The “Cohabitation Act 2027”, was clearly devised by an over inflated beurocrat hoping to expand his political career. On paper it was a simple idea. Pass an act to force anyone who owns or rents a property to “adopt” a homeless person. Make it the people’s problem, and not the politicians’.
Like any act it was full of loopholes. The people with all the money hired the people with all the brains to sift through the act with a fine tooth comb. It didn’t take long before first the rich - then everybody else - realised that there were really only two rules.
Rule number one was that you only needed to allow the person to sleep somewhere within the boundaries of your property. If you had a garden or even a doorstep, you didn’t need to let them into your home. Funnily enough, the price of properties with gardens tripled in the months leading up to the act coming into effect. People who could afford it fled in droves from their one bedroom apartments as they were mercilessly forced to unwillingly move up the property ladder. The super-rich built extra buildings on their land, with separate entrances of course. Portable toilets popped up all over the place with people happily donating to the purchase rather than letting “these people” into their homes.
The second rule was that they can’t die while in your care due to “any event that could be prevented by the interaction of another human”. Amongst examples provided in the act were starvation and hyperthermia.
The most searched for topics on the internet when the act was first declared were “cheap sleeping bags” and “What is the minimum amount of food a person can survive on?”
December 1st 2027
“Kids, don’t make eye contact with him.” Megan Clarke whispered as she struggled with three overfilled bags of shopping from the boot of the car. “Wait for me to open the door”. The Clarkes only had a small driveway and a small front garden. It was a basic two bedroom house. There was barely enough room for her and her husband Josh, and their two daughters Jessie and Emma. When Ted had first been allocated to them, they spent many hours into the night agonising over whether they could build an extra small room, but no matter how they crunched the numbers, it was far outside their budget.
So here they were, with Ted sleeping in a tent in their front garden.
They had tried to make the best of this Christmas, for the kids mainly. The meagre lights twinkled in the window. They usually bought a real tree but now their budget was stretched, the small artificial tree her mother had given them when they first moved in adorned the corner of the living room. The worst thing was that they had to return the cats to the cat sanctuary. Jessie understood that they couldn’t afford to keep them but Emma had cried for days. They had all cried that first night without the cats, the kids because they’d lost their pets and Josh and Megan because it was the first real sign that everything had changed.
They didn’t feel good about Ted sleeping in the front garden, of course. They had always been what they considered to be charitable, Megan more so than Josh. She used to buy poppies in November and she made small donations when there were telethons on the TV. But they always fast-forwarded through the sad moments in the telethons, and the donation was always made after a few glasses of wine. Looking back to before the act was passed, she now drowned in regret that she didn’t do more to help the homeless. She had always noticed them out of the corner of her eye, as she made her way in and out of shops. They always seemed to have sleeping bags and pillows. She’d seen plenty of people giving food and cash. There were hundreds of online videos of rich kids handing cash to them. Like many people she worried that if she gave them money that they would just spend it on drink or drugs. And she couldn’t imagine what nefarious acts would even lead someone to sleeping on the streets in the first place.
Josh opened the front door as Megan and the kids tiptoed inside the house. Megan gestured over to the car and Josh collected a final small shopping bag. He stepped over to the small tent in the middle of their front garden.
There was no answer. Oh no. He’s not dead is he? Josh’s primary concern wasn’t that someone had died, but the hundred thousand pound fine that would befall the family if he’d died. He couldn’t even imagine the effect that sort of fine would have on his family.
“Ted!” he shouted loudly.
He heard a grunting noise from inside the tent and the sound of the zip being slowly pulled down.
Josh still wasn’t used to the sight of Ted. He was a small grubby man. Wrinkled beyond his age with a grey bushy beard and balding on top. He reminded him of the picture of Santa Clause in the book they always read to the kids on Christmas Eve. Except this was a disheveled, repugnant Santa.
“What do you want?” Ted snapped as his face appeared at the partially unzipped gap.
“I’ve got your food here.” Josh hesitantly offered the bag.
“Did you get the socks I asked for? The thick ones?” Ted looked at the bag.
