The perfect life would begin once Myra Rutherford achieved the perfect address, but Old Mr Naughton stands in her way... apparently.
Crime and Punishment meets Confessions of a Shopaholic.
That Tuesday morning, Myra Rutherford was beginning to understand why downtrodden masses arose in revolutions. If biological warfare was necessary to deliver herself from bedsitter hell and into her rightful address, then so be it. She urged her scooter over the icy patches of City Road, charging through narrower and narrower spaces than she would usually have dared, but the risks were trivial, since her decrepit tenant Mr Naughton owed thousands in arrears and lacked the grace to go to his grave. She would not tolerate him driving her towards bankruptcy and shuffling around in her perfect Marchpane Square flat for another five years, just because she’d foolishly granted him life-time tenancy rights – no! If you behaved like a doormat in today's world, then that was how you got treated. Today she would not lose her nerve. The shopping list in her faux-zebra coat pocket was the key to the recording contract, the elegant friends and the magnificent future husband that awaited her after Old Naughton’s funeral…
The chundering metal jaws of a rubbish truck forced her to brake, then two luminous-vested rubbish collectors swung their filthy gloves within her airspace. One was looking straight at her. His uniform wasn’t a bit police-like but nonetheless, he represented the formidable glare of the public health authorities. Ironic, considering the foul truck fumes seeping behind her visor. London was absolutely conspiring to make her life impossible, or at least disfigure her with some hideous litter-borne disease, loading her lungs so heavily with tar that she’d never sing another note. Myra sat tight and breathed as little as possible, nostril hairs being the final line of defence against the germs that were now dancing inside her helmet. She doubted her nostrils were hirsute enough to cope – probably a good thing under any other circumstances.
Both the rubbish collectors were now staring at Myra. Inconvenient shame trickled at the back of her neck. She tried to smile and show them that in fact, she was a young professional who needed to get to the Freshdew bakery counter in time to order a special, entirely innocent and germ-free cake for her parents’ 35th wedding anniversary. They would see that cooking an illegal, bacteria-crammed quiche Lorraine for old Mr Naughton was the last thing on her mind.
The truck turned off into a side street and Myra’s foot jammed hard on her accelerator.
“Focus!” she reminded herself as she parked beside Freshdew’s big glass entrance. She pulled off her helmet and raced inside, taking a deep breath of the espresso aroma wafting over the trolley-pushing hordes – liquid coffee was expensive but air was free. Myra steadied her shoulders and marched up to the deli counter to complete the initial stage of her fearsome mission. Beside the vats of olives was some half-price bacon that had hit its sell-by date: 19 January 2012.
“I’ll take four rashers,” she told the man in the green hairnet.
He didn’t look flustered, why would he? She wasn’t buying a gun.
“Here,” he handed over the squelchy packet that smelt no more sinister than any other sliced meat. Unthinkable, incredible that the streaky pink and white flesh she held was actually a serious weapon. Of course none of this would have occurred to her if old Mr Naughton had just respected his contract. When she’d bought the Marchpane Square flat from him five years earlier, he’d been eighty-three and looked more than ready for his coffin. The average British male life expectancy was seventy-seven point two, Myra had checked, and the figure dropped if you lived in the inner cities. Working class men that lived into their eighties were anomalies, while old boys who reached ninety while still living in their own homes were absolute freaks. If Myra had the technological skills to hack Mr Naughton’s NHS records, she’d have done it in a heartbeat, and if an online registry of deaths existed, Google couldn’t find it. He had even survived the heat waves, freezing winters and Bird Flu that carried off plenty of other pensioners, but he wasn’t immortal. Nobody was, not even here in glamorous, fast-paced London. The boiling sensation filled Myra’s forehead again as she sped away to find the oldest possible eggs.
“Miss?” a green-gloved hand appeared on her arm and she stifled a scream.
“Miss, would you like a basket?” asked the thin man in the Freshdew uniform.
