Short Story: Third Floor: Home and Bedding. Ladies Powder Room.
The girl has been under the bed for three hours, but she doesn’t mind. She has to be sure everyone has gone, and besides, she’s spent a lot of time under beds. She’s learnt not to sneeze in the dust that gathers there; learnt to be still; learnt to be invisible.
The cleaners are still busy. It was a close thing when one of them pushed a vacuum head under the bed and it sucked up some of the cover hiding her. The screeching of the blocked vacuum, and the banging and crashing as it was yanked away, made her feel like her body was being slapped. She had to push herself up tight against the head board and swallow hard to stop the sick coming up from her stomach. But when she saw the red and white striped tights and glittery red shoes that one of the cleaners was wearing, it made her think of watching the Wizard of Oz with Gracie, and for a while she was there again, curled up with her sister on the settee, and she was happy, and the sickness went away.
Listening to the cleaners’ chatter, she wonders how much longer it’ll be before they go, praying it’ll be before she needs the loo.
“No point doing too much, Cyn. We’ll be back in on Saturday, and no one’ll be coming in before then.”
“I know, but I do want to give the toilets a proper going over before we go; they’re in a right state. It’s the same every Christmas eve.”
“Okay. I’ll just finish here and give you a hand. You got many for Christmas day, Cyn?”
“Just us and the kids. Joe’s mother’s still not well enough to travel. What about you, Hel?”
“The usual eight and you can bet not one of them will come into the kitchen to help.”
“It’s a woman’s lot; cooking and cleaning.”
“Strange how most of them chefs on telly are men.”
“Men like showing off and doing the fancy stuff, Hel, and that’s what gets you on telly.”
The girl waits for their laughter to fade before pushing her now aching body away from the bed head and stretching her skinny arms and legs. Lying on her back, she stares up through wooden slats at the dimpled mattress, and snug in her fleece, falls asleep.
A continuous bleeping wakes her. It’s the alarm that the cleaners set when they leave, and all she has to do is lie still for five minutes after the bleeping stops, then not open a main door or window because that will set it off again. She learnt this from one of the boys in class whose brother had been thinking about breaking into the place.
Without a mobile or watch, the girl must count the seconds down , listening for the final bleep before she begins one kangaroo, two kangaroo, the way Gracie had taught her to count her pulse. At three hundred kangaroos she crawls out from under the bed into the red glow of low-level lighting. Outside the orange-yellow light of street lamps dazzles, but inside the store this is softened by fake snow sprayed onto the vast windows. In the middle of each window a circle the size of a dinner plate has been left clear, and through one of these snowy portholes she peeks at the Christmas lights strung across the street; silver stars and golden angels swaying in the wind.
The town clock chimes nine times. Getting late, but Mom and Steve won’t be looking for me. They’ll be too busy getting hammered… Steve’s okay though; even when he’s pissed he leaves me alone…
She begins to look for her bed; the one she chose a few weeks ago when she came in after school…
It hadn’t been easy, with the shop assistants watching her the whole time… Probably think I’m gonna nick something. Probably can’t understand why I’m not going gaga over the kid’s bed, with its panda duvet cover and mummy, daddy and baby bears leaning against the pillows. Morons. But they can’t do anything, can they, cos anyone can look in shops, can’t they; shop assistants don’t own this stuff, do they… She knew her bed had to be a double, with white cotton sheets and pillowcases, but the problem was there were quite a few of these and she couldn’t decide. What made her mind up in the end was a label on the pillowcase of one that read ‘French embroidered’. She imagined someone in France sewing a pillowcase with a needle and thread just for her and knew she’d found her bed…
At first she can’t find her bed and panics, thinking it’s been sold. The sick feeling comes back to her stomach and she turns in circles. But then she sees it., hidden behind a giant Boxing Day Sales notice; sees its white cotton duvet, so thick and wavy it makes the bed look like it’s covered in fresh snow; sees its fluffy grey blanket, folded for her to pull up over herself when it gets cold; sees that she made the right choice.
On both sides of her bed there are small wooden chests of drawers, each with a lamp on. The lamps don’t work, but she loves the way the crystals on the shades twinkle in the shifting light. And she loves the wooden chest at the foot of the bed that matches the drawers, and the thick white towelling robe folded on the chest, with a hood and belt edged with grey ribbon.
Things that match make her feel like she does when she hears a good song, or when she remembers what it was like when Gracie was at home, and it’s why she now picks up two identical grey candles from a nearby display and puts one on each set of drawers. Taking one of Steve’s discarded lighters from a pocket, she lights the tall ridged pillars of wax with care, and breathes their scent in slowly. The candles are labelled ‘Frankincense and Myrrh’ which she knows were what two of the Three Kings gave to the baby Jesus, and even though she doesn’t know what they should smell like, it doesn’t matter, because the scent reminds her of a shop at the seaside that she and Gracie once went into; a shop filled with silver rings and necklaces, and little lighthouses painted with spirals of white and blue.
Out of other pockets in her fleece the girl takes a Christmas Special sandwich with turkey, stuffing and cranberry, a BLT sandwich, an individually wrapped mince pie, a bit crushed, but that’s okay, a small bottle of sparkling water, a popping candy chocolate orange and three mini cartons of apple juice. Gently teasing the squashed wrappings back into shape, she places each item on the wooden chest beside the towelling robe. The two candles are burning well now, their tall yellow flames casting wavy shadows over her bedding.
