Rosie noticed it on that Sunday evening, a couple of weeks into the Great Lockdown. Where was Alice in Chains? Where was Terrorizer? Seb over the road at 102 played his music so loud she had picked it up on Shazam. But tonight was different. It was quiet enough that she could hear the breeze whispering through magnolia blossom, a blackbird singing his heart out to a streetlamp, and now a high yapping call, next door’s vixen crying for her mate.
At first light on Monday morning, Rosie refocused her lightweight binos. She stood behind her curtains as she scrutinized the balcony and blank windows opposite. Everything was gone. No used coffee mugs, no ashtray spilling over, no outdoor gear slung over the balustrade.
By 8 am she was on the phone to Sara who lived below Seb at 102.
‘How are you?’
‘Do you need help?’
‘I haven’t been well.’
‘I heard. Do let me know what I can do..…’ and having made this brief gesture to neighbourliness, Rosie moved on promptly to the real purpose of her call. ‘So what about Seb upstairs?’
‘What about him?’
Rosie wondered, not for the first time, about Sara’s mental acuity.
‘Haven’t you noticed?’ she said. ‘The silence.’
‘He’s gone,’ said Sara. ‘Good to hear myself think for a change.’
It was a couple of weeks later, towards the end of April. Rosie had just finished a late Zoom with the office when she heard the rich familiar notes of Bach’s cello suite in G major. The melody drifted across the street from 102’s open balcony windows. And there was new furniture; a little café table with two chairs, and a planter, brilliant with red tulips.
Rosie realized it was high time to deliver a care basket for Sara. Outside 102, she noted the new name on the doorbell. Sr. M. Sanchez. Promising.
‘Have you met him?’
‘Mateo,’ said Sara. ‘Good looking.’
He was. Late fifties or early sixties, slim build, greying hair. Rosie made rapid changes to her morning routine. At 7 am every weekday she was on her balcony working out with a resistance band while Mateo lifted weights on his. They began waving to each other. In the second week he gave her a thumbs up. In the third, he blew her a kiss.
Mateo was a Bach aficionado. Often it was the cello suites, but also lute sonatas and partitas, and sometimes the Magnificat. Rosie responded with another near contemporary composer, Vivaldi. A wordless dialogue sprang up between them. Before long, they were holding musical evenings on their respective balconies with lit candles and a glass of wine. If Mateo played Bach’s cello suite in G major, Rosie might offer Vivaldi’s cello concerto in G major. If Mateo played Bach’s mass in B minor, Rosie would respond with Vivaldi’s requiem. This carried on through the hot days of May.
But Rosie began to feel that matters ought to move a little more quickly. She rummaged through Spotify for more amorous compositions of the Baroque period, and came up with Rossi’s Orfeo. It seemed to evoke no response. She held up her mobile phone in invitation, and he nodded and indicated his own enslavement to work-related calls.
Before her next visit to Sara, she wrote a note for Mateo to deliver through his door. It was not easy to compose something with the right balance of easy nonchalance and attentive interest. In the end, she settled on a card from the Rijksmuseum with a brief message. Do call whenever you feel like it. Rosie x And below, she inscribed her mobile number.
Sara flung open her door while the card was still perched on the top of the care basket.
‘You look well,’ she said. ‘Have you lost weight?’
‘Working out a bit,’ said Rosie. ‘Have to. Otherwise we’re all too sedentary. And you?’
Sara seemed to be blossoming. The severe haircut she had adopted for some years was growing out and the softer style suited her, as did the more natural colour of her grey-blonde hair. Her complexion had improved and she seemed happier.
‘I love working from home,’ she said. ‘More time to think. And I’m cooking for a change. Proper food instead of all those takeaways.’
‘You’re still working?’ said Rosie. ‘I thought –‘
‘Oh yes. Freelancing now. It’s going rather well. I should have taken redundancy years ago.’
Sara took the card from the basket and ripped open the envelope.
‘Oh!’ she said, reading from the back of the card. ‘Vermeer’s Love Letter. Is that a lute she’s holding? What a lovely image. You do spoil me.’
‘I’m so much better now,’ said Sara, ‘but I can’t thank you enough.’
She swept up the care basket and made to close her door.
‘Must run. I have work calls and I’m busy later. Let me take you out to dinner when this is all over.’
That evening, Rosie chose a flowing summer dress in white lace, lit her candles and poured her wine. Mateo was later than usual. Perhaps a Purcell love song on Spotify would be a good idea.
As she came back out, she saw a basket sitting on his café table, and two glasses with a bottle of white in a cooler. It took her a long moment to fully comprehend, but her heart knew at once. She sank onto her chair, feeling unutterably weary. It was as if a blow to the ribs had deprived her of breath. For it was her very own basket, the one in which she had been delivering care packages to Sara.
She raised her glass to them, and they to her, as they enjoyed her green grapes, her oat biscuits and her Somerset brie. Nothing wrong with Sara’s acuity after all, she thought. But this was just the first skirmish. The campaign was still to be waged.