- If the agency had sent a photo, I would have asked them not to send you.
Not exactly what you want to hear after a flight from Heathrow to Rome and not to mention a hair-raising twenty minute journey with a taxi driver that swerved at every given opportunity, and even some imaginary ones.
The job description given by the agency had been too good to be true. It went like this.
53 year old American lady wishes to find housekeeper/cook/driver/PA for a property in the South of France.
My hand had gone up, involuntarily. Bit pointless as we were on the phone at the time.
(This was long before Skype)
“I’ll do it. Where exactly is it, the property, I mean?” I had asked.
I was thinking, St Tropez, Monte Carlo…
“That’s the part you are really going to love” cooed Christine, my soon to be despised, companion co-ordinator, at Bla, Bla, agency.
“The lady in question, is currently in Rome and would like you to meet her there, then fly to Nice where you will hire a car to start your property search. “
I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was going to drive round the south of France, poking my nose into posh people’s homes and get paid for it.
Tip #1 You can never have too much information about a job.
I felt my other hand go up, in case my enthusiasm had gone unnoticed.
I was still on the phone and now hands free as I danced around the room.
“So, what do you say?”Asked Christine, trying to keep the smugness out of her voice.
“I’ll do it. When do I start?”
It was 2.15p.m on a very damp, grey, English, Tuesday afternoon in March.
“Oh good. You’re booked on the 15.15 from Heathrow to Rome, tomorrow.”
“Wow, it’s a good job I accepted then.”
“I haven’t known you long but I thought this was right up your street.”
“Sounds amazing. So just before I let the adrenaline completely take over, what’s the… but?”
“Well there isn’t one really. Oh, you don’t mind dogs, do you? You’ve looked after clients with dogs before.”
Slight note of panic in the voice there.
Too good to resist.
“Ah well. Hum. I don’t know. What kind of dog?”
I heard rustling of papers.
“A Shitzu. It’s only small. Goes everywhere with her, even in the plane.”
“Oh boy. You weren’t going to tell me, were you?”
“Sorry, slipped my mind. I do have a lot of clients, you know.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll do it but then you obviously knew that when you booked the ticket.”
“Rome for three days, then Nice to search for a villa. Listen, if you don’t go, I will.”
So flipping convincing, she was. I wasn’t in the habit of visiting the plush London offices of Bla-di-Bla and Co but when I got back from this, I would make an exception.
Villa Delparco was a small but beautifully formed hotel. Right in the heart of Rome. Probably. I actually had no idea where I was. With the time difference, the flight and the taxi ride, it was now 8 p.m. local time.
I sauntered up to the reception desk, trying to look as though I belonged there, all the time eyeing the fabulous display of anti pasto, peeking out of the entrance to the restaurant.
I was starving.
“Buona sera. Il mio nome è Miss Bennett. Sono qui per…
I had been practising in the taxi and then suddenly I forgot the client’s name.
“Ah yes, Miss Bennett, you are here as a guest of Miss Cohen.”
He spoke perfect English and his accent was nearly as delicious as the parma ham that had been sliced and arranged to look like the tail feathers of an enormous bird.
“Yes. I am.”
“She said I should send you straight to her room, when you arrived.”
I glanced back at the entrance to the restaurant.
Giovanni, his name was on his lapel, smiled and added.
“Miss Cohen often has meals in her room.”
He either looked sad or disapproving or both it was hard to say. The dark pools that were substituting for eyes had me locked in. The six o clock shadow lurking round his dimpled chin and perfect mouth did little to bring me back to my senses.
“Perhaps she may come down, now you are here.”
A perfectly sensible suggestion which somehow converted in my brain, to mean. She can eat down here and you can come to my room…
If Giovanni was reading my thoughts I was in big trouble.
He handed me my key. 601.
Miss Cohen was to be found next door in 603.
I soon discovered that 666 might have been more appropriate.
I knocked tentatively on the door of 603.
