Authors: Dorothy Cannell
Tags: #Cozy British Mystery
In spring a young woman’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of scrubbing down walls, turning out cupboards, taking up rugs, and doing the hundred and one other jobs that make her feel at one with Mother Earth. Oh, the joy of routing woodworm from the back-bedroom bureau! (What a recharging of the female batteries at discovering enough dirt under the sofa to plant pansies!) A time for rebirth. A new day dawning in which to repaint the kitchen, hang freshly ironed curtains, and make a pilgrimage to the attic to sort out the clutter of yesteryear. The bliss of knowing one is geared, to set the house, if not the world, to rights even if for the moment it is impossible to tell if you are moving in or moving out.
I was feeling on top of the world—partly because I was standing halfway up a stepladder. Another cobweb swatted with an expert flick of the wrist, another stain blotted from the face of the ceiling. Ellie Haskell, housewife extraordinaire! Then, ruining the moment, two small voices inquired sweetly: “Can we go and look for fairies at the bottom of the garden?”
“Not now, dears!” I smiled benignly down at my three-year-old twins, daughter Abbey and son Tam. “Mummy is very busy.”
“Please!” Their little faces fell.
“Perhaps later,” I said, “but right now I have to make the house all shiny and clean so we can live happily ever after.”
“I want Daddy!” Tam dug his knuckles into his eyes.
“Me too,” wailed his sister.
“Daddy’s at work, which is where good children get to go when they grow up,” I told them. “Not,” I added quickly, “that Mummy doesn’t have the most marvelous time when she is home looking after you and making everything nice.”
“You don’t look nice, Mummy.” Tam scowled up at me. “Actually”—this was his word of the week—”you look like a witch.”
“No, she don’t!” Abbey, always quick to my defense, gave him a push that landed them both on the floor. And suddenly I wavered, which may have been partially due to one of the stepladder’s legs being shorter than the other. All morning I had been picturing myself as an Amazon. I hadn’t realized that seeing me with an old cloth tied around my head and a feather duster resembling a diabolical magic wand in my hand might end up giving my children nightmares.
I’ll admit that when I glanced up and noticed another cobweb dangling brazenly from the corner above the Welsh dresser, I considered sending the children outside to play by themselves. There is a walled area that was once the herb garden, so I didn’t have to worry about them wandering through the gates and out onto the cliffs. And I could keep an eye on them from the kitchen window. But then I remembered the picture book I had found in the attic that morning. It related the sad and sorry tale of a band of brigand goblins who once upon a time holed up in the rockery of a sweet old lady’s garden. Horrid, knobby little people, all cleverly disguised as crocus bulbs.
I came down off the stepladder and, as the children wrapped themselves around my knees, surveyed the upended kitchen. Surely it would be the height of irresponsibility to grab up a bottle of milk and a handful of apples, slap some cheese between slices of bread, and head with this makeshift picnic out into the garden. But birdsong drifted in through the open window on the back of a sweet-scented breeze, and I remembered how that morning I had barely restrained myself from dusting off Miss Vienna Miller’s legs when she came to discuss an upcoming Hearthside Guild meeting. And she a newcomer to our little village!
“Please, Mummy!” Abbey was tugging me towards the garden door. Feeling like a nun forsaking the convent, I went with my little girl and boy into a world painted with rainbow color for a picnic where dock leaves served for luncheon plates. A gull glided overhead, and a thrush peeked down from the branches of the old copper beech to serenade us with the promise that there would soon be bluebells in the wood.
Tomorrow, I vowed while unwinding the string of a faded kite, tomorrow at the very latest I would get down to some serious spring cleaning. And if a distraction should crop up, something totally unavoidable, such as being invited to tea with dear Brigadier Lester-Smith, then I would definitely get back on track the very next day.
“What’s all this, Mrs. H.?” Roxie Malloy, my prized household helper, stood with hands on her black taffeta hips and looked the kitchen up, down, and sideways. “Had a row with the hubby and gone and got your bits and pieces together for moving out?”
