The Houseguest | Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize

The questions should be explicit, things like when and how long for and where in the house will an extra person sleep. Then there is the issue of payment: whether there is any, to start, and then if so how much and if not money for board then perhaps for food or power or Netflix, or will the houseguest be expected to help instead with other matters – the cleaning of rooms, the caring of children, the contributing to family life in some other, less tangible way.

Answers (or not)
But let’s say there are circumstances that have stopped these questions before they were asked, or which have caused everyone to assume that they share an understanding (they do not). Less answers to the questions and more questions that have drifted away, unasked.

Say that an individual who is starting a course in a city far from her home comes to stay with a family she does not really know. Perhaps there is a history. Perhaps this houseguest’s parents had, at one point in the past, shown a great kindness to the mother or father of the family, back when they were the age the houseguest is now. Remembering this and hearing about their course of study, the distance she will need to travel from her home, let us now suppose that the family must have said something like Please let us help in any way, our doors are open.

It is possible that the family imagined only a temporary generosity, shifting the younger child out of the smallest bedroom until the houseguest could settle into the city and find a better, more comfortable arrangement – but then weeks pass and the course is underway and the houseguest studies at the table and makes herself sandwiches from the pantry and sleeps in the bedroom each night and suddenly things have become more permanent and it would be embarrassing now for everyone if someone were to say: We didn’t quite mean let us help in just any way.

And so they go along like this, the kids decamped into one bedroom, the houseguest’s clothes folded away into the wardrobe and the suitcase empty under the bed, and everyone – the houseguest, the family – smiling when they pass in the hallways, the smiles fixed and bright, like the faces of people who have been waiting too long for a photograph to be taken.

The house
The family’s house backs onto a busy street. The house is small. Too small, probably, for five people.

The room
The room, which the youngest child had started, just some months before, living in, fits a bed against one wall and a small wardrobe against the other. A poster with the map of the world on it is stuck to the wall above the bed. The window looks down to the street below. The room catches sunlight in the morning but darkens early in the afternoon. The houseguest thinks it is a little damp but she does not, of course, like to say so.

Issues of space
During the weekdays, when the house is quiet, the houseguest studies in the open spaces, reading in the window-seat in the lounge or spreading her textbooks out across the dining room table. But in the evenings and weekends this territory secedes to the family. In the hallway, in the lounge, next to the fridge, the children squabble. The mother calls out from the next room. The father repeats the same story to each member of the family, each time telling it like it is something that has only just occurred to him to say. The houseguest retreats to her room. But even that space has changed imperceptibly since breakfast. The walls have shifted closer together. Her books, splayed open on her bed, leave only enough room for her to sit cross-legged. She piles others on the floor. And the noise from the rest of the house rises in the hallway, battering against the closed door, forcing the walls in closer and closer around her.

Some differences
If the houseguest has come from a small city, she finds this one imposing and impersonal. If she has come from a large one, she finds this one claustrophobic and provincial.

Either way, she will find the family’s pride in the place bizarre and misplaced, their cafe recommendations exaggerated, and the directions they write down for her on the back of old envelopes confusing and missing vital steps. Too often she finds herself lost, disorientated, turning corners to empty alleys or knocking into strangers when she pauses suddenly on a busy street and tries to turn back against the tide.

Further questions
At what point does the houseguest become something else – a friend, someone to rely on, a member of the family, a confidante to the older and less sure of the two children? At what point does she stop seeming like a stranger – a spy that has quietly come to settle amongst them – and someone, instead, they are all grateful for. Thank goodness for the houseguest, the family might say. Who could even imagine life without her now?

The houseguest’s smile has become unfamiliar to her. Sometimes she finds herself smiling even after she moved through the doorway and is paused uncertainly in the middle of the next room, alone.

The houseguest often forgets to turn the lights off when she leaves a room. The lights mark her passage through the rooms – into the hallways to the bathroom or the laundry or the kitchen. At night, the mother finds herself following after, returning the rooms one by one to darkness.

Further differences
The houseguest is not used to taking her shoes off as soon as she comes home. The family don’t just remove them at the door, they have a shoe rack with its own system of logic: boots and wet weather on the bottom, above that sneakers, above that slip-ons and sandals, a seasonally arranged strata. The houseguest is used to making herself a meal whenever she feels like it but this family eat together at the same time every night. After three days’ of the uncomfortable silence that follows the houseguest’s suggestion that she could just eat in her room later on, she starts sitting down with them every night at the same time, a time when she is never hungry.
Other things, too. The family is less frugal than the houseguest is used to. They do not water down the juice and their fridge is filled with things bought on impulse and then forgotten. The shelves are cluttered with strange jars of condiments and cheese slices and microwavable burritos.

And the waste. Every week they throw out food that has become unwanted and uneaten: browning heads of broccoli, half-filled tubs of Greek yoghurt, lettuce leaves turned dark with slime inside the plastic packaging. Leaning against the bench, waiting for the kettle to boil, the houseguest watches the contents disappearing one by one into a council rubbish bag to be collected from the curb outside early the next morning.

