The first time he came to clean the windows Erin apologised for the state of the flat. ‘I’m experimenting with that just burgled look. I wasn’t expecting anybody.’
He looked around. ‘I can see that.’ Looking at the living room window, he said. ‘Needed doing. Wasn’t sure whether to squeegee them or Hoover them.’ He read the words written in the dust on the inside of the windows. ‘Shall I do the insides?’
Erin shook her head. The last time she saw the dreaded Colin, he’d dampened a finger and written ‘I was here,’ in the dust. She hadn’t washed it away even now, but then she hadn’t emptied the vacuum cleaner for two years.
She offered the window cleaner a hot drink.
He asked for coffee and said, ‘I like my coffee like I like my women, full of piss and vinegar.’
Erin liked the line but it felt too prepared. She’d have said ‘I bet you say that to everybody,’ but didn’t want to encourage him, so she said, ‘You’ll have it as it comes and like it.’
He started coming regularly. After months she asked his name. When Jim came in to fill his bucket, they’d chat. It surprised her how easy she found this. They’d talk about the news, the telly. He’d talk about his weekends, about his flatmate Chris who’d always wanted a shed, so had done out the cupboard under the stairs as one.
Erin found herself buying in biscuits for when Jim came; decent ones with more packet than biscuit. Then, one Friday he seemed anxious to get away. Refusing a coffee he said, ‘Can’t stop. Got a bit of a blind date, as it goes.’ A sheepish smile crossed his face. ‘Friend of a friend. Tash they call her.’
‘Dozy sounding name.’
‘Think it’s short for Natasha.’
Erin sniggered. ‘Either that or she’s actually got a tache.’
Over the coming days, irritability crept up on her like drunkenness. Back at work she saw it in the faces of the claimants when she spoke to them; the initial puzzled wince, the hardening of the features. She saw it in the knowing glances passed between colleagues.
Next time she saw him they exchanged the usual pleasantries about their respective plans for the weekend. Then, staring into his coffee, Jim said, ‘Bit of a disaster with that Natasha.’
Erin gave him a bored look. ‘Oh?’ Before she could properly enjoy his discomfort, he went and spoilt everything. Simply, without embarrassment, he said, ‘There’s this cellar bar in Greenwich. Has jazz on some nights, but apart from that it’s alright. Wondered if you fancied going there Saturday.’
‘Oh, hold on, this Saturday? Tomorrow, you mean?
He smiled. ‘Yeah.’
‘Actually, I’ve just remembered I’m doing something.’
He nodded, understood.
Erin fetched her purse and counted out the money to show him he should go.
Her weekend was the usual, as lonely as a launderette.
Monday lunchtime, Mandy was waiting for her outside the Jobcentre, with Ruby in her buggy. They walked to Ferranti Park. While Ruby toddled on the tarmac, Mandy asked Erin about her morning.
‘Usual, really. Some daft training nonsense, first thing. We had to brainstorm a one sentence mission statement to go on our name badges. I wanted to suggest, “Doing a shitty job so you don’t have to.”’
Mandy looked thoughtful.
Erin touched her knee. ‘Not you, sweetheart. You’re alright.’ Starting her sandwich, she said, ‘Otherwise, a cushy morning. Had me doing an exit survey. Stood by the door trying to talk the punters into joining Exit.’
Mandy smiled. ‘One way to get the numbers down.’
Erin asked about Mandy’s weekend.
‘Went to the Sahara. Singles night. Some dick hands me his phone and says, “Here you are love, phone the babysitter and tell her you’ve pulled.’ Mandy laughed. ‘I scrolled through the names and rang the only woman on there that wasn’t his mum. Said her bloke was trying to pull me. Priceless. He looked so sick.’ She watched Ruby sitting alone on the see-saw. ‘I’m not even looking.’
Erin nodded. ‘Me neither.’
‘You should get back on the horse.’
There’d been nobody since Colin. Mandy once secretly put Erin’s details on a dating website, meaning well. When she let her know, Erin was livid. The first person to respond sounded ridiculously young on the phone. They’d arranged to meet at Charing Cross. She described herself for the purposes of identification. He complained the description was too vague. He said, ‘It’s like me saying, “I look like the ugly one out of Radiohead.” It’s like, give us a tiny clue, yeah?’ She didn’t get the reference. It made her feel ancient, so she stood him up.
