Excerpt for A Shelter for the Heart by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


A SHELTER FOR THE HEART

MARIA MORENO

A SHELTER FOR THE HEART

by María Moreno

© María Moreno Villén


2nd edition.


Cover Image:

China Yanli.


Format:

Miguel Carmona


Translation assistant:

Lea Cámara Martín nee Whippy



To my better half and my two daughters, the three engines moving my life forwards.



CONTENS



Begin again

Fran, from Francisco, sweetheart

Byron as black as night

Very merry Christmas

The morning after

On the way to redemption

The things we never leave behind



BEGIN AGAIN

The airport was crowded, as usual. It was impossible to walk and not stumble with a suitcase or into a traveller. The heat outside was unbearable, wet and heavy just as only a coastal city could suffer. She thought she would feel eased once she was inside, thanks to the air conditioning, but now she was thinking she'd rather be hot. She was sweating like never before, sweat drops falling through her forehead, her chest, her upper lip... She'd love a shower, but if she didn't run she would lose the flight she'd been waiting for the whole summer. She started zigzagging among the crowd, one foot here… the other there. She was glad she was carrying just a small suitcase; otherwise she would have already had a serious problem. She took the ticket out of her bag and showed it at the boarding desk. She checked in her suitcase. Further along she passed her bag through the security control, grabbed it again and went on quickly into the plane. She arrived just on time; if she had arrived a minute later she would have missed the flight. She was the last passenger.

Once inside the plane a flight attendant escorted her to her seat. She made herself comfortable and fastened her seatbelt. Then she looked out through the window. What a sad image she saw in front of her eyes! She hadn't had time to look back since she got into the taxi that took her to the airport. Bloody alarm clock! She should have thrown away that piece of junk the first time she took it to be repaired, but she liked it, she always ended up liking everything. Although she didn't feel anything for what she was watching right now. Planes, escalators, and people walking in and out of the terminal. The flight attendant interrupted her thoughts when she walked along the aisle checking that every passenger was wearing their seatbelt. She went back and finally disappeared into the cabin. The next thing she remembered was the pilot's voice greeting passengers. She laid back, took a deep breath and went asleep. Eight hours in a plane were too much for someone with claustrophobia, and she knew that, so she had taken a sedative when she woke up that morning to be able to resist the fear. She was sleeping, embracing her bag, eight hours carrying her to a different city, a different life, with no real plans or nothing to lose, as far as she had ever dreamt. So far that the pain didn't seem real, only visiting her dreams as one of those nightmares you feel terribly grateful that has just been a dream when you wake up. Her life wasn't a dream, but she thought she could go far enough from her home, her roots and her language so as to believe it was. Far enough so as to believe that what had happened to her had actually happened to another person or that it was really just a nightmare. If you wake up in the morning and you don't recognize anything you see, if the people you mingle with don't speak your language, if you only have a lonely bag with your documents and some money… nothing will remind you of your previous life, nothing or no one can rob you of present life because you just don't have one. It's amazing the way you can walk, speak, eat and sleep with such a terrible hole in your soul reminding you that you are dead, that you are functioning because they didn't let you die when you decided that you couldn't breathe anymore and you just wanted to rest, to stop feeling, to stop thinking, to stop having that hole in your stomach that can only be provoked by the pain in one's heart. That sting that settles in the deepest part of your soul and doesn't let you breathe, when you decided that you couldn't stand the pain anymore, that you just wanted to end. She should have been more careful that day and not left the bathroom door open. She would have had time to die before anyone could have opened it.

She opened her eyes as she felt the flight attendant's hands shaking her:

—Madam, it's time to leave.

She stared at her as if she didn't remember where she was. She looked around for a while and remembered the plane...There she was, in the plane. She smiled politely to the flight attendant and stood up to follow the queue of people getting off of the plane. She was still half asleep when she took the bus to the arrivals terminal of the airport. This was far bigger than the airport or the city she didn't say goodbye to and she felt really good when she heard everyone speaking a different language. At last.

She walked slowly, staring at the crowd waiting to welcome the passengers. Arms opening, sharing kisses and greetings. No place like an airport to see how much we miss each other. Mothers to their children, brothers to their sisters, husbands to their wives, friends... She walked past the first bunch of people and went to collect her suitcase waiting almost half an hour next to the conveyor belt before it appeared. She stepped away as soon as she could and looked around. She thought that whoever was coming to pick her up should have already arrived. She didn't know if it was a man or a woman, it was not clear in the mail she got from the company. Suddenly a card with her name on it appeared in front of her eyes: Miss Santa Cruz. He was a tall, well-built man wearing a suit. By the wrinkles on his face he looked to be around sixty. She stopped and looked at him. Then she greeted him in her perfect English:

— Good evening, my name is Miriam Santa Cruz. I think you are waiting for me. - She offered her hand and the man greeted her back.

—Hello. I'm Paul, from the Company. Glad to meet you Miss Santa Cruz. I see you really speak very good English. I'm sorry I doubted it but, you know, I've picked up so many girls that said they spoke English and they didn't even know how to say hello...

