In the late evenings the surrounding district turned into a light show of the lonely. In the illuminated windows of the apartment buildings people and shadows mooched about, eating, drinking and dying alone. There was a bizarre mix of young careerists and entrepreneurs alongside actors and writers and artists. People would dress up in the costume of their own show – some cigar smoking city gents, others as 1960's screen goddesses – projecting their fantasy lives and real depressions out into the world. Now and again an exhibitionist would wander naked past a window, or could be spied somewhere in the background getting undressed or making out as if they've just come from the shower. Though varied, all the lives had one thing in common: the obscene bareness which lingered in the rooms around them. It was a bareness not much different from that which existed in the black windows of the unoccupied flats around.
Of all the private night shows in the area, the most haunting spectacle was projected each night from a flat in the building directly opposite ours. The building was eerie enough in itself. It fell between two street lights, taking no light from either, and so sat back in a dark recess all of its own. Up on the top floor, in one of the converted attic rooms, was a square window blocked out by a red curtain. The curtain was never opened, and at night, when the room was lit up from inside, the window glowed bright red and on it was cast the silhouette of a man, alone, standing there face on and holding a large kitchen knife. From our flat on the ground floor it seemed like he was staring straight down at us, and if you looked up at him for long enough the street would disappear from your peripheral vision until all that existed was You, the square of red ,and the black knife wielding silhouette upon it.
During the first months of our stay in Maida Vale I became obsessed with that window and the thought of who was behind it. I spent my nights staring over, imagining any number of grisly, bloody scenarios of what was going on inside the apartment. Even Mum took an interest. Looking up at the knife wielding silhouette she'd say stuff like: Someone should phone the police to that cunt! What kind of a monster would stand up there like that! Sometimes she'd wander in the room and just stand there eyeing the shape up in the attic flat with hatred, as if the man reminded her of something else which had happened in the life.
I couldn't be certain it was him, but in the daytime a man would leave the building and march off with his head to ground like the day was his enemy. He was a shabby, ill looking thing, maybe thirty, with greasy black hair and always a good few days of stubble about him. He dressed in dark, faded clothes and, regardless of the weather, a plain burgundy scarf with the tails thrown back over his left shoulder. He always had a cigarette in his mouth and walked so fast, slightly stooped, that he was forever striding through a cloud of his own smoke. Like that he'd head off down the road, returning a little while later carrying a white plastic NICOLAS wine bag.
It was a wet, late spring morning. Mum and I were returning from her weekly cigarette and booze shop. As we turned the corner Mum clattered into someone, the vodka bottles clashing together in her bag. The man, momentarily knocked out his stride, swerved around Mum and rejoined his line, marching on without so much as raising his head. Mum kissed her lips and was about to shout something when I said: That's him! Mum, that's the man up at the window!
Through his drifting cigarette smoke Mum shouted:
Oi, is that you standing up there every evening with that fucking knife?
I may have imagined it but the man's stride seemed to shorten for a step as Mum's words reached him. But that was all. Otherwise he continued on his way, without replying, a musty, oaky scent left trailing n his wake.
After Mum clattering into his existence it seemed to wake him up a little. Now, during the daytime, he'd occasionally open up his window and lean out smoking. He also bought a couple of dark green exotic plants and put them out on the ledge. Whenever Mum saw him out the window she'd wave up or shout HELLO! He still continued casting shadows most nights but it was no longer as obsessive as it had been and barely lasted half an hour. His isolation had been interfered with, touched, and I guess he felt a little stupid and self-conscious lingering up there with a knife and knowing Mum and I were watching him and knew who he was. For us, having had seen him, seen he could be knocked off his stride like anyone else, he was no longer the terrifying presence he once was. On the contrary, he then seemed to take Mum's interest in a totally different way. She stared up at the window now with something secretive and excited in her regard, her breasts pushed out, as though she thought he could see her too.
It was not so long after that, that I first heard the name Nigel. Mum said it in a deliberately affected manner, gloating, letting the word linger, like someone does who's newly on first name terms with the boss.
Nigel... ... ... ... Him over the road! She'd say.
Mum and Nigel began a strange correspondence, Mum shouting things up to him and Nigel responding by a series of hand signals, or dropping a cigarette or ten pound note down. If it was ever necessary for him to physically speak he'd pull himself in, close the window, descend the stairs and cross the road – sometimes just to say he didn't have any cigarettes.
So it began there. Like that. An odd cigarette, first thrown down, then brought across, then Nigel smoking one himself and making an attempt at talking from his uncomfortable stooped demeanour. From cigarettes it turned to wine, Nigel inviting Mum over to share a bottle. But that kind of social drinking wasn't for Mum. She was of the old order of drunks, drinking to forget people and the world – not to celebrate it. So Mum refused the wine invitations, secretly confiding in me that she was still wary of going over to Nigel's, of being alone with him, in his domain, where his stoop may straighten and his upper body widen out. And it wasn't an irrational fear. Even while making efforts to be sociable Nigel remained quite a peculiar man: a little troubled and a lot lonely, in a kind of dark, embittered way.
By the beginning of summer Nigel was a regular visitor to my mothers bedroom. He mooched in, did his business, smoked a cigarette, then mooched back out, keeping his head down and rarely uttering a word. Mum said he was like that even when they were alone, often sitting on her bed and staring at the floor until given an overwhelming hint that he could touch her. Behind his back Mum mocked his sexual performances, saying that he would have these weird trembling orgasms and his eyes would momentarily roll round to the top of his head. She told me that once she even had to hold him down to the mattress and grab a firm hold of his cock as it was involuntarily spasming away and spitting sperm all around the room. It was apparently due to these intense orgasms that Nigel would flee so quickly after sex, his head back down as if re-joining a secret world of shame. It also came out that Nigel was on some kind of long-term medication. He said that alcohol mixed with his tablets were the cause of his strange climaxes Mum never pushed to know what exact medication he was on , but we generally supposed it to be either tranquillizers or anti-depressants.
