She weren’t a bit like I expected.
‘Kindly remove your headgear,’ she goes, ‘in the presence of a lady.’
Well, that’s me done for, I think to meself, pulling off the beanie. Just when everything was going smooth as.
It’s a miracle I get there at all. Never go in that newsagents no more. On the Parade. On account of the creep behind the counter. He’s a gawper. One of the worst. That’s why I always wear a beanie or a hoodie when I’m out. Both sometimes. On account of the gawpers.
ET I call him, inside my head. His fingers is black, you see, from the papers. All except one. That’s pink, glowing pink, like ET off of that old film. Why? ‘Cause it’s always up his nostril, that’s why, digging for buried treasure. One minute he’s snot mining, the next he’s serving sweets to little kiddies. Makes me want to vom.
Like I say, it was stroke of luck I saw it. Sellotaped in the corner of the window.
‘’Wanted!! Urgent!! Refined, respectable lady authoress seeks domestic assistant of same ilk. A degree of reflexology. Usual rates.’
And a mobile number.
Well, I get the ‘domestic assistant’ bit. That’s a cleaner, right? But I don’t know nothing about ilks nor degrees. Still, what have I got to lose? I break my rule, nip into the newsagents and pretend to be browsing in the gardening section. I glance over. ET’s got his elbows on the counter, head deep in a mucky mag. As I’m leaving, I feel his dead, gawping eyes follow me to the door. Don’t matter ‘cause I got the card in my pocket. Well, don’t want no-one else going for it, do I?
I go home. Just my luck, Dom’s up. He’s in the kitchen, ramming a sarny in his gob like he ain’t ate for a week. Raspberry jam dripping everywhere. Right off, he eyeballs the card. Next thing, he’s snatched it.
‘Watch it,’ I go. ‘You’ll get jam over that.’
‘You’ll get jam over that,’ he goes, in a stupid whiny voice what’s supposed to be me. ‘What’s this then, Bradley? Postcard from your boyfriend?’
He’s always saying stuff like that.
‘It’s a job,’ I tell him. ‘Leastways, could be.’
‘You stupid or something?’ he snorts. ‘You know Ma’ll go mad if you get a job. What about her bennies?’
‘No, it’s sound,’ I go. ‘Cash in hand.’ Leastways, that’s what I’m hoping.
‘What kinda job?’ He squints at the writing. Never were much cop at reading, our Dom.
‘Dunno ‘til I call, do I?’
‘Cheeky,’ he goes, cuffing me one round the ear. I take my chance and reach for the card. He grabs my wrist, twists my arm up my back and shoves his pie-hole up against my ear. ‘You come across anything interesting, you be sure and let your big brother know,’ he hisses, spraying jammy paste over my cheek. ‘No sneaking behind my back, you little freak.’
He loosens his grip and for a sec I think that’s it. Then he comes back at me, jabbing a nasty little Bruce Lee punch above my elbow. He strolls off, still chewing. I hear the flatscreen fire up and stand there, wiping jam and tears off of my face.
Been practising what I’m gonna say on the phone but when the woman answers, she ain’t in the mood for no chit-chat.
‘You can ask all the questions you want tomorrow at the interview,’ she goes. ‘Lancaster Gate. Ten-thirty. Don’t be late.’
‘See you tomorrow morning then, missus,’ I go, chirpy as.
‘You most certainly will not. I’m merely the dutiful daughter in this equation. I’ve done my bit by getting my housekeeper to put that wretched advert in the shop window in Kilburn. The rest is up to my mother.’
I’m thinking, why get the poor woman to schlep all the way to NW6? They got newsagents in Lanky Gate, ain’t they? Then I get it: posh Lanky Gate or scabby South Kill? No sense paying over the odds for a cleaner, is there?
‘I hope you’re accustomed to dealing with dotty old ladies,’ she goes on, because, if you shape up, she’s the one you’ll be working for – God help you!’ And she’s hung up.
