“A famous journalist?  Well I’ve never heard of her”.

 “Probably because she doesn’t write for The Sun”, Grace sighed, and poured milk over her breakfast cereals.

 Across the kitchen table her husband sat munching on his own cereals, and staring across at her with that mildly perplexed look on his face which he often had.  Even after all these years of marriage, he still seemed to expect Grace to be the giggly teenager he had first known.  This was in spite of the passage of 23 years and 3 children.  

 “You alright sweets?” he asked “You seem a bit tired.  I’m not sure taking on another job is the best thing at the moment”.

 “We need the money”, Grace sighed again.

 “Oh come on, we can manage”, said Jim “You’ve already got enough on your plate as it is, without cleaning the house of some lazy old bint who could probably do it for herself.  I mean, it’s not like the work you do for the old people, they need help.  This one sounds just like another snooty middle-class cow with too much time on her hands”.

 “Hah, she wouldn’t like you saying that I expect”, Grace gave a bark of laughter “Calling her middle-class!  She prides herself on being some working-class heroine”.

 “She can’t be working-class if she lives in Mulberry Road”, said Jim “Some of the houses along there go for about a million quid when they’re on the market.  Big old solid Victorian terraces, about 4 floors to ‘em”.

 “That’s probably why she needs help cleaning it”, said Grace, taking her empty bowl to the draining-board.

 “Oh well”, Jim picked up a packet of cigarettes and a disposable lighter and stowed them in his shirt pocket “You can tell me all about her later.  What’s the betting she’s on the gin before lunchtime!  All known alkies, that Fleet Street lot.  See you later, love”.

 He kissed her and ruffled her pepper-and-salt hair.

 “Yeah, laters love”, Grace smiled at him.


 Grace had heard that the parking was terrible in Mulberry Road.  When streets like that were planned in the 19th century, no one foresaw the rise of the multiple car-owning household.   So Grace picked up the small holdall which contained her cleaning materials and caught the bus.  As she expected, Mulberry Road was the kind of neighbourhood which seemed choc-full of cars, but totally devoid of people.  She walked along the pavement, checking the numbers on the front doors, looking for No.27.  The front gardens went from one extreme to the other, either cemented over and containing nothing but wheely-bins, or choked with overgrowing trees and plants.

 The front garden of No.27 was one of the spartan ones.  It had been gravelled over.  There was no ornamentation of any kind, and spoke loudly of someone who had no interest whatsoever in gardening, and wanted the minimum of fuss with it.

 “Grace!  You came!”

 An astonishing vision had opened the front door.  A fat, middle-aged woman with lank dark hair hanging untidily over her face.   A flowery bath-robe strained for decency over a voluminous bosom.  The voice was high-pitched and over-excitable.  Grace also couldn’t help noticing the appalling state of her teeth.  She looked as if she’d been smoking 60 a day for decades.   If she could afford to live in Mulberry Road, she thought, surely she could afford to get her teeth fixed.  

 “Well I said I’d be here at 10 o’clock Miss Parker”, said Grace.

 “Yeah but my last coupla cleaners let me down, babes”, Sherry Parker gabbled “Said they’d be here and I never saw a sign of them.  I spose you can’t blame them, probably think a fat old writer like me could clean for herself”.

 This was so uncomfortably close to what Jim had said, that Grace was worried she might start blushing, but fortunately Sherry was too busy ushering her inside to notice.  

 Over the years Grace had become pretty shrewd at sensing what kind of a household she was dealing with the moment she set foot through the door.  Whether the owner was scatterbrained, or whether the owner was a control freak  Was it a chaotic, but happy household, or one which seethed with undercurrents and strained nerves.   Was the owner lonely and  desperate for someone to talk to, or were they going to be relieved when she had finished and gone away again.  No.27 was none of these things.  No.27 felt unlived in.  An empty house in a state of transition, waiting for the next lot to move in.   Like Holly Golightly’s apartment in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, one of Grace’s favourite films.  

 “I expect you’d like to see around first”, said Sherry.

 “Yes, probably help if I got my bearings”, said Grace.  She took off her jacket but, seeing there was nowhere to hang it, placed it carefully on the newel-post at the foot of the stairs.

 “We’d better do the handshaking bit first”, said Sherry “I’m Sherry Parker”.

 She stuck out a small, clammy hand.  

 “Grace Grant”, she shook it, feeling awkward.

 “Grace Grant!” Sherry whooped “What a lovely name,  sounds like a 1940s film star!  Oh I love nice names.  Why were you called Grace?”

 “I was named after my grandmother, she died just before I was born”, Grace replied.

 Sherry didn’t reply to this.  She now seemed to have lost interest in the subject of names.  Instead she proceeded to conduct Grace on a whistlestop tour of the house.  It was striking for its almost complete lack of personal touches.

 The living-room contained the very bare minimum.  Admittedly what there was seemed good quality and expensive, but at the same time it took minimalism to a whole new level.  There was a large, squashy sofa, a glass coffee-table, and a huge flatscreen TV.  That was it.  Absolutely it.  Nothing else whatsoever.  No pictures, no photographs, no books or magazines, no DVDs or CDs, not even a pair of shoes or slippers kicked off and discarded.  The only other item was a laptop on the coffee-table.

 “Well it won’t take me long to clean”, Grace thought “At least there are no dust-catcher ornaments everywhere”.

 Even so, the bleakness of it was almost overwhelmingly sad.  The French doors looked onto a long, narrow back garden, but it seemed as if they were rarely opened.

 “That sofa was handmade for me”, said Sherry “Cost me nearly £7000”.

 “It looks … er … very comfy”, said Grace, uncertain what else to say to this bombshell.

 “We’ve had some times on that sofa I can tell you”, Sherry giggled, with grotesque coyness.

 “We?” the question came out instinctively, before Grace could stop it.  

 “My husband”, said Sherry, still in simpering, coy mode “We’ve been married for 9 years”.

 Grace couldn’t see any trace of him in the room, but then it was hard to see any trace of anybody.  

