Robert Huddlestone Phillips
Fried Egg On Dave
Don’t answer. Don’t even open your eyes. Just let the water trickle over you and leave it to ring. You reach around in the suds, trying to find the lost soap. The phone echoes up the stairs and you shout his name, hoping you’ll be heard above the TV.
‘Get the phone Dave,’ you shout. You call out twice, but there’s no reply.
Dave. You forget how you first met him. One moment you’re moving into student digs, the next he’s a permanent attachment to your life. He is always there. In the bar. In the kitchen. In the class. In your face. Well, almost. Dave stands at half your height, puts on wedged shoes for the extra inch and wears a faux leather biker’s jacket. He keeps a plastic Woolworths bag permanently around his wrist; says it’s so he won’t forget. Leaflets, comics, chess pieces and a stale cheese sandwich – he keeps all manner of personal goodies within.
Your hangover is relentless. After letting down an unwanted date, your evening included six bottles of special brew at the pub, a kebab, and a blackout in a public loo. You managed to make it home, and according to your skin-tight jeans, pissed yourself in the process.
Dave is socially awkward yet has a master’s in history. His ideas are non-conformist and he’s a recognised talent. When he talks his sentences come together like questions from a crossword. To some it might seem nonsense. But if you take the time to listen, Dave’s words can play on your mind for weeks. Dave sits at number 13 in the UK chess championships.
‘Dave,’ you shout, ‘get the sodding phone will you.’ – Nothing.
Dave keeps comics scattered in piles around his bedroom; mountainous islands rising up from his lino floor. Each collection is separated into the various superheroes, which start with Aquaman and end with Wolverine – no room for a TV of his own. You recall his Christie’s brochure with Batman first editions. Dave pays rent one magazine sale at a time.
Outside your window a pigeon struts back and forth along the sill. She follows a path between steel spikes and bird shit splattered on the glass, then tucks her head into her wing. You find the soap and rub it hard against your skin.
You take an N50 marker pen to Dave’s face sometimes when he falls asleep in your presence. He has this thing of walking into your bedroom, turning on the TV and sitting at the end of your bed. He doesn’t say anything, he just sits with the plastic bag by his side, eats whatever he’s managed to find, and stares with intent at the screen, like you’re not reall there. Last night you wrote ‘keep out’ spelt backwards on his forehead and collapsed into bed.
The phone stops. You turn the hot tap and let it run. Free hot water, free heating, free lost property for your wardrobe. The perks of renting above a laundrette. You close your eyes again. Don’t go to the college today. Ask for an extension. Play sick.
Dave has no respect for food. Or more to the point, he has no time for it. When pushed by hunger he will call for a takeaway, but mostly he is too engrossed in your TV to make the effort. One time, he fished remnants of fried egg from the pan after you let it soak in the sink.
‘What’s going on Dave?’ you say, but he’s too engrossed to notice.
‘You can’t eat that shit,’ you tell him, but he just finishes it up, polishing it off with the same fork – you feel violated.
A month in, you take a road trip to see your mum. You don’t know why you take Dave, you just do. You’re tired. Maybe too hungover to drive. And when you get there, you collapse into bed, leaving Dave with your mother in the kitchen. Upstairs, you hear the frying pan on the stove and a softness to his voice. One year later your mum still asks after him.
You allow your tongue to run over the cold sore on your lip. You try to convince yourself it’s drying out, no longer the fungus it once was. Cracked and raw, like a tiny radish stuck on display for all to see. It feels larger now. Dave says it’s a transmittable infection and pities you less for it than he should. Just as he’s a rising chess champion and published in various history journals, you are quite simply, infectious.
You dip your head under the surface of the water. The warm sensation soaks up the pain from your hangover. Your arms and legs tingle like sunburn, and as you hold your breath …10…15…20…the phone starts up again and you lift your head from the water. You know Dave can’t hear it, and on the sixth ring, you pull yourself out of the bath and make your way down the stairs. But then you slip, and while reaching for the handset you land on your arse at the bottom. You take a moment to gather yourself, and the ringing stops. All you can hear is the TV with Dave watching a quiz show in your room. You listen to him muttering the correct answers before each contestant.
You leave the phone off the hook, take another paracetamol from the cabinet, and return to the bathroom. You lower yourself into the water, turn on the tap, and wait for the pain to disappear.
The light goes out, leaving the whole house in darkness. That jar of coins you keep above the electric meter, the one you top up whenever the electric fails, Dave’s never placed a single penny in the meter himself. When funds run low, you march him to the cashpoint and take what’s due. Before going out last night you recall dropping your last coin into the meter with a dissatisfying clunk.