Laura was panicking. But privately.
On the outside, she was determined to be sanguine, even confident, about the new job and the fact that the employment contract almost read as if she was bonding herself into service.
She had told her family that she had a new job and was deferring Uni but hadn’t found the words to explain it honestly. She suspected they may not entirely approve of what was an unconventional role at best and possibly some kind of scam at worst.
Nonetheless, she trusted Cynthia and the job came with a signing bonus of $5,000. She used the money to get herself out of her lease and buy some new clothes. She was still waiting to hear from the guy who hit her car about the repairs and briefly considered using the money to fix it. But the insurance company would want to use their own repairer and were unlikely to reimburse her. She just had to wait and hope the cops didn’t care about pulling over a diminutive Chinese woman.
Mrs Park’s personal secretary – a young, chubby man with Harry Potter glasses named Charles – had taken her to get properly outfitted as befit her new position and she artfully dodged the calls of any family members who she may be tempted to confide in. Especially Mei. Mei would flip. Jennifer didn’t call at all.
It was all such a whirlwind that she didn’t have much time for rational thought before finding herself in her trashed late 90s Corolla with a door held together by duct tape and a boot full of brand new corporate wear driving into a gated Hamilton mansion in the middle of a Brisbane hail storm, dodging ice balls you could play golf with.
She was never entirely sure where she landed on the celestial being front but if she was ever going to believe that the heavens were trying to tell her something it would be now.
Don’t Panic, said the cat poster in her childhood bedroom. It was good advice.
Laura was panicking.
The housekeeper who took her bags was very young. Maybe even younger than Laura. When she appeared on silent slippered feet to escort her to her quarters, Laura didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t just the idea of a servant doing something for her that she was capable of doing herself. It wasn’t even that her vague notion of housekeepers was informed by the middle aged women who had worked for her father and this woman looked like she should be in one of Laura’s tutorials. It was the look on the woman’s face as though she’d been kicked in it one too many times and had learned to expect those kicks.
She had a nervousness and a timidity that made Laura as uncomfortable as it made her suddenly, unexpectedly protective. She was struck by the urge to be there when the next blow came to stop it. She compensated for her discomfort by being obsessively polite and far too nice. Then she panicked that she was being patronising.
“I’m Laura,” she chirped, inwardly wincing at how inauthentic she sounded,” what’s your name!?”
“Maddie,” said Maddie, her eyes downcast as she escorted her into the foyer.
To Laura’s surprise, the Hamilton house was larger but somehow more homey and much less ostentatious than the Ascot mansion. It was a large converted Queenslander with sweeping colonial verandahs and tastefully subdued antique furnishings with hardwood floors.
“Your room is downstairs near the wine cellar and next to the subterranean water tank.,” Maddie told her, “I’ll take your luggage down. There’s an entrance to a carport there where Brian is parking your car.”
“The butler. Also the chauffeur.”
“Ah,” Laura said, in the absence of anything more coherent. Her world expanded with each sentence.
“Mrs Park is expecting you in the second study.”
Laura stood in the foyer pondering the location of the second study, but when she turned to ask Maddie for directions she had disappeared like smoke. Her sneakers squeaked on the immaculate wooden floors as she moved tentatively into the beautiful home. This is where you live, she thought. For an entire year. This would be her home.
She passed a window that looked out onto an expansive back deck and through it she saw also an enclosed pool house and a tennis court. She moved through a billiard room and a large kitchen with a butler’s pantry. As she came off the living room, she saw Charles waiting impatiently by a closed door.
He waved her over and gave her a harried look, “Go in. She doesn’t have much time to brief you. There’s a crisis at the office.”
Thanks to her extensive briefing documents, Laura knew the “office” was Park Holdings Inc. in Waterfront Place. Depending on where it was in the building, she could stand impassively at a window and look down on the nightclub that had recently fired her.
It was a nice fantasy.
“Ms Chen,” Mrs Park’s voice broke through her rampaging imagination. “I thought you used your bonus to buy new clothes”.
“Oh I…,” Laura looked down at the shorts and casual cotton shirt she’d worn for that day’s move, the sweat stains starting in her arm pits and trailing down the sides like rain on a window pane, “I did but I was moving today so…”
“You’ll be expected to dress for the office during work hours from now on whether you’re there or not,” Mrs Park.
“Of course. No problem.”
Mrs Park began busily thrusting papers into a briefcase and barely cast Laura a glance as she continued, “Breakfast is at 7am on the deck, dinner is served in the main dining room from 7pm. These are considered work functions. You will attend and you will make sure my son attends as well. For the moment, that is your main job. In the rare event of a work emergency, you may organise food at the office. Lunch is provided at work. The administrative staff can fill you in when you go into the office tomorrow. For now, your job is to settle in and to make sure my son is at breakfast at 7am tomorrow morning. Do you understand?”
Laura mentally reassigned her job from ‘spy’ back to ‘babysitter’.
“Of course. Breakfast. 7am. I’ll make sure he’s out of bed and at the table.”
Mrs Park gave her an inscrutable look and buzzed Charles with the phone at her desk. “I’m ready, get Brian to bring the car around.”
She swept past Laura, stopping only briefly to reiterate, “Work attire between 7am and 7pm, Ms Chen. You may change for dinner. I’ll accept more casual clothes on the weekend as long as they are smart.”
And then despite Laura’s best intentions of exploring the house, diving into the pristine lap pool or cracking open a beer on her new balcony to watch the hail pile up in the backyard, she found herself hiding in her room instead.
The last few days – the last few weeks – had been simply too much. Her life to this point had been laid out with a great deal of precision, a clear path with streetlights down both sides. Now the future was an uncertainty; fuzzy and hazy. A step into darkness. Or possibly the Twilight Zone.
She unpacked her suitcases, had a long shower in her ensuite bathroom, ducked quickly into the wine cellar just to confirm such a thing was real, and then watched movies on her laptop until she fell fitfully to sleep.
When her alarm went off at 5:30am she was already awake staring at the ceiling and wondering how precisely you got a grown man out of bed and to the breakfast table. And how was that suddenly her job. And why it was worth more money than she’d ever seen.
Possibly she was nothing more than an overpriced alarm clock with a drill sergeant function. It would certainly be the easiest money she’d ever made, assuming that he responded to whacking, yelling or the emotional manipulation her grandmother had a Master’s degree in.
It was only after she had gotten up, made her bed and asked a bemused cook where his room was that she realised that, despite knowing his name – Daniel Park – and job position – CEO, Park Holdings – she didn’t actually know what he looked like. And secondly that her job wasn’t to get a slacker son out of bed at all. Because his bed wasn’t slept in. In fact, her faceless charge was nowhere to be seen. Anywhere.
“Shit,” she said.