I wake the next morning to an unfamiliar, smooth white ceiling above me. I frown in puzzlement, then lift my head a little. The sheets make a strange rumpling sound as I move. Whats going on? My sheets dont sound anything like that.
But of course. Theyre the Geigers sheets. I sink comfortably back into my pillowsuntil another thought strikes me. Who are the Geigers?
I screw up my face, trying to remember. I feel as though Im both hungover and still drunk. Snatches of yesterday are vivid in my mind, amid a dense fog. Im not sure whats real and whats a dream. I came on the train ... yes ... I had a headache ... Paddington Station ... walking out of the office ...
Oh, God. Oh, please, no.
With a sickening whoosh the whole nightmare comes rushing back. The memo. Third Union Bank. Fifty million pounds. Asking Guy if I had a job left ...
His silence ...
My career is wrecked. My life as I knew it is over.
At last I push back the covers and get out of bed, feeling weak and spacey. This time yesterday I was in my kitchen, getting ready for work, blissfully unaware of what was about to happen. In another worldin a parallel universe to this oneI would be waking up today a partner of Carter Spink. Id be surrounded by messages of congratulation.
I squeeze my eyes tight, trying to escape the sickening if- only thoughts. If Id seen the memo earlierif I had a tidier deskifArnold hadnt given me that loan agreement
But theres no point. I walk to the window and take deep gulps of fresh air. What happened happened. All I can do is deal with it. Until this moment in time my whole life has been mapped out to the hour. Through exams, through holiday internships, the rungs of the career ladder ... I thought I knew exactly where I was headed. And now I find myself in a strange room in the middle of the countryside, my career in ruins.
Plus ... theres something else. Somethings nagging at me. A final piece of the jigsaw still missing in my dazed brain. Itll come to me in a minute.
I lean against the windowsill and watch a man on the distant horizon walking his dog. Maybe things are salvageable. Maybe its not all as bad as I thought. Guy didnt actually say Id lost my job. I have to call himand find out just how bad it is. I take a deep breath and run my hands through my tangled hair. God, I flipped out yesterday. When I consider the way I acted, running out of the office, jumping on a train ... I was really on another planet. If it werent for the Geigers being so understanding
My train of thought halts abruptly.
Something about the Geigers. Something Im not remembering ... something thats ringing slight alarm bells ...
I turn round and focus on a blue dress hanging on the wardrobe door. Some kind of uniform, with piping. Why would there be a
The alarm bells are getting louder. Theyre starting to clang wildly. Its coming back to me like some kind of terrible, drunken dream.
Did I take a job as a housekeeper?
For a few instants I can not move. Oh, God. What have I done? What have I done?
My heart starts to thump as I take in my situation properly for the first time. I am staying in a strange couples house under completely false pretenses. Ive slept in their bed. Im wearing one of Trishs old T- shirts. They even gave me a toothbrush, after I invented a suitcase- stolen- on- the- train story. The last thing I remember is hearing Trish gloating on the phone. Shes English! she was saying. Yes, speaks English perfectly! Super girl. Cordon Bleu trained!
Ill have to tell them it was all lies.
Theres a rapping at my bedroom door and I jump in fright.
Samantha? Trishs voice comes through the door. May I come in?
Oh! Urn ... yes!
The door opens and Trish appears, wearing pale pink exercise clothes with a diamante logo.
Ive made you a cup of tea, she says, handing me the mug with a formal smile. Mr. Geiger and I would like you to feel very welcome in our house.
Oh! I swallow nervously. Thanks. Mrs. Geiger, theres something I need to tell you. Im not a housekeeper. Somehow the words dont make it out of my mouth.
Trishs eyes have narrowed as though shes already regretting her kind gesture. Dont think youll be getting this every day, of course! But since you werent feeling well last night ... She taps her watch. Now youd better get dressed. Well expect you down in ten minutes. We only have a light breakfast as a rule. Toast and coffee. Then we can discuss the menu for the week.
Er ... OK, I say feebly.
She closes the door and I put the tea down. Oh, fuck. What am I going to do?
OK. Prioritize. I need to call the office. Find out exactly how bad the situation is. With a spasm of apprehension I reach inside my bag for my mobile phone.