Erin finished eating and looked at Mandy. ‘Actually, I got asked out.’
‘Yeah? Who he?’
‘Just this bloke.’ She looked across at the flats opposite. ‘Seems alright. You remember Andy, the agency worker when we were in the home? B.O. Always wore that tanktop. This bloke reminds me of him.’
Mandy cocked her head. ‘Stink, does he?’
Erin pursed her lips. ‘I knocked him back.’
‘Christ, Erin! Give him a go. I’ll only nag the arse off you, if you don’t.’
They found a table. Jim indicated the drunks clustered at the bar. ‘Think they reach the bottom of the stairs and can’t get out again.’
‘Like wasps in a jar?’
They looked around the room for a long few minutes. Jim sucked at his bottled lager and said, ‘Wish they’d give you a list of dos and don’t for first dates.’
Erin helped him. ‘Yeah. Like, if they ask about your day, don’t admit to spending it flossing and thinking of stuff to say.’
‘Yeah. And if she says she’s likes men who express their innermost emotions, don’t blurt out “I’ve got a lot of angry and mistrustful feelings towards women; how am I doing so far?”’
Erin grinned. ‘That’s it. If she says she likes getting caught in summer rain, don’t get all enthusiastic and say it’s great because the streets turn into one big wet tee-shirt competition.’
Their awkwardness dissolved but made a later return that Erin couldn’t understand. She asked about his job, said how it couldn’t be much fun, out in all winds and weathers.
He shrugged. ‘Not really my main thing.’
‘I do magic. Close up magic. Conjuring, you’d call it.’
Erin lit a cigarette. ‘Make a living then?’
He smiled. ‘I get by, one way and another. What about you? Got a daytime gig?’
She mumbled that she worked in an office.
He asked if she enjoyed it.
She shrugged. ‘Sometimes you get punters coming in with good names. Mr Brilliant. Betty Pond. Derek Alabaster, Felicity Upright, Mary Mary.’
He smiled. ‘What was she like?’
‘Pretty easygoing, actually.’
Jim nodded. ‘Ah, the old double-bluff.’
‘Filed some papers last week for someone whose middle name was Helium.’
‘Did you phone him up to see if he had a squeaky voice?’
Erin began to like the way Jim knew what she meant. She stubbed her cigarette. ‘Other than that, it’s shit. Aggravation wise, it’s half a notch up from driving a night bus.’
‘What sort of office is it?’
‘Dole office. On the High Street.’
Then came the awkwardness. His face fell. Erin couldn’t read why. They kissed at the bus stop. He initiated it, but it felt to her like it was an act of politeness.
She rang him, but on the phone he was cooler, less funny, cagey. She started getting his answering machine. She kept thinking of something he’d told her about magic, how its success depended on the relationship with the audience. You needed to make them care, then make them wait.
He came on the usual day to do the windows. Having filled his bucket he couldn’t get outside quickly enough. Later, he downed his coffee like a drunk at last orders making time for another. Evading her gaze he said, ‘I’ve been thinking. We obviously get on. Almost like mates.’ He coughed. ‘I’m not really after a relationship just now.’
She looked at him. ‘Who says I am?’
He relaxed. ‘I’d like us to be friends.’
Erin lit a cigarette. ‘I’ve got enough friends already.’
‘Really? You only ever mention Mandy.’
Erin’s voice sharpened. ‘I won’t be needing the windows done again.’
Three days later, she’d just got in from work when the doorbell rang. It was Jim. He said, ‘I should explain.’
Erin stepped out onto the landing. ‘You can explain out here.’
‘It’s not you.’
‘Don’t even bother finishing that sentence.’
Jim watched somebody go into the flat next door. ‘It’s awkward. I’m signing on.’
‘You’d better come in. Five minutes, though.’
He sat on the sofa. She stayed standing. He said, ‘I always meant to sign off but never got up straight enough money-wise.’
‘You must make enough on the windows, surely.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s only part-time. I need to put the hours in on the magic.’
Erin pulled a face. ‘It’s only tricks, isn't it?’
He looked pained. ‘Means a lot to me. Haven’t you ever had anything like that?’
She shrugged. ‘Nope.’ You grew out of that sort of thing. She’d had daft daydreams in her teens, but they’d fallen away like puppy fat. She sat down beside him. He made to speak but she stopped him. ‘Hold on, I’m thinking.’
