Chapter 1: Deep Clean
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.”
Chapter 2: Chicken Soup
Ross rolled over and stretched his long body across the width of the bed. It had felt so good to sink into the mattress the night before. His mattress, his pillows, his sheets. And as he expected, he’d sleep like a log. Over years of traveling for work, he’d gotten better--he’d learned from necessity--to fall asleep in strange hotel rooms but it still took awhile. Last night, he must have been out the second his head hit his pillow for he had no memories of a struggle. For a moment, in his half-sleeping state, he had no memories at all.
Then he smelled it.
Someone was making fresh coffee in another part of the flat. Slowly his eyes opened and he began to recall the strange reality he was now inhabiting. No, he wasn’t alone, and as much as he had been reveling in his own bed, there was a young woman--a stranger he needed to remind himself--who was camped out on his sofa because she’d been stranded.
Just how is this going to work? he wondered.
He pulled some pajama bottoms over his bare body and opened the bedroom door.
“Good mornin’, Ross Poldark,” Demelza said brightly. “That’s for you.” She pointed to a steaming mug of black coffee she’d set on the floor in the hallway. Last night they had vaguely divided up the flat--he’d take ownership of the bedroom, she could spread out in the living room. The kitchen and bathroom would need to be shared space but they could at least take turns using them and the long hallway between--“No Man’s Land”--would be divided in half. She must have paced out exactly where his territory began and placed the mug without stepping beyond his border.
“You did this?” He reached down and lifted it with an incredulous brow and a light smile he could not contain. This woman had good instincts.
“You’ll have to take it black--the only milk you have looked a bit dodgy--but I can get you sugar if you’d like? I saw you had instant too but figured we’d better save that for...later.”
“No, this is perfect. I just picked it up in Seattle--I’d intended it as a present for my cousin, Verity,” he explained.
“Oh Ross!” she gasped. “I’m so sorry. I should have asked.”
“No worries, Demelza. No doubt it will be some time before I see her again. She lives in Portugal and with borders being what they are…”
“But I see now I should have waited for you to get up. I didn't mean to be presumptuous, rifling through your things. It was in the cupboard and…”
“Really, it’s fine, Demelza.”
“I just wanted to do somethin' nice to repay your kindness, Ross,” she said with a sort of innate flirtiness--cocked head, soft voice, wide eyes, arms demurely crossed over her slim chest.
He wondered if this was a routine she’d perfected over the years--sleeping in strange men's flats then seductively making them coffee in the morning? It was a wicked thought and he shook his head as if to dislodge it from his mind. He did not know her and even if he did, he had no business to judge her. She was just being friendly. The days of people pointing accusatory fingers and questioning one another’s choices, were in the past. Humanity would have to pull together in a new way.
“It was a kind gesture. And you owe me nothing,” he said and took a deep sip to demonstrate his sincerity. She’d used the cafetière and brewed the dark roast expertly. “Besides, it won't do to have you tip toeing around like a houseguest since I can't really be the proper host. You were right to fend for yourself. Now tell me you poured a cup for yourself?”
He may have winked. He certainly had not intended to but over the years he’d perfected certain facial expressions he used without thinking. Winks, sidewise glances, nods, smiles, and of course the coup de grâce--when he allowed a slight tip of the tongue peeking out between his teeth. He used these mostly with women but not exclusively. His cousin affectionately called them “social lubricants” and they worked. When he wasn’t being sullen or brooding, Ross Poldark could, on occasion, pass for charming.
“I did,” Demelza said and held her mug aloft and smiled back at him. Whether his well-honed look had done its trick or if she was just relieved to be absolved of any inadvertent trespass, he couldn’t say. She had quite a powerful smile herself that spread across her whole face and revealed her gleaming white teeth. But it was her smiling eyes that struck Ross. It wasn’t just their colour but their brightness, like she’d some inner spark that could not be doused. Not even in trying times. She leaned casually against the wall at her end of the hallway and took a drink of coffee.
She seemed at home.
“We should figure out a system for the kitchen,” he said, trying not to stare at her. “Perhaps we shouldn't share dishes…”
“I washed my hands before I touched your cup,” she said quickly then gave his words a little more thought. “I once cleaned for a family that kept kosher. They had two separate sets of dishes--I suppose it can be done,” she said. “And I don’t need much.”
“Well that's the other news. I'm afraid we don’t have much,” he sighed. “In terms of food that is. And now the shops are all closed.” He’d forgotten this detail last night. He’d had no appetite so thoughtlessly he’d offered her nothing before he’d left her alone with a pile of sheets and the only extra blanket he had.
“Even when they were open the shelves were mostly empty,” she said. “But you know you got a delivery while you were gone?”
“Did I? I must have forgotten to cancel it this week. That may be the first good thing that’s happened in days.”
Since he worked long hours Ross had a standing delivery of groceries to the flat that he ordered online. Just the basics really but it was easier than trying to find an open shop when he dragged himself home late. He wasn’t sure what this said about him. Sure it was convenient but did it also signal he was lazy? Indulgent? Caught up in the instant gratification of modern life? It was certainly one more way he’d eliminated contact with other humans in such a huge city. To his credit he once did try to have Prudie do the shopping but that hadn’t gone well at all. She ignored half his list and then insisted he hadn’t left her enough money.
“Arrived yesterday so I put it all away before I started cleanin’. Well, let's see how we can make it last. I know you weren't plannin’ for two…”
“There’s much that is uncertain,” he replied. He meant it as a reassurance but it had come out a grave reminder of the unknowns before them.
“Demelza? Did you clean the bathroom again?” Ross called out.
“Yes, I did. Is everythin’ alright?” She popped her head around the corner from the living room looking concerned.
“It’s fine--more than fine--it’s absolutely immaculate. I just don't want you to think you have to…”
“Ross, I’m just tryin’ to earn my keep. I took a shower and thought I should cover my tracks. You said we need to be cautious…”
“Just so we’re clear, I am capable of cleaning as well. And I really don’t expect anything from you,” he said.
“Are you seriously denyin' me the chance to show my professional expertise?” Once again her laugh lightened the mood in the otherwise grim flat.
“You changed your clothes?” he noticed suddenly. She’d traded her jeans for grey leggings and the t-shirt she now wore was pink. He hadn’t expected pink to be a colour that worked well for a ginger but somehow it did.
“Yes, I happened to have my gym bag with me, so that was lucky,” she said, “but I may still need to borrow a few things?”
“Of course. Whatever you need. Look, I have a conference call in ten minutes that I’ll need to attend to but after that, I‘ll do more research on just what precautions we should take. I mean, how vigilant must one be when sharing a space with another.” A rather small space, he thought.
“I’d like to help with that but speakin’ of things I need, you don’t happen to have a mobile charger?” She held up her darkened mobile and frowned.
“Android? No, not anymore. But I do have a spare tablet you can use. Just clean it first. They say the surfaces of our mobiles and devices are quite filthy.”
He went into the bedroom and returned with an Ipad that he slid across the hallway floor to her. She stopped it with her bare foot before it slammed into the wall, then bent over the screen attentively with a sanitising wipe.
“How’d you manage to get a hold of those? I thought the shops were all sold out?” he asked, spying her precious commodity. “Oh, right, professional expertise.”
“Normally I hate these things--they aren’t environmentally friendly--but under the circumstances...Okay, looks good. Can you share your wifi password?”
“Fuck…” he groaned and realised he had no choice. “D@rklord1983.” He grimaced, clearly embarrassed.
“Oh Ross, that’s brilliant. That’s fucking brilliant!” She snorted with laughter. “I suppose it could be worse. I remember my first online moniker was iluvweezer1212.”
“Go make your call, Ross, and I’ll see what I can find out for us.”
Once Ross had started his video conference he realised what a mistake it had been to give Demelza the living room. Sure, he’d get a better night’s sleep in his own bed than were he on the sofa, but now he had to do all his remote work and conferencing from this space. The room was too cramped for a desk or chair, and besides the bed there was room only for a dresser and three tall bookshelves that lined the wall opposite the window.
