The Perfect Guest

Jacksie wakes abruptly, eyes snapping open, immediately on the alert. He strains to see in the darkness and stretches carefully. The space is surprisingly large despite all the boxes and – thanks to the trench coat he found upstairs – he’s warm and dry.

He’d come across the stone-built cottage while wandering through the woods, searching for somewhere to doss down. Some old biddy had been hanging out the washing while chickens pecked and scratched at the base of an unused well. Jacksie had watched her movements from the undergrowth for a few days, as she fed the chickens with vegetable peelings and grains, inspected her plants for greenfly, and tended her vegetable patch, gathering weeds into a wheelbarrow and tipping them on the compost heap. One afternoon she’d grabbed the plumpest chicken and twisted its neck, left it to cool on the doorstep, then ripped out all the feathers, laughing as they blew around the garden like a snow globe. The next day she’d thrown the carcass down the well, with several buckets of mature compost.

Eventually she’d left the house to go shopping and he’d looked inside, finding a dingy parlour and sunlit kitchen. There was no TV, no radio and no phone. The cupboard under the stairs had space enough to sleep in and was close enough to the front door if he needed to make a run for it.

Upstairs, only the larger bedroom was being used, and housed a selection of easy-dry dresses. There wasn’t much of value in the trinket box: mismatched buttons, a keyring of the Eiffel Tower, a lone earring, all tangled with glass necklaces, although he had successfully extricated a signet ring. But when Jacksie had caught sight of himself in the mirror above the dressing table he’d been shocked. He’d aged. Wrinkles spread out from rheumy eyes and across his face like a delta. He’d scratched the skin under his beard, run his fingers through his hair, and gone straight downstairs to give himself a trim with the kitchen scissors.

The old lady used to leave the house once a week, dragging her wheeled shopping bag through the gravel outside the front door before disappearing down a path in the thicket. She’d return hours later with fresh fruit, vegetables and other goodies from a distant marketplace.

The kitchen was the heart of the place. Although the equipment was old and basic she managed to concoct the most exquisite dishes. When Jacksie had first moved in he’d taken his time going through the various cupboards and drawers. There were only a couple of knives, so he couldn’t nick one: he’d lost his in the fight with that security guard. The whole job had been a cockup from start to finish, poorly planned, which is why he, and the rest of the sorry bunch, was on the run. Anyway, he’d lucked out now.

The old woman must have some sort of health problem, judging by the number of prescription bottles in the cupboard with the mugs and tea above the kettle. Cleaning products, mouse traps and rat poison were stored below the sink. She should probably use them more often: he’d often heard scurrying when he’d come into the kitchen late at night, and had frequently found mouse droppings.

Lying in his cupboard he’d be driven half-mad by smells from the kitchen, forced to wait hours before he could sneak in and steal leftovers from the fridge. He’d tried all sorts: meat and game, fish and seafood, vegetables from near and far. She would roast, casserole, and braise, blanket concoctions in creamy mashed potato or cover them in buttery golden crusts that shattered and melted in the mouth. Dishes were flavoured with homegrown herbs, alien spices, in cream or tomato sauces, to be eaten with pasta or rice or bread that she’d baked herself that very same day.

But he had to be cautious, making sure not to take too much in his night-time raids. Once he’d gone too far, unable to resist a creamy beef and mushroom stroganoff. He’d had to wash the container carefully to avoid the sound of water running through the pipes. As time had gone by there were more and more containers stacked in the fridge, more and more dishes to try.

 

Fully awake now – and sure that the house is quiet – Jacksie twists his way through the cupboard, opens the door, and steps into the hallway, wondering what there’ll be to eat tonight. Avoiding the various creaks and loose floorboards, he opens the kitchen door and twists inside before closing it behind him.

“Hello dear.”

He spins around. The old lady is sitting in the gloom. He goes to open the door again and run.

She calls out, “Please don’t go, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”

He stops. Turns to look at her.

“I thought we could have a chat. I’ve so enjoyed cooking for you these last few weeks.” She pauses as he stares. “It’s been a while since I’ve had company,” and smiles, “I hoped you’d join me. I made your favourite…”

Now that his eyes have adjusted he can see the table has been laid for two. She takes the lid off a crockpot: a waft of cream, onions, meat and pungent mushrooms hits his nose – the stroganoff! She rises, fetches a bowl of steamed green beans and another of mashed potatoes, then lights a couple of tealights.

“There now, that’s much cosier. Don’t worry, you’re quite safe with me,” she giggles.

He grimaces. The food smells so good and there’s so much of it and its hot for once, so he pulls out a chair and sits opposite her.

“Shall I be mother?”

She serves dollops of aromatic, steaming hot stew and vegetables onto a plate and hands it to him, runs cold water from the tap and fills two glasses.

“Do start dear, I’ll save myself for dessert,” pushing her plate to the side and nodding to a fruit pie at the far end of the table. “Oh, but where are my manners? We haven’t even been properly introduced yet. I’m Shirley.” She holds out her hand.

He looks at it, grunts, bends his head to the plate and starts eating.

“That’s okay, I don’t need to know your name. Enjoy your meal.”

Through a mouthful of food he asks, “So you know I’ve been sleeping here?”

“Oh yes dear. You’ve been terribly quiet, but it’s a creaky old house and I don’t sleep well anymore. I may not be as fit and agile as I once was, but my hearing is still excellent.”

“You weren’t worried?”

Shirley shakes her head, “Maybe I should have been, but I’ve always been a bit of a wild one. And what harm could you do? I haven’t got anything worth stealing, and if you did me in, so what? I’ve had a long life. A few regrets, like anyone. I don’t have any family or friends. So no, I haven’t been worried. More curious really.”

