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Payment in Kind

Something scurries in the corner of the room beside an overflowing trashcan. Rats and insects are everywhere in this district. He would be better off collecting from them.

By Wilkie StewartPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 3 min read
Payment in Kind
Photo by Rashid Sadykov on Unsplash

Out in the corridor, Scotty hears the TV through the wall. The paintwork is smudged by thousands of dirty hands. His throat is dry, and his head is dull. The walk up the staircase has made him breathless. He pauses to collect himself. He nudges the water bottle in his pocket, but it is empty. He is too old for this.

He barges straight in without knocking or calling out, rent book in his hand. The woman is standing at the window, frayed curtains torn flags at her side. The man is slumped like a dog in front of the TV. Neither are alarmed at his entrance. She will have seen him arrive – his old van parked in full sight in the street below. He has learned surprise does not make them pay up.

"You’re overdue," he says. He doesn't have to check the columns or the dates. They are always in arrears in this building.

The woman looks at her husband. He squirms in the battered armchair and says nothing. His bald head gleams in the sick light. There are grease marks on the seat arms from long hot days sweating in silence. "We don’t got it," she says. "Factory is shut. There’s no work."

He feels a spit of water trickle down his back towards his buttocks. It's a common excuse - he's heard it already today but it makes no difference. Where the money comes from is not his responsibility, only its transfer, its collection.

Fading paper on the walls is coming away where dampness is winning. Something scurries in the corner of the room beside an overflowing trashcan. He shudders. Rats and insects are everywhere in this district. He would be better off collecting from them. The woman comes towards him. She puts a hand on herself, pushes at her body through her sweat-stained t-shirt. "Perhaps you’d like to touch," she says, her voice deep. "Maybe we lay down?" Her husband’s eyes are empty as they stare at him for a brief time before turning away towards the window.

"And who would pay my medical bill afterwards?" he says too quickly. Ma always warned him of his sharp tongue. Careful or you'll cut yourself she would say.

The woman's face flushes, and there is something toxic and dark in her eyes. She calls him something in her own language. He's been called that today too. At least she is not holding a knife. "I owe money as well," he says, wondering why he is placating her. She means nothing to him. "I can’t afford you."

The husband switches channel on the TV. The picture is jerky, but Scotty sees scattered islands, rain, deer racing across landscapes, fishing boats churning on a grey sea. A woman on the doorstep of a whitewashed house waves as a boy walks away down a path to the shore. Scotty blinks, suppressing thoughts of choices made, wrong turnings taken long ago.

The woman repeats they have nothing. He gulps. He is still thirsty.

Scotty leans off the door frame. "You have that," he says. He takes the plug out of the socket and picks up the TV. He knows it is worth precisely nothing. He holds out a hand for the remote. The husband places it in his palm, eyes still dead. "You can have it back when I get your rent." The corridor is quiet as he walks to the stairs. Only the creak of his cheap shoes on the tacky floor breaks the silence.

Short Story

About the Creator

Wilkie Stewart

Writer of strange little tales living in Glasgow, Scotland. A former IT professional who loves literary fiction, poetry, Eurovision, art-house film, post-crossing, and comics. Walks daily with his camera when he can. @werewegian1 on Twitter

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