The nearest bus stop had been over half a mile away, and Margaret was cold to the bone as the light, but irritating autumn rain continued its torment. She longed for a change of clothes and a cup of milky tea. Unpleasant vibrations shot down her tired limbs as the wheels of the suitcase buckled noisily over the cobbled street, and her ankles twisted and sang in pain with each step across the undulating stones. The pulse across the top of her forehead reminded her that a migraine was on its way, too. She was close to tears when she looked up and spotted the ivy-clad cottage in the distance. Relief brought a warm fuzzy feeling that helped take the edge off the cold. Oh yes, she thought, this will do just fine.
Faded and crumbling stonework added to the building’s authenticity, indicating a lifetime of harsh English weather. To Margaret, though, it was the promise of a million memories—a home full of history and emotional resonance—joy, sadness, life, and possibly death. It was just what she needed. Head down and filled with hope, she continued battling with the case until she arrived at the rusty gate. Taking some time to admire the ornate iron, she ran her fingers over the tarnished handle, even closing her eyes at one point and breathing it all in.
The gate creaked on its hinges as she turned the handle and pushed her way through, suitcase bobbling behind. The hairs on the back of her neck gave a little prickle of excitement as she approached what looked to be the original timber door. Again, she ran her hands over the wood, taking a moment to savour the antiquity of the moment and inhaling the petrichor that added to the sensory effect.
Her instructions were to go straight in, but that wasn’t her way. The daughter, Jess, had said that her father was quite deaf, though, and most likely wouldn’t respond to a knock. He’d fallen a couple of times of late, too, and was no longer so steady on his feet. Margaret released the handle of the case, grimacing as she uncurled her arthritic fingers one by one. She knocked gently and winced in pain—no answer. Against her better judgement, she turned the handle of the door and peered inside. “Hello,” she called. A song from the radio floated down the hallway, but there was no sign of movement. She lifted her case over the step and breathed a small sigh of relief to be finally out of the rain.
An intricately woven doily covered the small hallway table under the mirror. On top of the yellowing fabric were two small ducks, possibly porcelain, and a photograph of who she assumed to be George’s family. The handsome couple stood proudly together, hands resting on the shoulders of the curly-haired child who undoubtedly had been told to smile, his face contorted in an unnaturally cheesy way.
“Hello,” she announced again feebly.
She removed her hood and checked her reflection, wondering momentarily how many other faces the ornate silver hallway mirror had been witness to. The faces that looked back—were they happy, sad, beautiful, handsome? Her tiny frame was exaggerated by the sheer size of the mirror; she looked so old and frail, and the dim hallway light only served to highlight the dark circles and deep crevices in her skin. She turned away in disgust and made her way to the kitchen.
“Same shit, different day,” George mumbled under his breath as his eyes flicked over the newspaper. He used to read it front to back, but the world just seemed to get too damn big—too much to take in.
He lifted his head and stared at the backyard that he used to keep so neat and pretty. Edith would turn in her grave if she could see it now, he thought. A dozen matchbox cars that he didn’t have the heart to put away were still scattered across the dirty patio floor. It had been three months since he last saw Jess, and his grandson, Robert—the afternoon of his wife’s funeral. Her husband, Jack, was behind that, no doubt—the self-righteous controlling little prick. George had never liked him; he’d seen the sort before, all ego, no balls.
He turned to the sound of footsteps and watched the bedraggled lady walk into his kitchen. She was hunched over, hair erratically working down both cheeks and slaking across her forehead. The jacket wrapped around her tiny frame dripped onto the floor as she fumbled at the buttons with her twisted and lumpy fingers. The face was creased, but George could tell that it was once pretty—a victim of a hard life that the youth of today didn’t know anymore. Her eyes saved her a little. It was difficult to determine her age—anywhere from late-forties to early-sixties. She was certainly nothing like the woman Jess described on the telephone.
“Raining out there, is it?” George said, smiling.
“Just a little,” she replied. “Hi, George.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Marge.”
“Margaret, please,” she corrected sternly.
