Lex fumbled for the key. Jacket pockets? No. Front trouser pockets? No. Back trouser pockets? No. He propped his forehead against the door. Specks of paint peeled off, sticking to his skin. Lex groaned. Where was it? Inside jacket pocket? His right hand hovered, mid-air. If it wasn’t in there, this last pocket, he was fucked.
It was there. Lex wrapped his fingers round it. A heavy skeleton key. Everything about this house was old-fashioned. Georgian, thought Lex. Either that or Victorian, or Edwardian. Definitely -ian.
He unlocked the door. Bearing a plastic bag containing three cans of Holsten Pils, he stepped over the threshold. Lex was home.
He switched on the lightbulb and dumped the cans down on the table. Boom-badda-boom came through the walls. His neighbours, an IT technician and his Asian consort, turned up the radio during lovemaking to drown out the moans. Lex appreciated that. Thoughtful of them.
Lex opened a can and slumped down on his bed. He kicked off his shoes and drank. He didn’t much like Holsten Pils; it had very little taste to speak of. But it was the cheapest in the shop.
An alarm clock lay on the floor, face up. Twenty past eleven. He’d need to crack on with the cans.
Badda-badda-baow. How had his neighbour managed it? His bedsit was the same size as this one; Lex had seen inside it. And there he was, with a woman. Cohabiting the space with a sex-crazed Oriental. The bastard.
He took another drink.
It was only at this point, some several minutes after entering the room, that Lex realised someone was sitting in his armchair. His can of beer wavered against his lips; his eyes strained and focused. Fucking hell. There was someone there.
The armchair was in the far corner of the room, beyond the wardrobe. Lex never used it, preferring the bed. It was a grey-green colour, with various stains, of a piece with its surroundings.
As for the person inhabiting it, a grey-green greatcoat covered him (Lex assumed it was a him) entirely, from head to feet. The head, in turn, was covered by a grey-green hunter’s cap. The throat was enveloped by a grey-green scarf. Lex strained his eyes. It might be, he thought, that the greatcoat, cap and scarf were all connected. That they formed one mega-garment.
Two battered hobnailed boots completed the ensemble.
Lex took a sip of his beer. Don’t do anything rash, he thought. Get your bearings. Take stock of the situation.
The stranger’s head was upright. Lex could make out an ear, cheek and whiskers. The lips were open. The eyes could not be seen under the cap. Gnarled hands gripped the armrests. Lex noted, with distress, a puddle on the floor. The visitor’s presence was not confined to the chair; it was seeping outwards. Had he relieved himself, there in the chair? For fuck’s sake! A drip fell off the coat. The boots looked damp, too. It wasn’t urine. He was wet from the rain.
That was something, at least. But Lex’s reassurance was short-lived. It wasn’t raining outside! He raised his free hand and patted the top of his head, just to check. Bone dry.
Next door, the music stopped. Lex would have been quite happy for them to carry on for a while. Now there was silence in the room. Another drip fell onto the floor.
Lex finished his can, shaking the last drops into his mouth.
He couldn’t put it off any longer. Something needed to be done, some action performed or statement made. But what, he wondered?
He cleared his throat.
“I couldn’t help noticing,” said Lex, “that you have taken up residence in the corner.”
The man in the chair remained motionless. His left boot, Lex realised, had no lace.
“Welcome, traveller,” said Lex. “May I be permitted to know who I am addressing?”
Lex reached over and cracked open another can.
“Far be it from me to transgress the sacred bonds of hospitality,” he said, but then stopped, not knowing what to say next.
Think, thought Lex. Had the door been locked when he arrived? Yes. The key had turned and clicked in the lock. So either the man had let himself in with a key, or someone else possessing a key had let the man in.
Who else possessed a key?
The landlord. Had Lex paid his rent recently? He’d been in arrears, certainly. There had been some uncomfortable discussions. But had it reached the stage where Lex had now been evicted and a new tenant installed?
Possibly. Lex was struggling to find alternative explanations.
As for the man being wet… perhaps he had recently come out of the shower? He had bathed in his clothing and had now retired for the night, there in the armchair.
Anyone choosing to bathe in their clothes, Lex decided, was a simpleton. That would explain the boot with no lace. The landlord, either in an act of charity, or with a view to providing company for Lex, or with a view to driving Lex out, had taken in a numbskull.
Lex worked through his second can. He had to admit, it was a crafty move on the part of the landlord. He’d backed Lex into a corner here. What were his options? Pay a premium to reclaim sole possession of the room? That was what the landlord was hoping for. Well he had another thing coming, the prick. Lex wasn’t just going to roll over here.
Think, thought Lex. How could he turn the situation to his advantage? Could he convert this outsider to his ally? Could the two of them work together, forming a united front?
Lex studied the stranger. He did not look well-equipped for a mission of that, or any, sort.
Lex had switched off the lamp. Soft orange light filtered in through the windows. The man in the corner was just a dark shape. Three cans of Holsten Pils lay empty on the floor.
Lex had abandoned all thought of engaging his house guest in any way. Let sleeping dogs lie, he reasoned. A sad, inescapable conclusion had been reached. He stretched his arms, relieved the crick in his neck, and swung his legs off the bed. He slipped on his shoes and grabbed his jacket from the table. He pocketed the alarm clock. He had little else to speak of, in the way of possessions.
He closed the door quietly behind him, and paused on the landing. Contented snoring came from his neighbour’s room. The fucker.
Lex sighed. He buttoned up his jacket and set off down the stairs. He had been outmanoeuvred, had lost this particular battle. Next time, perhaps, things would fall in his favour. You just had to keep rolling the dice.