Authors: Katharine Moore
Janet hadn’t thought of calling her anything but “Puss”. “But ‘Puss’ is every cat’s surname,” objected Harriet, “I shall call her ‘Maisie’.” Maisie had been the name of a beautiful aristocratic white Persian with blue eyes who lived next door to Queensmead, and who had reminded Harriet of her mother.
“Do you mind if she is called Maisie?” she asked anxiously.
“You can call her what you like,” answered Miss Cook rather shortly. She had no special objection to Harriet who had not shown herself to be a snag as yet, but she did not want to encourage her to come chattering, nor to have her bothering round after the cat, so she did not continue the conversation but picked up her trowel and went indoors and Maisie followed her. “She doesn’t like me,” thought Harriet, “but she’s kind, she likes Maisie.”
Letty Sanderson learned more about her tenants from her Tuesday lunch times with Dian than from her own observations. She told herself she ought to stop Dian from gossiping but this was next to impossible, and it was also, it must be confessed, very tempting to listen. What she heard was sometimes disquieting and she wished she need not believe it, but Dian was so transparently and objectively honest, she found she had to.
“That Aubrey, he’s a queer, I’d say, but not one of them jolly ones, if you know what I mean — too many bottles about, but no one to share ’em with, is there?”
Mrs Sanderson confirmed that Mr Stacey seemed to
have few friends and Dian nodded. “I’d know if there’d been a party.”
“Mr Stacey spends his leisure-time writing,” said Letty firmly, “He’s an author.”
“I dessay,” said Dian, “poor chap!”
Letty smiled but the thought of the bottles haunted her all the same.
In addition to doing the rough work for Mrs Sanderson and Aubrey, Dian had sometimes obliged Margot when she had an extra work-load.
“You can’t resist her, can you,” she said, “but I don’t get satisfaction out of all that matting she has on the floors, it’s not homely. But that Margot, she’d make a fortune on the telly, I tells her — she’s got what it takes right enough. Funny her taking up with that Andrew, regular stick he is, might be one of they computers doing all the work for all he cares, he don’t see me even if I’m right under his nose, which I have to be as often as not, for he don’t move an inch for the vacuum to get out of me way.”
“But he notices his wife, I hope,” Letty couldn’t help saying a little anxiously.
“You bet,” said Dian, “but mind you, if it came to busting up, he’d get along without her better nor the other way round.”
“Well, it won’t come to that, I’m sure,” said Letty decisively. She really mustn’t let herself discuss such matters with Dian. But it was no use.
“You never know these days,” said Dian cheerfully, “and especially when there’s never been any wedding bells neither.”
“But Dian,” said Letty shocked, “what makes you say that? I know Mrs Royce uses her first husband’s name still for her business purposes, perhaps that has muddled you.”
She was dreadfully afraid that she saw Dian wink.
“What does she want with a business, anyways?” she said, “Of course, if it was the telly, it would be different, but her’s is just a shop. My mum now, she had to leave us, my Dad got hisself killed in the war, see, but she made it up to us when she was at home, like one of them old boilers she was, stoked up early mornings and evenings so that it warms you all day long.”
“But you go out to work and you say you don’t have to,” said Letty.
“I haven’t a kid to look after,” said Dian, “that Harriet, she’s no better than a latchkey child, I wouldn’t oblige as I do if I’d
had a little kid.” She was silent for a moment. “My Luke, he’d’ve liked one too, but I guess I was too old when I took up with him. Anyways, time to clear them bottles out of that attic now — tootle-oo, luv,” and she disappeared up the stairs.
A YEAR HAD
passed since Letty Sanderson had moved into the Lotus House. Miss Cook’s efforts had produced a flourishing row of sweetpeas and clumps of drowsy-smelling stocks. These had given place to marigolds and red dwarf dahlias — the latter were expensive but she had been assured that after the first frost, if she dug them up and stored them for replanting in May, they would last her for a long while. The first frosts were late that year and the garden was bright till the end of October.
