No 120 - 1990
The Master’s Bedroom
When the door knob finally turned, when at last it clicked and released and the door actually moved to open, Tots thought she might be sick. But it would tone in; the Master’s carpet, Tots remembered, was the clotted muddy colour of eel pie. They had taken it up once for a spring-cleaning and Tots had been called in to sweep up underneath. She had been busy brushing the grape pips and the toe-nail clippings into a tidy mound when the shiny, black, squeakless shoes had appeared in the doorway. Powerless to speak or to look up, Tots had continued sweeping, her mind trapped under the shoes, her only thought that the socks inside housed the toes the clippings of whose nails she was now shepherding around the floor. She had felt sick then too.
With her hand still on the door knob for fear the spring would ping, she closed her eyes and made an act of will, addressed (unlike the Acts of Faith, Hope, Charity, and, most of all, Contrition she had learnt from Father Terence) to herself.
Oh, Tots, you can do it. Go on, Tots. Do it, do it. And she went in, closed the door behind her, and opened her eyes.
Oh, the opulence. She resisted the urge to genuflect. The sheer mass and solidity of it was enough to make you toe the scratch, had you thought of doing otherwise. Here was nothing broken or makeshift, nothing out of kilter. This furniture was solid and grave, would never have the bad breeding to wobble, far less fall apart. No failures in here, oh no. The massive wardrobe, the dressing table and the tallboy stood transfixed by their own upright qualities. A troop of grunting moving men would never move these pieces. The bed itself, a four-poster, was the size of a small semi-detached and draped like a funeral parlour. Or a confessional.
Father Terence’s had been a portable with curtains of the same purple brocade. He used to come round every Saturday (the Master had some other arrangement now, something like a season ticket as far as Tots could make out - she was not eligible) and set up his fold-out box, like a puppet theatre, on the dining room table, which would be covered for the occasion with a floor-length cloth of black-out material from an old war. Spared in this way the unpleasantness of the church, which was usually full of addicts, the members of the household could file comfortably in and out of the dining room, posting their sins in his ecclesiastical mail-box, relieving themselves.
Tots, who had been given a rudimentary Catholicism for no reason she could ever determine, took part in this Saturday ritual. The memory of it was laced with adrenalin; there was no forgetting the blind curtain, how she watched it, waiting, wondering whether he was really there on the other side, hoping it might be her lucky day and he had gone for a cigarette. But he never had. It was the same every Saturday. Only worse. In the act of confessing she found it hard not to begin accusing the prosecution and defending herself. ‘I said I swep out the coal-cellar when I never. But I was goin to do it the day after anyhow. Well sort of. Ow can you sweep out a coal-cellar? Some a them things I get on me work orders don’t make no sense. It’s not Mrs Phelum’s fault, she just reads em out. It’s im what makes em up, but e don’t ave a clue what really needs doin. Oh an I called im a silly prick again. Not to is face a course. An nobody heard…’ The urge to justify was pathological. It was painful to suppress it. Soon she found it more efficient to begin the process of vindication before the act of confession. Her list of sins grew considerably shorter each week. Until at last there was nothing to confess and Tots was left with a free half hour on a Saturday morning and a lasting fear of any unseen presence.
The curtains of the bed, Tots noticed now, were closed. The hair at the nape of her neck began to prickle. Was he? He couldn’t be.
The thought appalled, and enthralled. She had to know. In awful fascination she dropped to her hands and knees and began to slowly to creep across the carpet. Once she thought she heard breathing, but it was only the soft scuffing of her knees. She stopped at the side of the bed and listened. Bless me Father for I am about to sin. It is about two seconds before I open the curtains, lift the lid, drop the danger . . . Holding one of the purple tassels (it might have been the fuse on a barrel of gunpowder) between her finger and thumb, she carefully lifted it (oh, don’t go off) and peered underneath.
