Wanted, Companion - part one of three
By lisa h
Consciousness came slowly to Joel. Someone had turned on a tap during the night, and filled his head with pain. A slight smirk passed by his lips. That would be the larger. And possibly the whiskey. But most likely a mix of two. He was never going to listen to Smithy again. A pounding beat crashed against his temples.
“Jesus Christ.” He rolled out of bed, and went across the hall to the shared bathroom. For a few moments, he stared in the mirror, pulling at the grey bags under his eyes, and scratched at his stubble. He reached for his toothbrush, yesterday’s muck needed scrubbing out of his mouth.
Yesterday was Guy Fawkes night. He remembered getting kicked out of the fireworks display Pangbourne Primary School was hosting. Him and Smithy had gone straight to the petrol station, and filled their pockets with cans of beer before buying the whiskey. The shop kept that under lock and key. They’d gone in the field behind the school, and watched the fireworks from there. The night started to get a bit hazy from then. At some point, he remembered chucking up in Sulham Brook. Then, at that moment of lucidity, he’d looked up. Yellow flashes of meteors were scratching the sky.
Someone knocked on the door.
“Just a minute.” Joel lifted the lid to the toilet, and pulled down the front of his pyjamas.
“Hurry up, would you. You’ve been in there bloody ages.” That was Dafydd. He was Welsh and impatient.
“Give us a minute, mate.” Joel finished up and flushed the toilet. He grabbed his toothbrush from beside the sink, and unlocked the door.
“You took your time in there, didn’t you?” Dafydd squeezed past. “I’m fit to bursting here.”
Joel shrugged, and returned to his room. Dressing was quick – pick yesterday’s clothes off the floor, shake them, put them back on. He grabbed his bag full of the Big Issue magazine, and left.
He visited the Bent Spoon Café, found at the end of Dailey Road. He’d picked up a copy of the Reading Chronicle on the way. He spread it out on his table and scanned the headlines while he waited for Sue to serve his scrambled eggs and sausages. Some kid had blown himself up with fireworks during the night. Needed to be scrapped off the walls. Joel shivered, and supped at his mug of tea. He flicked through the pages quickly, slowing as he came to the personal adds. Maybe someone would be advertising to him. Wanted, reformed thief for security checks. Or: Ex-con needed for school visits. Maybe: Expert lock-picker needed for widespread mischief. He let out a small laugh, and took another drink.
A notice in amongst the requests for gsoh’s, tall, slim, blonde, busty, good looking, wealthy, and open partners, playmates, etc, something caught his eye.
Wanted. Young male companion for older man.
That was all, with a phone number below.
“Hmm.” Joel ripped the ad out of the paper, and shoved it in the top pocket of his jacket.
“Hungry this morning, love?” asked Sue.
“Had a corker of a night, yesterday.”
“Ah,” she said, and put her hands on her hips. “Greasy hangover cure, is it?”
“How’d you guess?” He dipped a piece of toast in the baked beans, and pushed some eggs on top with his fork.
Sue laughed. “You’re the only person I know who can stomach that kind of food on a dodgy tummy.”
Joel ate up, his mind never far from the advert he’d ripped from The Chronicle. During his time in prison, he’d been a bitch to this big guy called Ralph. He could cope with that if needs be, get a little cash in his pocket. The last forkful of scrambled eggs went inside his mouth. Still chewing, he paid Sue.
“See you tomorrow, love,” she called out as the door slammed shut behind him.
We’ll see, he thought, and headed for the phone booth across the road. He took a fifty pence piece from his pocket, and took the scrap of paper from his pocket. He dialled, and waited as the phone rang, and rang. He was about to hang up, when someone answered.
“Hello?” The voice on the other end of the line didn’t sound just old, his voice had a quavering quality that made Joel think of the very elderly. “Good morning, anyone there?”
“Hi, yeah. I found your ad in The Chronicle.”
“Oh, yes?” the man replied.
“Yeah. I was wondering if you got someone yet.” Joel ran his fingers up and down the steel cable that joined the handset to the phone box.
“No. Are you interested in the position?”
“What do I have to do?” Joel asked. “And what do I get in return?”
“You would need to perform errands for me. Of course, you would be expected to live in the flat attached to my home. I take that would be acceptable?”
“Well, yeah,” Joel said. He was mentally packing and closing the door forever on his shitty bedsit. No more shivering on street corners trying to sell the Big Issue.
“Why don’t you come out to the house for… let’s say, ten o’clock.” The old man paused. “We can iron out the details over a cup of tea and a nice slice of cake.”
“Where abouts do you live, gov?”
“Follow the Oxford Road out of Reading. Opposite the Tilehurst railway station are some large houses. Mine is the last in the row.”
“See you then, gov.” Joel hung up the phone. He stood in the booth for a few seconds, collecting his thoughts. This could be his chance to move up in the world. He pulled his satchel over his shoulder, and went looking for the bus stop.
