Short Fiction by Josie Turner
‘And you are…?’
‘Olga,’ I told him. ‘From the agency.’
‘The agency…’ he muttered, taking in my ox-blood Doc Martens. ‘We expected you last week.’
He moved his gaze towards my patchwork bag, with its strap slung between my breasts. I kept my hands in my pockets. Your need’s greater than mine, mate, I thought, looking past him into the wrecked hallway. They always need me – all these rich people in their wedding-cake houses. I’d shoved my empty Coke bottle in the grey window box before he answered the door.
I could hear a TV blaring behind him. He yelled at unseen occupants to keep the noise down, then invited me in with a sharp sideways jerk of the head.
‘Careful where you stand,’ he advised. The hall floor had been ripped up, so we had to balance on the joists. MDF planks stood stacked against the walls, wrapped in polythene, and the lower treads of a strange staircase twisted up towards a rough-hewn gap in the ceiling. Each riser had two holes bored into it, like eye sockets, and I guessed from the trailing wires that the plan was to insert spotlights into the structure, so that it resembled a vertical landing strip.
It was November, and there was no heating in the house – ‘While the work goes on,’ he would explain, although I knew from my first moment in the hallway that all work had come to a standstill.
There’s no money, is there? I wanted to ask. He wore black cords, and a black polo neck jumper that might have been cashmere. His glasses were expensively simple, rimless and almost invisible. I sensed he was the sort of person who would need these things to be noticed.
‘You might as well say hello to the kids,’ he shrugged, flicking his hand towards a wide gap in the wall. It was supposed to be a doorway, I guessed, although it was just a ragged arch awaiting its fitments. I moved towards the trills and thuds of the TV, which was overlaid with screams from two warring children. I wouldn’t learn their names for a while, but they were Jasper and Celia.
‘Hello,’ I said. They froze – his hands yanking her hair, one of her legs hooked around one of his, both faces distorted with rage. The tableau endured for a second as they took me in, and then their battle resumed. Hanks of Celia’s hair were being pulled out – she was younger and smaller than her brother, and her kicks were ineffectual. Their father shouted at them, but his voice was lost in the din. He gave a theatrical sigh and subsided into his polo-neck. ‘Hell,’ he muttered, walking off down the hallway and leaving me to separate the children, which I managed to do with only minimal injuries to my face and forearms. No worse than usual, in other words.
The man’s wife, Prue Maybury, was an executive, and thus escaped the house for fifteen out of every twenty-four hours. I’d worked there for a whole week before I met her, on the second-floor landing one Sunday morning.
‘Eggs Benedict,’ she said, tying the belt of her towelling robe. ‘Spinach this time, I think.’
I stood still, holding a few sets of Celia’s pyjamas over my arm.
‘Yes?’ she said uncertainly. ‘Breakfast with the children?’
‘Good morning, Mrs Maybury.’
She peered at me, and I realised that she needed contact lenses and didn’t have them in. She looked plain and dishevelled, with a creased red face and the oddly khaki tone of over-processed hair. ‘Oh God, you’re the new girl, aren’t you? Johnny did say. Call me Prue. We have a proper breakfast on Sundays, all of us together. Family tradition. Christ, it’s cold.’
A lantern light at the very top of the staircase, another two floors up, cast a chill through the whole building. You could feel it even as you stood by the front door; there seemed to be a column of cold air lancing through the centre of the house. For all I knew it was feature their architect, Hugo, had designed on purpose. I’d already begun to suspect that Hugo hated the Maybury’s. He was referred to in hushed terms, like a capricious jailer – he’d condemned them to live in this gruesome squat, among screws and splinters: he was freezing them to death, making them live in the dark. Although I shared in the punishment, I secretly allied myself with Hugo. I imagined him counting out their cash on the deck of a yacht in the Mediterranean.
‘Of course, Hugo’s a genius,’ Prue assured me, as I placed eggs in front of her. Jasper stabbed one of the yolks with a chopstick. He insisted on eating all his meals with chopsticks. ‘Don’t spoil Mummy’s brekkie, darling. An absolute genius.’
