Just Like the Other Girls – Claire Douglas

Three months later, January 2019, Una Ice crunches underfoot and I have to tread carefully in my boots, made for fashion and not for Arctic conditions. Even so, I slip and save myself from falling on my arse by grabbing on to the iron railings for dear life, my legs splaying as I try to regain my footing. Two teenage lads stroll past and one lets out a bark of laughter. I resist flicking the finger at them just in case my would-be employer witnesses me and decides I’m too uncouth for the job. Instead I try to get my legs under control and gingerly continue down the pavement, stooped like an old lady, until I reach the McKenzie house. I stop, my hands still clutching the railings, ice seeping through my woollen gloves, and stare up at it in awe. It’s the colour of strawberry milkshake, curve-fronted, with four floors and Georgian sash windows that overlook the suspension bridge. There is a balcony on the first floor and a black-and-white-striped canopy that has been pulled back. For a brief moment I consider turning and legging it – which would actually be impossible in this snow and ice. Why did I ever think I’d get a job like this? I’ll be working at the care home with Randy Roger and Surly Cynthia until my dying days. I dust snowflakes from the front of my best – my only – coat. It’s maroon with a black velvet collar. It makes me look younger than my twenty-two years, but it was my mum’s favourite. She bought it for my eighteenth birthday from a vintage shop in Camden Town. We used to love our trips to the market there.

We made it an annual event, travelling back late at night in Mum’s clapped-out Alfa because it was cheaper than getting the train. This coat had cost her nearly a whole week’s wages. I still remember how her silver eyes lit up as she watched me unwrap it. I swallow the lump in my throat. I can’t be sentimental today. Where will that get me? Mum would want this for me. I have to do my best. I’ve only ever had one interview before and that was just after I finished college. The gate sticks against the snow, and I have to shove it hard to open it. Salt has been scattered on the pathway leading up to the house but I still tread carefully, scarred by my earlier slip.

I notice a movement at the huge sash window and swallow again, my throat dry. There is a slate sign on the house, partly covered by snow. I swipe it away with my gloved hand to read ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’. A strange name for a house like this. It’s kind of creepy. I knock loudly on the front door (which is four times the size of my own) and feel like I’ve wandered out of Lilliput and into Gulliver’s world. It has stained-glass panels and glossy black paint. I stand back expectantly. To my surprise, a woman in her late forties answers. I was imagining someone much older.

She’s what my mum would call frumpy, in an unflattering shapeless skirt, highnecked blouse and oversized cardigan. But then my mum was still pretty cool in her late uncouth for the job. Instead I try to get my legs under control and gingerly continue down favourite. She bought it for my eighteenth birthday from a vintage shop in Camden Town. train. This coat had cost her nearly a whole week’s wages. I still remember how her silver scattered on the pathway leading up to the house but I still tread carefully, scarred by my forties, with her bleached-blonde crop and leather biker jacket. I’m doing it again. I shake thoughts of her from my head and try to concentrate on the woman standing in front of me. ‘Hi.

Mrs McKenzie? I’m here for the interview.’ I take off my gloves and thrust out my hand enthusiastically. ‘My name is Una Richardson.’ The woman stares at my proffered hand as though there’s dog shit in the palm. ‘I’m not Mrs McKenzie. I’m her daughter, Kathryn.’ I blush at my mistake and retract my hand. She must think I’m stupid as well as rude. Not a great first impression. She purses her thin lips as she surveys me, her face radiating disapproval as she takes in my not-warm-enough coat and my cheap New Look skirt.

Then, without speaking, she stands aside to allow me in. I step over the threshold, trying to prevent my mouth from falling open. I’ve never been in a home so … well, so grand. I feel like I’ve stumbled into a giant doll’s house. There are ornate brown and blue Victorian tiles on the floor, an arched wall with pillars either side, and beyond that, a sweeping staircase with a blue-and-cream-striped runner. A grandfather clock stands proudly against one wall. Everything is painted in tasteful neutrals. The hallway is bigger than my whole flat. ‘I’m glad to see the recent snowfall didn’t hinder your journey,’ she says stiffly, almost regretfully, as though she’d hoped I wouldn’t make the interview. I have to stop myself apologizing for showing up.

