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Flat Mate

By David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
The copyright remains the property of the author

Benny came in, hung up his wet plastic mack, and went at once to the wall mirror in the sitting room. He stood in front of it and looked at his reflection.

“Raining outside?” his reflection asked.

“Of course it’s raining. You’re not going to tell me that it isn’t raining on your side, are you?”

His reflection paused. “No. You’re quite right. If it’s raining on your side it must be raining on my side too.”

“Must? Is that a logical must? Are you trying to pretend that there’s some kind of sense to all this?”

“You’re in a bad mood tonight. Why are you in a bad mood?”

“You know perfectly well why. Stop pretending.”

His reflection frowned. “So it didn’t go all that well with Sharon. You didn’t manage to press the right buttons.”

Benny turned away from the mirror and sat down. He could still hear his reflection’s voice. There was no need to see him. “You were with her as well tonight. How did you get on with your Sharon?” He glanced towards the inhabitant of the mirror. “Not that I need to ask.”

“Sharon is a lovely girl. She and I have something between us. Something intangible. An empathy.”

“An empathy. Right. Where do I get hold of one of those?”

“Take your shoes and socks off, Benny. Your feet are wet. Turn on the gas fire. I’ll explain all about it.”

“Take my shoes off? Who do you think you are? My mother?”

“No, closer than that. Take them off, Benny. Do as I say. Sit down and listen.”

“This is all totally crazy,” Benny protested as he carried out his reflection’s instructions. “It’s certifiable lunacy. I could get committed for talking to you.”

“Sectioned. That’s what they call it nowadays.”

“Oh. So my reflection is better read than me too. More up-to-date?” He flung his socks in the general direction of the laundry basket and put his shoes in front of the gas fire to dry.

“No great achievement, I think you’ll admit. Now, let’s talk about women. I need to talk to you about women in general and Sharon in particular.”

“You’re one big know-it-all, aren’t you? Well, I think you could be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”

“What makes you think that?”

“After the meal, when we were talking, I think she was hinting that she would like to come back here.”

“Whoopee! Way to go man!”

“No, not way to go. Way to be avoided at all costs. I can’t bring a girl back here.”

“You can’t? Why not?”

“Why not? Which of us is crazy now? Because of you of course, you great oaf! How could I bring anybody back with you here?”

“No, no Benny. We’ve been through all this before. I'm not in your flat in the same sense that the table and the dirty dishes are. I’m only in the mirror for you, and vice versa. Neither of us exists for other people in our mirror worlds. I mean, if you made a tape recording of one of our conversations from your side of the mirror it would only pick up your side. Why don’t you try it?”

“Why don’t you?”

“Because I don’t have a tape recorder. And… because it doesn’t seem right, somehow. This is a miracle. You don’t poke a stick into a miracle to see what it’s made of.”

“But you’ve just told me that’s what I should do.”

“I was speaking metaphorically. Making a point. I didn’t mean you should actually do it.” His reflection paused. “But you know that what I’m saying is correct. You’ve had people in your flat before. Your mother, your landlady, your school friend, the man who put in the phone socket. They didn’t hear me or see me, did they?”

“They were ordinary visitors. A girl would be… different.”

“Oh, I get it. You think I would be spying on you. Watching your chat-up technique. Listening for the moans from the bedroom.”

“There’s no need to be crude. You know perfectly well what I mean. I couldn’t relax… with you there. Even though I know that you’re just in my head.”

“Do you? How do you know you’re not in my head? What makes you so cock-sure?”

Benny stood up, ignoring the question. “I’m going across to the stove to make a cup of coffee. I’ll be able to hear you from there.”

“If I’m inside your head it won’t matter where you go, will it?” Benny continued across the room but did not reply. “Well I‘ve got news for you.” His reflection’s voice had developed a tone of mild irritation. “The evidence that I’m inside your head is exactly the same as the evidence that you’re inside my head. No stronger, no weaker, no different. My life didn’t start when I looked into this mirror and saw you, you know. I’ve been around for twenty four years and two months, just the same as you. I have a life, a history, friends and enemies, virtues and vices, good habits and bad ones. What makes you think you’re so special? And don’t imagine that I’ll always be here either. I’m getting mighty fed up with this one-way relationship. One of these days I might just take a chance on the seven years bad luck and break this mirror. Don’t think I haven’t been tempted.”

“What do you mean, this one-way relationship? What’s one-way about it?”

