William Price looked blankly at the plain magnolia wall opposite the second hand sofa so lumpy and uncomfortable as to make him think he may be better off sitting on the floor. The thought of that marginally more uninviting than the tired blue covers once fresh and vibrant. Now dull with stains and ground in dirt that had him sitting stiff and bolt upright minimizing his contact with his surroundings. The pile of the carpet so thread bare and worn that in places the weave was beginning to show, these patches the only place the small wiry dog hairs hadn’t stubbornly embed themselves. The odour of the overweight mutt, stale cigarettes and the undesirable habits of the previous tenants permeated up obnoxiously from the floor. This alone was enough of a reason to rise again and checking the time on his phone.
Once again to go over to the only window in his flat that afforded a view of the outside world. Using his sleeve he wiped away the moisture from the pane and peered out trying to stretch his vision around the weathered brick wall that obscured half of his view of the public car park he hoped soon to see his sister pull up in. It was too soon yet, he knew that, but still he looked for want of something else to do. Not that the view bothered him, it was infinitely better than that of the flat that lurked behind him. The comings and goings of the car park was at least a connection with the outside world. And the hundred plus year old bricks of the wall with their handmade softness pitted with age a myriad of reds, browns and yellows that caressed the eye; Encouraging the viewer to follow the mortar lines to the next brick to compare the difference. The portion of the wall within view making up an abstract canvass of modern art that would look at home in the Tate held a simple pleasure at least. William picked at the hard curled up and flaking paint around the window frame irritated by the dampness and grime on his sleeve, but at least the payment was rewarded with a view other than that of the flat. He wondered if the bland magnolia wall was built of the same Victorian brick, and if the landlord would allow him to strip off the plaster and expose it. He doubted that, so made content with the image in his mind of interest behind the lime render and gypsum patches that appeared smooth at first sight but was a mixture of painted in gouges and painted over lumps as a convenient and quick way of masking undesirable filth.
It was just as William had freed the over painted latch on the sash window and was pulling up against the bottom window trying to break the yellowed gloss seal that held the window to the frame that the doorbell rang. Dull and suppressed the battery mostly drained and the bell housing full of dust voiced a tired ‘dring’ that matched the drab and dreariness of the flat; and flatly bayed he answer the door. He had just about given up on forcing the window open in any case, so turned crossing the mottled swirled brownish beige and green that more resembled an algae’d pool than a carpet and entered the wood chipped hall. The chipping thinned and snagged along the grimy lower levels where careless living had scuffed. Further up, they provided mini ledges for dust to gather and webs to find purchase. No natural light, a single bare bulb hung from a rose in the ceiling. This too fighting the grime, to illuminate the thin dividing walls that separated the living spaces and the flat next door. The low wattage making the woodwork that skirted the floor and framed the battered and bruised fake sapele doors appear even more yellowed than they actually were.
William hadn’t seen his sister pull into the car park, but he knew it was her, he wasn’t expecting anyone else and besides even if he was the way the bell incessantly rang to a the rhyme of a football chant it could only be her. As he drew back the bolt and unhooked the safety chain, turning the knob on the Yale lock in fake gruff annoys, he call through the door.
“Alright, Alright, hold your horses I’m coming!”
Pulling at the door for it to judder and bind with the frame at first, then to swinging open to be greeted by a mountain of cleaning materials that had sprung arms and legs. Over the top of a red mop bucket filled with bleach containers, polish, dusters and marigold gloves peered a small mousy bob haired lady, her hazel eyes smiled and her thin lips turned up in a grin.
“What took you so long Billy boy?”
Maria stepped over the threshold dumped a small vacuum cleaner on the floor and a mop and bucket in her brothers hands before bustling passed and into the kitchen at the end of the hall. Dumping the remainder of her load on the small kitchen table and immediately pulled out a pinafore donned it, began rolling her sleeves up and pulling on the marigold gloves with a business like snap. All this before William had managed to put the mop and bucket down and close the door with encouragement of a shoulder. During which time Maria chuntered on.
“I had to park round the corner, have you seen what they charge for parking out there? I tell you what bro, you’re gonna loss some pounds hauling yourself up those stairs. Damned lift was broken, probably a good job too. It didn’t look none to hygienic”
William stood in the kitchen doorway and let his sister go on; she was three years his senior and had always been the same. Unfazed by anything, enthusiastic about everything, determined and a complete chatterbox. Still chuntering away Maria reached into the oversized bag that William was still amazed she had dragged up three flights of stairs with all the other paraphernalia she had carted in, to produce a small kettle, two mugs, milk and some teabags.
“Thought you might like some tea, PG tips. Special offer you know, you know I how like a bargain, Is the fridge working?”
Maria turning to pull at the door to quickly close it again her sleeve under her nose
“Maybe not then”
The whiff of stale air wafting up stopping her chatter long enough to see her brother smirking in amusement from the door.
