Picture the scene.
Our hero, Aethelread, is resting en couchant in his flower-scented maiden’s bower, surrounded by the sparkling unicorns and iridescent rainbows of his innocent, virginal dreams. The softly ticking clock, keeping patient watch o’er the moon-drenched world beyond the window pane, has marked four gradations from midnight’s witch-haunted mists, and all the world’s asleep.
But wait! What’s this? Of a sudden, the gossamer veil of Hypnos’ restful kiss is rent asunder by the cacophonous thundering of impatient fist on obdurate wood. Farewell!, o polychromatic hemicycles presaging rain! Adieu!, you single-horned beasts of dream, product of the entwinéd loins of equus and myth! For Aethelread must fly! Your boon companion of the starlit hours, he who wanders with you the vales and hills of Nyx’s antique land, must hie him back to the mundane world of men. For he has been summoned thence by a knocking-at-doors fit to rouse the very dead from their beshrouded and eternal slumber.
And lo, Aethelread now awakes. See his eyes fly open. See him start upright in bed, as he cries out with fearful anguish:
“Fuck! What the crap was that?”
Hardly daring to breathe, Aethelread eases back the duvet, and swings his legs onto the floor. He rests there for a moment, pressing the soles of his feet into the carpet, hoping to ease the trembling in his legs. It seems to Aethelread that his heart, beating fit to burst, is echoing hollowly in a body that has become an empty box filled with nothing but a clammy mist of fear.
He swallows, hard, and wills his muscles to bring him from the edge of the bed to the door. He pulls it open, and creeps silently into the darkened hallway.
The hallway is too functional, really, to deserve that name – a simple passageway running from the front door at one end to the living room at the other. A room not for lingering in, rather for passing through.
But Aethelread lingers there now.
Dressed only in thin cotton boxers, one hand raised to his face, he listens. Listens like he’s trying not to hear, but to see. To see with sound, to build in his mind’s eye a mental image of whatever is out there. Whatever person or thing is out on the landing, waiting quietly. Unknowably. Ominously.
Aethelread stands, his skin glimmering faintly in the dim light reaching him from windows hidden behind half-closed doors – a light so dim, it’s hardly there at all, his body, even to his own eyes, no more than the faintest blur against a background so dark it’s nothing but a void. He dares not turn on the light, for fear that whoever – whatever – might see.
So he stands in the dark, his breath catching in his throat, his attention stretched tight like the skin of a drum, ready to respond to the tiniest twitch or whisper. And as he stands he thinks to himself:
Is there another sound, besides the sound of my own breath, my own heartbeat? Is there the sound of someone – something – else? On the very edges of hearing, is that the sound of breathing, out there beyond the front door? Oh, God…
He strains even harder to hear, willing his whole concentration onto the possibility of sound.
There! – was that a sigh? Of impatience, or anger—
Suddenly, without warning, three heavy blows, as of a fist or a boot striking a door. Each one hits Aethelread like a dagger plunging through the tautened drum-skin of his attention. They are shocking, so overwhelming they are felt more than understood, and, like a bolt of lightning striking across night-adjusted vision, they seem to leave after-images in his mind’s eye. Shrinking back against the cool, smooth gloss of the doorframe, all Aethelread can think is:
Not my door. The knocking – not at my door. Someone else’s. Oh, thank God, thank God…
The swirl of emotions was distracting, but with a practiced flick of thought Aethelread relegated them into the under-darkness where they belonged. He murmured the familiar mantra under his breath – I am strong through reason, and reason is strong in me – and felt the welcome surge of dispassionate analysis flood through his mind. Strange to think the human creatures on this planet were incapable of this simple technique. He wondered how they had ever managed to achieve anything of note, beset as they were with the ceaseless overcrowding of emotion.
But achieve they had. The signals from their primitive attempts at wireless telegraphy had been detected by automated Space Corps probes set wandering the stars for this purpose, and now Aethelread had been sent here undercover to observe them more closely. His task had been to examine their culture and society, and report back to the Imperial Presidium, who would then decide the best way to introduce the humans to the Galactic Swarm. His mission had gone well, and was drawing to a close – he had only to deduce the ritual significance of the cat videos millions of humans dedicated their lives to watching at an online temple called You Tube and he would be able to write up his report and get back to his real life. To think he had spent more than 39 of their Earth years – getting on for one sixth of a thalak – on this weird little backwater planet!
