The sound of excited voices draws me away from the box of books I’m unpacking. It has been so quiet all day that it’s hard to believe I’m actually in London. Back in Harlestone, there would have been familiar external noises; birds, the occasional car or tractor, sometimes a horse going past. Here, in The Circle, everything is silent. Even with the windows open there’s been only the occasional sound. It isn’t what I was expecting, which I guess is a good thing.
From the upstairs window in Leo’s study, I look down to the road outside. A woman with a white-blond pixie cut, wearing shorts and a vest top, is hugging another woman, tall, slim, with coppery red hair. I know the smaller woman is our neighbor, I saw her late last night outside number 5, pulling suitcases from the back of a car with a man. The other woman I haven’t seen before. But she looks as if she belongs here, with her perfectly fitting navy jeans and crisp white T-shirt hugging the contours of her toned upper body. I should move away, because if they look up at the house, they might see me standing here. But my need for company is too strong, so I stay where I am.
“I was going to call in on the way back from my run, I promise!” the small woman is saying.
The tall woman shakes her head, but there’s a smile in her voice. “Not good enough, Eve. I was expecting you yesterday.”
Eve—so that’s her name—laughs. “It was ten in the evening by the time we arrived, way too late to disturb you. When did you get back?”
“Saturday, in time for the children going back to school today.”
A sudden wind rustles the leaves of the sycamore trees, which line the square opposite the house, and snatches away the rest of her reply. It’s very pretty here, like a movie set depicting an enviable life in the capital city. I didn’t really believe places like this existed until Leo showed me the photos and even then, it had felt too good to be true.
My attention is caught by a delivery van coming through the black gates at the entrance to The Circle, directly opposite our house. It turns down the left side of the horseshoe-shaped road and drives slowly around. Leo has been filling our new home with things I’m not sure we need, so it could be for us. Yesterday, a beautiful but unnecessarily large glass vase arrived, and he spent ages wandering around the sitting room with it in his arms, trying to find a place for it, before finally depositing it by the French windows that open onto the terrace. But the van continues past and comes to a stop at the house on the other side of us, and I move nearer to the window, eager to catch a glimpse of our neighbors at number 7. I’m surprised when an elderly man appears on the driveway. I don’t know why—maybe because The Circle is a newish development in the middle of London—but I’d never considered older people living here.
A few moments later, the van drives off and I look back to where Eve and the other woman are standing. I wish I felt confident enough to go and introduce myself. Since we moved in ten days ago, I’ve only met one person, Maria, who lives at number 9. She’d been loading three little boys with the same thick dark hair as their mother, plus two beautiful golden Labradors, into a red people carrier. She’d called “hello” to me over her shoulder, and we’d had a quick chat. It was Maria who explained that most people were still away on holiday, and would only be back at the end of the month, in time for school starting again in September.
“Have you met them yet?” Eve’s voice pulls my attention back, and from the way her head has turned toward the house, I realize she’s talking about me and Leo.
“Shall we do it now?”
“No!” The force of the other woman’s reply has me stepping back, away from the window. “Why would I ever want to meet them?”
“Don’t be silly, Tamsin,” Eve soothes. “You’re not going to be able to ignore them, not somewhere like this.”
I don’t wait to hear the rest of what Tamsin says. Instead, my heart pounding, I escape into the shadows of the house. I wish Leo was here; he left for Birmingham this morning and won’t be back until Thursday. I feel bad, because a part of me was relieved to see him go. The last two weeks have been a bit intense, maybe because we haven’t got used to being with each other yet. Since we met, just over eighteen months ago, we’ve had a long-distance relationship, only seeing each other at weekends. It was only on our first morning here, when he drank straight from the orange juice carton and put it back in the fridge, that I realized I don’t know all his quirks and habits. I know that he loves good champagne, that he sleeps on the left side of the bed, that he loves to rest his chin on the top of my head, that he travels around the United Kingdom so much that he hates going anywhere and doesn’t even have a passport. But there’s still so much to discover about him and now, as I sit at the top of the stairs in our new home, the soft gray carpet warm under my bare feet, I already miss him.
