Loarn: The Welcome Soap

From the safety of her doorstep, the alpha female of the Over Fifties Club is hollering to me: ‘This is all your fault! You jinxed us, when you predicted 2020 was going to be full of lovely surprises!’

On the pavement, I hover at a safe distance, both from my friend’s sharp tongue, and any Covid-19 bugs to which she may, inadvertently, be giving house room. For once, I work up the nerve to answer her back: ‘Be fair, Bub! You can blame me for lots of things, but not this pandemic!’

‘Then, who done it? I don’t see nobody putting their hand up. Not even Erica.’

‘Erica? Is she back at work?’

‘She drove past a few minutes ago. That precious BMW of hers was full of files and folders.’

The manager of our Community Centre has been working from her luxurious four-bedroom home ever since the end of March. Although I’m grateful for the tip-off, her return doesn’t worry me. Erica will never guess I’ve been squatting in the Centre to escape being locked down with my irritating younger sister and her excessively hairy fiancé. I’ve taken great care to cover my tracks. Every morning before leaving for work, I fold up the camp bed in the First Aid room and stash my sleeping bag behind the Bingo cupboard. Then I wipe down the communal kitchen until not even the ghost of a custard cream remains to pollute its pristine surfaces and betray me.

My brief chat with Bub has reminded me of how miserable I felt five months ago when Covid-19 brought an end to life as we knew it. I hadn’t been self-employed long enough to claim benefits and, when the Community Centre closed for the duration, I even lost the occasional wage that had been keeping me afloat. I was in despair until Bub put me in touch with the Pickles brothers. On what they’re paying me to re-shape their crazy themed garden, I’ve been able to support myself. What’s more, word soon got around. I’ve been offered so much cash-in-hand maintenance in front gardens and back gardens with side entrances, that I’m having to turn work down. Soon, I may even be able to afford to put my ancient Ford Escort back on the road. Meanwhile, with my shopping trolley full of gardening equipment rattling along behind me, I proceed on foot to my first task of the day.

I push open the side gate of Chez Pickles. As usual, Sky, the younger of the two brothers, is in their back yard pretending to be fully occupied by something or other. Really, he’s waiting for me. When he sees me, he perks up like a dog who’s spotted a stray sausage. Today, he’s been hanging out washing on a droopy rope line using dolly-pegs that probably belonged to the late Granny Pickles. He’s wearing tartan shorts with a luminous green t-shirt bearing the legend ‘Just Kidding’.

‘You’ve got to be!’ I joke, while I’m sorting out my gloves and pruners.

‘What do you mean?’

Sky’s sentimental blue eyes are full of bewilderment. I resolve to stop teasing him about his clothes because he just doesn’t get it. Anyway, although I like to look my best, I’m not exactly catwalk material myself at present. Although the salons have re-opened, I can’t afford to have my hair done so I’ve tied it up with a scarf to conceal the wide streaks of grey. I’m dressed in patched dungarees – which make my dumpy figure look even dumpier -and a pair of safety boots, pre-loved by Bub’s partner, Clive. This sodding pandemic has put years on me. Before, I could get away with thirty-nine when scrubbed up. Now, I feel as if I’m accelerating towards the cliff-edge that is fifty.

I hope Sky will go away after we’ve exchanged greetings, but instead he hangs around, watching my every move. I’m glad he can’t come any closer. Thank heavens for social distancing.

‘How have you been, Lovage?’

‘I’ve been perfectly fine, since you saw me yesterday.’

‘Was it only yesterday? I hardly know what day it is any more. To be honest, I’m confused.’

‘Aren’t we all? They tell us to go on holiday, then they order us to come back. They want us to lose weight, but they give us vouchers for cheeseburgers. One day they say that the virus will be gone by Christmas, the next, there’s a spike. The world is confused, so what chance do you and I have?’

I’d hoped my tirade would drive Sky away, but he merely changes the subject.

‘Our garden is looking so much better, Lovage.’