To Harriet the time she lived in the Lotus House seemed very long. She was still at an age when the past scarcely exists in the conscious mind and the future is too vague to intrude on the all-important present. Childhood is a violent period — an hour of misery or of happiness has no conceivable end. Time has not yet learnt its confines, eternity lies in wait for us at every corner.
For Letty, of course, it was the other way round. The year had flown by and as she grew older, time went so fast that the present was hardly to be caught and pinned down. It was like trying to lay hold of a dream before it vanishes into the light of the real world. And which was the reality, she sometimes wondered?
It was All Hallows day.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” Dian enquired of Miss Cook.
“No,” said Janet, “certainly not.”
“Luke and me do,” said Dian, “Luke, he’s seen things hisself, in other countries mind, not here, and there’s plenty of people on the telly that’s seen them.”
“But I wonder,” went on Dian, “why are they always sad or wicked? Aren’t there any happy and good ones?”
“There aren’t any at all,” said Janet firmly, “but if there were, the good ones’d have something better to do, I should say, than to hang around here.”
“Well, but you’d think they’d like to come and see how we was getting on. I know I would if it was Luke was left, and the places where I’d enjoyed myself, too. P’raps there
nice ghosts but they don’t get talked about. People’d think them soft, I dessay, and they wouldn’t make a good telly programme, see. That’s it, I expect. I like ’em best wicked myself — the sort that lure you on.”
“What nonsense,” commented Janet Cook to herself. She had somehow fallen into the habit of inviting Dian in for a cup of tea quite frequently on her Tuesdays. After the rescue from ‘the Terribles’, it had seemed polite so to do, and then actually pleasant. She was surprised at herself but there it was. Having a place of your own was so different, and Dian was appreciative, no doubt of that.
“Looks lovely now your carpet does; funny how much bigger your lounge looks than Luke’s and mine though I bet it’s smaller really, we’re so crowded up. My Luke’s a collector, see, all sorts of things. I tell him he hasn’t left space enough to swing a kitten, let alone a cat. Talk of the devil, here’s that Maisie at the window now.”
“She’s not allowed in here,” said Janet.
“Looks as if she’s in the family way,” said Dian.
“Oh dear, do you think so? I hope not,” exclaimed Janet. “Isn’t it just that she was so thin before and you’re noticing the difference?”
Dian shook her head. “She’s plumped out all right but
it’s all in one place. You should have got her seen to.”
“I never thought. I don’t know much about these things,” said Janet.
“Well, it’s too late now,” said Dian cheerfully, “and anyways, I expect it’d be shutting the stable door after that Mrs Bates’ Blackie had got at her. She’s never had
done and never will and he’s a regular Donje.”
“A what?” asked Janet.
“A Donje, a Spanisher he was, and a sugar daddy if ever there was one. They Spanishers are worse than any my Luke says, and he’s travelled all over the place, used to be a stoker, see.”
Maisie was pressed against the window pane glowering at them balefully. Janet was determined that she should remain strictly a working kitchen-cat, but Maisie was equally convinced that by rights she had now attained the status of a drawing-room pet. She had somehow become “Maisie” to everyone, though Janet disapproved of animals being given the names of human beings.
“Will it be soon?” she enquired.
“Not so long, I’d say,” said Dian, eyeing Maisie speculatively, “but you’ll know it’s when she starts to look about the place, see.”
“What will she be looking for?”
“Her maternity bed,” said Dian, “and it’ll be no sort of use your giving her a box or basket, never mind if it’s got ever so nice a cushion in it or anything. Cats are that choosy, no National Health for them, see, private and special, just what takes their fancy. My mum’s Rosy, she had her first lot in my sister’s bottom drawer, nipped in when no one was looking, Sis not shutting it proper after she’d been showing off her wedding veil. For her next she fancied Gran’s cardigan — the one she kept for best. Then it was my Dad’s box of picture papers — hoards ’em up he does for rainy days, but Rosie, she tore ’em all to bits, so then Dad had her seen to and Mum said she
wished it had been her, ’cause there was five of us already, see, and another on the way, no pill then there wasn’t and Mum careless, but she didn’t mean nothing, she loved us all every one she did, and no one was to know my Dad was going to get hisself killed.”
