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𝗠𝗮𝗻 𝗶𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗕𝗮𝗰𝗸𝗴𝗿𝗼𝘂𝗻𝗱

𝘣𝘺 𝘛𝘪𝘮 𝘑𝘦𝘧𝘧𝘳𝘦𝘺𝘴



Denise wanted a family portrait to hang in the hallway of their new house, and every so often she would hand Cam a leaflet for a professional photographic studio and urge him to check for discounts online.


“We should do it before the girls get too old,” she would say, referring to their daughters: Rosie, six, and Esme, who had just turned four.


Cam disliked the staged happiness in the photos of the families he saw on the websites. He hated the idea of wasting a day trooping his family out to some studio where they would pose together under bright lights. It would no doubt mean sacrificing one of his Saturdays, which he liked to spend playing football then having a few drinks with his friends. Besides, his preference was for something more natural.


An opportunity presented itself at the wedding of Denise’s sister, Faith, one sunny day in late May. Stepping outside after the ceremony, Cam noticed how pretty the church gardens looked. The grass has been recently mown and the cherry trees were full of white blossom, some of which had been blown free by the breeze and lay strewed about the ground.


“Quick,” Cam called to Denise, who stood to one side of the doors chatting to an older woman in a wide hat. “Now’s our chance.”


Denise gave a little puzzled shake of her head. Cam pointed towards the cherry trees.


“Photo opportunity.” When Denise continued to look blankly at him, he added,


“Family portrait.”


“Where’re the girls?”


Cam rounded up Rosie and Esme, who were today both wearing lacy pink dresses which they had miraculously managed to keep clean. Denise wore a strapless floral print dress with matching hat in which she looked stunning, and Cam himself of course wore the grey slim-fit Moss Bros suit he’d bought for himself on a trip to London. It was the perfect opportunity.


The woman in the wide hat offered to take the picture, but instead Cam sought out his nephew Tyrone, who he knew was now at college doing media studies. This wasn’t going to be a point-and-shoot, he wanted it done properly.


“If this doesn’t save us a trip to a photography studio,” Cam said as he stood with his family under the cherry trees. “I don’t know what will.”


“Smile,” Tyrone said, holding up Cam’s phone.


Rosie and Esme wanted to look at the picture straight away, but Cam knew that if he gave them his phone he would have a hard time getting it back so he slipped it into his jacket’s inside pocket in the hope that they would forget about it. He told them to find some other children to play with. After this he spotted his uncle, Jamel, who he hadn’t seen for years, standing on the church steps so he went to talk to him. He didn’t look at the picture Tyrone had taken until they arrived home that evening, at which point the smile fell off his face. The picture was perfect in every way he’d hoped it would be. He, his wife, and both his children were all smiling and looking into the camera—a minor miracle in itself—and the church gardens, sunlit and picturesque, were full of colour. The only problem was that a man had been caught in the left hand side of the frame, standing a few feet behind Denise. The man was clearly not one of the wedding party. He had a long scruffy beard and wore a knee length camouflage jacket and a peaked cap with a purple sweatshirt hood pulled over it.


“Where the bloody hell did he appear from?”


“Everything all right?” Denise asked.


“There’s a strange man in our picture. A bloody homeless man by the look of him. Must have wandered in off the street. For Christ’s sake – that’s the last time I trust Tyrone to do anything.”


Pausing as she buzzed about the kitchen, Denise leaned into him to look at the phone.


“That’s a shame. I didn’t notice him at the time.”


“It’s ruined. We can’t hang that on the wall with some random tramp in the background.”


But it was more than the man’s presence in the photo that bothered him. The way the man had been caught in the picture made him look as if he belonged there, as if he were a part of the family, and it was this that irked Cam the most. It almost appeared as if he himself were being edged out of the righthand side of the frame, whilst the stranger muscled into shot next to his wife, not smiling but brazenly looking down the camera as if he were the photographer’s intended subject.


“What the hell was he doing there?” Cam said. “Why didn’t anyone say anything? Ask him to leave?”


Denise stopped to glance again at the phone. “You can’t stop people walking in the church gardens.”


“Well, they should. Faith doesn’t want some crackhead in her wedding photos.”


“You don’t know he’s a crackhead,” Denise said. “They’re not all on drugs. It’s just bad luck. Anyone could end up homeless. You could.”


“Never,” Cam said.


Denise moved her face closer to the phone. “You know he looks kind of familiar.”