He’d made it a point to clean himself up for this video call--he’d even shaved--but the effect would be lost if he was lounging against a pile of pillows. Well, it was too late now.
An hour later he rang off with a list of tasks to be completed, and an even longer list of tasks to be postponed until the office could reopen, as well as scores of unanswered questions.
Then he smelled it. It was an experience similar to when he first woke that day and just as welcome. Someone was making something--something delicious--in the kitchen.
“Demelza?” he called and flung his door open. “What is that…?”
“That Ross, is chicken soup. You had a half-eaten rotisserie chicken in your fridge and now we have a whole pot of soup. Or we will eventually--it has to simmer a bit.”
“That’s from days ago--was it safe to eat?”
“Yes, it’s fine but just barely. Tomorrow we'd need to bin it. And our peasant ancestors would turn in their graves if we’d let it go to waste. I’m rather sure half of our favourite recipes originated in times of want when folks had to scrape. Oh, but then you probably didn't come from such common stock as me!” she laughed.
“My ancestors might have been landowners but they were cash poor and probably knew how to stretch a shilling until it squealed. Thank you, Demelza, for such clever thinking. When will it be ready?”
“Oh it's not for today. In my researchin’ how to stay safe and healthy, I read--thanks to your ipad, Mr. Darklord,” she snickered, “that to prepare for times gettin’ worse, one should make soup now and freeze for later. We’re lucky you have such a large refrigerator for a single man livin’ alone.”
Ross laughed and shook his head.
“You know, Demelza,” he said and leaned against the bathroom door frame across from the kitchen, “as fucked as this whole scenario is, we’ve identified quite a few things to be grateful for today.”
“Oh and it most likely will get more fucked too!” she laughed. “But you’re right, Ross,” she added softly. “We may well be the lucky ones.”
Ross woke to a stiff back and a pain in his left calf. He stretched as best he could then sighed, accepting that he wouldn’t be able to do much to truly alleviate his muscle aches. It was days now since he’d been to the gym. Even when he was in Seattle he’d been able to get in a run on the hotel treadmill. What he wouldn't give to be able to walk--even just a few blocks.
He hadn't pulled the blinds but the only window faced west and so the room wasn't overly flooded with morning sunlight. In fact most nights he didn't bother to pull the blinds at all. Being on the 20th floor meant he had a certain sense of privacy and needn't worry about the neighbours peeping in. The building opposite was an office block and the lights were usually off and its inhabitants long since on their way home when Ross was undressing for bed.
It was a bold habit--especially since he preferred to sleep in the nude--but one he had grown accustomed to over the years and no longer really questioned. He was used to being alone and not having to think about others at all.
Well things sure have changed, he laughed to himself. More alone in some ways--isolated, cut off from the outside world, trapped inside--yet sharing his private-most space with another.
He pulled on his pajama bottoms and hoped he could make it to the bathroom without his new flatmate spotting his massive morning erection. But when he stepped into the hallway he was met with an eerie quiet.
Usually, even this far up, he could hear the bustling of the city--lorries, taxis, cars pounding the roads all day and all night. This morning there was nothing. Everything was still. He walked to the window in the kitchen and confirmed his suspicions. The streets below were completely abandoned. It reminded him of a painting he once saw--di Chirico maybe.
He listened again--a faint sound--and moved into the hallway to investigate. It was Demelza’s rhythmic breathing as she slept. A little raspy but not a snore. He was glad she’d been able to sleep on the sofa two nights running now. He wouldn't have been able to; it was cramped and narrow, it’s leather upholstery creaked every time a body moved. But she hadn’t yet complained. She’d been such a good sport about this whole thing
This morning he’d make coffee for her, perhaps as a gesture of gratitude for her easy-going attitude. He’d lucked out to end up with such a stranger. His mind raced through a list of his family members and colleagues who he’d dread sheltering with. And even though her being there restricted him further, to only half of an already small flat, maybe in the end it was better than being entirely alone. Ross shook his head. There was no need to even wonder about that since, in fact, he had no choice.
Ross padded softly back to the kitchen and washed his hands, then switched on the kettle. He was pleased to see there were beans already ground from the day before so he needn’t wrestle with the grinder and possibly wake Demelza. Besides, the fewer items in the room he touched the better. He put on a pair of oven mitts before he poured the water into the cafetiere then wiped down the handle of the kettle with a soapy dish sponge. No, a cloth would have been better, wouldn’t it? Sponges harboured all sorts of germs, he’d read. He binned the sponge and hoped he hadn't made any other errors.
He rifled around for a few packets of sugar he suspected might be in one of the drawers and while it was hard to maneuver with the bulky mitts, he finally found what he was looking for amongst a jumble of matchbooks and wine corks. He couldn't even recall if she took sugar--she hadn’t said, had she?--but he wanted to be responsive just in case. Quietly he loaded the cup and the coffee pot on a tray, and stepped into the dim hallway.
Jesus, Poldark! he chastised himself when he realised what he’d done now. While one track in his brain was trying to both balance the tray and estimate where the imaginary line of Demelza’s territory began, another part--perhaps it was sleepy or just acting autonomically--had delivered him all the way over the threshold of the living room. He was so used to moving about in his own place and could do so in the dark. He knew how many paces it took to get from the front door to the sofa, from his bed to the toilet.
But now his spectacular act of idiocy shook him and the tray nearly dropped from his mitted grasp. He caught himself, took a few careful steps backwards, and quickly laid the tray down in the hallway.
The living room was the only room besides the bath that didn't have a door--he'd had it removed when he first moved in to give the otherwise cramped flat a more open feel. Now he regretted this decision for it meant there was nothing to screen his view from the body lying on the sofa.
The blanket that Demelza had wrapped around herself must have gaped when she rolled over in her sleep, for her bare bum was nearly fully exposed.
It seemed Ross’s house guest preferred to sleep in the nude as well.
Ross looked away at once but not before he’d already caught an eyeful. However he’d admired her body the day they first met, he was further in awe of the actual flesh now freed from the confinement of clothing. Such beautiful curves, such smooth skin. She resembled a painting--Ingres’ Odalisque perhaps?
It was the second time that morning that his mind had wandered to art. He would have wondered what that meant--what it said about himself as a person--but instead felt an intense self-loathing growing in his belly.
He hated himself at once for ogling her like this. She deserved privacy and had every right to expect he’d stay on his side of the line. And just because her body was lovely--good god it was lovely--didn't mean it was there for him to gaze upon. He shuffled quickly down the hallway and closed the bathroom door, uncomfortably aware that his erection had returned.
“Ross,” Demelza said. “I have a suggestion and I'm afraid you are not going to like it.” They were sitting at opposite ends of the hallway eating a lunch she'd prepared. It was ramen from a packet but she’d added mushrooms and cabbage and other odd bits of veg she’d found withering in his fridge. She’d also perfectly cooked an egg for each of them and the soft insides oozed out into the tangly broth lending a special richness. Ross was sure there were trendy noodle shops just up the road that would charge a pretty penny for such a bowl--and they had nothing on her.
“What is it?” he asked, trying to read her expression from a distance. It had been her idea to drag the kitchen chairs into the hallway. That way when they ate they need not be completely isolated. It made for an odd set up--almost humourous--but then again just what counted as normal manners these days?
“Well, perhaps I'd better be the sole captain of the kitchen. I mean let me do all the cookin’ and washin’ up and that way it's one less thing you need to worry about.”
“I have been known to cook before,” he said and hoped it didn't sound defensive.
“I’m sure that’s true. I can tell by your cookware and expensive knives. And you have dried lemongrass in your cupboard so you know your way around a stove!” she reassured him. “Oh, but then if I did take over the kitchen, you’d have even less space, wouldn't you? And in your own flat?”