Miriam smiled. That man was kind and polite. He took her suitcase and asked her to follow him:

—The car is not far, we won't have to walk much. How was the flight?

—Good - What else could she say when she had spent the whole journey sleeping? — I'm just a bit tired. That's all.

—Ok, I'll drive you to Mister Grant's house and you will finally be able to rest. I think you will be interviewed by his wife, Charlotte. He's not in the country right now.

"He's not in the country?" she thought. Well, if they had resorted to such a qualified agency just to get a housemaid, they surely had a job that provided them with a huge amount of money. It was an odyssey just to be able to send the CV. She was lucky that an old university friend worked for that agency and helped her to include her file among those they were actually going to be revising. A good boy, Antonio was his name. She hadn't seen him for years but when she went to the agency to ask him for help he didn't hesitate. He advised her on how to dress for the interview, what kind of person they were looking for and even which photo she should include in her profile to give a good impression. "Not Only" was a very demanding agency as the people who resorted to them came from all over the world and were also very demanding. She passed the interview and was successful in getting the job in New York.

Paul interrupted her thoughts when he said:

—Have you ever been to this city?

—No, but I have always wanted to - She answered.

—You’re gonna be fascinated. Can I ask you a question? Why have you got just that small suitcase? People usually bring two or three, and I’m not exaggerating.

—Well, I don’t know how long I’m going to stay here; I have to complete a trail period. And I’ve got everything I need inside that suitcase.

Miriam looked at him so sadly that Paul’s heart shrank. He didn’t know her but he had liked her from the first moment they spoke. She was not the kind of person he usually picked up, that is, a young, beautiful, prepared Spanish woman with just a small suitcase, with no plans or fear of not having them… He usually picked up younger boys or girls, students looking for some money to pay for their studies or just trying to learn some English. Some of them were more ambitious. This was the perfect city to dream, to believe that one can just come here and make the American dream come true. They saw themselves working in advertising, films or television… Unfortunately they used to go back to their countries just with some money and the heavy load of deception. No one is anyone in this huge city. Some people employed by the agency stayed in the city forever as they had fitted in in their jobs and mostly because they were realistic enough to keep them. He would like to see what type she belonged to. During the journey from the JFK to the area of Central Park where she was going to work they had up to now just seen motorway, tunnels, old houses and countryside. Now that they were reaching the big avenues, the first skyscrapers started to appear in front of their eyes, Miriam exclaimed:

—Oh, my God! It’s just like in the movies!

Her eyes lightened watching the magnificent show of lights, colours, sounds and people. If she had had to describe it she would have said it was like entering another world, one where you understand how small you are in front of that overwhelming majesty. She looked up and down and she finally looked at Paul, who was looking at her and smiling:

—Yes, ma’am, that’s how it is!

This was the kind of reaction he was used to. People opened their eyes and mouths and looked at him as if asking how could anyone live in this city and still think it’s the most normal thing in the world.

—I have already seen big cities in Europe, but this… this makes you lose your voice.

Paul asked Miriam:

—Do you know where you’re going to work?

—Well, I think it’s a young couple’s house, the Grants.

Ok, she didn’t know the truth either. They weren’t the Grants. He was glad he would have the chance to see Miriam’s face when she finally saw who she was going to work for. That was something they used to do in the agency. When they were looking for someone to work for a rich or famous person who didn’t want anyone without a reference at their home, they used to hide some information. We are talking about politicians, artists, famous designers, millionaires descended from other millionaires, that is, people looking for trustworthy employees. They had you sign a confidentiality contract to protect themselves from any kind of indiscretion and were able to fire the employee, should it take place, and make sure he couldn’t work again in this city.

The journey hadn’t lasted long and Paul hadn’t talked much. He never talked much as he was a very quiet man who’d rather observe. When he turned the car into the smart street, Miriam finally talked to him:

—Are we there now?

—Almost - he said — It’s the last white building. It’s a beautiful place to live and you’ll have the opportunity to come in and out freely. You’ll have a small independent apartment with a back exit so you will just see them while you’re working. They spend long periods abroad, sometimes both, sometimes one of them… You’ll soon understand.

Paul got out of the car for a while and stood in front of the entry system complete with camera that was on the right side of the door. It was a huge black iron gate. Miriam saw the man talking into the entry system still sitting in the car. He came back to the car as the gate opened slowly. He sat himself again in front of the steering wheel and entered the huge garden leading to the house. There were some parking places watched over by a man dressed in a dark blue uniform. Paul parked the car in one of the places and got out. Miriam followed him. She suddenly didn’t feel good. She didn’t expect a movie-set place like this. It wasn’t too high, not like the skyscrapers that stopped her from breathing when she first saw them, but it was impressive, so sober and white, so unpolluted. Paul got the suitcase out of the car and placing next to her he asked:

—Ready?

—Well… I guess I am. - She didn’t know what to say, overwhelmed by the impression that something strange was going to happen but not knowing yet what would it be. A long stone staircase appeared in front of them and someone came to welcome them:

—Good evening. Mrs. Richards is waiting for you.

He accompanied them politely to the lift and went back to his desk when the doors closed.

