Though the telephone is a perfectly useless indicator of most human qualities, it’s pretty precise about age. From her tiny office on the third floor, Pam Roberts looked through a window and correctly identified the Martha Penk she was waiting for, a shrimpish girl pushing twenty-two, lost down there. She had on a red overcoat and cream snow boots, putting her weight on their edges like an ice skater; she seemed to waver between two doorways. Pam opened her mouth to call out ‘Miss Penk!’ but never got to make the curious sound—abruptly the girl turned the corner and headed back down Apple towards the river. Pam went to her own door, opened it, worried her chapped lips with a finger, closed it again. The cold was just too extreme; today the first snows were due, opening performance of a show that would last a dreary, relentless four months. Besides, she had her slippers on. Miss Martha Penk, who appeared to believe that two bedrooms and a garden could be had for a thousand dollars a month, would figure out her second mistake soon enough, come back, discover the bell. The confusion was common; it arose from the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of the ground floor—a busy bookshop and a swing-doored optician obscured the sign that told you of the dentist, the insurers, the accountant and Pam’s own dinky realty business at the top of the building; also the antique elevator that would take you to them. Pam tapped her door with a knuckle, warning it she would return, and crossed the room to the filing cabinet. On tiptoes she slid open the top drawer and began flicking through files, her Mozart swelling behind her. She sang along with that section of the Requiem that sounds so very like ‘OH I SEE YOU WILL GO DOWN! AND I SEE YOU WILL GO ALSO!’, although it could not be this for the words are Latin. As she sang she ground one of her Chinese slippers rhythmically into the carpet and pressed herself into the metal drawer to reach for something at the very back: ‘OH I SEE YOU WILL GO DOWN, OH! I SEE YOU WILL GO DOWN! ALSO! ALSO!’
Pam found what she wanted, closed the cabinet suddenly with an elbow and sat down in a fat armchair opposite a lithograph of Venice. She put a foot in her hand and said ‘Phee-yoo! Now, there you go,’ pressing relief into a sore instep. She started picking out every third sheet or so from the listings and laying them on the floor before her in a small pile. At the opening of the ‘Lacrimosa’ she removed her slipper entirely, but then hearing someone gallop up the stairs, replaced it and quickly rose to greet a large, dark, bearded man in a sheepskin overcoat, who stood bent at the knees like a shortstop, trying to recover his breath in the hallway. He took a step towards her, looked up and frowned. He paused where he was, supporting himself with a hand on the door frame. Pam knew exactly why he had come and the two spoke at the same time.
‘This temping agency?’ he asked, a heavy accent, quickly identified by Pam as Middle-Easterny. A Middle-Easterny scarf, too, and a hat.
‘No dear, no,’ said Pam, and let her glasses fall to her chest from their chain, ‘It’s above the other Milliner’s Books, right? There’s two Milliner’s Books—you need the one on the corner of Apple and Wallace—this is the wrong Milliner’s, this is above the children’s Milliner’s—I don’t know why they just don’t say that to people—’
The man groaned pleasantly and hit his temple with the hub of his palm.
‘I make mistake. Sorry, please.’
‘No, they just didn’t say, they never do. It’s not you, dear, it’s them—people always come here by mistake, it’s not you. It’s two minutes from here. Now, you go back down, turn left, then immediately right, you can see it from there. I’ve got somebody who just did the exact same, but exactly—only vice versa—she’s gone to…’
A further thundering on the stairs and three more men, younger, also bearded. They stood bent like their friend, panting, one man crying the involuntary tears of a Massachusetts winter. They stared at Pam who stared frankly back at them, with her hands on her makeshift hips, up there where her black linen trousers began, high under the breasts. A black T-shirt and cardigan finished the thing off. Pam was a recognized doodlenut when it came to clothes, buying the same things over and over, black and loose, like a fat Zen monk. She didn’t mind. Her moustache was moist and visible—oh, so let ’em stare was how Pam felt about it. Young men did not register with Pam any more.
‘My friends,’ explained the man, and with his friends began the descent, emptying out a demotic mystery language into the stairwell. Miss Penk must have passed them on the bend. A moment later she was in the room apologizing for her lateness.
