Published 'Pirate Writings' 1993
In the end, Flossie had been away too long. Following the ugly divorce, she had decided to have the first ever holiday on her own and go the whole hog this time with two months outside her English homeland. To call it a Grand Tour would have been stretching it too far, but many high spots of Old Europe had been on her itinerary; those resplendent representatives of history’s old disguise where Ottoman and Holy Roman Empires were living memories. Not that she gave herself any time for meticulously planning her sudden return to England resulting in suitcases full of dirty underwear, unmemorable keepsake knickknacks and diverse hats, all being hastily thrust into the back of a taxicab at Heathrow Airport. She actually relished returning to the salubrious terraced house in Hampstead, despite the eventual necessity to get her teeth back into earning a living. And no husband. She had put him to the back of her mind. Now his image returned, the nearer she was driven towards the abode he had rudely abandoned all those months ago..
It looked at first as if things hadn’t changed, as the taxi drew up outside the familiar railings. In fact, the doorknocker seemed just as sparkling as she’d left it: which was perhaps more surprising than she realised. The road appeared narrower, but she put that down to having just been charcoal-sketching wide avenues and esplanades amid the artistic environs of what was now another world away. The people in the street with whom, only two months ago, she may well have been at least on nodding terms, were strangely scruffy; their faces swarthy and hair showing signs of concealed racial curls, eyes piercing, as they witnessed Flossie’s undignified scramble from the taxi.
“Oi, Miss, don’t furgit yer luggidge!” called the driver as she hustled up her front steps to unlock what she hoped was her front door. She had expected him to get out and tote the cases from the boot up to the door. If he expects a tip, he’d better shake a leg, she vowed to herself. The lock was well oiled and easily stirred, but the door itself was unseasonably stiff, the wood swollen in the frame, or the frame shrunk, or a combination of the two. She put a shoulder to it, causing her to unbalance into the hall, dropping the flowery hat she’d purchased in Florence.
“Oi, Miss, don’ trip up over yer own foot!” The driver laughed, if sneering could be called laughter, as he arrived at the top of the steps, lugging baggage with one hand and holding out the other like a plate of meat – as if he were a rich beggar.
“Thank you.” She hastily regained her composure, and sunk a foreign coin of high denomination into the pit of his grimy palm.
He put his nose to it, as if he eschewed testing it with his gappy teeth. “Oi, Miss, I can’t spend this ‘ere funny munny in the Dog ‘n Drake.”
“I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got till I change it back in the morning.”
“And I’m afraid I’ll ‘ave ter take yer all the way back to Heathrow where yer started off, unless yer give me proper goose for the gander.”
Flossie cringed. The gratuity had suddenly assumed a necessary purpose, an importance that her latterly foreign-steeped mind couldn’t conceptualize. She wondered about going next door, where old Mr Phipps lived. He’d lend her a few shillings, no doubt. Not that she owed the taxi-man anything beyond his fare, which she had settled with her remaining pukka English currency. It was simply that she felt more vulnerable in England than she did abroad, for some unaccountable reason. Perhaps, the more noticeable absence of her erstwhile husband. After all, he had been a dab hand at dealing with the servant class. Not that there were any servants left in England. The thoughts were a stream of consciousness, but oddly logical. Even that last one. And the next. Only loosely gratuitous. “Hold on, while I arrange something,” she said, finger in the air, as if she was conducting somebody else’s argument.
Mr Phipps must have changed his curtains … and repainted his door! Two months was an unconscionably long period to have been away. Even the echoing sound of the knocker upon the heel was more reverberant, as if the house was a louder sound-box, or as if fabrics and furniture were depleted, or perhaps both. Probably neither. Not shrunk nor swollen.
“Mr Phippsl Mr Phipps! Are you there?” she called through the letter-box, using it like an extension of her mouth. She expected to hear the soft pad of his shambling slippers as they took their customary shine along the parquet in the hall, but no such welcome sounds. She shrugged and returned to the taxi-man, who was stepping from foot to foot on the spot in an attempt to give the appearance of wasting time.
