THE ONE PLUS ONE
To Charles, as ever.
The irony did not escape Jessica Thomas that she lost the best job she’d ever had because of a diamond. Not because she stole it but because she didn’t.
Jess and Nathalie had cleaned Mr and Mrs Ritter’s holiday home for almost three years, since the Beachfront holiday park was part paradise, part building site. Back when the developers promised local families access to the swimming pool, and assured everyone that a large upmarket development would bring benefits to their little seaside town, instead of sucking out what remained of its life. The Ritters were standard occupants. They came down from London most weekends with their children. Mrs Ritter generally stayed on throughout the holidays while her husband stayed in the city. They spent most of their time on the manicured stretch of the beach, and visited the town only to fill up their people-carrier with diesel or to top up their groceries at the retail park. Jess and Nathalie cleaned their spacious, Farrow-&-Ball-painted four-bedroom home twice a week when they were there, and once when they weren’t.
It was April and, judging by the empty juice cartons and wet towels, the Ritters were in residence. Nathalie was cleaning the en-suite bathroom and Jess was changing the beds, humming along to the radio that they carried between jobs. As she whipped off the duvet cover she heard a sound like the crack of a high-velocity air rifle. Living where she did, she knew this sound well. She could have bet money that there were no air rifles at Beachfront.
Her gaze was caught by something glittering on the floor. She stooped by the window and picked up a diamond earring between her thumb and forefinger. She held it up to the light, then walked next door to where Nathalie was on her knees, scrubbing the bath, lines of dark sweat outlining her bra strap. It had been a long morning.
Nathalie climbed to her feet, squinting. ‘What is it?’
‘Diamond. It fell out of the bed linen.’
‘That can’t be real. Look at the size of it.’
They gazed at the earring, as Jess rotated it between finger and thumb. ‘Lisa Ritter isn’t going to have fake diamonds. Not with their money. Can’t diamonds cut glass?’ She ran it speculatively down the edge of the window.
‘Great idea, Jess. You just keep going until her window falls out.’ Nathalie stood up, rinsed her cloth under the tap. ‘More importantly, where’s the other one?’
They shook out the bed linen, peered under the bed, sifted through the deep pile of the beige carpet on their hands and knees, like police at a murder scene. Finally Jess checked her watch. They looked at each other and sighed.
One earring. Your basic nightmare.
Things they had found while cleaning people’s houses:
– False teeth
– An escaped guinea pig
– A long-lost wedding ring (they were given a box of chocolates for this)
– A signed photograph of Cliff Richard (no chocolates; owner denied all knowledge)
– Money. Not just small change, but a whole turquoise wallet stuffed full of fifties. It had fallen behind a chest of drawers. When Jess handed it over to the client – a Mrs Linder, who had rented number four Beachfront for three months over the summer – she had looked at it in mild surprise. ‘I was wondering where that had gone,’ she said, and pocketed it without a backward look, as you would a mislaid hair slide or a remote control.
Guinea pigs aside, it was not as great as you might think, turning up valuables. One earring or a pile of loose notes, and clients would give you that vague, sideways look, the flicker in their eyes that meant they were wondering if you had pocketed the rest. Mr Ritter would definitely assume they had taken the other earring. He was the kind of man who made them feel guilty just for being in his house. That was on the days he deigned to acknowledge they were there.
‘So what do we do?’
Nathalie was bundling up the duvet cover, ready for the laundry. ‘Leave it on the side. We’ll just write a note saying we couldn’t find the other.’ They usually left a note or two out during their rounds, saying what they’d done. Or a polite reminder that they were owed money. ‘It’s the truth.’
‘Should we say we shook out all the bedding?’
‘Whatever. I just don’t want her thinking we took it.’
Jess finished writing, and placed the earring carefully on the piece of paper. ‘Mrs Ritter might already have the other one. She might be glad we found it.’
Nathalie made the face that said Jess would look on the bright side of a nuclear apocalypse. ‘Personally, I think I would have known if there was a diamond the size of an eyeball in my bed.’ She dumped the dirty laundry outside the bedroom door. ‘Right. You vacuum the hall, and I’ll change the kids’ beds. If we get a wiggle on, we can be at the Gordons’ by half eleven.’
