And then every now and then you got a nice client like Lisa Ritter and popped over to vacuum her floors and came home with a whole load of knowledge you could really have done without.
Jess watched Nathalie walking outside, the cleaning crate under her arm, and saw with a terrible clarity what was going to happen next. She saw the bed upstairs, immaculately made with clean linen, the polished surfaces of Mrs Ritter’s dressing-table, the cushions neatly plumped on the little sofa in the bay window. She saw that diamond, sitting where she had left it with her scrawled note on the dresser, a tiny glittering hand grenade.
‘Actually,’ Jess said, hauling the suitcase past Nathalie, ‘can I have a quick word, Nat?’ She tried to catch her eye, but Nathalie was busy gazing at Mrs Ritter’s shoes.
‘I love your pumps,’ she said breathlessly.
‘Do you, Nathalie? I got them while I was away. They were an absolute bargain.’
‘Mrs Ritter’s been to Spain, Nat,’ Jess said pointedly, stopping beside her. ‘A mini-break.’
Nathalie glanced up and smiled. Nothing.
‘She got back this morning.’
‘Lovely,’ said Nathalie, beaming.
Jess felt panic rising inside her, like an unstoppable tide. ‘I tell you what, I’ll carry this upstairs for you,’ she said, pushing past Mrs Ritter.
‘You don’t have to do that!’
‘It’s no bother.’ She wondered if Lisa Ritter had registered the strange set to her face. She could make it upstairs, she thought. She could run into the bedroom, fetch the earring, stuff it into her pocket and shove Nathalie into the car before she could say anything, and Mrs Ritter would never know. They would decide what to do about it later.
But even as she hurled herself through the back door some part of her already knew what would happen.
‘So did Jess tell you?’
She was halfway up the stairs. Nathalie’s voice carried, as clear as a bell, through the open window.
‘We found one of your earrings. We thought you might have the other one put by.’
‘Earrings?’ said Mrs Ritter.
‘Diamond. I think it’s a platinum setting. Fell out of the bed linen. You’re lucky we didn’t vacuum it up.’
There was a short silence.
Jess closed her eyes, stood very still on the stairs and waited as the inevitable words floated up to her.
‘How was I supposed to know Mrs Ritter doesn’t have pierced ears?’
They sat in the cleaning van, slumped in their seats. Nathalie was smoking. She had given up six weeks ago. For the fourth time.
‘I don’t look at people’s ears. Do you look at people’s ears?’
‘I think you must have been mistaken,’ Lisa Ritter had said, her voice quivering slightly with the effort, as she held it in her hand. ‘It’s probably my daughter’s, from when she came home last time. She’s got a pair just like it.’
‘Of course,’ Jess said. ‘It probably got kicked in here. Or carried in on someone’s shoe. We knew it would be something like that.’ And she knew right then, when Mrs Ritter turned away from her, that that would be it. Nobody thanked you for bringing bad news to their door.
Nobody wanted a cleaner knowing their bad business.
‘Eighty pounds a week, guaranteed. And holiday pay.’ Nathalie let out a sudden scream. ‘Bloody hell. I actually want to find the tart who owns that bloody earring and thump her for losing us our best job.’
‘Maybe she didn’t know he was married.’
‘Oh, she knew.’ Before she’d met Dean, Nathalie had spent two years with a man who turned out to have not one but two families on the other side of Southampton. ‘No single man keeps colour-coordinated scatter cushions on his bed.’
‘Neil Brewster does,’ Jess said.
‘Neil Brewster’s music collection is sixty-seven per cent Judy Garland, thirty-three per cent Pet Shop Boys.’
At the end of the road a padded toddler toppled gently onto the ground like a felled tree and, after a brief silence, let out a thin wail. Its mother, her two armloads of shopping bags perfectly balanced, stood and stared in mute dismay.
‘Look, you heard what she said the other week – she’d get rid of her hairdresser before she’d get rid of us.’
‘Before she got rid of “the cleaners”. That’s different. She won’t care whether it’s us or Speedicleanz or Maids With Mops.’ Nathalie shook her head. ‘Nope. To her, from now on, we’ll always be the cleaners who know the truth about her husband. It matters to women like her. They’re all about appearances, aren’t they?’
The mother put down her bags and stooped to pick up the toddler. A few houses away, Terry Blackstone emerged from under the bonnet of his Ford Focus, a car that had not run in eighteen months, and peered out to see what was making all the noise.
Jess put her bare feet up on the dashboard and let her face fall into her hands. ‘Bugger it. How are we going to make up the money, Nat? That was our best job.’
‘The house was immaculate. It was basically a twice a week polishing job.’ Nathalie stared out of the window.
‘And she always paid on time.’
‘And she used to give us stuff.’
Jess kept seeing that diamond earring. Why hadn’t they just ignored it? It would have been better if one of them had stolen it. ‘Okay, so she’s going to cancel us. Let’s change the subject, Nat. I can’t afford to cry before my pub shift.’