She’s cleaning the gite again. It’s that time of the week; the latest batch of lobster-skinned, over-deodorized, indulgent guests with their squall of untethered children have vacated, so out comes the bucket, the mop, the rubber gloves. She’s waved goodbye to them as they trundle through the gate in their overloaded people-carrier, eyes flickering her way as they tap the route to the ferry into the satnav. Can’t possibly have programmed it in the night before, she knows. Can’t possibly turn their Beaujolais-soaked focus towards home and work, not when there are hours of holiday still to be squeezed out.
The youngest child in the group stared at her as they drove past, finger idly up its nose. Its hair was so long she couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, and she hated them all a little more for it. Children mean mess, that much she knows. The mop bucket is cracked. Water leaks down the sides as she lugs it up the drive to the gite.
The arseholes have done what all arseholes do on holiday – they’ve kicked off their shoes when stepping into the gite’s lobby and flicked them against the wall. They don’t care about the age of the building or the fact that, virtually every week, she has to take bleach to the walls to wipe away shoe marks or, come winter, paint over stubborn scrapes and dents. They are perfect in their arseholery, she thinks, slamming a wet cloth against the stains and using her knuckles to scrub the marks away.
She makes her way to the kitchen. Ah, at least they’ve put the plates and bowls back in the correct cupboards. An Austrian family played merry hell with her arrangements last month and she spent a good hour extracting knives and forks from the utensil cupboard, stabbing them back into the right place. Did that family even know what a soup tureen was for? She had found dried cereal stuck to the bottom and she’d wanted to fling the blasted thing across the dining room. Or at the back of their retreating car as they sped on their oblivious way to the border.
Morning sun lacerates through the windows and she knows she only has an hour before the gite becomes too stuffy. It is a problem during the summer months. Some guests have complained but, as she explains through gritted teeth, smile fixed on her face, it’s part of the charme. What do they expect when they book a nineteenth-century farm house? Air conditioning would detract from the “unique, historical ambience” of the building. It is clear on the website what they are booking. Really, the most she can do is put fans in each room, at a not-inconsiderable cost. Thank you for your understanding.
At least the mother has washed and dried all the tea-towels. That’s unexpectedly thoughtful. She pauses with her hand in the drawer, pressing down on the fabric. Smells nice, too. Mother has bought tourist washing powder, the expensive stuff the Intermarche puts at the front of the shelf. She lingers for a dangerous moment, forgetting herself as aloe vera wafts upwards. It doesn’t do to linger. She welcomes the return of anger, beating into her in dull, familiar waves. She slams the drawer shut and slaps the mop to the floor.
They’ve return the DVDs to the TV cupboard as well. Maybe this family aren’t total idiots, she thinks. Minor arseholes. Do the French have a word for that? Petit arsehole? She sniggers, wondering what the teacher at her evening language class would think. She laughs harder when she spies the coffee table and a solitary ring left by a mug. Mother missed that. Grande arseholes, after all.
She drags the vacuum cleaner from the utility room. So much cleaning to do in this place. Claude hadn’t said it would be this way when luring her over the Channel. He’d used other tactics, of course, to ensnare her; in the early years he had been a tremendous lover. Probably still is, just with the floozy he keeps in town. She thrusts the head of the vacuum cleaner under a chest of drawers in the master bedroom, scraping the metal frame back and forth, back and forth. She imagines the carpet is Claude’s face and that she is rubbing that smug expression away.
They didn’t argue, not even after she’d found out. Instead, she packed his bags and left them at the top of the drive. Outbursts were unnecessary. One of the couples booked into the gite had argued, once, on the front lawn. She’d wondered if they were a honeymoon couple when taking the booking – the place seemed too big for them, but they didn’t seem to notice when she showed them round. She’d been drinking coffee in her kitchen when the yelling began, her house tucked about a hundred metres away from the gite. The woman marched out onto the grass and threw something away. Clothing, it appeared. The man followed and tried to grab her, and there was a brief wrestle. She’d watched, fascinated. She told herself she’d intervene if the man hit out; some blokes did that. But the shouting stopped abruptly. The couple’s grappling turned into kissing and the man bent down, swooping his woman up and carrying her back inside. Coffee burned the inside of her mouth. It hurt to swallow.
The vacuum chokes on something and she stops to look. Whatever it is – Lego, a cufflink, the vacuum would eat them all – has disappeared up the metal pipe. She switches the machine off and goes over to the closet where rags and polish are. She turns back to the room, making for the mirror. And then she sees it.
A tiny, knitted blue shoe. It sits in the middle of a narrow shelf under the mirror. She can see it has been put there deliberately.
She takes a step towards it, frowning. She hadn’t seen a baby in the car when the family sped away to the ferry. She can’t remember an infant being on the booking and she’s pretty hot on such things. On odd occasions, a grande arsehole family might try to sneak in a guest that hadn’t been pre-booked, but she always pulls them up. She reaches out, cautiously, to touch the bootie. She realises her fingers are trembling.
The wool is soft but there is a strange, aged resistance to it. It seems to reject the pressure of her hand. She picks it up and places it on her palm, though it is hard to do. Her entire arm is shaking now.
The bootie has been knitted by an old person. The stitches are tight and assured; she remembers how her mother used to knit in such a way. There is a box of such things stored away up at the house. Locked away, tucked out of sight in a room she never goes in.
There is no partner to the little blue shoe. She ducks down to look under the bed, but there is nothing. Not even a speck of dust – Mother arsehole had swept around, obviously. A fellow stickler for cleanliness, then. She sits down on the bed and places the bootie on her lap. Her hands are now shaking uncontrollably and she doesn’t want to drop it. The vacuum cleaner, steel pipe shining like a blade, lies on its side, rags and polish thrown to the floor like unexploded grenades. She has been undone by a ball of soft, blue wool.
It isn’t clear how long she sits there, looking down at this tender thing, but the room is suddenly baking and she can’t breathe. But, still she can’t get up. She wonders why Mother would have left the bootie here. The washed tea-towels and the tidy DVD cupboard – she can’t imagine that Mother would simply have forgotten to pick up a precious item. And she knows in every chamber of her soured heart that the bootie is precious. It has been left behind deliberately, then.
She finally stands up and, still holding the boot, she sees some markings she might ordinarily have missed. Crayon streaks and swirls near the skirting board. A little monkey has lain on the bedroom carpet, probably waiting for its mother to get dressed, and written all over the walls. It will be that long-haired thing, she thinks. She doesn’t feel anger, not now. Instead she smiles, rueful. She slips the bootie in her pocket. And then she picks up the vacuum cleaner, heads down the stairs, and closes the door to the almost-clean gite.
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project”, a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop’s Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.
© 2017, Rebecca Burns