I Used to Live Here Once by MS Clary
‘That woman was here again today.’
‘That one you thought came to collect for Donkeys?’
Raymond thought his wife wasn’t looking her best. Looked like she could do with a bit of chicken. How about an eat-all-you-want-buffet for ten pounds tomorrow night was on the tip of his tongue.
‘I hope you didn’t give her anything.’
Sandra was peeling an onion. ‘She wasn’t collecting for donkeys.’
‘What was it then, llamas?’
‘She says she was born in this house.’
‘So?’ He started for the door, assuming the conversation had ended. The smell of frying onions began to fill the kitchen
‘I told her to come back in the morning and she could have a look around.’
Raymond paused. ‘I don’t like the idea of a stranger looking round our house,’ he said.
‘So you’ll need to take those engine parts out of the spare bedroom.’
‘Where am I supposed to put them?’ he grumbled.
‘This won’t be ready for half an hour, so you’ve plenty of time.’
‘Why does she need to see the spare room anyway?’
‘That’s where she was conceived,’ she replied, starting on the cabbage.
Saturday morning they woke to a sky heavy with rain. Sandra put out the second-best mugs and a packet of hobnobs. At precisely eleven o’clock the bell rang. On the doorstep stood a stout middle aged woman in a raincoat holding a bunch of flowers.
‘I’m Rosalind,’ said the woman. ‘These are for you.’
‘Chrysanthemums,’ said Sandra, noting drooping petals already turning brown. ‘How thoughtful.’
‘It’s all I could find.’
‘Lovely,’ she said juggling the flowers. ‘Do come in. I‘ll put these in water …’
The woman ignored her outstretched hand and walked past her down the hall to the kitchen. She clearly knew her way around.
‘I expect it’s changed a lot since you lived here,’ said Sandra searching for a vase. Why is it you can never find the right vase. ‘My husband Raymond built the extension himself.’
‘Vandals,’ muttered Rosalind. Sandra thought she must have misheard.
The woman turned and swept into the lounge. Sandra, unable to find the right container, left the flowers on the draining board and followed. ‘We knocked these two rooms together,’ she explained ‘to give us more space. Was this where you did your homework?’
‘Wicked,’ muttered Rosalind.
‘I’ll call my husband,’ said Sandra, confused. ‘He’s in the shed - these men and their sheds…’ Ray entered the room, a whiff of engine oil clinging to his denims. He was not happy. It had poured overnight and the shed roof leaked.
Sandra felt uneasy. She hoped Rosalind might say something pleasant to Ray about the extension that had taken him two years to finish, but she was staring out of the French window.
‘What’s happened to the sycamore?’
‘There was no sycamore when we moved in,’ replied Sandra. ‘We put in the decking and the acer,’ she offered.
‘Vandals,’ the woman muttered again.
This time Sandra knew she’d heard correctly.
‘Would you like to see upstairs now?’ she asked.
The woman stared past her. ‘I don’t think so.’
All that effort to rearrange the spare room and she wasn’t even interested. Ray had been right all along. This was a big mistake.
‘We used to have book cases in here,’ said the woman. ‘Daddy was an intellectual.’
‘That’s a shame’ said Sandra. What else could she say?
‘Daddy was a very special man. Of course, so was Mummy.’
Sandra wondered if that’s how her children would have described her and Ray if they’d been blessed. Perhaps not the intellectual bit.
‘Where’s the standard lamp?’ Rosalind continued.
The woman’s lost it, thought Sandra. We should get rid of her quickly. She glanced to Ray for support but he had already gone back outside. The rain continued to fall. Rosalind strode back to the hall. ‘I’ve seen enough,’ she said, walking to the front door, opening it and slamming it shut behind her.
Not even a Thank You, thought Sandra, seriously ruffled. Ray found her in the kitchen her head bent over World of Interiors, nibbling a biscuit.
‘Well, that went well,’ he observed.
‘Who did she think she is?’ asked Ray. ‘Acting as if she still lived here. What did she think of the spare room?’
‘We never got that far. She acted so strange.’
‘There’s rain fell all over the bike.’
‘You need to fix that shed roof. Have a hobnob.’ She picked up the chrysanthemums and tossed them into the bin. The lid snapped shut.
