A short story by Tina Konstant
“What? Sorry Trish. The dogs, Michael, I… Get the dogs out of…” Vics laughs. There’s barking. “Oh, hell, that’s it. It’s take-out for dinner. Trish, sorry, what were you saying?”
I have to open my eyes. I haven’t dared to for all the time I’ve been trying to get my sister to LISTEN, just LISTEN to me.
I can’t stay in this phone box forever. Count to three. Do it on three…
I open my eyes and look at the reflection in the glass. She’s still there. Her in the yellow coat. She’s at least 75, grey hair squashed under a white woolen hat, grey tracksuit pants with a stain on the leg. Orange. Sauce or something. Dirty white trainers on swollen feet. Hobbles when she walks. Shambles after me. I can’t see what kind of shirt she’s wearing because she’s got that yellow coat on, just like mine. She started following me six months ago. Wherever I go. She’s there. Once I even saw her in my building. I still don’t know how she got in. She’s everywhere.
“She’s stalking me,” I yell at my sister who’s giggling about the damn dog. My God, why can’t she listen. “Vics, I need you to come help me.”
A sigh. Always a sigh. She’s older than me by two years. Always had it lucky. Everything just handed to her; her husband, her career, her kids, her stupid yapping dogs. I’ve had to fight for everything to get nothing. On the dole, a scabby council flat that they’re trying to take away from me because I have two bedrooms and there’s only me living there. Not a choice. I didn’t choose to be alone. Now I have a stalker and no one will help me.
“Just go to the police, Trish. I’ve told you before, you need to go to the police.”
“I have! They don’t do anything. They say they can’t unless she actually threatens me.”
“Has she threatened you?”
I look up again. She’s still there. I see her in the glass. I daren’t turn around. She stares right at me. Not at all embarrassed. An angry, hot face on her. I shut my eyes again. “She’s going to kill me, Vics. I know it.”
“Then go to the police, please. I’m in New Zealand. I can’t just pop across to see you. You need to get help. Talk to your neighbours.”
“My neighbours are useless.” Well they are. They don’t speak a word of English. Just smile and bob their heads up and down. They’re probably here illegally. “How can they get a house when they can’t speak English and have never paid a penny in tax?”
“Have you paid a penny in tax?”
I hate her. Sometimes I hate my sister. She knows I can’t work. She knows my hip gives me grief. I’ve got health problems. Since I was a child.
“Okay, Trish. Seriously. Go to the police. I have to go now. Call when you’ve been. Okay? I love you.”
I put the phone down. She doesn’t love me. If she loved me she wouldn’t have left the country like she did. New Zealand? What right does she have to live there like she does. This is where she belongs.
The police. I’ve been to the police. Useless. If my neighbour with six kids and no English went to them they’d get all the help they needed, and then some. But not me. A woman who was born and raised here.
They didn’t believe me anyway. They said I had to get evidence. “A photo,” the officer had said in her neat, blue uniform with her hair all tied back in a prissy bun. “Do you have a mobile phone?” Of course I have a mobile phone. Pay as you go. “Does it have a camera? Do you know how to use it?” The policewoman spoke to me like I was a childish fool. So I left. I won’t be treated like a fool.
I’m still in the phone box. Rain outside has slowed to a dull drizzle. She’s still there. Watching me, shifting on her feet, swaying left and right. I pull my mobile out and point it at the reflection in the glass. The stupid thing focuses on the bicycle clamped to a railing outside and doesn’t get the image of the woman at all.
I’m alone. No one will help me. Who’s going to help me? I’m just an old woman everyone’s forgotten about.
I have to leave this phone box. I have to get home. I have to move and do something. I glance up at the reflection. Still there. She hasn’t moved. I need a weapon. Anything. There’s nothing in this box except business cards for prostitutes and a flyer from the police. Can you believe it? It’s all about vulnerable people and what they should do if they’re threatened. The police are liars. LIARS! Their advice is being handed out by people who have never been vulnerable and never been threatened. Walk with purpose? Stand up tall? Move like you know what you’re doing?
What do they know? Have they ever been so alone and so scared? No. I can tell from their insipid instructions.
