Another night lying awake whilst the occupant of the room next door snored and snorted and sounded off other bodily functions.
Ellen knew her husband Jack was also awake, lying motionless beside her. Like her, he always awakened when Thomas, their house guest, started his nocturnal recitals..
He seemed to go through the whole gamut of nasal vocal and gastric expirations. Snorts, gurgles, snuffles that developed into relentless roars occasionally punctuated by a period of sudden silence that was somehow more electrifying than the snoring (making them wonder rather hopefully whether he had died or passed out) – until there was a volcanic blast of catarrhal exhalations that apparently woke Thomas himself with its force.
Ellen didn’t like to dwell on what she always thought were the most intensely private of personal functions, but it was difficult to ignore that with Thomas, anything could bring on a rattle of gaseous eruptions, almost musical in their length and quality. Once she and Jack both were convinced he managed to beep out the opening bars of Beethovens fifth which spoiled their enjoyment of the symphony for ever after.
The eruptions weren’t just limited to night time. A cough. A sneeze. A misstep on the stairs, and it would sound as if he were being jet propelled, at speed via the force of his own emissions. At least you knew where he was, and where he was going, she thought sourly.
Not that he went anywhere outside the house. Once he took up residence it had been impossible to get him out.
I’ve had enough, she thought, despairing, as a long tooting snore, rumbled from next door. Beside her, Jack groaned.
“This can’t go on,” he said, as they lay almost feeling the throbbing vibrations from the next bedroom .
“It’s not just the snoring, its everything.” Ellen complained. “ He eats like a pig, and treats us like servants – yesterday he gave me a shopping list for Sainsbury.”
She rolled over to face him in the dark. “When we took him in we said, just a couple of weeks convalescence. Its been months.” Her voice rose in a kind of desperation. “We’ve been waiting on him hand and foot day in and day out .. And now … we cant even get a decent nights sleep. Let alone rest during the day.”
“I know gal,” he said, giving her shoulder a squeeze. But every time I try to talk to him about it he says he still doesn’t feel quite right yet. He said that leg is still playing him up.”
“All right!” She said edgily. “ I know you’re going to blame me for the accident again!”
“It wasn’t your fault,” he told her consolingly, but she knew it was.
She could blame herself on several fronts. He had been was one of the vagrants that lurked under the bridge nearby. She had once or twice taken pity on his thin, weary frame and given him food, a few pence. But she had stopped when she began to suspect he was lying in wait for her, and she had seen him once or twice lurking in the street outside their house.
Then, backing the car out of her drive one morning, she had felt the bump as her back wheels knocked into something. Thinking it was a puncture , she got out, and found the man, lying on his side, moaning. Reeking of alcohol, and the other things that vagrants usually reek of. Begging pathetically for help.
After that it had been something of a guilt ridden nightmare. They took him to hospital, where they said he was bruised but not damaged. And because he had no where to go (or so he said, or was too drunk to remember) they offered to let him stay the night at their house to recover.
He couldn’t even remember his own name. Sometimes it was John, sometimes Keith, but mostly Thomas, so they settled for that. One thing he didn’t forget though, was that an innocent victim of a road accident was due compensation, and he reminded them of that fact right from the beginning.
Pure hell followed on from that. Because once they let him in, he simply refused to leave.
He didn’t get his memory back (or so he said). But he ate like several horses and began putting on weight fast. Every time they tried to take him to the doctor to be checked out, he had a relapse. The doctor, increasingly frustrated by having to make house calls, said there was nothing wrong with him that some exercise and a low calorie diet wouldn’t cure But Thomas insisted the symptoms were stress related. Worse, every time they mentioned he might want to move on, he said he wanted to speak to his solicitor first, because he knew well enough that the thought of having to pay him compensation terrified Ellen and Jack.
So he stayed. Getting fatter, and windier, and lately, smellier and more demanding.
He was a parasite, she thought, as the reverberations from next door became more strident, and reminded herself she must stop buying pickled onions, however much he enjoyed them.
Jack said quietly in the darkness. “I can’t help wondering if we could call his bluff by agreeing to get him a solicitor.”
