(Story 12 in the Building to Last universe)
I never tell strangers that I work for CI5. Who'd believe it! By the way, my name is Doris Cummings. I'm five foot nothing in me stocking feet and I've been on this earth for 57 years. See what I mean?
What most people forget is that not everyone in CI5 is part of the Action Squad. In fact, support personnel outnumber the agents four to one. Just think about it for a minute. Whenever you have an organization, you have a bureaucracy. Ours is smaller than most, but it's there. You have secretaries, security people, computer experts, personnel specialists, trainers, grounds keepers and cleaners. That's me. I work in the maintenance section out of Accommodations.
I'm lucky, I am. I get the special jobs, the ones that call for a bit of common sense and ingenuity. Not for me the daily grind of cleaning the same corridors and offices night after night. I've even got me own motor, an estate wagon so that I can take all me supplies with me.
Learn a lot about human nature when you clean people's flats, you do. I've seen it all from dirty dishes to blood stains; from Mayfair centrefolds to dead bodies.
Mostly I do straight charring. A lot of the boys on the Action Squad get tired of doing for themselves and decide its better to have a bit withheld from their pay packet each week.
Accommodations does a nice line in real estate. They're forever buying and selling property and shuffling agents from one flat to another--all of which makes more work for me and mine. Every time one of the boys is moved, one of us has to go in and clean up after him. Whenever a new property is added, a char has to look it over and clean it up-- particularly once the lock-smiths and security boffins have got done with it. Proper pigs, they are, leaving plaster dust and wood-shavings all over the place. Almost as bad as some of the boys.
Then there are the special jobs--my bailiwick. CI5 agents are on call 24 hours a day and they often get sent to the far corners of the realm with no notice whatsoever. That's when I get a call from Mary Kate, my supervisor.
"Doris, there's a lad been called away. Don't know when he'll be back. 'E's got three plants, a ferret and a bowl of guppies." Then Mary Katherine Mulroney hands me the address and the particulars on flora and fauna, the care thereof, and I'm off on another assignment.
Oh. You think there's nothing difficult in taking care of a couple of ferns and a bowl of fish, do you? How about the ferret, then? You ever tried to clean the cage of one of the little buggers? What you going to do with him while you do? Mind, they bite. Not only that, some of them won't bloody well let go once they've a grip on you. And what do you do if instead of a ferret you've got a bloody great snake to care for? One of the lads, I think it was Penhall, had a ten foot boa constrictor named 'Erbert. He only ate live rats, one every three days or so. We got on all right...as long as he didn't get overly friendly. I drew the line at him trying to use me as a climbing pole. Beginning to get the picture?
Of course, most of the boys try and make other arrangements for their plants and livestock. 'S much cheaper for one thing; less embarrassing for another. But they don't always have the time, you see.
I quite like taking care of plants. I must admit, the hybrid orchid nearly threw me for a loop. Fortunately, we make agents list all their flora and fauna with Accommodations along with all the details of any special care required. Henry Mathis was very thorough in his instructions, so the orchid and I muddled through 'til Mathis came back from assignment. But I was bloody glad to hear about the flower's demise. Happened when Mathis stood up his bird once too often. A fiery lass, she was. Clocked him on the nob with the orchid--pot an all. Didn't do much for the poor thing. Didn't do much for Mathis' head, either.
Most agents don't have much that needs special care. William Andrew Philip Bodie was a good example, at least in the early days. His flat was neat as a pin and almost as sterile. Didn't have so much as a potted plant or a bowl of fish. It's much different now he's sharing housing with Ray Doyle. Between the two of them, they've a potted fern, a few geraniums and an ex-tomcat. I like my job, though even some of the straight forward jobs can be more trouble than you'd expect. Sometimes it's just the little things, like 'where does he keep the cat litter?' or 'where's the bloody tin opener?' Other times, it's more serious. Over the years, I've worked out ways of getting round most problems. For one thing, I always carry me own tin opener. It's one of the things I wear on me utility suit, as my nephew calls it. Actually, its a pinny with a wide canvas belt. It has all sorts of pockets and lots of thingies where you can snap on tools. I've a hammer, three screwdrivers and some lock picks. (My husband, Rob, was a copper. One of his snitches taught him lock-picking and he taught me.) I also keep a roll of duct tape, a good pair of shears, dog biscuits, kitty treats and a can of Mace. In the estate wagon, I have everything from cat litter to potting soil; dog kibble to plant food.
I also keep a tranquilizer gun and assorted darts. Bloody good thing, too. It saved my life once. Just as I was coming in the door, Brutus jumped me and began savaging my arm. He was a bloody great Alsatian and since I knew he was there, I had the dart gun ready. Shot him right in the neck. Fortunately, he passed out before I did. I called it in and Mary Kate sent the clean-up squad to take me to hospital, and Brutus to a kennel.
Can't blame the dog, really. I was a stranger coming into his territory when the dog was upset over his master being away and all. What made it worse was that his master never did come home.
Young David Harvey was shot on assignment and buried six days later. Fortunately, Harvey's brother took the dog, so at least the poor thing wasn't put down. The only other good thing to come of it was that it wasn't me as had to go through the dead boy's things.
Every time an agent dies, someone has to go through his kit before it's turned over to next of kin. They say it's to search for classified documents and material on whatever cases he might be working on. More often than not, what we really do is try and get rid of anything that might upset the relatives.
Most on the Action Squad are single and male, though there are more women agents all the time. It's not uncommon to find condoms, a collection of old Mavfairs or the occasional woman's undergarment in one of their flats. We clear those out before the relatives come.
