The Strange Thing About Trafalgar Court
There are a things about our first apartment that we will always remember, purely because they’re too strange to forget.
The Mosaic Hanging In The Lobby
There are things about Trafalgar Court that Natalie and I will always remember, purely because they’re too strange to forget. Here’s a good example: the giant mosaic hanging on the wall of the lobby. It was an ocean-themed mural of grinning turtles, mermaids, and clownfish, scattered across a kelp forest, their mouths skewed into little pirate hooks.
“Those things are evil,” Dave, the veteran security guard, and resident bead artist once said, tying up his creamy ponytail with a length of old ribbon. “They give me nightmares.”
I turned to Ntobeko for a second opinion.
“Something’s not right,” the younger guard said, shimmying his hands back and forth across his face. He was a trained boxer and his movements always looked like a defensive drill or an exercise in speed. “I don’t look at them at night.”
“What do you think they’re laughing at?” I wondered.
“Maybe they’re planning to burn this complex down?” Dave said without a trace of sarcasm. Then he giggled and jabbed his elbow into Ntobeko’s side.
I felt bad for those guys, having to spend their nights under the entrance’s spotlights, face to face with the mural’s pets. I had noticed Dave’s complexion was nearly translucent, the lack of Vitamin D shown in the veins coursing up his neck. Like the figures in the mosaic that haunted his sleep and warped his sense of humor, Dave was starting to look off.
Some things about Trafalgar Court are still particularly clear to Nat and me, solely because we can’t fully remember them. Like the name of our neighbor: Daisy, Dorothy, Isabel, or Annabel.
The disappearance of her name has not dulled the range of other details about her that are still clear: her aerodynamic crew cut, her short shorts, thin-rimmed glasses that were held in place by one of Dave’s beaded spectacle-holders, and her stout, muscular legs that were punctuated by the sturdiest hiking boots a middle-class widow could wear. Everything about Dorothy or Daisy or Annabel or Isabel seemed built for speed and efficiency. Her daily walking beat covered the Atlantic Seaboard. This included trips to the grocery store, to friends in Green Point, up to Fresnay, and down into the City Bowl. Once, Nat and I were driving to Llandudno, miles from our complex, and we spotted her on the dusty sidewalks, shaded by Lion’s Head, marching into the teeth of a gale force south-easterly wind.
“They can’t be serious,” was our neighbor’s take on what Ntobeko and Dave had said about the mosaic. “Those men are tired. Probably hallucinating. You know they only get one day off a week?”
“Why don’t they hire more staff?”
“Same reason the elevator is always broken — this place is broke,” she said.
Every time Natalie and I think back on our neighbor, only a mashed-up variation of her name surfaces. “I know it’s Annabel,” Nat will sometimes say in the middle of the night, her mind always on, always working, always analyzing.
“No, I think it’s Daisy,” I’ll reply in the morning, as sure of this as I am of my own name. Convinced I have it. But that feeling will always pass by the time we speak about her again, casting us back into doubt; her actual name becomes a ghostly whisper that sounds like Isadaisabel.
There were things about Trafalgar Court that drove us nuts. Here’s another: our leaky toilet and shower.
Both were cracked at the base and spilled water across the floor every time we flushed or showered. We tried fixing them with duct tape, resin, and silly putty; nothing worked. It just made the bathroom an uglier place.
There were two things driving this situation:
- Our landlord said it was the Trafalgar board of trustees that should pay for structural repairs.
2. The building had far bigger, far more expensive problems to fix and no money to fix them.
Hence the reason we wore flip flops or old shoes in the bathroom.
When we brought the matter up with General Management, Dave was sent up to look. He marched upstairs with a hammer, a mess of bungee cords, bracelet strings, beads, a handful of sewing needles, two Phillips Head screwdrivers, and a broken plunger.
“The cavalry’s here,” Dave said, an unlit cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.
“You’ve fixed leaky toilets before?”
“I changed a shower head or two.”
“Please don’t make anything worse.”
“It’ll be fine. Can I smoke at your pad?”
Dave smirked and put his smoke behind his ear.
“What’s all that other stuff for?” I asked.
“Figured that if I couldn’t fix your shitter, maybe I could sell your wife a new bracelet?”