The display is blank. I tap it in frustration, but the battery must have run out. I must have been so spaced out
yesterday I forgot to charge it. I pull out my charger, plug it into the wall, and attach the phone. At once it starts charging up.
I wait for the signal to appear ... but theres no bloody signal. How am I going to call the office? How am I going to do anything? I can not exist without my mobile phone.
Suddenly I remember passing a telephone on the landing. It was on a table in a little window bay. Maybe I could use that. I open my bedroom door and look up and down the corridor. No ones about. Cautiously I creep into the bay and lift the receiver. The dial tone rings in my ear. I take a deep breaththen dial the direct line forArnold. It isnt nine yet, but hell be in.
Arnold Savilles office, comes the cheerful voice of Lara, his secretary.
Lara, I say nervously. Its Samantha. Samantha Sweeting.
Samantha? Lara sounds so gobsmacked, I wince. Oh my God! What happened? Where are you? Everyones been She draws herself up.
I ... Im out ofLondon right now. May I speak withArnold?
Of course. Hes right here ... She disappears briefly into chirpy Vivaldi, before the line clears again.
Samantha.Arnold s friendly, assured voice booms down the line. My dear girl. Youve got yourself in a pickle, havent you?
OnlyArnold could describe the loss of a clients ? 50 mil lion as a pickle. In spite of everything, I feel the beginnings of a smile. I can just picture him, in his waistcoat, his woolly eyebrows knitting together.
I know, I say, trying to match his understated tones now.
Its ... not great.
Im obliged to point out that your hasty departure yesterday did not help matters.
I know. Im so sorry. I just ... panicked.
Understandable. However, you left a bit of a mess behind.
BeneathArnold s jolly veneer I can hear unfamiliar levels of stress.Arnold never gets stressed. Things must be really bad ...
I want to fall to the floor in a groveling heap, crying, Im so sorry! But that wouldnt help. Ive already been unprofessional enough.
Sowhats the latest situation? Im trying to sound matter- of- fact. Is there anything the receivers can do?
I think it unlikely. They say their hands are tied.
Right. His response is like a hammer blow to the stomach. So thats it. The fifty million is gone for good. And ... the insurers?
That is the next step, of course. The money will be recovered eventually, Im sure. But not without complications. As I think you will appreciate.
I know, I whisper.
Theres no good news. Theres no silver lining. Ive fucked up.
Arnold ... I say, my voice quivering. I have no idea how I could have made such a ... a stupid mistake. I dont under stand how it happened. I dont even remember seeing the memo on my desk
Where are you now? Arnold breaks in.
Im ... I look helplessly out the window at the Geigers gravel drive. To be honest, I dont even know exactly where I am.
You dont know?
Im in the country somewhere. But I can come back right now! My words tumble out. Ill get on the first train ... Ill only be a few hours ...
I dont think thats a good idea. Theres a new edge toArnold s voice, which pulls me up short.
Have I ... have I been fired?
There have been slightly more pressing matters to consider, Samantha. He sounds testy.
Of course. I feel the blood rush back into my head. Im sorry. I just ... Ive been with Carter Spink all my working life. All I ever, ever wanted was ...
I cant even say it.
Samantha, I know youre a very talented lawyer.Arnold sighs. No one is in any doubt of that.
But I made a mistake.
I can hear tiny crackles down the line; my own pulse beating in my ears.
Samantha, Ill do everything I can, he says at last. I might as well tell you, a meeting has been arranged this morning to discuss your future.
And you honestly dont think I should come in? I bite my lip.
It might do more harm than good at the moment. Stay where you are. Leave the rest to me.Arnold hesitates, his voice a little gruff. Ill do my best, Samantha. I promise.
Thank you so much ... I say quickly. But hes gone. Slowly I put down the phone.
I have never felt so powerless in my life. I have a sudden vision of them all sitting gravely round a conference table.Arnold. Ketterman. Maybe even Guy. Deciding whether to give me another break.
Theres still a chance. IfArnold is on my side, others might be too ...
I jump at the sound of Trishs approaching voice. Well, of course Ill check her references, but, Gillian, I am a very good judge of character. Im not easily fooled ...
Trish rounds the corner, holding a mobile to her ear, and I quickly move away from the telephone.
