Sarah Reynolds ~ ‘The Cleaner’

Sarah Reynolds is a name to follow. In 2014 she won first prize in the 2014 Rhys Davies short story competition, in December this year Gomer Press will be releasing her first novel in Welsh and she is currently grafting to complete her first English language novel.  A freelance television producer, she relocated to Wales from London, became a
fluent Welsh speaker, and has produced factual and entertainment programmes
for S4C.

Sarah’s writing is both meticulous and sumptuous. It’s enclaced with vivid and precisely drawn sensuous details which are underpinned by psychologically complex characters. Her effortless command of pacing and endlessly innovative use of perspective allow her plots to untwist with scintillating drama. The Cleaner is a great example of her writing, we hope you enjoy it, and remember to keep you eyes and ears open to catch more new work as Sarah’s talent further emerges. 



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The Cleaner

I’m walking through Holland Park, into the dusk. My step is buoyed by the brief stroke of your hand, thudding in my memory. I’m full of you. Your morning lecture has been simmering in my brain all day, your voice ebullient in my belly, the sly dart of your eyes still smarting in my breast. I am fit to burst. And I want to do something, to show you. Something practical, useful, to prove to you I could fit into your world, make it better, the medicine you never knew you needed. My bag is heavy; my step is light. I know your house from Google Street View. I pat my pockets for mislaid keys – a pantomime for an unseen audience. I’m skinny; I slide in through the open window like a blade of sunshine.
Inside, the smell of you is the first thing that hits me – clean and musky, you make me think of freshly bound books. I pull my bag in after me and leave the sash window open, just in case. That’s when I see her: The Blob. Her well-scrubbed face looms out at me from the opposite wall. Even on her wedding day she looks like a butterball.
66 “I need to get a cleaner in first,” you said, “I can’t possibly let you see my hovel…”
And yet, an alleyway? The park? My musty bedsit with its mould map of Gibraltar? Really, how bad could the hovel be? It becomes a joke between us, your leaning tower of pizza boxes.
“I have to get back to Italy,” you say, kissing my dimple.
“I’ve never seen you eat pizza.”
“It’s my dirty little secret,” you say. A wink. A finger to your lips.
“I thought I was your dirty little secret.”
No comment. You suck the last embers from your cigar.
The silence is punctured by the shrieks of foxes, mating in the back alley. I block up my ears.
“Love is pain,” you smirk, stabbing at a discarded saucer with the stub of your cigar.
“Remember that as you work on the Bacri passage. Your bowing is coming on but the fingering needs work; your harmonic trills lack dexterity.”
I wanted to see it, your little Italy. But this is not the bachelor pad you described. Where are the towers of unmarked compositions? The takeaway containers? An
67 invention. A half-truth perhaps, transposed from an earlier passage of your life.
Scatter cushions, lilac and lime. A bunch of long, curly twigs in a vase on the floor – very nineties. Everywhere is ‘spick and span’ as you English say. My bag is bulging with cleaning products – the good stuff – professional, stolen from my part-time job, cleaning at the college. How else could I afford this city? And now I am here, there is nothing to clean. I stare at your possessions. A pang of pity for you, trapped in this lie.
I turn detective. Who is this imposter, this you that is not you? He has five rooms in his ground floor flat – capacious, airy, high ceilinged. An entire living-room wall encrusted with books. A flute on the windowsill, a viola in the study, a baby grand cosied away in the practice room. A wall of achievements – his and hers. Shelves teeming with photographs, knick-knacks, nonsense. An imitation Degas leaps suicidally from the precipice of her shelf. I don’t blame her.
The kitchen: modern, marble-topped. Lists and reminders cling magnetically to the fridge door. ‘TP 29/6 8pm.’ Code for a secret existence. I venture inside. Lurid white light blinks at me. A wedge of dolcelatte. A straggle of prosciutto. Wine: white, Chablis. I help myself to the cheese, hack off a hunk of
68 your bourgeois deli bread with one of your full-set fancy knives – the largest. The remainder of the bottle of Chablis under my arm, I pad through to the lounge, imagine I am you, this version of you that I have never met before, sitting in the big comfy chair by the window, a Tom Clancy paperback on the arm. I lean back, feel the imprint of the back of your head beneath my own. Imagine the thoughts churning in your skull.
You eye me glassily from a gilt frame, posing with your OBE. I turn my head and you are conducting at Carnegie Hall, skiing in Aspen. All the familiar seams of your face taunt me from every wall. Your tiger-tooth smile snarls from every surface. I strike out at it and my scream goes on and on like a cadenza.
I sweep up the glass shards and dispose of each false smile in an industrial-strength rubbish bag. Then I lay on your bed.
“You’re welcome,” I say.
I picture you laughing, naked, tumbling onto me, clamping your fingers around my neck, clutching my buttock in your palm, marvelling at the supple lines of my body. I bury my face in your pillow and I can smell you there – the sleepy scent of hair wax. I wrap myself around your pillow, real duck down, plush, expensive. I squeeze it between my thighs, imagining your face there, your carnivorous grin. I come so fast I barely catch the wave and my frustration tastes like anger.
I draw a bath. The bathroom cabinet is so banal I am tempted to down the packet of diazepam I find there. Her name sounds like a brand of old ladies’ talc. I choose candles. Jo Malone bath salts. Water so hot it jellies my vision.
Light-headed, I tread wet steps through to your bedroom, envelop myself in your bathrobe as if it were a second skin. I sit before her mirror, fingering her hairbrush. Milky strands thin as spider wisps are entwined in the bristles. I brush my hair, not bothering to remove the long black tendrils I leave there. Let her see.