Nathalie Benson and Jessica Thomas had cleaned together every weekday for four years, the somewhat uninspired moniker Benson & Thomas Cleaning Services on the side of their little white van. Nathalie had stencilled ‘A Bit Dirty? Can we Help?’ underneath for two whole months until Jess pointed out that half the calls they were getting were nothing to do with cleaning.
Nearly all their jobs were in Beachfront now. Hardly anybody in the town had the money – or the inclination – to hire a cleaner, except for the GPs, the solicitor and the odd client like Mrs Humphrey, whose arthritis stopped her doing it herself. She was one of those old women who believed cleanliness was next to godliness, her life’s worth previously measured in starched curtains and a freshly scrubbed front step. Sometimes they suspected she’d saved up a whole forty-eight hours of conversation just for the hour that they were there. Wednesdays they did Mrs Humphrey after their Beachfront jobs, the Ritters and the Gordons, and, if they were lucky, whichever of the holiday cottages the other cleaning firms had failed to turn up for.
Jess was lugging the vacuum cleaner along the hall when the front door opened. Mrs Ritter called up the stairs, ‘Is that you, girls?’
She was the kind of woman to whom all women, even those collecting their pensions, were ‘girls’. ‘I had the best girls’ night out on Saturday,’ she would say, her eyes rolling with mischief. Or, ‘So off I went, to the little girls’ room …’ but they liked her. She was always cheerful, and wore her money lightly. And she never treated them like cleaners.
Nathalie and Jess exchanged looks. It had been a long morning, they’d done two ovens already (what kind of people roasted pork on holiday?), and Mrs Humphrey’s tea tended to be the colour and consistency of stair varnish.
Ten minutes later they were sitting round the kitchen table, while Lisa Ritter pushed a plate of biscuits towards them. ‘Go on, have one. If you eat them, I can’t be tempted.’ She squeezed a non-existent roll of fat over her waistband. Nathalie and Jess could never agree if she’d had work. She was the kind of woman who floated somewhere in the carefully maintained hinterlands between forty and sixty-something. Her tinted chestnut hair was set in soft waves, she played tennis three times a week, did Pilates with a private instructor, and Nathalie knew someone at the local salon, who said that she was waxed to within an inch of her life every four weeks.
‘How’s your Martin?’
‘Still alive. To the best of my knowledge,’ Natalie said.
‘Oh, yes.’ She nodded, remembering. ‘You did tell me. Finding himself, was it?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘You’d have thought he might have found himself by now. There was enough of him.’ Mrs Ritter paused, and gave Jess a conspiratorial smile. ‘Your little girl still got her head stuck in a maths book?’
‘Oh, they’re good children, yours. Some of these mothers round here, I swear they don’t know what their lot are doing from dawn till dusk. That Jason Fisher and his friends were throwing eggs at Dennis Grover’s windows the other day. Eggs!’ It was hard to tell from her voice whether she was more shocked at the act of aggression or the waste of good food.
She was in the middle of a story about her manicurist and a small, incontinent dog, breaking off repeatedly as she was overcome with laughter, when Nathalie held up her phone. ‘Mrs Humphrey’s tried to call,’ she said, pushing back her chair. ‘We’d better get off.’ She slid off the stool and made her way out to the hallway to fetch the cleaning crate.
‘Well, the place looks lovely. Thank you both so much.’ Mrs Ritter reached up a hand and patted her hair into place, briefly lost in thought. ‘Oh, before you go, Jess, you wouldn’t give me a hand with something, would you?’
Most of the clients knew Jess was good at practical things. There was barely a day where somebody didn’t want help with some grouting, or picture-hanging, jobs they swore would only take five minutes. Jess didn’t mind. ‘If it’s a big job though I may need to come back,’ she said. And charge, she added silently.
‘Oh, no,’ Lisa Ritter said, walking towards the back door. ‘I just need someone to help me with my suitcase. I cricked my back on the plane, and I need someone to get it up the steps for me.’
‘I went to see my sister in Mallorca. Well, now the children are at uni, I’ve got all this time to myself, haven’t I? I thought it would be nice to have a few days’ mini-break. I left Simon to it, bless him.’