Samantha! she says in surprise. What are you doing? Still not dressed? Buck up! She heads off again and I scuttle back to my room.
I suddenly feel bad.
In fact ... I feel terrible. How are the Geigers going to react when I tell them Im a total fraud? That Im not a trained Cordon Bleu housekeeper at all, I just wanted a place to stay for the night?
I have a sudden image of them bundling me furiously out of the house. Feeling totally used. Maybe theyll even call the police and file charges. Oh, God. This could get really nasty.
But, I mean, its not like I have any other option. Its not like I could actually ... ... Could I? I pick up the blue uniform and finger it, my mind whirling round and round.
Theyve been so kind, putting me up. Its not like Im doing anything else right now. Its not like I have anywhere else to go. Maybe itll even take my mind off things, doing a little light housework
Abruptly I come to a decision.
Ill busk it for a morning. It cant be that hard. Ill make their toast and dust the ornaments or whatever. Ill think of it as my little thank- you to them. Then as soon as I hear fromArnold Ill find a convincing excuse to leave. And the Geigers will never know I wasnt a proper housekeeper.
Hurriedly I put on my uniform and run a comb through my hair. Then I stand to face myself in the mirror.
Good morning, Mrs. Geiger, I say to my reflection. And ... er ... how would you like the drawing room dusted?
The Geigers are standing at the bottom of the stairs looking up at me as I descend. I have never felt more self- conscious in my life.
Im a housekeeper. I must behave like a housekeeper.
Welcome, Samantha! says Eddie as I arrive down in the hall. Hes wearing a polo shirt with some crested logo, and golfing trousers. Sleep all right?
Very well, thank you, Mr. Geiger, I reply demurely.
Thats good! Eddie rocks back and forth on the soles of his feet. He seems just a little awkward. In fact ... they both seem awkward. Underneath the makeup, the tans, the expensive clothes ... there seems a hint of uncertainty about the Geigers.
I walk over to the bench seat and straighten a cushion, trying to look as though I know what Im doing.
Youll be wanting to get to know your new kitchen! says Trish brightly. Of course! I say with a confident smile. Im ... looking forward to it! Its only a kitchen. Its only one morning. I can do this.
Trish leads the way into the vast maple kitchen, and this time I try to take in the details. Theres a huge hob set into the granite counter to my left. A bank of ovens built into the wall.
Everywhere I look I can see shiny chrome gadgets plugged into sockets. Racks of saucepans and implements of all descriptions are hanging overhead in a jumble of stainless steel.
Youll want to get it the way you like it, of course, says Trish, gesturing around. Just change anything you like. Knock it into shape. Youre the professional!
Theyre both looking at me expectantly.
Absolutely, I say in a businesslike way. Obviously I have my own ... um ... systems. That shouldnt be there, for example. I point randomly at a small metal gadget resembling a torpedo. The ... um ...
Juice extractor, supplies Trish.
Exactly. Ill have to move it.
Really? Trish looks fascinated. Whys that?
Theres a beat of silence. Even Eddie looks interested.
Kitchen ... ergonomic ... theory, I improvise. So, youd like toast for breakfast? I add quickly.
Toast for both of us, says Trish. Whole wheat. And coffee with skim milk.
Coming up. I smile, feeling slight relief.
I can make toast. And the bread bin is helpfully marked Bread.
So, Ill just bring that through in a moment, I add, trying to chivvy them out. Would you like to eat in the dining room?
Theres a small crash from the hall.
Thatll be the newspaper, says Trish. Yes, you may serve breakfast in the dining room. She hurries out, but Eddie loiters in the kitchen.
You know, Ive changed my mind. He gives me a jovial smile. Forget the toast, Samantha. Ill have your famous eggs Benedict. You whetted my appetite last night!
Last night? What did I say last Oh, Jesus. Eggs Benedict. My famous signature dish as beloved by Lord Edgerly.
What was I thinking? I dont even know what eggs Benedict is. Are you ... sure thats what you want? I try to sound relaxed.
I wouldnt miss your specialty! Eddie rubs his stomach in anticipation. Its my favorite breakfast. The best eggs Benedict Ive ever tasted were at the Carlyle inNew York, but Ill take a bet yours are even better!