We’d been living at Trafalgar for just over a month when we heard a woman scream downstairs. It was early evening, not dark yet. The voice came out of nowhere, like a bird hitting the living room window, tearing across the courtyard and rupturing the sunset. It happened in three short bursts and then stopped. My first instinct was to call security.
“Someone is being attacked!” I said. “I think it’s happening on the first-floor.”
“I’ll be right there!” Dave said.
“No, send Ntobeko!”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Dave asked.
“Jesus, Dave. Just hurry!”
From our lounge window, we watched Ntobeko traipse across the landing to check inside the first-floor windows. Several residents had stormed the hallways with kitchen knives and cast iron pans for protection.
“Alice, hello! Are you okay? Are you okay in there?” Ntobeko called out, knocking on the doors and windows of the apartment directly below ours. The consensus was that a woman named Alice was our screamer. The urgency that went into mobilizing ourselves was naked against her silence, casting us all into doubt. Maybe that screaming we all heard was just a very aggressive orgasm or a stubbed toe or a bad ending to a soap opera?
Once everyone had gone back their apartments, the echo of her voice came back and lingered. Nat and I both had an extra glass of wine before bed and slept with a chair wedged under the door handle.
From that night onward, the quirky things about the building that seemed slightly off escalated. Unbeknown to us, a line in the sand had been drawn. Everything that happened at Trafalgar Court can be divided into two time capsules: before and after we heard screaming in the night.
Meeting Mr. Fox
There are things about life at Trafalgar Court that we would only understand later, like Mr. Fox, Trafalgar’s General Manager, and his unsolicited aggression.
I won’t forget the day we met. It was early. I was heading to work. A note had been placed on my windshield that said, ‘No Parking here — Private Property!’ Which was strange, because my lease agreement stated that I’d have that exact parking space. I tore it up and went about my day normally. The next day, another note appeared: ‘PRIVATE PARKING — FINAL WARNING — ASSHOLE!’ Again, I believed this to be a grave misunderstanding.
On the third day, I came downstairs and found Mr. Fox sitting in a camping chair next to my car with a cricket bat resting across his lap. He stood up as soon as I took my keys out. “It’s the guy who can’t read.”
I stopped. “Excuse me?”
“Who the hell do you think you are just taking this space?”
“I pay for this space. I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
He moved closer to me. So close, I could feel the snowy curls of his beard touching my forehead, which says something about how tall he was. “This is going to be the last time I ask you not to park here.” For a man well into his seventies, he was scary, even wearing blue gym shorts, knee socks, and the type of safari hat normally reserved for American tourists. “Don’t make me teach you a lesson.”
“I have a lease that says this is my parking space. I can bring it down here,” I said, trying to diffuse the situation with reason.
“You’re wrong, sonny.”
“Nope — you’re wrong. I’ll get my lease and -”
He silenced me by patting his chest with one of his giant hands, and I realized that I needed to defuse this formally sooner than later. “You don’t want to fuck with this old man,” he said.
“My landlord will be in touch,” I said, getting into my car.
Mr. Fox didn’t answer. He gave me a look; a death stare rooted in hurts and gripes that went back a long way before I’d taken his parking spot — which was actually my parking spot. His face seemed arrested by disgust, eager to strike. Hateful, even. And that’s how it stayed while he followed my car all the way to the exit, holding the bat in a ready position.
Some people at Trafalgar Court were full of hope. Ntobeko, for example, was going to be the World Middleweight Boxing Champ, assured me. Assured everyone, actually. He was always talking about America and Las Vegas. “That’s where it’s going to happen for me — one day. Just watch. I’ve never been overseas, but I’ll get there,” he’d say.
I believed him. There was fire in his voice and passion in his daily routine. He ran to work every day from the train station in town and spent his lunch breaks doing drills and pushups on the Sea Point promenade.
When I told him about the incident with Mr. Fox, he gave me some stern advice.
“Don’t play his games. That man is angry. He wants to fight anyone who will let him.”
“Does he want to fight you?” I asked.
Ntobeko smiled. “No. He knows I’m the best.”
A Thief Comes
In a lot of ways, Nat and my relationship took off while we were living in Trafalgar Court. There, we got settled into the business of living. Summer came bringing long days in the neighborhood, picnics at Glen Beach, surfing at Llandudno, and evenings watching the sun go down over the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Town is an unreasonably expensive city to live, but you don’t need much to enjoy it. Just boxed wine, good company, and time.
