Mrs Neb by Ceinwen Haydon

A solitary woman is annoyed by her neighbour's prying and tries to avoid her - until one day their paths are forced to cross; by Ceinwen Haydon.

Work's ok, but coming home is better. Well, it is unless she's standing by her gate. I have to pass her house and she's unavoidable. I call her Mrs Neb, not out loud, of course. Every feature of her face is etched into my mind: her pinched plum mouth that bleeds lipstick beyond its outline, her wrinkled nose with blackheads and wide nostrils that emphasise her scowl, her jaundiced dandelion-clock hair and her beige pancake slap that chokes every rut on her jowls and chin. She's disapproval incarnate.

I loathe her relentless scrutiny. I'm sure she lives to see folk get their come-uppance, some sort of avenging angel. When she speaks to me, which she always does if she catches my eye, she pretends to be all nicey, nicey. The fact that I see through her ruses is lost on her. She minces along in her fluffy mules, proud as a queen. Although lately, I have to say, she's let herself go. Last time I stood close enough to tell, she was a bit whiffy if I'm honest, and her clothes were un-ironed and food-stained. That would never have happened a couple of years back. She was born in the village and has always claimed special status following the arrival of all us incomers. But the truth is, I recognise her for her real self. She's a witch.

So, you can imagine how I felt last Thursday. I came back from the office early to take back some time-owing. My boss doesn't make it easy, but fair's fair. I thought I'd been clever, chosen a time when Mrs Neb would be down at the village hall for bingo with the other old biddies, a shrinking tribe. I know her routine like the back of my hand. I think I was even humming to myself as I approached my front door. That's when I heard the noise. At first, it sounded like a cat but then I thought I heard a sob. Well, it wasn't my problem, I live alone by choice. Someone else could deal with it. I levelled with Nebby's front yard, glanced across and twigged that her front door was ajar. At the same moment I heard a whimper followed by her thin voice.

'Please, someone help me, please.'

I carried on by, eager to get the kettle on. I wasn't going to lose my free afternoon, certainly not for her. Then, for no good reason, I remembered my Nan. She died alone, after a fall. It hadn't been quick, and she'd lain there for days before anyone noticed something wasn't right. Nan was great and she'd always told me brilliant stories. Nan was the opposite of Mrs Neb. Then, in spite of myself, I felt Nan's arm around my shoulder, and she steered me back the way I'd come.

Nothing could have prepared me for the sight that met my eyes as I peered into Nebby's kitchen. Nothing could have prepared me for the smell. She was flat out on her lino floor, like a fledgling sparrow fallen from its nest. She wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing and blood congealed where she'd struck her head on the gate-legged table. Diarrhoea was smeared on her legs and bottom. When she registered that I was there, she started to cry.

'I'm so sorry, dear. I'm so sorry.'

I saw a chenille cloth on the sideboard and pulled it off and covered her stringy frame. I opened the door wide to let in some fresh air. She shivered violently, with reluctance I shut it.

'Never mind,' I said. 'Now, let's sort things out. Who do you want me to call?'

'My mum,' she said.

I realised she might be concussed; she was obviously confused. It had to be an ambulance. I pulled out my phone to call 999. I misdialled the first time because, for some ridiculous reason, my fingers were trembling. I told the operator the situation as I understood it, and our location. I stalled when he asked me Nebby's name. That was something I'd never known, though we'd been neighbours for what, eight years? He said it would go down as an urgent response, but that services were under pressure. I agreed that I could wait with her. He told me that it was important not to move her. He said if she, the patient, deteriorates, I must ring 999 again.

When the call ended, I was caught unawares, I felt like bursting into tears. I cursed under my breath and stomped upstairs to find blankets to keep 'the patient' warm. One bedroom was stocked full, floor to ceiling, with miscellaneous stuff. Her own personal junk shop. The other one was clearly where she slept. Her single bed was pushed up against the far wall and a teddy bear sat on the ragged pillow. A hairbrush, knotted with hairs and fluffballs, sat on the chest of drawers. Black and white photos, in frames, crowded the windowsill. They were ancient and faded. I untucked the bedding, lifted it from the the bed and smelt wafts of lavender, my Nan's favourite scent. I buried my face in the eiderdown.

Downstairs, I found a roll of black bin bags and split them open to cover the worst of the shit. I pulled off the chenille cloth and smoothed the plastic over her nether regions whilst trying not to gag. For a horrible moment it felt like I was putting her into a body bag. I started to whistle to distract myself as I draped the bedding over her. Her eyes seemed to focus after a few minutes. She must have been perished. I pulled myself together,

'Righto,' I said. 'Well, you've got me for company, for now at least. Let's start by introducing ourselves? I'm Caroline, and you are...'

I thought she hadn't heard. Then after a long pause she said, in a soft, quiet voice, 'Caroline, I knew you'd have a pretty name. You're so lovely.'

