Something up the Sleeve

By Åsa Melander

 

It was a 1930s, semi-detached house, in a street full of other semis. It didn’t stand out to me, but it had been identified for a visit. The paint was going at the front of the house, and the sash windows looked in need of repair. Always a positive. I didn’t see any lock on the garden gate. I took a deep breath and reached for the knocker.

She came to the door immediately. It was as if she had been waiting for me. The door got stuck on the threshold for a moment, and I was on the verge of giving it a little pull when it surrendered and flung open.

“Mrs McFarlane?”

Her face turned pale when she saw me, but she lacked words.

“No need to worry,” I smiled. “This is just a routine visit!”

She didn’t seem reassured.

“I'm Jean,” she said, and stepped aside to let me in.

The only source of light in the hallway came through a net curtain in the lounge. She went in the other direction and I followed her into the kitchen. Her steps were short, as if she weren’t sure where she was going. A back door was open to the garden and I worried she would take me there, but she pointed me to a round table instead. The antique-looking chair creaked under my weight, and I sat as lightly as I could.

For once, I felt as if I had prepared myself well. I was keen to avoid another failure, and had discussed it at length with my colleagues. I had even had a bad dream. “It’s the first time at some point for everyone,” my boss had said, dismissing my unease. “You just need to get it over with. There’s no other way.” I had asked if I could accompany someone for the first time, but he made it clear it wouldn’t be possible. “You need to be able to speak to people on your own if you want to move up. Any issues, you let us know and we’ll be around immediately.” He had laughed as he added, “there’s no place for nerves in this company.”

I had looked for the right opportunity for a while, taking care of smaller tasks in the meantime, usually teaming up with a woman who had a reputation for being a real hardball. At first people trusted her tender disposition, but they soon learnt. She was ruthless.

I tried to recall everything I had learnt from her as Mrs McFarlane sat down opposite me. I reminded myself of the rules: Step 1: Look them in the eye. Nobody trusts anyone who doesn’t. I forced my eyes on her face and sat up straight. Her fiddling with her ring made me feel powerful. It looked like a wedding band, but she wouldn’t be married, obviously. Cars had not been my thing, so house visits would have to be. I placed my hands firmly on the table.

“As I said, this is a routine visit, but perhaps you know why I’m here?”

I regretted it as soon as I had said it. I had let my nerves get the better of me. Step 2: Don’t worry them unnecessarily. Remain confident and in control. I was lucky: the look on her face didn’t register my change of tone. Her face softened slightly, but she still didn’t quite look at ease.

“Is this about Jeremy?”

“Jeremy?” I asked, before I’d had time to think. Damn, I should have remembered the son who’d been in trouble. Of course she would have fretted about that. Why didn’t I apply the homework I’d done? “Oh, no, this isn’t about anyone in particular, as I said, it’s a routine visit.”

Her hands let go of their grip on the table and her shoulders sagged. My attempts to sound confident might have been fruitful.

“So, there’s nothing to worry about. We’re visiting elderly people in the area to warn them about being taken in by fraudsters. You may have read about people bluffing their way into people’s homes?”

I was uneasy spelling it out, but felt that I had done a fairly good job applying Step 2. She looked a bit like my grandma, and I knew I might be scaring her.

“I guess I have . . . But I don’t think there’d be much for them to take here . . .”

“Well, just be careful, OK? You can’t trust people today, unfortunately.”

I bit my tongue. I had been distracted from the script and had to find a way back in.

“It’s a nice house you’ve got here.”

“Do you think so?” She looked around, as if seeing her kitchen for the first time. Had my move from business to amicable discussion thrown her? “Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Yes please, I’d love one.”

I hoped it wouldn’t appear odd that I accepted a cup of tea while in uniform. She got up, and as she walked past me, she lost her balance slightly. I quickly held out my hand and she grabbed hold of my wrist.

“Oh, thank you, dear!”