Yet, as things were getting really good, a strange incident rocked the boat: our television antennae went missing. Nothing else, and there were no signs of a break-in.
We didn’t watch much TV, but it was too odd not to notice.
My first suspect was Dave. He’d spent the most time at our place, often dropped by to say hi, and had a kind of outlier vibe about him.
“It’s not Dave,” Nat said when I asked her. “They’ve got one on the TV at the security office.”
Ntobeko looked like he’d seen a ghost when I asked him about it. “Your TV aerial?” he asked. “Not the DVD player or your computer?”
“No, just the antennae. I don’t understand why anyone would steal it.”
He shook his head and picked up the phone. “Mr. Fox, we’ve got another aerial missing. Flat 3F.”
I asked if this had happened before.
“Five other flats — all missing aerials. Yoh, yoh…” he said, covering his mouth, looking over my shoulder.
I turned around and saw that he was eyeing the mural on the wall behind me. “You think it was them?”
Ntobeko laughed at me, but I could tell he didn’t find this situation particularly funny.
The second time we heard Alice screaming was more alarming than the first. Her voice rose above the evening traffic; it was shrill, untethered, and sounded like she was being torn apart.
After calling security and the cops, we sat in our lounge with the window open, listening to Dave and Ntobeko knocking on her window. “Miss Alice! Open up! We’re here — it’s okay, please stop screaming.”
This time was different. Alice was locked inside her head, screaming wildly for all the world to hear. And nobody knew why.
Later that night, after the police had gone and she’d been sedated, Dave came upstairs to speak with Natalie and me. “She says that her walls are vibrating.”
“Like people above her are jumping up and down.”
“Spell it out, Dave.”
“She thinks you’re the ones making a noise. Do you play your TV loud or anything like that?”
“We don’t even use our TV. Especially not after someone stole our aerial.”
Dave shook his head. “It’s bizarre. The weirdest thing for me is that she’s deaf — how the hell is she hearing anything at all?”
My eyes rolled on impulse. I believed knew exactly why Alice thought it was us.
That Day I Met Alice
The day we moved into Trafalgar Court, I found a green rubber ball lying in the corner of our empty bedroom. With no furniture or other things nearby, it lacked context or purpose. It was just a kid’s toy in a blank room. Like a frisbee lying in the middle of an open field. Or a single balloon in a gray sky. A forgotten relic from the previous tenants that may or may not have meant something to someone.
I picked it up and started bouncing it against the lounge wall, listening to its echo pulsing across the apartment. The sound was joyous, the rhythm pleasing. I kept throwing it harder and harder, losing myself in the repetition of a simple game. I had a whole car full of stuff to carry upstairs, which made the distraction even more appealing. This went on for about ten minutes before a hoarse, outraged voice stole my attention.
“You need to stop that right now!” Alice called from the door. She’d stuck her hand through the security gate and was pointing at me. “My flat is right below yours.”
I caught the ball one last time and went over to greet her.
“Hi — sorry, it’s my first day here. What did you say?”
Alice had eyes that swallowed you. Big, brown tractor beams that studied your mouth and read your movements. She pointed at the rubber ball in my hand. “What’s that?”
“I’m sorry, I was bouncing it a bit.”
Like a frog’s tongue, she snapped it out of my hand and put it in her pocket. “I’m taking this away. It’s giving me a terrible headache.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Sorry for the trouble.”
She shook her head lightly, like there was dust in her hair, and then said something to the effect of, “I’m — — — — deaf. I can’t hear but I can feel the vibrations. It’s loud to me.” I think she said eighty percent deaf, but Natalie contests that she was only partially deaf in one ear. Save for a slight lisp, there was no other sign of her hearing loss.
“Oh, — do you lip-read?” I asked.
Her facial featured collapsed. “I can’t read minds, can I?” She turned around and started walking away, shaking her head again.
And I never saw that ball again.
The day after Alice’s second screaming, I went to her apartment. There was doorbell switch that made a light flash in her apartment. It occurred to me that managing her disability was about more than navigating spoken conversations. She had to adapt to survive.
She opened the door looking sick and exhausted. Her eyes were swollen shut and the folds of skin below dropped lower than usual. “What?”
“I wanted to check in and see how you were doing.”
“Say that again?”