The relationship between Margaret and her clients was usually very professional. Besides, the majority of folk would look down on her like shit on their shoe, not giving her the time of day. She observed George closely as he folded the newspaper shut. A sparse combover crossed his otherwise bald scalp, and his generous nose offered an abundance of grey hairs from both nostrils. His ears were ironically huge for someone who struggled to hear, and his eyes cloudy but kind. Lines embedded in his face hinted towards laughter rather than scowling. Yes, an honest face, she thought. Margaret could tell she was going to like him. Walking over, she formally extending her hand. “Your daughter told me all about you.”
“Okay, so I assume she told you that I’m a stubborn old fucker with a penchant for toffee and have a bee in my bonnet about the asshole she married.”
He grabbed her hand, and almost immediately, the lady buckled. He managed to steady her by placing his arm against her back, and then he eased her gently into one of the chairs at the table.
“Perhaps it should be me looking after you,” he said.
She laughed and waved her hand dismissively. “I’m good. But put the kettle on, will you, and I’ll make a pot of tea.”
The large table was about four inches thick. Oak, she thought. It was beautiful. She ran the back of her hands against the surface and could hear the daily ritual of times gone—rambunctious children and clatter of pots.
“What’s the stain on the ceiling?” she asked.
“The stain,” she said, pointing to the brown mark.
“Ah. Grease from a pancake. Edith’s first and last effort,” he said, smiling.
They drank their tea and talked. Well, he did anyway, but that was okay; Margaret was a good listener. She had plenty of practice, moving from house to house, from one person to the next. He talked about his grandson; what a lovely young man he was. He talked about how Jess used to visit twice a week before the dickhead, Jack, began his manipulation. And then there was Edith—his one and only—fifty-six years of marriage. Margaret was looking forward to learning more about her.
She told George that she wasn’t a gardener, that he would have to hire someone else with a machete and a compass to sort that. In the morning, she would begin her campaign with the kitchen, giving it a complete overhaul. The laundry would also get done; all the sheets and stuff that she’d already seen lying around the house.
George was against the idea when Jess suggested live-in help; he thought she was trying to take away his independence. Then there was the cost to think about. When Jess told him that Margaret was only after board and lodging, he started to get suspicious instead, but then Jess added that she came with great reviews. At that precise moment, though, he was admittedly quite pleased to have someone else around the place.
Margaret took her case upstairs, showered, and dressed in fresh clothes. She joined George in the living room, and they watched some old black and white re-runs together while eating stale biscuits. Every so often, Margaret skimmed her hands across the leather of the chair, wondering how many had sat there before her. The television screen was tiny relative to the dimensions of the chunky plastic surround, and she could see from the subdued lamplight the number of fingerprints plastered over it. There was so much to do, she thought. And that filled her with glee.
Finally, George began to doze.
“George,” she said. No response. “George,” she hissed a little louder this time. But a shrill whistling started emerging from his hair-stuffed nostrils. She reached for the blanket laid across the back of his chair, gently leaning him forward to take his weight off it, and then spreading it across his lap. She observed his face—the peacefulness that it was projecting, and the life that was carved into it. Margaret was looking forward to what the house had to offer. There would be enough memories to keep her going for some time.
Tomorrow she would begin to clean.
Margaret pulled the sheets back, making sure they were as close to symmetrical as the human eye would allow. She drew back the curtains then, basking in the promise of a new day.
After washing and dressing into her gear—chocolate brown pants and light green top—she lifted the suitcase onto the bed. As she worked it open, excitement immediately began to course through her, and she gave out a little involuntary shudder. With bony fingers poised over the side pocket, she took in a big breath and then exhaled slowly. Finally, she pulled back the zip and reached inside for the yellow cloth. Distorted and distant images of the last house started to run through her mind, but they were weak and ineffectual and no longer provided enough nourishment.
George was still under the sheets. Recently he struggled to find a reason to get out of bed, but with Margaret around, he thought he perhaps should make an effort—show himself not to be sickly. No doubt, she will have to report back to Jess and dickhead, and they probably had the old folks home ready on speed dial.
He raised himself from the bed and squinted as he drew back the curtains, wondering how the hell he was going to fill his day today. The rain was still coming down, albeit a sprinkle. “It’s the fine rain that gets you wet,” Edith’s voice spoke in his head, followed by her annoying little titter. He missed her every minute of every day. Dressing in the same clothes as the day before, he started down the stairs with the intention of making Margaret a cup of milky tea. He would show them all that he was still a capable human being.
