by Sheila Kinsella
Mrs Scholes reached up and ran her finger over the top of the picture frame. She pursed her lavender lips, showed the dust to Kat, and sighed.
Kat bit her tongue. She needed this job. The rent was due, and her son needed new school shoes.
‘I’ll be in the bedroom. ’ Mrs Scholes shuffled off. Kat waited until she heard the door click shut. The older woman complained each time, uttering not one little word of appreciation.
The sun streamed in through the patio doors, casting an elongated checker pattern over the rosewood dining table. Kat cleaned the furniture with a slightly damp cloth, followed by a dry one to rub its surface up to a shine.
Newspaper laid out around the hearth; Kat swept the ashes out of the corners and into the dustpan. She coughed as a veil of acidic coal dust settled on her face and hands.
The morning dew tickled her ankles while she crossed the lawn to put the bucket of ashes in the shed for the gardener. Mrs Scholes’s cat miaowed and rubbed her body over Kat’s legs.
‘Are you keeping out of her way too?’ Kat tickled the cat’s chin, ‘Can’t say I blame you.’
The cat purred.
In the hallway, the ticking of the grandfather clock soothed Kat’s nerves. Tick. Tock.
As she opened the hall cupboard, the pleasant aroma of shoe leather escaped. Mrs Scholes’s collection of boots leaned against each other; dominoes set to fall.
'Oh!' She squealed as a spider wriggled its way out from inside a brown lace-up shoe. She grabbed a glass from the bathroom, placed it over the spider, slid an advertisement card for a chimney sweep underneath before releasing the creature outside. ‘There you go.’
When the clock chimed eleven, Kat flicked the switch on the kettle.
‘Tea-time.’ Mrs Scholes wandered into the kitchen at the precise moment that Kat was putting the teapot on the table.
Startled, Kat tried not to spill the tea on the lace tablecloth. The hot liquid seeped out of the spout, scalding her hand. 'Ouch!'
'No, no! Not that teapot,' Mrs Scholes shook her head. 'The blue one.'
Kat went to get the other teapot, muttering under her breath.
‘No, no! Never mind, you’ve used this one now.’ Mrs Scholes clicked her tongue. 'Well, carry on then.' Mrs Scholes waved Kat away.
I’m going to murder this poisoned dwarf, Kat thought. I can’t take much more of this. Last week she had me scrubbing the grouting between the bathroom tiles with an old toothbrush. The tiles are fifty years old. A fat lot of good that did. Has she no respect? If she weren't so lonely, I'd give the job up. But she's no visitors, and her husband died seven years ago; she's lived alone since. No children, just a distant nephew somewhere in the North-East who sends a card at Christmas.
Kat moved on to the bedroom and started changing the sheets, when suddenly,
‘Katherine! Katherine!’ Mrs Scholes’ shouted.
Kat jumped up, sheets still over her arm and rushed into the kitchen, fearing the worst.
‘Are you alright?’
‘Is that a scratch I see on the dining table?’ Chin raised and eyebrows arched, Mrs Scholes peered over tortoiseshell spectacles at the offending mark.
‘No,’ Kat sighed.
Mrs Scholes looked away and sipped her tea.
Kat returned to the bedroom, opened the windows to allow the fresh air to chase away the smell of mothballs. Bed made; she shoved the sheets into the laundry bin to wash tomorrow.
The grandfather clock chiming its melody on the hour, followed by a single boom, reminded Kat that it was time to leave.
In the living room, the old lady cut a diminutive figure, shrouded by the wings of her Queen Anne chair, staring out the garden.
‘Bye, Mrs Scholes, see you tomorrow,’ Kat said.
'Oh, can you get me a few things from the shop?' The old lady gave Kat an envelope. 'I've made a list, and here are fifty pounds.'
‘Er… ok,’ Kat took the envelope.
'Goodbye, dear,' Mrs Scholes said.
'Dear?' Kat thought, entirely out of character. Very odd. I’ve worked for her for three years, and not once has she called me ‘dear.’
