This is a rough addition to a novel-in-progress. You can read the complete draft here.
Mr. Baeker rings the boarding house bell and shifts from one foot to the other on the wooden stoop, like a small boy who needs to use the toilet. One hand jingles the coins in his pocket.
I’m standing a step down from Mr. Baeker, so the woman who swings open the door looks even bigger than she actually is. Wearing a work apron over a pink-sprigged dress the size of a tent, she’s quite possibly both the tallest and the largest woman I’ve ever seen.
She greets Mr. Baeker with a sigh and a slight look toward heaven.
“Mrs. Nowak, may I introduce my…” he stumbles a little and I can hardly blame him. What’s the man supposed to call me? His latest shipment? An Eaton’s catalogue order, just arrived?
“I’m Edwina Southerland,” I say. The name’s coming easier to me.
She looks me up and down the same way Mr. Baeker did when I stepped off the train. Then she offers her hand. “You can call me Janina. We’re not so formal here. Come in.”
It’s good you’ve arrived,” she continues, as we trail after her on a tour of the sitting room, then a massive dining room where the chairs sit crammed against each other, not quite managing to squeeze themselves around the long wooden table. “This one’s incapable of caring for himself.”
She says it with a head jerk toward my future husband, who blushes, turning his hat in his hands.
We’re led upstairs next, past a second floor hallway filled with doorways, and onto the third floor. Janina climbs the stairs easily, her bulk getting no concessions. Her long, grey-brown hair is neatly braided and coiled at the back of her head. There’s a quick swipe of the back of her hand against her forehead as we reach the third floor landing, and then we’re off again, to peer inside a neatly made-up bedroom, complete with single bed, bureau, and washstand.
After we’ve given our approval, she sets her hands on her hips.
“My help’s gone and run off, and I could use a pair of hands in the kitchen come dinner. You look like the capable sort. If you prove useful, I’ll cut the rate in half for your stay.”
“Oh, I don’t think…” Mr. Baeker is turning his hat again. Suddenly, the idea of not spending every minute with this man seems appealing.
“I’d be happy to earn my keep, if it’s agreeable to Mr. Baeker,” I say.
Janina nods approvingly.
“Sixty percent off, then.” My husband-to-be has apparently found his voice. I can’t help grimacing a little. I know I offered myself to work, but it’s not pleasant to be bargained about like a bushel of apples.
“Fifty is all I can offer,” Janina says flatly.
He pauses a moment, nods, and then we’re all three herding down the staircase again. I follow my new employer, thinking that Janina Nowak may be as fat as the mountains are wide, but she’s also as competent as the peaks are tall. And that bedroom, even if it is on the third floor, seems a far cry from the maid’s quarters I shared with Edwina.