PUNCH

James and Greg lived in a top floor apartment on a road called Kingsdown Parade. It was a stones throw from the University, where the two men were completing a History PHD, and a a long flight of stairs from Stokes Croft where Greg, with his social life, would spend many evenings, and James, without his, would not. The two men met on arrival at Bristol and had cohabitated ever since. Work had been so hard and fast that they seldom had time to ask if they really did like each other and could not afford the inconvenience that they may, in fact, not. Over the years it had been Greg that acquired new experiences and friends while James was stuck reminiscing the very first term where he had exhibited mild signs of extraversion and almost slept with a beautiful American called Carey. It did not help James’s sense of longing that Carey had gone on to become a dear friend of Greg’s and a stranger to him. Silently, both men thought themselves smarter than the other. On their course, Greg was pallier with the lecturers while James did more hours in the books and occasionally stumped his tutors with knowledge of early 20th century Chinese history. That mornings rift had been drawn from this very well of intellectual stubbornness. James, using a bread knife to apply too much butter to his toast, described Greg’s tutor as a charlatan with little Historical imagination. Greg, drunk with anger, stormed out of the house immediately texting Carey to describe James as a ‘right old cunt’.

James, was a very anxious person. His deepest worry was that he had made no meaningful connections in the three years of his PHD. There was a time when cocaine and alcohol had helped tranquilize worries and strengthen the social muscle, now, the most powerful drug, or weapon, used to remedy his problems was stalkerware. Through downloading malware onto his beloved friend Greg’s phone he could spectate, from a protective distance, the theatre of his social life. Through listening to his microphone, reading texts and Facebook messages he enjoyed the PHD social experience without spending cortisol enraged evenings at The Highbury Vaults or, God forbid, a nightclub. Beyond defending James’s anxieties, he also found stalking emboldened his disdain for his peers, aside from of course happy rapport that Greg was able to build with lovely Carey, who could extract joy and excitement far beyond James’s capabilities. The thought of whether or not it was morally right to enter, uninvited, into Greg’s phone never crossed James’s mind (or at least not for long). These thoughts were justified by the belief that Greg could benefit from James’s oversight.

James had forgotten about the breakfast tiff and spent the morning studying in his room. At lunch he logged onto his interface where he had access to Greg’s apps, text messages, calls and locations. If he had paid a little bit more he would have even been able to log e-mails, and even access his camera but James thought these features unnecessary and somewhat creepy. Everyday he would search through Greg’s social media, location and text messages as habitually as he would his own. Today, he came across something that gravely offended him. Just this morning, in an unprovoked attack, Greg had texted the lovely Carey to describe him as a ‘right old cunt’. ‘Bastard!’, he thought. ‘How could this damned Iago casually denature my relationship with Carey’. James viewed Greg’s frustrated text as confirmation of Greg’s low character. Jabbing thoughts stung James beyond the capacity of work. He became poisoned by hatred for his housemate and tormented in attempts to second guess what Carey would think of him.

Greg came home to find James on the sofa in foetus position staring blankly into the distance and cradling a cup of tea. ‘James what’s up mate?’. The sight of such vulnerability erased Greg’s memory of the morning’s ill feeling. James refused to make eye contact and bit his bottom lip. His heart rate was racing increasingly fast. Greg sat next to him and offered a charitable arm round the shoulder. James shot up yanking head away and sporting the grimace of a man who had spent the whole day scheming of ways to translate bitter thoughts into anger and action. Then he started to weep. ‘Come on mate don’t whats up?’ continued Greg. Then as if stuttering on the dreaded thought ‘u…u…u…u…you CALLED ME A CUNT!’. Greg’s face was bemused. He thought for no moment that he could be the cause of James’s woes and was unable to recall using these words.

‘No I didn’t’ he said pleadingly,

‘Yes you did’,

‘When did I call you a cunt? I know I had some stern words about the toilet but it’s only polite not to piss on the seat’.

Then James replied with what to him was Hamlet like resolve but  to Greg was more like Heath Ledger’s Joker. ‘Yes you fucking did because I hacked your fucking phone you cunt!’. Now it was Greg who was drowned in bitterness.

