Stop Staring by Alison Frank

Home at last. Funny how these plush red carpets now seem normal. The building made such a grand impression on me when I moved here, even if the flat I rent within it is small and unremarkable. As I ascend the main staircase, I spot my neighbour, Pete.

‘Evening, Sarah.’

‘Hi Pete, how’re the stuffed animals today?’

‘Behaving themselves. If one of them starts talking back, you won’t be seeing me round here no more! I’ll check myself into the loonie bin.’

He smiles and adjusts his wire-framed glasses. I avert my gaze from his long fingernails. The muscles contract down my back whenever I see them. Women’s long nails should creep me out in the same way, but they don’t.

‘How’s the world of publishing?’

‘Same old slush pile. Actually, an unusual manuscript was delivered today – one full of pictures that might interest you. It’s from a hipster taxidermist in east London, all about the weirdest commissions she’s ever had.’

‘Oh yes, these hipsters. Tell you what, I’m happy to have the competition. Ten years ago, it looked like my trade was dying out, but what with all these goths and dandies and modern Victorians, there’s been more than enough business to go round. What’s the author called?’

‘Delilah Rose.’

‘Don’t know that name. Bet she wasn’t born with it. Maybe I should’ve come up with something a bit snazzier than Pete Hawkins. How was I to know that taxidermy would become so glamorous! You tell me when that book’s coming out. I’ll gladly read it. By the by, did you ever watch those films?’

‘Yes, they were fantastic. I’ve been meaning to knock on your door to give the DVDs back. I can go and get them now if you like.’

‘No rush. I’ll be getting on, let you enjoy your evening in peace.’

He turns away with his careful, precise steps, the keys to his flat ready in his hand.

It’s mind boggling, the things you can find out about the unassuming people that surround you. In the early 80s, Pete worked with a Polish animator on stop-motion films of rabbits. Whenever I see stuffed rabbits in natural history museums, they always looked royally pissed off: maybe it’s hard to arrange that cleft lip and buck teeth into a natural expression after death. But Pete managed it: his dead rabbits had expressions that were dignified, amused, even beatific. I’ve never been inside his shop on King’s Road: stuffed animals still creep me out, however skillfully crafted. When he lent me those DVDs, Pete said, as if reading my mind, ‘I won’t invite you in to watch them. You must wonder what a bachelor like me gets up to, with his dead animals.’ I laughed at this, maybe a bit too much. ‘I’ve a mind to show you round some time to disabuse you of your morbid fantasies. I assure you, no deceased creature has ever passed this threshold. Excluding, of course, old Mrs. Hanson, the previous tenant, 30 years ago.’

I eat my dinner at the little table next to the window as usual. Munching away, I look up at the creeping patterns of sunset clouds. My gaze falls to the jagged rooftops, and down another level to the windows. The buildings opposite are a good 25 metres away, allowing lots of light and an illusion of privacy. You can see people’s shapes but not their expressions.

The majority of us have never met, but there’s a sense of shared community. If I caught sight of a burglary or a murder, I hope I’d call the police right away, and that my neighbours would do the same for me. My gaze shifts from one window to the next. It’s like sitting in a cafe, watching strangers pass by.

As dusk falls, the windows illuminate. Loud music leaks from an open sash in the building opposite, one floor below my own. The lights in that flat blaze more brightly than in any other. Irresistibly, they draw my eyes. Young women in beautiful dresses start to jive. A young man with slicked back hair opens a bottle of champagne. Someone mimes spanking someone else’s bottom—or maybe they’re actually doing it. I avert my gaze to my plate. When I look outside again, translucent curtains have been drawn across the flat’s six windows.

A very thin woman, maybe just a teenager, peeps around the edge of the curtain and seems to look straight at me. I feel a little unnerved, but I don’t want to do anything obvious in response, like pulling my own blind. I casually move away from the window, switch off the overhead light and turn on the small lamp beside the armchair. Sitting there, I can’t see my neighbours, only the sky, still purple and pink with the sunset. After five minutes, I creep up to the window, let down the blind without showing myself, and kneel on the floor. I just have to see what’s going on down there – are they all standing around the windows now, curious about the weirdo who was watching them? I can’t see anyone. I crawl into bed with a hot cup of tea and a new comedy podcast and try to forget the uneasy feeling of that slim girl’s stare.

In the morning, I luxuriate in the thought of a weekend free from commitments. Maybe I’ll treat myself to some fresh croissants, buy the weekend paper, and peruse it for most of the morning with a hot pot of coffee at my elbow. I start setting the table, which is bathed in the mid-morning sunshine I normally miss while I’m at work. I glance outside where a square of white paper catches my eye. There’s a sign taped in the window of the flat where they had the party last night. ‘STOP STARING’.