She was stronger than I had expected and it seemed that she held on to me a few seconds too long, her eyes fixed on my wrist. Her ring cut into my thumb but I ignored the pain. As she removed her hand I pulled down my sleeve and avoided looking at the small tattoo in memory of my grandma.

She remained by my side for another few seconds, eyeing me sternly, before she slowly walked to the sink, filled the kettle, found some cups in a cupboard and a packet of biscuits in another. She left the kitchen briefly but I didn’t have time to look around properly until she returned with a serving tray. She moved professionally. She had done this many times in her life. When she put biscuits in a circle on a plate, I thought again of my grandma. I shuddered, thinking of what could have happened to her.

I had to stop thinking. In this line of work, professionalism is everything. Private thoughts must be left behind, while a kind of invisible internal uniform takes their place. I just wished it came more naturally to me. After a year of working my way up, it still didn’t feel any easier. I shouldn't be thinking of my grandma. The last time I saw her face, she was smiling at me, and if she could, she would still smile up at me from her coffin.

“Do you take sugar?”

She put the mugs on the table but didn’t wait for a response before she turned around. Her steps were stronger now, as if she had regained her balance, but she was conspicuously silent and did not look at me. I struggled to find something to say.

She returned to the table holding a small blue sugar bowl decorated with forget-me-nots around the edge. My grandma’s sugar bowl loomed up in my thoughts, impossible to avoid.

“I don’t get that many visitors, so it’s nice to have company for elevenses.”

I know, I was about to say. I’d had a few too many solitary cups of tea. “I’m glad,” I managed.

“You’ll get lonelier too, when you get older. Life has its fun moments, but there’s a limit to it. I think it is time for me soon.”

“Oh, don’t say that . . .” I rubbed my itching nose and thought about how to extend the conversation.

“Well, when you get to my age, you’ll feel it. There aren’t many things to break up the monotony. So, when I get an unexpected visit from a nice young man, I have to make the most of it.”

The odd way she stressed “nice” unnerved me.

“I’m glad.” I had repeated myself. I could feel trickles of sweat running down my neck. I rubbed my collar discreetly to wipe it off.

“Help yourself to a biscuit.” She paused. “Unless you’re allergic, of course – are you?”

I shook my head, forcing a smile.

“I tend to forget that nowadays everyone seems to have an allergy or two. Never happened in my day. What have you done to yourselves? Why don’t you tolerate things?”

I had to say something. “Well I guess they talk about toxins in the environment . . .”

“Yes, and that is a shame. You need to stop using so much plastic. It’s not good for you. I bet your uniform has a lot of plastic in it, doesn’t it?”

Was she trying to give me a hint? I fingered my sleeves. “I’m not sure actually . . .”

“Well, I’m a seamstress, and I can tell you that uniforms today aren’t as well made as they used to be. I’ve mended quite a few myself. Young constables who’d had too much fun on duty in the evening would come to me to help fix them up. And so I did. Was a "Jean’ll’fix it" long before Jimmy!”

She giggled. I was completely taken aback at the reference to Jimmy Savile, and chuckled at the inappropriateness of it. She noticed it too and her tone changed.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. My friends used to say that . . . long before everything happened with him, of course.”

I straightened up slightly.

“Don’t worry about it. Sometimes we need a bit of dark humour, don’t we?”

“We sure do.” Her eyes were fixed on me, and she seemed to hesitate again. “Some people even act in dark ways,” she added, almost inaudibly, but I heard her.

I had stirred my tea too long and took out the spoon.

“I wondered if you were going to ruin my tea cup.”

“Sorry, I seem to have lost track of time . . . I should be going.”

“I’m sure you work long days. You deserve a little break, don’t you?”

That was my cue, where I should have asked for the loo to compose myself. It struck me that she had not fiddled with her ring for a long time now. She seemed more relaxed. I took a gulp of the tea. It was too sweet, and I didn’t want any more, but I guzzled it down anyway. I needed to calm down.

“Mind if I smoke?”

