The House-Guest

(or 'No Good Deed Goes Unpunished')


Mid February, early morning. You’re woken by a weird scraping noise outside. In fact, every sodding Monday for the past month you’ve been woken by that same noise. It’s hardly light out there, and it’s freezing, but you get up anyway: this time you’ll see what the hell it is.

Ten minutes later you step outside. A shard of ice as long as your arm glances your left ear. You leap away and stare up at a glistening row of daggers along the twisted gutter you forgot to fix. They’re beautiful, but you snap the ones above the door and sling them on the white-frozen lawn. Then, listening intently, you gaze into the misty ice-deadened silence. Beyond bushes by the gate, a sudden rustling. You sigh… birds scratching in frost-hardened leaves! Surely, that can’t be it? You’re about to turn and go back in – then unmistakably, and loud, the scraping noise again.

You move quickly to the gate. Obviously, someone’s out there. But every Monday? And why so bloody early… especially on a day like this? Can it possibly be the postman - fiddling with mail? Not all this time! You peer out.

What the hell!

It’s bloody Fred, the wizened old road-sweeper - inept brainless lackey - diligently yet unproductively, as ever, at ‘work’ in the alley. It must be a couple of months since you paused to chat with him in the next street.

That was your first mistake. You’d never seen him before then. At least you learned that the council had deemed their little motorised units unsafe in narrow alleys - so had assigned ‘Waste Operative’ Fred to the task. But the conversation soon turned agonisingly banal and tedious; you couldn’t get away fast enough.

‘Oi!’ you yell.

The decrepit apparition looks up with a sly grin… not that he hadn’t seen you before you spoke; nothing could have been more obvious - he wasn’t in the least startled by your calling-out. It’s a guilty grin too, you notice, as if he well knows he’s waking people up with all his unnecessary scraping.

‘Why not wheel the sodding barrow instead of scraping it?’ you shout.

He just stares back grinning like an idiot. Could he be blushing slightly…? No way, it’s just his nose – red from booze, no doubt. He’s actually delighted he’s woken you. You can tell that much. It shows in his eyes: malicious little dots in an unwashed badly-shaven mug. He’s struggling to conceal his joy at provoking you to the extent of actually emerging from your cocoon and coming outside, especially on a morning like this.

‘And sweeping!’ you exclaim, ‘In these conditions? It must be ten below at most.’

This is your second mistake. You know it, but the fact doesn’t quite register. Despite the cold, most of your brain is still asleep… the important bits anyhow. Somewhere in your head you sense the monumental scale of your error, yet an inexplicable sense of pity seems to have gripped you - or is it an insane and badly misjudged urge ‘to help’? Even you can’t quite fathom what it is that’s driving your decisions.

The instant you knew the source of the scraping, you reflect hazily, you should have retreated as swiftly and silently as you appeared - and kept well out of sight for at least half-an-hour. But then, how else to put an end to the disturbance except by making your presence known, and protesting? Either way, it’s too late now…

Or is it?

‘I do this alley every week.’ croaks the old rogue in a thin hoarse whisper. He stands there in a grotesque twisted posture, hunched precariously over his brush, which rests at a steep angle on the glistening path and looks about ready to slip, yet by some miracle remains firm. ‘I’m normally earlier than this.’ He adds with emphasis. His voice cracks as if breaking in the frozen air.

‘Don’t I know it!’ You groan, realising that it might not be too late, that maybe you could still back out. But feeling like a prick you continue nonetheless. Your curious performance is further boosted by certain little cues: the thin straggles of hair like straw on a scarecrow that splay from under his crumpled grime-encrusted hat, and the soiled, badly-fitting old buttonless coat with half-detached pockets and a knotted length of dirty string holding it together… further down, baggy trousers at ‘half-mast’ covered in stains, and several misshapen patches in various shades of brown. Finally you spot a swollen purple big-toe peeping like a giant festering maggot from a warped open-ended boot whose companion curls at the tip like the sting of a scorpion….  

‘Don’t I know it.’ you repeat with a shudder, struggling to extricate the maggot from memory, and poising helplessly between compassion and repugnance, between pity and disgust, ‘But no one would expect you to sweep today….’

