Fiction / June 2013 (Issue 21)

The Lodger

by Balvinder Banga

Ranjeet Singh, or Ranjha as he was known to his friends, had gone through his teenage years charming the young village girls, as he would strut by, his blue flares flapping against his skinny ankles, his feet tapping to the tabla in his head and his lips miming the love songs of Lata Mangeshkar. The tapping and miming never stopped, not even later on the plane when the butterflies in his stomach beat against each other to their own feverish tune, waiting for the cooling welcome of English soil. And when he got there, the cold draft from the factory gates didn't bother him, as long as his feet moved to their own beat, tapping the concrete floor as if they were counting down the three months until, at last, she would come. He had her photograph in his pocket. She was stood by a rose bush in a green shawl her sister had lent her for the picture; because the shawl was expensive, it didn't matter that her pretty kameez didn't match.

Three months was no time at all. "Ranjha, I could hold my breath for that long," said the fat uncle who was not an uncle (at least not in the biological sense that English pedants would understand) as he operated a drill the size of his forearm. It was situated in a dirty factory, a steelworks where only Indians worked, accompanied by the white-coated supervisors with whom they shared occasional cigarettes along the cobbled street outside the front gates. All the Sikh men at the factory soon found their faith and carried kirpan, their religious daggers, tucked next to their ribs. The Muslims had flick knifes from Athwal's, the hardware store on Soho Road. It was better to be safe than sorry.

Ranjeet used to work the twilight shift that finished long after twilight, when the nightclubs turned on their lights. He would zigzag across the factory forecourt, saving himself six hundred metres in the trek to the taxi rank. The hourly rates weren't great. But they were better than the Sunblest Bakery's. All he had to do was work the beast of a drill, as it bored through steel, showering metal splinters across the concrete floor. He would joke that the drill was as big as his third leg. "The fat one's told me what 'Ranjha' means, laddie" the white foreman would say, smiling and wondering exactly how many brown men slept in the bedsit on Grove Lane. At least ten, he thought.

Ranjeet didn't know what he was making in the factory. He didn't have to. He just drilled, liking the warm lubricating oil as it fell in small waterfalls across his hands. He worked and waited: in three months, he would have saved enough for her plane ticket. She would then join him. That was the plan. But it never happened that way.

One Friday, a payday, he left work with five ten-pound notes in his breast pocket, breathing in the winter air and spitting it out in short rasps. He was walking to the chip shop, resigned to queuing behind teenaged grammar boys shivering in designer t-shirts with pictures of Johnny Rotten on them, while they killed time before their buses took them to green suburbs. But he didn't have to queue this time. He had barely started to walk before his body resigned itself to a six months' slumber, as it smashed against the cobbled stones. "He got unlucky." That's what the policeman said who took the first statements.

When Ranjeet woke up, his skin was clammy from the summer sun as it fell, intensified, through a window. Six months had gone, and he couldn't remember what had happened or how old he was. It soon became apparent to the doctors that there was a disconnection between his mental age and the physical one that god had given him. "He's no older than ten," remarked one doctor, as Ranjeet sat before him on a plastic chair, watching him make arrangements with a social worker, trying to follow the conversation with his broken English. That was over thirty years ago.


In summer, as the light weaved through the only tree on Douglas Lane, Ranjeet would walk in his sandals past the terraced houses. His bare feet would go numb as cold air, like bubbles, would float from his mouth. "You should get some socks, darling," Brenda, his landlady, would tell him. "It is Tuesday," he would reply, smiling so his teeth showed, waiting to carry on with his business after she'd dismissed him from her presence.

It didn't matter what day it was. Not really. It was always Tuesday. That was how they liked it in their little joke. "A smarty pants like you should be in Oxford or something, teaching smartypantsology," she said. "Then I could raise the rent. Four years, Professor Smarty Pants. Do you know I haven't raised the rent in four years? I must be a saint," she added, raising four plump digits on her left hand and smiling. All the while she thought to herself how beautiful her wedding ring was. It had lost none of its lustre in the five years since the old man had run off with the creature who had once served her at the checkout of the local KwikSave. "Anyway," she sighed, "you take your medicine now."

She turned to the stripped pine wardrobe next to her and opened it to see whether Ranjeet, or Rodger as he had now become, had hung the shirt she'd ironed for him the previous evening. She saw it hanging amidst a jumper and a pair of trousers that were dirty around the tired hems. "I can't read your mind. You tell me if they need a wash," she said and closed the wardrobe.

