The doorbell rang while Lorraine was out at the shops. I was deeply immersed in my latest creation and it took a few moments for me to register the sound.
A man was heading down the garden path when I finally opened the door. He turned back, smiling uncertainly, holding an oblong parcel wrapped in brown paper.
“Oh, hello,” he said. “I was hoping to speak to Mrs Crossley, but perhaps I’ve got the wrong number?”
“No,” I assured him, “this is her house, but she’s out at the moment. Did you have an appointment?”
“I’m afraid not. I was hoping to she’d be able to fit me in,” said the man. He smiled charmingly.
“Would you like to come inside and wait?” I found myself proposing. His smile widened and he thanked me profusely.
Panic began to stir as he followed me down the hall. I couldn’t remember the last time I had spoken to a man; Lorraine’s customers were almost exclusively female. I flustered for a moment over whether to take him into the front parlour – he was certainly well-dressed – but the thought of those ember-eyes hanging in the centre of the room still gave me the shivers.
“I hope you don’t mind the Kitchen,” I said. I had a feeling that this man was used to much more glamorous surroundings.
“Not at all.”
I signalled for him to take a seat at the table. He carefully placed his parcel upright in a spare chair before sitting in another.
“Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee?”
“I never say ‘no’ to coffee on principal,” he informed me pleasantly.
It was a relief to have something to busy myself with. I had no idea how to interact with this man. He was very handsome and only a few years older than me – but there was something utterly composed about him that made me feel messy, foolish and young.
“Are you an artist?” he asked conversationally as I heaped ground coffee into the cafetierre.
“Oh, not really,” I blushed, realising that I was covered in paint. I’d probably managed to get it on my face and hair – I often found I had embellished myself without noticing when getting ready for bed. “I love to paint, but it’s just a hobby.”
I made enough coffee for both of us. I usually drank tea, but coffee suddenly seemed more sophisticated somehow.
Hercules came to find out who was in the house. He brushed himself up around the man’s legs – which I took as a good sign – before leaping up into my lap.
“What a bruiser of a cat,” the man said with a friendly grin.
“Hercules is awesome,” I said, then cringed at my juvenile choice of words. ‘Awesome’? Was I 12?
“Are you Mrs Crossley’s son?” the man asked.
“No. Her lodger,” I explained.
“Are you studying?” He seemed genuinely interested – fixing his luminous blue eyes on me appraisingly.
“No,” I said uncomfortably, taking a sip of coffee. Under the man’s scrutiny I was starting to feel more awake than I had for a long time.
“I came to London to work,” I told him. “I got a job. I wasn’t expecting to be offered it. I had to find somewhere affordable to live quickly. I ended up here with Lorraine and Hercules.”
“What’s the job?”
His questions were like prods – pushing me out of a deep slumber.
“I can’t remember,” I admitted.
I felt acutely embarrassed, but the man smiled kindly.
“What do you do?” I asked, hoping to deflect the attention away from me.
“I’m a glorified errand boy,” he grinned. “Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself, did I? I’m Kit.”
He held out his hand for me to shake. His grip was warm and firm. The way he was investigating my face was disconcerting.
“Would you like to see my pictures?” I offered brightly, spotting a means to escape his examination.
“Love to,” Kit agreed jovially.
He peered with interest at the collection I’d amassed in the backroom, colourful paintings leaning up against the walls on all sides.
“They’re good!” Kit said, sounding surprised. “Very expressive. Very colourful. Very… strange! Where do these images come from?”
I shrugged. “I just start messing about on the canvas and see where it goes.”
Kit stopped in front of the one I had been working on, propped on the easel by the window. He frowned momentarily, looked at me questioningly.
“Who is this?” he asked.
I shrugged again. The woman, with her red lips, dark hair, pale skin, had come into my head as I’d started painting, swathed in shadows, smiling alluringly.
“She looks dangerous,” said Kit.
“I think she could be,” I agreed.
It was a huge relief to hear the front door opening and the bustle of Lorraine pouring into the hallway laden with shopping bags. I leapt to her assistance, pleased to escape from Kit’s intense examination. Lorraine was in full flow about the lack of etiquette on display in buses these days and immune to my attempts to interrupt her. She stopped abruptly when she saw Kit lingering in the doorway of the backroom.
“Lorraine, this gentleman is here to see you,” I said quickly.
“Is he indeed,” said Lorraine, inspecting Kit dubiously.
“Mrs Crossley,” Kit smiled effusively. “A pleasure to meet you at last. I am an associate of Marina Gallows. We would like to request your services as a consultant.”
The name clearly meant something to Lorraine. She replaced the suspicious scowl with a fulsome smile.
“Please come through to the front parlour,” she said graciously, opening the door and beckoning him inside.
Once Kit was inside the room she waved at me to clear away the bags. “Love, could you bring us some tea through, please?” she hissed.
“He drinks coffee.”
“Coffee, then. Best china.”
I put on the kettle and set up cups, saucers and accoutrements on a tray as I waited for it to boil. Lorraine had closed the parlour door, so I knocked before entering with the tray. The two were sitting very formally.
“Could you bring through the gentleman’s parcel from the Kitchen?” Lorraine asked politely but without looking at me, as through addressing a surly servant. I gave a brief mock-bow of assent; Kit noticed and grinned at me. I fetched it quickly and left them to it, my mind a turbulent mess.
In the Kitchen, I thought about why I had come to London. The job I had been offered. Why hadn’t I gone to the office? Instead I had been sleep-walking through life, living with Lorraine. When had I last even left the house?
Hercules came and sat on my lap, a heavy, comforting lump.
“Why didn’t I go to work?” I asked him searchingly. “What’s happened to me?”
I sat numbly, stroking Hercules, letting time pass around me.
The closing of the front door made me jump a little. Lorraine was jubilant when she emerged from the hallway.
“Gallows!” she exclaimed. “A consultant! Leave it with me, I said. I’ll see what I can do. We appreciate your expertise in the field, Mrs Crossley, he said. Your reputation precedes you!”
“That’s nice,” I said blankly.
“Now, what have I told you about letting strangers into the house?” Lorraine chastised.
“I’ve forgotten,” I said, my mind still churning it all around. “Why am I here?”
Lorraine looked at me with alarm.
“Alright, love,” she said soothingly. “Never mind, eh? We all make mistakes. I’ll put the kettle on. Make us a nice brew.”
“I don’t want one,” I said.
“You will,” she promised. “Once it’s in front of you. With a nice biscuit.”
She patted my shoulder. Hercules looked up at me curiously. As Lorraine patted and the kettle boiled for the umpteenth time, it felt as though all the confusion lifted gently away.
Lorraine placed the cup in front of me. The brown liquid was still whirling from her stirring, a single small bubble floating in the centre.
I lifted the mug, blew across the surface, drew in a tentative sip.
“A nice cup of tea,” said Lorraine. “Does you the world of good.”
Everything was fine.