Authors: Amanda Prowse
Cordelia Potterton is about to turn ninety-four, and she's determined to do it in style. The antique cake stand has been polished, the white linen napkins are folded, and the darjeeling is brewing in a silver tea pot. There's only one thing missing: the guests.
It's up to her cleaner and her nephew to keep the celebrations going - and make sure Miss Potterton's birthday tea is a day she will never forget.
âYour grammar is appalling!' Miss Potterton slammed the notepad onto the desk. âI mean, I don't see what is so difficult about it. Did you not cover the subjunctive at school? In fact, no, don't answer that!' She held the magnifying glass aloft in her knobbly hand and closed her eyes, as if even the sight of the girl standing awkwardly in front of her was injurious. âI am quite sure that your response would only depress me further.'
She sighed and blinked opened her eyes to see the girl stooping down to gather up her anorak and the carrier bag containing her magazine and packed lunch. âWh... what... what's going on? Where are you going?' she shouted.
âI'm leaving,' the girl replied. âI'll tell the agency that you not only want someone to clean, but they also need a degree in spelling!'
Cordelia Potterton winced. âA degree in
! What kind of degree is
The girl slammed the door behind her, sending a shiver through the dark-wood African masks collected by Miss Potterton's father and still hanging on the wall of the basement flat in Lexham Gardens, Kensington, where he had positioned them long ago.
âGood grief!' Miss Potterton gasped as she lifted the receiver. She pressed the numbers on the large-button keypad, repeating them out loud as she did so.
A voice on the other end sighed a morning greeting.
âNow, which one are you?' Miss Potterton asked curtly. âYou all sound the same. Is it Joanna or Katie?'
âIt's me, Miss Potterton. Katie. And goodness me, this is nearly a personal best! It's only a quarter past nine and Martine was booked from nine o'clock!' The girl snorted her amusement.
âIt really isn't a laughing matter. She was absolutely useless!'
âThey usually are,' Katie muttered under her breath.
Miss Potterton gripped the phone, keen to explain further. âI asked her to take dictation of a simple letter and she had the secretarial skills of a child! In fact, no, my sister and I would have done better when we were ten, and this girl was at least twenty!'
There was no response. Miss Potterton pulled the phone away from her mouth and gave it a rattle, as if that might fix the silence coming from the other end. âAre you there, dear?' she shouted.
âYes! Yes, Miss Potterton, I'm here.'
âI was told that the girl had been to university, a recent graduate, so I naturally assumed that she'd be able to jot down a simple letter to my MP. I feel very strongly about all these basement excavations that are going on. It can't be good for the foundations and I don't want to be discovered under a pile of expensive rubble one morning with a sign saying “I told you so” sticking up from the ruins.'
She drew breath. âI assumed a university education would mean she was capable of drafting my letter, but no, apparently she studied
, whatever that is. And she had the scrawl of a toddler with palsy.'
âAnd I'm afraid that's the problem. Martine is not a secretary. In the same way that Andrea was not a horticulturistâ'
âIt was a couple of snips to my bonsaiâ¦' Miss Potterton interrupted.
âLynda was not a cat groomerâ'
âThree measly claws that needed clipping!'
âAnd Katarzyna was not a hairdresser.'
âI couldn't see my Kindle! One swipe at my fringe with the nail scissors is hardly asking for a full perm and comb-out!'
Katie sighed. âWe are a cleaning agency. We hire out cleaners. Our staff are paid thirteen pounds an hour to
âAnd yet you charge me twenty-two pounds fifty!' Miss Potterton grumbled.
Katie mentally reloaded, cursing her misfortune at having answered the phone to this particular call. âI tell you what I'll do, Miss Potterton. I shall pop another leaflet through your door detailing our charges, which are all quite transparent, together with the leaflet that lists the chores and tasks that our staff are happy to undertake. Things like dusting, ironing, cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, hooveringâ'
âThe term is vacuuming!' Miss Potterton shouted. âHoover is the brand and I find it most irritating that people think it is a verb.'
There was a moment of silence, during which Miss Potterton was sure she could hear counting.
âHello? Hello?' she shouted.
âYes, still here! Just, erm... just thinking how best to proceed.'
âIt's quite simple really, Katie. I want a reliable cleaner for two hours, three times a week.'
âAnd trust me, I would like nothing more than to be able to provide that for you. If only to stop these calls.' Katie whispered the last part.
âWhat was that?' Miss Potterton shook the phone again.
âI said, thank you for your call!'
âSo what do you propose, Katie?'
âThat's the trouble.' Katie sighed. âI'm running out of propositions. Usually, after a client has refused one of our staff, we give them a strike, and after three strikes we don't supply them with cleaners any more. That's our policy.'
