The Visitor – K.L. Slater

x rotary file system. It’s an original, a vintage model that I purchased from eBay for a considerable sum. Like my fountain pens and wax seals, it has that certain something that new technology simply lacks. Spreadsheets and databases can’t compare with the pungent permanence of real ink or the assurance of thick, textured paper under one’s fingertips. I pull the Rolodex across the table towards me and open it at one of the three yellowed cards I’ve filed under the letter B. I select my green fountain pen and make a note that Mr Brown has purchased a new orange Flymo lawnmower. It’s one of the less expensive models, the sort that doesn’t pick up after itself by collecting the cut grass, but that isn’t really surprising. When I scan my earlier entries, I’m reminded that last summer, Mr Brown got rid of his failing fancy gas barbecue and bought a bog-standard coals version. Also, the rusting wrought-iron bench on the small patio has been replaced with a cheap plastic version. Mrs Brown often sits out there alone and in all weathers, staring for long minutes at the dark cracked concrete under her bare feet. I completely missed the signs last time, but I don’t intend to make the same mistake again. My attention is brought back to the window. Mr Brown tugs the mower this way and that, employing a most unsatisfactory method that I feel sure will only serve to churn up the lawn and possibly cause irreparable damage. I imagine exchanging my slippers for shoes and popping over there to warn him, but as usual, it is only a brief digression. I’m better off staying here, in the safety of my bedroom.

Mr Brown will most likely not appreciate my proffered advice one bit, and besides, how can I tell him I’ve been observing him from my bedroom window? A quick viewing through the multi-zooms that Mother gifted me last Christmas – they arrived in a box with the tagline The World’s Most Powerful Binoculars – confirms Mr Brown’s furrowed brow and set jaw. He certainly doesn’t look in the best of moods; he looks rather like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. No surprise there. I replace the cap on the green pen and pick up the red, the colour I’ve designated to signify an ongoing query in my notes. MONEY PROBLEMS? I print the letters neatly, underlining the query for good measure. I’ll need to continue to keep a close eye on Mr Brown for obvious reasons. When people become worried about money, I know only too well how they can swiftly turn to desperate measures. ‘David!’ Mother calls from the bottom of the stairs. ‘Do you want sliced tomatoes in your ham and cheese sandwich, love?’ ‘Please, Mum.’ I’m about to add that I quite fancy a bag of cheese and onion crisps too, but movement to the bottom left of the window distracts me.

It’s Mrs Barrett at number 7, bent almost double and sweeping her back doorstep. Our house, number 9, sits on the curve of the crescent, so when I look down to the left, I’m afforded a view of the whole of Mrs Barrett’s yard, including the back door, as I am number 11, the Browns’ residence, and a few houses either side. The house is far too big for her now and must be rather a handful to manage. I thought she might sell up when Mr Barrett died; in fact, I’d already begun to fret who might come to live there if she moved on. ‘People react differently when a loved one dies, David,’ Mother remarked. ‘Some are compelled to escape the memories as soon as they can, while others can’t imagine ever leaving them behind.’ It seems Mrs Barrett has turned out to be one of those sorts of people who just stay put until it’s their turn to go. I tap lightly on the glass but she doesn’t look up. Over the last two years, I’ve done various odd jobs around the house for her, simple things like carrying heavy items upstairs or weeding the borders. I was just about able to manage that, despite the effort it took to leave my room.

To her credit, Mrs Barrett has always been so very grateful. When I started to feel a little better, I got my part-time job and finally plucked up the courage to take the bus every day. Sadly, I found it nigh-on impossible to visit Mrs Barrett several times a week like before, due to time constraints. I make a mental note to pop next door again sometime soon. Yet as soon as the thought forms in my mind, my breathing turns shallow. I expect it’s because I’ve had a difficult few weeks. There’s no particular reason for me feeling so unsettled, nothing specific I’m able to put my finger on, but then again, there rarely is. It’s just the usual stuff, emotions rising up inside and trying to spill out… just when I feel sure I’ve buried them good and deep. Mother tries everything to bring me round. Fancy a walk to the shops with me, David? Would you mind just taking the bins out? She means well, of course, but nothing she says can ever get through the impenetrable wall of fear that has installed itself in the forefront of my mind.

