The Bystander Effect by Hilary Ayshford

A woman saves the life of a homeless person, but no good deed goes unpunished.

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It was what anyone would have done.

The woman walking ten yards ahead of me dropped to the ground. She made no effort to save herself, just face-planted straight into the pavement. People flowed round her motionless body like a river around a boulder. They didn't miss a step, far less stop to see if she was alright. A man in a navy chalk-striped suit and trainers concentrating on his phone had to hurdle over her.

I did what anyone would have done. Except they didn't, because this was City Road in the rush hour and everyone had places to go, people to see, jobs to do. I did too, but she was directly in my path, and I couldn't just step over her and go on my way. I stopped.

When I turned her onto her back, her chest wasn't moving, and when I put my cheek close to her mouth and nose it was clear she had stopped breathing. Her body was thin to the point of emaciation, her clothes had seen better days and there was the sour sweat smell about her that stank of neglect.

I started chest compressions, shouting for someone to call an ambulance and hoping at least one person would. It was probably no more than a minute, but it felt like hours, pumping away at her chest with no sign of any help coming. I knew the odds weren't in our favour, but I couldn't give up, and eventually the woman shuddered, coughed and gulped in a large breath. I rolled her onto her side in the recovery position as the blue lights of the emergency services appeared. I declined their offer to go with her in the ambulance to the hospital but gave them my details so they could let me know her outcome.

When I got home from work three days later, the woman was waiting on my doorstep with a massive bouquet. She was a lot cleaner and smelled much better than the first time we met. She was much younger than I originally thought - early twenties at most - but signs of a hard life were etched on her face and carved in the scars on her arms. Since I could hardly take the flowers and shut the door in her face, I did what anyone would have done and invited her in for a cup of tea.

'Thank you for the flowers. They're beautiful,' I said.

'It's the least I can do. You saved my life,' said the woman, whose name was Rosa.

'I'm just glad you're OK. Did they find out what was wrong?' Was this question too personal to ask a virtual stranger? I didn't really want to know, but it was the sort of thing anyone would ask.

'Heart,' Rosa answered, but didn't elaborate.

A long silence followed in which we sipped our tea and avoided eye contact. Rosa looked round the sitting room, taking in the furniture, the paintings, the porcelain ornaments. She bent down and stroked the silk rug and ran her fingertips over the teak coffee table. Was she inspecting for dust or sizing it up as a prospective burglary target?

'You've got a lovely house,' she said.

'Thanks. Now if you'll excuse me...' I got up.

Rosa didn't move. 'I'd like to live in a place like this one day.'

'And I'm sure you will, but I really have to get ready to go out this evening.' I went to the front door and held it open, waiting for her to follow.

'Thanks again for saving my life.' Rosa pulled me into an awkward hug, which I tried not to resist. 'You know what it means, of course,' she added.

'No. What?'

'You're responsible for me now. If you save someone's life, you're responsible for them until they die. It's an old Chinese proverb.'

'Right. Well, goodbye, Rosa.' I steered her out of the door.

'Can I come back another time?' she asked.

'Yes, drop in any time you're passing.' I didn't really mean it, but it was what anyone would say in the circumstances. I hoped Rosa could tell from my slightly grudging tone that another visit wouldn't be particularly welcome.

'See you, then.'

I closed the door firmly and watched through the glass panel until she was out of sight.

I went to find a vase for the flowers. They were gorgeous and must have cost Rosa a fortune. I felt a pang of guilt at being so mean-spirited until I found the card, which read "Rest in Peace, Uncle Mike. We'll miss you forever. Love, Amy, Sam and Robert."

A week went by, then two with no sign of Rosa, and I began to relax - no more flinching whenever the doorbell rang, no more sneaky peeping from behind the sitting room curtains to check who was there. And then she was there on the doorstep when I returned after a late evening at work. She was soaked through and shivering, even though the rain was not much more than a drizzle, and had clearly been waiting for some time.

I did what anyone would have done. I let her come in to dry off and warm up. I gave her a towel to dry her hair and lent her an old tracksuit while her clothes were in the tumble dryer. She gulped down a mug of soup and shovelled toast into her mouth. I didn't ask when she'd last eaten but brought her second helpings of both. I did the washing up and checked on her clothes - still damp - and when I came back into the sitting room, Rosa was fast asleep on the sofa. She looked so young and vulnerable I didn't have the heart to disturb her, so I covered her with a blanket and left her to it.

She was sleeping when I needed to leave for work the next morning, so I propped up a note on the coffee table telling her to make herself some breakfast and let herself out.

When I got home, Rosa was sitting on the sofa, swaddled in the blanket, watching EastEnders.