'You think so?' he mumbles, shivering.

The balancing-act going-on in your brain could still tip either way, you sense, as if a resolution is yet to be settled. Then, as though from somewhere else, you hear yourself announce in a reluctant voice: ‘Leave the barrow an’ come on in; I’ll make a hot drink.’

‘That’s done it,’ you think, ‘I must be insane… but I can’t back out now…’ and with deep foreboding you swing open the gate.

This is your third and worst mistake: and although you’re now a little more awake, watching and listening almost like a hawk, still you brush aside and ignore what your finer senses detect so plainly: the flicker of fake self-pity in the old twister’s voice … the subtle give-away smirk so typical of the opportunist at work upon spotting a weakness: the smirk of recognition that a measure of furtive-power is within reach or has been grasped, a smirk these charlatans can never quite suppress, even if they succeed in confining it to their eyes alone.

Despite these omissions, and that you’re not so naïve as to subscribe to the notion that certain human characteristics apply equally to animals, as some people like to think – stories for children are solid with such ploys – you nevertheless attribute to other humans the characteristics and feelings you experience. This, you know, is a dubious practice - why else are psychopathy and autism so baffling… and how else does one explain such wildly different outlooks, for instance, as communism and capitalism – yet, although the backgrounds and psychology of two people from the same culture could hardly be more disparate, you fail to acknowledge the gulf between you and Fred.

Which means the scope for misunderstanding and confusion is vast. Neither of you can ever perceive like the other…. yet communication of a sort ensues - or so it seems - and even the start of a vague kind-of ‘friendship’, or what passes for friendship, one sided as it inevitably is… it is, of course, down merely to a growing familiarity.

Once through the door, before you can stop him, the old cretin makes straight for the lounge. Before you know it he’s on your sofa – how so quick? He moves like a snake. How did you fail to divert him to the kitchen? You try to compose yourself, and wince as he wipes his hands down the side of the sofa. ‘OK,’ you tell yourself, ‘he’s there now, no point in making him move; he’ll only contaminate somewhere else.’

Minutes later you place a hot cup of tea on the low table in front of him. You can’t bring yourself to imagine what he might have touched while you were out of the room. As far as you can tell, he remained on the sofa, but you’re not certain of it.

He nods ostentatiously at your cocktail cabinet. ‘Any chance of a nip?’ he croaks, ‘Something to ward off the cold? Just in the tea.’

‘Cheeky bugger,’ you think. Even so, you pour a slug of whisky into a glass. ‘Please yourself,’ you say, ‘whether you tip it in and vaporise most of the spirit, or drink it separately.’

He seems confused by your remark then tips it in, dripping some on the carpet. He takes a slurp – more for the carpet - and declares he can’t taste the spirit at all. Then he questions if it really was whiskey.

You tell him to smell the glass. He says he can’t smell; he has a cold. True enough, his nose has been running the whole time. You offer him a clean tissue. He declines, as if he has no wish to deprive you of it, then wipes his nose on his wrist instead. A moment later when he thinks you’re not looking you notice edgewise him slyly smear his wet wrist on the sofa. You offer the tissue again, and again he declines.

He asks you a string of impertinent questions: ‘Are you rich?’ he says, ‘You seem rich. Anyone with a car like yours must be rich.’

‘No.’ you say, ‘I’m definitely not rich. I live on a basic pension is all. And the car is old and was cheap. It’s been well looked after, that’s what.’

‘How about these things?’ he says, in a tone of incredulity, waving his arm, ‘All this nice furniture? That huge television; it must be at least a 50-incher. And you live alone, don’t you? You only have yourself to think about.’

‘Forget me,’ you snap, ‘What about you?’

Though nothing could enthuse you less, you force yourself to show some interest in this irritating intruder into your life. So you ask about his circumstances, how and where he lives, what his hobbies are, and so forth. Instead of the potted autobiography you expect, you get a summary of several TV soaps – all of them agonisingly dull, in your opinion (which you decide easiest kept to yourself – a more punishing subject for discussion could hardly exist). After a while, you manage to manoeuvre him around….  He tells you he lives in a dingy basement-flat the council rented him when he took the position of ‘Waste Operative grade-3’ he proudly declares. The place is all drafts. He has lousy neighbours. The whole block stinks of sewage. Then he returns to some banal TV show he likes, a game-show with vast sums of money for prizes.