“Damn it.” Josh thought. He’d genuinely forgotten.
“Sorry Ted, I’ll pick some up next time I’m in town.” Josh apologised.
Ted gave him a look of disgust. “Stick the bag on the floor.”
He started zipping the tent back up again when Josh spoke up again.
“Er, sorry Ted, I just need to speak to you about something.”
“What now?” Ted grunted.
“Well, it’s a bit awkward but we noticed...I mean I noticed...that there’s a strong smell of urine near the doorstep.”
Ted rolled his eyes. “And?”
“Well there’s a public toilet at the bottom of the road. We’re just wondering if you can please use that.”
Josh was startled as Ted quickly zipped down the gap in the tent. “It’s bloody freezing and it’s been pouring down for two weeks. That bog’s bloody miles away. And it stinks. No one ever cleans it.”
Josh was momentarily speechless as he raised his hands to stop the shouting. He hated confrontation.
“Okay, I’ll speak to the council to see if they can clean it.” He was visibly flustered as he slowly turned back to the house.
“I bet you’ve got a nice bathroom in there haven’t you?” Ted sinisterly offered as he looked over at the front door.
“Sorry?” Josh looked back.
“Just saying. If you don’t want me to piss on the doorstep, let me use yours.”
Josh panicked. He’d told Megan he didn’t want to get into this with Ted today, but she could be very insistent when she wanted to be.
“Sorry Ted. I wouldn’t mind but it’s...you know, Megan.” he lied. He had no intention of letting Ted into his house. “And the kids you know... ‘don’t talk to strangers’ and all that.”
Ted rolled his eyes and grunted as he quickly zipped the tent back up. Josh’s shoulders slumped as he stepped into his hall and pulled the door closed behind him.
“Did you talk to him?” Megan questioned as Josh entered the living room. The kids were on the sofa watching a noisy American TV show with canned laughter.
“Yeah. He said the loo at the bottom of the road is filthy. I said I’d talk to the council.”
“How is that our problem?” Megan was bristling up for a fight.
“Well it’s either that, or let him use ours.”
“I hope you didn’t offer that as an option?” Megan looked at him with daggers.
“Of course not.” Josh said sheepishly.
“What did you say exactly? I can tell when you’re hiding something from me! You act all pathetic and quiet.”
“Well I said it’s not nice for the kids.” He hesitated “and also that you wouldn’t like it.”
“Great so you blamed me then? When are you going to ‘man up’?”
Josh could tell this was going to be a long night.
Megan continued her rant. “So, he probably hates me now. Great! You want him inside the house even less than I do, and now I’m the bad guy!”
Josh feebly attempted a response. “I don’t think he likes anyone. And anyway you never talk to him. It’s always me. Why do you even care whether he likes you or not?”
“Because he has to live in our garden for who knows how long that’s why. I said I’d talk to him when I’m ready. You don’t realise how hard it is for me to be here all day knowing he’s in the garden. At least you get to go to work.” Megan stopped for a breath.
Josh knew better than to get into this further. “I’ll make dinner.” He said as he left the room to go to the kitchen.
Megan stood up and looked out of the window. The children were laughing at something as she slowly closed the curtains. A tear rolled down her cheek as the gap slowly closed on the image of the tent in her garden.
14th December 2027
Megan was in her dressing gown at the kitchen table, hugging a mug of coffee with her hands. Jessie had nearly finished her cereal but Emma was just pushing hers around the bowl. Josh was busily tapping his phone, checking the news headlines.
“They’re saying it’s a resounding success on the news. Really giving people a fresh start they reckon. Lots of people are treating them like part of the family.” Josh looked up from his phone. Megan looked into the distance. “Love, did you hear what I said?”
“I spoke to him the other day.” Megan spoke quietly. “I think he hates me. I asked him how he became homeless and he said to mind my own business.”
“Sorry love. He’s been okay with me lately. Bordering on charming even.”
“That helps, thanks.” Megan rolled her eyes.
