Andrea Segovia was twenty eight and was not satisfied with the Spanish men in her home town of Madrid. She had recently discovered internet dating and met an English man called Craig Stemford. He lived in London and seemed to possess none of the flaws that Spanish men did. She was excited and could foresee no problems. They had chatted online for two months and six days and now Andrea was strolling through an arrivals lounge at Heathrow airport with her single suitcase in tow. She was beginning a new life and was travelling light.
Craig met her and took her to his house in Chepstow Villas. She told him how to greet her, how to sit, how to eat his meal in a satisfying way and how to drink tea properly. Andrea knew all about good taste. Her parents separated when she was a baby and she was raised by her mother who, by way of a divorce settlement, was left with two valuable possessions, an antique couch and a set of six antique soup bowls. These were the only material possessions she truly cherished. The other passion in her life was order and correctness. Andrea loved her mother and the two of them worked as a team in their household, correcting the placement of objects by a three-degree rotation to the left or a two-millimetre nudge to the right. But most care was taken on the display of those antique bowls along the living-room dresser and on meticulously brushing the couch so its fabric caught the light in a pleasing way. Andrea soon became as obsessed as her mother was with tidiness and by adulthood had developed a sixth sense for detecting bad taste. When she first entered Craig’s house she helpfully told him which of the pictures on his walls belonged in the dustbin, and after instructing him on his manners and habits, they were in bed and he began kissing her when she pushed him back and said: “No, you are doing it all wrong. You do not know how to kiss. Your mouth should not be so much open. Now, try again.”
She motioned for him to attempt the technique again and he obliged. She pushed him away and said, “No, that is still no good. Let me show you.”
She placed her fingers on his chin and closed his mouth, which was hanging open, then she began caressing his lips with hers, when his tongue attempted to part her lips. She pushed him back and said, “You will need lots of training. You are no good at this.”
Andrea’s first experience of kissing had set the standard for all others to match. At the age of sixteen she met Jorge. When they kissed it seemed to go on endlessly and transported her to another world and twelve years later she could still vividly recall the taste and texture of his mouth.
Six days after meeting Jorge, she took him to her mother’s house. Her mother was away and was not expected back for a few hours. Her mother’s rule was that the antique bowls were never to be used and food was not to be eaten in the living room, to protect the couch. But Andrea wanted to give Jorge something special and it seemed appropriate to break these two rules. She warmed some soup and served it in two of her mother’s antique bowls and, to complete Jorge’s treat, she decided they would eat while sitting on her mother’s couch. The two of them were about to sit and Andrea held out Jorge’s soup for him. At that moment, she heard her mother entering the house. She turned to look at the living-room door. She felt almost dizzy with pride, since her mother was about to meet Jorge. She thought he had taken the weight of the bowl from her and she released it. She felt a sensation beside her, as though a large well had opened up and black air were rushing down into it. She looked round to see the bowl landing on the couch, its soup emptying over the fabric and the bowl then falling to the tiled floor and smashing. Her mother entered the living-room and her eyes were drawn to the pool of soup soaking into her couch. She looked down to the smashed soup bowl and fainted.
From that moment, there was a stain on the couch and only five soup bowls displayed on the dresser. Her mother’s only response to her loses was to always leave a gap in the line of bowls. The sight of this gap haunted Andrea, seeming like the space where an amputee’s leg should have been. Her mother’s face, too, seemed permanently fractured in some way, as though some part of her had died along with that bowl and the loss of her couch’s pristine state. Andrea never saw Jorge again and vowed that in future she would always uphold the high standards that life with her mother had instilled in her.
Back in London, she pushed Craig away and told him he was no good at kissing. He sighed and took an interest in her body instead. She moved his hand aside and said, “What are you doing? Now is not the right time to do that. You must do things in the right order.”
Craig said, “Are you playing with me? Is this a joke?”
Andrea said, “What do you mean? I do not understand.”
Craig sat up in bed, folded his arms, looked away and said, “Is there anything you do like?”
She thought about this for a while, then said, “You have nice curtains.”
Craig put out his light and went to sleep.
In the morning, he had arranged for her to start work in her new job. Craig was a partner in a firm of solicitors: Bright and Stemford. His partner, Dicky Bright, agreed she could work part-time for them as a secretarial assistant.
Craig entered the office and said, “Dicky, this is Andrea Segovia.”
Dicky said, cheerfully, “Oh! do you play guitar?”
Andrea said, firmly, “No, I do not play guitar.”
Dicky said, still cheerfully, “Oh, I am sorry. Welcome to our practice,” and he held out his hand.