“That doesn't concern me. It's that I'd be taking advantage of you, asking you to cook for us both,” he said. “This ramen, by the way, is amazing. You are certainly a master at soups.”
“Thank you, Ross,” she replied. And now, even from twenty feet away, he saw she was beaming with pride at the compliment.
“Let me think about it,” he said.
She bit her lip to contain a laugh as though she knew he'd already made up his mind but was just too stubborn to admit it.
Yet if he stayed away from the kitchen it would be one more way he could potentially keep her safe and less exposed. Really what choice did he have?
“Ross?” she asked, while inelegantly slurping a long noodle. “What is it that you do? I mean for your job? They all sure seem to need a lot of you.” She nodded towards the bedroom where he’d already had three conference calls that day.
“I’m senior management--actually the president---of a small firm, Grace Energy,” he said then stopped, considering how to succinctly describe his job.
“Sounds important and oddly elegant,” she said.
“Grace was my mother’s name,” he laughed.
“What kind of...energy?”
“Well my family was into mining years ago--minerals--then my uncle made the move into your standard dirty fossils fuels. But my father, the family rebel, founded a small company, that explored clean alternatives. Mostly solar--and this was back in the day when solar was new.”
“Oh, so he was a pioneer!” She tipped her bowl up to her mouth and slurped the last bits of broth. Ross appreciated that she had a hearty appetite but worried that perhaps in the days to come, he would not be able to keep her satisfied.
“It was also clunky--the panels were huge and expensive--and inefficient. It was not exactly profitable. When he died…”
“Ross, I’m sorry,” she said softly.
“Thank you but it’s been almost six years since he died. When I inherited his business, and his debts, I made some changes. Now we don't manufacture or install anything. I’m more like a consultant. Say you were a business with property and wanted your own solar array. Well, I’d connect you to the right contractors and help draft the power purchase agreements so you could have the array but not be liable for its upkeep. You’d have all your electrical needs met cleanly and save money but wouldn't actually own the panels or the energy they produced outright. Another company would and they’d profit from your output as well.”
“So you're like a fixer? Connectin' people?”
“Yes, and my team of solicitors negotiate the legal end of the contracts….I’m sorry, this is all terribly boring. You must regret you asked.”
“Must I?” She raised a brow. “So then is this work that goes on even if we’re all on lock-down?”
“I suppose we shall see. I've spent most of my time over the past few days just assuaging people’s fears--as if I have any answers and don't have fears myself.”
“I'm sure you helped.”
“Demelza, what do you...I mean, is cleaning your full time job?”
“Well it is now!” she laughed and placed her empty bowl on the floor beside her. “No, I do it part time. Mostly I’m a student--well, I was a student until three days ago.”
A student. So his initial impression had been correct. But he still had no clue how old she was. He supposed he could ask.
“I thought everyone was scrambling to get courses online,” he said.
“I was set to start my teachin' practice in a few weeks but that will need to get postponed for months. Those who were scheduled ahead of me will need to finish theirs first and I’ll most likely not get another spot until autumn.”
“Teaching? What kind?”
“Oh, the little ones. Kindergarten age.”
“I would think that would require amazing patience. They'd be proper terrors--messy and loud.”
“I've already shown you I have great skill for clearin’ others’ messes,” she laughed. “No, they’re only loud because they have so much to say and are eager to share their ideas with you. And because they have so many ideas, all the time, everythin' is urgent to them. You just have to get in sync with their timin’ and need to know how to listen and show you care. “
“Then I take back what I just said. You'd no doubt be brilliant at it.” He meant it. He’d never heard the mind of a small child explained so sensitively but it made perfect sense. “Is it difficult then--working and going to school?” he asked.
“I made it work and only cleaned a few days a week. Maybe I'd feel more knackered after I did my practice and have to rethink it all. I was really fortunate, though, and got a placement not too far from my flat. I was goin’ to be able to walk to work,” she said, almost dreamily, then snapped back. “Oh well.”
“And cleaning, well is it…?” He didn't finish his question once he realised he was asking her if her job was dreadful.
“The service is really wonderful about my schedulin’ so it hasn’t been that bad. And I know it's not glamorous but the hours are better than restaurants or bars. I have some mates who've got jobs as ‘dancers’ and ‘escorts’. Not only is that dodgy business but also shit hours.”
“And not exactly safe,” he added quickly. Safety was very much on his mind today.
“Yes, tell me about it. The way I see it, if I have to go into a stranger’s home and scrub his toilet, at least most of the time he’s not even home. Better than showin’ up at a hotel to give some bloke a wank--equally as disgustin’ as a toilet sometimes--and then worry that he might kill me.”
“Sometimes?” he asked clumsily, then regretted how it came out. It wasn't his business if she was straight or gay.
“Oh, I like men, in case that’s what you’re askin’, just not those who pay for sex!” She hadn't been bothered by his question.
“And now you are here…”
“Are you askin’ for a wank?” she laughed but it caught him so off guard he almost choked on his soup.
“No! I meant you seem to trust that...trust that I won’t…” He was flustered now.
“Yes, yes I’m trustin’ you aren't going to kill me, Ross,” she chuckled.
“But why? How do you know you can trust me?”
“Well you’d be a shit killer, Ross! The way you’ve been fussin’ over my comfort and frettin’ about not exposin’ me to illness? You wouldn’t do that before you strangle me or whatever. But no! Maybe you're just waitin’ and have some sort of long term plan to torture me first…” she laughed. “No, sorry Poldark, I think you seem kind and honest.”
“Maybe you’re just wishing I am.”
“I suppose I've always been a hopeful person. But it's hard now, isn't it? You want to be hopeful but you can’t hide from some truths.”
“No, you can’t.”
“And how do you know when your hope is just self-delusion? Still...for whatever reason, maybe just habit, I’m feelin’ pretty hopeful.”
“Things are uncertain but they could be worse. You could have turned me out on the street. Or shared a flat with a family of seven. Or been some pompous fascist prick!”
“No, I suppose I'm not a killer nor a fascist.” It did make things easier that she seemed to trust him. “Demelza, without your mobile, do you need to ring anyone? Tell them you’re safe? You can use mine if you need to…”
“No, that’s okay. I emailed my flatmate and my landlord. And then went back on Facebook and sent a message to my brothers. I haven't used Facebook in years--almost forgot my password, mine wasn't so memorable.” She stared him down, pursing her lips again trying to contain the laugh that was building inside her. She was never going to let him live this down.
“Okay, Demelza, can you honestly tell me you never had a nickname?” he said, teasing her back.
“Oh loads. Usually some play on ‘ginger’ but sadly, there are some rather unpleasant words that rhyme with ‘ginge’. I learned that the hard way!”
“I’ve been told by my younger colleagues that Facebook is for old people,” he said.
“Do you have a…” she asked, then blushed as if she realised she’d implied he was old.
“Yes, I do. To keep in contact with my relatives mostly. Liking a photo every so often is far easier than ringing them. Or seeing them.”
In recent days his cousin’s wife--who also happened to be Ross’s former fiance--had been posting photo after photo to show how smoothly and cleverly she'd been homeschooling her son, Geoffrey Charles. Curled up together reading by the fire, baking biscuits then using them for a maths lesson, painting replicas of Van Gogh’s Starry Night using home-made finger paints. But Ross sensed it was all a facade and that the more images she shared of her picture perfect life, in reality things were unraveling fast. Geoffrey Charles had a devilish streak and Ross doubted Elizabeth’s husband, Francis, was any help at all. Was he even at home? He’d found lots of reasons not to be recently.
Francis and Elizabeth Poldark seemed to have a bit of a chill between them over the past few months but Ross was not privy to any of the details. He could ask Verity, Francis’s sister, if he really cared. But he didn't. At least it meant Elizabeth no longer shared endless pictures of her and Francis cuddling, nauseatingly tagged #datenight and #gettingFrizziewithit.
Still he wondered if he should try to reach out to the other Poldarks to see how they were faring. He resolved to at least ring Verity that evening.
