With his piercing blue eyes and his thick, bushy caterpillar-like mustache covering his upper lip, the concierge who stared at me from behind the counter looked very austere, indeed. When I explained why I was there, though, his expression immediately softened.
“Ah, you’re here for Mrs. Mikou,” he said, and it seemed as if he was about to say something else, but then decided against it. Instead, he reached for a large leather-bound ledger laying atop the counter and flipped it open, asking me to sign in.
“Really?” I asked.
He sighed. “It’s something she insists on,” he explained. “Not that any of our other residents do, but Mrs. Mikou, well… let’s just say we dare not refuse. This register is for the exclusive use of her guests alone.”
It didn’t take much to deduce that Mrs. Maria Mikou was perhaps somewhat infamous in this apartment block. Not that you could really call it that. With its stately gray limestone façade and lemon-tree embellishment framing the entrance, the tower was far too regal to be labeled a simple apartment block. I was standing in one of the plushest foyers I’d ever seen; the crystal chandelier, ornately tiled floors, bold sculptures and button-tufted benches all bearing witness to the upper-crust tenants residing there, no doubt.
I did as I was told and scribbled my name in the black ledger, half-expecting to be given a name tag to pin on as well. As I finished, the concierge made a quick phone call, announcing my arrival.
“I have a Miss Eva Kent for Mrs. Mikou,” he muttered into the mouthpiece, followed by a brief pause. “Thank you. I will.” He replaced the receiver and looked up at me, giving me a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Please take the far left elevator, Miss Kent. Diego will escort you from there. Good luck.”
I got the impression that he genuinely believed I’d need it. I straightened my skirt and smoothed my hair before I made my way over to the other side of the foyer. Glancing outside, I caught sight of an enormous swimming pool, still and blue. There was nobody in it, and I couldn’t imagine why. It was nearly a hundred-and-four degrees outside, and all I wanted to do was strip down and dive in. I hoped that whoever Mrs. Mikou was, she’d have air-conditioning.
The elevator promptly arrived, and as the doors opened, I was greeted by a tall man who grinned at me like a Cheshire cat.
“Welcome, Ma’am,” he said. “I’m Diego. Which floor will it be?”
“I’m here to see Mrs. Mikou.”
“Oh, well now. It’s all the way to the top, then!” he cried, and pressed the button as soon as the doors closed behind me. The elevator didn’t seem to be moving at all, but we must have been shooting up at some speed as the numbers on the side panel lit up rapidly, ticking off one by one. Diego held his hands behind his back and beamed at me again.
“Are you Mrs. Mikou’s doctor?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m here for an interview, actually.”
“Ah. I see. I see.” He nodded.
Silence. I looked down at my feet as the elevator continued to rise.
“Quite a character, Mrs. Mikou,” Diego went on. “Don’t be scared, though. You’ll be fine.”
By telling me not to be scared, it only served to make me feel even more apprehensive. I’d had the usual butterflies that everyone got when arriving at an interview, but since stepping into the luxury high-rise in the center of the city, I’d felt a real sense of foreboding. I began to wonder if this was a good idea after all.
It was too late now, though. The doors swiftly opened, and I stepped out into a small reception area. As I glanced back, Diego tipped his cap to me and flashed me a quick smile as the doors closed once more. I turned back around, and a woman dressed all in black was walking towards me. I extended my hand and forced a smile.
“Mrs. Mikou? I’m Eva. It’s nice to meet you.”
She was small and demure, and I wondered why on earth everyone seemed so intimidated by this sparrow of a woman. She didn’t look as though she’d say boo to a goose. Yet, she didn’t shake my hand, and I left it hovering in the air for a few seconds before awkwardly letting it drop to my side again.
“I’m Anna. I’m the housekeeper,” she said in a quiet voice.
That explained the cold greeting. And I was yet to meet Mrs. Mikou. I was tempted to turn around and get back into the elevator, but Diego was long gone by now. I squared my shoulders, steeled myself and followed Anna as she whirled around on her heel and went into the apartment.
As I entered, it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness after the bright light of the entrance hall. Then I saw it.
Everywhere. It looked like a cactus threw up all over the walls and, as if that wasn’t enough, huge, bushy plants filled every available space, climbing out of large pots scattered throughout the room, some crawling up the walls and others even reaching as high as the vaulted ceiling.