A week later, Cam was driving past the church where Faith’s wedding had taken place on his way to play football; something he thought of as his Saturday treat after a week spent at work. It was another sunny day, and again he noticed the cut grass and the cherry trees in full blossom; and this led to him remembering the ruined family portrait. He’d been meaning to speak to Tyrone and tell him he hoped his college projects didn’t all have stray homeless people in them.


His momentary distraction in looking at the church and thinking about that photograph meant he wasn’t watching the road in front of his car and by the time he noticed something ahead of him it was too late. He hit the brakes and was jolted forwards, but he heard something thump against the car bonnet and roll away to the left.


That wasn’t a person, he thought. Please don’t let that be a person.


When he sprang the driver’s side door, he saw what looked like a bundle of rags lying in the gutter, but when he heard a groan he was dismayed to realise that it was indeed a human being. A man.


“I’m sorry, man. I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”


The prone figure had already begun climbing to his feet, and it was only now that Cam recognised the camouflage jacket and purple hood. As if to confirm his identity, the man turned his face towards Cam and muttered through his straggly beard: “What the hell you doing, buddy? You blind?”


“I’m sorry,” Cam said. “I didn’t see you. What were you doing in the middle of the road?”


“Trying to get over there,” the man said, pointing in the direction of the church. “What do you think I was doing?”


Seeing the man lurch unsteadily onto the pavement, Cam moved to help him. He put one arm around the man’s back, trying his best to ignore the filthy, unwashed smell that came off him, and helped him to sit down on the low wall bordering the church gardens.


“Are you sure you’re okay?” Cam said. “Anything broken? Maybe I should drive you to a hospital?”


“I’m fine,” the man said. “Just bruised and banged up probably.”


Cam gritted his teeth against a pang of guilt. “Can I drive you somewhere? Do you have a home I could take you to? A…?”


The man raised soft brown eyes to Cam. “Used to have a home. A very nice home in fact.”


“What happened?”


“Lost my job, didn’t I? Then my wife told me she wanted a divorce. The kids stayed with her, so she got the house. There was a man in the background too. She moved her new man in as soon as I was out. Into my house! Tried to stay afloat for a while on my own, but everything just seem to crumble away beneath me.”


“You have kids?”


The man nodded. “Two.”


“Do you see them?”


“Not lately. Don’t want them seeing me like this. I’ll go back one day. Soon as I get on my feet. I’ll go back in a nice suit and tie and I’ll say: Do you remember me? I’m your daddy.”


Cam glanced away, feeling another rush of guilt. So the man wasn’t a tramp or a crackhead. He felt bad now for saying those things about him. Denise had been right: it was just bad luck; it could happen to anyone.


“What did you do? In your job I mean?”


“I used to program computers.”


“I program computers,” Cam said. “For Reed Solutions. You know it?”


The man jabbed a finger to his chest. “I used to work for Reed Solutions,” the man said, his expression becoming hard. He squinted at Cam and pursed his lips. “Maybe you’re the son-of-a-bitch who stole my job out from under me.”


“No, no,” Cam said. “I just started there last month.”


The man continued to look at Cam from under his brow, until he finally dropped his gaze. “You know what I miss the most, out of all of it? A nice hot shower. I sure wish there was somewhere I could go now and have a nice hot shower. You know?”


Cam sighed. He glanced along the length of the street, thinking of the afternoon he could have spent playing football with his friends. Then afterwards, a few drinks in the pub across the road from the playing fields. If he’d kept his eyes on the road he could’ve been there now, fastening up his boots.


He shifted his gaze downwards. The man’s shoes looked like they were on the brink of disintegrating, the jogging bottoms he wore were stained, and the camouflage jacket was torn and frayed.


“Well…” he said, at the same time thinking: no don’t do it, don’t say it, Denise will have a fit if you take this guy home. Just leave him here. He’s fine. The guys are waiting for you. But he knew he couldn’t do that. He’d knocked the man over with his car. Run him down. The least he could do was offer him a hot shower. That wasn’t much to ask, was it? “There might just be a place.”


Denise didn’t say a word except ‘Oh?’ when he arrived with the homeless man who’s name, as he’d learned during the drive home, was McKenzie although he insisted on being called Mac. She remained mute when they stood in the kitchen, listening to the sounds of the shower running and footsteps clumping about the bathroom above, but he could tell she was angry from the way she pressed her lips together and avoided his eyes.


“Look,” he said, “I’ll give it a good clean after he’s gone, okay? What was I supposed to do?”


Denise sucked air through her teeth, another indication that she was less than happy.


“He’s not a druggie or anything. He’s just a guy down on his luck. Wife screwed him over. Apparently, he used to be a computer programmer at Reed just like me.”


