Betty sat in front of her dressing table and surveyed her reflection in the mirror while the cat eyed her from the bed. Leathered, she decided. Her skin had the same look of weathered leather that the old sofa wore. All patterned with gentle creases. The make-up that she’d taken such care with emphasised the great deep gorges that tracked from nose to mouth and across the bridge of the nose, spreading from the corners of her eyes to spill down her cheeks. Jack hadn’t liked her to wear much make-up but she enjoyed it. She blamed their Amateur Dramatics days when they’d both be coated in the stuff. Every Wednesday evening for all those years. She missed it. All that excitement and drama seemed a long time ago now.
She paused for a moment in the silent house, hearing echoes of old laughter before returning to her preparations. Practicing a smile she saw a smear of red lipstick on her teeth. The shocking scarlet looked garish against her pale powdered skin and her hair which was completely white now. No trace of the rich brown of her youth. And it was thin. She brushed the permed curls into a soft fuzz and considered the vulnerable effect of her pink scalp showing around her ears and along the parting. Eye-brows. That was what she needed. From the case she withdrew a pencil and traced a dark line unsteadily above each eye. She quite liked the surprised look it gave her.
Next she stood and scrutinised her appearance in the full length mirror. The cashmere cardigan had an old tea stain on the front and she had buttoned it up wrong, leaving an extra button at the bottom so it lay crumpled on one side and stretched on the other. Checking her watch she realised she was late, put on a string of cultured pearls, dabbed on some perfume and hastily made her way down the stairs, the cat trotting at her heels. As she passed the umberella stand in the hall she pulled out her walking stick and went into the sitting room to wait.
The BMW pulled smoothly into the driveway of the cottage and Steve checked his appearance in the driving mirror. He angled it down and grinned into it, ensuring there were no remnants of lunch between his teeth. Yeah. He looked great. He smoothed his hair, winked at himself and reached for his clipboard, reminding himself of the details. Mrs Beckwith. A seventy-six year old widow. All the way out here with no neighbours. This would be a pushover. He’d be in, out and home in time for a round of golf.
He pulled on his jacket, straightened his tie and headed for the front door. He had to wait a couple of minutes and through the frosted glass he could see an outline moving slowly. He curbed his impatience and reminded himself of the benefits to come. The door opened to reveal an old woman leaning on a walking stick and wearing outlandish make-up. Why did they do that? They clearly had no idea how ridiculous they looked. She wore pearls. Steve gave his best smile and held out his hand.
‘Mrs Beckwith? Steve Lagan. What a beautiful place you have here!’ She seemed a little flustered so he showed her his I.D. and stepped into the small entrance hall, guiding her in with a hand on her shoulder. ‘From Impact Windows’ he clarified loudly.
‘Oh yes, I was expecting you’ she nodded although she’d obviously forgotten. This looked promising. ‘Come in, come in’. Her yellowed horse teeth were covered in lipstick, like some grotesque vampire and he suppressed a shudder as he followed her into the living room. It was cluttered, like many of the pensioner homes he’d been in and crammed with furniture. Totally at odds with his own minimalist loft apartment.
‘This is nice,’ he remained standing. The Olds approved of manners. As he expected she invited him to sit down and offered him a cup of tea. He preferred a decent coffee but experience had taught him to avoid pensioners’ idea of coffee. ‘That would be lovely. Thanks.’ Another wait while she fumbled about the kitchen. He got up again and stood in the doorway, lounging casually against the frame. ‘Can I help?’ he smiled, careful not to imply that help might be needed. She turned and looked up at him from her hunched over stance. What did they call it? Dowagers Hump? That was it. God she was ugly. But the furniture whispered to him of money and at least she didn’t smell like some of the others. He flashed his best smile at her. She studied him for a second and then almost simpered.
‘No, no, dear. You sit down you’ve had a long journey. All the way from Glasgow they said. Just to see me. I don’t get visitors these days’.
