Sunday, 20 January 2013

The housekeeper

The drawing room was pristine.  There was no dust on the picture rails (Georganna had donned a pair of white gloves and run her finger along all of them to check, and was now massaging her shoulder and complaining that it ached), the chairs were all set out in exactly the right positions (Diane had pulled a battered copy of Feng Shui for the simple-minded from her capacious handbag and gone through Chapter 5, checking everything carefully), and the carpet was as bright as the day it had been purchased.  Sally ground her heels into it, a moue of spite on her face, and said,
“How does she do it?”
“She’s got to have help,” said Diane.  She was the eldest of the three sisters and felt a constant pressure to know both more than her siblings, and to look no older than them.  “It’s simply not possible to keep a house as large as this as clean as this without help.  There have been scientific studies, you know.”
“Really?”  Georganna flexed her arm, a slim brown hand rubbing her shoulder a little theatrically.  “Oh, my arm.  Why couldn’t one of you have checked one of those rails?  Who does scientific studies on housework, sister dear?”
“Because you’d only do it again because you didn’t believe us,” said Diane.  “And you haven’t checked the dado rails yet, I bet she’s only expecting us to check the high rails because that’s the hardest to reach.”
“Well I’m not doing it!”
“Oh Sally, can you check then please?”
Sally huffed, but produced her pair of white gloves and walked slowly around the room, her finger running along the dado rails.  She paused every ten steps to check for dust or other dirt on the glove, but with no success.
“As for who does studies, little Georganna, that would be the Institute of Women’s Studies at Northanger University.  They have their own journal: Domestic Analysis.  I subscribe.”  She gave Georganna a look that dared her to challenge that.
“Northanger University?” said Sally, frowning at her gloved finger that was staying resolutely white and clean.  “That sounds oddly familiar.  Did you go there, Georganna?”
Georganna was the only one of the sisters to have gone to university, though she’d struggled to graduate, changing her course three times and eventually resorting to sleeping with first her tutors, then other members of the faculty, and finally the President of the university.  “No,” she said with a little acerbity.  “No, I went to the Lesser University of Much Bothering.  It has unique courses, not offered anywhere else in the country.  That was a significant consideration to me when selecting my course.”
“So why does it sound familiar then?”
“I know,” said Diane.  When the other two had looked at her for long enough, with sufficient hatred in their eyes she allowed herself a small smile and continued.  “Northanger University was the inspiration for Janet O’Steen’s novel Coathanger Abbey.  There was a documentary about it a couple of weeks ago that you both insisted I watch with you.”  There was a momentary silence, and then Sally said, with just a touch of frost in her tone, “No dust.  The dados are clean as well.”
“She has to be cheating!” said Georganna.
“Who has to be cheating?” said Moira.  She had opened the door that led to the conservatory and was standing in the doorway.  Behind her the three sisters could see sprays of flowers and hear piano music.
“Diane,” said Georganna immediately.  Her eyes sparkled with malice.  “She’s been winning rather more at Canasta than can be explained by her skill at cards alone.”
“I had no idea you three played Canasta,” said Sally.  She smiled as pleasantly as her plastic surgery would allow.  “I have a small group of players who come over on Thursdays, if you might be interested?”
“Yes,” said Diane, while the other two shook their heads.
“We sew on Thursdays,” said Sally, while Georganna said at the same time, “We dress poor people.”  The two sisters looked at each other, and shrugged.  “We do both,” they said together.
“I can come,” said Diane.  Moira smiled again, her lips almost turning upwards.  “But I would love to know how you keep your house so clean when you’re all by yourself.  The forfeit for losing at Canasta isn’t cleaning is it?”
Georganna looked furious that she’d not seen this opportunity to ask such a question herself, while Sally perked up and looked interested.
“Oh, the housekeeper does it,” said Moira.  “Eight o’clock on Thursdays.  We play penny-ante.”
“What housekeeper?” said all three sisters in unison.  Moira looked as shocked as her plastic surgery would allow.
“My housekeeper,” she said.  “Abigail.  She’s been in my family for ninety years.”
Diane nodded.  “Yes,” she said slowly.  “We know.  We also know that she died fifteen years ago.”
“We attended her funeral,” said Sally.
“I was a pallbearer,” said Georganna, who’d lost a bet to end up having to do that.  “She was heavy.”
“Oh yes,” said Moira.  “Well, she was employed by mother, poor thing.”
All three sisters looked at her, waiting for her to continue.  “Oh.  Well, mother was very forward thinking in these things, and so her contract stated that if she died on the job, so to speak, she was still obliged to continue working for us after her death as well.  She either died on her own time, or not at all.”
Diane looked impressed, Sally looked puzzled and Georganna looked shocked.
“How did you get her to keep working?” asked Diane.
“Is she a zombie?” asked Georganna, her eyes wide.
“A séance,” said Moira.  “Dr. Phillips helped us with it, but we bound her spirit back to this earth.  It was a great advantage that mother made all the servants sign in blood.”
“Is she a zombie?” asked Georganna a little more insistently.
“No,” said Moira.  “Bits would only drop off and double her workload.  That would be inefficient.  Oh.  And a little unfair.”
The three sisters sat there, a little awed, and Moira basked.
“Please come through,” she said.  “I believe the housekeeper has baked a lasagne.”

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