Would the entirety of Neil’s existence be one long stint of bad karma? At times like these, he often wondered if that may indeed be the case.
After managing to get through to his parents on the guys’ second attempt at calling them from one of London’s phone booths – his mother, upon answering, had insisted she hadn’t heard the ring the first time – the four of them had begrudgingly been allowed a place in the Pye household. Of course, they all knew Mr and Mrs Pye only wanted Neil there really – and even then, they wanted him to make a ‘proper’ life for himself as soon as possible – but they had still been good enough to let them all stay, as Neil had said they would.
He remembered his mother’s grumblings down the phone when he told her the score.
“Don’t they have parents they can go home to instead of invading our house?”
“Speak up, Neil!”
“Sorry, mum, it’s just – uh – well… not exactly, no.”
He hadn’t wanted to divulge his housemates’ parental situations with them listening so intently; apart from anything else, Vyvyan might have beaten him up and then where would they be? Certainly not where they were now: waiting in the pouring rain outside Neil’s childhood home, anxious for the moment the door would be opened. That said, maybe Neil was the only anxious one – the other three just looked pretty desperate to get into the warmth, now that he thought about it.
“You’re absolutely sure your old lady said it’s alright of us to crash on her?” Mike asked, a slight hint of the way Neil himself was feeling evident in his tone.
Vyvyan and Rick exchanged immature smirks. That was something notable, actually – the two more volatile members of their group seemed to be getting on better since the night with the shared blanket. They hadn’t seen a complete turnaround in temperament but a change was there. Naturally, though, nobody had tried getting on any better with Neil, which was typical since they obviously all hated him. It wasn’t as if he was offering them salvation from the streets, or anything. He frowned at Mike’s question.
“No,” he replied.
Rick jumped about a foot in the air.
“WHAT!?!” Vyvyan exclaimed.
Even Mike looked suddenly paler.
“YOU MEAN YOU’VE DRAGGED US HALF-WAY ACROSS LONDON – INTO THIS PONCY AREA WHERE THEY HAVE REAL GARDENS AND FANCY CARS – TO TELL US WE AREN’T ALLOWED INTO YOUR PARENTS’ SOPPY, ‘GOOD LIFE’ LOVING HOUSE!?!”
It appeared tempers were frayed after their miserably wet journey. Neil didn’t understand; where had Vyvyan gotten an idea like that idea from?
“No, you are allowed, Vyv. Why would I bring you here if you weren’t?” he asked, frown lines deepening.
Rick, who appeared to have regained what little composure he had, sneered at Neil with his hands on his hips. Neil sighed inwardly. Whenever Rick looked like that things never ended well.
“I bet you think you’re weally clever joking at a time like this, don’t you, Neil? Well, you’re not!” he spat, “Do I have to wemind you that homelessness is a very serious and… um… serious issue? If you want to make jokes about poor souls such as Mike and Vyvyan and me, I suggest you book an appointment with Thatcher!”
He seemed tremendously pleased with this retort, though Neil was still confused.
“But I wasn’t joking about anything,” he insisted.
“Then why did you say no?” Mike sighed, lifting up his sunglasses to rub his tired eyes.
“Because you asked if my mum was alright with you crashing on her and she, like, definitely is not! She’s really into monogamy, guys, plus she’s – y’know – my mum so…” Neil explained, trailing off uncomfortably.
“I don’t think your dad would be too keen on us crashing on her either,” Mike pointed out.
Both Vyvyan and Rick exhaled rather loudly.
“GOD!” the former bellowed, “Are they gonna open this door or not?”
Neil was about to respond that he didn’t know. This was the right house, wasn’t it? It would be typical of his luck for him to have somehow rung the wrong doorbell. On the contrary – and much to the relief of the four boys – Neil’s bad luck didn’t win out and the distinct sound of keys rattling in the lock was heard. A moment later, the door slowly opened in an almost apprehensive manner. Two faces peered out; their eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Neil?” the taller, male figure spoke first.
Neil stepped forwards and waved awkwardly. He didn’t notice but his posture changed under the watch of his parents: now his shoulders were hunched down and he had a better view of everyone’s feet more than anything else. Sure, Neil wasn’t exactly the most professional looking guy on even his best days but after a few weeks on the streets he and the others looked extra scruffy; the complete opposite of the elder Pyes. It was clear from a single glance at their attire that they had made some sort of an effort to dress nicely for the arrival home of their only son. Although, then again, Neil didn’t think he had ever seen them wear anything he would consider casual.
