A nondescript semi.
So nondescript, the estate agents probably made a point of it.
This charming example of a nondescript house is pleasantly situated at the end of a row of equally anonymous dwellings, all with a clear view of the busy main road. Generously provided with four metres of all-weather, low maintenance AstroTurf, front and rear, and ample off-road parking for one, small red or blue car. Railway station five minutes. Hospital, ten.
I ring the bell and wait.
After a while I walk round the side, in case the front door’s out of commission for some reason. It’s only then that I notice a key safe, tucked away behind a down-pipe, like a giant mussel stranded at low tide. Luckily, amongst all my papers, I find a record of the number, so I open the safe, take out the key, and let myself in.
‘Hello? Mrs Rudd? It’s Jim, from the hospital…’
The first thing to hit me is the absolute certainty that Mrs Rudd is not at home.
The second is the alarm.
Not just any house alarm. This is a whole new species, a terrifying, weaponised hybrid Mrs Rudd must have stolen from Porton Down.
I put my things down, run into the hallway, flip the lid on the alarm console and press any button that looks useful. But of course, I know even as I’m doing this that any alarm you could simply turn off when it was tripped wouldn’t be any kind of alarm at all.
I see Mrs Rudd’s yellow folder on the hall table. With the shrieks and hysterical klaxon blasts of the alarm resonating through the house and neighbourhood, I scramble through the folder desperately trying to find a number – anything, any sign or marking that might suggest how I might turn the thing off.
I become aware of a figure on the threshold of the door – an elderly woman, both hands pressed to her ears, either a smile or a rictus of pain it’s hard to tell.
‘DO YOU KNOW HOW TO TURN IT OFF?’ I shout over to her.
She can’t hear me, so I get closer.
‘I’M JIM. FROM THE HOSPITAL. DO YOU KNOW HOW TO TURN THE ALARM OFF?’
But after some elaborate miming and lip-reading I figure out that she’s only come round to ask me to turn the alarm off, so I turn my attention back to whatever the hell else there is to be done.
The folder mentions a friend, Janice, in the Next of Kin section, but there’s no contact number written down, so I have to ring the hospital to see if they can find out. Eventually when I speak to the coordinator, she says yes, Mrs Rudd was taken to hospital that morning, and no, she doesn’t know why I wasn’t told, and what the hell is that dreadful noise? She says she’ll do her best to find a number for the friend, and get back to me.
It feels as if the alarm is invading me, running through me in a horribly invasive way, like when trees grow into metal fences and the iron enters their heartwood. This is probably a pre-terminal sign. Followed by fits, unconsciousness. Death by Sonic Puddling.
I’m forced outside for respite.
People are coming to their front steps, frowning, shaking their heads, folding their arms to emphasise their biceps, staring at me as if they can see the noise swirling out of my eyes and mouth like swarms of infernal bees and why the hell would anyone DO that? It strikes me that this has probably happened before, in which case I’m definitely in trouble. To add to the horror, dozens of school kids have begun streaming past the garden fence.
‘Ahh!’ shouts one kid, putting his hands flat across his ears and bending forwards as if he’s being shot at ‘What the fuck’s that?’
‘It’s an alarm,’ I tell him.
‘Make it stop!’ he says.
Wha’did he say? shouts his friend, shoving him hard from behind.
He says it’s an alarm.
Haa-haa! laughs the friend, like Nelson in The Simpsons, stopping to point at me. He set the alarm off! He set the alarm off!
I nod and smile – and then, looking up at the alarm box on the outside wall, phone the company.
When eventually I get through to someone, she tells me they only fit the thing.
‘Who they give the code to is their own affair,’ she says. She doesn’t sound that bothered, even though she must be able to hear the alarm in the background.
‘What am I supposed to do then?’
‘I don’t know. Shoot it?’
But she does come up with a better solution.
‘Or you could just try retracing your steps, locking the doors in sequence as you go. It might be one of the old ones that resets.’
‘Brilliant! Great! Thanks!’
I do as she suggests, scooping up my bag, locking first the inner and outer doors in turn, and then waiting on the front step. The alarm changes pitch, dropping fifty decibels to something like a grouchy kind of wail, then drops some more, and then finally – mercifully – falls quiet, a deep and unearthly silence that for a second feels almost as loud as the alarm itself.
I stand there, catching my breath.
The next door neighbour is standing the other side of the low wall, smiling at me in a slightly more relaxed way.
‘Well done!’ she says.
‘I’m sorry to have been such a nuisance!’
‘Ah!’ she says, patting the air. Then goes back inside.
It’s only when I turn to go that I realise I’ve left my diary in the house.
I go through my options, but really – there’s nothing else for it.
I unlock the doors and hurry back inside, rushing through the double doors as quickly as I can.
I grab the diary – just as the alarm kicks in again, a little differently it sounds to me, even more violent, with a new, wounded note in its belly, something like outrage.
And this time, even though I do that thing of retracing my steps and locking the doors in sequence, the alarm does not reset, but actually redoubles in volume (although that could just be tinnitus from the first assault).
The neighbour has come back out into the garden and is standing staring at me over the wall with a look of utter confusion.
Smiling and shrugging, I ring the office again.
Luckily, the coordinator’s been able to find a number for Janice.
‘Thanks!’ I say, my fingers shaking as I redial.
There’s a long pause before Janice answers. I’ve barely managed to say hello before she speaks over me.
‘You’ve set the alarm off.’
‘Yes! I’m so sorry.’
‘I was only there an hour ago.’
‘They took her to hospital.’
‘Yes. I know. But unfortunately they didn’t tell me and I used the key in the keysafe to let myself in.’
‘An hour ago! And now I’ve got to come all the way back there’
‘I’m so sorry. If you tell me the code…’
‘In my slippers.’
‘Yeah, but – if you just …’
The phone goes dead.
I put it back in my pocket.
‘What are you doing?’ shouts the neighbour.
‘Waiting for Janice!’ I shout back.
Then waving to the school kids passing by the garden gate, I sit down on the front step, and as calmly and innocently as I can, do just that.