Timothy Littlewood lowered himself down onto the wedge of cardboard. Worn and brittle from months of use, it offered his knees no protection from the rough surface beneath.
He dunked the brush into the metal bucket, shivering as his hands plunged into the icy water. He lifted it out, slippery with soap, and bent to scrub the floor.
A whistling sound warned him, and he cringed as the whip lashed across his shoulders. He knew better than to cry out, but his breath escaped him in a silent, shuddering sigh.
“Go faster, you slacker. Think you’ve got all day down here?” Her voice was harsh, with a strong South African accent.
“N-no, I’m sorry, mistress.” Timothy didn’t dare look up. He crouched over the bucket, head bowed. All he could see was the dark gleam of her leather boots.
“I don’t want apologies from you. I want action. You clean this floor every day, and every day I have the same damn problem. You don’t work hard, you don’t work fast.”
“I know it seems that way, mistress. I’m trying, really I am. But the basement is large, you know. And the floor is rough.”
“Don’t give me excuses. This room stinks because you’re too lazy to do a proper job.”
“You’re right, of course. I am lazy. And I’m sorry the smell offends you. It’s an underground room, you see. It never gets sunlight. Perhaps it has damp.” He returned to his task, scrubbing with renewed vigour as if his efforts with the soapy water might somehow eradicate the damp.
Another lash of the whip, harder. Tears spurted from his eyes.
“Damp, what? You’re forgetting something, trailer trash.”
“Damp, mistress. Damp, mistress,” he sobbed, hunched over his bucket and brush, unable to stifle his cries as she drew her leg back and slammed the steel-capped toe of her boot into his cringing flesh again and again. When she finally stopped, he lay curled in a ball on the concrete, battered and whimpering.
He could never please her when he worked in the basement, no matter how hard he tried. The place was too dark, too grim, the chilly air laced with the pervasive odour of rot.
Upstairs was more pleasant. Pot-pourri bowls stood on polished tables. Classical music played in the background. He cleaned the windows each day, wiping away the London grime and encouraging the reluctant sun to shine through. Upstairs was warm. And the thick-pile carpet was kind to his knees.
When the floor was finished, he would leave the basement and begin his other duties.
Perhaps she would require him to go shopping, since today was Saturday. She made him carry a pink ladies’ handbag when he went out in public. Sometimes she forced him to wear high heels. Each agonising step he took, every sneer and giggle he endured, was a sacrifice he gladly made.
He had learned about her country’s national delicacies. Foods with strange and delightful names. Pap and gravy, milk tart, bobotie. Recipes he laboured for hours to perfect, even if his only thanks was the empty plate she shoved aside when he crawled in to clear the table.
Housework and kitchen duties occupied much of his time. Occasionally he was forced to endure more exotic humiliations, administered in the bathroom. He trembled with anticipation as he recalled the wicked extent of her imagination in that regard.
As he shuffled back onto the cardboard and braced himself for another dip into the bucket, he wondered if he would be fortunate enough to earn bathroom punishment today.
Her voice cut into his thoughts.
“Stand up, mistress?” He was surprised. In the basement, he was required to kneel at all times.
“Yes.” Her voice sounded different, gentler. Was something wrong? With a chill of unease he climbed to his feet, wincing in anticipation of being slapped back down again. As he lifted his head, he saw the tops of her boots, shiny from the polishing he gave them each day. He saw her leather basque, her hands resting on ample hips. Those long red nails lovingly buffed and painted by him. Then he stopped. He had gone as far as his mistress permitted.
“Look at me,” she insisted.
Tentatively he raised his gaze to the forbidden sight of her breasts, held high and proud by the nylon trusses surrounding them.
He looked up to her square-jawed face with the crimson slash of lipstick outlining her mouth. For the first time in a year, he met her eyes.
She looked back at him, expressionless in the shadowy room.
“I don’t know how to say this,” she said, “but I’m quitting.”
Her words shattered his world. He staggered backwards as if he had been shoved by one of her red-taloned hands.
“No. You can’t do that,” he blurted out. “You said you’d work here at least two years. I was hoping it might even become a more permanent arrangement.”
In his shocked state, he forgot to add the respectful “mistress” that she insisted on. More terrible still, she did not punish him for it.
She shook her head. “Well, I’m not happy, Mr. Littlewood.”
Mr. Littlewood. The formality pierced his heart. What had happened to the special language they shared? Useless, she called him, as if it were his name. Come here, useless. Cut me a slice of pie. No crumbs, or you’ll feel my boot on your pathetic little backside.
“But why? Is it the basement supervision? I know this is an unpleasant place, but if it worries you I’ll work here on my own.”
He stared at her with pleading eyes.
“No, it’s not that. Problem is, I don’t have a life any more. The only time I have to myself is when you’re at work. That’s forty-five hours a week.” She tugged at one of the trusses under her breast as if it was causing her discomfort. “I never see my friends. Most of them think I’ve left London. I can’t even tell my family back home what I do. I’m like a prisoner in your house.”
She jerked at the strap again, frowning.
“Perhaps we can arrange extra time off.” His voice sounded odd to him, high and stressed.
She shook her head. “It’s not just the working hours, it’s the job. I’ve had enough of it. I’m tired of playing a role all the time. And, well, some of the stuff that goes on in the bathroom is getting too gross for me.” Her lips parted in an apologetic smile.
He reddened with shame at her words.
“So that’s it. I need to move on. Good luck with finding someone else, and thanks for the job. It’s been… fun, I suppose.” She gave a final supplicating shrug, and turned away.
Fun? She was going. Walking out without a backward glance as if she were a cheap hireling quitting an unskilled job.
Timothy was engulfed by a wave of fury. How dare she show such ingratitude. After spending a year living like a queen, waited on and worshipped and generously paid on top of it all, this was how she thanked him.
Before he could stop himself, he grabbed the metal bucket and swung it in a high overhead arc with arms steely-strong from years of manual labour. The rim struck her skull with a sickening crunch and her body thudded down onto the concrete.
Blood oozed into the puddle of water surrounding her.
Timothy stared for a horrified moment. Then he threw himself to the ground beside her and checked her pulse with trembling hands. Nothing. He heard a soft moaning sound, but realised he was the one making the noise. She lay silent, still and dead.
Tears rolled down his cheeks and he hunched over her, sobbing uncontrollably. Why had he done such a terrible deed? What possessed him?
When he rose to his feet again his limbs were stiff with cold and his joints creaked in protest. He had a mountain of work ahead of him now. His shoulders shook in anguish at the thought of doing it all on his own, without his mistress to oversee him.
He would use the pickaxe to break through the concrete and dig a grave. Then he would lay his darling to rest.
Timothy gazed at the basement floor. Not too close to the back wall. He had buried the Australian there. The Russian girl was in the left corner and, if memory served him correctly, he had positioned the Scandinavian beside her. He would bury his South African love in the centre. And then he would embark on the soul-destroying search for another special lady to share his life.
Wearily, Timothy shouldered his pickaxe and began the task of smashing the concrete floor.