It had taken me ten minutes to clean the last toilet and I’m not going to say why. I’m trying to forget it. I’d cursed the visitors who’d left it that way while checking the time, working out how long I’d need to wash my hands and change into my ski boots.
I couldn’t be late. I may be stupid but I know not to keep a rich lady waiting. If I messed this up I’d never get another chance and be stuck cleaning chalets for the whole season. Whereas a private lesson, even an hour on the nursery slope, would apparently earn me what I made in a whole day with my mop. As long as I really could teach her. I wasn’t a proper instructor and I’d said “no” at first, afraid of messing it up. But the ski-school were in a jam and Nicki hadn’t been easy to put off.
‘Please, Neil. I put her down for Maurice but he’s busy. I was on the wrong “tab” on the booking program. Stupid computer.’
‘Can’t you phone her and change it?’
‘No. It was her husband who came in. Paid cash and didn’t leave a number. So I’m really stuck. Go on, help me out. You don’t need to be a pro,’ Nicki had wheedled, head on one side at her untidy desk, ‘Just encouraging and kind. Which you are.’
I hadn’t known what to say but she’d carried on anyway, hardly pausing for breath. ‘He tried to teach her himself but it went all wrong and she ended up in tears. So he came rushing in here to sort something out for tomorrow. He’s really nice and I can’t let him down.’
‘Why didn’t you get his phone number?’
‘I tried to. But he was cagy about it.’ She’d hesitated then and glanced down, which was a first; Nicki didn’t normally think before she spoke. ‘He’s an actor. Does movies. Wouldn’t tell me his name either.’
‘Wow. Did you recognise him?’
She shook her head. ‘Still had his facemask on, and shades. All I could see were very white teeth and some stubble. But he had an American accent, kept hinting about doing his own stunts. Anyway, he’s here incognito.’
Nicki used posh words sometimes. I didn’t know that one and wasn’t about to ask her. ‘With a wife who can’t ski?’
‘Exactly. But she used to dance apparently, has a good sense of balance, and he thought she’d just pick it up.’
‘And then she didn’t?’
We looked at each other.
‘So…please, can you help? Pretty please?’
Nicki put her head on one side and I pretended not to notice. She was small, round and pretty and I liked her. But in the two months I’d known her she’d already talked me into several things I’d rather not have done “just to help out” and I was starting to get cautious.
‘I’ve never taught anyone in my life.’
‘You helped out with those kids last week. Maurice said you were really good.’
‘But all I did was ski along with them and stop them going too fast.’
‘Maurice said you showed one of them to carve. Whatever that is.’
I was getting sucked in again. ‘Well, yes I did. But I’ve never taught anyone on my own. I wouldn’t know where to start. I just ski on my own after work. After I’ve cleaned the toilets, remember?’
‘You can do it, Neil. I’m sure you can. You’re really good at explaining things and not getting cross. You stopped me getting in a tiz over the computer.’
‘I told you to turn it off and come for a drink.’
‘Exactly. You’re good with people. Better than you think.’
I still didn’t like the idea. I’d learnt to ski just by doing it but, as usual, it was hard to say no to Nicki. So I asked another question while I thought. ‘What went wrong then, with her husband showing her? Did she hurt herself?’
‘No, don’t think so. But she ended up crying. Remember how cold it was yesterday? Well apparently she felt stiff and clumsy in all the layers and couldn’t stand the helmet and face mask and goggles. Couldn’t hear properly. Felt stupid, in her own little goldfish bowl, while hubby shouted at her from the other side of the slope.’ She stopped. ‘Are you ok, Neil? You’ve gone really red.’
‘Yes, I’m fine. It’s hot in here.’ Suddenly I could feel my own heartbeat.
She looked at me curiously. ‘No, it’s not. It’s cold, like it always is.’
‘In spite of your secret fan heater?’
‘How did you know about that?’
‘I saw you switch it off yesterday when Monsieur Parvoise came in. You pushed it under the desk with your foot. And you nearly melted the end of your shoe.’
She grinned. ‘Do you think he noticed?
‘No. He was too busy worrying about the muddle with the bookings.’
Nicki pulled a face. ‘I hate that computer. I said to him last week, what’s wrong with a big chart on the wall? It’s not rocket science. We don’t need anything fancy. Now it’s got me into this mess. Which you’re going to get me out of?’
She put her head on one side again. Tight black curls fell over her face and I tried to ignore them, still working on my breathing but knowing now that I would help this woman if I could. What she’d said was too close to home. So I looked round the walls of the bright little office, with its posters and adverts and stacks of forms and wondered if I really could teach her to ski.
Nicki, impatient as ever, kept trying. ‘You’ll make lots of money, even for an hour. Much more than you got for the kids. And if it works out she might have lessons all week.’
I leant on the edge of Nicki’s desk and then let go as papers slid off a huge pile. She caught them as though it happened often and patted the stack square, her eyes still on me.
‘Ok. I’ll do it. But I don’t want any money unless she’s happy afterwards.’ I straightened up, almost regretting what I’d just said and remembering my mother’s words as I’d left home, two months before. I’d found a dictionary at the airport, looked up “impetuous” and thought it then not a bad thing to be. Now I wasn’t so sure.
Nicki’s eyebrows disappeared into her hair. ‘Brilliant! What changed your mind?’
‘You, as usual. But don’t get smug.’
She handed me a slip of paper. ‘Tomorrow morning then. Ten o’clock, but not at the assembly point. You’re to meet her at that little wooden hut next to the magic carpet, where they keep all the tools.’
‘Why not the assembly point?’
‘He said no, not there, for some reason. Don’t know why. And the hut was the only other place I could think of.’
‘What’s her name then?’
She had grinned, obviously relieved. ‘I asked him that. His wife is French and you’re to call her “Madame”. Just try to sound foreign, sweetie.’
‘How will I know her?’
‘She’s a film star’s wife, Neil. You’ll work it out.’
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