Andrea said, “Everyone thinks I play guitar. It is not polite to make such assumptions.”
Dicky looked surprised, took his hand back, then took his puzzlement into his office and closed the door.
Andrea was given a desk to sit at and some work to do. Her morning progressed routinely until she came to her final task. She was midway through typing the will of Dame Harriet Blewit of Mayfair, when she noticed Dame Harriet had bequeathed ninety five percent of her estate to one of her sons and only five percent to the other, since he had married “a foreigner”, as Dame Harriet put it. To Andrea this seemed misguided, so she changed the wording and awarded both sons fifty percent of the estate. She bound the will and left for lunch, her day’s work at the office now complete.
The offices of Bright and Stemford were situated in Golden Square and Andrea was to walk the short distance to Piccadilly Circus underground station. She was given simple directions but felt sure they were wrong, so while making her way there she devised her own short cut. She turned off the route prescribed by Craig and was about to cross a street when she noticed a woman who was obviously a prostitute. The woman was standing next to the alleyway across the street and beckoning to the motorists who paused at the nearby traffic lights.
The woman was wearing a creased red and yellow dress, which did not match her shoes, nor her handbag, which both looked battered, and her hair was untidy. Andrea felt sure the woman had deliberately arranged her hair in this fashion in the mistaken belief it would attract customers. This irritated Andrea. She could see the woman needed to make changes to her appearance if she was ever going to be successful.
She decided to cross the street and instruct the prostitute on how to dress properly and was about to step off the pavement when she noticed a short-haired man talking to her. The man seemed interested. Andrea paused and noticed an old woman standing a few yards along the pavement from herself. The old woman looked afraid. She was obviously concerned about crossing the busy road. Andrea stepped over to her and put her arm through hers. The woman pulled away from her, shielding her handbag. Andrea grabbed her arm and tried to pull her across the road. The woman started shouting, “Thief, thief; help me someone.”
Andrea said, “You are wrong. You need help.”
The woman shouted, “Stop her someone, stop her.”
At that moment, the short-haired man and two uniformed police officers closed in on Andrea. She looked across the street and saw a police woman leading the prostitute away. The short-haired man held up some credentials and one of the police officers took possession of Andrea’s arm.
The old woman said, “She tried to steal my bag,” turned to Andrea and said, “I haven’t collected my pension yet, so you’re out of luck.”
Andrea said, “I do not want a pension. I am much too young.”
The police arrested her and led her to a van. She sat in the back, next to a prostitute. Sitting across from her were two other prostitutes, one of them being the woman with the red and yellow dress.
Andrea told her, “You will never get work looking like that.”
The woman folded her arms and looked away.
Andrea said, “Your dress is creased; you should iron it each day. And the colour is all wrong. And your hair is a mess.”
The woman said, “Who are you?—my pimp.”
Andrea said, “You look unclean.”
The woman leapt across the van and tried to grab Andrea’s hair but the prostitute beside Andrea intervened, pushing the other one away, and one of the police officers at the front of the van rattled the cage, saying, “No fighting in there, girls—you’ll get yourselves a bad name,” and smirked at his colleague.
At the police station Andrea got confused and pleaded guilty to soliciting for sex. She was locked in a cell, since there was some suspicion over the address she had given and the custody sergeant was not happy about her identity. When she gave him her name he said, sarcastically, “Oh! do you play guitar?”
She did not respond. And further, the vice squad wanted to interview her, since she was not previously known to them.
The duty solicitor, who, by a happy coincidence, was Dicky Bright, was shown in to her cell. Dicky sat down and said, sarcastically, “I bet you’ll shake my hand now.” He opened his briefcase and added, “But there’s no way I’m shaking yours—‘impolite to make assumptions’—ha!”
Andrea said, “I do not need a pension. She was mistaken.”
To Dicky, it now made perfect sense that she was a prostitute. Back at the office he was suspicious about her from the start. Craig had been evasive when he told him about her; he merely said she was a friend he was helping by offering her a job. But when she snubbed him by refusing to shake his hand, he suspected Craig had put her up to that. And now that he knew she was a prostitute, it seemed obvious Craig had hired her to humiliate him. He wondered what other tricks Craig had in store for him. He arranged for her release on bail and quickly returned to the office to try to unpick their apparent plot against him.
At home that evening Craig attempted to find out why she adjusted the will and why she got involved in prostitution, but instead of an explanation, all he could elicit from her were intricate instructions on how he should amend his behaviour and his house. She then told him at what stage he could kiss her each day and was midway through demonstrating the technique when he pushed her away and shouted, “Look, this is no good. I’ve made a big mistake. You’ll have to go. Dicky is going to sack you in the morning. I couldn’t tell him about us—you’ve embarrassed me too much.”
