by Liz Parkes
IT wasn’t long after I’d taken Mrs Perkins on that I noticed things had gone missing. Not big things you understand, but those little items that you were sure were there the other day.
The advert for a cleaner had seemed heaven sent when it had come through my door. The firm of professional cleaners I had used previously had not proved satisfactory, constantly changing staff and charging an exorbitant hourly rate, so I was on the look-out. In the staff room the talk was about wonderful home helpers, part of the family, just what I needed to lighten the load.
She had responded to my call with alacrity, delighted that our house was within easy walking distance of her house and overlooking the solicitor’s offices where her husband worked as some kind of security. First impressions are seldom favourable; her demeanour bordered on obsequious, and it was hard not to stare at the gap left by a missing tooth. I am usually quite good at guessing ages, but Mrs Perkins belonged to that group of women of an indeterminate age.
Daniel has always been disinterested in the running of the house. I managed to slot my information between his boss’ call and the 10 o’clock news.
“I’ve taken on a cleaner.”
“That’s good.” he said.
She had started the second week of the new term. I was already exhausted: picking up clothes from the children’s rooms, Daniel’s towels from the bathroom, sweeping bits off the kitchen units all before the school run. Of course Daniel thinks this is all ridiculous, but where would I find things filed away by someone else? The cleaning has never been the hard bit.
Stepping over the children’s shoes that evening, all my reservations were dispelled; the surfaces sparkled, the air smelt fresh, the fluff under the settee had disappeared. I could sit down and enjoy my home with a cup of tea while the children, unmolested did whatever teens do in their bedroom.
It seemed such a little matter when the plaster gnome disappeared from the patio. Daniel had never liked it anyway but it was the first thing Sally had bought me from her own pocket money, silly and sentimental as it was, I wanted it back.
At the end of the month, I slipped a note into the pay packet asking casually if Mrs Perkins might have seen the gnome. That evening, the gnome returned with a little note explaining that the window cleaner had knocked it over and the redoubtable Mrs Perkins had taken it home to repair. The next week I left her a box of quality chocolates.
In the weeks up to half term, I lost the backdoor key, an old china cup and saucer, a relic of a fine tea service once owned by Daniel’s mother, and a Venetian glass ring tree, a souvenir from our honeymoon. Daniel has never been one to treasure objects, but he could take offence at such careless curatorship. I began to feel that the job was getting on top of me. Half term would be a welcome relief. Then, the week before half term, I opened the door to the familiar smell of chlorine but beneath it the unmistakeable scent of Chanel.
The bottle stood where I had put it, the black casing with the gold C hid the contents. Was I overly suspicious? I decided to have words with Mrs Perkins the next week when I would be on holiday.
“Mrs Perkins, I have noticed that some of the ornaments are missing. Maybe you would know…….”
No matter how I tried to put it, it came out sounding like an accusation. And that is how she took it.
It was awful. She opened the high cupboard above the cooker where the items were wrapped in bubble wrap. She said that she had put them there as she could not trust herself with such delicate objects. I was covered in confusion I clean forgot about the perfume and the back door key.
The next pay packet I slipped in a voucher.
Pressure always builds up towards Christmas, I am sure I would have been better organised had it not been for parents’ evening, as it was I had got to lunch time before I remembered Sally’s birthday sleep over and the cake I had promised. Mrs Perkins answered the phone. Of course she could pop out to the supermarket but how would it be if she baked something? I was full of foreboding but was hardly in a position to argue.
Wearily I opened the door at 10 to find the kitchen rocking to the music of four 15-year-old girls, and on the units a wonderful confection of cupcakes. Before I could speak, Daniel was behind me, ‘You are a dark horse Yvonne, when did you learn to bake like a pro?’ In his hand the small card saying, ‘Sal, enjoy, love mum.’ God bless you Mrs Perkins.
I never let on, not when the delicious casseroles started to appear in the cooker, nor when Daniel’s mother was so complimentary about the éclairs, Mrs Perkins was a real find. What would I do without her?
Apart from last Christmas, the build up to Christmas has always been my favourite time. Mrs Perkins’ present came as a complete surprise. I had given her a bottle of wine, her present came in a very fancy wrap. Wrong footed by her generosity, I stammered my thanks.
The contents slipped out in a shimmer of satin and lace, raunchy and, amazingly, the right size. For one uncomfortable moment the old edginess was there, how did she know my size? But this was Mrs Perkins of the warm house and wonderful meals, if her gift was inappropriate I am sure it was well meant. Still as soon as she had gone I sorted through my drawer of under-clothes to find the letter under the drawer liner, thank God it was still there, time to burn it.
My habit of keeping souvenirs could be the undoing of everything I hold dear.
I opened the log burner and watched with relief as the flames licked at the edges and the paper curled and twisted in on itself. The ashes, as light as my conscience now, were carried in the up draught away and up the chimney.
I love a real tree but Mrs Perkins had quite reasonably pointed to the work it would make for her so silver and blue foil it is this year. As I lifted out the matching decorations she had so thoughtfully provided, I saw the envelope. Her handwriting does not belong to my image of her, it is flowing and confident, I would know it anywhere. The card inside is of a Victorian snow scene and inside it says, to Yvonne and Simon.