But the great bed was not occupied. Which was not to say that it was empty. In fact it was quite full. Try as she might Tots could not impose any order or meaning on the jumble of assorted rubber and leather items that were heaped upon the bed. ‘No wonder is room’s so tidy,’ she thought. ‘E stuffs it all in ere.’ Though where he would otherwise have stored this strange assortment she could not imagine. Some of it clearly belonged in the Mistress’s room. And there was something that looked as if it ought to be kept downstairs and used at milking time. There was even a goat’s head - which gave her a nasty turn - with an open mouth and a long ropy beard.
But she did not have time to waste on any of this. She withdrew from beneath the purple fringe and stood up.
There was nothing for her in the wardrobes or the tallboy - she looked. The clothes were all properly stacked, hung, layered, ranged, folded and piled: two dozen suits ploughing the colour spectrum from black all the way to not-quite-black; a dark harvest of socks at rest in a drawer all to themselves; everything in order and no loose ends anywhere.
It was when she opened the smaller drawers where most of the items were 44-carat that Tots began to realize the full implications of being the only appurtenance in the room that was not in its proper place. All this gentleman’s hardware. She felt as if she’d been caught with half of it up her sleeve.
But there were no papers or documents of any kind.
Unless he kept them under his mattress.
Tots, in a hurry now, went back to the bed and got hold of a corner of the mattress.
‘Well, well, well. Caught in the act. I thought you was up to no good.’
Tots closed her eyes, wished she could close her ears, but this was Scoria’s big moment and she was not going to let it go.
‘So. Little Hotsy-totsy got egg all over er face. Whaddya know? She’ll av to do some pretty fast talkin to get out of this one.’ She tilted her head. All the best cops were sardonic.
‘Some pretty darn fast talkin. Got a bedtime story ready for Big Daddy, have you? Got somethin in mind? You better, cause you’re dead meat baby. Dead meat, less you can think one up pretty fuckin quick.’
‘Oh, shut-up,’ said Tots, who would not sink to fathom these implications. ‘I was lookin for somefin.’
‘Sure baby. Tell that to the D.A.’
‘Never mind.’ Scoria sauntered over to the bed and drew back the curtain. She took a long, hard, gape-mouthed look, her eyes rollicking over the paraphernalia. ‘My, my,’ she said. ‘You certainly found something didn’t you. Oh, wouldn’t he be pleased to know you’ve ad a butchers at that lot. Well, honey-bunch, whadd’ll it be? You just dropped in to see what you could pick up in the way of the odd watch or the old cigarette case what nobody wants, or you just come up to play wiv is toys?’ She poked a rubbery looking, globular item with her foot.
‘Leave off,’ said Tots. ‘I told you. I was lookin for somefin.’ She made to step past but found her way blocked.
Scoria, who would have preferred a wide-shouldered suit with big lapels, flexed the shoulders of her turquoise nylon overall.
‘I believe you,’ she said, ‘but e’s not going to.’ A vile smile slid from one ear to the other and retreated. ‘Not if ‘e ever finds out. What you was doin wiv is toys.’
She picked up the goat’s head and pushed the staring face suddenly at Tots who recoiled and sat down abruptly on the edge of the bed. Grinning, Scoria drew back, hoisted her skirt, and stuck the goat’s head between her legs, its face staring stupidly at Tots, its gummy tongue lolling, and Tots in horrible fascination staring back.
Tots had only one thought. She’s barmy, she said to herself, and hoped this moment like all others would pass. But Scoria was not quite finished.
‘Get the picture?’ she said, and just to make sure she stuck out her pelvis and jerked the head rapidly up and down like a crazed BMX rider, which served to confirm Tots’s suspicions but did little to clarify the picture.
‘E won’t like it at all. Not at all. But then he don’t av to know, does he? Not less I tell im. An I won’t do that, will I? Not if you’re a good girl. You could manage to wash a few old pots couldn’t you. Jus to elp out a friend. An if I was to say I was a bit short one week you could find me a quid or two, no trouble, to tide me over, couldn’t you?’
Not on your nelly, thought Tots. ‘Anyfin you say,’ she said fervently. ‘I will. I promise.’
‘I knew you’d see sense,’ said Scoria, dropping the goat’s head and kicking it aside. If she’d had a fedora she would have dusted it off and put it on with single sharp twist as she walked to the door. But she didn’t.
An extract from the author’s novel House.
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