Robert liked his job. Well, most of the time. He didn’t like going to uni student share houses to leech booze and dried vomit off every plush surface the day before a rental inspection; and he didn’t like going to Ms McTavish’s place because she had ten cats and let them pee on the carpet until it was sodden and the house smelt like piss long after he’d shampooed and shampooed it again. He also didn’t like nursing homes, because it was too hard seeing people not that much older than he with defeated expressions on their sunken faces, confined to beds, stuck full of tubes and left to stare at the empty visitors’ chairs in their room all day. No, he didn’t like that at all. As with anything, there were good clients and bad, and the one client Robert loved, more than anything, was Mrs Lavingston.
Julie-Anne Lavingston used to be a dentist. A lady dentist was a rarity in her day, so she took pride in telling everyone she saw. Despite numerous years retired, Mrs Lavingston baulked at kids stuffing their faces with lollies and always asked Bob—she was the only person who called him that—if he’d remembered to book his check up whenever he came to clean her floors.
Mrs Lavingston hired Robert’s Carpet Cleaning Service once a month to give her “three bed-room brick family home with cottage garden” a zhoosh before the next inspection. (Her place had been on the markets for years and despite the good neighbourhood, struggled to catch the eye of potential buyers.) When Robert was over cleaning the carpets, she often asked him to complete other odd jobs—mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, that sort of thing—and he always obliged because she was a little old lady with limited funds. She also usually treated him to a delicious home-cooked meal and, as a childless widower in his fifties, he was not in the position to turn down having a dinner with another breathing person.
This month, Mrs Lavingston hadn’t given her usual week’s notice when she wanted her carpets cleaned and instead called Robert late on a Tuesday morning.
“Bob, dear, it’s Mrs Lavingston here, how are you?”
Her voice crackled through the Bluetooth in Robert’s van.
“I’m very well thanks, Mrs Lavingston, and yourself?”
“Yes, well, dear. Can’t complain. Listen, I’m awfully sorry to trouble you so suddenly but I’ve spilt red wine all over my living room floor and the realtor’s got people coming through the house tomorrow, you see, and I’d hate for them to see this terrible mess.”
“I can squeeze you in this arvo, how’s that sound?”
He really couldn’t—he had a motel to clean out of town and wouldn’t be back until after five. But it was Mrs Lavingston asking and he couldn’t say no; she was bound to have a delicious dinner waiting for him and he’d been craving her beef casserole with dumplings.
“Oh you’re a petal! Thank you so much, dear.”
When Robert arrived at Mrs Lavingston’s house, the sky was already darkening. Winter was the worst season for overtime. The sun had always well and truly set before he got the key in the lock of his front door and the only thing worse than cooking dinner for one was cooking dinner for one in the dark. It takes longer for the carpets to dry too. He would have told Mrs Lavingston that if she hadn’t been so frazzled.
Robert pulled into the driveway of Mrs Lavingston’s porch-lit house, careful not to run off the cement tracks onto the lawn with the heavy tyres of his van. He didn’t make a habit of letting himself into a client’s house, but Mrs Lavingston was old and in a walker and left the back door open so visitors could do just that.
“Hello? Mrs Lavingston?” Robert called as he toed out of his boots. He’d come back for his equipment once he’d made his greetings and sussed out the damage.
“Yes dear, come on in!”
Mrs Lavingston sat at her dining room table, turned to face the telly, walker set in front to help her up if needs be. The remotes were lined up on the black cushioned top of the walker, and a cup of tea in bone china sat on the table next to her. For once, there was nothing cooking on the stove.
“Now,” Robert said, entering the room, “Let’s see what we can do about that … wine stain.”
Mrs Lavingston’s floor was red. Not the odd splatter of a spilt glass of wine, but the sprawling crimson smear one could only get by dropping an entire vat in the centre of the living room.
“You can get that out, can’t you dear?”
A metallic pong wafted around the room, feebly masked by a floral air spritzer.
“I tried to sponge some of it out,” she said, “But wine is such a tricky stain. Especially with this damn white carpet of mine. The doctor has me on a low sodium diet so I don’t even have any salt to leech it out like they say to do in those—what are the kids saying now—“cleaning hacks”.”
Robert lost all words. He stood there, staring at the obviously-not-a-wine-stain mess, mind flicking between holy shit that’s blood and how the fuck am I going to get that out?
“It’s not going to be a problem, is it Bob, dear?”
She smiled at him—this sweet, fragile, barely mobile old lady smiled at him while her living room was covered in blood. Robert could barely breathe let alone move. But he forced himself, finger after finger, toe after toe, to bring strength back to his muscles. He trudged back to his van, gut contracting, to retrieve his cleaning gear.
Was there a break and enter? Was she just defending herself? Where was the body?
Robert took a few deep breaths to steady himself. He should call the police. And say what? That a decrepit old lady murdered someone in her house, disposed of the body and asked him to clean up the evidence? They’d laugh him out of the station! She was ninety-something years old for Christ’s sake!
It was wine.
It had to be wine. A whole lot of wine. A bloody crate of wine, but wine all the same.
But where was the broken glass?
Robert hauled his gear inside and set to work on removing the probably-not-blood stain from Mrs Lavingston’s floor. As the shampoo frothed into a cheerful pink foam, Robert began to relax. It wasn’t blood—it was wine. Or a nice strawberry milkshake.
“I can’t thank you enough for doing this last minute, dear,” Mrs Lavingston semi-shouted over the whir of the machine. Robert waved it off as though it were nothing. And it was nothing. He cleaned up blo—wine stains all the time. It usually wasn’t after hours or in this extreme volume but it was a job he’d done numerous times and done well.
When he finished sponging up the last droplet, Mrs Lavingston struggled up out of her chair as she always did to see Robert out to his van. She plucked a tissue from the box on the table and shakily bent down to collect up a ball of lint or other such rubbish from the floor beside the table leg.
“Oh you’re so good to me, Bob,” she said. “Sorry I don’t have any dinner tonight. I was in such a panic over this carpet I forgot to get anything out of the freezer. Looks like it’s toast and eggs for me tonight. I do have I nice pork shoulder I’ll pull out for next time though, how’s that sound?”
“That would be lovely, Mrs Lavingston. My belly’s already rumbling!”
The older woman touched his cheek with gentle affection. “Well, I’ll give you a holler when I’m roasting it up. You take care now.”
She pressed the scrunched up tissue into his hand. It was filled with something hard, something rounded and jagged like a badly chipped marble.
Or a tooth.
“Be a dear and drop this down the drain for me? Thanks pet.”
Robert kept the same smile on his face as he bid his farewells and watched Mrs Lavingston hobble back inside her house. He closed his fist around the tissue, tight so it wouldn’t unravel and reveal its contents. Keeping his chin parallel to the pavement and eyes fixed on the window of the house across the street, Robert walked the length of the driveway to the storm water drain. As much as he hated to litter, he dropped the scrunched parcel, tissue and all, into the grate and hoped tomorrow’s predicted rain would wash it away. Wiping his hands on his overalls, Robert got in his van and drove off.
He’d never be in the mood for roast again.
(c) Jessica A. McMinn 2018
1 490 words.
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