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Still Friday 10th October

It’s autumn. Winter is just around the corner. I live with my wife in a mid-terraced three bedroom ex-council house. The house is big enough for what we need it for, though the area is a bit of a shithole, being mostly housing association homes, many of which are full of lazy layabouts with no intentions of getting a job while they sponge off the state and complain that foreigners are taking their jobs. It makes me angry.

To the rear of our home is an abandoned field that’s being used as an informal dumping ground. Less than a quarter of a mile to the front of the house is a canal, which is actually a pleasant sight now and then. Over the road is a block of housing association flats. They have some land to them and are enclosed in a metal fence. I don’t know if it’s to keep people out, or keep them in.

My next door neighbour, whose house is on the end of the terrace at number ninety-four, is seventy five year old Harold Plummer. Christmas lights decorate his house all year round as they’re too big to take down. I can understand that and it adds a little quirkiness to the area. The neighbours on the other side, Margaret and Richard Starkey (the Starkies) at number ninety-eight, are in their sixties and are devout believers in God. I’m not too certain which religion they follow as it’s not something I’m interested in.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, I live at ninety-six. The street is Bournemouth Close on the Bradley estate close to the Ingol and Tanterton areas of Preston, Lancashire. My wife and I bought this house because of the neighbours. And because it was in our budget. The neighbours are really nice. I seem to get on with older people better than I do with those my age. I see Harold most days after work. I’ve even taken his Yorkshire terrier, Poppy, out for walks at times when he couldn’t. He lost his wife a couple of years back but has managed to get on with his life, still working part time as an electrician. For someone of his age doing what he does, I couldn’t have more respect for him.

My car’s clock tells me it’s now almost two. I have three hours before I need to pick Mei up from work, so instead of going home and doing some housework I go and see Harold.

As soon as I open my car door the barking starts. The barking always starts. The slightest leaf on the wind sets her off. Poppy is at Harold’s iron gate with beady black eyes, yapping away. She shuts up when I close my car door and head over. She’s such a soft arse.

I open his gate and head along his path. Poppy has already run inside before I reach his door. I walk inside to find Harold already making me a cup of tea in the kitchen. Poppy is around his feet, jumping up and down for a treat, though I don’t know what she wants a treat for, she just seems to get one whenever I come round, more of routine than anything I think.

‘How is ya?’ Harold asks me.

He’s very thin and tall and shuffles across the carpet with a bit of a slouch that makes him look smaller.

‘I’m all right. You?’ I ask. We go through this every time.

‘Oh I’m all right.’ He looks at Poppy who is still yapping away. ‘You after a treat?’ he says with a smile.

Her tail is wagging so hard it may fall off.

Harold reaches into his cupboard and brings out a chew stick. He throws it along the hallway where she chases it before shutting up and tucking in.

Harold laughs. Although she does annoy him sometimes he would never hurt her.

He hands me my cup of tea and we go into his living room. I sit on a leather recliner while he sits in his spot on the leather couch.

Poppy sits on the floor beside me watching him.

The TV is on Sky Sports News. A massive Liverpool fan, he always has something to say about them, good or bad.

He pauses it while we talk.

The house is almost identical to ours. The front room stroke dining room is separated by an archway he had made while ours is just one long room from the front of the house to the back.

‘You just missed the Witnesses coming round. I told them to piss off.’

I take a sip of my tea and nod. ‘I’m glad you did.’

Harold and I share a similar thought on religion. We’re not against it; we just don’t want it shoved down our throats. Personally, I get a little anxious in those situations when they come knocking, though I am starting to manage them better. I don’t handle pressure very easily and it’s hard for me to say no, especially when a lot of God people are elderly people.

‘Bloody religion,’ he says. ‘Most wars are started because of them, fought over something that there’s no evidence of.’

I nod because I agree. I think none of us know what will happen when we die.

‘It’s like people who are superstitious. Just because a coincidence happened one day when someone walked under a ladder or stood on a crack, or saw a black cat cross their path, it doesn’t mean something bad will happen every time. If I cut my finger on a knife while Poppy barks does that mean dog barks are bad luck? Religions are superstitions and nothing more.’ He stops himself for a moment.

