by Liam Hogan
Staring into the plastic tub, Gideon came to the conclusion that there must be two types of people in the world. The sort who leave a margarine tub neater after their visit than before, and the sort who didn’t. The latter hacked at the soft yellow fat, leaving behind evidence of their brutality in trails of burnt-toast crumbs, in smears of margarine on the lid and on the outside. Agents of chaos.
And while Gideon was prepared to admit that the state of a margarine tub was hardly the most important of things, especially after the past year, it was still, he was convinced, indicative. Symptomatic. People who left tubs of margarine in such disorder, couldn’t help but leave his life in a similar mess.
He wiped the tub clean. Gideon wasn’t used to having a lodger. He’d done a friend a short-term, lockdown favor and been too polite, or too shy, and he was never sure if the two weren’t somehow the same thing, to make sure it didn’t become a medium-term favor. At five months it was broaching long-term, and he regretted it every time he opened the fridge. Every time he wiped up his lodger’s crumbs, or didn’t wipe up their crumbs. The crumbs kept coming either way.
It was made worse that it was his margarine that was being massacred on a daily basis. The whole compounded into close to intolerable that his lodger was in no position to pay rent.
“Hey Gideon,” his lodger said, waltzing into the kitchen. “Having some toast?”
Gideon blinked. Natalie was wearing a baggy but not particularly long T-shirt, and little else. Her legs were bare and he could glimpse the frilled edge of her margarine-yellow underwear.
“No, I… aren’t you cold?” An echo a quarter of a century in the making. The sort of thing his dad said to Gideon’s older sister. He winced, waiting for the torrent of abuse.
Instead, Natalie laughed. “I was about to jump in the shower. Didn’t realize you were home — you’re normally long gone before this?”
“It’s, um, Saturday?”
“Oh.” She shrugged in a way that lifted the T-shirt higher still. “You don’t mind…?”
And what could he say?
As Natalie carried a beer-festival pint glass of water bathroom bound, Gideon watched her go, and then deliberately didn’t. It made no sense, but her lack of attire was even more scandalous from behind.
He put the margarine back in the fridge, and went for a long walk. He wasn’t, he was adamant, being driven from his own home; it was solely for his peace of mind. She hadn’t done anything wrong. It was just that, when he’d told her to make herself at home, he’d never expected her to become quite so comfortable.
And then there was the thing with the spare room door. What did that mean?
He’d made the mistake, early on, during one of those periods when they weren’t in lockdown but probably should have been, of inviting Natalie to the pub with his workmates. Everything had been fine — more than —until she’d bounced off to powder her nose. Maz had turned to him, a cheesy grin on his stupid face.
“Gideon, you sly dog!”
“What? Oh… no! I haven’t…”
“Well I would, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.” Though no one else said anything, there’d been a few raised eyebrows and half grins, half smirks in response. Gideon viewed his colleagues in a new, unsavory light, not helped by the baleful glow of the patio heaters. Natalie returned as cheerful as ever, but Gideon had stewed until they were saved by last orders.
That night was the first time he noticed Natalie was leaving her bedroom door ajar. He froze, there on the darkened landing.
His own bedroom door was always closed, except for when he ventured to the toilet. There was no circumstance under which he would ever open her door and enter her room, any more than he’d expect her to enter his.
But if she left the door open… what signal was she trying to send? Was he being obtuse, in not recognizing it as an invitation? Or was he being an idiot, even thinking that it might be?
The park was busy; couples, and families, making the most of the open space. A scattering of other singletons, doing their best to socially distance but looking furtive as a result. Was that the lost, semi-tragic figure he cut? Gideon joined the canal path. He’d lived alone in his two-bed flat for too long, become too set in his bachelor ways. His time, whenever that had been, had probably passed. He was doomed to remain forever single, forever lonely.
None of which explained Natalie’s door, ajar. Or her lack of embarrassment when caught, barely half-dressed. It ought to be simple. A woman made it plain she was interested in you, and equally plain if she wasn’t.
Had he grown on her, over the months they had been thrown together? Maybe she was waiting for him to make a move, dropping blatant hints he was too insular to notice. Maybe he should cook her a meal, with wine. They’d done that when she’d first moved in, when Gideon had been all too glad of the company, but not so much recently, spending most of the time cloistered in their respective rooms. Was the fact it was his wine, his food, and his house, such a wedge? “Hey, I went shopping,” Natalie said, the moment he burst through the door, a speech half-prepared. She was dressed now, which was almost a disappointment. T-shirt and jeans, a cloth in her hands, wiping down the kitchen counter. “As a thank-you.”
“I’ll be out of your hair this afternoon. A room came up in a mate’s house.”
“Bit… sudden?” he said, adrift and forlorn.
“That’s Whatsapp for you.” She wrapped him in a startling hug, the damp of her hand cold against his shoulder. “You’ve been a hero,” she said, “And a perfect gentleman. But I’ve imposed myself long enough.”
Gideon hid away as Natalie and her new flatmate — a big-boned lass who never took off her face mask and spurned his offer of help as though he was plague-ridden — tramped the stairs with Natalie’s suitcases and boxes. It didn’t take long.
The house succumbed to mournful silence.
Alone, he opened the doors of the kitchen cupboards, and the fridge. Everything he had let run low, in a petty attempt to shame his lodger into pulling her weight, had been replenished. Everything she had used, things he had considered abused, had been replaced. A platoon of rediscovered glasses and half-forgotten mugs cooled in the dishwasher. There was even a bottle of wine sporting a bright yellow post-it note, a messy purple heart with a Thanks! scrawled within, accompanied by a trio of sloppy kisses.
Gideon hesitated on the landing. He should check her room—her room!—to see if she’d left anything behind. But he couldn’t bear to do it, not today. Instead, he pulled the door firmly shut.
He’d gone no more than two steps when there was a snick! from behind him. Turning, heart fluttering, he searched for the source of the noise.
The spare room door was ajar.
He pulled it shut again, but it didn’t stick. The latch kept slipping, the hollow it sat in warped, the metal bulged out of true. On the third attempt, it closed, though only for a moment before popping open, the space the other side of the door a mocking invitation.
Gideon let out an epic sigh for no one to hear. He’d have to get that fixed — maybe a hammer would do it? — before anyone else came to stay. If anyone ever did.
He’d done the right thing. Helped a friend in need and hadn’t taken advantage. So why did he feel like such a heel?
His plans for an elaborate weekend meal morphed into toast and wine. Gideon stabbed his knife savagely into the pristine tub of replacement margarine, over and over again. But it gave him no pleasure; no pleasure at all.
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