“I’m afraid you will have to take that coin today and come back tomorrow if you need it changed. I can assure you it’s probably worth far more than I would have given you, given half the change, and, after all, there is no law to say I need to give you anything....”
The man looked askance, as if to say even the long tradition of English law had been altered by an Act of Parliament, since she went away. Real politicians were on Summer recess, so anything could’ve been passed.
“I hope you don’t consider me mercenary,” said the man n a suddenly posher accent, “but I can see you are a generous lady who would sooner treat me than trick me...”
“Well, whatever, please be reasonable.”
“Me, Madam? I’m the most reasonable man you’re ever likely to meet. Reasonability, that’s my watchword.”
“In that case, can we call it a day?”
He looked up at the darkening sky. “More like the night, Miss, much more like the night, I should say.”
She did not appreciate the humour, but decided not to antagonise him further. She pulled the luggage into the hall and slammed the door behind her, the dubious coin still grasped in her sweaty palm.
Flossie stood for a few minutes in the dimness at the foot of the steep stairs. Eventually, she heard the door of the black cab slam and drive off, hopefully with the driver in it, she mused to herself.
The stairs certainly seemed steeper than she remembered them, with tall treads. She managed to drag the first item of soft baggage towards her bedroom at the back of the house. Uncharacteristically, she had forgotten to switch on the light at the bottom before grappling with the ascent. Come on, Flossie, old girl, get a grip on yourself! She gritted her teeth and after much fuss and bother, she arrived on the landing. She’d have a quick bath and change into... into what? Damn! All her clothes were stiff with European dirt – except, that was for the oddments left behind in the tallboy in her bedroom, still mixed up with her husband’s ancient cast-offs. She couldn’t think properly. That taxi-man had upset her more than she realized.
The landing was even darker than the hallway. She had always thought it best to leave all connecting doors firmly shut, whilst away, in case of fire. That would account for the darkness. Still, she had very thick navy-blue velvet curtains in the bedroom (owing to the light early mornings before her departure), and she could not recall whether these had been left undrawn.
She stood for a few seconds, regaining her breath (or what she hoped was her breath) and, as she did so, she heard a vehicle drawing up outside. Surely, it wasn’t that stuffy taxi-driver returned for his damned money. But, no, it soon drove off again, without any sound of car doors. Leaving the bulging case where it was and not bothering with the top light switch, Flossie felt her way to the bedroom door ...
....which was no longer made of the erstwhile wood, but curtain-strings of black beads that rattled like a snake as she passed through. In the room itself, the darkness bore more of a yellow tinge than the usual black or cloying grey. A group of individuals squatted where her bed used to be, sucking on long pipes that seemed to be giving off most of the darkness. They exchanged pipes. One of them crooked a finger, as if beckoning Flossie to join them. Flossie. She simply stood and stared open-mouthed, not even daring to breathe beyond a fitful respiration, which her lungs forced on her. She closed her eyes, momentarily, and, on opening them...
...she was relieved to see that the bedroom, as she recalled it, had returned, with the print curtains hanging at the open window, in that red lacy material she’d always liked as a free filter of the sun. Indeed, a low sun across the Heath threatened to dip below the horizon leaving the sky streaked with a display more fitting for some of the places she’d just visited on holiday.
She smiled. Must have been the strain. Travel was an hallucinant: made you see some things more clearly, others less so. Plumping down on the bed, she stared up at the ceiling, which her husband had once stippled. It was covered in cracks and an archipelago of foxing – more such blots and blemishes than she could recall. But, two months was a long time.
Still feeling caked in foreign filth, she gradually dozed off, in an attempt to catch up on what she considered to be her beauty sleep or, rather, English sleep. She thought she heard underchatter grunting from next door. Mr Phipps must have company. Strange, he never had people in before. She yawned. They may not be people. She laughed at the illogicality of her dozing mind and snored simultaneously. She stirred when the vehicle drew up outside, doors slamming....