Unfortunately for Nigel his brief sojourn between my mother's legs coincided with her latest bout of chronic alcoholism. From the woman he'd first bumped into in late spring, by early summer she was nothing more than a squidgy lump of fuck on a bed. Something a little better than a wet hole in the mattress, but not much. Though perhaps that suited Nigel. Perhaps it was the only sexual relationship he could be at ease in, doing it to someone who couldn't judge or mock him, revelling in that kind of passive sexual violence that is afforded someone from having an unresponsive body at their disposal. Sometimes, listening in outside the door, Nigel would ram it into mum with such force that it sounded more like a knife attack. As he was leaving he'd look t me before looking down, and for the first time I noticed he had a somewhat swollen face and a slight, yet unmistakable, bulge to his eyes.
It was a week or so later when it all blew up. Nigel had been visiting every day, bringing Mum drink and cigarettes for her services. As the week wore on Nigel took on an increasingly ill demeanour and at times seemed unsure of where he was. On the afternoon of his very last visit I found him wandering around in the hallway with his trousers undone and wearing only one sock. He seemed drunk and was talking jibberish. I tried to usher him back to Mum's room but he fought of any touch, swinging his arms wildly, his face shot through with terror. He finally disappeared down into the kitchen and sat on a chair with his hands out flat on his thighs. After a few minutes he rose and returned back to the bedroom, once again stooping and avoiding any eye contact. He closed the door gently behind him.
It was Mum's drunken voice I heard first, an instinctive, semi-conscious, growled insult as she must have come around. Then I heard her shouting for Nigel to STOP IT! Finally she was screaming hysterically, shrieking my name amongst other things with no let up. I flew in to Mum's room and saw her terrified face beneath Nigel. Though screaming she was frozen to the bed in terror. Nigel was on top of her, in the missionary position, naked, his entire body thrashing away. My first thought was that he was in some kind of deranged, murderous rage, attacking her, but it became quickly apparent that he wasn't attacking Mum at all, but having a full blown fitting seizure. Mum was bawling through the ordeal, her distressed drunken face looking more hideous than ever it had done. I neared the bed to try and help Mum. She was now rigid as a board beneath Nigel, her eyes shock open in fear and fixed on the fitting body on top of her. Nigel's face had drained grey-blue and froth and spittle were foaming out his mouth. He was still having severe body jerks, like a jack-hammer left fallen to the ground. I Tried to pull him aside, off Mum, but it was impossible. Not only because of his trembling limbs but he also seemed to have taken on a mysterious weight which ground him in his seizure. Mum began panicking again, screaming that he wasn't breathing, that he was suffocating. Nigel's face was certainly void of oxygen and his eyes bulging forward of their sockets. Not being able to pull Nigel off I lent over and held both his arms into his sides, subduing the violence of his seizure. But barely did I have him in my grip than his body quit trembling, slowed to a stop and slumped down heavy across Mum. Now I could move him. As I did Mum scrambled free and out the bed, her legs giving way as she hit the floor. Mum fell and collapsed into a drunken, naked sprawl against the dresser.
He's dead!!! She screamed, her face almost parallel to the ground. Is he dead?
Nigel was face down on the bed, quite motionless. Bizarrely his penis was still erect and a thick globule of yellowish cum had oozed out its mouth. But he looked dead, his face drained even of the bluish tint. Mum tried to pick herself up but collapsed back down before barely getting her arse off the carpet. She crawled over to the bed, pulled her top half up, and kind of swayed backwards as if getting Nigel into focus. She began shrieking again, but this time a shriek which expressed horror at what had passed not that which was passing. It was a different sound, not so piercing and carrying subtle undertones of grief and tragedy.
Shut up, I shouted, he's alive! He's fucking alive!
It was only a slight movement I had seen, but he had definitely moved. I suddenly felt elated,. Overcome with the need to cry. He's alive, I said again, he's OK. Nigel now stirred a little more. His eyes opened slowly like emerging from a sad dream. He was lightly groaning. I pulled a cover over his embarrassment. Nigel put a hand across his forehead and shifted himself into the recovery position. In the recovery position he met Mum's evil face, staring at him with a vicious hatred, his welcome back to the land of the living. He asked for a glass of water. Considering Mum's state it was maybe the most preposterous request he could have made. A tremor of vile hate rippled across Mum's face.
Er, yeah, ya'v got water in ya own fucking flat! Dont ya think its about time you fucked off back there! Bringing this shit into my house.
Then she reached forward and whipped the covers off Nigel, leaving him laying there naked. You disgust me, she hissed. You fucking animal!
Nigel never did get a glass of water. He struggled to a sitting position on the other side of the bed, his back to Mum, and painfully pulled his clothes on. Shoes with no socks, shirt not tucked in, he rose and left.
So Nigel suffered from epilepsy. That's what the medication was for, why he had such strange, climaxes, why he sometimes seemed confused, why his face and eyes were a little bloated. It was also probably why he'd become a young recluse, living in fear that something like this would happen. Whatever the truth, Nigel was never welcomed back again and Mum kept a special dislike for him which never waned.
After that episode Nigel reverted back to his old night time antics with added vengeance. Only now, rather than just standing motionless at his window holding the kitchen knife he'd wave and stab it about, finishing his show of hate by turning face on and opening his arms like a deranged, self-adulating vision of Christ. He also stopped hanging out his window in the daytime, and the two plants which had adorned his ledge for the past few weeks mysteriously ended up smashed to smithereens across our front yard. These things were all signs, signs it was time to be moving, that our tenure in North London was just about up.