 Sherry whisked her through to the kitchen at the back of the house.  The bleak theme in here was unbearable.   It didn’t look as if any meals were ever prepared in here.  Heck, there didn’t even seem to be any sign of a kettle or a coffee-mug.  The only sign of habitation was a bowl of cat-food on the floor.

 “We eat out a lot”, said Sherry “We’re really spoilt for good restaurants in this town doncha think?”

 “Yes, I suppose we are”, said Grace, who only went out for a meal on special occasions, like birthdays, or when Jim and the kids treated her to Sunday lunch on Mother’s Day.  

 The dining-room had been converted into what Sherry grandly termed “my gym”.  Actually it contained one stationary bike and a box of hand weights.

 “When I’ve had a few too many cocktails”, Sherry explained “I haul myself off the sofa and work out like a mad thing in here.  It all helps”.

 By now Grace felt in a daze.  She seemed to float up the stairs behind Sherry’s ample rear.  Surely there’ll be some sign of habitation in the bedroom, she thought.   The main bedroom had one king-size double bed, covered in a leopard-print throw, and another flatscreen TV at the foot of it.   That was it.  The spare bedroom was a glorified clothes-rack, which seemed to contain only women’s clothes.  There was still no sign of the elusive husband.

 “What are you thinking?” Sherry breathed in her ear.  

 Grace turned to face her.  Sherry was beaming at her expectantly, like a little child waiting for a word of approval.

 “I don’t see any men’s clothes or shoes”, said Grace.  Damn it, I don’t care if I get sacked for being nosey, she thought, this is a bloody weird set-up.

 “Oh Simon doesn’t live here!” Sherry seemed to find the whole notion very amusing.

 “Doesn’t he?” said Grace, still dazed.

 “No Simon’s got a flat over the road”, said Sherry “We’re more sorta like fuck-buddies, that’s the modern expression isn’t it.  We meet up everyday, but we like our own space”.

 “So why did you bother getting married?”

 “I guess I like being married.  I always have been, to one fool or another, since I was 17.  There’s something very sexy about saying ‘I am married’, doncha think?”

 “I’ve never thought of it that way”, said Grace “it often just makes me feel old saying that, to be honest”.

 “Oh you are funny!” Sherry squealed “We’re gonna be besties you and me, best friends”.

 Frankly I’d prefer employer and employee, thought Grace.  She didn’t believe in blurring those sacred lines of demarcation as a rule.

 It didn’t take long to view the rest of the house.  The other rooms were completely empty.

 “You look a bit bewildered”, said Sherry “Ask me anything you like.  We’ve got to be completely relaxed with each other.  We will be spending A LOT of time together”.

 That sounds like a threat, thought Grace.

 “I don’t see an office or a study”, she said, when they returned downstairs “Where do you work?”

 “There”, Sherry pointed to the small laptop which was sitting on the glass coffee-table in the living-room “That’s my study.  You look shocked”.

 “Well no it’s just that I’ve often worked for people who are home-workers”, said Grace “And they usually have offices, all full of books and papers and filing-cabinets and umpteen gadgets and  things”.

 “No”, said Sherry, with great forcefulness “That’s not me, I don’t go in for all that.  I work tap out my stuff in here on the sofa, usually while I’m watching The Jeremy Kyle Show.  Do you watch that?”

 “No”, said Grace.

 “Oh but I thought you might”, Sherry seemed disappointed, as if this news was too crushing for words.

 “I don’t like it”, said Grace, stiffly “I don’t understand how people can go on national TV and humiliate themselves that way.  It’s horrible”.

 Sherry looked confused, like an actor who had been fed the wrong cue.  Grace felt as if she’d upset her.

 “But each to their own”, she said, hurriedly “It would be a boring world if we all had the same tastes wouldn’t it.  Where would you like me to start today?”


 “So what was she like then?” said Jim, standing just outside the back door, lighting his cigarette “Your new one?”

 “Funny old thing”, said Grace, tipping some frozen oven chips into a baking tray “Well old, she’s probably about my age.  The way she talks though she sounds like a kid most of the time, an overgrown teenager”.

 “Yeah well, peculiar lot, writers”, said Jim “Probably in a world of her own”.

 “At least the job seems pretty easy”, said Grace “Just keeping things up to scratch.  There’s not a lot to clean!  It’s not as if I’m going to be forever picking up after her, not like some clients I’ve had.  She claims she has wild parties sometimes, says she feels she should apologise in advance for the mess they make.  But I’m finding that hard to believe at the moment.  She strikes me as someone who’s quite lonely”.

 “Lives on her own then?”

 “She claims to have a husband, but he doesn’t live with her.  Lives over the road”.

 Jim gave a snort and twisted his mouth in mirth.

 “Each to their own”, he said.

 “If it works for them, who are we to complain”, said Grace, sliding the tray into the oven “Don’t think I’d like it though”.

 “No?” said Jim, teasingly “Thought it might suit you having me out from under your feet”.

 “No I wouldn’t like it”, said Grace “I don’t see the point in being married if you’re going to do things like that.  You might as well just stay friends and see each other occasionally”.

 “So how often are you going there?”

 “Three mornings a week.  But I don’t know that it really needs me being there that much.  Her money I suppose.  I’m not complaining.  As long as she leaves me to get on with it in peace.  The ones who follow you around yakking all the time can be a pain in the bum”.

 “Oh well it’s all a few extra quid I suppose”, said Jim “But don’t feel you have to do it.  I keep saying, we can manage you know”.

 “It gets me out of the house”, said Grace “She gave me £20 for a taxi today.  Seemed shocked when I said I came on the bus, and bunged me a twenty for a cab.  I told her it didn’t cost £20 to get from there to here, but she wouldn’t have it”.

 “Likes to flash her cash around then?”

 “I still took the bus”, said Grace “The twenty’s in my purse”.


 On her next visit to Mulberry Road Grace got to see a bit of the garden.  She had a stroll round it during her coffee-break.  Like the rest of the house it had an uncared for  feel.  Not overtly neglected, but not loved either.  At the bottom she found a small swimming-pool with a canvas cover over it.