The building was as impressive inside as it was outside. White marble walls, mirrors, paintings, high quality lifts… She was getting more and more nervous. The lift doors opened again and they found themselves in a huge landing where two big antique doors stood one in front of the other, a long distance away even for such a classy building. They came towards the white one. Paul pressed the doorbell. A ring was heard and then the noise of footsteps coming near the door which finally opened.

—Welcome, come in please.

A tall, thin woman dressed with a long grey t-shirt and black leggings greeted them. Miriam thought she knew her but it was impossible, how could she? As she followed her along the corridor to the dining-room, Miriam noticed that the woman was barefoot, she was just wearing short socks, and her hair was a mess as if she had just got out of bed. She glanced up quickly and she was almost taken aback by the picture of a really pretty woman smiling next to a very handsome man who was also smiling. She recognized her even if that smiling woman was a long way from to the one who had just welcomed them. She had been in all the magazines and TV shows although she hadn’t heard of her for a long time. She was Charlotte Richards, the film star fashion muse; present in all television commercials, the new Hollywood diva. She was imitated by girls and women of all ages, her hair, her appearance and her dresses. Miriam had never seen her films but she had seen her photo at all the bus-stops and on the fashion magazines covers. She’d swear she was in the last magazine she read at the hairdresser’s, just before she started her adventure.

The woman took them kindly to the chaise-long sofa at the bottom of the huge dining-room, just in front of the fireplace and she offered them a seat.

—I see you’re surprised - She told Miriam politely.

—I’m sorry… I didn’t know…

Charlotte interrupted her:

—I think it’s better this way. We may have avoided any kind of confusion.

Paul interrupted her:

—She is Miss Santa Cruz, Miriam Santa Cruz.

—Pleased to meet you. I guess I don’t need to introduce myself.

Miriam didn’t know where to look at. She felt small, overwhelmed. This woman oozed security through every pore of her skin. The hard look, the precise smile, the perfect words, even her tone of voice was perfect. This time she talked to Paul:

—If you don’t have anything else for me I’ll show Miriam her apartment.

Paul didn’t look very comfortable either. He stared at Miriam and got up:

—Nothing, ma’am. In case there should be any problems or questions…

—Don’t worry, I’ll let you know. Let me say I hope everything will be alright. It must be worth the effort of resorting to such a recommended agency. I’ll take you to the door and then I’ll go on showing Miriam the house

Miriam had the chance to look around for a while. The huge white leather sofa, the rug, the big fireplace, the wooden floor, the pictures… Now she knew she had seen this woman in a thousand places and the man too. She knew he was her husband although she didn’t remember his name or the films or shows she had seen him in, but she remembered that sweet naughty boy face, those tender blue eyes, so calm, so kind. They must be the same age as her but they looked far happier: lunch with friends, beach scenes, dinner with famous people, awards ceremonies…Young, rich and famous…What else can you ask for?

Then Charlotte came into the dining-room again. She asked Miriam to follow her with the same cold but polite attitude she had shown from the moment she met her. She was going to show her the house and the apartment she was going to occupy as long as she worked for her.

The kitchen was just at the end of the dining-room only separated by a huge arch. It was a bit messy but nice with a long squared island in the middle and a copper metallic extractor hood. The furniture was modern but rustic, cherry coloured with beautiful bronze doorknobs. There was also a round wooden table surrounded by four chairs and decorated with a bunch of flowers. There was a glass door in the kitchen that led to a huge terrace. She didn’t go out there but she could distinguish some wicker furniture and a big white umbrella. Then there was a corridor leading to the bedrooms and bathrooms. Four bedrooms all of them with an en-suite bathroom, Charlotte explained, and two more bathrooms in the corridor. She was opening the different doors and Miriam was just trying to close her mouth in front of such opulence. A fireplace in the main bedroom, that was bigger than one could consider normal, with a very big balcony onto the street covered by a beautiful white curtain. Antique furniture, marble statues and alabaster lamps made the house show a proper character. Neither old nor modern, neither too pompous nor too simple, young but sober. When they passed next to a closed room, Charlotte told her:

—This is Jason’s room. You’ll have to clean it even if he tells you not to. He studies his scripts in there, listens to music or reads among many other things. I don’t often enter and whenever I do I’ve been terrified by the mess inside. He is a bit… chaotic.

She thought that the careful decoration of the whole house was Charlotte’s work.

There was a door at the end of the wide corridor which led to the stairs to the upper floor. They went up the stairs and arrived in a small square terrace, a bit untidy for her standards, at the end of which you could see the apartment where Miriam was going to live. You entered straight away into the dining-room, which included a small kitchen on one of the front walls. There was a small corridor next to it with a bathroom on the right and a bedroom at the bottom. That was all, this was her house now. Thanks God nothing to do with the big house she has just seen. The best thing is that she would see their bosses only at working hours: “From nine to five, unless we tell you something different”, Charlotte added.

—Well, that’s all for today. I guess you’d like to have some rest, so I’ll leave you alone. See you tomorrow at 9, OK?

—Of course, ma’am.

Charlotte smiled her back and went away walking in such an elegant style only proper of a real diva.

