It was with vigour that my mother scrubbed at the floor, her teeth gritted as she swept the soaked and soapy sponge across the tiles of Mr Stable’s hallway. I sat on his steps at neatly as I could, hands on my scabby knees, as Mother had warned me the Stable home was immaculate and she had taken particular pains to get the master of the house to allow me to stay as she cleaned. I was determined to make a good example, should he wander by, so I kept my hands in my lap and remained silent, waiting patiently – though with boredom – for my mother to finish her cleaning duties.
Mother was midway through scrubbing the floor when a young woman in a posh, expensive frock wandered by, her hair curled and her handbag clasped in her pretty, pale hand – so different from my mother’s rough and scarlet, yet still loving, hands. I stared in awe at the beautiful lady as she pulled her silken gloves on and swept by, but she paused at the sight of me perched on the stairs.
“Oh!” she exclaimed delightfully. “Who is this?”
My mother immediately straightened to her knees, bobbing her head and flushing at her employer. “This is my son, ma’am. Mr Stable said he could stay for the day as I couldn’t find someone to care for him.”
“Hello, young man! What is your name?” Her pretty face spread with a sweet smile as she bent to look at me, and I blushed, twisting my hands in my lap.
“Daniel,” I replied shyly, breathing in her lovely lavender scent.
“You must be ever so bored, sitting on the stairs. How about you have a play in our garden?” she suggested, and I could have kissed her. When my mother took me to the kitchen briefly on her way to fetch the cleaning supplies, I had seen the magnificent garden, stretching on my tip-toes to see the enormous circle of grass and small forest of trees at the very end – perfect for adventuring.
“Oh, please, Miss, may I?” I asked, clapping my hands together, and Mrs Stable laughed, straightening and holding her own hand out for me to clasp. I took her hand, grinning at Mother as I was led away, and Mother thanked Mrs Stable kindly for allowing me to play.
“In fact,” Mrs Stable said on our way to the garden, squeezing my hand. “you may have more fun with a friend.”
“A friend?” I asked, staring in wonder: did she have a son or daughter for me to play with? A rich neighbouring child who was keen to make a less fortunate but just as fun friend? Or maybe she was magic, and she would produce a friend for me with a wave of her expensive gloves.
Instead, to my joy, Mrs Stable led me outside and introduced me to a large, bounding shaggy dog, it’s mouth pulled into a smile as it raced across the garden towards me, jumping into my arms and nearly toppling me over as it licked me with its flapping tongue.
Mrs Stable laughed, giving me a smile. “This is Barnaby. I’m sure he could use some company.”
I could only giggle, stroking the thick, slightly coarse fur of the huge dog in my arms, delighted. Mother said we couldn’t keep a dog – we couldn’t afford to give it the food we desperately needed, and our landlord, Mr Beecham, would possibly ask for more money if we kept a pet in our squalid little home.
The sharp voice of a man made Mrs Stable straighten, her smile wiped and a small sigh escaping as if she were a deflating balloon. I turned awkwardly, looking through the window of the house to see a tall, thin man with a moustache staring back, his eyes just as jagged as his voice.
“Darling,” Mrs Stable said flatly.
“I thought you were going to see your friends,” Mr Stable said, his eyes kept on me playing with Barnaby.
“I am,” Mrs Stable replied in a thorny voice. “I’m leaving now.”
“Good.” Mr Stable watched as his wife bade me farewell and walked back into the house, passing him silently and going out as she originally intended. I was afraid Mr Stable would tell me off, and would drag me by my ear back through the house and to the boring stairs – though my mother would have his arm clean off if he touched me. Instead he gave me a snooty look and disappeared, leaving me with my aching arms still automatically rubbing the excited Barnaby.