Your interest flags and eventually he gets bored so decides to go…. What a relief. After more than an hour! You see him out and through the gate. Then you go to check the damage…. the grime, his obnoxious germ-ridden slime on the arms and side of your sofa. That cover will have to be washed, but in this weather? And the toilet…. he used the toilet…. you need to wipe a few things there (like everything!). What else? It takes most of the morning to get the place straight again.

What a prat you’ve been. At least you gave the old bugger a break from his icy ordeal - and by the scale of it, you can count the episode as your good deed for the year! But he’s gone now. ‘Just don’t ever entertain him again,’ you firmly tell yourself. Whew!

And life returns to normal…. For two days!

On the third day, Thursday, at 07.30, as usual, you’re still asleep. Then the door bell goes. ‘What?’ you wonder, as you stir from a fantasyland of dreams… of gliding around sensational mountains in some wild prehistoric terrain, riding in a kind of ornate dirigible, or maybe… were you actually flying solo? But the scene already drifts far away, the whole experience turning into vapour as dreams so frequently and so annoyingly do, so tenuous and fragile unlike any normal memory or experience. And it’s gone!

Now you’re glaringly conscious of a series of horrendously loud bangs on the door. ‘What the hell,’ you think, crawling out of bed, ‘only the cops would make such a din.’ You’ve seen them on TV conducting their notorious early-morning raids, going after people they suspect of some crime, and are determined to catch. But you’d never risk involvement with crime or anything that might disturb your luxurious life of idling. It’s obviously a mistake, a wrong address. A malicious informer has given them false information. Either way, you’d better go and see before they demolish the house! The bell rings persistently between the hammering, as if it’s some kind of emergency. By the sound of it, there’ll be a substantial claim for damage.

‘OK! OK!’ you yell above the banging and ringing, as you stagger to the door.

And then…. no prizes for guessing, though you’re startled out of your bed-socks.

‘YOU?’ you howl, ‘What the hell are you playing at?‘

Little wizened Fred, leaning guiltily forward, eyes you mournfully from beneath the edge of his decrepit grease-smeared hat. ‘My cat’s dead.’ He croaks, now looking down, ‘She was so lovely. All I had in the world.’

You examine the door. Amazing… no obvious damage. How can such a pathetic little menace cause such immense mayhem? The only response you can muster is a loud groan of anguish.

And before you can slam the door or even think how to handle the situation, he’s snaked past you and in, into the lounge. How did he do that?

‘I’ll tell you what happened.’ He says, then: ‘This is such a comfortable sofa.’ And, as you stand in the doorway, still half-asleep, utterly confused and staring horrified at the filthy spectre before you with its nose dripping on your sofa, it looks at you and says, cheerfully, ‘Any chance of a cuppa?’

‘You little bastard!’ you shout, ‘Waking me like that! What the hell… then charging in here as if you own the place….’

But you stop rigid. What now? Can he be crying? Can this grown man, old and wretched as he is, be crying over the death of a lousy bloody cat? But he sounded so cheerful a mere instant ago. He must be acting, surely.

‘Look.’ You say, ‘I’m sorry about your cat. But if it’s dead, it’s dead. What the hell can I do?’

‘You don’t have to shout at me.’ He whines, sobbing and dribbling on the carpet. You thrust a tissue at him. He takes it but puts it to his eyes instead of his dribbling mouth or dripping nose.

So it’s you making him cry, not the dead cat.

‘Christ!’ you exclaim, ‘This is torment!’ then calming yourself add, ‘OK, so tell me, how did it die?’