“Just like you, huh?” Denise said. Pushing past him, she went to watch over the children in the lounge.


Throwing up his hands, Cam trooped upstairs and began looking through his wardrobe. Selecting a bright orange hooded sweatshirt given to him by his mother-in-law for his birthday which he’d never worn because, as he’d told Denise, he didn’t want people mistaking him for a traffic light, he threw it down on the bed. He also took from the wardrobe a pair of jeans he’d never liked the cut of, a brand new pair of briefs and a thick pair of socks. There was also a black, waterproof jacket he hadn’t worn in a while. He added this to the pile on the bed.


Hearing the shower shut off, he went to the bathroom door and knocked.


“Mac,” he said. “I’ve got some clothes here for you. To replace your old ones.”


“What now?” came the voice from the other side of the door.


“I’ve got some clothes for you. Nothing fancy, just some things I haven’t worn for a while. We’re about the same size, right? I’ll leave them outside the door. I might have some boots too, hardly worn. What size shoe do you take?”


“Eleven,” Mac said after a pause.


“Perfect. You get dressed and I’ll see you downstairs.”


Denise and the children sat together on the sofa. Denise still refused to meet his gaze, but the children watched him with their eyes full of questions.


“Daddy, who’s that man?”


“Just a man I accidentally hit with the car. I thought it might be nice for him to come and have a shower because he doesn’t have a house of his own.”


“Why doesn’t he have a house?” Rosie asked.


“He’s just had some bad luck, that’s all.”


“He can live in our house,” Esme said.


“No he can’t,” Denise snapped.


“Give him a break,” Cam said. “He’s harmless.”


Denise jerked upright, suddenly aghast. “Did you close our bedroom door, Cam? I don’t want him going in there. My jewellery.”


“Your jewellery’s fine.”


“But, Cam…?”


“Shush,” Cam said, hearing feet on the stairs.


He blinked when he saw Mac stood looking sheepish in the hallway, wearing the clothes he’d picked out for him. It was as if years had been stripped away. Originally he’d thought Mac must be in his late fifties or early sixties, but now he realised that Mac was closer to his own age, perhaps even younger.


“Sit down,” Cam said. “I’ll make you a cup of tea.”


“You’re being very kind,” Mac said. “I don’t want to intrude.”


“No really, it’s the least I could do.”


As he boiled the kettle, he smiled, listening to the children quizzing Mac in the lounge. There were feet on the stairs, and he realised Denise had probably gone to survey the mess in the bathroom. When she returned and joined him in the kitchen, she had a bemused look on her face.


“How is it?” he asked, wincing at the thought of having to bleach down the shower cubicle. “Bad?”


She shook her head. “There’s no mess. He must have cleaned up after himself. It actually looks better in there than it does after you’ve had a shower.”


“Me? What do you mean?”


“You normally leave it in an awful state.”


“I do not,” he said, but seeing the look on her face he fell silent.


“You know,” she said. “There’s something strange about that man.”


“Strange? What do you mean strange?”


She thought a moment. “If he shaved off that beard…”


“What?”


“You could almost be twins.”


Cam couldn’t remember whose idea it had been to let Mac stay the night in the extension. Perhaps Denise had suggested it. Could that be correct? Cam’s plan had been to send Mac on his way after the tea, but the man appeared to have a natural affinity with children and had been getting on so well with Rosie and Esme, answering all their questions and making them laugh, that Cam felt bad about asking him to go. Then when Mac began telling Denise all about how he’d lost his job and been kicked out by his ex-wife, Cam knew he’d end up having dinner with them. After that it had seemed cruel to send him out on to the streets as it had started to pour with rain. So, somehow, Mac had ended up spending the night in the extension. Mac even insisted that Cam lock the door between that and the main house, given that he was a stranger and they had two small children to think of, something which Cam had planned to do anyway but which he was nervous of explaining to Mac.


“I’m sorry,” Cam said. “It’s a bit of a mess in here. We were planning to turn it into a guest room, but we just never got around to it.”


“Don’t you worry,” Mac said. “I’ll be okay. It’s better than the NCP.”


Closing and locking the door, Cam realised that he was only making it harder on himself by allowing Mac to stay. Tomorrow the man would be back on the streets, and Cam would think about him every time he went into that useless extension which Candice had originally planned to turn into a flat for her grandmother who’d passed away the previous winter, much to Cam’s relief.