The town clock chimes ten o’clock. Time to get ready for bed… Mom and Steve’ll be legless by now, but they’ll stay in The Crown ‘til closing time, and won’t check on me when they get back. Probably won’t even notice I’m not there ‘til late tomorrow morning, and even if they do get the police out, no one’s ever gonna think of this place…
Staying away from the windows, she makes her way to the Ladies Powder Room. She remembers Gracie’s explaining why the loo in this shop is called that: In the olden days the kind of women who shopped here didn’t like to say they were going for a wee, so instead they said they were going to powder their noses…
On the wall above the door there’s an old black and white drawing of a woman with a tiny waist and big hat, holding a shopping bag in her gloved hand. The girl has never met any woman who looks like this, but she thinks she’d like to.
Street-lit through opaque glass, the freshly cleaned toilets smell of roses and disinfectant. There’s no shit around the pan, or yellow wee splashes around the base like at home, so the girl sits on the seat rather than hovering over it, and listens as her wee tinkles down the shining white bowl. The toilet paper is patterned with tiny silver leaves, and she doesn’t want to waste any, so tears off six pieces, four to wipe herself, two to keep as tissues.
At the hand basin she puts in the plug and runs hot water, swishing hand wash into it so that the basin is filled with rose-scented foam. With a white flannel from the bathroom department she washes her hands and face, drying them with a matching hand towel. Next she takes off her socks and trainers, and standing on another thick white towel, dips her feet one at a time into the warm suds. After drying her feet she folds all the towels with care and places them by the basin, pulls out the plug and drapes her squeezed flannel over the tap.
Carrying her socks and trainers, the girl returns to her bed, stopping at the home-ware section to choose a small tray and napkin decorated with holly, which she places beside her food and drink before lifting the heavy towelling dressing gown and placing it onto the duvet. She undresses quickly, ashamed, even though no one can see the stained, discoloured knickers that she hides in her track-suit bottoms.
The dressing gown weighs heavy on her small bruised body and falls around her feet in folds, its sleeves hanging six inches below her hands. By wrapping the belt around herself several times, the girl manages to hitch the robe up, but the sleeves have to be folded back so many times she can barely lift her arms…
A siren wails somewhere as she begins to fold back the duvet, first one half, then the other. Trying not to trip over the dressing gown, she walks round the bed, patting its crisp white linen.
The girl isn’t sure about eating in bed. It would be a treat to sit up against the podgy pillows with the tray on her lap, but she doesn’t want to spoil the sheets with crumbs and stains. She imagines someone coming in one day and buying the whole lot: bed, linen, duvet, pillows, chest, drawers, lamps and dressing gown. She would if she could, and she wouldn’t want marks on anything. She decides to put the BLT sandwich, bottle of water and three segments of chocolate orange on the tray and carries it to a mock fireplace in the home-ware section. Garlanded with plastic holly, the fireplace has Santa’s black-booted legs dangling down its false chimney, and she sits cross-legged in front of it while eating her sandwiches, saving the crusts and placing them on the napkin in front of the fireplace for Rudolph, Just for fun, cos I don’t believes in that stuff anymore. Not like Gracie. She was nearly sick with excitement every Christmas Eve, right up to when she went away…
The town clock chimes eleven thirty. Soon be time to get into bed… If Mom and Steve do look in my room, which they won’t, but if they do, they’ll see the clothes rolled up under the cover to fool them and just walk away.
Much as she wants to lie between crisp clean linen, the girl decides she’ll keep the dressing gown on in bed. She’s worried about her body’s smells getting into the sheets. She isn’t sure what these smells are like, but they say stuff at school, and one of the teachers kept her behind at break a few weeks ago, talking about ‘the importance of personal hygiene’, and asking if there were problems at home. She didn’t tell her the shower was broke and there was no hot water unless you boiled a kettle. Before she went Gracie had told her: Don’t give anyone any ammunition; they’ll put you in care and I might not be able to find you.
Gathering up her food and drink wrappings to take to a bin behind the nearest till, she hears the town clock chiming for midnight. Dong…dong… she has to be in bed before twelve …dong…dong…dong … but shuffling in the towelling gown towards the bed she stumbles …dong…dong…dong … gets herself up…dong…dong… clambers in…dong… pulls the duvet up to her face…dong.
Sleet splatters against the store windows as the girl, swathed in dressing gown and swamped by duvet, blows out each candle and rolls herself onto her side to burrow into bedding that smells of newness and shop…
Can I cuddle up?
Gracie’s body curls around her, and folding her head into the curve of her sister’s neck the girl breathes her in. Gracie’s smells is like marzipan; the yellow marzipan under birthday cake icing.
I have to go away.
The girl’s body tightens.
It’s okay, don’t be frightened. Dad’s gone and he’s never coming back.
How d’you know, Gracie?
Trust me, I know. And when you’re sixteen I’ll come and get you, and we’ll live in our own place, and you’ll have a big soft bed with white cotton covers, like the one we saw in the big store, remember? And we’ll live happily ever after, I promise. All you have to do is stick with Mom. Okay?
Okay, but —
No buts. Just nighty night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.
The girl wriggles as Gracie pretends to bite her ear, and then curls herself up into a tight ball as Gracie climbs out of bed and tucks the duvet round her.
Nighty night, Gracie. Love you loads, like slimy toads…