Her words registered and he wasn’t surprised that even an old crone like her wasn’t immune to his looks. His disgust was tempered by the thought of how easy this would be. Wait until he turned on the charm. As he sat down a cat appeared and tried to rub against his legs. Why did people keep stinking animals that covered everything in hair? He was about to shove it away when Mrs Beckwith appeared in the doorway and he had to pretend he was reaching for it, gushing about how beautiful it was. After that the damned thing jumped up on him, sticking its claws into his suit, dribbling on him and shoving its arse in his face. Christ, the things he had to put up with.
They drank the tea and chatted for a while until Steve asked where the bathroom was and excused him-self. In the bathroom he looked in the wall cabinet and examined the bottles and products around the bath. Returning to the living room he settled once again into the chair.
‘I see you use Imperial Leather soap’ he began, ‘that’s what my Gran used. She used to swear by it…’ his voice caught and he looked away. ‘I miss her,’ his jaw muscles clenched as he struggled with his emotions. ‘I’m sorry Mrs Beckwith, it’s just that you remind me of her so much.’ He almost managed a tear. Betty leaned forward and took hold of his hand.
‘Oh love, was it recent?’
‘Last year. We were so close’
‘I understand love, you get used to it after a while though. I wouldn’t say you get over it but you get used it.’ She patted his hand.
‘Thanks Mrs Beckwith…’
‘Call me Betty.’
‘Thanks Betty. Sorry I’ve made a fool of myself now,’
‘Not at all love, not at all.’
Steve made an obvious effort to compose himself, withdrew his hand and stood up. ‘Well we’d best get on, I’ve been here nearly an hour, I’ll have out-stayed my welcome if I’m not careful’, he noted the old lady’s crestfallen face and smiled to himself. So what if the golf was off the menu. The Chanel perfume in the bathroom, the expensive clothes and pearls, the antique furniture. The old bird’s pathetic attempts to be what she used to be. This was a hole-in-one.
Betty showed Steve around the little cottage as he measured each window and tutted, shaking his head as he made notes on his clip board. He was certainly good looking with the confidence and attitude that only youthful good looks and success can bring. She thought back to when she’d first met Jack. He couldn’t have been more different from this young man. Eventually they made their way back to the living room.
‘I don’t suppose there’s any more of that lovely tea is there Betty?’
She made some more and brought through the sponge cake she’d made yesterday, knowing she would have a guest today.
‘Are you sure you won’t get into trouble, being here so long?’
‘No, no, don’t worry about me, the office will re-arrange my other appointments. Let’s get you sorted, that’s the important thing. That cake looks good Betty, I’m starving, I missed lunch to get here on time’.
‘Oh that’s kind of you love. You’re a credit to the company.’
‘I’d say it’s all part of the service Betty but you know, sometimes you meet someone and…anyway.’ They settled down again with tea and cake and the clock on the mantelpiece tick-tocked as they chatted. Almost reluctantly Steve sighed and stood up.
‘I just need to pop to the car, I’ll be back in a minute.’ He returned with his brief-case and a sample that consisted of the cut off corner of a window. ‘I’ll show you how good our windows are compared with the competition’ he bragged, adding ‘I’ve even got them in my own place.’
Betty was impressed. He talked about the importance of triple glazing, low emissivity metallic coatings, U values and composites so assuredly that she agreed with him even though she’d been lost at the first sentence.
‘I just thought new windows would be nice,’ she stammered. ‘I’ve never understood about technical things. Jack always looked after that for me.’
‘Sorry Betty, I get carried away with the science sometimes, but really it’s the science that makes them so good. Jack?’ he queried, ‘Your son? Son-in-law?’
‘My husband’ Betty corrected him. ‘My late husband, Jack. He used to look after all the business side of things. It’s all foreign to me’.
‘Oh I’m sorry Betty, but don’t worry, I can look after this for you, you don’t have to worry about any of it. I noticed the photo by your bed. It must be hard finding yourself all alone. How long were you married?’
