Finance: A problem like Maria

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OLIVIER HAS been posted to Peru for two years. This makes it tricky to maintain a relationship with him. But since he was spending three-quarters of his time there anyway, this makes little practical difference. If it hadn't been for the photograph of him stuck to the fridge, I could easily have forgotten what he looked liked.

The parting was friendly enough. He gave me a few presents from the things he wasn't taking, a glossy French art book, CDs, a T-shirt. And he bequeathed me his cleaning lady. "She's fabulous," he said. "I've only met her once, of course, but she often rings me at work to check what I want done, and she's hilarious." Then he kissed me good-bye.

Maria arrived at eight o'clock on Monday morning, and I flew out leaving her the keys and a list of instructions. By the time I'd reached work, she'd rung twice. "At least, I think it was for you," said Laura. "Her English didn't seem too good."

A small, steadily sinking feeling in my heart, I rang my own number. "Hola?" said the uncertain voice at the end of the line. "What's the problem, Maria?" I said. There was a lengthy pause, followed by a quiet "Que?" That's when I realised what I should have cottoned on to from the start, Maria didn't really speak English at all.

To Olivier, of course, this wasn't a difficulty. Banks may have their lunatic moments, but even they wouldn't post a non-Spanish speaker to Peru. He could have long, hilarious conversations with Maria and tell her exactly what needed doing in the house; I could ask her for a cup of coffee.

Very slowly, I talked Maria through the list of household tasks. "Do ... you ...un ... der ... stand?" I asked. "Si," she replied confidently, and hung up. Good job she was so sure, I thought, because I didn't know if I was.

There was nothing I could do about it, though, so I put my head down and got on with ringing round to see what was happening in the markets. I got back home at seven, thoroughly vampired, and flopped on to the sofa. The TV screen was gleaming and the room smelt of polish.

When I wandered into the kitchen, the sink shone and the pile of dirty dishes had vanished, although everything was put away in the wrong place. Never mind, it wasn't really worth getting annoyed about.

In the bathroom, everything radiated cleanliness and the smell of lemon was almost overpowering. The laundry basket was empty and my silk shirts were hanging up to dry.

They looked, well, small. I pulled on the nearest, and tried to fasten it but it might have been made for a six-year-old: ruined, utterly ruined. She must have put it on the hottest wash, as she'd have done for Olivier's cotton shirts. I could have wept.

What was I going to do? I needed a cleaner; the hours I worked, I had no chance of keeping my flat and clothes pristine without help, as the cleanerless past months had proved. But if I couldn't communicate with Maria, I'd have to hide my dirty clothes so she couldn't ruin any more.

I was telling Jaap about the disaster the next day. "I can't even fire her," I said. "I don't know how to say it in Spanish."

"Well," said Jaap, "why don't you get me to deal with her next time? My Spanish is pretty good."

"Oh, Jaap," I said, "If you could I'd love you for ever." He blushed, and I blushed, and we both went back hurriedly to our work.

One problem solved, I thought ... and another one just begun?