Last stop: Walthamstow Central (short stories)
A Winter of Wednesdays
“For the benefit of the family.”
Says my cleaner, carefully folding three ten-pound notes I’ve left on the kitchen table, anchored with a pen, in case of a sudden gust of air. This time she does not put them in her purse, but in the separate pouch inside her shapeless black handbag, carefully closing both the inner pocket and the main zip.
Words of blackmail and manipulation; just one more toxic tool in the relationship armoury, with the sole purpose of convincing the other party to accept your own agenda. I used the same words with my husband.
We are sitting on the sofa late one evening, our child finally asleep, both laptops switched off and mobile phones resting somewhere unguessable.
“I am going to get…a cleaner.”
J. turns towards me, narrowing his eyebrows on the bridge above his nose, his lips forming a soundless “o”, as if I have uttered the d-word.
“Hm.” He signs, gets off the couch and goes into the kitchen.
I pick up my half-full cup of cold green tea from the floor and follow him. His back towards me, J. turns on the sink tap, squirts an exaggerated amount of the green Fairy Original liquid onto the yellow sponge and grabs the first plate from our dinner; solidified crusts of pesto and spaghetti all over it.
“We can afford it.”
The flow of water is splashing intensely onto the pile of dirty dishes and dispersing in asymmetrical angles, generating a soundtrack of suspense.
“It would be for a couple, possibly three hours every week. Ten pounds per hour?”
“Hm…I am sure we can afford it…but…”
Not an easy-to-convince customer my husband; not a great pitch-deliverer myself. I must raise my game. Time to use the killer line.
“It’s for the benefit of the family.”
J. stops the water, turns around.
“Instead of mopping the floor and scrubbing the toilets we can spend time together…play games with M. or just read the newspapers, books, whatever...”
“OK, OK, you do not need to convince me – but do not tell our parents.” He agrees.
We are in our forties. Our parents are children of post WW2 austerity and preachers of a simple philosophical teaching: you roll up your sleeves, fight tooth and nail, and keep going until you drop dead.
“I have a lot of work at the moment… I am thinking of getting a cleaner.” I say to my mother next day on the phone.
“Well, you could do it little by little, as you work from home. A little bit here, little bit there and it will all be done.”
Everything is done little by little in my mother’s universe; and everything has that sparkling, impeccable and irksome finish. Every piece of advice she’s ever dispensed to her friends, to my sister or to myself, contains her trademarked “little-by-little” phrase. You breathe in little by little, you eat little by little, you save little by little, you do your homework little by little, you go out with boys little by little and so on and so on and so on.
“No, mum, no. I cannot.”
It has taken me a quarter of the century to accept – or at least tolerate – my mother’s default mode. My father was craftier; he never took any notice of it. Mother would generously and eloquently advise or instruct him on everything, he would nod, he would agree (I know he did – I was there), then he went off and did it his own way. “Your advice helped me to make up my mind,” he would say. For my father, mother’s instructions were a shaping tool for his own choices, for me they are purely an unhelpful provocation.
“Do you really want to waste money on something you can do yourself?”
We don’t bother telling J.’s parents.
My new – my first ever – cleaner is called Ilona.
“Sorry – my English not too good,” says Ilona instead of introductions on the first Wednesday in October. She is free on Wednesdays and the middle of the week seems the perfect time for having the house cleaned and tidied. Ilona has translucent pale blue Slavonic eyes, high cheekbones and long, thick and unruly strawberry-blond hair with curly ends. It does not quite feel right for someone so breathtakingly beautiful to be scrubbing toilets, scouring baths and mopping floors.
“I’m sure it’s fine.” I say and wave her in.
Ilona unzips her black ankle boots by the door, and takes out her slippers and yellow rubber gloves from a ladybird-patterned Asda Bag for life overflowing with bottles of detergents and sponges and scrubbers in diverse colours.
“You didn’t need to bring all that. I have everything at home.” I say. “Also feel free to tell me if you need me to buy specific cleansers…or anything else…”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Oooh no, please don’t call me ma’am.” I tell her to call me by my first name.
“Let’s have a coffee or a tea first.” I say and guide her into the kitchen at the back of the house. Ilona stops in the doorway before hesitantly lowering herself onto the nearest chair, rubber gloves in her hand.
She drinks plain black tea, no sugar, no milk and no lemon. In her country they only put lemon in tea when sick. I ask about her country. Her homeland is one of the now independent states of the former Soviet Union. I ask if she speaks Russian. Yes, she does, and her Russian is much better than her English, being her grandmother’s tongue. They also learnt it in school, before the big split.