I once found a fine collection of cock-rings, some of them quite valuable. The expensive ones went into the evidence vault at headquarters. Didn't know what else to do with them, did we? Didn't want the next of kin to have a coronary--she was his 82-year-old great aunt, and a great prude. Had she asked after the collection, we'd've come across with it, but she didn't and we figured the poor dear hadn't a clue...and that it was better that way.
I was on hols when Christopher Atwood was killed. His poor partner landed the job of packing his kit. A nice lad, Mr. Murphy. Way too good for the likes of Atwood, mind. They were more than just good friends, you see. I did for both of them, and I know. Kept on doing for them when they moved in together. Though, it wasn't really like that. Lovers, I mean. Oh, I know the two of them shared the same bed, and all. But they never seemed to share much else.
It wasn't Mr. Murphy's fault. I could tell that right off. His flats were always a bit of a mess--clothes lying on the floor, dirty dishes in the sink. After Atwood moved in with him, Murphy made more of an effort. Even started putting the cap back on the toothpaste, he did. I could tell because the two of them used different brands. That whole relationship was like that-- separate toothpastes, separate newspapers, separate soaps. And separate lives as well, mostly due to Master Christopher.
Oh, he was a one, was Mr. Atwood. His old flat'd been full of family photos, a tapestry pillow sewn by his mum, and all sorts of bits and pieces collected over a lifetime. Most of that went into storage when he moved in with Michael Murphy. It was like he couldn't share his old life and who he'd been. Was almost like he used Murphy's flat like a bed and breakfast. You see, he put so little of himself into that place that I don't think of it as their flat; I think of it belonging just to Mr. Murphy. That's why I was so upset when Master Christopher started treating the place like rented rooms--bringing people up there and taking them to bed. Lads and lasses both, Mr. Atwood wasn't particular. And all this with poor Murphy trying to hard to make it all work, him not knowing what went on while he wasn't there.
I knew the poor boy was in for heartache. And it's too bad he had to go through Atwood's belongings. Sometimes having the partner go through the dead lad's duff is a good thing. Gives the living a chance to mourn over the dead; to say goodbye, like. Other times, it's a mistake. Only God and Mr. Murphy know what was in Atwood's kit. But the truth has a way of coming out, especially when it's painful.
That's one time I regret it wasn't me going through a dead lad's stuff. It's my least favourite part of the job, it is. Makes me feel like a bloody ghoul.
One of my favourite parts of the job is taking care of the odd cat. I've a weakness for moggies, and Raven is one of me favourites. I've mentioned him before--he's the ex-tomcat that lives with Bodie and Doyle.
There's nought wrong with that relationship! Their flat is a blend of each of their personalities; a perfect example of how each of them brought something to the relationship and of how each of them has made an effort to make it work.
Remember I told you how bare and sterile Bodie's flats used to be? They aren't that way any more. And Doyle's flats were always a tangle of bits and pieces; posters and pictures; art supplies and kitchen gear. Don't know how he found anything in that mess. Not that I saw it often. Did his own cleaning, and still does. But every so often I'd be called on to care for the fern when something unexpected called the boy out of London.
The flat the two of them share is less cluttered than Doyle's old flat, and a lot more lived-in than Bodie's. Raymond cleaned out a lot of his bits and pieces, and Bodie brought some of his out of hiding. Bodie's poetry books sit side by side with Doyle's books of art prints; Bodie's toy soldiers march underneath one of Doyle's water-colours. And then there are the things they've bought together, like that cherry hall clock. You can tell that someone loves it, the way the case is always polished to a fare-thee-well.
Bodie has relaxed his standards. He no longer needs to have everything in military order--shoes lined up and ready to salute, jackets hung according to the colour spectrum. And Doyle's become a lot more tidy. He no longer leaves his jeans piled in a heap in the bottom of the closet. You can see that the two of them are learning to compromise. I like to visit their flat. It gives me a good feeling, it does.
Besides, I like visiting with Raven. He's a people cat and looks forward to my visits. Always meets me at the door, he does, and insists on following me round while I clean. I always time my visit so I can take me tea break and drag a bit of string cross the carpet for him. Raven does like his bit of string. He also likes a nice scratch behind the ears. And he's much better behaved than that hellion of Ginger Barnes'.
Ginger shares quarters with a seal-point Siamese she calls Madame Butterfly. I call her Mischief, myself. Every time I visit, I've got to make sure that the bog roll is safely locked up in a tin in the loo. Why, you ask? Because if it isn't, Madame will have it all over the flat. Nothing she likes better than to turn the bog roll into confetti. Oh, yes. Madame also likes to lurk on the seats of chairs. When you walk past, she reaches out and takes a swipe at your legs. I've ruined more than one pair of nylons when she proved faster than I was. Other than that, she's a nice cat. Madame just has a bit too much energy, and she gets bored when she's left alone. I've thought more than once about suggesting that Ms Barnes get another cat to keep her company. But I hardly ever see the agents, even though I probably know more about them than their own mothers.
Like I said, you can tell a lot about a person by cleaning their flat. I know who's paired with who, and who's playing the field. I know who uses condoms, and who doesn't. But I'll never tell.
They're my lads and lasses. I help take care of them and their pets and plants. In some small way, I make it easier for them to do their job. They're like the children that Rob and I never had, and this job was one thing that helped me keep on after I lost him. So, I'll keep their secrets. And whenever anyone asks me what I do for a living, I just tell them, "I'm a char." Close enough, innit?
-- THE END --
Originally published in Chalk and Cheese 11, Whatever You Do, Don't Press! (Agent With Style), 1992