“I wanted to see how you were doing?” I said, raising my voice. She didn’t answer but I think she understood. “We heard you screaming last night.”
Again, she was silent. We just stood there awhile, Alice beginning to sob on one side the doorway and me trying to decide the best way to support her on the other, while a sense of unease grew. She didn’t believe me, I could tell, and I didn’t have the patience to convince her otherwise.
“I know it’s you,” she eventually said through muffled sobs. “You’re right above me.”
“It’s not us. If it happens again, you can come up and see for yourself.”
My counter-argument seemed to hit a wall in her head like facts weren’t welcome.
“You’re a liar,” she said. Her voice was broken and uneven. “You’re a liar and a terrible man. Liar, liar, liar!” Alice seemed to enjoy the catharsis of directing her anger at someone, and she soon began yelling and cursing. People poked their heads out of the doors in time to see me backing away, while Alice was leaning into the task of berating me.
Ntobeko came upstairs and started walking toward us. “Go — leave her alone,” he said to me, waving his flashlight.
“I didn’t do anything — I just came here to talk,” I tried to explain over Alice’s wailing.
“I know — but she’s not right. Just leave.”
After I hightailed it upstairs, a vain and self-absorbed thought surfaced: in a building filled with families of seven sharing two to three bedrooms and folks who worked night shifts at factories, she chose me as her tormentor.
“It’s because the real thing bothering her is much scarier than you. I’m sure that’s it,” Isadaisabelle said when I asked her for advice. We were both leaving the complex, walking down the long passageway, past the mural’s grinning lunatics.
“Do you think there is something evil about this place?” I asked.
“There’s only evil in people. A place is what you bring to it.”
“Are there evil people here?” I asked her.
“Maybe,” she said, pulling away.
Autumn came and with it, a new figure appeared at Trafalgar Court: a middle-aged man who wore striped shirts, cream colored slacks, and a gold necklace. Not the sort of fellow who lived or hung about at Trafalgar. My guess, he was either a real estate agent or a selling cocaine. Or a coked up real estate agent. Residents at Trafalgar Court were generally amicable and friendly or outright cold. The stranger was somewhere in between it all. I’d spotted this evasive chap idling near the stairwell or walking down the corridor, always on the way out of sight but never to anyone’s door.
At the time, Alice’s screaming was becoming a nightly norm, a background noise that blended into the passing of cars, the music from bars down the street, and the wailing of neighborhood street cats on heat. It was bothersome and unsettling, but not as shocking anymore.
All the while, her body suffered alongside her mind. She appeared more haggard and worn as time went by, and her voice began to rip and fade like a pair of old jeans. Meanwhile, we’d learned to live quietly, wanting to make sure there was no reason to give her story any credit.
We felt bad for Alice but avoided her at all costs. Like the mosaic I looked away from every time I walked into the building, her world was a trap.
“I think that woman is in deep trouble. Someone should be watching her in case she tops herself,” Dave said one night. It was late May, the air worn thin and frigid.
“What makes you say that?”
“You should see her late at night. She looks like a ghost that got beaten up by other ghosts,” Dave said. “She’s bloody scary when she comes down to complain about the shaking in her apartment.”
“Have you gone to her place to listen?”
“Bru, her place is dead quiet! I can’t hear so much as a fucking mouse fart when I’m in there.”
Dave shuddered and took a sip of coffee. “I hear her screaming all night long.”
I found him less cheerful at the start of each day and constantly battling the same obstacle by the end of it: unfair working conditions. Mr. Fox had been threatening to downsize again, using this as a bargaining chip to make the guards work longer hours without overtime. “She still says it’s you and Natalie making the noise.”
“What do you tell her?”
“I tell her to go and take sleepy tablets. I’ve got enough on my mind.”
“What’s bothering you?” I asked this knowing full well that work was going badly. The mystery thief of Trafalgar had moved on from television aerials to stationery, like pens, rulers, and pads of paper. People were freaked out. Not only was Mr. Fox fussing about the cost of security, he also questioned their efficiency.
“I hate it here. I just want to drop all of this and fuck off to Mozambique,” Dave said.
“And do what?”
“Make beads. Surf. Eat crayfish. Pomp.” He counted these items off on his cracked fingers. That seemed peaceful, thinking about the warm, blue Indian Ocean and the palm trees.
“How would you get there?”
