Notes: This was written for the challenge posed by Cat McDougall, who wanted some romance between an older couple.
It was Charlotte who first came up with the idea and executed it, but it’s become Robert’s weekly ritual, now. Charlotte didn’t seem to mind at all, in fact, she seemed to enjoy it.
Around about the fourth time, she’d observed, in her rich contralto voice, that they were both approaching the age where it wasn’t ‘strange behaviour’, it was ‘eccentricity’. Then she’d leaned over the gap between their balconies, claimed the remote control off of Robert’s small plastic picnic table, and changed the channel from the ‘God-awful tacky racket’ on ITV, to the fake blood and medical dialogue of Casualty on BBC1.
Robert had never really watched Casualty until they started their little ritual, but he found it oddly compelling viewing, and not just because Charlotte said that she’d managed to give her sister CPR when June had a heart attack, and it was only because of watching Casualty on Saturday evenings that she knew what to do.
Robert had been slightly sceptical of that, until he happened to meet June on the stairs one day (the lift was broken again). She told him in detail that hiking up twelve flights of stairs to visit relatives— even if they were sisters who had saved one’s life— was not something that sixty-two year old people with double heart-bypasses needed to be spending their Sunday afternoons doing. Robert, for reasons he hadn’t entirely understood, apologised to June for the lifts being broken. He also offered to carry her bags for her.
June had eyed him up and down in a disconcerting fashion, then had filled his hands with her string bags. Robert had manfully stifled the yelp, wondered if June had a couple of bricks in each bag, and had somehow made it up to Charlotte’s front door without his fingers dropping off.
Charlotte had been somewhat surprised when she’d opened the door and found him standing there with her elder sister, and had stifled laughter as he pulled exaggerated faces when he put June’s bags down on the doorstep and waved his purple hands around. June had already vanished past Charlotte and was rattling things in the kitchen.
That Saturday, as she was setting up her small television so that Robert could see it from his balcony, Charlotte explained that June always carried her photo album, a tin of tea leaves and the set of silver cutlery she’d been given as a wedding present, in her bags; just so she knew where they were, and that she could get a decent cup of tea wherever she was.
‘Eccentric’, Robert had said; remembering what Charlotte had told him a month previously.
Charlotte had laughed out loud and nearly dropped her mug of coffee.
Robert had retreated back inside his flat, and then had stood in the middle of his living room, with a warm feeling inside his chest, wondering what exactly he was doing. After a long moment of grinning at nothing in particular, he went to put the kettle on for his Horlicks.
It had all started, one Saturday evening, when Robert had managed, without quite figuring out how, to make his rickety old television set blow up. Although… ‘blow up’ was somewhat of an exaggeration, when all it had really done was bury the picture in static, before flickering off and resolutely refusing to respond to any combination of remote control hitting or swearing.
Resigned, Robert had stamped over to the balcony doors, wrestled with them a moment before managing to coax the disused hinges into functioning, and stepped out into the sunset stained air.
What he hadn’t been expecting was the sound of a television one balcony over; he’d been even more surprised when he looked over and discovered that the sound was so clear because the producer of the noise was on a small wooden table on the balcony itself. Belatedly, he noticed the figure of his next-door neighbour, seated at the end of her balcony closest to him, and who was now twisting around in her chair to look up at him with surprise.
“Hello,” she’d said in a friendly, if somewhat surprised tone of voice, setting a steaming mug onto the flat concrete top of the wall.
Robert had managed to produce a similar greeting, he thought. Mainly he had been staring at the woman, clad in a bright green dressing gown, wrapped over the top of her other clothes, she had her feet propped up on an overturned milk crate. And she was watching television.
On her balcony.
“I’m Charlotte,” she’d said. “I was beginning to think I didn’t have a next door neighbour, and it was just ghosts in the walls making the sounds!” her tone was friendly, amused, and Robert had found himself, somewhat to his own surprise, smiling tentatively in return.
“I, um, like to keep to myself.” He’d offered.
A quick grin, followed by a gulp of coffee. “I’d noticed, so what brings you out on to the balcony?”
Robert had flushed slightly; he wasn’t even entirely sure why (apart from the sneaking suspicion that, as thin as the walls were, Charlotte had overheard the detailed description of his television’s lineage he’d indulged in not half and hour ago), and waved one arm vaguely towards his flat. “Um, my television is broken…” he’d said.
“Well!” Charlotte had sat up. “You just bring a chair out and you can sit and watch with me.” Her tone of voice had been matter of fact, as if it was the most logical suggestion in the world.