 “Ah you’re admiring my pool”, said Sherry, who seemed to have crept up out of nowhere.

 “It must be nice to have a pool in the garden”, said Grace “You’d never keep my kids out of it if we had one”.

 “There have been some wild times in there”, said Sherry, looking down at the grubby canvas sheeting “It doesn’t look it now, but there have been”.

 The pool looked as if it hadn’t been used in some time.  Grace wondered how far back those hedonistic sessions had been.

 “I’m getting tired of this house”, said Sherry, turning round to face it “It doesn’t seem right, one person rattling around in it like a pea in an empty can.  I keep wondering if I should sell it, and get an apartment on the seafront”.  

 “That’s up to you”, said Grace “I think you have more privacy in a house though.  We stayed for a week in a holiday apartment last year, and I got fed up with having someone clomping around overhead all the time”.

 “Oh that wouldn’t bother me”, said Sherry “i’d like to have neighbours to spy on.  I never see anyone round here.  I bet it’s fun to spy on your neighbours”.

 “I don’t think our neighbours are that interesting, to be honest”, said Grace.

 “What are you doing this afternoon?” said Sherry “Have you got another job on?”

 “Not today”, said Grace “I’ll go home and catch up on some ironing”.

 “Come out to lunch”, said Sherry, grabbing Grace’s arm impulsively “I love going out to lunch, I go whenever I get a chance.  My treat.  I’ll stand you”.

 Not for the first time, Sherry sounded like an over-excitable schoolgirl.  Grace made some polite demurring noises, but Sherry wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer.   

 “You would make this old broad very happy if you came”, said Sherry “You’ve got to admit it would be more fun than looking at an ironing-basket”.


 Grace couldn’t really argue with that one, and she had a certain curiosity to see what Sherry would be like once she was away from that gloomy, empty house.   Sherry called for a cab.

 “I take cabs everywhere”, she said “I’ve never learnt to drive, and I don’t see the point round here, not when we’ve got so many taxi firms elbowing each other for business.  And the parking’s a pain round here anyway”.

 Grace was practically bundled into the cab, and Sherry spent the short journey gabbling away nineteen-to-the-dozen.   

 “I like to treat people”, she said “I know not everyone’s been as lucky as me, and I like to spread it around a bit.  Who wants to be the richest man in the graveyard?”

 Grace had been brought up old-school, to believe that talking brazenly about money was like talking brazenly about sex, not quite the done thing.  Many rich people she had met during the course of her work had been quite coy and almost furtive about their loot.  By contrast Sherry clearly wallowed in it, and wasn’t afraid to tell anyone what she had.   Grace sat back and let Sherry chatter away.  She hadn’t known her long enough to feel comfortable about asking her personal questions, and there was that whole difficult employer/employee thing which was hard to push aside.

 They rolled up at the big Victorian red-brick hotel on the seafront.  

 “Have you ever been in here before?” asked Sherry.

 “We had an Easter Sunday lunch here once”, said Grace “The whole family, about 14 of us”.

 Sherry seemed a bit nonplussed by this answer.  Once again Grace had the impression that she hadn’t kept to the script.   Oh well, she thought, if she wants to play the Bountiful Lady taking out the Poor Peasant I’m happy to oblige her.

 Once out of the cab, Sherry grabbed her arm, as if they were a pair of genteel ladies in a Jane Austen novel, and dragged her through the revolving doors.  Sherry was greeted obsequiously by a member of staff in a black suit.

 “Miss Sherry always turns up with an entourage”, he beamed.

 Grace wasn’t sure she counted as An Entourage all by herself, and “Miss Sherry”?  That sounded like something out of Gone With The Wind!

 “I brought my masseuse here last time”, said Sherry, marching her through to the bar “And my chiropodist.  We didn’t finish lunch until early evening!”

 In the bar Sherry continued to pull out wads of folding cash from her purse, which seemed to have a limitless supply.  She chucked them away everywhere, over-tipping madly.  Sherry insisted she have a proper drink.  Grace panicked.  She wasn’t a regular drinker, only occasionally having a glass of wine on special occasions.

 “Oh … well … a glass of red wine please”, she stammered, awkwardly.

 “Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Pinot Noir”, the slick young barman reeled them off effortlessly.

 Grace panicked.  Fortunately the slick young barman took pity on her.

 “The Shiraz is a nice, spicy one”, he said.

 “The Shiraz would be very nice, thank you”, said Grace, feeling as if she’d been rescued from deep water.

 “Large, medium or small”, he said.  

 Oh lord, would the interrogation never end!

 “Small please”, said Grace.

 “She will not!” said Sherry “Make it a large one.  She’s been cleaning up my mess all morning, she deserves it”.

 “Scarcely a mess”, said Grace “I wish all my clients were as tidy as you”.

 “I’ll bring them over”, said the barman “You take a seat”.

 Sherry piloted her to a couple of comfortable wing chairs in one of the bay windows.  A table neatly displaying newspapers and glossy magazines stood in the middle.

 “It’s a nice place”, said Grace, as they took their seats.

 “Yes, they look after you very well here”, said Sherry “I love heavenly hotels.  I don’t understand people who go on self-catering holidays.  You end up having to do all the chores you do at home.  That’s not much of a holiday”.

 “They tend to be cheaper than a hotel for a whole week”, said Grace, who always went self-catering “And we like the freedom.  It’s handy when you’ve got kids”.

 “You poor thing!” said Sherry “You clean up all the time, and then you have to do it on holiday as well!  If anyone deserves a hotel cosseting it’s you.  Just think, someone cleaning the bathroom after you.  Someone replenishing the mini-bar.  Sponge-down bed-covers”.

 Grace blushed, and was glad when the barman diverted them by bringing the drinks over.  Two goblet-sized glasses, one full to the brim with golden liquid, the other with deep, dark red.  Sherry magicked up another £20 note and slapped it on the tray.  Grace had found the drinks tally to be eye-watering enough, without a £20 tip on top.  And did Sherry never use credit-cards for anything?  Grace looked at the glass with some trepidation.  She hadn’t eaten very much that morning, and now she was going to down a huge glass of wine on a near-empty stomach.  She wondered when they would be going in for lunch.  Her belly was starting to rumble.  

