Number 43. I’d finally found it. A weather beaten brown door. A cheerful duck egg blue terraced house. I knocked on the outskirts of the knocker, fashioned as a cool iron hand. It felt rude to put it to use somehow without shaking it first. Once I got ideas like that in my head, they were difficult to dislodge.
I could hear a soap opera being turned down, then slow considered footsteps approaching. The door creaked open after fumbles with inner locks and chains and a pair of rheumy yet inquisitive eyes looked up at me. Their owner could only have been about five feet tall.
“Millie?” she asked.
I smiled and nodded. “Hello Gladys.”
“Come in then, come in,” she beckoned, fingers twitching impatiently, and I followed the bullseye of her tight white bun through to her living room. “Have a seat. I’ll put the kettle on.” I lifted up my wheeled suitcase, not wishing to leave tracks in the plush maroon carpet that had already seen enough abuse from cake crumbs and fag ends. A dusting of white animal hairs completed the look, although the culprit was currently nowhere to be seen.
I’d left my folks’ place in Maidstone to come to Hastings to be nearer my girlfriend Alexa, currently a student of Brighton and Sussex Medical School. She’d persuaded me to return to further education myself, so I enrolled on a Criminology MA at the University of Sussex. I’d heard about schemes where students lived with elderly people to provide them with a bit of company in exchange for free or cheap accommodation. My deal was to give Gladys, a widow, company and do the chores her arthritis wouldn’t let her, for bed and board.
This musty catpiss reeking nicotine stained ramshackle house was to be my home for the next one year.
Gladys hobbled in with a tray. I took the mug she indicated, trying not to calculate its age since its last scrub from the circles on its rim. Gladys was watching the drama unfold on the smeared television screen, then mumbled something.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“No need to apologise, girl. I asked why your name is Millie. It’s more of a name for old ladies like me.” She continued to slurp, not making eye contact. Did this woman really want company or just wish to belittle me?
“I guess everything comes back round into fashion eventually,” I offered. I listened to the ticking of the carriage clock on the mantelpiece during the silence that followed. In my anxious, ‘what have I gotten myself into’ state it ticked like a bomb. Soon, the awkwardness would be too much and I would self-detonate. I was good at writing a breezy online profile, responding to adverts in a chipper manner, but it takes me a while to feel comfortable around new people. Ideally, I’d like to live on my own, but selfishly no relatives have yet to die, leaving me a bundle of cash, so here I am. Wedged in a threadbare armchair and a generation gap as wide as the Sahara.
I shifted, trying to dislodge a coil from my left buttock. “Um, I guess I’ll unpack if you don’t mind, Gladys. I’d like to freshen up and get an early one.”
“An early what, love?”
“Of course, you’ve had a long day, haven’t you?”
That much was true. My parents didn’t exactly approve of my change of career (studying something that might be useful, instead of learning how to fix the photocopier when it tried to turn pieces of paper into accordions and making cups of tea for smarmy solicitors) nor my choice of relationship. It was a terse goodbye, with their distrust simmering below the surface and me squashing my own doubts into my abdomen.
Gladys started the cacophony of grunts I would in time learn as her soundtrack to standing. At first I thought she was choking on a custard cream and panicked. When I realised what was going on I leapt up and made movements to stop her.
“Don’t get up, please. Just tell me where to go. And if you need anything while I’m up?”
Gladys panted gratitude. “Up the stairs, and your room’s on the left. Mine’s the right. Bathroom right down the end.”
I began dragging my heavy case up the stairs, catching a glint of plates piled up like jenga in the kitchen sink. I thought Alexa’s shared student house was pretty grim. But I felt my initial disgust softening into sadness. Gladys clearly needed a helping hand.
Forty or so minutes into cramming my stuff into nooks and crannies in the small spare bedroom (the cleanest place I’d seen so far) I heard further grunts and creaks as my new housemate ascended the stairs. Ten minutes later, she stood in the doorway, white face and white hair above her camel coloured cardigan and skirt giving her the resemblance of a melting ice-cream.
Her eyes surveyed my organised chaos. I realised some of my knickers were strewn over the end of the bed and felt self-conscious.
Gladys waddled in and began examining the photos I’d put up on the shelf. “This Mum and Dad?” she asked, and I confirmed. It was taken on a day out to Hastings beach when I was about five years old. Mum had an odd perm and Dad had a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Habits they’d both thankfully dispensed with.
“And who’s this? Little sister?”
Oh god. Alexa. May as well just come out and say it, no point trying to hide anything in a house this small.
“Actually, that’s my girlfriend. She’s studying at BSMS.”
Gladys paused a while. Wondering what to say next or to phone the police, I couldn’t tell.
“And you’re living with me and not with her?”
