House Rules

Picture Credits: Arek Socha

The guest arrived at the door
and knocked so loudly it made Gail jump. He was unshaven, his skin had a grey
tinge, and he wore a t-shirt with a cartoon character on it she didn’t
recognise. He was carrying a cabin-size bag which Gail thought strange,
considering how far he’d travelled. He was much taller than her and his
handshake hurt; without thinking, she wiped her hand on her jeans. Gail’s
daughter Poppy stood next to her, and the guest reached down and ruffled the
girl’s hair. Gail put her arm around Poppy and ushered her closer to her side.

“Come in,” she said to the man
and sent Poppy to play. He followed Gail upstairs as she showed him to the
room. Gail asked him the usual questions, like: How was your journey? What
brings you to Glasgow? Where are you from? Gail knew the answer to the last one
already because the website had told her, but she found it was a good way to
learn about the strangers who stayed in her home. This one was American, and
she wondered where he stood on gun laws and building walls.

“I’m visiting my aunt,” the
guest said. He put his luggage down and surveyed the room, which had walls the
colour of sour milk, and a sheepskin rug on the floor.

“That’s nice – she must be looking
forward to that,” Gail said.

“Yeah, but she’s not very well.
She’s been in hospital for the last month.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Gail said,
and paused. “You’re probably hungry – I have a list of restaurants.” She went
over to the chest of drawers and pulled out a laminated booklet she’d compiled
herself, though she didn’t go out to eat much these days. The booklet was so
guests would give her good reviews; she also let them use the herbs she grew on
her windowsill and kept hand cream by the soap in the bathroom. The man thanked
her and flipped through it too quickly to read anything.

“I might try one of these
tomorrow. I’m pretty tired,” he said, and looked at Gail. She hesitated slightly
too long and then smiled.

“I’ll leave you to it,” she
said.

Gail woke up in the middle of
the night. She lay in the bed she used to share with her husband, finding she
couldn’t sleep. Until recently, Poppy used to crawl in next to her, and even
though she took up a lot of space for a small person, Gail missed her. She
could hear the man’s snoring through the wall and the bed creaking as he moved
around. Gail thought she should be used to people staying with her by now, but
she kept a pair of nail scissors by her bed just in case. It’d mostly been
young people travelling, but she’d also had the occasional business casual type,
who left crumbs on her kitchen counter, wet towels on the bedroom floor and
hairs in the bath. One girl played ‘Eye of the Tiger’ at three a.m., and another
cut her nails onto the living-room floor, and Gail kept finding the sharp white
crescents months after she had
gone.

There
were footsteps in the next room and Gail lay still, listening. The man went to
the landing, and Gail got up and put on her dressing gown. The guest locked the
bathroom door, and she crept out. He coughed, and there was the sound of his
urine hitting the toilet bowl. Gail was cold now that she was out of bed and
she shivered, suddenly aware of her bare legs.

“Mummy?”
Poppy’s sleepy voice came from her room, and Gail froze, not wanting the man to
know she was there. “I had a nightmare,” her daughter said. Gail went quickly
into Poppy’s room and switched on the nightlight. Gail and her husband had
painted the walls green before her daughter was born and the colour gave
Poppy’s skin a sickly tinge. She was clutching Sylvester, her teddy bear who
only had one eye. Gail smoothed Poppy’s hair and asked what the dream was
about. “Daddy,” she said. Gail hugged her and told her everything was ok.

There
wasn’t much to show the guest had been in the bathroom apart from a glob of
soap on the sink which Gail wiped away. She looked in the mirror to see her
hair was stuck up on one side and the inner corners of her eyes were crusted
with sleep. People told her she was pretty, and she searched for what they saw.
Gail prodded the corners of her mouth, held her skin taut. She splashed water
on her face and brushed her dark brown hair.

In
the morning, the smell of bacon frying made Gail nauseous. The guest clattered
pots and pans, and the radio was on. The man turned around and smiled at Gail
and Poppy, his teeth slightly crooked. “Good morning,” he said. He was standing
in the way of the cupboard where the cereal was kept. “Sorry,” Gail said, and
motioned towards it, and they both stepped the same way. They smiled awkwardly,
and she hoped that was enough to hide her annoyance. Gail poured a bowl of
cereal for Poppy who splashed milk over the table as she ate.

“Cute
kid. She looks like you,” the man said.

“Thanks.
Have you got children?”

“No,
just a dog called Badger,” he said, and pulled out his phone to show Gail
pictures of a black and white crossbreed. “I’m lucky my boss lets me bring him
into work – the regulars love him.”

“Do
you like your job?”

“It’s
fine, nicer than other bars I’ve worked in. I studied law years ago, but I
didn’t pass the exams.”

Poppy
announced that she was finished and clanked her spoon down on the bowl. Gail
wrapped her in a thick padded jacket, a scarf and hat, meaning most of her
daughter’s face was obscured. They both said bye to the guest, Poppy waving her
small hand at him.