I give her a piece of A4 printed paper with a bulleted list of her cleaning tasks, as that’s apparently how you do it.
On the following Wednesday Ilona tells me about her twin boys. One is loud, the other taciturn, one sturdy and strong, the other sensitive and sickly. I ask about their age. Six and in Year 1. Ilona organises her jobs around them. She drops them at school in the morning and then rushes to one of her cleaning addresses. A couple of her houses are in Islington and on those days, she has to take the tube. My house is a very good job for her as it’s in the area. She can either walk up Blackhorse Lane or jump on a 158 bus.
No signs of pregnancy on her slender waist. It must be all those hours cleaning, leaning, stretching, scrubbing.
On the third Wednesday, Ilona mentions her un-wed husband and how they never managed to get married. Back home they saved for the wedding but used the money to move to Britain. A few years later they planned a big wedding in their country.
“He lost his job and I found out I was pregnant…with twins.”
“What does your partner do?” I ask.
“He works in a warehouse, drives forklift.”
“Oh, not a bad job to start.” Not sure why I’ve added “to start”.
“He not happy. Many hours overtime, not all paid. And he doesn’t like this country.”
“I don’t like it myself at the moment.” I say.
“But I really like this country. I met so nice people and have plenty of work.” She says.
“Thank you for the tea and biscuits. Chocolate digestives are my favourite biscuits. We don’t have them back home…”
I make sure there is always a spare tube of chocolate digestives in the house, hidden behind the bags of pasta, rice and couscous and to be opened exclusively on Wednesday mornings.
“Your garden is so tidy.” Ilona says on the first Wednesday in November, days after our gardener has prepared it for the winter hibernation. “Our garden is full of rubbish. Anything any of our neighbours left is there.”
“Neighbours are leaving junk in your garden?”
By neighbours, Ilona meant lodgers. She, her husband and the boys rent a two-bedroom house and are subletting two rooms. Ilona and him sleep in the living room, the twins in the other room downstairs – the old dining room – and the rooms upstairs are occupied by two men from their country, as her husband trusts his people better.
“We need to clear it…but he not happy.”
“Your husband not happy?”
“No. He thinks the landlord wants us out to sell the house.”
“Did the landlord give you notice?”
“No, no, he just asked us to clear the garden…”
“Then probably he just wants you to clear the garden… Maybe you can look for a smaller flat; just for the four of you?” I say. The house Ilona lives in seems awfully crowded to me.
“He doesn’t want. He likes having the garage.”
“For the car?”
“No, we don’t have a car. He got his old motorbike in there, tools, other rubbish…”
Skype’s piercing ring echoes in my study. I hurry upstairs and close the door behind me.
It’s mid-November and I can hardly breathe, my body is shivering uncontrollably, muscles are aching and the fever is experimenting with new highs. I am convinced this is the first full blown flu of my life and next winter I will not sneer at the GP’s receptionist when she hands me the Benefits of a flu vaccine leaflet.
I open the door to Ilona. In her black coat, she looks even slimmer and more gorgeous, with her blond hair contrasting with the darkness of the gloomy sky.
“Just stay away from me. You don’t want to catch this, trust me.”
“Don’t worry about me, ma’am.” She says. All my effort to weed out that address was in vain.
“You sit down. I’ll make you tea today. With lemon.” Says Ilona as we enter the kitchen. “I was in bed last week and my husband took two days off to look after me and boys. He was so good. He even made me a chicken soup.”
I nod in acknowledgement.
“And – he got promoted.”
My ears are resonating with pain both when I talk and when I listen. Ilona puts two soup spoons of honey and a quarter of a lemon into my tea.
“Thank you. I’ll take it upstairs.” I say. “And – don’t bother with my room today!”
I pour the tea into the toilet. The lemon wedge keeps resurfacing and after flushing it for the third time, I pick it up and return it into the mug. After three hours in an oblivious state I’m woken up by a soft knock on my bedroom’s door. Ilona gently opens the door and hands me another cup of the honey and lemon tea cocktail. She asks if I am feeling any better. Not at all.
You must eat garlic and sleep with half of an onion placed on each of your soles and then covered with a bag and tightened with a string. Onions pull toxins out of your body and by next morning you are better.
She advised me. I tell J. about it.
“Of course, you can try that. I just hope the sofa is comfortable enough for you.”
“What? You would throw me out of my own bed?”