“Are you kidding? De-centre for a moment. Look at things from somebody else’s point of view. What do you think I get out of all this? What’s in it for me? Every time I see you you’ve got some new crisis in your life, some new disaster that I’m supposed to sort out for you. When are you going to help me with some of my problems? Eh? Where’s the give and take?”

Benny rinsed out a mug from the sink and put in a heaped spoonful of instant coffee. “You don’t have any problems. That’s how I know you’re not real. If you were real your life would be in a mess the same as everybody else’s. Real people have messy lives. Fact.”

“Hell, Benny, listen to yourself. Don’t be such a no-hoper. Just because you’re a schmuck doesn’t mean everybody is. Think of Sharon. Is her life in a mess?”

“She’s had a hard time. There are things missing from her life.”

“You think you’re what’s missing from her life, don’t you? You’re kidding yourself, Benny. You need Sharon, but Sharon doesn’t need you. She could go up to any man in the street and find someone at least as good as you. Statistically, almost certainly better. You’ve got to make her want you, rather than any other randomly chosen male. You’ve got to sell yourself. And tonight, I’m going to tell you how to do it. I’m going to make it so simple that even you can understand. I want you to get a piece of paper and write down the points that I’m going to give you so that you don’t forget them.”

Benny was silent for a moment. “So, you’ll tell me what to do and I’ve got to write it down. Yeah, that makes me feel just great. Thanks for your confidence in me, thanks for your respect. You asked me just now what you were getting out of this relationship, what was in it for you. Well, I can answer that question. What’s in it for you is a feeling of superiority. You think you’re so much smarter than me, don’t you? Well you're wrong, I’m not a fool. I’m not retarded. I’ve got a University degree. I’m holding down a reasonably good job.”

“You’ve got a job? You’ve got a degree. Pul-e-e-e-a-s-e! What degree have you got? What exactly?”

Benny hesitated. “Media Studies and Marketing.”


“The University of the South Bank.”

“South Bank Poly. Right. What class?”

Benny hesitated and toyed with his coffee mug. “What class of degree, Benny?” the voice had an unmistakable sneer.

“Third class honours,” Benny said very quietly, bracing himself for the response.

“You got a third! You got a third in some made-up crap subjects from an up-graded Polytechnic? Jeez, Benny, that isn’t a degree, that’s a certificate of attendance. That’s a special award for not signing on the dole. I’m afraid there’s no getting away from it, I am superior to you. I think maybe I’m as smart as you are dumb. If you took away this mirror and joined the two of us together you would get one Benny of average intelligence. You’re the kind of voice that gives schizophrenia a bad name. Face it, if you’re going to get anywhere with Sharon you need me. I’m your only hope. Thank whatever gods set this thing up that you’ve got me here to help you. Get the paper, Benny. And a pen that writes.”

Benny went to the cluttered table and made a space for his mug. After a little further reorganising he was ready. “All right,” he said in a voice heavy with wounded dignity, “I’ve got the paper.”

“Now, the first and most important thing you need to write down is: ‘Look at everything from Sharon’s point of view.’ Got that?”


“Good. Now, tell me what you think it means.”

“Well, it’s de-centring. What you were saying about me, only this time I’ve got to ask what’s in it for Sharon.”

“Exactly. At rock bottom, what does Sharon want? What do all women want? Don’t bother answering, you haven’t a clue. I’ll talk, you write. A woman wants to be the centre of her man’s universe. She wants someone who thinks she’s the most beautiful human being in the world, the cleverest, the most important, the most fascinating. She wants a clinically obsessive monomaniac who’ll worship her like a goddess, whether she deserves it or not, whether she’s being reasonable or not, whether she’s in a good mood or not, whether she’s looking her best or not. Now you’re lucky, because that’s a role you can slip into quite easily, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I can," benny replied with resignation. "In fact I think I’m almost there.”

“Quite so. Now all you’ve got to do is get it across to her that that’s where you are emotionally. And how do you think that’s done?”

Benny considered the question. “Make a fuss of her. Spend money on her. Phone her up. That kind of thing.”

“Almost, but go easy on the phoning up. Once you start becoming a nuisance you’ve blown it. You left out the most important thing. This is point number two. Write it down: ‘Listen to her.’ Don’t talk, don’t show off, don’t try to impress: listen. And listen properly. Pay attention to what she says. Ask her questions about herself. Make her think she’s the most interesting person in the world. And let’s face it, compared to you she more or less is."