“How about shutting that trap of yours for just a minute and give me a hug?”
William interjected before she was off on another torrent of words. Holding his arms wide and stooping his six foot frame to receive his sister’s embrace as one would with a child. Maria scuttling over and pulled him lower her arms around his neck and kissed him gently on the cheek. In return William wrapped his arms around her and stood up lifting her off the ground, bear hugging her just as he did when he had grown passed her five foot two at the age of fourteen. Back then it was a power thing, some way of being superior to her. At seventeen she has seemed so worldly and intelligent. All he had had was brute strength and height. He still had this, but replacing the desire to be superior was deep admiration and love for his sister, who has stuck by him through everything. The bear hug setting Maria off again, just like when she was younger, squawking and kicking her feet in mock distain.
“William, you put me down this minute, you brute. We have work to do.”
Of course William held his sister in suspension just a little longer her voice becoming higher still as she softly scolded him.
“Do you hear me William? This place isn’t going to clean itself!” William, William…OOOh! WILLIAM!
Satisfied that Maria was squirming and complaining enough he dropped her onto her feet again and gave her his best puppy dog smile which earned him a pair of yellow marigolds in the face.
“Better put them on Billy Boy, we’ve got some serious grafting to do.” Maria turned to fill the small kettle calling over her shoulder “Well go on you lump, how about opening a window or two”
She did not see her brother roll his eyes; as if he hadn’t already tired.
This time though, with the help of a scraper Maria had brought along William managed to free the sash window in the living room and creaked open the small high level window in the bathroom. Allowing a pleasant airy town breeze to pass through the flat as he sipped a cuppa and Maria allowed hers to go cold as she directed, instructed and laid out the plan of action for the cleaning assault on the flat.
Maria cleaned as fast as she talked and nagged and harassed William until several hours on; the kitchen and bathroom gleamed as much as the tired and dilapidated surfaces allowed. The pond like dog smelling carpet had been rolled up and expelled from the flat that Maria insisted in calling an apartment; And dragged down to the brick walled area that all the residents of the block of flats piled up their rubbish and unwanted junk. They even found a print in an old mahogany frame of Constable ‘Haywain’ which between them they carted back up to the ‘apartment’ and after a soapy wash down of both picture and wall they hung to cover some of the bland magnolia expanse opposite the now fresh smelling sofa. The exposed floor once scrapped of disintegrating foam rubber backing was actually in fine condition. Large broad elm boards wonderfully knotty and full of life with the help of a good rub of Mr Sheen. A rug they had discovered rolled up in the back of a wardrobe, royal blue and embroidered in gold, an Elizabethan hunting scene gave the space a feel of old world charm. A time when life was simpler and home was a place you belonged and wanted to be. This flat was not yet a place William wanted to be, but Maria had banished the apartment's recent past and made it a place bearable to live.
Eight hours on and William had walked his sister to her car and listen to her discussing curtain and bedding and paint she would bring with her in the morning. He spent a further ten minutes nodding and blindly agreeing as Maria fussed about him eating healthy and to keep off the drink, that particular demon needling him. He had been clean for the last six months and big sis intended to keep him that way. It was that final comment that had had him stooping down to the window to lean in and give his Maria one last squeeze and a hug, trying to ignoring the last piece of advice. It was a double edged sword when Maria mentioned his habit. Just the mention of drink made him want one, and at the same time the idea of letting Maria and the others who had helped him with his addiction filled him with shame. Standing once again William nodded and mumbled his good byes
“Sure thing Mar” he muttered,
More in response to the final comment than everything else, feeling like a small boy as for once Maria used silence and a serious stare to drive home her point. She held the moment but briefly before giving William the same warm smile she had when she had meet him at the door from atop the cleaning materials.
“See you tomorrow Billy”
Maria pushed the car into first gear and rolled away from the kerb still gabbing away till her voice could just be heard though the words indistinguishable. Though William knew the final words off by heart, it was one of her favourite saying. “If you can’t be good be careful”
“Painting tomorrow, I’ll bring some more milk, ohhh and you better put that rail up, so don’t sleep in…set your alarm clock..If you can’t……..”
And then she was gone, William turned and grinned to himself and walked back up to the flat his step a little lighter as was the effect his sister had on him. The flat was clean and aired and Maria would come again and they would paint and clean some more.
William flopped down on the sofa ignoring the lumps. Yeah, life was pretty crappy but it was better. Maria had a way of making life better. It was as he mused the attributes of his big sister and where he had been and where he was now, finding a comfortable hollow in the seat that he notices for the first time; Low down behind the TV stand a small piece of loose lime plaster. Some had fallen away and behind glimpsed a handmade rusty red of a brick. The same red brick that the wall was made from that obscured half the view of the car park outside.