Once upon a time, I lived in a posh house.
I can’t say I appreciated the grandeur, much – I took it for granted. Of course. I was only a kid. What I definitely did appreciate, even then – particularly then – were the floors. They were magnificent: endless acres of the smoothest marble; perfect for a number of functions. In the hot weather, which in Somalia is pretty much all the time, my siblings and I would come in from the garden and go to lie down on them, enjoying the coolness against our hot, clammy bare skin. Bliss! When it rained and we could escape from homework or family duties, we’d take great enjoyment out of a sprint start and then a long, thrilling slide on a rug – or sometimes a skid in our sock feet - from one end of the hall to the other.
We were often joined in this activity by Keyse, the son of one of the cooks. Keyse was my age, and we were thick as thieves, he and I – much to the disapproval of my parents, and some of the staff. Not right, they said, so much familiarity between you, a daughter of the house, and this common boy.
To which none of us paid the least bit notice.
Although I must have had an idea of the implications of our relative status, I guess. If not, I don’t think I’d have done what I did when Keyse misjudged what was shaping up to be a particularly awesome powerslide and crashed into the vase, bringing it crashing to the floor with him.
Warsame, who was the butler, and who really had it in for Keyse, didn’t waste any time in shopping him to my father. Let me beat some respect into him, he had said. My dad wasn’t really one for corporal punishment – he never hit me or my siblings – but he was really angry about the vase. Apparently it had been his father’s. And he had no particular love for Keyse, who he saw as a pest.
So I ‘confessed’ – took the blame. I’m sorry, daddy – it was my fault. Keyse didn’t touch the vase. It was my fault. I’m so sorry.
I got a month’s pocket money deducted, and was forbidden to play with Keyse any more, but Keyse was spared a beating. I’m certain everyone saw through my… embellishment, but they could hardly prove otherwise. Warsame was livid, and took to watching Keyse like a hawk, so in fact we didn’t see each other much after that incident. I know Haboon, Keyse’s mum, was always grateful though.
I think that was one of the reasons she gave my dad the heads-up which allowed us to all get out in time.
But no, when it comes to huge, posh houses, I’m not easily impressed. Still… the Folly is something else. It never looked like much seeing it from the street, but now I’m inside I’m treated to the full whack of its architectural mojo – the atrium, which I’m sitting in, gets a definite ten out of ten for grandeur, as waiting rooms go.
And it does have a beautiful, immaculately polished, smooth parquet floor.
Grant and his boss have texted to say they’re running late. Traffic snarl up near Aldwych; they’ll be ages. The scary housekeeper let me in and vanished without saying a word.
I look around. There’s nobody in sight; just the stern visage of some old geezer – glaring down at me, patrician-like from his plinth in an alcove over by the entrance hall.
I’m not sure what’s gotten into me – perhaps it’s a lack of sleep - but I am feeling mischievous.
I lean down to slip off my trainers, and put them neatly underneath my chair. The winter sun is low, and the flames dance wickedly in the hearth, throwing shadows across the atrium and up the walls.
I step off the thick pile rug onto the smooth perfection of the parquet floor. The wood is beautiful – it has a warmth and lustre to it that is different to the marble of my childhood home, but I wiggle my toes and feel my socks slip, and I grin in anticipation.
Taking a few quick steps, I try a cautious slide. A slidelet. I manage several metres with ease.
Wow, whoever polishes this floor really knows their stuff.
Bolder now, I want to go for it. Can I make it all the way across, to the lobby? I reckon so. Muslim ninja, remember?
I accelerate, then take a leap; my sock feet take my weight on landing and translate the momentum of my run-up brilliantly into a powerslide. I’m flying!
I’m out of control…
Less Muslim ninja, more Eddie the Eagle. On a bad day.
The lobby is suddenly not only a possibility but a foregone conclusion, coming up to meet me as eagerly as the pavement greets the Friday night drunk in Trafalgar Square. I never had much sympathy for the drunks, since I was once one of the poor sods who had to deal with them: now I can empathise a little.
I laugh – it comes out like a shriek – and come to rest against something hard. It wobbles, ominously.
I look up.
Ah, so the stone bust is Isaac Newton. Isaac Newton? This doesn’t make any sense. I must remember to ask Beverley, and in any case I think I might be a bit light-headed. Ha. Unlike Sir Isaac, thankfully, who settles back onto his plinth. I realise I’ve been holding my breath and let it out in a whoosh.
