In the hot summer of 2006, Tom used to drink outside every day, sitting on the doorstep of his dad's house which faced onto Brenda's door.
Every time she came out, he was there, watching, waiting for her. The only thing he liked watching more was his dad's telly, when the World Cup was on.
Tom's life was largely parasitic. He lived with his decrepit father, who like him was an alcoholic. He used to shout at his father and beat his dog.
Brenda was greeted by the spread of his pipe-cleaner legs on his door-step, enclosing beer-cans, as she emerged from her house.
He looked up. “Alreet, Brenda? How's it ganin'?”
Brenda was carrying a plate. “Just feedin' the littl'uns.”
“The pigeons. They need to eat as well, you know.”
“What are you giving them?”
He shook his head. “They'll not eat that, Brenda.”
Brenda's face, always red, grew redder. She jiggled her big head left and right, as though trying to free it from her stout body, which was almost as short as her legs. This was a sign she was getting ready for an argument.
“Well they'll just have to, won't they? It's all I've got. If it's good enough for me, it's good enough for them.”
Tom put down his beer can and said: “I'll eat it. I like a nice bit of fish, Brenda.”
She rounded on him and stared at him menacingly. “You? You don't eat fish. It isn't good for you.”
He looked sad. “But I haven't eaten since last Wednesday. Look at the state of me. I'm a bag of bones.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “It's your own fault. You're supposed to eat five a day.”
“Five meals, of course.”
“I can't any way. I've got to go into hospital for an operation on my liver.”
“I do and there's nowt the matter with me,” she said proudly patting the round ball in front of her. If he hadn't known better, he would have assumed she was pregnant.
“I don't even have a breakfast. I'm too busy running about after the old man,” he said, nodding back at the door.
She stared at him as though he had just committed sacrilege: “I'd die if I didn't have a breakfast. It's the most important meal of the day,” she trotted out. Not only was she rubbing her belly but licking her lips now.
“What do you have?” he asked, just to pass the time of day.
“Meat. I love my meat.”
“Meat for breakfast? Most people have cereal, Brenda.”
“I can't eat that stuff. It tastes like wallpaper paste. I have a good joint of meat every morning and it lasts me till dinner time. Meat every day keeps the doctor away is what they say.”
Her gaze seemingly accidentally fell on his beer cans. “I also have a nice cake. I love my cakes. I eat them before the meat sometimes and have the meat for dessert. I had meat this morning on its own so the cake's no good to me. I'm going to throw it out. It's yours, if you want it.”
“No, thanks, Brenda. I haven't got a sweet tooth.”
“I was going to throw it out. You can have it if you don't want it.”
“Nah. I'm happy with this.” He shook his can.
“It'll do you more good than that muck you're tossing down your throat. You need to eat something. You need to put weight on you. Are you sure you don't want it? You can have it if you want.”
She turned as though about to go back in, then turned around again. “Are you sure you don't want it? It's only going to get thrown out.”
“Do you want some orange juice?”
“Not now, thanks.”
“You need to eat. Come on, I'll get it for you. I've got a light-bulb I was going to ask you to look at. I was wondering if it needed changing. I've heard that you're not supposed to use them any more. Just wait on till I feed the cat.”
“The cat? I thought it was for the birds.”
“Yes, this is. I've got to feed the cat next.” She put the plate of fish down beside her door-step. “Just a tick.” She went inside and came out again with another plate. “I'm trying to get them to get along.”
“It's bird food.”
“Oh, you're feeding the birds now then?”
“No. The cat likes this,” she said, straining as she squatted like a Buddha to put it on the ground. “Birds on one side, cat on t'other. Come on in.”
Tom tried not to look surprised as he straddled the fence dividing them and followed her into this dark mystery of her house. She halted in the hallway and said: “What's that smell?”
“It smells like putrid meat but it might just be me. I haven't had time to change my clays in a while.” He looked down at his scruffy frayed jeans and dirty tee-shirt, feigning embarrassment.