Later, during her afternoon shift at the supermarket, Kat scanned items at the till. Beep, beep, the monotonous sound of the scanner lulled her into zombie land. She dreamed of owning her own house, something small but hers, with a garden for Duncan to play football. That's what she thought she was getting when she married John. Only he was a gambler.
'Hey up, love, you've scanned that twice!' The angry customer yelled. 'Mind what you're doing.'
‘Sorry,’ Kat removed the extra item.
The next day, Kat walked around the corner from her council flat to the old lady’s bungalow. A tiny, crinkled face stared out of the window at Kat. As soon as the key turned in the lock, Mrs Scholes was behind the door, waiting.
'Morning, Mrs Scholes, I managed to get everything on the list,’ Kat smiled. ‘The supermarket was giving out daffodils for Mother’s Day, so I got you some.’
‘Morning,’ the old lady replied. ‘Thank you.’
‘I’ll put them in a vase,’ Kat said.
‘I want you to empty the kitchen cupboards and give them a good clean today.’
‘Yes,’ Kat hung her jacket up in the hall.
'Don't cut any corners, mind,' Mrs Scholes retreated to her study.
Kat switched the radio on for a bit of background noise while she worked. She hummed along to the music. Suddenly, it went quiet.
‘I’m trying to write!’ Mrs Scholes frowned and switched the radio off.
'Sorry,' Kat replied. 'Look, there's a pile of tins that are past their sell-by date. Can I throw them out?'
‘Yes,’ Mrs Scholes said and snapped the study door shut.
The grandfather clock chimed eleven. Kat made tea. Mrs Scholes didn’t come. Kat knocked on the study door. No reply. She turned the knob and edged the door open; the old lady was napping in her chair. Kat coughed. Mrs Scholes shuddered awake.
‘I-I-I was just resting my eyes,’ she said blinking.
‘Here’s a cup of tea,’ Kat placed the teacup on a coaster on the desk. ‘One sugar and a smidgen of milk, as you like it.’
‘Thank you, dear.’
There it was again: ’dear.’ How odd.
‘Can you post this letter for me?’ Mrs Scholes handed an A4 size buff envelope and a fiver to Kat.
‘Right you are, I’ll go on my way to work,’ Kat replied.
Back in the kitchen, the store cupboards echoed with emptiness - some of the tins dated from the 1980s.
The grandfather clock chimed the hour, ding dong, ding dong, followed by one boom.
‘I’ll put the wheelie bin out,’ Kat shouted as she left. ‘See you tomorrow.’ She looked back at the house and waved at the small, wrinkled woman in the window. Mrs Scholes waved back.
The following morning, Kat walked up the garden path. The curtains were closed. There was no little face staring through the glass at her. Her heart skipped a beat. Her fingers struggled with the keys, missing the lock. Finally, the door opened. She listened to the ticking of the grandfather clock. Tick, tock. She shouted, hello. No reply.
A neat pile of papers lay on the kitchen table.
Kat sighed. Yes, she complained about the old lady, but she never wished ill on anybody.
Kat swallowed hard. She pushed her tongue against the back of her front teeth to salivate her dry mouth.
The door to the bedroom was ajar. Kat’s handbag dropped to the floor, and she shrieked. The duvet buried Mrs Scholes frail form. She lay serene, with eyelids half-open, eyes set in a fixed, vacant gaze. Kat felt a stab at her heart. The old lady's face appeared yellow against the whiteness of the sheets. She was gone.
Kat rested in the kitchen chair, tears trickling down her face. She waited for the doctor. Strange that. It's too late for a doctor, but she hadn't known who else to call. She missed the old lady. They had come to an understanding despite themselves. Then she noticed the envelope: ‘To Katherine,’ in the old lady’s spidery scrawl.
By the time you read this note, I will be gone.
I may not have been the most charming employer, but I always appreciated
your help and kind manner. You have been a comfort to me in my latter days.
Upon my death, please contact my solicitor, Mr Ferris, in the village, for you are
my primary beneficiary. The house and the car are yours. Mr Ferris will explain all.
Take care, my dear and Godspeed,
Well, well, well. Kat's eyes filled up.
About the author
Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.