“It could cost us thousands! She said in horror.
“Only if he could prove negligence, sweetheart. Remember, he was drunk as a lord when you knocked him over. In fact, he may have been already lying on the pavement for hours. He could have planned it, you said yourself he had taken to following you home.”
“Be careful,” she swarned quietly. But she began to hope. If a solicitor said he didn’t have a case, it would be safe to evict him.
Jack was very withdrawn for the next few days, and Ellen began to worry about him.
“I’m sorting something out.” was all he would say.
Then one morning, he tackled Thomas at breakfast. There was a new glint in his eyes.
“It’s time to go, old son,” he said to Thomas who was shovelling down eggs, bacon and fried bread. “You’re looking fine, eating well and its time you picked up your old life again.”
“Me leg aches all the time,” Thomas complained, rubbing his knee. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t permanently damaged.”
“Nonsense,” Jack said cheerily. “ You’re fitter than I am!”
Thomas stared at him out of piggy little eyes.
He said menacingly. “I really ought to talk to my solicitor about it. He’s an expert in personal injury cases, you know. You might have to pay for life long medical treatment. ”
Jack took a slow breath. “Well, I think a solicitor might be a good idea,” he agreed, which, made Thomas catch his breath. “ We’ll make an appointment this week, shall we?”
Thomas, for once sidelined, got up and with a ripe arpeggio of bathroom noises, left the kitchen to go up to his room, groaning loudly with apparent pain as he did so. Ellen and Jack exchanged glances. Had they indeed called his bluff? But she stayed looking at Jack who had an odd look on his face. Determined, but a little scary. What did he have planned? Worse, what would Thomas do about it?
Thomas seemed to go into a decline over the next couple of days, They put food out for him, and took it away without comment if he protested he was too ill to eat. But lying awake at night, Ellen was aware of his creeping up and down to the kitchen, so he was evidently still eating but secretly. Jack, she noticed, wasn’t sleeping well. And she wondered what was on his mind, what he had planned for Thomas.
“Got you an appointment tomorrow,” Jack said breezily the next morning. “A specialist in personal liability claims.”
“I’m not well” Thomas said weakly .
“Oh, well we will have to get an ambulance and have you taken to hospital for observation,” Jack said smiling. “The solicitor can see you there and get your medical notes at the same time.”
“And when you are fit again I’m sure social services will arrange for a nursing home where you can stay and be looked after properly.” Ellen added hopefully.
Thomas shot her a narrow look. “I might just be able to get up,” he said, sitting up within a barrage of affronted explosions. “I really ought to see that solicitor.”
“Especially if you are going to have to pay nursing home fees,” Jack added grimly.
Thomas said coldly “You might have been good to me these past few months, but lets face it,” he finished cunningly staring at Ellen. “It was all your fault.”
“”Well, Jack said slowly. “I think you’ve got to be careful there, Thomas. Because there is an independent witness who saw what really happened.”
Thomas was brought up short. Ellen held her breath. What was Jack talking about?
“What independent witness?” he demanded. “There wasn’t nobody around. Only me. And her – “nodding at Ellen. “running me down when all I was doing was walking along the road.”
“Fancy you remembering all that,” Ellen murmured. “You’ve always said you can’t remember what happened.”
Thomas began to look shifty. “You owned up to it! “ he countered. “You told everyone you drove into me!”
“Ah well,” Jack said, with a smile. “If you remember that, you’ll no doubt remember getting drunk under the bridge with your vagrant cronies, and wandering up and down the middle of our road. Our witness was quite clear about it. Saw you hanging about outside the house before you stepped straight behind of the car. Almost – ” he added carefully: “As if it were deliberate.”
Thomas just glared. “You’re making this up. There wasn’t no witness.”
“Indeed there was, Thomas. An absolutely impeccable witness, who has already made a statement.”
To Ellen’s surprise, Jack produced a wad of papers and waved them at Thomas.
“MY solicitor will be sending copies of these to yours,” he said. “Just tell him to contact us.”
“Ill fight you, all of you,” Thomas snarled, turning to bottom burp himself to his feet. “See you in court, I will.”