“Actually – I wouldn’t mind seeing you with bags of onions on your feet.”
Three Wednesdays later, Ilona’s eyes are puffy and underlined with black bags of sleeplessness.
“You OK?” I ask.
“Did not sleep well.” She turns away.
“Are you not feeling well?”
“He is not happy with his job” she says, taking gloves and paper towels out of the Asda Bag for life.
“Didn’t he get promoted?”
“Not happy with money. He worked many hours overtime last month but they are not going to pay for all.”
“So sorry to hear that…”
I tell her about my time in the office in the City, about the promotions and pay rises that regularly resulted in much smaller amounts than one was expecting and hoping for, about the expensive times we live in where costs and earnings have two separate and disjoint trajectories.
“And then – he spent 60 pounds on alcohol last weekend. He drinks only vodka. And we don’t have money for food or boys school trips. I was awake arguing… He says, ‘what’s the point of living if he can’t buy some vodka and some cigarettes?’ He is right…”
“So sorry…” I say, not sure what else you can say when someone tells you they do not have money to buy food for their children.
“Ooh I wish I could find a better job.” Ilona wipes her tears shyly. “Don’t get me wrong, I like cleaning. I really do. And you are so nice to me. But –”
“Of course, of course, I do understand. Cleaning is not a job for life…”
“It’s been ten years and I did not manage to find anything else. And I always wanted to be a receptionist.”
“And you would be good at that.” I say. I honestly think so. Ilona has the looks, the smile, the presence and a melodic voice with that charming Eastern European accent.
“But – you would just need to improve your English, both written and spoken. Maybe start with a language course?”
She nods. She has always wanted to do a course in English, anyway, but there was never enough money in the family budget for it.
For the most part of the afternoon I google for English classes in the area. The local college offers an inexpensive course covering all levels, backgrounds and needs either two mornings or two evenings a week. Might not be the best course, but then again, it’s not like Ilona needs academic level English, rather some basic grammar and spelling with an introduction to business communication. I print it all out, arrange it in some kind of logical order and then underline the most important info: the address of the college, the times (I highlight only the morning classes, assuming Ilona wouldn’t be able to do evenings), the dates of the next entry test and the fees. Ilona could start in January – and the first month in the year always seems perfect for new beginnings – and pay in monthly instalments. I also print out a few sample tests for her to practise.
Next Wednesday, I give Ilona the pile of papers and a brand new A4 notebook I bought for her in Sainsbury’s.
“So kind of you, ma’am.” Ilona takes the folder and drops it on the sofa, next to her bag, not a glance at it.
“No, today, no time today. I have to finish slightly earlier.”
“Don’t worry if you need to leave a little bit earlier. No problem…”
“No, no, ma’am… I must do my hours.”
“By the way, Ilona, could you do one hour longer next week? On the guest room and the top bathroom? I have my in-laws coming for Christmas.”
“Yes, no problem, ma’am!”
I leave the money on the kitchen table and disappointedly climb upstairs to my study. The skeletal branches of the tree at the end of the garden dance furiously in the manic gusts of wind against a dark and gloomy sky.
Wednesday afternoons is when I love my house the most. Every corner has a shiny spark, there are no traces of dust or fluff on the staircase or behind radiators, no cobwebs hanging from the walls like postmodern installations, and the hazardous piles of dishes have been retired to where they belong to: behind the closed doors of the closets. I sit on the toilet and admire my bathroom, the spotless shower screen and the mirror, shiny taps and bathrooms and the towels meticulously folded over the rack. It feels like being in a four-star hotel.
On Christmas Eve, J.’ parents walk into an immaculately clean, tidied, dusted and sparkling house. Even the mountain of presents under the tree look neat.
“How is our favourite granddaughter?” asks my father-in-law.
“I have something important to tell you,” says our seven-year-old daughter to her grandparents, alternating cuddles and kisses between the two.
J. and myself glance at each other; foreheads frowning and question marks forming in our eyes.
“And what’s that, sweetheart?” asks grandmother.
“Mummy and daddy got a cleaner.”
J. and I blush and then burst out in laughter. Grandparents look around approvingly.
“And she is doing a smashing job. Send her over to us.” says my father-in-law.
“We are very traditional in our country!” says Ilona, with no obvious trigger for such a conversation, on the first Wednesday in the New Year. “Mother should always be there for the children! It’s my job to take my twins to the school in the morning, and pick them up after school.”
“Of course.” I say. I pour water in the kettle, return it to its stand and flick it on.
