwiches and took them back to the front room.
‘Here, Mum,’ she said, and put the plates on the coffee table. Mum did not move.
Alice shook her shoulder and pulled at the blanket.
‘Come on. Come on. Sit up. It’s your favourite. Cheese sandwich.’
Then, as if she had just remembered, she dug around in her skirt pocket and pulled out a daisy.
‘Here, I picked this for you.’
Alice placed the daisy on the side of her mum’s plate and sat down with her sandwich. The programme continued on the telly, where Sue reported the daily news. Alice listened and ate, and, occasionally, she looked over at Mum and shook her head.
Suddenly, she stood up straight and shouted.
‘I don’t know why I cook for you. You never like what I do. You are lazy, lying around all day. You leave me to do the cooking and cleaning, and all you do is watch the telly.’
Then, she sat down again and sighed. Mum didn’t reply. She didn’t even move. Alice was aggravated. She went over again to Mum and shoved her hard.
‘You always ignore me,’ she said. ‘When I was a child, you put me down and talked over me. Now you just ignore me.’ Agitated, Alice started to circle the front room.
‘Ring-a-ring a roses… a pocket full of posies…’ she sang as she walked. After touching a photo on the wall, she held back the curtain and looked out of the window through the grimy glass and dirty nets hanging there. Her head itched. She scratched it hard.
Over by the fireplace was a desk. It was made of plywood. Alice approached it and ran her fingers over the scarred surface. She picked up a pen and stabbed the desk with it. ‘Atishoo… atishoo… we all fall down…’ She emphasized the sneezing with the stabbing.
‘So, Mum, what shall we do with you?’ she asked. Then, she skipped towards the fireplace, picked up the dead flowers in a pot there and danced around the room. She stopped at the sofa, placed some of the flowers around her mum’s head and put the rest on her chest.
‘Why have you always hated me?’ Alice said.
There was a part of her that knew Mum was dead. She remembered killing her with a pillow over her face, but she had difficulty admitting that because nothing had changed. She was still angry and she still wanted to kill her mum.
Alice continued along the worn trail in the carpet that circled the outer edge of the room. This was where she walked every day as she pondered. She’d think about how much her mum had hated her. Mum had said that Alice would never be anything or go anywhere, because she was stupid. She had also told her that she was ugly, which was strange because some of the men in the pub had told her she was beautiful, and Pauline the landlady had said her looks were striking.
She traipsed around and around, while the flowers on the wallpaper glared at her as if they were offended.
‘I’m going out, Mum.’ She stopped in her tracks and looked over at the woman lying dead on the sofa. Then, she marched down the corridor, picked up her coat and left, slamming the front door as she went.
Alice entered The King’s Head. UB40 sang from the jukebox in the corner of the room: ‘Red, red wine…’ It was still early and the pub was mostly empty. The landlady had a fire burning in the grate by the pool table.
All the furnishings were a shade of red except that the curtains also had gold whirls. The faux leather benches and the carpet were a deep crimson. Alice thought they made the pub feel warm.
This was her local and she was well known here.
‘How’s your mum?’ Pauline asked, as Alice approached the bar. She was already pulling a half pint of lager, which she placed on a Whitbread coaster, when Alice sat down on a barstool.
‘Packet of cheese onion crisps,’ Alice said, by way of an answer. Pauline grabbed her a bag and Alice paid.
‘Did you get that job?’ Pauline said.
Alice twiddled with the bag of crisps and said nothing.
‘Cat got your tongue?’
‘Mum’s not feeling well,’ Alice said.
‘Oh… have you had the doctor in to see her? At her age, you have to be careful.’
‘She’s not eating much. She just stares at the ceiling all day. I wish she’d talk to me.’
‘Do you want me to visit her? Cheer her up?’ Pauline said.
‘No—’ said Alice, quickly.
‘Okay, okay, I was just offering. No need to get stroppy.’ Pauline strode off towards the end of the bar to serve a woman sitting there. Alice heard her say ‘queer bird’ or something like that and the woman nodded.
Alice thought she knew the woman. She had a stall in the market that sold old clothes, army clothes, old ladies shoes, that sort of thing. What was her name? Carol or Cathy? Alice held on to her glass of lager and tapped the bar with a penny.
Carol or Cathy picked up her drink and walked over to Alice.
‘Hi,’ she said, and sat down.
Alice looked at her and continued tapping.
‘You all right?’ Carol or Cathy asked.
Alice looked back at her drink.
‘Is your name Carol or Cathy?’ she said, eventually.
The woman laughed and took a swig of her drink. She placed the glass down on the bar.
‘You know my name, Alice,’ she said, and burped. ‘It’s Charlie.’
‘Charlie’s a boy’s name,’ Alice said. ‘Charlie’s a boy’s name. Charlie.’
‘Yep, that’s right,’ Charlie said. ‘It’s short for Charlotte.’
‘Why? Because you’re short,’ said Alice, ‘and fat?’
Charlie laughed again.
‘Do you want a crisp?’ Alice said, and pushed her bag of crisps towards Charlie.
‘Thanks,’ said Charlie. She took a crisp, then, she took a couple more.
‘That’s enough,’ said Alice, and took the bag away. ‘You have a stall in the market, don’t you?’
‘Yes, it is the vintage clothes stall near M&S.’
‘You have nice brooches.’
‘Thank you,’ Charlie said. ‘I have one here, look.’ She pulled a gold brooch out of her coat pocket and handed it to Alice. It was covered in red stones.
Alice took the brooch and looked at it. ‘Nice,’ she said, and put it in her pocket.
‘If you want to buy it, it will cost you five pounds,’ said Charlie, ‘or you can come to my flat and I can give you a deal.’
