Judith glanced forlornly at the chair where Boris used to sit. Without his presence , the air felt heavier. In fact, Judith imagined the air to be heavy with the smell of his corpse. When he was first gone, she had comforted herself with the remains of his smell, the presence of him still hanging in the room. The shape of him was still imprinted into the chair, as if he could walk through the door any minute now and take up his rightful place.
For days after he had been taken from her, Judith had still seen him like a friendly ghost in the house. Somehow, the memory of him helped her to get up in the morning, and she would prepare them breakfast. She would take both of their bowls out to the living room, although she would fill only hers with cereal, and leave his empty. She would prepare two blankets to bring out to the wicker chairs on the balcony to pass the afternoon.
In the evening, she would always forget that he was gone. With her feet up on the footrest, wearing her fuzzy slippers, she would half doze off.
“Did you hear that Boris?”, she would ask, when the radio reported a celebrity scandal. Or, she would reach out to touch him for reassurance when a disconcerting report came through in the news.
But nobody was there.
Only then would she be reminded that she was all alone.
When the wind howled outside, or when it rained heavily, it had always been cosy and warm inside. “I love the rain”, Judith would repeat peacefully. The stained glass windows cast their muted colours around the room, and Judith would be taken back to memories of her childhood.
But Judith didn’t love the rain, she found out. She loved Boris, and she loved that the wild weather cut them off from the world together. She loved that the feeling of being indoors and being home was intensified by the hostility of the elements. But she didn’t love the rain. When it rained yesterday, she had felt lonely and isolated, and she had cried again for Boris.
For several years, after Judith had lost her work and health, and after Boris had come into her life, it was just Judith and Boris.
They spent long days at home, and passed the seasons together.
In winter Judith would make a cup of tea, and start on her quilting, while Boris had a lie down on the couch. In summer, they would enjoy the garden, and Boris would birdwatch and they would exercise outdoor together.
It was a quiet life, uneventful from the outside perspective, but for Judith it was rich and fulfilling. She was contented and peaceful. She could see the same contentment in Boris with his round belly and big smile, and they were happy together.
For Judith, it always had been about her and Boris.
At some point over the years, Boris had become restless in some way. Judith noticed even small changes in Boris immediately, as they spent so much time together. Longing glances out the window where once he’d lay on the couch in peace in the evenings, eyes closed, smiling. A rush to finish meals, and then restless pacing across the hallway and back, seemingly lost in thought.
Two summers ago, Boris had started going out more and more. Then soon afterwards, he had started inviting the Guests. At first, he would just go for a little walk before dinner, or to stretch his legs in the morning. Judith barely missed him, he wasn’t gone long. Then, the walks had started getting a litte longer at times. Judith started to really get worried when he started getting late for meals, or missing them. “This isn’t like Boris”, Judith said to herself the first few times he was late. It wasn’t like Boris. But then, it became like Boris. Boris changed.
Judith generally had an idea where Boris was. He was round visiting the neighbours, or he was taking a walk by the river, where the long reeds grew and he could be close to nature.
One day, he started bringing a neighbour back for lunch. Judith had seen the neighbour from time to time, but she didn’t know him. She didn’t really mind that Boris wanted to invite him over. A part of her, honestly, just was relieved that Boris had changed his habits back to returning early now. He started cutting short his walks and arriving home well before dinner again. But once or twice a week, he would bring the neighbour with him when he came home from lunch. They would have lunch together, then the neighbour would spend part of the afternoon with Boris, then go home. This, too was a routine for a little while. It was a routine that Judith became comfortable with. It was good for Boris to have a friend, she supposed.
Besides, Boris’s friend, who was called Alfie, found a soft spot in Judith’s heart. He was a good-natured old fellow, quiet and gentle. In a way, Boris looked after him. Alfie, was a little arthritic and could not walk very far. He lived three houses down and was a little bored, Judith concluded. Boris often spent time at his place too.
