The house was even bigger than Shirley remembered; bigger, grander, more beautiful. There were eight broad stone steps up to the front door. At the top she paused before slipping the key into the lock, turning to enjoy the splendour of the front drive, the wrought iron gates, the sweeping curve of gravel, the circle of carpet green lawn fringed with weeping willows. Inside, her trainers squeaked on the oak parquet. She bounced as she walked, enjoying the sound. Opening the doors on the downstairs rooms, cabinets of glass and ornaments tinkled. Light shimmered across mirrors and expensive paintings.
Mrs Haslam said it had been a rectory once, attached to the church which was now used for dance and yoga lessons. Shirley couldn’t imagine a vicar living there, not unless he was robbing the collection box. The kitchen was clearly an add-on from such days, a lofty glass-domed extension attached to the rear of the house and jutting into the back garden like a jetty. Shirley peered through the windows, steaming the pane with her breath. To one side was a crescent shaped patio of York stone, to the other a herb garden and rockery. The rest was lawn, skirted by tall trees and ebullient shrubs. In the centre, sat the fish pond, glistening with the orange flecks of its darting occupants.
Truffles, the brown Persian, appeared silently in the doorway, his flat puckered face twitching suspiciously. Shirley did her special mewing and he came trotting over, winding between her legs, brushing his feathery tail against her bare skin. She stroked him lavishly, cooing praise. Truffles had got her the job, after all. On the very last day of the horrible cleaning at the cattery too, with the rent another month overdue and John’s slamming of the front door still reverberating between her ears. Mrs Haslam had been waiting by the till when Shirley emerged with the cat box, her pink velour shell suit stretched tight over her dimpled thighs.
‘Not many people can get away with that,’ she had exclaimed, pointing at Shirley’s fingers poking through the cat-box air-holes.
‘But he’s such a pussycat,’ Shirley had cooed, tickling Truffles’ bearded chin, making Mrs Haslam laugh.
Shirley had carried the box to the car, where more conversation flowed, about the problem of animals and holidays, of how Truffles usually returned from a spell in the cattery with an infection. And there were her husband’s beloved fish to feed too, Mrs Haslam had complained, the man at the pet shop charged a fortune for coming by - not to mention the house gathering dust, the countless plants that needed watering and the worry about being burgled. They were going away again in a month’s time and the thought of organising it all over again was already getting her down.
So why not use her as a house-sitter, Shirley had said, jotting down her mobile as if it was a service she offered every day of the week, instead of an idea that had catapulted into her brain at that very moment, fired by the thought of the bailiff’s letter waiting next to the leaky kettle and the long walk in the rain to save on the bus fare.
A week later Mrs Haslam called. She got feelings about people she said, and she wanted Shirley to look after their home. When could she come by to sort out details?
Shirley kicked off her shoes and stretched out on the kitchen sofa. It was parked under a flat-screen TV the size of her front door. Through the window she could see the reeds round the pond thrashing in the wind. Under the February afternoon sky the water was as dark as treacle. It made her feel snug and good. She wiggled her toes, trying to keep the big one from poking through its usual hole. There were sofas and tellies all over the house and she planned to use them all. Two weeks.Two weeks of luxury.
The outside world could wait. A cruel place, she owed it nothing. She would take the kindly Mrs Haslam at her word and make herself thoroughly at home – eat out of the wardrobe sized freezer, work her way through their library of DVDs, keep her mobile off, the doors bolted and the lights blazing. Her job was simply being there and she planned to excel at it. There was even a wad of cash in an envelope by the phone. Two hundred quid. For sundries, Mrs Haslam had written. Sundries! Jesus, what sundries were there other than fags and the odd loaf of bread? Shirley had already decided to scrimp and save as much of it as she could, perhaps leaving a twenty over for show.
That night she phoned her Mum for the first time in months, courtesy of the landline. She had a new job, she said, so she wasn’t to worry about her any more. Her Mum laughed her wheezy fag-ridden laugh but Shirley could hear the hope in it too. And she’d got rid of John, she said. Her Mum went quiet for a bit, a sign Shirley knew, of how glad she was. They’d never discussed the bruises – arms, cheekbones, mostly – always fading by the time Shirley let herself be seen. But Shirley knew she knew. It took one to know one, as her mum might have said.
But now that was done with. She had a new job – a career. She was a house sitter. If she did okay more similar work would follow, from all those swanky retired friends the Haslams had to have, jetting off to villas and mountains and cruise ships, leaving prized pets and empty houses behind. Shirley had always fancied running her own business – and here she was, half way there already! With a reputation established, she’d be able to charge a daily rate, employ other people. She could advertise in the cattery, start her own website.Shirley’s House Guardians. She could see the page now: soppy pictures of cats and dogs, trim gardens and gleaming kitchens. “Peace of mind while you are away –and a spring-cleaned home!”
