In Search of a Charwoman

About once a year Clem rather ruefully suggested, and Mrs. Miniver reluctantly agreed, that it was about time they asked the Lane-Pontifexes to dinner.

There was nothing really the matter with the Lane-Pontifexes. They were quite nice, intelligent, decent people; she was personable, and he was well-informed: yet for some mysterious reason one's heart sank. Their company, as Clem said, was a continual shutting of windows. They asked the Minivers to dinner about every two months; it was impossible, without being churlish, to get out of it more than three times running; and eventually, of course, they had to be asked in return. This acquaintanceship had lasted, neither waxing nor waning, for nearly ten years, and there seemed to be no particular reason why it should ever come to an end. Clem said it was part of the white man's burden.

Undiluted Lane-Pontifex was not to be thought of, so they generally made it an excuse for asking as many people as their dining-room table would hold, and that meant getting Mrs. Jackman in to help with the washing-up. On the morning of the dinner-party Mrs. Jackman sent a message to say that she couldn't come after all, as her mother was queer. So Mrs. Miniver, fervently wishing that the queerness of Mrs. Jackman’s mother had not happened to coincide with the imminence of the Lane Pontifexes, set off in search of a substitute.

She crossed the King's Road, turned up Skelton Street (which is not one of the streets that Chelsea shows to American visitors), and approached the towering red-brick jungle which is known as "the Buildings." Among the branches of this forest, theoretically at any rate, desirable and efficient charwomen hang in ripe clusters for the plucking; but the plucking is not so simple. The architectural style of the Buildings is Late Victorian Philanthropic. Each clump is named after a different benefactor, and each block in each clump is distinguished by a large capital letter. Mrs. Miniver entered the maze by the nearest gateway and then hesitated. She had heard of Mrs. Burchett through a friend, and she thought her address was No. 23 Platt's Dwellings; but she had reckoned without the alphabetical factor. She tried No. 23 in D Block, which happened to be near at hand, and after that she tried No. 23 in Blocks E, F, and G. But either the inhabitants genuinely did not know Mrs. Burchett's address, or else some esoteric code forbade them to reveal it. No. 23 was in every case on the fourth floor; and as she climbed up the steep stone stairs of Block H Mrs. Miniver felt inclined, quite unfairly, to blame the whole business on to the Lane-Pontifexes.

This time, however, she was more successful. A large, neat, cheerful woman came to the door, with her hair piled up on the top of her head like a whipped cream walnut. Obviously a pearl among charwomen -- a capable pearl. Yes, she was Mrs. Burchett. Yes, she had often worked for Miss Ducane, and was glad that Miss Ducane had recommended her. Yes, she would certainly come along this evening and give a hand.

"To tell you the truth," she added with gusto, "I was just wishing summing like this would turn up. Not that I need to do cleaning at present, really, Burchett and the boys all being in work. In fact, my son Len, 'e says I've no business to go out to work at all, when there's others wanting it more. But there -- I don't know whatever I should do if I didn't. Every now and then I just feel I've got to 'ave a bit of a fling. " She tossed the whipped cream walnut so that it quivered. "Of course, charing.... I suppose it's on'y like clearing up somebody else's mess instead of your OWN, but it does make a change, and you do get a bit of company. Burchett, 'e says, 'You let 'er go, Len, and never mind the rights and wrongs. Coop 'er up too long, she gets 'ipped. And goodness knows,' 'e says, 'when your mother gets 'ipped there's no peace for any of us till she's worked it off summow."'

She gave a large, good-humoured laugh.

Mrs. Miniver liked her more and more, recognizing in her that most endearing of qualities, an abundant zest for life. It was rare, that zest, and it bore no relation to age, class, creed, moral worth, or intellectual ability. It was an accidental gift, like blue eyes or a double-jointed thumb: impossible to acquire, and almost impossible, thank heaven, to lose. To be completely without it was the worst lack of all -- and it dawned on her in a flash that that was what was the matter with the Lane-Pontifexes.

"You'll come at seven, then?"

"I shan't be late," said Mrs. Burchett, beaming reliably. It was evident that in spirit her sleeves were already rolled up.

Threading her way back between the serried barrows of Skelton Street, Mrs. Miniver asked herself which of them was right -- Burchett or Len. Economically, Len, of course. But psychologically, Burchett: for pent-up volcanoes can do almost as much harm in the world as empty purses.

On the hall table there was a telephone message. Mr. and Mrs. Lane-Pontifex were extremely sorry. but they had both gone down with 'flu. Mrs. Miniver’s heart gave a leap, and she immediately felt ashamed of herself. As an act of penitence she went out to the flower shop and sent the Lane-Pontifexes a big bunch of jonquils and a note. But nothing could undo the leap; and as she walked home for the second time, she reflected what possibilities the evening now held; how many lovely people there were from among whom they could fill the two empty places -- people whom they really wanted to see, who were merry or wise or comforting or revealing, whose presence either heartened the spirit or kindled the mind; people who opened windows instead of shutting them. And she reflected, also, how many of the most enjoyable parties were achieved by taking away the number you first thought of.


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