Copyright Oggbashan November 2013 (Edited December 2013)
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.
It was a damp, cold late November, a Friday evening as our three-card brag school sat in the smoke-filled Public Bar. Simon, the newest member of our group, had kept trying to raise the stakes beyond our usual pennies. We played for enjoyment but took our competition seriously. An evening's loss of five shillings, the price of a couple of pints of beer, was seen as massive. Simon would try to bid ten shillings when our agreed rules limited the maximum to two shillings. He didn't seem to realise that although any of us could afford to pay more, the contest was more important to us than the money.
As closing time approached we discussed how we would continue the game as we did most Friday evenings. Usually one or other of us would be able to use a room in our parents' houses but that night we were stymied. Simon offered his girlfriend's flat a few hundred yards away. We were doubtful. What woman would want eight men playing cards all night? Simon went down the road to check. When he returned he said that she'd agreed if we were prepared to pay her a few pence each for the cost of coffee and biscuits.
We bought a few bottles of beer each from the Off-Sales counter and walked down the road. We were quieter than usual perhaps because we weren't sure about using a stranger's flat. When we arrived we were even more embarrassed. Monica was no stranger. She had been a contemporary at school and probably all of us had kissed her behind the bike sheds at least once. I was shocked by the change in her. She looked years older than us, grey-faced, without make-up, and obviously tired. She was wearing a grubby housecoat and was on her way to bed.
She showed us straight into the living room. It was tidy but seemed barely used with a musty smell of old furniture, stale cigarette smoke and unopened windows. She told us where the coffee, milk and biscuits were kept and left us to our card game. Her only request was that we keep the noise down and the living room door shut so we wouldn't disturb the children.
Children? Surely Monica wasn't old enough to have children. I noticed her bare fingers. Not only was there no wedding ring, there was no sign that she had ever worn one. For the late 1960s that wouldn't have been unusual in big cities but in our small town unmarried mothers were still rare.
About four in the morning I decided to take a break from the game to make the coffee. The beer had run out. I was neither a winner nor a loser so no one objected when I announced that I would miss a few hands. I asked for quiet as I left the room, shutting the door carefully behind me. I walked into the kitchen.
It was a mess. There was a pile of washing up on the sink, another one on the work surface and dirty crockery on the kitchen table. There were piles of dirty clothes on the sticky floor. The cooker was stained with burnt food and congealed grease. I couldn't find any clean mugs to use for the coffee. I would have to wash some mugs at least.
I cleared the sink and ran some hot water. There was a small amount of washing up liquid and no spare bottle. Half the liquid might do. As quietly as I could I washed enough mugs for all of us. The washing up water was still hot so I started on plates and dishes. By the time the water was too dirty to clean any more I had washed about a quarter of the accumulated heaps.
I made the coffee, found a tray that I had to wipe clean, and took the coffee in to the card game. They barely noticed as I distributed the mugs because three of them had strong hands. For our card school the atmosphere was tense. I saw who held what as I deposited the coffee. Simon, betting as high as we allowed, had the weakest hand. Peter's hand was good but not as good as David's, but David the player easiest to bluff. I sat down on the edge of an armchair to watch.
Simon pushed the other two hard but eventually had to fold. David immediately called Peter and won the hand, collecting nearly a pound in winnings. He looked at me and grinned. He hadn't won that much all year.
"Here John," he said, pushing a pile of pennies towards me, "that can go to our hostess. Anyone else giving?"
We all produced handfuls of small change which I piled on the tray.
"I'll change it up," I said.
"Don't bother," Simon suggested. "Monica prefers money in coins. She can manage it better like that."
I wasn't so sure. It didn't fit with the Monica I had known yet the flat showed signs of desperate poverty.
I watched the next couple of hands then took the tray with the coins, the used cups and the empty beer bottles back to the kitchen. No one noticed that I hadn't rejoined the game.
I was working as quietly as I could to avoid disturbing Monica and the children. An hour later I had nearly finished washing all the accumulated crockery and pans when David joined me.
"What have you been doing?" He asked quietly. "I missed you, even if the others didn't."