 “Oh look there’s Candida!” Sherry suddenly shouted, waving frantically through the glass.

 A woman teetered past the hotel window on high heels.  She was wearing a leopard-print hat pulled down over her ears, as if she was going undercover somewhere.   Grace had a nervous feeling that they may be about to be joined by one of Sherry’s sophisticated friends, but Candida carried on past, seemingly oblivious to Sherry’s whoops, yelps and waves.

 “Is she a friend of yours?” asked Grace, out of politeness.

 “One of my besties”, said Sherry, in her usual schoolgirl-speak “Candida’s a prostitute”.

 Grace struggled to think of an answer to this.

 “Are you shocked?” Sherry giggled, mischievously “I know a lot of prossies.  My boyfriend often says the contacts list on my phone looks like a lap-dancing club”.

 Grace had been confused when Sherry had first started mentioned her “boyfriend”, until she cottoned on that “boyfriend” was just another name for the mysterious husband.  

 “Do you think she saw me?” said Sherry, suddenly sounding like a forlorn child.

 “I think she was very intent on wherever she was going”, said Grace, tactfully.

 “Good”, said Sherry “I wouldn’t like to think she was ignoring me”.

 At that point Grace’s stomach gave an unmistakeable rumble.

“Oh you poor thing!” Sherry gushed “You’re STARVING.  Why didn’t you say?  We must go and grab a table toot-suite”.  


 The food was even better than Grace remembered from her previous visit there, and Sherry seemed to inspire an astonishing amount of deference in the serving-staff.  But, considering how much she was spending, and her insatiable habit of chucking £20 notes around, perhaps it wasn’t really that surprising.  

 In between shovelling bits of food in her mouth, Sherry gabbled incessantly, reminding Grace once again of the children when they were very little, and were trying to excitedly describe something to her.  Words tumbled out nineteen-to-the-dozen in a feverish stream-of-consciousness way.  Sometimes Grace struggled to follow links between topics Sherry was covering, and in the end just gave up, and let it all wash over her, like the incoming tide on the beach.   The general gist of it was that Sherry seemed very keen to impress the world at large that she had a very enviable lotus-eater lifestyle, doing the minimum of work for the maximum of pay, and spending the rest of her time drinking and generally getting up to other hedonistic pursuits.

 “That’s why my boyfriend doesn’t live with me”, she said “I mean, I’d have to make time for him if he lived with me all the time, but when I spend my days lunching out and going to the beach, well it doesn’t leave a lot of time for him”.

 Grace still didn’t understand why this meant he had to live across the road, but she wisely didn’t say anything.

 “Do you go to the beach a lot?” she asked.

 “Whenever I get a chance”, said Sherry “I am a total beach comber.  I wanted to call my column that, but someone else had already done that, years ago.  I read in the Urban Dictionary once that the definition of a beach comber is someone who spends a lazy summer drinking and smoking pot”, she gave another girlish giggle “Well that’s me!  Don’t you wish you could do that?”

 Grace couldn’t imagine herself doing that in a hundred years, not by any stretch of the imagination.

 “You’re one of Nature’s work-horses”, said Sherry, absently pointing her butter knife in Grace’s direction “Don’t get me wrong, I admire you.  My parents were like that.  Worked till they dropped.  People like you are the backbone of the Nation.  It’s not really right is it that I get so much just for sitting on my ample derriere and knocking out a few words a week”.

 “Well I guess you wouldn’t be able to afford a house in Mulberry Road if you didn’t”, said Grace, once again feeling uncomfortable at discussing money.

 “Do you know how much I get?” said Sherry “£!50,000 a year BASIC, that’s without any extra add-ons.  Not right is it?”

 “I don’t know”, said Grace, awkwardly “It doesn’t really bother me what other people earn.  I’m sure some get a lot more for doing a lot less.  At least you entertain people.  But if you feel guilty about it, you can always give some away.  Charities are always crying out for donations”.

 “I do give a lot away”, said Sherry “I support numerous charities.  In fact, sometimes people get embarrassed by my generosity.  I once had a beggar saying I’d given him too much”.

 Grace wished they could get off the subject of money.  She felt as if Sherry was trying to goad her into being prim-mouthed and disapproving.  Grace had no time for ones who got bitter and twisted about other people’s wealth.  She had spent so much of her working life around sad and lonely wealthy people that she knew full well it didn’t automatically buy happiness.  Although she had to admit there was a lot to be said for being miserable in comfort.  

 “No one can ever accuse me of being a snob though”, said Sherry, now sawing up a roasted pepper with some aggression “I’ve NEVER forgotten what I came from.  I’d rather spend my time with cleaning-ladies and prostitutes than whingeing rich brats.  I feel more at home with someone like you”.

 Grace wished she could feel the same.  She had never had a more un-relaxing lunch in her life.  A quick glance at her watch showed her that was nearly 2:30.

 “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to go in a minute”, she said “The kids will be home from school soon”.

 “You’re a working-class heroine”, said Sherry “All I hear from middle-class bitches is how Having It All isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but working-class women like you have a career and kids and you don’t complain”.

 “I’m not sure I’d call my work a career”, said Grace.

 “We don’t buy into all that discontent guff”, Sherry sailed on regardless, slapping the table enthusiastically as she spoke  “When you’re a working-class woman we believe in one thing, get a career and then have a family”.

 All Grace could remember from her younger days was her parents stressing the need to get a job.  Any job was better than nothing.  “If you’re earning money, not sitting on your backside all day, you’ve got self-respect, not like like some of these benefit-scrounging lazy sods”, was one of her Dad’s dictums.  Grace didn’t feel that cleaning other people’s houses counted as A Career though.  She did it because it was all she had known.  She knew, deep down, that she had probably disappointed her mother there.  Her mother had also cleaned other people’s houses, and Grace remembered her saying  “you’re not going to do that, Grace”.  But Grace had.  

 Sherry’s romanticism was becoming intolerable.