“Well,” said Janet, “I shall take good care this cat is shut out from now on. I shall continue to feed her, of course, but she must not be allowed in — after all she’s only a stray.”
Sometimes Dian rattled on in a way that re-awakened in Janet Cook that disapproving voice, grown somewhat fainter of late; “This is not at all the sort of person to invite into your home, not a fit acquaintance for you, Janet.”
All the same, she heard herself actually accepting a return invitation to visit Dian that very next week.
“It’s a terrible early supper, Luke comes home that hungry. You won’t mind, will you, dear?” said Dian.
Afterwards Janet Cook wondered why she hadn’t made up some excuse to refuse, but it was difficult with Dian somehow, the mistake, she feared, was having got on such terms in the first place, as her mother kept tiresomely reminding her. Yet she found herself looking forward to the visit. It must be confessed she was curious to see Dian’s home and to meet Luke, for, what with the move to the Lotus House and the garden and getting to know Dian, a strange new sensation had recently invaded her — an urge, faint but persistent, towards adventure.
Dian and Luke lived in one of the estate houses and outside it looked no different from its neighbours, but when the front door opened Janet Cook was confronted with something disconcertingly different. Facing her was a large wooden plaque on which was emblazoned in ornamental poker work the words:
To Happy Hall.
On the reverse side it said:
Don’t miss your train
But come again.
Surrounding this and decorating the passage were flags of many different nations. A door painted a brilliant blue led into quite a large room, but as Dian had said, it did not look its size. Its walls were covered from top to toe with matchboxes of all sizes, shapes and colours, strung together in long festoons. In front of each of the two windows were stands crowded with flourishing pot plants. Above the mantelpiece were two more pokerwork plaques — one declared that “East, West, home is best”, and the other “Good food, good drink, good cheer, Good health to all folks here”. Beneath, one of those electric fires of mock glowing coal was flanked each side by a gnome sitting on a large red and white toadstool. In the centre of the room was a round table covered with dishes; two fat red plush chairs and a conch found space for themselves somehow, and in one corner was an outsize television set crowned with framed family photographs. In the other a guitar propped itself against a goldfish bowl.
Janet Cook, staring about her with her sharp black eyes, was quite taken aback by all this odd miscellany.
“See what I mean?” said Dian, “I don’t care so much for objects myself, but Luke, he’s a collector like I said, and he’s that good about dusting all his boxes hisself.”
“You’ve got some lovely plants,” said Janet politely.
“Not half bad,” agreed Dian, “though I says it. I have to have ’em all in here, there’s no sort of use trying to grow ’em in the garden, see.”
Janet looked out of the window and indeed did see that the garden also was very full, but not of flowers or vegetables. A great many more gnomes made a bright border to a patch of grass which was populated by a
number of large and small tortoises, perambulating slowly round in search of the lettuce leaves strewn about for their benefit.
“Luke, he loves them tortoises,” explained Dian, “he can’t bear for to see ’em in those pet shops, crawling all over each other, dying and sad. I tell him the more he buys ’em up, the more the dealers’ll get others in, but it don’t carry no weight with him. He says as it won’t make no difference to speak of to the trade but it’ll make all the difference in the world to these here tortoises now, but he’ll have to stop soon, ’cause there won’t be any more room for ’em. Same with the gnomes, he buys ’em plain and colours ’em hisself, he can’t keep off ’em; they gnomes and they tortoises, they’re like children to him, and he feels almost as much for Fred, that’s the goldfish. I can’t get up enthusiasm for ’im myself. Won ’im in a raffle, I did, for cancer research — well, you never know, do you? I wanted a mink coat and I got a goldfish. Still, he don’t give us trouble. That’s Luke now, it’s his boxing night really, but he said he’d give it a miss so as to come back early to meet you. He’s a super boxer, is Luke, that’s why the boys mind him.”
Luke was enormous. When Janet Cook saw him filling up the doorway, she wondered how on earth he could fit into the crowded sitting-room, but he moved around with a slow sureness. He extinguished Dian in a huge hug from which she extricated herself as if used to it. Then he turned to Janet and seized her limp unready hand and worked it up and down like a pump handle.