"Washing up." I pointed at the teetering heap awaiting drying.
"All that? We just had some mugs of coffee."
"I know, David, but virtually everything was filthy. I had to scrub the mugs before I could make the coffee. Once I'd started, I thought I'd finish. Look at the cooker."
David looked and shuddered. "Yuck!"
"Exactly. And all this heap was like that."
"Can't we clean the cooker?"
"With what? I've used all the washing up liquid and there are no other cleaners of any sort. I've searched. There's no detergent, no soap, no scouring powder -- nothing. Even this dishcloth has had it."
"We could buy some, John."
"This early? The corner shop doesn't open until eight."
I looked at my watch. Six-thirty.
"What about Angela?"
"Of course! Why didn't I think of her?"
Angela is my on/off girlfriend, a part-qualified nurse who works night shifts at the local Old People's Home which is owned and run by a charitable trust. She is relieved at seven in the morning by the first of the day shift. She is always pleased if any of her friends drop in for coffee towards the end of her session when all her charges are asleep. We had been going out together for a couple of years, enjoying each other's company, but looking for more -- elsewhere.
"Thanks, David. I'll try her. She might have something that could clean that cooker."
I let myself out of the front door, leaving it on the latch. David could see it while he dried up the dishes.
Angela's greeting was overwhelming. She hugged and kissed me as if I'd been away for months. Yet we had been out as a couple only three evenings ago. Almost before I'd got my breath back I had a cup of coffee in my hand and Angela snuggled in my lap. I couldn't resist as she kissed me again and again, at least not without spilling the coffee.
"John, you're just the person I wanted to see," Angela said between kisses.
"I've been asked to decorate the common room for Christmas and I can't reach, not even on a ladder. Will you?"
How could I refuse? Angela's kisses didn't give me time to do more than nod my head and transfer her next kiss to my forehead. Eventually she paused.
"But I'm forgetting," she said. "You must have come today for a reason. I normally see you during the week, not on Saturday morning. Out with it. What do you want from me? I'm feeling generous now you've agreed to help with the decoration."
I explained about the card school, about Monica, and my need for cleaning materials.
Angela kept asking about Monica, how she was, what she looked like, how she was coping with two small children...
"Coping?" I snorted. "She's not. Why? I don't know. I only saw her for a few minutes and she looked dreadful. The state of her kitchen told me more about her than her own appearance. She's lost it. I think she needs help and her so-called boyfriend Simon isn't it."
"We'll have to be careful, John," Angela suggested. "Monica may not appreciate help because it shows that we know what a state she's in. You could justify the washing-up and cleaning because you're repaying her for her hospitality. If I became involved? She could be offended."
"All I wanted from you was some things to clean the cooker, perhaps the floor, and to replace the washing-up liquid I'd used..."
"Are you sure that's all you wanted from me?" Angela asked archly.
"It's all I expected. The reception you gave me was welcome, enjoyable and a great bonus."
"You can have more of the same..." Angela kissed me again, "...but I might want more from you than help with the Christmas decorations. Would you give more?"
I was on the spot. I liked Angela. We'd kissed, often, but never as we had today. We had been boyfriend and girlfriend intermittently. We had drifted apart and had other relationships, come back together again, split again but always remained available for each other. Angela had fallen for someone else and I'd stood aside until she dumped him. I temporised.
"It depends what you want and whether you want what I can give."
"We'll see. For the moment, cleaning materials can be freely provided. Later, that is later this morning, I want you to come to my flat and talk about what you and I can do for Monica. You've still got a soft spot for her, haven't you?"
"Yes. I hated to see her as she was last night."
"OK. We'll see what we can do for her, and for us. I'm off duty shortly and I'll be up until about ten this morning. I want to see you before then. OK?"
I left the Old People's Home with a collection of part-used cleaning materials that Angela had produced from a store cupboard.
Back at the flat, David had finished drying up and was trying to wipe some of the grease from the cooker.
"You took your time, John, didn't you? You'd better start by cleaning the lipstick off. You look odd with Angela's lips outlined on your forehead."
