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Emily smiled at the girl behind the desk and raised her eyebrows to signal that she was slightly baffled. Did Victoria always go on like this?

‘I’m Seema,’ said the girl behind the desk, ignoring Emily’s eyebrows. The trousers Seema were wearing were as white as her teeth, and her smile was as big as her hair, which had been backcombed and sprayed until it stood an inch above her scalp. She was plump and pretty. ‘I don’t mind being called a girl. They can chuck me in my grave when I’m ninety and say “here lies the old girl” and I won’t mind. But then I won’t mind about anythink much, will I, if I’m dead? You feeling old today, Victoria?’

‘I am a bit.’

‘Thought so. You only mention the nineteen eighties when you’re feeling old. Ready for your holiday after this? You can have a nice rest.’

‘Emily’s here to help out while I’m away.’

‘Yeah? Me and Emily’ll run the place smooth as ice cream and twice as sweet, Victoria.’

‘You are a darling, Seema. What would I do without you? It’s too, too stressful.’

‘About time you got some fresh air on them frown lines. Forget about this place next week, it’s in capable hands. You’ll come back and you’ll wonder why you don’t leave everythink to us every day.’

Seema was a white-trousered steamroller, trundling over all of Victoria’s anxieties – and some of her self-esteem – and crushing them all, cheerfully.

Victoria picked up a folder from Seema’s desk. She held it as far away from her face as she could to read it.

‘You want your glasses on, Victoria,’ said Seema.

‘Oh, I know. I’m too vain. I think I’d rather be fitted with extendable arms than wear my reading glasses. Is this the list of new clients? I’d like Emily to interview the parents, get a feel for how we do things.’

‘You want Emily to do the induction? What’s she gonna say if she don’t know the place?’

‘Not an induction exactly… asking questions: a screening process.’


They’re
supposed to ask questions, and
we’re
supposed to have the answers. That’s how it works usually, innit?’

‘Oh, Seema. You are so terribly efficient,’ said Victoria. ‘But I think we should introduce a screening process, don’t you? Whittle out the undesirables.’

‘Undie-what? That’s not a word your accountant would understand, Victoria. The bills don’t pay themselves.’

‘Actually, I rather think they do, with these electronic systems and direct debit and whatnot.’

‘So long as they pay termly in advance, they’re desirable, ent they?’ Seema took the folder from Victoria and read aloud from it. ‘Dolly, Kayleigh, Maqsood, Robin, DeShawn. Four, five, six years old, these kids – what harm can they do?’

‘It’s not the children I wanted to screen, so much as the parents…’

‘I don’t want Emily turning away potential clients because she’s unfamiliar with how to run an establishment like this. No offence, Emily.’

How many jobs had Emily started where she had soon enough discovered that there was some kind of polite feud going on, with undercurrents of tension about who was really in charge and how things should be run? Too many; most of them; all of them. The thing about being here – or anywhere – on a temporary contract was that, ultimately,
she didn’t care
. She smiled at Seema: a genuine, warm smile. Seema was posturing. Emily wanted to let her know that she, Emily, wasn’t a threat.

‘No, of course,’ Victoria said, more vague than contrite. She picked up her handbag and felt around in it before bringing out something that Emily recognised: the video. ‘Can you put this somewhere safe for me? Lock it away?’ Victoria said to Seema.

‘Is it for the show?’ Seema said. ‘I’ll have to get Dizzy to bring the video cart down. I don’t know if we’ve even got the screen set up.’

‘Crikey, no! It’s just something that needs to be locked away, very carefully, out of sight. I don’t want it in the house. I can’t deal with it now. I’ll worry about it when I get back from holiday.’

‘Oh?’ said Seema. She looked as though she were about to burst out of her trousers with curiosity.

‘Dirty video, is it? Found Piers’s porn stash?’ The dreadlocked head of a smiling man who Emily hadn’t even noticed emerged with regal sedateness from behind Seema’s desk, where he had been working on a cluster of electrical plug sockets set into the floor in the office. He was in his forties, tiny strands of silver hair twisted in among the black, as though his locks were magnetic and had attracted a powdering of iron filings that had been spilled on the floor near where he had knelt to work. He held a screwdriver and wore very dark blue overalls that had a few daubs of paint on them. There was no doubt in Emily’s mind that he was the school’s handyman. In fact, he did a bit of everything – technician, electrician, carpenter, caretaker and occasional chauffeur. He was indispensable because of his willingness to turn his hand to anything, though he wasn’t especially skilled at any of them.