I nodded. I had gathered that the Mayburys’ social circle included only the elect – miracle-workers, absolute saints and knights of the realm. I suspected that I too would be bathed in the glow of their hyperbole – they would boast of their clever little girl, their treasure, as precious to them as my nameless predecessors had been.
Sitting between Jasper and Celia, using my body as a demilitarised zone, I took a few mouthfuls of Rice Krispies. I played my part in this ritual, but I would relish cold white toast alone, later, in my room. I’d stick the rubber wedge under the door, so the kids couldn’t batter their way in; I’d wear ear-buds to drown out their wails, and then I’d lick marmalade from the toast’s buttery surface, and maybe look out of my window towards the higgledy backs of the opposite terrace, searching for other lights in the eaves – the lights of servants in retreat.
‘Don’t hurt Olga,’ said Johnny, pulling Celia’s fists away from me. ‘That’s not nice.’
‘I think she’s aiming for Jasper,’ I said. I was oblivious to Celia’s puny blows, whereas Jasper struck with real force, and I could see him leaning back in his chair to muster a retaliatory punch, via me. I stood up quickly, to deflect him – he swerved, and swore, and then grabbed both chopsticks and glared around the table, seeking a target.
‘We’re with the El-Hadidys tonight,’ said Prue. ‘So you’ll have to take your evening off some other time. During the week. If that’s ok darling yes I knew you’d be flexible,’ she gabbled. ‘Fatima’s an absolute genius, obviously.’
‘Obviously,’ I muttered, returning to the table with a full teapot.
‘One of the great cooks. So that’s lovely.’
‘Why are you going to a party, Daddy?’ asked Celia, throwing herself back in her chair, outraged at not being invited.
‘It’s just for grown-ups,’ said Prue, trailing the sleeve of her robe in hollandaise sauce. ‘All very boring.’
‘No, there’ll be balloons,’ said Johnny, winking at me. He poured milk into his tea – he liked builder’s tea, he’d told me, days earlier, standing in the abandoned construction site. Builder’s tea and bacon sandwiches and soccer on the TV, he’d elaborated, as though expecting me to marvel at his condescension. ‘Pass the parcel. Musical statues.’ Celia was howling by now, and Prue gave a lop-sided smile as she murmured ‘Don’t tease, darling.’
’A party with ices,’ said Johnny, provoking a howl so intense I heard a ringing in my ears. The magic phrase brought Celia to apoplexy, although she could have no idea what her father meant. I had no idea. It would be something Johnny had read in a book – he read lots of books, and was trying to write one, locked away in the attic room next to my own. I would hear him typing for odd half hours before he put the radio on.
Days earlier, he’d trapped me outside the bathroom door to explain that he was writing a novel using a template he’d downloaded from the internet. ‘It’s an absolute marvel,’ he’d told me, while Celia called to me from the other side of the door that she’d finished, and wanted her bottom wiped. ‘It solves so many…structural problems.’
‘I bet,’ I’d said, surmising that the structural problem with Johnny’s book was that it lacked a beginning, a middle and an end.
‘Of course one’s left with the essential, eternal dilemma of character,’ he’d said, and again I agreed, muttering that character could be a great trial for some. Celia shrieked that she’d wipe her own bottom then, she’d wipe it on the curtains, and I panicked until I remembered there were only Venetian blinds in that room.
‘I’m going to the party, cried Celia, over the breakfast table. She scrambled from her chair to go and choose a costume – it would be crackling turquoise polyester, I knew, and she would be Elsa from Frozen.
‘Now you’ve done it,’ said Prue, taking a swig of coffee. The family drank from un-matched Emma Bridgewater mugs, chipped and stained with tannin. It was difficult to wash up without hot water – so I boiled the kettle when they were out of the kitchen, and then filled the sink with steam. In the evenings I’d carry illicit jugs of boiled water upstairs, very carefully, feeling them cool on the long journey, although they retained enough heat to make washing bearable. I sneaked hot water bottles underneath my dressing gown.
