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Rules of the House

 Janet Olearski 


Janet Olearski is a London-born author, based in Abu Dhabi. Her short fiction and poems have appeared in various publications including Far Off Places,Bare Fiction, Beautiful Scruffiness, The National, and Pen Pusher, and she has authored several children’s books, among them The Sunbird Mystery, Twins, and Mr Football. Her second novel, was shortlisted  for the Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Prize 2014. Janet is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. 



     ‘You look pre-tty neat,’ said Ken. ‘Pre-tty neat. Got that?’ He was standing in front of the mirror, running his fingers through his hair. This was a lesson of sorts for Boris, who was relatively new. Not a relative … just relatively new.


‘You say this yourself?’ said Boris, bemused.


'To myself. Yeah, well, it’s a joke, innit?’ said Ken. He looked at Boris. ‘Never mind,’ he said. He strode to the window and looked out. ‘It’s a nice view,’ he said. ‘You can see the tube lines from ‘ere. Don’t need an alarm clock, ‘cos you can hear ‘em, too. You know, the trains. Early morning. Bit of vibration. That’s all. I mean, nuffin’s going to fall down.’ Ken sniggered.


 No reaction from Boris.

 Ken sighed. ‘As regards the rules of the house,’ he said.

 Boris’s eyes flickered.


 ‘It goes without saying,’ said Ken. ‘Keep your nose clean.’ He tapped the side of his nose.

 Boris considered this. He gave a sniff.  ‘Okay,’ he said cautiously. ‘I keep nose clean.’

 ‘And,’ said Ken, ‘don’t go bringing any old tarts up ‘ere.’

 ‘Tarts,’ repeated Boris. He fumbled for his vocabulary notebook and took out a pencil to write the word down.

 ‘T-A-R-T-S,’ said Ken. ‘Got it?’

 ‘Okay, is good,’ said Boris.

 ‘Good,’ said Ken. ‘Now give us a hundred.’

 ‘A hundred?’

 ‘Quid,’ said Ken. ‘A hundred quid. That should do it.’


Boris crinkled his brow.

‘Okay,’ said Ken. ‘Give us seventy-five.’

Boris’s expression was pained.

‘You like the room, don’t you?’

Boris nodded. ‘Room is good,’ he said. He stared at Ken, with sad eyes.

‘Well, you know, not that it’s going to make much difference to me one way or the other,’ said Ken. ‘I mean it’s only pocket money, innit?’

‘Please?’ said Boris.

‘Okay, give us fifty, then. I’m doing you a favour, mate.’


Boris took the pristine notes from where they were stored in the back of his English grammar book, from between the pages he was studying on the Future Perfect.


‘That’s the ticket,’ said Ken, pocketing the money.

Boris wondered why a man who drove a lorry would need a ticket.

‘Oh, and don’t bring in any of ‘em other Baltic blokes,’ said Ken.

‘Baltic blokes?’ said Boris.

‘Look, don’t keep saying what I’m saying. Right?’

‘Okay, is good,’ said Boris.


Ken picked up the hairbrush and leaned in towards the mirror on the sideboard. In a mumble he said, ‘Don’t want to come back and find eight more of you in ‘ere, do I? Mrs. S. wouldn’t like it, would she?’


Puzzlement spread across Boris’s face.

‘I told ‘er you’re me mate. Right?’

Boris pursed his lips.

‘Between jobs, like,’ said Ken. With precision, he brushed a few stray hairs behind his ears, all the while scrutinizing his face in the mirror.


‘Okay ...,’ began Boris.

‘Yeah. Is good,’ said Ken.


He stood back from the mirror, looking at himself sideways. ‘Awesome bugger,’ he said. He gave his hair a few additional finishing touches. He straightened his collar.


‘Oh yes,’ he confirmed, ‘you look pretty neat.’


He turned away from the sideboard, then darted back, and looked directly into his reflected image.

In a half whisper, he said,

‘You’re not so bad yourself.’


Boris raised his eyebrows.

Ken faced him, grinning and guffawing, but Boris’s demeanor was flat and serious.

Ken stopped laughing and picked up his car keys. ‘Yeah, right,’ he said. ‘Duh!’

‘Duh?’ said Boris.

‘Well, got to go,’ said Ken. ‘Mind out for Mrs. S.’ He gave Boris a hefty clout on the shoulder, stepped out of the room and slammed the door behind him.


Boris heard him thump away down the stairs. And then came a sense of elation, like oxygen rushing into his lungs. A room of his own. For three weeks, a room of his own.


But… outside there was a sound of shuffling, a jingle-jangle of keys and a cough. Boris opened the door.

A small woman in a powder-blue flowered wrap-over apron stood facing him, her knuckles raised in a pre- door-knocking position. She was in her late middle age, with stiff blonde hair pinned up on her head. She had violently blue eyes, outlined in black, and aggressive red letter-box lips. Her neck was withered and lumpy, her breasts sank heavily into her waist. So, here she was - Mrs. Sokolow. 

‘Mister Boris,’ she said.

‘Yes, I am Boris,’ said Boris. ‘I am friend Ken.’

‘Mister Ken he tell you rules of house?’ asked Mrs. Sokolow.


Boris gazed at her, finding English people strange.

‘No smoke cigarette in room, because danger for fire.’

 Boris nodded.

 ‘You keep room clean like own home.’

 And again Boris nodded.

 ‘No party, loud music. No visitor in room, specially no lady.’

 Boris hesitated. ‘Okay, is good,’ he conceded.


When she had gone, Boris posed before the sideboard mirror in his new room. He brushed his hair.


‘You look pre-tty neat,’ he said, with a darkened ‘l’. ‘You look pre-tty neat,’ he repeated in the way he had learned from his friend Ken.

‘You’re not so bad yourself,’ he enunciated with a dramatic rolling of ‘r’s.


There was a sharp admonishing rap at the door. This time Mrs. Sokolow entered without apology, scanning the room at speed, her eyes darting about nervously in her head. Boris stood frozen at the mirror.


‘You remember rule. No visitors in room. I hear speaking. Who is speaking?’ demanded Mrs. Sokolow.

‘It is I,’ said Boris.

‘Yes, yes,’ said Mrs. Sokolow. ‘Who you speak?’

‘I speak myself,’ said Boris.

‘You to who?’


‘I who?’ she insisted.

‘I me.’


Mrs. Sokolow’s eyes narrowed. ‘You speak yourself?’ she said slowly.

‘Yes,’ said Boris, relieved.


Mrs. Sokolow’s expression changed from anger to anxiety. ‘Oh,’ she said, and left the room as suddenly as she had entered it.


Boris turned back to the mirror and continued his grooming. Grooming himself for his new life. Whispering, he said..


‘You’re not so bad yourself.’



     Pretty Neat      

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