 They returned to Sherry’s house (via another taxi) so that Grace could pick up her cleaning bag.  As she went to leave though Sherry apprehended her at the front door.

 “Did you enjoy lunch?” she asked, looking tight-lipped and pensive.

 “Oh very much so”, said Grace “It made a very nice change, thank you.  Beats my usual cheese-and-pickle sandwich effort!”

 Sherry suddenly grabbed her hand and held onto it.

 “I wasn’t boring was I?” she said “Perhaps I should have had a few vodka’s, I’m much more amusing when I’ve had plenty of those”.

 “You weren’t boring at all”, said Grace “I really must go now.  See you on Friday”.




 That evening Grace fell asleep in front of Coronation Street, and she got some gentle teasing from Jim about how that’s what you get when you out boozing at lunchtime.  

 “Sounds like you enjoyed yourself anyway”, he said.

 “I’d have enjoyed it more with you”, said Grace “Oh I feel bad saying that.  It was good of her to take me out, but I don’t find her a relaxing person to be with.  It’s like being with a hyper-active kid all the time”.

 “I go back to what I said”, said Jim “She sounds lonely to me.  She’s got no one else to take out with her”.


 “You know what I mean.  Still no sign of that old man of hers?”

 “I haven’t seen him”, said Grace “Perhaps he only comes round in the evenings”.


 After a few days Grace was beginning to wish that Sherry would go out somewhere, so that Grace could get on with her duties in peace and then quietly leave again.  But Sherry was always there, shuffling around in her bath-robe.  She wasn’t an overbearing employer.  She wasn’t constantly checking up on Grace, and correcting her (not like some she’d had in the past), in fact Grace wondered if Sherry would notice if she didn’t do any cleaning at all.  But Sherry was always There, hovering around like a bothersome fly, or a child demanding attention, when she just wanted to get on with things.  Perhaps Jim was right.  She was just chronically lonely.  She never seemed to go out anywhere, or have any visitors, and for all her talk about her lengthy Contacts list on the phone, no one ever seemed to ring her up either.  

 Neither did she do much work.  One day Grace found her tapping lethargically with one finger on the keyboard of her laptop, but it wasn’t the frenzied teeth-gritting pounding away at the keys that she’d imagined writers usually did.   

 And then Sherry sprang another outing on her.  

 “Is there anything you need, babes?” she asked “For around the house I mean, or anything you think the house needs”.

 “I think you could do with some new tea-towels”, said Grace “The one I’ve just been using has got a great big hole in it, and I can’t find another one”.  

 “Then let’s go shopping”, said Sherry, with her usual excitable girlish air “You can show me what you think I should get.  I’m not an expert on tea-towels”.

 Grace had to stifle a sigh.  She was in no mood to go on a shopping trip with Sherry, but once again Sherry whisked her up in her expansive enthusiasm, and before she knew it, Grace was in the back of another taxi being driven into town.  

 “This is going to be fun isn’t it babes”, said Sherry “A girls shopping-trip, like something out of chicklit”.  

 And then she caught sight of someone else she knew walking along the street.

 “Oh look there’s Liam”, she shrieked “He’s on your side Grace.  Stick your head out of the window and shout LIAM”.

 Grace rebelled at this.

 “I am not sticking my head out of the window and yelling at a complete stranger in the street”, she said, firmly.

 There was no reaction from Sherry to this, and Grace wondered if she needed to start taking a more firm line with her generally.  She felt cross.  She didn’t need all this childish nonsense.  She suddenly felt too old for it all.  

 At least Liam – whoever he was – was left to go about his business in peace, she thought, as the taxi sped on past him.  


 Grace had hoped that buying the tea-towels would prove to be relatively straightforward, but Sherry was the kind of person who could even manage to wring a small drama out of something as mundane as that.  At first Sherry was at a loss as to where one went to buy some items, but Grace knew of a small shop which specialised in towels, cushions and bedlinen.  In fact, it was one of her favourite stores, as the displays were always so colourful, like a Persian bazaar, and she enjoyed browsing there.  They had barely got through the door though before Sherry was off, whooping and shrieking.  She had spotted a pile of Union Jack tea-towels, all neatly folded up on a side table.

 “Oh God, we must have those, babes”, she said, grabbing Grace’s arm and excitedly dragging her towards it, as if she’d found the Crown Jewels.  

 Well at least this will be quick, thought Grace.

 Sherry scooped up a pile of the tea-towels and headed to the till.

 “Do you need all those?” asked Grace “You probably only need a couple of them”.

 Sherry seemed to have gone temporarily deaf though, and had dumped the towels on the counter.  

 “Ah”, said the store-owner, when he saw the Union Jacks “We got those in especially for the football”.

 To Grace’s alarm, Sherry looked furious at this.

 “I didn’t buy them for that rubbish!” she said “A bunch of over-paid morons running around a field, kicking a piece of leather around.   All football does is appeal to the homo-erotic side of men, when they haven’t got the nuts to admit it.  It’s one step away from bend, bugger and blow”

 Oh God, thought Grace, she seems to think she’s writing one of her columns.  

 She felt angry with Sherry, and when they finally got outside she had to severely resist the urge to bash her over the head with her umbrella.  It was one of her favourite shops, and Sherry had now embarrassed her in it.  

 “So where are we lunching today then babes?” asked Sherry.

 “I can’t go to lunch today”, said Grace “I’ve got another job on this afternoon”.

 “Morning coffee then”, said Sherry.  

 She dragged Grace to a coffee-shop in the small cobbled square nearby.  It had a few tables outside, and could be quite a sun-trap on a fine day.  Grace though found herself staring up at the clouds apprehensively.

 “Oh you need to be a bit more reckless babes”, said Sherry, scooping marshmallows up from the top of her cup of hot chocolate “You live too cautiously, that’s your trouble”.

 “It’s just instinct”, said Grace “They forecast rain today”.  

 “So what if they did?” said Sherry “We’re not gonna shrink are we”.

 “I suppose not”.

 “You alright babes?  You seem a bit tense”.