“Hitchhike. That’s how the guys did it in the army days.”
“You think that’s doable now with so many psychos out there?”
He let this question hang in the air a moment.
I worried about Dave. He always spoke of happiness like it was a simple place he’d eventually reach. Mozambique wasn’t an impossible daydream but he might as well have been aiming for the moon without a plan. Dave looked up, thought for a moment, and finished his cup. “No offense, bru, but I really don’t want to talk this out with you.”
He got up and left. Sometimes I can’t help rubbing people the wrong way.
Mystery Man Part 2
I came home one day and found Nat sitting in the living room with a large kitchen knife and her pepper spray on the table. “That man followed me all the way up to our door. The one with the golden chain.”
“Did you call security?”
“Yes. Ntobeko says that Alice let him in.”
None of this was sitting right. Television antennas were going missing, Dave’s spirit was plummeting, and Mr. Fox wasn’t answering calls from anyone. Meanwhile, Alice was screaming louder than ever. I couldn’t quite shake the notion that this imposter was connected to all the other weird stuff. That night, as I stepped into the hallways, he was standing right outside our door, radiating Axe body spray and hair gel.
“Are you lost?” I asked him.
“No. But I wanted to come up here and speak with you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “Please don’t be alarmed.”
‘Charles Ray: Certified Private Investigator’.
“What the hell is this?” I asked.
“Alice from apartment 1F hired me to spy on you.”
“This is about the shaking or the sounds in her place, right?”
“Has anyone spent some time inside her spot to verify this imaginary shaking?” I felt myself getting heated and could see he wasn’t trying to accuse me of anything.
“I’m not deaf. I can’t hear or feel it like she does.”
“But you know that it’s not us?”
“Yes. I have ruled you out.”
“Well, shucks, thank you very much,” I said, flicking his card at him. “You need to leave now. Or I’ll call the police — the real police, not the comic sans business card play-play police. On both of you. Understand?”
“I haven’t come here to make enemies,” he said.
Without wanting to be, I realized that I was in the business of making enemies at Trafalgar Court.
An Unseen Attack
I waited a few days to calm down before speaking with Alice again. We needed to have a productive conversation and I still felt violated and angry. Charles Ray had not been back, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how he’d described Alice’s affliction: the shaking and stomping were real to her. It didn’t matter that nobody else could hear it or change how the situation felt to her.
Alice’s situation reminded me of my grandmother, who sank into dementia before she died. At her worst, Granny would talk to people and act like we were somewhere else. She would be quite specific and address my Uncle Steve or Johnny or Lucy and refer to the bicycle in the room or a ship in the distance. She visited an alternative reality where she was still living a normal life. Gradually, the visions would fade and she’d come back to us with this look of total confusion, without a clue why everyone around her was so concerned. In the end, she seemed lonelier in the real world than in her imagined one.
I thought about Gran as I headed downstairs to Alice’s. Alice opened the door and went straight for my throat. “You’re ruining my life!” she cried, her spit showering my eyelids. She was fierce and desperate. Her grip was firm and her nails sank deep into my skin.
Given her height (she was slightly shorter than me) and her mindset, I had to wrestle her to the ground and try to pin her arms behind her back. This got messy, especially when her shirt rolled up and I found myself in contact with the raw shingles that covered her body and neck. If anyone suspected that it was me making her life hell, this situation didn’t help.
When I first called for help, my voice broke and came out flat. I tried again, just as Alice started biting my shoulder. This only increased my desperation. I cried out again, this time with everything I had, and didn’t stop until Ntobeko arrived and pulled her off me. He was quick, efficient, and gentle. Undoubtedly, the best.
“You sounded just like her!” he said, dodging her flailing legs and arms.
We both laughed for a second, and then Alice stopped fighting and began to cry.
Just like my grandmother used to do.
The next day Alice slipped a note under our door. A long, emotive plea for forgiveness.
She promised not to accuse me again and said she would do everything in her power to shut up at night. If the stamping of feet and the voice of demons would only back off, she said we’d be able to see that she’s a good person with a big heart and better qualities.
She had spent most of her savings on hiring Charles and had nothing left now, not even peace. The stress and anxiety had caused her to miss work deadlines while her health went for a ball of shit. She planned to sell her apartment and hopefully find a quiet place to live somewhere else. The tremors she was hearing and feeling were more violent than ever and only getting worse.
