I didn’t mean to do it,’ he says, staring down at his hands.
I watch the way he lifts his hands, how white and red and strong they look, and then I wipe down the table with a blue cloth and carry his plates to the kitchen. I don’t say anything because every time I do he shoots me one of those looks. Sometimes I think he thinks my words are infected with something, diseases or tiny black bugs. He stands slowly, sliding his feet over the carpet, and goes over to the window. He stretches his hands out and places them on the glass. It’s foggy and thick outside but it’s hot, the sky blindingly white, and my skin prickles with sweat. He sighs loudly and turns to look at me, except I can tell he’s not really looking at me. His eyes are glassy and they make me think of all the dishes I have to wash, all the food I need to scrap off plates. If I leave the plates for too long, ants start to crawl over them and my insides feel dirty.
‘It’s not my fault,’ he whispers, frowning and pushing his lips into a funny shape. He twists his white sausage fingers together. ‘Boys will be boys, you know.’ I nod, although I don’t know, and watch his moustache lift up slightly every time he speaks. He tilts his head back and forth.
‘I have to clean the kitchen,’ I say, without really saying it. My words are swollen, sitting at the back of my throat. He unlocks his fingers and comes towards me.
‘Do you believe me?’ His hands are shaking and I stare at them, imagining that they’re filled with something, maybe animals, lions ready to pounce. He puts his hand on my shoulder and I feel his trembles on my skin. ‘Do you believe me?’ he says again, leaning in so that his breath spreads itself across my cheek. I don’t know what to say so I keep my mouth shut and our eyes lock together instead. He has blue eyes but not blue like the colour of the sky or even the colour of the ocean. They’re a cold type of blue, almost grey, and they’re hard and steely. My eyes are brown and people used to tell me they were beautiful. I don’t know if they are. ‘I need you to believe me.’
I shrug and try to step away. He pushes harder on my shoulder, until his nails are digging into my skin. I wonder what would happen if my skin burst, if I suddenly started to bleed out over everything. Would he call the ambulance? Or would he keep me here, spilling out over everything, as some kind of sick fetish? I’ve read the newspapers, seen all the allegations. I know what he’s like. Why am I still here? And yet the question has such an obvious answer. I need the money.
‘I don’t know,’ I finally say, letting the words escape out of my mouth and into the air around us. I watch him, the way he seems to stare at my words, the way they sweep round us. ‘I don’t know much about it,’ I continue. ‘My job is just to help with the cleaning. I don’t pay attention to the news.’
‘The news get things wrong, you know,’ he says, releasing his grip on me and turning back to the window. He presses his face up against the glass and I imagine his eyes turning to liquid, skidding down to the ground. ‘And even if I did do it, I didn’t mean to.’
He keeps saying that, muttering it under his breath, pulling his fingers up to the glass and then down again. I fill the sink with warm, soapy water and take a stained plate and push my sponge onto it. I like the way the water makes my hands feel, soft and warm, like they have a purpose. A place to be.
‘It’s a boy thing,’ he says, sounding far away. ‘I mean, they were my boys. I had a special relationship with them. They wanted it.’
I push my hands further into the water, until I can’t see them again, and stand still. He works as a professor in a university. I always wanted to go to university.
‘They always want it. Did you know sometimes I paint them?’
I pull my hands out of the water and dry them with a red and white striped tea towel.
‘It’s true,’ he says. ‘With oil paints. I like oil painting. When I was a kid I used to do it a lot in church. My dad would run the Sunday school sessions. Did you ever go to church?’
‘Um,’ I say. ‘Do you want something to drink?’
‘No, I’m serious, Shay!’ He moves his hands erratically and looks at me. ‘God, Jesus Christ and all that. Do you believe?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say again, picking at a piece of dry skin on my arm. Yesterday I went to the beach with Pop and we lay on the sand and felt the coarse grains on our bodies. Pop bought icy-poles the size of our hands and they melted almost straight away and when we looked at the sky, it was blue and white and it made us smile. We watched the seagulls in the clouds, the way it looked like they were sitting on top of them.
‘I don’t believe,’ he says. ‘Some of the boys did though. It’s important to have something to believe in.’
‘Okay,’ I say, thinking of Pop’s face, how wide his grin was at the beach, how it seemed to cartwheel around his face.
‘Why are you even here?’ he asks. ‘Everyone else has left. They think I’m guilty. That I did it. But why would I do it, hmm? Why would I risk everything?’ He’s got this look in his eyes, this mad pink and red look, like he’s going to be sick, like his insides are going to start throwing themselves out of him, like his bones are going to dismantle, fall to the floor.