 “I’m fine.  I …”

 “Spit it out”.

 “I felt a bit embarrassed for that poor man in the shop”, said Grace “He was only trying to be polite, show an interest, and you gave him a full-on rant about football”.

 “Oh people are used to that from me”, Sherry shrugged “I’ve been doing it for nearly 30 years now.  I’m here to provoke a reaction from people, they expect it”.

 “Doesn’t it bother you though?” said Grace “I’ve read some of the Comments from people which you get.  They can be really hateful.  It must be very upsetting sometimes”.

 “Water off a duck’s back, babes”, said Sherry “It doesn’t bother me, never has.  As you said, I’m an entertainer, I’m here to get a reaction out of people.  I can’t complain when they rise to the bait, now can I?”

 “OK”, Grace sighed “But do you have to do it all the time?  I mean, you’re not always writing your column”.

 “You know what your trouble is”, said Sherry, pointing her long spoon at her “You spend your entire life creeping around, trying not to offend people.  It’s no way to live, babes”.

 “I don’t creep around anywhere”, said Grace, feeling herself blush with anger.

 “By the time I’ve finished with you”, Sherry went on, regardless “You’ll be a different woman.  I’ll show you a whole new way to live.  No one’s ever the same again once they’ve known me”.

 I can believe that, thought Grace, sadly.  

 A  large woman came to sit at the next table, with two very loud children in tow.  The kids were restless, and prone to wandering around and kicking things out of boredom.  This was interspersed with the mother yelling at one of them to “stop kicking the fucking table!”  Grace always hated it when parents swore in front of their kids.  How were children supposed to learn what was right and wrong if their parents acted like foul-mouthed yobs all the time?  And why weren’t the children at school?  It was term-time.  Grace almost found herself sitting up ram-rod straight with disapproval, like an old Victorian dowager.   

 Sherry leaned towards Grace and whispered “I love her sort”.

 “You do?” said Grace, feeling dismayed but not entirely surprised.

 “She doesn’t give a shit”, Sherry giggled “They’re working-class rebels.  They’re getting what they can from the System, and sticking two fingers up at it”.  

 “And what about ones who work hard”, said Grace, stiffly “And try to have some values.  I suppose you see us as slaves of the System.  Obedient drones”.

 “Hey that’s better babes!” Sherry laughed “You’re coming out of your shell and showing some spirit at last.  You’ll be surprised at yourself by the time I’ve finished with you”.

 Grace was very glad when lunchtime came, and she had finished with Sherry for the week.




 “Well it sounds like you’ve got it pretty cushy there, gal”, said Jim, one evening “Lunches out, coffee mornings ….”

 “I know”, Grace sighed “I wish I felt that way about it”.

 “What’s the matter then?” Jim looked across the sofa at her.

 “She jangles me”, said Grace, her arms tightly folded across her chest, which was a sure sign she wasn’t feeling relaxed “It’s as if she’s trying to provoke me into an argument all the time.  I do get sick of it”.

 “Best thing I find with that sort is to let it go in one ear and out the other”, said Jim “As my old Grandad always used to say, you can always walk away from a fight.  You’re there to clean her house, not act as her sparring-partner”.

 “It’s as if she can’t help herself”, said Grace “She can’t stop.  She goads people for a living, and then she can’t switch off from it.  She does it to everybody”.

 “Hah”, Jim laughed “No wonder she’s on her own a lot then, and I’m not surprised her old man doesn’t live with her!”

 “I shouldn’t complain really”, said Grace “I mean, she’s very generous and everything, and she doesn’t carp on about my work all the time.   There’s a lot to be said for that”.

 “Aye”, said Jim “Remember that old cow who moaned you hadn’t cleaned the toilet handle properly?  And she waited for you to get home to ring you up and tell you as well.  You did the right thing jacking her in”.

 “I heard recently her husband gave her a right telling-off for that”, said Grace “Apparently she had a bit of a reputation for it.  Went through cleaners like a dose of salts.  Nobody stayed with her for long.  At least Sherry’s not like that”.


 Even so, Grace didn’t look forward to going to that empty house on Mulberry Road.  For all her effusions and cries of “babes!” and lavishing £20 notes around, Sherry wasn’t an easy person to be with at all.  Grace prayed for the house to be empty so that she could just get on with her chores in peace, and then quietly leave before Sherry returned.  

 The next time she went there Sherry seemed tight-faced and tense.  Something had happened.

 “Is there something wrong?” asked Grace, hanging her jacket on the newel-post as usual.

 “I’ve had an email”, said Sherry “Come on, I’ll show it to you”.

 All sorts of wild speculation went through Grace’s head on the short journey from the hall to the living-room.  What on earth had happened?  Had a previous employer got in touch with Sherry and warned her off Grace (although, apart from not polishing toilet handles properly, Grace couldn’t imagine any of them would be aggrieved enough to do that).   

 “Look at that”, said Sherry, pointing at the laptop.

 It seemed to be someone commenting on one of Sherry’s recent columns.

 “Why do you always refer to your husband as your boyfriend?” it read “I get the impression you’re middle-aged and so is he.  It sounds ridiculous coming from a woman your age.  You’re not a schoolgirl anymore, and haven’t been for quite some time”.  

 “I mean ….” Sherry seemed incandescent with temper “What kind of a person goes to all the trouble of sending an email like that?”

 Grace was more nonplussed by Sherry’s reaction than the contents of the email.  Compared to some of the usual Comments Grace had read under Sherry’s articles, this one was remarkably civilised.  It wasn’t issuing death-threats, or calling her a “fat whore”, which was a popular insult levelled at her.  Neither was it telling her to “drop dead”, “retire”, “emigrate”, “learn to write” etc etc.  

 “I’d just ignore it if I was you”, said Grace “It’s just somebody being picky”.

 “But WHY?!” Sherry wailed, looking dangerously as if she was going to kick the coffee-table over.  Grace wondered if she should try and rescue the laptop before she did “I can say boyfriend if I like can’t I!  Boyfriend, boyfriend, BOYFRIEND!  There!!! Boyfriend!”

