How Henry Half Lives
“I don’t know why I keep all of these empty chairs; no one ever comes to sit on them.”
One of the first things Henry ever said to me on the day I stepped into his rundown house for the first time was,
“They won’t let my Grandkids stay anymore but it’s alright, I’ve got the Alsatians to keep me company.” This was obviously why Henry kept a house full of hounds. I was deeply intrigued to find out who ‘they’ were. He was a kind looking, sweet natured man; the type of man who had a thousand stories to tell and no one to tell them to. His eyes were bright and his temperament was kind. What would I discover in this beautiful, family Victorian home with a little old man who rattled around inside it?
Henry opened the front door in a very slow and coy manner and ushered me in. Once I was inside and the front door was safely shut, he relaxed slightly and welcomed me into the nearest room, which was full of old blankets. I got a whiff of one as I walked by. It smelt old, musky and full of smoke, but strangely familiar and comforting. Henry did not seem embarrassed at all about the state of his home. I rather liked that about him. As I walked in there were four or five large and excited dogs panting and running around my feet. Henry instructed me to close the door behind me. I was expecting a character who had clearly shut himself off from the world, but why from the rest of his house? The dogs made quite a nice distraction for a while, and we made small talk. But eventually our teas grew cold and the dogs settled around my feet and on Henry’s sofa bed, and we both remembered what I had come for. I noticed Henry was looking around his bland, old fashioned living room. I started to look around too. It certainly needed updating, but more than that it needed a good clean. I wondered how long the mantelpiece had been growing dust and why Henry slept downstairs, but I didn’t dare ask. I stared, he stared, the dogs slept. Eventually, he started to speak:
“I don’t know why I keep all of these empty chairs; no one ever comes to sit on them. They make good tables for cups of tea I suppose.” I nod in agreement as I place my cold cup on the nearest rickety chair.
“So, you’re interested in my house. It must look a terrible state from the outside for you to be so curious about the inside! The truth is, I don’t know what half the house looks like anymore. This house used to be full of life. Now it’s just full of… air and empty rooms. It echoes a lot. I don’t like that, it reminds me of church. This place is too big for me. I just don’t know what to do with myself. I just live in the one room nowadays. I’ve made myself comfortable in this room. I live, eat, sleep, watch the box in here. I’ve nested, you could say. What do I need to go out there for?” He gestured towards the door.
“I used to be quite tidy,” he continued, “but one day I just thought, ‘I can’t be bothered,’ and I really couldn’t! So I just left a pile of rubbish next to me, ready to pick it all up another day, and I just never did. I was watching television alone every night and going to bed at all kinds of unholy hours and one day I brought my duvet down with me and I haven’t really moved since.”
I listened to Henry talk and talk. It was as if he hadn’t spoken to anyone in a long, long time. I felt sorry for him, but I felt bad for feeling sorry for him in a way because he seemed such a strong, chirpy man; not what I had expected at all.
“You get to a point in life, at some stage, at some age, and it will happen to everyone, even you, where you just stop trying and look back and wonder what it was all about. You know, life. What was the point in all of that? It’s hysterical when you think about it.” Henry paused and stared down at the floor. We were both failing to see the hilarity.
“You never think time will escape from you, not when you’re young. Now it’s the opposite. I just wish time would hurry up and let me go!”
Henry half laughed when he said this, which told me he half meant what he was saying. I felt a tug at my heart strings. Perhaps my sadness was apparent on my face as Henry quickly changed the subject. Things felt intense, but in a rather compelling way.
” This house hasn’t changed for years… like that wallpaper out there in the hall, hideous isn’t it?” Henry threw his head back and laughed again, more heartedly this time. “Who on Earth would want a wall like that? Upstairs it rather empty. I never go up there anymore, I’ve no need,” he continued.
As I wondered to myself what upstairs looked like and hoped that I might get to see it, Henry interrupted my thoughts with perfect timing.
“Would you like to see?” he asked.
Henry refused to accompany me up the stairs and instructed me not to be long. I was allowed one quick glance. I snuck into the first room on the right of the upstairs hall. I saw that it was seemingly a child’s room. It was a very bland beige. Even the children’s drawings stuck messily on the wall seemed colourless. The bed was made and there was a small white bible laid on the bedside table which was quite unnerving. The wallpaper was ripped and half hanging off the wall. This room had a story to tell. As I tiptoed back out of the room, it occurred to me that this whole house had a story to tell, and this man had a story, and I was going to tell it. I threw my head around another closed door – it was freezing cold and I understood Henry’s blanket collection. The ancient window was wide open. My first thought was Henry’s safety, but when I questioned him on it later, he told me that window had been broken for years and that no one had ever broken in. Why would he not call someone in to repair it, and more to the point, why didn’t he have any friends or family around who could fix it for him? He mentioned how he had despised the wallpaper for many years and yet he hadn’t painted over it or changed his surroundings, but instead shut them out. It was becoming more clear to me that Henry could be a very stubborn man. Or had he just completely given up?
“When it’s just you, you get to live with just the basics.” Henry told me after I sat back down with him. He was in his bed now, cuddling up with two of his dogs. It was a humorous sight to see them all fit into one bed.
“I keep quite a few lamps because I don’t like the dark,” he said.
This was a strange admission for a man who seemed, amongst all the clutter, still quite proud and tenacious. Henry was obviously stuck in his ways, perhaps one of the reasons he has no family around anymore. Trying to piece Henry’s life together through pure assumption felt strange and wrong. However there was just something so intriguing about him. He suddenly looked really small to me in this big room full of nothingness. He was surrounded by things and yet none of them really had any use, or any meaning or memory behind them. This was obviously a deliberate thing; there were no reminders of any loved ones in this house, well not that anyone, including Henry, could lay eyes on. I could tell he was missing his old life terribly; his grandchildren in particular I imagined. At this moment it occurred to me that his grandchildren probably weren’t even children anymore, but probably had kids of their own by now! Their bedroom had remained the same like some kind of shrine to their memory, except it wasn’t in a weird way, but in a poignant way. When I thought about it afterwards, it was the saddest room I had ever stood in. If this room was dripping with melancholy for me, what must it be like for Henry to look at? I started to understand why he might shut out certain forbidden rooms.
Henry was a very likable, friendly character even in his isolated state. I felt like I wanted to pull him out of his living room life and share him with the world, but it was too late for him and he had forever sunken into his ways of solitude. There was no changing Henry. My favourite thing about him was that even though he had seemingly lost everyone around him for whatever reason, he was completely sweet and becoming. Not bitter, just deeply, deeply sad.
Words by Loo Loo Rose