Sandra had set aside Sunday morning to clear the hall and study some colour charts. They were freshening up as she liked to call it.
‘I favour the grey,’ she said.
He eyed her as she bent over in her baggy dungarees and wondered if he could suggest going back to bed for an hour.
‘But perhaps Ghostly Whispers is a bit too pale?’
Ray was happy to leave such decisions to his wife. They had agreed he would spend a half hour testing his bargain re-cycled tyres while she cleared out the hall cupboard. Outside the wind was gusting falling leaves down the street and into the gutters. She was deliberating the fate of a pair of Ray’s old trainers when the doorbell rang. A young man stood on the doorstep.
‘I’m sorry I have no need of more dusters.’
He held out his hand. ‘I’m Ralph, Ralph Harris.’
She took in his shiny brown shoes and thought the name sounded familiar.
‘I think you met my mother. You kindly let her look round your house.’
Sandra hoped he didn’t want to look round too. ‘I’m a bit busy at the minute,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry to trouble you, but my mother left her bag behind.’
Sandra frowned. ‘No, I don’t think so. I’ve found nothing.’
He was glancing past her as she spoke, as if expecting to see his mother’s bag among the old magazines and broken umbrellas.
‘She had it with her when you went upstairs.’
‘We never went upstairs,’ said Sandra.
Sandra didn’t like the way the conversation was going and was relieved to hear the sound of Ray’s bike blasting down the street. ‘My husband’s here now,’ she said.
‘Ray. This is Rosalind’s son. Rosalind,’ she said with emphasis, ‘who came here yesterday.’
Ray, sensing trouble, removed his helmet.
‘Rosalind says she left her bag behind. Ralph’s come to collect it.’
‘Well give it to him, then.’
‘The point is, the bag’s not here, she didn’t go upstairs.’
‘No. She never went upstairs.’
‘See?’ Said Sandra triumphantly. ‘My husband agrees. She must have left it somewhere else.’
There was a short silence and for a moment she thought Ralph was going to argue.
‘Sorry to bother you then,’ he said turning.
‘Tell her to look in the last place she saw it,’ Sandra called out helpfully as he walked away down the path.
‘Well, the cheek of those two,’ said Ray. ‘You didn’t find her bag, did you?’
‘Of course not! The whole thing has been ridiculous from start to finish. I wish I’d never asked her in.’
‘Those new tyres are no good,’ said Ray. ‘I’ll have to get back to Eddie. What time’s lunch?’
‘I wasn’t planning on lunch,’ she replied.
She looked round, trying to remember where Rosalind had stood. Some of her hurtful words came back, but nothing looked out of place. Satisfied and about to leave the room, she glanced behind the sofa and saw a grey cloth shopping bag bearing the logo Go With Flo.
‘All I can say is, Ray, it wasn’t here yesterday.’
Ray ran to the front door and looked down the empty street. The strengthening wind sent a clutch of leaves into the hall. He came back shaking his head.
‘No sign of him. What are you doing?’
Sandra was looking in the bag. ‘There might be some identification,’ she said.
They saw a large crumpled brown envelope held loosely together with parcel tape and an elastic band. As Sandra pulled it out, a large number of fifty pound notes fell onto the carpet. Ray knelt and swiftly tried to calculate, but stopped at nine hundred. Both sensed the heady, unfamiliar thrill of finding themselves in proximity to a large sum of money.
‘There’s a lot here,’ he said faintly.
‘We’ll have to go to the police,’ said Sandra
Ray was having difficulty articulating his thoughts.
‘People don’t usually carry that sort of amount around with them,’ said Sandra.
‘Unless they’ve robbed a bank. Suppose it’s not above board. And why did she send that man to pick it up.’
‘That’s for the police to decide.’
Together, they carried on counting, putting the money into separate piles of five hundreds. It soon spread across the floor. When they’d finished, they counted again and agreed the sum came to just over nine thousand pounds. The notes had begun to topple and merge, so they stuffed them back into the bag, not bothering with the envelope. It took longer to replace them than it had to tip them out. Exhausted by the effort, they sat back on the sofa, eyes drawn, as if hypnotised, to the bag which seemed to have doubled in size.
‘Do you think it’s legal?’ asked Sandra.