"It's Tuesday," said Rodger, lowering his eyes. "Sorry," he muttered and touched the small chipboard table next to his bed. Brenda had got it for him off Freecycle and told him it cost ten pounds, but she hadn't taken the money he tried to give her for it. She took his gratitude. On the table were a packet of pills and an empty bowl of Coco Pops. It was only after much fanfare she had permitted the cereal in the bedroom, mindful that it turned the milk chocolaty and that the carpet needed replacing. If it got ruined, the council would have to pay for a new one.

Rodger put a pill in his mouth and swallowed it quickly without water to impress her. She smiled and watched his pretty lips. She would never have told him that they were pretty, not even after her six o'clock watershed when she would permit herself her first frugal Bailey's, followed by more luxurious measures. He stood in front of her, waiting on edge.

"Just go," she said and gathered up his bowl. Rodger breathed out as if he had been holding his breath for the last ten minutes.

"It's Tuesday," he said and ran down the stairs and out of the house, forgetting his front door key and the five-pound note he had laid on his bed, so he would not forget it. Not that he minded being told to leave his own room. When she gave him an order, it was because she cared. He believed that and acquiesced in her abruptness.

She saw him through the window as she held back the net curtain and a smile slipped across her thick lips. He was bent down, fastening the straps on his sandals. He had forgotten to tie them, as he had hurried out the front door. She watched him plucking a dandelion growing through a fractured paving stone and too close to a pile of dog mess for her liking. Was he really around fifty she wondered. He was just a boy. His back was towards her, but she knew his eyes would be closed as he sniffed the flower. She shook her head as he walked to the top of the road, his awkward gait redolent of a child's. He crossed the road and entered the park, and then she could see him no more, not because he had gone too far but because it hurt to look. Poor Rodger, or Ranjeet, or whoever you are.

Rodger did what he always did, walking the half mile to the pond near the old cemetery, face down as if he expected to find money. He had once—a five-pound note that had rested by a lamppost, until he folded it six times and put it in his front trousers pocket before taking it to Agarwal's corner shop where he'd purchased three cans of Whiskers cat food in a flawless Punjabi that in his adulthood had ebbed and flowed on his tongue. But that had been eight months ago, and the cat food still rested in his wardrobe hidden beneath the green viscose blanket he spread over his duvet in winter. Brenda had found the stash of course but never said a word. Better that than the machete that a previous inhabitant of Rodger's room had once placed there, bold as brass, on top of the very same blanket. She recalled gripping the crucifix around her neck and praying that the social worker would get rid of him.

Within five hundred yards of entering the park, the morning hum of traffic had already been supplanted by the squawks of Canada geese drifting around the glaucous pond ahead of him. He counted twelve. Six benches were situated around the stagnant water. He loved them all. His favourite one though was the one nearest the cemetery gates and the path that led to St Michael's Secondary School.

He walked to the bench and perched on it like a hawk, nothing escaping his vision as he counted the human traffic heading past him to the school gates. It was as if to be in his vicinity was a brush with danger. The kids didn't know why his feet were tapping or what he was miming. None of them did, not the seven boys who walked by over the next twenty minutes, nor the eighth, a twelve year-old-truant from a geography lesson, who pelted him with a stone and sprinted through the cemetery gates. Rodger didn't feel the stone as it brushed his trousers, but he sprang up anyway, as he always did when such things happened. He flew towards the gates, and then he stopped. He remembered what Brenda had told him: cemeteries were for ghosts, not for the living. But if a boy could go there, then so could he, surmised, Rodger, the man-child who over the last thirty years had never thought to classify himself as anything but the name he was called. Lost in his speculation, the boy that led him to that spot was soon a deleted entry in his mind.

His hands were clammy as he saw the gravestones peering through the iron gates and the fence that separated them from the park. He watched for a while until the features of the gravestones became distinguishable to his squinting eyes, and he saw by one of them a margarine tub filled with brown water and a kitten as brown as oak bark. "Come on," he said and got to his knees, oblivious to the mud, wanting to grasp his feline prize without entering the home of ghosts. It was pretty and soft, particularly around the ears. He knew that. For five minutes, Rodger knelt there, not caring that a passing child shouted "freak!" to his back before running on to school, nor that his feet were cold. Raising his hands as if surrendering to something, he waited, and, at last, the kitten approach him until he touched it and held it near his face, ignoring the smell of urine off its paws. "Let's go home," he said and wanted to cry, not knowing why.

