Rita’s wondering why her key won’t turn. She thinks it’s because she’s all fumble fingers in her hurry to get inside and turn the fire on. She wants to put her feet up and tuck into those naughty pastries she’s brought back from work. The key won’t twist. If the damned lock has gone how much was it going to cost to get a locksmith out? An arm and a leg that’s what. Then, her front door opens from the inside. Her neighbour, May, is standing there, she’s smiling. Rita smiles back.
“I live here now,” says May. “This is my house.” She tilts her head to the right. “You can have mine.”
“What?” Rita laughs. It’s a laugh she hasn’t heard from herself for a long time, a proper good girlish spray of laughter. Her funny bone’s tickled. This is hilarious. “May, you’re a proper hoot and a half you are,” she says. “What’s this all about?” What a way to return someone’s house key to them, most folk would’ve just given it back, a straight up here you go kind of thing, one key, returned. She’s a funny one is May. Always suspected it. She tries to step into her porch but May blocks her way.
“You live next door now,” she says. “Here you go.” She hands Rita a key.
Rita lifts it up to the light of the porch. “Is this mine?”
“A key for a key,” says May. “Only fair.”
All kinds of things are running through Rita’s head as she takes this offered key, which she can see now isn’t the one she gave to May so she could keep an eye on Mittens, God rest her soul, when she went away on that trip to Magical Killarney with Joyce from work. That key had been silvery. This one is old and gold. Has May planned some sort of surprise party for her next door and this is a way of getting her there? How bizarre. It wasn’t her birthday and just supposing it was they usually don’t even do cards.
“I must go,” May tells her, “I was frying up a couple of slices of bacon for my supper when you disturbed me. I better get back to it before we’re all up in flames.” Then May shuts the door right in her face.
Rita walks down her own garden path and heads up the one next door. She lets herself in to her neighbour’s house because she doesn’t quite know what else to do. She stands in the hall and waits for something to happen that will make all this become clear but nothing of sense materialises. Snuffy, May’s husband, coughs from inside the lounge. The voices coming from the TV sound comforting and normal even though the soap characters are arguing about the dead body under the floor of their bedroom extension. She feels ancient with tiredness and shy and odd and doesn’t feel like making her way into the lounge to question Snuffy about any of this. He’s a quiet sort of bloke and gets twitchy, blushes, can’t give eye contact during a chat and, all in all, isn’t someone easy to talk about the weather with never mind anything more problematic than light rain.
A shawl of exhaustion drops around Rita’s sagging shoulders and she goes up the stairs and falls asleep on the first bed she comes to. Some time during the night she wakes and forgetting where she is, strip down to her underwear because that’s what she’s wearing when she wakes in the morning to Snuffy’s back. Thank the Lord it’s covered by a vest, is her first thought. Her second is about the downiness of the mattress. She turns herself over and burrows under the duvet. After a long time, or maybe not so long as all that, she reawakens to find she’d gone and dozed back off and now feels surprisingly refreshed. The other half of the bed is empty. He’ll be in his shed, she thinks.
When she gets to the bottom of the stairs, Rita slips off the shoes she’s only just put on. It’s a decent carpet, soft on morning-sore feet. It always takes a while for her joints and muscles to get going. She goes into the kitchen and pops the radio and the kettle on. She picks out one of May’s cups from which to drink her tea. The cup is fine and white and has a strawberry plant and a twee little mouse painted on it. It’s not a cup she’d have bought herself and yet here she is now enjoying it. She wonders how May is doing. The carpets weren’t bad next door, almost as soft as here. There were cups.
She does the housework, enjoying the contents of another woman’s cleaning bucket. The brand of polish wasn’t half bad. She doesn’t know how May will get on with that lemony stuff of hers. Twenty minutes into Woman’s Hour and Rita puts down the small wad of Brasso she’s using to shine up the kitchen sink, and even though the actress she’s always quite liked is chatting about her low spells to Jenni the host, Rita switches off the radio just as the actress is saying the word bootstraps.
She’s lived next door for forty-one years. They’d moved in on the day of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips’ wedding, 14th November 1973. She’d been a new bride herself then. When Rita looks at her own wedding photos now, not that she can bear to do so very often, she sees how handsome James had been. 1970s fashion didn’t do anybody any favours but the silly platform shoes and the nylon shirt couldn’t take anything away from his good looks. Would she and James have stood the test of time or would they have gone the way of Princess Anne and her Captain? Rita didn’t get to find out. James died of an abdominal aorticaneurysm on 3rd February 1974. He’d just scored a goal for his Sunday team. The next minute he was collapsed on the grass. All the lads thought it was a leg cramp. They’d been trying for a baby. Rita sometimes feels a bit rueful Princess Anne is a grandma but rue not is what she tells herself. Rue not, my little love, she says, because she likes to speak tenderly to herself on occasion to balance out the times she gives herself hell.
After vacuuming the entrance runner, she’s out of puff. She leans on the hall table. A console table she believes it’s called. What a funny idea. Little consolation it was. Barely room for a telephone and a bud vase. Scant support for a lady to lay an achey elbow on. It was a blessing, really, she had no grand kiddies running around. Where’d she find the puff? And, of course, you can only be a gran if you’ve been a mum first. Rue not, my little love. Though she can’t help think how children could put colour into a life. What would Princess Anne have had without Peter and Zara? Horses.
She watches a bit of TV and she hears Snuffy coming and going. They pass each other in the hall as she’s on her way to the loo. He eats all the lunch she plates him up. The plate’s licked clean when he brings it back from the shed. It gives her joy in her heart, an empty plate. Not a look or word is spoken between the two of them, but it’s all fine, and by the afternoon, she’s wondering if Snuffy has even noticed he’s sharing his house with a different woman.
She discovers the large suitcase, the one she bought for her trip to Killarney, on the front doorstep as she’s heading off for her late shift at Costco. May’s sent her a few of her own things. She’s pleased because she’s had to rinse through yesterday’s knickers. May’s clothes are decent enough but there was nothing much doing in her undies drawer. Rita likes a full brief.
At work, she mulls over whether to tell her friend, Joyce, about what’s gone on. But when they get their tea break together she finds she doesn’t. Joyce works on the customer service desk. She can get a bit bolshy about people taking liberties. She’d be up in arms about what May has done. ‘This isn’t right, Rita’, she’d say, ‘It’s just not right’. But the strange thing is, Rita can see herself giving a little shrug and saying to Joyce, ‘I don’t mind. I really don’t mind’. Joyce would have a field day with that. Best keep quiet.
Rita wonders if Snuffy might be partial to naughty pastries because she’s noticed some in the Reduced. She might take him one or two home.