“Hi,” he offered, “I don’t know if you, um, remember or anything but these are my friends-”
“Oh, we remember,” the shorter, female figure cut in.
She appeared to be eyeing Vyvyan particularly warily and Neil was amazed and slightly impressed when he grinned back at her, waving as Neil had done. His mother ruffled at this and signalled for his father to let them in. The older man stood aside and nodded at Neil to enter.
“Right, come on then, lads,” Neil tried to enthuse, despite positivity never having been his strong suit.
He trudged up the steps and into the hallway, the squishiness of shoes letting in water alerting him to the fact that the others were following. It was strange – Neil hadn’t ever been the leader here. It felt unnatural to enter an environment with Mike the cool person that was familiar to him alone. Before he could truly ponder this, however, Neil noticed his mother stood fidgeting and wringing her hands by the stairs.
“Where are your possessions?” she asked, as if lacking monetary items and living off the land was a terrible idea, or something.
“Mr Balowski took everything as, like, an insurance claim because we wrecked so much of the house,” he told her morosely, knowing she wouldn’t be best pleased.
“And because he’s a complete bastard,” Vyvyan added unnecessarily, seemingly oblivious to the inappropriateness of his phrasing as he tried in vain to reshape his rain damaged tri-hawk in the hallway mirror.
Mrs Pye bristled but didn’t object to the language.
Mike made his presence known then by coughing and removing his sunglasses. For one humiliating moment, Neil thought he was going to try and hit on his mother again.
“Thank you, Mr and Mrs Pye, we all appreciate your kindness in letting us stay here. Don’t we, guys?” he said with a charming smile before glancing pointedly at Rick and Vyvyan.
“Oh! Um, yes,” Rick agreed, rubbing the back of his head and smiling through a cringe.
Everyone looked at Vyvyan expectantly. He blinked rather cluelessly – Neil guessed he hadn’t been paying much attention. Fortunately, Rick elbowed him in the stomach.
“Yeah, thanks,” he conceded, rubbing the sore spot and glaring.
Neil sighed. He had felt to urge to end it all before – he spent time digging graves in the backyard of the shared house, after all – but none of those urges compared whatsoever to the crippling desire to melt into the earth and never return he was currently feeling now. Family and friends didn’t mix well; this was surely a universal truth. It was especially the case when your family and friends were Neil’s, which automatically made matters worse because fate was eternally stacked against him.
“That’s quite alright, boys,” Neil’s father replied in a tone that made Neil think it was actually the exact opposite.
He joined Neil’s mother by the stairs and turned to his son.
“We’ve set up the spare room for two of you. You’ll have to share your bedroom with the other,” he explained briskly, subconsciously wrapping an arm around his wife as if this saved them both from corruption.
“And show them where the bathroom is,” his mother butted in, bringing a hand up to her nose, “Goodness knows when the last time you washed was!”
Glad for an exit, Neil nodded and hurried up the stairs silently. He could sense the growing uncomfortableness of his housemates and overheard his parents muttering below. They just needed to settle, right? Everything would be fine. Neil took a deep breath and tried to ignore the worry in his mother’s voice.
“He looks so thin! What in heaven’s name are we going to do?”
Was he going to regret this? Just like everything else he could remember doing?
“Which one is the bathwoom then, Neil?” Rick demanded impatiently once they were all upstairs and presumably out of earshot.
Vyvyan whacked him on the back of the head.
“OW! What was that for?” Rick complained, looking more than a little put out by the sudden violence.
“Elbowing me in the stomach earlier, bum-bag,” Vyvyan told him matter-of-factly.
Before a proper argument could escalate, Mike put himself between the two and opened the first door on the left side of the landing. Expectedly, Neil thought, Mike wasn’t truly lost, not even in a house that was foreign to him.
“Unless I’m much mistaken then this is the bathroom, Rick. You head in first, Neil can show Vyv and I to our rooms,” he instructed.
Rick huffed but did as he was told; a rare sight, indeed. Neil was glad. Now he was here – in the place he had spent his equally depressing childhood years – he wanted nothing more than to sleep for a thousand years.
“We’re allowed to use the soap and towels, wight?” Rick asked just as he was heading into the bathroom.
He sounded vaguely unsure of himself. Neil knew Rick was passionate about his anarchist persona and so asking a hippie’s permission to use toiletries undoubtedly wasn’t high on his bucket list. That said, they all knew Rick wasn’t as rebellious as he liked to pretend. Neil nodded at him and moved on to the two bedrooms.
