Home Invasion

Home Invasion

home invasion

I should have known it was going to be a bad day. There were signs. For one thing, it was a Tuesday. Nothing remotely good has ever happened on a Tuesday, ever. That’s a fact. Try holding an election on a Tuesday, see where that takes you. Tuesdays are a terrible idea. And I should have known better than to leave the house at all, but it’s not like I could pick and choose my shifts. The opening shift on a Tuesday is about as bad as it gets, with the possible exception of the closing shift on a Saturday. That’s when you get all the highly dangerous and dangerously high dregs of the metropolitan nightlife. I always dreaded that shift. And not, like most people assume whenever I mention this, because I resent having to work while others are out there having a good time. It’s not that. That’s not my kind of fun anyway. No, I hate the Saturday night shift because of the fucking language. You try taking and order from an incoherent oaf, slurring words in a language your grasp of which is barely good enough to get you through basic grocery shopping. And the kind of thug that wonders into a dodgy bar in the small hours, looking for hydration and a sugar high, has surprisingly little patience for immigrants who don’t speak the language. So, because I always try (and mostly manage) to dodge the Saturday night shift, I got saddled with the Tuesday morning instead. Not that I don’t get abuse hurled at me for asking a customer to repeat an order or for getting it wrong altogether on a Tuesday morning, but whatever riffraff we get during the day is less likely to get physically violent and thrash the place because they got the wrong sandwich. Which is something, I suppose.

 

And that Tuesday, much like any other Tuesday, the morning shift was a solitary affair, because Enis “doesn’t see the point of having two people in the bar on the slowest shift of the week”. Never mind the fact that whoever does the closing shift on a Monday usually leaves the place looking like a pigsty. They had surpassed themselves that week. I didn’t even check the planner to see who had done it, since blaming them was not going to be much use anyway. Enis knows how desperately I need the job, so complaining is never an option. I started my day scraping off rancid bits of lumpy food from the plates in the sink, before I could load the dishwasher and start cleaning the coffee machine. They never clean the coffee machine at the end of the day. It drives me up the wall.

 

The first customer was a regular. We never talk much, because I can’t understand a word he says – his accent is too thick, it must be some kind of dialect, it’s hard to say. Or he may be just as foreign as me, just a different kind of foreign. The fact that he has about five teeth left in his head doesn’t help either. Nevertheless, we get along. I am the only one who doesn’t yell at him to get out the moment he steps in. He always pays for his coffee too, so I don’t see why I should. I think his name is Abel. Or it might be Dan. I am never sure what he is talking about or which question he is answering, so I’ve stopped asking him questions.

 

When I think back on that day, those five minutes with Abel or Dan are the only good memory that comes to me. He slurped his coffee, he smiled. He said something that I interpreted as “you look like shit today, my friend”, I told him that he looked absolutely dashing. The only ray of sunshine through the murky depths of that pile of steaming shit of a day had five teeth, mumbled incoherently and smelled strongly of urine.

 

If you are expecting the rest of the day to hold some special horror, or this story to become properly tragic or even to contain anything remotely remarkable – apart from the obvious – you are going to be disappointed. Because see, the truly devastating fact about that Tuesday was that it looked exactly like every other Tuesday for the past five years of my life. And most Mondays and Sundays too. That’s a thing that happens a lot, when you are an immigrant. Have you ever lived abroad? Well, I guess it’s a bit late for that kind of plans now, but you never know. You should, if you get the chance. It broadens the mind. But I wouldn’t advise you to become the kind of immigrant that I was.

 

I came here with no friends, no family, no job and no money. If I had been in my twenties, it might have sounded like an adventure. But because I was in my late thirties, it wasn’t. People don’t really make friends past a certain age, do they? It’s not like you can gate-crash a party and just hang out with people. Youth is for making friends, adulthood is for keeping them. If you screwed up the first part of your life, you have nothing to work on through the second. And I was never that good at making friends even with people whose language I did speak. And so I never sought out others like me. I didn’t want to become one of those immigrants that never leave their community. So I made do without a community altogether. I got a lousy job and a lousy room, in a house with five other immigrants. Then I got a marginally less lousy job and a bedsit of my own. The marginally less lousy job was Enis’ bar. It was not enough, of course: I also worked occasional weekend shifts as a cleaner at a club, two blocks away from my flat. My flat. I loved calling it that. Even though it was as accurate as calling a Monday morning’s tips my capital. And yet I did like it. It was all I had. It was safe. It was home.

