The exhaust from the machinery in the heart of London can be seen from the windows. It comes about languidly, sneaking from corner to corner as if it wishes to pounce on its master as he returns home. I cannot help but think about the elegant fog from the lake last autumn when I visited family near the country. That fog was a thing of beauty, she spun and danced into the forest. By the light of the moon she glimmered and shone with ethereal beauty, nothing like the new yellow fog of this town. This fog carries the essence of oils and machinery which permeates through the narrow streets. I finally reached my home just as the fog pecked at my ankles wishing to be let in. That’s where I first saw him, the solitary man next door.
He seems like a gentle man, although we have never spoken. We sometimes pass each other on the cold cobble streets of town but the only greeting he has graced me with is a brief glance. The first time I met him was only two months ago. He was dashing to his home with papers clutched like a shield against his chest. This would have been a normal sight in the busy town were it not for the peculiar look in his face. He seemed frightened, but I knew not of what. A brief glance around the square showed nothing out of the ordinary, but this man all but leapt up the steps to his home. Taking his example into consideration, I too sped up my movements to my house.
The tall brick structure which stood with the neighbor’s home, the latter seemed to lean against its structure in exhaustion. The wooden steps thudded softly in my ascent, echoing slightly in the empty home.
He never made much noise. Music never flowed out of his window, he never leaned outside to smoke like our other neighbors. The natural sounds of life were muted next-door, although not by walls. His footsteps faded into afterthoughts, his coughs from the cold never sounded like they truly shook him. The strongest sound in his home was his kettle whistling in the afternoons. He was alone.
So, so alone. Not by his own doing but by his circumstance. The nearer the holiday season drew near, the more frequently I saw him outside. But this time I realized, he hurried down the streets because he was scared of dismissal. He glazed longingly at groups of people laughing together but scurried away when they turned his way. He always had the most perplexing look after those encounters. He looked as shaken as he was during our first meeting but now I could see the pain. He was trapped in himself unable to leave no matter how much he longed to escape.
The afternoons grew shorter and the kettle grew louder next door as every other sound lowered to a whisper. I found myself listening for sounds of life from the other side of the wall but it was as silent. The sounds of my own home began to overtake the air in a whirlwind of sound and warmth. The steady strokes of the clock, the fire crackling warmly in the hearth, and sound of my pen softly scratching at my page as I wrote a letter to my family.
The invitation to a Christmas party delivered to my door was a welcome sight. Snow and frost have taken over the town and it looks like it’s about to be swallowed whole. A beautiful death. The intricate patterns of the frost is an apology for the its intrusion as it shines in the early morning sun. It grasps at all the surfaces but fades away from my windows quickly, I cannot say the same for the home next door.
Christmas night came quickly and with it the mandatory proper attire for its celebrations. The women wore their bracelets, perfumes, and dresses as they glided around the room speaking of Michelangelo. The soft sounds of music following them from the other room. When the footman takes my coat I spot my neighbor near a corner looking a bit pale. He makes movements from time to time as if to speak to someone near by but locks his jaw after a second of hesitation. People welcomed me into their conversations and discussions but no one seems to notice that the man in the corner is alone. I smile at a lady who takes my arm as we walk about the manor as me speak of art. When we arrive back at the original room the neighbor has moved from his place.
The room grows louder with music and dance and fatigued of so much activity I wonder to the adjoining sitting room. The neighbor sits in a corner of a plush white settee with a steady concentration on his shoes as a woman glides our of the room, her shawl like a cape flying at her exit. He has not moved an inch at her exit but the air feels like it’s drenched in sorrow. I leave to fetch two cups of coffee only to come back to see he has remained in his petrified state. I carefully lay down the two coffees on the table and sit near him. The neighbor looks up quickly in panic but eases with recognition. I hold out my hand and after a minute he slowly shakes it with a slight tremble in his hand. “Hello”, I say softly with a smile, “I’m the man next door.”