I left my flat that Saturday afternoon believing that honesty was a virtue, that truth was paramount and that lies have short legs and don’t get you very far. I also believed that, unfortunately, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.
I returned later clutching my spare keys and the waste collection note and wondering if it might be better in the short term to be kind rather than truthful.
I am an intelligent and successful woman. I don’t suffer fools gladly. At work they say I have that northern virtue of calling a spade a spade. I always wonder why any one would want to call it anything else.
I admit that one element of my image of myself as successful is that I took my usual long-term view and managed to buy a repossession bargain of a third floor flat in a low rise local authority block in Brixton that had two bedrooms.
People could tell which flats the local authority still owned because the doors were painted a depressing maroon or dark blue. My door was painted a new sophisticated grey. The door opposite was a difficult turquoise. I didn’t know if that meant the owner was super trendy or colour blind. But whatever the reason, it meant that the flat was privately owned. That was a big help with my equity. But the people living there were only tenants, and there were three of them crammed into the flat. I felt sorry for them.
I had nodded politely the first time I hurried past two of them on the stairs. The second time we met was one morning when the tall skinny one was leaving for work at the same time as I was. She had stopped me and invited me to pop in for tea the next Saturday afternoon.
“We’re a very friendly lot in this block, it is important to know your neighbours. London can be such a lonely place but it doesn’t have to be like that on our own doorstep.” She smiled and I accepted. If nothing else it would give me somewhere to keep a spare set of keys.
Next Saturday I put my spare keys in an envelope with my name on it and, carrying that and a packet of biscuits, I knocked on the turquoise door.
They introduced themselves as Gail and Wendy. Gail was the tall skinny one and Wendy was short and very pale, her beige shirt did her no favours. She offered me tea and bustled off to make it. Gail told me to take a seat and then pointed me to the one she wanted me to sit in.
I gazed around and said, “This is very nice, I wish mine was half as tidy.” I admit that was a lie. But it was a safe kind of lie, it would never be found out. My wishes and my opinions were not facts. No one could ever prove that I didn’t have such a wish. I have a relaxed attitude to housework. I don’t mind a comfortable muddle but I saw no harm in using a touch of light insincerity to help to start the conversational ball rolling. I pride myself on being diplomatic and socially adept. Gail didn’t need my help. She sniffed and said, “Yes, it is, in here, but outside it is a very different matter. It sometimes looks like a veritable ghetto.” She shuddered. I hadn’t noticed any ghetto tendencies. “Really, do you think it is as bad as that?” “Well, you know, we have very regular rubbish collections but people get muddled and leave stuff out all the time and foxes rip it up. They make such a mess, shall I write the collection times down for you?” Gail didn’t wait for an answer. The paper and pen were astonishingly close to hand. Whenever I wanted to write a note I had to go to at least two different places.
She talked as she wrote to make sure that I understood clearly the local rubbish collection times and waste etiquette. She handed me the note. I thanked her and put it on the table. She eyed it anxiously; I was in no doubt that I wouldn’t be leaving without it. If she came up to my new flat I wondered how she would feel when she saw my Art Deco clock hanging askew. It was the only way it would keep time.
Wendy entered with mugs of tea and my biscuits, neatly arranged on an Ikea plate. The conversation moved on. “You need to catch the 196 ‘bus to get you to the big Sainsbury's.” I shuddered. She noticed my reaction and rushed on to say, “but the local Co-op is quite good, it’s a bit pricey but it’s very convenient and it has good reductions.” I nodded, “Right, thank you, I’ll bear that in mind”.
“I find the best way to get to most places is the tube, it’s about ten minutes walk.” “I have a bike”. “Ooh, that’s really dangerous, you must be very careful, so many people die on bikes.” “Well, I find it best to ride in the middle of the road against the traffic with my eyes shut”. She stared and I laughed, “that was a joke, of course I’m careful”.
I realised that the invitation was for Claire to ensure that I was schooled in their communal area hygiene requirements and for Wendy to play mother hen to a new chick. I had yet to meet the third neighbour. I wondered if she had a lesson for me. I took a sip of tea. It tasted of cauliflower. Gail watched as I centred the mug back on the coaster. Wendy rose and moved across to the window. She parted the plastic blind slats and peered out. “The cheapest place for vegetables is the market at about four o/clock on Saturdays,” she said and she turned to Gail and said,” There’s no sign of her.”
Gail shrugged, “She’s only ten minutes late, don’t start worrying yet, please. She will have a lot of stuff to clear up.” I hoped she was putting things in the right bin. Wendy checked her ‘phone.
“I should go and let you get on with things.” I took another sip of cauliflower whatever, just to be polite, put my cup back carefully in the exact centre of the coaster and stood up. They ignored the hint. Wendy moved slowly back to her seat and turned to me, “Elena left her job today, I do hope she’s alright” “Is there any reason why she shouldn’t be?” I asked.
“Well, it’s not very nice to be…”
“Oh, for goodness sake,” Gail interrupted, “ we know it’s unpleasant Wendy but we also know that she’ll cope.” She turned to me, “Please don’t go, she’ll be here soon, I know she wants to meet you.”