For the space of that half-year, it was really only Alfie who Boris brought over. But then Boris’s outings became more frequent and prolonged still. Again, Judith was worried. Boris spent whole days mostly walking by the river, sitting in the sun, out meeting neighbours and friends. He would go back and forth, dropping home for half an hour before going out again. But sometimes he would spend all day home, and it would be like the quiet old days again. Judith missed those days.
Boris spent many afternoons at Alfie’s, and Alfie still came over a couple of times a week. But now, Boris had also got to know many other neighbours. Sometimes Judith would get a glimpse of them as occasionally one would walk him home. But they’d stop beyond the little brick wall by the gate. There, they would say goodbye to Boris, and part. Nora who lived in the big house on the hill, and Jade the recluse were two of the new friends. Nora would sometimes come and say hi to Judith before going, but Jade always kept her distance and backed off, nearly running, when Judith approached her.
One dry, cloudy winter day, Alfie, who hadn’t been over for more than a week came over with Boris for lunch. “There you are Alfie, I was thinking I hadn’t seen you in a while. You look well.”, Judith said to him. “What have you two been up to today?”, she added, addressing Boris.
And in that moment, she saw that Boris’ who was just come up the steps behind Alfie, actually had two more Guests with him.
In her heart, Judith had a sense of trepidation even then. “Where will it stop?” was the question in her mind from the beginning. She realised in that moment, that this most likely wasn’t a one-off, that there could be four guests next week and six the week after. And yet, she couldn’t say no. It wasn’t up to her.
But there was another problem. Boris’s world had become the world of the Neighbours, and the Guests.
Boris had never questioned where his Home was, Judith didn’t think such a thought had ever even crossed his mind. His outings were, in the end, only a few hours a day on average, a couple of hours a day was normal. Occasionally he would be out most of the day, but even then he would stop back home numerous time. Always, without fail, he was back well before dark. In the evening, they would sit in the living room together, cosy and warm, just the two of them. Once in a while, he would stay in the entire day, or even a couple of days in a row, and it would be like the old days, the days Judith missed.
For Boris, this was a comfortable balance. As for Judith, having more guests over more often made her uncomfortable. But she knew that if she didn’t accept the guests, Boris would spend more time away. It was that which she couldn’t bear.
Judith welcomed the other two Guests into her home. One was Miranda, who Judith only passingly had seen, and whose name she only found out on that day. The other was the old guy Hunter who lived across the road.
Judith was right about the Guests increasing. And she didn’t even have to wait a week to see four guests. Alfie and Hunter, who were already good friends, were both there again two days later, along with Nora and her friend Twinkle. And then, there were a few days without Guests, and suddenly Boris brought home Alfie and Hunter, and Miranda and Nora, and three brothers who lived at the end of the road. The following week, there were ten Guests.
The Guests started staying longer and longer too. With Alfie, he’d always left in his own time, in a reasonable amount of time, within a few hours. As the guests increased, Judith found she had to sometimes usher them out the door. Boris didn’t mind, but it was sometimes awkward. It would get to the evening and two or three Guests would still be lounging around the living room. It could sometimes be a struggle to get them out. Boris neither encouraged them to leave, nor prevented Judith from kicking them out at the end of the day.
By this point, Guests were around for nearly every lunch and dinner, often turning up on their own accord without the explicit invitation of Boris.
Judith began to worry about the costs of the extra meals. But even this worry was secondary to her relationship with Boris, and that of him with the guests.
Judith knew that Boris missed his community interaction. But Judith had been fulfilled and happy with just her and Boris. It was a dilemma.
One day, Boris met a homeless youth, who just didn’t want to leave. Judith already knew that some of the other Guests, who in most cases had their own homes but had a vagrant nature, sometimes bedded down on the balcony for the night after Judith had finally pushed them out the door.
Up until this point, Boris hadn’t really cared at which point Judith ejected the Guests from the house. He brought them over for either lunch or dinner, but whether Judith pushed dinner Guests out the door after an hour to do a clean up, or let lunch guests lounge around all day until the evening, he never really interjected.