 “Would you like me to start on the bathroom?” asked Grace.  


 She could hear Sherry thumping around downstairs, and was utterly bewildered as to why she was so upset.  Up until then she’d given every impression that no amount of criticism or trolling fazed her in the slightest.  As she had said at the coffee-shop “water off a duck’s back, babes”.  

 At one point, whilst Grace was hoovering the bedroom, Sherry appeared in the doorway, looking every bit as if she’d been crying.  

 “Would you like a coffee?” she asked.

 “Yes, I’d love one”, said Grace, switching off the vacuum cleaner.


 “I never really liked words like ‘husband’ or ‘partner’, they sound so grown-up all the time”, said Sherry, sitting out on the rather sad little patio area “Whereas ‘boyfriend’ … well it’s fun isn’t it.  Sort of reminds me of the teenage disco, and having a rollicking good time together.  That gets harder the older you get”.

 “You shouldn’t let that person upset you”, said Grace “It’s none of his business what you call your husband.  Just delete the email and move on.  There are some funny people out there.  I don’t think they’ve got anything better to do”.

 “Thank you, you’re so kind”, Sherry squeezed Grace’s hand “I don’t think you realise what a special person you are”.

 “Oh I’m nothing really”, said Grace, who always felt a bit embarrassed when Sherry chucked the compliments around “Anyone with an ounce of commonsense would tell you the same”.

 “No, you really don’t realise how special you are”.

 Grace wondered what kind of a world Sherry had moved in, where such an everyday small gesture of support seemed like something so exotic and unusual.  

 “I’m probably going away this weekend”, said Sherry, in a muted voice “I sometimes get travel-writing gigs, and one magazine wants me to review a new posh spa hotel that’s opened up in Bournemouth”.

 “Sounds lovely”.  

 “My BOYFRIEND is coming with me.  We’ll be leaving on Friday, so you don’t have to come then if you don’t want to.  Start again Monday as usual”.


 Grace had sometimes come across Sherry’s articles before, but since working for her, she had made a point of reading them.  She happily admitted that some of it – like reviews of arthouse films she’d never heard of – went over her head, but the rest of the time Sherry’s personality shouted at her from the page.  She wrote the way she talked, in a gushing, gabbly, stream-of-consciousness sort of way, homing in on a topic and wringing it to death, and from then onwards making no further reference to it whatsoever.  

 The weekend that Sherry was away in Bournemouth though, Grace got the shock of her life.  Reading her latest article over coffee on the Saturday morning, Grace found herself being referenced.  The topic of the article (as far as Grace could gather) was a plea from Sherry to make good old-fashioned patriotism acceptable again, and why couldn’t people wave their national flags if they wanted to.  At one point she described their visit to the tea-towel shop, but it certainly wasn’t as Grace remembered it.  

 “My devoted cleaning-lady (devoted?) informed me we needed new tea-towels, so we went out together to a nearby establishment.  I was keen to buy the Union Jack ones on display, and the shop-keeper asked me if I was buying them to support the England football team.  I drew myself up to my full height and informed him ‘Sir, I will have you know I am buying them for devotion to my country, because I am grateful to be living in a country which still values free speech, in spite of many attempts from those on the Left to deny us that privilege.  We are facing an ever-growing threat from people who hate us and wish to destroy our way of life, and I will fly the flag of freedom and the British way of life every chance I get’.  He had the grace to look abashed, and apologised.  My cleaning-lady stammered out that ‘you must excuse her, she is a writer, and she’s been working very hard lately’” (that’ll be the day, thought Grace).  

 “None of it happened like that!” stammered a furious Grace “That poor man didn’t apologise, and why should he anyway?  He was only making polite conversation.   And she didn’t say all that, she was waffling on about gay footballers or something, I couldn’t make it out.  And I did NOT come out with all that rubbish about her being a hard-working writer!   It’s all a pack of lies!”

 “A journalist lies, now there’s a shock”, said Jim, who was scratching himself in his vest “What is the world coming to”.  

 “She had no right to write all that!” said Grace, having to resist the temptation to rip the paper into shreds.

 “Don’t worry about it”, said Jim “She didn’t write anything horrible about you, and nobody knows it’s you.  You probably got more fame that time you appeared on that phone-in competition on the radio”.  

 “It’s not right, Jim”, said Grace, getting to her feet and dropping her coffee-mug into the sink.

 “Wow, she’s really got to you hasn’t she?” said Jim.

 “Well why shouldn’t it?  I go round there to clean her house, not to be included in her bloody weekly column!”

 “It’s just a bit of artistic licence that’s all”, said Jim “Writers have to get their ideas from somewhere haven’t they!  As I said, she didn’t write anything bad about you.  I think you come out of it pretty well.  It’s her who sounds like a complete dick in it, and the joke is she probably can’t see it”.

 “I suppose not”, said Grace, slightly mollified by this.

 “Stop getting yourself in a state”, said Jim, yawning and getting to his feet “It’s not as if you’re gonna end up with the paparazzi camped outside is it.  You’re not Katie Price.  I’m gonna go and have a shower”.  


 Grace still felt cross when Monday morning rolled round.  She felt as if she wanted to say something to Sherry about the article, but didn’t know how to word it.  “Don’t ever write about me again” sounded somewhat of an over-reaction after all.   She hoped that if she acted a bit terse then Sherry might pick up that something was wrong, but somehow Grace doubted it.  Sherry had probably already forgotten that she’d written the damn article in the first place.  She seemed to have the attention-span of a gnat at the best of times.

 When she let herself into the house in Mulberry Road it felt airless, and Grace could still smell the remnants of the furniture polish she had used the previous Wednesday.  There seemed to be no sign of life whatsoever, and for a moment Grace entertained the hope that Sherry And Boyfriend hadn’t made it home yet.  

 She hung her jacket on the newel-post as usual and went through to the kitchen.  She was filling the kettle at the sink, when she spotted a figure sitting by the swimming-pool in the garden.


 “Oh hi babes”, said Sherry.  She was sitting on a plastic chair, her hands thrust into the pockets of her blue raincoat, staring at the dilapidated canvas covering of the pool.