With the industrial-strength cleaning products the two of us were able to produce a gleaming cooker after about twenty minutes work. The tiny work surfaces and cupboard doors took another five minutes. We had almost finished the floor, frequently moving the piles of dirty washing, when Monica shuffled in. She looked at her gleaming cooker, the empty draining board, the shining floor...
I stood up just in time to catch her as she slumped. She sobbed against my shoulder. David finished the floor and discreetly left the kitchen.
"Why, John, why?" Monica said between sobbing.
"Just to say thank you for putting up with us for the night."
I stroked her hair. It felt lank and greasy but I didn't stop.
"I appreciate what you've done, John, but you shouldn't have."
"David helped," I said.
"Then thank him for me. I don't think I can face him. I've been meaning to clean for days, no, for weeks, but the babies are demanding..."
"...and Simon's no help?" I suggested.
"He is, and he isn't. He tries to keep me sane. He looks after the babies, takes them out for a walk, gives me a break from time to time, but he's not domesticated. He could never have done this." Monica looked around and started wetting my shoulder again.
"Do you want some help with the washing?" I asked.
"There's no washing machine," Monica sobbed. "I do it all by hand."
"With what?" I asked. "There was no detergent. I looked."
"I used the last of it on Thursday," she replied. "I can't afford any more until Wednesday."
"Hasn't Simon got money?" I asked, thinking of the amounts he had been betting.
"He has and he hasn't. He has to support his wife and kids, and me. He isn't paid much and he has been getting extra by playing cards. He has a few pounds card money. He usually wins enough to buy something for me, but if he has been playing with you, he won't have won enough. I know you play for pennies."
"I don't know how he's done, but he won't have lost much either. We had a collection for you, Monica."
I gave her the money we had donated. It had been eight shillings and eleven pence in coins but I had rounded it up to a ten shilling note.
"I can't take money from you, John." Monica protested.
"It's not from me, it's from all of us for letting us play cards here."
"Oh. I hope Simon won't mind."
"He knows. He was there when we gave it."
"Then thank you all. It will make a difference."
Monica looked around her kitchen again. It was still gleaming. Everything was clean, put away inside clean cupboards, perhaps not where she would have put it but tidily. She opened the cupboard under the sink. Lined up were the items donated by Angela, washing-up liquid, disinfectant, several types of cleaners, cloths, even a pack of toilet rolls.
"Where did these come from, John?" Monica asked. "The shops aren't open so you couldn't have bought them."
"I got them from Angela," I admitted.
"And what does she want in return?"
"Probably me," I laughed.
Monica looked serious.
"Is that a price worth paying for someone you barely know? We were friends once but never more than friends. I think I kissed you once or twice but it didn't mean anything."
"I know it didn't, Monica. We were friends, no more. You had boyfriends, I had girlfriends but we were never an item."
"Then why? Why do so much for me?"
"Because you were a friend. I hope you still are a friend. I'd do as much for one of my mates if I found his kitchen in such a state. I hope he'd do it for me."
"And Angela? Is she just a friend?"
"I thought so. I knew she'd help. But my welcome was as more than a friend. I'm going back to her soon and we'll find out whether we are just kissing friends or something more."
"I hope you are more. You deserve someone like her, not like me. Please thank her for me, and give her this."
Monica kissed me on the lips.
"At least my kiss doesn't show, unlike hers."
She pointed to my neck. I looked in the now-clean mirror. Angela's lipstick imprint was clear on my neck.
"What about the washing?" I asked. "I could take it to the laundrette."
"I couldn't pay for it," Monica admitted. "This..." She waved the ten shilling note, "...and a few coppers, are all I have until Wednesday."
"OK. I'll take all the washing. I'll pay for it, as a friend. I'll bring it back about five o'clock, clean and dry. Will that do?"
"I can't pay for it -- ever. I can't give you anything, nor promise you anything, and I can't betray Simon by offering you myself..."
Monica started to cry again.
"Damn it, Monica! I'm not asking for anything! I don't want anything except to help a friend! I don't want to buy you for the price of some clean washing! You're worth far more than that, so is your pride. This..."