“I'm rubbish at all my social media,” Demelza sighed. “I'd rather be out doin’! I don't update enough, I have no patience for twitter, and even Instagram just seems so staged. But I suppose it's good we have them, now of all times,” she reconsidered.
“Well, you‘ll need to keep yourself entertained I'm afraid,” he replied.
“Yes! I've been watchin' lots of videos--and not all mindless. Wait! Let me show you this one.” She leapt up and went back to the living room and emerged with the ipad. “Okay, let’s see if I can get close enough for you to see it.” She plopped herself at the border of the hallway and held the screen up. Ross could only partially make out what she was showing him but played along.
“It's a bonded pair of penguins that they let wander ‘round in an empty aquarium. Isn’t it charmin’?”
“Yes...” he smiled.
“I can send you the link if you want to watch it more closely,” she shrugged.
“Just what does it mean to be bonded?” he asked.
“It's a term for animals but can mean a few things. Could be a matin' pair in a species that usually isn't known for monogamy but who stick together over the seasons anyway. But it needn’t be the same sex or even the same species. It could just mean they are good friends. Sometimes dogs and cats bond. My neighbour had a pair of bonded golden retrievers--unrelated males--who just were good friends. Then one died and the other moaned for days until he finally died too. That was sad.”
“The downside of such bonding I suppose.”
“Well, it's all chemical in the end. Dopamine and oxytocin and neurotransmitter receptors in the reward center of the brain workin’ to condition partnership.”
“Ouch that’s clinical.”
“Don’t you ever wonder why some folks are fine on their own and others need life long connections?”
He did. Often in fact and was afraid he'd told himself he was one sort of person when really he was the other.
“Well, Demelza,” he said, changing the subject. “Since you have the television in the living room and can also watch any films you'd like.”
“But what about you?”
“I can stream things on my laptop. And I have all the books in my room, so let me know if you'd like to borrow any.”
“That would be great, Ross. Pick one for me, would you? I also seem to have the speakers. Let me know if you want me to play any music for you.”
“It’s a deal, Demelza.”
He put down his bowl and went into his bedroom scanning the shelves. What might she enjoy? He still didn't really know her tastes or interests that well. He’d need to ask her more questions about herself. Despite everything, he found he liked talking to her. She was light and funny but also really smart. He hadn’t realised how her positive outlook was keeping him going.
Maybe something meaningful like Dostoevsky? Or thrilling like Raymond Chandler? Suddenly he was overthinking the whole thing. He grabbed three books and returned to the hallway just as an electric guitar rang out from the living room.
“Darling, you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I'll be here 'til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?”
He almost told her to turn it down in consideration for the neighbours, then realised he’d heard nothing of them the past few days. Normally he heard murmurs through the wall, water running in pipes, footsteps in the hallway, the ping of the elevator. He wondered if they were hunkered in their own flats or had fled elsewhere. How would he know? He’d never spoken to any of them.
“You’ve got eclectic taste,” she called, then when she saw she could barely hear herself let alone his reply, she popped back into the living room to adjust the volume.
“Good choice and thematically fitting.” He nodded his head along trying to signal his enjoyment.
“Oh but just wait! I’ve got all of London Calling cued up next--Lost in The Supermarket? Clampdown? Train in Vain?”
He laughed a deep chuckle that rang out over the music.
“Here,” he said, and slid the books one by one down to her end of the hall. She caught the first two with her foot--she was getting good at that--while another slid right past her through the door frame.
“Goal!” he cried.
“Not until confirmed by the VAR,” she said with any eye roll. Then she picked up one of the books in front of her and laughed loudly. “Speakin’ of thematic! Love in the Time of Cholera! Oh brilliant, Ross! Brilliant!”
“Ross, is it okay if I shut the music off?" Demelza called to him. “I know it’s not that late but I’m gettin’ sleepy.”
“Of course. I’ll shut my door so the light won’t bother you.”
They’d spent the bulk of the afternoon reading and listening to the absurdly appropriate playlist Demelza had put together for them. Around six they ate a pleasant dinner of fried rice then went back to their opposite ends of the flat. Occasionally one might shout some thought out to the other but both were also content to be quiet, engaged in their own pursuits.
It seemed a comfortable enough routine they might settle into--but for how long? This had really only been day two.
“Ross?” Demelza called again. “Look out your window. To the left.”
“You mean west?”
“Yes...do you see it?”
A crescent moon, waning but still visible and surprisingly brilliant, was hung perfectly in the small patch of dark sky visible between the high rise buildings.
“I do. It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
“Good night, Ross.”
“Good night, Demelza.”
Ross closed his door and settled back in his bed. After a few seconds of staring blankly at the page before him, he gave up and set his book aside. On a whim he opened his laptop to check his Facebook, then laughed.
He had a new Friend Request--from someone who called herself ‘Gingerbeast’.
You can watch the penguins here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfcvxhqJ2uE
I know I’ve used “Should I Stay or Should I go” in a previous fic but had to go with it again here. And do check out London Calling if you need a good soundtrack for our times. You can listen to it here:
(London Calling (Remastered) · The Clash, ℗ 2013 Sony Music Entertainment UK Limited)
Ross breathed deeply then pulled her warm body close to his chest. She’d been lying with her back to him and now he spooned her, snaking one arm under her waist and draping the other across her smooth shoulder. No, that still wasn't close enough. He folded his arm across her breast and buried his face into her neck. With each breath, he could almost taste her skin and the fine curls at the base of her head rose and fell as he exhaled. She murmured a soft sound--a purr that grew louder, almost like a small motor--and without turning to him, whispered his name.
“Ross,” she said. ”Ross…”
She bucked ever so slightly and he could feel the firm flesh of her backside pressing against his iron length. But it was her face, her ears, her cheeks that interested him now. He put his nose to her soft red hair and inhaled.
She smelled of bleach.
Ross shot up in the bed, alarmed at how vivid--how sensory--the dream had been and looked around the lonely room. For once, he had pulled the blinds the night before so he had no idea of the time. It was dark but also starting to feel very small and close. He’d need to open the windows today and pray the place could be adequately aired out.
He laid back down and pulled his pillow close to his chest. A very poor consolation.
God damn it! he thought to himself. Why did he have to complicate things? Where had these images come from and how could he purge them from his waking mind? If ever there was a time to draw on his well-honed self discipline, it was now. He was not looking forward to another long day. Alone.
Alone with her.
“Ross?” This time it really was Demelza’s voice and it wasn't bleach he smelled but coffee. He rose and went to the door, rubbing his stubbly chin.
“Your coffee is waiting at the ‘Maginot Line’,” she called. “Hope the grinder didn't wake you. We both slept late.” There was something different about her voice today. Her words were cheering enough but the tone lacked its usual brightness. She was weary--and why shouldn't she be?
Ross tried to cut through his own gloom to at least flash her a smile of gratitude. She leaned against the wall, dressed in a pair of his plaid pajama bottoms and a long sleeved t-shirt, he’d also lent her. He could make out the dark shadow of her nipple through the white shirt which did nothing to lift his mood.
“How did you sleep?” he thought to ask, looking away quickly.
“In truth? Not so well.”
“Oh?” Maybe she’d had disturbing dreams too.
“It’s not the sofa, don’t worry about that,” she quickly. “I just kept wakin' up thinkin’ stupid thoughts.”
“Anxious ones, I suppose.”
“Of course. That’s to be expected, Demelza. Are you worried about your family?” he asked.
“Well, my brothers are idiots. They don't get the seriousness of this at all. They keep sayin’ things like ‘Well I'm not at risk so I won’t get sick’, not seeing how they could be transmitters. They’d been takin’ advantage of low fares and foolishly goin’ on holiday these last few weeks. At least now they are grounded and have no choice ‘bout the matter.”
“And your parents?”
“My mother died when I was six--and my father? Hell, I think the kindest way I could describe our relationship is estranged.”
