Everyone saw everything. In the back-to-back, terraced streets of late Victorian housing stock that had been decaying from the moment the first bricks had gone up, one could never escape. If you looked out of the back window, your best view was that of your next-door-neighbour’s garden, and you didn’t even need to put your ear up to the cheap, thin plasterboard to hear the Jones’ rowing about lipstick on a collar and money in the bank. As long as no one narrowed their eyes through the net curtain, or counted the footsteps in the next room, or thought too much about those around them and who they truly were, there were never any problems.
“Paul. There’s something you should see. On the wall outside the corner shop, right at the end of the street.”
Fifty-nine years of age. Eighteen thousand pounds a year (pre-tax) as a taxi driver. Forty-two inches around the waist and five foot seven from head to toe. Insides ravaged by a perfect combination of lung cancer, heart disease and liver cirrhosis which wouldn’t go away and intensified every time he ate, drank, spoke, walked or did anything that composed a normal day. Thirty-two years at number seven, Taurus Road. Paul Wilson had never made it his business to bother anyone. And now, at nine am on a Monday morning, a voice spoke into the phone. A soft, female voice that wouldn’t have been out-of-place on the illicit phone lines he used from the callbox outside the pub or a post-watershed advert for contraceptives.
Paul didn’t have time to speak. The other line was dead before he could ask who or why or what the hell they were talking about. The only people who ever called him on the landline were Bob, Mike and, on his birthday and Christmas, his brother and sister. It was a senseless practical joke, the abnormality of which had been designed to shock and displace the recipient. Paul had fares to pick up and didn’t want to dignify the stupidity of the caller. Then again, his name was Paul and there was a corner shop at the end of the street with a sizeable wall.
At nine am, Taurus Road was starting to clear as the school-run, commuter rush and influx of morning joggers all ceased serendipitously into a long period of emptiness, only broken by the furious rush to the pub at midday. Paul passed the couple from down the road who were always carrying tennis rackets and muttered a brief morning; their connection wasn’t close enough to merit an actual conversation and they smiled back. Miss Jenkins, garish chrysanthemums in hand, was the next in line and she pre-emptively stopped as she caught sight of Paul.
“Paul. How are you?”
“Fine. Nice weather. You?”
“Nice flowers. Who are they for?”
“Oh — so sorry.”
“It’s fine. No one I know. Just want to brighten up the cemetery.”
Miss Jenkins continued down the street and Paul lucidly remembered the time she’d put a bespoke lead on her overindulged Persian cat and walked down the street. He also relaxed as phone calls, unusual envelopes on the doormat and bell-rings at odd hours often signified trouble with neighbours but Miss Jenkins, curious Miss Jenkins who always told you too much about things you didn’t want to know, would have said something if something was up on the wall outside the pub. Wanting to get on with his day, Paul almost felt like taking this as confirmation that the status quo had been maintained and walking back to his house but as he was only a dozen steps from the pub, he saw the opportunity for a pint and a short spell of snooker, darts and crisps that were broken before you bit into the them.
The text was white, meaning it stuck out on the faded crimson, and the letters about a metre in height and length. The position was optimum – no trees, bins or benches covered it up and double yellow lines on the road meant that cars couldn’t obscure it – and Paul saw his own name, P-A-U-L in clear block capitals at the very beginning.
He reached for his cigarettes and swore (shit) when he found that his pockets were empty. Paul stepped forward, ready to go into the pub and tell Bob and Mike and Carl and Jon about the joker who’d defaced the wall and soon enough the only sounds would be their insecure laughter and the scratch of wet bristles against the brickwork. It would be an anecdote at best and a punchline at worst.
Paul had seen P-A-U-L, and in his confidence, he hadn’t bothered to scrutinise and process the message. Now he had the chance, he felt a knot of sick in his upper stomach that moved up his windpipe and dissipated just before it entered the bottom of the throat, and once the regurgitate had vanished, the acute taste of acrid sweat washed across his body. The liquid itself stuck to his skin and just for luck Paul passed his eyes over the proclamation again and it triggered the same response. He opened his mouth to swear and then decided against it. A swear word would bring Bob and Mike and Rob the landlord out into the forecourt and then Paul would lose all control.
An engine rumbled behind him. Paul fought the urge to twist his head around and climb onto the bonnet and beg and coerce and blackmail the driver to keep their mouth shut but as long as he just stood still, he was just a man looking at a series of words on an unremarkable wall. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted the model and colour. Green Renault. No one on Taurus Road owned one. He’d been granted a reprieve.