I boiled a lot of kettles, that winter. I dread to imagine their electricity bills.
At night, in my single bed, with the kids angelically asleep downstairs, I would ponder the mystery of the Mayburys’ finances.
Prue was a director at an organisational development consultancy. I wondered where her salary went. She dressed in elaborate swags of jewel-coloured wool and linen, studded all over with amber brooches in imitation of a Celtic priestess. Every week she submitted to someone called Christophe, another genius – accordingly, her hair varied in colour from copper to ash, and for a while she sported a bright pink fringe.
Johnny had inherited money from his father, although the amount and status of that money was understandably never shared with me. Cash seemed to flow through their veins. Their looming tank of an American fridge displayed snaps from holidays in Orlando, Vienna, Dubrovnik and Umbria, along with a laminated sepia photograph of their wedding, which had been held in a castle.
Yet their aristocratic languor was fatally undermined by their filthy and freezing home. They were like two eccentric poor relations who’d been shoved in the under-gardener’s tied cottage, where they dreamed of the Big House. They talked about it constantly – the finished design would have the sharp white angles and empty spaces of a gleaming glacier.
‘Well, you’re almost there,’ I hissed, shivering in two sweaters.
On other days, as Prue described it, the house would be transformed into a grotesque nightclub, with flashing floor-lights and mirrored surfaces. It would host grand gatherings that would go on for days: photo shoots, location filming, discos in the excavated basement and cocktail parties on the roof terrace. It was as though she was telling me what she wanted to be when she grew up.
I visualised the house as a vat into which cash was shovelled, and then pulverised by the central drill of icy air. It was worth – what, one and a half, two million? Easily. With that location. They even had a courtyard garden, mossed and slimed, but redeemable. The interior had been destroyed, as though a catastrophic burglary had taken place, but the façade was propped up by neighbours on either side. I dozed on the top floor, imagining the structure beneath me as a game of Jenga approaching its crisis, with the removal of one more brick sending the whole lot plummeting into its own foundations. But it is easy to be sanguine about other people’s houses.
The lantern light had a crack in it, I discovered. Only Johnny and I ever came up this far, and he was too absorbed in his template to notice such a mundane detail: a thin but decided crack in one pane of the rectangular structure. When the midwinter storms came I heard a whinnying shriek of air, as though a small desperate creature was inveigling its way in, and I had bad dreams. Often, when I woke, my hair had frozen to the pillow.
‘Hello?’ I said, opening the front door a fraction.
‘Mrs Maybury?’ replied the girl on the doorstep, inclining her head and smiling.
‘Yes. I’m Mrs Maybury.’
‘Good morning. I’m from the agency – ‘
‘No thank you. There’s been a misunderstanding,’ I said, pushing the door shut – which was not easy, as it had been badly re-fitted and the architrave had swollen with rain water. ‘The vacancy’s been filled.’
I moved into the living room and stood behind a curtain to watch the girl retreat. The children, for once, were quiet. Johnny was upstairs, labouring over his template. Prue was at work. Jasper swung a hammer idly towards the sofa.
‘Who was that lady?’ he asked.
‘No-one. Where did you get that hammer?’
‘Found it. What’s the agency?’
‘Give it here. No, really Jasper, I mean it.’ I could hear the frame of the sofa splintering, although he was only taking a few practice swings at the velvet. As we tussled I hoped he’d forget the visitor, but I knew that Jasper, with his particular gift for being disobliging, would sense my hope and duly thwart it. The agency was the sort of phrase that would lodge in his mind.
I hid the hammer underneath the Mayburys’ bed. The builders had taken their other tools, leaving just this sorry thing, coated in greasy white paint. The children wouldn’t look under their parents’ bed, I hoped; the Mayburys wouldn’t find the hammer for years, and I wouldn’t be blamed when the sofa collapsed beneath the family’s weight. I groped among the dust and fabric and sharp-heeled shoes, afraid of what I might find, trying not to envisage the pornography that would appeal to Johnny – some strain that had solved all its structural problems, while still struggling with the eternal dilemma of character – and then I tucked the hammer into what I hoped would be its final resting place.
