First, you had to roll up the rug and put it to one side. Inset into the floorboards was a metal ring attached to a trap-door. Pull it up and there was the bath — a proper one, white and smooth — sunken into the under-floor.
It was a right palaver to have a bath. Grom stored some bits and pieces down there, so you had to take them out first. She filled panful after panful of water from the geyser, which took ages. When the bath was full enough, you had to step down into it and that wasn’t easy. I slipped once and bumped the back of my head. Came up like an egg.
Never saw Grom take a bath. She was more of a flannel and sink kind of person. Once we opened it up and found a nest of mice in there. Grom grabbed her heavy frying-pan and went after then, whacking them till she was out of breath; not stopping till she’d flattened them all.
It made me cry.
‘Come on, Lizzie,’ she’d say, when such things upset me. Out would come the flour, butter, currants and sugar, and together we’d make sad cake. Sometimes we’d play dominoes or cards. She taught me how to play Gin Rummy and Patience. Jigsaws were my favourite. She had a collection of them. I had my own little stool, three-legged and painted green, where I could sit next to the fold-up table. She always insisted we find the straight edges first.
I enjoyed helping with the washing. We put it all in the big tub of hot water, threw in a little packet she called ‘dolly blue’ then mashed it all up and down with a big wooden stick.
There was always something entertaining going on at Grom’s.
Except when Billy turned up.
He came striding in one day — big face, scuffed boots, his belly straining the buttons on his check shirt. I dropped my jigsaw piece — an eye and part of the ear of a tabby cat.
‘I’ll come straight to the point, Ma,’ he said. ‘I need money.’
She didn’t look up. ‘How much, this time?’
He hesitated; ruffled his fingers through his hair. ‘A hundred.’
I scrabbled on the floor, under the stool. Couldn’t see Grom’s face from here, but I imagined the narrowed eyes and pressed-together lips. ‘Haven’t got it.’
He snorted. ‘Oh, you’ve got it, all right.’
‘I need that. My savings.’
‘What do you want savings for? You’re seventy-three, for Christ’s sake.’
‘Hey,’ she snapped, ‘watch your language in front of the child.’
I found the piece, got up — sat back on my little stool.
He scowled at me. ‘So, she’s here again, eh?’
‘I don’t see what that’s got to do with you.’
‘Pshah. She’s only the neighbour’s kid. She’s not even related. It’s me you should be thinking about — what I need.’
‘What you need,’ she murmured, ‘passed long ago.’
‘Quit stalling, Ma and give me the cash.’
‘Or else what?’
‘Or else I’ll have to take it.’
I didn’t like the way he showed his teeth — like a dog, getting ready to bite.
‘You’ll never find it,’ Grom said.
‘Oh, I will. Don’t you worry about that. I’ll tear this place apart until I do.’
Grom raised herself to her full height and faced Billy with a determined look that was equal to his. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘but this is the last time. Come back at seven. I’ll have it ready for you.’
He looked as if he wanted to say something. His eyes flickered from right to left and the tip of his tongue came out and moistened his lips.
Then, without a word, he was gone.
That was the last time I saw Billy; the last time anyone saw him.
I didn’t understand all that business with the two policemen asking lots of questions. I sat on my little stool, trying to figure out what they were talking about. Don’t think anyone even noticed I was there. But what I gathered was this: Billy was dead. He’d had an accident. Stepping into the bath, he’d slipped, bumped his head and drowned. The body had been taken away, and after all the questions, the policemen got up to leave.
On the way out, they paused and one of them rested his hand on Grom’s shoulder and said: ‘Your Billy was a right bad ‘un.’
Grom sank back into her chair and closed her eyes. After a few moments, she seemed to snap back to life. ‘Sad cake,’ she said.
That always went down well. I enjoyed rubbing the fat into the flour and sprinkling currants onto the pastry. I enjoyed even more cutting a slice, still warm from the oven, spreading it with a thick layer of butter and biting into the crisp pastry and chewy fruit.
But while I was rubbing in fat and sprinkling currants, I kept going over what the police had said. Billy had been found, face-down, in a bath full of water. He never had a bath — not here, anyway. I don’t think he even knew where Grom’s bath was, or he’d have found the money long ago. And that egg-sized lump was on the back of his head. If he’d fallen forward, shouldn’t it have been on the front?
‘Penny for them?’ Grom said.
I looked into those watery blue eyes, all crowsfooty and smiley. I thought of that heavy frying pan. Billy was gone and I was glad. ‘Can I take some sad cake home for later?’
‘Course you can, ducky,’ she said, patting my hand. ‘Course you can.’