I dont know about that!
OK, think. It must be simple enough. Eggs and ... something.
Eddie leans against the counter with an expectant look. I have a nasty suspicion hes waiting for me to start cooking. Hesitantly, I get down a gleaming pan from the rack, just as Trish bustles in with the newspaper. She eyes me with bright curiosity.
How will you be using the asparagus steamer, Samantha?
I just wanted to ... examine it. Yes. I nod briskly, as though the pan has confirmed my suspicions, then carefully hang it back on the rack again.
Could I quickly look it up in a cookbook?
But its supposed to be my specialty. Why would I need a cookbook?
Im feeling hotter and hotter. I have no idea even how to begin. Do I ... crack the eggs? Boil them?
Here you are. Eddie takes a huge box of eggs out of the fridge, plonks them on the counter, and lifts the lid. Should be enough there, Id imagine!
Before me are rows and rows of brown eggs. What do I think Im doing? I cant make bloody eggs Benedict. I cant make these people breakfast. Im going to have to confess.
I turn round and take a deep breath.
Mr. Geiger ... Mrs. Geiger ...
Eggs? Trishs voice cuts across mine. Eddie, you cant have eggs! Remember what the doctor said! Her eyes bore into me. What did he ask you for, Samantha? Boiled eggs?
Er ... Mr. Geiger ordered eggs Benedict. But the thing is
Youre not eating eggs Benedict! Trish practically shrieks at Eddie. Its foil of cholesterol!
Ill eat what I like! Eddie protests.
The doctor gave him an eating plan. Trish is dragging furiously on her cigarette as she speaks. Hes already had a bowl of cornflakes this morning!
I was hungry! says Eddie, defensive. You had a chocolate muffin!
Trish gasps as though hes hit her. Small red dots appear in her cheeks.
We will have a cup of coffee each, Samantha, she announces at last in a dignified voice. You may serve it in the lounge. Use the pink china. Come along, Eddie. And she sweeps out before I can respond.
Im not sure if I want to laugh or cry. This is ridiculous. I cant carry on with this charade. I have to tell the Geigers the truth. Now. I walk decisively out of the kitchen into the hall, but then behind the closed door of the sitting room I can hear the shrill, indistinct voice of Trish angrily berating Eddie, and Eddies defensive rumbles in return. Hastily I back away again into the kitchen and switch the kettle on.
A quarter of an hour later Ive arranged a silver tray with a French press coffeepot, pink cups, creamer, sugar, and a sprig of pink flowers I snipped from a hanging basket outside the kitchen window. Fifteen minutes, just to make a cup of coffee.
At Carter Spink I would have earned the firm ? 125 in that time.
Of course, I would have been quicker if I hadnt had to work out how to use the French press first. And if my first batch of coffee hadnt tasted like dishwater.
I approach the sitting- room door, put the tray down on the table in the hall, and knock cautiously.
Come in! Trish calls.
As I enter, shes sitting in an overstuffed striped velvet chair by the window, holding a magazine at a rather artificial angle. Eddie is on the other side of the room, examining a wooden carving.
Thank you, Samantha. Trish inclines her head graciously as I pour out the coffee. That will be all for the moment.
I feel as though Ive stumbled into some bizarre Merchant Ivory costume drama, except
the costumes are pink yoga wear and golfing sweaters.
Er ... very good, madam, I say, playing my part. Then, without meaning to, I bob a curtsy.
Theres a staggered pause. Both Geigers just gape at me in astonishment.
Samantha ... did you just ... curtsy? says Trish at last.
I stare back, frozen.
What was I thinking? Why did I curtsy? Housekeepers dont bloody curtsy. This isnt GosfordPark.
Theyre still goggling at me. I have to say something.
The Edgerlys liked me to ... curtsy. My face is prickling all over. Its a habit I got into. Im sorry, madam, I wont do it again.
Trish is squinting at me as though shes trying to make me out. She must realize Im a fake, she must ...
I like it, she pronounces at last, and nods her head in satisfaction. Yes, I like it. You can curtsy here too.
This is the twenty- first century. And I am being asked to curtsy to a woman called Trish?
I take a breath to protestthen close my mouth again. It doesnt matter. Its not real.I can curtsy for a morning.