I was sitting in front of the fire with The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes on my lap. It had been a rough semester, without let up, and my only escape from the constant pressure was my crime and mystery collection. All day, I'd looked forward to reading the stories in the book. This particular book was a limited, leather-bound edition which I had purchased at the famous 221b Baker Street—now the official Sherlock Holmes Museum—on a short visit to London a couple of weeks ago. The illustrations were the original ones from The Strand Magazine, and were so engaging I could look at them for hours. I had also bought a little bust of Holmes; this one stood proudly on top of the mantelpiece.
It rained heavily outside and the wind blew like the endless howling of a wolf. I still had not gotten used to the Belgian weather. I sneezed for three times in a row and cursed whoever was up there in that idealized cave they call heaven. This cold was not getting any better. I could picture the savage battle going on inside my body. I was obviously far behind on the battle field, my little cells running away like cowards. I had to eat better and stop drinking so much. At least I didn't smoke or drink coffee.
I focused my watery eyes on the page and another sneeze came out like an explosion. Then the sweetest sensation made me float in the air and settle down again. I thought I had reached salvation. I put the book down and stared at a small cockroach crawling up the wall. I wished I could defy gravity like that. The intruder disappeared behind a bad painting of a clown. I hated clowns, but the painting came with the apartment. The first day I moved in I tried to take it off, but the damn thing was completely glued to the wall. It was a clown like any other clown. That's whyI despised it so much. It had a broad smile on its face and sad looking eyes. But if you looked closely you could see that it wasn't really smiling and that its tightly shut lips were the embodiment of solemnity. I glared at it. If the clown thought it was going to have some power over me, it had another thought coming.
From the apartment above mine came the irritating sound of high heels clicking on tile floor. Oh no. Not now. This cold was unbearable enough as it was. I certainly didn’t need the help of my noisy upstairs neighbour to turn my headache from bad to splitting. Everything the woman did was noisy. She constantly fought and argued with her husband, her hobby seemed to be moving furniture from room to room, which by themselves were pretty normal activities, but she had a strong preference to do these after midnight. Flushing the toilet at three o’clock in the morning seemed to be another of her favourite pastimes. Maybe in another building this would not have been a problem, but here the walls were made of paper. I could hear everything—even her piss in the middle of the night. What a way to wake up, with a sensation of drowning.
The clicking continued for about ten minutes. I finally put the book down. What on earth was she doing? Walking up and down her corridor for the sole purpose of driving me mad? Maybe she was trying to hypnotize me with the monotone clicking. In an absurd way it seemed to be working. I could hardly keep my eyes open.
I sighed. I was so tired and drowsy from the medication I fell asleep with the book on my lap.
The sound of loud voices woke me.
I glanced at my watch, trying to fight disorientation. It was almost midnight. I had slept for sixteen minutes. My body felt as though it had been clobbered while I slept.
A major fight was going on upstairs. I recognized the baritone voice of the husband. Some time during the past sixteen minutes he had come back home. He kept shouting and she lashing back in a whining voice. To make matters worse, they were Italian and were using their native tongue to “communicate.” She began sobbing, which seemed to sent the husband into an even greater fury.
To appease my murderous thoughts, I rose and staggered into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of orange juice. After finishing a glass, I calmly fetched the mop from the small kitchen closet. Then, like a madman—hair messy and oily, the shadow of a one-week old beardcovering my face, wrinkled bathrobe stained with juice—I began to hit the ceiling in a frenzy.
Finally I stopped.
I looked up to the ceiling, which was marred with dents.
Feeling much better, I set the mop against the wall and went back to sit by the fire, the only place at the moment which seemed warm enough for my feet. I turned the armchair a little to be closer to the burning logs, which kept crackling and sputtering.
I, a sensible, practical person, tried to consider the situation logically. Ever since I had moved in, three months ago, I’d had to endure the continuous noise from my upstairs neighbours. I had complained to the building manager twice, to no avail. I had even walked upstairs and talked to the lady—a suntanned woman with coppery hair, buttery teeth and insane-looking green eyes. Her eyes reminded me of a one of those marsupial night creatures which live in constant terror of being eaten. Maybe her look had to do with her husband. In any case, we had been unable to communicate. She spoke no English. She did ask, using sign language, if I spoke French or Dutch. I shook my head and came back downstairs. Since that day all I’d been able to do was hit the ceiling when it got too unbearable. I didn’t want to move out, either. The rent was okay for a sophomore philosophy student from abroad and I had fallen in love with the fireplace, which was the perfect place to read mysteries.
I got the terrible sensation of wanting to sneeze, but nothing came out. I dozed off for a little while longer, but not before scowling at the painting of the clown, which appeared to be mocking me. I turned back to the fire. From the corner of my eye I caught movement. I glanced back at the painting, but everything look normal.
At about two in the morning I managed to pull myself from the armchair and stagger to my bedroom.