She’d quickly overridden Robert’s feeble protests and, before he could really figure out why, he’d been sitting on one of his own kitchen chairs, sipping on a mug of Horlicks.
It was the first time he’d seen Casualty, and the two programmes that followed that (that seemed to be similarly medical in nature, but with more police and dead bodies), but Robert was surprised at how much he enjoyed them. Partly, it was because Charlotte took the opportunities provided by the advert breaks to give him potted recaps on the in-progress story lines, and to explain who the characters were.
It was certainly the most novel Saturday evening Robert had spent.
The next Saturday, Robert found himself pacing his living room restlessly, before finally opening his balcony doors and stepping outside. There was no sign of Charlotte. After a long moment, Robert dragged his chair out again, then returned to bring out his new portable television and set it on the rickety plastic garden table that was a hangover from the previous occupant of the flat.
Feeling strangely defiant, Robert had sat down and began to channel hop.
“Hello!” Charlotte’s cheery greeting had made Robert start in his chair and twist around. She’d grinned at him, then spun her own chair around and dropped gracefully into it, resting her ever-present mug of coffee on the wall that separated their balconies, both hands clasped around it.
“Casualty’s on in five minutes.” Robert had mumbled.
“Grand,” Charlotte sipped her drink. “And next week, we can watch on mine again, yes?”
And that was pretty much how it had all started.
It was raining. Rain wasn’t normally a problem, the high rise itself and the balconies above theirs had usually acted to create a little exclusion zone of calm, the cold combated by coffee and Horlicks, the television partly covered by a plastic bin liner (that had been Robert’s idea).
But… in addition to the rain, it was also windy; blowing an almost-gale, from the opposite direction to usual, so that the raindrops were horizontally flung munitions battering against the French doors.
There was absolutely no way that Casualty (and CSI and Law and Order, as Robert had eventually learned the other two programmes in Charlotte’s essential Saturday night telly line-up were called) was going to be watched on either balcony tonight.
The Saturday weather had never been this bad before, not since they’d started watching television together, and Robert was wavering between anger and depression, finally settling in a kind of fog of irritated melancholy.
On the telly, Michael Fish was explaining how the low pressure front sitting off the coast of the Wash appeared to be stable, so to expect the inclement weather to continue for at least another two days; how it was the signal that summertime was well and truly over, and to expect more of the same the further into September time marched.
Robert crossed his arms and glared at the television. What did Michael Fish know? The man had failed to notice the arrival of the great hurricane in 1987, for God’s sake!
The wind continued to howl mournfully outside and Robert spared a moment to wish for something heavy to throw at the useless weather— and the useless weatherman.
The knocking on his front door was completely unexpected, and Robert practically jumped out of his skin, before uncrossing his arms and stalking across the living room and down the short hall. He was really not in the mood for door-to-door-whatevers this evening.
Flicking the Yale lock, Robert grabbed the door handle and pulled it open quickly, mouth already half open to be rude to whoever was interrupting his evening (but not his wallowing in pity, because he wasn’t. No) and froze; open mouth rapidly becoming due to surprise.
Standing on his door, with her bright green dressing gown pulled on over a polo neck and jeans, like a unique coat, was Charlotte. For once, she looked almost nervous.
“Hello,” she said, eyes flickering to one side, before meeting Robert’s own.
“I— uh— hello,” Robert managed, weakly.
“I was wondering, since the weather is so bad and everything,” Charlotte’s cheeks flushed slightly, and her voice sped up, “would you like to come around to watch Casualty with me?” She held herself perfectly still, blush becoming more obvious, as Robert forced his mind (and mouth) to try and work around the feeling as if he’d been hit over the head with a flower pot.
“Yes!” he burst out, before coughing with embarrassment. “I mean, that would be… nice.”
Charlotte smiled, a hint of relief in her eyes, and her posture relaxed. “Oh, good,” she said happily. “I’ll leave my door on latch and go put the kettle on, you’ll have to bring your own Horlicks, however.”
Robert felt a smile stretching across his face in reply. “Okay,” he agreed in a slightly dazed fashion, making no effort to move.
Charlotte shifted her weight on her feet, and gained a slightly calculating expression. Before Robert could ask what she was doing, she had stepped forwards and kissed him quickly on the mouth.
“I’ll see you in a moment!” she said breathlessly, before spinning on her heels and disappearing back to her flat.
Robert stood and stared at the fire extinguisher hanging on the wall opposite his door for a long moment.
Then he grinned.
Then he went to get his jar of Horlicks.