She was already in the kitchen when he got downstairs, dusting the chest of drawers with surprising vigour.
“Whatever you are taking, can I have some please,” he said.
She turned, startled, before saying, “Are those yesterday’s clothes?”
“It’s ‘pardon,’ George. And I asked if they were the same clothes you wore yesterday.”
He noticed that she looked different; the darkness under the eyes had faded slightly, and her entire demeanour seemed lighter. Perhaps it was the make-up and a good night’s sleep. She turned back with a deep sigh, continuing her work, diligently dusting every square inch of wood.
Each stroke felt like a surge of life to Margaret. Every fingerprint absorbed and every stain spilled. A myriad of faces flashed in front of her, young and old—initially ones she didn’t recognise, but the more recent and stronger images began to settle. There was the boy, the same curly locks from the photo; he was running toy cars up and down the grain of the wood, making engine and skidding sounds. His shoes on the wooden boards were relentlessly loud as he chased up and down from one side to the next. In the background, she could hear sounds of protest coming from others; she guessed the boy’s parents. And then George’s voice floated across, “He’s fine. Let the kid play.”
To Margaret, it was life, and she followed the cars religiously with her cloth, breaking into a smile as the boy rebelliously increased in volume. With every overly dramatic noise and wheel spin of the cars, she excitedly followed suit. Adrenaline surged through her as she soaked up the vitality of the child, even the pain in her fingers beginning to ease, ever so slightly. She had missed this feeling and didn’t want it to end.
“Margaret,” George said, but without acknowledgement from the crazy lady with the cloth. “Margaret,” he repeated, slightly louder. He wondered what the hell she was doing; the strange noises kept coming, and she’d polished the same piece of furniture God knows how many times.
Eventually, the raucous noise started to fade, as did the protests. Slowly, the boy began to vanish, until Margaret was left staring at the faint scratch marks from the matchbox cars. The show was over.
“Margaret,” came the voice from behind.
She turned towards George to see him looking more than a little concerned.
“I called your name six times, Margaret. Are you alright?”
She laughed. “Of course. I get into this zone when I’m cleaning. It’s all perfectly normal, don’t worry.”
“But you were making car noises. And you kept saying my grandson’s name under your breath. It sounded like you were saying, ‘Louder, Robert, louder.’”
“I’m a cleaner, George. This is what I do. All the scuffs and indentations in furniture, I’ve got an eye for it. I saw the scratch marks on the wood and noticed the cars in the patio. I put two and two together and guessed he got kicked outside to play.” She winked at him, a playful gesture that he wouldn’t have associated with the tired old lady that initially walked into the kitchen. “Are you putting the kettle on or what?”
She started on the kitchen surfaces next. He watched her for a while as she nimbly extended herself, meticulously scrubbing at every square inch of the bench. He couldn’t remember Robert ever playing with his cars on the furniture. He shrugged and turned the kettle on, as instructed.
As she worked her way across the counter, more images flooded Margaret’s mind; the strongest being of George staring into the garden at the yellow rose bush next to the brick garage. She was standing right next to him, watching the excess moisture form in his eyes. Perhaps he planted it in her memory, or maybe it was just her favourite. Other memories swam in and out as she religiously buffed the surfaces with the cloth. There were arguments, plenty of them—mundane stuff mostly. There were discussions about George’s snoring and habitual morning wind. Lots of it was just playfully cheeky dialogue between the two, conversations that could only take place with those you are most intimate with. She laughed at one point as she saw George sneak up behind Edith, giving her a frisky pat on the bottom. Endless scenes of love and warmth played out that made Margaret feel almost human. There was sadness, too. At one point, she had a lump in her throat as she watched them both leaning against the counter, candidly and tearily discussing the cancer that was eating Edith from the inside.
There were other conversations, too—ones that George wasn’t privy to; his daughter, Jess, and Jack standing near the sink talking about what would be best for him, what would be best for them. There was talk of putting him into a home and selling the house. Then she saw Robert again, sitting on the counter with a grazed knee, tears in his eyes. Jess had a plaster ready for the wound, while George was pulling funny faces causing the young boy to giggle; in seconds, Robert was laughing hysterically, oblivious to the injury.
