“Fabian, I've been dying to meet you. I think you’re fabulous and sooo good looking.” The young rock star was startled by Margaret's sudden speech, but when he looked at her face, he gasped, held out his arm to her then blurted out.
“You . . . you are the one . . . the girl whose face has been haunting my dreams. I can’t believe I’ve finally found you. Come, we must get to know each other better.”
Margaret was thrilled, but she wished she had been able to change out of her school uniform, and she made a mental note not to turn her back on him because there was a run in her black nylons. She smiled in what she hoped was a devastating way and followed her idol into the house.
Margaret entered through a small side door and collided with Jennifer in the dark hall. “What are you doing, Dumbo?” Margaret snapped, “You know Mum said no running inside the house!”
“Be quiet! Don't call me that, or I'm telling. Mum told me to run and get the sponge she left in the downstairs bathroom, so I am!” And with that she bounded down the stairs towards the basement rooms.
Margaret pursed her lips and rolled her eyes, “Kids!” She pushed into the kitchen filled with the aroma of cooking onion.
“Hi, Mum! What smells so good?” The one thing Margaret liked about her mother running the rooming house near the University of Toronto was that she was there most days when Margaret arrived home from ninth grade at an all-girls high school.
“I'm making Shepherd's Pie. How was your day?”
“Same old stuff. Except that there's a rumor going around that our Latin teacher didn't come back after Christmas because she's pregnant. Isn't that awful? She's not even married!”
“Maybe it's not true. Don't believe everything you hear, Margaret. Change out of your uniform. Someone's coming to see 2C this evening. I've finished the room, but I need you to give the bathroom a once-over before you start your homework.”
Margaret wrinkled her nose. “I hate bathrooms,” she mumbled as she walked through the living room to the bedroom she shared with her mother and sister. These three rooms were their own private world. Their bathroom, down the hall, was shared by the other tenants on the first floor.
A few minutes later she emerged wearing black slacks and one of her father's old white shirts. He had been dead just over a year and she felt close to him when wearing it.
“Why am I so fat?” she sighed.
Her mother smiled fondly. “Don't worry, you'll get thinner when you hit your mid-teens, but you're not fat you're . . .”
“I know ‘just well-built!’” Margaret rolled her eyes in exasperation, then laughed as her mother flicked a tea towel at her saying,
“Get going, dinner will be ready soon!”
Margaret ran up the back stairs with scouring powder, sponges and a toilet brush. After knocking tentatively on the door, she tried the handle. It was locked, and then she heard a flush.
Oh my God! Margaret thought as she blushed and backed up when she saw who stepped through the door.
“Hi!” Twenty-year old Eddie smiled nonchalantly at her as he walked down the hall to his room.
“Damn! Why couldn't it have been Dr. 'Ram or Mrs. Belken?” she fumed as she sprinkled powder in the sink. Eddie was sooo cute and she had seized every opportunity to watch him since he had moved in three months ago. He was tall and blonde and slender, just like Fabian—everything she idolized in a man. How embarrassing it was to meet him coming from the toilet! She scrubbed furiously, stopping in one corner over a stubborn spot—then froze.
She felt a pair of muscular arms slide around her waist and warm breath on the back of her neck.
“Margaret, I've been waiting to catch you alone like this,” Eddie breathed into her hair. “You smell wonderful!” His arms tightened and she felt her heart melt as he began to nibble at her neck. She turned slowly to face him.
“Oh, Eddie,” she sighed. “I've waited too, hoping you'd somehow know how I've felt about you all these months.”
He kissed her then, softly, tenderly as she rubbed her hands along his back, wiping the gritty cleansing powder on his sweater. Then she remembered that it contained bleach and pictured white finger streaks on his dark blue sweater, so she began little rapid, patting, circular motions, trying to brush it off again. Eddie's kisses became more passionate and his mouth dropped to her throat, then down to the open neck of her shirt. His fingers found the top button, but he stopped, gazed deeply into her eyes, and took her hand.
“Come!” He led her into the hallway then turned and swept her off her feet, kissing her as he carried her down the hall towards his room. Halfway there, his arms began to sag, and he gently set her on her feet again. Margaret smiled, wishing once more she was thinner. At the door he fumbled his key in the lock, then pushed it open and drew her inside.