Two days later when Brenda at last saw it, her arms dropped to her sides and her face went purple and trembled like a jelly. "After all I have done for you," she said, not once, but three times. Rodger stood before her, humbled, a human barrier between the woman and the cardboard box in which Zeena sat. He had called her that after the warrior princess.

"It stinks," hissed Brenda, looking at the top of Rodger's bent over head and his open wardrobe with an ironed shirt sticking out. Why, she wondered, couldn't he be content with old copies of Escort like the last one. To be fair, she thought to herself, better a kitten than Escort magazines if they came with a machete. A deep breath later and she was in control once more. For forty-eight hours, she had fretted over the rotting smell, wondering whether there was a dead mouse beneath the creaking floorboards. Vermin, that was all she needed. The last time she had mice, the man from Rentokil had to come three times before the scratching subsided and the black droppings disappeared from behind the fridge. "Cat," she mused aloud, raising her eyes to the ceiling and letting the thin creases of skin on her neck unfold. "It has to be washed in Dettol. And it needs milk. Do you know that?" she said, not waiting for a reply. "And it shits outside."

"I'll take it to the garden and watch it."

"Yes, you will. And any mice it catches you can throw in the black bin outside—not green recycling—you hear."

"It is Tuesday," he whispered, knowing that it would all be OK.

"It can stay, then. In your room."

Rodger breathed out, not realising he had been holding his breath for nearly a minute, about the same time Brenda had spent looking at the dull white ceiling. She lowered her gaze and then she smiled. "Come on," she said. "Bring it downstairs. You can get the black bucket from the shed, too. We can soap her up in it."

"Thank you," said Rodger and lifted the cat, his nostrils at peace with the intensifying smell of dried urine.

For three months, the kitten lived in his room, at first pacing its boundaries, then the house's, then the terraced contours of the neighbouring streets. Rodger still ambled in his tired sandals towards the park and the pond and the flowers he could find in paving stone cracks. They were the special ones he thought because they were not meant to be there. They were bits of beauty in ugliness. Of course, the kitten grew in size, and stature, and in its ability to ingratiate itself with Rodger and even Brenda who had come to think of it as more than an insurance against a rat catcher's bills. Soon enough, it would sit on Brenda's lap in the evening as she watched The Cosby Show, drinking Bailey's from a champagne flute she had bought from Oxfam. Rodger, too, would be summoned to the time-warped living room, to sit on the settee next to the vase of plastic pink roses. He would sit there, bolt upright, just like he did on the park bench, and wait until Brenda said he could go. Then he would rise and the cat (for that is what it was now) would slink out of the room next to him.

This was the mirage of family life, the idyll in which they stayed suspended for fifteen weeks, until, on 14 July, the cat disappeared. On that terrible day, Rodger woke, as he always did, to the sound of his radio alarm and the feeling of the cat licking his face with a vigour that suggested it was made of milk. He had pushed Zeena away and then rose from his bed, descending the stairs a moment later in his striped pyjamas and vest. He never bothered with his gown any more. "Don't be silly, Rodger," Brenda had said. "You don't need gowns amongst family."

Brenda's bedroom door was still closed when he entered the kitchen. He put the empty bottle of Bailey's in the bin and opened the backdoor for the cat to use the neighbour's backyard as a bathroom. There was a cherry tree there that acted as a magnet for the full feline bladder. Rodger stood by the door and waited, as he always did, his eyes barely blinking and his left hand holding the door. He focused on the wooden fence over which the cat had absconded, landing with a soft moan in foreign grass that Rodger had only glimpsed through the frosted glass of the bathroom window upstairs when brushed his teeth with bristles that fell sideways like dead lilies.

"Close the door."

"Zeena," said Rodger, not moving his gaze from the fence.

"Oh, I see. Well, I'm having tea, darling. Would you like a cup?" There was silence. "I'll take that as a yes."

Moments later, she placed his tea next to the sink and watched him as she gripped her own reviving cup. She stood there a while and then left him to his brooding loneliness. She returned after she had showered and dressed. "Come in now," she said and held his elbow like it was a baby, easing him back into the room. She closed the door, sat him down and placed his cold tea before him, not knowing if she really expected him to drink it. Milky scum had already settled on its surface. "She'll be back when she's hungry," she said and said no more. There was nothing else to say.

