Department of English and Modern Languages

  • English
  • The Debt

    by William Austin

    ‘Does that make me a bad person?’

    ‘No, of course not. It’s yours.’

    ‘But isn’t it too soon?’

    ‘Does anyone else owe you?’

    ‘They don’t owe me, I owe them.’

    ‘Well, why can’t you borrow money from your parents?’

    ‘I don’t want to keep leeching off them. I feel way too awkward asking them for money, it’s tight for them too. Besides, they’d be suspicious of why I need money again so quickly.’

    ‘Well, these are your two options. You’re going to feel bad either way. You may as well go and retrieve what is already yours, no matter how awkward you find it. I’m sure her mum will understand.’

    ‘Yeah, I guess.’

    Noah sat on the sofa. He pulled his legs to his chest and rest his chin on his knees. Seamus, sat in a chair to the his right, un-muted the television. He placed the remote back on a table where it disappeared in the shadow cast by a pile of books. A photograph of a girl, her eyes bright and her smile wide, was knocked to the floor. Noah’s ex-girlfriend. Seamus picked it up and replaced it onto a black box on Noah’s desk. A laptop lay open; its screen blank, asleep. Small pots of pills lay next to a notebook, scrawled handwriting filling up a few lines. Seamus only needed a glance to know the story. He turned.

    ‘Come on, we’d better go.’

    ‘You know I can’t afford it.’

    ‘I’ll pay. And change your clothes. You can’t wear black for the rest of your life.’

    ‘It fits.’

    ‘I know, but still… Anyway, I thought you really wanted to see this.’

    ‘That was before.’

    ‘But you need to get out of the flat. Look, it’s sunny.’

    ‘Then why do you want to go to the cinema?’

    ‘Because I want to see it. You really want to see it too.’

    ‘Not anymore.’

    ‘I know you do.’

    ‘I know I do too, but I said I’d watch it with her.’

    ‘Well, I’m going out anyway. Want me to get you anything?

    ‘Fried chicken.’

    ‘Again? Alright. See ya.’

    Noah gave a wave as Seamus closed the door. He got up, turned off Seinfeld mid sarcastic retort, and moved to the kitchen. He began filling the kettle. He’d started drinking jasmine tea as he’d heard it was good for the body. Calming. He hit the switch on the kettle and moved over to his desk. Everything was as he’d left it, except the photograph. He picked it up. A light flickered. His neighbours talked outside his window. The kettle awakened, but he could barely hear its rumbling. He stared in to his ex-girlfriend’s eyes. This wasn’t how he remembered her.

    Click. Steam erupted from the kettle. Noah made his tea then sat at the desk. This was becoming habitual. He’d sit reading all the novels he was supposed to read during university. He had more time now. Goethe, Kafka, Fontane, Baudelaire, Dickens, Rushdie, Plath. He allowed them to envelope him in their conflict, their tension, their sadness. It was all he took from them. No happy endings.

    Seamus arrived back at Noah’s to find him asleep outside the entrance in a decaying armchair the neighbours were throwing away. He sat with his legs outstretched. His shoes were off and the bottoms of his socks were filthy. He had earphones in; his iPod had fallen from his hand. Seamus tapped him on the head.

    ‘Oh, hey’, Noah said, squinting in the daylight and sitting up. ‘How was it?’

    ‘Alright. Disappointing ending though. Even worse than Evangelion’s.’

    ‘Ah, lame.’

    ‘Why are you out here?’

    ‘I figured I’d get some fresh air. I was going to go to the park and take photos, but decided I couldn’t be bothered. Saw the chair. Crashed. I might ask them for it.’

    ‘Ah. At least you’ve changed into something with a little colour.’

    They made their way up the stairs to the flat. Noah went to the sink to wash up the one plate he’d been using for the last three months. One plate, one knife, one fork. Less to wash up. Seamus turned on the television. Noah joined him on the sofa and they watched The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in silence. After the credits Noah broke it.

    ‘Can you come with me in to the city tomorrow?’