“Oh I'm sorry. On both scores.”
“I'm sorry my mother is dead too but cuttin’ my father out of my life was the best and most important decision I ever made,” she said. Her eyes were sparking but with an intensity that Ross found almost frightening. He resolved to never make her angry. If he could.
“But my brothers tell me old Tom Carne is just fine, fit as fiddle, even though he has all manner of health problems from smokin’ and years and years of drinkin’.”
Carne. So that was her surname. He’d never asked.
“It’s too bad, really. If one good thing could come of all this, it would be if he would just…” she continued.
“Don't say it,” Ross said abruptly. “Don’t--no matter what you are thinking, you won't be able to take it back if you say it aloud.” Over the years he’d learned a few things about controlling his impulses. Now he flashed her a kind smile and looked at her with wide dark eyes. It seemed enough to catch her and pull her back. She’d been careening towards the edge of some black place--it was a dangerous business.
“Any conference calls today?” she asked and looked him up and down. She’d already seen his hairy bare feet--no use trying to hide those from her now. He imagined his hair was standing on end as it often did first thing in the morning. He’d better get used to it growing longer--he wouldn't be seeing his barber anytime soon. He also suspected he’d have a rather decent beard in just a few days time if he stopped shaving now.
“No, Demelza, it’s the weekend.”
“So it is Ross,” she said and shook her head. “I'd better get a grip. It’s far too early in this to fall apart, isn’t it?. Don't they suggest prisoners in solitary keep track of the days to stay sane?”
“I suppose. You’re welcome to start carving notches on the wall if it helps,” he said and she smiled.
“Perhaps I should befriend a spider for companionship?” She forced a laugh.
Ross thought again about the casual gestures he’d throw around his whole life. Handshakes, high fives, arms around someone’s shoulders at a football match. Touching people lightly on the arm to punctuate a common understanding was a favourite of his, and he did it to everyone really. A fellow at a bar, the hapless boy, Jim, who worked in his office sometime, the woman who sold him his beer at the shops, even Prudie on the occasions they met. He’d always been rather physical and the last few days had been a lesson in restraint.
This would be one of those times he’d have liked to use touch to communicate. A gentle rub on Demelza’s arm would accomplish more than any words he’d just spoken. That is, of course, if she welcomed it. Ross liked to think of himself as enlightened and was conscious of who he touched and where on their bodies. But maybe he had been overdoing it and others saw him as grabby? Perhaps he’d better change his ways permanently.
There was no point continuing these musings. He had at least eleven more days, more if he were truly prudent, before he could get that close enough to touch Demelza Carne anyway.
Ross stared into the mirror and wasn't sure he liked what he saw. His eyes were dark, his face grey and lined. He’d need to make a decision one way or the other on the beard. If he shaved now he’d be making a commitment to keep that up all week. Whereas if he allowed just a weekend’s worth of growth, he may have something he could groom into presentable shape by Monday. Or he could just say “Fuck it” and do all his remote meetings with audio only.
He sighed. The beard was the least of his worries. Based on everything he’d been reading, sharing a bathroom with Demelza was a bigger concern than he’d first thought. He tried to limit his visits, then furiously wiped down all the surfaces afterwards like it was a crime scene and he was removing fingerprints, blood, DNA. He wished he could do more.
Demelza was waiting for him when he emerged in the hallway, her lips twisted in thought.
“You alright?” he asked tentatively.
“I wish...” she started.
“I wish it weren’t so sunny!” she said. He tried not to laugh. There were so very many things they could be wishing for. Hers seemed an odd request.
“It just doesn’t feel right. You know how it is in films--when bad things are happenin’, it's always black and white to convey the bleakness. Or at least sepia.”
“You are right. The sky doesn’t match the times.”
He recalled seeing a picture of planes crashing into the World Trade Center on a clear, sunny day decades ago. It had also been brilliantly bright the day they buried Ross’s mother. Both skies were jarring, almost taunting to the miserable inhabitants of the earth who felt anything but sunny on those occasions. “Perhaps we need some good fog and familiar rain to comfort us.”
“I’d welcome some rain. As long as we’re stuck inside anyway,” she said. “You asked me earlier if I was worried about my family,” she added.
“Yes?” He stepped closer sensing she wanted to initiate conversation that shouldn’t be shouted across the flat.
“Here’s the thing. I've been frettin’ about others but people I barely know. The girl at the salon who waxes me or the woman at the till at the uni cafeteria. Why them? Why am I worried about strangers?”
“Worry isn't rational, Demelza. And our brains are masters at protecting themselves and they do strange things under duress. Perhaps these people you speak of are all surrogates of sorts. It's easier to think of them than those you are closest to because your relationships are less complicated. But it's still a sign of a compassionate heart--and of your humanity.”
“Oh Ross,” she laughed. “I hope you’re right. And here I was thinkin’ I was just shallow and incapable of real love.”
He swallowed hard. He had so many thoughts he could share with her. How he feared the same about himself. How in the short time he’d known her, she seemed to exude a genuine love for all life around her. And now that he better understood the hurt of her early years, the saw how this was an even more remarkable trait. She was far from shallow. Then he recalled his dream and knew he was out of his depths thinking about her at all.
“Go put on some music,” he said. His tone was abrupt but she’d clearly learned to read him over the last few days and didn't seem bothered by his command.
“Yes, sir!” she replied with mock obedience then sighed.
Ross heard Demelza’s singing from the kitchen where she was finishing the washing up. Another fitting choice. Her voice was lovely, soothing even, but nevertheless he felt a heaviness settle in his chest.
“Uneventful days, uneventful nights
Living in that dark, waiting for the light
Caught up in these neverending battle lines
Everything has changed and nothing it feels right… ”
It had been a long and empty day for them both. Ross felt unable to concentrate on any reading and based on what he’d heard coming from the living room all afternoon, he sensed Demelza’d had a hard time settling as well. The television would come on, then she'd flip through programmes at lighting speed, before she gave up and turned it off again.
And earlier, when she played any music for them, she seemed dissatisfied with all her selections. Some, like “Seasons” by Soundgarden, were just too melancholy. Then she tried others that apparently were meant to uplift, but she grew impatient when they didn't really do the job. She'd listened to “Fear” by Blue October at least two times in a thirty minute stretch then switched it off abruptly the third time, as though she'd given up on the battle. But even listening to music hadn't lasted long. At one point in the afternoon her side of the flat was decidedly quiet and Ross suspected she might have taken a nap.
An understandable and common response to depressing events.
Despite her flagging spirit that day, she still had put care into preparing them some decent meals and was apologetic that she hadn't been more inspired. Ross found the bacon sandwich for lunch and the pasta for dinner perfectly satisfying and tried his best to show his appreciation. It was far better than what he would have bothered to cook for himself were he alone.
Perhaps these past few days he’d put too much pressure on her to be a positive presence. Demelza had the right to process her feelings--anxiety and sadness, even terror. If she needed to fall apart then she should do so. Ross only hoped he might be able to help her put herself back together later.
Ross knew better than to try to use drink to hide from his troubles. He’d taken the bottle into his room the first night they’d divided up the flat but had been rather proud of his restraint. The past few days he’d had only one small glass at bedtime. It never bothered him before but tonight he felt it a sorry business to be drinking alone.
“Demelza, would you like some?” Ross stood in his doorway and held the battle of Nikka Pure Malt Black aloft so she could see what he was referring to.
“Oh no thanks. I’m not the biggest fan of whisky--which works out well for me since the good stuff isn't cheap!”
“Fair. But there's a few bottles of wine in the kitchen and I think beer in the back of the fridge. Help yourself--that is, if you want any.” He recalled what she had said about her father drinking. Perhaps if she grew up in an alcoholic household she might refrain altogether. It would be understandable.
“Thanks. You know, Ross? I think a glass of wine would actually be lovely right now,” she said. She emerged with her glass and this time sat cross legged on the floor at the very edge of her territory, as close to his as she could be.
