Smack – Chapter 22

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Saturday morning: Carol stays at our place for the fourth night on the trot, I don’t ask her to do this and she doesn’t ask me: it’s just sort of taken as written that she will. We’re turning into quite the couple, me and her: early yesterday evening I gave Carol some money and she obligingly went out shopping. She returned a couple of hours later clutching a black plastic sack full of clothing which she had collected from her squat, several tins of dog food, and the ingredients for what turned out to be a vegetable lasagne. In actual fact, it wasn’t so bad: we stayed in together for the third night on the trot, eating Carol’s creation on our knees and sipping more wine and I got to know a little more about Carol.

It turns out that she’s from Dartmouth originally and moved to London two and a bit years ago to do a degree in painting at St. Martin’s, from which she dropped out after a couple of months. Since then she’s lived in different places all over London, moving from squat to squat and trying to earn a living fluttering those pretty little eyes of hers at passers-by. I learn that her birth sign is Scorpio, that her favourite rock band is somebody called King Prawn, that her favourite painter is Francis Bacon, that she had sex for the first time when she was fourteen, that her ambition is to become a writer and illustrator; that Ronald MacDonald is evil and part of a huge conspiracy to take over the world; that her favourite colour is black, that her mother died three years ago, that she has an elder sister named Kitty (short for Katrina, short for Katherine), who currently lives with her father, that Brian isn’t actually her boyfriend – just someone she sleeps with when she is feeling lonely, that she sometimes finds older men attractive, and that it’s quite handy that I’ve asked her to stay because her current squat has an eviction order placed on it.

For various reasons I am not quite so forthcoming. I fail to tell Carol, for example, that I spent the early hours of Friday morning having greasy sex with a woman who was one part Penthouse Playmate Of The Month and one part church gargoyle. I also fail to tell Carol that the person on the telephone I told to fuck off on Tuesday evening was actually my own mother; I tell her that it was someone from work I didn’t like. Similarly, any information concerning the impending death of my father is subject to convenient censorship. Actually, it’s quite a relief that I don’t have to talk about any of these subjects: for a couple of hours it’s good to forget about my own problems and sit and listen while someone else tells you all about theirs.

Thankfully, there were no phone calls to interrupt us last night. This is not to say that I didn’t find myself sitting on tenterhooks waiting for my mother to call again… or Dave from accounts to phone in an attempt to get the low down on what happened with Louise and I after we left the club… or Louise herself (does she have my number? I don’t think so…) calling to discuss the next development in our wonderful love affair… or Marie, saying she’d had a change of heart and would catch the first train home. None of these people telephoned.

After I had taken a shower and rinsed the residue of my gruesome night of passion with Louise from my body, it was almost possible to forget what I’d been up to on Thursday night, which, again is quite a good thing to be doing; because I suspect that if I did manage to conjure up from memory the image of the naked Louise straddling my body, not to mention the sounds that she made and the faces she pulled as she was doing this (I take it you are familiar with the ancient Cornish art of gerning?), I would be set upon and reduced to a bloody pulp by the combined onslaught of disgust, self-loathing, regret, guilt and nausea.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table smoking my third cigarette of the morning. It’s about eleven-thirty. Carol is seated across from me wearing a different outfit than usual that she must have retrieved from her black plastic sack of belongings: plain white T-shirt and green combat trousers. She’s nibbling at a bowl of cereal. Ralph lies at her feet, now well and truly ensconced in his new home. I don’t really have any plans for the day: I’ve been idly thinking about taking Carol for a drive somewhere, or maybe going shopping or something. Then disaster strikes.

Ralph is the first to notice it: his ears perk up at the noise and he emits a slight growl. Carol and I sit still as statues and look at each other as we hear the sound of a key being turned in the lock to the front door. Then, before we have the chance to do anything a voice calls out: “Hello… anyone home?”

I breathe one of the heaviest sighs of relief that I’ve ever breathed in my life and pat my pulsing heart with my hand. “It’s Sophie… our cleaner,” I whisper to Carol.

However, just as my adrenaline rush begins to recede, I’m suddenly gripped with a fresh concern: under no circumstances must I allow Sophie to catch sight of Carol. I shan’t even consider explaining the consequences of such an eventuality to you. There just isn’t time.

I scamper quickly out of the kitchen, motioning for Carol to keep Ralph quiet and closing the door behind me. Then I swiftly head towards the front door to meet Sophie, who is undoing the buttons of a cheap looking padded nylon jacket.

She sees me coming and looks surprised. This is only the third or fourth time that I have ever actually met Sophie; the first occasion being about four years ago when Marie and I interviewed her for the job (four hours a week, £5 per hour) and the other three being when I stayed off work ill or pretending to be ill. Sophie is in her early forties, a real East End girl; she has the kind of face that was probably destined to belong to a cleaner: somehow she looks like a cleaner really ought to look. She looks like someone’s mother – someone’s mother who has had an especially hard life, a Dickensian please-sir-can-I-have-some-more-type life, someone’s mother who has obviously never been introduced to the concept of moisturising cream. I find it surprising, not to mention a little unnerving and grim, that there are only about five years that separate us; Sophie, however, sees our closeness in age as being a sign that we share some kind of common ground. On the few occasions that we have held a conversation, Sophie seems to automatically assume that I spend my evenings in the bingo hall on Caledonian Road or at the dog track in Walthamstaw.