‘The main roads are clear. And luckily my bus was running.’ ‘Yes. What luck.’ She turns on her sensible low-heeled shoes towards a closed door on the left. I shove my soggy gloves into my coat pocket, then follow her. My nerves crank up a notch at the thought of meeting Mrs McKenzie, especially if she’s anything like her daughter. ‘You can go in.’ Kathryn doesn’t try to hide her irritation, which shows in her voice. Up close, I can tell she’s attractive.

Her eyes are hazel behind her large glasses and she has the type of skin that looks as though it tans easily. Her hair is thick and a rich chestnut. But she’s wearing such a pinched expression that I don’t warm to her. She tuts under her breath when I don’t move, and leans across me, engulfing me in a wave of musky perfume, to open the door. Come on, get a grip. This is my chance to start over and get away from that awful care home, although I will miss the residents. Tentatively I move into the room. It has high ceilings, with mismatched high-backed chairs and an inky blue velvet button-backed sofa. There’s a mahogany writing desk in the corner, next to the sash window. A well-dressed woman in a tweed pencil skirt and a pale blue jumper, pearls at her throat, sits on a chair by a huge marble fireplace, her legs crossed elegantly at the ankles.

Her hair is completely white and gathered in some kind of fancy updo. She has a clipboard on her knee with what looks like notes attached, which she’s flicking through. She lifts her eyes as I approach. They are small and a startling bright blue, like the bubblegum-flavoured Millions sweets my best friend, Courtney, used to eat when we were younger. Even though she’s sitting down I can tell she’s tall – taller than me, bleached-blonde crop and leather biker jacket. I’m doing it again. I shake The woman stares at my proffered hand as though there’s dog shit in the palm. ‘I’m not Not a great first impression. She purses her thin lips as she surveys me, her face radiating I have to stop myself apologizing for showing up. ‘The main roads are clear.

And luckily pale blue jumper, pearls at her throat, sits on a chair by a huge marble fireplace, her legs of fancy updo. She has a clipboard on her knee with what looks like notes attached, which anyway – slim, and looks robust and strong for a woman in her late seventies. ‘Hello,’ she says, without getting up. She doesn’t take her eyes off me, even when Kathryn sits in the chair next to her. ‘You must be Una. An unusual name.’ I smile and nod as she indicates for me to sit on the sofa opposite. ‘My mum was a fan of the actress Una Stubbs. You know, who played Aunt Sally in Worzel Gummidge?’ I perch on the edge of the sofa, crossing my ankles, like her, and pulling at the hem of my skirt, which, in the presence of these two women, now feels obscenely short. ‘I know her best from Sherlock …’ I’m gabbling now.

Mrs McKenzie frowns. ‘I don’t know about that but I do know who you mean. I’ve seen her in the West End,’ she says, without smiling. My eyes flicker around the room. There is no television. She clears her throat and I sit up a bit straighter. ‘So, tell us a little about yourself.’ Her voice is plummy and I make an effort to speak correctly in what my mum used to call a telephone voice. ‘Well … I …’ I swallow. Come on, Una, don’t mess this up.

Don’t be intimidated by these people just because they’re posh. I notice Mrs McKenzie’s eyes go to my legs and then back to my face. Maybe I don’t seem responsible enough. I know I look young for my age. I’m forever getting asked for ID. ‘I’ve been working in a care home for the past four and a half years, since I left higher education at eighteen. I’ve several qualifications from the college I went to on day release –’ ‘Sounds like prison,’ interjects Elspeth, without smiling. I giggle nervously, not sure if she’s making a joke. ‘It’s what they call it when your job allows you to have a day off to attend college.’ ‘I see.

’ She glances down at the notes on her lap and I realize it’s my CV. ‘I’ve got NVQs … and first aid.’ She looks up again. ‘So I see. Go on.’ ‘And … um … I’d like a new challenge.’ ‘You do understand that this is a live-in position?’ she says. ‘You’d have your own bedroom. I would need you on Saturdays but you get Wednesdays and Sundays off. We really would prefer someone without any … commitments.

