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Everything in the home was familiar and dull to her. She stepped into the living room. The furniture was dark, heavy, from an earlier era. The sofa, loveseat and armchair were covered in a navy blue cloth with a faded pattern of yellow flowers. A Persian carpet lay on the floor. On one wall hung a painting, a copy of Rafael’s La Fornarina. Its gold frame would need dusting. I’ll have to use the footstool. It should be in the kitchen closet.
Morning sunlight streaming through the front window bestowed a sense of hope in an otherwise mournful interior. She glanced outside to the lawn. The grass was thick and lush. White daisies and yellow coreopsis grew next to the house. Looking after the grass, trees and flowers was too much for the elderly owner. The gardener would be along in a couple of days.
Although the house was not the largest she worked at, compared to her own cramped little apartment it was a mansion. Some people are so lucky, everything just falls into their lap.
When the wife was alive the house had been a busy place with children and grandchildren coming and going. There was plenty of cleaning to do and Thelma would arrive every Wednesday morning to tidy up. It seemed like only yesterday that Mrs. Walker offered her tea and cookies midway through her work. Things changed when the woman died. The house rarely had visitors now. The cleaning lady’s services were required only every other week.
Thelma inspected the other rooms to determine which tasks would need to be done in what order. The dining room held mahogany furniture: a table with six high-back chairs, a buffet and hutch. On the wall opposite the dining room window hung a painting of a young girl, a portrait painted forty years earlier by Hugo. It was of an eight-year-old. She had large brown eyes and a shy smile. A second painting of the same girl and her younger sister hung on the north wall. Here the children appeared to be about twelve and fourteen years old. Thelma recognized the willow tree in the background. The tree, now taller, grew behind this very bungalow.
To Thelma walking into the dining and living rooms felt like entering a second-rate museum with everything untouched and lifeless.
The kitchen was equipped with appliances from the 1980s. She opened the refrigerator door and her eyes narrowed. What’s going on? It appeared Hugo had not opened the fridge for days. Food had begun to rot and the smell was nasty. Before cleaning the inside with water and baking soda she would need to throw out the milk, meat, fruit and vegetables. Having finished with the refrigerator she went into the kitchen closet and took out a bottle of detergent, a cloth duster, a footstool, rags, and a mop and pail.
She cleaned other homes, of course. Some customers were total slobs, requiring Thelma to spend hard hours washing and tidying up while others were so well kept they made her feel guilty for charging them money. Hugo’s bungalow was one of her less demanding jobs. He and the children usually ignored her. They left the cleaning lady for the wife to deal with. At Christmas the Walkers were among the least generous of her clients, giving her a card and a twenty-dollar bill. Yet, on the whole, it was a good job and she was paid promptly.
Thelma looked into the two bedrooms and then into the study. The smaller bedroom was untouched. In the larger one the bedcovers were piled in a heap in the centre of the mattress. She would have to change the sheets and run the laundry. A black and white picture of a young Hugo and his late wife stood on a dresser. They were both wearing straw hats. Behind the couple in the photo stood an Egyptian camel-handler holding the bridle of an unhappy camel. In the background loomed the pyramids.
It was Hugo’s habit to hide in the study. The room both fascinated and offended Thelma with its homage to a silly and costly hobby. Stamp collecting is not something a grown man should be spending his time and money on.
Next to four steel filing cabinets stood several mismatched wooden bookshelves. At the far end of the study was an oak cabinet with two sets of doors. A desk buried in folders and journals sat in the middle of the floor. Thick drapes covered the single window. On the north wall hung a framed certificate of merit from the Royal Philatelic Association.