She was finally alone. She sat on the small sofa in front of the kitchen and put her feet on the small table. She took her shoes off slowly while looking at the door leading to the terrace. The place was ok, a bit plain and impersonal as if uninhabited for a long time. She wasn’t hungry; she was just tired as if she had been awake for days. She snuggled herself into the sofa and went asleep. For the first time she didn’t have a nightmare, her mind so busy arranging the information she was receiving that it didn’t have time to torment her as usual.

It was September and through the door a soft breeze flooded the small dining-room. Some noises could be heard far away of sirens and cars… No one would say she was in such a big city. Not at all.

She woke up when the first sunbeams reflected upon her face, and then she opened her eyes and could see the light coming from the terrace. She stretched and noticed it was early, almost dawning. She felt happy she didn’t oversleep on her first day at work. What she needed now more than the air she was breathing was a coffee and a shower. Charlotte told her that she would have to eat today from the fridge of the kitchen downstairs, as she would have to do some shopping after work. She entered the shower and felt exactly as she needed: fresh, clean, new. There was a light pink uniform on the bed with buttons and pockets. The white shoes were under the bed. She put her suitcase on it and took out a comfortable set of bra and knickers in a light brown colour that adapted to her body like a glove. She got dressed and put her hair in a bun. She wasn’t going to use make up, she didn’t need it. Her clear skin had pink cheeks and her big blue eyes were framed by two copper eyebrows, the same colour of her natural hair. Her lips were neither thin nor thick, and of a dark pink colour that could have passed for a natural lipstick. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror and felt satisfied with what she saw: Clean and neat, exactly as she thought she had to look like on her first day at work.

She looked at her watch. It was eight o’clock but she desperately needed a coffee. She opened the door and went downstairs after crossing the terrace. The door was open so she just entered the house which was dark and quiet; the curtains in the dining room were still closed. She went into the kitchen and opened carefully some cupboards looking for a coffee pot without finding it. She looked at the kitchen worktop and saw an espresso maker which she put on once she made herself sure it had coffee. She leaned on the worktop waiting for the coffee to brew and was shocked by the voice of a man:

—Good morning. I’m Jason.

She turned round and found that handsome man she had seen in the pictures, barefoot, dressed with a pair of jeans and a dark blue shirt, kindly reaching out to her . She couldn’t say a word. She just did the same with a smile. Jason was surprised. He thought she would be different. Charlotte had told him that a Latin girl was going to work in the house and he had imagined a dark small South American girl not very different from others that had already worked for them. But this woman had nothing to do with what he expected. He thought she was beautiful, very beautiful indeed, and that she didn’t look the kind of girl who cleans other people’s houses. He smiled:

—You must be the new housemaid.

—Miriam, sir, my name’s Miriam. Pleased to meet you.

—Call me Jason, please. - He didn’t know why he had said that. Charlotte would have said that he didn’t know how to keep distances. — The smell of coffee woke me up.

—I’m sorry, I didn’t know if there was someone in the house…it’s just a silly habit I have…

She started to get nervous. She didn’t expect such familiarity after the way his wife had received her the day before. She thought he would be distant, but there he was smiling, sitting by the kitchen table, having a look at the paper and cursing because of something he didn’t like. She tried the coffee and it was burning to the point she almost burnt her lips, but she wanted to go.

—Mrs. Richards didn’t tell me anything yesterday about where to start or what to do; I had just thought I could…

—I guess you’ll know what to do.

—She told me to clean your room.

—Really? Did she say “my room”? Are you sure she didn’t say something like “the cave” or “the burrow”.

He chuckled and she smiled kindly.

—Don’t worry; you can enter whenever you want. There aren’t any monsters or anything that can harm you. It’ just that I need my own space. I don’t think it’s that bad. You can tell me later what you think. By the way, what about your house? Did you like it?

She was astonished at the familiarity this man was looking at her with, as if they had known each other for their whole lives; it was a comfortable and kind look. She was glad that someone asked that question, even if it was just a matter of politeness, but the fact is that it looked sincere, as was his look and his attitude. She was really unnerved.

—I’m OK sir….I’m happy, thanks.

She left the kitchen hastily and entered the last room. She opened the door and saw it was a dressing room. It was very big but a bit untidy. She thought this room was the last one she would clean. She would start in the dining room, then the kitchen and then she would clean the rest of the rooms in the house. She felt she had to clean every room so that her work could be noticed in such a way that when Charlotte came back she asked herself how she had been able to survive without her at home. She came into the kitchen, where Jason was still drinking his coffee in front of the paper and she asked him:

—As to the meals…

—Didn’t she give you any instructions?

—No, and I was so tired I didn’t ask either.

—There must be something in the fridge. We usually buy through the internet and they bring us everything home. We can find something for the two of us.

Miriam asked:

—Isn’t Mrs. Richards at home?

—No. We crossed this morning at the door. She’s got to travel to Los Angeles with her manager for an audition. She’ll be back in a couple of days.

—OK. I’ll do my best till she’s back.