There was no reply. In the bathroom, maybe? I knocked again.
Gioavanni smiled as he walked past with my suitcase. I handed him my key.
Subtle. Of course he had a pass key, which he waved at me.
He deposited my case and shut my door, then came and stood by me.
“Let me,” he offered.
“Miss Cohen.It’s Giovanni. Madame, the nice lady from London is here. Shall I open the door?”
Still nothing but Giovanni seemed to hear something. Sounded like a growl.
Uh-oh. The small dog.
Giovanni knocked once more, then turned the handle.
Before I could thank him, he was gone.
American, female, never married, degree in art history, speaks five languages, lived in Japan for three years, dotes on her dog.
What the agency, —I was going to kill Christine — hadn’t mentioned was that Miss Cohen was an alcoholic, chain smoking, manic depressive with suicidal tendencies.
“You?” Miss Cohen,pointed at me. “They sent you?”
“The agency, yes. I’ve just arrived from London. My name is…”
“I know who you are. I should have insisted on a photograph.”
The last bit was mumbled.
I asked her to repeat it.
She was finding some composure.
“ If the agency.”
She spoke as if every word were being weighed and was therefore a great burden.
“If they had sent a photograph. I would have asked them not to send you.”
At this point Miss Cohen stubbed out her cigarette into the already overflowing, green onyx ashtray that was precariously sitting in the middle of her double bed.
Just next to the ashtray was Mitsy the shiatzu.
They both eyed me with great suspicion.
At least I think they did, it was hard to see through the thick smoke that hung in the room like fog on a November morning in Essex.
“Oh, I’m sorry why is that?”
What else can one say to such a greeting?
“We can have nothing in common.” She stated flatly.
Then, as if that made everything okay.
I frowned, not sure why this was a crime.
“My father told me when I was eight years old, no man will ever want you for anything but your money, you’re ugly.”
Good grief. Do the job myself.Would you Christine? Would you?
In my enthusiasm I had neglected to ask if Miss-chain-smoker was a new client?
I was keen to extend the benefit of doubt, for now.
“I studied architecture for two years before going into business on my own.” I added helpfully.
Well. I had been married to an architect, I watched him study and I ran a hair and beauty salon. Details…
Miss Cohen started to talk but had a coughing fit instead. I looked around, as best I could for a glass of water. There was a bottle of Pelligrino in an ice bucket on the dressing table. All the ice had melted and the bottle felt tepid.
I handed her a glass of bubbly water.
She took the smallest sip then handed the glass back to me.
She surprised me by suddenly asking. “Have you eaten?”
“No, I’ve just…”
She raised her right hand, reaching for her cigarette packet with her left.
“Go,” she waved at me. “Down to the restaurant, order whatever you want. They will put it on my account. Then go to bed or go out, I don’t care. I don’t want to see you. I will call you in the morning. Goodnight.”
I stared at the tiny woman, sitting crossed legged in the middle of a double bed. A female version of Woody Allen, shrouded in a grey lightweight, long sleeved, wool shapeless dress, and black tights. Her shoes, reminded me of my school sandals, had been kicked off and were on the floor. She wore oval metal rimmed glasses, which she peered over rather than looked through. Her hair was steely grey and cut into a severe, Mary Quant bob. Her fringe was long enough to touch her glasses. A less confident woman, I had never met.
Miss Cohen could not have been any further from the person I had imagined I would meet, however hard I tried.
I quickly freshened up, in my room, which happily was smoke free. There was a welcoming basket of fruit and an ice bucket with small bottles of mineral water. Some wedges of watermelon had been placed amongst the bottles. As lovely as it looked, I was hungry in a carnivorous way.
When I got downstairs, the restaurant was in full swing and Giovanni was nowhere to be seen. A very prim looking, probably very near retirement age, woman was behind the desk. Her hair was scooped up into a severe bun. She wore huge topaz stone earrings. Her black lace blouse seemed to be multi layered. She looked more Spanish than Italian.
