Authors: Jane Yeadon
Reluctantly, I sat down trying not to check my watch.
‘She’s got a great setup. Rooms in a big house which must have been grand once, but it’s old now and a tad decrepit. I bet the road was built after it. It’s cobbled with such a narrow pavement, step out the door and passing buses could trim your toes.’
Maisie twirled her mules as if to reassure them. ‘It sounds oldie worldie.’
‘Well, the University must think it’s worth saving. It’s near King’s College in the old town quarters. They’ve bought it from Mrs Ronce, Beth’s landlady, giving her life rent. It was a good deal, especially as she was able to tell them about the leaking roof a month after signing the contract.’
‘How many?’ Maisie held a large spoon over a sugar bowl.
‘Just two please. I’m thinking of dieting.’
‘And what about inside?’
‘Well, they don’t make front doors like that anymore.’ I recalled a huge heavy affair which opened into a dusty entrance hall that might have looked classy had the marble floor not been cracked and the grandfather clock missing the minute hand. ‘And once inside, you have to watch out. The rug’s so threadbare I tripped over it the first time I visited Beth. I’d a weekend with her, thought I’d suss the City before I started training.’ I rubbed my neck. ‘I could have broken this instead of becoming the city slicker I am today.’
Maisie squinted down her nose. ‘You’ve a while to go yet. And Mrs Ronce?’
‘She’s quite a character. Posh but chirpy as a sparrow. According to Beth, she must live on fresh air: it’s certainly not on the rental pittance she asks her and her pal. I suppose it’s all a bit basic and cold but Mrs Ronce doesn’t seem to feel it and on the rare occasion she does, she buys a woolly from the charity shop where she sometimes works, and as for transport – well – she’s got a pensioner’s pass.’ I stirred my tea, feeling the syrup underneath. ‘D’you know, there’s enough sugar here to last her a week.’
‘And does she cook for the girls?’
‘Sometimes she knocks up what she calls savoury messes. Beth says they’re great, but she cooks mostly for her cats. They’re the most valued residents and very partial to fish, so the place can stink a bit. According to my sister, you don’t notice it after a while.’
‘Gyad,’ Maisie wrinkled her nose, oblivious to the lingering odours in the pantry. ‘And is there a Mr Ronce?’
‘Apparently there was one, but long ago. I gather there was a favourable divorce settlement, enough to fund fancy cat food anyway.’
‘So why take lodgers?’
‘She’s very young at heart, loves the company and likes to know what’s going on in their lives.’
‘A bit, I suppose, but Scrabble’s her passion so she’s never short of players. She’d engineer anybody into playing it but it’s not a big price for allowing parties and unlimited numbers of young folk around.’ I mused, ‘I certainly couldn’t imagine my parents putting up with a houseful of young folk, let alone enjoying their parties, but Mrs Ronce even plays the piano for them.’
I drained the cup and got up, shoving on my anorak. ‘Unfortunately, hospitality rates fairly low in farming routines when everybody’s to be up at the crack of dawn. Anyway – I’ll need to go. I’ve promised to go down early and help get the place ready. If you hadn’t opted for Inverurie’s bright lights you could have come tonight.’
Maisie poured another cup of tea and yawned deeply. ‘What it is to have a crowded social diary. I’m exhausted already. I think I’ll have to go back to bed.’
I caught the bus to Old Aberdeen.
A planet away from the sixties city high rises, the area wore a look of ancient dignity with its narrow, winding cobbled streets, walled gardens and King’s College, standing some way from the road, regal in its learned past. Apart from the sound of buses rattling over the uneven stones, it was very quiet.
I got off at Mrs Ronce’s house where it was noisier, the old lion’s head over the doorknocker seeming to try for a roar, albeit in a lacklustre way.
Still, what was the want of Brasso compared to the sparkling welcome of Mrs Ronce?
‘Janey!’ she cried, lugging open the door. She looked pleased though odd, with something like a snail curling halfway across her forehead. ‘Come in! I’m in the kitchen – in the middle of something actually. Now, mind the cats.’ She scampered on ratty legs, back into a room leading off the hall.
It was a shame the university hadn’t stretched funds for some redecoration. The high corniced ceilings and mouldings deserved better than the present flaking distemper, yet the house retained a charm reminiscent of a kindly dowager relaxed amongst fading treasures.