The family do not do it. Not only that, they do not even acknowledge that recycling is something they should be doing, that their choice not to rinse and separate their tins and plastics is not just a difference in process but a reflection of some greater personal failing.
The houseguest starts saving plastic bottles and containers and washed out tins to take to the recycling bins at the university. Often she forgets them. They gather in piles on the floor of the room, poorly rinsed, and start to smell.

The houseguest starts attending protests about climate change. Following one march she is late for dinner, arriving only after the family have started. She makes her apology loudly; she has had three strong lagers but had hoped that this would not be obvious. The day had been sunny and full of camaraderie in the streets, a feeling of pushing forward with a mass of people, everyone moving in the same direction. Something in her feels alive in a way she is not sure she is able to explain. Instead she talks too long and too loudly about details from the conversations she had that day: landfills piling over, rainforests on fire, bits of broken plastic drifting out to sea.
One of the children starts having trouble sleeping. For hours the child lies awake thinking about polar bears trapped on drifting pieces of dirty ice, of whales dying in the oceans with plastic in their stomachs, rolling down into the depths like punctured zeppelins.

Within the household, different schools of thought develop about who is to blame for this new anxiety. The houseguest is asked to speak less vividly about the things she learns at the marches.

Conversations become more deliberate. The smiles between two people passing in the hallway become brighter somehow, but gazes turn away and down before the eyes can give themselves away.

There is a holiday, a national one, the sort with days off falling either side of a weekend that inspires most people who live in the city to pack up their cars and drive elsewhere. The days are marching on and on towards the winter and this feels like a last chance before the weather changes decisively, the darkness spreading out from the beginning and ending of each day, and the air draws thin and cold.
Every year the family goes to the same place on this holiday: a cabin owned by some friends near a lake up north. This year there is the question of what to do about the houseguest. The family do not say out loud that they do not really want the houseguest to come with them, but where else will she go? It is both too short a time and too far a journey for her to return to her home city. For a week the subject is edged around. The family begin referring to it in vague, passive terms, like it is something that has already happened and to other people. Then, at dinner, the houseguest announces that she has made plans with new friends to travel to the coast for the holiday. She apologises that she will not see more of the family during this holiday, and the parents adopt expressions of regret and say that this is too bad.

It is true that the houseguest has new friends who have plans to go to the coast, but she is not going with them. Instead, she has booked a room in a hostel across the city. When she first came up with this plan she had imagined a hotel room for herself, something modest and quiet and filled with an understated romance, but the cost is prohibitive so she takes the upper bunk in a shared room of a popular backpackers. Each morning she wakes early to the sounds of other people sleeping and unfolds herself carefully from the bed.

Now that she is like a tourist, anchored to a point in the middle of downtown, the city seems changed. The streets fold out from each other in new and surprising ways. Shortcuts and alleys appear where she has not noticed them before. Bars and breweries are almost everywhere now that she has opportunity to go in them. Time seems different. There is no need to be back for dinner and without a central gravity or purpose the hours drift around her. She walks and walks, past shops that have closed for the holiday and further into neighbourhoods with narrow houses and strips of grass before the curb. In a park in the centre of the city she sits on a bench and watches the shadows of dark clouds slide out across the lake.

She buys a postcard. It has taken a long time, she writes, but at last I am beginning to feel like this place could be home. I am beginning to think I could be a new person here. She leaves the address empty for two days, struggling to think who she could send such a message to, then folds it in half and slides it into an inner pocket and which she will find, years later, only when she takes the coat out of storage to sell.

Questions (reprised)
Is there a word for the feeling of returning to a room that does not belong to you – the feeling that everything has become smaller in the time you’ve been away from it, somehow diminished? What about the feeling that everything is temporary, terribly so, and might be taken away at any moment – as though you are both in the room and at the same time observing yourself from across a great distance, standing there in shoes you forgot to remove at the door, holding onto things you owned a long time ago. Is there a word for this? Is it vertigo? Regret?

The family return from the cabin already tired. For two hours the children argued in the back of the car and surrendered to an uneasy silence only when they reached the highway exit. They start up again in the stairwell when they remember that they will soon be sharing a bedroom once again.

The houseguest is home already. She has set out plates and forks and baked a cake, which she has iced enthusiastically. Hello, the cake writing says, And goodbye! The houseguest has bad news she tells the family, looking at their faces one by one. Her course has not been as productive as she had hoped. She has not been certain for a while now if this is really what she wants to do. Over the holiday she decided: she will go back home.

The houseguest is sorry. The family is regretful. So sorry, everyone says, in turns around the room. They all agree that they are very sad about all this, although the family do hope that the houseguest will stay with them again, any time she might want to return to the city.
The family smile at the houseguest. The houseguest smiles at the family. The smiles go back and forward, back and forward like badminton played inexpertly from every corner of the room.


Read the rest of Overland 238

If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue

Or subscribe and receive
four brilliant issues for a year

Jenah Shaw

Jenah Shaw has worked as an editor and freelance writer in New Zealand and Japan. While her post-graduate study focused on modernist literature, her writing interests are varied. She currently lives in Wellington.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays