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The Song from Next Door
by Corinne Harrison

      I was eleven when I last saw my mother. She’d been cleaning up after our dinner of
bread and cheese, pottering around the kitchen and coughing as though death had entered her
lungs. Winter chilblains had turned her walk into a shuffle, and she stopped for a moment to
look my way.
      I’d been scrubbed raw and told to wear my Sunday dress. My suitcase sat neatly at my
feet, a scratched-up, box-like thing, crammed with all my possessions. I was ready, but my
mother did everything but wait with me on the sagging couch.
      The November evening fell fast and it scared me. My mother shot anxious glances at
the oven clock. We couldn’t afford to keep the lights on much, so she stood in cold shadow.
A strip of dying light struggled through the window and flared up her bony back like a
corona, turning her into an eclipse. Through the darkness, her sadness emanated from her in
waves. It nurtured my own despair at my imminent departure.
      Then the peal of the doorbell froze us in our places. I waited for her to answer the
door, but she remained caught in darkness like a fly encased in wax. She’d been washing the
kitchen knife. It was a sharp, dripping silhouette in her hand.
      An impatient knock, followed by a painful stab behind my eyes. My vision swam, a
sensation that had taken hold frequently since the social worker’s last visit. That’s when the
walls started to melt around me, paint and plaster lumps pouring in sheets to the floor. When
the clothes hanging on lines across the front room twitched and spun, when the dust on the
floor skittered like bugs around my feet. The pain behind my eyes intensified. Somewhere,
Frank Sinatra’s My Way, a song I’d often heard playing from next door’s vinyl player, started

up. It flew around my head, as real as the music that used to blare through our walls before
our neighbour moved house.
      My mind pulled apart. The music staggered to a monumental crescendo.
Knife dripping by her side, my mother made straight for the door, and as a commotion
unravelled outside the house, the music crashed around me.
      Fourteen years later, I performed a similar mute charge through my own house, an
envelope crumpled in my hand. Halfway up the stairs, I paused, heavier now my belly
swelled with life. I cocked my head. Music emanated from my neighbour’s house, faint, like
a party blaring from down the street. I continued into the nursery, a room filled with the smell
of fresh paint – and stopped, the paper in my hand forgotten.
      I stood in a half-painted dim woodland of glistening trees marked with woodgrain. A
syrup-coloured path wound its way down a wall and a red-cloaked girl danced down it. Tom
stood on a chair, his paintbrush working at a flurry of crows straining towards the ceiling. I
realised why he’d asked me to stay out of the nursery until it was done.
      “I thought we’d decided on a Roald Dahl theme?”
      It was what I’d imagined when the pregnancy stick showed me those two pink lines; a
room painted with colourful, cartoonish wonder, toys and baby books, so different from my
own childhood room which had been closet-sized and moulding.
      “Ahh, I told you not to come in, I wanted it to be a surprise,” Tom said without
turning. “I had a rush of inspiration. It’s good, don’t you think?”

      “It’s a bit – I don’t know, morbid for a baby room.”
      “Snowflake,” Tom said playfully. “I grew up with the Grimm Brothers, and I turned
out just fine.”
      With a jolt, I remembered that morning’s mail. I brandished the envelope and fought
to keep my voice steady.
      “We got this in the mail today. I thought you said you’d paid the water bill.”
      Tom turned, wearing a lopsided smile. His stubble had dappled purple dust along his jaw.
      “Relax, I get paid tomorrow for that portrait job, I’ll get to it then.”
      “But,” I gave a desperate huff. “It’ll count as a late payment.”
      “It’s fine, Han. I’ll sort it.”
       It’s fine sweetheart, I’ll sort this out, my mother’s voice said in my head. My small
hand held a glass under a slow dripping kitchen tap. The water trickled into the basin and
joined a muddy soup.
      Tom knew about my childhood, but he didn’t know those words had been stripped of
their value long ago. I subconsciously rubbed my stomach, hugging her close.
      “Don’t they - I don’t know - count it against you? I don’t want any trouble with –”
      “Hannah, don’t worry, I’ve got this.”
      Tom’s carefree smile dropped as he studied my face. I forced down my bubbling hysteria.

      “I’m ok, really, just – please tell me when you’ve done it? I just want everything right
for when the baby comes.”
      “I will love. Come here.” He held out his arms and I let myself be consumed by his embrace.
       My vision swam. Out of my periphery, a half-painted crow, one with a teal blush
texturing its feathers, turned its head so imperceptibly, I nearly missed it.
      Hours later, the wall separating us from our semi-detached neighbours still hummed
with the same song. I started dinner to distract myself and winced as my neighbour turned it
up. A rich voice swooned through the wall in elongated tones, a deep crooning voice. It was a
      “Han,” Tom poked his head around the corner. “I’m expecting a call about a job soon,
when’s dinner?”
      “Half an hour.”
      I brought the knife down on a head of broccoli, watching as each floret sprung from
the stem. I thought of the unpaid bill, of the nursery, flippantly painted into a world where
children lost families and misfortune lay around every corner. A pain stabbed behind my eyes.
      I was about to bring the knife down again when the handle gave a great jerk. I stared.
Slowly, the tip of the knife curled, and the rest followed, coiling to meet the handle. A slug of
light curved around the bending metal, until the whole thing was a shiny ring in my hand.