Two ginger cats were parked under the stove, keeping vigil over a big pan of fish boiling on the gas, with enough room left for a faintly glowing gadget. It could have been a branding iron but Mrs Ronce was now using it on her fringe to produce a matching snail. The smell of fish mixing with singed hair was a unique combination and enough to alert Beth, who stuck her head round the door.
Her eyes watered as she said, ‘My, but you’re up early, we haven’t had our breakfast yet.’
‘I could fry you some kippers,’ Mrs Ronce offered. Both cats and Beth looked horrified.
‘Thanks, but we’ll fix ourselves up with something when we go into town. Sally and I are going now to beat the crowds and get stuff for tonight.’
Sally, petite, blonde and beautiful, joined us. ‘Hi big little sis, good to see you. So you’ve come to help. Great! It should be fun; nurses like a good time.’ Her friendliness was genuine, so I wondered why such a chance remark should make me cross. Ok, I might dwarf Beth, but what was wrong with a size fourteen? I sucked in my stomach and supposed malnutrition mustn’t figure in any of their lectures.
‘You’ll see we’re off on a big errand?’ Sally waved two large shopping bags. Then, listening intently, she cried, ‘Quick! There’s a bus coming. Come on, Beth, if we hurry we’ll catch it.’
‘Ok.’ Beth grabbed her duffel. ‘You’ll probably still be here Jane, when we come back, and we’ll catch up then. I’m dying to know how the caring world is progressing.’ The door slammed and they were gone.
I sighed. ‘Honestly, Beth and her pals make me mad. They’re always going on about nurses liking a good time as if that’s all they think about and did you hear that sarky crack about caring?’
Mrs Ronce had looked out a package with faded lettering and was pouring the contents into a pan of boiling water. ‘Personally, I think nurses are wonderful, and much as I respect the would-be academics of this world, they won’t have seen half or any of the stuff nurses have to cope with,’ she stirred vigorously, ‘so I suppose some nurses might think parties are a good way to let their hair down and as they’re not patients, that’s all that students see of them. Of course, you won’t be like that, Jane.’ She held up an admonishing wooden spoon. ‘You’re far too stable and sensible. Now I’m going to have some porridge as a special treat. You can either have some or go and check the cellar.’
Unsure if I liked the recent accolade I asked, ‘The cellar?’
Mrs Ronce nodded at the grandfather clock. ‘There. Open the door and see if there’s anything in it.’
An array of quality sherry bottles as good as any bar’s stock stood around the pendulum.
‘I have them to make my Scrabble parties go with a swing, you’d be amazed how it loosens people’s vocabularies, and of course, I have the occasional morning constitutional.’ She smacked her lips. ‘So let’s put them somewhere else so there’s room for tonight’s surplus. And before you ask, sometimes people carry a surplus and don’t know it. Storage like this is all in the name of charity and preventative medicine. As a nurse, I’m sure you’ll approve.’
The sitting room was opposite the kitchen. I took the bottles out and stored them in a coffin disguised as an ancient cupboard and looked at the fire. There was a rug in front of it, so old and tatty there should have been a preservation order on it.
‘Will I get in some coal?’ Some pathetic-looking embers were on the edge of expiry.
‘Good God, no!’ Mrs Ronce threw down her spoon before coming through to seize a poker and give the cinders a hearty extinguishing whack. ‘It’s absolutely boiling in here.’
I was glad that I’d asked, surprised we couldn’t see our breath in front of us and suddenly aware that I might have to shop for something warm to survive. Setting about clearing the sitting room, I thought something cute but not sensible in flannel should do the trick.
The cats, abandoning all hope of food, had departed to the untamed garden and had taken to glaring in from the sitting room window sill.
‘I’m afraid they’re no party animals. They always know when there’s one on.’ Mrs Ronce flicked a grimy dishcloth in their direction, shouting after them, ‘Just you go and find a home in the summerhouse.’
She meant the converted wardrobe at the bottom of the garden. It looked like a step up from the trysting byre of home, but Mrs Ronce declared it out of bounds and only for pussy cats made homeless by selfish people wanting to sit on sofas and have parties.
Beth and Sally had come back and were in time to help replace the caster wheel dislodged from the piano during its trundle to a whole floorboard area.
‘Good! I can’t play on a slope.’ Mrs Ronce, with a toothy grin, rattled off ‘Three Little Maids’, her foot hard on the accelerator.
‘It feels like a bomb alert in here.’ Beth threw aside a list, found a chair and tidied herself into a small corner.
