How should I know where the dratted butter lives?”
Usually, the sight of Michael’s boxer-shorted behind hanging out of the fridge might have been faintly amusing, but not when there were 10 minutes until their dinner guests arrived and she hadn’t made the white sauce.
Catching sight of herself in the antique-effect mirror behind the range cooker, wooden spoon in hand, hair steamed to a frizz, Clara had to fight back tears of self-pity. “Housework makes you ugly” had always been her mother’s mantra and oh, how right she was…
The two weeks since their housekeeper, Annie, had left had definitely been the longest of her life. Nothing, not even childbirth without drugs, could have prepared her for the horrors of running a home without help.
The fridge was bare but for two bottles of wine and an old Parmesan rind – and she had completely run out of clean clothes to wear. It had taken her until yesterday to work out that the reason for that was because she hadn’t actually emptied the laundry basket.
From the minute she had walked – spit spit – into their house and run her finger along the kitchen surface to check for grime, Annie, the seasoned mother of three grown-up children, had ruled it with a broom of iron. She had spat the children’s hair into side partings and scrubbed the skirting boards with a toothbrush, organised the dried herbs into alphabetical order and installed a large family timetable in the kitchen.
As the years had passed, Michael and Clara had to admit that Annie was their most precious asset. Their house, and by extension everyone in it, ran like clockwork. Annie was like a domestic ninja: she could finish a school project and bake a chocolate cake before Clara had even got out of bed, and she could train anything and everything – be it puppies, toddlers or wisteria – to within an inch of its life.
At first, when Annie had declared her intention to retire and go to live with her daughter and grandchildren, Clara had been a paragon of benign patronage. Of course, she must go with their most heartfelt blessing! Now that Clara’s own children were sentient beings – how hard could it be? And she and Michael really didn’t need breakfast in bed any more…
“Mummeeee! Bella says she can’t sleep and she’s annoying me.”
Just as two ghostly children in their nighties appeared at Clara’s ankles, the doorbell rang.
“Oh Christ, I don’t have any trousers on!” said Michael, hurling himself up the stairs rather than answering the door.
Trying to process why no reassuring warmth had greeted her as she opened the oven, Clara shouted at her eight- and four-year-olds to let her guests in. “Offer them a drink!” she yelled after them. “Not apple juice!”
Clara stared for a few moments at the flaccid, pastry-wrapped beef before starting to swear profusely.
“That’s £3 for the swear box,” sighed Jack, her eldest child, as he poured some cereal into one of the soup bowls on her wonkily laid dinner table.
“What do you think you are doing?” Clara shrieked.
“Making myself some supper,” retorted her son. “You forgot to feed us again.”
“Hello, darling, you look like a homeless person.” Fiona, her oldest friend, chose that moment to walk into the kitchen in a waft of Chanel No 5.
“Mummeeee! Can we have some cola?”
“Darling, where are my socks? I don’t have any socks!”
Clara looked around the room – the room that didn’t smell deliciously of beef because she hadn’t put the oven on – at all the expectant faces and made a decision.
“Right, we’re all going to the Indian.”
As Clara, Michael, their guests and their three children – none of whom seemed to know how to get to sleep without Annie’s help – marched out of the front door they were confronted by a frightening, dishevelled figure, bulging suitcase in one hand.
Its clothes were a collage of poster-paint smears, encrusted baked beans and glitter; its hair was trussed up in a hotch-potch of pink bows and gaudy slides; and from two dark hollows a pair of frenzied eyes peeked out.
“Annie?” said Clara.
The figure nodded. “Save me,” it said with a sob. “It’s been so long, I’d forgotten. Being with your own family – it’s… it’s monstrous!”