Ain’t no skin off of my nose. Doddery old dear or her stuck-up, skinflint daughter, long as I get the gig.
Next morning I’m out of our house by nine. Good thing about getting up that time is, ain’t no chance Ma nor Dom will be stirring, poking their noses in, asking awkward questions. Takes me best part of an hour to walk it but I’m still there, good and early, outside her address.
Big old red-brick building it is. I’m looking up, taking in the curved steps up to the front door and the fancy stonework round the windows when I see it: the crest over the entrance. Maitland Court Mansions. It’s only a flipping mansion. I rub my hands.
Not so fancy inside, mind. No lift for starters and cold, concrete steps. A sickly smell like someone’s been boiling tomato soup on a stove for about a fortnight. Anyways, I walk up to the second floor, like I was told, and ring the bell. No answer. I knock, quiet at first. I call through the letterbox. Still nothing. I knock again and put my head to the door. Can’t hear no-one. I’m well put out. Seems I’ve come all this way for nothing. Bang my fists on the woodwork hard enough to hurt. I’m getting in a right strop. Then I hear something. A voice from inside. An old lady’s voice. I flip up the letterbox.
‘Do come through,’ she warbles. ‘You’ll find the key under the mat.’
This is gonna be a doddle, I think, letting meself in.
‘I’ll receive you in my boudoir,’ she calls out. ‘Proceed along the foyer and it’s the second door on the right.’
I go up the hallway to the end and turn left, following my nose. The smell I mean. It’s her kitchen and it’s in a right state. Don’t hardly like to walk across the floor. I’m wearing new kicks, see. OK, so they’re hand-me-downs and a size too big but sharp, black Nike Blazers, right? I take the biggest strides across to the cupboards, the soles of my shoes making a noise like ripping Velcro.
That’s when the stink really hits me. Like when you’re on a bus stuck behind the binmen. Rank. Brown slime trails out through a split in the bin. Towers of dishes is stacked up on worktops covered in tea rings. I go to pick up a plate. Two come away, super-glued together with what looks like baked bean juice.
One thing I cannot stand is dirt. Even if you ain’t got nothing, even if you’re stony, it don’t cost nothing to wash your pots and mop your floor. Dom says I’m OCD. Dom says a bit of dirt’s good for you. Then, he says a lot of div things.
It’s all I can do to stop meself from getting down on hands and knees there and then, and giving the floor a good old wash. I don’t though. I Velcro my way over to the fridge. Rip, rip, rip. Big old thing it is, stood against the wall. Used to be white. Now there’s grey grime round the silver handle and red rust coming through chips and scratches. I grab at the handle and yank. It don’t move. I give it another tug. Seal comes apart with a crack. A dim light comes on.
What am I looking at? Small, furry animals crouched on plates and in bowls. Then I twig and my head jerks back. It ain’t animals. It’s mould. Greyish-green mould covers everything. You can’t tell cream buns from lamb chops. Black spots is spreading up the walls and down the insides, like the fridge has zits. There’s a different stink. Like Dom’s most cheesiest socks. Out the corner of my eye, I see something move on the top shelf, behind a burst yoghurt pot, something that really is alive. I slam the door sharpish.
She’s calling me again, more tetchier now. ‘What’s going on out there? What are you doing?’
‘Just taking off my coat an’ that,’ I go. She ain’t to know I got no coat. That’s top of the list when I get some readies. Nice warm puffa. ‘Won’t be a mo.’
I edge my way down the hall and push a door. Bathroom. Don’t go in. One sniff from the doorway’s enough. On the other side is her living room. Poke my head round. Busted red settee. Cushion on one side squashed and worn pale, where a big, fat, lonely old backside has been parked on it. Long grey hairs stuck to the back. Little table covered in puzzle pieces and four mugs in need of a good soaking. Old-style telly, big as a Mini. Dead flowers in a dry vase. Dining table, piled up with papers and photos. Run my finger through the dust. Scrub the muck off with a Wet Wipe. Always keep a sachet or two in my pocket. You never know.