Eventually she spoke. She counted her conditions off on her fingers. He must never transfer his claim to the Deptford office. He couldn’t clean her windows again. He must sign off as soon as possible. She paused. ‘We’ll have to be careful when we’re out. Not look too coupley .’
Erin caught his look. ‘Someone’s always making themselves busy.’ She told him about a workmate who scanned the Mercury’s marriage pages for evidence of claimants secretly cohabiting.
Jim brightened. ‘I’ll cook you tea round mine if you like.’ He touched her hand. ‘Make up for pissing you about.’
At the bus stop he told her he lived near the Rivoli ballroom.
‘I know it,’ Erin said. ‘Square building, domed roof, crimped down the edges.’
Jim looked puzzled.
Erin slapped her forehead. ‘Hold on. I’m thinking of the Ravioli ballroom.’
Jim laughed. ‘I know the place. Went in there once. It was packed. With a dodgy meat-based filling.’
‘That’s the one.’
The night was wintry so they sat at the back of the bus, where it was warmest. As they passed, Jim pointed to the sign on the Marquis of Granby. ‘Look at the N. The sign-writer must have had a twitch on him like Jack Douglas.’ As they went by the Monsoon curry house he said, ‘Reckon the same bloke did the sign here. That ‘O’s a good four inches up from the other letters.’
Erin laughed. ‘Are you autistic or something?’
Jim looked out of the window. ‘Me dad was a sign-writer. I was born under a bad sign. According to me mum it was him who painted it.’
‘Is he about?’
‘He baled out early. Before that he was always disappearing. Probably where I get the magic from.’
The bus filled at each stop. Erin budged up next to Jim and relaxed against him as they rode on. At Brockley Cross he wiped condensation from the window and pointed outside.
Erin looked. ‘The Cross Dry Cleaners? Looks okay to me.’
Jim grinned. ‘The sign’s fine, but I always imagine the bloke who works in there being permanently furious.’
They bought beer in Costcutter and climbed the stairs to his flat. It was so tidy Erin wondered if Jim might be gay.
‘Flatmate not around?’
Jim looked embarrassed. ‘Gave him two bob to go to the pictures.’
‘He’ll have to sneak in through the fire exit then.’
Jim cooked while Erin sat on the sofa and started drinking.
Soon the chilli was ready. After the first mouthful Erin exclaimed, ‘It’s good!’
Jim buffed his nails on his chest. ‘Man cannot live by bread alone.’
‘Hence the toaster.’ She looked at the food. ‘When I do rice it comes out like the scrapings from a bill poster’s bucket.’
They ate and chatted. Talk turned to the subject of exes. Jim explained how he’d not long been ditched for a bloke called Jazz. He said, ‘People called him that because nobody really liked him but they didn’t want to seem uncool by admitting it.’
‘What went wrong?’
‘We wanted different things. I wanted a secure relationship, she wanted her head examined.’
‘Must’ve seen something in you.’
Jim toyed with his food. ‘Just thought I was funny. Mostly I wasn't even meaning to be. We met at a party. She said she was an arts outreach worker. I misheard her because of the music. I said, “So what do you do, go round the pubs helping them set up a team?”’ I thought she’d said darts.’ He shook his head. ‘I flossed every day for two years for that prat.’
He said, ‘How about you?’
She shrugged. ‘Haven’t been up to much in that department.’ She lit a cigarette. ‘There was this Colin.’ She paused. ‘Bit of a let-down.’
‘We were on the bus once. This bloke was staring at me. I said, “Do you want a photo?” He said, “What for, to scare off dogs?” Afterwards, Colin made out he never heard him. I didn’t want him to clump the bloke, just admit he’d heard what I’d heard.’
She flicked ash on her empty plate. ‘He used to ask me why I was so angry. I’d say, “How long have you got?” He’d say, “Probably not long enough.”’
Jim turned so he could look her in the face. ‘Must admit, you do seem a bit humpy sometimes.’
‘Any particular reason?’
‘How long have you got?’
He pushed out his bottom lip like a builder giving an estimate. ‘I haven’t got much else on just now to be honest.’
It was some weeks before she saw Mandy again. They arranged to meet in Starburger.
‘You must’ve shagged him by now, surely to Christ,’ Mandy said.