‘Forty-nine years,’ for a moment her sadness was palpable, ‘he died two years ago’.
‘But I bet he looked after you well? And made sure you were comfortable and financially secure hey? He sounds that kind of a man.’
‘Oh yes he did. I don’t have to worry on that score. It’s the loneliness that’s the hardest,’ she knew she sounded frail and sad.
‘So you don’t have any family then? he asked, ‘ You don’t have anyone to keep you right?’
‘Not really’ she replied. ‘Our daughter, Allison, emigrated to New Zealand. She tries but she’s so far away. We talk on the phone but she’s busy. She’s got her own life, you know how it is.’ Even to herself it sounded like she was making excuses for her daughter.
‘Any photo’s?’ asked Steve
‘But you don’t want to be looking at photo’s of my family, surely?’
They spent the next half hour leafing through an old photograph album from the eighties with the young man complimenting everything.
Eventually, having ascertained that the daughter was not going to interfere here, Steve suggested that they get back to business. Immediately the old lady tensed and he hastened to reassure her.
‘Don’t worry about the science Betty, let’s look at the facts shall we?’ Reaching into his brief-case he pulled out a file and began to peruse it. ‘Just remind me what your post code is?’
‘It’s BD12…er..yes BD12 6AR. Or is it 6AT? BD12 6AT, or AR. Oh dear…’ Jesus, she was worse than he’d thought.
‘Not to worry Betty I’ve got it here, BD12 6RA, right then let’s see. Oh.’ he frowned. ‘You know this is a high crime area Betty?’ Betty’s alarm showed in her creased face. ‘You’ve been lucky to avoid a break in so far. Your Jack would be happy that we’re making your house nice and secure now that you’re all alone’. She was so gullible it was almost unfair.
Finally he worked out some calculations and beamed at her. She was definitely worth a punt. ‘Right Betty with everything taken into consideration we can get you safe, warm and secure for twenty-two thousand six hundred and forty two pounds. How does that sound?’ The shock appeared to have stunned the old hag into silence and she stared into his eyes. ‘This is quality equipment Betty. There’s no-one else who makes windows to this standard. Remember the science?’ Betty closed her mouth and nodded, apparently still unable to speak as Steve smoothly continued. ‘I think, given the crime rate in this area that we should press on and get it done sooner rather than later Betty, so if you just sign here we can get everything started’ he treated her to his most dazzling smile and showed her where to sign. She hesitated. ‘You can’t put a price on safety Betty, but I know it does sound a lot.’ He mused over the papers for a moment then said ‘You know what Betty, I wonder if we can get any discounts applied’. He rummaged in the briefcase again and withdrew a questionnaire. ‘Let’s see if any of these can be ‘juggled’ for you.’ he grinned and Betty nodded.
‘Let’s see. Is there a gym or fitness centre nearby Betty?’ The old lady looked blank.
‘But it’s six miles to the village,’ she began ‘there’s nothing like that here.’
Steve winked at her ‘Ah but I saw a sign for a golf course on the road, that’s a sports facility isn’t it? Great that qualifies for a discount. What about a bus service?’
‘Once a week’ she was doubtful, ‘will that count?’
‘It counts to me and that’s what matters,’ he added another tick to the sheet. ‘I’ve added a couple of other things as well. My prerogative Betty, my prerogative. Now what have we got?’
He noticed she held her breath and actually crossed her fingers as he adjusted the calculations. He whistled, shook his head and muttered ‘that can’t be right,’ then smiled at her. ‘We’ve got it down to just over twenty thousand Betty. That’s a discount of over two and a half thousand pounds. Isn’t that great?’
‘Two and a half thousand pounds!’ she was excited now. Again he pushed the contract towards her but pulled it back as she reached for it.
‘Wait a minute Betty. I’ve had an idea.’ He looked intently into her watery blue eyes and nodded.
