A Delicate Balance
by Roberta Gellis
When Linda returned that afternoon from an hour's practice at the driving school, which convinced her that she would be able to handle Mrs. Bates's car without trouble, she found Peter Tattersall waiting for her in the sitting room. It crossed her mind that Peter must have a very permissive boss. He seemed to be free any time he liked. Perhaps he worked for the concern that Mr. Bates had owned--yes, Gertrude had said he came from America when Mr. Bates fell ill. If so, Mrs. Bates's influence probably ensured his job.
"I want to talk to you," he said abruptly, annoying Linda by omitting even the briefest greeting.
"Certainly," she replied curtly, and then, getting a grip on her temper, recalled that it could do no good to irritate him. In fact, it might be much to her benefit to get on Mr. Tattersall's good side, so she added, "Would you like some coffee?"
"Yes, I would." He smiled. "Ring for Gertrude."
Linda laughed. "In my position you don't ring for the maid. I'll go to the kitchen." Linda found Gertrude making preparations for the evening meal, but the maid readily agreed to boil some water and bring the coffee apparatus.
"About my aunt," Peter burst out, almost before Linda had got through the door.
His chair slid back, rucking up the rug as he rose, and Linda's lips twitched. It was very hard not to think of him as an earnest but clumsy teenager. The tousled hair and serious grey eyes added to the effect, even though there were lines on his forehead and around his mouth that told Linda he must be several years older than she was. There could be no reply to his remark, so Linda simply sat down.
"I thought I'd better warn you about certain things."
Linda felt startled and must have looked it. "Please don't," she protested.
"Don't be an idiot!" Peter exclaimed. "Do you think I'd tell an employee of two days standing anything I shouldn't about my only living relative? Of whom, incidentally, I'm very fond."
"Sorry," Linda said, her fine skin coloring faintly. She noticed Peter blink, as if something had surprised him, and she paused. But he didn't speak and she continued, "You see, I like her, and she's been very kind to me."
Peter, who had turned away from her suddenly and begun to pace, reversed, jogged a table, and knocked the book Linda had been reading to the floor. Linda thanked God there was no fragile lamp on the table, and her lips twitched again. The first time she had come into the room, she had wondered why the lamps were all on furniture backed against the walls, particularly when there were faint marks indicating that they had originally stood in more central locations. Now she knew why. Peter, however, paid no attention to the fallen book. His face was intent.
"My aunt has a very bad heart," he said abruptly, as if he had been trying to think of a tactful way to explain and couldn't find one. "Frankly, the woman I wanted her to have as a companion was a trained nurse. Do you know anything about nursing?"
"Nothing at all," Linda replied slowly.
It was true enough, but Linda did know something about heart disease. One friend's mother had a very bad heart, and Linda knew Mrs. Bates did not show the typical symptoms. Her legs were not swollen; she had no trouble breathing; her lips seemed healthily pink. It was true she tired easily, but she was over 70 years old. Most elderly people tired easily.
Perhaps Peter Tattersall saw the doubt on Linda's face. "She looks all right," he admitted, "but she had a very bad heart attack right after my uncle died. She also had a couple of " --he hesitated and then continued-- "little ones."
Somehow Linda felt that what he had said was not what he had originally intended to say, although the parts of the sentence fit together well enough. "I don't see--" she began.
"The point is my aunt won't admit there's anything wrong with her except age--she admits that." He frowned. "I wish you knew something about hearts."
Linda had not been able to bring herself to dislike Peter Tattersall even when he seemed to oppose her hiring without a reason. Now she appreciated what he had been trying to do. She did not, however, agree with him. From what Linda had read about coronaries, which she guessed was what Mrs. Bates had had--and American papers and magazines were so full of articles on the subject one couldn't avoid them--there was very little anyone could do in the way of nursing care to prevent them. Gentle exercise, good diet, and freedom from anxiety and shocks seemed the best preventatives.