We weaved in and out of the jungle-like rooms, Anna moving swiftly with me trotting behind her to keep up, before we came to stand in front of two large iron framed glass doors. They seemed to lead into what appeared to be an indoor greenhouse.
“You may enter,” Anna said, expressionlessly. “Mrs. Mikou is expecting you.”
And with that, she turned and hurried off. I just stood there, staring after her, realizing that there wasn’t going to be a formal introduction of any kind. So, I took a deep, calming breath and pushed open the doors, knocking as I did.
As I entered, I could hear running water and what sounded like a television, playing somewhere inside. The dense green foliage was even thicker now, and I kept an eye out for the monster who apparently dwelled in this jungle.
Finally, I caught sight of her. In a colorful flowery dress, a well-groomed woman in her sixties was sitting in a huge chair. She had thick, dark brown hair that reached to her shoulders, streaked here and there with silver strands and I could see, stretched out in front of her, and resting on a matching footstool, the reason for my being there in the first place.
Her glasses were perched on the tip of her nose, and she was busy filling out a crossword puzzle. The television I’d thought I’d heard, turned out to be a radio, blaring out some strange-sounding music, the language of which I couldn’t quite make out.
Without looking up from what she was doing, Mrs. Mikou frowned.
“Come in; don’t just stand there.” Then, she glanced up at me, peering over the rim of her glasses. Her eyes narrowed as she stared at my face before her gaze dropped to slowly work its way down the full length of my body, all the way down to my shoes.
“Are you Eva?” she asked. She had a thick accent, and it sounded almost melodic, as though she were singing her words instead of simply speaking them.
“Yes,” I said, smiling brightly. I held out my hand again, and this time I was relieved to see that she reached out and took it, shaking it firmly. She had a good grip.
“I’m Maria Mikou. I’m the one who placed the ad.”
I nodded. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
She pointed to a chair opposite her. “Sit. Sit.” The radio was still blaring, and she leaned over and turned it down. She placed her newspaper on the table beside her.
“Have you been offered something to drink?”
“No,” I said, “but don’t worry, I’m fine.”
“My housekeeper is hopeless. I must apologize.” She threw back her head and bellowed. “Anna! Anna! Ela!”
The housekeeper appeared, a sullen look on her face. Mrs. Mikou glowered at her. “Why does this young lady not have any water? Hmm? It’s hotter than the infernal regions out there, and this dry heat… mana mou. Get her a drink, for God’s sake.”
I felt terrible for the poor housekeeper, who took a deep breath. Mrs. Mikou looked back at me. “What would you like? Water? Coffee? Tea? I think we have some lemonade. Maybe a beer?”
“No, no, really,” I held up my hands. “Some water would be perfect, but please don’t go to any trouble.”
Mrs. Mikou barked some orders at her poor housekeeper in a language I didn’t recognize. Then she looked back at me and sighed, shaking her head.
“You know, she’s been with me for ten years, and still she doesn’t know how to receive a guest. She’s as slow as a lawyer’s mount to heaven, I tell you.”
I didn’t really know what to say to that. I already felt as if I’d walked into an awkward situation. Mrs. Mikou didn’t seem ready to begin the interview until after Anna had returned. She set a tray down on a glass table in front of us, which held a large jug of ice water and two crystal glasses. There was also a small plate filled with strange-looking fruit covered in syrup and a tiny silver spoon which lay next to it. Mrs. Mikou watched as I poured some water into both glasses before taking a drink.
“Something sweet?” she asked, nodding to the plate.
“What is it?”
“It’s fruit preserve.”
“In a little while, maybe,” I smiled, not wanting to offend her but not entirely sure why she was offering me what appeared to be a blob of orange marmalade. It was, without a doubt, the strangest start to an interview I’d ever been invited to attend. Mrs. Mikou seemed to expect me to explain why I was there, rather than her doing the explaining. So, I opened my bag and brought out my resume, but she waved it away.
“I read it. I don’t need to see it again.” She pointed to her knee. “It’s pretty simple. I came out of surgery two days ago. The doctor told me this operation would change my life, and I desperately want to believe him but so far, only pain.”
“And how often are you moving the knee?”
She sat back and looked at me like I was stupid. “Are you not listening, girl? How can I move if I have pain?” she cried. “Do you want to kill me?”
She was so dramatic that I found it difficult to stop myself from laughing. “Mrs. Mikou, when you—”
“Maria. Call me Maria.”
