Joy was sad today. It had taken till mid afternoon for her to remember that it was her wedding anniversary. Even though each day began with her thinking of Robert, how could she have forgotten something so important?
“Here Arthur…here boy…”, she cooed to the ruddy cat. But he just sat at the far end of the garden fixing her with his sphinx like gaze.
“He not hungry Miss Joy”, laughed Mrs Bose over the fence.
Joy nodded grimly, and shuffled back indoors. Of course he wasn’t hungry. The damn woman had probably been feeding him scraps of her curry dinner again. Who cleaned up the mess afterwards,hmm? His poos had been decidedly fragrant of late. She would have to have words with them, these new neighbours.
She heated her can of soup and thought back to her previous life. Life before widowhood. Before the agonising loneliness that dogged her footsteps like a sullen friend.
The soup was bubbling ominously, chucking little orange flecks all over her stove. She poured it into a cup carefully. She knew why she’d forgotten. It was the day of the interview that’s why.
She blew into the cup before taking a cautious sip. A paying guest. What a strange concept: a guest who paid! She supposed it was time. Valerie had been insistent.
“Joy, look at you! You’re not getting any younger my dear. It will be a comfort to have someone to share the house with. She’s young, and very sweet. Maddie’s known her for a while now. Not very well, mind. But you know how it is with these young people. One minute they are strangers, next minute friends.” She’d laughed uproariously at this, although Joy couldn’t think why. Valerie always found her own jokes far more amusing than they were.
“I really don’t know Val. I am so used to being on my own. Having someone else underfoot…I don’t know if it’s for me…”
“Oh, stuff and nonsense! It’ll do you good. Besides, she’s cabin crew. So she won’t be there most of the time. Perfect arrangement, if you ask me. Especially with the sorts we have moving into the area.” She’d shuddered dramatically.
Joy had wondered at the logic of this, but exhausted by her enthusiasm, had reluctantly agreed to an interview.
She plumped up the cushions and wondered what it would be like to have another person in the house again. It had been many years since the house had seen any happiness at all. Perhaps, this new addition would change that. Or was she being too optimistic?
When the doorbell rang, she was prepared, if a little bit shaky on the inside.
The young woman who stood at the door was extraordinarily neat. From her short blonde bob, to her russet lipstick, to her perfect manicure and her polished shoes, she exuded an exactness, a compactness that Joy had never been able to achieve in her own disorganised life. She liked her straight away.
The interview was just a formality.The musical lilt of her Welsh accent enchanted her immediately.
“It’s too far to drive from Swansea every day, you see. So, Maddie suggested I house with someone. As you are so near the airport, it would save me a lot of travel time.”
Yes, yes, Joy nodded in complicity.
“I could afford £50 per week. Would that be alright?”, she peered at Joy anxiously.
Joy realised she’d barely spoken a word to the girl. So much of her life was spent in an internal monologue, that sometimes she forgot the sound of her own voice.
She cleared her throat.
“Yes, Sarah. That should be fine. But I warn you, the noise of the planes is quite annoying. They start early in the morning and go on till nearly midnight. That is the disadvantage of living this close to Heathrow.”
“Oh, that doesn’t bother me. I can sleep anywhere, anytime and through anything.”
They laughed together.
“Then it’s settled? I can start at the beginning of the month?”
“My dear, that’s just a few days away. You can start tomorrow if you like.”
Sarah beamed at her, revealing a row of perfectly white teeth. “Yes, I would like that very much”.
She was barely there. Between her flying and commuting home, Joy saw little of her guest. When she was there, all she did was sleep. At times like those, Joy tip toed around the house for fear of waking her jet lagged little friend. She took to leaving little notes outside her door, inviting her to share her dinner, or join her for a cup of tea. These offers were mostly politely declined. On the rare occasion that she did come downstairs, the conversation was stilted and uncomfortable.
Joy yearned for companionship. Instead she got five ten pound notes, neatly pressed under her toaster every Monday.
“Arthur! Arthur!!”, she called out to the cat that seemed to have abandoned her. She knew he’d taken to sitting on the Bose woman’s fence.
“He not here, Miss Joy”, she grinned convivially, revealing her buck teeth. “He been gone for two days”
“Oh!”, Joy exclaimed. “I hope he’s alright.”
A particularly disgusting smell was wafting over the fence.
Joy wrinkled her nose and asked, “You’ve been cooking again?”
“Yes, yes. Maacher Jhol- Fiss curry. You want? I can bring?”
“No! I..uh…have a rather delicate constitution.”
This seemed to baffle the sari clad woman into silence. Joy took the opportunity to make good her escape.
Sarah was in the kitchen stirring her cup of coffee with a faraway expression. It took her a minute to register Joy’s presence. She smiled at her wanly.
“You look tired Sarah.”
“Yes, I am. Really exhausted. The melatonin hasn’t been working too well lately.”