She accepted the basket and tried to thank him, but her throat was too tight – and then the Dollop Delight Do-nut stall sprang into view. Sick with rage, Myra stared at the Technicolor candy-freckled buns in the exact place where, five long years ago, she’d collared Mr Naughton’s granddaughter, Lauren, whose flat pale face had looked to be fed on bargain bread. And that was how the whole miserable process had started.
Myra gulped and clung on to her basket handle. What if she’d stopped to get her coat on that fateful day? It wasn’t Corn Charity policy to chase new clients into supermarkets after they’d stormed out of the assessment room. Especially not a new client like Lauren Naughton whose nine – yes, nine – store cards had been cancelled, and who’d expected the Corn Charity to fund future sprees at Prom Queen, Fab Rags, Cutie, Track Champ and various other shops for extremely poor people… It had been mind-boggling back in 2007 and even now, as a debt-counselling professional of six and a half years standing, Myra had still never heard the like.
She steadied her breath and took out her shopping list. “Eggs. Focus. 17B Marchpane Square is your rightful home.”
What if she’d never caught up with Lauren beside these wrongly spelt doughnuts, never brokered the property deal of a lifetime that had finally cost so much more than it should have? Incredible to think that in the beginning she’d actually felt sorry for Lauren because it was tragic how many poor people chose to look poor rather than make canny purchases in vintage shops. Who would not have pitied a creature smelling of BLT Brunchies, clad in tired Lycra, and with hair scraped back in thin brown braids? A different species from the radiant, blinged-up Lauren that had since emerged – thanks to Myra’s money.
The breath caught in her throat and the signs above the Freshdew aisles glared dizzily at her…
She should have expected trouble, of some sort. Even at the first meeting, Lauren’s shopping habits had implied a bargain bin Imelda Marcos who probably had a different pair of trainers for each day of the year. Ever the consummate professional, Myra had explained how Mr Herbert Corn, a sensible man hailing from Yorkshire – like Myra herself – had set up his Charity to save the indebted all the way back in 1853, and that had Mr Herbert been still alive, he too would have understood the appeal of store card offers with twenty per cent discounts. But Mr Herbert would have paid the balance long before he'd been charged any interest, then shredded the card: snip snip snip!
Laura’s over-plucked brows had remained static. Though she hadn’t paid a penny of her debts, she’d denied receiving a single court summons!
“Did you give those shops your real address?” Myra asked.
“You give credit in ‘ere, right? I ‘eard you did.”
“Debt consolidation loans are not like credit, Miss Naughton. I think you may have a shopping addiction. So common these days, but it can be treated.”
“Shops ain’t drugs, innit.”
That was when the last of Myra’s sympathy had withered…
…Eggs. The number two item on the shopping list in her hand. The oldest eggs possible. Freshdew’s eggs were not in this aisle filled with marked-down Christmas decorations. Myra began to run.
Two aisles along were racks upon racks of egg boxes from different types of hens in coops, barns, fields, forests, or “unspecified”, which meant tiny, stinking cages – perfect germ-breeders – but even the unspecifieds were absurdly fresh. Best-before dates were always conservative estimates, so that left weeks before they’d go bad. She picked out the oldest box. Cracking them into a bowl with the bacon rashers and leaving it on the radiator ought to do it, then all she had to do was make the quiche Lorraine look irresistible, place it in a convincing charity hamper and drop it at old Naughton’s door. Her door, by rights! She had to keep remembering that or she’d never have the balls to bake –
That day in the assessment room in 2007, Lauren had almost definitely lied about her date of birth, because she’d said it was the exact day after Myra’s own. Myra didn’t believe in horoscopes, neither in the Chinese nor the Zodiac sort, and she had zero in common with Lauren apart from being twenty-nine years old.
“Capital? That means, any savings?” she’d had to clarify as Lauren had chewed at the flaky magenta on her thumbnail.