‘Why are you even here Shay? What are you doing here? Go home!’ He’s suddenly yelling, his feet coming down hard on the carpet, and I’m thinking again of Pop, of how he doesn’t have long, of how every dollar counts. He drops his voice again, and it’s sitting on the carpet, sloshing near our feet. When he picks it up, he sounds little and unsure. ‘Do you think the boys will ever forgive me? Because forgiveness is part of the Bible.’ He’s standing in front of me now, waiting for an answer. But I don’t have any answers.
‘You’re making me uncomfortable,’ I say. He twitches and looks me up and down. His gaze sticks to me and I close my eyes for a second and in the darkness, I see Pop and he’s telling me to leave, he’s pointing to the door but I don’t feel able to move.
‘Oh?’ He folds his arms across his chest and doesn’t say anything. I wonder what he’s thinking, what thoughts are shooting through his mind. It takes me a moment to realise he’s crying, that there are tears streaming down his face. He slips down onto the floor and suddenly looks tiny. His body heaves.
‘I’m going home,’ I say, fumbling in my pocket for my car keys.
He looks up and sniffs. ‘Will you come back? Shay? They’re going to send me to prison. I can’t go to prison. Please Shay, please don’t go.’ He looks up at me, his eyes thick with tears.
‘I’m going home,’ I say again but I don’t move.
‘I’m not ready for prison,’ he says again. ‘I can’t go to prison.’
‘Pop is dying,’ I say, looking at him and screwing my eyes up. ‘And you deserve to go to prison.’
‘But the boys wanted it. They wanted it, Shay.’
‘They weren’t old enough to know what they wanted.’ He doesn’t react the way I thought he would. He doesn’t even look up. He sits and threads a loose bit of cotton from his shorts through his fingers instead.
‘Maybe,’ he says. And I’m not sure what he means by that but I pick up my bag and move across to the door. ‘What is your Pop dying from?’ he asks.
‘Cancer,’ I say quickly. ‘You’re not a good person, you know.’ I don’t know where these words are coming from, or why I’m saying them but all of a sudden I can’t stop them spilling out of me.
He snorts. ‘I gave you a job, didn’t I? I can’t be that bad.’
‘As basically a maid,’ I say. ‘You gave me a job as a maid. Am I meant to be grateful? You don’t even pay me very much.’
‘A job’s a job,’ he says. ‘You didn’t have to take it.’
I roll my eyes and look back towards the kitchen. ‘Fuck you,’ I say. Then I reach out for the door handle and swing the door open, into the day. I hear him yelling after me but I don’t turn round. I have nothing to say to him. He has too much to say.
I walk slowly, thinking of Pop, of how his days are limited and how my days spread out before me. Sighing, I spin round on my heel and walk back to his house. He opens the door and looks at me, confusion scattered all over his face.
‘You’re back,’ he says. ‘Did you forget something?’ His voice is full of sharp edges. I shake my head. I mumble sorry even though of course I’m not sorry.
Later, after I’ve cleaned the bathroom and made the bed, I sit down on the couch next to him. He’s watching television, the sound turned up high, his arms crossed tightly over his chest.
‘I was on the news, you know,’ he says, without looking at me. I’m glad he isn’t looking at me because my eyes are pink, from crying. Being here makes me cry. I think of the boys, the boys he calls my boys and I feel like I can’t breathe properly. I know I shouldn’t be here. I don’t want to be here. But I need to help pay for Pop’s operation. I scoop my long dark hair up into my hands and then let go again, staring down at the floor. At all the bits of fluff.
‘Okay,’ I say.
‘Why aren’t you afraid?’ he asks. He continues to stare directly ahead and I get the feeling he’s avoiding my face, that he doesn’t want to see the look in my eyes. ‘How do you know I’m not going to, you know, to you?’
I shake my head, close my hands together, and swing my body until it’s facing his. My shoulders feel as though they’re made of sand.
‘I don’t,’ I say. ‘And I am afraid.’
He turns, very slowly, pulling his glasses off his face and rubbing them with his t-shirt. ‘Oh.’
‘I need the money.’
Money. The word hangs in the air, like it doesn’t belong there, and it feels like my insides are swinging around, that I’m coming undone, that I need a needle and thread.
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Okay.’
He jerks his body round so that it’s facing mine as well. His head is in his hands and he whispers, his voice sounding as though it doesn’t belong in his mouth.
On the television, they’re showing footage of police cars, sirens screaming, stern policewomen and tired policemen. I watch the cars for a while, they way they scamper up and down the streets, and then I look outside, at the rain that is beginning to fall, and close my eyes. Next to me, he breathes slowly, the words sorry and mistake wrapping round his body. I want to tell him it will be okay but it won’t be. Not for him, not for the boys, not for Pop, not for me. Not by a long shot. The rain rubs itself against the house. The wind is wild.