Wednesdays were Hester’s days off. Funny that. She still had to cook breakfast and straighten the house. But if she hurried, the madam would let her go before lunch. Hester was counting on it today. She didn’t want to be late for her meeting.
The night before Hester had left the kitchen spotless. This morning the sink held two smudged whisky tumblers, an oily pot encrusted with burnt popcorn (takes forever to scrub), a greasy bowl and two mugs with dregs of milky coffee.
The madam and the master must have had one of their good evenings together. Shared popcorn, whisky and coffee. Alcohol to make her more agreeable and coffee to make him stay up. Hester sniggered. The master got a bargain last night. When he entertained his mistress at home the time his wife and kids went to the seaside, he served lobster with sparkling wine.
“Good morning, Hester. The children will have soft-boiled eggs with toast for breakfast.”
“Yes, missus. What will the master have?”
The madam moved her mouth into a tight smile that faded before it began. “Probably nothing, Hester. He’s running late this morning. I’ll just pour the coffee.”
Perhaps if the master took as much trouble with his wife as he had with his mistress, the smile would’ve been genuine.
Heavy footsteps on the stairs didn’t bode well. The master stomped in like a buffalo with tight testicles. A chuckle bubbled in Hester’s throat. Good for the madam not to have been seduced with a bowl of popcorn.
“I’m late,” the master’s growl was all buffalo too, “and the coffee’s bloody hot.”
“Sorry. Let me put some more milk in it.”
He took another sip. Scowled. “That makes it too weak.”
The madam handed him a paper bag. “I’m very sorry, Gordon,” she repeated. “Here is some dry sausage and fruit for your breakfast. Would you like to take a lunch sandwich as well? It’s ready.”
“No, I’ll get something at work.”
Hester was sure he would. Not once and not twice did she launder traces of lipstick off the master’s business shirts.
“I’m late,” Gordon said, “and the coffee’s bloody hot.”
Annette felt her stomach cringe. It was all her fault. She should have got up earlier. “Sorry. Let me put some more milk in it.”
“That makes it too weak.”
Annette still hoped to make amends as she handed him a paper bag. “I’m very sorry, Gordon. Here is some dry sausage and fruit for your breakfast. Would you like to take a lunch sandwich as well? It’s ready.”
He didn’t want it. Perhaps he realised she hadn’t made his lunch with as much love and devotion as a wife should. When they were newlyweds fourteen years ago, she would hide little “I love you” notes in his sandwiches, but Gordon complained he kept biting into the pink paper, so she stopped.
When they were newlyweds fourteen years ago, Gordon had this contagious laugh that started in his belly and burst out like gunshot from his mouth. What had happened to that laugh? Had she killed it?
“Bye, doll.” Gordon called out.
For old times’ sake, Annette wanted to say, “Bye, honey.”
Doll. Well, the madam did look like a porcelain doll, and she certainly acted like one, too, whenever the master was around.
With the puppeteer gone, the doll regained control of her own strings. “Hester, I’m going grocery shopping later on. What do we need?”
Hester recited a long list of foodstuffs and cleaning products, and the madam wrote it all down. The whites couldn’t remember things, which explained why they had to be so good at reading and writing.
The clock hurried on without mercy. Hester changed the baby’s nappy, straightened the beds, picked up the dirty clothes, washed up after breakfast, changed another nappy. Beth was getting hungry. Hester was getting restless.
“Shall I make up the bottle, Missus?”
“No, I’ll feed Beth myself. You may go now. Please take the sandwich from the fridge, if you like.”
“Thank you, Madam.” The sandwich was bound to contain something more interesting than Hester’s usual apricot jam with a slice of pink Polony sausage.
Free at last. The madam would make her own lunch and gobble it all up, away from the master’s controlling gaze. For dinner, the family would go out to a restaurant in order to relieve the white woman’s workload. After all, the madam was bound to be tired from lying by the swimming pool all day, painting her nails and pretending not to gawk at the gardener’s muscles covered with forbidden black skin.
Hester glanced at the clock. Just enough time to catch a taxi van to the illegal meeting.
Annette glanced at the clock. Just enough time to drive into the city for her meeting.