’ ‘Commitments?’ ‘Husband. Children. That kind of thing.’ ‘No. I’ve no commitments.’ ‘Family in the area? Boyfriend?’ I glance towards Kathryn, who is staring at her hands in her lap but something I can’t read passes over her face. Are they worried I’ll be bringing men back to the room? ‘No. No boyfriend or family. It was just me and my mum but she … well, she died. Last November.

’ I can feel my cheeks grow hot. I didn’t want to mention Mum. When I tell people about her their expressions change, their voices soften and they look at me with pity, not knowing what to say. Although that’s not the case with Mrs McKenzie. ‘I’m sorry to hear it,’ she says crisply, not sounding particularly sorry. ‘So,’ she continues, after a beat of awkward silence, ‘a little bit about me.’ She sits up straighter. ‘I’m eighty next year …’ she pauses, presumably for me to tell her that she looks good for her age, which of course I do ‘… but her in the West End,’ she says, without smiling. My eyes flicker around the room. There is Come on, Una, don’t mess this up.

Don’t be intimidated by these back to my face. Maybe I don’t seem responsible enough. I know I look young for my age. I’m forever getting asked for ID. ‘I’ve been working in a care home for the past four and a have suffered from ill health since a fall two years ago.’ She looks in great health to me. ‘I’m not as agile as I once was,’ she continues, and Kathryn gives a little harrumph from across the room. Elspeth ignores her. ‘So, I need someone to help me dress, bathe, et cetera. To accompany me to events – I go to lots of events and I want to continue with that.

Trips to the theatre, shopping. Anything, really.’ Excitement bubbles inside me. It sounds so much more interesting than my current job, where the highlight of my day is accompanying one of the residents out into the small garden, weather permitting. ‘Does that sound acceptable to you?’ I nod. ‘It sounds perfect. What … um, what about cooking? I’m a terrible cook – I even burn cheese on toast.’ My cheeks flame as I realize I said that out loud. She laughs. A proper laugh this time.

‘Oh, you wouldn’t have to worry about that. I have a cook. And a cleaner. No, it’s just a companion I need. You’re probably thinking I have a daughter for that. My one and only child.’ She glances at Kathryn sitting mutely in the chair, then fixes her eyes on me again. It’s an odd thing to say. ‘But Kathryn has a family and two very demanding boys. She doesn’t have the time.

’ ‘You know I have the time,’ mutters Kathryn, still staring at her hands, and I sense tension between them. ‘Nonsense.’ She turns her attention back to me. ‘I like to be surrounded by youth. It keeps me young.’ I’m sure I hear Kathryn make a derisive sound through her nose, but either Mrs McKenzie doesn’t hear or she chooses to ignore it. ‘I think you’ll find the salary is competitive,’ she says, and tells me a figure twice my current salary – which isn’t hard considering that’s barely minimum wage, but still. With no rent or bills to worry about I can begin to pay back my credit card, which has reached its limit, thanks to my ex, Vince. My dream of travelling actually has a chance of being realized. She stands up.

Kathryn and I follow suit. ‘I’ll be in touch. Kathryn will show you out.’ ‘Thank you, Mrs McKenzie. It was lovely to meet you.’ I extend a hand and she takes it with a little jolt of surprise, as though she hadn’t expected me to have any manners. I want this job so badly, despite Kathryn’s brooding presence. ‘Please,’ she says, holding on to my hand. ‘Call me Elspeth.’ It’s dark by the time I get home.

