Read an Excerpt
When Maria Poniatowski let herself into Mrs. Ellington's apartment at 7:55 a.m. precisely (she was always five minutes early; she timed her walk that way), on the third Tuesday of August in 1993, and saw, straightaway, the trail of blood smeared along the wall from the front hall towards the bedroom, she knew that this was the end.
She had come every Tuesday morning-vacations and holidays excepted, and excepting also the still-painful six months in 1991 when Mrs. Ellington had banished her in an inexplicable fit of pique-for forty-six years. She had come, first, to the house on Laurel Heights, and then, when Mrs. Ellington had decamped to the apartment on Manley Avenue in 1977, Maria had come to her there, without missing a beat. And all, thought Maria, with a sudden flush of tears, for the old woman-she was very old now, ninety-two in fact-to be butchered, unsuspecting, in her home. It was too awful. One read about such occurrences in the newspapers (although Maria, not reading English very well, and so rarely did), or one heard about them on the television. But one did not expect them ever to befall the people that one knew. That's what Maria told herself as she tiptoed along the buff-colored broadloom towards Mrs. Ellington's bedroom.
But in fact she was far more surprised to find Mrs. Ellington snoring softly in her four-poster, propped up by three pillows, her rose satin bed jacket bloodstained but neatly buttoned-far more surprised than she would have been to discover a mangled corpse. Mrs. Ellington's eyes, the milky blue eyes that could no longer see, fluttered open as Maria drew near, and strove, in vain, to focus.
"Is that you? Is that you, Maria?"she asked, her high, brittle voice tinged with panic.
"It's me, Mrs. Ellington," Maria reassured her. "What's been happening here, Mrs. Ellington?"
But Mrs. Ellington, having established the identity of her visitor, slipped swiftly into ill humor. "Dammit," she muttered. "What time is it? That bloody clock. I've overslept. It must be eight. I'll get your coffee, Maria, just hold your horses. For heaven's sake, you might give me a minute . . ." The old woman, her fluffed hair pressed flat at the side of her head, her ravaged hands fumbling with the blankets, hauled herself up and swung her feet to the floor. The bed was high-it was Mrs. Ellington's marriage bed-and Mrs. Ellington was small: her feet dangled a few inches above the carpet, sweeping, like divining rods, in search of her slippers. Maria bent and slid the pink mules one at a time over Mrs. Ellington's scaly insteps.
"I'll get your dressing gown, Mrs. Ellington. No hurry. Take your time."
"Every bloody Tuesday," muttered Mrs. Ellington. "I hope the half-and-half is still good," she said more loudly, "because if it's not, you'll just have to have milk."
"Don't worry, Mrs. Ellington. It's a beautiful day outside."
Mrs. Ellington, stumbling past Maria towards the bathroom, merely grunted.When they were, at last, in their usual places in the breakfast nook, their usual coffee (Maria's with half-and-half) on the table before them, the sun streaming in so brightly that Mrs. Ellington's blind eyes blinked, Maria raised the subject of the blood on the wall.
At first, Mrs. Ellington did not seem to understand what Maria was talking about. She pursed her lips (over all her own teeth; she was very proud of her teeth) and shook her head. But then she said, "My finger. I cut my finger making dinner. It was the broccoli. I suppose that's it." She held up her left hand to the side of her head, where a sliver of peripheral vision remained to her, and peered at it in grave concentration. "Dammit, I don't know. It's all a blur, Maria. Will you look at it for me?"
Maria took the arthritic digits between her own hands: their forms were gnarled, and the worn skin was shiny, but Mrs. Ellington's hand was soft and faintly tremulous, like a palpitating bird, in Maria's grasp. On Mrs. Ellington's forefinger there was a long, streaked scab. The cut was quite deep: Maria could tell that if she were to give the finger a sharp squeeze, it would start, again, to bleed.
"This is no good, Mrs. Ellington. How can you manage this way? It's so hard. You need help."
"Aren't you my help?"
Maria went, without replying, to fetch disinfectant and a cotton ball. She sighed. She would have to speak to Mrs. Ellington's daughter. But Judith lived in California, and Maria didn't make long distance calls.
"When is Judith coming?" she asked Mrs. Ellington as she daubed at the finger. "Or Simon? Or Madeleine? Or Kate?"-these were Judith's three children, full-grown themselves, and scattered like chaff across the continent.
"To Toronto?" Mrs. Ellington grimaced, either at the prospect of her descendants gathering or in pain at the stinging of her hand, or both. "Judith said after Labor Day, but I don't know how long after."
"You'll speak to her tonight?" Judith called Mrs. Ellington daily.
"I suppose. If she remembers."
"Of course she remembers." Maria took a deep breath. "Maybe you tell her to call me, ya? I need to talk with her."
"Not about me, you don't," snapped Mrs. Ellington, blinking furiously.
"No, no. Just about things."
Judith was often between them. Maria had known Judith since the latter was fifteen years old. She had witnessed, over the years, many altercations between Mrs. Ellington and her only child, and she had long ago given up trying to take sides. But when Mrs. Ellington-whose general temper had, in recent years, taken a powerful turn for the worse, as if her good humor had evaporated with her eyesight-had summarily dismissed Maria from her employ with an unprecedented shriek over two years previously, it was Judith who had served as a mediator. She had initially apologized on her mother's behalf, had calmed the old woman sufficiently for Mrs. Ellington to apologize herself, and had facilitated Maria's re-entry into the Ellington home. "She can't manage without you, Maria, no matter what she pretends. She's completely lost. I know it's a lot to ask. I know how impossible she is. But if you could find it in your heart-"
And Maria, after six months of empty Tuesdays, almost seventy herself and with no interest in finding a new Tuesday job; after six months in which she had used her newly free time to plant her garden, to paint her kitchen, to re-paper her hall, only then to sit and survey her domestic perfection with irritation and ennui, had capitulated. She had had only two households left on her roster, Mrs. Ellington and Jack McDonald and his wife: she'd worked for Jack's parents until they died, and had cleaved, quite naturally, to their son, although she found Elspeth McDonald's smoking displeasing and could not stand their lumbering Labrador, Sport. So that without Mrs. Ellington, Maria had been lonely. She had missed her fractious employer, and the calm rituals of her workday on Manley Avenue: the leisurely coffee, the chattering radio that Mrs. Ellington played constantly, the swift rhythms of vacuuming and dusting, the changing of the sheets. She had missed the particular smells, of Mrs. Ellington's favorite furniture polish, of her bath salts, and the intimate scents of her faintly musty cupboards; and she had missed their shared lunches, after the work was done, the slow, talk-filled afternoon meal of sandwiches (white bread, crusts trimmed, Bick's yum-yum pickles always in a cut glass dish between them at the table) and Fig Newtons and tea. She'd missed the way Mrs. Ellington's voice would rise when she said, "Cup of tea, Maria?" asking politely each time, although Maria had never once in all those years said no; and she missed even the sound of her own voice saying, "Yes please, Mrs. Ellington," and the pleasure of waiting, with her hands in her lap, for that satisfying moment when Mrs. Ellington, so imperious, poured the boiling tea from the flowered pot into her, Mari