Ross Poldark turned the key in the lock then tossed his case inside ahead of him. He was exhausted. Tired of working fourteen plus hour days, tired of international flights longer than that, and most recently he’d grown tired of worrying about the uncertain state of the world around him. But whatever dangers he’d been exposed to over the past week, he currently showed no signs of illness, and most importantly he was home. Now he could self isolate, pour himself a nice single malt, and just be alone.
He stepped into the hallway of his flat but whatever comfort he might have derived from being in his own space was immediately deflated. The place reeked of citrus and bleach, sharp and cloying smells that tingled in his nose and caught in his throat. The windows in this high rise block only opened a few inches but surely the cleaning woman could have still managed that or thought to air the place out some other way? A fan maybe?
Of course she wouldn’t. Ross hadn’t much faith in Prudie, the woman who’d been cleaning his flat for over a year, and had grown accustomed to her shoddy work. The truth was he felt somewhat sorry for her. On the first day she arrived she spilled her life story--she worked long hours at crap pay to support an alcoholic husband. Ross suspected if he gave her a poor rating with the service who sent her, she might get sacked, so instead he said nothing. To his chagrin they interpreted that to mean he was satisfied and sent her regularly from that point on. But it mattered little. Ross lived alone and was generally a tidy person so there wasn't much she really had to do week to week. In fact he was somewhat surprised she managed to be as thorough as she had today. Then again he had put in a special order with the service for a deep clean.
“And she’s left the lights on too,” he grumbled. He moved further into the flat and saw they were blazing in all the rooms. That’s when he heard it.
“I've been here, there, everywhere
Here there nowhere
Iszy bitzy witzy itzy everywhere
I've been here and I've been there …”
A voice, high and sweet was coming from another room. Mostly on key, with only a little wobble on the harmony, that was immediately followed by a giggle then spirited humming.
Ross followed the song to the small but well-appointed galley kitchen down the hall. That’s when he saw her.
A woman, most certainly not Prudie, was down on her knees, wiping the sparkling tile floor, her backside facing Ross as he stood in the doorway. He felt a tinge of shame that his initial thought was that whoever she was, she had a rather attractive bum, noticeable through the jeans she wore. She had a tangle of red hair twisted back into a loose knot but a few soft curls had escaped and moved when she did. She had earbuds in which is why she hadn't heard him creep up on her but must have sensed she was no longer alone and turned her head with a start.
“Oh!” she said loudly, then promptly lost her balance and fell, the beautiful bum now planted on the wet floor. She yanked an ear bud out and stared up at Ross with wide, scared eyes. He noticed they were the same sparkling blue as the bottle of Windolene she was still holding.
“Sorry to startle you,” he said at once and stepped forward to offer her a hand, then stopped himself. He didn't want to sully her impressive work with his dirty shoes--and he had to get it through his thick skull that hand shaking was absolutely a thing of the past. “I’m Ross Poldark. I live here. I assume the service sent you?” he added, eyeing the red pinny she wore over a long sleeved black t shirt.
“Oh, Mister Poldark,” she said quickly and got to her feet. “So sorry, sir. We weren’t expectin’ you until next Monday,” she said apologetically. “But I’m almost done and I can be out of here shortly…”
“No worries,” he tried to reassure her. “I had to cut my travels short because of the…”
“Yes, of course. Flights are all mostly cancelled I heard. You’re lucky you made it home at all,” she said, apparently no longer terrified he was an intruder. He was glad to see her smile, and curiously felt a warmth wash over him, a light relief that he hadn’t felt in days.
“You’re not Prudie,” he said.
“No, sir, I’m not. She was feelin’ poorly so she was told to stay home,” she explained.
“Prudie’s sick?” he asked, concerned.
“No more than a sniffle. Nothin’ to be worried about, I’m sure.” Now she was reassuring him. “I’m Demelza,” she added.
Ross recognised her accent the more she spoke. It had been a long time since he’d heard such rich Cornish tones, and he felt a homesickness he hadn’t experienced in years.