“You got a dog in here?” she asks, sniffing the air, her familiarity with the latter named establishment apparently holding her in good stead.

“Yes… hum… I’ve been looking after my cousin’s,” I reply, thinking on my feet. “It’s gone now.” Probably in none too subtle a manner, I edge myself closer to Sophie, effectively making it impossible for her to move away from her position near the front door.

“Oh,” says Sophie, looking at me suspiciously.

“Look, Sophie,” I announce. “I’m not feeling too well at the moment. I forgot that you were coming in. Would you mind leaving it for today? I just want to sit with my feet up in front of the box …you know what I mean …I’ll pay you, of course.”

“You ain’t caught that flu that’s going ‘round as well, have you?” asks Sophie,

“Probably,” say I mock-sullenly.

“You don’t look too good – I was going to say something when I first saw you… Everybody I know is dropping like flies from it.”

Yes, she’s most probably right, I doubt very much that I do look very good: I’m standing here in a tatty old towelling night gown with two days’ growth on my chin and eyes like saucers. Yes, she does have a point.

I’m just getting ready to start playing on these inadequacies in my physical appearance when, in best Brian-Rix-trousers-around-the-ankles-bedroom-farce tradition, Ralph barks in the kitchen. I suppose I really should have been expecting this to happen but I’m temporarily thrown, nonetheless.

There is an awkward silence for a moment or so and then Sophie speaks: “What’s that?” she asks.

“I’m … erm… listening to the radio in the kitchen,” I reply. Brilliant!

“But… you ain’t got no radio in the kitchen,” frowns Sophie, who, I am forced to concede, probably knows more about the layout of the house than I do.

“Yes… it’s… um… a portable… I bought it last week…”

“Oh…” says Sophie, unconvinced.

“So… as I was saying: would you mind giving it a miss for this week?”

“You sure?” asks Sophie. “I’ll try to keep the noise down – you won’t even know I’m here.”

“No… No… there’s no need… You know what it’s like…”

“…you just want to be on your own.” Sophie completes my sentence. “Yeah, I know the feeling. Alright then. No problem. I’ll come in early next week and put an extra hour in.”

“Oh, there’s no need to do that,” I say. “After all, it’s me who’s cancelling you.”

“You want me to make you a hot drink then?”

“No… No… Honestly. I’m all right. I’ve already got one in the kitchen, thanks.”

“Okay then. If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

“Cheerio then.”

“Yes, bye.”

Sophie goes to open the front door. It might just be me, but I have the distinct impression that my attempts at deception have not exactly been one hundred percent successful. Before she leaves she turns back to face me: “Take lots of Vitamin C,” she advises. ‘That’s what my mother always told me. Take lots of Vitamin C and you’ll never get ill.”

“Yeah… thanks… I will.”

Saturday afternoon: It was the close encounter with Sophie that finally convinced me to try and sort out what I’m going to do about Carol. If I’m right in my projections, in precisely two days time Marie will be returning home. By then I’m going to have to make the house appear like Carol and Ralph have never existed. The bedroom itself isn’t really that much of a problem: I’m fairly confident that I can rearrange the sheets and smarten the place up enough, and actually, even if Marie does notice that someone has been sleeping there in her absence I can always say that Dave from accounts crashed here one night after a drinking session. It wouldn’t be the first time. Removing all traces of Ralph, is, however, going to be a little more problematic. It isn’t so much his lingering odour or the tiny stashes of uneaten food that are scattered about the kitchen that are the problem, it’s the fact that every item of furniture in the living room appears to be covered in Ralph’s hair. Because of this it means that I ought realistically to be rid of my two lodgers early on Sunday morning so that I can have the whole day to strut my stuff with the dustpan and mop.

I explained this to Carol earlier on and she took it with good grace, even offering to help with the cleaning. I told her there was no need and then asked if she had any plans for tonight: it was, after all, a Saturday night; I wasn’t really expecting her to say that she had. I explained that by means of a special thank-you for seeing me through a pretty shitty couple of days I’d take her out for a posh meal. I’d book a table at an expensive restaurant and give her the works. At first Carol seemed pleased with my offer but then a concerned expression spread over her face: “But I can’t go like this,” she announced in a disappointed voice. “I’ve got nothing to wear.”

Which is why I’m here now, standing in a trendy ladies clothes shop in Upper Street, watching over Carol as she tries on the foxy red number that I’m going to buy for her so that she can come to my posh restaurant tonight without feeling underdressed.

You have to say that Carol looks good: she’s posing in front of a large mirror, the foxy red number accentuating every curve, every rippling valley of young, supple flesh. The shop assistant is regarding the two of us with curiosity, as if she can’t quite work out the status quo. She’s about my age and probably thinks that I’m a dirty old man. But I don’t care, she can think what she likes, as long, that is, as I don’t ever have to come back into this shop with Marie.

“What do you reckon?” asks Carol, confident, I’m sure, of what my answer is going to be.

“You look fantastic,” I reply without hesitation. And she does: she looks like a super-model.

With Carol clutching her booty, we head off to a café and get something to eat. Then we stroll the streets of Islington, which for once is actually sunny, and I buy her some shoes and some bits and pieces from Rymans the stationers that she asks me for. When I check my credit card bill later on I will discover that I have spent £164.32 on Carol. Still, it was worth it just to see the expression on the face of someone who has forgotten about, or perhaps never even experienced, what it is like to be able to spend money.

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