Sneaks and Ladders

‘One more cuppa and I’ll start,’ I told the empty room.  It wasn’t the ideal way to spend a week off work but needs must.  I had it all planned out but now I was due to start I was severely lacking the motivation required to get moving.  It was funny, it was all I could think about last week while I was stuck at work. 

I’d moved to the small flat over six months ago after losing Alfie, my husband, to lymphoma.  I’d relocated to be closer to my kids.  Now, instead of living in a 4-bedroom detached house, I lived in a cramped ground floor flat in a block of 9 with no garden.

‘It will be less for you to look after on your own,’ argued Paul, my son.  I didn’t need to be reminded that I was on my own.  I bit back a retort.  He was just trying to help. 

‘You’ll be closer to your grandchildren,’ encouraged Janet, my daughter.  Well, she would benefit me being closer to the grandkids most, I mused.

After much deliberation, I’d packed up the belongings that would fill the flat and donated the rest to charity. 

Apart from my husband, the only thing I missed was the garden.  And Judith, my best friend. 

‘Fill the rooms with your things, mum.  Have it how you want it to look.  You’ll feel more settled,’ suggested Janet. 

That weekend, I bought paint, brushes and masking tape ready to begin. 

I would start with the living room – where I spent most of my time.  No more flowery orange and brown wallpaper.  I’d purchased a nice beige hue called Egyptian cotton.   It was close to the colour of my previous living room and would match my furniture.

I’d never purchased paint before.  That had always been Alfie’s job.  I knew how to paint but I wasn’t entirely convinced I’d make a good job of it. 

A time of firsts.  It was the first time I’d lived alone. The first time I’d bought paint.  The first time I would decorate by myself.  Normally, I made the tea and kept out of Alfie’s way.  I would have preferred to have dealt with one life changing experience at a time, but since Alfie had passed, everything was changing. 

If I could manage to redecorate one room by myself with no help, then I knew I’d be able to move on.  Slowly.  Cautiously. 

I went into the communal bin shed to retrieve my stepladders that I had stored there after moving in, holding my nose against the stench as I entered the gloomy space.

I was momentarily confused because my stepladders were not where I’d left them.  In fact, they were not in the bin shed at all.

‘How’s the decorating going, mum?’ asked Janet when she called later that day.  My children had offered to help but I was adamant that I was doing this by myself.  I had to do this for myself.

‘I seemed to have stalled,’ I explained.  ‘My ladders have went missing.  They’re not in the bin store where I left them.’ 

‘Someone must have borrowed them,’ reasoned Janet.  ‘Just go round the doors and ask for them back.’

I hadn’t really introduced myself to my neighbours.  I’d been too consumed in my grief, managing only a polite hello in passing. 

I didn’t cherish the idea of going to their doors.  I was never any good at confrontation – always the one to back down in an argument.

I wrote out seven identical notes introducing myself and politely asking for the return of my ladders.  I included my landline number even though my neighbours would have to pass my front door to exit and enter the building.  It should not be too taxing for them to knock on my door.  

I put the notes through each door and waited.  Meanwhile, I got on with as much as possible without the missing ladders. 

Two days later, I wiped the paint of my hands to answer the telephone. 

‘Hi mum.  It’s only me.  Just ringing to make sure you’ve got your ladders back ok?’

I swallowed down the disappointment and rising anxiety.  My polite notes had yet to produce a response from any of my neighbours.

‘Um no, but they all work and seem really busy…’ I didn’t know why I was sticking up for them. 

‘That’s it.  They’re obviously taking advantage of an old woman on her own.  I will send round Paul and Roy to sort it out.’  Son and son-in-law to the rescue, I thought.

‘Oh, Janet, I don’t want any trouble.  Plus, I still have to live here.’  The last thing I needed was the boys round causing trouble.  Someone was apt to get hurt. 

‘Mum you can’t go through life letting people walk over you.’

‘Don’t worry, Janet.’ I wasn’t going to give up that easily.  ‘I will sort it out myself and get them back.’  Why did I tell my daughter about the missing ladders?

‘Well, mum, if you haven’t got them back by tea time on Sunday, the boys will get them back before the roast dinner’s ready.’

I didn’t want to contemplate the confrontation I would have to endure to get my possessions back. 

I agreed and ended the call.  Janet’s words reverberated around my ears.  It would have been easier to buy a new pair.  But they’d belonged to Alfie.  The bottom rung still had a splash of yellow paint from when he painted the spare room when we were expecting Paul. 

Time to be a man rather than a mouse.  Another new experience for me. 

The next day, I went to the shops to get some groceries for Sunday dinner.  When I returned, I struggled from the car to the communal entrance.  A man who lived in the flat above me held open the door.  He was tall and around my age. 

‘Oh thank you very much,’ I wheezed. 

‘You’re very welcome.’  He took a bag from me and I guided him to my door.  I gently dropped the bags on the ground to search for the key.   

‘We haven’t really met,’ I introduced myself, ‘I’m Liz.’

‘Nice to meet you, Liz. I’m James.’  We shook hands.  I felt like I ought to invite him in for a cup of tea, but he was still a stranger.  I took a deep breath and plunged right in.

‘Did you ever get a note from me? I put one through everyone’s door, but no one has replied… Yet.’

‘A note…’ James repeated, his face blank.

‘Yes, I think someone appears to have borrowed my stepladders from the bin shed.  I need them back you see; doing a spot of redecorating.’

‘That was me.  I took them.’  I was taken aback by his bluntness.  His demeanour changed abruptly as did his tone.

‘Well,’ I answered, keeping my tone as diplomatic as possible, ‘I really need them back please.’

‘I don’t have them on me. They are in a property in Edinburgh.’  I couldn’t have them back? They were in a property in Edinburgh? What did that even mean?

‘But… But they’re mine.  And I need them back.  Before Sunday.’

‘I’ll get them back whenever I can.’  With that, James walked away.  He didn’t even look or sound guilty.  In fact, he had made me feel guilty for troubling him about my own stolen property.  That’s what it was, stolen property.

That gave me an idea.

The idea turned into a phone call. 

At lunchtime the next day, I was interrupted by the doorbell.  By the time I made my way through the maze of furniture, the person had gone.  However, most importantly, my familiar paint splattered ladders were on the doorstep, leaning against the brick wall. 

An apology would have been nice.  Although, I guess the Police putting a contact card through your letterbox requesting information in relation to stolen property wouldn’t leave you in an apology-giving frame of mind.

I would have to give Detective Inspector Becca Collins, i.e. my friend’s daughter, a quick call to let her know our plan had worked.  I would also have to remind her about keeping it between us.  I didn’t want anyone to know what actions I had resorted to. 

By the time Sunday arrived, I had the living room looking nice by the time my clan arrived for their Sunday dinner.  Becca winked at me as my children heaped praise on me. 

‘You didn’t have to do it all by yourself, mum,’ said Paul. 

‘Yes, granny,’ added Caitlin, my eldest granddaughter.  ‘It’s ok to ask for help.  I always have to ask for help with my maths,’ she sighed in the way of a theatrical nine-year-old.

I surprised my family twice that day – by solving my own problems and by finally accepting their offers of help.  I mean, the kitchen would be a huge job.

by Claire Wilson

Claire Wilson is an aspiring crime writer from central Scotland.  When she is not editing her crime novels to death, she likes to dabble in shorter fiction. Several of her shorter pieces have been published online and in anthologies. Her debut crime novel, Five by Five, was recently a finalist in the capital crime/Amazon publishing New Voices Award. Claire is currently seeking representation for her crime novels.

Photo credit: Ivan Samkov