“At your pleasure, dear boy,” Jack smiled. “But I’m sorry – you won’t be able to stay here any longer. We can hardly sue each other and live under the same roof.”
“What do you mean – sue EACH OTHER?” Thomas almost bellowed. “I’m the one who’s owed all the money.”
“Far from it,” Jack told him coolly waving a sheet of paper at him. “This is the account of what you owe us for your stay here over the past few months. “
For a long moment, Thomas stared at him. His expression was pure evil.
“It’s a lot of money, Thomas” Jack said gently passing an account sheet to him. Thomas glanced down, his red face blanching. “I’d get your things together and go, if I were you.” Jack suggested.
“Do your worst!” Thomas snarled, “I aint finished with you yet.” They heard him go upstairs. Ellen opened her mouth to speak but Jack put his finger on his lips. They sat listening.
. They heard him parping his way downstairs. Then open and go out of the front door for the first time since they let him in.
They watched him go, until he disappeared round the corner, walking significantly faster than they would have expected for a man with a bad leg. Ellen looked at Jack in terrified hope.
“Is that it? Has he really gone? Won’t he try and come back?”
“I don’t think so.” He reached out and patted her shoulder. I think it’s over, old girl.”
“But how did you get the statement? And who is the witness? And when did you see a solicitor?” she had so many questions, and Jack only smiled.
“There is no witness,“ he said. “But he doesn’t know that. I told you, I would call his bluff“.
The rest of the week they spent in an absolutely blissful frenzy of cleaning. They cleared the room Thomas had slept in, threw out the bedding and the furniture he ad been sitting on, and whilst they waited for a new bed and sofa, repainted everywhere. Soon, the house was almost unrecognisable and all trace of Thomas was washed away.
“It had begun to be like a prison,” Ellen said, as they lounged on their new sofa, with a glass of wine, looking forward to another unbroken night’s sleep.
Which was the exact moment the doorbell rang.
They were still smiling happily when they opened the door to see Thomas, accompanied by a tall, thin man in a stained red tracksuit – both of them with the distinct unwashed aroma of the vagrant about them.
Thomas assumed a smile, as theirs died.
“You’re not coming in!” Jack cried.
“Ah, you might have second thoughts about that,” Thomas told him coolly. “Let me introduce Pete. Pete’s MY witness.”
“What are you talking about?” Jack demanded.
“Simple. You got a witness, so do I. Tell em what you saw, Pete.”
Pete opened a mouth severely lacking teeth.
“I saw my good friend Keith here – “
“Thomas,” Thomas reminded hastily.
“Thomas, walking quietly along the road, and he was deliberately knocked over by a car that backed out of this drive. And you was driving, missus.”
“It’s a lie!” Ellen cried out
“Then I saw you come out and give him a kick to make him get up.” Pete said, shaking his head as he pointed at Jack.” A kick in the head.”
They just stared at him as Thomas nodded. “No wonder I lost me memory,” he said sadly.
“This is all lies” Jack burst out. “I’m going to call the police!”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Thomas advised nastily. “There’s a lot more witnesses around. Surprising who I found once I started asking around.”
That was when they saw the others. A short fat man carrying a Tesco carrier bag, and a scruffy old woman with a pram, lingering by their front gate. And two more, looking hopefully over the hedge. Ellen with a spurt of fear, recognised them as Thomas’s homeless companions from under the bridge.
“They’re just vagrants” Jack burst out. “Drunks and beggars!”
“I think we better talk about this,” Thomas said, and with a burp and a toot, pushed past Jack and headed up the stairs. “No rush, of course. We’ll do the introductions later. We’re all looking forward to a bit of a bath, a nice sleep, and a pickled onion sandwich,” he said. “We’ll use the spare room as well, can’t expect the ladies to share with the gents, can we?”
He bared his teeth at Ellen as he ushered them up the stairs.
Half way up, he turned and gave his piggy eyed smile to them, as they stood shocked and dumbfounded.
“I see you redecorated. Pity its mostly pink, not my colour at all, but then, beggars cant be choosers, can they?”