Walden Manor August
This is not what it might look like. We're quiet people. As a general rule extraordinary things do not happen to us, and we are not the type to go looking for them. But so much has happened since January, and I started it. Things began to happen, things I must have brought about somehow without quite foreseeing where they would lead. So I feel I must explain, late in the day though it is. I'm going to set out, as clearly as I can, in the order in which they occurred, the things that have happened here. And I shall find it difficult because I was brought up not to draw attention to myself and I've never been considered a forthcoming person, never being one to splurge out on anything, least of all great long explanations. Indeed, Mother always described me as secretive. But that was because, with her, I came to expect my reasons for things to be not so much misunderstood as overlooked or mislaid, and so early on I stopped giving them.
Father was usually quiet, too. When I think back to the sounds of the house in Oakfield Avenue where I grew up, I do not remember voices. I think we sighed or cleared our throats more often than we spoke words. I remember mainly the tick of Father's longcase clock in the dining room we never ate in, and then after the clock had gone, a particular silence throughout the house that I thought of as a shade of grey. And much later when I was an adult, still there looking after Mother, the most regular sound was the microwave. It pinged a dozen times a day. In fact, until recently, whenever I heard a certain tone of ping, in a shop or somewhere like that, I would immediately smell boiling milk. But when I was a child there was just the clock, with silences in between.
Mother had few words herself. She often went about the house as if she were harbouring unsaid things at great personal cost, with a locked look on her mouth. That being so, I suppose Father and I felt unable to open our own mouths very much. What happens to all the things you might say or want to say, but don't? Well, they don't lie about in your head indefinitely, waiting to be let out. For a time they may stay there quite patiently, but then they shuffle off and fade until you can't locate them any more, and you realise they're not coming back. By then you're past caring.
So I grew to think of myself as someone not in particular need of words. I did not acquire the habit of calling them up; not many at a time at least, not even to myself in my own head. Things in my head had been very quiet for a long time, before all this.
But I have been wrong about this aspect of myself, as about others. I find that there are words there after all. Now that I need them, my words have come crowding back, perhaps because I have a limited time in which to get them all down (today is the 20th, so only eleven more days). I am pleased that my hands remember the old touch-typing moves without seeming to involve me at all. The letters are hitting the paper in this old typewriter almost as if they were being shot out of my finger-ends. Which is just as well, because I'm busy enough dealing with all the clamouring words that are flinging themselves around in my head, fighting over which gets fired out first. I'm in a hurry to let them loose. I want to explain, because it is suddenly extremely urgent and important that, in the end, we are not misunderstood.
And I shall try to put down not just what, but why things have happened and why none of it could have turned out any differently. Until now I really haven't thought about the why. Time's the thing. I haven't had time, not time of the right kind, to ask myself why things have gone the way they have. I've been too busy being happy; even now I'm happy, although the time left is of the other kind. But I'm quite content to spend it trying to puzzle it all out and write it down. It's a pleasant way to pass time, sitting over the typewriter at the study window and looking out now and then to wave at them (that's Michael, Steph and Charlie) down there in the garden. They're not doing much. Steph is singing to Charlie and rocking him on her lap: 'Row, row, row the boat' --- that's one of Charlie's favourites --- and the more she rocks the more he likes it. They're waving back now. I've told them I've got to write a report for the agency and in a way, that's almost true, so they're making pretend-sad faces up at me because I can't spend the afternoon with them. And now Steph's got hold of Charlie's wrist and she's making him wave too. Behind them, I can see three different kinds of Michaelmas daisy in the border, three nice shades of purple. But the roses are on their second flowering now and look as if the air's gone out of them, as if they've stayed too long at the party.
Anyway, I'm going off the point. I was saying that I'm going to explain everything. And while I cannot imagine any explanation for anything that does not also contain an element of justification, I am not trying to offer excuses for what we have done. But nor am I apologising, quite, except for the mess and inconvenience, which are bound to be considerable.
So how did it start? With the letter from the agency? Or with the advertisement I placed? Perhaps much earlier, years and years ago, with Jenny. Jenny is the niece I invented for myself. Yes, perhaps that reveals a tendency. She started as just a little harmless face-saving white lie which of course led to others, and in no time at all the fact that she did not exist was neither here nor there. My niece became quite real to me, or as real as somebody living in Australia ever could be, in my mind. I haven't travelled abroad.
No, now that I reflect, it started with this place, with the house itself. Because the house made me feel things from the very first which perhaps I should find strange, it being my fifty-eighth. Memories are a little blurred after fifty-seven in eighteen years, but I do know I'd never felt things before. This is the fifty-eighth house, although I've sat some houses more than once because people used to ask for me again. I specialise, or I did, in long stays. 'We have the perfect lady, flexible, no ties, usually available' was how I was recommended. I spell this out just so that it is clear that I have been well thought of. Inexperience has nothing to do with it. Nor was it anything to do with malice or jealousy.
The house when I came was full of old things; fuller than it is now, for reasons I will come to. Many of them were not in mint condition, and I liked them like that. I liked the way they sat about the house in little settlements, as if they had sought one another out and were sticking together, little colonies of things on small island table tops. There were the boxes: workboxes with velvet linings and silver spools and scissors and dear little buttonhooks, boxes with tiny glass bottles with stoppers missing, writing boxes still cedar scented and ink-stained on the inside, yellowed carved ivory boxes, and painted and enamel ones --- I suppose for snuff, those ones --- but I wasn't concerned about their original purpose. Then there were the small silver things in the drawing room, the heavy paper knife with a swan's head, the magnifying glass, a round box with a dent, the filigree basket with the twisted handle, a vase for a single rose. The blue and white porcelain in the dining room, some of it chipped, and the fans in the case in the library, of beaded lace, faded painted parchment and tired-looking feathers. Even some of the books: nearly everything else was modern, but on three shelves there were sets of very old books with cracked spines and faint titles. They all had that look of being dusted in cinnamon and gave off a leafy smell that reminded me of church. Inside, many of the pages were loose, and so thin that the print on the other side grinned right through the words when I tried to read, as if they were not unreadable enough already.
