The owner of the first-floor flat – the largest in the house, occupying the entire floor – is a German woman called Elke. She moved in a year ago, just a couple of months after Caroline and I moved into our smaller ground-floor flat. For a while relations between Caroline and Elke appeared to be cordial, although as Caroline’s job entails a lot of travelling, she didn’t see as much of Elke as I did. But every so often the three of us went out for a drink together – usually to Dmitri’s, which stocked Elke’s favourite red wines – and they seemed quite at ease in one another’s company.
Then one evening towards the end of summer, as I was about to enter our flat, Elke appeared on the landing above me and said: ‘Would you mind asking Caroline not to close the porch door after her when she comes in? It makes it difficult for me if I’m carrying bags.’ She smiled to show that she wasn’t being unfriendly and I agreed to do as she asked. But when a couple of hours later I mentioned the conversation to Caroline, she didn’t reply at once and I sensed that Elke’s request wasn’t as inoffensive as I’d assumed.
Eventually she said, ‘Why’s she bringing that up now?’
‘Is it a problem?’
‘To me it is, yes.’
‘Why? What difference does it make either way?’
‘If it doesn’t make a difference, why doesn’t she leave it closed?’
‘I meant what difference does it make to you? She says it makes it harder to bring in her shopping if it’s closed.’
‘So you’re siding with her. You don’t care that it makes me ill.’
‘Ill? You haven’t been ill.’
‘I feel cold all the time.’
‘How can it make you feel cold? It’s not an outside door.’
‘There’s no point talking about it.’
The matter slipped from my mind – the Michaelmas term is always a busy time for me at school, as I rehearse the new orchestra and choir – but towards the end of October Caroline returned from work and without greeting me said angrily: ‘Tell Elke that if she wedges the door open one more time, I’m going to report her to the management company.’
‘Report her for what?’
‘For breaking the terms of the lease. Fire doors must be kept shut at all times.’
‘It’s not a fire door. There’d be little point attaching a fire door to the porch.’
‘Passageways must be kept free of obstructions.’
‘A door wedge is hardly an obstruction.’
‘I just tripped over it.’
‘I’ll talk to her.’
‘Don’t talk to her – tell her. If she doesn’t remove the door wedge, I will.’
‘I think you’re being a little unreasonable, Caroline.’
‘It shouldn’t be there. The lease allows no exceptions.’
During the previous few weeks, I’d continued to meet Elke for a drink now and then – Caroline was too busy at work to join us – and we’d got to know each other quite well. I’d never met a German woman before and found her engagingly open and direct in conversation.
Her disciplined way of living – she got up at six, went to bed at ten, visited the cinema every Thursday, the concert hall every Saturday – was the antithesis of Caroline’s and indeed my own. I’d grown to trust her, too, so much so that I gave her a spare key to our flat in case I ever locked myself out while Caroline was away from home on business.
The only thing I disliked about her (apart from her habit of picking up our post from the porch and placing it in a neat pile outside our door) was that she smoked quite heavily – twenty German cigarillos a day. Her clothes and bag reeked of them and even on the stairway leading to her door you could detect their stale, sweet odour. Caroline complained that it clung to her own clothes whenever she passed through the porch and passage, and she’d started spraying copious amounts of air freshener in the communal areas each morning before she left for work.
By Christmas, relations between Caroline and Elke had deteriorated to such an extent that, if they passed each other in the street, they no longer spoke. When in April Elke invited me to Dmitri’s to celebrate her fortieth birthday, she made no mention of Caroline.
I arrived a few minutes before the time she’d specified and, ordering myself a glass of burgundy, took a seat at one of the tables by the window. As I was adding a message to the card I’d got her, Elke entered the bar and, greeting me, looped the handle of her bag over the back of the chair opposite mine. ‘Happy birthday,’ I said, handing her the card. ‘Can I get you a drink?’ Her lips were already stained with red wine – which, I’d noticed, she drank as compulsively as she smoked cigarillos. She put the card in her bag without reading it. ‘Not until the unpleasantness is out of the way.’ She unbuttoned her coat and sat down. ‘Please ask Caroline to return my door wedge. She dislikes my using it – I accept that – but she can’t take what is mine.’
‘What does it matter to her if the door is open?’
‘She says it contravenes fire and safety regulations.’
‘Am I over-reacting? It’s not a serious inconvenience, after all. It’s just a matter of putting down my bags for a moment while I open the door. Am I being unreasonable? Tell me if I am.’
‘It’s not you who is being unreasonable, Elke.’
‘Thank you. Now you may get me a glass of wine. Rioja.’