‘I didn’t think he saw me that way.’
‘You don’t see you that way. Any good?’
‘Okay. Hairy shoulders.’
Erin laughed. ‘I know. Big epaulettes of minge. I used to watch the wrestling on a Saturday. Mick McManus had all that going on. Never thought I could fancy anyone like that.’
Mandy’s voice softened. ‘Never say never.’
Erin exhaled shakily, sipped her tea. ‘I feel a bit wobbly, as it goes. He told me something.’
Mandy snorted. ‘Surprise me; he’s married.’
‘No. He told me he loves me.’
Mandy smirked and whispered, ‘Before or after he came?’
‘Both,’ Erin said.
‘Ooh. What are you going to do?’
‘Run for the hills is me first instinct.’
‘Don’t do that.’
The food arrived. They paused until the waitress went away.
‘Been seeing a lot of him, actually. He’s nice,’ Erin went on. ‘He’s gentle, he’s kind, he’s reliable.’
Mandy laughed. ‘Christ! Sounds like a job reference for a lollipop lady.’
‘He makes an effort.’
‘Ha. What’s that like?’
‘You know. Little things. The odd compliment now and then, all that.’
The dreaded Colin wasn’t big on compliments, although he had once told her she had reasonable tits. It sounded daft, like she had the sort of breasts you could sit down and have a sensible discussion with.
‘Suppose so.’ Erin faltered. ‘Feels like I’m losing something.’
Mandy’s tone cooled. ‘No pleasing you, is there?’
Erin looked at Mandy, then at Ruby. It came tumbling out, about how she’d resigned herself to spending the rest of her life with a pile of magazines down the other side of the bed. About how she thought all this with Jim might just turn out to be a con or an illusion.
Mandy listened, looking out at the traffic. When her friend finished she stroked her shoulder. ‘You worry too much. You’re knitting up a problem out of nothing.’
Erin’s eyes started welling up. She mumbled, ‘I don’t want to show myself up.’
Mandy passed her a tissue. ‘What is it you want?’
Erin leaned forward. ’I want to be loved. And I want to be left alone.’
When they parted Mandy hugged her and said ‘Don’t let fear hold you back, sweetheart.’
Erin looked at her. ‘That’s what fear’s for isn’t it?’
So she continued to see him, despite herself. She began to relax with him after Mandy had made an excuse to give him the once over. She’d invited them both to Ruby’s birthday party. After the third snot-faced toddler had climbed onto her she’d started pointing at Jim, saying, ‘Go over and ask the nice man to show you a trick.’ They liked him. As the party ended she’d watched the children babbling about Jim to their mums, stumbling over the word “magician”, watched the mothers weighing him up, asking for his business card.
Weeks passed. The trees were coming into leaf like in that poem she read at school. Erin was just thinking of him as she walked home from work, looking forward to telling him about the latest daft idea from management. They wanted to make the office a happier place to visit, by hiring some clowns to meet and greet the claimants. She imagined saying to him, ‘Don’t know about hiring some clowns, they want to sack a few.’ She came out of Pagnell Street foot tunnel and looked out onto Fordham Park as she waited to cross the road. A family played on the grass. The man was giving the young boy a piggyback. Erin squinted to see better, and began to feel dizzy.
As the man bounced the boy on his shoulders the woman called to him. The wind threw the words into Erin’s face. ‘Don’t get him overexcited, Jim.’
Erin scuttled down the street alongside the park. She climbed to the top of a grass bank, and peered over at the three. Jim and the boy began playing football. The woman moped reluctantly in a makeshift goalmouth.
Erin watched her. Who the fuck was this? She didn’t look like the arty type he’d mentioned. And what was she to Jim? Erin thought of the man who’d tried to pick up Mandy in the Sahara. Led by the dick, the lot of them.
The woman wasn’t all that, stood there smoking, skinny, hunched, with her weird little teeth, like bits of wood. And what about the kid? Hers, or worse, theirs? She watched Jim let him score another goal. He was about four, with a soft, round face. He didn’t resemble Jim particularly, but kids that age all looked the same to her. The two seemed completely at ease together. It gave Erin a queasy, nose-pressed-against-the-glass feeling.
The game ended, the boy claiming victory with some fantastical score. Jim and the woman led the boy to the park gates. Erin felt an ache in her chest like some part of her had just been removed.
