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With reference to your advertisement in this week's Lady magazine, I wish to apply for the post of Caretaker/Housekeeper.
I am twenty-seven years of age, single with no dependants, and have several years' experience in household management including washing, ironing, cleaning and cooking. I am a Cordon Bleu cook. I have a working knowledge of minor electrical and plumbing faults. I am able to take messages and answer the telephone.
I would wish to bring my cat with me. Yours faithfully, Arabella Lorimer
It was the last letter to be read by the elderly man sitting at his desk in his consulting-room, a large apartment on the ground floor of a Regency house, one of a terrace, in Wigmore Street, London. He read it for a second time, gave a rumble of laughter, and added it to the pile before him. There were twelve applicants in all and Arabella Lorimer was the only one to enclose referencesthe only one to write legibly, too, neatly setting down all the relevant facts. It was a pity that she wasn't a man
He began to read the letters again and was interrupted halfway through by the entry of his partner, Dr Titus Tavener came unhurriedly into the room, a very tall man with broad shoulders and a massive person. He was handsome with a high-bridged nose, a firm mouth and rather cold blue eyes. His hair, once fair, was pepper and salt, despite which he looked younger than his forty years.
Dr James Marshall, short and stout and almost bald, greeted him with pleasure. 'Just the man I want. The applications for the caretaker's postI have them here; I've spent the last hour reading them. I've decided which one I shall accept. Do read them, Titus, and give me your opinion. Not that it will make any difference to my choice.' He chortled as Dr Tavener sat himself down and picked up the little pile of letters. He read them through, one after the other, and then gathered them neatly together.
'There are one or two possibles: the ex-bus driveralthough he admits to asthma attacksthen this Mrs Butler.' He glanced at the letter in his hand. 'But is she quite the type to open the door? Of course the joker in the pack is Miss Arabella Lorimer and her cat. Most unsuitable.'
'Obviously a maiden lady down on her luck. I don't think I believe her skills are quite what she claims them to be. I'd hesitate to leave a stopped-up drainpipe or a blown fuse to her ladylike hands.'
His partner laughed. 'Titus, I can only hope that one day before it's too late you will meet a woman who will turn you sides to middle and then tramp all over you.'
Dr Tavener smiled. 'Unlikely. Perhaps I have been rather hard on the lady. There is always the possibility that she is an Amazon with a tool-kit.'
'Well, you will soon know. I've decided that she might do.'
Dr Tavener got up and strolled to the window and stood looking out on to the quiet street. 'And why not? Mrs Lane will be glad to leave. Her arthritis isn't getting any better and she's probably longing to go and live with her daughter. She'll take her furniture with her. I suppose? Do we furnish the place?'
'It dependsMiss Lorimer may have her own stuff.' Dr Marshall pushed back his chair. 'We've a busy day tomorrow; I'll see if your Amazon can come for an interview at five o'clock. Will you be back by then?'
'Unlikelythe clinic is overbooked as it is. In any case, I'm dining out.' He turned to look at his partner. 'I dare say you've made a good choice, James.' He strolled to the door. 'I've some paperwork to deal with. Shall I send Miss Baird home? You're going yourself? I shall be here for another hour yetsee you in the morning.'
He went to his own consulting-room, going through the elegant waiting-room with a smile and a nod for their shared receptionist Miss Baird, before going down the passage, past the stairs to the basement and his separate suite. This comprised a small waiting-room, a treatment-room where his nurse worked and his own room facing the garden at the back of the house. A small, narrow garden but well-tended and bright with early autumn flowers. He gave it a brief look before drawing the first of the patients' notes waiting for his attention towards him.
Dr Marshall read Miss Arabella Lorimer's letter once more and rang for Miss Baird. 'Send a note by special messenger, will you? To this address. Tell the lady to come here at five o'clock tomorrow afternoon. A pity she hasn't a telephone.' He got up and switched off his desk light. 'I'm going home, Miss Baird. Dr Tavener will be working for some time yet, but check that he's still here before you leave.' He nodded and smiled at her. 'Go as soon as you've got that message seen to.'
He went home himself then, to his wife and family, and much later Dr Tavener got into his Rolls-Royce and drove himself home to his charming house overlooking the canal in Little Venice.
Arabella read Dr Marshall's somewhat arbitrary note sitting in the kitchen. It was a small, damp room, overlooking a weary-looking patch of grass and some broken fencing, but she preferred it to the front room where her landlady sat of a Sunday afternoon. It housed the lady's prized possessions and Arabella hadn't been invited in there because of her cat Percy, who would ruin the furniture. She hadn't minded; she had been grateful that Billy Westlake, the village postman, had persuaded his aunt, Miss Pimm, to take her in for a few days while she found a job and somewhere to live.
It hadn't been easy leaving Colpin-cum-Witham, but it had been necessary. Her parents had died together in a car accident and only then had she discovered that her home wasn't to be hers any longer; it had been mortgaged to the hilt and she had to leave. There was almost no money. She sold all but the basic furniture that she might need and, since there was no hope of working in or near the village and distant aunts and uncles, while full of good advice, made no offer to help her, she took herself and Percy to London. She had no wish to live there but, as the postman had said, it was a vast city and somewhere there must be work. She had soon realised that the only work she was capable of was domestic. She had no skills other than Cordon Bleu cooking and, since she had never needed to work in any capacity, she had no experiencesomething which employers demanded.
Now she read the brief letter again; she had applied almost in desperation, anxious to get away from Miss Pimm's scarcely veiled impatience to get rid of her and Percy. She had agreed to take them in for a few days but it was already a week and, as she had said to Arabella, she was glad of the money but she was one who kept herself to herself and didn't fancy strangers in her home.