Keeping the house nice was a doddle. Every day Shirley found new corners – tops of cupboards, under beds, behind pictures – to clean. She worked with the radio, whistling, glad to be busy. The garden was okay too, clearing leaves and branches, with a broom or her bare hands. It was the fish she wasn’t so keen on. Big as slippers, with their hoover-nozzle mouths and staring loose-button eyes, they gave her the creeps. Dangling in the pond was a thermometer she was supposed to keep an eye on. If the level dropped below a certain point Shirley was to turn up a heating dial in the garden house. Their feeding had to be exact too – a handful of one kind of flakes and pinch of some other. Too much and their insides would simply burst, Mrs Haslam had warned gravely, because they were very special rare carp, each worth hundreds of pounds.
Truffles liked the fish a lot. When Shirley did the feeding he would take up a stalking position amongst the reedy fringe, his body still, his eyes darting and huge. Shirley would wag a finger, laughing, saying she didn’t trust him an inch. It felt like he was spying on her too sometimes, appearing round corners in the house, when she was smoking out of one of the top bedroom windows or lying amongst mountains of foam in Mrs Haslam’s huge bath, dousing herself in all the expensive toiletries.
On the last full day Shirley combed the house, tweaking the tiniest detail into place. She even spent some of the treasured cash on flowers for the hall table – lilies and white roses. There was no change out of a twenty, but they looked beautiful. That evening she lay on her stomach to do the fish, dropping each flake into the water individually, careful not to put her hand is as Mrs Haslam had warned – not because they’d bite or anything, but in case she contaminated them. The fat orange bodies swarmed. Truffles crouched next to her, his ears twitching.
She was stiff and cold, clambering to her feet, when her eye was caught by a gleam, a gleam that did not look like a fish. Shirley dropped back onto her knees, squinting in the darkening light. It was something – definitely something – in the murky bottom. Without a second thought, she pushed up the sleeve of her coat and plunged her arm in, but the water was deeper than it looked. The fish went mad at the invasion, springing away, flicking their tails, bumping into each other. Ignoring them, Shirley peeled off her coat and jumper and dunked her whole head under, forcing her eyes to stay open and gritting her teeth against the aching cold.
It was a ring. A diamond flanked by two sapphires, all of them huge. Shirley stared, blinking the water from her eyes. Truffles, not liking the commotion of splashing, had charged off into the bushes. Shirley stayed crouched in her iced, sodden clothes, trying to think straight. If she produced the ring the Haslams might reward her. But then again they might not. She pressed the ring to her chest and walked briskly back to the house.
She hid the ring in the bottom of her rucksack, but then didn’t fall asleep until the birds had started. Only minutes later it seemed, she was woken by the sound of angry voices. The Haslams had returned and were in the garden. Shirley peered round the edge of the window. Mr Haslam was shouting.
‘…incompetent bloody girl – I told you, Margaret, I told you – but you wouldn’t listen, would you? No, because you never do. Asleep! At this hour, the lazy bitch and on the day of our return and now…’ As he moved Shirley got a better a view of the pond and realised why they were standing there. More fish than she could count were floating on their sides, eyes opaque, skyward. Shirley fell against the window. It was her fault, she knew: her plunge to retrieve the ring must have produced exactly the contamination Mrs Haslam had warned against – probably from all those expensive toiletries of hers.
Hurriedly she tugged on her jeans. If she was clever and quick she could still get away. But then a cry from the garden summoned her back to the window. Mrs Haslam was doubled over clutching the side of her face. Her husband was glowering, one arm raised, poised to strike again. Shirley’s heart raced with pity and the sickening recognition that there were some things that not even money could protect against.
She took her time before going downstairs, brushing her hair, folding and packing her clothes, rubbing some balm over her lips. Unpleasantness waited, she knew. A showdown. Mr Haslam’s anger – male anger – every sinew in her dreaded it. She would say sorry, but deny knowledge of what could have gone wrong. Then, unlike Mrs Haslam, she would be able to walk away.
She had moved the ring to the front pocket of her jeans and could feel the ridge of it against her hip as she took each step. There were voices coming from the kitchen. Mrs Haslam’s bag was on the hall table, next to the flowers. Shirley took a deep breath - like the one before the plunge into the pond – and slipped the ring just inside, buried but not too much. Afterwards, she exhaled slowly, aware of a spreading warmth, like happiness. The decision had been hard, and yet somehow the simplest of her life. Mrs Haslam had still to make that first break after all, the one that Shirley had already managed. And didn’t she have a hundred and fifty quid in her pocket? Not a fortune, perhaps, but enough to see her through, for a short while anyway.