Millie looked at her watch for several seconds before she remembered it was broken. It still glinted sadly at her, water misting its face, with the time stuck immobile at five past ten this morning. She glared at it - it was supposed to be waterproof. A bubble popped apologetically by the minute hand, and she sighed heavily. Bad enough to be bored and wet. Worse not to even know how long you've been there, or how long you have to stay. And she reeked of washing up liquid, or whatever the stuff was in the bucket. Whichever way you looked at it, her summer holidays were not going well.
Her dad was around the side of the huge, ugly, glass box they were cleaning. He was up on the third storey, standing with his friend Bill on the platform, a cradle on ropes which took them up to the higher floors. She could just about hear them laughing, as she scowled at her reflection in the office doors. The security man, sitting at the reception desk, looked back at her in mock alarm. As though she were scowling at him. Adults could be so self-centred, she thought, ignoring him. How come Bill and her dad got to have fun together on the platform, while she had to sit down here on her own? No wonder she was bored. But her dad wouldn't let her go up above ground floor, in case she fell.
'It isn't designed for someone as small as you,' he'd explained.
'I'm not small,' she had snapped.
'I know, you're twelve. And for twelve, you're a colossus,' he said.
'Did you just call me fat?'
Nooooo!' Her dad couldn't help laughing. That was really why she didn't make too much of a fuss. He didn't laugh very much these days. Not since he'd lost his job, anyway.
'What did you call her?' Bill had shouted, loading up their equipment.
'A colossus,' replied Millie. Her dad looked expectant. She rolled her eyes and continued, 'It's a big statue. There was one of the Emperor Nero outside the Colosseum in Rome, that's where it got its name.'
'You've got a pretty smart kid, Alan.'
'Nah,' said Millie, squirming. 'I just have a really dull father.'
'Come here, you!' Her dad had made to chase her, and she'd laughed and dodged out of reach.
That had been weeks ago, or at least it felt that way. It was probably just a few hours. Her dad had said she didn't have to come every day, if she didn't want to. She could stay at home, if she preferred, and the woman next door could look in on her from time to time. Millie had given it a nanosecond's thought, weighing up the pros of being able to sit and read in the garden all day against the cons of Mrs Ellis coming round every twenty minutes to ask her what book she was reading, how long it was, what it was about, whether it was as good as Enid Blyton, and so on and so on, until Millie felt like jamming a fork into her own arm, or even Mrs Ellis' arm, either of which would probably be considered rude. She had decided to take the bucket, at least for now, but as choices went, she couldn't help but think it was a lot like being asked if you'd rather be poked in the eye with a sharp pencil or a blunt one.
She had wondered a few times over the past week since their last visit to clean the windows, in fact if she'd made the right decision. Last Tuesday, she had been milling around the van, fetching water and adding to it the industrial cleaning fluid that gave her a perpetual scent of washing up liquid and swimming pools a perfume people rarely tried to buy from shops when an estate car had suddenly drawn up outside the back of the office. Millie couldn't work out where on earth it had come from the building was at the end of a long drive, set back about half a mile from the main road. And that drive stopped at the front of the building. This car seemed to have appeared, fully formed, from the fields behind her, like a metallic shrub. A man had sprung out at her.
'Hullo,' he said. 'You're a bit young to be a window cleaner, aren't you?'
'''m just here helping my...' Millie began, before she lost the will and trailed off. 'f he was going to come up with the same tired joke that every person in every office had come out with so far this summer, she wasn't going to the trouble of giving him a full sentence in return. She wondered if painful predictability and a need to state the obvious came with an office job. Maybe that was why her dad had started cleaning windows to get away from the people in offices. Maybe, she thought, when she left school, she'd become a dentist. They didn't have to deal with people who were too chatty. Still, though, they did have to deal with other people's teeth. Urgh. Better than a dentist, she'd become an undertaker more scope for mistakes, and probably fewer teeth.
'Ah yes. Well, I hope I didn't scare you, coming in the back way.' He must have seen her jump when she heard the engine. 'It's just difficult to get in at the front, you know, with the protesters...' he trailed off.
'What protesters?' Millie asked.
'Haven't you...? Ah, no, of course, you probably get here too early. They're not up with the larks, are they?'
'' don't know,' Millie replied. She had no idea what time larks got up. Or what time protesters did. This man was pulling off the rare trick of being both boring and a bit weird.
'Well, they're not. But they don't like what we do, so they're here most days, making their point. Well, not here, precisely.' The man looked around, as if to reassure himself that a small protest hadn't sprung up behind him, armed with placards, banners, and the occasional klaxon, booing him.
'They're not allowed on our property, obviously - that's trespass. But, you know, they're out on the main road most days, shouting and chanting. It's like a religious cult, if you ask me.'
Millie forbore to point out that she hadn't asked him. But since he was so talkative, she asked the question that had popped into her head the first time he'd mentioned protesters.
'What is it you do that they don't like?'
'Well, you know...some people are against any sort of progress at all, and -my goodness ''m running late,' the man said, rushing round to the back of the car as though his shoes were on fire and he kept an extinguisher in the boot for just such an eventuality. 'Must dash. Don't let me keep you.'
Millie assumed he hadn't noticed that she had continued mixing detergent as they spoke, so he really hadn't kept her from anything. He opened the tailgate of the car, and pulled out a trolley, which he stood next to him. He lifted out one crate, then another, placed them on the trolley, then slammed the boot shut. He spun round, and pushed his crates quickly towards a small door.
Millie couldn't be quite sure, but she was almost certain she heard meowing.
© 2007 Natalie Haynes.