Mrs. Bates seemed careful enough about her diet without urging. A little walk now and then was the most exercise a woman of her age could be expected to take. And Linda felt that to have the eagle eye of a trained nurse on her would be more likely to increase Mrs. Bates's anxiety and scare her into another heart attack. She did not intend to say that in so many words. It seemed unkind to point out to Mr. Tattersall that his remedy might be a worse danger than neglect, but she had to say something.
Linda shook her head. "Maybe it's better that I don't know anything about bad hearts, Mr. Tattersall," she said.
"What the hell do you mean by that?" the young man roared.
Linda was so startled by his reaction that she jumped and, on the other side of the door, there was a crash and a shriek.
"What was that?" Linda cried, leaping to her feet.
"Good God," Peter muttered, "I've done it again."
It was the first time that he had indicated he was aware of his propensity for causing household disasters, but Linda had no time to think about it. By then she had the door open to expose Gertrude, wringing her hands over a mangled mass of cookies, broken cups, hot water, milk, and sugar. Only the closed can of coffee and the plastic coffee drippers, rolling in tight little circles in the mess, were intact. Linda fled to the kitchen for a broom and a cloth to clear up. Before the broken glass was picked up and the milk sopped up and sponged away with cold water, Peter had to leave to bring his aunt home. Linda could not understand what she had said that could have enraged him, but she was sorry there had been no time to explain what she felt about his aunt not being watched too closely. She would have to find another opportunity to be alone with him.
Mrs. Bates arrived while she was still trying to press the last of the damp from the rug. As soon as Gertrude opened the door, she began to explain what had happened, and Linda had a new problem. She did not wish to tell Mrs. Bates the subject of her conversation with Peter. In her opinion the fewer reminders a person had of a heart conditin, the better it was. But she did not wish to lie either, and there had to be some reason for Peter to shout at her.
Still racking her brains for an explanation that would not cast Peter in a bad light--which would be most unfair when he only meant well--Linda heard Gertrude following her employer down the corridor still explaining.
"I had a feeling, madam. It's just lucky I had a feeling. I started to take out the Crown Derby and then, all of a sudden, I had a feeling and put them back. Mr. Peter will never notice, I said to myself, and Miss Linda won't care. So it was only that new set that I use for the kitchen--thank God for that. I can get others from the store. They always have those. Thank God it wasn't the Crown Derby. And Miss Linda was so quick with the cloth and the cold water that I don't think the rug will be marked. Oh, madam, I'm still all of a twitter."
Linda stood up. "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Bates," she said. "Perhaps I shouldn't have asked whether Mr. Tattersall would like a cup of coffee, but I never guessed--"
"No one can guess about Peter--except Gertrude." Mrs. Bates smiled and shook her head. "She 'has a feeling.' It was not your fault, Linda, and Gertrude tells me that no serious damage was done. How did you succeed in your driving lesson?"
"That went very well. I'm sure I can take you to the hairdresser on Friday. I cancelled the other lesson. I don't need it."
"I'm glad to hear that, my dear. Peter's driving is very much like everything else he does--rapid and erratic. I'm afraid it has tired me a little. Will you mind having dinner alone tonight? I think I will just have a light bite in bed."
"Of course not. Can I do anything for you, Mrs. Bates?"
"Not just now, Linda. Perhaps later I'll ask you to read to me."
Gertrude followed Mrs. Bates to her bedroom to help her undress and get into bed, and Linda went slowly back into the sitting room. She picked up the book Peter had knocked down and straightened the slight signs of disorder they had left, puffing pillows and moving a chair slightly. It was significant, Linda thought, that Mrs. Bates had asked no questions about why her nephew had shouted so loud that Gertrude was startled into dropping the tray. Doubtless Peter had offered some explanation--but what had he told her?
