The Landlord By VM80 (3,128 words) Helena had always felt Alistair McIntosh to be a peculiar man. For what exact reason, she could not say. But she knew she’d felt ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ was, from a young age, every time her mother had uttered the dreaded words, ‘the landlord is coming soon’. Now Helena Montgomery was a grown woman, and it was she who dealt with Mr McIntosh on her mother’s behalf. Looking at him now, sitting at the kitchen table over tea, it struck her that he hadn’t changed much. His hair was a touch greyer, the jaw heavy-set, but those eyes and that voice were the same as they had been thirty years ago. “So, how is Silvia doing?” Alistair McIntosh asked, dunking a biscuit into tea. “I hope she is looking after herself and resting plenty.” “She is doing just that, thanks for asking,” Helena said. “It helps a lot that I’m able to work quite a bit from home these days. She likes having me around.” “Of course. Who doesn’t like to have somebody around?” Mr McIntosh paused. “I trust… you have found some suitable place to go for those few days? I’m sorry if the timing seems terrible, but I’m afraid the builder was already booked and we do need to fix what needs fixing, now, before things get worse.” Helena nodded. “We understand that. My mother will be staying with my sister and niece for a while. I will be staying in town.” “Ah, that’s good. I’m glad.” “Can you tell me when you expect to start?” Alistair McIntosh licked a crumb from his lips. “It should be within the next two weeks. I will speak to the builder and give you a call to confirm. Now… there was something else. Should just be a few minutes.” He reached inside his coat pocket and extracted several sheets of paper. Helena glanced at them, upside down. Lots of text and boxes to tick. “What’s all that?” “It’s a new requirement. Slight nuisance, I must admit. I tell you what; I will fill this in for the most part. Just let me know a few of the answers, where I’m not so sure.” They spent fifteen minutes going through the form. Helena answered all kinds of questions about the property before Mr McIntosh turned to the last page. Already it was getting darker outside, and Helena drew the curtains and switched on the light. It looked like it would snow soon. “Mr McIntosh, this seems to be taking rather a long time…” Alistair McIntosh looked up at her. Those eyes. “I’m sorry to inconvenience you, Miss Montgomery. Anyway, we should be done here…” He skimmed the rest of the form. “Yes, we should be done here.” He put the sheets into his coat pocket and rose. “Thanks again for stopping by today,” Helena said quickly. Something niggled inside her, told her she may have been too harsh. “And I appreciate the flowers - very kind of you.” “Not at all. It’s not every day a tenant celebrates thirty years at the same property. Why, you must have been… four, five years old when I first saw you.” “Just turned four,” Helena said. “I remember the day we moved in well. Mother was arguing with the removal man, and I was just impatient to unpack my favourite toys and explore the gardens…” Alistair McIntosh smiled. “And still you haven’t left.” Something in those words made her heart drop. “I did leave once. Now I’m back home.” “Ah, yes. I forgot. That fiancé… or, well, ex-fiancé. Your mother mentioned him to me a few times.” “Please,” Helena said. “I’d prefer not to talk about him. It’s still too…” “I’m sorry. I won’t keep you any longer.” Alistair McIntosh made his way to the door. The kitchen light caught his profile and to Helena he looked like a human skeleton, just for a moment. He turned. “Oh, just one more question.” Helena brushed a strand of hair from her forehead. “Yes?” “Out of curiosity, what was the happiest day of your life?” “That’s quite a question, Mr McIntosh…” “Please indulge me.” Helena bit her lip. “I really don’t know… there were many happy days.” “Were there?” “Yes, yes of course.” “Yet you refuse to tell me your one happiest one?” “I don’t think I could choose one.” “Oh. I apologise. I didn’t mean to push you.” A curious gleam appeared in Mr McIntosh’s eyes. “But thank you. Your response is useful for me to know. I will see myself out. Have a good evening.” He closed the kitchen door behind him. Helena stared at it for a few seconds, and then set about clearing the table. Not only had this strange exchange of words just now taken her back to a very distant past, it had also reminded her, once more, how much she still ached for John. It started snowing shortly after seven. Helena lit the fire in the living room and brought her mother a terrine of mushroom soup. She sat by her bedside for a while, and they talked of the day’s events. But Terry, her Jagdterrier, was beginning to make noise downstairs, and Helena knew she’d have to braze the cold, at least for a short walk up and down the street. She kissed her mother on the cheek and told her to get some sleep. Helena collected her scarf and coat from her study, and frowned in passing at the stacks of papers still out on her desk. I’ll have to work a few hours later tonight to catch up, she thought. Perhaps I’ll have a nice bath first though, before dinner. Terry was waiting for her by the backdoor, patiently but ready for play. Helena remembered her keys at the last second, and then they were outside in the darkness and cold. Under normal circumstances, their walks were a definite highlight of day or evening, for both parties. Tonight everything seemed different. Helena watched Terry’s shadow move beside her as they passed street lamps, his attitude less buoyant than normal all of a sudden. Perhaps he feels my strange mood, Helena thought. He’s never like this. What