I offered him a hot bowl of beef stew, because it was the least I could do for an Internet friend in his position.
I’d been acquaintances with the guy for quite some time online – actually, I wasn’t sure if the person behind the Twitter handle was a guy given the androgynous avatar, non-descript name and his seemingly intentional (and often quite linguistically clever) avoidance of using gender pronouns whenever he spoke about himself. Turned out he deemed himself to be asexual and genderqueer, which explained that side of it (I’m going to carry on using the ‘he’ pronoun not out of insensitivity but for convenience.)
Anyway, that’s all by the by. He’d always made me laugh on Twitter and I loved his gaming website. He was a smart writer, a quick wit, and we both agreed strongly on politics and social stuff, as well as sharing a deep admiration for the same obscure comedy writer that nobody else seems to have heard of.
In short, I liked the guy.
But things were obviously taking a turn for the worst in his life and he was really down on his luck. I noticed that he was starting to increasingly tweet about being in a housing bind, and a lack of money had him eating porridge for most meals. This bothered me, and when he tweeted out the following, I was quick to reach out.
Too quick, it’d transpire.
“The job market sucks where I am. Anyone got a spare room somewhere with more opportunities that I can crash at for job interviews etc?”
At the time, I lived in Aylesbury. While a shit town in and of itself – I once spent a lunch break watching a crack addict try to steal a Victorian-era gravestone from the local church – to its credit, Aylesbury was a stone’s throw away from a few major cities and towns, notably London and Oxford (it presumably still is, unless they’ve moved any of these places.)
I didn’t know exactly where he was in the country, but if he needed to crash over for a couple of nights while attending job interviews or scouting out opportunities, our spare room was free.
I emailed him as such. At this point I discovered his real name – let’s call him Ben – and I was stunned at the reply…
… he was already in Aylesbury. In fact, this guy I’d randomly became friends with online and had known for a few years lived about 15 minutes’ walk from my house! Chances are I’d unknowingly walked past him in the street. Think of that.
So this revelation was a bit of a shocker, but unfortunately it also meant that my spare room wasn’t of much use to him. Staying at a house 15 minutes West of your current position isn’t going to appreciably broaden your job prospects any.
Well, that’s what I thought at the time. Ben’s reply suggested otherwise – he asked me if it was still okay to stay at our place, and was likely to only stay for a couple of months. Didn’t have any way of paying rent, but could do the dishes and stuff.
Aggghhh. I thought he only wanted a bed for the occasional night while he used it as a base to travel further afield! That’s certainly what his original tweet suggested, but maybe I’d screwed up? Had I interpreted things wrong, or had he just not worded himself properly? Shit. This kind of situation is not covered in standard British Awkward Social Etiquette protocol. This was approaching a DEFCON level of ‘profuse sweating’ on the politeness anxiety scale, which (I don’t have to remind fellow Brits) is one of the highest levels, second only to ‘all is lost; throw scalding tea in your attacker’s face and escape’ (N.b there are only two recorded instances of it ever getting to this level, one regarding who should have that last biscuit and the other regarding the correct cream/jam placement on scones.)
I decided to head everything off at the pass and explained that I’d gotten the wrong end of the stick and apologised that having a lodger wouldn’t work out for us. Still, he should definitely come round for dinner – judging by his increasingly desperate Twitter feed, getting a hot meal in the guy seemed like quite a high priority.
Three days later, and the smallest, scrawniest man I’d ever seen knocked on my front door. He must have weighed 120 pounds, soaking wet… and he was soaking wet.
“Come in, come in!” I urged. “It’s great to finally meet you!”
We shared an awkward, wet hug, and he handed Mrs. Iddon a bottle.
“Umm… this is for you guys,” Ben said. It was a bottle of ultra-syrupy dessert wine, about three quarters of it already drunk. I couldn’t decide whether that was really sweet of him or really weird – he might as well have not bothered bringing anything, and I wouldn’t have been offended if he’d done so – but in hindsight it summed up his entire character in one gesture.
Dinner was good, and the chat congenial.
To start with.
The dynamic slowly shifted as the evening went on, however. I noticed how the conversation kept drifting towards Ben’s repeated clashes with former housemates. The current one is being a dick about splitting the utility bills. The last one had her boyfriend over constantly, and that caused so much friction he had to move. The one before that had an issue with his sexuality, and so on. A string of well-crafted tales that portrayed him as the underdog victim in every situation, resulting in him having to become the noble party and leave.
I later learned that this is classic psychopath behaviour – being able to charmingly convince others (and believing it themselves) that they’re the good guy and the world is out to get them. I didn’t realise he was doing it at the time and, to a certain extent, it worked. I’m a bit of a sucker like that.
The night got late. All of the wine I bought in – and, you know me, it was a lot – was finished, and the huge bowl of stew was empty. He seemed to be making no signs of moving from the couch, and I could tell Mrs. Iddon was getting decidedly pissed off.
“Well, it’s getting late,” she sighed, standing up. “I’m going to do the washing up.”
Ben did not react to this. He didn’t even make any noticable acknowledgement of this, let alone offer to help.
“All that washing up. Phew!” She reiterated, swinging her arms like an Olympian gearing up for a hammer throw. “Best get to it, I guess. The washing up. All of it in the kitchen.”
Nothing. She went off to do the washing up. Or throw a hammer. I forget which.
Ben didn’t say a word… until she had left the room.