“That poor, poor woman,” Nat said, after reading it to me.
That night, we headed downstairs to her room. Alice answered the door with her robe halfway open, too tired to notice her nudity. Her hair was knotted in places and there was food on her chin. The shingles had spread across her neck.
“Did you get the note?”
“We did. Alice, we want to help. Not fight with you.”
She nodded and turned on her heels, and headed back inside, leaving the door open for us to follow. “It hasn’t stopped in two days,” we heard her say.
The sleeping pills weren’t working and she was at the max dose of anti-anxiety meds. Alice was stuck in limbo, craving sleep and haunted by a secret ruckus that nobody else could feel or hear.
There was nothing we could do. The inside of her apartment was musty, dark, and cold. The kitchen was fouled by old cans of meat and soup, left half-eaten and long forgotten, their entrails spread liberally across a mountain of plates and bowls on the plastic counter tops. All of Alice’s clothing lay scattered across the bedroom floor, unwashed for who knows how long.
For the next hour, we cleaned her apartment while she wept and screamed and air-punched imagined demons.
“It’s okay, Alice. You can scream,” Natalie would say, poking her head through the doorway. “We’re here for you,”
Giving her permission seemed to help. Every few minutes she let out a bitter cry that rose and fell quickly enough. Her body was wound tight, like a fist. All we could offer was being there until she passed out from exhaustion.
Nat went back the following night with Isadaisabelle and offered to sit at her bedside. If the monsters in her room wouldn’t leave, we decided it was best to make them feel crowded.
About a week or so later, an even more bizarre thing happened: the tremor stopped. Alice was cured, she said when we arrived at her door. The walls had stopped vibrating. Everything was still. She could sleep.
With Alice’s crisis over, a stench swept through the building. This was not something anyone had difficulty validating. It rose up through her floor and drifted into every room, in the opposite direction of the shaking that had once haunted Alice. A putrid and heavy scent that stayed with you through the day. A smell that brought on migraines and made children cry.
Still, the most disturbing thing about Alice not screaming in the night was her silence. It hummed around the building, leaving us residents to fill in the blanks with imagined screams that were more blood curdling than any we’d heard over the months from the lady downstairs.
The hunt for a dead skunk in the basement or a cat that might have died in the elevator shaft was on. All attempts at notifying Mr. Fox to get someone in were unsuccessful. It appeared that he had left town without notice. Not even his tenants or family knew where he’d gone.
A Final Shock
Winter set in without warning. The mornings turned icy one night and it started raining for days on end. I remember how Dave and Ntobeko sat close to one another at the security desk, clad in beanies and gloves, huddled around a rattling floor heater that one of the residents had donated. Our apartment was poorly insulated, making the hardwood floors feel like a frozen river. We kept slippers at the front door and slid into them the moment we came home.
The smell, for its part, had become unbearable. A relentless foe.
Nobody could get used to it because it just seemed to get worse by the day.
We burned incense, sage, and Pollos Santos, but those things only lasted a moment. Then it was back.
Around the time we residents banded together to call another pest control company, the entire complex got one last shock in the night. It was a still evening. There was a break in the rain, and no wind or clouds to speak of. Just a half moon nestled into the darkness, hanging silently above the Mother City.
Sometime after dinner, while we were making tea, an explosion came from downstairs. Then Dave screaming.
I ran downstairs to see what had happened, trailing Isadaisabelle and a few other residents.
Covering the floor of the lobby, all the way from the entrance to the passageway, lay the scattered remains of that goddamned mosaic. Dave and Ntobeko were in shock. “It just happened — like someone pushed it over,” Dave said. “Mr. Fox is going to shit his pants when he sees this.”
“Why would he be mad about this?” Nat asked.
“Because he made that fucking monstrosity,” Dave said.
For some reason, the revelation that Mr. Fox made the mural was chilling to me.
Ntobeko had already taken off his tie and started pacing the area, plotting his resignation.
There was no earthquake, no sudden gusts to explain the situation. The mural simply fell. In its place, a series of deep holes that ran all the way into the concrete wall where the screws had been secured. One of which broke all the way through.
That night, the smell took over completely. People could not handle it another day.
The person from one more pest control company came and a couldn’t find anything, yet again, but they did leave a with a disturbing thought: that the smell was like a decaying body.