But all these things seemed content in their imperfections; they were not shouting out to be mended the way new things are. New things so often break before there has been time for them to fade and crumble. Here, it was as if the things had simply been around long enough to be dropped or bent or knocked, and every one of these minute, accidental events had been patiently absorbed, as if the things knew themselves to be acceptable and thought beautiful just as they were. If objects could give contented sighs, that's what these would have done. I wanted to be like that. I wondered if I, also fading and crumbling as everything does in the end, could be like that. Yes, I remember wondering that right from the start, in those first few days of January.
The third day, like the first two, slipped away and got lost somewhere in the folds of the afternoon. As before, Jean had made the dusting of the objects in the house last for most of the morning. She had vacuumed the floors again and cleaned her bathroom, unnecessarily. After her lunch of milky instant coffee and biscuits she tidied round the kitchen. When she could fool herself no longer that there was anything left to do she mounted the carved wooden stairs and walked the upper floors, again feeling mildly inquisitive, as if the house and the rest of the day might be conspiring to withhold something from her. Again, pointlessly, she tried the three doors she knew to be locked. Then she wandered with less purpose, pausing here and there, her vague eyes watching how light displaced time in the many other rooms of the house. Light entered by the mullioned windows, stretched over floors and panelled walls and lay down across empty beds. It lay as cold and silent as a held breath over furniture and objects and over Jean lingering in each doorway; it claimed space usually taken by hours and minutes which, outside, continued to pass. Through windows to the west Jean saw how the wind was moving the bare trees that bordered the fields; through the south windows she watched grass shivering in the paddock, watched as clouds pasted onto the sky bulged and heaved a little. Inside, the afternoon aged; its folds sank and deepened, closed over the last of the daylight and sucked it in. When it was quite dark Jean walked again from room to room, touching things gently and drawing curtains. So the third day passed, with Jean watching as it seemed not to do so, unaware that she was waiting.
She was keeping the letter from the agency in the pocket of her thick new cardigan, the Christmas present she had bought and wrapped for herself so that she would have something to open 'from my niece Jenny in Australia' in front of the other residents on Christmas morning. For this year, finding herself again be- tween house-sitting jobs over the holiday, she had been obliged to spend Christmas at the Ardenleigh Guest House. It was Jean's fifth Christmas there in eighteen years, and Jenny had sprung into being the very first time when, one day at breakfast, a depressed old lady had invited Jean to agree with her that Christmas was quite dreadful when you were getting on and nobody wanted you. It had sounded like an accusation; Jean had then been in her late forties but suspected she looked older. She ignored the assumption about her age and concentrated on the 'unwanted' allegation. She heard herself saying, Oh, but I didn't have to come here! In fact my . . . my niece begged me to come to her! But I told her oh no, I shan't come this year, thank you, dear. Thank you, Jenny dear, I said, but no, I'll make other arrangements. And then of course the old lady had asked her why. Oh, well. Well, she's having a baby soon, her third. So I thought, it wouldn't be fair to add to the workload this year. Then she added, in a voice loaded with dread, You see, she's not having an easy pregnancy.
Several of the residents were permanent, and the next time Jean had to spend Christmas there one of them asked, too eagerly, how the niece was getting on. She could not bear to disappoint --- it was as if during the intervening two years the residents had been on the edge of their seats waiting for news --- so she found herself telling them about the baby (quite a toddler now, into everything!), adding that this year they were away, spending Christmas with Jenny's husband's family. And it was the same the next time, at which point Jean lost her nerve and packed them all off to live in Australia. But she discovered that the Ardenleigh residents had formed a high opinion of Jenny, and it did not seem right to Jean to sully her niece's reputation by allowing her, just because she had emigrated, to forget her old aunt in England. It did not seem the kind of thing Jenny would do. So for Ardenleigh Christmases she now produced Jenny's thoughtful present, relieved not to have to produce also another reason, beyond the unbearably long flight (at her age), for not spending Christmas 'Down Under'.
But this year it seemed that Jenny had slipped up, because the cardigan was not a success. Jean had chosen it thinking its colour 'amethyst' and realised, now that it had been hers for over a week, that it was just a muddy purple. But it did not occur to her not to wear it even though it now disappointed; she wrapped herself snugly into her mistake just as she kept the letter close as a reminder to be at all times braced against the temptation to forget it. It lay in her cardigan pocket. In the mornings, bending to dust the feet of a table or to unplug the vacuum cleaner, Jean would sometimes feel it crackle next to her, as if a small, sharp part of herself had broken off and was hanging loose against her side. It puzzled her, almost, to find that she was not actually in pain. Sometimes she would take the envelope from her pocket and look at it, but she did not read the letter again.
Yet, somewhere in the course of the afternoons, Jean would arrive at an amnesty with the presence of the letter. As daylight took its leave, it seemed to wrap up and bear away the threat that seeped from her cardigan pocket. She could feel that the letter itself was still there, but she would begin to regard it with a sort of detached astonishment, which grew into simple disbelief that marks on a piece of paper should hold any power over her. Walking from room to room, switching on lamps, it seemed amazing to her that only this morning she had thought the letter had any meaning at all. Here, in this soft lamplight, how could it? And as the day darkened further, the picture of herself accepting some pointless words in an envelope hidden inside her cardigan grew more and more improbable. By night time, when she had settled at the drawing-room fire and the peace of the house was at its deepest, the very notion of eight months hence was simply incredible. Here, if she wanted it, the future could be as dim and distant as she preferred the past to be.
On the fourth day Shelley from the agency telephoned.
'Is that Walden Manor?'
'Who is this? Jean, is that you? Jean? It's Shelley, from Town and Country Sitters. Did you get our letter?'
'Oh. Oh yes. Yes, I got the letter.'
Jean disliked Shelley. She had met her in person only once, when a householder had insisted that his keys should not be sent through the post to the sitter and Jean had had to travel to the office in Stockport to collect them. She knew she ought to try to feel sorry for her. Shelley was burdened both by asthma and by a disproportionately large chest, which together gave the impression that her breasts were actually two hardworking outside lungs, round and wide, inelastic and over-inflated. Jean now pictured them rising and falling and pulled her purple cardigan round her own neat shoulders, swaying in a wave of panic that suddenly washed through her. She waited with the receiver held some distance away, trying to calm herself, while Shelley caught her breath at the other end. She guessed that Shelley would be at her desk, winding the telephone flex around the ringed index finger of her free hand, her unbuttoned jacket of the navy businesswoman sort skimming the sides of her blouse-clad bosom with the whish and crackle of acetate meeting acetate. Possibly this was adding to the gusts of noise that Jean could hear over the phone, now, as if some battle that she could not see were being fought somewhere in the distance.
