A Stranger Selling J-Cloths

Fiction by Susan Carey

I dream of it often. Haynes Farm. The pebble-dashing on the outside walls of the farmhouse was done by a cowboy builder and after a few months the white layer cracked off in big chunks revealing the house’s bare skin. I imagined the house was embarrassed, like a woman opening the door to a stranger in a state of undress. No one else in my family appeared bothered; it was just another one of those things you had to endure, like a sick child or a stillborn lamb.

Inside, our living room was a hotchpotch of horse-riding tack, unpaid bills and newspapers spilling across the table or strewn over chairs. Sitting down was always an exercise in clearing up first.

Myra, our alpha mare, had gone to the stallion in Monmouth and Mum and Dad had gone to fetch her home. I lay on the grass in the back garden sunbathing in shorts and a bikini top. A reader had sent a letter to Dear Cathy & Claire in Jackie Magazine asking if you could lose your virginity when horse-riding. I was reading the answer when the growl of a diesel engine distracted me. Mr Toppin was due with our weekly groceries so I got up and ran to the front door hoping to speed up proceedings so that I could return to Cathy & Claire. I opened the front door expecting the grocer in his brown coat, but a stranger stood before me. Tendrils of dark hair kissed his shirt collar which was caked with dirt and grease. He wore Levi’s and cowboy boots which made me think he must have been handsome in his heyday.

 Bess, who slept in the porch, wagged her tail as if she knew the caller, but decided he wasn’t worth the effort of standing up.

“Is your mum in, love?” He smiled. “She’s one of my regulars, see.”

“She’s off today.” I spoke in clipped tones, narrowing my mouth like a horse’s ass doing a trumpet fart, hoping he’d get the message and leave.

Undeterred, he launched into his sales patter. Cellophane wrapping crackled loud as a field of straw burning. He took three packets of J-cloths from his canvas bag and offered them to me.

“No thanks, we have plenty already. Enough to supply an orphanage in fact.”

Top shelf in our pantry was stacked full of J-cloths; Mum was so superstitious she believed that if she didn’t buy something from travellers then the evil eye would swivel its gaze towards us. Sometimes I would deliberately open umbrellas indoors just to see her having kittens.

He frowned, forming deeper lines on his map-like face. “What about a carpet? Lovely patterns, missy. Hand woven in Isfahan.”

The smell of tobacco lingering on his clothes was different from the brand Mum smoked. Stronger. A dull headache rooted its tentacles in the base of my skull.

“Come and have a look in the van. The runners would look a treat on your stairs.” He nodded towards our bare staircase, his eyes following the route upwards. The diesel fumes of his van were noxious, great plumes of smoke tainting the summer air. I turned my head away and spoke towards a pretend person in the living room. “It’s just a salesman.”

He took a wider stance, filling the space around him. “We also have deep-pile rugs. Lovely underfoot, they are.” His glance ran down my legs to my naked feet.

I shook my head like a toy installed with a new battery, and shut the door in his face.

My hands trembled while I washed-up after a lonesome lunch. To take my mind off things, I switched the radio on. Cher’s hit, Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves was playing and my mood lifted as I practised my school choreography, singing and swaying along to the music.

Out the back window, I glanced towards the field where the horses and sheep usually grazed in harmony. In Myra’s absence, they had been acting funny; a leaderless mob, vying for the crown. They were grouped around something small and pale on the ground. One of Myra’s daughters, Melody, was pawing at it. The washing-up water still dripping from my fingers, I kicked my flip-flops off, dashed out the house, grabbed a lunging whip and ran barefoot down to the scene.

Melody pawed so hard she tossed the thing in the air. It came down with a thud. Waving my whip I chased the culprits away, but I was too late. The new-born lamb lay lifeless on churned-up ground. Its mother was nearby. Stamping her front foot and bleating. Her afterbirth pooled fresh and steaming on the ground. A track of blood and hoof prints showed the horses must have kicked the lamb around like a football.

Tears formed in my throat and I was so angry I wanted to punish the killers. I threw the whip at them and they took off taunting me with their mocking squeals and air-kicks. Kneeling down to touch the still-warm lamb I couldn’t help thinking that Myra would have stopped all this if she’d been here. Or maybe I could have, if I’d bought J-cloths from the man. When Mum came home I wouldn’t tell her about the stranger calling and me turning him away; that would be yet another secret that only the half-bare house and I would ever know.

Susan Carey

Susan Carey lives in the Netherlands where she writes stories in between the less demanding jobs of house-sitting, dog-walking and dreaming of worldwide renown. She has had short stories and flash fiction published and performed by, amongst others, Mslexia, Liars’ League, Writers Abroad, Reflex Fiction, Flash Flood Journal, The Fabulist Magazine and Casket of Fictional Delights. In 2020 she published her story collection, Healer. In 2021 she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by New Literary Salon Press.

One response to “A Stranger Selling J-Cloths”

  1. A great story, Angela, that definitely carried me along with it. Convincing and sad.