Maureen, coming out of her back bedroom, closing the door behind her, hears a noise. She stands in the hallway, in the middle of her bungalow, listening, trying to work out where it is coming from, this sound which is a bit like birds scrabbling inside the walls, mice scratching in the loft.
She remembers Jane saying that the police would come round and check the house for weak points, potential entry points, but Maureen thinks she was supposed to arrange this herself – the Neighbourhood Watch leaflet has a number to call – and she hasn’t. Maureen has double glazing throughout now and keeps her windows closed, and she knows she has bolted the front door but the side door might have been left unlocked. She steps from the hallway into the kitchen but sees nothing there, no one at the door, no one at the windows, and the noise has stopped.
She knows Jane worries about her living alone. Maureen does not have any close neighbours to keep an eye on her. If she did not make a point of getting herself out to the shops and to the library for large-print books, and to Jane’s on Sundays, it would be possible to go for weeks without seeing anyone.
Jane lives nearby in a one-bedroom flat which she rarely leaves. She is, thinks Maureen, getting worse. Jane did go to university but soon came back. She tried an office job or two before finding something that she could do from home. She has never been abroad – she does not have a passport. She tried Glastonbury once and Maureen worried dreadfully about her, about strangers and crowds, although sometimes one is safer with plenty of people around. Either way, Jane came home sunburnt but otherwise unharmed, although she did not go again. Jane has to be careful in the sun because of her colouring, which, Maureen has told her, comes from Eddie, whom Jane has never met.
Eddie was unlike the others, who tended to remove their wedding rings before sitting down next to Maureen and offering to buy her a drink. Eddie kept his wedding ring on even when he was in Maureen’s bed. And while most of the men, in the end, talked about nothing but their wives and marriages, Eddie only mentioned his wife to say to Maureen, ‘I won’t leave her, you know.’ This was, thought Maureen, probably because of the baby she sometimes saw sleeping in a pram in Eddie’s front garden.
Maureen fantasised about being married to Eddie. She imagined contented evenings spent together in front of the television, him with the top button of his trousers undone after a big dinner which she had cooked, and her dandling their baby.
When she told him – as he was driving her home – that she was pregnant, he said nothing until he drew up outside the flat she shared with another girl. She got out of the car and then he said, ‘You can’t have it.’
She did not see much of him after that. He stopped calling. When she went to his house, no one came to the door, until finally his wife answered and told her to stop bothering him.
Eddie was a bus conductor but Maureen did not know his routes. In the end, she waited outside the depot until he came out. He was wearing his uniform, with a peaked cap. He did not blank her, as she had worried he might, but he looked beyond her while they talked. She said she missed him. He told her he’d been busy, that he was doing extra shifts because his wife was expecting again. Anyway, he said, it was time he was getting home, and he went on his way without having looked once at the huge pram between them, without even glancing at the baby inside, a girl. Maureen would have preferred a boy.
She knew, as Eddie walked away, that she would have to leave now, put some distance between herself and this small town.
A hundred miles away, she met and moved in with Frank. He was a wonderful father to Jane, changing sodden and long-soiled nappies and remembering feeds when Maureen did not. He was attentive but not a worrier, whereas Maureen was forgetful but anxious. Frank thought that Maureen was over-protective. He objected to Jane being kept indoors most of the time as if she were one of Maureen’s shade-loving plants, and he did not agree with Jane being home-schooled. He said Jane was sheltered, as if this were a bad thing. Maureen kept her safe, unlike some mothers.
Frank knew about Eddie and had always expected him to come looking for Maureen, wanting to see Jane. ‘He won’t come,’ said Maureen, although a part of her always thought he might appear on her doorstep one day. She would not let him in.
Back in the hallway, she sees, through the porthole window in the UPVC front door, a dark shape, a man’s head. Jane said, ‘Keep your hallway light on, to show prowlers there’s somebody in.’ But Maureen has switched the lights off, and the radio.
She had them on – the hallway light and the kitchen light and Radio 2 – at dawn this morning. She wakes early these days despite her sleeping pills, and cannot get off again. Sometimes she wakes in the middle of the night, hearing things – those little sounds which she can put down to mice or the pipes or the wind, and the not-so-little noises of the boys who bring their motorbikes up here, and people having sex against her front wall. She has tried to talk to the council about it; she has written letters, but nothing has been done. If it gets to be too much, she turns her hearing aid down.
Opening the fridge and looking for milk for her porridge, she found that she was almost out. She put on her coat and left the house, and the streetlights were still on as she headed down the hill towards a supermarket which would be open even at that hour. She did not expect to see many people. At the bottom of the hill, she entered an alleyway. This took her to the main road, which she crossed, entering another alleyway which forked. The fork she took would bring her out just around the corner from the supermarket.