“Ben and I remain blissfully happy. In fact we renewed our wedding vows before he left for work this morning. The reason the place is at sixes and sevens is that I’ve started spring cleaning,” I informed her snappishly while examining my dishpan hands. No cream on earth would ever make them look human again, or regrow my nails, most of which had dissolved after repeated dunkings in a bucket of bleach. “It’s a job and a half giving a house this size a fullscale go-through.” Tottering over to a chair, I swept off a pile of cookery books so I could sit down. “According to my mother-in-law, only dirty people need to spring clean, but I never seem to get caught up on the hidden muddle.”
“My heart breaks,” Mrs. Malloy patted her new hairdo. She called the color auburn sunset, but on a paint chart it would have been labeled as maroon.
“I’m not suggesting you don’t do the lion’s share of the work,” I assured her as she sat down across the kitchen table from me and inspected the stiletto heel on one of her shoes. “It’s just that I thought life would be easier with the twins going to play school three mornings a week. Instead it seems that by the time I’ve got them there, come home, made the beds, done the washing up, and got lunch ready, it’s time to pick them up.” I drank deep from a cup of cold tea left over from breakfast and waited for Mrs. Malloy to administer words of comfort to the effect that if I wanted to rebuild my strength by taking a rest with a good book, she would have everything shipshape in no time.
“Well, I wish I could stay and help you, Mrs. H.” She managed to sound regretful as she helped herself to the slice of buttered toast Ben had left on his plate. “It’s not like me to desert a sinking ship, but there it is! I’ve come to hand in me notice.”
“What?” I almost went through my chair. Was it something I had done? Forgotten her birthday? Remembered her birthday? Mrs. Malloy had grown more than a little touchy about her age since becoming a grandmother a month before. Her son, George, had married my cousin Vanessa, the beautiful fashion model not known for her heart of gold, unless you counted the one studded with diamonds she sometimes wore on her Chanel suit. Mrs. Malloy hadn’t been over the moon about the match. She believed that George, who owned a couple of factories and a chain of exercise-equipment stores, would have been happier with a girl of fewer looks and a little more sweetness and light. The speedy arrival of a bouncing baby girl had aroused mixed feelings on Grandma’s part.
Mrs. Malloy was proud to say little Rose was her spitting image. But it isn’t easy to cling to the pretense of being twenty-nine and three-quarters when one becomes a granny. The change of hair color dated from Mrs. Malloy’s visit to George and Vanessa three weeks ago when Rose was a few days old. So did the burnished-gold eye shadow and the micro-miniskirt All her own business, I reflected, but there was no denying that the marriage had also complicated my relationship with Mrs. Malloy. I felt awkward about putting my foot down when she spent an hour polishing the TV screen, missing most of the fingerprints but not a word of her favorite soap opera. And the situation had to be equally, if not more, difficult for her.
“I should have realized you’d have to stop working for me," I said through mounting panic. What on earth would I do without her? Fighting down the urge to attach myself to her legs the way the twins so often did to mine, I got up to empty out the teapot and get the kettle going for a fresh one. “But, Mrs. Malloy, I hate losing you. We’ve shared so much over the last few years. And the twins adore you.”
“Naturally! It’s me youthful charm and unbridled vivacity.” She plucked a paper serviette from the rack in the middle of the table and wiped toast crumbs from her fingers. “Believe you me, Mrs. H., I’m fully aware life will never be the same without yours truly, but I trust you’ll manage to hold your sobs down to a minimum when I walk out that door for the last time. We don’t want the kiddies upset.”
“They’re at play school.” I moved aside a floor mop that was propped up against the sink, as if taking a well-earned coffee break. “But Abbey and Tam aren’t the only ones we have to worry about. Jonas is also going to miss you. And”—I couldn’t resist bringing a teensy bit of pressure to bear—"you know he hasn’t been all that well since his bad bout with bronchitis in November. I worry about his doing much in the garden just now.”