Margaret sighed, refocused on the stubborn spot and continued scrubbing. Next was the toilet. She hated toilets, so she scrubbed fast and furious. She finished, flushed and banged down the lid. Gathering up her cleaning materials she decided to take the scenic route—down the front stairs. Her heart leapt as she glanced at Eddie's closed door, but he didn't appear. She continued down the broad staircase with the carved mahogany balustrade, lifting her chin and picturing a Victorian bride sweeping down the stairs. She almost bumped into Charles from 3A on his way home from classes.
“Oh, hi Charles,” she said flatly.
He was short with dark curly hair, twenty-one, and going to be a priest. He sometimes came down to watch their television and had long boring discussions with her mother. He also seemed to delight in teasing her, saying she reminded him of his little sister.
“Margaret! What are you doing on this side of the house? Hoping to catch a glimpse of Eddie!” he whispered with a wink.
“Be quiet!” Margaret threw him a poisonous scowl and flounced down the stairs.
Her mother was on the phone when the doorbell rang that evening, so she motioned at Margaret to answer the door. After smoothing down her hair and tucking in her sweater she raced along the hallway to the front door and opened it.
“Hi, I’m Todd Brennan. I've come about the room you have for rent.”
She looked up into the bluest eyes she had ever seen. He smiled and his even white teeth glinted in the entryway light.
“Of course, come in.” She stepped back, straightening her shoulders, which she knew had the effect of making her bust stick out. She tried to sound very official and adult.
“I'm Margaret. My mother will be out in a moment. She's on a long distance phone call and asked me to start showing you around.”
Margaret stared at his handsome chiseled face framed by wavy blonde hair. He was gorgeous.
“This is the entry hall,” she indicated the wide space around them, and then she walked up the broad staircase, swaying her hips in her best imitation of Marilyn Monroe.
“House rules are that all visitors must be out by 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends.” She hoped she sounded mature and sophisticated.
She opened the door of the large room that was 2C. It had a fireplace, neatly made twin beds, a couch, two easy chairs, and a table with two upright chairs set under a tall window. It was larger and better furnished than their living room downstairs.
“It's fully furnished and we hand out one clean sheet and pillowcase for each bed every Saturday morning.” Margaret had strolled up to the fireplace as she talked, while Todd looked around. She positioned herself at one end, and by raising herself slightly on her toes, she was able to casually drape her arm along the mantel while she watched the back of Todd's neck.
She continued her description, “The kitchen and bathroom are down...”
Slowly Todd turned around, and his eyes locked on hers. Instantly a current ran between them. He took two steps towards her, then stopped. He swallowed, overcome by emotion, then spoke quietly, passionately, “I've been waiting all my life for this moment!”
Margaret caught her breath and whispered, “I know, I feel it too.” She slowly removed her arm from the mantel and opened both her arms wide. He rushed to her embrace, covering her face with small kisses. She leaned her head back a little, trying to keep her hair off her face so he didn't keep getting it caught in his mouth. She linked her arms around his neck, leaning into his embrace. She eyed the couch beside her and shuffled sideways trying to position herself so she could drop back on it pulling him on top of her. Todd was breathing heavily as his hands raced in circles around her back.
Suddenly, through the door walked Margaret's mother.
“ . . . and bathroom are down the hall,” Margaret finished saying.
From across the room Todd's eyes switched from Margaret's face to the older woman. “You must be Mrs McGillicuddy. Hi. I'm Todd Brennan, we talked on the phone.” They smiled at each other and shook hands, and Margaret let her arm drop from the mantel.
“Have you seen the kitchen yet?”
“No, your daughter just mentioned that it’s down the hall.” Todd smiled at Margaret then followed her mother out into the hallway. Margaret sighed, shrugged, and ran downstairs to finish her homework.
One Saturday morning several weeks later, Margaret was put in charge of the sheet exchange because her mother was serving at a wedding reception at her part-time job in the University Women's Club. Margaret waited patiently for Todd or Eddie to pick up their sheets.
“Oh, hi.” She spoke in a monotone as Charles appeared at the door.
“How are you doing today, Margaret?” Charles smiled as he handed over his and his roommate's dirty linen.
“OK, I guess,” Margaret replied, dumping the sheets on the floor behind her. She picked up a clean replacement sheet, tested the weight to determine the correct size, then passed it to him.
“Where's your mother?”
“Working. She'll be back around 4. Why?” She handed him the second sheet and two pillowcases.
“There's a Mozart concert on T.V. tonight, and I was wondering if she'd let me watch it with her. I'll come back later and ask. Thanks.” Charles hefted the clean linen and left.
Boring, boring, boring! And short! Margaret thought as she shut the kitchen door.
From her position stretched out on the floor in front of the television, Jennifer whined, “Isn't there anything else on!”