is going on with me today? She quickened her pace and her boots crunched under the increasing layer of snow. Terry gave off a confused sound, then tried to catch up. They walked up to the lamppost that marked their usual turning point, and headed home. The house was silent and dark when they got back. It smelled of pine cones and the faint aroma of the dinner Helena had cooked, but not yet eaten. “Good boy, you’re a good boy,” Helena said. “Now it’s time for me to have something to eat. Goodnight buddy.” She knelt down and cuddled Terry, who was anxious to make a run for it, and finally settled in his favourite sleeping place by the fire. It was almost eight-thirty. Helena decided to run a bath as planned. Hot and inviting, she watched as the water powered into the tub and created more and more foam. She got her bathrobe and a fresh towel and shut the door. The water soothed her muscles and she stayed in the tub for a long time, twice topping it up to keep the heat for as long as possible. Helena washed her hair. It was close to her shoulders now, auburn, still the lightest traces left of red colour. She ran the ends through her fingers. It needed cutting soon, or perhaps a new colour. John had loved her as a red head. It doesn’t matter anymore what John loved, Helena thought. He’s gone. He’s nothing. She hadn’t thought about him, hadn’t allowed herself to dwell on him, until today. Damn that Mr McIntosh. What kind of hold does this old man have over me, that my mood is affected so much by the mere words he speaks? She dipped her hair back into the hot water. Why the hell am I thinking of him even now? Helena rinsed her face, as if to drive away these thoughts. But there had been something. Something that had felt wrong to her, at the very core, hidden behind that confusing tinge of nostalgia and lament for love lost, prompted by his questions. She sighed. What had he said, when she’d tried to tell him she didn’t have any one happiest day? That is useful for me to know? Of all the possible answers one might give, Alistair McIntosh had given the one so open, so odd, that it simply begged to be asked the question: useful, for what? Snow fell for three consecutive nights. Helena didn’t leave the house except to walk Terry and once to stop by the office. All the while, her mother kept asking about when she’d have to start packing her bag to stay with Eloise, and Helena kept reassuring her Mr McIntosh would not be as inconsiderate as to not give them enough notice. Secretly she was not so sure. He seemed a man who thought little about other people and what may be inconvenient for them, despite all his very many apologies at every opportunity. Helena didn’t trust people who apologised too profusely. It always seemed to her that they were doing it without thought, like robots. A sincere apology did not need to take so many repetitions. After the fourth day of staying mainly indoors, Helena decided to head out to the shops. They were running low on bread and milk. In truth, any excuse would have been as good as the next to leave her four walls for an hour or two. I don’t really see anyone anymore, she thought as she scanned some of the pedestrians rushing past her, carrying shopping or children in their arms. A nagging tinge of pain went through her. It was becoming too familiar, this feeling. It was the feeling of lost hope, in something that perhaps never was anything real, but which she had coveted and protected, until she could no longer. What he’d done had crossed the line. I’m not thinking about him, Helena reminded herself as she picked up a shopping trolley from the row standing outside the supermarket entrance. It’s almost Christmas time. I will get into the spirit, sooner or later. Twelve more days to go. Helena browsed the aisles of cheap Christmas puddings, sweets, cuddly toys and the stacked cartons of perfume and aftershave gift sets so many people bought, almost without thought, when they couldn’t think of anything more personal. Good thing I’ve got all my presents ages ago, she thought. It always paid off being prepared in the end. Except some things you could not possibly prepare for. Helena picked up a few essential groceries and the local paper for her mother. At the last moment she remembered to get a few more tins of dog food. Poor Terry. He would have been furious to have been forgotten. When Helena found him waiting at the backdoor, she sensed his approval. The next few afternoons Helena caught up on her editing jobs and forwarded them to her office. Still Mr McIntosh hadn’t called. I’ll wait until this Friday and then call him, Helena thought. This is starting to get annoying. I can’t even start decorating or baking properly. There was always the fear he’d call just the moment she was busily kneading dough or had her hands dusted in flour, ready to make cinnamon stars. Baking required peace of mind. On Friday afternoon, Helena brought her mother a bowl of rice pudding and commented about calling him. “Definitely do call him,” Silvia said as she scooped up some rice pudding. “This is getting a trifle annoying. He knows I can’t walk well at the moment, and Eloise needs a bit of notice.” “Eloise will be fine,” Helena said. “I just want this thing to be over with in time for Christmas, and actually have a few days beforehand to get into the festive spirit. Not too much to ask, is it?” “No, you’re right.” “I’d better go and try now. Otherwise they’ll probably tell me he’s left early for the weekend, or something.” Helena got up from her mother’s bed. “I’ll be back in a little while.” Downstairs the fire was roaring and making pleasant noises. Helena went to her study and closed the door, leaving