His hands shake, just enough to stop him getting the key into the door. He pauses, breathes, tries again and he is able to turn the lock, and hear the latch opening with a solid click. The door opens: he is in his new home.
It smells damp. The air is stale. Though it is mid-morning the living area he has stepped into is dim, with the blinds down. He sees that one of the blinds is broken, hanging askew with one of its cords spilled across the floor. A triangular patch of light reveals a dirty floor by the window with the broken blind.
The agents had said the floor would be cleaned.
He looks at the floor, then steps forward and puts his bag down on the table. He lifts the bag slightly, hears a sticking noise. The table is dirty as well. He looks at his phone. Mid-morning. He has time to get to the local shops, back to where he picked up the keys from the agent. Then he can spend the rest of the day cleaning. Then, a day free before work on Monday. Work! It still seems hard to believe.
He looks round the small house. The kitchen is dirty. The surfaces have been cleaned but still feel sticky. The owner and agent have done just enough to get someone as desperate as he is to sign a contract. Three months. He thinks about what he will need to clean the house. The bathroom smells bad. He flushes the foul looking toilet, and opens a tiny, high window. He looks in the cupboards in the bathroom and kitchen and finds a mop and a bucket, but nothing else. The bedroom is the cleanest place in the house, and he is relieved to see the agent has at least made good on his promise to get the owner to provide a mattress. It still has its plastic cover on. The bed had been just a frame when he viewed the property. He had been the only one to view. It had been an appointment.
From the kitchen window he sees the garden is overrun with weeds, the grass needs cutting and all the shrubs are overgrown and need pruning. Some of the garbage that he saw at the viewing has been removed, but some is still there. He tries the keys on the ring until he can open the back door, and then he tries some of the smaller keys to get into the small metal shed in the corner of the garden. There are some garden tools, and a mower. He padlocks the shed, locks the back door, puts his towel on the table, then his clothes and other possessions on the towel. He feels nervous about leaving his things in the house.
‘Got to get used to it,’ he says out loud, startling himself.
He shoulders his empty back, locks the front door, checks it is locked and heads off to the shops.
He wears his shorts and a singlet to clean, to keep his other clothes fresh. He will need them for work on Monday. His shopping trip has left him short of cash, and he thinks through his week as he uses the mop to slop soapy water round the floor. He has enough for the bus fares for a week: there and back. He can get the bus three streets away, a fifteen minute walk. He has enough food for the week. Enough to survive, but he knows he will be hungry.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says aloud. He knew he would be hungry. He will continue being hungry until he has straightened everything out. He has enough food. He can have toast for breakfast; a sandwich for lunch; pasta for dinner. He is hungry now but knows he needs to wait. The low level panic returns to him as he wonders if he will get paid at the end of his first week. He doesn’t want to ask for a loan, or early payment. He just wants to be a regular guy.
He slips on the soapy water and his attention is drawn back to his surroundings.
He returns to the small kitchen, steps outside and spills his dirty mop water down the drain outside. Then he refills his bucket with fresh water. It is cold. The agent had said the power would be turned on the day before he arrived, but it was not. He has power now, but will need to wait for the overnight low rates to heat the water boiler.
As he steps back into the living area there is a knock on the door. He freezes, panics. Who can it be? Anxiety floods through him. Who has followed him here? Of course, it would never work! How could he ever make it work!
He had left the door closed, not feeling safe enough, secure enough to leave it open. But the windows are open. He can’t move.
‘Hello?’ it is a man’s voice. Not a voice he recognises. Whoever it is tries the door!
He wants to step back into the kitchen, or get to the bedroom, get out of the way. Too late! There is the man, at the window near the door, peering in, his hand a bridge between his brow and the glass of the window. ‘Oh, hello! Can you open the door?’
He puts down the bucket of water, steps forward, his feet as heavy as the bucket. He will have to open the door. The latch makes its solid click as he opens it. He says, ‘Hello,’ his voice hoarse.
‘Hi,’ the man on the porch looks at him, looks past him. ‘I’m from next door.’ He points. They both look to the next house, with its neatly mown lawn, well-maintained fence, and clean paintwork. ‘I just wondered what was going on here. I thought it might be, I dunno, something suspect. Druggies or something.’
‘No,’ he says, ‘I moved in.’
‘So I see,’ says the visitor. ‘I see you’re mopping. I don’t expect an intruder would be mopping.’
‘Bit of a mess is it?’ the man smiles.
Suddenly he feels relieved. He is not going to be hit or thrown out. It is just a good neighbour checking things out. ‘Yes, very messy.’
‘The last lot here, they were druggies.’ He shakes his head as if unable to comprehend or describe what he witnessed. ‘You’re new here?’
‘Yes. I got a job,’ and he says where and when he starts.
The other man nods, and looks him up and down, comes to a decision. ‘Give you a lift if you like, I’m working just past there now. Early start though, half-six if that suits.’
He doesn’t know what to say. He accepts. They shake hands.
‘Mark,’ says the other man.
‘David,’ he says.
‘Right, David, leave you to your mopping then.’
The smell of the disinfectant and soap, and the fresh air from the open windows is beginning to cut through the stale, fetid smell of the little house. He works through the kitchen with a scourer, cleaning fluid, and hot water he has heated on the stove.
There is another knock, this time on the screen door. After the last visit he left the door open, but locked the screen door. The visitor is a pretty young woman. He feels shabby in his torn shorts and sweaty singlet. She notices that he has locked the screen door as he opens it.
‘Hi, I’m Wendy. Mark’s wife. He was here earlier.’
‘Hello,’ David says.
‘He said you were cleaning, and just left you to it!’
David is confused. He doesn’t know what Wendy means.
‘Yes,’ he says, ‘he came round. He was very nice. He offered me a lift to work!’
‘Well, I’ve come to help you with the cleaning.’
‘Oh no! No! No, you mustn’t!’ he exclaims, panicked.
‘Oh, not at all!’ she says and brushes past him and into the house. ‘Doing the kitchen are you? What’s this?’
‘I had to heat water. There’s not hot water until tomorrow.’
Wendy storms round the house. In the bedroom she asks, ‘Where’s your bedding?’
‘I’m going to use a sleeping bag.’ Wendy frowns.
‘I’m going to lend you some bedding,’ she says. ‘And when we’ve finished cleaning you must come round to our place for a shower. Mark will bar-b-que. We can have a beer!’
‘No,’ suddenly David’s shyness and edginess is gone. ‘I can’t drink beer.’
Wendy looks at David, looks at the house he is proud to have rented, nods. ‘Ok, come for a shower and a meal.’ She senses David’s discomfort. ‘One day you’ll do the same for someone else. Now let me do it for you.’
David is unsure.
She smiles. ‘If everyone had good neighbours, the world would be a happier place.’
David nods, says ‘Ok, thank you, Thanks very much.’
They take to the kitchen with scourers.