“Jennifer, this is beautiful music, you should learn to appreciate it. Besides, it's your bedtime, so go get ready.”
Jennifer groaned but did as she was told. Margaret was getting restless too, but had learned the longer she stayed quiet, the later she stayed up. However, when the concert ended an hour later she was struggling to suppress her yawns.
“Thanks, Mrs McGillicuddy. Van Cliburn is a favorite of mine; I haven't heard him play in months.”
Her mother smiled warmly, “Oh don't mention it. I enjoyed it too. Glad to have your company.”
“Goodnight. And goodnight, Margaret. I hope you weren't too bored!” Charles smiled.
“What do you mean bored? I enjoyed every minute of it! What do you think I am, a child?”
Charles just smiled at her and turned to leave as she stared daggers into his back.
Later that evening Margaret awoke as her mother got up out of bed. “What's the matter, Mum?”
“Shhh. Don't wake Jennifer. I can hear music coming from down the hall. I think it's Mr. Cook again.” She buttoned her robe.
Slipping out of bed, Margaret followed her through the darkness, to the door of their kitchen.
“Stay there,” her mother said.
She watched her mother pad softly down the dimly lit hallway. Light was streaming from under the door of 1B, and she could hear laughter and music. Her mother knocked gently at first, then louder. The music softened, then light flooded the hall as Mr. Cook opened his door. Margaret could only catch the occasional whispered word.
“Mr. Cook . . . no visitors after midnight . . . other tenants . . . young students . . . “
There was a murmur as Mr. Cook leaned down and good-naturedly patted her shoulder. “Ahhh, Mrs. Mac, come on . . . just this once. . . Oh, all right.” Giggling, two women and a man wobbled their way towards the front door. Margaret heard the door shut and the bolt slide into place.
“Good night, Mr. Cook.” Her mother spoke resolutely to the man still lounging against his doorway.
“No hard feelings, eh Mrs. Mac?” He draped an arm over her shoulder, “After all, we Brits must stick together!”
Margaret saw her mother's face illuminated by the light from his room. When he was sober, Mr. Cook was a pleasant, polite man, but when he was drunk he became “difficult”, her mother said.
“All right, Mr. Cook, now let’s both get some sleep.” She smiled as she gently removed his arm and turned back towards her own rooms. She stepped inside the kitchen, closed the door, held up her finger to Margaret for silence, then softly reopened the door. They listened. After a few moments they heard a scraping sound.
“I thought so. The Divil! He's got them climbing in the window.” With that, Margaret’s mother marched back down the hallway and knocked grimly on the door. It opened and Mr. Cook loomed as a dark shadow.
Margaret heard her mother speak firmly but holding to a whisper, ever aware of the other tenants. “I must insist that your friends leave immediately. I can't have this kind of activity in this house. We have students and single women staying here. You agreed to the rules when I rented you this room.”
Margaret was proud of her mother for standing up to the man. But her pride turned to fear as she heard him shout back.
“Wait a minute, Mrs. McGillicuddy, I'm not one of your damn students! I'm a grown man entitled to some of life's little pleasures!” His voice boomed through the house as his friends stood in a bewildered huddle in his doorway. From upstairs Margaret heard movement, then the sound of doors opening as he continued to shout. Frightened, she walked cautiously closer, not sure how she could help.
When the big man backed her mother into the main entry hall, shaking his finger in her face, Margaret hurried forward. Just then Charles rushed down the stairs and positioned himself between her mother and Mr. Cook.
He spoke quietly, looking straight up at the big man. “Don't talk to Mrs. McGillicuddy that way. It's her job to enforce the rules of the house.”
Glancing up at the staircase, Margaret saw Eddie and Todd hanging over the balustrade, watching.
“Get out of my way, you little twerp!” Mr. Cook shoved Charles and he sprawled on the carpet. As he struggled to rise, Mr. Cook towered over him yelling, “Who do you think you are? Stay out of this or I'll knock you silly!”
Todd and Eddie started down the stairs as Margaret’s mother turned to her. “Call the police!” she commanded.
As Margaret turned to run down the hallway she caught a glimpse of Charles getting up and could hear Mr. Cook pleading, “Ahhh Mrs Mac, I didn't mean any harm. He's OK, aren't you mate?”
Two officers arrived just as Mr. Cook's friends drove off. Margaret was sent to bed—like a child!' she thought—while the adults went into 1B to discuss the incident.