“I think you just need to talk to him a bit more.” Josh smiled as he held up his phone to Megan. “Look at some of these videos. People are giving them makeovers, helping them get jobs so they can get their own places. Did you know that if an FHP gets their own place then they don’t need to adopt someone?”
She took Josh’s phone. There was indeed a video entitled “How to get your FHP back on their feet”. The images flashed before her of a woman with unkempt hair and dirty clothes being taken to a hair stylist and shopping precinct. The outcome was amazing. The video ended with a young man saying that her name was Sheila and that she had already had a job offer this week following her makeover.
“What does FHP mean?” Megan asked.
“Formerly Homeless Person” Jessie interrupted giving a look that only a daughter can when her parents aren’t up to date with current slang.
Josh took a slurp from his mug of tea. “I’ve been looking into it. If they can hold down a job for three months the government is forcing landlords to prioritise renting them the apartments at really cheap rates.”
“And the landlords agree to that?”
“Yeah. Because no one wants a one bedroom apartment any more ‘cos you’d have to take an FHP in, unless you’re an FHP yourself. There are thousands of apartments empty so the landlords are taking whatever they can for them. It’s actually genius when you think about it.”
Megan was suddenly very interested.
“So if we get him cleaned up and get him to hold down a job, we could get rid of him by the summer?”
Josh frowned. “Well I wouldn’t use the words ‘get rid of’ but basically, yes.”
“So we just need to convince him to have a makeover and find out what he’s good at? Look for jobs for him, things like that?”
Megan tapped “jobs in our area” into the phone.
“Okay. I think it may be harder than you think though. He may not want a makeover.” Josh shrugged “Or a job.”
Megan stared at Josh. “Well, go and ask him then!”
“Why me? Maybe you should ask him. It would break the ice and make him think you care” Josh responded, then added “even if you don’t.”
Christmas Day 2027
Ted sat at the kitchen table, his eyes wide open at the feast before him. The table had been transformed into a banquet fit for a king. A luxurious red table cloth, bowls of vegetables and roast potatoes with steam rising above them. He held cutlery in his hands. He couldn’t even remember the last time he used cutlery.
Josh leaned into the oven and yanked out the biggest turkey Ted had ever seen. He ceremoniously heaved it into the middle of the table. Little Emma couldn’t stop staring at Ted. Jessica noticed and kicked her under the table and she let out a little yelp.
Megan also couldn’t believe the vision before her. With his beard and messy hair gone and a clean shirt, teeth, fingernails - the transformation was amazing. He looked twenty years younger. She previously thought he was around sixty but now he looked mid-forties. Not handsome, but no longer ugly.
It had cost a fair bit to get him to this point but in her mind she knew they would soon be free of this burden, not to mention the threat of the huge fine if something happened to him. They hadn’t been able to afford the extra insurance that her neighbors had all paid on their FHP’s, so this was her only chance.
“So. Are you a leg or a breast man Ted?” Josh joked as he sharpened a knife with flourish.
“Pardon?” Ted looked shocked.
“The turkey I mean.” Josh looked worried as he realised the joke had been misinterpreted.
“Oh. Leg.” Ted looked around the table and made eye contact with the girls. He smiled. “Please.”
“Ted, I don’t think you told me what you did...er...before?” Meghan looked at him, smiling.
“I’m sure you don’t want to hear about all that” Ted said as he looked down at his plate being filled with food by Josh. The aroma was amazing.
Megan leaned forward and placed her hand on top of Teds. “Please?”
Ted took a deep breath and sat back in his chair.
“Well I was an office manager. A small financial place you’ve probably never heard of. Doing quite well really but my wife had quite an extravagant taste. We tended to spend more than we earned, lived off credit cards and didn’t really worry about the future.”
Megan nodded as earnestly as she could as Josh took his seat at the table. “Carry on” she said.
“Well it was about three years ago. She found a lump.” Ted’s demeanor changed as he stared at a sprout on his plate “By that stage we couldn’t afford private health care. In too much debt, you see. It spread quite quickly while we waited weeks for an appointment.”
Megan’s eyes filled up as she squeezed his hand.