She opened the cupboards looking for cleaning products and utensils and went into the dining-room to start there. She had just found what she was looking for: a long day working in such a mechanical way she didn’t have to think or pay attention to anything. She took out her mobile from her pocket, put her earphones and after pushing the play button she started to clean. It was the first day and she wanted to cause a good impression. The group Measure playing Begin again reminded her that she was doing the right thing, beginning again. She didn’t want to be afraid anymore. She didn’t want to remember, in fact she would give half her life to be able to forget the last five or six years of hers. She almost gave her whole life once… She didn’t want to feel this way anymore. She was going to move every piece of furniture, to clean every sculpture and painting, even the big glass window on the street… There were so many things to do and she didn’t have any intention of stopping until she felt exhausted. She was glad deep inside that Charlotte wasn’t there, she felt scared and small in front of her. She wanted to do everything perfectly. First everything you can see, then the rest.

After a long morning cleaning the dining-room and the kitchen, emptying every cupboard and every drawer, she felt terribly hungry. She took the earphones off and went to have a look at the fridge. It was one o’clock. She wouldn’t have even thought of eating at that time in Spain but she had never worked so hard for a long time. She opened the fridge and noticed that going to the supermarket was the first thing these two had to do. She didn’t know if she would have to do the shopping too and thought of asking Jason when she saw him again. There was some pasta, some cheese; cream…She thought she could prepare some spaghetti with a creamy sauce and with something which looked like a piece of salmon at the bottom of the fridge. She took out a pan from the lower part of the cupboard and filled in with water. Then she added a bit of butter, some salt and put it on the stove top.

She sat at the kitchen table to have a look at the paper, but she wasn’t paying much attention. Her mind betrayed her again taking her to a moment in the past when she was still happy. She closed her eyes and smelt the air and the sea breeze, feeling the water on her body while listening to children laughing and splashing.

—What’s that nice smell? - Jason said entering the kitchen.

Miriam opened her eyes shocked and stood up all of a sudden.

—Sorry, did I scare you? - Jason asked watching her reaction.

—No, it’s OK. I just didn’t know if there was someone at home - she managed to answer once she had recovered.

—You know? You’ve been in the kitchen twice and you’ve made me follow you twice…That’s becoming a habit. I’m sorry I scared you.

—It’s Ok. Don’t worry - she went to the cooker where the pan was boiling and added the spaghetti. — It’s just some water with butter. I’m going to cook some spaghetti. Would you like to try?

—Are you serious? You’re talking to a man who hasn’t eaten anything decent for two days; of course I want to try!

Miriam didn’t know how to talk to this man that confused her with his kindness, with the way he looked at her and talked to her but she had to ask him some questions that couldn’t wait or she would end doing things wrongly .

—I was wondering…where should I eat?

Jason interrupted her:

—You’ll soon see that the management of the house it’s not my business. It’s Charlotte’s. She is quite good at giving instructions, you know, she knows how to deal with people. Let me see, the other girls that have worked here used to eat in the kitchen. But don’t worry about it; we use to be away most of the time. You can eat in your apartment if you want.

—Ok. I’ll eat in the kitchen before or after you’ve eaten. Sorry.

She went to have a look at the food and prepared the cream in a different pan. The sweet smell of the cream, the butter and the smoked salmon invaded the kitchen when the cream was hot.

—It smells really good. - Jason said.

—Thank you. It’s the only thing I could find in the fridge apart from a mouse carrying a banner asking for food.

Jason chuckled at the comment.

—Would you mind eating with me today? I don’t like eating on my own.

If she had been anywhere or with anyone else she would have thought that this man was trying to get lucky but she knew, she could feel that this man was behaving the way he really was, with no other intention, that he was saying what he really thought and that he would never say anything that could disturb her in any way. She thought he had a strange character for someone who is rich and famous.

Miriam took out a tablecloth and set the table. She also put two dishes with pasta and two forks one in front of the other. She took out some napkins from the first drawer of one of the cupboards and she sat to have lunch with Jason. He got up and went to the fridge to get something to drink.

—Do you want something to drink?

—No, thank you.

—I’ll have some cola.

He sat in front of her and started to eat. She had really done a miracle with the things she had found in the fridge. He didn’t like cooking. If he was hungry and didn’t find anything to eat in the leftovers of the previous day, he ate a sandwich or some biscuits or cereals. Charlotte wasn’t very good at cooking either; she was used to having the food delivered from restaurants or to eating out. The problem was that eating out was becoming a bit difficult lately as the next day they found pictures of them having breakfast or lunch or dinner. He didn’t understand why people were interested in these things but they were indeed, and they always liked gossiping about the couple: Was Charlotte pregnant? Were they angry? Were they the perfect couple they looked like?

—Tell me Miriam, where do you come from? How did you end up here?

—I expect you have seen my file.

—I told you that’s Charlotte’s business. And I don’t remember her telling me there was anything special.

—Why should there be anything special? - She asked a bit surprised.

—I don’t know. Maybe the way you speak English for example, so clear and natural and with such perfect pronunciation. Where did you learn? Not on the streets, I guess.

—Of course not. I learnt English at school.

—I didn’t know they were that good at languages in Spain.