She continued to scrub relentlessly, hungry for more. Finally, the voices grew distorted, and the images started to blur, until she was left panting—exhausted—but mentally invigorated by the scenes that had played out.
She turned to see George holding two cups of tea, open-mouthed and frowning. “You’re a machine,” he said.
Margaret laughed and moved across to the oak table. “You have to love what you do; to learn to be able to take pleasure when you can. Don’t you agree?” she said.
George shrugged as he went to place the cup on the table.
“Coaster,” Margaret commanded in a scolding voice. But it was Edith’s voice in his head. How many times had she told him the same thing? He smiled and replied, “Yes, dear,” as he placed one under Margaret’s cup. He grimaced as he bent down slowly, reaching for his boots. “I’ll be in the garden if you need me,” he said, holding his back on the way up and then going out the back door.
As soon as Margaret placed the cloth on the table, she realised why George had smiled so widely. The memories played multiple times in her head—Edith’s scolding voice—one she was now very familiar with. Many comfortably silent dinners started to play out, the radio consistently playing softly in the background. Sometimes idle chatter occurred, usually about the neighbours or friends or family. Edith wanted to get a dog, but George said he didn’t want to be one of those sad old men dragging a poodle about in the rain. The scene changed to a more serious-looking George nursing a mug on one side of the table; Jess and Jack sat opposite, holding hands, trying in unison to market the benefits of moving to an old people’s home.
“No, no, no,” George said. “I know those places. After a week, you forget who you are—who you were. This house and its memories are all I have. No, you’ll never take this away from me,” he asserted, without lifting his eyes from his meal.
“You’re a stubborn man, George,” Jack said, resting his shoe against the edge of the table and placing his hands behind his head.
“Get your fucking shoe off our table!” George screamed, pushing his chair back and marching out of the kitchen.
Other memories followed. There were highs, lows, laughter, and tears. Margaret cried and laughed along with them as she glided the cloth along the surface of the table. So many emotions rushed through her. They made her feel as though she was part of the household—part of the family. This feeling of belonging, even though she knew it wasn’t real, filled her with so much joy. She was giddy, weak at the knees, but not in the same way she had been on the journey here. She was recharging.
Finally, each swipe of the cloth started to provide less of a hit. The scenes faded, the voices dwindled, and soon the table was just a table again—a wooden structure in the centre of the kitchen wiped clean from top to bottom.
She dropped to her hands and knees and began scrubbing at the wooden boards. Shoes stomped next to her ear; bare feet; tights, socks. There were crashes of plates, glasses, and cups—tea and coffee splattering across the floor and legs of the table. It was all a tremendous cacophony of noise; of people living their lives. Hungrily, she absorbed it all.
Margaret was oblivious to George as he pushed his face against the glass of the door. Intently, he watched as she threw herself about, agilely stretching from one patch to the next as though deeply involved in a solo game of Twister. Uneasiness washed over him again as George put his ear against the glass, trying to make out the incomprehensible muttering. And as for that dirty yellow rag—he hadn’t even seen her rinse it out yet.
“We have a bucket and mop, Margaret,” he said, opening the back door. But she carried on mumbling and aggressively attacking the floor, oblivious to his presence.
Edith would have called it a sixth sense. It wasn’t just the fact another woman was cleaning his kitchen; it was more than that—a feeling of disorientation washed over him coupled with a compulsion to get as far away from the kitchen as possible. Urgently, he marched towards the hallway, grimacing as he caught the edge of the table on the way through. When he neared the doorway to the living room, he immediately started to feel better, allowing himself to slow down and catch his breath. He rubbed at his hip, knowing it would hurt like hell in the morning.
Picking up the remote from the arm of his chair, he flicked on the television in preparation for the quiz show he and Edith used to watch. She was always so impressed when he got one of the answers correct. He loved showing off to her. He carefully lowered himself into position, and within five minutes, he was asleep.