Not bothering to pull the covers over me, I collapsed face-down on the hard European (must have been imported from Russia) mattress and shut my eyes.
Not much later something made me stir… the faint yet distinct sound of moaning. Their bedroom was above mine. I endured the whole thing, complete with the crescendos and grand symphonic finale. Moments later the not-to-distant sound of piss came from the toilet upstairs. Flushing.
The piping system had been built in a way as to give the impression of a Tsunami each time the toilet was flushed.
Too weak to open my eyes, I cursed inaudibly, my head still plastered to the sweaty pillow.
The next day, when I saw I was not better, I realized I had the flu. I had missed the last two days of school and it looked as though I’d have to miss the rest of the week. After a skimpy breakfast of toast and juice, and two tablespoons of cold medication, I went to the living room to prepare a new fire.
As I crouched and began to arrange the logs, I heard a whisper.
I stopped moving, startled.
The sound had come from my apartment, not from upstairs. In fact, the whisper had come from the same room. I glanced about the room, my eyes finally settling on the clown.
I loathed the painting. In some bizarre way it seemed to reach deep into my soul, somehow absorbing the essence of who I was and reflecting it back at me. I averted my eyes.
When the fire was ready I sat in the armchair and extended my cold feet close to the flames. I reached for the leather-bound book on the little table beside me and opened the page at the bookmark.
After reading a few lines I put the book down. It was very quiet and I wondered what my upstairs neighbour was up to. Her silence somehow made me restless. Maybe she had gone out. I tried to concentrate on “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” but found the effort exhausting.
Since the cold medication wasn’t having any effect on my symptoms, at noon I took a double dose. Holmes used to take cocaine and even heroine; that was much worse. Then I took a glass of water with me into the living room and stood in front of the painting. I took a sip and held the glass in front of my eyes and saw the image of the clown through it. The image was nothing but a mass of hazy colors forming something indefinite.
Then I heard it, the exquisite clicking of stiletto heels on tiles. I sighed. I wanted this to happen. My whole being longed for it. My attitude could be compared to victims of kidnappers who in some deranged way grow attached to their tormentors.
Almost involuntarily, my eyes returned to the clown. I thought it had called my name. It was smiling as usual and looking at me. No matter where I was in the room, it would always be looking at me. A sharp pain in my temples blinded me for a moment. I felt dizzy and had to hold the back of the armchair for support. Yes. I was right. It had called my name and now it was talking to me. Its mouth was moving and it had no teeth. Inside its red mouth there was only a black empty space. I wondered how it could talk and still smile like that.
Slowly I went out of the apartment and crossed the empty, windowless hall towards the stairs which led to other floors. Once on the upstairs hall I was happy to see that it also was empty. My heart thudding, I knocked on my neighbour’s door and waited.
A moment later the door opened and I gazed with fixed fascination at the color of her hair—only a consummate professional could achieve such an unnatural hue.
She appeared to recognize me, displayed her buttery teeth, and began talking in another language—probably Italian, though it might as well have been ancient Sumerian. She moved her hands in all directions as she talked, and gestured me to come inside. Not uttering a word, I obeyed. She continued her enigmatic speech. The vibrations of her voice entered my ear as if they were coming from another dimension. My body felt as hot as a kitten's belly, and my head as if it had been implanted with electric wires.. I just wanted her dead.
I fixed my eyes on her neck and silently closed the door behind me as she bent over to pick up a cleaning rag from the floor.
In spite of my drowsiness, my hands felt incredibly strong.
Later that evening I sat by the fire and wrote what I had done, a fictional confession of sorts. I filled seven pages of longhand, doctor-like scribbles only I could decipher.
I glanced at the painting. Earlier I had covered it with a sheet. The clown could stare at me no more.
The door bell rang and, papers clutched to my chest, I got up and went to answer it.
Though I had been expecting them, my heart skipped when I saw the two young policemen standing outside my door.
After I made it clear I spoke only English, they quickly introduced themselves and stated the reason for their visit. My upstairs neighbour had been murdered and they wanted to know if I had seen or heard anything.
I adopted a surprised expression and shook my head.
“Did you know her?”
“I saw her just once. I’ve been living here for only three months,” I said. “Though I could often hear her. She was always fighting with her husband—I assume it’s her husband. That’s the reason I oncemet her. I went upstairs to ask them to keep their voices down. It was late and he was shouting and she was screaming. It sounded bad. In fact, I almost called the police that night.”
One of the policemen wrote something on a note pad.
The other policeman glanced at the papers I held against my chest.
“I’m studying for an exam,” I said.
The policeman nodded. He looked like a toy policeman. Both of them did.
After several more questions and answers, they apologized for the inconvenience and said goodbye.
Holding my confession close to my heart, I closed the door and went back to sit by the fire.
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” I murmured. One by one, I fed the pages to the flames. Even Holmes would have been proud.
©2005. Mayra Calvani / All Rights Reserved.. This story may not be copied nor printed in any form without permission from the author.