A cello. I take it through to the lounge, sit down and play the Bacri piece we were working on, you and I. I am gliding through the liberation movement when I hear a key in the lock, slick as a knife. I freeze.
She comes ballooning in through the door, billowing pastelcoloured linen and vanilla. A saccharine smile as she closes the door and hangs her coat up on one of the brass pegs on the wall.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise Henry was teaching today…”
I am silent. Her head tilts as she takes in the dressing gown. I put the bow down carefully on one of the lilac cushions, remove the cello from between my legs. She averts her eyes.
70 “Henry?” she says, “Henry, are you there?”
I stand up and she takes a step backwards towards the door. She reads something on my face – something I don’t even know myself.
“Take whatever you want,” she says and I say, “I think I will.”
She makes a move for the door – not a dash. She’s not capable of that. Not bold enough to charge. I’m there before she can complete the thought.
“I don’t think you should do that,” I tell her.
I have cable ties in my bag. I was going to use them to tidy your office. Tame the medusa of your home computer but you don’t even have one. Why lie about that? I came to clean. I’m doing you a favour.
Once she is trussed tidily on the bathroom floor, I get dressed. I have plastic overalls for cleaning. No bleach splashes to spoil my jeans – I only have the one pair. I stand in the open space between the bathroom and the kitchen and while I’m changing, we chat.
“So you’re an opera singer…”
She seems surprised that I know this.
“Was…” she says vaguely.
“One of his students?”
71 She nods.
“And you? Are you one of his…”
Her voice trails off so pathetically it makes me smile. I widen my eyes at her.
“Did you know your husband likes cock?” I say.
She reddens; a blotch on her neck, big as a slap. She mumbles into the copious folds of her neck.
“Speak up!”
“Yes, I know.”
She can’t meet my eye.
The truth is, the old sow sews the seed herself. She’s not looking at me you see. She’s eyeing something behind me, something shiny on the kitchen table. I pick it up idly, finger the cool smooth lines and when I turn to look at her, her blancmange flesh is all of a quiver. I have to stifle a smile. I get right up close to her face.
She pisses herself! Literally. Piss, foul and yellow, pools at her foot. I can’t stop laughing.
“What do you think I’m going to do?” I say.
She’s redder than ever – a boiled ham!
72 “I came here to clean. You’re not even – you’re not part of the plan. Why are you here anyway?” I ask her.
“I live here…” she whimpers.
“Confirmed bachelor, Henry said. Never married, he said. Never found the right one.”
She’s crying now, a sickly trickle of tears. You’d think a heifer like her would sob big fat boulders. And the way she looks at me is like she’s pleading with me to put her out of her misery. She’s relieved I’m forcing her to face the lie that is her life. You know what? She wanted me to do it – to set her free, set you both free. Now I think about it, she practically begs me.
“Make it quick,” she says, “Please.”
I’m gazing into her gibbous eyes and I confess, I don’t know what I’m doing. I came here to tidy. A nice surprise for you. And here I am, your great whale of a wife in my arms, begging me to end it all.
I’m thinking of the Bacri piece. I make a single, tender stroke – flautando – like you taught me. A gleaming ruby necklace springs up about her throat. Then she starts flailing and I have to be a little less decorous. I go at her with more gusto – short sharp scratch tones and this time I see chords and strings inside, trilling their last notes.
Lying on the bathroom floor, her skin pellucid under the spotlights, she looks relieved. I’m transfixed by the severed cables of her throat, the glug and rush of shiny blood. Now there’s something to clean. I bundle her into the bath; the plughole guzzles and belches.
I have gloves, bleach, an assortment of cloths and abrasive sponges. I am meticulous. I mop. I scour. I use a toothbrush to scrub the grout. All that remains is The Blob in the bath. I sigh at the task ahead of me – the enormous, baleen bulk of it. Then I fetch the hacksaw from my bag.
When I’m done, I pile up the rubbish in thick black binliners on the kitchen floor. Twenty-four bags. The flat is pristine. My gift to you: a sparkling new life.
It’s dark when you swing through the front door, chortling into your mobile phone, hoisting up a swag bag from the Chinese as you fumble for the light switch.
“Ta da!” I say, twirling like an odalisque in your sparkling palace.
You terminate your phone call, a sour look on your face. The takeaway thuds to the floor as you stalk through to the lounge, the kitchen, the bedroom, calling out,
I slink after you, like an unfed cat.
74 “Aren’t you going to say hello?”
“You shouldn’t be here. You’re lucky she’s out. Kindly leave.”
“Lucky who’s out, Henry?”
“Don’t get smart. It doesn’t suit you.”
“Do you like me better dumb?”
You pause. Give me a thin-lipped smile.
“I’m a shit. You’re well within your rights to report me to the VC –”
“Look at those blinds. Not a speck of dust!”
“You said you needed a cleaner. Your life is such a mess, you said. So I cleaned it for you.”
“Cleaned? Have you gone quite mad?”
“Oh come on, that’s all we Romanians are good for isn’t it? Cleaners and whores.”
“I think you should leave, Mihai.”
You eye the black bin-liners on the kitchen floor. A dark flower oozes from beneath one of the sacks, blossoming on the pale lino.
“I’ll take those to the trash on my way out,” I say.
“Just go!”
Outside in the warm summer air, I hover, moth-like, around the light from your window. Seven minutes pass. Then you scream, wild as the alley foxes.
My thoughts are heavy; my step is light as I weave through the sylvan shadows of Holland Park. I don’t pause for breath until I reach the bridge of the Japanese garden and for a moment I think I hear your voice, carried on ripples of night air. But it is only a peacock, calling mournfully to the moon.
“Love is pain,” you said.
I turn my back and slide into the night.


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