    ‘Yeah, sure. You’re definitely going to ask her for your money?’

    ‘No other choice.’

    ‘What if it was my fault?’

    ‘Oh, the ego on you! You think you breaking up with her would have caused that?’

    ‘I didn’t help.’

    ‘You don’t give yourself enough credit. You were her best friend, even after you broke up with her. You should know how grateful she was to have your support.’

    The friends stood in by the doors either side of the carriage. The train was typically over-crowded and behind schedule. Every few minutes Noah lifted the sliding window of the carriage up, attempting breach the gap that the train’s motion created. Pointless.

    ‘But my support wasn’t good enough.’

    A man appeared from inside the carriage carrying a suitcase which he placed in front of Noah. He paid no attention to his presence.

    ‘Stop trying to make this about you. I know it’s natural to ask yourself if you could have done something else. Everyone will have thought the same thing at one point. I have. But you can’t keep dwelling on it.’

    The bellow of the train entering a tunnel rendered Noah’s retort inaudible. The man returned with another large suitcase in his hands and, this time, his wife and children. As he put the suitcase down on Noah’s left, his wife passed him another, which he placed on top of the two he’d already lay down. The train exited the tunnel. The couple turned back in to the carriage. Noah looked at the cases and then to Seamus, who also looked quizzical. Seamus was only visible from above the waist as he was blocked by small walls of suitcases. Before Noah could climb over the family returned with two more suitcases and placed them onto the existing foundations. Noah shot them a look of stoic chagrin. It went unnoticed. From behind the children he could see Seamus smiling. They exchanged a glance. A telepathic conversation. Noah knew what was coming, and a second later Seamus left Noah to be incarcerated.

    After Noah had escaped confinement he found Seamus at the in the next carriage. He stood eating a sandwich behind a couple who held hands. Noah looked at the floor as he passed them. Rain drops began to spatter against the carriage window. Noah looked at his watch. Almost at the stop. He tapped Seamus on the back.

    ‘Ah, you escaped.’

    ‘You could have helped me.’

    ‘You could have spoken up.’

    ‘I did, eventually. If not they’d probably have buried me.’

    ‘Yeah, that was just weird.’

    The train began to slow. People began to put on their scarves, do up their jackets, stand up and retrieve their luggage. Noah and Seamus moved toward the door. The couple filed in behind them. Noah heard them kiss. He concentrated on the faces on the platform flashing past and opened the door as soon as the train stopped.

    ‘Sure you don’t want me to come with you?’

    ‘Yeah, it’s fine. I might be there a while.’

    ‘Okay, then Ill meet you in town. Text me when you’re on the way.’

    The street was empty each way. Cars parked on the narrow road rode the curb on one side. A pigeon landed on the garden wall. It looked at him, cooing, telling him to get on with it. Noah walked up the garden path. He reached the top step and looked at the doorbell, unsure. After a pause he rang and shifted back down a step. The pigeon had been joined by companions. Their cooing was subdued, as if the didn’t want Noah to hear. A latch opened. He turned to face his ex-girlfriend’s mother.

    ‘Hello Noah.’

    Clara smiled.

    ‘What brings you here?’

    ‘I was in the area and I thought I’d see how you were coping… how you were doing. And… I needed to ask you some things.’

    ‘Sure. Come in.’

    Noah walked over the threshold and followed Clara to the living room. The house looked as he remembered it. He peered into his ex-girlfriend’s room. The bed was made-up as if it expected to be slept in. The room appeared lived in, yet sparse. In the kitchen Clara filled a kettle. Noah stood awkwardly in the living room for a few seconds before being prompted to sit. He looked at the photographs on the walls. New ones had been added, mostly family group photos and portraits of his ex, laughing, smiling. Beautiful. He shifted in his chair. He felt guilty. He broke the silence to distract himself.

    ‘Is Daniel not here?’

    ‘No, he’s in school now.’