“In my country, husbands work more and have better jobs, their responsibility is to provide for the family.”
“Nothing is wrong with being traditional, as long everyone is happy and can fulfil their potential, follow their dreams and achieve their goal. Rebellion is only necessary when the borders of personal freedom narrow and when tradition controls people instead of encouraging their full potential.”
“You are so clever, ma’am.” Says Ilona.
“Ooops, so sorry, I’m talking too much again.”
I grab two mugs from the display cabinet and place them next to the kettle; black tea for her, green for me.
“By the way, what’s happening with your course in English?” I ask. There has been no mention of it since I gave her the print-outs, a month ago.
“It’s too expensive…” She says quickly.
“Is it? A hundred pounds for a three-month course that you can pay in three instalments does not sound expensive.”
“You see, the course is two mornings a week and I would lose income on those days…”
“No, no, he is never back in time…and twins don’t listen much to him. And I cook his lunch for work next day…”
I say nothing.
“And… we need to save for the summer holidays with his family.” She says.
“What about your family?” I ask.
“I do not have any family left. My mother died five years ago and I never met my father.”
“You do not know your father?”
“I know his name… Mother told me that he tried to kill her with me in her belly.”
“Gosh. That’s shocking!”
I take a sip of tea. The tree in the garden is grey and still, like a statue. The weather forecast predicts a high chance of snow.
“She turned away from him to protect me. The knife damaged muscles in her shoulder and upper arm. She could never move her left arm properly after it. Police did nothing. He ran and never looked for me. And I never looked for him. I only have a strange sister of grandmother, mother’s mum, who is very old and doesn’t want to see anyone…”
I glance at my watch. Ilona jumps from her chair.
“Don’t worry, ma’am. I will make up my time.”
“Oh gosh, it’s not that. I know you will… It’s that I must go.”
I place the three ten-pound notes in the middle of the kitchen table and hesitantly touch her left shoulder.
“It will get better, Ilona. You deserve it better.”
I grab my laptop bag and rush to the tube.
The following Wednesday, Ilona scrubs up the oven, which was still carrying the scars of various festive roasts and experimental bakings. She has brought her own oven cleansers, as we do not possess any of those grease-removing sprays or liquids that require you to wear a gas mask.
“I had a few minutes left…” she says pointing at it. The open oven doors reveal a remarkably shiny interior. I take an extra five pounds from my purse. Ilona refuses at first, as she has done it within the three hours of her shift.
“Com’n take it, Ilona. Ovens are a real bugger to clean and I never bother. Treat yourself to a coffee and a cake.”
The next Wednesday Ilona does our ironing. Noticing the heap of clothing on the armchair in the corner she asks if she could iron them. Not “would you like me to iron it” but “can I do your ironing?”
“Ooh, if you have time and if you don’t mind.” I say.
The pile has been gathering dust and developing creases since Sunday. Ilona even irons J.’s working shirts, something I have never done in the course of our successful marriage. His shirts were, are and would remain his business. In the evening, even before he spots his immaculately smoothed shirts I say: “it was Ilona, not me, don’t worry.” As if he would.
Dropping my shopping bags on the floor, I glance at the modem. Only two lights are on and the crucial tick between connection and no connection is unlit. It’s mid-February.
“Oh no – the Internet doesn’t seem to be working!” I say. I throw my shoes into the cupboard under the stairs, lower myself irritably on the sofa and turn on my laptop. No connection whatsoever.
Ilona is in the kitchen, arranging the chairs around the table and picking up the last specks of dirt here and there.
“Ilona!” I shout. “Did you by any chance, knock the box down?”
“No, no – I am always very careful with it…”
“Maybe a cable came undone while you were cleaning?”
“No, no, I wouldn’t do that.”
“Of course – not on purpose…”
I check the box, the cables, the connections and everything is in place.
“I am sure I didn’t…”
“Of course it has to happen during a one of the busiest weeks of my life.” I sign.
“I am so sorry…”
“Don’t worry! I’ll sort it out… Hopefully…”
After Ilona has left, I make myself a pot of tea in my sparkling kitchen and phone the broadband provider.
“Yes, there is a fault in the area. Engineers are on their way.”
Late in the evening, Ilona texts me: Sorry again – is the Internet working?
Yes, there was a fault in the area. Nothing to do with you, sorry. I text back, that uncomfortable feeling still not evaporating.
“Did you talk to him again?” I ask Ilona. She takes her cardigan off and carefully folds it across the back of the armchair and then she gathers her hair into a loose, low-hanging ponytail. The kettle is noisily announcing the boiling point.