I opened my mouth but she merely nodded and pointed towards the restaurant.
On the one hand if Miss Cohen was going to return me to sender tomorrow I might as well do as she said. Have whatever you want. Shame I don’t like champagne…not that I would ever do that. But, if by tomorrow morning I suddenly seemed more suitable, maybe I should show a little restraint.
Antipasto to die for, including artichokes, sundried tomatoes, various olives, hams, salmais and on it went. Veal in a delicious lemon sauce with pasta, naturally, followed by zabalognie and decaffinated coffee.
My bed had been turned down and I was ready for sleep but the anticipation I had felt before I arrived was nothing compared to the mixed feelings I had right now. There were going to be a lot of questions asked tomorrow…
I managed to fall asleep somewhere in between the sounds of sirens and high pitched scooters. Definitely Rome.
The phone at the side of my bed gave an intermittent shrill, single note, ring.
I sleepily wondered what good morning was in Italian,but why bother when my charge (ha!) was American and most of the staff spoke English.
“Hello.” I volunteered.
“ You are booked on a coach trip to the Colosseum, leaving at 10 a.m.”
An irritated sigh, then. “I said, you are…”
“Yes, sorry er, Miss Cohen. I did hear what…”
“ Have you had breakfast?”
I glanced at my travel clock. 7.15 a.m.
“Well, no I just…”
“Ring 0 and they will bring it to your room. I will see you back here at 3.30p.m. Then we will decide what is to be done.”
She hung up.
The very last thing I felt like doing was getting into a coach with a load of strangers and going to the one place in Rome that I wasn’t interested in. Architecture, yes. Gruesome history, no thanks.
I thought about explaining to the tour guide, who would surely speak English, that I had changed my mind and no refund was required.
Then at least I could phone the agency and see some of the Italian capital that didn’t resonate with lions and man’s inhumanity to man.
I always think there is something wonderfully decadent about room service. I can’t resist it, especially when someone else is paying.
Fresh fruit, yoghurt and pastries, washed down with pineapple juice and rot-your-socks, coffee. I was ready for the fray. With my pocket size, Essential Guide to Rome, I had until 3p.m. or thereabouts. What I hadn’t bargained for was Miss cough-a-lot being in Reception as the coach arrived to collect any visitors lucky enough to be going on the history tour. Yay!
I wanted this job, I didn’t want this job. Decision time. It would seem impolite to refuse this prepaid trip if I were going to have any chance of securing ‘my dream job’, wouldn’t it? I mean, she could stick her cigarette out of the window whenever I was driving her anywhere and we only had two nights in Rome before flying across to Nice. I try never to fall at the first hurdle, so I boarded the coach and waved appreciatively at Miss Cohen who merely gripped Mitsy, who was struggling to break free, even tighter to her side. Carrying the mutt, I would soon find out was, part of the job description.
I persuaded the multi-lingual tour guide that I had been booked on this excursion by mistake. She nodded, then crossed me off her list, three pages long, attached to a clipboard. I ventured the idea that I could rejoin the coach on its return trip to the hotel. She gave me her best, are you serious, look? Perhaps not. I would just have to make sure I returned at the same time and hope Miss Cohen wasn’t watching.
Just as every human being has its own unique DNA, apart from identical twins, every client is different. Let me count the ways…
Miss Cohen took me to a whole new realm. Fabulously wealthy. Check. Done that. More than one ailment. Yep, plenty of those. No real friends. Unusual but with others it had seemed by choice, Miss Cohen was one very lonely lady. She telephones her ninety year old father in New York, who is still practicing law, at anytime of day or night, to ask incredibly mundane questions. A first. He can be heard screaming at her down the line. Usually in reference to the fact that it is 2a.m. and no, he has no idea whether she should order take-out or risk finding a taxi, in the rain.
Miss Cohen was nowhere in sight when I returned.
But Giovanni was back on duty behind the desk.