“I don’t think we should – uh – go over there,” he warned Mike and Vyvyan, pointing at the landing to right hand side of the staircase where a couple of polished closed doors faced them, “That’s where my parents’ room is.”
They didn’t respond but he figured even Vyvyan understood that this was a necessary precaution.
“This is the spare room,” he said pointlessly, gesturing limply at the third door on the left, “You can go in and get settled.”
He was sure the two of them would have rather slept in the vicinity of each other than with him. It was obvious. Oh well. Rick wouldn’t be happy about the arrangements but perhaps he would be too tired to moan about it for long? Then again, Rick was known for having an annoyingly strong stamina when it came to ranting at Neil about how bothered he was by the very presence of him in his life so the odds of that weren’t exactly in his favour, as usual. Why couldn’t he just – maybe – mellow out for once?
No. Rick’s parents have died, you have to be extra tolerant.
Neil opened the door to his own room with a heavy heart. It had been ages since he had last set foot in here and nothing much had changed: there was the same pale blank walls; same shampooed carpet and ugly, fancy rug; same spotless teak furnishings that had been varnished beyond recognition; same draping curtains with horrid patterns. Neil’s room fit in with the rest of the house and this was cosmically heavy… not that he would ever tell his mother this. He knew how much she prided herself on her housekeeping and home décor. That was one of the many reasons she would likely want nothing to do with him after the guys inevitably destroyed everything.
As he sat down on his bed that rested in the corner opposite the door, Neil supposed the only new thing this room had seen in years was the camp bed by the window that Rick would soon be occupying. All the sheets on both beds had been washed and ironed. They were a crisp white and smelled like nostalgia; Neil wasn’t sure whether this was a good or bad thing. It was certainly a change from the crusty ones back in the shared house.
Rick was back. Well, he hadn’t ever been in Neil’s room to leave it, had he? Rick was here.
“What?” Neil replied, quite out of it.
He realised then that Rick was wearing a pair of his old pajamas and looking mightily troubled with that knowledge. Oh no – how much of his old things had his parents kept? He was going to have to watch the others parade around in the stuff he hadn’t worn to bed since he was a teenager! Why did he have to be so much taller than them? Even his pre-growth spurt clothes would likely bury Mike!
“Don’t take that tone with me!” Rick chastised, although all the shuffling about and fidgeting he was doing did take away from the effect somewhat, “Your- your mother and father want to talk to you,” he informed him, refusing to meet his eyes.
Neil stood up and thanked Rick quietly. The other boy didn’t say anything and instead made his way to the camp bed, fiddling with his braids and wringing his hands in that same worrisome way Neil’s mother had done by the stairs. An emotionally unstable Rick was hardly a new problem, it was just that Neil hadn’t expected to have to deal with it singlehandedly. Surely Vyvyan had proven himself better suited to the task, despite every piece of evidence previously indicating against this?
Downstairs, which was where his parents were hiding, Neil was sat down hastily at the dining room table with a hot cup of tea. He couldn’t help but feel that this was a planned conversation, a business meeting almost. His mother’s damp eyes were making him uncomfortable.
“Now, then,” his father began rather awkwardly, “Where to start?”
“How about with a haircut?” his mother suggested, grasping a piece of his lanky hair and wincing, “And make sure you have a wash after your… associates…”
Neil sighed gloomily. Even his own mother knew the people upstairs couldn’t really call him friends – either that or she was still hung up on them not behaving like Tom and Barbara. Who knew?
“Yes, mum, I will,” he mumbled, “I’m not cutting my hair though, right. That would totally kill my positive vibes. Well, the ones I’ve got left.”
He wasn’t often firm in any way with his parents but the hair had to stay. It was cool and zen and Neil knew for a fact that messing with it affected his aura. His father strained to smile and dismissed the topic with a wave of his hand.
“Yes, yes, alright. What I meant was: what is the plan here, Neil?” he questioned, “For how long are we to expect these young men to be staying with us?”
“And what are you going to do for a job?” his mother hen pecked at him.
Neil took a gulp of his tea to give himself some time to think up answers to two frankly unanswerable questions. The tea wasn’t awful; he’d forgotten not all tea was. Tea couldn’t solve the world’s problems, though. In fact, when Neil thought about it, it had actually been instrumental in ensuring a lot of the world’s heavier problems hadn’t been solved fast enough. Why did everything have to be such a bummer? Carefully, Neil placed the fancy looking cup down and looked up at the elder Pyes.