Miriam appeared a bit uncomfortable and Jason noticed it so he changed the topic as he was used to: with no delicacy at all.

—Ok, no more questions about you. Do you want to ask me something?

—No, not actually.

—Not even the typical question about how do we bear being famous?

—I guess it’s something ordinary to you, I mean, you must be used to it. And I’ve noticed that you don’t have to appear in the magazines you don’t want to.

—Well, that’s a half truth. Had you ever heard about us before?

—To be honest I know you are famous, I know you are actors because I’ve seen you on television, but I haven’t had much time to go to the cinema or watch TV lately. I don’t pay much attention to these things either to tell you the truth.

—It’s strange! I mean, the other girls that have worked here did know who we were, they even mentioned films and shows where we acted… It’s strange talking to someone who doesn’t know me at all. I’ll have to get used to this. - he said with feigned worrying.

Miriam had finished and was waiting for him to finish to stand up and clean the table before going on cleaning the rest of the house. Jason finished his food and stood up.

—It was delicious. - Jason said with a grin of satisfaction.

And before she could say anything his mobile started ringing and he went to his room gaily talking to someone.

Miriam finished in the kitchen and went on cleaning. The next room was the bedroom.

She imagined Charlotte coming back from Los Angeles exhausted and willing to have a shower or have some rest and entering her bedroom to find it as neat as someone with her self-control would like it, and smiled. Miriam stripped the bed and turned the mattress upside down. She looked into the cupboards for some sheets and a cover for the comforter and made the bed again. She cleaned the furniture with a washing-up cloth and a paintbrush wet with furniture cleaning liquid. Then she opened the drawers and arranged the papers, the underwear and everything she found inside. She unhooked the curtains to wash them up as she did with the ones in the dining-room and cleaned the balcony. She looked down and saw the lovely wide street below. She knew she had just to go ahead and turn round the corner to get to the typical crowd of a big city, otherwise she would have never imagined. It was sunny but it wasn’t very hot which made her work far easier. Surprisingly she wasn’t tired. She would go to the supermarket the next day. Jason had told her to buy anything she needed taking into account what she was going to cook next week. She had finished for today.

She gathered all the cleaning products, had a last look and went out through the back door to her small apartment. She decided that something must be done in there, may be some plants or scented candles, even a garland with lights. The apartment was nice but it was too impersonal.

FRAN, FROM FRANCISCO, SWEETHEART.

She had a shower and then got dressed with a pair of slim jeans, flat trainers, a t-shirt and a small shoulder bag. She got her tourist guide from her old suitcase and decided to go for a walk anywhere her legs could take her. She could go further when she thought she was ready. She let her hair down and put her sunglasses and some lip gloss and went to the street to see her surroundings. As soon as she left her house and was in the main avenue she could feel life coming back into her veins. The avenue was full of restaurants, coffee shops, flower shops…There were centuries since the last time she saw something like this, may be since the days she was a student of English in London. This street could belong to any city she had visited, Paris, Vienna or any others. Now these travels, her former life and everything that brought her here seemed thousands of years away. She had mixed feelings now. On the one hand she was glad to see that her goals of changing her life and forget everything that had happened before were being fulfilled, she was feeling better every day, she felt strong enough to go out again and she knew that the best thing she had done in her life was leaving Spain. On the other hand she felt so ashamed because she was alive and even worse, she wanted to live, she wanted to smile and was even thinking about adopting a cat so as not to feel alone at home. She didn’t have the right to do any of these things. She couldn’t feel good when her dearest ones had died, when she knew she was not going to see them again, that they will never grow up or study or fall in love…

—I’m sorry I just felt curious about you.

Miriam suddenly stopped. She wasn’t even aware of how far she had gone, she just noticed she was in front of one of those famous coffee shops with every kind of coffee and sofas to enjoy them on . A tall, thin, rather bald man with huge blue eyes was in front of her looking directly into her eyes. She spoke to her in Spanish so she assumed he would know something about her.

—My name is Fran, from Francisco sweetheart, not from Frank, but it’s so in fashion, isn’t it? You are working in Charlotte Richard’s house, that witch. Don’t look at me that way, this is a small village. You are the only thing we have spoken about since we found out you were coming. Say something, sweetheart.

This guy, who seemed to have come from a gay party, had definitely caught her attention.

—My name’s Miriam.

—Ok, tell me something I don’t know. I work in the house in front of the Richards’. My boss is a banker, gay but a banker. He hasn’t left the closet though. He’s divorced with two children and goes around with that respectable aspect… But I’m the one who cleans, sweetheart -He added while tapping on her arm with the back of his hand. —I also know who comes into the house. Well I could also talk about what happens in yours. How about the first day? I’ve been told the master is alone. I can hardly believe she has left him alone. That would be the first time. She controls everything he does, she may think you’re not pretty enough to have left him with you, or may be the bitch thinks he’s not going to fix on you, a housemaid. That snobbish bitch!

Miriam felt totally overwhelmed, her head not being able to interpret such a load of incomprehensible words. In a couple of minutes this man had introduced himself and had told her things about her own job that would have taken her years to find out. She was not very fond of gossiping or observant, so if things didn’t happen in front of her eyes, she simply didn’t notice.

