By Claudia Forero
Translated by Rosemary Helfer
(Published in Noticias Latin America Newspaper)
Two months after landing in Britain, a young woman rushed on to the tube at Kilburn to travel to Edgware to attend one of her first job interviews in London.
As she attempted to walk through the ticket gates in Edgware, a strident, unpleasant RTRTTRT and an accusing red cross on the screen told her that something was wrong. A few minutes later she emerged from the station £10 poorer. She still did not know how things worked and she had travelled into zone 5 without paying the excess fare. Feeling fed up and somewhat anxious as she pondered on the indifference of the station staff, she confronted the still congested high street on a cold spring day.
A man of about 50 was expecting her just a few meters ahead at a kind of restaurant where after 11 am there still was no sign of life. Its atmosphere reminded her of the warm and steamy seedy bars that closed at daybreak in her country and were half-empty at dawn, reeking of stale cigarettes, warm beer spilled on to the floor and evaporated urine.
"Do you like cats?" inquired the man.
"Yes, I do" she lied.
"Well, that's fantastic, because your job will entail looking after some as well as a flat from about 9 pm to 7 am. You will be paid £180 per week."
"Ooh! That's very good money," she thought, as she did not have a penny to spare. She would also be able to have a day job and study English, as she had originally intended before leaving her country.
After interviewing her briefly, the man - who was not English and whose origin the woman could not identify but suspected was Indian because of his olive skin and somewhat halting, dry, flat speech which she found unattractive - asked:
"Are you interested in the job then?"
"Yes, very interested," she lied again. She was aware that in London she had to get used to the idea - at least at the beginning - that her profession did not count and that she could not choose her job, as she had done for so many years in advertising.
They left the restaurant - the tall man and the short, rather robust woman with large breasts, small eyes and straight, jet-black hair. Although her English was extremely limited and clumsy, she managed to make herself understood. They headed towards the rear of the restaurant after walking round the corner of the high street. The woman said nothing; the unfamiliar situation made her apprehensive. They went up a concrete staircase and arrived at a sort of courtyard, also of concrete. It was surrounded by small cement gnomes. She found it strange and, although these figures resembled the dwarves in stories she had read as a child, at that moment something told her that these artificial beings did not mean the same. She asked no questions but only gazed at the distant urban sprawl.
Meanwhile, the man, who was a few steps ahead, mentioned that there had been a fire at the flat a few days previously. Unfortunately, he could not tell whether this was due to mechanical faults or human action. He opened the door and the black soot on the walls bore out what he had just said. The woman's eyes moved down the walls to the floor covered in dirty, bloodstained blankets with the residues of animal excrement.
Apart from the curious atmosphere generated by these unusual items, the flat was stripped of its contents. And to make matters worse, the neglected state of the walls and floors suggested that the flat had either been exposed to a merciless attack or had been uninhabited by humans for a very long time.
Soon the enormous cats, which looked like starving felines, began to appear - slowly walking across the floor, raising their claws and displaying their sharp fangs as soon at the slightest sign of human proximity. These feline creatures seemed to converge at the kitchen sink, on the windowsills and in the main bedroom. She counted 15 of them. She was absolutely horrified and scared stiff. But she said nothing. She found the animals threatening. She held her breath and restrained her tears, so as not to run away.
"As you see, it's an easy job - all you have to do is feed the cats and sit on that chair all night." The man pointed to a squalid wooden frame in the middle of the kitchen, facing the window that looked out on to the desolate courtyard, devoid of houses or other life, except the gnomes.
"If you hear strange sounds or see anything unusual," he continued, "call the police." At least, that is what she understood. But the man may have said: "Let me know" or even "Go out and tackle the source of the noise." She never found out what strange movements he was referring to. She only saw herself sitting on that chair, surrounded by the cats opening their feline mouths and reaching out with their paws. She contemplated the almost wintry cold she would endure while on duty, the long hours she would spend motionless in a flat without heating, without lighting, without anything. She was sure she would be so intimidated by the cats that she would not get up - even to go to the lavatory.
"Well, what do you think of the job?" asked the male voice.
"I'll think about it," was all she managed to say.
In silence, they walked slowly towards the exit. She never called back. She left without money and felt like crying. The man gave her £2 to help her with her return fare. This was one of her first impressions of London.