 

“You said 4.54, not 5.45!”

“No, miss, look, see? 5.45. Please!”

“Do you think I am stupid? Do I look stupid?”

No, you look like a bitch.

            “No miss, please? Mistake. My mistake. Sorry. Cake plus coffee, 5.45”

God I hate this fucking language. I hate being inarticulate.

            “It’s people like you who fucked up this Country!”

            What the fuck are you talking about, I don’t even vote in your fucking country

            “You should go back to wherever you came from, if you can’t be bothered to learn the language! You are a guest here!”

Don’t I fucking know it

            “Sorry miss. Cake plus coffee, 5.45”

 

I only had two interactions like that, on that Tuesday. It was not even that bad. And you might think I was lazy back then, for not learning the language, but in truth I was just tired. See? I have learnt it now. More or less. Ok less, this is still a glorified stream of consciousness. But back then? No way. You try sitting down and grappling with subjunctive clauses and irregular forms at ten in the evening, when your back feels like it has been hammered in by a drunken gorilla and a slimy mist of industrial-grade kitchen cleaner and bleach is clinging to the back of your throat making you feel like you’ve swallowed a colony of red ants.

 

I am the first to admit I probably overdid it on the cleaning products. More often than not, I’d sneak out a bottle or three of the really powerful stuff Enis bought, and used it to clean my own place. It was spotless, was my flat. I cleaned it every week on my day off. And when I say I cleaned it, I mean I cleaned it all. All 25 square meters of it. I hoovered the carpet, cleaned the toilet – every. Single. Tile. – climbed on a chair to dust the top of the wardrobe, scrubbed every power socket and both door handles, polished every piece of cutlery I possessed and even the underside of both my chairs. The only reason I had two chairs was that they came with the flat. They had never been occupied at the same time. But boy, were they clean.

 

By the end of it, the skin around my knuckles was raw and cracked, while my palms were flaky and bone-dry. But it felt good. God, it felt good.

 

I never was one for doing the housework before. I used to be a right old slob. You wouldn’t credit it to see me now. I didn’t care about my house. It wasn’t “home”. The world outside was “home”. The people were “home”. And then, all of a sudden, there were no people. And the world outside was “home” to everyone but me, it spoke a language I didn’t understand. I felt like the world was the wrong size. But my flat wasn’t. It was the right size. It was home. It was a place of books and songs and movies in a familiar language, of human interactions with distant people, that were “home” somewhere else. It was the smell that filled my nostrils while I was talking to them. Conversations smelled like cheap Chai, own-brand cereal, synthetic carpet and dish soap. It is a very specific smell, and it is sacred. I know for a fact that I could defend that smell with my life. Of course, it’s gone now. There are other smells, but they are not “home”, so I won’t defend them, if anything ever threatens them – although I don’t see how anything could.

 

The trouble with having a foreign surname, in this Country, is that you don’t get to live in the nice neighbourhoods. You might even be able to afford a decent flat in a respectable area, but you won’t get it. You’ll get one of the dingy ones in the creepy alleys, the ones where the stairwell lighting is always on the blink and the landing always smells like piss and stale weed. The ones with the gate that doesn’t latch properly and, in winter, always the odd hobo wandering in to sleep indoors. You can hardly blame them. It does get cold.

 

On that Tuesday night, it took me a while to hear the noise. I didn’t have earphones in at the time, I simply wasn’t listening. I was receding happily into that headspace that comprised nothing beyond my bed and the tiny screen in my hands. But then I did hear the noise. It was an insistent, intrusive clicking. It was angry, frenzied. Then came the rattling. And even then it took a few minutes for the information to register. The notion was simply ludicrous. Who would try to get through my door? Who would want to burgle me? I’m not the kind of person you burgle. When the information did register though, I very nearly shat myself. I ran to the door and I tried to yell something along the lines of “what the fuck do you think you are doing”. The noise stopped for a moment and then resumed. I looked through the peep hole, but all I could see was solid blackness. I heard the sound of something flat sliding between the lock and the doorframe. I started yelling and banging against my side of the wooden pane, determined to scare them off. I didn’t want to call the police. If you are me, you don’t call the police in this Country. I did seek police help once, when I had just got here. A youth had stolen my phone on the train. I saw him, I grabbed him and dragged him along the platform, yelling at the top of my voice, until a cop noticed us. The youth did all the talking. The cop could not understand me and didn’t seem to care. He told me I was lucky not to be arrested. At least I think that was what he said. The youth got to keep my phone. It doesn’t really matter. It wasn’t a good phone. The screen was cracked.