 “I was about to make a coffee”, said Grace “Would you like one?”

 “No”, said Sherry, abruptly “Pull a chair over and sit down”.

 “Is everything alright?” said Grace, dragging over another of the chairs “Did you have a nice weekend in Bournemouth?”

 “The hotel was great”, said Sherry “My kind of place.  Two heated swimming-pools, one indoors, one out.  Fab restaurant, two bars, a coffee-shop, a sauna, a gym”.

 “Sounds wonderful”, said Grace “So you can give it a good write-up then?”

 “Write-up?” Sherry sounded momentarily perplexed “Oh the article.  Yes.  I always give good write-ups to travel reviews, even when the place is a dump”.

 “Do all travel writers do that?” asked Grace.

 “No”, said Sherry “I want people to know I had a good time, and that won’t work if I say the food was lousy, and I was bored to death”.

 (And it seems vital that everybody has to know you had a good time, always, thought Grace).

 “I don’t remember much of the hotel to be honest”, Sherry sighed “I’m at a cross-roads in my life, babes.  My husband’s given me an ultimatum”.

 Grace suddenly had the uncomfortable feeling that she was going to be privy to what her sons called “too much information!”

 “I thought we’d had a great time”, Sherry went on “We always do when we go away together.  But yesterday morning, as we were packing up to leave, I said ‘it’s been fun hasn’t it babes?’  And he said ‘no, you’ve been really boring’”.

 “Oh”, said Grace.  It was hard to know what to say, as Sherry had often bored her rigid too.

 “W-what made him say that?” she said, finally.

 “My drinking”, said Sherry “I thought I was just having a good time, as I always do”.

 “Did you overdo it a little then?” said Grace, trying to be tactful.

 “A little?!” Sherry gave a harrumph “Put it this way, meal went uneaten, pools went un-swum in.  I would sneak vodka out of the mini-bar whilst he was in the bathroom before breakfast, and I was so paralytic by lunchtime that I had to go to bed and sleep it off”.

 Sneaking vodka out of the mini-bar before breakfast sounded like someone with a serious alcohol problem to Grace.  

 “I wasn’t neglecting him!” Sherry exclaimed “We’re always going at it like rabbits for crissake!”

 “Well perhaps he wanted your company at other times too”, said Grace.  

 “God, you are so prim!” said Sherry “Sometimes I find it hard to believe women like you are still around.  You’re like one of those dour Muslim women, hiding themselves behind a veil”.

 “I’d better go and get started on the house”, said Grace, getting up.

 “No I’m sorry, babes”, Sherry grabbed her hand pulled her down “I’m just in a bit of a state of shock that’s all.  Simon issued me with an ultimatum.  Said I either sort my drinking out or our marriage is in trouble.  I mean, what do you say to that?”

 “I think it’s obvious”, said Grace “You need to get help with it.  There are plenty of support groups around ….”

 “You mean, give up the booze?” Sherry looked stunned, as if such a radical notion hadn’t occurred to her.

 “Well if it’s to save your relationship”, said Grace “Then, yes.  Good relationships don’t grow on trees, and it sounds like he’s worried about you”.

 “B-but  if I give up the booze”, said Sherry, sounding stricken “I won’t be me anymore!”

 “Of course you will”, said Grace “You’ll just be a sober you that’s all”.

 “A SOBER …??” said Sherry “But I won’t be any fun without the booze, I won’t be witty and amusing and exciting ….”

 “I’d better go and get started on the house”, said Grace, getting firmly to her feet.


 To Grace’s relief, Life moved on.  By a stroke of luck, she managed to get a morning job cleaning for one of the local large restaurants, and was able to hand in her notice to Miss Sherry.  “Aw gonna miss you babes”, said Sherry, smothering her with kisses “But praps it is time for us to move on”.  It’s certainly time for me to move on, thought Grace, and was relieved that she would never have to enter that gloomy, empty house in Mulberry Road again.  

 She occasionally still heard about Sherry from time to time.  She was one of their local so-called celebrities after all.   For a few months Grace kept up with reading her articles.  To her relief, she herself was never mentioned again.  Sherry seemed to have completely forgotten her, as quickly as she forgot most things.   At Christmastime she was baffled to read an article by Sherry, extolling the virtues of a family Christmas, and how she herself would sit down to Christmas lunch at her table, surrounded by her large, loving family.  This one caused much head-scratching.  

 “She hasn’t got any family as far as I can gather”, said Grace “Her parents are dead, and her sister lives abroad.  She has no kids”.

 “You’re not reading that mad old bint again are you?” said Jim, looking for his car-keys.

 “I don’t even know if she’s still with her husband”, said Grace.

 “Not if he’s got any sense, she’s not”, said Jim.

 Knowledge of Sherry seemed to peter out soon after that.  There was a minor local scandal when she put her house in Mulberry Road up for sale to a property developer, who promptly planned to convert it into flats.  

 “Why shouldn’t hardworking firefighters and nurses get a chance to live in Mulberry Road”, she was quoted as saying in a local newspaper.  The working-class heroine again.  

 “Huh”, said Jim “Those flats are gonna be like bloody rabbit-hutches, and they’ll STILL cost an arm and a leg.  She lives in a dream world”.

 There was another minor scandal when Sherry wrote a vicious article attacking a local vicar, who wanted to extend an olive-branch and invite Muslims to a multi-faith open day at her church.  Sherry lacerated her in print, and the resulting backlash caused her to hover in the news for a little while.  “Water off a duck’s back, babes”, Grace could imagine her saying.

 The last she heard was when it hit the news that Simon, the elusive husband/boyfriend hybrid had finally left her.  Sherry wrote a follow-up article, in which she pointed out that she had been holidaying on a Greek island with a horde of friends, enjoying a hedonistic carnival of sun, sea, and booze, when she heard the news, and said she pitied the safe, boring existence Simon would have to endure without her from now on.  

 “Looks as if the booze won out in the end”, Grace thought, folding up the newspaper, and dumping it in the recycling bin.   





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