“She’s happy where she is for now. We haven’t been together than long, you see, only about nine months or so. She says she wants to experience ‘student life’ a while longer.”
“And she’s talked you into doing the same, I see,” said Gladys, with a faint smile. A perceptive old bird, this one. It’s true, I did let people talk me into stuff. “Hang on a minute.”
I hadn’t planned on going anywhere. I continued to put heavy expensive textbooks on a shelf that surprisingly only seemed to have the one layer of dust.
Gladys shuffled back in, something glittering in the gnarled roots of her fingers. “Here, open it.” I sat down on the lumpy bed, where thankfully no springs trying to penetrate me this time.
A gold plated heart shaped locket on a chain that had seen better days. I flipped it open with a fingernail and two black and white beauties looked out, not at me, but at each other. Mona Lisa smiles below tight shoulder length waves of hair on one, and a familiar tight, not yet white bun on the other.
“That was my girlfriend,” Gladys said softly. I almost dropped them both.
“Would’ve been wife, but we didn’t like to draw too much attention to ourselves. It’s not like these days, where you get parades in your honour.”
I didn’t like to ask what happened to her, so I simply said “she’s gorgeous.” Gladys nodded and her already watery eyes threatened to overflow.
This was not how I imagined our first meeting going. I suppressed my tiredness, like I do with so many emotions for the benefit of others, and volunteered to fix us both some dinner.
A month later, and I was just starting to get on top of the cleaning, into a routine that suited both Gladys and I. She liked to get up at 4am, whereas I was used to seeing that sort of time from the other side. Insomnia and hanging with Alexa’s student buddies (I’d yet to form a clan of my own; MA students usually have their own networks or even marriages to keep them occupied) were both to thank. She left cigarettes burning in ashtrays, while I stubbed them out and sprayed the rooms. I finally met the furry friend, Garth, named after Garfield and not Garth Brooks as I’d inquired (a suggestion which had been met with many cackles). Garth liked to wake me up by pouncing from the top of the wardrobe onto my stomach and liked to kick litter out of his box, which I put back (and considered dumping into his food bowl once or twice).
One day Alexa invited herself over for dinner. She was curious about my octogenarian ‘project’ (her description) and of course the two got on like a house on fire. Which it nearly was, with me now having double the amounts of cigarettes to keep an eye on. Washed down with brandy.
Lying in her bed the next evening (I didn’t want Alexa staying at mine, not knowing that Gladys was right across the corridor) I complained, “People warm to you so much more than they do me. I don’t know how you do it.”
“I’m just me,” she shrugged, her sharp little shoulders poking me.
“But so am I,” I said. “I think.”
Back in my own bed the next day I laid there wide awake as usual. I was still unused to the sounds of the house, its heartbeat of bumps and pipes juddering. The seagulls caw-cawing from the chimneys all the way down the street. Sounds of traffic. Cars driven by all the people I hadn’t met yet. Where were they going? What were they doing driving about at half one in the morning? The shadows in the room I was getting familiar with. The outline on the wall I was so convinced was a demon one fretful night was the shadow of the guest dressing gown.
I cleaned and studied, cleaned and studied. I wanted a bit of pocket money, so I took a job at the hospital switchboard. Only two evenings a week. You’d think with my shyness I would hate handling phone calls, but it’s easier with disembodied voices.
One evening, Gladys called.
“Gladys. You really shouldn’t be using this line unless it’s an emergency. Is everything alright?”
Her voice wavered. “What did you do with Sammy?”
“The spider. He lives above my wardrobe.”
I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. My eyes darted to lights twinkling on the switchboard. An out-of-control panel, as it was becoming.
“Sammy’s a spider? You had me worried. I dusted the top of the wardrobe yesterday, he must have scuffled off.”
“You destroyed his home? But he was my friend. Eats the flies.”
It was mid-December. There were no flies.
“Listen, Gladys, I’m sorry but we’ll have to talk about this later. I’ve got other calls coming through.”
“Okay.” I heard a click. I took a deep breath in and counted, one, two, three. Exhaled for five. Moved on to the next call. The cobwebs I’d swept away crept into my head, worries entangling there. I’d potentially killed an already grieving old lady’s friend. I barely had time to see Alexa anymore. Studies were getting more complicated, the homework harder. My parents continued their deafening silence. The night shifts were disrupting my already irregular sleeping patterns. Concerned relatives asked after patients, and I clicked around in grey boxes, searching for the answers on autopilot.
But at least I had a home to go to. And a clean one, at that. I would make it up to Gladys. I would be her pet spider. Not to go as far as eating insects, but I would multitask as though in possession of eight limbs. Something would have to go though, I thought sorrowfully, my free hand instinctively going to the locket containing Alexa that hung from my neck.