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House Guest. By Martin Friel.

The clock hands scraped towards 4:45.
It is almost as if they don’t have a care in the world, 4:45 means nothing to them.
To me?
To me 4:45 signals the beginning of my day. It’s when the suffocating hell that the computer screen grips me to is gone. For sixteen hours my time is mine, no-one else’s. If you have ever worked in a call-centre you will know exactly what I mean, if not, every day is a living yet frozen moment in hell.
Imagine a job that scratches at your soul, scarring for life.
A job that pays the bills but takes its own all-too devastating payment back. Any joy of life is ground down in such an environment. To my credit, this is not a debilitating problem for me. I can somehow continue to work here year after year. It breaks some people, but I have an inner strength that allows me to continue. But still, it hurts daily. No job satisfaction, no level or feeling of success; just an endless stream of faceless people on the other end of the telephone line.

Finally the clock struck 4:45. I grabbed my work-sheets, put them in the appropriate pigeonhole (I have no idea what happens to them after that; they might burn them I suppose) and marched out of the incongruous office building.
It was Friday and for an entire weekend I was free and I had plans.

My new friend was waiting for me at home. His name is Richard. I don’t find myself attracted to him per say but we are very close. We bonded very quickly. He listens to me and does not interrupt my conversation. I suppose you would class him as a good listener but he is more than that. He does not judge me, doesn’t condescend; he seems comfortable in my presence.
This might not seem remarkable to the average person but to me this is indeed a remarkable thing! Richard has not discarded me as others have done in the past. He listens to my problems and my woes. Some might look upon him as painfully quiet, others might say mute, but he is perfect for me. He is a proper listener.
No more. I need no more.
I’ll briefly explain how we met.

I have never been blessed with the ‘gift of the gab’. People are not my forte. I struggle to not come across as a prick. For as long as I can remember, I have been a bit of an outcast. Folk just don’t seem to take to me.
Don’t get the wrong idea, this is not going to be a sob story. All I’m trying to say is that I find it hard to relate to humans in a meaningful way, always have done.
Richard however is different.

We met about a week ago in a pub in the Tottenham Court Road. I had gone there for a few post-work drinks. I was at a loss as to what to do with myself really. I was finishing my third Guinness, lost in thought, when I heard a voice to my left ask, “Excuse me. Is anyone sitting there?” I looked up to see a quite thin man with dark brown hair hanging loosely around his ears and eyes of a strange blue-grey colour. I was immediately taken by him. He was gesturing towards the perennially empty seat next to me. I tried not to sound too excited as I spluttered a quick “Negative”. He exhaled loudly as he reclined on the sofa next to me. I didn’t take too much notice of him at first. I drifted off into a different world and he sat in silence. I think we sat like this for about ten minutes before he shattered my inner silence with a “Have you got a light mate?” I didn’t take any notice at first, not suspecting for a second that he was talking to me. Just not used to it you see. It took a second, louder request for me to look up and see Richard with a fag hanging out of his mouth looking at me mimicking the action of striking a lighter. “Aye, shit of course. Sorry.” I lit his cigarette with a shaky hand. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to notice.
With fag lit, he looked at me for a second as if sizing me up. I had seen this look many times before but for the first time it was followed by interaction. “What do you think our chances are then?” For about 30 seconds I had no idea what he was talking about but as I glanced up at the plasma screen in the corner, I realised that England were playing a game of football. Football is not really my thing but I had heard enough idle chat to know what to say. “Well, if we play to our strengths and take our chances, we should see it through.” I had heard this line so many times as I sat in featureless, senseless pubs but it seemed to do the trick with Richard. He prattled on about the game for a bit and I threw in the odd cliché just to make up the conversation. As the night wore on, so did the game but I paid little attention to it, absorbed in this human in front of me. We moved onto other topics. You know the usual, setting the world’s wrongs to rights. It was great! We bought each other drinks and everything. Richard did not seem at all bored, in fact he even appeared to enjoy my company and, I’m not shy to admit, I enjoyed his immensely. I had not detected any awkwardness in Richard. He seemed completely at ease in my company and once I had got over the initial shock of this, I too was able to relax. I couldn’t believe it. I had been locked in conversation with this man for several hours and I felt no hint of anxiety or any sense that he was forcing himself to spend time with me. No sign of pity. What a delight! And so it continued until the fat wench behind the bar shouted, “Time at the bar, that’s time!”

“Well I’m for the off”, said Richard as he rose to leave.

“Where are you headed?” I asked/begged.

“Tuffnell Park.”