He tried to follow suit but his stiff body rebelled and even getting down to the floor was a feat.
“Oh poor Ross, you need a good stretch. I can lead you through some yoga moves if you like,” she offered.
“Let me guess? You're a yoga instructor as your third job,” he laughed.
“Don't tease. No, I never take any classes, just watch videos.”
“Are you good at that?”
“At teaching yourself things? Some people are, some aren't.”
“Comes from necessity maybe?” She shifted on the hard floor and wrapped her arms around her legs in an embrace.
Tonight she was wearing a pair of Ross’s boxer shorts and a Seattle Seahawks t-shirt that he had picked up in his travels. He’d meant it for his business partner, Zacky, but figured Demelza could make better use of it now. Besides it might be months before he saw Zacky or any of the Grace staff again. The baggy shorts ballooned out over her slim thighs and exposed her long legs. He recalled she’d said she got them waxed.
“Demelza where in Cornwall are you from?” he asked suddenly, trying to shift his focus from her legs.
“My my Ross!” she laughed. “How did you know I was from Cornwall?”
“First of all, Demelza,” he smiled, “I know loads about you now that I've been following you on social media.”
“Loads? Oh dear. They do say to be careful what you post lest employers get wind of it!”
“You've nothing to fear. You’ve been most discreet. Your mates though…” He shook his head, then peered at her out of the corner of his eye to gauge her response.
She squirmed a bit, perhaps thinking of things her friends had documented that Ross might have seen. Or hadn’t seen yet.
“Oh god, they are the worst, aren't they? Must you really take a photo of every drink, every night you are out?” she said.
“But I could tell you’re from Cornwall by your accent--it gets more noticeable when you're excited, you know,” he added.
“Really?” She shook her head in disbelief and took a drink from her glass. “Illogan, I’m from Illogan,” she said, trying her best to disguise her voice. It didn't work and she burst into a torrent of giggles.
“That’s near Redruth, right?” he asked.
“Yes, very good, Ross.”
“I’m from just a bit farther north. Near Perranporth.”
“Ross! I had no idea!” She put her glass down and stared at him, her mouth gaping open in amazement.
“You never asked.”
“Oh believe me, it's not that I'm not interested,” she said quickly. “I just didn't want to pry. I've been stompin’ all over your privacy these last three days, you’ve a right to keep your past your past.”
“Very thoughtful of you. You realise, we were practically neighbours.”
“Somehow I think you lived in quite a different world.” She laughed at the idea.
“Oh don't be so sure. If you saw the state of my old family home you’d rethink your impressions of me,” he insisted.
“Ross--three words. Old. Family. Home.” She raised a brow that said “Need I say more?’
He wondered if he should ask her about the home she grew up in but maybe she’d just signalled she wasn’t up for sharing. That her past was her own as well.
“You know when this is all over I want to go back for a few days,” he said, leaning his head against the wall. “My family lets the house out to tourists on holiday. It’s called Nampara--it’s old but not crumbling like the ancient stone cottages and mine buildings along the coast. You should join me. The house sleeps eight so I could promise you slightly better or at least more spacious accommodations.” He winked and this time he was aware he was doing it.
“Do you remember the way you could feel the sea and smell it in the air even when you're a mile away?” she asked. She hadn't seemed troubled by his invitation nor, apparently, had she taken it seriously.
“Or taste it on your skin,” he replied.
“And the spring storms. They could be so fierce…”
“But you had to admire them for their strength and determination. Like there was beauty in that violence.” Ross closed his eyes and for a moment could imagine the waves pounding the rocks. “It's funny, I always knew to respect the sea,” he said, “If you know how to read its signals, it’s clear about the dangers it presents and never plays games. So different from an abstract threat you can’t see…”
“Ross, we’re just lucky we haven't seen it. Here in this flat, I mean. For some folks, this isn’t abstract at all,” she said softly.
“Yes, you're right, Demelza.”
He poured himself a second drink then nodded to her empty glass bidding her to do the same. She stood up and when she returned she'd brought the whole bottle with her. He smiled.
“I had a friend, when I was little,” she began, then stopped and bit her lip as though she was considering whether to go on. “She drowned in one of those spring storms. Fell off her father’s boat and they didn't find her til days later.”
“That must have been terrible for you,” he answered, trying to read her mood from the distance. Her eyes were cast downward, fixed on her glass.
“No one really explained it to me,” she said. “At school they didn't say much and my father had no sense of how a child understands death. It was like the adults just thought if they said nothin’, we'd all forget that we lost a classmate. I just sorta held on to all the details in my own mind until I got old enough to piece it all together.”
Maybe this was why she was drawn to teaching. To right some past ills.
“Her name was Julia and she was so strong and cheerful. I hadn't known her long--just over a year--but some people you never forget, do you?” She looked up at him now and he could see the brightness had returned to her blue eyes.
“No, we don’t.”
He inadvertently winced as he shifted on the hard floor. She saw it and shook her head with a laugh.
“Okay, Poldark. Put your glass down, it's time to stretch that body of yours!”
At least she didn't say old body.
“I've heard of hot yoga but never drunk yoga,” he teased.
“You need a mat...go get yourself a towel. It’ll have to do.”
She waited until he got settled again, then began her instruction.
“Maybe we could start with some pelvic tilts--good for your back and overall stiffness. Okay, Ross, on your backside like this,” she explained. “Rock your hips towards your face, but don’t lift your bum off the floor. As you do it, you should feel your lower back pressing into the floor.”
“Got it,” he said.
“Start slowly. Do like ten, then tell me if you feel anythin’ in your back.”
“Okay...one...two...three,” he began.
“Remember it’s subtle. Your lower back should be just slightly curved...” She stopped demonstrating and got to her feet to better observe.
“What? Am I doing it wrong?” he asked, looking up at her as she stood midway down the hall, assessing his form.
“No, just you’re liftin’ your bum up. Oh, it would be easier if I could just walk over and press down on your pelvis myself to show you!” she said.
“Still, this feels better already,” he said, quickly.
“Great. Now let’s maybe try cat cow stretches? This one you should feel along your whole body. Here, watch me first,” she said and got back down to demonstrate. Whether she was doing it correctly or not, Ross couldn't tell, but he was impressed by her long lines and confident form. And her head thrown back while she rounded her spine just looked sexy to him.
“Got it,” he said again, and felt himself putty in her hands at this point.
“It’s gonna feel similar, because your pelvis is moving the same way as before.”
Good god. why did she have to keep referring to his pelvis of all regions?
“Oh yeah, there’s supposed to be breathin’ with both of these,'' she laughed. “I admit, I’m rubbish at that. Let’s see...erm...inhale when you arch your back and then exhale when you sorta round the spine.”
“Okay,” he said and kept it up, trying the move a few times. He did feel a much needed stretch move through him. “How’s this?”
“Well now instead of pressin’ down on you, I’d like to maybe push your tailbone up!” she laughed.
At that moment, Ross was rather relieved she couldn't. Somehow he felt certain that were she to hover over him then put her hands on his pelvis or under his tailbone, he’d unlikely be able to control an enthusiastic response from another key region of his lower body.
“This feels great but is no doubt basic stuff. Come on, Master Demelza, show me your favourite moves, then,” he urged. He was genuinely curious but also really wanted to get her eyes off his pelvis for a moment.
“You never can say no to a bar room challenge, can you, Carne?” she muttered playfully to herself then disappeared into the living room. She emerged with a cushion that she carefully placed against the wall.
“Ha...ha...oh...” she said cautiously and put her head to the cushion, hands down on either side of her, pressing against the floor. One knee balanced on her bent elbow then the other, and after only the slightest wobble, her long legs extended upward into a headstand.
As soon as she was upside down, one of her roomy pant legs slipped and a bit of her backside, just the one cheek, was left half exposed.
This time Ross didn’t look away but admired its smoothness--and her strength. Her concentration, her control was impressive.