He suddenly and alarmingly moved very close to me on the sofa, locked eyes with me intensely, and said “About the room thing…”
“Yeah, I’m so sorry about that. I totally misread the situa…” I began, but he cut me off.
“… it is still okay if I stay here, yeah?”
I stared at him in disbelief for what was only probably a couple of seconds but what felt like seven years. It took me this length of time to come to realise that this wasn’t a question, but an attempt to get me to reaffirm something I’d never even agreed to in the first place.
I was momentarily lost for words, but eventually found one:
The line in the sand was drawn. This was quickly approaching the limits of the politeness protocol. Some fucker was about to get scalding tea thrown in their face.
I didn’t have any scalding tea to hand, and throwing the last dregs of red my wine wouldn’t have been particularly dramatic, but for the record I would have absolutely brewed a fresh pot of tea to throw at him if the situation demanded it, which was quickly becoming the case.
Improvise, adapt, overcome. I shall never shirk my responsibility to uphold long-standing British custom regarding throwing scalding liquids into the eyes of those that make you marginally uncomfortable.
Anyway. I kept the idea of blinding him in the arsenal of possible responses for now as Ben went on to tell me about his current housemate being a real dick.
“It’s just that my current housemate is being a real dick,” he continued, turning himself square onto me now and scooching way too close in one fluid movement. His face was way closer to my face than I normally let faces get to my face, save for my wife’s face, but at this point her face was remarkably far from my face as she threw hammers in the kitchen or whatever she was doing.
Upon aligning faces uncomfortably close, Ben didn’t miss a beat and went on with: “But I know you guys are cool, right? So it’s okay if I just…”
I glared at him, but he glared right back at me. He might have been half my size, but I cannot emphasise how much it puts you on the back foot to have someone get so intense with so little warning when they could barely summon the courage to make eye contact the rest of the time.
I didn’t know what was supposed to happen next, but I don’t think he did either. In lieu of options, we both just held our intense gaze in excruciating silence.
Thankfully, it only lasted a few seconds before my wife walked back into the room to make a show of collecting up the plates and glasses, with Dr. Jekyll instantly flipping back to his demure persona when she appeared. Very soon afterwards, he hastily made his excuses and left. I didn’t tell Mrs. Iddon about his repeated request to stay in our house until much later, but asked her what she thought of the whole dinner.
“What a really, really weird guy,” she said. “And did you notice that not once during the entire evening did he ever thank you for the dinner?”
It hadn’t escaped me. For the record, I didn’t want nor expect thanks (or a quarter bottle of shit wine) – I was genuinely trying to do something altruistic, not gain sainthood – but if the shoe was on the other foot, I’d have made damn sure my gratitude was known.
I didn’t hear from him for quite some time afterwards.
“I’m out next Thursday. Would you mind if I had a package delivered to your address? You work at home, right?”
It was weeks later and I was over the whole dinner fiasco. I couldn’t see any reason why not, so I acquiesced the favour and let him know when it arrived. It couldn’t have been that important, because I never got a reply from him for weeks, and had almost forgotten about the box that I’d shoved under my bed.
It was way later, a week or two before Christmas, that I received the next text from Ben:
“I never did say thanks for that dinner. Can I buy you a pint at some point?”
“SEE!” I yelled at Mrs. Iddon, waving my phone in front of her face and jabbing the screen with my finger. “Perhaps he’s not such a bad guy after all! Do you think I should take him up on it?”
“You’ll regret it,” she sighed. She relentlessly operates on a half-strike-and-you’re-out policy with people.
“I’m gonna take him up on it.”
I texted back. This Saturday good? This Saturday was good. We agreed to meet up at a cheap bar midway between us.
“Hey, it’s Zeke. We still on for that pint? I’ll bring your package with me.”
“Yeah I’d love to”
I got the sense that there was a but winging its way across the airwaves. Then the second message arrived.
“Thing is I don’t actually have any money.”
Oh for fu…
“Look, whatever. I’ll buy you a pint. See you at 7PM.”
I got to the bar and it was crazy busy inside, to such an extent that there was no way I’d be able to spot his 5-foot-nothing self in the crowd. I decided to wait outside, and texted him as much.
What the hell, man?
My texts were being met with stony silence, so I figured it was time to call Ben and find out what the devil he was playing at. It rang three times, then he hung up. Absolutely livid, I went into the neighbouring bar and seethed over a drink – it was way past 8PM when he finally sent a text reply:
“Sorry I fell asleep 🙁 do u still want to meet up?”
Now, I’ll happily and freely give my time to anyone, but people treating that time as a valueless commodity drives me up the wall. This guy was as useless as a chocolate teapot and was starting to take the piss – here I was being stood up for the pint I was now having to buy him to say thanks for the dinner that I cooked. I mean, come now.
On the other hand, however, I’d made it into town, still had his package and did quite fancy another drink.
It’d also be a shame to leave things hanging on a bad note. I took a deep breath and tried to calm down; it was only a pint, after all. A misunderstanding over said pint; no need to start a war over it.
I took a few minutes to carefully consider the wording and content of my reply.
“Go fuck yourself.”
I chucked back a double whiskey just to sooth my rage and texted Mrs. Iddon to say that I was coming back home.
“Didn’t go well, then?” she texted back, almost definitely while smirking.
“Let’s just say that if I ever invite a stranger on Twitter to our home for dinner, please try and dissuade me.”
“I’ll see you in a minute.”
I threw his package in the bin on the way home. I never did find out what it was.
Probably Gwyneth Paltrow’s head.