—Well my first day was OK…and I don’t know what else I can tell you. How do you know…?

—That you’re here? That your name’s Miriam? Have you met the smart porter that accompanies you to the elevator? He’s such a gossip! He’s a porter what else can you expect? He told Tatiana, the girl working at the Minister’s house, that Richards had fired her cousin last month and that she’d gone to a new agency to find another assistant because the ones coming from the old agency didn’t stay long. That bitch! No one puts up with her. That man’s a saint… So we have been waiting for you. You know everything now, sweetheart.

He was looking at her with a funny and surprised look, of course feeling really proud of his acting and of the impact his words had caused on Miriam. He loved to attract attention. Miriam was sure it had been so easy for him to approach her in the middle of the street to say everything he had just said.

—So what? Are you going to stay there looking at me? You can invite me to a coffee if you want…I’m entertaining you so much…

Miriam started to laugh completely hallucinating and happy that this character had paid her so much attention without knowing her at all. He turned round and pointed to a café:

—Come on, sweetheart, there. After you!

She couldn’t stop laughing as she was completely sure no one could be that gay without acting. They asked for two cappuccinos and sat on one of the couches in front of a small square table.

—What about the witch?

—Well, I haven’t talked with her much. She’s smart, distant, polite, and proud of herself…

—She’s stupid. You know she asks her husband to mention her in all his interviews? I guess so that everyone knows he’s taken just in case…

—She went away just when I arrived, so I haven’t had the chance to talk with her, I told you.

—She wouldn’t talk to you even if she was here, honey. She wouldn’t even look at you! Try and talk to Tatiana and she will tell you about her cousin, she cried every day she spent in that house. And what are you going to do now?

—I’ve thought of buying some plants for my terrace and maybe some candles too just to make it a bit nicer.

—I’m going to take you to a shop just on the next street. They’ve got everything you need and the prices are cheaper than in other famous department stores. They may think we are millionaires, those queers!

Miriam drank her coffee sip by sip as she was observing Fran. He might be thirty-five. And he spoke at the speed of light. It was overwhelming just to listen to him, especially for a woman for whom it had been ages since the last time she spoke to someone. Since she left the hospital she had hardly had a phone conversation with some friends, but after all that had happened, even the best of friends had stopped phoning her probably because they didn’t know what to say or how to talk to her. Her memories of those times were a bit blurred due to the sedatives and antidepressants. She didn’t remember anyone visiting her in the hospital. She didn’t have anyone in the world, being an only child and having lost her parents in a car crash years ago. No one ever told her that she had had a visitor. When she finally ended her treatment and doctors thought she was ready to re-start her life no one came to pick her up either. She left the hospital completely alone, with the same small suitcase she had taken there and almost with the same things. The person she had talked to most, apart for her friend Antonio, who helped her get the job, would have been Paul.

—Have you been living here for a long time Fran?

—Six years. I came here through an agency specialized in looking for trustworthy assistants to work in the houses of rich and famous people. I’ve been lucky if you compare me with all the girls that have worked where you are working know. I think I’ve counted one every six months. The penultimate was the smartest.

—Why? -She asked him intrigued by everything he was talking about.

—She made some money from TV program appearances talking about Jason and Charlotte. She tried to blackmail them with some photos she said she had, but she didn’t get anything and then she started to work with managers specialized in this kind of crap, you know, people who talk about the private lives of their previous employers. She must’ve earned a fortune talking that much. She would have kept her job for a long time too, considering how ugly she was. Charlotte doesn’t worry about the ugly ones. By the way, you’re so pretty. I can’t imagine how you’d look with some make up on… and maybe different clothes.

She looked at herself up and down. What was the matter with her clothes?

—I mean, with the clothes one wears when going to parties.

—It’s years since I last went to a party!

—Don’t worry honey, you’ll go. We are a nice group of Spanish people. We like going out, watching musicals… I’ll call you when we do something. So, give me your number and I’ll phone you. We’ll be in contact, won’t we?

-But…I don’t have a mobile number.

-You don’t what? – he almost screamed. – We’ll have to solve that first.

They finished their coffees and went out to the shop he had mentioned before. It was a small place with a huge shop window full of things to decorate: cushions, quilts, lamps, photo frames, mirrors… even antique furniture. It was the same inside. One couldn’t almost walk among the lot of things occupying such a small space. Fran convinced her to forget about plants as autumn was coming and it will be followed by one of the coldest winters that the city would see. It was not a good season for plants especially for someone like her, who had said she had never had green fingers. She finally bought some scented candles, some decorated boxes and a couple of Tiffany lamps she was still deciding where to put. Then, they came into a mobile phone shop to get Miriam one. A few minutes later, Fran said goodbye when they left the shop.

—I have to leave you, princess. Someone is waiting for me.

—Don’t you live here?

—I lived here when I came but then I got a boyfriend and moved to a bigger apartment. Then the boyfriend left me and I was already used to the place, so I stayed. It’s not very expensive and there are three of us living there. See you tomorrow. You’ve got my number in case you need anything.