Then, just like that, she tumbled over in a fit of laughter and was sitting upright again.
“Or somethin’ like that,” she smiled.
“Bravo. That was brilliant,” he said.
“Ok, Ross, that's enough for me for one night,” she announced and gathered the bottle and glass to put away.
“Oh come on, there’s at least two or even three glasses left in that bottle,” he coaxed.
"Yes but then we’d see all sorts of awkward postures, wouldn't we? ‘Downward Demelza’ as I'm sprawled across the floor? Or what’s the name for the pose where you're leanin’ over the toilet? I know my limit, Poldark,” she laughed. “Good night. And thank you, Ross.” This time she flashed him a soft smile. Some peace had returned to her face.
She glided into the bathroom and after just a few minutes was ready to switch off the living room light. But as soon as she did, she called out to him.
“Demelza, what is it? Is everything alright?” He moved anxiously to the border of the hallway, careful not to enter her zone.
“Yes, yes it is! Everythin’ is fine. Do you hear it?”
Ross listened attentively. The wind made an erratic rhythm as it cast thick droplets against the windows of the quiet flat. It was raining.
He smiled knowing how it would make her happy.
“So it is. Good night, Demelza.”
He walked through the dark hallway and shut the bedroom door behind him.
Thanks to https://www.verywellfit.com/do-these-10-yoga-poses-every-day-to-feel-great-3567179 for the yoga advice.
Chapter title comes from the song “Dark Places” by Beck. © 2019 Fonograf Records, under exclusive license to Capitol Records, LLC. Listen to it and ”Uneventful Days” (also from the album Hyperspace) here: http://beck.to/Hyperspace
Lastly thanks to sawle_sister for the Blue October suggestion!
Stay well my friends!
Ross wasn't sure just what had woken him. Without sitting up he reached for his mobile to check the time-- 3:08 AM. A perfectly shite time for a bout of insomnia.
He hadn’t been sleeping well the past two nights, waking for long stretches that then caused him to be exhausted later in the day. He’d always been one to rise early--usually at dawn--but each morning of this isolation, he’d found himself lying in well past nine. He hadn’t done that since his student days.
He thought he might as well take a piss and had made it all the way to the bathroom door without turning on the light, when he heard a strange sound--half hiss, half groan. Like there was a wild animal trapped at the other end of the flat. He listened again. It wasn’t a hiss but a gasp and this time it was followed by a high pitched whine.
“Demelza?” he called but got no response. He was sure it was her and that she was in some form of distress. He moved cautiously into the territory just outside the living room door, without actually stepping over the threshold.
“Demelza? Are you okay?” he asked again then immediately felt foolish. If she was and had been sleeping, he’d certainly have woken her now. He squinted in the dark, waiting for his eyes to adjust, then he saw her huddled on the sofa, her eyes squeezed shut. She was clutching the sheet in front of her naked body, her hands balled in tight fists. Her lips were parted as she struggled to catch her breath.
“R-r-ross…” she finally managed to say. “I’m okay.”
“You don't seem to be.”
“Just...a d-dream. Do me a favour? Turn around for a second?” Her breathy voice wobbled.
“Of course,” he said.
“Okay,” she said, and when he turned back he saw she’d reached for her t-shirt nearby. Now she was covered, but still shaking.
“Can you talk to me?” he asked. “What’s going on?”
“Just a dream…” she repeated, shaking her head. “But it turned into a nightmare.“
“They say it's helpful to put nightmares into words. Can you tell me what happened, Demelza?”
“There were these crowds outside and they wanted to get in. So they started scalin’ the buildin’--like Spiderman--and it was only a matter of time before they made it up here. And there was nowhere to hide. But when I woke up I couldn't catch my breath and my heart started racin’...still is…”
“Okay, let’s go slow,” he said. “Sit up more so you can better fill your lungs.”
“Yes,” she said weakly, but when she put her hand to her chest, she was apparently startled by what she felt. “I just can’t stop it. It won’t stop…” she cried.
He wondered if he should break his self-imposed distance and go sit by her side, take her hand in his. It took all the resolve he had to stay firmly planted in the hallway. He swallowed hard.
“Have you ever had such a panic attack before?” he asked.
“Not for years,” she said. It was a good sign that she was able to speak to him.
“It’s okay, Demelza. You're not alone.” I’m here. “Now put your hands on your belly. Breathe in deeply, allowing your diaphragm to expand,” he said, his voice calm and measured. “Hold it for three seconds, then exhale and go slow as you release…” he guided her.
“Oh,” she whimpered, her hands trembling.
“Come on, Demelza, you know the importance of breathing from your yoga,” he tried to be gentle. “Try again, Love.” It had slipped out so casually--Love--in the same way he’d address an older woman after he’d just offered her his seat on the bus. He was sure he meant nothing more by it.
“I told you I was rubbish at that.” The shadow of a smile moved across her face, barely visible in the dim room. But he knew she was trying and that quite possibly he was managing to reach her.
Dutifully she tried again. He could hear her breaths across the room. Slowly they steadied.
“Better?” he asked.
She said nothing and he suspected she was still panicked by whatever erratic flutterings were still occuring in her chest. This might take some time.
“Try this...look around to find five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear…”
“Okay, erm...five things I can see. You standin’ in the doorway, that picture on the wall, my trainers by the door, the little light on the stereo that I forgot to turn off last night...” She paused to laugh after that one.
“That’s four,” he encouraged.
“Your hair standin’ straight up.”
“You already used me but okay, good job. Now four things you can touch.”
She pushed some stray hairs back away from her eyes. “Well um, my own hair, this book, this sheet, this pillow, this soft t-shirt.”
“That was five. You're an overachiever. Now what can you hear?”
“The crunch of the leather sofa everytime I move my arse, the hum of the fridge coming from the kitchen…”
“You can hear that?” he interrupted.
“Yes, listen...can’t you?” She tilted her head and smiled, proud that she’d detected it. “And your voice, Ross.”
Now it was his heart that raced. The softness, the calm had returned to her. Across the darkened room he’d still somehow touched her and now she was calling out to him in return.
“Do I do smells next?” She sniffed one hand. “Garlic,” she announced, then smelled the other. “Bleach, of course.” she laughed.
“How’d you know to do that? How to talk to me like that?” she asked.
“My cousin Francis used to have bad panic attacks when we were in school. I used to help him if I was around...” he explained. “Do you want some water? That might help too.”
“No, Ross. I can get it myself. I think I’ll pee then go back to sleep. I think I should be alright.”
“Demelza, was I in your dream?” he thought to ask.
“Yes, you were. But that made it scarier because I was afraid they’d hurt you and there was nothin’ I could do to stop it,” she said. “Sounds so silly now, doesn’t it?”
“Not at all.”
“Good night, Ross. Thank you.”
“Of course.” He nodded and reluctantly turned to go back to bed.
“I was thinkin’ Ross…” Demelza began then took a bite of her omelet. She’d soaked some dried mushrooms overnight and added them to the eggs she’d expertly prepared that morning. Ross had eaten most of his rather quickly and was now trying to savour the last forkful. He was getting used to her delightful meals.
“Yes?” he smiled, encouraging her to continue.
“We need a schedule.”
“I agree,” he said.
The day before had been long and open ended. What had seemed to work on Friday hadn’t held up again the following day. Something had to change to help stave off the despair. They needed some sense of normalcy--even if it was false or newly calibrated.
“What were you thinking?” he asked.
“Well, we have meal times pretty set already. And then we both have our work,” she laughed.
“I wish you'd let me do more of the cleaning,” he lamented.
“No, it's givin’ me not just somethin’ to do but a sense of purpose. Don't deny me that.”
“Okay, so then we’ll have work time,” he agreed.
“But not all day,” she added quickly. “Specially for you. Set limits of when they can reach you and when they can’t.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he smiled. “Then maybe a little quiet reading time after that?”