‘You did what! When? How?’ he looked away washed over with adrenaline and inflamation ‘This isn’t Nazi Germany. You’re not in the Stasi why the fuck would you think it’s okay to hack your friends phone’.

‘Well’ said James trembling behind a mug of tea that vibrated onto his lips, and then as though he was Sherlock or Poirot who had just solved the mystery and opening his mouth very large as he talked, ‘don’t you think this proves it!’

‘PROVES WHAT?! THAT YOU’RE A FUCKING CUNT!’ said Greg under serious distress.

James viewed his housemates alarm as an admission of guilt from which he drew control and oxygen.

‘No quite the opposite.’ Replied James adopting a position of ease ‘that you’re a bad friend who abuses his friendships for frivolous throw away social media conversations. Do you understand the damage that could do to my reputation amongst the cohort, and with Carey of all people!’ Like a politician doing a successful filibuster the more he talked the truer his view became. By the end of this sentence a smile briefly returned to his face.

Shaking his head in annoyed disbelief Greg stared at James as though he had just explained that he was the second coming of Christ. ‘I can’t believe this. How long have you been doing this? You’re literally insane’.

He clenched his hands ready to knock him out.

James replied in the style of a facetious missionary, ‘Mate do you not understand that I have been helping you.’

‘WITH WHAT!?’

‘I’ve been looking over your communications and giving subtle nudges about what to say and how to act.’ And then with a hopeful smile and high pitched voice ‘Kind of like an Artificial Intelligence’

Greg was undeterred ‘either that or you are a fucking lonely anorak that leeches off my social life. We’re not in Stalinist fucking Russia how can you think this is ok? And where the fuck did you acquire this technology that you can brandish on my social life like a mad man in a high school shooting?’

‘Well Greg I have been getting rather suspicious of you’

‘No shit Sherlock’

‘Oh fuck off don’t try and victimize yourself after that attempt at character assassination!’

‘This is first rate domestic abuse. I’m calling the Police’

‘You would never’ said his housemate whose cup of tea resumed trembling as he bought it to his lips to give the veneer of control.

‘Why shouldn’t I?’

‘Kopromat. You don’t know what I’ve got on you’ said James, immediately going on the offensive.

‘Wait so you can’t understand why it’s out of order to hack your only friends phone and then justify it by using Stasi intimidation tactics. You’ve lost the fucking plot mate’.

Doubling down instead of backing off James lifted his collar bone and tail, ‘yep that’s right. Now everyone of your friends will know you as the lily livered fairweather friend you are. Another example of a charismatic fake’

‘Fine by me. I can’t imagine how that would do me more harm than the fact that you’ve stalked the only person on earth that provides you with some form of social interaction’

‘lies’

‘Fuck off you literally spent the last three weeks with an inverted sleep pattern. What were you doing? I assume masturbating whilst you non-consensually implanted yourself into my life’

‘You’re over reacting’

‘You’re a fucking creep mate. You’ve got two options you either get out of my house before I knock you out or I get the police’

James, gaging the tone as serious ‘Hey don’t be like this. I’ve been trying to help you! I know we find it hard to communicate and this has helped me understand you better’

‘You could also describe yourself as an isolated paranoid wreck desperate to tranquilize your crippling status anxiety. I’ve never asked for your help, you’re lying to yourself’

‘No, I’m not this is about love’

‘That’s bollocks it’s about power. You’re not supporting me, you’re threatening me with a weapon as dangerous as a gun or knife’.

James responded pleadingly ‘Think of it as a loving patriarchy’

‘You’re not my father and your actions are a stain on humanity. First you accuse me of having a private life, then you threaten me with kompromat and now you describe yourself as my omniscient loving ruler. Get the fuck out of here or I’m calling the police’

‘Maybe you shouldn’t have been so stupid as to give me access to your phone’

‘Oh so that’s the world we live in where you should suspect your housemate of attempting to steal my information and blackmail me. I suppose you’ve also been going through my pockets and sniffing my dirty underwear’

‘I’ve exposed heinous flaws in your cyber security’

‘I’M NOT THE FUCKING PENTAGON AND YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE MY FRIEND’

Greg’s anger reached boiling point. With a clenched fist he threw a punch at James connecting with his left cheek bone. The mug of tea smashed against the wall as Greg sunk his house mate to the floor.