'Right, well, Jean,' Shelley managed at last, 'so you've had our confirmation. Basically I just wanted to check if you've got any queries. You're okay as regards the contents of the letter, are you? Unfortunately we won't be in a position to offer you any further employment after the expiry of this current contract. I mean, we had said, hadn't we. I did say.'
Jean said nothing, knowing that her silence would be considered a difficult one.
Shelley told her, 'We don't like terminating people but it's company policy. Town and Country's not in a position to keep people on past retirement age, we're not allowed. It's the insurance.' Breathing of a struggling, bovine kind followed this long speech. 'I mean, you've done sterling work. But you've already had four years past sixty. Right. So.'
Still Jean said nothing, so Shelley changed tack. 'So, you're doing okay, are you, Jean, as regards the location of the property? Okay popping out and getting your bits and pieces? Because they did say it'd be better for a car owner as you've got over a mile to the village and it might be lonely. They said really it'd suit a slightly younger person with a car and maybe a part time job in the area, though I did tell them you were very professional and okay with a mile. You are okay, Jean, are you?'
'There's been a breakage,' Jean announced. 'Today, while I was dusting. A teapot on the sideboard. Blue and white, Chinese, with silver mountings. Not very large.'
There was another wait while Shelley prepared the tone of her reply and Jean heard the breathing grow unmistakably irritated. 'Well, you've just proved my point. We have to fork out the excess on that now. You'll need to find it on the inventory and notify us and we'll have to tell the owners. You have got the inventory, haven't you? It was in with the rest of the paperwork, with our letter and the owners' list, you know, all their do's and don'ts?'
'Yes, I've got the paperwork. And the list, all the do's and don'ts. Plenty of them.'
'Yes, well, that's their prerogative. People can go a bit over the top, especially when they can't meet the sitter themselves. The Standish-Caves had to fly out the day before you arrived, that was all explained, wasn't it?'
The list of instructions and grudging permissions for the house sitter that had come from the owners, via the agency, filled several typed pages. They were wide-ranging: no open fires, no candles, do not use the dining room or drawing room, use TV in small sitting room, use only kitchen crockery, do not use the cappuccino machine or the ice cream maker, always wear gloves to dust the books, beeswax polish only --- no silicone sprays, you are welcome to finish any opened jars, unplug the television at night. Jean hugged her cardigan closer.
'You'd think I'd never house-sat before. You'd think I don't know the first thing.'
'Well, you can't blame them, can you, especially not now something's broken. It is their house.'
'I could have a go at mending it. I've still got the bits.'
'Don't touch it! They'll want it properly mended, if it's even worth doing. These clients are very particular, that's why they're using us. That's why you're there. Oh, Jean.'
There was more laborious breathing from Stockport until Jean finally cleared her throat and said, 'Sorry.'
Shelley said, rather quickly, 'Well, I'm sure you are but I mean this is the point, isn't it? This is just the point. You are sixty-four. Suppose it happens again? Suppose you had a fall or something --- well, our clients are paying for peace of mind, which they'd not be getting, would they, not in that particular scenario. No way they'd be getting peace of mind if Town and Country let their sitters go on too long.'
'It's only small. They probably wouldn't even miss it, there are hundreds of things here.'
'Jean, you're in a people business. The client's needs come first. That's key. Isn't it? You're in the client's home.'
Jean sniffed. 'You don't have to tell me that. I have been doing this eighteen years.'
'Yes, and maybe that's why it's time to call it a day, isn't it? After all, we've all got to retire sometime, haven't we? I should think you could do with a rest! Where is it you're retiring to, again?'
There was another wait while Jean said nothing because she did not know, and Shelley shored up her elective forgetfulness against the disturbing little truth that for eighteen years the agency had corresponded with Jean, on the very rare occasions when there was a gap between house-sitting assignments, care of a Mrs Pearl Costello (proprietrix) at the Ardenleigh Private Guest House in East Sussex somewhere. St Leonard's, was it? This year Jean had asked as usual for an assignment that would span Christmas, and they had nothing for her until this one at Walden Manor, beginning on January 3rd. Shelley sighed with an audible crackle as her jacket shifted on her shoulders. All right, so Jean had no family. But today was Shelley's first Monday back from 'doing' Christmas for fourteen people of four generations in a three-bedroomed house, and she told herself stoutly that family life could be overrated. Jean probably had a ball at the Ardenleigh.
'Going to retire to the seaside, are you, Jean?'
'I'm looking at a number of options. I haven't decided.'
'Good for you. Right, well, I'll let you get on. Send us on a notification of the breakage. Oh, and can you remember in future when you answer a client's phone, you should say, "Walden Manor, the Standish-Cave residence, may I help you?" It's a nice touch. You don't just say hello, all right? Company policy. And careful with that duster, at least till you're enjoying a long and happy retirement!'
Jean put down the telephone in the certain knowledge that Shelley in Stockport was doing the same with a shake of the head, a crackle of her clothing and a despairing little remark to the office in general about it being high time, getting Jean Wade off the books.
That evening Jean lit a fire in the drawing room. When it was well alight, she drew the agency's letter from her pocket and laid it carefully over the flames. Its pages curled, blackened and blazed up as the logs underneath settled with a hiss and a weak snap of exploding resin that sounded to Jean, smiling in her deep armchair, more like an approving sigh followed by faint and affectionate tutting. Only as the flames died, and to her surprise, did she become aware of a dissatisfaction with the emptiness of the room. Jean did not acknowledge loneliness. She had long recognised that two states, solitariness and a kind of sadness, were constants in her life, merely two ordinary facts of her existence. The two things might have been related, but as far as she could she left that possibility unexamined. Because even if they were, what could she do about it? Like many people who cannot abide self-pity, Jean sometimes felt very sorry indeed for a buried part of herself whose very existence irked her. And of course she was alone now, sitting in the glow of the fire and of warm-shaded lamps, in the low, beamed drawing room with its deep rose carpet and the heavy drapes pulled against the dark outside. She occupied a solid wing armchair, one of several chairs in the room which, along with two sofas, were covered in materials that were all different but belonged to the same respectable family of chalky old shades of green, pink and grey. She had never been more comfortable in her life, and she was, of course, alone. And so what dissatisfied her suddenly, she thought, could not be simple loneliness, not some unmet desire for a companion, but more a regret that she was the only person in the world who had seen the short but satisfying burning of the letter. For it had been a ceremony of a kind, watching the maroon, swirling print of the letterhead 'Town & Country Sitters for total peace of mind' go up in flames; and ceremonies should be witnessed even if they are not quite understood, Jean thought. She could not say exactly what the significance of hers had been, whether it marked an end or a beginning, a remembrance, an allegiance, a pledge --- but it had been in a way purifying, and there should have been somebody else here to watch it with her. Somebody who might afterwards stay a while, and to whom she might talk in her underused voice, all about the letter, and Mother, and houses and growing old, and who, occupying the other chair by the fire, would nod and understand. And who, later perhaps, almost carelessly admiring her cleverness and good taste, would assure her that one smashed teapot among so many half broken things did not matter, that all would be well, even that her ill-chosen cardigan was, in fact, a beautiful shade of amethyst.
