Number 40 by Sarah Butler

28 September 2012

by Sarah Butler

Melissa hated forgetting things. Wallet, umbrella, diary, keys –their absence always left her feeling anxious and unbalanced. Today it was her phone. She must have left it in the hallway on the table Simon bought last week, which she didn’t like at all – dark varnished wood and spindly legs. He had bought it without consulting her, and when she’d started to say it wasn’t to her taste, and that it would be great – now they were living together – if they could discuss such things beforehand, he’d looked so deflated she’d changed the subject.

She watched raindrops chase each other down the bus window. It was too late to turn back. She couldn’t afford to miss the team meeting – it was hard enough getting noticed in that place, never mind promoted.

The bus stopped. People got off. People got on. Someone sat down next to her in a rustle of wet waterproofs, but Melissa didn’t turn her head. She looked instead out of the window at the pavement, which, when she narrowed her eyes enough to blur her vision, turned into a continuous grey line. This time last year they’d been in Santorini – a cluster of bright white buildings clinging to the remnants of a volcano; beaches that glittered with black sand. Melissa pictured Simon on their hotel balcony, sitting in a wide wicker chair, his calves tanned and muscular below khaki shorts, his eyes almost as blue as the sea way down at the bottom of the cliffs. She tried to think what the hotel had been called. She could picture the sign – hand-painted with a blowsy pink flower underneath the letters – but couldn’t remember the name. If she’d had her phone she would have called Simon, because he was good at things like that. Do you remember Santorini? she’d say, and he’d laugh and say of course he did and didn’t she wish they were there now, in that huge white bed; and she would curl her body further towards the window of the bus, make a cocoon for her phone with one hand, and talk just loud enough for him to catch the words. That, or he wouldn’t answer, or he’d be distracted and rushed: what is it, Liss? She’d have to think of something banal and house-related to say; he’d be curt and she’d hang up wishing she hadn’t called at all.

The team meeting didn’t go well – not in any dramatic sense, it was more that Melissa suspected no one would have noticed if she had gone home to get her phone. At lunchtime she stood in the staff toilets and stared into the long mirror above the sinks. Underneath the fluorescent lights her face was pasty white. Even her hands, when she rubbed them against her cheeks to try and conjure up a bit of colour, looked like they’d been refrigerated. They needed another holiday; she’d say as much to Simon over dinner. He would point out that they’d agreed to wait until the house was done. Melissa was beginning to wonder what ‘done’ meant. The house had already endured eleven months of concerted attack – re-wiring, re-plumbing, re-plastering, re-painting, re-flooring. It’s the dust, Melissa told herself, staring at her pale skin and dark eyes in the mirror. It’s not good for someone to live with that much dust.

If it had been just her, she would never have bought the house – a tall, pompous terrace with stucco pillars propping up a shallow porch – but relationships were about compromise, and she was, at least, good at that.

It was still raining when she left the office. Commuters crammed into the bus, steaming up the windows, dripping water from their umbrellas onto the flecked vinyl floor. There was a woman standing by the door who reminded Melissa of that girl Simon worked with. They’d had her and her overbearing boyfriend round to dinner a month or so ago. It had been raining then too. Simon and Emma – or maybe it was Emily – went outside for a cigarette after they’d eaten. Watching them through the window, standing close together under the narrow porch, Melissa had felt suddenly cold and uncomfortable, as though she’d walked into an empty house that hadn’t been lived in for years. The girl got off at Melissa’s stop, and Melissa watched her clip down the street, resting a red umbrella against her shoulder like a parasol.

Melissa and Simon lived at Number 40 Rossendale Road, a three-and-a-half-minute walk from the bus stop. Theirs was one in a long line of terraced houses, on a street punctuated by trees which looked like they were shaking their fists at the sky. Melissa hunkered under her umbrella and tried to avoid the worst of the puddles. She was so busy thinking about the girl on the bus she didn’t notice, straight away, that the house wasn’t there.

In fact she walked up three white steps to a door which wasn’t hers and shoved her key into the lock without paying much attention at all. The key didn’t fit. She tried again, but the metal teeth jarred against the keyhole. And then she looked at the lock, and the door it was in, and realized that this door was pale grey, whilst their door was green – she had painted it herself. She let out a little huff of a laugh, retreated down the steps and walked up to the house on her right, but that door was also grey. And so she backed away and turned to the house on the left: yellow paint and with a thin silver knocker. You’re losing your marbles, Simon would have said. Melissa imagined a stream of heavy glass balls, with twists of colour caught inside, falling onto the street and rolling down the shallow incline towards the main road.

After a year you’d think she’d remember where she lived. She knew she was on the right road, but she retraced her steps all the same until she reached the end of the terrace, and there, as she knew it would be, was the sign. Rossendale Road. She lived at number 40 Rossendale Road. Melissa straightened her shoulders, and walked back towards her house. Quick, confident steps. She counted off the numbers: two, four, six, eight, 36, 38, 42.