Strangely, although Aethelread was more than ready to leave, he had recently come to realise that he would miss the humans when he was no longer in their midst. They were strange, contradictory creatures, capable of the most appalling acts of barbarism – it would be many thalaks before he was able to fully eradicate the horrific memory of James Blunt being unleashed on an innocent and unprotected civilian population – but oddly charming, too. Even at their most unpredictable they were endlessly fascinating. Aethelread had plenty of scope to reflect on this as he stood in the darkened hallway of his flat, attending to the nocturnal disturbance outside.
As he listened to the repeated batterings at the door, interspersed with periods of silence, Aethelread found himself wondering who was banging at the door, and what their reasons for so disturbing the peace might be. He himself had been knocked up in the middle of the night on two occasions since moving to this high-rise block.
The first time – a night or two after he had moved in – it had transpired that the former occupants of the flat, in violation of the normal social custom, had not told their own daughter that they were moving, and she had made her way to what she believed to be their home after a long journey and was disconcerted to find they no longer lived there. The second time a drunken young man believing himself to be knocking on the door of a friend had revealed that, in his inebriated state, he had misread the floor number, and had been knocking at the wrong door. Was it possible a similar scenario was now playing out in respect of someone else?
As he wondered this there was another loud knocking on the adjacent door, but this time it was followed by a manifestation of that primitive system of mouth-grunts the humans called speech. Aethelread was proud of his grasp of this system of personal expression – so much less effective than communication by scent-glands, of course, but possessed of a rough-and-ready utility nonetheless – and understood that the person outside the next door flat was instructing the person inside it to ‘open the door’. The speech was overlain with the gruff harmonics of the emotional state humans characterised as anger.
“A-ha,” thought Aethelread to himself, “this is perhaps one of those unfortunate domestic occurrences in which a cohabiting couple have had an argument, and the female, in her anger, has expelled the male from the nest, and he is now negotiating for re-admittance.” This was fascinating, but also dismaying, since, in Aethelread’s experience, such disputes could often last for many hours, and he would be unable to sleep for so long as the disturbance was continuing. He was in the process of attempting to adjust himself to this irritating prospect, when he was surprised to hear additional mouth-grunts from the landing, and to realise they recontextualised everything.
“Open the door,” he heard the male command again in a loud, penetrating voice. But this time he went on to say “It’s the police!”
“The police?” thought Aethelread, suddenly wondering if he’d woken up in a Benny Hill sketch. “But, officer, you can’t arrest me, I’m not wearing any trousers…”
Ok, ok, I’ll leave the cutesy attempts at pastiche there.
But I really was woken at about 4:10 this morning by someone banging away at one of my neighbours’ doors. And it really was quite scary at first, because it’s not a nice way to wake up, and in my sleep-addled state I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. And then, while I was thinking it must be someone who’d been locked out and wishing they could do something about it more quietly, the person battering away really did announce they were from the police.
And then, after a few more knockings and shoutings, he announced that he was going to break down the door unless it was opened right this minute. And then, when the person the other side of the door didn’t open it, it became obvious that this had been a bluff, because all the policeman could do was knock again and repeat the same threat – which was becoming less effective with each repetition. And then the policeman tried a new tack. Instead of just banging, and shouting, and threatening, he said, in a much quieter voice, that he was just there for a simple noise complaint.
Yes, you read that right – a noise complaint. I was woken, not by a thoughtless neighbour making too much noise in the middle of the night, but by the police who had come to tell her to keep the noise down. The peace was breached by police officers charged with preventing a breach of the peace.
There’s a fine irony there but, I’ll be honest, it’s an irony it would have been easier to appreciate if I hadn’t just been bludgeoned awake at 4am. I’ve always struggled to see the funny side of things when I’m standing in my underpants in the wee small hours with the adrenaline from a rude awakening still coursing through my veins.