I felt that way about the objects even before the teapot. And also before the teapot, there was another thing. I felt, walking through the house, that time itself had stopped passing or rather, since that is impossible, that its passing had begun to seem irrelevant in the way that a war fought in another country becomes, eventually. For it seemed to me that in this house the only purpose of time, before it grew dark, was to let something beautiful happen to the light that was coming in through the windows. The hours of those first afternoons just moved over and made space for me to be quietly entertained by the light entering, fading and then leaving us, the things and me. I thought it was the kindest present I had ever been given.
I tested this second feeling for the first few days and reached an accommodation with it. I realised that in a house like this time passes so gently it seems not to be doing so at all unless you pay attention to the way light changes. Time had stopped pulling me along the way it had begun to, with that letter. It was as if time would let me linger for as long as I wanted, would even linger along with me, but so quietly that I would not notice it at my side.
All this is the wisdom of hindsight, of course. I couldn't have put it into words at the time. All I could have said for certain back in January was that I was happy in a beautiful house. Also that I saw, for certain, that people are mistaken when they say that joys are fleeting. It's the opposite. I had arrived thinking, worrying, really, that it wasn't long until September. But in the first week here I learned that a part of joy is the apparent infinity of it. When you are happy, happiness stretches out ahead of you, its end forever receding even as you suspect that something this good can't last. But it does. It goes on, and you're confounded, you ought to be expecting it to finish, and it doesn't. Then something quite giddy gets into you, and then you start to think you need it to go on. And it does, it does. It's one of the things about it. Suddenly, because I was happy, the time until September was so, so far away. Happiness surrounded me like trees so I couldn't see September, waiting.
She had not told Shelley the half of it about the teapot. When it fell and shattered on the dining room floor after what seemed the merest push from the feather duster, it had spilt keys. Several, perhaps forty of them, had skittered and skidded across the flagstones like enameled seeds from a spent case. Jean was at first offended by the accident, feeling that she had been almost forced into it. The owners' list had commanded, 'Use the feather duster. Do not lift objects to dust them' and Jean had so far been obedient. So really, the breakage could be said to be their own fault, for if she had been using a cloth, or if she had been holding the teapot instead of pushing the stupid feather thing at it as it sat on the sideboard, it would not have slid off and smashed.
But the broken teapot ceased to matter when she picked up the keys from across the floor and considered them, for this was a house with a great many locked doors. Householders varied, Jean had found. Some encouraged a house sitter to move in and treat the place as their own, proffering so much access that it was embarrassing. In her time Jean had been invited to use computers, drinks cupboards, dubious videos, occasionally a sauna and once the client's electric hair rollers. Others were less profligate but still welcoming, sometimes dust-sheeting and closing unneeded rooms as much for the house sitter's convenience as their own. But few locked rooms the way these people had, without explanation, but still leaving open four empty bedrooms upstairs and all the downstairs rooms that Jean was supposed to clean and maintain but not use. They had also locked what they called, in their instructions, the pool pavilion, the garages, the potting sheds and implement store. Desk drawers and small cabinets throughout the house also had been locked and the keys taken away. And had been placed in the blue and white teapot at the back of the sideboard, Jean now supposed, lifting and dropping handfuls of keys, letting them clank softly in her palm. Or to be more accurate, placed in the teapot so that they would be hidden from her. Her vague offence over the owners' behaviour was warming into resentment. They were practically saying they did not trust her. Did they assume that a humble house sitter would be unable to resist the temptation to sully their beautiful and valuable possessions?
The keys that were obviously for cars were of no interest to Jean, who had never learned to drive. Nor did she think she would ever need or want to operate garden machinery using the keys with paper tags marked mower, old saw and new saw. But the largest mortice keys would surely open the locked doors upstairs. They would show her the rooms that were thought too good for her, which would offer up their spaces, grateful that she had come to claim them. The smaller keys, she guessed, would be for cupboards. They would reveal even finer things that would console her for the destroyed teapot, treasures yet more precious, even now waiting to be brought into the light. And the smallest keys would surely turn the locks of some of the carved boxes, of hidden drawers in exquisite cabinets; they would yield with scarcely a click and she would pull out tiny handles and lift lids on secrets that these people, in their insulting way, had thought to keep from her. Next to these pewter-coloured keys, whose dullness merely disguised the scale and richness of what they protected, the bright blue and white, silver-mounted teapot was already losing its glamour. Jean retrieved the porcelain shards, now as discarded and irrelevant as shed skin, and put them in a bag.
You might think it's a perfect recipe for bitterness, living all alone in the house of somebody much richer than you are, but I don't think I have ever fallen into that particular trap. Besides, this house isn't the biggest place I've done or the most luxurious, nor did I mind not having neighbours. It's a solitary job anyway, you accept that, and a mile from the village isn't really that far. Thinking about it I've been much more solitary in towns, behind electronic gates in huge opulent houses full of expensive trash, usually in places that are both popular and disgusting, like Bournemouth. Or Wilmslow. I could never be anything other than solitary in places like that. Those houses have carpets so thick you think you're walking on squashed animals, and big upholstered chairs with huge cushions, like corpulent women in tight dresses in too young a colour. Most often it's peach. In places like that you are lonely, comfortable and revolted all at the same time.