But the homeless youth stayed somewhere around the garden for the first couple of days after Boris met him and brought him for dinner. He not only had every lunch and dinner there the next few days, out on the balcony with the other Guests, but he also howled when he saw Boris and Judith eating breakfast together indoors. In the evening, he howled again, to be let in, although Judith resisted.
The next day, Boris went out in the mid-morning. Unusually, he didn’t come home in time for lunch, but had it late when he arrived back twoish. He seemed to have already eaten at a Neighbour’s, as he sometimes did. Unusually, Boris and Judith spent a quiet afternoon alone together.
The homeless youth was nowhere to be seen and had apparently gone for a wander. He turned up again, in the late afternoon. Boris left to visit a few Neighbours as it got close to 5, then brought a couple of them back for dinner. Judith was greeting Alfie and Nora, as Boris and the youth tucked into dinner. Hunter suddenly turned up too, and Judith prepared him a plate. Within an hour, Judith was saying goodbye again to Alfie and Nora, but Hunter had curled up on the front steps. He seemed reluctant to move, but comfortable, and Judith left him there.
“Time for you to go out too”, said Judith to the youth, who they nicknamed Pi. But he really didn’t want to go, and Boris blocked him from leaving. In the end, Judith did force him out. Every day after that, it was a struggle to get him to leave, and Judith felt Boris’s opposition. Meanwhile, more and more Neighbours came over to hang out around the balcony and garden, at all hours of the day and night.
One day it was raining heavily and Judith gave in. She let Pi stay indoors for the night. He had grown on her anyway, and with Boris going out more and more often, he was good company for her too.
It started like that. But by November, Judith’s house was full of Guests every day, and many of them would stay for the night. Many effectively moved in. Some, like Pi, had no other home. Others like Alfie did, but treated the place more or less as their own.
Could Judith have become happy like that forever?
Part of her wondered even now.
Part of her wanted to believe that she could have.
Her happiest memories, however, were always of her and Boris alone in the house, before the years when the Guests entered their lives.
She found a kind of equilibrium with the guests in the end, but she never got to find out whether it would last. What would have happened next? Judith wondered even now but she never got to find out.
One day, there was a knock at the door.
The Authorities were there, with their white van.
They did not listen to Judith, they barely explained themselves or gave her a chance to respond.
They pushed her aside and began to round the Guests up.
“What are you doing? Where are you taking them?” Judith cried.
More authorities pushed themselves through the door, and began to manhandle the Guests.
A burly man grabbed Alfie and pushed his scrawny little body into a little plastic carrier.
“No, no, he’s from the neighbour’s house!” Judith cried.
“This one’s got another address on its collar too”, a young assistant piped up, parting Nora’s thick shiny fur to reveal a fancy leather band with an address on a heart-shaped metal charm.
“We’ll send out a notice to the owners of those with a collar to come pick them up, the rest have got 7 days before they’re put down. It’s the procedure” an older woman droned.
They hurried down the steps with Guest after Guest, seemingly in seconds the house was nearly empty, expect for the sight of black boots and white coats.
“Wait, there’s one more” the burly man said.
Boris in his usual place on the sofa was looking confused and defensive.
“Got it”, said the assistant, and in a flash Boris was in his rubber gloves and into a cage.
“No!” Judith shrieked. “HE’S MY cat!”
“Yeah, they’re all yours aren’t they. You’ve got too many cats, we’re charging you with animal abuse.” The burly man blocked the doorway while the assistant hurried down the steps with the cage.
“Boris is MY cat! The rest are guests but he’s always been mine”
“You can present your certificate of ownership and see if you can get an exception for him, but with 50 cats in the house I have to say you probably don’t have much chance of getting any of them back, and you may be banned from owning pets ever again” the older woman said.
“I don’t have any certificate. He chose me one day, many years ago…”
“We have to go”, a fourth man who was also the driver finished stacking cages into the van. “We’re running late.”
And with that, Boris was gone forever.
Boris’s death hung heavy in the air.