Old Habits and New Arrivals By Alun Evans

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What I mean to say is that there was a slightly contagious form of madness spreading its way through the house. It was one of those subtle forms of insanity, the kind not to be picked up in its early formative stages. From what the narrator could gather, the madness’ early manifestations had come with the arrival of Peter, a sculptor/house cleaner born and bred in Beeston. Peter’s newly-acquired room had recently been vacated by the post-punk, straight-edge vegan Birdy, who had stopped paying rent three months before in what he called ‘a political protest against the corporate capitalist scum’, but which in reality meant Birdy had been kicked off his housing allowance for refusing to leave Beezlebub – his demented Pitbull-Alsation hybrid thing – outside of the Housing Benefits office. This subsequently left his three other housemates – Alexandria, Phillip and August – footing the bill instead and they’d had to find a replacement quick-sharpish. This was accomplished through Gumtree. Et voilà: Peter.

 

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When Peter arrived with his bag of belongings, the room smelled of tangy lemon marijuana and still-thriving BO. Flyers for hardcore gigs were sellotaped up on every available wall space, hiding the damp.

‘Feel free to just rip all that shit down,’ Alexandria had informed Peter, not seeming to notice the smell, the physical presence of it lingering in the room’s corners like an all too substantial poltergeist. Neither did Alexandria notice Peter’s own reaction to the room, which was, however, minimal to the point of negligible. Alexandria was looking elsewhere, inwards, and she knew that her Twitter and her Tinder and her Linked In and her Facebook and her Instagram simply weren’t going to police themselves. No sir they weren’t.

 

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And so Peter had set about refurbing the room in accordance with his own needs and tastes. To the rest of the tenants, these needs and tastes appeared ascetic to the extreme, bordering on total aesthetic and emotional neglect.

‘He’s living like a total monk,’ is how August phrased it, talking in subdued tones from the kitchen area to Phillip, laid out in the living-room’s Oakley (other brands are probably available) leather recliner, hopelessly addicted to Bethesda Game Studios’ RPG shooter, Fallout 4.

‘At least he’s quiet,’ replied Phillip, working on his Power Armour so that he might stand a better chance against the Super Mutants currently besieging Sanctuary Hill’s shack walls. Phillip was hoping that August would soon leave the room and stop disrupting the immersive, post-apocalyptic ambience he had, for the past eight months now, being building his life upon.

August nodded, spreading Lurpak Spreadable across a suspect-looking piece of blue bread. He was thinking about the alternative, the previous occupant: Birdy’s late-night ravings against the Conservatives, the Liberals, Labour, the Greens; he was thinking about the hours he stood there in front of Birdy’s weed-focused polemical fury, nodding politely and being unable to detach himself from the ranting and go to bed, or else go to Alexandria’s bed, where there would be a 50/50 chance that something might happen, something that might, inevitably, lead to something else. Because that is what had been happening recently.

 

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In other words, the household was not as harmonious as it had never been and, focusing on this new disharmony that was not the same as the old disharmony the original inhabitants had grown used to (it was, after all, at least exciting when the police got called after Birdy threatened to punch the landlord because he was acting like a total Nazi), said original inhabitants decided a house meeting should be called in order to discuss this newly distinguishable disharmony as exacerbated by their recently acquired Gumtree tenant.

They called the house meeting – the first of its kind – via WhatsApp and Snapchat. When everyone responded except for Peter, who was in his room and very quiet, they sat down together in the living room (meaning: Alexandria, August and Phillip did), turned off the X-box One and closed the lids of their humming trio of Macbook Pros. When all was relatively uncomfortably quiet they picked straws to see who would approach Peter’s room and ask if he might like to take part in proceedings. Unfortunately, due to lack of straws (because who actually buys straws in this day and age anyway?), the reality-bound threesome had to rely on picking coins out of an opaque tea mug instead, with the hierarchy of the value of the coins being based, obviously, on their respective monetary value. Which really didn’t quite work out too well, given that coins are all different sizes and weights and are easily distinguishable from touch alone. But none of the housemates seemed to care enough to consider this flaw in the decision-making process, and Alexandria lost because she was the last to pick her coin.

‘I really don’t want to do this,’ Alexandria said, to which August replied that he’d put himself in her place for a blowjob (‘I’m totally kidding dude’, he quickly added, but he wasn’t, not at all) and Phillip said something that could have been ‘fuck that shit’ but maybe wasn’t.

 

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Clutching the offending two-pence piece in her hand, Alexandria trotted reluctantly up the stairs to once-Birdy’s room as Phillip and August gave each other secret and silent high-fives in the living-room; August then opening his Macbook to Skype his girlfriend Megan, who was currently travelling around the US and kept posting Instagram photos of her selfie-decapitated and sunbaked legs at the Grand Canyon, at Venice beach, at some show in Las Vegas etc. and who didn’t really know about August’s sporadic nocturnal activities with his housemate i.e. the now-ascending Alexandria; Phillip turning back on his X-box and once again hoping that August might leave the room and take his scattered, lagging Skype conversation (that would occasionally – and obscenely, grossly – take a dangerous public turn into sweating innuendo) into the privacy of his own bastard bedroom.

