Pay Day

Pay DayBetty Winslop fought with her umbrella. The cold rain was already running down her face, and she could feel her short curls matting across her forehead. She twisted the metal spoke of the umbrella and eventually it slouched into a half canopy. She balanced it between her chin and shoulder and rummaged through her plastic bag for her front door key. Her arm mixed through the dusters and cloths like a blender until eventually her fingers caught against something metal. She pulled the key out, knocking several dusters onto the wet path. Her back ached as she bent down to stuff them back into the bag. She locked the door to her terraced home, and checked the time. It was seven thirty. She bent down her head and began to trudge to work.
Twenty minutes later she pressed the bell to The Old Manse and let herself in. “Morning” she called as she crossed through the tiled hall to the vestibule at the back door. She collapsed her saturated umbrella, and draped her anorak on a peg.
She turned on the tap in the utility room and as she waited for the water to run hot, the thoughts she had been trying to suppress, forced themselves over her like a fog. Yesterday was the third anniversary of his death. The rent had increased again and there was nothing left to pay the bills. The cooker was broken and they had threatened to cut off her telephone. She felt a pain in her chest as she thought of it. She couldn't ask her children for a loan; it wasn't fair to them. His accident at work had shattered her and the children. The company had refused to admit responsibility for his death and thus extinguished any hope of compensation. The pain and shock had subsided somewhat, but the financial insecurity was unrelenting. At sixty-three, the other women she knew had been giving up work just as she was starting it. With her only experience being a housewife and mother, the notice in the shop had been a miracle when she needed it most: “Cleaner wanted, usual domestic chores.” That had been the start. It didn't pay much, four pounds an hour – it was less than the minimum wage.
She filled the bucket and lugged it painfully into the hall. The suds spilled over the edge as she dipped in the mop and the black and white tiles gleamed as the water splashed over them. She could see her reflection in the soapy floor and it was of a woman whom she no longer recognised. Her round face had aged and her eyes were small and tired. Mrs Spencer was coming down the wide staircase.
“Good morning, Betty,” the words clipped from her delicate mouth. “Would you mind awfully if you could have another go at the windows upstairs? I know you tried them last week, it's just that they still seem a little on the dirty side.” Her high heels clicked as she made her way into the sitting room. “And could you make up the bed in the guest room, we're entertaining this weekend. The satin sheets will be fine.”
Betty put the mop down. She wiped her hands on her pinafore and slowly stepped towards the sitting room. “Em, Mrs Spencer, I had been meaning to ask you something, if it's all right? I'll do the windows again, not to worry. It's just that, you see, I've been doing a bit more than the five hours worth and was wondering if I could maybe get a bit more than the twenty pounds?” Her voice had drained into a croak.
Emily Spencer swung round. She threw the magazine she was holding onto a pile at the edge of the velvet chaise longue. She straightened up, immaculate in her silk blouse and tight pencil skirt. She eyed Betty up and down. “I'm sorry Betty. If you want more money we'll need to cut your hours. She cocked her head to the side and twisted the pearls around her neck. “Would you rather come in once every two weeks?”
“Oh, I see. Oh, no, we'll just leave it then.” Betty retreated back to the mop.
An hour and two cleaned bathrooms later and Emily Spencer was declaring her intention to go shopping. “It bothers me so when it's busy, I can't get first pick,” She put on her fur trimmed coat. Roger Spencer, her husband and workaholic, had left for work before Betty arrived. Betty had met him on only a few occasions, and each time he had been brisk and offhand. It didn't seem to occur to him that Betty pressed his smalls and tidied his mail. He was obviously the type who would not meddle with matters concerning the house, leaving that to his wife's charge.
“Roger's just been promoted to partner, now I'll get to go to all the best parties!” Emily had sung at her just three weeks ago.
Betty breathed with relief when she finally had the house to herself. She turned on the radio in the kitchen and lost herself in hard work: dusting, hoovering, tidying, ironing. After the routine chores were complete, she gave the upstairs windows a thorough clean, and finally made up the bed in the guest room.
It was already ten past one, and Betty was about to lock up, but noticed that the fireplace in the sitting room was needing cleared out. She sighed and crouched down onto her knees in front of it. There was no point in leaving a job half finished. She scooped up the ashes and brushed down the marble. She was just about to replace the fire-guard over the hearth when she noticed something fluttering up inside the chimney. Panicking, she thought it must be a bird, trapped, but bending over she was relieved to find it was just a bit of paper, caught between the bricks. It was billowing in the draft. She put the bag of ashes carefully into the coal bucket and reached up to grasp the stray paper. She shook her head thinking of how the chimney could have caught fire had it been lit. She pulled it out. It was black with soot. She blew on it and fine black freckles dispersed. It looked like a receipt, but upon closer scrutiny she realised it was a lottery ticket. It was from Saturday's draw. Yet she could not bring herself to add it to the pile of ashes so she wiped it on her pinnie and stuck it her pocket.
After thirty minutes or so of unpaid overtime, Betty finally picked up her twenty pound note from the kitchen table. Her anorak had dried out and she put it on and zipped it up. She was just about to leave when she saw a newspaper lying open on the table. It was turned to the television listings. At the bottom she noticed the results printed for Saturday night's lottery. With a despondent smile, she dug through her anorak into her pinnie and found the old lottery ticket. She squinted at the numbers on the paper.
She scribbled a message on the back of an envelope and set it on the table, then left the house.
At six o'clock that evening, Betty's telephone rang, startling her. She switched off the black and white television and reached for the receiver.
“Hello?”
“Yes, this is Mr Spencer. From The Old Manse. You left a note asking us to call you about something important. What is it exactly Betty? We're extremely busy people and don't have time for any nonsense. If it's about getting paid more, my wife has already given you the answer to that.”
“Oh, no, it's not about that Mr Spencer. I'm really very sorry to bother you. I just had to tell you something... something very important.” Betty's breath caught in her throat as she struggled to remain calm.
“What is it?” he snapped.
“It's to do with something I found in the fire-”
“Something you found in the fire? Please do not be so ridiculous as to bother us about such a thing. It's of no interest to us and whatever it is you can keep it. Please do not disturb us with such frivolities again. Good night.” He hung up.
Betty stared at the silent phone for over a minute, and then for the first time in three years, she began to laugh.
One week later, Betty Winslop sat on her new armchair with her feet up. She wrote out a cheque for fifty thousand pounds. It was a twentieth of the total prize money. She attached a note to the cheque, which read:
Dear Mr & Mrs Spencer,
Please accept this as notice that I am no longer available for cleaning duties. The money enclosed is for hiring another cleaning lady and will be enough to pay her a decent wage.
Kind regards,
Elizabeth Winslop.

Geraldine Fraser

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