Next to that’s her bedroom, where she’s waiting. Door’s ajar. I sneak past to another bedroom, smaller this time, with a single bed and a dusty bookshelf. One more door left to recce. Across the hall. I try it. It’s locked. Interesting.
‘I say,’ the old lady shouts. ‘Do you want this sodding job or not?’
‘Sit here and let me examine you properly,’ she goes, pushing away an eggy plate and patting the tatty bedcover. ‘I like to get to know my staff.’
Not falling for that one. I plonk meself down on a chair well away from the bed. I know her game. Women can be pervs too, you know. Dom told me.
‘Don’t mind if I do, missus.’
‘How quaint,’ she laughs, giving me a good view of pink tonsils and black fillings. ‘But you must call me ‘Miss Eloise’. Everybody does.’
Who’s everybody? I think.
I get a good look at her for the first time. She’s no fluffy-haired Werther’s Original sweet old lady and that’s the truth. Not at all. Even though she’s laying in bed, propped up on a pile of filthy pillows, she’s painted up like she’s on stage or something. I got sort of used to her after a bit, but back then, that first day, I’m pretty much gobsmacked. And believe me, I’m used to old dears what cake on the slap. Ma on karaoke night for one.
Her face is thick with powder, her cat’s-arse lips is painted over with sticky pink stuff and she’s drawed wobbly black lines round her eyes. A few wisps of grey sticks out from under a red and orange scarf she’s wound round her head like a bandana. Only she ain’t done it right and it’s dangling down over one eye, like a pirate. She looks like Captain Jack Sparrow’s mad old granny to be honest with you.
‘The last one was useless,’ she goes, struggling up, pulling a shapeless purple cardy round her big, saggy wobblers. ‘Didn’t have of word of English. You can hardly be any worse.’ She frowns, making wrinkles in them wrinkles, and then goes chatting on about some foreign girl. I do my best to look interested but I must have been staring too hard, ‘cause all of a sudden, she stops.
‘Oh, you’re admiring my lashes,’ she goes, fluttering them up and down. Shadows flap across her cheeks like vampire bats. Heck, I think, is the old girl flirting? ‘I do all my own styling, you know. Have done for years. And this peignoir’ – she pulls at the purple thing again – ‘is from my own collection. I remodelled it with my own fair hands.’ She strokes it like it’s a cat. ‘It’s the very one she wore that night ... you know, the coathanger.’ She goes silent, drifting off. I wait for her to explain. I clear my throat. She comes to, like someone’s plugged her into a charger. ‘Ah, but that’s a day for another tale.’
She turns to me and that’s when she says it.
‘Now, kindly remove your headgear in the presence of a lady.’
There’s nothing for it but to do like she says. I take a deep breath, sweep the beanie off and stand, twisting the life out of it, waiting for the inevitable. Don’t know what gives me the most aggravation: the gawpers, the smart-arses, or the head-on-one-side, sad-faced do-gooders.
This old dear ain’t any of them.
‘That’s better,’ she goes, without a flicker. ‘Now I can see to whom I’m speaking.’ If she notices anything, she don’t say. All she does is lift one bum cheek and squeak out a little fart. ‘Tell me about yourself,’ she goes.
I just about die on the spot. ‘Name’s Bradley,’ I splutter, trying to hold it together. ‘I’m seventeen and ….’
‘Bradley, hmmm?’ she goes interrupting my spiel before I can even get going. She presses a finger to her chin. ‘It smacks somewhat of the council estate but I suppose it will do. Bruno took me to a council estate once, you know. Where he was born. Somewhere up north. Ghastly place. Dreadful people.’
And she’s off, hardly pausing to take a breath, lah-de-da-ing on about people and places I ain’t never heard of. I’m losing patience.
‘Scuse me, missus,’ I go, when I’ve had enough. ‘do I get the job or not? Your daughter’s said I had to have your say-so before I could get stuck in.’