“Signora Bennett.” He smiled.
I can see so many questions running through his head.
I have one or two of my own but he spoke first.
“She is one unhappy lady.” He said solemnly.
That makes two of us, I muttered, not intending him to hear.
Ooh. He looks even more Italian today. Unusually tall but dark and handsome as per recommended in all the guide books.
“She was on the phone to London for nearly an hour.”
He looked at me, gravely.
I thank him for the tip off and press the button for the lift. I glance back at him and he sighs, lifting both hands into the air, palms upwards, and mouthing, good luck.
The agency could not replace me for at least a week and strongly recommended that Miss Cohen, give me a try.
This was the gist of the scrawled message, written by Miss Cohen that had been pushed under my door. Interestingly, no one had bothered to ask me , if I wanted to stay?
Then again, I was in Rome and about to go to Nice. How bad could it be?
True to form, Miss cough a lot, had ordered food to be sent to her room. There was a pile of half eaten pasta on a white oval plate. The tray was on the floor and Mitsy was hoovering some minuscule crumbs.
“So,”I began, after knocking and entering her bedroom without waiting for a reply. “We’ll give it a week then.”
I had decided on the, me nanny, you naughty child routine. It was worth a try. Poor old, ( ten years older than me) Miss Cohen was a sight to behold. Her hair looked as if it had not been combed in twenty four hours and as far as I could tell she was wearing the same clothes. I really didn’t have experience with a client like this, so it would have to be instinct. Fair but firm, I reckoned. Her and the dog.
I managed to see a little more of Rome before we left. Celia, ( I was now allowed to her call her this) had seen it all before and did not want to accompany me. The short flight from Rome to Nice sent Mitsy ( in her carry-on bag) into a frenzy. She shook for the whole journey. Her owner wasn’t much better either. Celia had taken an extra tranquillizer before we left Rome. She was afraid of flying and absolutely not allowed to drink alcohol.
She had phoned ahead to our next hotel to make sure her mini bar was emptied before her arrival.
She did at least try to deal with her demons. I was beginning to feel sorry for her and wondered how on earth, an obviously, extremely intelligent, wealthy woman had become such a wreck. Sorry but there can be no other word for her. I wasn’t empathising at this stage, but I was working on it. She certainly tested my patience.
At Nice airport I went to collect the hire car and drove round to arrivals to pick up my charges. ( There was only one terminal back then and the airport complex, a lot less…complex). Mitsy had stopped shaking and Celia almost managed a smile. Our next stop was the magnificent hotel on the top of medieval Haute de Cagnes. It wasn’t just 5* it was sublime. Celia had booked us a suite each. The view was breathtaking, all the way down to the sea, about five kilometres away and about a fifty minute walk. Celia’s smile evaporated at once.
“But I want to be able to walk to the sea!” She looked accusingly at (Giovanni’s brother?) as he guided us onto Celia’s balcony.
Luckily I had nothing to do with the booking. Celia had simply booked the most expensive hotel she could find that retained an air of seclusion. The Negressco on the Promenade d’Anglais was not her style at all.
We stayed two nights. The Riviera isn’t what it used to be. So says Celia and off we go. I drove and Celia hung her cigarette hand out of the passenger window. This time we were headed to Toulouse. Much more civilised, she hoped. About halfway through our journey Celia decided to open her door. We were cruising at 120km per hour at the time. I am ashamed to say that along with, “Nooo. Don’t!” I also thought. Take the dog with you… It seemed quite incredible to me at the time, that with the world as her oyster, she was blatantly unable to be happy. It is no joke what a miserable childhood can do. And yet she spoke to her father frequently. I suppose he held the purse strings.
He had divorced her mother some years before and that was all Celia would say about her. Toulouse of course, was too provincial but we did stay in a gite halfway between Albi and Gaillac, where I did all the shopping at the local market. I was having fun trying out new foods and recipes. Celia was miserable.