“I’m not really sure, like, for how long they’re gonna be here, okay?” he confessed, feeling himself shrinking inwards at the way his mother’s upper lip visibly stiffened, “We’re all in a pretty bad situation, you know? I have the best grades out of all of us but they’re not good enough to – um – well, to get a job like dad’s…” he trailed off.
The unspoken truth that all three of them knew here was that Neil didn’t want a job like his father’s, anyway. His parents had hoped and prayed that his hippie phase would be just that – a phase – but here he was before them, long haired and dirty clothed. He was twenty-one and still wanted to lead a pastoral existence! What on earth was the matter with the younger generation?
“Grades aren’t necessary to get into my line of work,” his father told him curtly.
“No?” Neil asked, frowning in confusion, “But I thought you dealt with – y’know – money?” He made the last word drag out as if to really emphasise its significance.
“Everyone deals with money, Neil, it’s perfectly normal,” his father sighed, rubbing his temples, “I, as you are aware, am a financial advisor. It is my job to look after the money of those who can afford to not have to deal with it anymore-”
“But I thought you said everyone-”
“You’re missing the important point entirely. Most jobs are about who you know, not what you know,” his father explained, as he had done so many times before during Neil’s teenage years, “Business is about connections – life is about connections. Luckily for you, my son, I am your father. There will be a job for you somewhere.”
This ought to have been the kind of sentiment that would rouse Neil’s spirits; society had a place for him, after all. As it was, it didn’t fix all the issues at hand and nor was it the thrilling solution that Neil felt compelled to leap towards, even if most desperate people would have. Maybe he was being immature? In comparison to the others – well, apart from Mike – he wouldn’t have thought so yet there was clearly something not right about his outlook on life. Especially if his parents were right.
Then he realised what the real problem was.
“But what about the guys-”
There was a loud CRASH from upstairs and an indignant shout of “VYVYAN!”
Instantly, Neil’s parents were on their feet and racing towards the stairs. Neil, muttering a chain of expletives that usually never would have passed his lips, followed hot on their heels.
“I’m sure there’s an explanation!” he called after them, the distress in his voice only adding to the panic he was feeling that they had already managed to screw things up.
“I’m sure there is, indeed!” his mother snapped back in her best posh sniff.
When they reached the upstairs landing – Neil faintly bothered by the fact that he was the one now wringing his hands – the family found Mike holding back a murderous Vyvyan, his orange hair flat from the shower, from a hysterical Rick. The raging punk had the glint of intended homicide in his eyes as he struggled to free himself from Mike’s unexpectedly strong grip and smash the other boy over the head with the lampshade he was clutching. Rick was still screaming although, in fairness, he was lying on the floor in obvious pain. The worst part? All three of them were wearing Neil’s old pajamas.
“LET ME GO, MICHAEL! I’VE GOT TO KILL HIM!” Vyvyan practically howled, taking and missing a swing at his victim.
“I can’t do that, Vyv,” Mike responded eerily calmly, grunting at the effort it must have taken to withhold Vyvyan for so long, “Remember what we said about murder in other people’s houses?”
Vyvyan let out what could best be described as a roar of frustration before giving up his struggle and dropping the lampshade. He turned to Neil and his parents and huffed.
“I’ll buy you a new lamp, alright?” he hollered, coming across as largely indifferent to the damaged property.
Without another word, he stomped back into the spare room.
Mike wiped his forehead and picked up the damaged lampshade. He laughed uneasily, which Neil didn’t think had ever happened previously.
“He will,” Mike confirmed, “And may I offer my most heartfelt apologies. Despite what you think you heard me just say, it’s not everyday Vyv turns into a ball of rage and senselessly beats up Rick here, now, is it?”
He prodded Rick with a slipper-clad toe – wait, Mike had already found himself a pair of slippers? Rick, still quivering on the floor, shook his head pathetically.
“N-no,” he agreed.
Mike smiled. That was the thing about Mike that Neil decided he had to be grateful for: lying was in the man’s blood.
“Once more, I apologise. It won’t happen again,” he assured everyone, oozing charisma.
There must have been something respectable in what he said or the way he said it for Neil was given the shock of his life when he got to witness his parents nod at Mike and tell him everything was forgiven. They hadn’t reacted much to Vyvyan, probably out of fear. Perhaps they were only reacting now because it was easier to believe Mike’s lie than face the possibility of destruction becoming a regular guest. Either way, Mike seemed pleased and he too headed back into the spare room, hopefully to have a talk with Vyvyan.