‘What?’ gasped Betty ‘what?’
‘Bear with me Betty’. God he loved this. Check and check-mate.
Betty watched as he reached into his jacket, withdrew a mobile phone and dialled.
‘I’m phoning my boss’ he informed her. ‘Pete? Hi, it’s Steve. I’m with Mrs Beckwith. Yeah I know. OK but I’ll catch up, I know I’m behind.’ He shook his head and pulled a face at Betty to indicate that he was in trouble. She listened to him apologising to his boss then heard him say ‘I wondered if I could use my bonus to get her a further discount?’ There was a pause then he grinned at her. ‘Excellent, see you later Pete, thanks. Bye.’ He put the phone down with a flourish. ‘Bingo! Now I’ve got you a real discount’.
‘But surely not your bonus?’ her chin wobbled, ‘Are you sure?’
‘I want to Betty. I want to help.’
Grabbing the papers once more he calculated and scribbled. ‘The sum total is eighteen thousand seven hundred and twenty-seven ponds,’ he announced. ‘That’s nearly five thousand pounds discount!’
‘Five thousand!’ she echoed as he pushed the contact towards her again. ‘My goodness, five thousand pounds discount! Imagine!’ she took the silver pen and paused with her hand just above the signature box. She noted the look of triumph on his face, his anticipation. She smiled up at him as he leaned towards her. ‘But it’s still much more than the others.’ She laid the pen on the contract and gazed at Steve.
‘Yes, the other window companies’.
‘The other window companies?’ Now he was looking stupid and she was disappointed in him. He’d been doing so well.
‘Oh yes. Jack always got a few quotes for a job.’ He looked dazed.
‘Quotes.Yes. Of course. Quotes. How many?’
‘You’re number seven,’ she smiled and recited a list of companies.
Steve was reeling. The old bat’s eyes no longer looked watery and weak. In fact he could see a steely glint. The feeling of desperation was new to him. He could hear her talking. About how she’d had a lovely afternoon and really enjoyed his company. How nice it was to have visitors. Steve shook his head as he saw the vast commission slipping away. No. He must be mistaken.
‘What can I do Betty? What will it take for you to sign the contract today?’
Still she prattled on. He begged. She was resolute.
‘Oh no dear. Those awful upvc doors haven’t got half the character of my old oak door and I’m fond of the sash windows, which is just as well,’ she played her trump card ‘because the cottage is listed.’ She chuckled. ‘ I’m not allowed to change them. Anyway I’m leaving in a couple of months.’
‘Leaving?’ He was stupefied.
‘Emigrating. I’m off to live with my daughter in New Zealand. Would you like to see some more photos? It’s a beautiful place.’
‘Photos! I’ve been here all afternoon! Why would I want to look at photos!’ ‘Cake?’ asked Betty.
Four hours after arriving Steve departed. Betty followed him to his car and waved as he drove away. He didn’t wave back. She strode back to the house swinging the walking stick like a majorette. As she settled down with a gin and tonic the phone rang. Telemarketing. They had bothered her since Jack had died. She’d stopped wondering how they knew. The salesman was aggressively pushy and Betty conceded to a home visit the following Wednesday.
Later in the evening Allison phoned as usual.
‘Hello darling, I’ve had a lovely afternoon with a handsome young man called Steve, from Impact Double Glazing’. She heard Allison laughing.
‘Mum you’re a disgrace. Who did you play this time?’
‘Oh no specific character, I just reacted to his cues. I got four hours out of him.’
‘I could almost feel sorry for them.’
‘I’ve got Solar panels coming next week. I might break out that blonde wig.’
‘Mum!’ scolded Allison. ‘Anyway if you get online I’ll Skype you. ’
‘Ok love, will do.
They laughed together over the wires then hung up. Putting her G&T aside Betty took her i-mac from the Queen Anne Bureau, flipped it open and logged on.