As I stood at the bar waiting to be served, I saw Elke reach out a hand, take hold of my glass, and move it to her side of the table. Then she took what appeared to be a thermometer from her coat pocket and dipped it in the wine. ‘£6.80,’ the barman said, handing me the Rioja. I paid him; when I turned back towards the table my glass stood in the position I’d left it, and Elke was looking at the menu. As I placed the wine in front of her, I wondered whether I’d imagined the thermometer. The light was dim, after all, and the corner in which our table stood was the furthest from the bar.
‘When would be a good time to come to your flat?’ she said as I sat down.
‘To do what?’
‘To talk to Caroline about the door. How about tomorrow evening? I’ll be back from the university by seven.’
‘She’s in Brussels till Monday.’
Caroline was already convinced that I’d fallen under the spell of Elke’s influence, and I knew that bringing up the matter of the door again would infuriate her.
‘I don’t think it would be a good idea, Elke.’
‘Why do you English keep putting things off? I hear it every day at the university. “Tomorrow… next week… next month…”‘ She reached her hand across the table and placed it over mine. ‘We have to be clear with her.’
I withdrew my hand and placed it round the stem of my glass. ‘I have been clear with her. She doesn’t accept that she’s being unreasonable.’
‘She doesn’t have a reason to close the door. I have a reason to keep it open.’
‘She says it makes the house feel cold.’
She looked at me with amused scepticism. ‘Cold?’
I took a sip of wine, reluctant to say anything further about something I could see no possibility of resolving. ‘How’s your wine?’
‘Try it.’ She slid her glass towards me. ‘If you like it, I’ll get a bottle to take home with us.’
When I left for school the next morning the porch door stood open, held in place not by the wedge but a fire extinguisher, which had been taken from its bracket at the foot of the stairs. It was possible, of course, that it was one of the house’s other residents who had moved it but I was in no doubt that it was Elke. I put it back in its proper place – but when I got home after school I found it propping open the door again.
On the evening of Caroline’s return I had a staff meeting, which ran on well beyond the allotted time. I texted her to apologise for my lateness but received no reply. As I was passing Dmitri’s, Elke tapped on the window and summoned me inside.
‘What is it?’
She summoned a waiter and instructed him to bring me a glass of Rioja.
‘I can’t stay,’ I said, sitting down. ‘I told Caroline I’d be back by nine.’
‘I just spoke to Caroline.’
‘The door, of course.’
‘I asked you not to do that, Elke.’
‘You didn’t. You said it wasn’t a good idea. But it was a good idea.’
‘Caroline agreed to leave it open?’
‘It’s OK,’ she said, touching my arm and smiling. ‘Don’t look so worried.’
‘I’m just curious to know what you said to her. She wouldn’t even discuss it with me.’
‘It wasn’t necessary to say anything. I just showed her some research I’d done.’
‘It’s not going to be a problem any more.’
When we entered the house, I noticed that the porch door was propped open with the wedge once more. ‘I hope you don’t find the cold unbearable,’ Elke giggled, pretending to shiver. She slipped her arm through mine. ‘We must snuggle up together to keep warm. Like the Inuits.’ She took her keys from her coat pocket and opened our flat door.
‘Caroline?’ I called. ‘Sorry I’m a little late. I have Elke with me.’ Elke took hold of my hand and led me to the living room. She took off her coat, draped it over the armchair, and half sat, half lay on the settee.
I sat on the arm of the armchair, unsure how Caroline would greet me. As I glanced around the room, I noticed that various things had been removed from it – Caroline’s things: her books and CDs, her ‘Wedding March’ music box.
A few sheets of paper lay scattered about the coffee table, each folded into quarters. I gathered them together and unfolded them. There were three, each bearing a neatly drawn graph with the title ‘Temperature versus Time’.
The independent variable, time, was plotted in hours varying from 06.00 to 18.00 on the horizontal axis, and the dependent variable, temperature, in degrees varying from 10 °C to 20 °C on the vertical axis. The sheet marked ‘1’ bore the subheading MONDAY 23 APRIL: DOOR CLOSED and showed a gently descending line beginning at 15 °C at 06.00 and ending at 12 °C at 18.00. Sheet ‘2’ bore the subheading TUESDAY 24 APRIL: DOOR OPEN and showed a gently ascending line beginning at 15 °C at 06.00 and ending at 17 °C at 18.00. Sheet ‘3’ bore the subheading WEDNESDAY APRIL 25: DOOR OPEN/CLOSED. On this sheet the time measurements had been entered in different colours, red for 06.00 to 12.00, blue for 13.00 to 18.00, and a note added to the right-hand margin: Red = Door Open; Blue = Door Closed. The graph line began at 15 °C at 06.00, ascended to 17 °C at 12.00, then descended to 14 °C at 18.00.
Tim Shearer lives in Manchester and works as an editor/proofreader. His fiction has been published in The Fiction Pool, Metazen and broadcast on BBC radio. He is fiction editor at Confingo Publishing.