My heart skips a beat. How can she possibly know?
How could she know what had been a moment’s aberration when my marriage was going through a tough patch? Simon had been helpful but meant nothing to me, someone to pay me the attention lacking in my marriage. Last Christmas my friend’s affair had seemed so exciting, now I could see the hardship and the heartache and was glad that I hadn’t followed her example. Well not entirely, I didn’t leave. Why had I kept that stupid letter then? Was it just vanity? A need to feel myself desirable? Carelessness? All of these.
It must have been a mistake, people write so many cards, a simple confusion. I got on with the tree determined to have a lovely Christmas, one that would eclipse the memories of last year.
And it did. Daniel surpassed himself. His presents were normally mundane but this Christmas the card on the breakfast tray contained a weekend in Venice at our old honeymoon hotel. What did it matter that it might be run down now, it was the most romantic gesture he had ever made. I was thrilled.
School started the first week of New Year. Tired out I got home to find Mrs Perkins still there. She had undergone quite a remarkable transformation. The gap in her teeth was no longer there. She sported an attractive bobbed hairstyle which made her appear years younger, not much older than me. I was stunned.
“You look great.” I blurted.
“My husband’s gift, this and a Spa break. Not up to what Daniel has given you though.”
Surely it was not her…..Didn’t Daniel ever think for himself. The gift was tarnished and maybe she knew it.
I decided to tackle Daniel that night. He was settled at his computer when I brought his whisky.
“Daniel, Mrs Perkins, how did she know what you had bought me for Christmas?”
“Must have seen the tickets.”
“They’re in my bag.”
“Maybe one of the kids.”
“They’re teenagers. When did they last talk to anyone over 18?”
“Yvonne, Mrs Perkins is a marvel. You like your present don’t you?”
What more was there to say? Upstairs, lying in the bath, I reasoned with myself. It was a lovely present, why should I resent it? But even here, in the bath, I could see those little touches that screamed ‘Mrs Perkins.’
Spring was early this year. The banks on the side of the road on my way to work were full of primroses. Once I would have felt like singing, now I felt as though I was being dragged along the road under the car. What was going wrong? In the driver’s mirror my eyes looked back tired and bloodshot, I wasn’t sleeping well.
Mrs Perkins had taken to changing when she got to work, her new wardrobe being too good to work in. The house was spotless, you would not even know there were teenagers living there. I was finding work more tiring than ever, I preferred to do my marking and preparation before I came home, the house seemed too tidy now for my clutter.
There was an Ofsted inspection due and the pace at work had become unbearable. When Daniel suggested that we might extend Mrs Perkin’s contract to three days a week, I felt a lump in my gut. I needed the help. It was considerate of Daniel, once he would not have noticed how tired I had become. And yet…..
The Ofsted over, I felt I could start to relax a little, reclaim my life, maybe take up more of the household chores. The head, well pleased with the inspector’s report, had given me a half day off to read through the assessment of my department. I began to feel that a weight was lifting. As I drove up to the house things seemed so much better, until I saw Mrs Perkins’ car on my drive. This was not one of her days, nor should Daniel be at home midday.
I opened the door as quietly as I could but they had heard the car, there was a scrabbling upstairs. Daniel came to my bedroom door dishevelled. He closed the door firmly behind him.
“Where is she?” I could hardly recognise the voice as my own.
“Look Yvonne, it’s not what it seems.”
“Open that door. Open the bloody door” I ripped at his dressing gown, pulled at his arms.
The door behind him opened and Mrs Perkins stood there a half smile hovering. I caught her by the hair before Daniel could stop me. We clawed at each other. Daniel lifted me clear of the ground. With no purchase, I kicked and hit at him and the air. He pushed me into the bedroom shutting the door on me; Mrs Perkins walked down the staircase and out of our lives.
Although I had had my own fling, I could not forgive Daniel. Somehow this seemed so much more invasive, in my own bed. I slept in the spare room.
Daniel threw himself into his work, with promotion came long trips abroad. His career was going really well.
It was two months later in the Whit break that I came home to find Mrs Perkins sitting in my kitchen. The shock was so great that I did not react at first. Mrs Perkins seemed so much at home. This was a Mrs Perkins that belonged in this smart stock broker area, immaculately turned out, sophisticated and cool.
“Hello Yvonne, I hope you don’t mind, I’ve come to return your back door key. Silly of me. I still had it in my overall pocket.”
I remembered the missing key.
“How is Dan? Not my type of course, stifling. Not your type either, truth be known. No, my husband was the type you like for a quick flutter, an illicit fling.”
“Yes. The solicitor you went crying to when things were going wrong. The good listener, the good lover but not yours to take was he? He couldn’t get over you, couldn’t forget you. How many times he called me by your name at the most intimate moments. I hated you then and now………..Now you know what it feels like to be cuckolded.”
“Get out. Get out.”
Mrs Perkins stood slowly and turned on her heel, “Mrs Cartwright by the way, Mrs Simon Cartwright.”
I slid down onto the floor. What a fool I had been. There would be two or three hours before the children got home. I must collect myself. Life must go on as it always had.
There would be no peace for me. Mrs Perkins would always be in the next room watching me, hating me.
© Liz Parkes 2016