As he shuffled through the dank hall, the smell of mould invaded his lungs on every tired breath. A dim bulb hung under a seventies lampshade and illuminated the years of peeling paint. The swelling carpet spillages made a sucking noise on each step he made. Through the grease-skinned kitchen he went, averting his eyes from the colonies of bacteria that were thriving in coffee mugs and old take away cartons, strewn on counter tops. Carrying on into the living room, he stepped over stacks of free newspapers from several years ago, that sat on a small sagging stool. Past a set of pots and pans, he reached the three legged coffee table that hopelessly sat on its side, protected by pristine wads of dust, anticipating a once promised makeover. The air was stagnant and silent.
He switched on the small TV in front of him that sat on a veneered bed table with wheels. His mother had used it during her last months. Sensing the afternoon temperatures coming down, he shivered and reached for his cardigan. It was a deep mustard with those sturdy rounded wooden buttons. Where the cuffs were turned up many years ago, right on the fold, it had frayed. The loose wool was wound into a little ball and pushed up the sleeve. There were, of course, hundreds of warmer cardigans and sweaters that he had picked up in one place or another. This one was different though, because it hugged him with memories of finer times. Times when his mother still lived and there were still chances of prospering and making a go of his young life. Times when he was like everyone else, with a decent job and friends, when possibilities of having a family still hung in the air. These were the days before the first depression set in, and since then, there only was before and after.
His mother had given him the cardigan one Christmas. It was the day the pottery factory closed for the holidays. After work, he’d had a few pints with the other office clerks in The Tyne. He recalled leaving the pub festively tipsy, watching people scurry from one shop to another for last minute bits. He had floated home, to his dinner set on the table before him. She had eagerly listened to tales of the evening, throwing her head back in laughter and clapping her hands in delight. A gift wrapped in red tissue caught his eye sitting on the sideboard. Ripping it open, his face and nose scrunched and he pursed his lips into a thoughtful smile.
However did she know he had been eyeing it up in the window of O’ Sullivan’s Drapery?
He had worn it to the dance on St. Stephen’s night where he met Mary, his mousy little bride to be. That was thirty years ago and now both woman had left his life.
Suddenly there was a hammering on the back window. He jumped. The loose panes of glass vibrated in their rotting frames. He stayed still, listening to his heart beat in his ears. He didn’t want to see anyone. He didn’t want to talk to any do-gooders pretending they cared. He waited tensely, without moving a muscle hoping they would go away, but the hammering continued . He scowled and raised himself up in a exasperation.
‘Why doesn’t everyone just mind their own bloody business,’ he roared loudly as he shuffled out of the living room.
He made his way to the kitchen where he could see an auburn nest with two big eyes peering through the dirty window of the back door.
‘Coo-eey, I know you’re in there Myles. I can smell you’
There was a chuckle and then the hammering continued.
‘Come on Pet, time for a sprinkle of Sonia goodness. I’ve brought the bleach today!’
Myles’ jaw tightened.
Aw shit! It’s that cursed woman again
His sister had insisted she hire a woman to come over every Thursday, after an emotional visit a few months earlier. Susan was one of those annoying ‘fixers’ who vowed to get Myles back on track. She meant well, he knew, but he didn’t want anyone in the house. He had conceded though, because she had wailed on about their mother wanting better for him, how she would turn in the grave if she saw the state of the family home. He scanned the kitchen. Guilt lay heavy like a rock on his already hunched shoulders. Everything hung and dripped from Myles; his fringe was long and greasy and his clothes sagged around his bowed body. His down-turned mouth said it all.
‘I have a key and I’m not afraid to use it. It’s bloody freezin’ out here, Pet.’
Myles opened the door and let it swing back so Sonia could enter. He bowed his head as he waited for her entrance to come crashing down upon him.
‘Right love,’ she announced, marching in with her jacket half off already.
‘I have more time today so I want to get the kitchen done.’
She swung around and faced him with a big soft smile, looking directly into his eyes. She was a tall woman in her early sixties. Despite the unruly lipstick and eyeliner, which insisted on pushing their boundaries outside the lines of conformity, she had a gentle face. She wore a pencil skirt and a black polo accompanied by shiny stilettos. Her ginger beehive sat in a coiffured arrangement, smoothed and upright. If she had shook her head vigorously it wouldn’t have budged an inch.
Myles mouth had dried up. He licked his lips and cleared his throat.
‘I don’t want you touching anything, or changing anything. Do you hear me?’
She nodded eagerly, still smiling.
‘This is my house and I don’t want you re-arranging anything. Do you understand me?’
‘There’s nothing for you to worry about,’ she soothed ‘Go back to what you were doing and I’ll get started in here. Have you eaten?’
‘No, not yet.’
Fingers pushing through his fringe, Myles made his way back through the path to his chair. His lips were pursed tightly and his forehead was wrinkled. He sat picking at his thumbnails, staring into space.
