Henry Lack’s Lodger
by Ben Coppin
One morning, Henry Lack woke to find two strange men on his doorstep.
One was thin, long-nosed, towering. The other man, much shorter, spoke: “Good morning Mister Lack. You’ve been assigned a lodger. Here he is. Mister Dice.”
As soon as he finished speaking he turned and began to walk away.
“A what?” Henry said and reached to grab the short man by the arm.
“Don’t touch me,” the short man said without slowing, pulling his arm away from Henry.
The taller man, who looked like he might fall forward at any moment, stood still, smiling distantly.
Henry watched the short man walk down his drive and disappear into the lines of cars and hedges.
“I suppose you should come in,” he said. “It’s Mister Dice, is it?”
Mister Dice nodded, a short precise movement, and stepped past Henry into the house. He looked around and held up his small leather briefcase.
“Where shall I put this?” he asked.
“Oh,” Henry said, trying to understand what was happening, “anywhere will be fine.”
The man’s smile lengthened.
“I meant to say, where will I be sleeping?” he said.
“Well, we don’t have a spare room, but there’s my study,” Henry said, scratching his chin. “We could perhaps put a mattress in there.”
“That will be perfect,” Mr Dice said. “You can remove any things you might need for your work.”
Henry frowned, slightly, but he didn’t want to cause any trouble, so he led Mr Dice upstairs to his study.
The study was small, and held a desk and a chair and a single pot-plant.
“This will do nicely,” Mr Dice said. “Does the door lock?”
“No, but we could add a lock for you, perhaps.”
Mr Dice nodded, that sharp motion again, and sat on the chair.
“And you’ll bring that mattress?”
“Yes,” Henry said, “the children can share a bed. It’ll be an adventure for them.”
For a moment he stood and looked at Mr Dice, unsure what to say or do. Mr Dice raised his eyebrows slightly and Henry took this as a sign of dismissal.
“I’ll leave you in peace, Mr Dice. Do let me know if you need anything.”
He stepped out of his study and closed the door.
“What am I doing?” he thought. “This man can’t just move in to my house. What right do they have to treat my family this way?”
He turned, but the sight of the closed door stopped him from going any further.
“I’ll speak to Mr Dice about it later,” he thought. “No need to disturb him right now.”
As his family sat down for breakfast, Henry explained what had happened.
“We’ve been honoured,” he told them, “with a special guest. Mr Dice. He’s in my study now and will be staying for…” How long would he be staying for? No-one had said anything about that. “Mr Dice will be staying with us, in my study. You girls will need to share a bed.”
He poured some cold milk on his cornflakes.
“I’m not sharing a bed with her,” his older daughter said.
“I don’t mind,” the younger said, dreamily.
“Henry,” his wife said, “what are you talking about? We can’t have another person living here. We have enough to deal with, you know that. Why did you let them do this?”
“May,” he said to her, using the voice he used when he hoped to bring her round to his side, “it’s an honour! It was, I think, a high ranking government official who brought Mr Dice to us, and this could well mean something good for me in terms of my work prospects. You know we need the money.”
May was thoughtful.
“How do you know he was high ranking?” she asked.
“I can see these things,” he said, hoping this would be enough to end the conversation.
“Was he wearing a hat?” his younger daughter asked. “They always wear hats.”
Henry cast his mind back, but now, other than being short, he could remember nothing of the man who brought Mr Dice to his house. Probably things would go more smoothly if he created a version of the short man that fit his family’s expectations.
“That’s right,” he said, “he had a very official-looking hat, and an identity badge. And his shoes were the shiniest I think I’ve ever seen.”
“If I still had internet access I could look him up. Check him out,” his older daughter said, reviving a long-running and uncomfortable topic.
Henry looked to May for support, but she was focusing on her coffee now.
“You know there’s nothing we can do about that,” Henry told his older daughter. “The Government has made clear how dangerous the internet is.”
“You still use it,” she said, without much energy.
“I do, but only very rarely and when really necessary,” he said. “It’s just too risky. The Enemy can read everything we say online, and can even use it to control us, in extreme cases. I heard of a man who became a spy for the Enemy after he ordered eggs online.”
“Will he join us for breakfast,” Henry’s younger daughter asked.
“No,” Henry said authoritatively, “Mr Dice is resting. Not to be disturbed.”
At that moment, Mr Dice appeared in the kitchen, leaning precariously.
“Ah,” he said. “Breakfast. Splendid.”
“Who are you,” May asked, “and how long do you plan to stay with us?”
“May,” Henry said, a warning in his voice.
But Mr Dice replied.
“Ah, the details, yes. I believe the appropriate authorities will be in touch with you about those. Now, what’s for breakfast?”
Not long after breakfast, Mr Dice left the house.
“Back for dinner,” he said as he teetered out of the front door.
“Henry,” May said. “What are you going to do about this? You need to find out what that man is doing in our house and get rid of him. Today. You know what will happen otherwise.”
Henry did know what would happen otherwise. May had been threatening to leave him, move back in with her ex-boyfriend, since the day he’d met her. She had never done so, of course, but this time things were different. Nothing of the magnitude of Mr Dice had come between them before.