‘Dear, dear Tabby,’ she goes. ‘How I long to see her, but, as she says, Greenwich Park to Lancaster Gate is such an awkward journey.’
No worse than Kilburn, I think. And I had to walk it. But I don’t say.
‘Look upon today as a trial run,’ she goes. ‘If you perform satisfactorily, then we’ll see about making the arrangement permanent.’
I’m well chuffed. ‘Where do you want me, in the kitchen or here?’
While I’m talking, something’s bothering me. Underneath her fart, and the fruity-floweriness of the powders and paints spilling out on her dressing table, my nose has picked up another smell. Something not nice. Coming from under her bed. I bend down and – guess what? – there’s only a pink plastic potty there. Like they has for little kids. Brimming, it is. With a rainbow skin an’ everything.
‘I’ll just get rid of this,’ I go, sliding it out and wafting away the ripe old pong.
‘As you wish,’ she yawns, not one bit put out I’m standing there holding a pot of her stale piss. When I get back, she’s slid down the bed and a dreamy look’s come in her eyes. I wonder if she’s been on the booze. Know the signs, see.
‘I asked for Martin Bashir, you know,’ she murmurs, half asleep. ‘A man with his track record would’ve been ideal.’ She gives a gynormous sigh. ‘Sadly, he’s in America, Tabby informed me. So you see, like it or not, we’re stuck with each other. Are you ready?’
I’m confused. Who’s this Martin bloke? What is she wanting me to do? I don’t like the weird way this conversation is going. And I certainly don’t like the look in her eyes.
‘It’s me, Bradley. Remember, missus?’ I go, keeping the door in view over my shoulder. ‘I spoke to your daughter? About the cleaning?’
She ain’t listening. ‘Be so good as to bring over my clippings from the escritoire,’ she goes. ‘And my spectacles on the chiffonier.’
From the what? On the where? Wish she’d stick to English. After a search, I find her glasses on the dressing table and a battered blue photo album on a spindly table in the corner.
As I heave the album up, a bunch of loose photos slides out and slaps to the carpet. I kneel to pick them up. Stacking them like playing cards, I grab meself a dekko. They’re a weird yellow colour but I make out people mucking about in the street, arms round each other, jumping in the air, throwing back their heads, looking like they’s having just the best time. The girls is stunners. Long legs and wide eyes. The boys, their hair long and their shirts frilly, is almost as good-looking.
When I come to the last of the photos, I do a double take. Right in the middle, reaching out to write on this piece of paper someone’s holding up, is a baby-faced dude with a thick fringe and a cheeky grin. I kinda recognise him. It couldn’t be, could it?
I straighten up and ask, ‘Excuse me, missus. Is this one of the Beatles?’
‘Give the boy a coconut!’ she shouts, making me jump. ‘A glimmer of recognition at last. Yes, that’s Paul with some of the gang. Pretty, isn’t he? Too pretty to be a boy.’
‘Did you used to be famous then?’
She gives a filthy laugh. ‘Better than that, young whatever-your-name-is, I used to be infamous.’ She flicks a hand at me, impatient. ‘Give me those Polaroids.’ ‘For pity’s sake – the photographs you’re holding.’
I do like she says.
‘I wondered where these had got to. Such memories,’ she goes, crushing them to her chest. ‘Now, enough of your timewasting. Time to get to business. Pin back your ears, Boy, and prepare to be amazed. We’re about to set off on a journey through the life of Miss Eloise Slaughter.’ She throws out her arms, bingo-wings flapping, photos flying. ‘Style supremo and fashion phenomenon.’ She snaps her head round. ‘Well, what are you waiting for, what’s-your-name? Get scribbling.’
At last I get it. I scrabble about in the scrunched-up tissues on her bedside table until I find a chewed-up biro and an old envelope. Sitting down, I smooth the envelope on my knee. ‘Ready,’ I sing out. ‘Oh, and the name’s Bradley, by the way.’
She clears her throat and, staring at the ceiling, starts up in that funny, fruity, whooping voice I got so used to.