At the gates, Jim went one way, the woman and child went the other. Before parting, Jim and the woman hugged and he kissed her cheek. The child stood off to one side, looking embarrassed.
She’d seen enough. Scrambling down the slope she broke the heel off one shoe. Across the road a man walked his dog. He watched her with a curious smile as his dog nonchalantly shat in the middle of the pavement. Erin hobbled home.
She drank three pots of tea in the dark and rang the phone company. Then she rang Jim.
‘I’m not seeing you any more.’
There was a moment’s silence. ‘Erin?’
‘I saw you. It’s all off.’
Jim said, ‘What’s this about? Saw me where, doing what?’
‘Don’t make it worse by lying.’
‘I don’t understand, mate.’
‘Don’t call me “mate”. In fact, don’t call me.’ She went on, needlessly. ‘I’ve barred your number. And your mobile. You can block up to three numbers for no extra cost.’
Jim spluttered. ‘Thanks for the household hint.’
Erin put down the receiver.
The doorbell rang. Jim’s eyes were at the open letterbox, then his mouth. ‘Can we talk? I’ve worked it out. She’s my sister.’
‘In the park. My sister, Denise.’
Erin grunted. ‘Prove it.’
Jim disappeared from the letterbox. The slot reopened. A woman looked through. ‘Alright?’
Erin opened the door.
Jim touched the woman’s elbow. ‘Show her.’
She reached inside her puffer jacket and brought out a piece of beige paper. ‘It’s a bit tatty.’
Erin read the birth certificate. It was true. She could see it now in the woman’s face; the jaw, the eyes slightly too far apart. She looked from Jim to his sister, at a loss.
Jim’s sister made her excuses, throwing Jim a questioning look as she went.
Inside the flat Erin gave him an uncertain smile. ‘You never mentioned her before. How come?’
Jim said, ‘Didn’t feel right, going on about family when you can’t talk about yours.’
Erin nodded. ‘There’s nothing there.’ She sighed. ‘When you came in earlier, that’s the first time I’d seen you looking angry. I almost felt relieved. Suppose you trust what you’re used to.’
She told him about her time in care. All the girls would sit smoking on the stairs last thing at night. Mr Doble, the care-worker, would join them, and sit on a lower step so he could look up their nighties. She told him about Carol, whose so-called uncle used to get her to hold his cock while he peed. She recalled the time she got caught shoplifting. When she got back to the home one of the girls said, ‘You want to get out there and sell your front if you’re skint.’ She explained how she’d learnt to push people off.
She lit a cigarette. ‘Feel like me granddad sometimes.’
‘He never got used to decimalisation so he always converted everything back into old money. Feel like him. Bit stuck.’
She fetched an ashtray. On returning she said, ‘Seeing you with the kid really turned me over. The way you seemed so comfortable.’
Jim smiled. ‘Alright when you can hand them back, aren’t they?’
‘Are they?’ She twitched her cigarette distractedly. ‘I don’t honestly want them. Used to think it was about the money, how it wouldn’t be much of a life on what I bring in. Their toys from the poundshop, everything else with blue and white stripes on.’ She looked into Jim’s face. ‘It’s me though. What you’re not shown early on, you have to imagine later, and I can’t manage it.’
Jim said, ‘Fair enough. None of my business, is it?’
‘Doesn’t it bother you?’
‘Do you mean, do I want kids?’
He shook his head. ‘Rather be shot out of a cannon. Hardly grown up myself.’ He cleared his throat for longer than seemed natural, then looked at her. ‘I signed off. Can manage it now with the kids’ parties. Chris is moving out – Leeds somewhere.'
Erin sensed something coming, felt queasy.
Jim said, ‘Come and stay for a bit. If it goes alright, maybe you could rent this place out.’
She thought about him and she thought about her flat. She wouldn’t be giving it up exactly. She said, ‘Can I think about it?’
He nodded, smiling.
It was turning dark outside. Erin stood to draw the curtains. Jim touched her arm. ‘Don’t just yet.’
He fetched hot water from the kitchen and began cleaning the insides of the living room windows. Erin watched as the last words of the dreaded Colin disappeared.
Jim finished and said, ‘Not much of a view but you might as well be able to see it.’
They stood at the window, holding hands, and looking out over New Cross Road to the lights of the college library.