‘Nothing like that, Dizzy,’ Victoria said. ‘It’s a video I made when I was a student, with my boyfriend at the time, David Devereux. I don’t want anyone to see it.’

‘Oh!’ said Seema.

Dizzy said respectfully, ‘An acting video? My mistake, Victoria. Hello, Emily.’

Victoria said, ‘Dizzy, you’re not trying to fix the electrics yourself, are you? You need someone qualified.’

‘Mr. Barrymore’s helping me,’ said Dizzy.

‘Barry’s helping you?’ Victoria put her hands palm-out in front of her and made a ‘window-washing’ movement, fingers spread wide, as if trying to wipe away Dizzy’s words where they hung in the air between them both. ‘You
are
joking? Please don’t let him anywhere near it. He’s more likely to sabotage it than fix it. You know he wants me out of this place. I noticed the infant toilets didn’t get blocked up once when he was away for his fortnight in Menorca.’ She turned to Emily and said, ‘Mr. Barrymore, our
horrible
landlord, is trying to get me to give this place up so he can sell it to developers to be made into luxury flats.’

Emily said, ‘Hello, Dizzy.’

Seema said, ‘I’m studying for a City & Guilds in building maintenance. I’d take a look at the wiring myself but I’m too busy.’

‘Of course you are,’ Victoria said. ‘Right! I need to go and get changed. I need to rehearse the teachers’ skit with Graham, he’s over-creaking his Tin Man in my
Wizard of Oz
tap-dancing routine. He doesn’t even have to tap dance, just gyrate his hips a bit. Some of the children have already arrived, and the rest will be arriving any minute. We’ve got the patrons coming in to give prizes. They’ll need to be briefed. We’ve got the new parents coming; they’ll need to be interviewed. We’ve got the current parents coming; they’ll need to be avoided, especially if their children aren’t being awarded prizes.’

There was suddenly a very unpleasant smell in the room. ‘Oh my goodness!’ said Victoria. ‘What’s that? Don’t tell me we’ve got a problem with the drains?’

A sweaty white man with a bald head edged into the room – apparently he had been standing in the doorway for a short while. The man was about fifty years old, and he was wearing an England football shirt, which was made of white synthetic material with three blue lions embroidered on the left breast. Emily didn’t recognise him and, given his age and physical condition, was inclined to disbelieve he played for the team. She took a dislike to him: she didn’t approve of snoops. ‘I think it’s Precious,’ the man said. ‘I’ve been feeding her extra sausages to get her to be good.’

‘Barry,’ Victoria said, ‘what on
earth
is Precious doing here?’

‘You said you needed a real dog to play Toto,’ Seema said. ‘Mr. Barrymore’s was the only one available at short notice. It seemed the best thing to do.’

‘No trouble at all,’ said Mr. Barrymore. ‘Specially as we’re only next door.’

Victoria walked around the desk behind Seema, and Emily followed her to see an extraordinarily ugly bulldog lying on a blanket. The dog sighed.

‘If you brought this malodorous animal onto the premises as your first step in an eviction plan, you’re more cunning than I thought,’ said Victoria, opening a window in the office.

Mr. Barrymore laughed appreciatively and for slightly too long, as though he had met his favourite TV comedienne by chance in the supermarket and she had said something funny about the vegetables in his shopping basket. He said, ‘There’s another place I want you to look at in Crystal Palace, Victoria. Very modern. Much better appointed than this. I don’t need Precious to persuade you. Soon as you see it, you’ll love it.’

Victoria said, ‘I’m going to get changed. Emily, do you know Morgana Blakely, the romance novelist?’

‘I’ve heard of her,’ said Emily. ‘Is she coming?’