For a moment the only sound was the scratching of Benny's ball-point pen as he tried to get the reluctant ink flowing again. "Okay," he announced when the function had been restored.

“We’re doing well now. There’s only one more heading. Leave yourself room for additional notes under each one, of course.”

“Really? Only one more heading?”

“Only one, but it’s the toughest one of the lot. What do you think it is?”

Benny thought hard. “Give her a nice time in bed?”

His reflection grunted. “You were lucky to get that third. Giving her a nice time in bed, assuming you ever get her there, is covered by number two. Listening. Sensitivity to her wants. And for a woman sex is way down the list anyway. If you’re communicating properly, if you’re doing that listening, you’ll breeze through in the sack department. No, the third heading is something a lot tougher and a lot more fundamental. Write it down. Number three is: ‘Be honest with her’. Ask any woman why her last relationship went wrong. Nine times out of ten the first thing she’ll say is: ‘He lied to me’. It’s the cardinal sin. It negates everything else. Underline it." The ball-point scratched a little more. “Now, any questions?”

Benny read through what he had written. “Well, there’s very little about me here.”


“Well, don’t women choose a mate on looks and… hunting prowess or something? Isn’t there some kind of primitive, chemical thing going on?”

“If you mean does personal hygiene matter, yes it does. But as for the other things, luckily for you, they’re greatly over-rated. Sharon has already demonstrated that she’s willing to date a no-account dumb loser of below average appearance. It isn’t looks or brains she’s after, that’s for sure. Women like Sharon go for personality. Mainly the personality of a doormat. That’s a lot easier to fake. Or maybe I should say ‘develop’.”

Benny sipped his coffee and studied what he had written down a little more. It was good, he could see that it was. Just a flat plate of glass screwed to the wall and it could tell him all these things. A miracle indeed. And his reflection was right. You don’t poke a stick into a miracle to see what it’s made of.


Benny held the door for Sharon. “Oh, a gentleman!”

“I just wanted to be polite. Should I not do it?”

“Relax, Benny. It doesn’t matter. Do what you like.” She glanced around the cluttered little sitting-room. “It’s smaller than I expected. Not exactly tidy, is it? I like the mirror though, that makes it look a bit bigger.”

“The mirror. Yes, I need to tell you about that.” He motioned her to the sofa and nervously joined her, staring into her eyes. “Would it matter a lot to you if I was crazy? Mad?”

“What are you talking about now, Benny?”

“Myself, and I shouldn’t do that. Let’s talk about you. Are you mad? No, sorry, I didn’t mean that.”

“Benny. Slow down a bit. What are you trying to tell me?”

“That mirror. It talks. I wouldn’t normally tell you, only I want to be completely honest with you.”

“The mirror talks?” Benny nodded. Sharon stood up and went over to it. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?”

“You are, Sharon!” said Benny’s reflection loudly.

“There! It said you are. Didn’t you hear it?”

Sharon laughed and joined him again on the sofa. She took his face in her hands and kissed him. “I like you, Benny. You make me laugh.”

Benny was taken aback and didn't know how to react. A nervous smile was all that he managed in the long pause that ensued. Eventually he mustered enough courage to speak. "You don't mind me talking to the mirror, then?"

It was his reflection that answered. "I said you had to be honest, Benny. I didn't say you had to tell her everything."

She leaned in very close and rested her head on his shoulder. She was speaking straight into his ear now so she lowered her voice to a whisper. "I had a Barbie Doll when I was a teenager. I didn't stop talking to her until I was about fourteen or fifteen, I think, which was pretty late by most standards. I used to tell her all my troubles. She was like an older sister to me."

"And did she answer you? Did she give you advice?"

"No, Benny. Barbie dolls don't speak. Neither do mirrors. But it's not a problem, because when you ask a doll – or a mirror – for advice, you already know what you should do. It's just a way of coming to a decision. Of... reassuring yourself. She held his face tenderly in her hands again and looked up into his eyes. Benny flinched.

"Is something wrong?" Benny's mouth opened but he didn't say anything. "Is there something you should be asking that mirror?"


"Go ahead then."

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall. What should I do now?"

There was a pause but no sound from the mirror.

"Didn't you hear it?" said Sharon. "It said you should check if you have a spare toothbrush you could lend me. Then I won't need to go home tonight, will I?"