That same afternoon, little Rita was in the middle of doing her regular afternoon tea round at the Three Elms. At times it seemed she was harnessed to the old, heavy tea-trolley, topped by its stainless steel tea and coffee urns, rattling crockery, plates of out of date biscuits and jugs of milk spilling.
Rita Zielinski was twenty-three years old and had escaped from a remote Polish village that offered no prospects and determined to find wealth and fame in London. She was short in height and plump; her head was round with double chin and with her first month’s wage had had her hair dyed blond. In her simple mind she was convinced that being blond – like the vast majority celebs’ she saw in the glossies - would aid her on her quest to celebrity status. On her lips, bright red lipstick, her fingernails caked in chocolate brown nail varnish.
Upon leaving school with only a basic education she’d taken the only job on offer to her – working in a nearby cheese-making dairy at the end of her impoverished village. The work was repetitive and she seemed to carry the smell of cheese wherever she went - even on days off! But Rita had access to a steady supply of glossy celebrity gossip magazines imported in from England that had fed her dull imagination over cups of coffee in the work’s canteen while puffing on cigarettes. The carefully staged air-brushed photos and stories of the glamorous and successful filled her head with impossible dreams. Of super-models partying on the yachts of millionaires to the fabulous tales of footballers’ wives talking about their jet set life styles while displaying cavernous wardrobes stuffed with the latest fashions.
A satellite dish on the family home roof plucked dozens of western channels that further filled her head that a glamorous life-style awaited anyone with enough money saved to take the coach to England. Yes, she decided on a grey and cold November day in 2007, she would go to England, to London – and live the life like the people in ‘Hello’ magazine. What little English she spoke had been learnt at school, but she’d proved a lazy pupil.
Her parents approved the venture only as long as she sent regular money home via Western Union to help support the family. Without a farewell hug and kiss from her indifferent parents she’d left the family home and had taken the local bus to the nearest railway station and onward to Warsaw. There she’d taken the coach with more young people who simply wanted a better-paid job.
It was the girl she sat next to on the coach and who was making a return trip to England who was able to enlighten Rita on the reality of working in the UK. Undeterred by her companion’s experience, and determined not to return to that shitty cheese dairy and village life, she took the address of the Three Elms care home given to her by her companion and who’d explained.
‘The job is shit. The money is lousy, but you get accommodation and food. Use the job to find your feet, and then move on to something better. Maybe factory work. Pay is better – What do you want to do in London? What sort of job you after?’
‘I want to become one of these celebrities,’ she said with certainty, pointing to the magazine on her lap and a picture of Madonna at some big social event. Her companion looked at her anew, saw that she was serious, then turned her gaze out of the coach window to stare at the flat countryside flashing by.
The following day, travel weary and not a little frightened, she found herself at a drab Victoria bus station. An expensive taxi ride finally deposited her at the Three Elms and where there were always staff vacancies.
Rita hated the job as a care worker as much as she had her old job back in Poland. The last thing she wanted was to be working with these shitty sick and old people waiting to die. Some of them stank from their own urine – Some even shit themselves and she would have to help take them to the bathroom and clean them up.
At meal times she would have even have to wait on them, even spoon feed that man called Arthur – slobbering and coughing! This was not the glamorous life she’d come to London for. But in her free time she would lock herself in her cramped room at the top of the home, puff on endless cigarettes and eat cream cakes pinched from the residents and leaf through a clutch of celebrity magazines that was keeping her dream alive.
At Alfie’s room she knocked on his door and to his ‘Who is it?’ replied.
‘Me, Rita – You want tea?’
‘Come in, darling.’
She opened the door, turned her back to the room and pulled in the tea trolley. After closing the door and without invitation she slouched wearily down on the nearest chair, plucked a half-smoked cigarette from her overall pocket and lit it.
Alfie was stretched out fully clothed on his bed, hands under his head, watching a pornographic DVD on his television.
‘Shouldn’t be smoking in the rooms!’ chided Alfie gently without taking his eyes off the screen. ‘If Gloria finds out, she’ll smack your lovely bottom.’
‘And you shouldn’t be watching dirty porno DVD’s – You naughty boy, Alfie.’ She chided in return. ‘Anyway, she not here,’ Rita continued with disinterest, desperate for a smoke. ‘She gone to hairdresser in that big black Mercedes. Every Wednesday afternoon she spend big money on stupid hair.’ And through a grunt. ‘She waste money on having her hair done every week at her age.’ It was only after she’d washed the remainder of her cigarette down the hand basin that she finally asked. ‘Okay, you want tea, yes?’
‘Oh, yes please, darling,’ replied Alfie, now fully engrossed in the torrid sex act being played out on the DVD that had a horny coloured man about to have sex with what appeared a naive adolescent school girl, dressed in skimpy uniform and wearing stockings and suspenders.
After filling a teacup she carried it over to him while herself now taking interest in the sexual act about to begin on the screen. Alfie struggled to a sitting up position on the bed and took the cup of lukewarm tea, with Rita in her matter-of-fact tone suggesting.
‘I see you feeling like some fucky-fucky this afternoon, Alfie, yes?’
While taking a sip of tea he winked at her and inclined his head to where an open packet of Viagra lay on his bedside table. After reviving himself with more sips he put the cup and saucer down and without invitation reached out a hand and placed it between her legs and began caressing the upper part, his stubby fingers inching up to her knickers. She gave him a smile of encouragement, checked her watch and said.