The cold began in earnest in January. I realised, shivering one night beneath three blankets and my coat, that the winter had until then been mild. Now my breath preceded me in white blooms, and I tucked my hair into a woolly hat before bed. The crack in the lantern pane had widened, jacked open by the nightly freezes, and so I covered it in a length of gaffer tape. A fraction less light entered the building – but it was so dark, that month, that daytime never really got started. We shuffled from dusk to dusk, like devotees of an enclosed religious sect. Prue spent her time at work, in the warmth of her glass office, and there were no more ‘family tradition’ Sunday breakfasts. Celia’s legs turned blue underneath her school kilt.
‘We can’t carry on like this,’ I heard myself telling Johnny, one day.
‘I know,’ he replied, with his back to me. We were standing in the kitchen, and he braced his arms against the sink. I had thought, for a moment, he might start on the washing up, but over time every one of the household’s tasks had become my job, and I knew that no-one would help with the plates and pans which lay in days-old water beneath a skin of coffee grounds.
I wanted him to call Hugo and make peace. There had to be a negotiated solution.
‘It’s not fair on the children,’ I said. Jasper had not attacked anyone for days. He went to friends’ houses after school, apparently quite meekly, glad to sit in the warm.
‘It’s not fair at all,’ he agreed. ‘Oh, Olga!’
‘Your wife has effectively left you,’ I said, exaggerating a little. I couldn’t imagine Prue summoning the necessary emotion to leave her husband, although I could quite easily picture her extracting a pearl-handled pistol from her handbag and shooting him clean through the forehead.
‘If only,’ he sighed, and I fell silent then, regretting my foray into storytelling.
Neither of us moved. I saw the muscles in his forearms tense. I thought about backing from the room, slowly, placing one foot behind the other…
‘If only she’d leave for good, and we could be together, Olga.’ He whipped around to face me. Light from the kitchen’s bare sixty-watt bulb bounced off his spectacles, making him seem like an automaton with lasers for eyes.
‘I only meant – ‘
‘We both know what you meant,’ he growled, taking a sudden stride towards me. I felt quite genuinely sick. People say that sort of thing all the time, but I was honestly nauseated with embarrassment. I realised what his novel must be like – the adventures of a manly hero, Monty Jaybury, giant of the London scene, and all the young Russian au pairs who fling themselves at him. I recalled his half-hours of frenzied typing followed by silences he covered with the radio. I thought of him behind the wall that separated my bedroom from his study, the way he liked to work at night, and the way my door seemed to rattle, occasionally, as though someone was seeking a way in.
‘I’m not really Russian,’ I said, holding an oven glove against my chest. ’My grandfather was, but I’m –’
He bumped his way past the kitchen chairs until he reached me, then gripped my shoulders with surprising strength.
‘You know I can never leave my family, don’t you?’ he said in that strange, half-American growl he’d picked up from films. ‘But we can – find a way.’
He crushed me against him. He smelt of Prue’s Jo Malone perfume and also a little bit of sweat, because it was impossible to wash in that house during January’s deep-freeze. We all, I imagine, kept our night things on and introduced soapy flannels surreptitiously, like housebreakers reaching in through a jemmied window.
‘I can talk to you Olga, really talk to you. You take an interest in my intellectual life in a way that Prue – and I mean this with the greatest respect – simply can’t.’
‘Intellectual life, mm. Perhaps you could let go of me?’
I ducked out of his arms just as I became aware that Celia had walked quietly into the kitchen to stare at us.
‘Daddy,’ she said gravely. ‘Don’t hurt Olga. That’s not nice.’
So, taking everything into account, you can see that I have no choice but to leave.
It’s the first day of February, and colder outside than in. Colder than it’s been for fifteen years, they said on the news. But leaving is perhaps less mortifying than staying in this place, with its asymmetric unfinished staircase, its ladders and broken glass and endless washing up.