Joel almost missed the house. Set back from the road, with a row of tall holly bushes and fir trees hiding it from view, he almost walked past. It had occurred to him on the bus, that he didn’t know the name of the man, or the house name or number. Maybe this was all an elaborate hoax. But when he peered under the arch, and up the path, he knew he’d found the right place. The house was Victorian, eclectic, with gabled roof, a wide porch along one side of the house for sitting out on a warm evening. He walked up to a large door with leaded squares of coloured glass, and side windows to match. To the left, in wrought iron letters, a placard read: Holly House. He pulled a cord to the side, and a deep bong echoed within the house.
An old man shuffled up to the door, and opened it wide. This man has no clue about security, Joel thought.
“Good morning, are you the young man I spoke to on the phone?” he asked.
“My name is Robert Saunders, and this is my humble abode. Do you care to enter?” Then the old man stood to one side, to allow Joel passage.
“I’m Joel, Mister Saunders,” he said, tentatively held out one hand.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Mr Saunders led Joel through a large lounge. There was no television that Joel could see. The room was filled with armchairs and sofas, as if the old man were used to entertaining large crowds of his arthritic friends. A stone fireplace had a place of dominance on the far wall, a fire lit and crackling away. All around him, peering down from the walls, were enormous paintings of people. Some male some female, a scattering of children stood straight and prim next to severe-looking adults. A few, that Joel noticed as he entered the room, had a remarkable likeness to his host.
“Please make yourself comfortable.” The old man left Joel by the entrance to the room, and he shuffled off down the hall.
Joel worked his way through the maze of furniture and found a seat near to the fire. The fabric on the chair was hot to the touch, like sitting on an enormous hot water bottle. He sank into the stuffing, enjoying the heat as it radiated out from the fireplace.
Mr Saunders returned with a tray. He worked his way expertly past the chairs, and placed the tray on a small table before settling next to Joel.
“Help yourself to some tea and cake.”
Mr Saunders took a small plate and a slice of marble cake. On the older man’s cue, Joel did the same, biting into it before he'd even sat back. “Umm, good,” he mumbled before taking another bite.
The old man nodded. “You must be somewhat curious as to the position I am offering.” He put his slice of cake down. “I require a certain amount of discretion. Would you be able to provide this?”
“Yeah. No probs, Mister Saunders.” Joel took another bite.
“Good. I need you to bring back a lady for me.”
Joel raised his eyebrows.
“Not everyday. Once or twice a week. I am too old to ‘pick up’ a young woman. But you, with a shower and a shave, and some reasonable clothes, would have no trouble whatsoever.” The old man poured a cup of tea. “I will give you a suite of rooms for your own and an allowance of two-hundred pounds a week. Of course, all your culinary needs will be catered for. And I will give you an extra allowance for clothing.” He sipped at his tea, watching Joel over the rim. “Each time you bring me a girl, I will give you a one-hundred pound bonus.”
Joel’s mouth fell open.
“Do you find this acceptable?”
Joel closed his mouth with a snap, and nodded.
“There will be some rules. I will not stand for ‘parties’. Nor loud guests. And you will not ever enter my private rooms.”
“Sounds fair, gov.” Joel poured himself a cup of tea, the saucer clinking as he picked it up to drink. “This for real?”
“Oh yes, Very real.” Mr Saunders put his cup down, and stood. “Shall I show you to your rooms?”
The old man took Joel to the east wing of the house, where the ground floor rooms had been converted into a large flat. There was a large bedroom, with a cavernous ceiling and four-poster bed. Two dark wood wardrobes took up the other end of the room, and the window opened out onto the rear garden. Opposite the bedroom was the kitchen, sufficiently ample for a table and four chairs. At the end of the wing was an enormous living room, almost the size of the lounge they’d taken the tea and cake in. Also filled with armchairs and sofas, and a fireplace already blazing. Tucked in between the bedroom and the living room was a bathroom with a roll top bath that rested on lion’s feet.
“Will this do?” asked the old man.
“Yeah. This is great!” Joel said. He sat in a few chairs in turn, finding the one he liked best.
“Then a deal is struck.” He placed a few notes on a side table. “First weeks pay. In advance. You may leave to collect your personal belongings. And bring back a lady for my company this evening.” Mr Saunders left then, without waiting for a reply.
Joel kicked off his shoes, and pulled his feet up. Things couldn’t be better. Living in the home of a dirty old man, and he wasn’t the one needing to pull tricks. He thought about where he could go to find a girl for the old geezer. A prostitute would be easy, but he reckoned Mister Saunders would require someone a tad classier. He decided to empty out the bedsit first, and hand back his copies of the Big Issue. No more shivering in front of WHSmith’s. No more shit from the little oiks as they piled off the school bus. No more hoping his customers wouldn’t notice if he shortchanged them, because he didn’t want to get kicked out of the hostel and there was never enough money. Thinking of finances, he jumped up and fingered the notes left by Mr Saunders – two hundred pounds. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so rich. He took three twenties, and stuffed them in his jeans pocket. He’d go and get his things, and figure out where to find a girl on the way.