Sally said in her elegant exhausted way, ‘Saturday shopping’s hell but that’s the main part of the work done. Now what we need is a nice cup of tea.’ She raised eyebrows so finely sculpted they must have been done under general anaesthetic. ‘What say you, Oh Jeannie of the Magic Lamp?’
‘Hey, that’s a good one,’ said Beth, perking up. ‘Perfect name for you, sis. Go and do some magic in the kitchen.’
‘No thanks.’ I was sour. ‘The lamp’s left in the Nurses’ Home. Anyway, I’ll need to get back. Maybe give it a polish too.’
I should have added, ‘Now that the heavy work’s been done,’ but only thought of it stepping off the Union Street bus.
Out in Aberdeen’s main shopping area, the shops were full of clothes for rich mannequins unlikely to move, catch buses or be anywhere cold. Maybe it was the prices or even the lack of breakfast, but suddenly I felt dizzy.
I leant my forehead against the cool window of a chemist shop and practised the deep breathing acquired when I finally accepted that Beth could hit harder then me. It worked in as much as the street stopped reeling, but I saw from the reflection in the glass that I was a perfect contrast to the advertising picture inside of a tanned, fit and lovely looking model declaring, ‘You too can be a golden girl; what’s more, it’s Fantanstically simple!’
Apart from those who had trowelled on the Panstick foundation or were a red raw colour scoured by the April wind, the faces on the Aberdeen crowds were as colourless as mine. I had never ever had a tan – freckles ruled – so on an impulse, I went into the shop and bought a bottle the model assured held such promise.
It was night time and Maisie was still in her morning gear, hairnet firmly in place.
‘You look ready for bed you lazy thing,’ I said.
Along the corridor outside her room came the sound of nurses getting ready for that good time Sally and Beth spoke about. Even if Morag had been robust in her stay-at-home policy, the air of Saturday night excitement must have made her feel isolated with only a photo for company.
There was something black stretched over the back of Maisie’s bedside chair. ‘And what on earth’s that? It looks like an antimacassar.’
‘It’s to accentuate my lovely figure. It’s a new roll-on I bought today.’ Maisie stepped over to ping it, looking disappointed when it snapped right back. ‘Drat! I think it’s still going to be a bit tight.’ She sucked her lip. ‘But at least it proves I’ve been downtown and not slobbing about all day as you’re so unkindly implying.’
There was a light tap on the door and Isobel came in.
‘Hey, great timing! Jane’s deaving me with her questions. We thought you were away with the others having the weekend at home.’
Isobel drifted in, sat on the bed, and despite an air of disgruntlement, transformed it into a chaise lounge.
‘I’ve just finished with my boyfriend,’ she said. ‘We’ve had such a big row and now I don’t want to go home as my folks would be asking all sorts of silly questions.’ Her sigh was worthy of a fine actress. ‘They did say he was a weasel and it’s a bit soon for me to admit they were right, so I thought I’d come and recover in good company’ – she stopped short as Maisie slapped on face cream – ‘Good God! What’s that? It makes you look like a corpse.’
Maisie peered into the mirror as she realigned her spectacles for a better look. ‘The bright lights of Inverurie demand the best and you wouldn’t know anything about having to use this clarty stuff, but I’m just searching for a perfect complexion with a bit of natural colour.’ She slapped her cheeks hopefully.
‘Stop that, Maisie. I think I’ve got the answer – the very dab in fact.’
I ran to get the Fantanstic. ‘Look.’ I showed the bottle and, like Sally’s genie, explained its magical properties. ‘There’s plenty here – for you too, Isobel, if you fancy, in the absence of a better offer, being sun kissed.’
Isobel’s smile was tolerant and it was good to see her perk up, but Maisie was more interested and grabbed the bottle.
‘ “Put on evenly and in a few hours you’ll have your friends asking you where you acquired that deep Mediterranean tan.’ ” She read carefully, her finger following the small print, then she scrutinised me. ‘You haven’t tried it yet?’
I didn’t want to admit the preliminary trial, minutes before visiting. Anyway, the stuff had seemed pretty innocuous and I had only put on a little, which in the muted light of Maisie’s bedroom, didn’t seem to have had much effect.
‘It says it takes a few hours to develop so I need to do it now.’ Maisie squirted out a quarter-bottle load, which she divided between her face and arms. ‘It’s not got the best smell,’ she said. ‘Still, one has to suffer for the sake of –’