With a gasp, I snapped my eyes closed. Hiding in darkness, I counted to ten and looked
again. The knife was normal, sharp and straight.
      The neighbours turned the music up again, and this time I was able to catch the words.
A cold flushed between my ribs. Frank Sinatra’s My Way.
      Something touched my shoulder and I jumped a mile. Tom stood next to me, but he
veered back as I instinctively flailed the hand holding the knife. His lips moved and I
watched them, distracted. He was saying something to me.
      “I said I’ve been calling you. You alright?”
      “Sorry darling,” I ran a hasty hand through my hair. “That bloody music is giving me
such a headache.”
      There was something about the way the room darkened, as though the sun had been
swamped by a cloud. The way the layout of my kitchen evoked the memory of my childhood
kitchen. It felt suddenly, like a cold November night. My hand grazed the counter. Here. She
would have stood here washing the dishes that night.
      I turned to Tom and was astonished to find him frozen, eyes frantically reading my face.
      “There – there’s no music sweetheart.”
      The phone rang in his hand. He looked, pained, between me and the phone.
     “Look I – I’m going to answer to reschedule, just – please, stay right here.”
      He left the room in a hurry. I felt as though my stomach had dropped to my toes.

      Suddenly, the music was louder, encompassing. The overhead light shrank to a
peering eye. At Tom’s words, the pain behind my eyes intensified and the room around me
whirred. I gripped the counter. By my fingers, the broccoli florets started to scatter in a whirl.
       And she was next to me. Shadow had poured into her form; the shrunken bird-like
body, the crumpled posture, the thin strands of hair. Half woman, half shadow, she turned
towards me. The light shifted and her face was blank tension, a mask of a woman who had
been prone to fits of incomprehensible and irrational behaviour. Her fits meant she couldn’t
hold a job, that family members abandoned her in her time of need, that we’d go to bed with
angry knots of hunger in our stomachs.
      My heart gave a jerk. She was my height, my build. She took a step forward and I
took one, two, several steps back, until I was running from the room. The music chased me,
tumbled up the stairs, dragged by my terror. Under my feet, the stairs softened like souffle. I
cupped my bump, trying to dispel the image of a woman stricken by the kitchen counter.
      I found myself in the nursery, clutched in the midst of a raging scene. The Grimm’s
woods had been torn into a morass of colours, images careening and tearing in a mess on the
wall. Trees ripped from their bases, the red cloak shredded into confetti, and paper-flat crows
gusted from the corner of the wall, dove-tailed into the scene and spread like madness to fill a
night sky above a row of terraced houses. My childhood street.
      The mural shuddered to life. It showed a woman struggling in the hands of two men
clad in white uniforms, knife disarmed on the ground. She was lowing like an animal,
willow-withe hair in strips over her face. Shadows pulled from the corner of the room and
dove into the woman’s open mouth, melting into the hole and pulling back out like ribbons of grief.

      Behind the struggle, a girl was tucked in the arm of another woman, ushered from the
departure that was supposed to be a dignified removal from her home. The girl took a last,
scared glance at her mother.
      “Go back,” I whispered. The girl turned from the screaming woman, shrinking in on
herself. The panic the girl felt would turn to misery, then irrational anger and bitterness
towards the mother who was not allowed to keep her. Then, inexplicably, an inability to renew contact.
      The music raged around the nursery, poured into my head and crammed in my ears like cotton wool.
      “Don’t leave her, it’s not her fault.” My hand flew to my stomach. I screamed at the girl. “Go back.”
      I whipped around, terrified. It was Tom, hands up in appeal, face guarded.
      “Tom? Where’d you come from?”
      I stood again among dark, fresh painted woods, their arms gently stirring. The music had stopped.
      “Han – why don’t we start by putting that down.”
      I looked down, perplexed. The knife was tight in my hand, pointing straight ahead. I
let it go and Tom pulled me back as it clattered at my feet. I burst into tears.
      “I can’t take it Tom, I-I can’t do this. What if – what if it all goes away? What if we fail her?”

      I cried into his paint-stained shirt for hours. He held me close, telling me our situation
was different, that we had friends and his family to support us through any misfortune, that
we had help if we needed it. My mother hadn’t had anything.
      He didn’t say anything about going back on my medication. He spoke to me in gentle
tones and drew shapes in my palm with his finger until the world was silent and still. I knew
he’d approach the subject when I’d overcome my hysteria.
      I rose early the next morning and sat in the living room, filling the minutes by staring
at the house phone. It took me an hour to dredge up the courage to dial a number I’d been
given long ago by a mental institution. It rang for several moments, and I wondered if I really
wanted it to connect. It did. I took a deep breath.
      “Hi mum.”

Corinne Harrison is an avid reader, writer, and coffee drinker. She’s a digital nomad travelling the UK, often taking inspiration for her writing from the places she visits. Her fiction has appeared in Kelp Journal and in Elegant Fiction. Her second submission in Elegant Fiction won its monthly competition.

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