Number 40 was not there.

There wasn’t a hole where it used to be. There wasn’t a fire-ravaged skeleton like she’d seen on the news plenty of times – people’s intimate lives exposed to public view. There was simply nothing in between numbers 38 and 42 to suggest there ever had been a number 40.

Melissa closed her eyes. She counted to ten and then opened them again.

Number 40 was not there.

So she put down her umbrella, held both hands out in front of her and looked at them, because, right then, she wasn’t sure if she was there either. They were pale but they looked real: slightly stubby fingers, neatly filed nails, the ring Simon had given her two weeks ago, over an intricate dinner of squid and scallops and king prawns, when she felt desperately sick but didn’t have the heart to tell him. Three neat diamonds caught in three gold claws.

She needed to get inside and have a cup of tea. She needed a holiday. Melissa closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and looked again. A row of terraced houses: 36, 38,

42.

They hadn’t met their neighbours. They’d left it too long after moving in, and it had got to the point where it would be embarrassing to just knock and introduce themselves. No one answered at number 42, but when she rang the bell of number 38 a man opened the door, in trainers, grey tracksuit bottoms and a blue T-shirt with patches of sweat underneath each arm.

‘Yes?’ There was an aggressive edge to his voice.

‘I’m Melissa,’ she said, and coughed. ‘I mean, I live next door. That is—’

The man looked at her blankly. He scratched his side, lifting the hem of his T-shirt to show a pale belly dense with black hair.

 

‘I’m looking for number 40,’ she said.

‘This is 38.’

‘I know, I know that.’

‘So you want next door.’

‘But it’s not there.’

She saw his nostrils flare. ‘Look, love, this is 38.’

‘And next door is 42,’ Melissa said, trying to control her voice. ‘Please, will you look?’

He eyed her suspiciously, but stepped outside. Melissa watched his face. His jaw moved in a chewing motion and she wondered if he ground his teeth in his sleep. He turned to her, lips pursed.

‘Well, what do you know?’ he said. ‘I’d never noticed that.’

‘But I live there,’ Melissa said.

‘In 42?’

‘In 40.’

A lift and drop of the shoulders. ‘I’d call the council then, if I was you.’

‘It’s gone six.’

‘Stay with a friend then. I’ve got to jump in the shower.’

Melissa pictured her phone, sitting on the table in the hallway of number 40 Rossendale Road. Maybe, she thought, the table wasn’t that bad after all. Maybe it was even something she could learn to love.

‘Do you mind if I make a call?’ she asked. ‘I left my phone at—’

The man frowned, but nodded her inside and pointed to a grey house phone on a shelf crowded with pens and Post-it notes. When she picked up the receiver, Melissa realized she didn’t know Simon’s number. She always just scrolled down to his name on her mobile. She could find his office number though, this man must have the Internet. But then she looked at the man – who had pulled off his trainers and was regarding her impatiently – and she remembered, again, Simon standing next to that girl on the porch smoke billowing from their mouths, and she put the receiver down and walked out of number 38 and onto the street.

She sat on the pavement, in full view of the house that wasn’t there any more. She couldn’t remember if she’d drawn the living room curtains that morning, and now she came to think about it, she couldn’t remember whether the bathroom window on the first floor had tiny stars or tiny squares etched into the glass. She stared at her umbrella, like a fallen bird at her feet, and watched the rain make dark pools in its folds.

She waited. And, long after the sun had set, and the rain had seeped through her coat and tights, she saw Simon, walking along the other side of the street. Her heart stirred and she was about to raise her hand and shout, when she saw he was on his mobile. Maybe he was leaving a message on her phone, which was still sitting on the table in the hallway of—. She turned; number 40 was still not there. And then she thought maybe he was talking to that girl – Emma or Emily. Instead of calling out to him, Melissa stayed where she was. They would laugh about this one day.

She watched as Simon approached where number 40 should be. She watched as he walked straight past number 38 and number 42 without so much as looking up from his phone. She hurried after him, past the end of the terrace and round the corner to a street where the houses stood in pairs, set further back from the road. He walked up to the front door of a house she didn’t know, a house they didn’t live in, and took a set of keys from his pocket.

‘Simon!’

He turned, and she saw that it wasn’t him at all. Similar, yes, but heavier around the face, with thinner, greyer hair; and she was pretty sure Simon would never wear a tie like that.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said.

He looked at her blankly and she backed away. As he opened the door, Melissa glanced into the hallway and saw, standing against the wall, a dark wooden table with spindly legs. The man who she thought was Simon closed the door. The rain started again, slow fat drops making join-the-dot patterns on the paving slabs. Melissa looked down at her hands, which were so pale they were almost translucent, and thought again of Santorini and those bright white buildings clinging to the rocks.

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