“Yes also but not all day. We need some entertainment time too--telly, films, or dancin’...”
“Okay, then happy hour,” he countered.
“I like it,” she nodded decisively. “Another new rule: we only listen to music recorded before 1985.”
“Yes? And why is that?” he laughed.
“They just seemed to really understand the whole rage and despair thing better than anyone who came after. Like the world was shite around them but they just said ‘Fuck it’. And when the lyrics weren’t overtly givin’ the finger to the establishment, the beat still was. I just like how it makes me feel.” She’d given this some thought.
“So only punk, new wave?” he asked.
“Well, if you really need it, we can slip in some classic rock. Here, this one's for you, Ross,” she said just as the familiar electric organ came from the speakers in the living room. “I know you like The Doors.”
“Touch Me? Really?” His deep laugh filled the narrow hallway. He was growing to love her sense of humour.
“Ross? Have you got any moisturiser? My hands are as rough as old fisherman’s.”
“And just how familiar are you with a fisherman's hands?” Ross cocked a playful brow. “Really? Do tell, Miss Carne, it must be a sordid tale.”
“Ross!” Demelza waved away his joke but giggled to show she was amused, not annoyed.
“Yes, feel free to use whatever's in the bath. I'd have thought it was a hazard of the job--that you'd be used to rough hands by now.”
“Normally I wear the marigolds for everythin' but it's the additional hand washing that's doin’ it,” she called from the bathroom.
She came out and sniffed her hands.
“I like it. A little citrus but maybe pine? Is this what you smell like?” she asked.
“I couldn't say, perhaps.” He grew flustered.
Ross hadn't thought about how he smelled, even though he'd been in such close quarters with someone else. And he didn't know what his house guest smelled like but he had thought about it, imagined it ever since he’d had that dream. He assumed she’d now mostly smell like the products they were sharing--his--since the travel size shampoo and soap from her gym bag had been used up. And he knew she'd been using coconut oil as a facial cleanser. But of course he hadn’t been close enough to smell these on her skin. And how those scents mingled with her own body heat and her sweat, that was what he was most curious to know.
“Wait, I think I know where I might find…” he turned and went to the bedroom and began rummaging around in a bottom drawer. He found what he was looking for as well as another welcome surprise.
“Demelza!” he called to her as he stood in the doorway, both hands held behind his back.
“Yes Ross?” she laughed and squinted, then shifted to try to get a better look at what he might be holding.
“No peeking. I’ve two things for you--both somewhat old and both used…”
“Okay okay. One at a time.” He bent low and slid the first item down the hall to her.
She picked up the small tub of moisturiser using the end of her long sleeve so she wasn't actually touching it.
“Jo Malone? That’s really expensive. Isn’t it?”
“I wouldn't know. It was left here but I don't think it's been used much. It's yours if you want it.”
She unscrewed the cap and sniffed. “Oh that's quite nice. Pomegranates but sorta smoky. It won't bother you that I’ll smell like your old girlfriend? I guess I won't be close enough to you, anyway.”
“She wasn't my girlfriend. It was my mate, Caroline, if you must know.” Still he blushed.
“Whatever you say, Ross,” Demelza winked.
“Fine then, if you insist on teasing me then perhaps you don't want your second present?”
“Don't be mean, Ross. What is it?”
“Close your eyes.”
She did as she was instructed and didn't open them until she felt something hit her foot.
“Oh Ross! Is it…?”
“An Android charger.” He hoped to god it worked for her after such fanfare.
She squealed and ran with it to the living room. A few moments later there was a second squeal.
“It's workin’, Ross. Oh thank you, thank you!"
“It's been a long time since I had a Samsung...I have no idea why I kept it.”
“Must have been fate,” she said. “Great, now I can send you nudes.”
“What?” He almost choked.
“Oh I'm kiddin’, relax. I assure you I've never sent anyone nudes before.”
“No no, of course. And I, well I hope you don't think…” he stammered.
“No, I see you're not the type for porn.”
“That’s a big claim,” he laughed. “And you can tell this? How?”
“When you clean houses you get instincts about people. What they do in their spare time. And well, you're not the type. You don't deal in fantasy, do you, Ross?”
“Well, Demelza, what else can you tell about me from my flat?”
“You work too much and are not home enough,” she said without hesitation. “You know, Ross, I cleaned your flat once before. At first I thought no one really lived here at all, like it was one of those corporate lets for folks just comin’ into town for business. It was so, well sorta sterile.”
“Sterile? I suppose in this new world we live in, sterile might be considered quite the compliment,” he tried to laugh.
“Well, it was clean but also there wasn't much of anythin’ that was personal, is what I mean. Then I saw your bookshelf and knew you were human.”
“Glad to make the cut. You cleaned for me before? When? I like to think I would have noticed.”
“It doesn't matter. If I did my job properly you weren't supposed to notice, were you? Do you need your tablet back since I now have a mobile again?”
“No, keep it but give me your number so I can text you from my end of the flat.”
“Ross, I’ve been thinkin’... “ she said again.
“Well in our schedule we haven’t allowed for play and we desperately need some fun. Like a game or somethin’.”
“I suppose we could play cards or some other sort of game online.”
“I was thinkin’ something more physical. Here in the flat.”
“You have something in mind?” he asked.
Of course she’d thought this through.
“Okay, the bedroom door is your goal--or rather the one you defend--and mine is the livin’ room.” She held the broom firmly in both hands ready to go.
“We need a referee to release the puck,” Ross lamented. “Or you’ll complain I cheated.”
“I will not. Just do your best to slide it to the middle. It will be fair enough,” she said.
He carefully tossed the top of a plastic takeaway container that was serving as their puck then hooted triumphantly when it landed directly in the middle of the hallway.
“Get ready to be crushed, Demelza,” he growled.
At such a provocation she raced up the floor to the midfield and took a shot at the lid with her broom. Wielding his dust mop, he handily intercepted it and with one swift swing, sent it flying all the way into the living room.
“Well, we just started. That’s only one for the Bedroom Boors,” she grumbled.
“Yes and still zero for the Living Room Divas.”
This time she let the puck come to her and in turn was able to send it sailing between Ross’s legs and into the bedroom.
“Ha!” She jumped up and down in excitement.
“You know you’ve an unfair advantage--your broom works better than my dust mop,” he said.
“Are you sayin’ I’m cheatin’?” she laughed. “If we had a second broom we could try curlin’ instead and work together.”
“Let’s play until one of us gets five points, then have a drink.”
“Deal,” she smiled. “But prepare to die, Darklord!”
“In your dreams, Gingerbeast.”
Ross had settled against his pillows and was about to switch off his light when he had a flash of inspiration and reached for his mobile.
“Valentine’s Day,” he texted Demelza on the other side of the flat. He waited anxiously for a reply to come back. Instead his mobile buzzed.
“Very good, Ross. How did you know it was Valentine’s Day when I cleaned your flat?” she asked.
“You left two chocolates on my pillows. I remember thinking it seemed very unlike Prudie to do that.”
“Just thought I should mark the day somehow,” she explained.
“And you should know I appreciated them. I ate them both.” He really didn’t need to say more.
“No sharin’? Oh well, maybe next year,” she said. “Speakin’ of sharin’, I do wish we had some chocolates now, though,” she sighed.
“Meet me in the hallway.” He rang off and went to his closet, searching through his carry-on luggage from his recent travels.
“What the…?” Demelza laughed as he shot the box across the floor using his trusty dust mop. “Ross, where did you get these?”
“Duty free. I’d originally picked them up for my great aunt but I doubt I’ll be seeing her any time soon so they are all yours. They’re Belgian.”
“I can see. Oh Ross, are you sure? I adore dark chocolate. You don’t want any?”
“No, you keep them,” he smiled.
“So many gifts today, Ross,” she said softly. “Thank you.”
“Sweet dreams, Demelza,” he said, and switched off the light.
Listen to "Touch Me" by the Doors here: