Authors: Jonathan Gash
It was Arcellano and his two nerks all right, but not with my wages. The three of them were crammed into the tiny vestibule, blocking out the vague haze of snow light.
‘Mr Arcellano!’ I yelped with false delight, thinking of money, and hot pasties and beer at the White Hart. Hunger makes crawlers of us all. ‘Good of you to call! Come in!’ Nobody moved.
‘Where’s the lights?’
‘Erm, well, I’ve had the electricity cut off,’ I said smoothly. ‘Temporary repairs, you understand. This wretched weather brought down a cable—’
‘What’s the stink?’
‘Stink?’ I swallowed my irritation. The bastard was speaking of my staple diet. ‘Ah. Delicious country recipe. Fried apple. Actually takes hours to make. I haven’t done the flaky pastry yet, or I’d offer you supper—’
A flashlight blinded me. With the beam flickering into every corner the two goons bore me backwards and slammed me down in a chair. Heavy hands pressed on my shoulders when I tried to rise. It’s horrible to discover you are suddenly out of breath for no known cause. In that instant all I could think of was that quick glimpse of terror on Maria’s face when I had started to cut out from the school.
‘Is this how you live, Lovejoy?’
‘Only temporarily,’ I answered, narked. ‘I’m having an extension built—’
A flashlight was beamed at my face so I could see nothing. With my eyes screwed up against the beam I sat and listened while somebody, probably Arcellano himself, shook out drawers and emptied cupboards and slammed doors and tore things in the darkness beyond the light. I knew better than to hope for neighbours or the police to arrive. The former wisely leave me alone, and the latter are only more trouble and I’d enough to be going on with.
Quite ten minutes later I heard Arcellano return. He sounded slightly winded from all his exertions. I felt the same and I’d done nothing but sit.
A lighter flared, showing his face full of unpleasant shadows. The light snapped off and a cigarette glowed.
‘Why do you live here like a pig, Lovejoy?’ He sounded surprised but honestly interested.
I tried to shrug but his berks were still pressing me down. ‘I’m a bit short. I’ve done a few good deals, though—’
‘You’ve not, Lovejoy.’ Even when smoke came into my eyes making me cough and blink I knew the sod was smiling. ‘You are penniless.’
‘Only temporarily,’ I shot back. ‘If I hadn’t wasted the week on your frigging school I’d have—’
That gentle query pulled me up. ‘Oh. Horrible as ever.’ I tried a chuckle. It sounded like a trapped wasp.
‘Make much progress, Lovejoy?’
I swallowed. This didn’t make sense. He sounded too gentle for somebody who had come in like Attila the Hun and wrecked the place.
‘Quite a lot,’ I lied cheerfully. My mouth was dry.
A paper rustled. ‘Your report says different.’ A silence. ‘That’s bad news, Lovejoy. Not for me. For you. Light.’
I found I couldn’t swallow any more. The beam moved to show his gloved hands and the crested school paper.
‘Inattentive,’ he quoted. ‘Six reprimands daily for reading journals on antiques during lessons.’
Had it been that many? ‘Rubbish.’
‘Homework: nil per cent.’
I’d done none. ‘I’ve been a bit pushed lately—’
He read on relentlessly, ‘Altogether a hopeless start.’
I protested weakly, ‘Most of the others are young, still in school. They’re naturals—’
‘That’s not true. There are only four children in your class. The rest are adults. One is fifty and did better than you, Lovejoy.’
I seethed in silent fury. The bastard had checked up What kind of employer checks up? Where’s trust gone?
‘The others distract me.’
‘But your afternoon teaching is individual. I should know. I paid for it. And your teacher says: “Total lack of motivation.” Well, Lovejoy?’
That sounded Maria all over. She and I had wasted every afternoon in a soundproofed room, if you can believe it. I took three goes to start my voice up. ‘I suppose this means no wage this week, eh, Mr Arcellano?’
He rose and I got the light back in my eyes. ‘True, Lovejoy. But I have to go away for ten whole weeks. I can’t leave you here without motivation, can I?’ There was some shuffling nearby. One of the goons was getting ready for something. Arcellano’s voice hardened. ‘Our deal’s on, Lovejoy. It’s on because I said so. Play dim if you like, but you suffer the consequences. Understand?’
‘Well, yes,’ I was saying when somebody clouted me.
Gloved hands gripped my head while Arcellano extinguished his cigarette on the point of my chin. I whimpered but they held me fast. I was going to bring up some very convincing excuse when they started on me. Even now I can’t for the life of me remember what it was, but I know it would have been a cracker. I’m good at excuses.
* * *
There’s a knack in cooking. I’ve not got it, but I once had a bird who was really great. Sally used to make these fantastic meals, never the same twice and so many different flavours you never knew what you were eating half the time under all that taste, which is quite an achievement because eating’s a right drag. We parted when she developed suspicions – almost quite unjustified – about a rich widow who used to call sometimes when Sally was out at work. I’ve found that women always want to believe the worst, when it’s so much simpler to believe what’s easiest.
I had stopped being sick about eight o’clock or thereabouts. By a fluke no bones were broken and the bleeding had stopped on its own while I was flat out. In the light of my spirit lamp I could see my face puffy and battered, with a prodigious blister the size of an igloo bulging from my stubble where the bastard had burned me with his fag. No cuts, but dried blood down my neck from one ear, one eye black and bulging, and my right shoulder sprained. The cottage was a hell of a mess.
For some reason I was tired, even after such a long enforced slumber, so I dozed on my divan for a while. Then my hunger returned and I started warming the pan again. The cold slices of apple stared reproachfully up at me in the gloom. What with the state I was in, she must have been knocking donkey’s years before I heard and let her in. My favourite teacher.
I need not say much about the rest of that evening, or of that night. Maria shot a handful of terse questions at me, to which I gave terse unfriendly answers, seeing she was to blame for the battering Arcellano’s serfs gave me. She looked closely at me with the aid of the spirit lamp’s watery blue flame. Then she did a quick reconnaissance while I glowered sullenly at my pan through my one good eye. Eventually she said she’d be back and went. I heard her tyres skittering and crunching on the snow.
Ever the optimist, I was trying to raise a brew-up when I realized she was back. She must have nicked my key somehow, or maybe I’d given it her. I forget which. She lit a candle and stuck it on a plate. Then another. The lovely golden light bathed the cottage’s shambled interior. It looked in a worse state than me. I wondered where she’d managed to buy candles at this hour.
She took the saucer of apple off me and scraped it into the bin in my kitchen alcove. That was the start. She must have made them work – an all-time first – at the Treble Tile because she’d fetched some hot nosh as well. Chips, fish, sausages, a pot of soupy stuff, and bags of cheese, bread, a cake and milk and tea and, among the rest, apples by mistake. I didn’t grumble. I’d run out of Ann’s grub two days before. Playing at being an angel of mercy was obviously doing Maria a power of good because she was silent for the first time ever. Until then I thought I’d never met such a talkative bird in my life.
I ate her nosh slowly and slurpily while she tidied, always a bad sign in a woman. The more racket they make the more you’re for it. Not saying a word, I whittled my way across two platefuls while her slamming and rattling went remorselessly on, a sort of creeping barrage. She was watching me by that sort of feminine feel which requires tight lips and no actual stare. I could tell because the instant I finished she swept the dishes aside and sat washing my face in a cupful of lukewarm water. The sensible lass had used eight whole candles brewing tea.
We reached midnight in total silence, sitting primly side by side on my folding divan, knees together and politely clearing throats and watching candles glow. I always feel at a disadvantage when women tidy me up. Maybe that’s why they do it. The battle started.
‘Lovejoy,’ she said carefully. ‘What happened here is none of my business.’
How true. ‘A disagreement with a customer.’
‘Be that as it may.’ She spoke the words exactly like she taught in pronunciation class, with gaps a mile long. ‘But I’m not so stupid that I fail to see the connection between your bad first week’s report, and this beating you have suffered.’
I told her rubbish. She fumbled in her handbag and brought out the crumpled report. Arcellano must have left it.
‘Then how did this get here?’
‘It was posted to me by mistake.’
makes mistakes.’ She read through it quickly, folding it after seeing her own handwriting. ‘These reports are sent only to the sponsors.’ She rose and paced, obviously going to put the boot in. ‘Tell me the truth, Lovejoy. You’ve got to do well or suffer. Isn’t that right?’
‘Very well.’ She turned to face me. Two candles shone from behind her, casting a subtle corona round her from the shadows. I’d never seen such beauty in a woman in all my life, not since Helen, or maybe Lydia or maybe Sally the nosh queen.