‘Probably not. Let’s not be hasty,’ said Ray. ‘She might come back. We don’t need to get involved in something… you know …’
Sandra nodded. Cradling the bag as though it were a new-born, she carried it upstairs, pushed it to the back of her wardrobe and covered it with a skirt. In case somebody breaks in overnight was her silent reply to Ray’s unspoken question.
Ray slept well, despite the roar of Storm Brenda battering the trees against the windows. Sandra woke several times in the night. Once she fancied she heard the stairs creak. Later she saw Rosalind climbing into the wardrobe. She knew she was dreaming, but was glad of Ray’s comforting bulk beside her.
Next morning they woke to the persistent tip-tap of dripping water coming from the spare bedroom. They placed a couple of buckets and a saucepan under the leak. A brown stain was already forming on the ceiling.
Rob the roofer was up on the roof for at least ten minutes. ‘Storm damage,’ he confirmed. Several tiles cracked and a few dislodged. It would cost around fifteen hundred to fix. He had a lot on but would prioritise for a mate. What’s more, he could start immediately. He added casually that for cash, he needn’t charge vat and he’d like an advance to cover materials.
Ray and Sandra looked at each other. This is an emergency, they said. Ray went to the wardrobe, opened the cloth bag and withdrew nine hundred pounds. For an extra couple of hundred, Rob would make good the damaged ceiling and help them lift the ruined carpet. His brother Bob could get them a lovely wool tufted at a special price.
A few weeks later, the work complete, they stood in the doorway admiring the finished effect.
‘I think this room needs something, Ray.’
‘It’s just been painted, Sandra.’
‘These mattresses must be ten years old.’
Only that morning, by chance, a flyer had come through the door advertising an Opportunity at Wiggins, their local Department Store. They decided to treat themselves to a spot of lunch and a quick look in the furniture dept. Once or twice, over lunch, their eyes met, aware what the other was thinking. Sandra voiced it first.
‘What are we doing, Ray?’
‘Having a nice lunch. How’s your chicken?’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘All that cash lying around just encourages burglars.’
‘What if they go to the police?’
‘We’d have heard by now. Why didn’t they come back? If anything’s ever said, we’ll pay it back. Or say we never found nothing.’
Sandra went cold as she felt a shadowy presence at her left shoulder, but it was only the waiter asking if everything was alright. They ordered another bottle of Prosecco.
‘Drink up,’ said Ray. ‘Wiggins closes at five.’
Christmas could be difficult for Ray and Sandra with no children to visit or grandchildren to entertain. Sometimes they went to friends, but this year the friends were away.
‘Can’t we go away somewhere?’ asked Sandra. ‘What about a cruise?’
Ray pondered. He’d always been wary of water.
‘We could go to the Med. See the Canaries.’ She showed him the brochure that had come that morning.
‘The ship leaves Southampton on the 23rd. It’s been reduced to nine-fifty for the two of us’.
‘Well, if you’re not interested.’
‘Don’t be hasty.’
Sandra knew what Ray was thinking as he disappeared upstairs. He was in charge of Operation Wardrobe, as they called it.
‘There’s exactly seven thousand left,’ he said coming back into the room.
That settles it thought Sandra, already on-line checking out details. The discussion had taken less than three minutes. The girl in the travel agency looked surprised when they offered payment in cash. They said they’d been saving up and had recently had a bit of luck on the horses. Their explanation was accepted without further comment. It’s like having a secret bank account, thought Sandra. This is what life must be like for the rich. She recognised the girl slightly from Zumba.
From time to time, Sandra thought back to Ralph and the morning he had turned up at their door. But not often. As time went by, she found it easier to forget about him altogether. Though once, stopping to look at a particularly desirable pair of boots in a shop window she caught him smiling back at her in the reflection. It felt like a sign of approval. He turned up unexpectedly in her favourite soap too, wearing his shiny shoes, so she stopped watching. She didn’t tell Ray about these visitations.
They were pleasantly surprised to discover how many tradespeople and establishments welcomed cash payment. With a little judicious juggling, they were soon able to pay off their credit cards and no longer went over-drawn at the end of the month. Sandra could buy herself some little treats. They re-decorated the kitchen. Ray traded his bike and considered buying a car.