He told her he would pay for her flight back to Spain but she did not want to leave the country. She decided he was not a suitable lover because he could not even kiss, so she would look for another man. Craig phoned a friend of his, Doctor Andrew Duncan, who ran his own surgery and offered her a month’s trial as a receptionist. He also phoned another friend who owned a house in Dawson Place which had been converted into twelve bed sitting rooms. He had one vacancy. Andrea accepted both the job and the room.
She moved in to the room that evening, and next morning was let loose on the surgery’s computer system. She could immediately spot several shortcomings, which she proceeded to fix.
At midday, a woman phoned to make an appointment. Andrea asked what the problem was. The woman said it was rather personal. Andrea said she would listen carefully. The woman explained she was not being sexually aroused by her husband and wondered if Doctor Duncan could do anything for her. Andrea gave her intricate instructions on how to perform better in bed. The woman was most grateful and hung up.
Andrew Duncan appeared briefly and asked how she was doing. She said, “I am very helpful.”
He said, “Splendid,” and retreated back into his consulting room.
She had a few minutes to spare between each phone call, so started to review the surgery’s database. She noticed the records for some patients took up far too much space, so she carefully reviewed their records and deleted any detail she thought unnecessary. By the end of her first day, she had reviewed the records of fifty seven patients and managed to make a dramatic reduction in the length of their files.
As she was leaving, Doctor Duncan asked, “How are you getting on?”
She told him, “I am being very efficient.”
He said, “Splendid. See you tomorrow.”
Over the following two weeks, Andrea continued to make many improvements in the surgery’s database system and she even managed to make a noticeable reduction in the number of appointments being made. Doctor Duncan was most pleased.
In the evenings, Andrea watched the behaviour of her neighbours. The house where she lived was on the corner of Dawson Place and Pembridge Villas, and from her room she had a good view along both these streets. The only problem was that each time she peered through her window, her good taste was offended. The people just did not know how to do anything. The previous morning, she left for work five minutes early, so she could rearrange the garden furniture of the house opposite. And this morning, before setting off for work, she was looking down on the improved layout of their garden, when she noticed the adjoining neighbour was out cutting his garden hedge but was doing it incorrectly. She dashed down the stairs, crossed the street, tugged on his shoulder and said, “I have watched you doing this. You are wrong. This is why you get this bad pattern,” indicating the texture of his hedge. She said, “You should do it like this,” and went to grab his electric hedge trimmer.
He held on to it.
She said, firmly, “No, let me show you,” and tried to grab the trimmer but he held on to it. She tried to free the trimmer from his grip and he managed to nip his other hand with the blade which was still running.
He shouted, “You’ve cut me. Are you on drugs?”
She said, “You have done that yourself.”
He shouted, “You’ve just done it.”
She told him, “You should have let me show you. You are a stubborn man.”
He said, “Let me have it,” and he tried to pull the trimmer free of her grip.
She held on to it and told him, “But you are doing it wrong. You don’t know how to.”
He tugged, “Get off.”
She looked up and noticed her bus off in the distance. She released her grip and said, “Now I have missed my bus. You have made me late for work. You are inconsiderate. All English men are selfish, and they can not kiss.”
He said, “You’re on drugs; I’m calling the police.”
She said, “I am not a prostitute. I do not like disposable sex. Do not offer me any money.”
He said, “I wasn’t going to; why would I pay you?” and he walked back into his house and slammed the door.
When Andrea finally got into work, there were two police officers waiting to interview her. Doctor Duncan, who was looking pale, told her that her trial employment was over. The police took her to a police station and led her to an interview room. The same short-haired man she saw talking to the prostitute on her first morning came in and sat before her. He said the surgery had discovered discrepancies in their patient database. Records had been tampered with. Did she have any explanation?
She said she had noticed discrepancies herself and had done her best to correct them.
He said the problems had only started when she began working there.
She said, “Well, they were lucky to have me there. I have corrected what I could.”
He said, “No, you don’t seem to follow. They think you did it.”
Andrea said, “I did do it. I have just said that. No-one here can understand English.”
He said, “Are you saying you made the changes?”
She said, “I corrected what I could. Now someone else will have to do the rest.”
After a pause, he said, “I see.”
End of extract
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21 May 2008
Read some of Andrea’s poems, which give further insight into some of her experiences that are depicted in this story.
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