None, Myra wrote. “Likely inheritance?”
Lauren’s scuffed gold bracelets had clanked as she sat up. “My granddad’s place, s’worth loads. D’you know Marchpane Square, off Upper Street?”
Myra held her breath and wrote Marchpane Square, Islington, suddenly conscious of the sound her pen made.
“A house or a flat, er, what floor?” Those chocolate-bricked Georgian façades housed classy celebrities, like opera-loving newscaster Janice Sacks. “And – how old is your grandfather, is he in good health?”
“He’s eighty-free. Bit forgetful. I got power of turney. That means I makes decisions, innit.”
“Very good,” Myra was overcome by a vision of the green chesterfield sofas in Janice Sacks’ library, featured in last month’s issue of Stars At Home. Then she thought of her miserable armchair with the foam hanging out, but it was impossible to beautify a poky, rented bedsitter in Finsbury Park.
“You gonna sort me credit or what?” Lauren said as she rose from the chair.
Back in 1853, the Corn Charity had distributed sacks of corn to the needy and now it gave out Freshdew vouchers, in certain dire cases. Though Lauren didn’t formally qualify, Myra handed her a tenner’s worth.
“Not valid for tobacco, liquor, or clothing,” Lauren read the top.
“They’re fine for crisps. Now please, about the – ”
“This place is fucking crap,” she said, and slouched off.
Then Myra had wasted thirty seconds sitting in shock before speeding into the front office, gripping the sash window and watching her golden goose traipse towards the City Road Freshdew.
…This Freshdew. And now, ticking off eggs from her list, Myra wondered how differently her life would have turned out if she’d bought a flat the normal way but with an affordable, Zone 6 address, and non-famous neighbours? A stabbing sensation attacked the base of her throat –Twenty-First Century Manners For London Girls was totally correct in saying that the right address opened all the right doors, socially and professionally. And Geoff – how differently he would have behaved if… Beep!
Myra lunged for her phone, aching for an unknown number that could be Lauren’s to flash up, for some response to the eight fake solicitor’s letters and the fake bailiff’s demand for the overdue rent, if not the longed-for news that would make this quiche Lorraine utterly unnecessary – but:
Looking forward to seeing you on Friday, ran her mother’s text – and the special order deadline for their cake was in nine minutes. Myra dashed along to the bakery counter and took an order form. Congratulations to Colin and Margery – 35 Years of Wedded Bliss, she wrote in the message section. Then she ticked the options for pink piping, white royal icing, and raspberry jam sponge.
“Collection for three p.m., Friday the twenty-second,” said the bakery lady, whose latex-gloved hands looked clean enough.
As horrific and heart breaking as the last few weeks had been, Myra had become very clued up on hygiene: “You do use fresh eggs, I hope? It’s for taking to my parents up in Yorkshire, do you have cool boxes?”
The bakery lady’s thickly drawn brows rose but before Myra could explain about hot trains and heat-loving germs, the salmonella type that had almost killed WAG/presenter Candi Stamford’s aunty, the sublime Vissi d’arte…vissi d’amore aria burst out from her handbag. Glowing on her phone was the Kilmerwick landline.
“Just wanted to be sure you got our text, Myra love. How are you?”
“Fabulous, thanks Mum! Work’s hectic, so many audits, but hey ho!”
“Orbits? Never mind, our party’s going to be so nice, just the thing to cheer you up!” her mother warbled. “Your Dad’s been rehanging the lounge curtains all day but he bought the wrong type of rings so he had to go to Flibbutt’s twice in the end. Pull along much smoother, don’t they Colin?”
“Great – but I said audits, not orbits, Mum!” Myra heard her father giggle in the background. He loved the extra earpiece that plugged into their phone, a present from Myra’s brother Malcolm. She could almost see her parents’ grey fringes blending together in a long row as they shared the mouthpiece.
“You still want to order?” the bakery lady jabbed at her watch.
