The next morning Esme woke up, stretched and immediately reached for her phone in order to text Chloe and arrange to handover a key. Esme slammed the phone back down onto the dresser top when she saw that there was still no signal. She prepared some tea and breakfast cereal. The sun was shining, and the view over the city from the window beckoned her to the balcony. She opened the windows, took a step outside, placed her mug of tea on the glass table and breathed in the warm air that welcomed her.
Esme wanted to say, “Good morning,” to the city, but atmosphere felt quiet and unresponsive, so she shrugged her shoulders and bounced her eyesight from building to tree, from a church spire to a flock of birds. The apartment building was cylindrical, what would have been a contemporary look fifty years ago was now a red brick over-sized chimney of an apartment block. She thought to herself how lucky she was to have a balcony, something that she’d dreamed of, but never really expected to have. The balcony was half-moon shaped to match the cylindrical shape of the apartment block, wide enough for the table and two chairs, but not much more. She didn’t expect to be having many visitors, and they surely wouldn’t all come at the same time. She imagined herself sitting on the balcony reading books in the winter time, wrapped around a blanket with only her fingers peeping out into the cold to turn the page every now and then. Esme looked outward and scanned her eyes in different directions of the city that she thought she could recognise from the bi-yearly shopping trips that she and her mother made. She held onto the iron gate that separated her from the drop to the ground below, peered over the balcony like a curious cat and felt a sudden punch inside her stomach. She pushed herself back, then jumped a second time when she noticed a woman sat on a sun lounger on the balcony to the right, a cigarette in her hand with a centimetre of ash pointing upwards. Esme stared at the woman, the bikini she was wearing, how oddly old fashioned it was, how it crushed her chest flat, a dull grey that made the woman’s complexion look pale and sick. Who’d ever heard of a grey bikini before? Esme noticed how long and muscular the woman’s body was. Every part of her looked elongated, like the branches of a tree. Her unusually long legs shaped more like a male athlete’s, accentuated by the skimpy bikini and long fingers that made the length of the cigarette look stumpy. Esme peered over the whitewashed wall that separated them. It was chest height and Esme placed her folded arms on the wall and rested her chin on top.
“I’ve just moved in. I’m your new neighbour,” greeted Esme.
“I know.” The woman spoke, yet kept her head turned towards the city rather than looking in the direction of Esme.
Esme followed her gaze, but then looked back after a few seconds. “Are you Sally?”
“Yes,” said the woman, still without any body movement.
“My friend Chloe told me about you.”
“The girl who gave me this apartment.”
Esme scrunched her face up and paused for a second to consider how to answer. What an odd woman. She continued to strike up the conversation, “You mean the apartment room number? I just thought you were both on a first-name basis.” Sally continued to look out into the city, but Esme was keen to make a good first impression, “I sometimes play music in my room. I hope that won’t disturb you?” she asked.
“Music?” asked Sally.
“Yeah, I mean, I play the cello. Although its back at Mother’s house right now, but I’ll pick it up next time I’m there. I always love listening to string quartets and stuff like that. But if it bothers you, then I could find somewhere else to practise.”
“That will never bother me,” Sally said.
“OK. Great.” The two neighbours stared out into the city, their gazes as parallel as train tracks.
Esme wanted to keep the conversation going, “I think there’s something wrong with the air con unit in my apartment.” Sally turned to look at Esme, and although it was Esme’s intention to get Sally’s attention, she had to break eye contact, instead looking into the city’s metropolis that now looked big and overwhelming. Esme dared a glance back at Sally, who was now grinning. “All I can hear is that machine as if it were breathing down my neck. I wouldn’t be bothered if it had a steady rhythm, but it fluctuates and constantly distracts me. Does yours do the same?” asked Esme.
“Forget about it,” said Sally, looking at Esme with a smile that showed her teeth. Esme’s stomach turned again. “It can’t be changed. Some things here can never be changed.”
“Well that’s just silly,” chuckled Esme. “If my mum were here, I’m sure she’d be on the phone with the landlady to get it fixed. She’s good at getting what she wants,” said Esme. Sally didn’t reply and Esme started to bite her thumbnail.
Sally turned to Esme again, twisting her neck slowly like an owl, then took a drag of her cigarette and flicked the ash in mid-air. A clump of it fell on Sally’s leg, but she neither wiped it off nor flinched.
“It sounds like you have already met the landlady?” asked Sally.
“Well, no, not yet. But it’s a bit much to listen to that all day and night.”
“Then ring her.”
“Hmm, I don’t have her number.”
“And I told you,” replied Sally. “Some things here can never be changed.”
Esme considered what to say, but before she could reply, Sally got up from the sun lounger, dropped the cigarette as if she’d forgotten she was smoking it and went inside without a word. Esme stared at the discarded cigarette, the tiny plume of smoke rising up from the embers, mingling into the air and disappearing. She decided to go inside and lay on the sofa, but instead of reading she ran her fingers along the cracks in the sofa. She still felt the beat of a drum pounding inside her stomach, lyrics reverberating over and over the humming of the air con. Some things here can never be changed. Some things here can never be changed. Some things here can never be changed.
A few hours later the sun had disappeared behind the skyline and the soft amber glow from the balcony light decorated the apartment, Esme was still sat on the sofa reading her book. She stretched out her arms, fingers and legs and grinned as she looked around the apartment once more, drinking in all the space that she had to move around. She wondered how long the novelty of being in her new palace would last. She felt hungry and wanted groceries, so she got up, picked up her rucksack and went towards the door. She remembered that she didn’t have a key, so found some thick sticky tape in her little DIY bag that was filled with practical odd bits, taped up the latch with a few strips of tape, let the door shut from the inside and checked that the door still opened. It did, and so convinced that she would be able to return to her apartment without trouble she went into the hallway. She pressed the button to call the lift, and as she listened to the cable being hoisted to the first floor, she heard the creaking of a door opening. Up the hallway Sally poked her head out with a noticeable scowl on her face. She was still dressed in her grey bikini that appeared lighter compared to the dreariness in the corridor.
“Supermarket,” said Esme, pointing towards the lift door. Without further reaction Sally went back inside and slammed the door.
“Friendly neighbours,” whispered Esme just loud enough for the lift to hear.
She got to the front door and pushed it, but it wouldn’t open.
“Huh?” said Esme out loud. She tried the door again, this time gripping the handle with more force, rocking her entire body weight against the door.
For the next twenty minutes, Esme scoured the ground floor, first floor and second floor for a either a back door, alternative way out, back staircase or any aperture that she could fit through that led to the outside. In each direction she was faced with an obstacle; a locked door; a seemingly superfluous corridor that neither led to a door nor an exit; a steel gate that headed towards the back of the building had a heavy padlock; all the windows on the ground and first floor had bars and locks on. The second-floor windows in the hallway were however open, letting in a delicate breeze from the outside quad area that smelled of cut grass. Esme stuck her head out and peered down to the tarmac below the window and considered how how high up she was.