So, this house, the fifty-eighth, is not the biggest, nor the loneliest nor the richest. It is the most gracious. Put simply, it is beautiful. From the first, I knew it was the first truly beautiful house I'd ever seen, because I could imagine really living in it, as distinct from just staying a while. It's beautiful in the old way, quietly. I don't think I'm a snob but there's such a thing as good taste --- though there's more to it than that. I never really associated this house with its owners. It seems strange even to call them that. I thought about them, a little, in the first week or so, but gradually less, and hardly ever after Michael came.
When I arrived, three of the rooms upstairs were locked. So was the door to the cellar, various other cupboards around the place, and the garages and outbuildings. I was a bit cross about that, clients shouldn't do that. First of all, one of my jobs is to keep rooms aired and how can I if they're locked? Second is the fire risk. What if there's an electrical fault, and a fire starts that you can't get to? You're wondering all the time what could happen behind the door and all you can do is rattle the handle and pray that everything's unplugged. People just don't think about that, not until they've experienced a house fire for themselves. The irony was that on that very long list of things they wanted me to do or not do, they'd put 'avoid any fire risks'! So, no candles, no open fires, unplug the television. I could have taken that personally, but I kept reminding myself they knew nothing about me and fires and houses. They couldn't, because Town and Country Sitters didn't; if they had I should never have been taken on at all. No, the 'owners' were just being cautious in case I was as stupid as they were afraid I'd be, being only a house sitter.
Other things on the list that annoyed me: after 'no open fires' it said that the radiators were turned off in the library, drawing room, dining room and upstairs, but not in 'my' bedroom or the smallest bathroom, or in the small sitting room where the television was. That was an assumption, wasn't it? That I'd just watch telly and go to bed. Well, I may have been in the habit of doing so, but I didn't care for the assumption. Straightaway it reminded me of the Ardenleigh where it's a choice between the bedroom (heating off, discouraged in the daytime) or what they call the lounge, where the television is on all day with nobody watching it but not really doing anything else either, except looking offended. And oh yes, the Aga kept the kitchen warm, the list said. If that wasn't a hint about where I belonged I don't know what was.
So almost from the very beginning I lit a fire in the drawing
room every evening, right up till the beginning of June. There are
enough logs stacked outside in the open shed in the courtyard to
last for years and plenty of trees round about anyway. Michael has
been lighting a fire again since last week. August evenings can be
Anyway, I'm supposed to be trying to explain. I admit I wasn't in the best frame of mind about Mr and Mrs Standish-Cave, but it wasn't malice. It was more a case of things just coming round in a particular way, starting with me coming here after another Christmas at the Ardenleigh. The Ardenleigh is dreadful at Christmas. It's half holiday guesthouse and half old people's home. She (Mrs Costello) takes anybody who pays as long as they're not geriatric, and I daresay it suits her to have people there all winter. But at Christmas it's neither one thing nor the other. A plastic snowman on every storage heater, wisps of tinsel (turquoise to match the carpet) sellotaped on to the pictures, the barometer and the cuckoo dock, even on the stainless steel cruet on every table. This year there was an artificial Christmas tree with flashing lights that played Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, until one of the residents had a nightmare about it and wet her bed. It was the talk of the place, would she be allowed to stay? The pictures on the walls are like the tablemats and the tablemats are like the pictures, and I've never known grapefruit segments in syrup (first course on Christmas Day) improved for being eaten off a coaching scene from Olde Englande. It's not uncomfortable exactly; you get used to the sound of the traffic outside and the television, and at least the heating goes on in the bedrooms at six. But the irony was that even though I loathed the Ardenleigh it was better than where I would probably end up, because I wouldn't be able to afford even the Ardenleigh's terms for permanent residents after September.
Later, it was the three of us together, Michael, Steph and me, and then the baby, and its seeming suddenly so clear what was important. This is hard. I've just read that last bit back to myself and it doesn't really tell you much, does it? Suppose I put it like this: it wasn't just the thought of the Ardenleigh or worse, or this house, or the things in it, or just me, or just Michael, or Steph, or the baby. Not any one single thing, not one thing more than any of the others. It was all of us, and all of it: the way this place allowed each of us to stop struggling in our various ways, how it seemed to give us strength, how it seemed right to care for it so much, and for one another. All of it added up to more than just us.
We came to it late, you see, we came late to the idea of belonging in a place and belonging to other people. I mean we'd all had goes at it in the past, it's hard to avoid, but it was us being here, the family we made, that was the point. If you think that sounds like an attempt to justify what's happened, you'd be quite right.
Six tapestry kneelers at maybe eight pounds each would hardly make it worth the trip. Michael's whole trip had been planned round the pair of 16th century alabaster effigies in the display case and now, just because the vicar wasn't here and thanks to this stupid woman, he wasn't going to get his hands anywhere near them. The consolation prize of six tapestry kneelers made it worse, somehow. Michael was thinking this in his head while smiling and listening to the woman --- she must be some church volunteer --- who had interrupted him between the sixth and seventh kneeler and was now following him round the church.
He had called at the vicarage to ask if he could handle the alabaster figures, to be told by a preoccupied woman at a computer screen that the vicar was away and she knew nothing about the procedures for unlocking the case holding the figures, but he was of course welcome to look round the church. He had been glad to find it empty, and not too disheartened. He had half-expected to find the figures inaccessible, but he might still find out useful things such as the strength of the lock on the case, perhaps even where the key was kept (pathetically often with church people, simply in a drawer in the vestry). It would not be the first time he would have to make a return trip, and in the meantime a decent number of kneelers would make this one worthwhile. So when this other woman had appeared eight minutes later he had been sitting in one of the pews with his backpack beside him, half prepared for the interruption.
Long ago he had learned that the quiet of country churches was deceptive and that people came and went all day, self-importantly engaged in parish drudgery of one sort or another. So he always made sure that he was ready to assume, at the split second's notice usually given by the clack of an iron latch, an attitude of prayerful contemplation. Until such time as he might be interrupted --- today, a mere eight minutes --- he would be quietly busy. This time he had been stuffing the boring but quite saleable hand-stitched kneelers into his backpack. It could have held twenty. Twenty might have fetched well over a hundred quid; still only a fifth of what the alabaster figures would make, so it would have gone down as a poor day. But still respectable, at least worth his while.