Rodger stayed in his pyjamas that day, refusing to walk to the pond. He tipped out a can of Whiskers in to Zeena's bowl and watched it attract flies as the day heated up. In the evening, just before The Cosby Show was about to start, Brenda, exasperated and biting her lips, put the bowl outside. She summoned him to the living room and seated him next to the pink roses while pouring a small measure of Bailey's in the same cup that had held his tea that morning. "Drink it," she ordered as she drank her own from the champagne flute. Rodger emitted a low retching noise to the sound of canned laughter and wiped his mouth on his arm before leaving the room, not knowing where to put the cup that had never been thrust at him before. He took it with him. Brenda was relieved, thinking he would drink it in his room and be comforted, as she was by hers. "Sleep well," she said and resolved to ring Rodger's social worker in the morning.

The following day, it was gone ten before the paracetamol and tea stopped her head from pounding. Why do you do it, Brenda?, she asked herself, without waiting for a response. She poured herself water from the sink in her room and downed it in one. Now she was ready. Rodger was a good man. She was loathe to lose him but knew that it was possible that his mind had a slipped another grade. He had never caused her any bother and didn't even know what a machete was. She knew because she had asked him once. He didn't know what Escort was, either.

She rang seven times before somebody at the council picked up the phone and then all she got was a receptionist saying Rodger's social worker was away. "For a whole week? Where's the manager?"

"You will have to ring back," replied the receptionist and hung up.

"Bitch," mumbled Brenda and stomped to the kitchen. And there he was, there he always was. "You're blocking the light," she said and told Rodger to close the kitchen door and throw the stinking cat food away. "You can open a new can if she comes back," she said, her hangover hitting her stomach at the smell of Whiskers left out for two days. If? Why did you say "if," you stupid woman, she scolded herself. Just look at his face now.

"The mice will come back if you don't do it. And go put some clothes on," she added, angered by his mute unshaven face and the draining effect of being sympathetic. "You are not a child."

"I don't think it's Tuesday," he said and dragged his bare feet along the marble-effect linoleum. He closed the door behind himself and disappeared into his room.

Brenda reached for a cigarette and then had another cup of tea. Then she went shopping. She didn't pay Rodger another thought until that evening, when she'd poured her first Bailey's and waited for him, and he didn't come. She didn't call him. If he was going to be a child, then he could stay in his room. With that thought, she turned up the volume on the television and watched Ace of Cakes: Duff was cute.

The next morning, Rodger was not standing by the kitchen, and so Brenda knocked on his door. "You know, I don't like to use the spare key," she said and waited. But somehow, she knew there would not be a reply. She walked back to her room, reflective and sombre, telling herself that if he did not appear by lunchtime, she would ring the social worker again.

Rodger never did come to lunch, not that day, nor the day after. On the third day, as she was about to leave a further message for his social worker, a policeman came. He had neat hair and nice green eyes. She noticed his clean fingernails as he shook her hand and then told her that a Ranjeet Singh had been discovered by the cemetery gates. "Ranjeet?" she said and then, "Oh, Rodger. His name is Rodger."

There was a calmness to her voice that refused to quiver when the inevitable bad news came that "Mr Singh was in a coma." The policeman told her, "He had your address on a piece of paper in his pocket."

"Yes, darling. Whose address did you think he would have? Perhaps you will have better luck ringing his social worker. She needs to know."

After a few more pleasantries, she ushered the policeman out the front door, handing him the social worker's number written in the same fat lettering as the address found in Rodger's pocket.

She heard nothing again for three long months and then she cleared his room and let it to someone else the social worker guided to her. She wasn't proud of this. Her hands positively shook as she stripped the bed and washed the green viscose blanket in readiness for the room's new inhabitant. When the social worker at last visited the house, she told Brenda to throw his clothes away. "He had no relatives. When he came to us, he had a few clothes and a picture of some girl standing next to a rose bush. We don't know who that was."

"Of course not darling," said Brenda avoiding her eyes and holding the silver crucifix around her neck, not knowing it was there until she touched it. A second later, she gripped the social worker's elbow and led her to the front door. "Just give me a couple of days before the next one," she whispered and closed the door.

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