Margaret made light work of the kitchen. She didn’t stop there, though. She started on the hallway next, shimmying from one end to the other, wiping down the wallpaper and dusting down the pictures. And how hungrily she fed. The mirror once again offered an abundance of memories and faces until they finally faded, leaving her reflection. The skin was no doubt tighter, eyes clearer, and her lips curved into a smile. She playfully posed with hands on her hips, then under her chin, batting her eyelids and giggling. Every wall and every object in the hallway got dusted—over and over—until things were just things.
After tidying the patio area, she poked her head into the living room and saw George fast asleep in his chair. She had only met the man a few hours ago but felt like she knew everything about him. After watching him for a while, she put a final load of laundry on and started to make dinner—after cleaning the oven, of course.
Edith was the cook. The cloth told her that as she worked it diligently across the hob and oven door. It also highlighted every pan that spilled over, every splatter of grease against the splashback, and each roast that was pulled out. Sometimes Edith danced to the tunes that floated across from the radio. Other times she looked less happy, most likely in recent times. Feeding on it all, Margaret buffed the silver until she could see her face in it; how much it had changed from the sorry reflection that first confronted her in the hallway mirror.
“That’s better,” she said triumphantly.
Dutifully dicing the chicken and slicing the vegetables, she wondered if George had any wine in the house; she was in the mood to celebrate. As the chicken sautéed and the vegetables steamed, she turned on the radio and began to dance. She alternated between checking on the food and a series of spins and pirouettes around the kitchen—copying the moves of Edith from her younger years.
“Nice moves. What’s cooking?” George asked as he ambled through the doorway. For now, the sensation had subsided—the smell of cooked food emerging from the kitchen overriding any unease.
“Impeccable timing,” Margaret commented as she turned the radio down and gave the table another once over.
“This nose can do more than whistle,” he said with a wry smile. “The place is spotless,” he added.
“Just needed a woman’s touch. I’ll do the lounge later and then start upstairs tomorrow,” she said excitedly. “Do you mind if I eat with you?”
Her eyes sparkled. The lines that once carved their way across her forehead were less prominent. Her posture was different, too; she looked taller.
“No,” he said.
For a while, they ate in silence. She was a better cook than Edith; he had to admit. But soon, that feeling was nagging at him again—the sense that all was not as it seemed. The lady sat opposite looked at least ten years younger than the hunched old woman who greeted him the day before. Now that the strong aroma of cooked food was dissipating, the kitchen felt clinical and somehow empty.
“How’s the hip?” she asked.
As he looked into her eyes, he considered them child-like—full of innocence and naivety, but with an element of cheekiness.
“Sore,” he replied. “How did—”
“You were holding it when you came in,” she said, before shoving a mouthful of chicken in, enjoying the energy that surged through the cutlery.
Old age brought on many random pains and bruises, and this was another to add to the collection, George thought.
“Tell me why you loved her,” she then asked enthusiastically, sending chicken shrapnel flying across the table. “Don’t worry, I’ll get that later,” she giggled.
He thought about that question as he chewed. Edith accused him of often speaking before thinking, so he was trying to make more of an effort, albeit a little late. “There wasn’t anything not to love,” he replied. “But what about you, Margaret? Tell me about you.”
“Nothing to tell,” she said dismissively.
“Where did you grow up?” he asked.
“In hell,” she replied stoically. And with that, the child-like wonder was gone. “Can you pass the pepper?”
As they continued to eat in the more morose ambience, George momentarily studied the shiny toy cars in the basket near the toaster. They must be Robert’s, he thought. He couldn’t remember his grandson ever playing with them in the house—contrary to what Margaret said. But she was right about the scratch marks on the wood.
“Have I offended you?” he finally asked.
Margaret shook her head. “You really want to know—about me?”
“I do, yes. Everyone has a story, Margaret. Let me get the scotch and a couple of glasses,” he said.
She watched him shuffle towards the counter and then suddenly pause. “Second cupboard along,” she stated. Was she really going to do this—avail the dark secret that stole her childhood and any chance of a normal life? Sometimes she told the story to the ones who went senile, but she may as well have been reading out the football results. This was different, though. George still had most of his mind.
He placed the glasses on the table and filled them half full with whisky. She knocked hers back and began to talk.
“My parents used to lock me up in a room downstairs, George. Only let me out to clean. I never saw another soul for thirty years, and that’s the fucking truth.”
