Gladys- Part Two
She was leading me through an overgrown front garden, one of a row of post-war terraces I’d always thought abandoned. Some of the windows had boards in. The front door was the kind with a small, square window in the top. There was no glass in it. Gladys threw me a wry glance.
“Air-condishnin’.” The doubts resurfaced and I began to wonder what I was letting myself in for. I knew I was going to follow her in. There was something about her I couldn’t turn away from. Something abstract and contradictory; old and benevolent, young and naïve. She was definitely weird. All the same, I trusted her. Besides, I was curious.
Gladys gave the door a shove- it didn’t seem to have a handle- and it opened with a bark, rattling on its hinges. We stepped into a void as she slammed the door behind us.
“Hold my hand, we’re going upstairs. That’s it.” Clive and I clattered in her wake as she slipped up the steps.
“Wait here, I’ll get a light.” She dropped my hand and disappeared into the gloom. There was a sound of scrabbling, a zippo went kaphut, and a single candle flame appeared in an adjacent doorway. Followed by another, and another as she flitted around, touching fire to wick after wick ‘til the room was ablaze like a chapel. There were candles wedged in the mouths of bottles, squatting in jam-jars, in every conceivable variety of candlestick. She pointed to an armchair, drawn up to a long, low table which on closer inspection proved to be a stable door on bricks. A mattress covered in rugs and blankets flanked the other side. Obediently I sank into the chair; Clive threw himself joyously onto the mattress and rolled onto his back, grinding his head into the cushions. I was about to apologise when Gladys stopped me short.
“Don’t you worry. He’s making himself at home aincher, Clive. You do the same.” With that she dropped the coat off her shoulders and flung it into my lap. Bold as brass, she padded over to a massive chest of drawers and began rifling through it. Her body was golden in the candlelight. I caught myself looking and turned away. I thought I heard a snort of laughter.
Vaguely embarrassed, I began to look around the room. It was large, and oddly luxurious. A deep red and black Turkish carpet smothered the bare boards. The remains of a coal fire glowed darkly in a tiny fireplace on the opposite wall. There were trinkets everywhere; mostly animals, of wood and glass and porcelain. A massive feathered peacock clung to the scroll of a Victorian mirror. Where there were no animals, there were books- piled on every surface, squabbling for space on a huge bookcase. My eyes chased helplessly from one oddity to another.
“There now, I’ll get the kettle on.” Gladys had swamped herself in an enormous green jumper and some pink pyjama bottoms decorated with palm trees and flamingos. She disappeared briefly and I heard running water. When she returned and set about lighting a primus stove on the makeshift table, I scrabbled about for something to say.
“So… you live here?” Her mouth curled and I felt an utter fool.
“It’s just… I often pass by here and I always thought it was empty.”
“Money’s tight.” She threw me a kind of affectionate smirk, and went back to pumping at the stove. Seemingly satisfied, she grabbed the nearest candle and touched it to the stove, whereupon it burst into a plume of orange flames. Setting down the candle she resumed her battle with the pump, working it ‘til the flame settled into a pure blue halo. She dropped the kettle on top with a triumphant grin, and flung herself onto the mattress with Clive. He squirmed onto his back, thrashing his tail and grinning like a goon. Not for the first time I wondered what the hell kind of spell she’d worked on my guard-dog. Vaguely I sensed that I was under it too.
“Gladys- that’s an old-fashioned name.” I ventured to look at her through the steam that was beginning to rise. She caught my gaze in hers, held it captive until I cracked and looked away. Only a slight pucker in her left cheek betrayed the ever-present smile. She drew a thoughtful breath and threw me a curved ball.
“Sean, why are you here?”
“Well I… I found you.”
“Correct. And do you know why?” I had to laugh.
“Fuck knows what you were doing sleeping naked on the football pitch.” She waved an impatient hand.
“Never mind that. You’re here because I’m going to set you free.”