I stare at him, not quite knowing what to say. Do I agree? I do. But I think some things are best left unsaid. I actually don’t mine some superstitions, like the number thirteen, and how hotels leave that number out on their rooms. I think it’s funny. But I can see where he’s coming from.

‘There I go again,’ he says, ‘getting on my high horse again.’

I smile and nod.

‘It’s just that if we were born in Pakistan we’d be Muslim. If we were born in India we’d probably be Hindu. Buddhist in China. It’s just a product of your upbringing. We’re all brainwashed to some extent. In a way it’s child abuse.’

And they say women can talk. An hour goes by and we cover most things from the news to things around Preston that get our backs up, like roadworks and people parking in disabled bays. The latter is one that particularly riles me. How hard is it to park ten feet further back? Surely walking those extra few feet won’t hurt you. There are so many that just flout the rules. Not that I’m a saint myself

I tell him about Mrs Mellor and how those in the office don’t seem to care. I can see him getting angry. ‘The little bastards!’ he says angrily.

I can’t help but smile.

Eventually the time comes when I leave and go home. I pet Poppy and head next door.

The house is cold when I enter. The downstairs toilet beside me has a certain smell to it that comes when it hasn’t been used for a while. I flush it and the sound of the pipes is very loud. I only flush it during the day as the Starkies can hear it through their walls.

I start to prepare tonight’s dinner of steak pie and veg. Mei likes that, or she says she does anyway. She’s from China. We met while she was working in a clothes shop in Preston and haven’t looked back. She was here studying at the university. That was seven years ago now.

And this is where the cloud above my head gets darker.

On Monday I get the day off work, which makes it a three day weekend for me. It sounds nice I know, but her mother is coming. Alone. Without Mei’s father who has to work. So it’s just her mother. And she can’t speak English.

Don’t get me wrong, she is a lovely lady. Or she means well anyway. But it’s such an intrusion to have her here for so long. The usual stay is four months and this time it’s over Christmas. January she will return. She comes and helps out when she can, cleaning and shopping for us, and we both tolerate each other for Mei’s sake. It’s easy to see how hurt Mei is when we both complain about each other so, while she’s here, I’ll be picking up seven rounds a week delivering meals so I’m not under her feet in my own home.

For now, I’m going to concentrate on making this pie.

At half four the pie filling is cooking away slowly and the pastry is in the fridge. I head out to pick her up.

The clouds are still overcast and the air is slightly cooler. The weather report on the radio tells me it’s going to get better as the weekend goes on. It’s only Friday so perhaps there is hope yet.

Preston city centre is heaving with traffic during the rush hour. Every day I tell myself I will leave home earlier to pick her up and every day I ignore myself.

Mei used to finish work at six but recently her hours changed. Six was perfect as the rush hour was almost over and getting to the carpark outside what used to be Blockbuster video was easy. But now there’s the waiting and waiting and letting people in with horns blaring. And don’t get me started on what happens if an emergency service vehicle needs to get by.

For now I’ll just listen to Radio One in the jam with all the other drones.

I find her already waiting for me when I arrive. She looks chilly. Her slim body doesn’t have the same padding as my slightly overweight one.

She gets in the car with a face of thunder. ‘Why didn’t you leave the house earlier?’ she asks angrily. ‘I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes.’

I can’t help myself. I say, ‘You could have walked.’

She doesn’t reply to me. She just sits with her arms folded as we head home for the pie that I lovingly prepared.

Poppy is barking again when I get back.

This time I can’t just park on the road. I have to parallel park and because the road is on a slight curve, I always end up hitting the kerb first.

‘I never get that right,’ I say playfully.

Mei ignores me and gets out.

Poppy continues to bark and jumps at the gate. She just wants attention.

Mei gives her some and it seems to cheer her up.

I feel relaxed now.

We both head inside and the smell of cooked steak in gravy fills the house.

‘Smells nice,’ she says as she takes off her boots.

For the rest of the evening we eat the pie and veg and watch some TV. She tells me about her day and I tell her about Mrs Mellor.

When we go to bed at ten, she quickly drifts off to sleep. I was hoping for something, like a peace offering for what I’m about to experience over the next few months. But it didn’t happen and I stay awake panicking about the visitor that’s coming in three days.

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