The rare cuss word took George by surprise and added shocking brutality to her opening statement. He was already engrossed.
“They fed me, watered me—just enough to keep me alive, but I’ve since learned that most people treat their animals better than that. I don’t know why they did such a thing—that’s what eats at me every day.”
George’s wide eyes were fixed on the lady at his table. He had no words; instead, he took a sip of his whisky and nodded for her to continue.
“As far as I was concerned, George, there were only three people on the planet, and two of those were sent from Hell.”
“Jesus Christ, Margaret.”
“So, I cleaned; I cleaned until my hands bled. Upstairs in the house, I started to pick up on things—conversations played out in my head as I scoured tables, surfaces, floors. It was as if the memories had a tangibility, like particles of dust that hung in the air or adhered to upholstery. I started to see my so-called parents, too—not their real forms, they were normally sat in front of the square box—but echoes of them if you like. Soon the conversations and visions aligned, and I was witnessing the memories of the house. But I tell you, George, not once, did I pick up on any conversations about the daughter they had trapped in the basement.”
He watched and listened as she continued to tell the story. He saw the lines beginning to deepen, the sparkle in her eyes fade, and her fingers curl back in towards the palm. As she talked, he saw the years of sadness oozing from her eyes, but also the physical burden that stepping back in time seemed to be having on her.
“Margaret, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.”
“Nobody does, George. You’re the first one who has asked. People like to talk about themselves usually—ain’t interested in hearing from no cleaning lady.”
“What happened? How did you get out?”
“I found a bunch of sleeping pills in the bathroom cupboard upstairs. Emptied most of the powder into their wine, and then I waited until they were asleep and set the place on fire—left a pan burning on the hob to make it look like an accident. Of course, I cleaned the place thoroughly first to make sure there were no signs anyone else lived there with them.”
George exhaled loudly. “And then what? Where did you go then?”
“I got a job cleaning, cash in hand. I have no passport, no birth certificate—nothing that identifies me as a person. What else was I supposed to do? What I did was murder.”
“But people would understand. They would feel your pain.”
“George, you don’t understand. It’s all I have—the cleaning. It’s all I’ve ever had; all I’ve ever known. This is the same piece of rag I used back then. It’s the only thing I can rely on in life. I didn’t know people; I thought everyone was as bad as them. I was terrified, you see. It didn’t matter they were dead; the damage had been done.”
He had no words. There was nothing to say. He couldn’t pretend to know the first thing about what Margaret had endured; the hate, the anger, and alienation she must still feel.
“I learned how to talk through the dialogue that played in my head and the books I occasionally sneaked down. I can barely read or write; cleaning is the only thing I’m good at. For thirty years, I was trapped within those four walls, most hours spent in complete darkness. I haven’t lived a life—have no tales to tell.”
“Jesus, Margaret, this is quite a tale in itself. Shits on the ones at bingo.”
“It’s why I like staying in other people’s houses; it’s as close as I get to living—through the memories that the houses hold.”
“This is a lot, Margaret; a lot to take in.”
She paused for a while, staring into space, and then snapped her head back and said, “She was a wonderful lady, your Edith.”
He gave a half-hearted smile. Edith would instantly have dismissed the lady as a nut.
“I probably shouldn’t have told you any of this, but, just once, I wanted someone to hear me. I guess it won’t matter in the end anyway.”
Silence ensued once more. The past always took a lot out of her, and she was feeling it.
“This isn’t your problem, George. It’s in the past, and we play the hands that we are dealt. Just be grateful you had Edith in your life for so long. You’re a lucky man.”
He wanted to help, but what could he do? This woman, broken and damaged, possibly deranged—ironically helping him. It didn’t seem right.
“Okay, I’ll sort the dishes—you go and sit down,” she said, slowly pushing herself up from the table.
“No, George. You asked, and I told. It’s the end of the contract.”
“I was going to say I might turn in,” he continued, nervously pushing up from the table. “Get some beauty sleep, you know.”
The sheer heaviness of Margaret’s burden had taken its toll. The kitchen that once felt like the house’s nucleus, conjuring memories of good times and great food, had begun to feel alien to him—cold and uninviting.
“I’m sorry for what you went through, Margaret. I’m truly sorry,” he said on his way out.