'What are you still doing here?' I tried to sound surprised, although I had only half expected her to have left.

She shrugged. 'I've got nowhere else to go. Not unless you count a cardboard box under the flyover. Can't I stay here on the settee? Just for a couple of nights? Please? You're responsible for me, remember.'

'Alright, you can stay until the end of the week, but I you'll need to be gone by the weekend.'

'No problem. I won't be any trouble, I promise.'

I went to my bedroom to change out of my work clothes. Feeling slightly uneasy, I decided to hide my jewellery, as a precaution. It was what anyone would do, I reasoned. I was balancing on tiptoe on a delicate spindle-legged antique chair putting the trinket box on top of the wardrobe when she saw me through the half-open door.

'You don't need to do that.' Her voice was hurt and angry. 'I may be homeless but I'm not a thief.'

I apologised, and said of course I trusted her, but anyone would have done the same in the circumstances. She was very cool towards me for the rest of the evening, but I reasoned if she was that uncomfortable in my presence she could always leave.

To be fair to her, Rosa wasn't much trouble, although the unwashed dishes in the sink and the damp towels left on the bathroom floor were somewhat irritating. If I'm honest, I quite enjoyed coming back to a house that wasn't empty or silent. After that first night, we relaxed in each other's company, and it was nice to have someone to talk to and to have supper with rather than eating off a tray in front of the television. When she asked on the Friday if she could stay another week, I felt only the slightest misgivings when I said yes.

It's hard to pinpoint the moment when things began to deteriorate. Perhaps it was when Rosa asked to borrow some of my clothes allegedly to go to a job interview, and my pink silk blouse came back bearing what was clearly a red wine stain. Or the lingering smell of cannabis in the sitting room when Rosa swore blind she never even smoked tobacco, despite the ash on the silk carpet suggesting otherwise. Or the rapidly falling level of single malt in the crystal decanter, or the mysterious disappearance of the silver cigarette box from the mantelpiece. Small things when taken in isolation but add them together and it was clear to me at least that Rosa had outstayed her welcome. On the Thursday night, I made it plain that she would have to leave the following day.

On Friday morning, I said goodbye as I left for work, wished Rosa the best of luck and hoped things would turn out well for her. She flapped a hand at me from under the blankets on the sofa and mumbled something.

I stayed longer than usual at the customary Friday after-work drinks session, almost dreading going home to find Rosa still in residence. To my enormous relief, the house was dark and silent when I got back, and the sofa was unoccupied.

I kicked off my shoes and slumped in the sitting room, relishing the peace and solitude. The prospect of a Rosa-free weekend stretched ahead of me and the only thing I wanted now was to flop into bed and sleep.

Somebody had got there ahead of me. I yanked off the covers and then wished I hadn't. Rosa was in my bed with a large, unidentified male. Both were stark naked. She rolled over and sat up; the man continued snoring, his ample buttocks quivering with every rumbling intake of breath. 'Hi. This is Eddie. He came round to watch a film and have a few beers; he needs to sleep it off now. Hope you don't mind.'

I opened my mouth, but no words would come. I was incandescent with rage, shaking with indignation. I spent a sleepless night in the armchair, rehearsing what I would say to Rosa in the morning to make it clear she had outstayed her welcome and must leave immediately.

I confronted Rosa over breakfast. 'You need to leave today. Now. Before I call the police. You promised you'd be gone by the weekend, but it's Saturday and you're still here.'

Eddie wandered in wearing a threadbare pair of boxers, idly scratching his hairy chest. 'We can't,' he said. 'We've got nowhere else to go.'

'And you're responsible for me, don't forget,' Rosa chips in.

'Bollocks! There's is no such ancient Chinese proverb - it comes from one of the Kung Fu movies in the 1960s.' I was sure of my ground here: I'd looked it up on Wikipedia. 'Try the Council. They're responsible for finding you accommodation.'

'Closed for the weekend,' Eddie said.

'We'll go first thing on Monday,' said Rosa. 'Until then, we'll try to stay out of your way.'

On Monday morning I got ready to go to work as usual but phoned in sick. I drove the car 50 yards down the street and watched to see what would happen. They didn't go to the Council offices. They had no intention of leaving the house. I couldn't think what else to do, so I did what anyone would have done and drove to the police station.

'I want to report intruders in my house,' I told the sergeant behind the desk.

'When did you notice the break-in?'

'No, they didn't break in.'

'How did they get in, then?'

'Through the front door, of course.'

'So, you let them in.'

'Yes, and now I want them to leave.'

'And you expect me to send a couple of burly lads round to throw them out?'

'Yes, something like that.'