“Well, I’m sorry to have interrupted your work, Demelza,” he said and managed a smile. “I’m going to unpack and then take a hot shower. That is, if I won’t be in your way?”
“Oh, no sir!” she said brightly. ”I’ve already cleaned the bathroom. Deep clean, just as you requested. And you needn’t fret about running out of loo rolls, Mister Poldark--you’ve got plenty,” she winked playfully.
“Please, call me Ross,” he said. “Being called ‘sir’ just makes me feel old.”
“No one likes to feel old.”
She’d replied with such a knowing sigh that made Ross curious of her own age. Iit hard to gauge. The shapeless pinny would make anyone appear frumpy, though her pretty face--completely free of any makeup--looked young. Perhaps she was a student who also did cleaning to get by. But she’d been listening to Echo and the Bunnymen, which suggested she might be older than he’d initially thought.
“Well it was nice to meet you, Ross . Welcome home.” She smiled again and Ross wondered how he might diplomatically arrange to have her as his regular cleaning woman, instead of Prudie.
Still knackered but nevertheless relaxed, Ross walked into the dim living room dressed only in a towel. He regretted leaving wet footprints on the polished floors but at least his bare feet were clean. He was finally alone and ready to bask in the solitude he’d been craving for days. The solitude that was necessary given his potential exposure over the past week. How many conference rooms and airports had he been?
As much as he had enjoyed his brief encounter with the new cleaner, he regretted that he’d had any contact with her under these circumstances. But there was most likely nothing to worry about. She’d been wearing marigolds and he’d kept at least six feet away from her. Still, perhaps he should reach out to let her know the risks all the same. Would the cleaning service even give him her number? Most likely not but they could pass on a message.
He’d been around countless airport security agents as well, and then there was the taxi driver--why did Demelza feel different to him? Was it that they were nameless or that he’d met her in his own home?
He poured the whisky he’d also been craving but before he took a sip, heard his mobile buzz. In such a quiet space, it sounded louder than usual.
Damn! This is getting very real, very fast, he thought when he saw the message that had scrolled across his screen. He took a drink, only now it wasn’t a sip but a hearty slug meant to offer some courage.
Then the doorbell rang, and the silence was shattered yet again. It was unexpected and unwanted. He didn’t relish the idea of having to dress or see anyone. Well, whomever was calling would not be invited in. He was unwavering on that score.
Ross pushed the button on the video intercom system and was surprised, and also a little pleased to see just who had rung.
“Demelza!” he said and threw open the door without hesitation. So much for his resolution.
“I’m sorry, Mister Poldark..erm, Ross, so sorry!” She was near tears. He stepped aside to allow her in, carefully maintaining his distance.
“What is it? Are you hurt?” he asked, wishing he could touch her arm or even hold her hand to offer consolation. She was clearly distressed.
“The Underground. And the buses,” she began breathlessly. “All public transport has been shut down, and I...I don't have any way to get home. I was gonna start walkin’ but it’s so far, it would take hours. And then the streets were so empty and I just felt really...unsafe. I didn't know what else to do, where else to go...” Her voice wobbled and her eyes were wet.
“No, no. It was the right thing to do. Come in, please,” he said, then suddenly grew aware that he was wearing just the towel. That didn't seem to faze her though, she’d been so rattled, caught off guard by how suddenly things had shifted. And he had other news to share with her, another turn of the screw.
“Demelza, you are welcome to stay here. Well, I mean you have to stay here. There’s just been a declaration. We’ve all just been asked to stay home. Required in fact. All of us are..”
“Like under house arrest?” she cried.
“Oh,” she said, still reeling from the shock.
“There’s only one bedroom--and only the one bed--but you can have the sofa,” he offered. “I need to be honest with you. I’ve just come from the States--the west coast--and so as a precaution I’ll need to keep away from you.”
She said nothing but bit her lip as she puzzled out her next move.
“But then again, you of all people know the flat is clean,” he tried laughing.
“Well, then,” she said finally. “I’d better go wash my hands.”