Sky’s brother, Red, wrote several books on survival techniques and created a survival-themed garden. Unfortunately, he forgot to write about pandemics, so his career is currently on the verge of collapse. When I was asked to restore the roses and herbaceous borders their Granny Pickles had loved, I agreed and immediately set about making a wild garden. Sometimes, it bothers me that neither brother has asked me what I’m doing but, so long as they pay me, I carry on regardless.

‘You must have found lots of interesting objects while you’ve been working here.’

This strikes me as an odd thing for him to say. It isn’t exactly a question, but it sounds like one.

‘Nothing unusual. Just a Saxon hoard or three, some pirate treasure, a few unexploded bombs….’

Sky goes pale. ‘Sugar me! Where are they?’

I really shouldn’t tease him. The poor guy has enough problems trying to find a job. At present there’s not much call for sky-diving instructors which, by the way, is how Bub and I met him.

Just then, we hear Red returning from one of his long bike rides and Sky suddenly remembers something important he has to do indoors. I think the brothers get on quite well, but I rarely see them together. I wish they’d both show up at the same time. For one thing, I’d get more gardening done. For another, I could stop worrying about whether either or both of them is hitting on me.

‘Hello, Lovey! Great to see you again. How long has it been?’

He’s a vision in purple Lycra. I avert my eyes. ‘Since yesterday, Red. And my name’s Lovage.’

‘But Lovey suits you. And time passes slowly without the sight of your cheerful face.’

Just as Sky never knows when I’m making fun of him, I am never sure when Red’s being sarcastic. I choose to ignore him and carry on with training a lovely blue clematis I’ve uncovered hiding at the base of the red brick garden wall. Then Red says something that rings all my alarm bells.

‘This must be a fascinating project for a talented gardener like you, Lovage. While you’ve been working here, you must have found some interesting bits and pieces. Tell me, has anything in particular caught your eye?’

Why are both the brothers so concerned about what I’ve dug up in their grandmother’s garden? Are they attracted to me, or is there a more sinister explanation for their weird behaviour? All the way back to the Community Centre, I’m so busy trying to figure out my relationship with them that I forget about Erica – until I see her BMW parked nearby. I’ve always had permission to store my tools in the shed, so I take the short cut to the side gate and, being as quiet as I can, unlock it.

Our manager must have ears like a bat because she’s waiting for me on the patio when I open the gate. Her arms are crossed on her bosom and she’s tapping her toe like a character from a cartoon. I half expect her to whack me with a broomstick.

‘So, here you are at last, Lovey! You’ve been making yourself comfortable, haven’t you?’

Confident she can’t possibly have guessed I’ve been sleeping at the Centre, I play for time.

‘Hello, Erica! How wonderful to see you again! Are you well?’

‘I’m fine, thank you, and, by the looks of it, I’m back just in time to stop things getting totally out of control. Have you been living here?’

The woman can read minds. My only chance is to brazen it out. ‘No, of course not.’

‘I have proof.’

What proof can she have when I’ve been so careful?

‘May I see this proof, please?’

In the palm of Erica’s hand nestles something tiny and fragrant: a piece of soap, but not any piece of soap. It’s from the welcome basket at the Spa where I celebrated New Year 2020 with my mother and sister. On its pretty wrapping, the name of the Spa is printed for anyone to read. When I last saw this incriminating item, it was hidden behind the controls of a shower in the Centre’s changing room. It’s a memento of a way of life we may never see again but, since everyone began washing their hands like Lady Macbeth on steroids, soap has become a valuable commodity. So, I squirrelled it away for emergency use.

I must confess that I have a temper. Sometimes, at moments when I should take deep breaths and count to twenty, a red mist surrounds me. This is one of those moments.

‘Bloody Hell, Erica! Who spends their first day back at work snooping in the showers?’

‘You’re missing my point, Lovey. Have you been living in the Community Centre?’