But he would have to revise those calculations, because he had only managed to get six of them. And the woman was now into her twentieth minute of telling him that the vicar wasn't here because his wife had died three weeks before Christmas and the poor man had had to go on a retreat.
'Just yesterday, how unlucky! Poor man. I said to him, you just never know how it's going to take you, we're all different. We are, aren't we? But he said he would see things through to Epiphany, that was yesterday of course, and then he would take a break. He's finding it much more difficult than he expected, if you ask me.'
Michael smiled and said he quite understood. 'But if perhaps you could open the case? As I explained, I've been looking at artifacts from this period for several years and it's only by --- '
'I said to the parish clerk on Sunday, I said if you ask me that man is heading for a breakdown, he said oh I know, but at least he's off for a week, off to Columba's Lodge on the seventh and I said well I'm glad to hear it --- '
'You see, handling the figures is the only way --- '
'What? Oh, no, I am sorry, I wouldn't be comfortable. I am churchwarden as I said, but I'm not sure I've got the authority. I've never been asked, you see, and the vicar keeps the key at the vicarage, so --- . I mean if the other churchwarden was here as well, but no, he's away, I know for a fact it's this week. He's in the Canaries, they always go in January. Lucky for some!'
Michael pulled his mouth into another understanding smile but doubted if he could say 'it doesn't matter' without hissing, so said nothing. He wandered off down the nave, raising his eyes to the roof as if it held some interest, blinking several times to disguise the faint flickering of muscle that tugged at one side of his face whenever he got upset. Then like a familiar ache came the realisation that she was not going to finish talking and push off to leave him alone again in the church. He would have to leave first.
'You see, it's Jeff, you said, isn't it, you see, Jeff, I think the vicar would say it's not the value so much as the fragility. Do you know, nobody's even meant to touch them without gloves? I couldn't take it upon myself, you see. But the vicar might let you handle them, if you came back when he's here.'
Michael pressed his eyebrows into an angle of scholarly disappointment. 'Yes, yes, that would be marvellous, except I'm due back in Norfolk by the weekend, you see. And one does so need to examine them. The main idea for my little book revolves round certain dating uncertainties, as I said, and only close examination gets one any further forward . . .'
'Oh, but we're quite confident they're genuine sixteenth century, because --- ' Michael was too taken up with noticing how hamstery she looked to hear the details. Her hair might have been red once, and was still abundant. Twisted wires of it were held under a knitted hat and a gingery down surrounded her small mouth, which worked too quickly. Michael took a deep breath for one last effort and interrupted her to explain that his hypothesis, based on his understanding (imperfect, of course, just a little interest of his, though a publisher may be getting keen) of the religious iconography of Northern Europe, the details of which he would spare her, was that the figures might be much older.
'They might, in fact, even be twelfth century. Though one must get them in one's hands, you see, as the weight and density of the material is key. And a little scrape test on the base would confirm, and so on. But if I'm right, they'd be so rare you could say they were priceless. Immensely valuable.'
This had worked before. It was extraordinary how the unwillingness of some people to put their important and valuable objects into his hands could suddenly evaporate at the suggestion that a closer examination might reveal even more importance and value. But infuriatingly, inexplicably, it was not working now with Hamster Woman. Was she simple?
'Oh my goodness! That would be something for the PCC, wouldn't it! But oh, you should have telephoned the vicarage first, it's too bad you've missed the vicar! Though to be honest I'm not sure if he'd have been up to it, he's exhausted. It's only four and half weeks since she finally went and such terrible timing, just in the run-up to Christmas and you can imagine Christmas nearly finished him but no, he wouldn't bow out of a single service, he's like that, throws himself into everything, too hard if you ask me. And oh, he did need the break, we could all see that. She was only fifty-nine and towards the end, you see, with the nursing, well. The bishop's quite good about things like that. The new bishop I mean, the last one wasn't quite so aware, not at the grass roots. Though as a parish, we all try to be terribly --- '
'No, well! Sadly, I didn't know. Ah well, very sad. Another time.
Well, I won't …'
Michael was not finding the right words in the way he had once been able to, and his face was definitely ticking now. Why was it calling for greater effort each time? This part of it, the part of the whole business that should be fun, that might even in a strange way have been the point of it once, was now becoming more and more difficult. His attention tended to wander, and that was dangerous. Or perhaps, Michael considered, pulling a hand across his face, he was allowing his attention to wander because it was dangerous, because the fire he was playing with had been cooling over the course of the last few trips and a little more danger might generate a little more heat from it. Or was he just tired, tired beyond words, like the vicar, exhausted?
Michael bestowed his curatey smile on the woman once more and concentrated hard. He was not Michael, he was Jeffrey 'everyone calls me Jeff' Stevenson. He adjusted his voice to reveal his gratitude, his smile to show his regret, his eyes to leave her in no doubt about his sincerity. He ran it over again in his mind. He, Jeff, was a Church of England curate taking a few days' holiday, researching his special interest in devotional objects. He was a curate; disappointed and philosophical, but (because they all were) demonstrably, quintessentially nice.
Nicely, he said, 'It's my own fault, I should have planned better, but sometimes it's good to wander whither one wilt, so to speak, and just drop in. Ah well, back to Norfolk, disappointed! Unless we can prevail upon someone else …'
'Oh, Norfolk! I'm very fond of Norfolk! So where is your church, exactly?'
Michael swallowed and tried not to stare at her with the naked hatred he was beginning to feel.
'St Margaret's, Burnham Norton,' he told her, also reminding himself that today he was Jeff Stevenson of St Margaret's, Burnham Norton, and that there was no need to panic. He could, if required, reel off the biographical details of Jeff Stevenson that he had memorized from Crockford's Directory of the Clergy. Part of Michael's brain now pictured the real Jeff Stevenson going about his pathetic business in Norfolk, unaware that he was being impersonated (and rather well) on the other side of the country. Michael knew that whatever the day might hold in the line of duty for Jeff Stevenson, it would include a little light comforting of the old, the lonely, the sick: jollying up, calming down, smoothing over the truth that most people's lives stank whether there was a God or not. Michael believed that comforting was just another form of lying, which made Jeff Stevenson no better than he was.
