I locked the front door, swung Alfie onto my shoulders, and immediately he whacked me on the head. I told him not to. He whacked me again. I told him if he did it again he couldn’t ride on my shoulders. He did. I plonked him on the hallway floor.
I shook my head. “I told you if you kept hitting Daddy I would put you down. That’s consequences for you, my wee short grumpy friend.”
His face crumpled and my heart sank. Seven tantrums. Seven, and it wasn’t even near lunchtime. I sat on the steps next to the elevator shaft and put my head in my hands while Alfie wailed. I felt like lying down next to him and joining in. The world swam before my eyes and for an instant I fancied I could see two tiny balls of fury prostrate on the ground.
Alfie was up most of the night last night, and so shockingly enough, so was I. Even when he dozed between screaming fits I was wide awake, on alert, hoping to head off the next one before it woke Tess. She’s got some big presentation to the investors today and was uncharacteristically quiet last night, so I knew she was nervous.
Through the hallway window opposite the lift, I could see pedestrians far below, all bundled up against the cold. You could barely discern human form from up here, and I suddenly got this weird notion that Alfie and I were the only two people left on earth. A wave of melancholy washed over me, and I mentally shook off the personal Bergman film I appeared to have descended into.
“Right, come on mate, enough.” I hoisted Alfie to his feet, surprising him into silence, and looked into his eyes. “You and me are on the same side here,” I informed him. “There’s no need for all this nonsense.”
I burst out laughing. You had to give the boy points for tenacity.
I swung him up again and we made our way upstairs. Somewhere in this morning’s fog I had made up my mind that I could handle Alfie screaming, or this neighbour’s baby screaming, but not both. I was almost certain that it was coming from upstairs, so I decided I was going to track them down and – well I didn’t really know after that, I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
As I turned around on the half landing, an odd sensation settled over me and I shivered. I hesitated, weirdly convinced for a second that I was going to see someone standing above, waiting for me to approach.
“Daddy?” Alfie’s voice was small, uncertain.
“Sorry pal,” I muttered, pulling him down to hold him in my arms. “Daddy’s being a silly sausage.”
“Silly sausage,” he repeated with a grin, and I felt relieved. What was I playing at, freaking him out like this? Lack of sleep was making me daft.
Footsteps clattered above us, and I jumped. A woman appeared on the landing, dressed in a floor length seventies sheepskin coat, dirty blond hair escaping from a pageboy cap.
“Hey,” she muttered when she saw us.
“Sorry, I don’t speak Swedish.”
“No problem, who the fuck speaks Swedish?” she replied, her American accent now evident.
“I’m Fergus,” I said, shifting Alfie to my left hip so as to hold out my hand. She hesitated a moment, glancing at my outstretched hand in amusement, as though shaking hands were an adorably provincial custom.
“Paisley,” she replied finally, giving my hand a limp shake.
“We just moved in downstairs.” I nodded towards our front door. “My wife got a job here.”
“Cool,” she replied without interest, and though I judged her to be around my age, mid thirties give or take, I suddenly felt like a dorky dad next to her vintage chic. “Maybe,” I bulldozed on, figuring in for a penny in for a pound. “You could pop in for a drink sometime. I’m sure my wife would love to meet you.”
“Sure,” she replied with an expression that read not on your life.
Alfie had been solemnly sizing her up this whole time, staring at her in silence with his big blue eyes. “Him is pretty,” he announced.
Paisley’s eyes didn’t even flick in his direction.
“Right, so, see you around,” she said, turning to head down the stairs.
“Oh wait — excuse me?” I half ran after her, adding ‘desperate’ to the list of adjectives clearly filling her mind about me. She stopped, reluctantly.
“I just wondered if you knew what flat the baby was in?” I asked, and an odd shadow flickered across her face.
“Baby?” she asked.
“Do you not hear it crying? I was just going to, I don’t know, see if they needed any help or anything.”
“There are no other kids in this building.”
“I can definitely hear one,” I said. “Maybe your flat is at the other side, or –”
She shook her head. “I know everyone in this building. There are no kids. Other than that one,” she conceded, with a brief nod at Alfie. “Sorry.”
With that, she took off down the stairs, her long coat flying out behind her.