“Why
does that man live with us?” Poppy asked once they were in the car.

“We’ve
talked about this, sweetheart.”

“Is
it because we’ve got no money?”

“Don’t
worry about that. Have you got Sylvester with you today?” Gail said.

“Yeah.”

“What
are you doing at nursery today, Sylvester?” Gail said, and Poppy laughed and
the two of them talked, Poppy pretending to be the bear. They fell silent after
a while, and when Gail looked in the rear-view mirror, she noticed her daughter
was frowning.

The
front door was locked when Gail got back. “Hello?” she shouted, but there was
no response. She kicked off her trainers, which were damp from the rain. Gail
switched on the kettle and found her favourite mug was by the sink, the dregs
of the guest’s black coffee still in it; she ran the tap and scrubbed at the
ceramic until she was sure it was clean. Gail paused, thinking she heard
footsteps, but there was only water bubbling in the kettle and the birds in the
garden. She went to the fridge for milk and there was the smell of food gone
off.

Gail
sensed there was someone standing behind her, and she turned to see the guest
still wearing grey pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt with a hole in the neck. “Boo,”
he said and laughed. Gail forced a laugh and looked at the guest leaning
against the door frame. “Excuse me,” she said, and he moved so there was just
enough room for her to pass. Her shoulder brushed against him, and she could
hear him breathing.

Gail
switched on her laptop and scrolled through her work emails. There was one from
a magazine saying they weren’t interested in an idea she’d pitched, and another
from her husband which she deleted. Gail sighed, still feeling the slow burn of
annoyance at what had happened in the kitchen. Why hadn’t she told the man to
move? “See you later,” his voice came from downstairs and she didn’t reply.

Gail
and Poppy were sitting at the table. Poppy was colouring in a picture of a fox
with blue pencil, scribbling outside the lines, and Gail was writing an article
about tea-tree oil. It was dark outside and there were flecks of rain on the
window. Gail’s hands and face were cold, and she folded her arms across her
body. The front door opened, and the guest coughed, phlegm in his throat. He
hung up his jacket, and his phone fell out of it, clattering to the floor. “Shit,”
he said, and Gail looked at Poppy to see if she’d heard.

“How
was your aunt?” Gail said. The guest was still wearing his scuffed trainers and
his jacket had a brown stain on it. He rubbed his face, his stubble rasping
against his hands.

“Not
so good. There were all these tubes stuck in her and she’s lost so much weight.
We always used to watch films when I visited and then we’d stay up talking, now
she doesn’t know who I am.”

“That’s
a shame,” Gail said, tilting her head.

“I’m
going to miss her. I don’t have much family left,” he said, his words slightly
slurred.

He
walked closer to the table and looked over Poppy’s shoulder. “Wow, you should
be an artist when you’re older,” he said.

“But
I want to be an explorer,” Poppy said, and the guest laughed.

The
house was quiet after Gail put Poppy to bed. She tried to write, but she
shifted in the chair, her back stiff. Gail looked at the screen, the cursor
blinking, and then switched off the laptop. She wanted to watch something
mindless on TV, so she padded to the living room. The door was slightly ajar,
and she found the guest reclining on the sofa. He wasn’t wearing a top, and
Gail tried not to look at the scraggy hairs on his chest. His laptop was
balanced on his round stomach and he shut it as soon as she walked in.

“Come
and sit with me,” he said. His forehead glistened, and the room smelled like the
man’s sweat despite the scented candles dotted around. He’d switched on the gas
fire, and Gail’s top stuck to her.

“I
just came to get a book,” Gail said, and picked up one from the table.

“Don’t
go so soon,” the man said and placed his damp hand on Gail’s wrist. She froze
for a moment, and then pulled her arm away.

“You’ll
need to leave a day early I’m afraid,” she said. She paused as she thought of a
reason. “Poppy isn’t feeling well,” she said, her stare hard.

The
guest went early in the morning. He shut the front door loudly, and there was
the jangle of keys landing on the door mat. Gail waited, and then got up and
went to the spare room. The bed had been made, although the duvet was lopsided
and the pillows slightly crushed. There was a glass of water on the bedside
table, marked with the guest’s fingerprints. Gail’s phone pinged and she saw
there was an email saying he’d already left her a review. She swiped the
notification away and pulled the sheets from the bed.

There
was a knock outside and Gail’s chest grew tight. She looked around the room and
couldn’t see anything the guest had left. There was another knock, more
insistent this time, and Gail crept downstairs, pausing midway. She could see
the outline of a person in the frosted glass panel of the front door, and
whoever it was looked much smaller than the guest. Gail exhaled, and opened the
door to see a woman who had hair like a dandelion. She wore thick tortoiseshell
glasses and blue eyeshadow; she held a walking stick in one hand and a lit
cigarette in the other.

“Sorry
to bother you. Have you seen my nephew?” she said.