‘We’ll have to be quick, Alfie – Gloria be back at four – You want feel my tits first?’
Ten minutes later she was buttoning up her front and then slipping on her knickers. She found this little arrangement with naughty Alfie to her advantage. Her dispensing of sex to him on this occasion had him slipping her ten pounds that would help towards buying the latest mobile phone technology. Without washing her hands she tidied up the biscuits and began to haul the tea trolley from the room, with Alfie calling after her.
‘By the way, Rita, your cousin Feliks. Is he still working on security at the National Art gallery?’
She gave a vague shrug of her round shoulders.
‘Was when I last talked to him, about a week ago.’
‘Be a darling, next time you’re passing, drop his mobile number off.’
‘Why you want Feliks’ number?’ questioned Rita suspiciously.
‘’Cause I need to get more DVD’s from him,’ winked Alfie….
* * *
Danny thanked God that he was not teaching art at the college that evening. The lunchtime drinks with Agnes and Alfie had left his head befuddled and his public encounter with Leslie had completely unnerved him and had sent his self-confidence plummeting. Without self-confidence no artist can work, let alone succeed, no more than someone wanting to climb fucking Mount Everest – You just fucking fall off.
When first married, Leslie had kind of understood what he was seeking in his art, but when her own dreams had not materialised, and with a child to bring up, she’d turned to him as the breadwinner. Then his dreams, too, had taken knocks. London through the boom years of the 90’s had seen an explosion of new galleries, promising futures to young and emerging artists like himself, but in the end most had failed and Danny himself had retreated to safer ground of teaching art to adults in order to pay even for the basics in life. Yes, he’d enjoyed some success, such as having paintings in the Royal Academy’s summer shows and would often make sales. The corporate world of art had been another valued source and he’d been able to sell paintings for thousands of pounds apiece, but these blips of success had grown less in the past two years as the contemporary art market had stalled with the rest of the economy and he’d had to often return to the Job Centre to sign on and go through the humiliating procedure of pretending to be looking for work while spending his days in his rented studio turning out paintings that eventually no one wanted – Eventually to save money he had to give up the studio and turn one bedroom of the flat into a pokey studio.
He’d not seen a lot of Leslie since she’d walked out with Claire to take up a new life with some bloke she’d met in a wine bar and claimed to be some big-shot property developer, but clearly that relationship had failed and she was again seeking him out for both money - and now a divorce!
It was at this point that he reached for his mobile, brought up the number of the latest gallery he was with and rang. It was answered by the bright voice of Julia Golding –
‘Danny – Oh, it’s great to hear from you. In fact only talking about you to a potential buyer couple of days ago – ‘
‘Yes. A lovely couple up from Brighton. Saw your work and immediately fell in love with it – ‘ Danny’s hopes should have been raised at this point, but he’d heard this pitch many times over during the past year –
‘Have they bought any of my work in the gallery?’ He knew the answer, but felt obliged to play the stupid game.
‘Really liked your Thames river scene at Chelsea. Spent a long time looking at it – Very Van Goghish - ‘ Bollocks, he thought, there was that mention of Van Gogh again!
‘Did they buy it?’ Danny again asked.
‘Sadly not on the day, darling, but promised to come back when next up in London,’ replied Julia in that fucking PR tone that never betrayed her suppressed pessimism. ‘But your paintings are receiving a lot of attention. Oh, and I’m putting you forward for a brand new prestigious art prize that’s coming up soon at the Mall Galleries.’ Then with her tone dropping a little. ‘Unfortunately, darling, it will incur some costs – you know, entry fee, promotional work I’ll need to do, along with publicity to get your name in the art press. If you could send me a down payment of three hundred pounds – ‘
‘I’m flat broke, Julia,’ said Danny with honesty. ‘I need some sales and quick’
‘Sales are flat at the moment I’m afraid, darling,’ she finally admitted. ‘Galleries are folding like nine pins. Last week two more went in the West End alone.’
His call to Julia left him even more depressed, and with the global economy apparently in free-fall, art was a luxury and always the first to suffer in any down turn – And this down turn was being hailed as the mother of all fucking down turns according to the BBC’s cleaver pundit Robert Peston – At least soon he’d be able to publish a book on the subject that would secure his bloody future pension! No wonder he always appeared so fucking cheerful when delivering the latest bad news on the economy!
* * *
It was raining again outside. Cold trickles running down the window – At least it should keep Leslie off the bastard streets, thought Danny to himself, sitting on his couch, nursing a cup of tasteless coffee and turning everything over in his by now numb head.
After his recent discussion with his gallery, it seemed he was again up another blind alley with his painting – No future, no prospects, and Leslie was again on the scene! If only he could get the money together and finally move to Cyprus – to paint in a warmer climate, free from the stresses of living in fucking London with its high living costs and foul weather into the bargain! He’d been nourishing this ambition since Leslie had left. It had helped to focus his art, keep him working at it. Yes, just a few good sales and he’d be on a flight to Cyprus. Just a couple of fucking good sales!
He had not grieved over his failed marriage. The passion he and Leslie had shared in the early years of marriage had slowly evaporated and they’d increasingly grown apart – She had become more and more bitter and angry at his lack of success and himself more frustrated and angry at an art world that was quickly passing him by.