“She went quite quickly,” his eyes glistened as his voice quavered “in the grand scheme of things. Of course, it doesn’t feel like that when you’re watching the one you love die.” He sighed. “After that I couldn’t afford the mortgage with just my income. Had a bit of a breakdown. Lost my job. Etcetera etcetera.”
Megan and Josh looked at each other for what seemed like an eternity.
The silence was broken when Emma stabbed a large roast potato and shouted out “I’m starving!” as she shoved most of it into her mouth.
“Please excuse me” Megan said as she stood and walked into the living room, wiping tears from her eyes.
“Sorry, I’ll just be a moment” Josh also excused himself and caught up with Megan. He gently closed the door behind him.
Megan’s face beamed. “Did you hear what he said! He worked in finance! We’ll have no problem finding a job for him!”
“Wait, what? I thought you were upset about his wife?”
Just then, Jessica burst through the door to the kitchen.
“Daddy, something’s wrong with Ted!” She screamed.
Josh and Megan rushed into the kitchen to see Ted on the floor holding his throat. His face was blue.
January 28th 2028
It had been a short trial. In order for the Act to work the government had to be seen to be taking the penalties seriously. The ‘court appointed lawyer’ argued their case well, but in vain. Ted may have choked on a turkey bone but the government’s lawyers successfully argued that he was still the Clarke’s responsibility and the fine of one hundred thousand pounds was payable.
They couldn’t afford it of course. Josh’s company didn’t want to be associated with him, so fired him before the trial had even begun.
December 1st 2028
It was raining again. Megan pulled the newspaper over her head as she tried to get warm under the already damp sleeping bag.
She heard a car approach, then a voice as the family stepped over her into their hall.
“Don’t make eye contact kids”
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This is actually one of the best short stories I've read in a long while. Thought provoking, bittersweet, darkly funny. Excellent job
Wow, thank you so much!
Super enjoyable read! I loved the "misery" and also the fleshed out characters. Really good dialogue. I thought the story was super creative and I LOVE ME AN UNLIKEABLE CHARACTER, so Megan was the best at being THE WORST. Nice moral imbued in the tale too. Really stellar job!
Oh my word, this story--this was brilliant. I sincerely hope you win this contest!!! I love this! The story was incredibly moving and thought-provoking, while still giving a good tale. Fantastic job!!
Thank you so much for your kind comments!
This was amazing!
how am i supposed to compete with this!
What a lovely, grim, darkly-comedic ending. Those darn politicians! Stellar job, and congrats!
This is really an amazing story, James Pendleton. From the introduction to ending, it caught my full attention and I was really looking forward to an ending that would solve both Megan's and Ted's problems. But you just made the ending which is really surprising. You have this idea( I don't know how to describe it) in your story. Adopting a homeless person in our house!!! I just imagine what if it really happen in 2027. It would be good, though some might disagree. Indeed a Brilliant story and congrats.
An interesting and thought provoking story. The ending is shocking, but it seems quite appropriate. Very well done.
This was excellent! I would have picked this as the winning story!
Wow! This was such an interesting idea. I thought you crafted the story really well. I especially liked how Ted talked about his past. The twist was a well crafted surprise as well. It’s certainly a story I will ponder for the rest of my day. Thank you for writing it and congratulations on getting short listed!
Great story! Imagine a government "fix" that makes more problems!
Well done. Works on several levels, without being pretentious. Combining the folly of forced charity with the precarious nature of our lives.
This story was amazing! Irony at its finest!
This is so brilliant. I love it. Great concept and I always enjoy it when the ending mirrors the start in some way. Nice one. Looking forward to reading more from you. 🙂
Thank you so much! I’m glad people enjoyed it!
Amazing story! I loved the irony. This is a sure bet to be short listed. Great job.
great story! i loved every word of it!
Wow Sir!!! That's a really well written story. The dialogues, the description and the ending. I'm in awe. I hope you win. All the best!!! ❤
Thank you for this amazing story! I wish you good luck! That's just wow!
Wow. That was grim. Just when I had hope for Meagan … Good story.