Just when I think I’m over what happened, it seems to appear again, with a vengeance. I cope OK with going to work, providing I’m able to follow all the necessary steps in the order I need to. It’s the unexpected and the out-of-the-ordinary that brings me out in a cold sweat, and that’s what I must strive to avoid. This is why I know it’s so much better to stay home and adhere to my routine, rather than try and offer advice to Mr Brown about his mowing method. To put things into perspective, I turned forty years old three months ago. I weigh just over fourteen stone and stand a shade above six foot tall. That considered, it figures that it doesn’t look too good to others when you are a strapping man but are afraid of the dark. It doesn’t feel good when you dare not venture out alone at night. I learned from my father’s fists quite young that real men don’t quake, don’t cry, don’t shake at the thought of leaving the house. Real men aren’t kept awake in the early hours by a raft of terrible memories; they give themselves a shake and simply learn to get over whatever troubles them.

I try my best to keep busy. I try to keep the people around me safe, so they’ll never have to feel the fear. And most importantly, I try very hard to stay in the shadows and make sure that nobody else can spot my failings. It’s a life of sorts, but I often wonder if I’ll ever move on from here. Living with my mother, doing the same thing day after day. I wonder if anything will ever change. I don’t honestly see how it can.  I don’t think anything of the banging noise downstairs until I get down and see that Brian Buckley is sitting in my armchair. Brian is Mother’s friend. At least that’s what she likes to call him.

He calls out when I appear in the living room doorway. ‘Raise the flags, Pat. Dave’s out of his bedroom,’ he roars, in his broad Barnsley accent. I ignore him and sit down on the sofa. It’s the seat nearest the window and, therefore, the furthest I can physically get away from Brian. ‘Here are your sandwiches, love,’ Mother says. I’m pleased to see she has given me crisps. ‘Thanks, Mum.’ I take the tray and check that the crisps aren’t touching the bread. I try to imagine that Brian isn’t here and take a sip of tea, placing it down on the coaster by my foot.

‘Now then.’ Brian’s mouth is full of masticated bread. ‘What’s happening in Dave’s world?’ ‘He’s been working all morning, haven’t you, love?’ Mum chips in. ‘Working, eh?’ Brian chuckles to himself. ‘Working on what, exactly?’ I pop a crisp into my mouth and chew it thoughtfully without replying. ‘David?’ Mum gives me a nudge. ‘I’ve been collating information.’ ‘Collating, you say?’ Brian shakes his head. ‘He needs a proper job, Pat. I’ve told you, I made a lot of contacts in the building trade.

Could hardly fail to with forty-five years under my belt, out on site.’ Mother nods. ‘You were always such a hard worker, Brian.’ She’s known him since school. She was friends with his wife, Carol, before she died two years ago. Mother and I went to the funeral, and when the coffin finally glided through the curtains, Brian threw himself dramatically to the floor, sobbing into the dusty pews. His grief didn’t stop him asking Mother out a week later, though. ‘What I’m trying to say, David…’ Brian pauses for so long, I’m forced to look up from my plate, ‘is that I could probably find you a job on a decent building site, not too far from home.’ Mother blinks. ‘That’s kind of you, Brian, but… well, I’m not entirely sure our David would do well in that kind of environment.

’ ‘What kind of environment? You mean long hours, fresh air and plenty of good strong builder’s tea? It might even put some hairs on his chest.’ Brian scowls. ‘Have you thought about that?’ I stare at my plate. I watched a television programme only last week about the new breed of modern man. Apparently he plucks his eyebrows, sticks to a skin-care regime and even waxes his chest hairs. But I decide not to mention this to Brian. ‘So.’ Brian pushes away his plate. ‘Are you going to tell him, Pat, or shall I?’ Mother coughs. She seems to be steeling herself to say something.