‘More brooches?’ Alice said.
‘Yes,’ Charlie said. ‘More brooches.’
‘Brooches,’ Alice said. She climbed down from the bar stool, finished her lager and headed for the door.
Charlie lived near the pub, a few roads away, in a Victorian council estate. When they arrived, Charlie took her up stone stairs to the second floor. Alice held onto a cold, iron railing as she climbed up the steps. Charlie’s front door was painted purple and Alice liked it so much that, when she walked into the flat, she stroked it.
They entered straight into the front room, which had two doors off it and a kitchenette over at the back.
‘Where’s your loo,’ Alice asked. She started to jiggle, as she desperately needed to pee.
‘Over there,’ Charlie said, and pointed to one of the doors.
Alice walked over to it and entered the toilet. Its walls were covered with photos of naked women. Alice looked at them as she peed and thought they looked cold without their clothes on. When she had finished, she washed her hands and went back out to the front room.
Charlie had changed her clothes while Alice had been busy. She was sitting on a sofa over by the window and wore a fairly loose cream dress with a low neckline and a big silver brooch at the point where her breasts met. She pointed to a bottle of beer on the coffee table and a pile of brooches.
‘I opened you a beer, Alice,’ she said. ‘Take your coat off and come and sit here, by me.’ She patted the sofa next to her.
Alice sat down.
‘Take your coat off, dear,’ Charlie repeated, but Alice clutched at the front of her coat. Then, the brooches on the table distracted her. She started to finger them. Charlie leaned near her and Alice could feel her breath on her cheek.
‘Do you like these?’ Charlie said. ‘I can let you have two more for five pounds, if you like.’ She put her hand on Alice’s leg.
Alice looked at her.
‘Two more?’ she said, and picked up one of the brooches that had a large green stone in its centre.
‘Yes,’ said Charlie. ‘For five pounds… or a kiss…’
Alice frowned and looked at Charlie.
Charlie moved closer.
‘Are your eyes lavender?’ she said. ‘You’d look more beautiful without these old things.’ She removed Alice’s glasses from her face and kept looking at her as she put the spectacles on the coffee table.
Alice tried to turn towards the table, but Charlie pulled her face toward her.
‘Five pounds or a kiss?’ She said.
Alice moved away and picked up a brooch.
‘Five pounds,’ she said, and put the brooch in her pocket.
Charlie moved nearer and put her hand in Alice’s pocket. Rather than take out the brooch, she held onto her through the coat.
Alice stared at the table.
‘I think I’d rather the kiss,’ said Charlie, and leaned in towards Alice’s face, ‘and I know you want it too.’
As she tried to kiss her, Charlie pushed her hand under Alice’s skirt and started to pull at her pants.
When Charlie’s fingers found their target, Alice’s knife found Charlie’s heart.
Charlie’s eyes grew wide. Her mouth relaxed. She held her bosom and fell back onto the sofa. Alice picked up her glasses and put them back on her face. She watched Charlie’s eyes, as she stopped breathing.
‘Nasty,’ said Alice. ‘Disgusting. Nasty Charlie. Short and fat.’
She finished her beer.
As she took the stiletto from the wound in Charlie’s chest, blood ooze out over the cream dress. She wiped the knife on Charlie’s thigh, pushed the blade against the table and watched it disappear back into its handle. Stuffing the knife and the pile of brooches into her coat pocket, she stood up and left Charlie’s flat.
Alice walked home.
She reached her front door and felt in her pocket. Her hand brushed against the knife and the brooches, and she realized she had left her keys indoors. She opened the letterbox and looked in.
‘Mum,’ she said. ‘Mum!’ She let go of the letterbox and it snapped shut.
Sitting down on the doormat, she took out a brooch. It was the one with the big green stone on it. She opened up the clasp and pinned it to her coat.
Alice scratched her head.
After about half an hour, she stood up and looked through the letterbox. Her bedroom was next to the front door and she could see the door was ajar. She snapped the letterbox shut again and looked over the balcony at her bedroom window. It was open.
Alice looked over the side of the balcony to the ground thirteen floors below. It was a long way down, but the balcony ledge was close to her bedroom windowsill. If she could climb onto the ledge, it would only be a step over to the window.
‘Bedtime,’ she said.
The local church bell rang out as if in answer, but it was just time to practice. Every Tuesday evening at nine o’clock, the local church bell-ringers practiced. Alice thought the bells were pretty. Better than the planes that went overhead and the drone of the city traffic.
‘Time for bed,’ Alice said.
She climbed onto the ledge and, because it was wet from the rain, she started to slip. Steadying herself, she looked down and swayed a bit. People were coming into the estate and one looked like Mrs Gupta from the newsagents. Mrs Gupta was as tiny as a drop of water.
Alice put her hand onto the side of the tower and stepped out towards her bedroom windowsill. It was a bit further than she had thought and she would need to jump. She breathed, looked down again and her belly dropped. Thinking about hopping over to the bedroom ledge, she nearly decided to go back to the front door and wait for Mum to wake up. Then, she remembered that Mum was dead and she had no other way to get inside.
As if in slow motion, Alice slipped and fell from the balcony. She reached out towards the bedroom windowsill and managed to grab it. While she dangled there, the brooch came loose from her coat and fell down the side of the tower bashing against the bricks a couple of times before reaching the ground. Alice watched it fall.
Her arms grew tired. She looked out at the lights of the city and down at the ground below. She moved her legs a little, hoping she could climb back up, but her arms were not strong enough. Her fingers started to lose their grip.
‘Bedtime,’ Alice said, and she fell.