Arabella sat quietly, not allowing herself to be too hopeful but all the same allowing herself to picture the basement room which went with the job. She would furnish it with her own bits and pieces and with any luck there would be some kind of a garden behind the house where Percy could take the air. She went up to her little bedroom with Percy at her heels and inspected her small stock of clothes. To be suitably dressed was important.
She arrived at Wigmore Street with two minutes to sparethe clocks were striking the hour as Miss Baird ushered her into Dr Marshall's consulting-room. He was sitting behind his desk as she went in and put down his pen to peer at her over his glasses. Just for a moment he was silent, then he said, 'Miss Lorimer? Please sit down. I must confess I was expecting someone moremore robust.'
Arabella seated herself without fussa small, nicely plump girl with mousy hair pinned on top of her head, an ordinary face and a pair of large grey eyes, thickly fringed. Anyone less like a caretaker it would be hard to find, reflected Dr Marshall with an inward chuckle, and just wait until Titus saw her.
He said pleasantly. 'I read your letter with interest, Miss Lorimer. Will you tell me about your last job?'
'I haven't had one. I've always lived at homemy mother was delicate and my father was away a good deal; he had his own business. I always did the housekeeping and dealt with minor repairs around the house.'
He nodded. 'Why do you want this job?'
She was sitting very quietlyno fidgeting, he noticed thankfully.
'My parents were killed recently in a car accident and now my home is no longer mine. We lived at Colpin-cum-Witham in southern Wiltshire; there is no work there for someone with no qualifications.' She paused. 'I need somewhere to live and domestic work seems to be the answer. I have applied for several jobs but they won't allow me to have Percy.'
'Well, I see no objection to a cat as long as he stays in your roomhe can have the use of the garden, of course. But do you suppose that you are up to the work? You are expected to clean these roomsmine, the reception and waiting-room, the passage and the stairs, my partner's roomsand polish all the furniture and brass, and the front door, then answer the bell during our working hours, empty the bins, lock up and unlock in the mornings. Are you of a nervous disposition?' 'No, I don't think so.'
'Good. Oh, and if there is no one about you will answer the telephone, run errands and take messages.' He gave her a shrewd glance. 'A bit too much for you, eh?'
'Certainly not, Dr Marshall. I dare say I should call you sir? I would be glad to come and work for you.'
'Shall we give it a month's trial? Mrs Lane who is retiring should be in her room now. If you will go with Miss Baird she will introduce you. Come back here, if you please, so that we can make final arrangements.'
The basement wasn't quite what Arabella had imagined but it had possibilities. It was a large room; its front windows gave a view of passing feet and were heavily barred but the windows at the other end of the room, although small, could be opened. There was a door loaded down with bolts and locks and chains beside them, leading out to a small paved area with the garden beyond. At one side there was a door opening into a narrow passage with a staircase leading to the floor above and ending in another heavy door and, beside the staircase, a very small kitchen and an even smaller shower-room. Mrs Lane trotted ahead of her, pointing out the amenities. 'Of course I shall 'ave ter take me things with me, ducksgoing up ter me daughter, yer see; she's got a room for me.'
'I have some furniture, Mrs Lane,' said Arabella politely. 'I only hope to be able to make it as cosy as you have done.'
Mrs Lane preened. 'Well, I've me pride, love. A bit small and young, aint yer?'
'Well, I'm very strong and used to housework. When did you want to leave, Mrs Lane?'
'Just as soon as yer can get 'ere. Bin 'appy 'ere, I 'ave, but I'm getting on a bitthe stairs is a bit much. 'Is nibs 'as always 'ad a girl come in ter answer the door, which save me feet,' She chuckled. ''E won't need 'er now!'
Back with Dr Marshall, Arabella, bidden to sit, sat.
'Well, want to come here and work?'
'Yes, I do and I will do my best to satisfy you, sir.'
'Good. Fix up dates and so on with Mrs Lane and let me know when you're going to come.' He added sharply. 'There must be no gap between Mrs Lane going and you coming, understand.'
Outside in the street she went looking for a telephone box to ring the warehouse in Sherborne and arrange for her furniture to be brought to London. It was a matter of urgency and for once good fortune was on her side. There was a load leaving for London in three days' time and her few things could be sent with it and at a much smaller cost than she had expected. She went back to Mrs Lane, going down the few steps to the narrow door by the barred window and explaining carefully. 'If I might come here some time during the morning and you leave in the afternoon, could we manage to change over without upsetting your routine here?'
'Don't see why not, ducks. Me son-in-law's coming with a van so I'll clear off as soon as yer 'ere.'
'Then I'll let Dr Marshall know.'
'Do that. I'll 'ave ter see 'im for me wagesI'll tell 'im likewise.'
Back at Miss Pimm's, Arabella told her that she would be leaving in three days and ate her supperfish and chips from the shop on the cornerand went to bed, explaining to Percy as she undressed that he would soon have a home of his own again. He was a docile cat but he hadn't been happy at Miss Pimm's; it was a far cry from the roomy house and garden that he had always lived in. Now he curled up on the end of her narrow bed and went to sleep, instinct telling him that better times were in store.
Dr Marshall sat at his desk for some time doing nothing after Arabella had gone. Presently he gave a rich chuckle and when Miss Baird came in he asked her. 'Well, what do you think of our new caretaker?'
Miss Baird gave him a thoughtful look. 'A very nice young lady, sir. I only hope she's up to all that hard housework.'
'She assures me that she is a most capable worker. She will start in three days' time and I must be sure and be here when Dr Tavener sees her for the first time.'