‘Lovage! My name is Lovage! And you know what? My business has finally taken off. I have more gardening work than I can handle. I don’t need the few quid you pay me for expenses, so I don’t have to volunteer any more. To sum up, Erica, I don’t have to kiss your arse ever again! So you can stuff my welcome soap where the sun doesn’t shine.’

As if considering which of her orifices it will best fit, Erica glares at the soap. ‘I’ll take that as a “yes”, Lovage. You’re putting me in a very difficult position.’

So much for all those emails she’s been sending me during Lockdown, begging me to take part in Zoom quizzes, telling me to look after my mental health and advising me to reach out if I’m feeling down. In the middle of a global calamity, she’s going to cast me adrift without a paddle.

Although I know I’m totally in the wrong, I feel a massive sense of freedom. My career at the Community Centre is over. I’ll never again have to ensure everyone gets their favourite seat at a Bingo session, fill black bags with sticky rubbish after a celebration, or disinfect yoga mats smelling of feet. I can’t wait to put it all behind me. I’m about to stalk out with my nose in the air when I realise it’s possible no-one will ever have to do any of those things again.

There can be no more Bingo because the equipment is shared. All celebrations are cancelled because of social distancing. For the same reason, yoga instructors won’t be able to take on enough pupils to make a living. I remember all the other activities I’ve helped organise for the Over Fifties: walking football, coach trips to the seaside, sky diving. All of them have gone, perhaps for ever.

I take another look at our normally vivacious Community Centre manager. Standing there in silence, clutching my welcome soap like a talisman, she’s bereft of all her usual bounce. How will she handle the new normal? Is her own job as secure as it was six months ago? The thought makes me realise how badly I’ve behaved towards her.

‘I’m sorry, Erica, for speaking so rudely. I moved into the Centre because we were overcrowded at home and it was bringing me down. I shouldn’t have taken advantage and I apologise.’

Before I can say more, she cheers up. ‘Thank heavens, Lovey. I mean Lovage. I thought I was going to have to fire you! I need all the help I can get to keep the Centre running until this is all over, and you’re my right-hand woman. You know how much I need you on my side. I don’t mind if you go on sleeping here for a while, but don’t let anyone from the Council catch you.’

Erica almost hugs me but remembers just in time.

If she hadn’t interrupted me, I’d have said, ‘Thank you for all the good times, and good luck in the future.’ But, after she said such nice things about me, I didn’t have the heart to resign. Anyway, Lockdown has changed me. I used to be a lone wolf, revelling in my independence and growling when someone moved into my territory. Recently, there’ve been times when I’ve actually felt lonely. The Centre has begun to feel like a haven where I met my friend Bub and so many other lovely people, aged from nine months to ninety years and counting. I’m glad I didn’t walk away.

Now that I have Erica’s permission, kind of, to be in the Centre, I spend some time re-organising the games room. I’m settling down for an evening of solo snooker when Bub rings me.

‘I’ve been talking to Elsie.’

This doesn’t come as a surprise because Elsie lives next door to Bub. In Lockdown, our neighbours were the only people some of us spoke to regularly.

‘And how is Elsie?’

‘Well, she’s shielding, ain’t she, because of her age. I’ve been doing her shopping and I happened to mention you’re working for the Pickles boys.’

‘Boys? Sky is almost as old as me and Red’s nearly sixty.’

‘We’re all boys and girls to Elsie. Anyway, it turns out she used to be Granny Pickles’ home help. She told me some stories about the old lady that made my hair curl. Can you stop by tomorrow afternoon? I’ll get Elsie to tell you herself – socially distanced, of course.’

LOARN ©Geoff Wilkinson

Loarn has self-published the first ten stories from ‘Up the Community Centre’ as a novella, ‘The Thank You Sweets’, available on Amazon. Her next adventure in self-publishing will be her first crime novel, ‘Accounting for Loss’. Loarn blogs about new books and her self-publishing journey on her website, www.patersonloarn.co.uk She has Level 2 BSL skills, and her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students. Loarn is also a conservation volunteer.