He loads up a forkful of food, using the knife to squish some mashed potato onto a chunk of tender meat. “So how come you cook so good?”

“Cooking’s my passion, I trained as a chef, back in the day. Even ran a cafe for a while.”

“What happened?”

She shrugs, “There were a few problems, it got shut down, I went away for a while. It was fun while it lasted.” She paused. “I would have liked to travel. But it’s too late now.” She smiled encouragingly, “But you haven’t told me anything about yourself.”

He scowls his refusal. Takes another bite.

She tries again: “Do you make a habit of living in other people’s houses?”

“I needed somewhere to sleep for a bit, that’s all. Didn’t mean to stay so long. I’ll head off in the morning.”

Shirley nods approvingly as he takes another spoonful: “I do like to see a man enjoy his food, and you’re skinnier than I expected – eat up.”

She asks about the necklace he’s wearing. He explains that it’s his lucky shark’s tooth, got it from a bloke down the docks.

She sighs. “It is nice to have a bit of company.”

“Don’t get many visitors here I s’pose,” says Jacksie, through another mouthful.

“Not really. I’ve had the occasional one, people passing through who’ve ended up staying a few days before moving on. I did wonder about setting up a B&B at one stage, offering cooked breakfasts and such….”

“I could stay on if you like, help you about the place. You could do with a bloke’s help no doubt. You wouldn’t have to pay me, just feed me,” he said, hopefully.

“Oh, that’s terribly sweet. But I like my own company too much. That’s why I’ve enjoyed having you around, you’ve been barely noticeable – the perfect guest…”

Jacksie gestures at the almost empty pot and streaks of sauce zigzagging across on his plate; accidentally drops the fork on the table with a clatter and mumbles an apology. He looks meaningfully at the apple and cinnamon tart at the end of the table, a perfumed reminder of winter nights and barely-remembered Christmases. Shirley is galvanised into action. She clears the dishes, stacking them between the sink and the bowl of vegetable peelings, then puts clean side plates, a serving spoon and a pot of thick, heavy cream on the table. She cuts a large slice for him, a smaller one for herself, and adds a dollop of cream on both. His is gone in moments and he reaches for more, while she eats more slowly. They eat silently, almost companionably.

Outside the kitchen window the light is beginning to change. The dawn chorus – barely perceptible five minutes ago – is increasing steadily in volume as dunnocks and robins, blackbirds and song thrushes compete in overlapping trills and warbles. The birds are silenced suddenly, and Jacksie looks out to see a large, black crow fly into the clearing. It lands on top of the well and caws, then drops down onto the stone edge to peer inside, hopping around the edge, backwards and forwards, clockwise and anticlockwise. Eventually it turns away, surveys the garden haughtily for a moment or two and flies off. The chorus starts again.

Jacksie rubs his stomach: all this food is making him sleepy. He looks at the door to the hallway, picturing his makeshift bed under the stairs.

“Well it’s been good here. I know I never asked but I’m grateful to you for letting me stay anyway. I suppose I should move on now though.”

Shirley nods, “Yes, I’ve enjoyed having you here, enjoyed our meal together. It’s true that it’s time though, you could say this has been a bit of a farewell. All good things must come to an end.”

Jacksie yawns, “I’ll get me things and go. Just give me a mo’.” He stretches, trying to get the blood flowing through his arms, legs, neck, trying to raise the energy to move.

“That won’t be necessary dear.”

“What won’t be?”

“I can sort your stuff out later.”

He furrows his brow, trying to concentrate. “S’okay, I can get them. Don’t have much. Just the coat really, if that’s okay.”

He gets up to make his way over to the hall door, but stumbles and lands back down on the chair with a heavy thump.

“What the…?”

“It’ll be easier to sit there dear.” Shirley pats his arm, her voice soothing and calm, “Just stay put and rest.”

Some small part of his brain is registering panic, sensing danger. Jacksie looks around the kitchen once again and tries to focus his eyes. In the growing light he can now see the medicine bottles are out, along with a box of rat poison, hidden in the shadow of a cupboard.

“It won’t take long now, just make yourself comfortable and go to sleep.” Shirley leans back with her arms crossed and eyes shut.

Jacksie’s brain is screaming. He knows he should run. Knows too that it’s already too late. Tiredness is beginning to overwhelm him, consciousness slipping away. He wants to curl up in the darkness of his cubby hole under the stairs. Wants to hunker down under the smelly trench coat and go to sleep. It’s odd, how calm he feels. A vague thought is bubbling under, rising through his viscous brain. It surfaces and escapes with a morbid, hysterical giggle.

“Sweet Jesus, you’re not going to…,” his brow furrows with the effort of trying to focus.

Shirley turns towards him: “I’m not going to what, dear?”

He tries to repress the thought, the rising fear, the inappropriate nerve-fractured giggling. Water builds up in his eyes, escapes and a tear rolls down his cheek.

“…you’re not going to … “ Jacksie laughs again, a confused, broken sound. Peers at her through half-closed eyes. He’s eaten so much he feels sick. The food lies heavy on his stomach. And panic, he feels sick with panic. He’s half laughing, half crying, with the sheer fucked-upness of it all. But his arms and legs are beyond moving now. He can only just raise his head to look at her.

He tries again: “You’re a cook right? You like cooking. Eating.” Pauses again. “You’re not going to …”

Initially there is a look of benign incomprehension. Then, she seems so momentarily appalled that he almost feels sorry for her. She looks across at him sadly.

“Goodness gracious me, what an idea, of course not. No, no, no, no, no,” shaking her head. “No dear, I’ll just tip you down the well with all the others.”

 

 

By Susan Wells

 

 

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