“Okay then, Maria. When you have a knee replacement, it’s imperative that you move the joint very early on. The doctors shouldn’t have discharged you unless they were satisfied that you were up and mobile.”
“Pah!” she declared. “They can’t keep me in the hospital. It’s for sick people, and I’m not sick. I hate it.”
“But how do they know you’re doing the exercises?” I asked, and she held out her hands.
“This is why I have you!” she cried. “Why else are you here? To merely sit around and chat with me?”
I was amazed, my mouth dropping open slightly, and at this, she rolled her eyes, admitting that she had a therapist come in several times a day to get her moving, but that she didn’t like the woman. In fact, she couldn’t wait to get rid of her. Hence her wanting someone new. She shrugged.
“So, you want this job, or not?”
“But you don’t know if I’m suitable yet,” I protested.
“I’m very good at reading faces,” she said and narrowed her gaze. “How old are you?”
“And what work does your husband do?”
“I’m not married.”
A long blink.
“Is this because you’re sterile?”
I laughed aloud. “No!” I cried. “At least, I don’t believe so. I just haven’t met anyone I want to marry and have children with yet.”
“When I was twenty-five I had already been married for five years. But it was a different time.” She leaned back in her chair.
“What about a boyfriend?”
“Not at present, I’m afraid. I keep strange hours, which can complicate relationships, but even so, I’m focusing on my career now. I saw your ad just as I’d finished a three-week placement.”
“Then it’s good timing for both of us. Have you ever been arrested?” Her direct questions made me smile.
“There’s no reason you cannot leave the country?”
“And you have a passport?”
“Where are you thinking of going?”
“I didn’t put this in the ad because I didn’t want some freeloaders applying simply because they wanted a free vacation. I’m not Oprah. However, I have a summer house in Santorini, Greece, and I am leaving in five days’ time. I need to know right now if you have anything planned that I need to know about.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, slowly. “I thought you wanted a physical therapist while you recover from your knee replacement.”
“So, you’re planning on taking a trip in five days?”
“Yes. I go home to Greece every summer. It’s tradition. I don’t expect my plans to change this year simply because I’ve had this silly operation. Usually, I wouldn’t have need of a physical therapist, but as you can see, I may have some difficulty getting around, off and on the plane, that sort of thing. So, I need someone who can accompany me at short notice. I trust this is possible for you? After all, you’re not married, have no boyfriend, no children, and you need the work. It’s a match made in heaven.”
“Did the doctor give you the go-ahead to leave the country?” The words were spoken before I could stop them, but I answered my own question. I doubted any doctor could tell Maria Mikou anything. I also understood with perfect clarity why the man behind the desk had wished me luck, and why Diego had called her quite a character. She was most certainly that.
Yet, I liked her. I liked her no-nonsense approach, the way she didn’t mince her words. And if I understood correctly, she was inviting me to her summer house in Greece, and we were leaving in five days’ time. My mind was in a whirl.
“I’m not walking there; I’m flying. Besides, what do the doctors know? I feel fine, and no-one will tell Maria Mikou when she can or cannot go home. Even if I could stand being in this god-forsaken place all summer, I need to go back to Santorini. It’s my niece’s wedding, and I’m not going to miss that. Besides, I need the sea. So, pack a bathing suit.”
“Does this mean I’ve got the job?” I asked, just to confirm.
“Of course. We leave on Thursday morning.”
“But how much is the—”
“Your ticket will be waiting for you at the airport.” From underneath the newspaper, she pulled a pad of paper and a pen. She scrawled some figures on it.
“This is your salary for the two months that I will require your services. I am prepared to extend the contract if I feel it is necessary. And please write down your full name and passport number so I can arrange for the ticket.”
Her offer was indeed generous, and I couldn’t think of a single reason to turn her down. And yet, I was sure that this wasn’t the way people were usually employed. They didn’t merely show up, sit in a chair and have a job thrust into their hands along with a glass of water and an overseas trip. It wasn’t normal.
But I was quickly beginning to realize that Maria Mikou was not a typical kind of person, whatever typical might look like these days. All I knew was that I liked her, she seemed to like me, and this wasn’t the kind of offer I was going to be given again in a hurry.
I grinned. “All right,” I said. “I accept. Thank you.”
“Good. Now eat your trifto.”
I didn’t dare refuse her.