“You’re not doing him no favors.” Mrs. Malloy looked around expectantly and I hastily produced another slice of toast. “Most gardeners I know would rather die with their Wellies on and a hoe in their hands than be brought inside and turned into hothouse plants.”
“Jonas isn’t most gardeners.” I sat down and toyed with the salt and pepper shakers. “I really don’t know what I would do without him. And it’s not as though he’s really old. What’s seventy or even eighty these days?”
“You keep thinking along them lines, Mrs. H.”
Malloy took the positive approach. “I’ve heard tell that in some of them foreign countries people don’t come of age until they’re forty. That makes Jonas middle-aged and you and me dewy-eyed blossoms.”
I had always assumed she was some thirty years older than me, but I was perfectly happy to have her include me as a contemporary. There were times, I’ll admit, when I found myself yearning to be middle-aged and menopausal. Surely by then the twins would have outgrown the need to unroll the toilet paper in an attempt to see if it was long enough to carpet the stairs and would have stopped taking bites out of sandwiches laid out for a Hearthside Guild tea. Better yet, I would have mastered that graceful balance of marriage, motherhood, housework, and intermittent forays back into the world of interior design.
“I do wish you would stay on.” My lips quivered as I got up to refill Mrs. Malloy’s cup.
“Oh, go on, have a good snuffle,” she offered kindly. “If you must know the bloody truth, I’ve shed a few tears meself at the thought of not working here no more. Merlin’s Court has been like a second home to me, and that’s a fact.”
“Then couldn’t we work something out?” Reaching across the table I squeezed her hand, which as usual displayed more rings than a jeweler’s window. “How would it be if you came to me one week and I did the same for you the next?”
“What, have you cleaning for me?” Mrs. Malloy’s frown brought her painted eyebrows down over the burnished-gold lids.
“Why not?” A scratching sound caught my ear and I opened the hall door to see my cat, Tobias, looking sufficiently put out to hand in
“You and your ideas, Mrs. R! Wouldn’t do at all, and you know it." Mrs. Malloy assumed a look of withering contempt, partially directed at Tobias, who early in their acquaintance had made it clear he had no intention of treating her as a social equal.
“You’re right, it wouldn’t be fair,” I conceded. “Buzzing through your house with the Hoover and a tin of polish, Mrs. Malloy, would be a walk in the park compared to what it takes to keep Merlin’s Court in shape. And” —attempting to speak lightly— "I’m sure you’d be worried I’d break one of your prized china poodles.”
“There is that,” she agreed. “On the other hand, I’ll admit it would tickle me no end to hear Brigadier Lester-Smith that lives two doors down talking about how Mrs. Haskell from Merlin’s Court comes to do the rough for yours truly once a fortnight.”
“Well, there you are!” Plying her with more tea.
“We all have our pipe dreams, Mrs. H.” She emitted a lofty sigh. “But I can’t pretend I could live with meself if I was to break the code.”
“The one what dictates the ethics of me profession as set out in the bylaws of the C.F.C.W.A.”
I was riveted.
“That’s the Chitterton Fells Charwomen’s Association,” Mrs. Malloy explained kindly. “We really didn’t need the W. but Mrs. Large, what’s our chief bigwig, thought it made the letters flow better. Here.” Reaching down for the large black bag she had deposited by her chair, she opened it up, then shook her head. “No, I don’t have the bylaws with me. I remember now I used them to wedge shut the airing-cupboard door. But it’s not like I don’t know the Magna Char—as we call it—word for word. Two lines down on page sixteen, it says in big print: ‘No member of the C.F.C.W.A., in good standing or otherwise, shall work alongside a person of less than ten years full-time experience or employ such in her own home." Mrs. Malloy looked me full in the eye. “There’s no getting round it; rules is rules.”