Chapter 55 - Jobs Like Buses

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∞ 55 ∞


It was Valentina's seventh day working at the hotel. One of the girls who cleaned rooms upstairs had taken the week off ill and she was working the extra days to replace the lost staff. By the fourth day she had only increased her output to seven shirts per hour and Mrs Chen had finally given-in and put her on cleaning rooms when neither of the Huwylers where on the premises. She was somewhat faster at the rooms, although she was still the slowest of all the workers at everything.

Mrs and Mr Huwyler were back, which meant Valentina was back in the basement out of sight again. It was sheet day in the laundry: scores of newly laundered, flat sheets needed to be ironed smooth and folded into precise, white rectangles. While the other women seemed to zip through their work effortlessly, Valentina struggled, spending much of her time worrying that the articles were never smooth enough and trying to avoid soiling them by dropping the sheet corners on the floor. She then spent double as much time trying to fold them accurately. She simply couldn't understand the purpose of spending all that time ironing the things, if they were only going to end up with fold creases all over them anyway! (Analysing the work only added to the time, of course.)

A Vietnamese girl who was in much the same situation as Valentina –except that she worked in a laundry back home and was skilled at the task– took pity on her. (The Vietnamese girl was also the only one there from her country and had been hired mainly because she spoke French, so none of the other staff would speak to her either.) She showed Valentina how to dampen the sheets more than she had been and to fold them in thirds first, to be able iron them more quickly and avoid dropping the corners on the floor; best of all, she advised her not to worry about trying to get them paper flat, but showed her instead what was passable. They took turns helping one another fold their finished work, which was a great help to Valentina at least.

At two o'clock, two of the girls from upstairs housekeeping came down for some sheets and ducked outside through the emergency exit that led off the laundry for a quick cigarette, as they often did whenever there seemed to be a guarantee Mrs Chen was occupied elsewhere. When Valentina went to refill her spray bottle, one of the girls came in and swapped the sheet she had accidentally soiled while leaning with it under her arm against the mossy outdoor wall, for a clean, freshly pressed sheet in Valentina's stack. The two upstairs girls flounced off laughing at the stupidity of the "stuck-up 'English' girl" with Valentina completely oblivious to what they had done.

Soon after, Mrs Chen returned with a special order and focused in on Valentina's work, as usual. After opening up a finished sheet completely, her only complaint today was, begrudgingly, that Valentina was too slow... until she noticed the soiled sheet a few below.

«[What is this? Why is this sheet dirty?]» she demanded.

Valentina's eyes widened and her heart leapt into her throat. All she could do was stare wide-eyed at the sheet. Her lips opened and closed a few times but no words came out. She had been very, very careful! After a few seconds all she could think to mutter was:

«[I-uhh-I... I don't know,]» in worried, frustration.

Mrs Chen hadn't gotten to where she was by allowing herself to fall prey to sentimentality; she didn't get there by allowing anyone to dupe her either. She sniffed the sheet with a menacing look. Valentina could smell the acrid odour of cigarette on the sheet even before she put her face to it.

«[I don't know. I don't smoke... I don't smoke!]» she spluttered nervously.

The other women had seen the girl swap the sheet, but said nothing – even the Vietnamese girl kept quiet. Mrs Chen had vast experience in such situations (she had done such things to other girls herself when she was younger) and could see from the evasive looks of the other women to know at once what had happened. Valentina's heart was beating so fast she felt sick. She had really, really tried, but somehow she had screwed up – again.

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