Weekend Fiction: Our House
Can we take one in? Melissa’s message said.
Tom was in the middle of a meeting and glanced at the notification on the screen of his cellphone. Now what? he thought. He’d already come home once before and found a stray kitten purring delightfully on his side of the couch. It was looking at me with these big eyes, she’d said to him, I couldn’t just let it stay on the street. It’d starve, or get run over by a car, you know how these things go. Tom just rolled his eyes and sighed.
He swiped open Messenger. Now he saw she had attached a link. “There are almost 300...” the text said. A picture showed people sitting with their backs against a red garage. It still didn’t make a lot of sense. He clicked on the link.
The Facebook page of Help The Refugees opened. He now also saw people lying next to the garage, on scrubby rags or just on the concrete. One man had bare feet. Tom read: “There are almost 300 refugees waiting in front of the Red Cross offices. Contact us if you are able to put someone up. Even if it’s just for one night. They have no place to go.”
No, no, no, no, no. It raced through his mind. They had discussed this before. Melissa felt personally involved. She grew up in Germany, but when her parents divorced, she came back to Britain with her mother. They had very little money and even less family to help out. She said she could relate to the refugee problem. Tom foolishly remarked it wasn’t the same. That didn’t go down well with Melissa. And now she asked the question again.
I’ve already told you, I really don’t want this, Tom messaged back. Melissa didn’t reply.
* * *
In the evening he was sitting at the kitchen table checking his emails. Melissa came in to make herself a cup of tea. She was on her way back to the living room when she stopped and turned back. She stood next to the table.
So you’re sure you don’t want to take anyone in? These people need help, Tom. Our help.
He could barely suppress a sigh.
Look, he said, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable with the whole situation. We have a house, a nice house, and these people don’t have anything anymore.
That doesn’t make any sense, Melissa said.
Tom clenched his teeth and looked straight in front of him.
I just don’t want it, he said. I don’t want strangers in our house.
What, you’re afraid they’re going to rob us? Or rape me?
Oh, don’t be an idiot.
If someone here is being an idiot, it’s you, Melissa said.
What are we going to do with these people? Sit around the table? Have a beer? Play a game of Monopoly?
You’ve never been very sociable, I understand that, she said.
Not to mention Vic. He’s only six. How are we going to explain to him there are people in our home we don’t know?
Children are a lot more flexible than adults, Melissa said. He’ll be fine
And then, when after a day or two they go out on the street again, we just say, See ya, write us a postcard?
Now you’re being a dick, Tom.
No, seriously, is that helping someone? Really helping? It’s just a sticking-plaster approach.
Well, it’s better than nothing.
You remember that cleaning lady who replaced Isabella for a few weeks? She didn’t speak our language. We couldn’t communicate. I felt uncomfortable when she was in the house and that was just a cleaning lady.
I understand. I realize it’d be uncomfortable.
So why do you want to help then?
To give them a warm meal, a bed, give them the opportunity to rest properly. They’ve been traveling for months, it’s the least we can do for them. And yes, I know it will feel uncomfortable, but not enough to not help. What’s a few days of discomfort in our whole life?
Melissa was still standing there, her eyes fixed on him. Tom felt like the Godfather. Someone asked him a favor. Him, sitting on his throne. The mighty one. All he had to do was nod and everybody would be happy. Except him.
I wouldn’t even feel like a better person if we helped, he said.
But that’s not the reason for doing it. The reason to help is simply because it’s the right thing to do. Families, men, women and children will be sleeping on the street tonight.
Homeless people sleep on the street for years and they survive.
You just don’t want to be confronted with the misery, do you? Who’s the real refugee here? They’re running away from war, a certain death, but you’re running away from your moral responsibility, your humanity.
Tom’s right eye twitched.
I’m ashamed of all the things we have, he said, while they have nothing.
You need a shrink, Melissa said.
Tom shut his laptop and went to bed without uttering one more word. When she came in the room ten minutes later he pretended to be asleep.
* * *
During breakfast Tom hid behind his bowl of cereals, focusing hard on the eight o’clock radio news. Melissa gave him a kiss goodbye on his cheek. She always left for work before him. He mumbled something with his mouth full and nodded, keeping his head straight forward. Only his eyes followed Melissa out of the door.
