Unwanted Guests

JUDY DARLEY

It’s early, really early – just after 5:30 a.m. – when Shaun comes to find me. I’m in the basement, still in my pajamas. I pause when he comes in, one leg half over the hairy old armchair that sits in the entrance to the section where the landlord’s dumped the former tenant’s possessions.

“Charlie, what are you…?”

“Did I wake you?” I ask. “Sorry. Couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d take a look. The stuff down here!”

I’ve found all kinds of things: old paintings, teddy bears, dressmaking fabrics, gymkhana ribbons… I wave one in the air, half amused, half aghast. “Why would anyone leave this stuff behind?”

“Charlie, I really don’t think…” He hesitates. “The landlord seemed to think she might come back for it, didn’t he? That’s why it has to stay in here – we can’t just chuck it all.”

“Oh, yeah, right.” I grin at him, feeling like a mischievous child. “But don’t you think it’s intriguing? What kind of person collects this sort of junk, and then leaves it behind? Look, there’s a lava lamp over there, and see all this old crockery!”

“Well, I once had a lava lamp,” he points out. “When I was at uni that counted as mood lighting. And most people have plates. I know, it’s weird that she left it, but can we go back to bed now?”

“You go, if you’re tired, sweetie. You need to go to work in a few hours. I don’t, do I?”

I realize that could have sounded like a jab, a reminder that it’s for him I’ve moved, for him I’ve left my job, my home.

“…and I’m wide awake now!” I continue, extra bright, and even blow him a kiss.

People always move for love or money, don’t they? Shaun moved for money, I moved for love. And like they say, a change is as good as a vacation. Better, in fact, because you don’t have to spend hours hanging around airports.

Shaun leaves for work at 8 a.m.

Trying to be proactive, I go through the job pages, phone four recruitment agencies, and email my résumé to a couple of companies. But it takes less than two hours, leaving me with most of the day still stretch ahead of me.

I spend hours unpacking boxes, trying to find homes for things – stupid things like cheese graters (why do we have more than one?) and stacks of old birthday cards. I take them out of their box and then get frozen by the uncertainty of whether we even need to keep them at all.

I open the cupboard beneath the sink at one point and find seven bottles of vodka lined up at the back of it. Seven! That’s weird, isn’t it? Three have been opened and drunk down a few inches. But why have so many? And why store them under the sink? There are masses of other cupboards and drawers in the kitchen.

When Shaun gets home I show him the troop of vodka bottles. He raises his eyebrows. “Maybe the old lodger was an alkie.” Then he sets about pouring the contents of all the open ones down the sink, saying: “She could have done anything with those bottles – laced them with something even.”

I feel a shiver go through me as I watch the liquid swirl down the drain, like all the sadness those bottles were supposed to dilute is welling up into the air instead, settling down over my head and shoulders.

Shaun asks if I’ve been out today and I realize I haven’t. Must make sure I do tomorrow.

*

In the night I’m woken by the sound of rain on the skylight over the landing. I slip out of bed and sit beneath in the splodges of moonlight and cloud-shadows, letting the noise slide into my head. Peaceful really. I must have dropped right off, because I open my eyes and there’s this woman crouched in front of me, staring at me with big, cat-like eyes. She seems a bit puzzled, but not unfriendly – more curious to find someone curled up on her landing in the middle of the night.

When morning comes, I go down to the basement and find the poor teds sitting in puddles of rainwater with their fur spiked in all directions. I find an old stripy jumper in one of the crates; so I bundle them up in that, bring the lot upstairs to stick in the washing machine. That way, at least when July comes for them, they’ll be looking their best!

That’s her name: July. Found out when a Horse & Pony magazine arrives for her in the post. Makes me imagine her always in sunshine, always getting ready to go for a ride on her favorite horse.

Makes me find it hard to believe she’s an alcoholic, like Shaun reckons. I think she was just the type of person who liked to invite friends over for drinks. What’s wrong with that?

Still, I agree it’s odd, the way she’s hidden vodka bottles all round the place. When we go to shift the sad, sagging couch that’s slowly doing Shaun’s back in so we can bring in a new one, there’s a strange clunking noise. We carefully tip it up on end and out roll three bottles of vodka. One of them smashes on the ground, making the whole place stink. Should have seen the disapproving look on Shaun’s face!

I’ve barely seen him since we moved in though – his new job is eating up all his time. He sets off at 8am each day in his suit and tie, and often doesn’t get back till past 8 in the evening. Trying not to mind, trying to absorb myself in making the house nice and looking for work. Not that there seems to be anything anyway – get the sense Shaun thinks I’m not even trying.

