In the hallway, Bertha took off her hat, crushing it in her hand. She was a fool having come here again, to this madhouse. But Mr Lawrence had called her and he had sounded so desperate on the phone – she could almost begin to understand why Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France had fallen for him. Not that any of his tricks would work on her, mind. But while she had thought she had longed for peace and quiet, too much peace and quiet wasn’t good for her either.
She had been bored, housekeeping for a quiet American expat couple in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. And Mr Lawrence had said he just wanted to talk.
Besides, she had left a pair of gloves in the hidden cupboard behind the wall, which she wanted back.
She sighed, then knocked.
Within seconds, the door was pulled inwards and Mr Lawrence bade her come in.
“Hi Bertha, good to see you again. Thank you for co—”
“Hello Mr Lawrence,” she said, and made a beeline for the cupboard, reclaiming her gloves. She took off her coat and hung it over her arm
“Now, Bertha,” Mr Lawrence said. “I asked you over because I know you can live with my... unorthodox arrangements. I’d like you to come work for me again.” His voice was graver than Bertha’d ever heard before.
“Oh, no,” Bertha started. “If you’ve found another trio of air hostesses, or secretaries, or taxi drivers—”
“How do you know about the taxi drivers?”
“What?” Bertha squinted.
“Never mind.” Mr Lawrence pursed his lips. “But Bertha, I swear, it’s nothing like that. It’s much simpler. All I would ask you this time is to keep the secret from the world. Like you’ve been doing for me. And this time there’d be no complications, no three girls—”
“Three ‘fiancées’,” Bertha snorted.
“Alright, ‘fiancées’,” Mr Lawrence said, and sighed. “The point is. No running around, no madness. Just one person.”
Bertha’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh? One of them forgave you? Not Air France I hope, she—”
Mr Reed appeared behind Mr Lawrence’s shoulder. He must’ve hidden behind the door as she came in, and hidden in the little entrance-way.
Dumb men. She suppressed a sigh. “Oh, you. Last time I was here, I thought you’d already practically moved in. You know, if I’m going to have to be cleanin’ up the mess of two men – and mind, I’m not so strong, you know, Mr Lawrence – then I’d like to discuss that wage raise again, and—”
“You’ll get the raise, Bertha,” Mr Lawrence said.
She screwed up her eyes, looking back between Mr Lawrence – hands uncharacteristically folded in front of him, demure as a newborn lamb – and Mr Reed, eyes down-cast. Now what was going on here? “I don’t get it,” she eventually said. “Why has it got to be a secret he’s going to be livin’ here?”
Mr Lawrence turned his head to look at Mr Reed, who bit his lip.
“Oh, I see,” she said. “One of those newspaper rivalries. Don’t want them to find out you’re playing house with a rival correspondent, or whatever it is?”
Mr Reed and Mr Lawrence flinched.
“Oh god,” Bertha said flatly. “You are playing house with him. Well, well.”
Mr Lawrence looked at her imploringly – brow creased, eyes bright.
“Well,” Bertha said again. “What do I care,” she muttered. “Three women or one man. At least I don’t have three sets of lingerie to try and keep apart.”
“And I’ll eat soufflé and sauerkraut,” Mr Reed offered.
“No kidneys, I hope,” she said drily.
With a whirl, Mr Lawrence turned to Mr Reed. “Please tell me – no kidneys. I can’t stand the sight, the smell, the—”
“Calm down,” Mr Reed laughed. He raised a hand to Mr Lawrence’s face, then froze, dropped it.
Mr Lawrence took a moment before turning back towards Bertha. “Will you please come and work for me again?”
Bertha sighed. “Why not.”
Mr Lawrence approached her and tried to embrace her. She slapped her hat hard against his chest. “Stay away from me.”
Mr Lawrence retreated, hands up in the air, smiling.
“And you, huh,” Bertha said, leaning to the side to look past Mr Lawrence at Mr Reed. “A ‘considerate’ man. Well have I ever.”
Mr Reed had the good grace to grimace.
“Well. I had best see if I can make some kind of dinner. If the two gentleman would excuse me.” As she turned to the cupboard to hang up her coat, from the corner of her eye she saw Mr Reed reach for Mr Lawrence’s hand, as Mr Lawrence cupped Mr Reed’s face with his other hand. There was a smile on Mr Lawrence’s face of a kind she hadn’t seen before.
Shaking her head, she pushed against the swinging door and entered the kitchen. Times were changing so fast, it’d catch anyone by surprise. But Bertha could handle it. Although maybe not strong, she was a great trier, indeed.