Well, fine. If that’s what they want. I’ll do what they say and when she attacks me, I’ll blame them and their pathetic advice written by someone who has never been stalked or threatened.
So step one: Stand tall. Blood thunders in my ears. Stand tall? I can hardly stand at all. Step two: Walk with purpose. Step three: Stride like you know where you’re going. Step Four: Be aware of your surroundings. Step Five: Notice escape routes. God, my hips burn. My knees feel like there’s salt in the joints. My lungs… They’re not working right. Eight blocks to my flat. I’m not going to make it. There’s no one on the street except her and me. No one to help me. I have to help… God, it’s just me. Swing my arms. Just swing them. Walk tall. She’s there. Still there. Catching up. “I’ll fight you.” That’s what I’m saying in my head. “I’m alone but I’ll fight you.”
Five blocks. Sweating now. Breathe… Just breathe.
Still there. Getting closer. Don’t stop. Move. Move!
I glimpse over my shoulder. It’s all I have time for. Got to keep moving if I’m going to stay ahead…
I stop walking. Are my eyes playing tricks? I turn around. She’s not there. Not there!
Step one: Stand tall. Step two: Walk with purpose. Step three: Stride. Step Four: Be aware. Step Five: Notice escape routes.
It’s working. Is it working? I glance behind me and in car mirrors. She’s really not there. For the first time in six months. Did she hear me? Did she hear me telling her I’ll fight her? Did I outpace her?
Home is close. One block. I can do this.
At the main entrance to the apartment block I stop again. Slow the heartbeat. She’s gone.
“Hello, hello, you okay?”
“What?” Who’s behind me? Sneaking up on me? Two people. Their heads bobbing up and down. My neighbours. That’s a first. They’ve learned four English words. I nod, open the door and walk away.
Long strides. My hips ache, oh Lord, feels like acid dripping out my bones. But I can’t stop. I’ve outrun her. I open my own yellow coat. The rain has stopped. Sweat soaks my t-shirt to my skin. “I’ll fight you!” God, I can’t breathe. The lift is down again. I could take the one in the other wing of the council building I live in, but instead, I take the stairs. Just three flights. My heart. Have to stop for a moment. Just a minute. Can’t remember when it last beat so hard. No, I do. It beat that hard the first time I saw her in the yellow coat. Now it’s got a different kind of beat. The police won’t protect me. My sister won’t help me. My neighbours aren’t interested in me. It’s me. Me against her. And I’ll win.
At the door to my flat I pause before I put my key in the lock. Breathe. Just breathe. I’ve lost her. It’s safe. I push the door open. Dark. It’s always dark. Has been since I shut the curtains when I saw her looking in. That nearly killed me. Honest to God. I was in the bathroom, I looked up and there she was. Those black, god-awful eyes and that filthy yellow coat with a torn pocket and black marks where she’d walked against oil or something. That day I switched off the lights and hid in the shower cubicle until the next morning. When I came out she was gone. I closed the curtains and kept the lights off as much as possible. She hasn’t been in the building since.
“I’m fighting you!” I yell it this time. Loud. Then open the curtains. “You hear me? If you’re out there, you’d better leave. Because now I’m fighting you! Me! I’m fighting you!”
I switch on the kitchen light. I have no windows in there. It’s small, just big enough for me to stand and cook eggs or beans for my breakfast. There’s a little table there too. I don’t sit to eat. Too much unopened mail on it. Well, why open it? Just the council telling me what I can and can’t do or have. I hate answering to them for every little thing. Can’t they understand I have problems?
But maybe I have one less today. Today I got rid of her in the yellow coat. At least for now. For the first time in months she didn’t follow me home.
I smile. Oh lord, there’s pain in my face. I can’t remember the last time I smiled. Really, I can’t remember. I smile again. Feels a little forced. It makes my eyes water. Burning hips and watering eyes, what a state. But she won’t win. “I’ll fight you!” I shout it again and swipe the envelopes off the table in my kitchen and dump them all in the bin.
My throat stretches over the words. Feels like I’m squeezing a cocoon out of my lungs. My words land like swollen butterflies in the still air with the dust sitting on sunbeams.