I wondered why. Something was obviously stressing Wendy. Gail took a biscuit and dunked it. She cupped her hand under her chin and lifted the soggy biscuit to her mouth. Wendy picked up her ‘phone, pressed a key and put it down quickly. I thought she was double-checking the time whilst Gail wasn’t looking. She turned to me.
“Do you work out?” she asked, “only there’s a really good gym down on the High Street”. I sat down again; the conversation was not yet over. “I don’t need to, cycling keeps me fit. It’s the best exercise that I’ve found and it saves me heaps of money at the same time.”
Gail chipped in, “But it doesn’t provide a whole body workout, does it? You need to think about your upper torso, you know, shoulders and arms and things. I go to hatha yoga, which is really good for a general fitness routine. Maybe you’d like… “ I didn’t get a chance to say just how much I really wouldn’t like to go to any kind of yoga because, at that moment, I heard the front door open and Wendy jumped up and ran out of the room.
“Oh, thank goodness, I’ve been so worried, how did it go? Let me take those, are you alright?” She came back carrying two large recycling bags. Elena followed her and stood in the middle of the room. She was a Judy Garland look-a-like with black mascara tears.
“That was the worst day of my life, hello, I’m Elena,” she held out her hand in which she was clutching a sodden tissue. I nodded. She pulled her hand back immediately.
“Oh, sorry,” she wiped the tissue over her eyes, stuffed it in her pocket and tried again.
Wendy rushed to ask, “So, how did it go? We’ve been on tenterhooks all day, worrying about you.”
“It was awful, Cate was so upset and she was so brave.” Elena sobbed as she reached down, pulled one of the bags closer and delved in. She brought out a small notebook.
“Look, she has written a list of all the places we went together”. She held it out and flicked through to show us. I saw pages of writing surrounded by kisses and hearts. She sniffed back a tear. Gail peered over her shoulder, “What beautiful neat writing.”
Elena sat down next to me with her bag and gave me a brave little smile. I decided that I wasn’t going to be seeing much of her. I could cope with Wendy’s mothering and Gail’s need for order in return for key holding but drama at home could be tiring. She would soon find that I was not a sympathetic audience. I didn’t need someone with a mental age of ten anywhere near my life.
The next thing she bought out of the bag was an oversized Farewell card. The front was covered in a dense intertwined design of hearts and forget-me-nots. She opened the card and started crying again.
“Listen to this, ‘My Darling Elena, I will miss you so much. I know you have to move on and improve your prospects. I know you have to think about your future and you cannot spend the rest of your life just looking after me. I will never forget the fun we have had and I wish you all the luck in your new job, all my love and kisses, Cate’.
Wendy held a box of tissues out to her. Gail picked up the wastepaper basket. I found it all too affected. It was time to be positive.
“It. sounds to me as if you are well out it, what is your new job like?” I asked. Wendy glared at me and Gail coughed discreetly. Elena burst into fresh tears. She fished into her pocket and produced a box. Inside was a half heart on little silver chain.
“She’s got the other half and she says that if we wear them we will always be connected, isn’t that sweet? Wendy gulped and I studied the trinket; it looked like a market stall purchase, a piece of sentimental trash.
“She doesn’t get very much pocket money because her father says it cost him a packet to pay for me.” Elena sobbed, “ and yet she bought this… for me.”
Pocket money! I blinked, what had I missed? “What was your job?” I was interested at last, in spite of myself.
“I looked after Cate after school and during the holidays,” Elena ran the little chain through her fingers and kissed the half-heart, “We were such good friends.”
“What does her mother do then?” I imagined a power suit, immaculate hair and a highly paid job. Wendy clicked her tongue,
“The mother left them.” Elena took a deep breath, “I will never forget Cate standing there, she was clinging to her father’s arm and waving, she was trying to be so brave. I hope she will be able to cope with getting herself home from school and she is going to be so lonely during the holidays.” They all sighed. This was all getting too much for me; I’d only been invited for tea, not trauma. I thought they were wallowing in pathos. It was only a job and there were plenty of other jobs. I thought she should pull herself together and get a life.
“So what is your new job then? I asked brightly. Wendy turned to face me, “She hasn’t got one”.
“Oh, I thought you said…”
Wendy patted Elena’s shoulder, “At least you didn’t tell her.”
“Tell her what?
“Her father sacked me, he said that now she is nine she no longer needs a nanny.”
“How awful, you shouldn’t have let her think you had chosen to leave her, you should have told her the truth, she needs to know that her father is a liar.” I couldn’t imagine not speaking out in that situation.
Gail and Wendy turned and glared at me.
“I couldn’t do that, she needs to believe in her father, he’s the only parent she has,” Elena stifled a sob. Wendy patted Elena’s shoulder and said, “You did the right thing, no one needs to know that kind of unpleasant truth when they are only nine.”
“The earlier the better I always say, imagine finding out when she...”
“Thank you so much for the biscuits and thank you for coming over”, said Gail as she took my cup full of cold tea and placed it on the tray next to my biscuits. Wendy took the tray out.
“It’s been nice to meet you,” said Gail with polished insincerity as she gave me the waste collection note and shut the turquoise door in my face.
Author Notes: Anne Wilson
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