“What have you got for us to eat then, darling?” he asked Dian.
“He’s always afraid I’m going to starve him,” she said.
“She starves herself, not me,” said Luke to Janet. “Looks like there’s plenty on the table anyways. Why, that’s my gal, she don’ forget her ole man.”
“You don’t have to taste them, if you don’t want,” said
Dian to Janet, “sweet potatoes and kidney beans, that’s what Luke likes, but I never touch ’em — it’s what you’re used to, isn’t it?”
Janet Cook, sitting bolt upright on the edge of her chair, nibbled at a paste sandwich and a piece of chocolate roll, and watched Luke as if he were some strange animal as he worked his way steadily through plateful after plateful. But at last he finished and began to talk. He had a soft warm voice.
“You like my matchboxes, honey?” he enquired.
“It must have taken you a very long time to collect them all,” Janet replied evasively.
“Ever since I was a little ’un,” said Luke, “I used to ask the sailors for them when they put in at the harbour. I was raised in Old Spanish Town and I were mad after the sea, went as a cabin boy soon as I were old enough, then got to be stoker — trading in bananas, we were, and everywhere we went I got them matchboxes. But one day come and I’d enough of wandering, was that the day I met my darling? Near enough. Then it was ‘East, West, home’s best’, wasn’t it, honey? But I kept my matchboxes.”
“Give us a song, now,” said Dian, “he sings lovely, as good as one of they pop guys any day.”
Luke took down his guitar and bent over it lovingly.
“Sing ‘To my donkey’,” ordered Dian, and he began crooning softly. It sounded like a foreign language to Janet. “Tie meh dongdey.”
“Now ‘Yellow bird’,” said Dian. The low rich voice crooned on and Janet Cook’s stiff little body relaxed. Then the song changed again.
“This is his favourite,” whispered Dian, “it’s ‘This is my island in the sun’”. Janet had never been out of England and had scarcely ever even seen the sea, but, as she listened, she felt as if she were lying by it — a very blue sea, with scarlet blossoming trees growing close to
the shore and brilliant yellow and green birds darting among them.
When Luke stopped singing Janet stood up to leave and Luke said he would see her home. “There’s no need for that, thank you,” said Janet, but Luke took no notice. Crossing the street he put his arm round her to steer her through the traffic. This made her feel queer and uncomfortable, and she was glad when they reached the Lotus House. Left alone she suddenly realized that she was tired and sat still doing nothing for a little while.
“Well, it takes all sorts,” said Janet Cook to herself. And then, “Perhaps I might take one of those coach trips down to the sea one day.” And then “Wouldn’t like all those matchboxes about, and the tortoises, rather her than me.” And then “Wonder what it’s like to be her, all the same.” She didn’t remember ever having been hugged and hardly kissed even, since those hurried embraces from poor old Dad years and years ago — you couldn’t call those pecks she and her mother exchanged “kisses”. “They say you don’t miss what you’ve never had — I liked the singing, though.”
She sat for a bit longer. Then, “Mustn’t be fanciful,” she said, and got up to take off her jacket and put away her bag.
The next morning brought a letter from her sister-in-law.
she thought. Contacts between them were usually confined to a picture postcard on holidays and birthdays and Christmas greetings. The letter said that Doris (now second mistress in the large primary school of the very respectable suburb where she and Henry had their home), had been asked to deputize for her headmistress at an important educational conference in the north where her parents lived, and she had obtained extra leave of absence to extend her stay for a week so as to visit them. “We thought it might make a nice change for you to keep Henry company while I am
away. You have never seen our new house,” Doris wrote.
“No, because this is the first time you have asked me to visit you since Mother died and you moved,” said Janet, “It’s as plain as a pikestaff you want me just to cook and clean while you’re not there. How do they know I want a nice change? I don’t, as a matter of fact. Pretty sure of me, too, Doris is, gives me times of trains and bus connections, not going to get the car out for me, no fear. Still, blood is thicker than water and I shall go, I suppose.”