He’d realised a long time ago that people like their routines. “Creature of habit” he muttered as he watched the man from no. 26 shambling along the road to fetch his paper. Tom knew that the old guy left his house at five to seven every day, to reach the newsagents just as it opened. The shuffling walk was accompanied by the tap of a walking-stick, click-scuff-scuff, click-scuff-scuff; the sounds beat a rhythm as regular as the old man’s routine, he’d know it with his eyes shut.
Of course, it took a while to pick up the patterns, to be really sure. It was easier to spot the regular routines of the older ones, they had less to disrupt the order of their days; but they were all pretty much the same really, sticking to their customs and schedules. Take that couple who’d moved into no. 32; they’d been there just over three months now, 115 days to be precise. Tom liked to be precise; that way you made fewer mistakes.
He knew now that they both went out to work; she was always first, always in a hurry, zooming off with the windscreen only half de-misted. Her husband emerged about an hour later, setting off on foot towards the station, strolling along, looking around, taking notice of the sky, the weather, the geese flying over. Tom thought that, in another place and time, they might have got on quite well. He reckoned they both had that inclination to stand and watch; natural observers. But you had to keep work and pleasure separate, Tom knew that; there couldn’t be any friendly chat with the man from no.32.
He reckoned they were his best option in this street. The old folks might be regular in their habits, but they were also much more restricted; he’d spotted the four o’clock curfew that always had them home in time for tea, he knew there was far less chance of them being out all day. Truth be told, there was probably far less of interest left inside their houses too.
Tom had been in his usual spot the day they’d moved in to no.32. The smart navy blue removal van had perked him up no end, gold lettering and all. None of your cheap man-with-a-van here; they must have stuff worth taking care of. There’d been an awful lot of boxes and some of them had looked right heavy. He’d been there when they’d pulled up in the car and gone into the house for the first time; her carrying two laptop bags, him carefully holding a cat basket. No dog though, that was good.
He’d hung around a bit more over the last couple of weeks, getting to know when they were indoors, working out when his best chance might be. He’d realised she was usually home on a Friday, staying inside where he couldn’t see her until around tea time, then she’d come out and cut the front grass. Must be her way of marking the beginning of the weekend, he’d thought, and if she’s doing the front grass, the chances are she’ll do the back as well. That turned out to be just what she did, the front, then the back, every Friday afternoon.
Tom knew the gardens in this street; they were long and narrow, leading down to an access road. He’d walked round there once, just to check things out, but there was too much open space, too many windows looking out over the gardens, so he hadn’t been back. He knew though, that it took a good while to cut all that grass, she’d be out there for at least an hour. One other thing he’d noticed, after the first couple of times; when she carried the lawn mower through to the back, she sometimes forgot to lock the front door behind her. He stood as near to the gate as he dared and listened very carefully for the metallic clack. Today his luck was in; there was no sound of a turning key.
He walked up and down the road a few times. It was very quiet, no cars, no people, nobody to notice if he just slipped quickly up the path. As he got nearer to the door he heard the gentle hum of the lawn mower round the back. This was his chance; he wasn’t likely to get a better one. Very gently he pressed down on the handle and pushed, and slowly the door opened inwards. Ahead of him, a carpeted flight of stairs, to his left a white painted door.
He pushed the white door open a few inches, poked his head round the gap. The buzz of the mower still droned from the garden. There was a huge furry black cat curled up in an armchair, but it appeared to be fast asleep, didn’t even raise an ear, let alone move, or question his arrival. He glanced around the room, assessing the possibilities; there was a flat-screen TV in the corner, but little else that could be grabbed and carried.
Ahead of him was another white painted door. He guessed there was one more room between where he stood and the garden, but he didn’t know if she could see him from out there. If there were patio doors he’d be sunk, well and truly framed. Perhaps he should turn back, or maybe try upstairs. But once he was up there, it would be really tricky if she came back in, no quick unnoticed escape possible then. He trod softly across the laminate floor, pushed tentatively at the door. It swung back to reveal a big kitchen, a tall fridge-freezer right in front of him, two square windows in the wall to one side, a bog-standard back door to the right. There was no way she’d see him here, not unless she came back indoors.
The mower whirred on.
He stepped into the room, it was sunny and bright, the sort of place he wouldn’t mind living in himself. Wooden chairs placed around a square table, as though waiting for the family to come home and eat dinner together. And right there, in the middle of the table, was an open laptop. Now he knew it wouldn’t be a wasted risk; he could take that and be gone.
As he leant across the table to unplug it, the screen lit up, and he realised it had been sleeping rather than switched off. There was a document still open on the screen; she must have been working on that before she went out to cut the grass. It didn’t look like work though, maybe a story, or a diary entry. Tom started to read.
He stands out there a lot. I’ve seen him, rolling a cigarette, pretending that’s why he’s stopped. But he’s there all the time; I wish I was brave enough to ask him why. He almost seems to melt into the trees, like part of the scenery, but he’s always on his own, just standing and watching, he must get cold. And lonely. I hope he’s ok…Tom turned away. With four strides he was back at the front door, then outside, pulling it quietly closed behind him. He’d thought they were an unmatched couple, he hadn’t felt any affinity with her, always busy, always rushing around. But, this time, it seemed he had failed to properly see.
He walked down the street, turning up the collars of his coat against a sudden cold chill. You could take from the well-off and the arrogant, it was ok to relieve the smug of their reasons to be haughty; but the natural observers? Well, you just had to let them be.