Coming through some crack into her mind there strayed the American phrase every which way, as if a piece of American film had flaked off and found her, but that was perfectly all right, the phrase fitted: every which way she looked, Anthea was in the grip of this fear. They would come to the door—whatever she turned to, it came back to a door, door, this door, this simple slab of wood saddled, incongruously, with a clever lock in shiny chrome, requiring an expensive key to turn the cylinder—and yet, ridiculously, it could also be opened with a knock, a tap on the other side, a press on the bell—but look at the door this way, look at the door that way, the fear was there always, she could open it to meet acid flung in her face, or a fist, a knife, even a gun, real or not, the first moment of shock would be the same, and who was she to tell a real one from a toy, every way she thought about it she came around to the same place: her mind had become a labyrinth of threats, where there was no resting place, no comforting crumbs, yet the thick cream paint she now rubbed her fingers over coated just a block of wood, the slab was so plain, it had a slit for a letter box but no spyhole, they could come to the door with something terrible, even in daylight, and so it was that at this moment, as she stood on her side of it, Anthea realised that every which way she looked her fear had so many sides, so many downers, dragging her with them, so many histories, going back, way back, to the childhood home with its burglar alarm, a set-up that prevented her going downstairs in the night, imprisoning her, that’s how it felt, back then; in the here and now there was the recent visit by the carol singers, who she’d turned the light on for, so they would feel safer in the darkness of the doorstep, their young hearts beating, young voices, the voices were true but tremulous, with little volume; as they stood awkwardly, cramped, they were not going to let much out standing how they did, no, they were tremulous teenagers, and inexplicably another phrase came to join the others, who would have thunk it, who would have thought a verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem would soon turn so sinister, so suddenly, it crossed her mind to invite the girls in but that too was awkward, it already had turned awkward when she asked what charity they were collecting for, and they just stood there speechless, too old for sweets, it took her a second too long to realise the charity was them, and by then neither she nor they could put this into words, all went still under the light on the doorstep, in addition they seemed too young to invite in for a drink, although they almost certainly would be downing drinks—spirits—at a rate when adult backs were turned, but no use dwelling on that now; if anything, she thought as she stared at the plate of chrome, if anything she had best turn to other thoughts, other visits; there had been pleasant visits of course, there had been visits that were more or less neutral, such as the locksmith who came last year with his reassuring talk and little can of oil, which she didn’t even see him apply, all she saw was him pocketing the rag he must have used to wipe it with, catching the extra drops, absorbing the smears, the lock on the front door being for him not simply another lock, not even a shiny Bantam Rim, but the deadbolt, that is what he called it, well that’s what you get—said her husband— if you have a fancy chrome lock and a fancy locksmith to maintain it, you pay for the extra vocabulary, in this case it had worked out at around eighty pounds a word, a goodly sum at the time, while it had not occurred either to her or to Richard that all the lock needed was a dab of oil inside the catch, but so what, none of this helped her now, it was simply where her mind went in the midst of her fear; her mind decided for itself what to think, where to go next, she opened the door and no one was there and she closed it with a snap of the lock and opened it again and no one was there, no one in sight or hearing, just a loud flight of parakeets, racing by, dipping across the roofs and trees.
Holding the door still open, wondering if the parakeets would return, a further aggravation occurred to her: a catch, a twist, lay in the fact that when the doorbell went, something good might be arriving, a surprise, good news, a package, twelve months ago the turkey had been delivered for example, so until the door was properly opened all she could do was weigh up the likelihood of good versus bad, a delightful parcel or a load of trouble, an act of terror, and as for that with the girls, well, who would have thunk it, back in the living room Anthea had imagined Richard saying it was a Trojan horse, only on the doorstep, but he never said that, he hardly said a thing about the girls with their carol, he was at home at the time but engrossed in some social media fracas over executive salaries, leaving her to see to the girls, who had prised open the door with their sweet if muted voices, demonstrating carols were a kind of human key that unlocked doors but in her case with disastrous consequences; as to the angry scene the day afterwards that so disgusted her, which she would give anything not to have to think about, he said the barest of words about that too; as she closed the door slowly, having given up on the birds’ return, she couldn’t momentarily remember what he’d said exactly, it would come to her later but for now she drew a blank, just as well perhaps, as that would have given her more to think about, more to remind her, while already the scene with the girls’ mother appearing kept returning, worse than that, whenever it surfaced she ran a comb through it, in disgust, like she might for lice, was there no way she could crush the memories of the girls’ mother, standing there in those bright green trainers and red T-shirt, shaking, red for blood, war, being obnoxious, unable to stay still for a second, was there no other recollection she could summon to push the mother aside, surely, what, well there had been a spate of ex-prisoners touting simple tools and brushes, each of whom had tried a few seconds of being pleasant before it became too much and out came the rage and envy and the spite, their rage and envy and the spite, all at once, reminding her of the taxi driver who spat in her face years ago, all because she had on her best coat and a necklace, which he had immediately interpreted as wealth to be despised and spat upon, so there was that history, but now it was a matter of the carol singers returning, or rather their relations, or their hired people, their thugs, their mother had come to the door spitting blood, as they say, claiming Anthea had slammed the door on her daughters, when she had done nothing of the sort, it was the clasp of the Bantam, the deadbolt, that made it sound like slamming, but simply because the daughters’ experience of doors shutting was, at their tender age, limited, they had described it as slamming to their mother, and slamming was rude, so the claim had become that Anthea was rude and had slammed the door in their faces, just when they were gaining the pluck to—as Richard described it, graze about the neighbourhood for takings—the pluck to sing to strangers their two parts to O Little Town of Bethlehem, so their mother said on the doorstep the day afterwards, their confidence had been shattered too, Anthea had shattered it, even if it seemed to her, in retrospect, they had come to the door with no confidence in the first place; furthermore, compounding the being rude, that was one thing, slamming the door, which was another, thirdly she had been shattering young people’s confidence, on top of which crimes—she immediately denied the truth of all three—Anthea was then accused of lying, thus adding a fourth, Are you saying my girls tell lies, the woman snapped as the red of her top seemed to rise into her cheeks, My girls liars? You bitch, you wait, you’ve not heard the end of this.