—Thank you so much Fran. It’s been so funny talking to you. It’s been ages since the last time I laughed so much.

—I thought so. You look like you’ve just left a convent. Ciao!

And he kissed her cheek before going away. She stopped in a small supermarket on her way home and bought some drinks, milk, bread, cold meat and things to put in the cupboards and the fridge. She paid, took her bags and traced her footsteps till she arrived back at her small apartment again.

Taking into account Jason’s words, Charlotte probably wouldn’t be there the next day. She would finish cleaning even if this meant she had to work till late. Fran had awakened her curiosity. You don’t have to be very smart to notice that Jason and Charlotte were very different, she had noticed in the first meeting, but they had been together for the last years and it was something rare in the world they lived. However Jason looked happy, carefree …well, she wasn’t able to judge as she had only seen him on some occasions. She emptied the bags and put everything in its right place. She put a candle and a vase full of beautiful flowers on the table in the dining-room. She put another candle in her bedroom and one more in the bathroom together with a scented spray. She finally put one of the lamps on a small square stool she had just decided she’d use as a table and the other one on her bedside table.

She lit the lamp in the dining-room as it was dark and went to look for a sandwich in the fridge. She put the TV on and was immediately comforted by its sound not feeling alone anymore. She ate her sandwich in front of it, sprawled on the couch to watch the movie. It was cold enough to close the window as she got goose bumps. This was the second time in years she fell asleep without taking a pill. The doctor had told her to take things easy and not to leave her medication off so soon. She had to be ready and then do it step by step but it was an unconscious process. She hadn’t taken any antidepressants since the beginning of last summer and the last sedative she had taken was the one she took to be able to fly to NY. That moment seemed to be light-years away although it had actually happened just a few days ago.

When she opened her eyes the next morning she thought that sleeping on the couch was becoming a habit and chuckled. She repeated the same process of the day before: had a shower, got dressed and combed her hair, putting it this time in a ponytail. She looked at herself in the mirror and remembered what Fran had told her the day before about how pretty she’d look wearing some make-up. So she took a small make-up bag from the cupboard under the washbasin, put on some eyeliner, added some mascara to her eyelashes, brushed her cheeks with a pale pink blush giving her face a fresh and healthy look and she finally painted her lips with a clear pink tone . She thought she looked really good but asked herself why she had used make up after such a long time. She remembered Jason but she suddenly discarded that thought. Would he be home today? Would they meet? She felt ashamed because she saw herself as one of those crazy fans able to do anything to just watch or touch their idols. She thought she was a bit old for these kinds of things and concluded that she was just fascinated by his being so natural, the sweetness coming from his big blue eyes and that “lost child” look. All these things had on her the same effect they probably had on his fans. Fran told her he had legions of them and he had even told her a couple of websites where she could find more information about him or his films, pictures and gossiping about his personal life. She thought again she was too old for such kind of things, smiled to herself in the mirror and left the apartment ready to finish the tasks she had been taken on to do. It was half past eight in the morning when she entered the house and went straight to the kitchen to prepare some coffee, as she had done the day before. She surprised herself again thinking may be Jason would come, some way alerted by the smell of ready-made coffee. But he didn’t. She drank her coffee and got ready to go on cleaning just as she had thought she would do.

The next room she was going to clean was Jason’s. She knocked before opening the door just in case he was inside, but she got no answer. She was surprised when she found everything tidy. It was a large room with a couch at the end behind a small table. The walls were covered by shelves full of books, papers and pictures. She thought it was curious that Charlotte didn’t appear in the pictures. They were about a blond kid dressed as a football player, that same kid a bit older with a dog, then next to a really pretty woman and two girls…The woman reminded her of Jason. She thought she could be his mum. There were also two posters on the wall where the door was, one about Casablanca, the film and another one about Star Wars.

One of the walls was wholly devoted to all kinds of gadgets; there was a computer, a laptop and even a Bang and Olufsen hi-fi that almost made her bang the floor with her lower jaw. The earphones were on the table, there were some papers on the couch…So this was all? Was this the strange room where the star hid? She took out everything from each shelf and put everything back again after cleaning. If there was something she had learnt about cleaning, it was that no one stands their things being changed around, some people get crazy when they can’t find something because someone has moved it.

She also cleaned the huge window covered by a curtain that she also took down to wash. She remembered her own earphones and put them on. It’s always good listening to some music, you know, music tames the fierce, or something like that. Her morning passed quietly, from one room to another, from one bathroom to another, so concentrated on cleaning the house as no one had ever cleaned it before. She put clean scented towels in the bathrooms, ordered the huge closet according to seasons. She had never seen so many clothes, shoes or bags in her whole life. Evening dresses that were every woman’s dream, long, short, with sequins, with Chantilly, embroidered, black, red, nude, silver and golden, asymmetric, with straps, strapless… There were dozens of shoes, some of them for the dresses she had seen before, some of them different. She thought that even the most casual clothes should cost a fortune. Bags, jackets and fur coats, scarves and foulards… A whole show of colours and textures she had never imagined could be owned by just one woman. She knew she couldn’t imagine how much any of these things should cost. She knew she had never bought anything like these.


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