'Oh, yes, but just where is that?' asked the woman, her voice squeaking with what sounded, unbelievably, like genuine interest. How was it possible? Michael wondered. Really, how was it done? And most of all, why, why this curiosity, this caring about details in the lives of strangers? Then the thrill that had been missing from the day stole over him. Beyond its being in Norfolk, Michael had not a clue where Burnham Norton was. And it would be such an exquisite disaster if, by one of those coincidences that were so common, he was about to be found out. He waited, perhaps half wanting it, to hear the 'because my sister lives there, you must know her!' or the 'but the curate of St Margaret's is my goddaughter's nephew. You're not the curate of St Margaret's!' One day it was bound to happen. Was it to be today? The more little trips he made the more he risked it, and with every time he got away with it, the closer came the day when he would not.
'Is it on the coast?'
The question seemed to ring off the walls of the church and eddy round the display case where the pair of effigies stood smug behind the glass. Michael moved casually towards the door.
'Well, if you know where Norwich is it's not so far from there, I suppose. Look, I think I'd better --- '
'But in what direction? How many miles? Is it anywhere near oh, what's it called . . . I can picture the place, I went there as a girl --- twice in fact --- '
'Oh, is this your leaflet?' Michael blurted. 'May I take one?'
'Oh, do! Here, take a few and you can hand some on,' she said, pushing a wad of pale green leaflets at him. 'There's quite a bit there about our effigies, we are rather proud of them! And we do like our visitors!'
'Oh, may I? Thank you.'
'Take plenty, do. Well, remember where we are, won't you? The vicar'll be back by the end of this week. Have you signed our visitors' book? There should be a pen but they do walk!
'Oh, not to worry! It's been lovely just to see the church. Yes, I've signed the book,' Michael gushed back. 'As soon as I arrived, before you came in. Thanks so much!'
'And do, do come back at the end of the week when the vicar's here!'
'If I possibly can, I will! Thank you!'
'Give my regards to Norfolk!'
'I will!' And if you say one more word, he thought, beaming at the woman before he turned to go, I shall club you to death.
Michael parked in a lay-by on the edge of Sherston, swiped up the pile of pale green leaflets from the dashboard, wound down the window and pushed them out. He stared at them as they settled and shifted on the ground. The twitch in his face had travelled down to his throat, and he began to cry. The van needed work, the electric bill was overdue and even supposing he could shift the six kneelers straightaway, once he counted in his petrol he would be no better off. He sank his head onto the steering wheel and gulped. He was due back in court tomorrow for falling behind with his fines again, and he had nothing for the arrears. But even that was not the worst of it. The unbearable part was that, despite the practical clothes and the shiny clean hair for today's little performance, he was not Jeff Stevenson. Once again, inescapably, he was only himself.
On Tuesday, the day after the teapot and Shelley's telephone call, Jean filled her cardigan pockets with keys and set off round the house. The largest key opened the locked room at the front, which turned out to be a study, not of the proper working kind but with a battered, easy-going air, as if any studying ever done in it had been allowed to evolve in its own fashion. The furniture was comfortably mis-matched, apparently brought in piece by piece and then allowed to stay, however useless it became. One solid mahogany desk had been joined by an oak one, smaller and less attractive, on which stood an ancient IBM golfball typewriter. A four drawer filing cabinet stood next to one of another colour, half its size. There was a computer and printer, and a disconnected fax and answering machine. Next to the computer squatted an old adding machine, and behind the cordless telephone sat a white plastic one with a round dial.
Jean was not especially curious about what business might have been conducted here, but it seemed to her, peering at the shelves of Cricketers' Almanac, the stacked software boxes with titles such as Mensa Ultimate Challenge and British Plant Guide, that it was less than all-absorbing, and perhaps indistinguishable from recreation. Quite possibly no business at all, in the commercial sense, but only household matters were run from here. She looked round blandly. All offices and businesses were, in the end, the same to her. She had worked in several, the last in 1984, when she had left just in time to avoid having to grapple with word processing. Work in offices bored her and always had: all it ever came to was the talking, typing, sending, filing of what were in the end just words and numbers. The people around her had seemed unaware of the futility of what they did all day, so she had learned to keep her mouth shut, do what was expected of her and look as if she gave a damn. But it amazed her. The wonder of offices, she felt, was that so many people could waste so much of their lives in them and think their time well spent.
Two of the newest and smallest keys opened the filing cabinets. Jean flicked through the folders in the top drawer, marked with names such as Current Account 1, 2 and 3, Telephone, Insurance (Buildings), Insurance (Contents), Appliances, Oil, Electricity, Pool, Suppliers: Various. In the lower drawers the first few files were labelled Bonds, Deeds and Inland Revenue. Jean could not be bothered to look further. It was all financial or legal stuff, statements and accountants' letters about trusts, investments and so on, and a lot of correspondence with some firm called Sadler Byng & Waterman who called themselves Independent Financial Advisers. Jean closed the drawer. It was sure to be disappointingly mundane in the detail, even if she were ready to make the effort to understand it. If she found herself at a very loose end some wet afternoon she might come up here and take a proper look. Before she left the room she checked that the computer and fax were indeed unplugged, but noted reproachfully that the old electric typewriter on the oak desk by the window was not. She left it as it was.
She tried another of the large keys in the carved door at the end of the main landing. It turned. The door opened with a sigh of its hinges, and showed to Jean --- as if a curtain had been raised on a scene from a glamorous play --- a room so light, pristine and pale that she felt immediately dirty and unworthy. She hesitated, finding it necessary to gaze from the doorway as if to check that the room was indeed empty; for something inside, something surely alive though not human, was beckoning to her. She stepped out of her shoes and walked in, where the perfection of the room expanded and grew inclusive. As she moved, she stirred the trapped smells of dry grass, clean cotton and lemon oil, which now began to animate and scent the air she breathed. With every step across the white carpet she summoned magic; she was rousing spells long asleep in the stillness. Moving from window to window she looked out at the dank gardens and then back, trying to accustom herself to the changed picture that she must make, framed by the room. Slowly she grew used to the thought that now she was in the room she was also of it, transformed from the sneaking outsider on the threshold into the perfect room's perfect occupant. She looked round at the pattern of faded flowers on the thick curtains, the soft carpet and green rugs, the bleached stone fireplace and the silver candlesticks on the mantelpiece. They seemed to be congratulating her on her safe arrival; they breathed their acceptance and conferred their brightness upon her. Jean sat down on the edge of the large bed, then slid into the centre of it and stretched out. The room was cold, and at once the goose-down quilt beneath her grew warm and nest-like. She lay and allowed something that felt very like happiness to lap through her, wondering if this feeling might be the live thing that she had sensed in the room as she had stood on the threshold. But then, had she not herself brought the feeling with her into the room? She lay smiling, pleasantly unsure whether she were the giver or recipient.