He walked up to the white daub and touched it – still wet, some of the residue stained his fingertips. It was definitely real and it definitely began with P-A-U-L. His first thought was to scrape it off with his own hands, strong and weathered after years of gripping a rubber driving wheel. Invigorated by fearful adrenalin, Paul made a start. He rubbed away at the large white marks on the grainy surface which became redder as striations turned to scratches and scratches opened and turned to large patches of blood across his palms. In his desperation, he’d cut open his hands and now the message was smeared with hot patches of colour that made it all the more noticeable.
Through the front door, down the corridor, turn right to the kitchen and under the sink cupboard, stained white rags and cleaning fluid so toxic it could knock someone out. These instructions ran through his mind as Paul decided that his skin wasn’t enough and if he could only clean it off, it would be forgotten. Seven minutes past nine in the morning. It was still early. The street was fairly quiet and if he got it off in time, the few passers-by who’d seen it would walk back again later and wonder if their eyes had been deceiving them. Paul turned and started to walk away when he heard the door of the pub opened.
“Hey? What’s this? Paul — ” the voices were unfamiliar but gruff and must have belonged to the two dozen or so patrons of the pub who hadn’t crossed paths with him until now. They didn’t know him but soon they would. He quickened his pace and when he was back in the safety of his fortress with its orangey walls, a relic of the Disco Decade and sporadic central heating, a reminder that the houses on Taurus Road had been built for unskilled labourers, he collapsed. Just for a second, his legs gave way and he couldn’t stand up. It was similar to the time he’d tried to get out of his cab after a ten-hour shift and had been unable to move for five minutes but on that occasion, he hadn’t been caked in an acidic mixture of tears and sweat. Paul got up and headed for the kitchen before he noticed the wafer on his doormat. Unusually legible handwriting on laminated paper.
People of Taurus Road, your neighbour Paul —
He read on and the knot of vomit that had terminated at the bottom of his throat returned and a few yellow-brown gobbets spilled into his hands before the rest of the load slopped into the downstairs toilet bowl. The leaflet, which had been diligently sealed with a protective layer of plastic that stopped it from crumpling or ripping, was still in his hand.
People. It was meant for everyone.
Your neighbour Paul. It was meant for him.
Paul’s desire was to punch and kick and swear, repeating this pattern across three dozen cycles until this hideous situation was resolved and he’d beaten away his problems. The party-wall was starting to show signs of decay by the time he gave up and decided that the only thing he could literally do was to go to the cupboard under the sink, collect the relevant cleaning fluids and march to the graffiti. Paul tried to forget that this reputation was decaying around him as he trudged across the Formica floor of the kitchen and arranged the brightly coloured bottles into a manageable bundle, and he braced himself as he crossed the threshold and stepped outdoors.
Down the front garden path, there was nothing amiss. Paul passed the pathetic geraniums that hadn’t been watered for three months and the fractured plant pot a cousin had given as a birthday present and there were no discernible differences. Taurus Road remained quiet. A car – blue Nissan – passed. A speck of Lycra moved through Paul’s eyeline and was gone after a second. Nothing had changed.
The supermarket concoctions had been placed inside a round white bucket and Paul tried to calm his shaking hands as he stepped onto the pavement. It could have been his nerves. It could have been the onset of the same strand of Parkinson’s that had killed his paternal grandfather.
A single word. Behind him, a woman from down the street – he was sure her name was Maggie or Marjorie or something else beginning with M – was standing there with Miss Jenkins, now free of the flowers. They didn’t say anything beyond his name and if they did, Paul didn’t hear as he walked away, thinking of the soap suds and washing rags and elbow grease that would scratch the message into oblivion. He turned around just once. They continued to stare, eyes at his back and mouths slightly open. Up ahead, there was more. Some of the men from the pub, standing on the opposite side of the street.
“What’s this about, Paul?”
The question wasn’t particularly aggressive. Paul recognised the man asking it as the window cleaner who’d once almost ran over Mrs Smith’s prized poodle and now here he was, judging his neighbour. The men – there were between three and six but Paul’s lack of concentration meant he didn’t pick up the exact number – stood there, watching him as he walked. Their gazes were vacant and the one man who stepped forward soon stepped back and although Paul could only see their expressions out of the corner of his eye, he didn’t see anger or shock or curiosity. He saw residents of a red brick terraced street in a miscellaneous suburb once named as the one of the country’s friendliest postcodes getting on with their day. If the men had crossed over the street and rammed their fists into his skin and left no tooth unbroken, Paul would have tried his best to smile at the courageous vigilantes and commitment to justice. Instead, they did nothing.
