The Woman in the Window
by Flora Jardine
Mike kept telling his acquaintances that the new house was fine.
“How’s the new house?” everyone asked.
“Fine,” said Mike.
The neighbourhood was nice, the garden cute and the rooms spacious, Marla had told him on the phone. She and her mother found the house while he was working abroad. They had already discussed the need for a bigger house, what with the twins growing so fast, and then Marla found one.
“It will be perfect,” she and her mother told him. They sent pictures of course. Many pictures.
“Fine,” he said. Then they sent documents. He signed them and sent them back.
Now they had moved in. Sophie, Marla’s mother, had her own “quarters” downstairs.
“Just be glad it’s not her own ‘halves’,” Marla joked. Sophie’s investment, of course, had made the purchase possible.
“I don’t want to hang on to a big house of my own at my age,” Sophie had said. “Inter-generational consolidation makes sense for all of us.”
Inter-generational consolidation, thought Mike: good phrase. Sophie was good at coming up with le mot juste.
Marla went along with whatever her mother said. Marla was too busy with the four-year-old twins to give much thought to everything else as well. The world outside, which used to contain places that were real to her, was now mere scenery, a set for the drama of the twins’ growing up. She found stage-managing four-year-olds demanding enough, without bothering with the world.
When Mike finished the contract in Germany, the house was theirs. The others had already moved in. It took Mike weeks to find all the rooms, meandering around when his wife, kids and mother-in-law were out. So many alcoves, bathrooms, walk-in closets, utility rooms …
“The sitting room has a wonderfully dynamic ceiling,” said Sophie, which to Mike sounded exhausting. He tended to avoid the sitting room.
“Which room do you want for your studio?” asked Marla.
It took him a few weeks to decide. He was a commercial artist, an illustrator working mainly from home. One day he found the small guest bedroom tucked away behind a walk-in linen closet in the upstairs hallway. It looked out over the back yard.
“Here” he said. This felt separate from the rest of the house, a quiet place to work in, with a pleasingly un-dynamic ceiling.
He moved his tilted work-table upstairs, placing it beside the window where the light was good. He put the computer behind him and the printer in the corner. In the other corner was a sink and counter top. “A dear little place for you to make coffee,” said Marla. She bought him a little portable fridge as an office-warming present.
They had moved in during early fall, before the leaves had done any falling. At first Mike looked straight into the leafy crown of a tree outside his studio window, but gradually its leaves shrivelled and fell, slowly revealing a view of the back of the house behind theirs. Like theirs it had two stories and tall gabled roof lines. It faced the street one over from Mike’s street. He looked across the gardens toward a sundeck which no one used. There was a carport to the left but no car was ever parked there. No one, during this chilly blustery autumn, ventured from the house into the back garden, and the windows were heavily curtained. That suited Mike well; he had no need of distractions from neighbours while at work in his studio.
There was one window however which was often lit up, a small one at the corner of the second floor. Framed within he often saw the silhouette of a female figure. When daylight faded in the late afternoon the glow of a single lamp appeared, and he could make out the figure’s head bent over a book. Mornings, when daylight came from the other direction, the woman was reading again. Mike when he arrived in his studio each morning, coffee mug in hand, would check that she was there. She always was. Sometimes she too held a mug, and sometimes what looked like a pen. Always a different-sized book: sometimes a paperback held in one hand, sometimes something heavy, propped up in front of her. Mike became distracted by curiosity. What did she read that so absorbed her, day after day? She never looked up, never noticed him in the window of the house behind hers. Poetry, he decided. She’s carried off by the enchantment of verse into realms far from the ordinary world.
Woman Reading, as Mike began to call her, seemed oblivious to the world. Woman Reading didn’t know that Mike existed. She lived in some other, literary place. Was she a scholar? A book reviewer? Her pale hair fell like a curtain over the side of her face as she bent over the pages, and he couldn’t make out whether she was young or old.
One day the woman in the window in a sudden gesture swept her hair up on top of her head, and as far as he could tell at a distance she seemed young-ish. Early middle age perhaps? Whatever that is, thought Mike. What counts as middle-aged today? It used to be forty, now it was sixty. This woman looked about forty, but could be twenty. Or sixty. The age question mesmerized Mike. “But why?” he asked himself briskly, getting back to the tasks at hand. I’ve got my own work to do, I can’t be worrying about a phantom figure in a window all day.
Yet he began to sketch her, in the middle of assignments he should be getting on with. He thought that by sketching quickly, not thinking too much, the act of drawing would reveal the woman’s age, and character. I’m becoming obsessed, he chided himself.