 

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When Alexandria knocked on Peter’s room, it took him a long moment to answer. It was the kind of long moment that might make you think someone’s either not at home, or, if you know they are definitely at home, then they are either in a very deep sleep or are just dead. When Peter did finally answer (he wasn’t dead), he said this: ‘I’m just, um, pretty busy.’

‘It’s kinda important Peter,’ Alexandria replied, staring at the blank door and imagining all kinds of nefarious situations Peter might be involved with in there, behind that plank of blank wood. Although his voice did sound nice and soft, politely gentle. ‘It’s… well, we’re thinking of having a house meeting kind of thing.’

‘Yeah?’ came Peter’s uncertain reply. ‘What were you thinking about having a house meeting about?’ A pause. ‘Have we got rats?’

‘What!?!’ Alexandria scanned the hallway subconsciously for vermin. ‘No, of course not. It’s not about… Wait a minute, have yougot rats?’

Another long pause, before: ‘No, I was just guessing. It seems like the kind of issue that a house meeting would be called for. Like to talk about how much an exterminator costs, or about buying one of those, um, subsonic devices that are humane and just, irritate them until they leave?’

‘Yeah right, that’s true. But I mean, there could be other issues too, aside from rodents.’ Alexandria had no idea about what these subsonic devices were, but Peter’s voice was relaxing, and led her to believe that these devices definitely existed and would probably be a great call if they did ever happen to have a rat problem in the near future.

‘I guess you’re right’ – shuffling noise behind the door, and Alexandria imagining one giant rat edging around the bare room of ex-housemate Birdy, and then Alexandria also realising that she couldn’t quite remember what this new housemate, Peter, actually looked like. Did he look a bit like Christian Bale in that film where he chops off his arm? Was he amputated like Megan was in her selfie-trip across America, but this time actually? Or was that what Birdy had looked like, before he flew the coop?

‘Should I’ – Peter said, very hesitantly now – ‘come and join the meeting then?’

‘Yeah, well that’s why I was coming up, here. To ask if you’d like to join in and discuss… any issues we might need to get off our chests?’

‘But not rats?’

‘God no! No rats period. Forget the rats. Just… other things on our chests, on our minds.’

‘Okay, cool.’

Alexandria stood staring at the door, kind of touching the cool metallic handle, expecting it to open. When it didn’t, she said, ‘So I’ll see you downstairs in five?’

‘Totally,’ responded the door.

 

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After two hours of waiting (no one venturing back on up to Peter’s room because it just seemed, well, rude), Phillip is fine, because he’s back on track with Fallout 4 and his EXP rating is going through the roof and ain’t no way any laser damage is getting on through his Power Armour right now, shit. As is August, who’s broken up (via Skype) with the image of tanned legs in various touristy places that constitutes Megan (some lagged weeping ensued), and is, quietly but less quietly than when he still had a girlfriend, trying to persuade Alexandria to experience all that a sojourn to his bedroom might entail. Alexandria, meanwhile, is successfully rebuffing all August’s repetitive attempts, and is not even opening her Macbook, is looking back up at the stairs where the soft voice of what probably wasn’t a human-sized rat had spoken through the two, three inches of wood and promised it would come and join in with the meeting that, unbeknownst to the rat, would seek at victimising it because it just ‘didn’t fit neatly here, really, and it was probably time to be looking at more, like, better options that would be mutually, y’know, beneficial for everyone involved’, and Alexandria is staring at the bottom step of shitty-coloured carpet, and even though she can’t remember exactly what their new housemate looks like, she is wondering (and in a very wonderful and surprising manner that makes her feel like she’s back in that world of childhood that had all seemed so tangible once upon a time) if she might not be, accidentally, disgustingly, totally out-of-the-blue as it were, in love. And this, she mulls over in a distracted way, would be the first time ever. A new experience. Something to possibly tell someone at some point in the near future. Something to post about. But then, how would the strange subtlety of such an event be accurately conveyed? How would she display her heart to the rest of her followers? How?

 

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Alun Evans is an English writer with an MA in Creative Writing from the Centre of New Writing, Manchester University. Since graduating, he has been published in VICEThe Lampeter ReviewLitro MagazineStructoOpen PenÉclat Fiction and the Saatchi Gallery Magazine. He has also been shortlisted three times for Glimmer Train‘s Short Story Award for New Writers.
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Image by Robert Chilton. More of Robert’s work can be viewed here: http://robertchilton.co.uk

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