‘Yes. She’s Piers’ aunty, and she’ll be giving a prize to one of the students. You’ll know her when you see her. She’ll be wearing something ridiculous. Probably a hat.’ From downstairs there was the sound of someone on the piano playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Victoria listened for a moment and then continued, ‘You know Dr. Muriel? And Midori? Midori’s a Japanese girl. Goes by the stage name of DJ Hana-bi?’

‘Yes,’ said Emily. ‘They both live on our street. I didn’t know they were friends of yours.’

‘Friends and neighbours and awfully good role models. They’ll be giving prizes, too. They’ll be along in a bit, so can you just keep them out of mischief? I can hear Samuel giving us a very big hint on the piano. I need to find Graham and get started rehearsing. Seema, dear, you can take care of the parents, but
please
will you let Emily talk to David Devereux when he gets here.’

‘David Devereux’s coming? Fella was in that spy thing? Black geezer? I thought he was in Hollywood.’ Mr. Barrymore seemed impressed.

‘Yes. So if you would be a love and get the electrics working? I don’t know what’s wrong with the wiring. I don’t want the music cutting out when the tinies are doing their Flight of the Bumblebee. Graham and I can improvise, but the little ones can’t – nor can the teenagers, come to that – and I don’t want them being upset.’

Seema said, ‘I need to talk to you, Victoria. There’s a letter arrived here for you. It’s a bit of a strange one. It’s a personal letter, but I didn’t realise. I’m afraid I opened it.’

‘Oh, not now, Seema,’ Victoria said. ‘I really can’t be doing with it.’

Victoria left. Mr. Barrymore left. Dizzy left. Seema said, ‘Emily, have you seen that video? I need to lock it away somewhere. It was here on the desk.’

From downstairs came the sound of Victoria shouting, “Emileeeeeeee, Emileeeeeee. Can you come down? Morgana’s here.’

Emily said to Seema, ‘It can’t have gone far. Can it?’

When Emily went downstairs to meet the famous romance novelist, Morgana Blakely, she immediately recognised her, just as Victoria had said she would. Morgana was indeed wearing a hat. It was a miniature top hat perched on the side of her head and held in place with hat pins and with a short veil attached to it, fashioned out of wire mesh. Emily had been to parties (or rather, she had waitressed at them) where canapés were served in the form of miniature fish and chips, or miniature burgers roughly the size of the circle made by joining the thumb and forefinger of one hand. Morgana’s top hat was a bit like this. It had all the attributes of a normal top hat, but it was considerably smaller. If Morgana wasn’t so imposing and hadn’t just arrived to give prizes at her nephew’s wife’s stage school, Emily would have assumed she was in fancy dress.

Morgana must have been in her sixties – at least – but she had the youthful-looking skin of a woman who moisturises every day. She wore a purple trouser suit with a long purple velvet coat over it, trimmed in mauve marabou stork feathers, and she had applied flattering make-up: pale pink lipstick, black mascara, a touch of mauve eye shadow and a dusting of pink blusher. Her short, stylish hair was the colour of rich beef gravy.

Before Emily had to worry what to do with her, Dr. Muriel arrived. She and Morgana greeted each other like old friends, which is to say, they held hands, looked into each other’s eyes and laughed.

Victoria came up to them. She was now wearing a blue pinafore dress and sparkly red tap shoes. She had put her hair in two long plaits, and she was still working at the strands of the left one as she walked.

‘Something terrible has happened,’ she said. ‘I think we should call the whole thing off.’

‘You always say that,’ said Morgana. ‘Things come together in the end, don’t they?’

‘No, it’s worse than under-rehearsed dancers and disgruntled parents. I think we might be in danger. There’s this video I made when I was a student…’

‘Oh, Victoria!’ said Morgana.

‘Not that kind of video.’

‘Who knows about it?’ asked Dr. Muriel.

‘I haven’t told anyone,’ Victoria said. ‘Not a living soul.’

Emily checked her pulse. Yes, still alive.

Victoria said, ‘It was a video I made with David Devereux when we were at drama school. He’s been sending me poison pen letters.’

‘Has he, indeed?’ said Dr. Muriel.

‘Bad things happen to people who watch that video.’

‘How interesting,’ said Dr. Muriel. ‘Have you ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophesy?’

BOOK: B006ITK0AW EBOK
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