Now he spills out a whole list of woes. A dog in the neighbouring flat barks all night. It’s a vicious dog too, a Dobermann: big and aggressive. It obviously hates him. If he complains, the owner threatens to set it on him. There’s always trouble about the dustbins too, and rain comes in the edges of the windows making the place damp and cold. He ends with how the neighbour strangled his cat in revenge for him having his TV too loud. He doesn’t know this for certain, but it’s obvious, he says. He found the cat frozen solid with wire round its neck hanging from a fence outside the flats.   

After listening for nearly two hours, sympathising, consoling, hardly to mention several cups of tea, two laced, you manage to persuade the old villain to leave. You tell him very firmly not to disturb you again ever, that sleep is the most important and crucial part of your life and that you can’t be held responsible if next time you react more violently than even a Dobermann.

He nods, says he understands, that he won’t wake you again, definitely. You don’t believe him, but what can you do? After he’s gone, it’s another morning wasted in clearing-up after the fetid little skunk.

This time, four days slip pleasantly by. Indeed, on the Monday you wake normally, not a sound. ‘Wonderful,’ you think, ‘back to bloody normal at last. No scraping noises, and no sodding pest lurking out there ready to pounce. Good!’

Monday evening the bell rings. You go to the door. Already before you open it you can see through the frosted glass that it’s him. You hesitate to open it, but the light’s on in the hall, and he’s seen you now anyhow.

‘What do you want?’ you hold the door just slightly open, enough to get your head around to see him. He’s got a backpack on that looks about to burst and is weighing him down into a bent posture. A couple of bulging superstore-bags are on the ground, one either side of him.

‘I’m a fugitive.’ He says, with a weird lascivious grin.

‘Well, you’re not coming in here.’ You tell him firmly, your foot against the door ‘I’ve had about enough of your antics.’

‘They’re going to kill me.’ He mumbles in a weepy voice, then the tears start, and sobbing…

You wonder how the hell anyone can go from grinning to crying in an instant like that. ‘Who’s going to kill you, for Christ’s sake?’ you bark.

‘The neighbour.’ He whines, ‘I poisoned that terrible dog and now he’s going to do to me what he did with the cat.’

‘Well, I don’t want him coming here.’ you tell him. ‘You should go to the police.’

‘They’ll get me for killing his dog.’ He moans, ‘And the neighbour will know and get me after.’

You experience a moment of curiosity ‘How did you poison it?’

‘I nicked some strychnine from the park-warden’s shed and put it in some chocolate. Then I left the chocolate on the step outside the neighbour’s door.’ The way he speaks implies he regards it an act of great ingenuity.

‘They should keep these poisons locked-up’

‘It was when old Jack went for a leak.’ He says weakly, ‘We were just having a quiet smoke together there in the store-shed.’

‘Have you washed your hands?’ you ask, alarmed.

‘Oh, I’m careful with anything like that.’ he says, sniffing, ‘I used to work at a golf-course and we had to poison moles with it…. Can I come in?’

‘No.’ you snap, ‘I don’t want any hassle.’

‘There’ll be no hassle,’ he says brightly, obviously sensing you weaken, ‘I promise.’

‘I just can’t be arsed with all your troubles right now.’ You tell him.

‘No one knows where I am. They’d never find me here.’ And he launches into another bout of sobbing and sniffling, as if that should do the trick. ‘I’ve nowhere else…’

‘Don’t you know anyone?’ you ask despairingly, struggling not to cave in.

‘Not a soul,’ he whimpers, ‘And I’ve lost my job too – when old Jack saw I’d been at his strychnine he told his boss. It was hardly any, less than a teaspoon.’

‘I guess you'll have to move on,’

He shrugs, ‘I’ve only been in this district three months. I was in the west country for two years, then I went to a friend’s place in Birmingham for a few months before here. He threatened if I didn’t leave he’d beat me up. No one likes me.’

‘I’m not bloody surprised.’ You think, then say, ‘Well, you'll have to go back to your flat for tonight, because you’re not staying here.’

Again the tears, and he kneels with his face in his hands, the backpack nearly crushing him and slipping sideways so he tips over and lays there like a gigantic curled up dog-turd on your doorstep.

You’re getting frozen standing there with the door ajar. ‘I’m not standing here arguing with you all night,’ you declare. ‘So….’

‘Please?’ he whines plaintively, like a mouse begging.