Only to gasp a lungful of it back in as I turn around and come face to face with the housekeeper. Literally face to face: she can’t be more than a metre away. I didn’t hear her come in – and now remember one of the other advantages of a hard floor: no creakiness to give a ninja away.
For a second, I’m terrified. Polly (or is it Molly?) fixes me with a hard stare, as steely as you like. Warsame couldn’t have done better.
Shitshitshit. Stupid, stupid girl – you’re a police officer, not some errant kid. Thank fuck Sir Isaac was more robust than dad’s vase. It’s not like Keyse’s around to return the favour.
Then, the housekeeper smiles. And… it’s a mischievous smile! Just like Keyse’s smile, I think, and watch – it’s Molly, definitely Molly - glide towards the middle of the atrium, take a few smart steps and powerslide back towards me, coming to a graceful and controlled stop next to me.
Truly, this woman is a pro. And no wonder – presumably she’s the one responsible for keeping the floors like this; why not reap the fruits of her own labours once in a while? I wonder how long she’s been here, in this house. She has the self-assurance you tend only to see in veteran service staff, but can’t be more than thirty.
‘Nicely done,’ I congratulate her, and she does a proper old-fashioned curtsey.
With a small smile, she turns, and beckons me back towards the atrium, where I see she’s laid out a spread: afternoon tea, mini sandwiches and all.
I follow, and sit down gratefully. Molly pours, and I watch her, wondering, as I put my shoes back on.
The dog, Toby appears in a flurry of wuffs and whiskers. Molly bats him away, and looks at me expectantly. I reach for a sandwich, and it’s not until it’s halfway to my mouth that I realise it’s ham.
I’ve had this dilemma plenty of times before. People are pretty good, but sometimes they don’t realise. I am observant, moreso than some of my cousins, but not… let’s just say, that sometimes it’s a judgement call. How to manage the situation. Before I can make up my mind, I notice that Molly has clocked my hesitation. She has her head angled, a silent question.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, waving the sandwich at her. ‘I should have said’ – I’m overcompensating; it’s not like I asked for tea, let alone food, so I don’t know when I might have said. But I feel like I’m treading on eggshells, not wanting to damage this burgeoning understanding, or thawing, or whatever it is between us.
‘I’m a Muslim – I don’t eat pork.’ I tug at my hijab. ‘Or any meat that isn’t Halal. Sorry.’
Molly doesn’t say anything, just picks up the plate and glides away towards the kitchen.
Ah well. It was nice while it lasted.
I’m left to my own thoughts, but luckily not for long; Grant and the DCI are here at last, complaining good-naturedly about their journey home. I watch them with interest – Peter Grant is an odd one. He gets on well with the guys at Belgravia, but even before this Falcon stuff took off it’s not like he was your normal copper.
He seems completely at ease here, though, this council estate lad, son of two cultures and too smart for his own good: he’s at home in this posh house. Well, good for him.
They join me on the comfy chairs, Nightingale waving away Toby, who is weaving excitedly between his legs.
‘Sahra – sorry for keeping you,’ says Nightingale.
‘Some poor sod – cyclist - nearly got flattened by a bus near Aldwych,’ says Peter. ‘Things got a bit heated between him and the driver. We stepped in to try and calm things down until Traffic got there, and of course by then it was gridlock.’
Nightingale pours tea, and looks around, one eyebrow raised.
‘I’m surprised there aren’t any sandwiches. Normally, Molly is eager to feed us at any opportunity.’
I am about to apologise, to explain that I’d turned them away, that I’d offended her, when Molly appears.
‘Ah, Molly, excellent,’ says Nightingale.
Peter starts to reach for a sandwich before glancing at me. ‘Oh, hang on, sorry, Molly – didn’t think to tell you, but Sahra doesn’t –‘
He’s interrupted by Molly, who is holding a handwritten piece of paper which reads: HALAL.
She winks at me. I think. It was so fast I only just caught it.
‘Oh,’ says Peter, looking slightly confused. ‘Great. Thanks.’
‘Thanks, Molly,’ I say, and she inclines her head slightly, and then she’s off, back to her kitchen, Toby yapping at her heels.
I catch Nightingale looking at me. ‘Been making friends?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Something like that.’
‘Jolly good,’ he says.
We tuck in to posh, halal afternoon tea in the DCI wizard’s posh house and make small talk as the ghosts of the past - posh and common alike – silently glide across the immaculate floor.