* * *
Late in the afternoon Tom received a Facebook notification. Melissa was the only one he listed as favorite. He didn’t really care about other people that much. Now, when she posted something, it appeared at the top of his timeline. For once he wished it didn’t. Melissa had shared an article from TED.com, the self-proclaimed site about ideas worth spreading. The article told the story of a boat, overloaded with more than 500 refugees. It sank in the ocean. Apparently a young woman played a heroic part, but Tom didn’t click through to find out what exactly happened. Melissa’s post hit him like a jab in the ribs. A message shared with the world, but addressed only to him. It read “Wake up, you wanker! This is reality. Most people looking for a better life only find death. The ones who do survive, need our help. Your help. It’s the right thing to do. Why don’t you see that?” Tom ignored Facebook for the rest of the day.
* * *
They had a quiet dinner. Melissa didn’t bring up the subject anymore. She didn’t need to. It was tearing huge chunks out of Tom’s soul. After they put Vic to bed, he spoke his mind to her.
Do you think I’m a bad person
Her silence squeezed his stomach. He didn’t know if she was manipulating him to push him even further or if she genuinely needed to reflect on his question.
No. No, I don’t think you are a bad person. I’ve known you for a long time. I know you donate to Doctors Without Borders. I know you gave me a stack of clothes to drop off at the refugee camp. So, in essence, we share the same values. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here with you. It’s just, in this particular case, we disagree and I wish we didn’t.
I do realize I have to respect your opinion about this, Melissa said. I can’t go making decisions on my own, even if I know in my heart they’re the only right ones.
Last night I woke up, I heard the rain ticking against the window and I nearly got up, got out of the house and drove to the camp to take a family back home, Melissa said.
Inside Tom’s brain a chain of synapses exploded. He could imagine it all too well. Melissa was strong-headed. It balanced his own innate detachment. When he couldn’t be bothered to develop an opinion of his own, he was able to follow hers. It helped him feel like a real person. This time, however, was different. This time he felt he had to stand up for himself, something he wasn’t used to doing. It made him sick.
* * *
How’s it going, Tom? Mike said. You look a bit distressed.
Mike drove them to their first meeting of the day. They had been colleagues for about two years now. They got along fine, but never had dinner at each other’s place, or did anything that resembled a relationship between friends. Tom was too much Tom for that.
Oh, it’s just Melissa, Tom said. That whole refugee crisis. She wants to harbor a family for a few days. And I don’t.
Ouch. That must be a difficult situation. But yeah, having a few of those brown people in your home, that would feel awkward. What would they do when you’re out working? Or even worse: what would they do when you’re home? These brown...
It’s not about their colour, Tom said. I’m not afraid.
Okay. If you say so. Then the question you have to ask yourself is: what would you do if they were white? Imagine there’s a revolution in France, families are fleeing the country, people like you and me who, basically, have the same kind of life we’re having. The only difference is there’s a problem and they’re running away from it. Would you take them in?
The image crystalized immediately in Tom’s mind. A family like his. He felt like saying yes.
Why does Melissa want to help, anyway? Mike said.
She just identifies with them. When her parents divorced, she came back to this country with her mother. They didn’t have a lot of money or any kind of support.
That’s not exactly the same, Mike said.
I know, but for her it is. It’s all one big ball of emotions.
You’ve heard of empathy, right?
Oh, fuck off. I’m not going to take these people in just so she could feel better about herself.
Maybe you don’t want to be confronted with that kind of misery.
Yeah, she told me exactly the same thing.
I know I’d fucking kill myself if I had to spend more than one minute witnessing that drama in my own living room.
Tom looked at Mike. Maybe he should invite him over for dinner.
* * *
When Tom opened his front door in the evening, he looked straight in the pitch black eyes of a brown-skinned man. Next to him stood another man. Behind those two, more men, and women, and children. A crowd of refugees, thick like a bush, filled the hallway. And the stairs, too. They all gazed at him vacantly.
Tom wanted to screamfor Melissa, but an invisible hand was crushing his larynx. With panic running rampant in his head, he pushed aside a few men to force his way to the living room door. He opened it and discovered another group of refugees, cramped shoulder to shoulder between the four walls. All of the furniture was gone.
Dazed, he crawled in between the people in the hall and climbed the stairs. He opened the door to the bedroom. It was packed. The refugees were everywhere in the house. And they were never going to leave. Ever.
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