‘I’ll do anything…. Sob sob….’

The situation is intolerable. ‘Gawd, bloody hell, all right then!’ you snap, ‘But only for tonight. OK? Is that clear? Is that understood?’

‘Oh, thank you.’ He grovels, ‘Thank you. Thank you. You won’t regret it. I can help with a lot of things, you know.’

So in he comes. This time he doesn’t move so stealthily, and waits for you to tell him where to go. You show him up to the spare room. He can sleep there. Better than the bed-settee in the lounge – there’s no telling what he might get up to in there during the night. Upstairs you dig out a couple of your worst inherited sheets, and a rough old under-blanket. Then you go to the kitchen and fix him some food while he unpacks his junk. The two carriers remain in the hall. You can’t even bring yourself to look in them, let alone touch. They seem to be emitting a musty smell that reminds you of when you kept mice as a kid.

Next day over breakfast you ask him what he intends to do now. He says he doesn’t know. He’ll go out and meet with someone who’ll be able to tell him when the coast’s clear for getting the rest of his stuff.

‘The rest of your stuff?’ you blurt, startled.

 ‘Just a couple more carriers.’ he says.

‘Not here.’ You tell him. Then you remind him that he agreed to arrange some other accommodation. He says OK and wanders off into another misty ice-deadened day.

Later in the afternoon he returns with his two bags. He’s all in a fluster. Apparently, the neighbour has acquired another Dobermann, a sibling of the poisoned one, and even bigger. This one, the neighbour has vowed, will take vengeance. It’s just a matter of time.

‘You’ll have to leave the district now,’ you suggest, a bit too enthusiastically.

‘I can’t do that,’ he declares. ‘I’ve no money. I’m going to sign-on later in the week. Thursday.’

‘I’ll give you some money.’ You say with a sigh.

‘Oh, I can’t accept your money.’ He immediately replies, shaking his head. His hat falls off to reveal a half-bald scalp infested with white dots, flecks of dead skin that fall all around, and a few myriad other things besides. ‘Just let me have one more night here,’ He adds, drearily ‘and I know I’ll find somewhere tomorrow.’

‘Just one more night?’ you say, and instantly regret the questioning tone - it should have been a firm statement of fact.

‘That's all.’ He says.

‘What kind of a gullible, feeble-minded prat am I?’ you silently ask yourself. Then you reflect he was no trouble last night, so maybe one more night will be OK. He can hardy create more dirt than he has already.

‘Alright,’ you tell him, ‘Just one more night then.’ He pushes past you and heads up the stairs. You watch his filthy carriers scraping the walls either side as he goes. 

Next morning, brooding on the disruption and hassle, you wait uneasily to remind him that he can’t stay another night. The issue plays on your mind so it’s hard to think about anything else.

Despite being deliberately noisy as you move about, he doesn’t emerge till 11.20. Then he goes straight out – declaring, in a dreary 'I've heard it all before' tone of callous indifference as he slinks through the hall, that he will continue his search for alternative digs. He leaves you with an indelible impression of total disregard for your feelings, let alone the inconvenience.

All day you’re on edge, wondering if this really will be when he finally leaves. The issue dominates you. Unable to bring yourself even to think about doing the things you’d normally enjoy, you put usual activities on-hold.

It’s not till quite late, 20.00, when he returns. The uncertainty and the wait has left you quite tense. He’s had no luck, he says. ‘Luck?’ you say to yourself, unsurprised, ‘If I’m any judge the little sod hasn’t even tried!’

But you’re powerless. And so he stays yet another night. And the same scenario plays out Wednesday, then Thursday, and again Friday till the weekend. All the while not the remotest hint of appreciation for your generosity - or regard for you in any form.

By now your nerves are beginning to fray. You’re becoming almost paranoid. You’ve eaten virtually nothing for two days. You haven’t even been out. The lounge is looking badly neglected. Dark patches are clearly visible on the carpet around where the old mendicant has claimed his regular place – and where, only a week ago, was an elegant sofa, now looking about ripe for the dump.