“How did your work go today?” Marla asked conversationally at dinner. “The illustrations for the children’s book. About knights and towers, wasn’t it?” The twins were rocketing around, spilling food and arguing with each other. Sophie took her meals in her own “quarters”, when she was at home. Usually she was out. “She’s acquired a gentleman caller,” said Marla.
“Not bad,” said Mike about his day. In fact he might have said: I spent the day staring at a woman in a window, wondering what she was reading … But to Marla he said nothing about Woman Reading. He had made a ridiculously large number of sketches of her, which he kept hidden in a folder in a drawer.
He liked to take a walk around the neighbourhood each day about noon. He often walked along the street fronted by the house behind him, but he never saw anyone coming or going. Once he even rang the front door bell, just to get the woman in the window to come down and show herself. He had made up a story about searching for his missing cat – had she seen it? — but she didn’t answer the doorbell. Yet he knew she was up there in the second floor back room, he had seen her silhouette before he went out and it was still there when he got home.
So, a recluse. A person who lived wholly in books, in stories other than her own, which was the story of a woman living alone (alone?) in a big house, never going out, apparently not employed. Mike became daily more intrigued. Winter came on. No leaves remained on the tree between them, and then one day something amazing happened. Woman Reading looked up, and gazed straight into Mike’s eyes. Immediately he glanced away, surprised and guilty, as if he had been spying. When he dared to steal another glance, she was looking down again, her eyes on the page in front of her.
Had he been spying, these last two months? Had she been more aware of him than she let on? If she didn’t like it, why didn’t she pull her blinds? If she had clocked his observation, would she consider him a “stalker”? Would she call the police, one day? Suddenly Mike was nervous. Had he indeed been, mentally, a stalker? Harmless of course, a casual observer. But an obsessed one? And was she obsessed with being on show?
Maybe he should draw his own curtains. But then she would wonder why he did that the very day their eyes had finally met. It would seem like an admission of something — but what? Mike was rattled; everything had changed in a moment. Now he and Woman Reading seemed to have a relationship. The space across their two gardens had shrunk. Now they sat together — yet not. Mike was finding it hard to concentrate on his work, and with several projects coming due this was not convenient.
“How’s the kids’ book illustration coming along?” asked Marla at dinner.
The twins pressed their current favourite animal-tale book upon him with two sets of sticky hands. “Read this book Daddy! Read this one!”
“Stop that!” Mike leapt from the table, “Get your sticky hands off me will you? Stop jabbering in my ear, I haven’t even finished my dinner. Marla, why don’t you tell these ruffians to sit down at dinner time?”
“Michael!” Marla stared at him. “What’s the matter with you? You’re so distracted, you never speak, okay fine if you don’t want to speak to me but don’t you dare be cruel to the children …” She was on the brink of tears as she gathered up the twins, their books and toys and bits and pieces, and swept them out of the room.
Cruel? She was calling him cruel, for wanting a bit of peace? Did she really mean that he was cruel not to the twins but to herself, by being moody and remote? Better make amends, he thought.
He got Sophie to babysit one night, and took Marla out to dinner.
“No need for that,” Marla had said, I like being at home with the kids, why don’t we have pizza in the family room, watch a movie the kids will like, a Disney movie …?”
“Marla, I’m taking you out for dinner, okay? To a restaurant. With no Disney movie.”
“Okay, fine then,” she said.
In the candle-light, twirling his wine glass, Mike made an effort to be chatty. The wine made him expansive. “Why don’t we have a few neighbours over?” he suggested. “Have you met any of them yet? Do you know who lives in the house behind us?”
“I’ve met a few. The ones two doors down have kids, a bit older than the twins but I had them over to play. The mom seems nice. And on the other side of us is a sweet retired couple, Meg and Bill. They’ve lived here for decades, they know everyone.”
“And who lives behind us?”
Marla frowned. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone behind us. No, wait … that’s the person Meg was telling me about … a woman lives there who keeps to herself, she’s really stuck up, has a gardener doing the lawn, a cleaner doing the housework. Pretends she hasn’t seen you when she does go out. Takes taxis everywhere.”
“You seem to have learned a lot about her. Is she much discussed, then?”
“I guess so … she has a certain fame.”
Marla shrugged. “Nothing really.”
“So, famous for having no fame.”
Woman Reading seemed even more intriguing to Mike when next he studied her profile in the window. It seemed her crime – the thing which made the world dislike her – was to keep to herself. Maybe she had agoraphobia. Maybe she preferred the world of the mind, of books, to the social one. How can I figure out a way of meeting her, he wondered? Or why don’t I get on with my work, he thought next, dragging his attention from the silhouette.