She didn’t acknowledge his words as she watched the water pouring into the sink. While it felt like a weight had been removed from her shoulders, she cursed herself for a moment of weakness. Things would not be the same. She would have to cut her stay shorter than she would have liked.
After working her way through the dishes, Margaret started work in the living room. In a little under two hours, she had consumed every memory, and for now, was satiated. She picked up the paper and circled an ad for a ‘live-in carer/cleaner.’ She turned in shortly after that, taking the stairs two at a time.
Margaret was humming a tune and working on the landing windows when George came out of his bedroom, wondering what all the noise was. She never made eye contact with him, only saying, “I’ll get breakfast on shortly. I think we’ll have pancakes today.”
He paused at the top of the stairs and thought about saying something, but then made his way silently down. How often had he nagged Edith to make him pancakes; she never did get around to it.
As soon as he got halfway down the stairs, that feeling of something not being right churned his stomach again. The entire living space downstairs now just felt that little bit stranger and less familiar. The overflowing wool in the basket, the magazines pouring out the rack, and the overstuffed shelves would usually provide some warmth for George, a reminder of his wife. But now everything was packed away or tidied. He was beginning to struggle. Since yesterday, there had been a fogginess in his head. But there was no way Jess and Jack were going to drag him into one of those piss stinking homes. Not over my dead body.
Over the next couple of days, George ate at the table alone. Margaret would wait until he retired to the living room before sitting down. Sometimes George would try and strike up a conversation, but she excused herself and got busy with the seemingly endless jobs that needed doing. From morning to night, Margaret cleaned incessantly, and with every room she went through, George began to feel even more disconnected—his mind losing fragments of time. He started to restrict himself to rooms she hadn’t cleaned, but soon, only his bedroom remained. He was frightened, alone, in the dark—how he imagined Margaret must have felt.
She knew that her stay was coming to an end. She’d already packed her case, ready for the next house. It was bittersweet; the memories in this house had replenished her, but the situation with George had made it difficult. She should never have said anything—never tried to reach out. But just once, she wanted someone to know.
There was one room to go before she went on her way, but first, she had a phone call to make. It was no surprise that Jess hadn’t checked in on her father; Margaret’s perception of people was already low, and she knew George had become nothing more than a potential windfall to his daughter.
Margaret phoned Jess and gave her the news; she said that George was acting a bit odd and that she felt out of her depth—tomorrow would be her last day. Turned out, the soonest they could make it was Friday week. She couldn’t change her plans, not now there was nothing left for her.
From the moment she saw him, she knew that George was different; that the next bit was always going to be that much more difficult. She had grown to like him even more over time—a good man with a good heart. But she had no idea when she would next have the opportunity to feed, and nobody else was going to look out for her.
George sat on the bed reading the letter that Edith had sent him the day before he was conscripted. He’d been reading it a lot recently—over and over—frightened that she was beginning to fade.
“George,” Margaret’s voice called.
He ignored her, tracing his index finger over Edith’s words, and then lifting the paper to his lips.
“George,” she repeated.
He placed the letter on the table and turned his attention to the recent photograph, running his finger over the frame and smiling back at Edith. This woman that he had shared his life with for nearly six decades was slipping away.
“I need to come in and clean your room.”
But the door opened, and there she stood, cloth in hand, bright-eyed and raring to go.
“What have you done, Margaret? To me? The house?”
She skipped over and sat on the bed next to him. “Is that a letter from your wife?” Curiosity and hunger were already stirring the hairs on the back of her neck.
“I’m losing my mind, Margaret—ever since you arrived. And I think it’s more than a coincidence.”
Guilt and empathy briefly washed over her as she looked into his cloudy eyes. But emotions were redundant, serving no purpose, helping nobody; she knew that all too well. This was a harsh lesson to learn—the aftermath of reaching out, and a mistake she would never make again. She placed a hand on his right shoulder, and the other reached towards the letter he was holding.
“You have to understand, George, that this wasn’t a conscious decision; I’m only trying to make it through each day. I have learned to feed on memories. For decades, I was starved of life, of any kind of emotion or warmth. I’m a blank canvas that needs paint, a writing pad that yearns for words, a human that aches for mental sustenance. I take what pleasure I can.”