I put on a tracksuit and a big pair of sunglasses and go out. As I walk briskly and take in big breaths of air, I start to feel less nervous. Why should I be ashamed? I have a right to look out of my window. They’re the ones drawing attention to themselves, even more so with this stupid sign. What egotists, to imagine people have nothing better to do than look at them! If you don’t want people to look, draw your curtains or don’t have such a big party. I almost start hoping my neighbours will confront me, so I can vent my outrage.

There’s a tall couple immediately ahead of me in the queue at the bakery. The man’s hair is combed smooth and the woman’s in a form-fitting dress that exposes her tanned shoulders. It looks like they’re wearing clothes from the night before; perhaps they’ve been at a party that lasted until dawn and they’re rounding it all off with breakfast. Could these be my neighbours? I back towards the door and step on the foot of a man coming in. ‘Careful!’ he cries. The couple turn around to look at me. I mutter an apology as I dash outside.

‘Excuse me!’

The man with perfect hair is loping across the street after me.

‘Do you live in this building?’ His face is eager, almost amused. His girlfriend is standing outside the bakery holding their shopping.

‘Yes, why?’ Immediately I’m on the defensive. This wasn’t at all how I imagined our confrontation.

‘This is terribly embarrassing, but my girlfriend insists on speaking to one of your neighbours. Actually, I’m probably the one who’s going to have to speak to him. She says the man in the flat opposite is staring at her all the time. She put up a sign this morning – maybe you saw it. I tried to talk her out of it; you don’t want to provoke that sort of person. I thought perhaps if I had a word with him, we could sort something out, man to man.’ He smiles ironically at his own old-fashioned turn of phrase.

His girlfriend joins us. Her towering high heels look extremely uncomfortable, but she wears them as though they aren’t.

‘Do you live here?’ she asks.

‘She does,’ says her boyfriend. ‘Sorry, how rude of me, my name’s Max and this is Chloe.’

Chloe extends a cool hand. ‘Has Max told you I’ve been having problems with a voyeur?’

‘I did,’ says Max. ‘And this lady has been listening very patiently and, I think, might be willing to let us in so I can have a word with him.’

‘Would you?’ asks Chloe, with imploring eyes. ‘I’d be so grateful. We’ll be literally five minutes.’

I lead them through the front doors and up the stairs, stopping one floor before mine. Max looks around to get his bearings. ‘I’m pretty sure it’ll be flat…8.’

‘I can easily identify him. I’ve seen his horrible face so often, I’ll never forget it.’

‘You girls stay here,’ says Max, striding down the corridor. I hide around the corner. It’s Pete’s flat.

‘I’ll be so relieved when this is all over,’ says Chloe. ‘I’ve been on the point of moving, it’s become so bad. Every time I look out of my window, there he is.

Normally I keep the blinds at the back closed, but we were having a party last night, so we wanted a cross breeze. My friends all saw him, staring at us really intently.’

‘That must be terrible.’

‘So whereabouts in the building do you live?’

I wave my hand vaguely. ‘On the next floor.’

‘I hope our party didn’t disturb you last night.’

‘No, no – this neighbourhood can be so dead. It’s nice to hear some signs of life.’

‘You should come over next time we have a party!’

A brief vision of myself framed in that window, wearing an elegant dress, fooling around with new friends in their extravagantly large flat.

Max comes striding back down the corridor, pink in the cheeks but hair still in place.

‘Did you talk to him?’

‘Complete waste of time. Denied everything.’

‘Now what? Should I start taking photos as evidence?’

‘Like I said, you don’t want to provoke that sort of person. He can guess which

flat you live in just as easily as we guessed his.’

‘But it was definitely him?’

‘I think I know a pervert when I see one!’

I follow Chloe and Max back to the front door.

‘Thanks so much. I’ll drop you a note once we’ve sorted all this out. And an invitation to our next party!’ Chloe takes my flat number and grins, flashing me a thumbs up.

I go home, grab the DVDs and creep down to the second floor. Silently I place them on the carpet outside Pete’s flat. Will they be stolen if I leave them there? I hammer on the door and disappear down the service stairwell instead of the plush front staircase. I emerge at the back of the building and take the long way round to the newsagent’s. Wandering along King’s Road, I stop to gaze at fancy dresses in the shop windows. The sales will start soon: then I can afford a new party outfit. Chloe and Max are so caught up in themselves, they won’t notice if I only have one dress.

Alison Frank studied creative writing with George Elliott Clarke at the University of Toronto. She lives in London and her published short stories include ‘Roman School Trip’ in The Literateur, ‘The Rupture’ in Hotel, and ‘Dance Lesson’ in Moving Worlds. You can follow her on Twitter @alisonfrank