“Yes, dear,” he said, looking down. “I’ll see to it.”
“Good. I’m taking the children to the market. We need vegetables. I want you to have worked out how to get rid of him by the time we get back.”
Henry crept upstairs, carefully opened his study door and sat at his desk. He pulled out his dusty laptop and started it up. It hadn’t had an update in years, of course, so it was painfully slow, but at least that meant it was safe from spyware. Not that he had anything anyone would want to spy on.
The Goverment-sanctioned search-engine slowly materialised on his screen.
He paused, his fingers hovering over the worn-out keyboard. What should he search for? “Uninvited guest?” No, what was the word the short man had used? Tenant? Ah, no.
“Lodger”. He typed it slowly, one finger at a time.
Instead of a page of search results, he was presented with a red flashing message:
“Congratulations! Thank you for doing your part to help the country at this troubling time. If you have not been allotted a lodger and would like one, please call seven on your telephone. If you already have a lodger and would love to have another, or two more, please call any other number.”
He wasn’t sure how to proceed. Should he dial seven, or another number? He already had a lodger, but he didn’t want another one. He settled on six, in the end. Close enough to seven without quite committing to it.
“Hello,” the friendly female voice on the other end of the line said, when he’d finally found the telephone in a pile under the stairs.
“H—hello?” he said.
“How many additional lodgers would you like to request?” The woman asked him.
“No, no,” he stuttered. “No, I don’t want any more, I want to get rid of the one I have. My wife—”
“Ah,” the woman said, a note of steely sunshine entering her voice, “your wife must be so very proud to be helping out in this way, and at this time. Please pass on my congratulations to her.”
“But you don’t understand,” Henry said, trying to pull his thoughts together.
“Oh, but I do!” she said, chirpily. “I have a lodger myself. My husband does such a wonderful job with him. I’m sure he’ll bring us only joy. I’ve arranged for another lodger to be with you right away. Please reassure your wife she won’t have to wait long.”
Tears pricked Henry’s eyes.
“Please,” he said, but the woman had hung up.
Should he try dialing seven this time?
But before he could decide what to do, the doorbell rang.
Standing on the doorstep was the short man, this time with a young woman, perhaps no more than eighteen.
“So good of you, Mister Lack, to offer another room in your house. Your nation thanks you.”
Before Henry could say a word, in a co-ordinated motion the young woman moved into the house and the short man walked away.
Henry ran after him, grabbed his arm, more firmly than he had the first time.
The man stopped walking, looked up at Henry.
“Please let go of my sleeve,” he said, blandly.
At that moment, Henry noticed that they were not alone. Three men in dark uniforms were standing menacingly close, hands poised on their belts, as if they might have guns.
But Henry found he could not let go.
“No,” he said, “I’ve had enough. You need to get rid of Mister Dice and Miss, whatever her name is. And you need to do it right now. I won’t tolerate this. It’s not right.”
“You understand, Mister Lack, that we are at war, do you not?”
The short man stepped away from Henry, easily breaking his grip on his sleeve. The three men in dark uniforms moved a step closer to Henry, surrounding him.
“We all have to make sacrifices,” the short man was saying, “at times of great need, such as this. Your nation would like to thank you for yours, but if you are saying that you are not patriotic enough to make such a sacrifice, well then…”
The short man glanced meaningfully at the three men in dark suits. One of them pulled something from his waist — a baton, not a gun.
“I just don’t think—” Henry started to say.
The short man raised an eyebrow inquiringly, turned his ear towards Henry as if to hear more clearly.
“I just don’t think my wife will put up with it,” he said.
“Your wife? Oh, well we can take care of that,” the short man said, sounding pleased.
Henry did not like the sound of that.
“Oh, no, I didn’t mean that,” he said. “I didn’t mean to imply that my wife was not a patriot. Of course she is.”
The four men watched him expectantly.
“As am I,” he said, finally realising what was expected of him.
The short man nodded. The man with the baton put it away.
“Goodbye, Mister Lack,” the short man said.
Henry walked back to his house, defeated.
“You can sleep in my daughters’ room,” he told the young lady. She seemed very pleasant, and of course it was a good thing that he and his family were doing.
When May came home that afternoon with the girls, Henry told her what had happened.
She said nothing, looked away from him, her eyes wet, and went upstairs.
Twenty minutes later she and the girls came downstairs with packed suitcases.
“You know where we’re going,” May said. Henry said nothing.
After they were gone, Henry considered his situation. It made good sense for May and the girls to move out. The space was needed; it was the patriotic thing to do. He did not like the idea of May going back to her ex-boyfriend, but in a sense it was a relief. The threat of it had been hanging over him for years, and now that it was happening, he felt very little.
He picked up the telephone. Now what was the number to dial for more lodgers?
Ben Coppin lives in Ely in the UK with his wife and two teenage children. He works for one of the big tech companies. He’s had a textbook on artificial intelligence published, as well as a number of short stories, mostly science fiction, but also horror, fairy tales and other things. All his published stories can be found listed here: http://coppin.family/ben.