Whatever it was, Linda realized, pausing in her activities to register the thought more clearly, the explanation had done her no harm in Mrs. Bates's eyes. Her employer had clearly not blamed her for the accident and was a pleasant as ever when she summoned Linda to read to her in the evening. She made no more than a slight humorous comment about her nephew's visit. She was also very complimentary about the blouse and long skirt Linda had purchased, which she wore for her employer's approval.
"Very elegant. Very ladylike, my dear. Shopping is very different now than in my young days. Then one had to have garments made to order or purchase one's clothing in very expensive shops to find anything acceptable to a lady's taste. Now all the large emporiums sell very nice clothing so inexpensively."
Linda agreed. In fact she had herself been pleasantly surprised at the style of clothing that could be obtain off the rack in bargain departments. She had seen that the finishing and trimmings were not the quality to which she was accustomed, but she also knew no one would notice such things at a distance.
Mrs. Bates did not keep her long that evening. She was dismissed so early that she thought of going out. But where? She did know people in London, many of them, but she didn't dare see them, particularly dressed as she was and then dropping out of sight again. The whole idea of working in England was to avoid answering questions. A reaction began to set in. Linda was bored again. But, she reminded herself, a girl who needed a job would be bored too. She had wanted to know how it felt--and she was finding out.
On Friday morning, Linda had her first intimation that Mrs. Bates's routine would be changed in the near future. While answering a letter from a friend who lived permanently in Corfu, Mrs. Bates said that she believed she would come early that year. Somehow, Mrs. Bates said, the damp seemed damper, the cold colder, as one grew older. It seemed more reasonable now that it had in the past to live permanently in Corfu. Linda's spirits began to rise immediately. She had never been in Corfu, although she had often visited Greece. And tomorrow, she reminded herself was her day off. When she first thought of it, the idea had not been very inviting. She had wondered what she was going to do with herself for a whole empty day. Now she felt differently. She had decided to see London as an ordinary tourist--as she had never seen it. Her sophisticated friends had always scoffed at such attractions, but maybe they were wrong. The Tower of London would be a lot safer than the latest designer drug--and the "lift" might last longer.
About half an hour before lunch, Peter appeared. Linda could not help smiling at him, nor could she help being amused by Mrs. Bates's single, raised-eyebrow glance of martyrdom. Linda was glad to see him, no matter how her employer felt, and all things considered, lunch went off very well. Not a single broken dish or spilled liquid marked Peter's trail. Only once, when he crossed his long legs suddenly, did the delicate luncheon table quiver--and it was only a quiver.
Peter did spend most of the luncheon questioning Linda about her home in the United States, but there was no hostility in his attitude. He seemed a bit homesick and more intent on making pleasant conversation to amuse his aunt than on extracting information. Linda was able to say with perfect truth that she had attended a boarding school in Massachusetts, and then they had spent most of the time comparing their experiences because Peter had had the same kind of education.
He even accepted without protest the news that Linda intended to drive Mrs. Bates to the hairdresser. In fact, he grinned broadly, the expression lighting up his usually solemn face.
"I hope you prefer her driving to mine, Aunt Em," he said, then turned to Linda. "She's a terrible backseat driver, Miss Hepler--not that she sits in the back seat. Oh, no. She has to be up front so she can see all the things you don't see."
Mrs. Bates, who seemed more relaxed than usual in her nephew's presence, laughed. "Don't believe him, Linda. When I'm in a car with Peter, I'm too paralyzed with terror to say a word. And, Peter, you should call her Linda. That would be all right, wouldn't it, my dear? After all, you two will see so much of each other."
"It's all right with me," Linda said.
"Okay, but you started it by calling me Mr. Tattersall. You have to call me Peter, too."
Linda opened her mouth to agree, remembered that she was only an employee, and glanced at Mrs. Bates. Peter called Gertrude by her first name, but the maid--well, she called him Mr. Peter, not Mr. Tattersall, but somehow the usage indicated no familiarity. Mrs. Bates, however, was nodding approval.
