He died at 59 in a red dressing gown. His head had rolled back and his cheek, with an uncomfortable fold in the skin, rested on his shoulder like he was taking a nap. Yet it wasn’t prime-time naptime – as he had named it – that beautiful hour between three and four when he sat off his 1 pm tuna fish and waited for the afternoon cartoons. His buttered bread, I saw, was on the table – long since soggy and thin.
Jodie is the folk singer from downstairs. At the Christmas barbeque she had waltzed with her guitar in crowded green leggings – around and around, raising dust as she stepped in small circles. No matter where you stood, she would meet your eyes with sickening over-enthusiasm, as Billy had said. But I can’t imagine she met Billy’s eyes. No one enjoyed her afternoon exhibition, yet no one could look away.
Billy was the first. He told Jodie she looked like a lacquered jellybean and that she had no right to stop everybody eating meat just because she was the only vegetarian in the block. Someone made a joke about Billy being sentimental about the beef-days and he stormed back to his number seven unit.
After the barbeque, I had listened to him through the door. I could hear him ranting and giggling to himself inside. It might have been from the barbeque, or the comic voices of the Christmas special playing on the TV. It was a low rumbling with sniggers and comments between the chesty laugh. It didn’t sound as foreign to him as it should have.
I’d never seen him eat meat.
I found him. Well, I was with Jodie. The police report says we both found him, but it was me who actually laid my eyes on him first. Jodie had said she was going to the toilet, and I heard the crack of the floor outside Billy’s bedroom as she poked her head in.
He never wanted a sixtieth birthday party. I had begged him many times.
‘Come on Billy’, I had teased. ‘It’d be great fun! I’ll make a cake.’
He raised his eyes at this.
‘What’s your favourite colour?’ I asked, pretending I would poke him.
His still, demanding eyes uneased me sometimes, and I couldn’t help but take a tone not altogether mine. More of a child’s, perhaps. Though I am not a child.
‘I don’t think they make balloons in grey’, I told him, and opened my mouth as if to laugh.
He lessened the weight on his cane, drew his shoulders back and his chin up; majestic, as he used to be.
‘I used to want to work in a party shop ya know. Imagine that, me in a party shop.’
‘A party shop?’ he says to this. Did he accent shop, or party, I don’t remember.
I never wanted to work in a party shop. I don’t even know if there’s a party shop in Derbyshire.
‘Making people happy I guess, and balloons. And masks’, I say; clapping my hands when I finish.
Billy never moved much. Maybe he died from being too relaxed – just slowed down until there was no pace left. Always, the idler he became, the bouncier I became. Especially when I was trying to convince him of something.
‘And who would come to my party?’ he says finally.
I began to rattle off names, I can’t remember whose. It didn’t matter; he was right.
‘Jodie, Jodie would come’, I said.
‘Ah yes, Jodie would come’, he smiled.
I pointed over his shoulder to the apartment behind, but he didn’t turn.
‘Tim and his girl, in four’, I said.
Tim’s girlfriend smokes in the lobby, but never brings an ashtray. She used to take her butts inside and, until she found a better place, she would flick ash on the red concrete floor. When she and Tim were fighting, when she smoked most, there were piles of it. The landing by Billy’s door was always dustier than any other and the ash only added to it. Sue had suggested that it was because he didn’t open his door enough, or with enough force, to blow it away. When the ferns came, there was soil to add to the mess. You could see a small circle of his slipper-steps snaked into it like the tracks of some lazy animal dragging its feet.
When they were on good terms, Tim would take to smoking too; both of them leaning on the handrail and whispering to each other with short, curly smiles. It was just as bad then, the ash.
The high and low, the good and bad, are not so indistinct, Billy had said.
After the barbeque, everybody expected he would offer a gift or some sort of communal apology. Billy did everything backwards. Reverse karma, he told me.
‘A good deed can excuse a bad deed in the future, you see. I don’t want to be ten up on karma, or ten behind; I just want to be even.’
He had one day decided to buy eight potted ferns for the apartment. Billy had never bought anything for anyone. In his slippers, he oversaw the deliverymen placing them in the corners of each landing – one each at the top and bottom of the stairs.