I waved my hand around the kitchen.
"...is nothing. It's clean. The washing will be clean. You will still be my friend and no more than a friend no matter how much you let me help. Once you are your own person again, you can choose other friends and forget me. You might want to because my existence will remind you of a bad time in your life. If so, I'll walk away happy that you are again the Monica I knew and liked."
That was a long speech for me. Monica looked at me as if she had never seen me before.
"You really mean it, don't you? You'll help in exchange for nothing? Nothing at all?"
"Nothing except the pleasure of seeing Monica out of this mess. That would be really worthwhile."
"I'll have to tell Simon. He'll notice the cleaned kitchen and the missing washing."
"Of course you'll have to tell him. I'm not his rival. He's helping you. If I do too, we might achieve more together than on our own."
"OK. I'll have told Simon before you return at five. He might be here. I hope you won't argue..."
"Why should we? He seems a reasonable enough bloke who is helping you in his own way."
We left it at that. I crammed all the dirty washing into a laundry bag and took it around the corner to the Laundrette. I paid for a service wash of two loads and apologised for the state of the washing.
"That's OK," the assistant said, "we've seen worse. You'll collect at four-thirty?"
"Yes. Thank you."
I walked to Angela's staff flat. She let me in, made yet more coffee and she asked about Monica. I told her what had happened, almost word for word. I gave her Monica's kiss. That started a long necking session during which our coffee got cold. After fresh mugs Angela admitted that she needed me at the home over Christmas. She wanted me to be Father Christmas to the old people.
"Father Christmas, Angela?" I asked incredulously. "Aren't they too old for Father Christmas?"
"It's not for them, silly. They make presents for their grandchildren or great-grandchildren and Father Christmas gives them out at a Children's Christmas Party the week before Christmas. It isn't at Christmas itself because most of them spend that with relations. The home is usually empty or almost empty then."
"The old man who has done it for years died last month. I could have asked one of the other old boys but they are really too frail for it. Several of them are worried that they might have to be Father Christmas. They'd be relieved if I had found someone else. Will you do it, John?"
"Of course, and help with the decorations, if that's what you want. Is that all?"
"No. Monica was right. I want you."
"I'm flattered. Why me, now? Not that I'm objecting..."
My mouth was stopped with another kiss.
"Maybe because my last boyfriend turned out to be an arsehole, using me for money and sex, but really because you are the nicest bloke I know. What you are doing for Monica is typical."
"I haven't done much for her. I'll help if I can. How much I can depends not just on me but on Simon and her. Will they let me help?"
"I'm sure they will. I know Simon better than you do. He's been here several times as a plumber's assistant. He was great with the old people. They like him and most of them have lived long enough to see through appearances to the person underneath. They could see, long before I did, that my boyfriend was a bastard. They kept hinting. I didn't want to believe them but they were right. They like you."
"They've barely seen me, Angela," I objected.
"They've seen the effect your visits have had on me. That was enough for them."
"I'm no saint, Angela."
"You're closer to a saint than anyone of our generation I know. That's good enough for me."
She hugged me fiercely.
"I don't think you know that much about me. We could remedy that. How about a date for this evening after I've been to Monica's? The cinema? A meal out?"
"Neither, John. I want to talk to you. How about a meal here?"
"Agreed. What time?"
"Seven thirty or eight? Is that enough time for you to talk to Monica and Simon?"
"Probably, Angela. I don't think it should take long. But in the meantime?"
"We should both go to bed, John. I've been up all night. So have you. I want you bright-eyed and bushy tailed this evening."
I left after another session of kissing. I went back to my flat, appreciating the contrast between its state and Monica's, and went to bed, setting the alarm for three o'clock.
When it went off I was in the middle of a dream apparently sharing a bed with Angela. I was reluctant to end it, but the prospect of seeing the real Angela this evening was better than any dream. I showered, had a snack, and took a suitcase to collect the washing from the Laundrette. It was neatly stacked and ironed. Most of it seemed to be small boys' clothing. Monica's clothes were less than a third of the total.