Mitsy was happy. She had an enormous garden to run around in.
We stayed five nights. It was a Saturday lunchtime when Celia announced. “I want to go to Paris.”
“I know,” I agreed. “Lovely city.” And I continued to mop up the saffron cream sauce that had surrounded the scallops.
“I mean now. I want to go now.”
My strict nanny to naughty child routine had proved useless.
I sighed as I gathered up the plates. At least Celia did eat when I cooked. I realised she was just so damned uncomfortable in public places, it stymied her appetite.
“Do you know how many kilometres it is to Paris?”
I was hoping for a reprieve, at least until the next day when the roads would be quieter. But no, she was already on the phone to daddy in New York. “Where should I stay in Paris?”
I left her to it. I didn’t enjoy hearing Celia being shouted at, even though I felt like doing it myself some of the time.
I piled up the dishwasher and dashed next door to the owners of the gite.
Yep, sorry. She wants to leave. No, nothing to do with the gite. She just cannot settle.
I handed over the cash that Celia had withdrawn the day before. Enough to cover the seven nights we were due to stay and a little extra as I wouldn’t be able to leave the place spic and span.
Seven hundred kilometers and seven hours later, we arrived in Paris. It was 9 p.m. on a Saturday evening in April and it had begun to sleet. Great.
No need for maps, I know Paris like the back of my hand.
This had been Celia’s one rare show of confidence some hours earlier.
Sadly, she meant she knew it by walking and getting taxis, never driving. She had lost her driving licence, not mislaid, she had actually managed to run up twelve points rapidly, back when she was still drinking.
I finally found the right boulevard and was staggered to find ourselves outside a measly 3* hotel in the 14th arrondisment. Such a come down. I knew the George V was not her style but I had hoped, Le Meurice, perhaps. Ah well.
I deposited Celia and Mitsy outside, amidst intermittent car horns. I drove off to find somewhere to park.
My French at that stage was pretty sketchy but I knew parking in Paris was very relaxed compared to the UK. (Things have changed a lot since then) It was still deemed acceptable to park, not just near but actually on zebra crossings! I wouldn’t go that far. Plus I was beginning to lose sight of the hotel so I drove round in a loop, in the hope of finding somewhere near the hotel.
I finally parked on a corner. There was a sign. Something about Code #? It was double dutch to me.
Tip # 2. Never assume that because other cars are parked badly, it is okay for you to do the same.
The hotel was small and adequate. I was greeted with raised eyebrows from the concierge. It turned out that Miss Cohen had stayed here before. The raised eyebrows were a look of sympathy towards me.
As usual I had the room next door to Celia. I had insisted, once we had got past the one week trial, that I would not spend more than a few minutes in her room and she was not allowed to smoke in my bedroom. If she wanted to talk for longer she could ring me. Room to room.
My phone rang. “Yes, Celia.”
“I want to eat.”
It was 10.45p.m. The restaurant downstairs had closed and there was no way I was traipsing around Paris, now that the sleet was beginning to give way to heavy rain.
“There is a Chinese take away opposite. Go and get a menu and bring it to me.”
Celia hung up. I had never heard her say please and her thank you’s were limited. Like most hotels this one had a, no food in rooms, policy. It was the first time we had stayed somewhere that didn’t provide room service. I drew back the net curtain and could read the flashing lights of Peking-Woo.
Getting a menu into the hotel was no problem but Chinese food? You can hardly disguise that aroma…
The concierge conveniently looked the other way when I returned with two large brown paper bags. I guess our Miss platinum-American-Express-card guest, would usually leave a big tip, but I still felt guilty.
Money it seemed was no problem. I never seemed to be in that position and watched with envy. But would I have swapped places with Celia? Never.
I was envious that she could speak five languages fluently. But, she flatly refused to use any of them. She insisted that I always order for us in restaurants, even though my French must have made her wince. She was just too shy.
