The Volunteer by Francesca Lembregts

Ten years. Oscar and I have been as thick as thieves for ten years. 
     We were both young, fairly decent looking fellows when we first met, with sharp eyes and white teeth that were still all there. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not completely decrepit now, but time hasn’t been generous to us. Less so to Oscar than to me, if I’m honest. The strands of silver in the cow’s lick I’ve always had don’t seem to be multiplying too quickly, whereas old Oscar has been all salt and pepper for a couple of years now.  
     I saved his life, apparently. Rescued him. That’s what some say. They think I’m a kind of hero – I’ve even been called an angel. That one made me chuckle. I tell them that I only did what any decent human being would have done. They smile at me blithely and underneath their saccharine words I sense they’re still glad it was me, not them. 
     For Oscar had been locked up when we first met, confined to a space not even half the size of the box room I had at home. He was an angry shell back then, hostile to any poor soul who tried to interact or communicate with him. Indeed, on some days he would be so violent towards staff when they entered the room that he couldn’t be given his allotted exercise time. 

     Abandoned young - it’s no wonder he’s the way he is. 
     He’s had a tough time of it, but there’s only so much that can be done.
     We’ll have to see if rehabilitation works. 

     Before I came to know him, I had thought his situation unfortunate but unavoidable, like having a dead tooth pulled by the dentist. The staff were doing what they could; they were the experts. I was only a volunteer, so it was really none of my business.
     Still, whenever my duties took me by his room, I couldn’t help but peer in at him through the tiny pane of glass set into the door. Having heard the stories, I was curious as to what he did when there wasn’t anybody around. Was he still wildly aggressive, directing untamed fury onto his surroundings or himself when there was nobody else upon which to cast it?  Most of the time, however, he sat hunched in the corner, head down, often with his back to the door. To me, it seemed as though he was trying everything possible to shut out the world around him. But I was only a volunteer. What did I know? 
     And yet, I couldn’t help but stop and look in each time. There he was, in his corner. Not always with his back to the door now, but still studiously ignoring the tall, round-faced man blinking through the glass. 
     It wasn’t until the second or third week that I noticed he had started looking back.
     He didn’t make a sound but his maya blue eyes stared into my hazel ones. I found the directness of his gaze disconcerting and I looked away, unnerved. Still, at the edge of my vision I saw that he continued to watch me. Eventually, I moved on. It was strange, but probably a one off. I was a volunteer; I shouldn’t be loitering around doors. 	
     It wasn’t a one off. Oscar watched me the next day, and the next. We continued this way for a while to the point where, strangely, I began to look forward to our exchanges, silent as they were. I looked for glimpses of the violence and aggression I’d heard about, but there was nothing so exciting. For all the stories, he seemed content with the absurd staring game we found ourselves playing.
     One Tuesday, he wasn’t in his corner anymore. I was perplexed. Confusion gave way to concern. Perhaps he had escaped. Should I alert somebody? Or maybe he’d been taken somewhere. I wanted to know where; I wanted to know what had happened. I reminded myself that I was only a volunteer. Pressing myself up against the cold metal of the door, I scanned the room. When I realised my error, an unexpected tightness in my chest abated. Oscar was in his room, but he had moved from his usual place in the corner to sit almost directly underneath the door, which is why I hadn’t seen him at first.
     As he stared up at me, mute as always, there was an undertone to his silence. He looked… interested. Intrigued, perhaps, by my presence. I was unsure as to what to do. Should I say something? Maybe a simple ‘morning’? But then I remembered the stories and, despite him looking as calm as could be, decided against it. I was only a volunteer, after all.
     On my way home, I thought a lot about Oscar and what had prompted him to edge nearer. The likely explanation was that he’d finally got bored of his corner. I have to admit, even with the door between us, part of me had been wary of his closeness. But I’d seen no hostility there, I told myself. He seemed to tolerate my presence, albeit with two and a half inches of steel between us. I considered this new development and wondered whether I shouldn’t try to get to know him better. Make him feel more at ease. After all, it wasn’t much of a life being restricted to the same bleak room day in, day out. And I was a volunteer. Maybe that made me less frightening, less threatening. 
     So, the next day, I sought out the most senior member of staff I could find and asked whether it would be possible to try something with Oscar. It didn’t involve me or anyone else going into his room, I assured her, so there was no risk. 
     ‘Hm. I don’t think it’ll make much difference - he’s too far gone. To be honest, we’re at a loss as to what to do with him.’
     The pressure in my chest returned. 
     Then, she shrugged. ‘But you’re welcome to try.’
     Trying to keep my jubilation under wraps, I offered a small, appreciative smile in thanks and walked as casually as I could over to Oscar’s block. I wondered where I might find him. The answer was the exact same place as yesterday, almost with his nose pressed up to the door. I looked down and gave him a brief nod, before stepping back and opening the book I’d brought with me this time. The Fellowship of the Ring had always been my favourite of the trilogy. The spine was wrinkled, and the edges of the cover ragged from the countless times I’d picked it up in order to join Frodo and the Fellowship to lands anew.   
     Inwardly, I prayed my alteration to our familiar routine wouldn’t provoke a sudden explosion within Oscar. I beseeched him not to take it as some kind of affront we would never be able to return from.
     I began to read out loud.

