Chaos. That’s what he brought.
Disorder; now there’s something I can handle. Disorder is fine, but when that extra element, that secret from your past, creeps in like a snake under an ill-fitting door, disorder turns to chaos.
And chaos is a whole lot different.
It was changeover day at the field centre where Domenica, Catalina and I faced the task of preparing to greet thirty second-year geologists. With their end-of-year-exams behind them, the students would theoretically be out for a week’s fieldwork but all of them were bound to view this trip to Majorca as an opportunity to let their hair down. In the eighteen months I’d been at the centre, I’d learned enough to know that none of them would intend spending too much time peering at layers of rock.
Fortunately for the local population, the field centre was based well out of town. These youngsters wouldn’t be the first to discover that if they did go down into Puerto Pollensa of an evening, they’d have to stay sober enough to struggle back for a mile or so along a rough track in the dark. Domenica had worked out the solution to that one several geology groups ago, and had laid in a stack of bottles of San Miguel and a couple of cases of rough local wine.
Because I was the one who lived in, I ran the informal bar and cleared up after them; but I liked it. Generally speaking, the students were pretty sensible once they’d got over the excitement of a subsidised holiday, sunning themselves and pretending it was work. But for us — the staff comprised me, Domenica, and Domenica’s daughter, Catalina — the days of their coming and their going meant hard grind.
‘What time are they due?’ I called, catching Domenica as she bustled up the stairs with an armful of sheets.
‘Four o’clock. Catalina, how are you getting on?’
‘Nearly finished upstairs!’ Cat always sounded frantic, her work always nearly finished but never quite complete, because every time she was nearly finished some other job ambushed her and held her back.
‘They’ll want something to eat when they get here. Megan, can you arrange that?’
‘Will tea and biscuits do?’ Four o’clock was an awkward time to arrive. ‘That should keep them going until supper, and we can always do that a bit early if they look like fainting with hunger.’
‘That sounds a good plan. Though actually, forget their tea and biscuits just now.’ A snatched glance at the clock told us that we had a good hour. ‘What about ours?’
‘I’ll make some.’
‘We’ll have it in the office. I want to run through my list.’
I abandoned what I was doing and went into the kitchen, mentally ticking things off on a list of my own. Dinner was under control. The wherewithal for breakfast was in the cupboard (I checked, for the umpteenth time, while I waited for the kettle). I’d intended to make cake but had somehow run out of time. Never mind — there was bought cake in the cupboard; they could have home-made another day. Biscuits would do in the interim, for the students, for Domenica, for Catalina, and for me.
First into the office, I slid with a deep sigh into one of the three worn seats. This room, facing south-west and with big picture windows, was a positive hothouse compared to the rest of the place. An old farm building which had been increasingly and eccentrically extended over the two centuries of its existence, the centre had tiny shuttered windows and thick walls. It never grew hot, even in the height of the Majorcan summer when the temperature, as today, regularly scaled well into the nineties.
Domenica came in next, untying her apron and tossing it over the back of her chair as she moved from cleaning to admin, and settled at her desk. ‘Catalina!’
‘Just coming!’ came the faint cry from somewhere above us.
‘That girl!’ Domenica beamed, knowing as I did that Cat, for all her tardiness, was thorough and efficient. ‘I do hope that coffee’s extra strong. I think we’re going to need it.’
‘We could do with some more help.’ I rubbed some polish from my fingers. ‘Even just for a few hours at changeover.’
‘I keep wondering about that, but there just isn’t the money in the budget.’
‘I expect we’ll cope.’
‘It isn’t usually this bad. Thirty, plus the lecturers.’ She ticked a number off at random on her fingers. ‘That’s a lot. That’s just about capacity.’
In the summer months, when the universities were on holiday, we hosted other parties. Languages and art were popular themes; the groups tending to be smaller and the participants older. They included people who found themselves newly single and looking for a fresh interest. They were easier to get on with than the university students; they were quieter and less self-absorbed, people who were interested in everything and wanted to chat. The groups of geologists — boisterous and enthusiastic — steamrollered everyone and everything before them, and only sometimes remembered to be penitent afterwards. Nevertheless, I liked them. It wasn’t that long ago that I had been a student myself.
My university career had imploded spectacularly before I was halfway through my second year. That was how I’d ended up keeping house out on the edge of nowhere, with a job instead of a career. It was a bitter lesson, and one I’d learned well — that it only takes a moment’s misjudgement for your life to derail. When it does, the best you can hope for is that when everything falls apart, you’re happy to stay where you fall. And if I wouldn’t say I was happy in Majorca, I couldn’t in all honesty say I was unhappy either.