 

Whoever was on the other side of my door that night must have had me down as “not a fan of the police”, because they were not deterred. When the lock cracked, I darted into the bathroom, locked the door behind me and stuck my eye to the keyhole, fighting down the urge to be sick. He came in looking as terrified as I felt. I could barely make out his bulky frame, but I could almost smell his fear. He slammed the door and leant with his back against it, panting. He looked like he had just walked out of a respectable job at an insurance company, after murdering at least three coworkers and five clients. His cheap grey suit was stained red in places and small, dark, wet lumps were congealing on the tips of his shoes. I couldn’t see his face, until he let himself slide down to sit on the floor. He seemed harmless. People with mousy hair always seem harmless. He held his breath, listening. There was silence. He said something. He said it loud and staring at the bathroom door. I could make out the menacing tone, but not the words, so I didn’t bother replying. He had a pocket knife. I wondered briefly how is it possible to get that much blood out of a human body with a single pocked knife.

 

I looked about in panic for something to defend myself. A pocket knife might be a ridiculous weapon, but a toothbrush is worse. I groped blindly under the sink, discarding a bucket, a mop and the handheld vacuum cleaner that didn’t work. Then my hand closed around the only genuinely dangerous item in my whole house. It was a small, sleek black spray bottle of bathroom cleaner I had used once and then vowed to never touch again. My bathroom had no windows, you see, and the stuff was so toxic that one single squirt had had me dry-heaving on the landing for half an hour, eyes streaming, every breath feeling like I was trying to snort broken glass through a straw. If I held my breath and sprayed him square in the face, I reasoned, I might get a whole five minutes’ advantage and run past him down the stairs. Maybe it was time to give the police another opportunity. Only, you might have guessed, this isn’t how it went.

 

He was hammering on the bathroom door, shaking the handle violently and hissing words I could not understand. Not that the gist wasn’t clear, mind you, but I might have missed the finer points. I took a deep breath, like a scuba-diver before the plunge, and turned the key. He fell backwards as the door swung open, just as I had expected, and suddenly I was straddling him, squirting toilet cleaner down his open mouth for all I was worth. Those first three seconds had gone to plan. But nothing else did. I lost my footing as I was trying to stand up, and failed to kick the knife out of his hand. Retching violently, he scrambled onto his side and sunk the blade deep into the back of my calf. The pain was unreal. I remember thinking calves are stupid. They have no right to hurt like that. But then my mind morphed into something I didn’t quite recognise. All this time, I thought, all this time there was a dam inside my head, and I never knew. I had no idea. And now it’s bursting. I guess that’s the sound a dam makes, when it yields to the pressure of the flood it’s holding back. A dull buzzing that swells to a roar. It might have been the blood thundering in my ears. It might have been the blast of a thousand conversations being replayed in my head, as I wrestled that ridiculous knife out of his hand.

 

My phone! He’s got my phone! He is a thief!

            I stabbed him once through the hand.

Please miss! 5.45 Miss. Mistake. Sorry.

            He grabbed his right wrist with his left hand, I stabbed him in the neck. He made a gurgling sound.

You should go back. You are a guest here!

            I slit his throat. His blood squirted upwards, it was comical. It caught me in the face. Like those water-squirting flowers that cartoon clowns always have. I thought of the evil clowns in Dumbo.

The apartment is taken. Yes, I know you have been waiting for a month. The landlord just chose another tenant. No, all the flats we had in this area are taken. Sorry.

            I stabbed him once in the chest. Twice. Then twice in the abdomen. Who wears a pink shirt under a grey suit. People in this Country have no dress sense.

You look like shit my friend. I know, Abel. I know.

            He had stopped moving. He wasn’t even clutching at his throat any more. My carpet. The stains are never going to come off. How do you get blood off grey carpet. Is it easier or harder to get blood stains off synthetic fiber than cotton?

 

At least, they assigned me an interpreter. She was kind. She told me the man’s name and that he had just killed his wife and two kids in their sleep. Nobody really knows why. He just had. His family is making excuses for that. They are saying something just snapped in his head. They are calling for my sentence to be “exemplary”. We can’t just have bloody immigrants going around murdering people. His wife’s family has been in touch too. They were nice. They paid for my lawyer. I’m still doing time though. What did you expect.

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