“He doesn’t think I would be able to pass exam in English.”
“What? There are various levels. You can start with the beginners’ course. And your English is not as bad as you seem to think.”
“You are too kind…”
That evening, I spot Ilona’s purse laying on the floor, in the narrow crack between the armchair and the leg of the side table. She had placed it on the armrest and rushed to the toilet. By the time she returned downstairs she had forgotten that she had not put it into her bag and neither of us noticed it slipping onto the floor.
I phone her.
Ilona immediately sends him to pick it up. She is bathing the twins and anyway “was not feeling safe travelling at night”.
I imagine a figure-skating champion or a Strictly Come Dancing professional lookalike. Or one of those deceiving villains that would pop up in old James Bond movies; a tall, svelte and suave example of the former Eastern Bloc male with terrifyingly cold blue eyes. Instead, a short, unshaven bloke with a half-healed cut by his left eye knocks on our door twenty minutes later. The smell of booze travels unstoppably through the corridor, towards the back of the house and climbs up the stairs.
“That stupid woman. I always tell her; make sure you put wallet in bag before you leave. She took my credit cards too today.” He says instead of greetings or introductions.
“It happens to everyone.” I say. I have a few stories of my own. My purse once ended behind the bed and the other time I left it in a bar in Brighton. Both times it appeared only after I had cancelled all my bank cards and written the detailed list of the other potentially important pieces of paper that I had in it. But – I don’t feel any urge to share this with him.
“Sometimes she does not have anything up here,” says Ilona’s un-wed husband rolling his eyes and imitating a screwing movement with his index finger by his right temple. He takes the purse, puts it in the inside pocket of his jacket and glances around the house. We are in the corridor and he can see only the stairs leading upwards, and through the half open door into the living room.
“When you decide to decorate all those cracks, let me know. That was my job in my country.” He says. I smile, nod and say good night to him.
“You look smart today.” I say as I open the door. Instead of jeans, Ilona is wearing black suit trousers and a white shirt. She has circled her pale eyes with a thin brown trace of eyeliner and put some mascara on her eyelashes.
“I have to go to the bank after… I need to apply for a loan to pay off my credit card debts. Could you write me a quick reference?”
“Of course.” I say. “Give me five minutes!” I rush to my study and write down: “I confirm that Ilona does three hours every week and gets paid 30 pounds. And I can also confirm I will need her in the future; therefore, she will have a regular (as stated before) income for the foreseeable future. Please do not hesitate to contact me.”
Ilona reads through it. Not sure what she can do with that statement and how that few pounds can help her against the bank. Perhaps she wanted me to omit the amount or add hours. I cannot do that, I work in Law.
“Is that OK?”
“I hope so.” She says.
“He is really not happy… He doesn’t have many friends and he says this country doesn’t want us here anymore.” says Ilona the week after the bank meeting. I don’t ask how it went and she does not tell me.
“He wants us to move back home. For the benefit of the family.” says Ilona, carefully zipping her bag.
“And what about your boys’ schooling?”
“That would not be a problem. In our country, children start school at seven!”
Ilona doesn’t turn up on the last Wednesday in March. I drink my second cup of green tea, pace around the kitchen and stare aimlessly at the tree at the end of the garden. Instead of announcing Spring, the weather is stuck in winter mode, the rain is descending in torrents and on a loop, thick jackets are piling up on the banisters and umbrellas drying in the corridor. The digestive biscuits are going stale on the plate.
Ilona went to a court hearing back home last week, but I was convinced she would be back today.
She doesn’t turn up on the first Wednesday in April, either. I text her. No answer. I phone her. Number disconnected.
She still has our key.
I suddenly remember. The one our builders had the previous year. The one with our address and the postcode clearly written on the label. J. doesn’t know about this. He would not have agreed to handing out the key just like that after what happened to acquaintances of ours. They left East17 some time ago and moved to Margate. A white van parked in front of their house in the middle of the morning and in ten minutes all the valuables were gone: both televisions, the DVD player, desktop computer, children’s tablets, a few pieces of golden jewellery, microwave and even the toaster. The cleaner was part of the gang, she had the key and knew about the family’s movements and the contents of their house.
As I dial J.’s mobile, the doorbell rings. The postwoman hands me a padded envelope that requires my signature. It has a foreign stamp on it and it’s addressed to Madam… I am still on the line with J.’s answering machine.
“Nothing important. No need to phone back.”