I miss the office I used to work in with Jan and Nick and Clive, just the four of us doing our own little jobs. Here in the city, there only seem to be huge offices packed with people, and they don’t need me. Actually, I’m not sure Shaun does either.

*

Terrible day. Horrible. Awful. Stupid woman from the recruitment agency called and offered me a day’s work in a call centre. A call centre! My idea of hell. If I’d picked up the phone I’d have told her that myself but Shaun took it and said I’d do it! Shows how little he knows me.

Spend the morning surrounded by skinny twenty-somethings phoning up old people and trying to hard-sell them things they’ve never heard of. End up walking out just after midday, so I’m not even sure I’ll get paid.

It takes me hours to find my way back to the house, and then I just want to have a good cry so I go into the basement, sit on the dusty steps all cuddled up in the stripy jumper I found down here a while ago.

When I stop sobbing I suddenly have the feeling of being watched. Raise my head ever so slowly and my heart nearly stops. There’s a woman sitting on the pile of old dressmaking materials right opposite me, gazing at me with cat-like eyes. I look at her, and then she smiles, and I smile back. She’s wearing a jumper just like mine, and I reckon we’ve got similar tastes.

By the time Shaun gets home I’m feeling pretty happy. Have even made a big veggie stew for us to eat together. Think he’s giving himself the credit for finally getting me out of the house, and I can’t see any reason to burst his bubble. I leave a bowl of stew at the bottom of the stairs for July. Wonder if she’ll be there again tomorrow.

*

Shaun’s working longer and longer hours, and when he is home he’s worse than useless. Like yesterday, it was Sunday so he was actually home for once. All of a sudden he got it into his head to go down to the basement and start looking through boxes.

I shouted at him to leave it alone and he said, all annoying and calm, like, “Look, Charlie, Julie won’t want half of this junk. We may as well get rid of it.”

So I yelled at him, “July, her name’s July, at least have the courtesy to get her name right!”

Then he picked up a cardboard box of old toiletries – lotions, make up, whatever, and when I grabbed it off him the box broke and they spilled all over the ground. Why doesn’t he understand why this matters?

“Don’t you get it?’ I said. ‘Don’t you get that this is wrong? No women would leave these kind of things behind – something bad happened here!”

He gave up then, flung his hands up in the air and told me to keep the stuff if it means so much to me.

I’ve taken to wearing one of the perfumes that was in the box, something sweet, comforting. Shaun says I don’t even smell like myself any more, but so what?

It’s better when he’s not here, really. That’s what July says, and I agree. We don’t need him. We curl up together in the basement on a pile of July’s old dressmaking materials and she tells me stories to make me giggle, make me laugh.

I go upstairs to put something in the oven for dinner, and catch sight of myself in the hall mirror – face smudged, hair wild – looking not at all like myself.

Go into the bathroom to clean myself up for Shaun, but just as I put in the plug and turn on the taps on my cell rings – him calling to say not to wait for him, he’ll be home late.

“What if he’s having an affair?” The words appear in my mind like they’re my own, but when I glance in the mirror, sure enough, there she is, cat-like eyes brimming with compassion.

“I’ve left some love for you here, behind the tub,” she says. That’s what she calls her bottles of vodka. Love. Clear and uncomplicated and just a little bit burning hot.

I slide into the steaming water, bottle in one hand, and let July love me. Someone should, after all, shouldn’t they?

*

At last. It’s taken long enough. As he carries his bags to the door, he looks at me, sad and puzzled like he doesn’t really recognize me.

He comes back towards me, kneels down in front of me, and I turn away.

“Charlie,” he says, “Just say the word. If you ask me to stay, I’ll stay.”

I can hear July murmuring in my ear, mockingly: “Shaunie Shaunie Sexless Shaunie, just walk the walk – out the door, don’t come back here no more…”

I swallow a giggle and shake my head. “You’re not wanted here, Shaun,” I spit, and I can hear the venom in my voice. Shaun hears it too – I see him shiver minutely and feel bad for a moment, but July presses her hand against mine and I nod. “Go on, Shaun, leave. We don’t need you anyway.”

So he goes.

I moved here for love, didn’t I? And that’s exactly what I’ve found. Tucked in every alcove, in each shadowy corner – a pair of cat-like eyes and a smile just for me.

Judy Darley is a British fiction writer and journalist with a dubious passion for overgrown Victorian cemeteries. Her debut short story collection, Remember Me To The Bees, will be out in Fall 2013.

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