‘You’ll need to double-bag them,’ he shouted to the cleaner.
It was a terrace house with a narrow hallway and she had to come down the stairs backwards, holding the heavy, smelly bags in front of her. He watched her arse bump-bump from left to right.
Even though she was wearing a mask she still craned her head back, away from the stench of what she was carrying. He appreciated that, the theatrical disgust, even though she must be used to it by now.
‘You must have seen some things, right? In this line of work?’ he smiles although she can’t see him. Puts the smile in his voice.
Is it bad he cares more about what she thinks than about the fact he hadn’t realised mum had been living like this? The cleaner can’t know that he hadn’t seen his mother for six full years before he heard that she died.
It was reasonable, he told himself. She hadn’t been a good mother. She hadn’t beaten him, true, but she had nagged. His dad didn’t like it either, it drove him away; to overtime shifts, to the pub. And he only got one year of retirement before dropping dead, wasn’t his mother partially to blame for that?
But she always used to keep the house clean when he was little; pull on pink rubber gloves, run her finger over the mantelpiece to check for dust.
She even upset him at one time because she threw away his old comic books – they were collectibles.
Hypocrite, he thought now.
Yet he remembered once going to a school friend’s house whose mother worked as a dental receptionist. They had wooden stairs and covering each one were piles and piles of dog hair, shed from their Samoyed and never cleaned up. He was revolted, then felt a strange appreciation for his mum. After that he would gently nudge her sometimes; when he smelled the Sol in the air he would say ‘Well done, mum.’
Which is why this was so odd. The newspapers, the moulting cuddly toys, the brown spotted books, the shivering stacks of clear Tupperware. She never sounded dotty on the phone. But he didn’t like to keep her on for long, liked to save his woman-natter for the pub and the apps.
‘You must have seen some weird things, cleaning up mental people’s houses?’ he spoke again, a little louder.
The cleaner paused, dumping the next bag onto the pile in the front yard. She turned to him and slid a finger up to unhook the mask from her ears. He didn’t expect the wide, red-lipsticked smile underneath.