She lay on her bed and mulled over what had happened. Charles had certainly surprised her; she didn't think he could be that brave. She felt a new warmth and respect for him, but she was disappointed that neither Eddie nor Todd had been the one to step forward. Her thoughts in turmoil, she lay awake until her mother came in.
“What happened?” Margaret whispered.
“We decided not to press charges, since it wasn't much more than a push,” her mother whispered back as she took off her robe and crawled into the double bed beside Jennifer. She let out a long sigh. “However, Mr. Cook agreed it would be best for him to find another place to live. He'll be leaving on Friday.”
“I don’t understand,” Margaret protested as she snuggled under the blankets of the twin bed. “He was really nasty. If Charles hadn't been there he might have hurt you! Why don't you kick him out now?”
“Come on, Margaret, try to have a little understanding. He's not a bad man; he just isn't himself when he drinks. Now—enough talking, I'm exhausted. Settle down and let's get some sleep.”
The next Saturday Margaret was again in charge of the sheet exchange. Eddie and Todd arrived together.
“Well, hello men. Time to air your dirty laundry, eh?” Margaret chuckled as she hauled in their dirty sheets and added them to the growing pile behind her.
“Yeah,” Eddie said.
“Sure,” Todd said.
They took their clean sheets and left. Margaret shrugged, “Gorgeous! But no sense of humor!”
Next came Charles. He handed her the soiled sheets. “Make sure you give me the right sizes. I don't want doubles for our single beds,” he teased.
“Huh!” Margaret good-naturedly chided him, “I've been doing this for six months, and I haven't made one mistake! I can tell size by the difference in weight. Besides, you're the last one down, so these must be right!”
They laughed as he took the sheets and pillowcases from her.
Now, he has a sense of humor, thought Margaret as she leaned to watch him walk down the hallway.
Charles stopped, turned, and walked back. He stood and looked at her with a puzzled frown on his face. Slowly, he put back one sheet and the pillowcases, opened the other sheet and shook it out. “I think I have made the mistake,” he said looking directly into Margaret's eyes. “I never really saw you before.”
And with that he swirled the sheet around them both, and they sank onto the floor, cushioned by the pile of laundry. He took her face in his hands and kissed her tenderly on her lips. She responded and felt a warm glow that spread down to her toes. As they kissed Charles wrapped his arms around her and they rolled over and over in a passionate embrace, tangling themselves in a cloud of white.
She pushed him away, and struggling to disentangle herself from the sheets, sat upright. “Wait! No!” she said, throwing one edge of the sheet over his head.
“Charles, wait!” she called down the hall to his retreating back. He turned at the foot of the stairs with the neatly folded sheets still tucked under one arm.
“What's the matter, Margaret?”
She walked slowly down the hallway towards him. “I . . . I wanted to thank you for standing by Mum, the other night.”
“You mean falling down by her, don't you?” he laughed.
She returned his smile, “No, I mean it, you were great. You were the only one who came to help.”
“You don't have to thank me. I was glad to do it, but I think we'd better get your mother to install a fireman’s pole in the stairwell, so I can get down here quicker next time!”
Margaret giggled as she glanced up and pictured him sliding down from the third floor. Her smile faded and her throat felt suddenly constricted. She looked down at the carpet, “Charles, I . . . I just . . . I just want you to know . . .” she hesitated, then finished rapidly, “that I think you're really neat.” Her heart pounded and her cheeks burned as she looked him full in the face.
“What . . ?” Slowly he smiled. “Thanks, Margaret. That's a really nice thing to say.” He tapped her shoulder, “You're a good kid.” He turned to go up the stairs, “See you.”
“See you.” Margaret watched him for a moment, then floated back to the kitchen, closed the door and leaned against it, glowing.
Jennifer burst into the room swinging her roller skates, “I'm going to skate with . . . Why are you just standing there looking goofy?”
Walking forward, Margaret narrowed her eyes at her sister, “Why don't you go take a skate on Bloor Street, Dumbo? Preferably in front of a street car!”
“I'm telling Mum you said that!” Jennifer pushed past her and slammed the door as she ran outside.
Margaret growled, “I'll be glad when she grows up!” Then she knelt down and started to gather the sheets together. As the mound formed in the middle of the floor, she stopped, staring thoughtfully at the soft pile as images of Charles flitted through her mind.
“So. I'm a good kid, eh?” She found the corners of the cover sheet and pulled them straight. She stood up. “We'll have to see about that.” She looped the ends of the cover sheet, tied them into a knot and pulled it tight. “Yes, indeed. We'll definitely have to see about that!”