He didn’t have long to wait before he got more information. At dinner Marla said “Oh by the way Mike, remember that woman Meg told me about who lives behind us? It seems the police were at her house yesterday. An officer went right inside, came out twenty minutes later. I wonder why?”
“Didn’t Meg have a theory?”
“Well yes, actually. She thinks the woman’s a paranoid schizophrenic who called the cops to discuss some slight she thinks she suffered. She doesn’t like anyone so I guess she thinks no one likes her.”
“And is Meg right?” Mike doubted Meg even knew what paranoid schizophrenia meant, but it was a phrase often in the media. His mind was racing. What if Woman Reading had called the cops about himself? What if she considered him a spy, a stalker, a peeping Tom? But why now? Was he even that visible when he saw her? He now kept well back from his own window. She hadn’t seemed bothered before. Did she somehow know that it had been him at the door, the day he’d rung her bell? But surely it’s not a crime to ring a neighbour’s doorbell? That’s what doorbells were for. It wasn’t like he’d tried to break in.
But that night he had a dream in which he did break into her house. At least, he was in it … and she said ‘oh, it’s you’. Then she started pecking at her cell phone and he said please don’t call the police I just want to know where you work. The house was full of cobwebs and shadows, and then she said the gardeners are coming to fix that. Then they were in a conservatory full of bright exotic flowers. “You can sit here and draw, if you like, it will be a quiet place to live.”
He woke up shaking. Why did he say “I want to know where you work” when really he wanted to know what she was reading? (But what did it have to do with him?) Weeks of watching her read had created an intimacy between them, in his mind if not in hers. But maybe it was in her mind too? Maybe he was an invader, a window-breacher? Maybe Meg was right and she had called the cops about someone spying: himself.
And why in the dream did she say “this will be a quiet place to live”? Didn’t he already have a quiet place to live: his own house, standing stoutly behind hers?
A day later, the cops did come to the door. “We’re doing a house-to-house,” they said. Mike froze, then broke out in a sweat. Thefts had been reported from carports and patios, they went on. “Lock your garden sheds.” Mike was trembling. What if they wanted to search his rooms, what if they went straight to the room they would know overlooked the house behind? What if they found the drawings he had done of Reading Woman? How incriminating they would seem. He pictured himself in court, an accused peeping tom.
To the police at the door he mumbled unintelligibly and they looked at him oddly. Suspiciously?
“Who was that?” said Marla when he shut the door on them.
“No one.” She too looked at him oddly.
“Someone looking for odd jobs? Distributing literature? JW’s?”
“Yes.” Shakily he went back upstairs. Once there he took the drawings of Woman Reading and shoved them into the recycling box, well under the other cast-off papers. He wanted to close the blinds of his window, but that would make him look guilty, like someone who had just been visited by police. He stole a glance at the window across the gardens. There she sat, as usual, bent over a book. As if nothing had happened. Pretending.
Christmas was coming. Marla was out a lot, “Christmas shopping,” she said, but Mike noticed she got dressed up first and came back in a cheery mood with alcohol on her breath. The twins she’d leave with Sophie, although Sophie too was often out, with her “gentleman caller”. Did Marla too have a gentleman caller?
He’d been neglecting her. “Maybe we should have a Christmas drop-in,” he suggested, to make amends, reviving his idea of entertaining the neighbours.
“Yes, let’s! It’s time we offered some hospitality.”
When it was time to do what she called the “big shop” for the food for the buffet table, she asked Mike to mind the kids. He took them up to his studio, giving them coloured pencils to draw with.
His son went straight to the window. “Hey look, there’s someone in that window over there.” He waved. “She’s not waving back. Look Daddy, it’s a lady, she saw me but didn’t wave back.” He semaphored again.
“Stop that!” said Mike. “Come away from that window!” The boy looked astonished at his tone, and the blinds on the window across the garden came down. Mike felt bereft. What if they never went up again?
His daughter was rummaging in the recycled-paper box. “Get away from there!” Mike shouted. She had uncovered sketches of Woman Reading. She too looked baffled at his tone. “Mommy always lets us use paper from the recycle box.”
“Yes, well this is an office, it’s different, now let’s go downstairs. We’ll have lunch.”
“It’s much too soon for lunch.”
But down they went, and were soon quarrelling and in tears. Marla walked in, bag-laden, and began soothing them. Mike stole up to his studio. The window across the way was still covered.
Later Marla came up. “Honestly Mike, I can’t even leave you for an hour with your own kids. What’s got into you? Maybe I’ll take them for a holiday after Christmas, you obviously don’t want us around.”
“Oh come on, Marla, when did I imply I don’t want you around …” But maybe it was she who wanted to get away, he suddenly thought — away from him. Where to? Who with? For the first time in months he fretted about her doings.