Terry free to continue chasing one of his toys through the living room. She looked for McIntosh’s number for ages, until she found it on a sticky note stuck on the side of one of the bookshelves. A nasally-sounding receptionist answered. She either had a severe cold or had not yet been infected by any kind of Christmas spirit. Helena was put on hold and waited for what seemed like ten minutes. Finally she was transferred. “Hello? McIntosh speaking.” “Good afternoon, Mr McIntosh. This is Helena Montgomery from 7 Brook Gardens.” “Ah yes. How are you doing?” “I’m fine. Not bad.” “Good, good. Getting ready for Christmas, I hope,” Mr McIntosh said softly. “It is almost upon us.” Helena rubbed her chin. “Actually, that’s part of why I’m calling. I thought you were going to contact us about the building work? We haven’t even decorated the house, because we keep thinking your guys will turn up and, inevitably, need to make a mess about the place.” Helena listened to McIntosh suddenly breaking into an extensive cough, before apologising for his silence. “I was just about to call you, Ms Montgomery. I spoke to the builder only yesterday and he finally confirmed he’ll be able to start on Monday. I trust that’s fine for you? You’ll need to leave the place by Sunday evening, I would think, as he and his boys will likely be making an early start.” “That’s fine,” Helena said. “Will you be here to show them around?” “Of course. I’ll come down bright and early.” “And how long will they be here?” “Ah, I can’t really say at the moment.” Helena sighed. “I need to book myself a room in town, so it’d be good to have some idea. Shall I book for three nights?” “That sounds about right. I’ll call you the moment I hear anything more. Can you give me your mobile number?” “Yes of course.” Helena felt a stab of nausea as she read it out. Sunday was a hectic day. Helena helped her mother with last-minute packing, and collected Terry’s dog food and favourite toys together. She’d booked herself three nights at the Bell’s View Hotel. I really will be glad to relax for a few days, she thought for the umpteenth time. Far away from this house and from Mr McIntosh. Her heart jumped. His presence was here in this house, right now. He can’t be coming. He’s coming tomorrow, Helena thought in a panic as she crossed the living room. Her eyes shot out through the window. A green car was pulling up. Oh my God. He can’t be coming today. She watched the car door open and Mr McIntosh got out. He was dressed in dark grey and carried a dark leather suitcase. Helena tasted bile in her mouth, tried to swallow. It was too late to pull the curtains. He knew she was home. The bell rang what seemed like an eternity later. As in a trance she walked and opened the door. “Mr McIntosh…” He smiled. “Ms Montgomery. I apologise for intruding yet again.” He cleared his throat and brushed a droplet of snow from his coat. “As you can imagine, we are rather busy this afternoon.” “My dear, I won’t keep you,” he said. “You always insist on telling me how busy you are, how this and that. I know. I know I make you uncomfortable. It’s all right.” “N-no, you don’t. Not at all,” Helena said. She felt the burn of his eyes on her fingers, which had involuntarily curled and uncurled themselves. “It’s all right. It’s all right.” His voice was meditative, calm. Otherwordly. “If you knew who I was, what I’m like, you would not be so afraid.” This is ridiculous, Helena thought. She met his glance. “I’m not afraid, Mr McIntosh.” “If you say so.” “I do say so. And what do you mean, if I knew who you were?” Mr McIntosh said nothing. “Well?” Helena pushed again. He brushed another fleck of snow from his coat. “Can I not come inside? Inside my own home?” Helena stepped aside reluctantly. Yet he did not move and remained rooted on the spot. “Ms Montgomery.” “What? Please, God, what is it you are after?” Mr McIntosh brought his two gloved hands together. “I wonder if you’d like it.” “What?” Helena asked. She stared at his eyes. Those eyes that she knew held many secrets. “I wonder if you’d like to go back.” He was so very calm. “I wonder, if I were to tell you I could take you back to the happiest day of your life, would you want to go there? Right now?” “You are insane.” “Perfectly sane, my dear.” “What is it with all this… happiness stuff?” Helena asked. “You must be very unhappy to keep going on and on about the same thing.” Mr McIntosh licked his lips. “On the contrary, Ms Montgomery. You are the unhappy one. You are the one who, when I asked you, could not even name your happiest day. How sad. How sad is that? I want to help you. I can help you.” Helena felt a hot sensation sweep over her. Her eyes were fixed on Mr McIntosh’s eyes. Those eyes, those eyes she had feared for thirty years. Those hypnotic eyes. He’s grabbing my arms, he’s going to grab my arms, Helena thought. Seconds later, the gloved hands reached for her. Held her closer. Again, the words “I wonder if you’d like it. I can help you.” Something made her nod. Something she was powerless against made her say it. “Take me to the happiest day of my life.” Salty tears burst free, so free… and ran down her cheeks, into her mouth. “Take me there.” Mr McIntosh’s grip loosened. Very methodically, he took off his gloves and placed both of his hands on her cheeks. “My dear, you will soon be happier than you’ve been for a very long time. Forget the pain. The bastard men. The father who left you. The sick mother.” He let go of her and turned towards his green car, just for a few seconds. A cry rang out. Mr McIntosh spun around and knelt down. He picked her up with delicate fingers, carried the newborn to his car, and drove off into the snow.