Entranced, I mumbled weakly, ‘Very well what?’
‘We must knuckle down.’ She spoke so full of sadness that for an instant I misunderstood and thought she’d spotted a way out for me. Then it dawned she meant working, and my bitterness returned. I was trapped between Arcellano, that non-smiling smiler, and this gloomy optimist. ‘You sold your Italian grammar text—’
‘I did no such thing!’
‘I saw you,’ she said calmly. ‘In the junk shop on the Hythe. So I bought it back.’ And she brought it out of her handbag, the treacherous bitch. ‘It’s no good glaring, Lovejoy. Your signature’s on the flyleaf.’
‘You have no right following me—’
She smiled over my protest. ‘And on the rare occasions you
pay attention in open class, Lovejoy, it’s to Joan Culpepper.’
I asked innocently. ‘Is she one of our group?’
‘She’s the lady next to whom you sit, Lovejoy. You started the week in the opposite corner.’
!’ I’d obviously hardly noticed her, but Maria was not dissuaded, as usual suspicious without a single cause. ‘The one with the Justinian period Roman quartz intaglio ring, modern setting in garnets on gold with raised platinum shoulder mounts?’
.’ She tapped my knee with a finger, not knowing Arcellano’s lunatic serfs had kicked it to a balloon size. I nearly screamed. ‘From now on, Lovejoy, your Friday reports will be superb.’
‘They will?’ I brightened. Not only was this luscious woman delectable, but she’d obviously fallen head over heels for me. With Arcellano away for weeks and my bonus money rolling in . . . It was my trillionth mistake of the week. I asked, ‘How’ll we fiddle Miss McKim’s reports?’
I saw her face. ‘Well, er, no. Not exactly—’
She went cold as charity. ‘There’s only one way, Lovejoy, and that’s to
a good report.’ She collected her coat and gloves. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll see you’ll get the right sort of help.’
‘Erm . . .’
She walked towards the small hallway, rabbiting on. I had the idea she was smiling deep down. ‘From now on, Lovejoy, you eat regularly. None of this heroic starving for the sake of old pots and ramshackle furniture—’ I gasped, outraged at this heresy. It only goes to show how boneheaded women actually are. ‘And from tomorrow your electricity bill will be paid. Light
warmth.’ She smiled, adding sweetly, ‘And distractions will be minimized. I shall see to that first thing tomorrow.’
She meant Mrs Culpepper. My head was spinning with all this. Or maybe it was the unusual sensation of not being hungry.
‘Er, look,’ I mumbled, ‘can’t we discuss this?’
‘Yes. In Italian.’
‘You heard, Lovejoy.’ Now her smile was open and visible, a beautiful warm silent laughter. ‘From now on, ask for anything in English and the answer’s no. But ask in Italian and the answer’s . . .’
‘. . . And the answer’s yes?’
For one instant her smile intensified to a dazzling radiance. ‘The answer’s . . . quite possibly.’ She stepped into the darkness, leaving me in the candlelight. I heard the cottage door go.
‘Good night, Lovejoy,’ she called from the winter midnight.
‘Good night.’ I was trying to say thanks as well but the latch went and she had gone.
You can’t teach women anything about timing an exit. I’ve always noticed that.
From then on it was hell – but a peculiar kind of hell, with torment interspersed with a haunting promise of ecstasy. For a time. Under the white-hot attentions of Maria, I quite forgot about Arcellano.
Unaccountably, the attractive Joan Culpepper attended no further classes, apart from one hour’s collective conjugation, so to speak, I got the full teaching blast. ‘Incentive teaching,’ she often reminded me with hardly a trace of her secret hilarity.
By Tuesday of the following week I was showing withdrawal symptoms which caused a bit of upset. Maria had kept me at it twelve and fifteen hours at a stretch. Apart from that glimpse of Mrs Culpepper’s ‘tassie’, as we call such incised semi-precious carvings, the only antique I’d seen was a Newhall painted cream jug with a ‘clip’ handle – these are always pre-1790 and still a bargain. It had somehow crept from its place of honour in the little dining room and was found on our table. I honestly had nothing to do with it, but a poisonous epsilon-minus cretin called Hyacinth reckoned I’d moved it nearer and blew the gaff on me. A tight-lipped Maria came across and restored it to its place on the sideboard. I was heartbroken. Newhall porcelain’s enough to melt the hardest heart – Maria’s excepted.