“Bru, what if the banging was someone trapped in the walls?” Dave said to me.
“No way,” said Ntobeko. “It’s a big rat. A big, big, big rat.”
“You mean you hope it’s a dead rat!” Dave said. “I think it’s those things on the walls — the mosaic came alive and stole someone. Then it got too big and fell.”
We all looked at the space where the mosaic had been, admiring the scope of its absence.
Mr. Fox Returns
“This feels different now,” Isadaisabelle said me the next morning, as we crossed paths in the hallways. Mr. Fox’s disappearance was haunting the complex. A missing person’s report had been filed by his family, who were all beside themselves from worrying. “I don’t know what to think. Maybe he drew all the board’s money out and skipped town?” Isadailsabelle said, heading for the entrance at a pace I couldn’t match.
I didn’t know what to think. “You know he threatened to beat me up over a parking space?”
“You’re lucky it was a threat.” She stopped and pointed at Dave running toward us. “He beat the shit out of a tenant a few years back.”
Dave reached us bug-eyed and shivering. “The police are in the basement. They’ve found something.”
“What?” we both asked at the same time.
“They found him. Foxy. They found his body. He’s the stink.”
Mr. Fox had set up a secret room in the crawlspace below Alice’s apartment.
A tight, silent chamber that would make any sane person feel claustrophobic. More of a bunker than a room. This was his safe space, his retreat.
After his wife walked out on him, post retirement, he’d become hostile and reclusive. For nearly twenty years, he’d made Trafalgar Court his life while the people he once loved were disregarded. Taking the crawlspace was a way for him to go somewhere nobody could find him. It was a space to be alone, be sad, and write letters to his ex-wife that would never be sent. And to start making mosaics again, a passion he’d once taken seriously.
To get there, you had to climb through a vent that was right behind my old parking spot. As the summer months got hotter, he needed fans down there to keep the room cool. There were six fans, all set up around his desk; the blades turning in the night were making Alice’s room vibrate.
The only other downside to Mr. Fox’s secret apartment was the television reception, which is why he’d taken to stealing aerials. That was what finally did it; he electrocuted himself while trying to watch television, screwing around with another aerial that wouldn’t work down there, all thanks to leaky pipes and bad plumbing.
Ntobeko was right about one thing: there were huge rats.
One of them had chewed through the fan’s wiring, giving Alice the gift of silence.
Winners And Losers
Things at Trafalgar Court ended suddenly for us. Our apartment was sold and we were swept up by the drama of finding a new place to live. That’s the long story short. I wish I could say Dave had finally packed his bags and left for Mozambique, or found a new job, but I suspect he’s still there. I also wish I’d gotten Ntobeko’s details because there is no way he’s still there; if he’s not a champion boxer by now, he’s likely on the way. And I wish Isadaisabel would learn to use her computer and email me — if only so that we could remember her real name.
Alice texted Natalie a few months after we’d moved into an an apartment in Greenpoint to say that things weren’t going well. She had lost her job and wasn’t sure how to stay afloat. A different noise had come back, and she was scared that it would follow her if she left Trafalgar. We couldn’t help with money (because we didn’t have any to spare) but the three of us texted for a few days. And then, suddenly, Alice stopped replying. When we called a few weeks later, her number was no longer in use. Just like that.
I also wish I could say that we went back to Trafalgar one last time to check on her, to lend a hand, do something. We didn’t. We left Cape Town soon after that and moved to the Eastern Cape, then back to the states. I wish I knew if she’d bounced back, caught a break, and found some kind of happiness. But when I think of her, all that comes to mind is that hollow scream and her weary, pockmarked body.
Trafalgar, for all the memories, was full of ghosts.
Here’s something that I do know: Mr. Fox left his family with nothing. No note. No explanation. No comforting confessions. None of the properties that he owned until the day he died. No consolation talks with any of his friends; there were none. He left them no answers, only questions. The one legacy he could have left behind was that hideous mosaic in the lobby, and I have a feeling he managed to take that with him, too.
As for Nat and I, all we’re left with are the things we can’t forget or fully remember, the things that stay with us but don’t fully reveal themselves, the things we can’t let go of, and a list of things we wish we’d done differently.
It’s a cruel business, this life.
If you don’t hang on to the things that matter, it’ll all blow away.