Celia, slept, ate and smoked. She didn’t want to go anywhere. She had seen it all in the 60’s and 70’s. So why were we in Paris, I wondered. I assumed she wanted some familiarity around her but she never went out, except to eat. And oh boy, did we eat. If it had a Michelin star it was okay by Celia. She rarely got past the first course. She would often order a main course, pick at it and say, I’m going back to the hotel. You have what you want. The first couple of time I refused to stay without her and went back to the hotel with her.
Then we went to Le Benoit. I knew a few famous French chef’s names. Alain Ducasse was one of them. So when Celia started her telltale fidgeting at the end of the amuse bouche, there was no way I was budging. She stayed long enough to be almost amused by my reaction the biggest, whitest asparagus I had ever seen. In between mouthfuls I was trying not to stare at Dustin Hoffman who was hosting a table of ten people. Celia left as I was tucking into the most succulent, pink duck…
She gave me her credit card and nodded at the Maitre’d who seemed to think it perfectly normal fro someone else to be signing Celia’s credit card slip. (This was pre-pin numbers)
Good job I was honest.
I was glad not to go anywhere the next day. I was tired from the long drive. I had slept badly after shovelling too much Chinese food into my system at almost midnight and that damned illuminated sign stayed on all night. The curtains were not thick. I wasn’t sure how much more of this I was going to take. I had tried to communicate with Celia. I had phoned the agency only to discover that Christine was on the other line. I bet she was. I had never walked out on a job and Celia could not be left to look after herself.
She was still taking anti depressants and smoking like a chimney. She was such a sad figure. Her clothes all had designer labels in them but she managed to make them all look drab and shapeless. I left a message with the agency asking them to phone me at the Paris hotel. It was 10 a.m Monday morning and it was snowing. Mitsy had to have her walk but I was to carry her over any puddles. Celia was convinced that Mitsy would get pneumonia and die if she got her undercarriage wet. Carry an umbrella and a dog? That did it. I was back on the phone.
“Please tell Christine I need to speak to her. I will wait if she is on the other line.”
“You’ve done better than anyone else.” It was Christine.
“ I assume you are calling to say you quit?”
“I’m giving Celia and you, one week’s…what do you mean I’ve done better…?”
“Three weeks now?”
“Yep. Miss Cohen is not a new client, is she?”
“I never said she was.”
“So, how long?”
“The previous companions?”
“ Go on.”
“The longest was eight days, the shortest eight hours.”
“Wow, I’m up for a long service medal, then.”
“Look, can you manage another week? I am going to speak to her father. He controls everything.”
“Except his temper.” I said without thinking.
“ Oh yes. We know. You have done extremely well. What happened to Nice?”
“Long story. I will tell you another time. Just please find someone to take over from me because I’m out of here next Monday.”
“Okay, Helen, bon courage. I’ll call when we have a solution.”
I took Mitsy for her ‘walk’. She yapped and snapped at the snow flakes along with all the other three trillion dogs in Paris. I once read there are ten times as many dogs as children in Paris. I believe it. I also believe that piles of dog poo and slippery pavements are not a good combination. I returned a damp (topside only) Mitsy to Celia’s smoke filled bedroom and calmly stated that I was giving her one week’s notice. Celia said she would like it in writing. To go with all the others, I imagined. I promised to do just that as soon as I had retrieved Celia’s other suitcase from the car.
When we had arrived I had taken my suitcase and Celia’s from the back seat but left her valuable case in the boot. By valuable I mean, it was filled with her favourite books. Some first editions. Mainly antique art books. The case weighed a ton. We had both forgotten about it yesterday and this morning it was a young girl on reception and I didn’t think I could ask for her help. Somewhere in the boot, (Celia called it the trunk) along with the case was a set of strap-on wheels. This was going to be fun in this weather. I needn’t have worried. I walked to the end of the road, turned the corner and voila…no car!
To be contiuned…
Excerpt from Chapter One. Mouse in the Vinaigrette. Available on kindle…NOW.