Inside, the house looked as if it had been abandoned. He noticed mildew on the ceiling and spiders' webs in the corner. The curtains were still drawn. If there was a carpet down, it was too dark to see it and similarly if there was a sofa, it would have been the large object in the middle that was strewn with rubbish he had to climb over. She seemed to be collecting rubbish.
“Through here,” she beckoned him into the kitchen over rough terrain. The floor was black and encrusted with dirt in there also, as was the cooker, with rust adding a bit of variation to the latter.
“I'll just warm it up,” she said, opening the door of the filthy microwave oven. She opened the freezer which was chock-a-block with ice which had formed round the sides, so that it was nearly all ice, wall-to-wall. A tiny hole in the middle revealed a small cardboard box.
“The cake's in there. Can you get it out? I can't reach it.”
“You're going to heat it up?” he asked, reaching in.
“It's a cheese cake.”
Reaching in, he ripped his hand on the ice. He felt it stinging and pulled it out too quickly, making it worse. For a while, she just stood there looking at the blood dripping from his hand, until he said: “Can you get a cloth?”
She scuttled away and he heard a tearing sound, before she came back with a frayed bit of sheet.
“Where did you get that?”
“It's one of my sheets.”
“You ripped it from your bed?”
“Nooo. Don't be silly. I got it from the spare room.”
“What's in there?”
The door of the freezer was still open. He heard the motor trying to cool the room down and saw his blood on the ice, running down the fridge door and disappearing into the grime of the floor. “I'm sorry to make a mess,” he said. “Do you have a mop?”
She shook her head.
He was glad.
“You have a spare room?”
“Yes. I just use it for sheets and put odd things in there.”
“It looks like I'm going to be homeless soon. Dad's been in hospital again. The doctors told me he won't see his next birthday if he keeps on drinking, so I'm doing my best to finish off his cans for him, but I want have anywhere to live after he goes. I can't keep the house on. It looks like I'll be living on the streets when I go to his funeral.”
He paused. Brenda didn't say anything, just stared at him.
“His birthday's next month, by the way.”
“I'll buy him a card.”
“Can I move in here for a couple of days? I've a brother I can go to after that. He's away at the moment.”
“You can sleep in the spare room if you want.”
“Can I have a look in there?” Before she could stop him, he was clambering over the rubbish towards it. She had difficulty following him.
He looked pleased by the time she caught up with him, but he said: “This is okay. A bit chilly. What are all these sheets hanging up in here?” He noticed the room was partitioned off into cubicles by sheets in several places. In some places there were bits of plastic sheeting, like in a cold store.
She gave him a blank stare.
At that moment, she was called away to answer the telephone. He lifted the corner up of one of the sheets and saw there was a grubby sleeping-bag on the floor underneath it, but no signs of any recent occupant. He couldn't make out the smell but had probably gotten used to it by now.
He heard the hum of a motor coming from the corner of the room and went towards it, pulling aside the sheets to get to it. It was coming from a fridge freezer. Like the one in the kitchen, it had a freezer compartment, but unlike that one, it had something besides ice in it, he discovered as he pulled open the door.
In it was something the size of a football wrapped in a white plastic bag. He nudged it. It looked heavy and like meat of some sort. There was very little ice around it, suggesting it had just been put there. In fact, it was so fresh, he found he had little difficulty pulling it out without the ice making it stick to the sides.
As he removed it, he braced himself to take hold of it but it was so heavy, it rolled onto the floor.
He bent down and began to unwrap it. It was round and pink. As he did, so it reminded him of the pigs' heads he used to fetch for his father from the butcher's. He didn't think they sold them any more. This would make a tasty meal or two.
He was just turning round to see where she was to ask her about it.
Blood was starting to seep from the bag onto the floor. “Brenda, what's---” was all he managed to get out before a huge icicle came through a gap in the sheets and entered his windpipe, causing him to go down like a slaughtered pig in an abattoir.
She threw the weapon out of the window for the sun to melt.
By morning it and him would have ceased to exist and the room was immaculate.
“A man a day keeps the doctor away,” she kept muttering to herself and she took off her apron and went into the bathroom to scrub herself clean.
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