Here we are with this space we’re not using, he would think. And there’s Mac out there on the streets. Cold, wet, hungry…


Perhaps this was the reason why, after a week, Mac was still living with them. Then a month went by. Then two months. Mac knew how to make himself useful, helping Denice with the housework whilst Cam was at work, even once or twice picking the children up from school. He also knew how to make himself scarce, retreating to the extension when he sensed the family needed space. After three months, Cam stopped locking the door between the extension and the main house. It was around this time that Denice finally convinced Mac to shave off his beard.


“It’s like I said,” Denise told Cam one night when they sat up in bed together. “He looks just like you.”


Cam sneered. “You think so? I don’t see it. Not at all. He’s…”


“Oh, yes,” Denise said. “It’s remarkable really. Only he’s…”


“What?”


“He’s…well…”


“What is he?” Cam said.


Denise shrugged. “More handsome, I suppose.”


“More handsome?”


“Yes. And more thoughtful too. Definitely more thoughtful.”


“More thoughtful now?”


Denise smiled to herself. “Yes, he’s just like you, only with an upgrade.”


Cam turned to her, his mouth hanging open. “I can’t believe you just said that.”


She gave a little titter then lay down on her pillows, half turned on her side away from him. “’Night,” she said, and switched off the light.


One day when Cam arrived home from work, he opened the door to the sound of girlish laughter. Following the sound to its source, he was surprised to find that it came from Denise. She and Mac were sat at opposite ends of the dining table, both cradling mugs of tea and smiling. He wondered why he’d not recognised the laughter as Denise’s. Had he never heard her laugh so freely before? And what had Mac said or done that had made her laugh like that?


“What are you so happy about?”


“Mac got a job.”


“Really?”


“It’s true. And it’s all thanks to you two.”


Cam took the letter Mac held out to him. A few months earlier, he had decided to try and help Mac get back into the computer programming business. Together, they had searched for vacancies online; then when the invitations for interview arrived Cam had even lent Mac his Moss Bross suit; though he’d regretted this when Denise remarked that Mac looked better in it than he did.


Cam studied the letter. “Senior Computer Programmer? Senior?”


Mac nodded, still grinning. “That’s right. It wasn’t the job I was interviewed for, but I must have impressed them so much they offered me the senior position instead.”


“That’s…”


Glancing up, Cam noticed Denise reach across the table and place her hand over Mac’s. She removed it almost at once, but the image lingered in Cam’s mind.


“Where’re the girls?”


“They’re in bed already. Mac took them to the park after school, and they had so much fun they were tired-out by the time they got home.”


“You should have kept them up. I haven’t seen them today.” Cam heard the blunt tone of his own voice. Even he wasn’t sure why it was there.


Denise looked at him askance. “They were exhausted, Cam. I just managed to get some dinner in them before they fell asleep on the sofa.”


“I could have taken them to the park.”


“Since when do you like going to the park?”


“I take them. I enjoy taking them.”


“I can count the times you’ve taken the girls to the park on one hand,” Denise said.


Cam huffed. He switched his gaze to Mac. “New shirt?” he said, noticing the elegant blue designer dress shirt the man wore.


“Yes, sir. Your wife bought it for me. As a way of saying congratulations, I guess. She says blue is my colour.”


“Does she now?”


“What’s got into you?” Denise said. “Mac has been such a help around here, it’s the least I could do.”


We gave him a roof over his head, didn’t we? he wanted to say. We fed him, didn’t we? And all he’s done is…is…


What he actually said was: “I’m going for a shower.”


Upstairs, as he changed out of his work clothes, Cam noticed that the hideous orange sweatshirt his mother-in-law had given him was back in his wardrobe. It rankled him, seeing it there. Then when he looked at his face in the bathroom mirror, he didn’t recognise himself. It had been a busy couple of weeks at work, he’d put in so much overtime, and he’d been in such a rush in the mornings that he hadn’t bothered to shave. Now he had the beginning of a beard. As he stared into the mirror, an odd thought passed through his mind that he was not looking at his own face at all, but at Mac’s. He remembered the letter: Senior Computer Programmer. A few months ago, the man had been sleeping in carparks and rummaging through skips behind the supermarket for things to eat. Now not only did he have a job, he was moving into a position that Cam had been trying to move into for years. Cam’d done the work. He’d put the hours in. He deserved it. He deserved it more than that man who’d let his life go to ruin and ended up living on the street. Cam would never let a thing like that happen to him. He was stronger and more resilient than that.