Sandra began to tell herself that Rosalind had deliberately left the money for them to find. Maybe she was dying and wanted the house returned to how she remembered it. The details were vague and didn’t quite explain Ralph’s turning up. Perhaps he was some kind of con-man. And why had they never come back to claim the money? None of it could be explained. It felt like an Act of God. Though she wasn’t religious, she suggested trying a Service one Sunday but Ray poo-pooed the idea.
They hadn’t kept all the money to themselves. There was the monthly donation to the Donkey Sanctuary. She hadn’t hesitated to buy a set of t-towels and a duster she didn’t need off the youth on a scheme, and she’d given generously to the Salvation Army before Christmas. The plaintive trumpet solo always brought a lump to her throat.
Sandra bought an evening dress for the cruise and some leather-soled sandals for dancing. Ray bought a suit. He’d never had a need to dress up so fancy before. Sandra felt proud as they strolled the decks in their new casual designer wear, exploring the ports and enjoying a champagne cocktail before dinner. It had been a wonderful holiday they agreed as they clinked glasses on New Year’s Eve with their new friends Sally and Pete from Kent. They promised to keep in touch when they returned to dry land.
One day in early spring, Sally invited them down for a weekend. Ray looked forward to trying out the new second hand BMW on the motorway. .
After lunch in Pete and Sally’s favourite restaurant, they strolled along the front. They sat for a while, looking out to sea, waiting for the iron man to gradually reappear as the tide went out Sandra took deep breaths of the salty air, shielding her eyes from the glare, gazing towards the distant horizon. I don’t think she will find me here, she thought, having recently spotted Rosalind in the vegetable aisle of the supermarket.
‘This is Heaven, Ray. We could live here.’
Perhaps we could do with a change thought Ray.
Walking back along Beach Avenue they passed a neat bungalow with a For Sale board outside. Sally and Pete knew the agent slightly and were encouraging. It seemed the owners wanted a quick move and they could view it the following morning.
‘Oh Ray, this is perfect,’ cried Sandra looking through the open window. ‘Come and listen. I can hear the sea!’
They put their house on the market as soon as they got back. The next two months passed in a flurry of offers, counter offers, surveys and solicitors. While clearing out the wardrobe, Sandra came across an empty grey cloth bag. She held it out to Ray who, without comment, threw it into a plastic bag with the other rubbish. In late summer they were able to move into the bungalow.
‘Don’t you think it was meant to be, Ray?’ said Sandra, taking a breather before opening another box.
Ray, not wanting to tempt fate, just nodded.
The previous day he’d been tailed by a middle aged woman who seemed to shadow his every step of the way home. He glanced round and quickened his pace as reached Beach Avenue but she was still behind him, closing the gap. His heart thumped so hard he thought it would leap out of his chest. ‘Settling in?’ called the woman cheerily as she passed him and waved before crossing the road. It had only been a friendly neighbour, but Ray didn’t like the nervous twist in his stomach that stayed with him for most of the evening.
One afternoon in late autumn Pete and Sally informed them they were moving away to live near their daughter. They had a last farewell drink together, said their goodbyes and told each other they would be sure to keep in touch. We’re going to miss them, they thought.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Ray. ‘We’ll make new friends.’
Sandra pulled her jacket closer. The tide was high and a cool breeze had picked up. Oily dark waves splashed heavily against the sea wall.
‘No sign of the iron man today,’ she said.
‘He’ll be back tomorrow,’ replied Ray.
They bought fish and chips and made their way home. It was already dark. They turned up the heating and were settling in for the evening when there was a knock at the door.
‘I’ll get it,’ said Ray
At first he saw nobody. A full glittery moon cast its light across the street.
‘There’s nobody here,’ he called, going to shut the door.
Two men stepped out from the shadows
‘Who is it, Ray?’ called Sandra.
One man took a step towards him. The other leaned lazily against the porch studying his nails. Ray shivered in the chill night air. He could hear the steady rumble of the shifting tide nearby, but it might have been traffic on the motorway.
‘I’ve been expecting you,’ he said. ‘For a while now.’
He fancied he heard the sound of faint laughter and wasn’t sure where it was coming from. It might have been his own. The moon had vanished behind the clouds. He wondered when he would see it again.
‘Have you come to look around?’
‘Very generous,’ said one, as both men stepped forward.
‘We used to live here once.’