"I'll be glad to call you Peter," Linda agreed. Then she got up. "I'll clear the dishes now, if everyone is finished, and then get the car. It will take me about fifteen minutes. Shall I come up again?"
"No, don't do that," Peter said. "If you don't find a parking space, you'd better wait in the car."
Mrs. Bates's lips thinned and Linda hesitated, but the old woman nodded without argument and her pique didn't last long. As Linda left the room, Mrs. Bates was already telling Peter with some enthusaism that she had written to Josephine Paxton about coming out to Corfu a little earlier. "I think I'll ask Linda to see about the tickets and all the other arrangement next week. Then ..."
Her voice faded away as Linda trundled the cart into the kitchen. She put on her coat and left by the back door because that was closer to the garage in the mews behind the houses. She was a little nervous as she backed the Rover out into the narrow lane, but the car, although luxurious, was small and handled beautifully. Just as Linda turned the corner she saw someone pull out two houses away. Fortunately it was a Sidley, a good deal larger than the Rover, so that Linda was able to park without any trouble in the space it left.
She was wondering whether she should switch off the engine and go up and tell Mrs. Bates she was safely parked, when she uttered an exclamation of annoyance. Mrs. Bates had given her some errands to run during the time she was at the hairdresser's. Gertrude had heard and had asked if Linda would pick up some things for her at the same time, and Linda had forgotten to take Gertrude's list. She took the keys out of the ignition and ran back to the house. Just as she raised her hand to ring, she realized there were four keys in the case. A glance was enough to show that one probably fit the front door. There was no sense in making Gertrude run down the stairs to open the door when she had the key in her hand.
Linda tried the key and the door opened silently. Now she realized why Mrs. Bates and Gertrude did not always know when Peter was in the house. A whole army could come in, opening and closing that door each time, and no one would know. She had passed the sitting room door by then, subconsciously noting that Mrs. Bates and Peter still seemed to be talking. Was it sensible to remind them that Peter had told her not to come up and Mrs. Bates had been annoyed? No, she would just get the list, run down to the car again, and no one would be the wiser.
She was on the stair, just starting to go down again, when she heard voices on the landing. There was no sense in pretending she wasn't there, so Linda turned fully around, her lips parted to explain. Instead she uttered a gasp and spread her arms just in time to catch her employer, who lunged toward her.
"My God!" Peter cried, coming around the doorway to the landing. "Are you all right, Aunt Em?"
For a moment Mrs. Bates's eyes were wide with terror, and she seemed unable to catch her breath. Linda held her, equally silent, panting with shock. The frozen tableau was broken when Peter started down the stiars. Mrs. Bates shrank away from him, closer into Linda's arms. Then, still breathing hard, she straightened up.
"Yes," she replied faintly. "I am quite all right. How fortunate Linda was there."
"What on earth did you trip on?" Peter asked, turning and looking closely at the stair.
"Trip?" Mrs. Bates's voice quavered and she shuddered slightly. Linda would not have noticed except that she still retained a light grip on the older woman's arm. "Oh, yes," Mrs. Bates said more steadily, "I must have tripped, mustn't I?"
But there isn't anything to trip on, Linda thought, nothing at all. She must have become dizzy for a moment. Yes, that was it. Mrs. Bates had become dizzy and didn't want to admit it. But ... there had been a shadow about arm-high on the landing, a dark shadow. Could it have been ... not a shadow? a man's dark sleeve? Nonsense! It was a shadow, of an arm possibly, but if so, just a shadow cast by the light from the sitting room.
Linda wet her lips, which felt dry. "Would you like to lie down for a few minutes, Mrs. Bates? I can call the hairdresser and say you'll be a little late, or I could even change the appointment."
"No." Mrs Bates's voice was somewhat thinner than usual but quite firm. "I am quite all right now. I was just a little startled. Really, Linda, don't fuss. I find having my hair done very soothing and relaxing. I will be all the better for having it done just as usual."
She straightened herself and shrugged off Linda's light hold. There was no more that Linda could say.