…the helping of one’s self    

Smith tapped quickly three times, followed by one quick rap of his knuckles, repeating the pattern several times, in order to let Oscar know that it was in fact him, Smith, his neighbour, someone on his side, one of the good guys, who was knocking on his door at five minutes after six on a Wednesday morning.

“You’ve got to read this,” Smith said to the bleary-eyed and scantily clad and unkempt and disorientated and depressed and everything else Oscar that answered the door and mumbled some kind of oath and then collapsed on the sofa and hid beneath a blanket.

“You sleeping down here now?” Smith asked.

Oscar made no sign that he was prepared to be part of this conversation; his eyes wandering aimlessly about the room were only half-open.

“You’re not… you know…” Smith arched his eyebrows, then tilted his head in the direction of where he imagined Helen to sleep.

“She rents,” Oscar said.

He was tired, and had tired of explaining to Smith the exact nature of his relationship with Helen, which was wholly one of she-pays-me-and-I-give-her-a-room, not a kind-of-landlord-tenant relationship, but an actual landlord-tenant relationship; he had delivered these lines to the inscrutable face of Smith several times, the first time facetiously, the second incredulously, the third, fourth and now this fifth time impatiently, but at the same time resigned to the fact that it wouldn’t be the last time.

“Sure,” Smith said, in a manner which implied some kind of irony was at work. He was then out in the kitchen banging things together and opening and closing cupboard doors. “You got any coffee? I’ve run out of coffee!” he called out. “Got it. And milk?” There emanated from the kitchen sounds which denoted a level of industry you wouldn’t have ascribed to one man, certainly not to one man, making a cup of coffee. “This milk stinks.” Something breaks. “How does this kettle work? You not pay your electricity bill?” Then the sound of the kettle working. “This is meant to be sugar?” and finally the sound of a spoon clinking off the side of a mug, the sound of Smith stirring his hot beverage, was it six times clockwise and seven times anticlockwise or was it some other random series of times which he had invested with a level of meaning beyond anything ever ascribed to the meaningless little occurrences in an ordinary life.

“You know you really should get yourself a business,” was Smith’s final pronouncement on returning to the living room, cup of coffee in hand, smile on face and the usual inscrutable look on his inscrutable face. “How else do you expect to get back into her bed? What woman would take you back in this state? A woman has certain requirements… one of them being that you be a man… a real man.”

“I am a man,” Oscar pleaded from beneath the blanket, from under which only his white feet peeked out.

“The answers are in here.” Smith took the book from under his arm and let it fall with a bang onto the dusty and stained floorboards. “Maybe the questions too.”

“I’ve got enough questions,” Oscar pleaded, but his eyes exposed themselves in order to establish what it was that Smith might be referring to.

“You read too much fiction Oscar. It rots your brain. What’s the point in reading about things which never really happened… and things that never even existed? There’s books and papers all over the place that could hold the answers.”

“I’ve got enough answers,” Oscar, knew that he had little hope of defeating Smith’s argument, whatever it might be. The fear now faintly playing in his head was that Smith didn’t have an argument – and how could he defeat that? Even if he did have something approximating an argument, a series of propositions linked in some manner or other, Smith didn’t adhere to any rules of logic or fair play. On top of this, Oscar was suffering from an inability to engage in any argument, or indeed in any aspect of life beyond the automatic processes of breathing, digesting and kicking out his leg if hit on that precise spot on his knee.

Smith had enough. “I’ve had enough.” Though what he had enough of wasn’t specified or even hinted at. Oscar assumed that he had enough of being ignored – but as he was having great difficulty ignoring Smith he dismissed that theory and with that the possibility of any theory regarding Smith’s thought processes.

Smith banged his coffee cup on the coffee table, causing the viscous brown liquid to splash onto the table and commingle with the other stains and crumbs and detritus of Oscar’s last twenty days of abject unemployment. “Look at you.” Smith looked at him. Oscar would have been unable to follow suit, yet still Smith begged him. “Look at you.”

“I can’t look,” Oscar conceded to the law of logic which states that one being cannot look at themselves without the use of some device or substance which emulates the actions of a plane glass mirror.

“I know.”

Smith, in victory was magnanimous, and a bigger man than anyone else would have been in such a situation, and making his victory all the more great by the pity which he extended to the one who lay before him defeated and without hope, he extended the hand of friendship, the hand of hope, and tugged the blanket off him, and with his other hand, the hand of instruction, education and continual betterment, he held out the dun coloured book which he had started out by insisting that Oscar must read.

Hit by the shock of the cold, the morning light or the look of supreme beneficence on Smith’s face, Oscar was momentarily without the power of speech.

Oscar’s loss was to be Smith’s gain.

“This isn’t one of the lost books of the bible – the bible could never hold such deep and weighty truths – this is the bible. This is the book which…” and Smith acquired the look, adopted an exaggerated look, of someone who was at a loss for what to say, how to begin to describe what he held in his hand and which he was now holding out to the hopeless and pitiful figure of a whey-faced and bedraggled Oscar, was there a tear forming in one of his eyes? was his hand beginning to shake? And then the gift of life, of hope, of truth fell to the floor for a second and final time.

“Thanks,” Oscar said, after a moment’s consideration.

Smith sated his thirst, for he must have been thirsty, by gulping down the steaming viscous brown fluid he had in the mug before him and, on banging down the cup on the coffee table, was his old self, stood up in a flash, shrugged off what might have been some kind of holy moment, regained the upper hand, pushed this upper hand through his shining white hair, sternly looked at the pathetic figure of Oscar, turned his sallow face into a sneer, could have been about to say anything, perhaps something about Oscar pulling his socks up, and as he turned to the door offered his parting shot over his shoulder – “That book has to be back in the library by the twenty-fifth.”


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