‘David… Brian and I, we wanted to have a word with you, love.’ I swallow a piece of half-chewed sandwich and watch as her face visibly pales. She looks at Brian, whose own fat cheeks are ruddy with pleasure, and he nods in apparent encouragement. ‘The thing is… Brian, well he’s…’ ‘I’m moving in,’ Brian says bluntly. My mouth starts up its chewing action again. With no actual food in there, it feels odd and only serves to increase the fluttering sensation in my chest. Mother shifts closer to me. ‘You know that me and Brian have known each other for a long time now; many years, in fact. I mean, it’s not as if we’ve just met.’ ‘No need to justify our decision, Pat.

’ Brian frowns. But Mother babbles on. ‘I mean, obviously we both used to be with someone else, but sadly… Well, it’s our time now. And as you know, Brian already spends a lot of time here.’ Too much time. ‘No sense at all in paying two lots of rent and council tax,’ Brian adds. ‘And all the other bills as well.’ If Brian is giving up his one-bedroom rented council flat, then so far as I can tell, he’ll be the one largely benefiting from the savings. I stand up and my plate slides off my knees onto the floor. The remaining bit of uneaten sandwich flops onto the carpet and the crisps flutter down like dry autumn leaves.

I feel sick and I can’t bring myself to pick them up. ‘David? I hope you’re not going to take this badly.’ I don’t answer her and I don’t look at Brian. I just keep walking until I reach the bottom of the stairs. ‘David!’ I hear Mother plead. ‘Can’t you at least be a little bit happy for us?’ ‘Leave him be, Pat,’ Brian says as I begin to climb the stairs. ‘It doesn’t matter what he thinks. He’s had it far too easy for far too long, and now I’m here, he’d better look sharp. Things are about to get a bit tougher for Mummy’s boy.’ Back in my room, I perch on the edge of the bed and rest my head in my hands.

Brian… living here with me and Mother? This is surely all my nightmares rolled into one. I can’t really imagine it. Can’t bear to even think about it. Yet there is nothing I can do to actually stop it. I feel a sharp twist inside, as if a thin serrated blade has lodged itself underneath my ribcage. It’s twisting and turning, hollowing out my innards. I wish I had the courage to leave home and get my own place. A column of blazing heat tunnels its way up through the middle of my torso. But this time it’s not because Brian is moving in. I spend a lot of hours lying on this bed, dreaming of a future I’m sure I’ll never touch.

I often imagine myself on some sort of adventure. Walking the Great Wall of China with like-minded people, or perhaps taking photographs of New York from the very top of the Empire State Building. Maybe the odd selfie or two with someone special. Of course they are just dreams, and afterwards they always seem too adventurous and completely out of my grasp. Yet these are not fantasy worlds; they are places that ordinary people successfully visit all the time. That tells me it can be done. Other times, I think about getting a different job. Perhaps in a busy office in Nottingham city centre. I enjoy my current part-time job, but this would make more use of my organisational skills and my natural aptitude with numbers. I’d spend my lunch hour chatting with colleagues or taking a brisk walk around Market Square for the fresh air.

Then, at the end of the working day, I’d make my way home on the tram to my nice neat little flat in a leafy suburb. My very own calm oasis, just outside the city. Lots of people have this kind of life. They’re always complaining about it, too; I’ve heard customers at the shop, people on the bus… nobody seems happy with their lot. Brian moving in wouldn’t matter if I had my own place. I know only too well that if I was to seriously formulate any real plans, well, that’s when my heart would start up like a frenzied jackhammer, and before long I’d get that awful feeling… like I’m about to throw up at any second. I’m a prisoner in my own head. Worse still, on days like today, it feels like nothing will ever change and I’ll be trapped here forever. The heat inside is for myself. Sometimes I wish I could just self-combust.

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