In the alleyway, she passed a man out walking his dog. She said, ‘Good morning,’ but only the dog looked at her. Another man, drunk, chatted away, but only to himself. Perhaps he saw her, but he would not remember her. Maureen, who used to turn heads, these days goes unnoticed, unheard, untouched. She feels like a wife in the soundproof booth on Mr & Mrs.
As she emerged from the alleyway, she saw a young woman sitting on a bench in front of an empty office block. Beside her was a pram, and Maureen stopped to look inside it. Seeing a lovely baby boy, she tried to pay the mother a compliment but the young woman was wearing headphones and did not hear her, paid her no attention.
Maureen went on past the office block and into the supermarket. In the doorway, she passed a security guard who reminded her of Eddie, his red hair curling out from beneath his peaked cap, his gaze elsewhere.
She took a bottle of milk from the fridge and made her way back towards the checkout, pausing at the cosmetics to look at a lipstick in a shade called ‘tea rose pink’. It would go nicely, she thought, with a dress she might wear if Donald came round for dinner.
She has been on her own for a few years now and Jane has been nagging her about finding someone. ‘You need a man about the house,’ she keeps saying. Maureen met Donald at the library. He gave her one of his Neighbourhood Watch leaflets and invited her to a meeting. She said she could not go but he took her number anyway. They have spoken on the phone a few times since then. He likes gardening, Radio 4, a good dinner. She is expecting him to call.
Having paid for her milk at the self-service checkout, she left the shop. The security guard who looked like Eddie had gone. The young woman was there though, still on the bench with the baby in the pram beside her.
Maureen sees the brush now, scrubbing at the little round window in the door. There is a trickle of water coming in underneath, darkening the edge of the mat. Window cleaners, appearing suddenly at her windows, make her nervous. The old one used to come to the door with his bucket, asking for clean water, but this one is self-contained, carrying gallons in his van. He will knock, wanting money, but she will not open the door.
She returns to the back bedroom. It used to be Jane's room. Now Maureen keeps her shade-loving plants – a begonia and a philodendron – in there. The room gets no direct sunlight and the plants are on a shelf far away from the window but still they are failing to thrive. Maureen closes the curtains.
There is a bucket underneath a leak in the ceiling. By the time she remembers to empty it, though, it is usually overflowing. There is an old armchair in one corner in which she used to sit and bottle-feed Jane and in which she still occasionally takes a nap. Jane took her single bed with her, and other bits of furniture and the posters from the walls, leaving the room rather empty.
Maureen has kept, up in the loft, Jane's old cot, and cardboard boxes full of baby things, thinking that they would be needed when Jane had children, but that's unlikely now, at Jane's age. Maureen has offered many times to look after the baby if Jane had one, has said how nice it would be to have another child in the house.
She can hear the window cleaner knocking on the front door. She waits in the darkened back bedroom until he gives up. After a minute, she hears him leaving in his van.
Maureen goes to the kitchen and puts a pan on the hob. Opening the fridge, she takes out the almost empty bottle of skimmed milk and pours the last of it into the pan. She lights the hob underneath it and looks around for the milk she bought at the shop but she can't see it anywhere.
The phone rings. It is unlikely to be Jane, who does not like telephones. Maureen lets the answering machine take a message. It is Donald, accepting her invitation to dinner, asking what time, needing to know her address. She does not want him to come now, does not want him in her house, clomping through her rooms, poking around, wanting to see the begonia, the philodendron. She waits for his call to end and then deletes the message. She puts her hand in her pocket, takes out the pink lipstick and drops it into the bin.
She hears the hiss of the milk pan boiling dry. Removing the pan from the hob and taking it to the sink, she notices the cat's empty bowl. She cannot recall when she last saw the cat. She has not put any food down for days. She goes to fetch a tin from the cupboard but there is nothing in there. She is sure she had some. Things go missing. She has no idea where they end up. Her clothes pegs have wandered, and she used to have more teaspoons.
A bowl of milk might bring the cat in but she cannot remember what she has done with the new bottle.
She left the shop with the bottle in her hand, the refrigerator chill in her fingers. It was almost too cold to carry. The young woman on the bench had her eyes closed. Her head was drooping despite whatever she was listening to through her headphones, noise which Maureen could faintly hear.
Behind the young woman, the empty office block's mirrored frontage reflected the rising sun. It looked so much like a building on fire that Maureen almost expected to hear an alarm, sirens in the distance, but there was nothing. She paused again to look into the pram, to see the baby dozing beneath the silently blazing windows, and then, without disturbing either of them, went quietly into the alleyway.
The one thing Maureen has not kept is Jane's pram. It was so big and heavy. She approves of the smaller and lighter modern pram, more easily manoeuvred through the alleyways and up the hill and through the front door which she remembered to lock behind her.
She goes once more into the shade of the back bedroom. Reaching into the pram, she fetches out the milk. The baby's blanket is cold where the bottle has been resting.
Maureen returns to the kitchen, where the phone is ringing again.
She locks the side door.