There was another moment of suicide-inducing awkwardness.
“Uh, Rick man?” Neil asked, “Are you gonna – I don’t know – get off the floor? Just, I tried sleeping on it when I was a kid once and it really hurts in the morning.”
There was an almost unmissable scoff of derision as Rick pulled himself up.
“Oh yes, it would be simply tewible if I was hurting in the morning, wouldn’t it?” he snapped sarcastically, rubbing delicately at the right side of his head.
When he moved his hand, Neil’s mother gasped, causing Rick to flinch. A bruise was already brewing a nasty purple colour. When Neil compared it to the rest of Rick’s dejected-looking face, it made him appear positively ill. He supposed his parents weren’t used to people with fight marks in the house; that would explain how pale even his father had turned. If the circumstances had been different and things weren’t so hard to translate from the life he lived with the lads to the life he had once lived with his parents then Neil may have been able to tell them that – though horrid and likely painful Rick’s latest Vyvyan-induced injury was – it wasn’t the worst by a long shot. Instead, he only sighed.
“Would you like a cup of tea…?” his mother inquired cautiously of the wounded boy, not recalling the names of the madness her son had inflicted on her beautiful home.
“Wick,” Rick supplied cagily.
Both of his parents turned to Neil in uncertainty.
“He’s called Rick,” Neil reiterated, pretending he didn’t notice how Rick’s face had flushed pink in embarrassment.
And so, in an unnatural twist of events, Rick ended up going downstairs with Neil’s parents to have tea as Neil meanwhile had that shower he was told he needed so much. Unfortunately, as he knew from prior experience, going fourth when washing was less than ideal. Even in his parents’ sparklingly white bathroom there were now grime stains within the bathtub, most likely from Vyvyan. Telling himself that could all be dealt with tomorrow, Neil had his first warm shower in… well… since he had been eighteen. It was towards the end of his long-anticipated cleansing when he was starting to chill out and relax a little that his mother thrust open the bathroom door.
“Mum!” he protested, only just reaching for a towel to cover himself up in time.
“Neil,” his mother’s voice was hoarse and her eyes looked damp again, “Why didn’t you tell us Richard’s parents died recently?”
Oh, floppy discs!
“I meant to, mum – I did – I just didn’t know how to go about it,” he offered, knowing it wasn’t going to be an acceptable excuse in his mother’s eyes, “I mean, I didn’t want to tell you in front of him and bring him down, or anything.”
By now, Neil had successfully managed to wrap himself in a large towel and was searching for a smaller one to tackle his dripping hair with. His mother laughed sadly and blew her nose on a lace handkerchief that had been produced seemingly out of nowhere.
“Oh, Neil,” she sighed, “That boy couldn’t be brought down any lower – he’s in the middle of grieving!”
Hold on a minute; this wasn’t how everything was supposed to be. Yes, Rick’s parents had died and Neil really was very sorry about that. He would admit now that his initial reaction to the news had been less than stellar but none of this meant that his mother needed to tuck Rick under her arm like he was a helpless chick! Rick had been horrible to Neil since their first meeting! His parents weren’t meant to sympathise with him! Seriously, what was the point anymore?
“I- I’m sorry,” he mumbled, instead of saying any of that.
His mother tutted and strode over, engulfing him in an uncharacteristically tight hug. It was a tad disconcerting – he was naked beneath the towel, after all.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” she told him, pulling back and examining his face with a faraway expression, “It just made me think, that’s all. Are there any other surprises I should know about?”
Neil shook his head and strangely found a lump developing in his throat. Was this why people didn’t move back into their parents’ home once they’d left?
“In that case, I’ll leave you to get dry,” his mother teased, even more uncharacteristically. She made her way to the door and then stopped. The lump in Neil’s throat throbbed painfully as she turned to reveal a tear trail sliding down her cheek. She spoke in a whisper, “You do know that your father and I love you, don’t you, Neil?”
“Yes, mum,” Neil whispered back, “I love you both, too.”
It was a bemusing state of affairs, to say the least, this mixed up world Neil had created by insisting his housemates come home with him. It still didn’t sit that well, though he knew it had been the right thing to do. The four of them had undeniably changed since the cliff and maybe – just maybe – it was worth Neil’s time to stay alive and find out how so.
At least for now.