As he showered, he began thinking about the picture on his phone; the one taken of his family at Faith’s wedding; the one that had been ruined by Mac. When he emerged, he took his phone and searched for the picture. He remembered the impression he’d had when he first looked at it; how Mac had appeared to be muscling in from the left next to Denise, and edging him out of the picture on the right. When he brought it up on his phone’s screen, he saw now that this wasn’t the case. The homeless man in the background behind his family had a forlorn look, as if he thought he belonged in the picture but had not been allowed to stand central with the others. And the more he looked at it, the more he became convinced that it was not Mac who stood there in the ratty camouflage jacket and purple hood, face obscured by unruly beard, but himself. Those were his eyes, weren’t they? He could see in them the fear and confusion he was feeling at that very moment. And that proud looking man with his arm around Rosie and Esme. Wasn’t that Mac? It had to be. Somehow Mac had usurped him that day, taken his place in the picture, in his life.


After dressing he stormed downstairs. He’d thought Denise might’ve had his dinner waiting for him, but she was still sat at the dining table with Mac, drinking tea and talking and laughing. Denise had been reaching across the table, covering Mac’s hand with her own again. She removed it when Cam entered the room. The two stopped talking and looked at him. Cam saw it all then, in a flood of images. Denise telling him, stony faced, that she wanted a divorce. Him moving into the extension, whilst Mac moved upstairs into the marital bed. One day he would arrive home from work to find his bags had been packed for him. He would kiss the children goodbye, and they would say, ‘Is Mac our new daddy?” Then, a bedsit, which would be all he’d be able to afford after the monthly child maintenance payments left his bank account. Weekend visits with the children, during which they would increasingly look at him as if he were a stranger. He would ask them what they’d been doing and they’d talk about Mac. Mac took us swimming. Mac read us a bedtime story. Mac taught us to ride a bike. Mac. Mac. Mac. Whilst he, Cam, would just be some man to them. Some man in the background of their lives. Some man they were forced to spend the weekends with in a grotty bedsit where they didn’t even have a room of their own. And what if he lost his job? There’d been a round of redundancies already at Reed. They were always cutting back. What if they decided to get rid of him? What then? Who would he rely on? What if he couldn’t afford the bedsit anymore? He would end up homeless. Homeless and on the street. Sleeping in carparks. Searching through skips behind the supermarket for… for…


“Get out,” he said.


“What?” Mac and Denise said in unison.


He fixed his gaze on Mac. “Get out. You’ve been here long enough.”


“Is this about the job?” Denise said. “You’re not jealous, are you?”


“Of course I’m not jealous. I want him out of my house. He was only supposed to come here for a shower, but he’s been here five fucking months already.” He turned back to Mac. “Get out.”


“Cam!”


“No,” Mac said, holding his hands palm outwards and rising from his chair. “He’s right. I’ve overstayed my welcome. You people have been more than kind, you’ve helped me get back on my feet, and now it’s time for me to let you have you’re home back.”


“Don’t be ridiculous,” Denise said. “You can’t go.”


“Yes he can,” Cam said.


Mac nodded, briefly catching Cam’s eye. “I’ll get my things together.”


Denise glared at Cam. “What’s the matter with you? You can’t make him go now. Not when…”


“It’s my house, isn’t it?”


“It’s our house. And I want him to stay.”


“Please,” Mac said. He had made it as far as the dining room door and turned back. “Don’t fight over me. I’ll be okay. Just say goodbye to the girls for me. I’ll miss them.”


“No,” Denise said, her face suddenly distraught. She shook her head. “No.”


It took some time for life to return to normal after Mac’s departure. Denise wouldn’t look at Cam for a week, wouldn’t speak to him for two. Rosie and Esme sat around the house, silent and wall-eyed; and when Cam suggested they do something, go to the park perhaps, they would look at him in bewilderment and shake their heads. In time, though, things returned to normal. Denise seemed to appreciate the extra effort Cam made around the house. He said no to overtime at work and spent the time he gained helping the children with their homework and teaching them to ride their bikes; and Saturday football with the guys and a few beers afterwards was replaced with family swimming lessons at the local pool, or trips to the park. That image still haunted him; that image of himself as a homeless man dressed in a frayed camouflage jacket, never seeing his children, and eating out of skips.


From time to time, when he entered a room, Denise’s face would light up, only for a moment. But as soon as he spoke, some other expression would appear on her face and she would glance away, her eyes straying to the window. She was thinking—he knew—of someone else. ✦



 

Tim Jeffreys' short fiction has appeared in Supernatural Tales, Not One of Us, The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors 2 & 3, and Nightscript, among various other publications. His novella, Holburn, a ghost story set in an exclusive girls’ school, was published by Manta Press in August, 2022. Follow his progress at www.timjeffreys.blogspot.co.uk.



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