I had to take two buses from Clifton to Horfield, where I live. Thankfully, the main roads are mostly free of snow now, but even so the journey took over an hour. The flat I share with Courtney is above a chemist and consists of a poky kitchenette/lounge/diner, two small bedrooms and a bathroom. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said the whole flat could fit into Elspeth McKenzie’s hallway. But it’s all we can afford on our wages. Courtney likes to tell people she works in fashion, but really she’s a hairdresser at a salon on Gloucester Road. I already know she won’t be home yet. She works late every other Friday. The alleyway that leads around the back of the chemist to our flat is dark and thick Excitement bubbles inside me. It sounds so much more interesting than my current job, can begin to pay back my credit card, which has reached its limit, thanks to my ex, Vince.

with ice and, for a fleeting moment, I think of Vince. If we were still going out he’d have cleared the snow for us. But we haven’t spoken since our huge row on New Year’s Eve, eighteen days ago – not that I’m counting. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want him back. Not after what he did. I climb the concrete staircase that always smells of piss, my heart heavy. Usually, after a day like today, I’d ring my mum. I’d tell her all about Elspeth McKenzie and her posh house and her uptight daughter. Or we’d get together and laugh about it over tea and biscuits – Mum loved her tea: she drank at least ten cups a day – and then she’d advise me gently not to judge a book by its cover, that they might not be what they seem. Grief washes over me, as it often does, that she’s not at the end of the phone or a few streets away, that she’s gone for ever.

I have to swallow the lump in my throat. It’s not yet been three months. I’ve been through a Christmas and a New Year since she died and it’s still so fresh and raw, and I can’t see an end to it. I know I’ll always feel this way. I’ll miss her for the rest of my life. I let myself into the tiny hallway, switching on the lights, which only highlights the drabness of the place: the brown scratchy carpets, the beige melamine kitchen units, the magnolia walls. Courtney and I have tried to cheer the place up with colourful throws, which I crocheted, on the old, worn sofa, bright prints and photos of us taken on numerous nights out to cover the woodchip wallpaper, but it has made little difference. After Elspeth’s magnificent house, the flat seems even more dreary, cramped and tatty. Dumping my bag on the pine table that’s shoved up against the wall to make room for the sofa, I shrug off my damp coat and hang it on the back of the chair. I have to make a concerted effort to be tidy around Courtney.

In that regard we’re the total opposite. Mum and I always argued about the state of my bedroom when I lived at home, and Courtney is so tidy it borders on obsessional. The flat is freezing and I turn the storage heater up a little, blowing on my hands, which look like two slabs of raw meat. They start to itch and I place them under my armpits to warm up – a tip Mum gave me years ago. I switch the kettle on and take a Coop meal for one out of the freezer. While it’s in the microwave I sit at the table, staring at nothing. I have to change my life. A new year, a new beginning. Things can’t go on as they have been. I don’t even see that much of Courtney any more as we work different hours and she’s spending more time with her boyfriend, Kris with a K.

My mobile springs to life, startling me. I reach for it, expecting it to be Courtney, so I’m surprised to see a number I don’t recognize flash up on the screen. ‘Una?’ says a clipped voice, when I answer. ‘It’s Elspeth McKenzie. I think you’d be perfect for the job. When can you start?’ Elspeth ends the call and I stare at my mobile in surprise. I can’t believe I’ve got the job. A bit of luck, at last. A clatter outside makes me jump and I pull aside the horrible office blinds that our landlord insisted on putting in every window. Our dustbin has been overturned, lying on its side in the snow, like a drunk.

I’ll wait until Courtney gets home to tackle it. I’m about to close the blinds when I see a figure standing at the end of the alleyway. I can’t make so fresh and raw, and I can’t see an end to it. I know I’ll always feel this way. I’ll miss her armpits to warm up – a tip Mum gave me years ago. I switch the kettle on and take a Coop meal for one out of the freezer. While it’s in the microwave I sit at the table, staring at My mobile springs to life, startling me. I reach for it, expecting it to be Courtney, so I’m out if it’s a man or a woman because their face is obscured by shadows and they’re wearing dark clothing. But something about the way they’re standing, facing me, unflinching in their pose, hands in pockets, shoulders squared, unnerves me. I pull the blinds closed, determined not to let it rattle me.

They’re probably waiting for someone, although the chemist is closed. I stand for a few seconds, deliberating. I’ve never been worried about being in the flat by myself and I’m not about to start now, just because Vince is no longer in my life. A thought strikes me. Could it be Vince? I pull aside the blinds again and press my nose to the glass, but whoever it was has gone.

.

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