#
I read to Oscar almost every day. As a volunteer, I would normally be there only two, maybe three times a week. It quickly became four, five, sometimes even six days. I rooted out a little camping chair, seemingly abandoned and tucked away in the back office, which gave welcome respite from standing. We finished The Fellowship of the Ring, and I picked a slim psychological thriller next. Contrary genres were my way of trying to keep things interesting for Oscar and, although he never said, I had an inkling that true crime was his favourite. There was a time when they came to take him for his exercise hour before we’d finished our current chapter. The member of staff leaned against the wall and waited until I had marked the page and closed the book. He looked at me intently for a moment, then asked if I wanted to accompany them to the yard. Admonishing myself for the stories that began to rear up in the back of my mind, I agreed but waited further down the block as they brought Oscar out, giving them plenty of space just in case. On the way, the staff member mentioned Oscar’s outbursts had been scant of late. They’d even managed to get him out for his exercise hour six days on the trot. Oscar walked slowly, cautiously, eyes darting. As he passed, I saw his nostrils twitch as though he’d gotten a strong whiff of something potent. I speculated as to whether I’d applied my deodorant too liberally that morning. Once outside, it was awkward. Neither of us had a clue what to do next. I was only a volunteer, for goodness’ sake. I was mindful to keep my distance whilst he walked slowly around the yard, looking decidedly anxious. In the end, I made my way over to a bench at the far end, which creaked as I settled myself onto it. From there, I watched as Oscar continued to move in circles. Eventually, he paused and observed me carefully for a few moments, before deciding to join me by the bench. I flicked my eyes over to check the member of staff was still close by, just in case. But Oscar simply sat quietly beside me. From that point onwards, our friendship went from strength to strength. Sure, it hasn’t been plain sailing, and sometimes he can be an absolute pain in the backside, as well as a greedy beggar. But once you get to know him, old Oscar is as loyal as they come. It didn’t take long for me to realise how shrewd he really was, or to fall victim to his delightfully devilish side. Whenever I reflect on the friendship that has spanned the last decade, I marvel at how much we’ve been through together. Various upheavals: moving houses, relationships, and the subsequent parting of ways. It’s true that Oscar relies on me heavily — always has, always will — but it’s also true to say that I depend on him. His quiet, pensive presence, his stolid companionship. It’s in these moments that I scratch behind Oscar’s ears and a lump born out of pride at how far he has come lodges itself in my throat. The day I picked him up to come home with me, the staff at Logger’s Animal Rescue had let him out of the kennel, deftly clipped the lead to his collar and handed it to me. Despite all the progress he’d made, it was clear they were relieved to relinquish Oscar into my care. It didn’t faze me one bit, however. I knew we’d find a way, together. Oscar had walked by my side, wary but finally willing to reintroduce himself to the outside world once more. It was place he hadn’t inhabited for a long time, and life certainly hadn’t been kind to him there. But this time, he had a volunteer.

About the Author

Francesca Lembregts is a new and emerging writer whose stories reflect her love of all things unexpected, thought-provoking and sometimes a little bit magical. She is currently working on her first novel. When not writing, she enjoys good food, good books and good company. 

Website: Francescalembregts.medium.com

Twitter: @chesscy

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