On the day of the party he chatted with guests, filled glasses, circulated dutifully. A splendid Christmas tree glowed with light and colour in one corner. Sophie appeared arm in arm with an old Hungarian gent named Joseph. A younger man, dark and hunk-y whom Marla introduced as “Ben”, was helping her open wine bottles in the kitchen. It was taking them an unnecessarily long time, thought Mike. Children as loud as the twins ran about and spilled food, but Mike remained serene until everyone departed and peace was re-established. He enjoyed the clean-up more than the party, and Marla retired to put the twins to bed. Afterwards he went up to his studio and saw that the window across the garden was uncovered once more, and the woman sat reading.
He sighed with relief and poured a last glass of wine. He noticed that she too held a glass as she read. Suddenly she looked up, and glancing out the window raised it slightly. To him? Could she see him, where he stood a little way back from the pane? Or was she just drinking her wine?
In the New Year Marla took her holiday with the kids. “To give you some peace,” she said curtly.
“Where are you going?” he asked. “Where will you stay?”
“With my cousin at first, then with some old friends.”
“Do I know them?”
“No, I knew them at university, before I met you.”
Sophie too was going away, taking a cruise with Joseph. “So you’ll have the house to yourself.”
At first it was blissful. Marla phoned and the kids took turns on the phone telling him what they’d done that day (“went to the fair, went to the beach …”). Marla herself shared no information, and after a few days the calls became less frequent, and then stopped. She sent an email saying she was extending the holiday. Was Ben with her, Mike wondered? But soon he forgot all about her, and spent his days wandering around the house, day-dreaming, staring at Woman Reading, sketching her and at night dreaming dreams about her which he forgot every morning. His sketches became fantastical, archetypal, full of abstract symbolism. He heard nothing from Marla for days and then weeks. When was she due back? Would she even come back? Where was Sophie? Surely her cruise should be over by now?
Then, one cold morning in late January the doorbell rang. Puzzled — for the doorbell never rang – Mike swung the door open. There on the step stood a short,,chubby, fair-haired woman who kept glancing agitatedly over her shoulder.
“Look,” she said in a deep course voice, “sorry to disturb you, but my phone’s gone dead and I can’t charge it, the electricity’s turned off, because I’m moving. I have an urgent request for the movers, before they arrive.”
Mike stood motionless.
“They’re late though.” She glanced down the path behind her again. “They’ll be coming this way, and then turning right.” Mike said nothing. “It’s an emergency,” she said impatiently “…could I possibly borrow a phone for a moment?”
She was so short, much shorter than he’d imagined. Her face was half-covered by a wide scar, it looked like a knife scar, the skin deeply puckered – or the result of a burn perhaps? He would have recognized the curtain of blond hair anywhere. Despite the cold, her feet were bare inside a pair of ancient sandals. And dirty; he saw grime on her toes. He looked away.
A moving truck hove into view, and she turned toward it. “Never mind,” she snapped in her harsh voice, scuttling down the path. “They’re here. Sorry to bother you.”
He shut the door. The world had tilted oddly, as if emptying itself. She disappeared into the big van which would be turning right … But no: she had already disappeared. No: she had never existed. Something was missing thought Mike as he sank unseeingly onto the sitting room sofa. Oh yeah: myth, magic. Beautiful women mooning in a solitary towers, dreaming their lives away over books of poetry. The life of imagination. How did all that go again? He couldn’t remember.
He looked around the room where he had dropped onto the sofa. It looked like the room of vague acquaintances, but not one he would live in himself.
The doorbell rang. Twice in one morning, thought Mike. This never happens. This time Sophie stood on the porch, a suitcase beside her and a taxi pulling away.
“What’s up? You look absolutely dazed,” she said in greeting.
“Where have you been? She’s been calling. Her phone died and you never answer yours. I wanted to catch you before I went round to my own door. Is yours turned off?”
“Your phone, Mike! You’re more distracted than ever. She’s due back today you know.”
“No. She just left.”
“What are you talking about? Her plane lands in an hour. Don’t you remember the schedule?”
“Her plane? Who are you talking about?”
“Marla, of course! Mike – you’re a million miles away. Whatever’s the matter with you? Pay attention!”
He paused, and dredged the memory of something from the bottom of his newly-empty mind.
“Oh. Right. Marla.”
Flora Jardine writes plays, stories and nonfiction on the west coast of Canada. Some of her recent prose has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, Short Humour Magazine (UK), pif Magazine, Corner Bar Review (US), Island Writer Magazine, and Wandering Words: an Anthology of West Coast Writings, 2018 (Canada).