I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping on Eve’s conversation, I know, but it doesn’t take the sting out of Tamsin’s words. What if we never make friends here? It was exactly what I was worried about when Leo first asked me to move to London with him. He promised me it would be fine—except that when I suggested having a housewarming for everyone on the street so that we could meet them, he wasn’t keen.
“Let’s get to know everyone before we start inviting people over,” he’d said.
But what if we don’t get to know them? What if we’re meant to make the first move?
I take my phone from my pocket and open the WhatsApp icon. During our chat, Maria had offered to add me and Leo to a group for The Circle, so I’d given her both our numbers. We haven’t messaged anyone yet and Leo had wanted to delete himself when notifications kept coming in about missed parcels and the upkeep of the small play area in the square.
“Leo, you can’t!” I said, mortified that people would think he was rude. So he’d agreed to mute the group instead.
I glance at the screen. Today, there are already twelve new notifications and when I read them, my heart sinks a little more. They are full of messages from the other residents welcoming each other back from holiday, saying they can’t wait to catch up, see each other, start yoga, cycling, tennis again.
I think for a moment, then start typing.
Hi everyone, we’re your new neighbors at number 6. We’d love to meet you for drinks on Saturday, from 7 p.m. Please let us know if you can come. Alice and Leo.
And before I can change my mind, I press send.
“There you are,” Leo says, coming into the kitchen, a stack of dirty glasses in his hands. He puts them down next to the sink, pushes his hair from his forehead. “Are you coming out to the garden? You’re missing all the chat.” He raises an eyebrow. “I’m currently being warned about our bins being visible on the drive on collection day, not tucked away at the side of the house.”
“Wow,” I say, smiling. “I wouldn’t even know what to say to that.” I open a bag of crisps, tip the contents into a bowl, rescue a couple that spill over the edge. The scent of truffle, artificial, catches my nose. “I’ll join you as soon as everyone has arrived, I promise. Someone needs to be here to answer the door.”
He eyes the bowl doubtfully. “What flavor are those?”
He takes one, crunches it in his mouth and wrinkles his nose.
“Dead bodies,” he says. “It tastes of dead bodies.”
I laugh, because I get what he means. They’re pungent, earthy. He takes another bite and grimaces exaggeratedly, and I’m glad he’s finally relaxed. He’d been annoyed when I told him I’d gone ahead and invited people for drinks. I’d sprung it on him on Thursday evening, when he came back from his three days in Birmingham. It had been another scorching day and he’d looked hot, and cross.
“I thought we’d agreed to wait,” he’d said, tugging at the neck of his shirt.
Guilt had me reaching for a bottle of wine, hoping to pacify him.
“It’s only for drinks,” I told him, knowing I needed to avoid the word “party.”
“Who have you invited?”
I handed him the bottle while I dug in the drawer for the corkscrew. “Just the people from here.”
“Yes. But the people from number 3 can’t come and only Maria or Tim from number 9 are coming, so that’s twenty-one at the most.”
“When is it?”
He’d been silent all evening and yesterday, he’d gone to see Eve’s partner, Will. I watched from the window as they talked on the doorstep, worried he was telling Will there’d been a mistake and that we had to cancel. But when he came back, he said he was going out to buy beer and champagne, and I’d breathed a sigh of relief.
“How’s the champagne going?” I ask now. “Will we have enough?”
“Not at the rate I’m drinking it!”
Recognizing Eve’s voice, I look over Leo’s shoulder and see her standing in the doorway, an empty glass in her hand, a pink flush staining her cheeks, matching the pink tips she’s added to her white pixie cut. “It’s delicious! I’m not sure Prosecco is going to cut it for me in the future.”
I met Eve properly the day after I overheard her and Tamsin talking outside my window, and I instantly liked her. It wasn’t just that—unlike Tamsin—she seemed eager to get to know me and Leo, it was also that she was warm and caring, understanding that it wasn’t easy moving into a street where everyone already knew everyone else. She and Will only moved to The Circle eighteen months ago, so things are still relatively new for her too.
Leo turns. “Has everybody arrived, Eve, do you think? Alice is worried she won’t hear the bell from the garden.”
“Will’s just arrived, his rehearsal ran over, so I think everyone is here, except Maria and Tim,” she says. “But didn’t I see a message on the WhatsApp group saying they have babysitting issues?”