‘Sorry I’m late, I’m sorry,’ she said, but did not look sorry. Her face, very black, could not blush, and her accent, to Pam’s ears very English, could not apologize. She stood in the centre of the room, clumsily divesting herself of the loud red coat. She was short, but more muscular, more solid than she had appeared from three floors up. A cheap-looking grey trouser suit and some fake pearls were conspiring to make her older than she was. The buttons on the jacket looked like rusty spare change.
‘No, I saw you, you see,’ began Pam warmly, coming forward to catch what was falling, a scarf, a woolly hat, ‘There’s two Milliner’s—did you see those men? On the stairs? They did the exact same thing—and I saw you down—’
‘The lift’s broken, it don’t work,’ said Martha, and now lifted her head and reached out a hand. Pam felt faintly interrupted, but took the hand and gave it a double-handed shake.
‘Pam Roberts, we spoke on the phone. It’s so good to meet you!’
‘I’m Martha,’ she replied and quickly freed herself. She passed a smoothing hand over her own short ironed hair, cut in a flapper’s style, a helmet brilliant with some kind of polish. A concrete kiss curl had been plastered on to her left cheek. Pam had never seen anything quite like it in her office before.
‘Well. Now, did you come from far? Are you nearby?’ Pam asked, a question that had a little business in it.
‘Near, yeah,’ said the girl, firmly. She stood oddly, hands by her sides, feet together, ‘A hotel, it’s called The Charles? It’s just like by the river—it’s just if you go down by—’
‘Oh, I know where it is—it’s very nice.’
‘It costs too much, man,’ said Martha, tutting loudly, removing a pair of childish mittens, ‘But I came right from London and I didn’t have any place arranged—I just arksed the taxi to take me to the nearest hotel—I been there a week, but I can’t afford it for much longer, you know?’
Usually Pam would use these minutes in the office to ascertain something about likely wealth, class, all very gently—what kind of house, what kind of taste, what kind of price—but she had been wrong about English accents before, not knowing which were high class, which not. Or whether high class meant money at all—if you watched PBS as Pam did you soon found out that in England it could, often did, mean the exact opposite.
‘It is such a nice place, The Charles. They really do things properly there, don’t they? They really make the best of that location, I think. I stayed there once for a realty conference, and I really appreciated the standard of the breakfasts. People talk about pool this, steam-room that, but in actual fact it’s the little things, like a breakfast. A good hot breakfast. But my God the price isn’t any fun—Martha, we’ll have you out of there in no time, I promise, especially if we find something empty—’
‘Yes,’ said Martha, but rather too quick, too desperate, ‘How long would it be before I could move in somewhere?’
Pam felt herself immediately on surer ground and slipped down a gear into patter, ‘Well, as I’m saying, dear, it depends on whether the place has people in it at the moment—but even then, we can turn it around very very quickly. It just needs to happen so that everybody wants to make it work, that’s all. Don’t worry, we’ll find something that works. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll cut it loose and go on to the next,’ she said loudly, clapping her hands and glancing at a clock on the wall, ‘Now, I’ve got about two hours free—it’s really very dry at the moment so there’s plenty to show.’ She bent down to scoop the remembered listings from the floor, ‘I think I understand what you’re looking for, Martha, I received your letter, I have it right here—Wait—’ Pam reached over to her stereo like a woman with one foot each in two drifting boats; she punched at a couple of buttons to no avail, ‘Sometimes it gets a little loud. Funny little machine. It’s completely wireless! It’s like a single unit stereo for single people, very liberating. You can’t really adjust it without the remote, though, which is a little frustrating. And I find it gets louder sometimes, do you know? Sort of when you don’t expect it?’
‘Classical,’ said Martha, and looked at Pam and the surrounding office with determined reverence, ‘I want to listen to more classical music. I want to know more about it. It’s on my list.’
And this she said in such a way that Pam had no doubt that there was such a list, and that renting an apartment today was somewhere on it. The girl had a manner that was all itinerary, charmless and determined, and Pam, a Midwesterner by birth, had the shameful idea that she might go far, this Martha Penk, here on the East Coast.
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