I was stumped for words. Never in a blue moon would I have imagined her saying anything like that. After a sustained silence, I said,

'Thanks, that's kind. And your name is...?

'Bella. Isabella. But Bella, to my friends.'

In laboured phrases Bella told me what had occurred. She'd had a stomach upset in the night and come downstairs, dizzy and desperate for a drink of water. She thought she must have tripped over the rug, but she couldn't really remember.

'I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't come across,' she said. 'It's early for you as well, isn't?'

Momentarily, my irritation returned; Bella knew far too much about my comings and goings. Then I confessed to myself that I knew a fair few about hers too, from a decent distance (my awareness fuelled by enlightened self-interest).

'I understand that like your own company, Caroline,' she continued. 'But you know, I've always wanted to be your friend. I used to think, if I bide my time, I'll find the right moment. I'm so sorry for all this mess.'

I didn't have a road map for this conversation.

'Come on now,' I said. 'Anyone can have an accident. The main thing is to get you put right. You've been through a horrible time.'

We passed the next forty-five minutes chatting about this and that between periods of silence. It sounds weird but I almost forgot Bella's age, and the current circumstances, even the pong. She was wry and refused any pity. The gaps in our conversation were almost comfortable. A truth dawned on me: she was one hell of a gutsy woman.

When the paramedics arrived, they treated Bella like royalty, for her part she was gracious and appreciative. They had forms to fill in and when they came to the question about next of kin, she simply shook her head.

'Are you sure?' said the older one.

'It's not something I'd make a mistake about, is it?' said Bella. 'I've no family, haven't had for donkey's years. I'm on my own'

At last, it hit me in the solar plexus, we had a lot in common. I bent over the stretcher and kissed her dry cheek, inhaled her lavender cologne.

'If you don't mind,' I said. 'I'll visit you tomorrow evening after work. I can find out what ward you're on. It'll be nice to see you.'

As the ambulance drew away from the kerb, I knew my words were honest.

Next day at dusk, I arrived at the Infirmary. The woman on reception looked on her computer.

'Yesterday, you said. Ah, yes, here she is. Ward 7.'

I took the lift up to the third floor as directed, then snaked round the landing that circled an atrium. I didn't dare look down, risk my vertigo kicking in. With relief I caught sight of a sign that blazed an illuminated 7. As I entered, I saw Bella's name on the whiteboard behind the nurses' station. It was smudged. There was no-one there, so I walked over to the side-ward marked Assessment. Six beds, three women. No sign of Bella. A nursing assistant paused from scrubbing down a blue plastic mattress on the corner bed. A pile of laundry spilt over the lips of a bag, placed on the ground beside her.

'Can I help you?' she said.

Too late, I smelled lavender.


  1. A sentimental, well written story. Caroline's negative assumptions about her neighbor are proven false, when she decides to act rather than look away. She makes a positive choice. Not sure about that forty five minute conversation Bella seemed too confused and stricken, but this advances the theme of how we need to know one another, to do the right thing a very positive story.

  2. I was hoping for a happy ending but alas. Hopefully Caroline has learned something and will be better at connecting with people in the future.

  3. Well done, Ceinwen. The recurring theme of lonely endings definitely sparks some introspection. Very important to build those bridges before it's too late.

  4. Wonderful story, Ceinwen! Happy ending? Yes, definitely. If we accept the concept we are all just walking each other home, Caroline provided timely support to one about to leave this earth. After a recent death in my family, I can relate to the experience of being with one so close to the end. Bravo, Ceinwen, your character learned the importance of her role and rose to fulfill it. Don't we all, as writers, want to portray that type of character change and also experience that change in ourselves? Thanks.

  5. Thank you so much to Harris, David, Ronald and Nancy for reading my story and taking the time to comment. I love Nancy's concept, 'We are all just walking each other home'. I will remember that.

  6. Hi, Ceinwen. The concept I mentioned is from Ram Dass. For me it gives a perspective on how we relate to everyone else. Your thoughtful writings are part of that perspective. Thank you for all that you write. Nancy

  7. Thank you so much for letting me know that the quote comes from Ram Dass. Also, I am grateful and honoured by your kind comments on my writing,
    Warm wishes,

  8. A well written story that contains a great message. I felt like I was there watching the story unfold before me.

  9. Really good story, the disconnect and then the misunderstanding resonated.

  10. Thank you, Bill and Edward, fro reading and for your kind comments,

  11. Excellent character, I was in her head from the start. I was also brought into the story by the strong writer's voice. This is the kind of story I like, a bit of a morality tale with a quiet ending - the kind of story that makes you think about one tiny slice of life.

  12. I like the message, but I also love your imagery...

  13. Beautifully captures how our assumptions can be turned on their heads. Lovely descriptions too.