“I wish you wouldn’t take those pills. A nice cup of chamomile tea would do wonders. Try it. I could make it for you tonight.”
“If only that were true Joy”
There was a moment’s silence and then Sarah made to move outside.
“Oh, wait! We could have dinner together. I have some nice salmon I bought yesterday”, Joy looked at her hopefully.
“I’ll pass. Another time, maybe? But thank you for the offer.”
Joy turned restlessly in bed that night. Sleep was punctuated with dreams of Robert. In her waking moments, the hollowness inside her frightened her.
She awoke to the quiet click of the front door shutting. With a sigh she watched Sarah pull her suitcase along to the car. She knew so little about this stranger who lived under her roof. Sarah hadn’t been very forthcoming about her life, and the little she’d gleaned offered no insight into the mysterious young woman.
She pulled out her trusty Hoover and started in the front room, slowly working her way up. She paused at Sarah’s door, then pushed it open quickly. Inside it was as though no one had lived there in years, but for a small photograph on the bedside table. Overcome with curiosity, she picked it up.
It was a photo of two women kissing. One of them was Sarah. The doorbell rang quite suddenly, and startled she dropped the frame, only to see the glass crack. Her heart still thudding she made her way down.
The Bose woman stood at the door, a tupperware container in her hands.
“Hello Miss Joy. I bring you….no, no, not maacher jhol….some mishti doi….sweet curds.”
In the face of Joy’s confusion, she elaborated, “Yogurt. It good for stomach. You said stomach trouble?”
Her sing song voice was grating on her nerves, so she snatched the container, and said brusquely, “Well thank you. I’ll return this when I’m done. Now, if you’ll excuse me?”
Shutting the door on the woman’s face, she found herself turning over this new information about Sarah in her mind. Was she a lesbian? Or was this how young people displayed affection these days?
She replaced the broken frame back on the table, adding a note next to it saying how sorry she was, and that it was an accident. Then she waited apprehensively for her return, all the while wondering why she was so bothered by what she had seen. Did it really matter? After all, they were all God’s creatures, and if, for some inexplicable reason, she preferred her own sex over men, then who was Joy to judge? It wasn’t as though Joy had never sinned in her life. Satisfied with her own Christian spirit, she carried on cleaning.
Two days later Sarah walked in, late afternoon, looking pale and exhausted.She left her case near the staircase, and came into the living room.
“I could murder a cup of tea now”
“Of course dear”, Joy giggled nervously at the strange choice of words.
Tea, toast and a bit of small talk later, Sarah stood up. “I really must get some sleep now. I have a long drive tomorrow. Ten days off. I can’t wait to get home”
Joy stood up too. She tried to find the words but her courage failed her. Instead she said, “Would you like some yogurt? The Indian woman next door gave me some, but I didn’t care for it. Too sweet.” She grimaced.
“Mrs Bose? She’s very nice. I’ve chatted to her a little. And she’s Bangladeshi, not Indian.”
Sarah went upstairs, and for the longest time there was silence.Then she heard her on the phone. Joy presumed she had found the frame and the note, and been content with the situation, if not exactly happy. She would charge a tenner less, so that the frame could be replaced. An hour later, to her surprise she heard the car door bang shut. She looked outside, only to see a furious looking Sarah loading up the boot with all her things. A minute later she had climbed into the driver’s seat, and driven off without a backward glance.
Joy sat down heavily in her armchair. What could have precipitated such an action? Surely she could see it was an accident? And she had apologised…
With shaky fingers, she dialled Valerie’s number. The phone was answered within two rings.
“Ah Joy. Yes, I was waiting for your call. I am so sorry my dear. Sarah has left the rest of the rent money on the bed for you… No,no. She didn’t say why exactly. Some kind of family emergency I imagine….Hmmm? Annoyed? No. Why would she be?”
She heard Maddie’s voice in the background. Then Valerie came back on the line, her tone slightly changed.
“Joy, I think it’s best if you cut your losses.”
“But I want to understand Val. What did I do wrong?”
Maddie had taken the receiver off her mother.
“She called you a snoopy, prying, racist old woman who never let her get a moment’s rest. She said you were always sniffing around her for scraps of information. She said you were miserly and never left the heating on long enough.She also called you a few names I don’t want to repeat. But please auntie Joy- just let it go!”
Stunned, Joy dropped the phone back into the cradle. She went into the garden to look for Arthur. He had left her a little present that she stepped right into.
“Oh you bloody cat!”, she scooped the poo into a bag, its stench making her heave.
As an afterthought, she put it in the washed tupperware container and marched next door.
“Oh Miss Joy. So nice! Come…come…please. I just make tea. You want?”
“What I want is for you to stop feeding my cat. And stay off my property, do you hear?”
She thrust the container at the woman, and then walked back home, her spine ramrod.
With a resounding bang, she shut the door, and shut the world out again. This is how it had been. This is how it would be. And no one could say she was any less happier for it.