Pulling her most patient smile, Myra counted out six ten-pound notes and handed them across.
“We’ll have sausage rolls,” her father was saying, “and quick Lorraine, you know, the bacon pie thingy. A proper buffet.”
“Lovely.” Myra gripped her basket handle tighter as faintness fuddled her brain. “You need to be careful with quiches,” she croaked.
“Myra, we cleared the sideboard so it can be a real bar, and your father’s already freezing extra ice cubes.”
“You can buy them ready-frozen, Mum.”
“They might melt before we get them back from the shops.”
“Yes Margery, and tell Myra they’d soak the car boot if there was a hole in the bag.”
“Better not get any then,” said Myra. Talking about ice cubes while teetering on the brink of criminality had a calming effect. The fog of dread lifted from her mind as she agreed with her mother that not everyone in Kilmerwick liked ice cubes, and no one ever put them in beer. She wouldn’t think about Mr Naughton eating the slightly rotten quiche. Once the merciful delivery was done she’d forget Lauren’s ingratitude, and even the horrendous online photo of Geoff with his new – she blanched – fiancée.
“Myra! Do people in London put ice in their beer, though?” her father was asking.
“Oh, all the time!” she cried. “It’s so much warmer here than in Yorkshire.”
“Watered down icy beer! Eh, did you hear that, Margery?”
“Yes Colin, it’s ridiculous!”
Myra bit the insides of her mouth for a second. She shouldn’t mind their relentless failure to understand anything outside Kilmerwick. “Yes, look, I have to rush, I’m so busy with important tasks. Love you!”
Her parents were saying what strange things happened in London charity offices, so Myra ended the call before they could find any more things wrong with her life. She checked her shopping list: the ingredients were almost covered and she’d be too wound up to eat, in any case. She headed for the checkout, grabbing a bag of flour and a copper hair dye pack on the way. Of course she didn’t want to make this quiche for the old man was probably a war hero… but one who deserved dignity, not this miserable wheezing existence with those persistent cells of his costing the NHS thousands – that was no life.
The queue was static. Myra fidgeted and gazed at the celebrity magazine headlines. Glamour model Audrey Costello had been through E-coli Hell, eclipsing WAG/presenter Candi Stamford’s aunty’s near-tragedy with salmonella. Myra steadied herself, hopefully there’d be no need to Google how you caught E-coli... Now the old woman in front was counting coins in piles and kept having to start again. It was enough to make anyone dislike really old people – not that Myra did. Extreme circumstances just forced people to seek extreme solutions, didn’t they? She closed her eyes and imagined the hearse finally carrying Old Naughton away from number 17B as her removal van full of treasures pulled up opposite, yes, she would unwrap the lovingly stored collection and then she’d recline among it, reading serious fashion magazines like Celestine – or perhaps not, those cellulite-free goddesses posing in Tibetan convents were negating to the spirit. Whatever she read, everyone would be proved wrong once Myra took up her rightful residence. She’d be too elegantly busy making friends to bother with creeps who pretended to be separated from their wives… Yes. Each night with the Georgian lamp-glow of Marchpane Square shimmering behind her silk blinds, Myra would slide into a gossamer Papillon de Neige peignoir and waft around to check everything was in gorgeous order before she retired to a perfumed nest of Egyptian cotton in her four-poster bed. Well, whatever bed that her terrifyingly depleted funds would stretch to. Four-poster or no, Geoff would kick himself when he read her change of address card. And her family would have to stop pitying her.
To get back onto Upper Street, Myra had to pass by Marchpane Square but she wouldn’t do the detour around the pretty railinged garden in its centre because she wasn’t the least bit obsessed. She wouldn’t slow down beside the black BMW parked outside number 17, wouldn’t peer in to count the discarded designer carrier bags lying on its back seat. Not today. Myra rammed down her foot on the accelerator. She ought to be the one dishing out the residents’ parking permits here. Under her helmet, her brain boiled...