“You steal them, don’t you? You don’t just relive them; you take them for yourself!”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” she said, slipping her hand with the cloth towards the paper. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
The emotional hit was instant and gratifying, a whirlwind of pain and passion that almost knocked her off the edge of the bed.
“You’re a thief,” George shouted, ripping the paper away from her. “You’re just a goddamn thief. You can’t steal people’s memories!”
“I take what I need, George. It’s survival,” she screamed as she snatched at the paper, missing it by inches. “I’ve had to learn to look after myself!”
“You can’t have this. You’ve taken enough. Please leave.”
“They don’t care about you, George. You have nobody, just like me. After this, they’ll put you in that home—it’s inevitable—you’ll see.”
“Please leave me alone,” he said, retreating towards the window.
“Just imagine it, George. There would be no more pain. Life would be so much easier—to get up each day without the memory of her haunting you.”
“You stupid bitch. The memory of her is the only thing that keeps me going!”
She continued to move towards him. She wanted to feel the passion and taste the tears that went into the words in the letter. “Just let me run my hand across it, and I promise you I will leave.”
“Stay away, Margaret,” he warned as he picked up the silver candlestick from the windowsill.
“Come on, George—just a quick look.”
As she lurched forward, he brought the weapon down with force, but only managed to glance the side of her cheek. She growled and wrapped her elegantly long fingers around his throat, forcing his head against the glass of the window. Instinctively, he reached for her hand and tried to prise it away, but she was too strong. Quickly, she snatched the yellowing paper from his hand and felt the immediate surge like electricity through her veins. She rushed back to the bed and ran the cloth slowly over it. It was the biggest hit to date—an overwhelming series of emotions that made her feel as though she had once been wanted, that she had once been loved so deeply. The heavy blow on the side of the head brought her back quickly, though. She opened her eyes to find George standing over her, eyes watery and bulging.
“You don’t even know what this is, do you, George?” she said, waving the yellow note in front of him.
Confused and teary, he lifted the candlestick back, ready to strike, but she was into him so quickly, sending him sprawling against the wall. Even Margaret winced as the old man’s head cracked against the corner of the wardrobe, forcing a long and unpleasant moan. She had to fix this quickly. It was her mess this time, and she had to clean up. She pushed the cloth deep into George’s throat—decades of memories washed over her in a single hit—an explosion of grief and joy that went beyond anything she had experienced to date. Simultaneously powerful emotions brought her to the edge of euphoria and despair, and suddenly, it was too much. The room started spinning, colours got brighter, and her heart rate intensified to a level that felt dangerous. And then—blackness.
She didn’t know how long she was out for, but George still had his eyes closed when she came to. She scrambled to her feet and ran to her room.
George reached for the side of his head to trace the pulsating pain. He stared at the ceiling, following the crack in the plaster from one corner to the centre. Slowly, he dragged himself over to the edge of the bed and pushed himself up, noting the pages strewn across the duvet. He picked one of them up and read the first few lines. A tear rolled down his right cheek. He wondered where on earth the letter came from. He wondered where he was, who he was, and what he was supposed to be doing. On the bedside table sat a photograph, perhaps some movie star—or someone or other. The room itself was mostly blue, not his taste at all.
The floor vibrated as the door of the house slammed shut.
He carefully walked towards the window, still dazed, and saw the attractive looking lady dragging a suitcase behind her across the cobbled stones, a yellow cloth in her other hand. She turned momentarily, and they made eye contact. For a second, she looked familiar, but then the cloud returned, and he suddenly felt incredibly alone. He turned, looking for something familiar in the room, and caught sight of his reflection in the wardrobe mirror. The old man that stared back only added to the confusion.
Margaret felt some compassion for George. Usually, she would leave them with some memories—some part of their identity—but she couldn’t take any chances this time, not after their confrontation and her silly confession. It was a shame Jess couldn’t get there quicker, but there was nothing left for Margaret now; she couldn’t justify staying in a house so devoid of emotion, and it wouldn’t be long before she needed to feed.
She lifted the piece of paper that was marked with the red biro. 45 Lancashire Street. She was already excited about the prospect of new memories to consume.
It was just survival.