“I’m headed to Muswell Hill if you fancy getting a carryout back at mine,” I almost pleaded. I really, really, really didn’t want this night to end. It had been a miraculous evening for me full of pleasure, and more importantly, hope. I could not let it end now. What if I never saw him again? He had been the first fruitful human connection I had made for many years, long after I had given up hope for good. I wasn’t going to let it end because some fat, soulless bitch had decided that it was time to go home! I was so utterly grateful when I heard Richard agree to accompany me home although I was a bit affronted when he asked me if “this was all above board.” I think he was implying that I might try it on with him but I assured him that all I wanted was company. That simple. Human contact. After all these years all I wanted was a friend that would stay with me. Richard appeared to me through the haze of Guinness to be the perfect candidate for this role. A friend who would stay with me. Too many had left before I had been emotionally fulfilled. Some left awkwardly before closing time, others not until the early hours back at my flat. But Richard would stay. I was sure of that now. We got some cheap rum and some cola and headed back to mine. I remember the feeling of sheer happiness I had on that journey home. I knew inside that I was letting myself get carried away but I just couldn’t help it, I felt great. I felt like I belonged at last. I could relate to others after all; it turns out the cold fish has feelings. I made a conscious effort to try and remember everything about the night, so I could play it back again in my head at a more convenient, solitary moment.

Ironically and frustratingly, I don’t remember too much after we got back to mine. What I do know is that I woke up with a vague sense that everything had not really gone according to plan. I remember Richard heading to the door at one point. I could still fell the pain in my gut when I got flashbacks of that scene. I went through to the living room to find Richard on the floor dead to the world. Late for work, I put him in my bed, tucked him in, washed, dressed and flew out the door. He has stayed ever since. He even has his own place to sleep in the flat now. Which brings us back to the present.

I couldn’t wait to get home. The horror of the tube journey went over my head. It meant nothing to me. My only thoughts were of Richard. I couldn’t wait to see him, talk to him, feed him, care for him. “My friend awaits,” I thought to myself, completely unaware of the clump of hair that was being pushed into my face as the train hurtled through London’s subterranean bloodlines.

As I eased my way through the front door, one of my neighbours in the house passed through the hallway. Her eyes followed me as I hauled myself up the stairs to my top-floor room.

“Have you noticed the smell?” she rasped.

“Yeah, not too pleasant eh? Probably just some dead pigeons in the loft.” I mused.

“We’ll need to get the council onto it.” She said before slipping through the doorway to her part of the house. I knew she would as well. Oh well, worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. That had been a favourite saying of my father’s until he had died penniless. I finally reached my loft section of the house and made my way inside. When I looked around there was no sign of Richard. He must still be in bed! I called out to him but received no response. Whispering profanely, I went through to the bedroom, stripped to my underwear, drew the curtains closed and prepared to rouse Richard.

I prised up the loose floorboards in my room with ease. I could see Richard outlined in the darkness. Putting down my cup of tea, I took a hold of his ankles and dragged him up into the light. It wasn’t easy I can tell you, but I was used to it by now. As he lay on the bedroom rug, I noticed that he still had my tie knotted tightly at the side of his neck. I suppose if he liked it that bad he could keep it, I wasn’t going to get in the way. In fact I thought he looked quite charming. He was very pale and cold to the touch but I knew that he would warm up nicely when I bathed him. I took him through to the bathroom and put him in the empty bath. I turned the taps on and let the hot water wash over him, cleansing him. After his bath, I dressed him carefully in clean underwear straight from the packet and sat him down in front of the TV next to me as I ate my dinner. I made him dinner too but he just let it sit in front of him, untouched. I discussed the evening news with him without hearing a single response. What a delight! Someone to listen to me at last! We sat this way for a few hours oblivious to the world that was swirling around us outside. There was even a knock at the door but I ignored it. I was not going to waste any more of the precious time I had with Richard than was strictly necessary. Occasionally Richard slumped down in his chair with a loud sigh but he was easily pulled back up again. Looking at him on one of these occasions, I noticed that his mouth hung slightly ajar and a thick black-blue fluid was creeping down his chin. I tutted loudly and used his napkin to clean the mess off his face. Honestly, sometimes I don’t think he gives a shit about how he looks. He’s lucky that he’s got me to look after him. As I cleaned his face, I looked at it closely. I started to cry silently. I could see by the discolouration and the looseness of the skin that I would not be able to keep him for much longer. It was the height of summer. All things are subject to natural cycles, even Richard. In Richard I not only saw my present but much of my future too. Just now, he was everything. He was maintaining the mirage. Overcome with emotion, I leapt on to his lap and hugged him tightly, so tightly that he let out a huge sigh.

“It might not be right, but it feels right to me.” I whispered in his ear sealing my words with a gentle kiss on his forehead. I held his head close to my chest, rocking gently back and forth in the unnatural, flickering light of the TV. Accepting his smell as just another quirky part of my dearest friend, I thought how lucky I was to have found a friend like Richard.

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