The hallway too has taken on a shabby appearance: the two original bulging carriers still dominate, their weird stench seeming to have infected the entire house. ‘The place will need fumigating.’ You reason gloomily.

So it’s Saturday morning, 10.30. Despite the misery, you prime yourself to finally do a bit of shopping: milk, bread, eggs... Fred, apparently, is still in the spare room, asleep. Curiously, he hasn’t made a sound in ages, not since he used the bathroom at an indeterminately early hour. You’re not sure about leaving him alone in the house, there’s no telling.... though shopping would take only half-an-hour. Yet something you can’t get your head around isn’t quite right. You had to load a new toilet roll in the bathroom when the one that had been there was nearly full. You suppose he must have taken it for tissues.

But there’s something else bothering you. What, though? True, one of the carriers in the hall was gone when you came down, presumably he took it up to his room? But the house “feels” different. You shrug and open a drawer in the kitchen where you keep an old wallet with a couple of £20s for the odd bit of shopping….

It’s empty. Briefly you stare in disbelief. Did you spend it? You can’t remember doing so, but maybe you did? As you try to remember, you wander into the hall, gaze for a moment at the remaining stench-ridden bag - it should be in the shed (if only you could bring yourself to touch it) - then continue to the lounge. Strange: the glass door of your booze cabinet is open. You go over and look more closely. The whisky is gone. And… Hell! There was a new bottle of brandy at the back! The little bastard has taken it. Is he laying upstairs tanked out of his head, and probably pissed the bed into the bargain? You’ve already decided the mattress will have to go. You walk quickly back into the hall and up the stairs.

‘Fred!’ you call out as you go, ‘Fred!’

Not a sound. You throw open the spare-room door.

Total chaos… stuff everywhere, bags emptied, junk strewn over the bed and floor, the most hideous trash imaginable: torn dirty rags mostly, bundles of old newspapers, with bits of sacking tied with string, several empty wine bottles in a broken carrier…. and the stink!

But no Fred.

‘Where the hell is the sod?’ you mutter.

A thought strikes you. You charge back down the stairs to the hall. As you suspect, the front door is unlocked. The little rat has scarpered - with perhaps £40, the booze, a toilet roll, and…. you discover a few minutes later when you open the fridge… a big wedge of mature cheddar. What else has he taken, you wonder?

After a few minutes, though, you begin to reflect: ‘If he’s nicked stuff and scarpered, he’s not likely to return in a hurry.’ Instantly, you feel yourself relax. It’s almost as though Fred’s presence was a mere passing whirlwind. The episode is over. The ordeal is at an end. Suddenly, you’re almost jubilant. All you have now is a clear up job. A massive clear up, true, but a mere trifle compared with the stress and annoyance you’ve had to tolerate over the last few days. 'Put the incident down to experience.' you tell yourself, 'It’s just one of those insane errors of judgment we all make from time to time, but not something that can’t be corrected.' At last life returns to normal. Lessons have been learned, that’s for sure!

You decide that for Saturday you’ll rest, just take life easy. Tomorrow you’ll begin the big clear-up in earnest. First, you’ll take the mattress to the dump with all the other trash, then maybe go and see about a new sofa. The carpet can probably be cleaned. OK.

Saturday evening is a joy. Then, after a good kip, you get up Sunday almost fully recovered from the trauma. You’re breakfasting contentedly on a banana and coffee when there’s a sudden loud banging outside. ‘What the hell…’ you wonder, ‘And on a Sunday?’

You go to the door and look out. A guy with the build of a heavyweight boxer is ferociously rattling the door of your shed. He’s massive: well over six-foot and probably weighing not much short of 20-stone.

‘Out, you fucker!’ he bawls, ‘Come out!’

‘What the hell?’ you shout, ‘That’s my shed!’

The guy looks round at you. ‘You can shut your fucking mug for a start!’ he yells back.

‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ you demand, pacing out towards him. The deep heavy bark of a dog that makes you shudder emanates from behind the shed. You’ve never heard such a scary bark. It’s unreal.