“I didn’t think you did. My Arnie smoked too, until I told him he had to choose between me and his cigars. Just this once, then,” she added, still eyeing me.

I failed at the first attempts to strike my lighter and continued to avoid looking at her, fearing she would see my nerves. I devoured the smoke. My knuckles whitened as I gripped the empty cup. Without thinking, I took a bite of my biscuit, my mouth already full of smoke. Get a grip on yourself, I thought. She must be wondering. She was looking past me, but when I tried to see what she was looking at, her eyes returned to me.

“Was there anything else you wanted to talk to me about?”

“No, not really. Just . . . keep an eye out. Be careful. And, obviously, don’t let anyone into your house.”

“I certainly won’t. Although it’s been a pleasure having you visit, of course. Maybe I shouldn’t have let you in, from what you tell me!”

She had raised her eyebrows, expecting a response. I compelled myself to meet her gaze.

“Well it’s obviously different . . . but . . . don’t let anyone else in. There have been . . . cases where the elderly have lost . . . jewellery and money.”

“I’ll take good care of my jewellery. Thank you for coming round and warning me. I didn’t think you’d have time to visit an old lady like me.” Her voice was back to being stern, and it threw me.

“Well, sometimes . . .”

There was nothing else to say. My cigarette was gone.

“I should be going then . . .”

“It’s probably best that you get on with your work. I’m sure you have a lot to do.”

 “Yes, of course.”

“What do you normally work on?”

“Normally?”

“Yes, I assume you don’t spend your days having tea with the likes of me?”

“No, of course not. I’m part of . . . the local team and we do . . . local things . . .”

“That’s good, then. I’ll see you to the door. I’m sure you don’t need to use the toilet.”

She ushered me towards the door before I had a chance to think. I made a last attempt to regain control.

“Actually, I really liked the biscuits. Do you know if there is any wheat in them? I have a friend who might like them, but he’s allergic. You know, everyone’s allergic?” My stab at reconnecting failed. She looked sharply into my eyes when she answered, her lips pursed.

“Yes, there is wheat in them. But you know that, don’t you? If you want to check for yourself, go to the nearest shop and get some Jammie Dodgers.”

My left foot got stuck on the carpet and I had to stop myself from tripping. Facing a picture on the wall of a handsome young man in a uniform, my mind went blank. My oversized uniform was starting to itch and I felt like I had let myself down. Again. My GCSEs had been terrible, and I never got any A-Levels, much to my mother’s disappointment, which she kept reminding me of until she threw me out. The apprenticeship I was forced to take on hadn’t worked out, and now I couldn’t even pass the test to get to the next level in my new career. I wasn’t strong enough for anything.

Her arm lingered on the door lever.

“You really want to be a nice boy, don’t you?”

I felt a burning sensation in my eyes and needed to get out.

“You shouldn’t be doing this. You know that.”

I stepped past her without a word and pushed the door open. The wind that hit me helped my warm cheeks recover for a second before I turned around. I watched her feet, well grounded, and filling out a pair of sturdy shoes.

“As I said, Madam, be careful!”

I strode off before she had a chance to respond but I heard her piercing voice anyway.

“You’d better read up on the Metropolitan Police dress code policy. Check the section on tattoos!”

I walked briskly, eager to put the experience of 66 Leith Road behind me. The car was waiting on the agreed corner. I had a final look around before I got in, but the street was empty.

“All right, Constable?” Gina’s voice was as calm as ever and she smiled at me. “You look flustered.”

“Oh, no, not really . . . just . . . from walking. Get a move on, will you?”

“Sure. Result?”

“Nothing. Need to remove it from potential future visits.”

“Uh-oh, the boss won’t be happy. Thought he’d found something there.”

My hat fell off when she drove off at speed. I threw it in the back and loosened the buttons of my collar. I was not looking forward to meeting the boss, but somehow I felt content. I leaned to the side, fixing my eyes on the clouds in the sky to stop them welling up. If my grandma were there, maybe she would be a little proud.