'I'm sorry, madam, but if there has been no break-in then it's not a criminal matter and there's nothing I can do. Can I recommend the Citizen's Advice Bureau?'

He wrote down the address for me and I went straight round.

'There are people staying in my house, and I want them to leave,' I said to the thin-faced woman behind the desk - Ingrid, according to her name badge.

'Have they stopped paying the rent?' she asked.

'They don't pay rent.'

'So not tenants. Guests, then?'

'Not exactly.'

'Did you invite them in?'

'Yes - one of them, anyway. The other one invited himself.'

'Guests, then.'

'I suppose so, but I want them out.'

'Not much you can do, if you gave them permission to be there. You'll just have to tell them to leave.'

'I have, but they're still there.'

'You need to be more assertive.'

'Thanks for your help.'

I wasn't sure if Ingrid recognised sarcasm when she heard it, but she smiled politely. 'You're welcome,' she said.

'Why are you both still here?' I asked Rosa and Eddie that evening.

'We like it here,' said Rosa.

'So do I. The difference is that it's my house, not yours and I want you out. Go to the Council tomorrow and they'll find you something.'

'Sorry, no can do.' Eddie folded his arms. 'If we leave here to go to the Council, they'll say we've made ourselves intentionally homeless and won't do anything for six weeks. You're stuck with us. And the settee is too small for two people, so we're keeping the bedroom.'

'We've made you dinner, though,' said Rosa, proffering a plate of congealing baked beans on toast.

Locked in the bathroom, I stuffed a towel in my mouth and screamed. I wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry. As I passed the bedroom, I saw that they had helpfully put my clothes in black bin bags and left them outside the door. The thought of Eddie's sausage fingers pawing through my underwear drawer made me want to vomit.

I was scheduled to go to Paris for a couple of nights that week, an important work conference that I couldn't get out of. It was a relief to escape the tension of being in the house with Rosa and Eddie, but a source of anxiety imagining what they might do to the place in my absence. My return flight was delayed, so it was nearly midnight by the time I got back from the airport. I couldn't open the door. I double-checked I was using the right key, tried the back door, the conservatory, then went all round the house in case one of the windows had been left open a crack and I could force entry. No joy.

After an uncomfortable night in the car, I went straight back to Ingrid.

'They've changed the locks. I am locked out of my own house.'

Ingrid pulled a face. 'That's a whole different kettle of fish then,' she said. 'You need to go to court and get a possession order.'

'How long will that take? I asked.

'Depends. Could be weeks, could be months.'

'Where am I supposed to go in the meantime?'


I shook my head.

'You could try the Council, but I don't think you'd like what they can offer you. How many children have you got?'


'No point in going to them in that case. I'd recommend you find a cheap hotel or stay with friends.'

In London there is no such thing as a cheap hotel. Those aimed at the business traveller and conference attendee were way beyond my means and would have eaten up my monthly salary in less than a week, even if I gave up eating. At the other end of the scale, even the backpacker hostels were ridiculously expensive for what they offered - poky bedrooms with sagging mattresses, threadbare carpets, shared bathrooms and little in the way of soundproofing. For the first time since Rosa moved in, I started to understand what it meant to have nowhere to go. Any feelings of sympathy that threatened to arise I squashed down firmly; I was the one entitled to any pity there was going around, surely. I did have a home, a bed, and she and Eddie were depriving me of it, unfairly if not illegally, and I wasn't going to put up with it.

To say Jane was surprised when I turned up on her doorstep would be an understatement. We didn't know each other well - we were more colleagues than friends - but she lived near the office, and I hoped she might put me up, or rather put up with me, for a few days. Once I explained my situation, she offered me the guest bedroom for a couple of weeks.

'No worries,' she said. 'It's what anyone would do,'

I appreciated her kindness, but felt like an intruder, especially when I saw her surreptitiously hiding her jewellery box before she went out and left me alone in the house.

Once word got round at the office, several people offered accommodation for a few weeks. I was grateful, of course, but the longer it went on the more I worried about becoming another Rosa. After a couple of months, I moved into a small guest house on a residential street in one of the less desirable postcodes. It was only temporary, I told myself, and at least I had a space I could call my own.

It took several months more before I was granted a possession order. I delivered it in person and filmed myself pushing it through the letterbox. I could scarcely access my front door for the heaps of rubbish piled in the front garden. No, not rubbish - it was my furniture, my beautifully restored antique sideboard, my fragile spindle-legged bedroom chair, my Persian silk rug, all left to the mercy of the elements and the light fingers of any passer-by. Never mind, I told myself, in fourteen days they had to get out. The court said so.