‘Get back.’ The guy bellows, turning again to face you. That’s when the dog appears. It’s bloody huge… as unreal as its bark. With lips curled back and quivering, a line of jagged uneven teeth show. Foaming saliva drips either side of a jaw that could take your head off in one snap. And it’s coming at you - snarling. You leap away, but too slow. Before you know it the dog has your left thigh and you’re down. Its teeth go deep. The pain is excruciating. ‘Ahhhhh… H-E-L-P… Get off….’

The big guy is there now. ‘Told ya, did’n I?’ he yells at you. He has the dog by its collar and is dragging it away, still tearing at your leg.

The brute refuses to let go. You’re squirming and yelling ‘Get it off, Get it off!’

The guy, pulling hard and roaring at the top of his voice, smacks his other fist heavily into the side of the brute's head: Whop! It looks up at him, like it’s astonished, then drops you.

At that moment you catch a glimpse of Fred as he runs from your shed into the house. The big guy shoves the dog after him, but Fred has closed the front door. The big guy can’t open it. He charges it with his shoulder: Bang! But to no avail. The dog leaps up at the door, then turns, snarling again and comes towards you – till the big guy bawls at it. Now they both go round the side of the house.

Did you lock the back door? Obviously not, because they’re inside now. You can hear them. All the while, you’re lying there in agony and helpless on the frozen ground gripping your leg, blood everywhere.

‘Someone phone an ambulance!’ you scream.

You can hear things smashing in the house, as if there’s an almighty brawl going on. You can tell now they’re in the kitchen. There's a wild scuffle, then the dog howls with a kind of blood-curdling shriek that ends with a gargling sound. Next, more crashing noises, followed by quiet, and you wonder what the hell’s happening.

Soon you hear the attic gable window opening. You turn yourself around and look up. Fred is climbing onto the roof. He holds the gutter above the gable and edges around to the back of the gable.

The big guy follows. He’s clumsy and slips on the frosted roof. For a second he holds onto the sill, then loses grip. He tries to grab something but fails and turns then slides headfirst down and over the edge at the side of the house. You flinch, and although he’s out of sight, you close your eyes. A soft thud is followed by a clatter then silence. You look up again. Fred is getting back in the window. Shortly he emerges through the front door.

‘Where’s the dog?’ you gasp.

‘Dead.’ He mutters, panting and dribbling like a baby, ‘I killed it.’

‘Call an ambulance, for Christ’s sake.’ You plead, writhing and holding your leg, ‘Hurry, I’m dying.’

Fred pauses. He stands there a few feet away getting his breath and staring at you with a horrified look on his face. Then he turns and staggers quickly out through the gate.

‘Bastard!’ you cry after him.

You drag yourself into the house and call 999. You look in the kitchen, then wish you hadn’t. The dog lays in a pool of blood. It has your bread-knife handle between its teeth, and seems to have swallowed the blade. A meat cleaver is buried in the side of its neck.

That’s when the cops appear. They help you onto a chair and you try to answer their questions and describe what happened, but you’re incoherent. What’s wrong with your brain? Shock, they tell you. Then an ambulance arrives and takes you to the hospital.

Several hours later - once you’ve been treated and have had time to recover – you’re awaiting an x-ray for a suspected fracture when a woman cop introduces herself. She’s there to interview you and explain the situation with your house.

The big guy, she tells you, is dead. Died instantly from a broken neck. Him and his dogs were known to the cops, she adds. Fred is yet to be located and interviewed. There’s a file on him too, she says – for absconding from a secure mental institution in Birmingham three months earlier.

'Or "insecure"?' you suggest. But then you nod and thank her. She’s already organised a cleaning outfit to straighten your house, she says, once forensics have finished.

* * * * *

Three months later that same woman cop calls round. You still have a slight limp, you tell her, but feel considerably wiser for the episode. She smiles and informs you that Fred remains at large, and if he ever turns up, as according to his history he might, then to call them immediately... he's not dangerous, exactly, but is totally in no way to be trusted.

'Is that understood?' she asks, finally.

'Nothing could be clearer.' you tell her.

Which means - even if you install CCTV to check who's there - every time someone comes to your door you'll wonder, for one horrible moment:

Can it be HIM... ?

----------- // ----------