After two hours of crashing and banging and some terrible singing, the living room door swung open. Myles jumped out of his skin for the second time that day. In walked Sonia with a table cloth in hand. She stopped abruptly and scanned the room around her, jaw dropping slightly. Then she continued as if untroubled through the path, past Myles in his armchair, and over to the far corner where a forgotten oak dining table was trapped. It was between a two foot garden cherub and a king-size foam mattress bent into a U shape, somehow.
‘Now then Pet, I’ve made a bit of something to keep you going. I see there’s not much food in, and you don’t want another take away, do you?’
He didn’t look up.
Sonia wiped the table down, took two chairs out of hiding and threw on the tablecloth with one hand like a pro. She turned to face him, hand on hip, cocking her head to one side with a raised eyebrow.
No answer was forthcoming.
‘I’ve made enough for meself,’ she continued as she arranged the table, ‘so you’ll have the pleasure of my company’
She bent forward with a huge grin that was impossible to ignore, and trotted off to fetch the tea, muttering about how it would save her cooking later.
After Sonia had spent some time coaxing Myles out of his chair, they both sat eating a big bowl of stew washed down with a bottle of fine Northern ale. She had talked nonstop about herself, her sad stories of love, her daughter living down South who never called, and how she had stormed out of a call centre job last March and never looked back. Myles had not quite managed to relax but he had enjoyed listening to Sonia’s tales. He was shocked by some of them and intrigued by others. She had gone back to school to complete her A levels at fifty-five years of age – three years older than he was! With responses like ‘I see’ and ‘Oh right’ along with profuse head nodding and shaking, he had somehow made it made it through the meal. It had been some time since he had this type of interaction. He rubbed his eyes, willing himself to keep them open.
Later, swinging her coat on and checking the contents of her bag she prepared to leave. She gazed into a tiny silver compact as she applied her lipstick. She snapped it closed and looked up at him.
‘I’ll give that living room a good going over next week, Pet.’
Myles clenched his fists.
‘No, no you won’t be doing anything in here. Thanks, but this room is a bit more complicated’
‘Yes, I can see that.’ She rolled her eyes and smirked.
His lungs expanded quickly and on exhaling, his shoulders collapsed like a beaten dog accepting his fate. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disturbed to have Sonia bound into his life like this.
‘Ciao Myles,’ she shouted from the kitchen and he jumped for the third time that day. The back door slammed and the glass shuddered for seconds afterwards.
The work Sonia had done in the kitchen was impressive. Not only was everything sparkling but it had been arranged in a way that he thought he might just be able to work with. All his trinkets and curiosities were still there; some were nicely displayed on the dresser and others were categorised and put in boxes in cupboards. He let out a sigh and his mouth broadened into a smile. It was reassuring that Sonia shared his vision for the house. All the work he had done over the years, browsing, scavenging, even jumping into skips to search, and he had found some fantastic treasures. They all could be used he assured himself. They all have a use and the ones that don’t are collectibles, or just good looking, deserving a place on a shelf. Would she be able to do this without taking his things away from him? That was the worry. He didn’t want her taking anything away from him, violating him like that.
By the time the following Thursday arrived Myles had worked himself up to such a state of anxiety that when the door battering moment arrived he did not know what to do. So he allowed the banging and the cooing to continue until he heard the key in the lock.
‘Well, that’s not very nice,’ he heard her exclaim from the kitchen. Her voice was getting louder, and heavy plods were approaching.
‘Are you ill or summat?’ She now stood at the door of the living room with her hand on her hip, she peered at him for a few seconds.
‘You look like boiled shite. What’s wrong? Have you eaten?’
He stood up and turned towards Sonia, staying at the armchair.
‘What use is a clean house for me? I have no one. I have nothing. There’s no point. Don’t bother trying to help. Please, just go’
Shocked by his rush of anguish, he gasped. His shoulders began to shake until they were jerking up and down vigorously. The sobs grew louder and louder in his ears. Like a valve being released, he sobbed in grief, in fear and in desperation, drained of all hope. A drip of sweat fell from his forehead down his ashen face. Glancing down, she withdrew. The door closed softly after her.
His head dropped and he sank into his armchair. When there were no tears left he curled up, smothered in his cardigan. He stayed like that for hours until his swollen eyes had given way, and he nodded off into a heavy sleep.
When he woke, he shook his head and peered around the room. Gentle crooning from the radio filled his ears and there was a smell of warm dough wafting through the house. The fire was burning for the first time in years. The flaming logs behind the spark guard were crackling and the table in the corner was set. He shuffled over and uncovered the plate to find a home baked pot pie still warm, and a bottle of fine ale beside it. Opening a note left folded on the table, he read;
I’ve changed your bed sheets and shampooed the upstairs carpets.
See you next Thursday. Maybe we’ll get into the living room for a look.
It was signed ‘Sonia’ with a kiss.
He sat down at the table and ate. Feeling the glow on his face from the fire and the love in his tummy, Myles realised that he would have liked nothing more than for Sonia to be there with him eating and recalling stories of her past.
‘Yes, we’ll tackle the living room next time’