A Friend In Need
Samuel Milton strolled across the shingled courtyard outside Tennyson House, kicking the odd pebble as he walked. The temperature was starting to drop during the evenings and he could see his breath appear in front of him as if he were smoking.
In his right hand he held a new top-of-the-range smart phone. It had arrived by special delivery that morning with a message that had brought both frustration and a confused sense of obligation to his afternoon.
‘Thank you for the lovely gift, mother, very subtle,’ he said, the mobile pressed to his ear.
He never thought his absence would cause her to behave so desperately. Starved of attention, she was suddenly taking great interest in his life.
Samuel had fallen in and out of her affections enough times to know when he was being used. He remembered the story his grandmother had once told him about how, as a baby, he knew the face of his au pair long before he recognised his own mother.
He could picture their lofty estate on the hills in Winchester, even more deserted than usual. He never did understand their infatuation with owning a property that was fit to house a small village.
She was alone and it had now dawned on her that the endless spa sessions and ladies’ lunches had left a gaping hole where their relationship should have existed. Clear as day she was back-peddling in an attempt to remain part of his life.
A smile grew across Samuel’s face as he sensed the call coming to an end.
‘OK mother, if you need to get hold of me I’ll be on this number. OK, bye mother, yes, yes, I love you too. Speak to you soon.’
He hung up and exhaled a deep breath. Having just come home following another tiresome day of lectures and study, appeasing his mother with the pretence of affection was the last thing he needed.
Finance Mathematics required the application of formulated methods to decipher relationships and patterns within strings of numerical data. During his time at the University he would learn differential and integral calculus, advanced equation theory and matrix algebra.
He remembered choosing the course while he was back at home, watching curiously as it fed his family’s insatiable appetite for wealth and finance. In truth he didn’t know what he’d do with the qualification if he got it. Samuel was set to enjoy his years at University as if they were his last taste of true freedom. His student visa provided the immunity he needed to shirk the reality of adulthood.
He held the phone in his hand and stared at it for a brief moment. Samuel smiled, imagining his mother in a phone store asking the shop assistant for the most expensive handset available, most likely making a point to state that money was no object.
He refused to think on it. With aggression boiling in his veins, he snapped and threw the phone into the sky. Its ultra-thin case sliced through the air as it landed with a splash into the canal. He watched as it hit the water, stroking his hands clean as the ripple faded.
‘If you need to get hold of me I’ll be on this number.’ She wouldn’t ruin this for him, no matter how hard she tried.
As he sprang up the stone steps and walked into the warmth of Tennyson his nostrils filled with the rustic smell of oak furniture and polish. To his right stood a wall of pigeon-slot mailboxes for the tenants; to his left, an empty visitor’s area where two leather sofas and a glass coffee table sat disused in the corner.
The walls of the ground floor were decorated with framed black and white pictures, each taken from the oldest rooms in Tennyson House, moments of time from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. He briskly walked through the reception area and headed for the stairs, the wooden floor giving a soft echo with every step.
When Samuel got to his room he dumped his leather Ashwood satchel on the floor, threw his jacket on a tub chair in the corner and checked the time. Within forty minutes, he was dressed in an Armani shirt, putting the finishing touches to his hair and smelling of Gucci aftershave.
Samuel took one last look in the mirror before placing his comb on the glass shelf below it, nodding his head to the sound of a music channel playing at an excessive level from his television.
He checked the time. The night was all planned out in his head. After catching up with two of his new American friends on the first floor, they would set off for the Red Lion. A destination chosen with purpose. They had all watched in amusement as Samuel repeatedly tried and failed with the blonde behind the bar, but tenacity counts.
There was just one last task before his evening could begin.
Samuel hit the power button on his remote control as he headed for the door. Leaving his room, he walked across the hall and knocked with repetitive rhythm on Conor’s apartment.
For the past three nights Conor’s absence had been both acknowledged and intriguing, but a fourth night was becoming unsociable and Samuel wasn’t having it. He’d drag him out kicking and screaming if he had to.
He pressed his ear to the door and waited impatiently, tapping his finger against the frame, giving it a few seconds before unleashing another string of heavy thuds.
Founded on honesty and fuelled by alcohol, his friendship with Conor over the past couple of months had taken him by surprise.
Thinking of home, the few friends he could speak of were the sons of politicians and bureaucrats, none of which he could consider true. Over time it had led him to harbour a distrusting nature, a state of mind that his ex-girlfriend referred to as ‘impossible to accept’.
It had made his friendship with Conor especially important to him and the sudden change in his behaviour that much more confusing.
Still there was no answer. With his patience worn he reached for the door handle, rattling it loudly in the hope he wasn’t about to walk in on something that could ruin their friendship entirely. Turning the handle, Samuel applied some pressure until the door clicked and gave way. Gently he pushed it open.
The room was in murky darkness. He could make out the silhouette of a wardrobe with its doors left open, a selection of clothes scattered over the bed. He sniffed the air, taking in the smell of strong coffee and cheap deodorant.
Flicking the light switch he noted the only thing that mattered. Conor was gone.
‘Lock your door next time old boy,’ Samuel mumbled playfully to himself. ‘You never know who may be about.’
Enjoying an opportune moment to pry, Samuel stepped into Conor’s room, swiftly closing the door behind him.
Opening the drawers to a cabinet, Samuel stumbled across a family picture of a young Conor sitting with his parents at a restaurant table. He stared at it closely, unable to stop himself from feeling jealous. Seeing the affection in their eyes, the smiles on their faces, the goofy, happy body language. How the other half live. Gently he returned the picture to where he had found it.
Whilst turning his head to the en suite, something caught his attention; a glint from the corner of his eye. A small piece of white card.
Son of a bitch! Samuel walked over to Conor’s desk to pick up the code resting out in the open. Why didn’t you tell me? He held it up to the light, turning the card over to check it front and back before discarding it with a flick towards the desk.
Once fascinated by the mystery, Samuel was, like so many others, disillusioned. There were four pupils in his class alone working on codes, tempted by the lucrative cash rewards being offered to them. Wasting weeks, months of their lives on an unbreakable cipher.
Samuel lifted the lid to Conor’s laptop and pressed down on the space bar. He glared intently at the screen as the screensaver disabled.
First appearing puzzled, he soon signed.
‘Oh Conor,’ he whispered. ‘You should know better than to play against a child at a kid’s game.’
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David P. Philip