They didn't go. Instead, there were extra residents in the form of two large, fierce dogs. I hardly recognised the house now. There were cracks in the windows, peeling paintwork and my lovingly tended garden was a jungle of brambles, thistles and nettles.

It wasn't like me to be impulsive, but on the way back to the hotel I drove past a large retail park and pulled in. I don't know what I was thinking, and I was surprised to find I had purchased a funnel, a length of tubing, a ski mask and five litres of paraffin. In the early hours of the morning, I put on the ski mask, went round to my house, fed the tube through the letter box, connected the funnel and unscrewed the lid on the can of paraffin.

The barking of one of the dogs brought me to my senses. I was shocked that I could even think of destroying my own house, far less those inside, however much I resented them. I hadn't saved Rosa's life only to take it away again.

I didn't tell Ingrid about the paraffin, but I did tell her about the dogs and that Rosa and Eddie were still in occupation.

'Ah,' she said. 'Bailiffs, then.' And we rang them there and then.

On the day of the eviction, I couldn't stay away. I wanted to see the bailiffs break down my front door, drag Rosa and Eddie kicking and screaming out of my house. I wanted to witness their shame and humiliation as they were unceremoniously turfed out onto the pavement.

I was disappointed. The bailiffs knocked, and Rosa opened the door and let them in. Eddie carried out their - actually, my - suitcases, Rosa following with the dogs, which were a lot smaller than their bark suggested. She gave me a cheery smile.

'Thanks for everything,' she said. 'You've been great. I'll miss you.'

I stared open-mouthed with indignation as she waved goodbye.

'Rosa, wait.' She stopped and turned back. 'This isn't the first time you've done this, is it?'

'Of course not, silly. Not everyone's as nice as you, though.'

'What about your heart?'

She thumped her chest. 'Sound as a bell.'

Six months later, as I was walking to work, the woman ten yards ahead of me fell to the ground. She made no effort to save herself, just face-planted straight into the pavement. A man in a pin-striped suit dropped his briefcase and ran over to her. I saw him check her breathing and get ready to begin chest compressions.

'Don't,' I said. 'She's faking it.' The man gave me a look of disbelief mixed with disgust.

'Have it your own way,' I said. 'I've tried to warn you.'

I stepped over Rosa and carried on walking. It was what anyone would have done.


  1. Boy, what a sojourn. What a mess! (The situation described). The pacing was very good. I wish there was more dialogue and less pure exposition. But I was wrapped up in the story completely. One is shocked by the behavior of the faker. One feels the rescuer’s helplessness. There is shock value. Well done!

  2. Great text! Made me feel a lot of things... Congratulations!

  3. The fiction summons memories of “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” the old film from the forties starring Monte Woolley; also, anyone who has ever had a guest who stayed too long. It was absurdist humor – at least I don’t THINK that London is quite that bad with respect to unwanted guests; but who knows? – that was very funny. I particularly liked the touch of the itinerant couple turning up a couple of dogs to guard against “intruders.” Excellent commentary on bureaucracy. I hope to see more of your work, Hilary!

    1. Oh you are right! Absurdist humor!

    2. Yes, my tongue was very firmly in my cheek when I wrote it.

  4. Rozanne CharbonneauMay 17, 2024 at 5:41 PM

    An amusing, cautionary tale. Well done, Hilary!

  5. This is an excellent and entertaining short story.
    I love your humorous escalation in the story towards the absurd.
    I enjoy how the protagonist and antagonist slowly become similar to one another, somewhat literally.
    Great job!

  6. Resembles not only "The Man Who Came To Dinner", but a Simpson's which a late actor who did the "Vern" commercials played a carnie. The bureaucracy part resembles both sides of the Atlantic. The wheels of justice grind slowly and sometimes not at all. The political issue is "Are squatters to blame or society". "Society", whatever that may be gets blamed a lot.
    Mr. Mirth

  7. I liked the story. I see it as rather Kafka-esque, a morality tale of sorts if those are the right words. I've helped homeless people on the street out here in Los Angeles, through a charity organization, and would be very wary of ever inviting a strange homeless person into my home or even giving out my personal contact information, but whenever you help people in such desperate need you open yourself up to all sorts of unforeseen rewards and troubles. So, in that sense, especially the troubles, the story rang true for me.

  8. A clever and well plotted story. It turned over my expectations and was a chilling read as the main character's world collapsed. The impotence of law at the beginning of her nightmarish journey would take the breath of anyone and I felt a tension because it was so easy to relate to. Excellent.

  9. A well told tale of how a small piece of altruism can go badly wrong. Slight tones of the Gogol's The Overcoat in terms of theme - which is a very good thing! I like the absurdity of the story, but also the believability.