I’ve realised that the adult Mayburys and I are more alike than I’d thought. We are all three of us imposters. Frauds. They may be in possession of a London property, but they have consciously broken it apart into ruins and scrap. They seem to have vast reservoirs of money – and yet, simultaneously and without contradiction, they have no money at all. I would be very surprised, for example, if any agency has received payment for my services.
But what the Mayburys have, and I do not, is equity.
I pack my patchwork bag and sling its long strap across my body. I can hear Johnny typing in a rage next door. Typing to be heard, as though each keystroke is a furious accusation hurled in my direction. Prue is at work, and Celia is still at a school friend’s sleepover. I’m pleased that she is warm and safe, her legs no longer blue. I am wearing most of my own clothes and a few of her mother’s as well.
Jasper is downstairs. I begin, very quietly, to join him. I glance up once at the gaffer-taped lantern light and mouth ‘goodbye’. The stairs creak as I descend. I pass the master bedroom, and a thought occurs to me. Manoeuvring my way around the door isn’t easy with my bag, but I manage it, hoping that Johnny won’t hear and follow me and find me on all fours on his bedroom floor. But I need the hammer. I hope I don’t need to use it, but I must have it. Don’t hurt Olga, London. That’s not nice.
This room is perhaps the most squalid in the house, with mis-matched curtains, wardrobe doors hanging from their hinges, and a boxed, never-to-be-fitted bathroom suite blocking the window. I’ve looked inside one of those boxes, at the horribly flesh-coloured porcelain within. Its weight bows the ceiling below. I dream of having a warm bath. I’ve been dreaming of that for a long time.
Down and around the stairs I go, clinging to the swaying bannister rail. I make it as far as the hall, and edge along the floor joists, keeping my balance as the bag rolls and jolts around me. The hammer’s heavy.
‘Where are you going, Olga?’
‘Just – out, Jaspy.’ He’s standing in the doorway of the living room, wearing his Spiderman outfit underneath a cardigan.
‘Can I come?’
My heart gives way with love for him. It’s as though I’m the house, I’m Jenga, and the final brick has been removed.
‘Don’t cry,’ he says. ‘Are you going back to the agency?’
‘Yes. The agency.’
I edge towards him across the vanished floor. He threads his arms around my waist. Through the window I can see a minute aeroplane moving like an insect in the pewter sky. And so I take my leave of him.
Back to the agency, I think, as I yank the misfit door behind me. In a manner of speaking.
It is very cold outside. I might knock on some doors in the next street. I’ll find someone gullible – some family buckling under the weight of their possessions. I look presentable, although my hair needs a proper wash. Or, if I don’t have any luck, I might head for Victoria station – there’s usually somewhere to sleep around there.
At the end of the road I turn and look back at the Mayburys’ home, which sits innocently and unremarkably in its pastel terrace but ought to have a glowing neon sign over it, announcing TWO CHILDREN LIVE HERE with Jasper and Celia. Two rich, lost, neglected children. I wonder how many more of them proliferate in this city. In how many other houses does equity accumulate, minute by minute, while the fabric of those same buildings erodes – roofless and floorless, rotted by rain, hostage to some impossible notion of luxury?
What they all need, I think as I turn into the next street, is a grown-up. Someone to guide them towards a sensible course of action. They do not need glistening glaciers or mosaic floors, mood lighting or concrete furniture – they need functional bathrooms and staircases. A dawn chorus of reliable boilers that trigger the central heating at six a.m. Floorboards.
My bag is so heavy. The hammer weighs it down. I don’t want to be this person – this vagrant, this opportunist. I don’t want to have to arm myself against the London streets. Behind me, I know that Jasper is watching from the window. I can feel his gaze following me around the corner. I stand still. Next to me there’s another polished front door, and a knuckled wisteria plant climbing the pistachio-green brickwork. I’m tempted. But I’ve made a start with the Mayburys, and I’m exhausted, and I know my way around their house. I know my way around them.
I’m the grown-up. I’ll contact the architect. They need someone like me – someone responsible, someone far-sighted – who deserves, one day, to get her name on the deeds.