âGoodness me! How many strikes have I had?'
There was a pause while Katie placed the end of her pencil on the screen and counted.
âTwelve,' came the definitive reply.
Katie listened to the faint wheezing on the other end of the phone. At first she thought the old lady was crying, but then she realised it was actually the sound of laughter.
Dr Ian Munroe dried his hands on a paper towel, balled it and lobbed it at the wastepaper bin in the corner. It missed.
It felt shameful, emasculating, somehow, having to walk all the way over to the other side of the room and stoop low to retrieve it. Proof, if proof were needed, of his lack of sporting prowess. He scooped up the handful of stiff paper towel. This time it skimmed the rim of the bin, which was now mere inches away, and fell to the floor once again. With uncharacteristic aggression, he kicked the bin. It hit the wall and disgorged its contents under his desk. Stretching out his legs, he bounced his shoes on the paper-strewn floor, rather enjoying the sponginess beneath his feet.
He clicked the icon on his computer that meant the appropriate message would pop up on the waiting-room screen, then placed a mint on his tongue.
âOh shit!' he muttered as he saw the name of his next patient. At almost the exact same moment there was a feeble knock at the door.
âCome in!' He searched for a tone that was neutral and professional but also welcoming.
The door remained closed.
âCome in!' He rolled his eyes and spoke a little louder.
The door opened a few inches and Mrs Coates popped her miserable face into the gap. âShould I come in?'
Her sour demeanour had the most depressing effect on everyone she encountered, especially on Dr Ian Munroe, who was already feeling less than sunny today. She had what his late mother would have described as a face that curdled milk.
âYes! Yes, please do, Mrs Coates.'
She crept apologetically into the small room and sat down warily, as though the chair were smeared with something unpleasant. She was just the type to complain a lot, about everything, thought Ian. The sort of person who would send food back after having eaten three quarters of her plate. And she probably spent a large amount of her time watching her neighbours, with the council number on speed dial, ready to report any suspicious non-food items being hurled into the little brown compost bin. She wasn't what you would call joyous.
Ian beamed at her nonetheless. âSo!' He did this, tried to rally her with invigorating enthusiasm, as though his tone and volume could sweep away the negativity that she emitted. He pictured her dourness as a physical thing, like little balls of miserable fluff that trailed behind her. âWhat can I do for you today?'
âIt's the cancer,' she muttered, head cocked to one side as she looked mournfully at the floor, her mouth set in a grimace.
âWhose cancer?' He darted his head forward, wondering how he had lost the thread so early on.
âMine.' She pulled the thin blue hem of her raincoat up over her knees.
âBut you don't have cancer,' he levelled.
âI didn't have it, Doctor, but I do now.'
âYou do? Goodness me, Mrs Coates, I am so sorry to hear that. I had no idea! You must have seen one of my colleagues.' He decided to call her bluff. âLet me take a quick look at your notes.' He placed his gold-rimmed spectacles on his nose and clicked and scrolled through several pages on his screen. âAh yes, here we are. December 4th: suspected appendicitis, which was just gas, is that right?'
She nodded regretfully.
âThen December 28th, we had Lyme disease symptoms, but that also tested negative. January we didn't see you.' He looked up at her, as this required an explanation.
âI was at my sister's in Fuengirola. We go there to save on the heating,' she clarified without a smile. âBut I was admitted to the local hospital with a suspected severe allergic reaction.'
severe?' He exhaled, intimating that she'd had a lucky escape. âWhat was it you were allergic to? We should probably make a note.'
âThey never found out,' she replied. âBut I've given up paella and foreign sherry. Just to be on the safe side.'
Ian bit his lip to stop himself mentioning that, for Brits, all sherry was foreign! âRighto.' He looked back at his screen. âFebruary 16th: ankle pain when you coughed, but not when you sneezed. March 3rd: double vision and diarrhoea. March 12th: double vision and constipation. March 20th: temporary blindness and acute thrush. And so on and so forth. But I can't seem to find your cancer diagnosis?' He placed his hands in his lap and stared at her.
She held his gaze, with a glint of something resembling triumph in her eyes. âThat's because I haven't shown it to anyone yet. But what do you think of this!' She positively glowed as she unbuttoned her blouse with what could only be described as vigour, and there on her right breast sat a brown lump.
âGoodness! Let's have a closer look.' Ian adjusted his specs and scooted his chair across the linoleum, carefully avoiding two paper towel mountains that threatened to get stuck in its wheels. He stared at her chest, then returned to his desk and retrieved a pair of tweezers.