What do you expect, Richard had said, not exactly sympathetically, the nation had its referendum and came down in favour of nastiness, and so out it would come, at every opportunity, nastiness being the new norm, it was probably different when we grew up, milder he said, staying vague about the whole business, unfairly, she had provided such detail and he was quashing the details all at once by remaining vague, he was clever that way, cunning, he went on doing their tax returns, hogging the kitchen table; exuding no great sympathy, care or protection, when he could have said he would go to the door now on every occasion, if he was in, but in actual fact she wasn’t keen on male protection, for one thing it could quickly aggravate a further altercation on the doorstep, oh well, yes, Richard had some point, lousy point, back in her childhood there had been less of this sort of thing, the occasional ex-offender had done an hour’s gardening then never returned, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had left as they came, in their cocoon of pleasantry, alien, alarming pleasantry, what else, an uncle had come to the door with snapping dogs but been told to shut them in his car, in other words nothing terrible, even though the thought of the front door in her childhood did leave a nasty taste, there had been quite a conglomeration of items in one tiny area of the doorway, the phone was there, the controls to the burglar alarm with its loathsome restrictions on movement in the night, there were the thick telephone directories no one had the strength to hump elsewhere, so the phone wasn’t just by the door, it was practically against it, jostling, on the very ledge, the address book with the phone numbers wedged beside it, in those days you couldn’t even carry a phone into another room, if you even had another room, to say nothing of the phones that were only mounted on the wall, down some brown dim hallway, which Anthea suspected was the lot of that taxi driver, the one ex-offender she could recall—he tried to sell her buttons, and if not the situation of the harridan herself it could well fit the grandparents of the girls, themselves singing Bethlehem huddled beside a piano—as Richard might have put it, a beat-up piano they would doubtlessly have called the joanna.
Often, regularly, Anthea heard Richard’s voice in her head, while he was of course miles away, at work, he could be relentless about certain things, and now she heard again his line about technology, a line that was almost everyone’s line but he added to it his relentlessness, harping on and on as if he could somehow undo developments in one field or another, nuclear power, the combustion engine, the internet, while now she heard him saying that clearly the phone, wood and brass to begin with, before all was bakelite, was invented in a fizz of excitement without thought for its drawbacks, phenomenal an idea it might have been but from the start it had its drawbacks, and what invention didn’t, thank you Richard, thank you, now go away while I think, I’m doing the thinking now, yes the telephone had and has its drawbacks, most tellingly because it was like the doorbell, when it rang you never knew who was on the other end, the other side, or what they wanted; curiosity impelled people to answer, we drop everything to answer, thought Anthea including herself in the we, there was almost no way to avoid the doorbell, the phone, but come to think of it there was a way, it was to get out of earshot, to be safe from phones—from the door, the thing was to go out, yes, that’s what she would do, step out, this gave her hope, she would open the door and go out, she could walk down the flat street with its uneven paving stones, and she would, she would get her coat and she did, the long coat in case it rained, she would step out, go, another phrase came to her, made its mysterious arrival from nowhere, go for broke, something about the phrase was right, wherever it came from, for broke, go, would she miss Richard, hardly, already she was working up a plan, an idea he was not part of, she was going, with a plan, she could check the bird feeders at the end of the street; if the relatives of the carol singers came they might chuck something on the door but not on her, she might even catch sight of them, she could then take hasty notes, follow them to their homes, devise retribution, whatever harm she caught them doing she could do the same, but doubling, quadrupling the grief; besides, she could distract herself with the silky fly-pasts of the parakeets, she had only to go out, and stay out, live in another street, another area, another city, that’s what she would do and now she was on her way, she had on the long coat in case it rained, a bag with a little umbrella, sweets and nuts, already she stood on the other side of the door, on the doorstep, where the singers had been, the ex-offenders, the mother, the locksmith before she let him in, as she pulled the door to she resolved she would find a place with a lock, any kind, but quiet, any kind that would go easily as it closed, not snap shut with quite that click.
© John Saul
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read John’s interview]