He arrived at the graffiti. By now, there was more. Daubs of white on someone’s front fence. Letters on several bins (it was collection day – black and green). Leaflets through letterboxes. Paul dropped the bucket of cleaning materials – he didn’t even bat an eyelid as it smashed into millions of shards of microscopic plastic – and went from door to door, ripping out the wafers. Across time, he garnered their general message but he didn’t think to read them. He didn’t want to read them. The words seemed to burn his eyes as at the start of every declaration were the same four letters.
“Paul. What’s going on?”
He turned around and Mr and Mrs Parker, out walking their medically obese bulldog, were starting at him.
“These leaflets are everywhere, Paul and what they’re saying! It’s–what have you done?”
“I’ve done nothing. Nothing!”
Paul’s roar woke the entire street and within moments, people were flocking to their front gates and they were staring. Few dared to step onto the pavement. They weren’t scared or frightened, but curious at the situation that had developed on their quiet residential street. Paul ran a few steps and then had a change of heart. Taurus Road had become about him and he had a right to speak.
“They’re all lies! Lies by vandals! None of it is true! You can’t believe this!”
No one responded at first. They just continued watching him, with the same quiet interest of twitchers in a bird-hide tracking a rare species.
“I’ve lived on this street for thirty-two years! I’ve looked after your pets, watered your plants! It’s me, Paul! It’s just a joke! It’s lies and a stupid joke!”
Miss Jenkins, eccentric old Miss Jenkins who bought snake food from the corner shop yet owned reptiles and was described by all who knew her as ‘simple,’ stepped up to him.
“Paul. Paul. Are you alright?”
“No. No. I’m not alright! These lies are being spread about me and no one’s even listening to me! It’s all lies!”
“Calm down, Paul. Don’t worry. I’ll make a cup of tea.”
Her innocent smile should have soothed his fears. Instead, her naivety only provoked him.
“I don’t need your tea! I just need you all to know that these are all lies!”
“Come into my house, Paul. Come into my house for a nice cup of tea.”
Miss Jenkins was persuasive. Standing in the middle of Taurus Road confronting an apathetic crowd and provoking the driver of a black Volkswagen, Paul had accomplished nothing. All he’d thought about since he’d seen the message had been the flecks of white paint on his fingertips, the cleaning fluid, the faces of the crowd and their eyes that didn’t want to see him yet couldn’t look away. He hadn’t thought about the wider situation. The fact that someone somewhere was saying these things about him. Paul followed Miss Jenkins, clad in her red corduroy coat and wide-rimmed glasses, into number twelve and only remembered that she was a collector of animal photographs and artificial flowers when he was in the front room, the hiss of the central heating keeping him alert.
“I don’t know what’s going on. I just came out of my house this morning and these things — these awful, awful things are being said about me and they all believe them! They were hesitant at first but I could see it in their faces and they believe them!”
“My mother used to tell me that anyone picking on you had too much time and just wanted to pick on themselves,” Miss Jenkins sipped her milky brew; Paul pretended to drink it but her concoction was nothing more than a loaded teabag in a well of lukewarm water. “Just ignore it, Paul.”
“I can’t,” he panted; his fear had led to a headache and sensation of nausea that intensified every second. “They think these things about me and I’ve lived here for thirty-two years and it’s all ruined! They’re disgusted. They really are and it’s all lies!”
“It’s just a silly vandal running around,” Miss Jenkins carried the mugs to the kitchen; Paul had done his best to drink most of what he’d been given and now the sickness and pounding at the front of his skull had increased and he could barely stand up. “People will understand, Paul and they’ll forget before you know it.”
“I — ” Paul got up to go to the bathroom, but he keeled over before he could walk out of the room. He saw small specks of vomit exit his mouth and they were stained with blood. “I’m feeling a bit sick and I — I’m sorry but — ”
Miss Jenkins walked over, bent down so her face was just centimetres above Paul’s and smiled.
“You can stay here until you feel better. I might join you,” she kept smiling and her voice became softer.
“What?” Paul tried to get back up but the headache had gotten so much worse and he couldn’t move without pain surging through every layer of his body.
“You’re going to stay here, Paul,” he felt her fling something at her face and touching the viscous substance, he found more white paint on his fingertips.
“What are you doing?” he tried to say. But his words were slurred beyond comprehension and besides, no one could hear him.
“I see it through your front window. You’ll stay here. You’ll stay here and I might join you.”
Paul felt blood trickle down the gap between his nostril and top lip. Miss Jenkins became a faded speck. He wished that he’d never used the callbox outside the pub and that he’d told them to be more discreet and that he’d hired a room at some far-out, anonymous motel but above all, he wished he’d kept his curtains closed.
Daniel Morgan is in his last year of school in Cambridge and has penned over twenty short stories and several novels. He recently completed an award-winning research project on the interplay between English and History, and is fascinated by the connections between the two fields.