‘See, my problem is that I’m always eager to please,’ explained Harry Poots to his wife Polly Poots, née Reed. Polly had ruminated extensively on how she’d be addressed if she accepted Harry’s proposal, but the love outweighed the potential embarrassment that the surname brought – just about.
‘You know this, sweetie,’ Harry continued. ‘It’s down to my mother’s parenting. She told me to always respect my elders; so I always respected them, despite the fact that Mr Atwood down the street constantly swore at me, and despite Mr McGowan being arrested for setting the library on fire. I was there when the police were escorting him from his house; he was in cuffs, and chirpy eight-year-old me said, ‘Hello, Mr McGowan! Lovely morning, isn’t it? Care for a summer stroll?’
The couple were sitting up in bed. The window in the small bedroom was partially open, and a faint smell of something burning outside drifted into the room. A puzzle book rested on Polly’s lap, who was in the middle of tackling one of the many crosswords.
‘And she told me, my mother, to always be polite, and that’s something I’ve never been able to shake from my bones, either. I’ve never been impolite. Never. And so I’m always trying to be nice. But because I’m afraid that I’ll come across as unpleasant or disingenuous, because I’m afraid that I’ll end up offending someone, I become anxious and self-conscious, and then I don’t engage in conversation very well. So most people tend to dislike me, which, you know, kind of defeats the whole purpose of me being polite.’
‘Most people don’t dislike you,’ said Polly, placing her pencil onto the puzzle book and squeezing Harry’s knee with her hand.
‘They do, Polly. Trust me.’
‘That’s nonsense,’ she said. ‘Anyway, with all that’s happened recently people liking you is the least you, or we, need to worry about.’
‘See, the thing is, last Tuesday… I decided I’d stop being polite. I wanted to tell you, sweetie, because I’ve been feeling awfully guilty.’
Polly removed the puzzle book from her lap and sat up straight, eyeing Harry suspiciously.
‘Go on,’ she said.
‘Well, I did it; I stopped being nice. I didn’t say good morning to Mrs Barnes as I passed her on the stairs, and I didn’t hold the door open for that Italian girl, what’s her name, uh, Isabelle, when she was walking behind me as I left our apartment block. As I paid my fare to the bus driver I noticed an old woman walking at a brisk pace in order to catch the bus before it pulled off, but I said nothing to the driver and found my seat. The old woman raised her middle finger at me as I sat looking at her through the window while the bus drove away.’
‘I know, sweetie. I know.’
‘That’s so… demonstrably mean.’
‘I know. And I didn’t thank the driver, either, when I got off. Then, when I got to the office, Jenny, the secretary, said good morning, and I just responded, “Is it, Jenny?” and kept walking to my desk. When I got to my desk Alistair greeted me with his usual “Morning, Reginald,” (I’ve never figured out where he got that sobriquet from and why he uses it) and I said ‘Get stuffed, Alistair. I’m sick of your stupid nickname and I’m sick of sitting next to you and your perennial halitosis.’
‘I know, I know. I don’t know what came over me! I just decided that morning to stop being polite. And so a great tension descended on the room. I didn’t feel okay about this; I’m so used to being nice that it felt so wrong, of course it did. But I thought people might respect me if I just stopped trying to be so nice all the time. Alistair didn’t respond to my insult, and no one seemed to acknowledge it, but there was a palpable disquiet in the room.’
Polly sighed and shook her head.
‘And then I finally corrected Charlotte’s malapropism.’
‘The one she’s used on too many occasions, honey. She loves to talk about Pyrrhic victories; she used the term only the other week in relation to that British politician who backed Brexit.’
‘Well, she calls it a phallic victory. And we both know that means something entirely different. So I told her once and for all. I couldn’t maintain a respectful silence.’
Polly stared into space as if something had dawned on her. It seemed to Harry that his wife of thirty years had had a light-bulb moment.
‘Oh my,’ Polly said.
‘What? What is it?’
Polly removed the sheets from her lap and got out of bed. She began pacing the room as Harry looked on helplessly.
‘Polly, honey, will you talk to me, please?’
‘Oh My. Oh my, oh my,’ said Polly as she continued quick-footed across the floor. Back and forth, back and forth.
‘It was you, Harry,’ she said in a quivering voice, still rambling about the bedroom.
Harry hesitated before responding.
‘No! No-no. No, it couldn’t be that.’
‘I don’t know, Harry.’
‘No, it couldn’t be.’
‘Are you sure? What else did you do that day?’
‘What else? Well, after work I… Well, I kind of told Mitchell, the doorman who always gives away the endings of every movie he sees – always! I told him to keep his mouth shut in future.’
Polly quit her pacing, stood still and placed her head in her hand as if embarrassed.
‘Harry,’ she said dispiritedly. ‘What else?’
‘Um, well… I skipped someone in the queue at the supermarket. I didn’t say thanks to the cashier. I nudged another man out of my way as I was exiting the store…’
Polly shook her head and rested her chin on top of her furled fist.
‘What else?’ she asked her husband.
‘Um, there wasn’t much else… I came back here after I picked up the groceries.’
‘There was nothing else? You’re sure?’
‘Well, actually, there’s was one other… moment.’
‘Before I opened our apartment door, Mrs. Barnes asked if I liked the meatballs she’d dropped into us the previous day. Remember the meatballs she made?’
‘Yes, yes, I do, Harry. What did you say to the poor woman?’
‘I…’ Harry raised his hands in the air, as if this was some form of defence for his actions, as if he was pre-emptively deflecting any criticism that was coming his way. ‘I told her I’d licked boots that tasted better.’
‘Oh!’ Polly flailed her arms into the air. ‘Unbelievable!’
‘It was just a bad day! I’d decided that day… I don’t know why… It just…’
‘You’re responsible for all of this!’
‘I couldn’t be!’
‘Harry, when did Lucifer show up on our street, huh? When did the ground open up and all those demons start terrorising the neighbourhood? Huh? Harry? It happened last Wednesday – the day after you decided to be impolite.’
‘Surely it isn’t down to that, honey. I couldn’t be!’
Polly approached the window and looked outside at the smouldering buildings, the ash floating through the air and the sky of fire.
‘I knew there was a reason Azazel and Beelzebub left us alone after they rounded up the neighbourhood. I knew it. You opened up the Gates of Hell with your rudeness. It was all your doing, Harry. You were the key they needed.’
Harry sat still in the cosy bed. His worried eyes fell onto the sheets and then back onto his faithful wife.
‘What? Harry,’ she said through gritted teeth.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘Just… Just don’t talk to me for a while, Harry. It’ll take me at least a couple of days to forgive you for this.’
Polly turned and left the room. Harry could hear her footsteps as she descended the stairs and the clatter of the pots and pans she moved after entering the kitchen. He got out of bed and made his way over to the window.
‘Harry!’ arrived an angry call from downstairs.
‘The casserole will be ready soon.’
‘Okay, thanks honey,’ replied Harry.
‘This does not mean I’ve forgiven you!’ shouted Polly.
Returning his gaze to the window, Harry noticed an imposing, disgusting, two-horned figure as it emerged from the building opposite Harry’s and Polly’s. Standing over eight-feet tall, it snorted and snarled as the sound of its hoofed feet echoed throughout the neighbourhood. The demon noticed Harry staring out from his apartment window.
‘Hi, Harry!’ the demon waved.
Harry waved back lethargically.