    ‘Ah, I forgot he’s in primary school now…’

    Noah trailed off. The kettle rumbled and clicked. Steam rose. Clara opened a cupboard and retrieved two mugs. One blue and another white with writing on. Noah could only make out the letter K. Clara replaced this mug back into the cupboard and withdrew another. She dropped teabags into the mugs and poured.

    ‘Milk and sugar?’

    ‘Yes, and one please.’

    Noah sat playing with the ends of his sleeves, rolling them between his thumb and middle finger. A cup was placed on a coaster. He looked up as Clara sat down in a chair across from him.

    ‘How have you been, Noah?’

    Rain fell outside. It crashed on to the bins and decorated the windows. It ran off the roof and into the gutter, where it splashed in to a drain below, a tiny waterfall. Despite the warm air inside, Noah sat with his jacket done up. His tea was finished, he’d declined another. For the past hour he and Clara had talked about how his job search was going, what he planned to do in the future, how they’d both been coping since the funeral. Clara encouraged him, just like her daughter would have, but the compliments burned. He excused himself and went to the bathroom.

    It was even more difficult than he’d thought. He washed his hands, avoiding eye contact with himself in the mirror. From the corner of his eye he could see his reflection reaching into his pocket and pulling out his empty wallet, egging him on. He felt shame in the fact that he agreed. He stood at the door to the bathroom, his hand on the handle, his resolve dissolved by his guilt. He returned to find Clara taking his cup back to the kitchen. He sat, waiting for her to return so he could ask the question he really needed to ask.

    ‘Was it because of me?’

    ‘What?’

    ‘If I hadn’t ended it. If I had been there for her more, would any of this have still happened?’

    ‘Noah, you can’t think that.’

    ‘I know… I can’t help it.’

    He pulled his right leg up t`o his chest and rested his head on his knee.

    ‘Noah, her depression was very serious. And you tried your hardest. You were always supportive. Even after you broke up with her you were still there.’

    Noah stared at the floor.

    ‘Even if you thought it you couldn’t do anything for her, you helped her out so much. She was grateful for what you did do… and you know it.’

    ‘But I was selfish. I grew tired and I put my happiness before hers when she was the one who needed it.’

    ‘It wasn’t easy for you and she appreciated that, that’s why your support meant all the more to her. You were there for her when no one else was, when no one else could be. I know you felt like you couldn’t make a difference but that just isn’t true!’

    Noah sniffed, cleared his throat, but he didn’t speak.

    ‘There wasn’t anything anyone could have done.’

    She broke off. They both sat in silence, each giving the other time. Noah thought about her words. He’d been told the same things by his ex but was never been able to believe them. As time moved on he felt more and more useless. Couldn’t even find a job. Couldn’t even afford a decent apartment. Couldn’t even make anyone happy.

    ‘She looks so happy in these photos’, Clara began. ‘And I believe she was. Even to the end. And I believe it was because of you. All her friends, but especially you. I never had the time with the long hours in the clinic and raising her brother. Never had as much time as I’d have liked. But she’d always mention you and how you’d make her late night hot chocolates, or let her lie on your lap and stoke her head as you watched films…’

    ‘She told you about that?’

    ‘Of course. And I was so happy that she had someone like you.’

    ‘Thank you.’

    Clara walked Noah to the door. She smiled a smile he’d seen spread across the face of his ex-girlfriend, but now he knew what it meant. He felt lighter. His joints no longer felt rusted over with melancholy. His guilt remained, but it was contained, manageable. He was able to come to terms with his short-comings, seeing that whatever pain he’d caused was outweighed by a tremendous good in her eyes. Clara gave Noah a cheque. The exact amount he was owed. He didn’t even have to ask.

    ‘She left a note in her room they day before… Sorry…That I couldn’t give it to you earlier.’

    He didn’t mind. He stood in the doorway looking at the numbers, thinking about what he’d regained and what he’d lost. The numbers seemed insignificant in comparison. He slipped the cheque into his pocket, thanked Clara and promised to stay in touch. Rain still fell, beating hard on the ground. He stepped outside and let it wash him away.

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