Everyone came out to watch, and I think someone might have taken a photo, though I’m not sure. The pots were black and wide, and the ferns, limp and pale. Of as much interest to everyone was the smirk on Billy’s face. Somebody said he had ordered them off the internet.
When the final pot was placed in the corner between Billy’s flat and Tim’s, the deliverymen moved back so that Billy might give the final kick with his foot as he had done on every other level. For this pot, he added a push with his cane just to make sure it would stay there.
Tim’s girlfriend heard the commotion and came out. She leant on the wall next to the pot, smoking, when she moved in towards it with that look of one who has recognised a new habit. She flicked her cigarette over the soil, pulling her arm back straight away, as if burnt. She looked up, surprised at what she had done. The deliverymen – who were well interested by now – and everyone else, snapped upright and looked at her. She looked to Billy, everyone looked to Billy, and it was tense.
When she had first showed up in the block, I thought Billy would hate her smoking outside his door. He had walked out holding his slippers and looking at the ash on them, but just smiled at her. Was it the defiance of it all, I wonder. No one else said anything to her about it, and she went on smoking outside number four.
Billy gave the girl a slight nod to the side, the cigarette stubbed out early on the wall and squeezed between her fingers. He walked back inside the apartment and pulled the door shut so that it barely made a sound. He was laughing behind the door. At the simplicity of it all.
‘Sue, in six, she’ll come to your party’, I had said. ‘She’s pregnant too, that’d make two. Two people coming from her apartment, I mean.’
‘Party’s are laughter for everybody else’s sake; contrived smiling’, he says to this.
‘Why don’t you try laughing Billy?’
‘How do you know I don’t? Because I’ve never laughed with you?’
Then he raised an eye. I wonder if he noticed I would step outside of his snake-marks in the dust and soil when I listened at his door – clumsy and imbalanced like a kid trying to colour between the lines.
Billy’s steps were never far out the door; just enough so that he might lean out and water the fern. When we noticed he was watering it and none other, everyone started watering the plants on their floor. Except Jodie; the fern near her apartment on the first floor drying up into long sharp skewers.
‘You know that it’s truly funny when you’re laughing on your own’, he says after a long stare at me.
So that was it. I have decided that Billy willed his own death so as to avoid his sixtieth birthday party.
At the top of the stairs outside his apartment, the Ambos are struggling with the stretcher to fit it past the giant pot of ferns – the black plastic now grey, cracked, and spilling soil and roots that turn back on themselves as they touch the floor.
We all follow like a procession, but no one says a thing. The thin Ambo has to lift the head of the stretcher and twist it to the side while another wrestles with the foot end. A third holds Billy down to the bed, because the straps won’t tighten enough. His frame is sliding down the side as they turn it to make the corners. No one suggests they move the pots.
We are all packed at the top of the landing between the first and second floors when they try to get the stretcher around the last pot. One of the Ambos has sliced his hand on a dry fern frond. The sheet over Billy’s body catches on the plant as the bed is raised to manoeuvre it past, and Billy’s pale and stark face is revealed – angled to look straight at us. The crease in his cheek is still there, and I swear he is smiling.
Jodie leads the screaming and the Ambo pulls the sheet back over quickly. He leaves on it a thin red streak from the cut on his hand. I turn back and they are looking at me, but I don’t scream or cry. They have the look of soldiers who can’t decide just what to do now that the war is over, and I am supposed to set the direction.
The Ambos are finally out the door. A kid, I don’t know whose, strides after them with his shoulders back. He turns to look behind when he thinks he is at the front of the pack. But there is no pack, they’re still on the stairs inside, and he runs back.
They don’t move as I squeeze past them.
It starts in my belly when they’re all looking at me blank faced.
It’s a small tickle, and I think it might be tears.
I’m on the second floor, and they’ve craned their heads to watch me, but still haven’t moved. I’m on the second floor and I let the reigns go. I’m laughing, in hordes, ambushes – whole campaigns of laughter that bounce off the walls and skirt the dusty floors.