Open a window. Open a window. That’s what I need. I open a window. It’s cold. But I don’t care. I can breathe.
“You won’t get me!” I scream out my open window. Don’t remember when I had that window open last. Long time ago now. So long ago. Even before her in the yellow coat.
A knock on the door.
I stop. Hands still on the window. No, no. Not possible. It’s not her. Can’t be her.
Heart beating. Beating too fast. Too loud.
She’s not going to get me. Not here. Not in my home. No. No. NO!
A knife. Protection. That’s what I need. Stand tall. Move with purpose. Commit to action. I only have a small vegetable knife in the kitchen. I get ready sliced white bread. I don’t need a knife for anything else. It feels too small in my hand. Too small. She won’t beat me.
At the door I stand still. Silent. Waiting. Another knock. Oh, God, my heart. “Who is it?” I bark it. A dog defending territory. Her in the yellow coat will know I won’t go easy.
How does she know my name?
Do I open the door?
How can I trust them?
I don’t know them.
Sweat on my hands.
“Miss Trish? You okay?”
The woman pronounces okay “oookkaaeee”. It’s the wife in the family. The mother to six kids.
I open the door. I beat her in the yellow coat. If I have to, I’ll beat this woman who says oookkaaeee. I peer around the corner.
“You oookkaaeee, Miss. Trish?”
“I hear shouting and I worry. So I see you oookkaaeee.”
I nod again. So she speaks English.
She holds up a plate she has in her hands. It’s covered with a white cloth. “For ju,” she says and lifts the cloth away.
Biscuits. Chocolate chip biscuits. Home made. She nods. “For ju,” she repeats. “Please, ju come for tea. Ju come visit? Visit?”
“Ahhhh.” She speaks English? I’m still stuck on that. “No thank you.” I say. Polite. I’m being polite. “I have some sorting out to do. Maybe later?”
Later? That’s almost a yes. What am I doing?
“Miss. Trish? Ju need help? I can help. And my son. He strong. He carry rubbish.”
I frown, then look at the black bag on the floor at my feet. The letters from the council. “Well, I…” I open the door. I don’t know why. It just happens.
She smiles. I smile back. It doesn’t hurt so much this time. My eyes water only a little bit. Help would be nice. Now that the windows and curtains are open I can see so much I need to get rid of. So much stuff and rubbish has collected. I just haven’t had a chance to do anything about it. I’ve been too busy focusing on her in the yellow coat.
The woman’s name is Harjma. Her son is Rajish. He’s fourteen and going to school. He’s learning English there and teaching the rest of the family.
Rajish helped clear out old clothes and newspapers and food cartons. In return I made them all a sponge cake. I’m good at sponges. Always have been.We had it with tea on the dining room table in my kitchen.
Then Harjma invited me to their home for dinner. Dinner? Oh, I said, alright. I hadn’t seen her in the yellow coat for almost three weeks. And I’ve been out in the rain. I walk tall and swing my arms. I’ve glimpsed the yellow coat a few times, but I never see her face or her eyes.
Dinner was different. It was hot and spicy and good. After dinner, Harjma smiled and said she had a present for me. A present? I’m embarrassed. I don’t have anything for them. Why a present?
“You are helping us with such good English,” she says. “This is least we do. Please.”
I suppose. In the weeks Harjma and her children have been helping me clear the flat I’ve been helping them with words and phrases and accents. It’s nothing really. No problem for me.
Harjma gives me a package wrapped in brown paper.
“Oh, my, this is so nice,” I say. “So unexpected.”
They smile. All of them look at me and nod. I open the package.
“Really? This is too much.”
A coat. A new coat.
It’s long and sleek.
I look over at my old yellow coat on a hook by the door. It’s got a tear on the pocket and black marks from walking up against things.
A new coat.
Harjma smiles. “Now I throw old one out. New house. New coat. Good karma. Good life.”
The next day I leave my flat with the curtains open. I’ve talked to the council and I don’t have to move. I’m going to the community centre. They run English classes there. Seems they need more teachers. Harjma said I might be able to help. The walk from my flat to the centre is eight blocks. To the phone box where I lost her in the yellow coat. This time, when I look in reflections I see red. Bright red. I know that’s me. All me.