I take three bottles of champagne from the fridge and hand one to her, two to Leo. “Yes, Maria said that one of them would come along if they could.”
Eve laughs. “They have three boys, so that could explain their babysitting issues. Lovely, but noisy.”
“Edward and Lorna aren’t here either,” I say, now knowing the name of my elderly neighbor, and his wife. “I went over to introduce myself, and to make sure they’d seen the invitation, and they said they weren’t sure they’d be able to come.”
“I’m not sure parties are their kind of thing,” Eve says doubtfully. “I honestly don’t think anyone else will come now, but why don’t you leave the door ajar?” Eve hugs the bottle to her chest like she’s scared someone will steal it. “Then if Tim or Maria come along, they can let themselves in.”
I hesitate a moment. Back in Harlestone, I wouldn’t have a problem leaving the door open, but living in a city is different. Sensing my unease, Leo kisses the top of my head.
“It’s fine,” he says. “We’re in a gated street, no one can get in unless they’re let in.”
I give him a smile. He’s right, and anyway, I need to shake off my preconceptions about living in London. I go through to the hall, but before I can unlatch the door, there’s a ring on the bell. “I’ll be out in a minute!” I call over my shoulder to Leo. “I’ll just get this.”
I open the door to a tall, good-looking man dressed in smart chinos and a beautiful linen jacket. He’s standing a few steps back, looking down at me from slightly hooded, deep-set gray eyes.
“You must be Tim,” I say, smiling. “I’m Alice—come in.”
“Hi, Alice, lovely to meet you.”
He steps into the hall, ducking his head below the glass pendant lightshade. For a moment, neither of us speaks.
“Did you know the house before?” I ask, breaking the silence.
“No, not really. I know you’ve had some work done, though.”
“Only upstairs. We created a bigger bedroom by knocking down a wall.”
“Sounds fascinating. I’m trying to imagine it.” He looks toward the stairs. “At the front or the back?”
“The back. I can show you if you like,” I add with a smile, because it isn’t the first time I’ve traipsed up the stairs this evening. All twelve houses in The Circle were originally identical, although some have been extended since. People are interested to see how we’ve used the same space.
“Great, I’d love to see it,” he says, following me up.
“So, Maria drew the short straw,” I say, when we reach the landing.
“She got to stay home and look after the boys. She said you were having trouble finding a babysitter.”
He nods. “That’s right, we couldn’t. Beginning of the school year, so I guess they prefer to catch up with friends.”
I open the only door on the right-hand side of the landing. As he follows me in, the sound of people chatting and laughing in the garden floats in through the open windows.
“Amazing,” Tim says, looking around. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a big bedroom.”
“It was Leo’s idea,” I say. “We didn’t need three bedrooms, so he had two of them knocked into one.”
“I hope this doesn’t give Mary ideas.”
“Mary?” I can hear Eve’s infectious laugh and suddenly, I’m desperate to get out there and be part of it. “I’m sorry, I thought your wife was called Maria.”
He smiles. “She is, but I call her Mary. It started off as a joke because she went to a convent school, and it kind of stuck.” He looks at the wardrobe, which runs half the length of the wall opposite the windows. It’s extra deep and has beautiful wooden-slatted doors. “I wouldn’t mind a wardrobe that size.”
I laugh and he moves out of the room, letting me go past him down the stairs.
“Thank you,” he says gravely when we get to the hall. “For the grand tour.”
I point toward the garden. “Everyone is outside, so grab a glass and help yourself to anything you like. I’m just going to close the door.”
I take a moment to breathe in the quiet air at the front of the house before going to the garden. As I pass the kitchen, I see Tim at the sink, filling a glass of water from the tap. I want to tell him that there’s chilled, bottled water in the ice-bin outside but I can see Leo waving at me, so I start to weave my way through the throng of people. He’s standing with Will, who is gesticulating theatrically with his hands as he explains something to Leo. Will is an actor, a rising star and, with his thick dark hair, roman nose, and chiseled lips, on his way to becoming a rising heartthrob. Eve complains that they can’t go out without him being recognized, but I can tell she’s secretly thrilled.
Copyright © 2021 by Bernadette MacDougall