Later, she wandered into the dressing room, where she found that the wardrobes, which lined three walls, still had keys in their doors. Opening one, Jean was dismayed that the full-length mirror on the inside should so nearly spoil things. It showed her that she did not, after all, quite perfectly belong; in her heavy skirt and cardigan she was the only dark thing in the room and was not merely dark, but a muddy, lilac dark. But that she should now be shown this was a kindness, really, in the manner of the room's many kindnesses, because the door's swinging open like that and offering Jean her own reflection was revealing also the most obvious and natural solution. The wardrobe was full of women's clothes, most of them hanging from silk padded hangers. Jean counted eight cashmere twin sets and perhaps ten skirts, several blouses of white and cream silk and linen, at least a dozen striped and plain cotton shirts. The drawers alongside held trousers, heavy sweaters, belts, scarves, underwear. Behind the next door hung suits and dresses. For many years Jean had bought clothes of the better sort second-hand, from discreet little places invariably called 'dress agencies'. She had almost developed the necessary blindness to evidence of previous ownership that was betrayed by a slightly bagging skirt, an armpit crease, a curl in a lapel. But nearly all of the clothes in these wardrobes had been so little worn that it was like staring at shop rails. They had the pleasantly impersonal, un-owned look of clothes in the classic English style --- yet they might be, Jean thought, biting her lip, just slightly too young and daringly coloured for her. Or perhaps, she thought, with a nip of elation that the prospect of new clothes had not induced in her for three decades, perhaps only too young and daringly coloured for her current view of herself, which now seemed, suddenly, unduly and unnecessarily depressed. The dark figure she had seen reflected in the long mirror was already an embarrassment, a mystifying guest who had turned up uninvited and looking all wrong. As she sifted along the rails she began to see that really, the clothes were actually already hers and always had been; it was only she who had strayed from herself. These clothes would restore her to her proper self --- the version of herself that she and other people had mislaid so long ago that everyone had ceased to notice that the dark, muddy Jean who had been going about in her place was the wrong one. The real, elegant, cared-for Jean had been found, and now she was burning to get out of the wrong clothes and prepare herself for the right ones. Turning carefully away from the reflection she undressed and slipped on a long dressing gown of cream alpaca.
In the large bathroom next to the dressing room she ran a deep bath, poured in two or three scented oils, and stepped in through the steam that had formed in the cool air. She lay back and waited. She would not wash away her old self. The violence of rubbing at her own skin would be almost crude and impatient, and she felt only the magnanimity of a person who is content to wait for her true status to be recognised. She lay in the lapping heat until, as she knew she would, the old Jean simply detached herself, rose up and disappeared into the steam, like a person dissolving into fog. Jean lifted a hand and stirred the water almost in a gesture of farewell, and sighed, looking down the length of her own body. She found she quite liked it, and was finding also that she had all at once become a person who knew that little sensory pleasures were not proscribed; that taking a slow bath in the afternoon was not merely permitted, but smiled upon. What else but approval could be meant by the sight of her own limbs and stomach, the reward of the slippery hot water, such sweet-smelling steam and soap, the thick towels?
After her bath she dried and scented herself, and spent the next hour in a thrill of experiment, trying on her new clothes. The underwear was no good, made for somebody whose bosom and backside were larger than hers. The shoes were a little too wide, but not bad if she could find some insoles. Most of the clothes were comfortable and also rather too big, so that they bestowed upon Jean the extra little compliment of making her feel dainty. The sight of herself in them was so gratifying it was as if the mirror were a new and encouraging friend. Wearing a deep raspberry-coloured cashmere skirt and sweater, Jean rearranged the wardrobe, pushing the few things that did not suit or fit her to one end. She then brought her own few bits of underwear from the tiny back bedroom and moved them in. She binned the toothbrushes in the bathroom and placed her own by the basin. In the bedroom she unlocked the dressing table and set out on its polished top the hairbrushes, scent and jewellery she found in the drawers. Before gathering up her key collection and leaving the room, she turned on the radiators, closed the curtains, switched on the bedside lights and turned back the bedclothes.
Bringing her new warm scent with her back onto the long landing, Jean opened the third locked room, which, when she entered it, seemed to have been longer uninhabited than the other two. Silence and stillness were more deeply in possession; the baby's cot and shelves of toys seemed never to have moved or had a moving thing come near them. The rocking chair stood balanced and fixed in its immobility. A touch of Jean's hand sent a wooden mobile of woolly sheep, hanging frozen over the Moses basket, into a reluctant spin. At least three dozen pairs of eyes watched her from the shelves; peering through acrylic fur fringes, a menagerie of toy bears, ducks, cats, tigers, elephants and pelicans stared out, glassy and despairing.
In the chest of drawers Jean found volumes of unworn baby clothes, many still in their wrappings, and unopened bottles of every imaginable unguent for the washing, scenting and soothing of baby skin. A baby alarm, still in its box, stood on a small antique nursing chair along with a breast pump, also new and unpacked. Jean saw at once how it all fitted together. Mrs Standish-Cave must be pregnant, which accounted for the quantity of temporarily redundant, nonmaternity clothes in the wardrobe, and she and her husband must have gone abroad for the obvious reason. She was going to spend her pregnancy abroad and have the baby there. Perhaps she was even foreign herself and had gone to be with her mother, or perhaps she just had views about the standards of English hospitals. She could, in either of these cases, afford options. No doubt they planned to return with the baby when it was a few months old, where the perfect nursery would be waiting. Jean picked a white bear with maroon velvet paws off the shelf and stroked it, allowing her jealousy of the woman's wealth and, a more familiar envy, her motherhood, to wash through and leave her. It was perhaps a little more understandable now, the peremptory, selfish list, if only marginally less exasperating. Even the locking of the rooms might be thought almost forgivable. Didn't women get fussy and obsessional about their homes when a baby was due? Nest building, fixing, sorting and controlling and having everything just so? Jean fingered the sleeve of her raspberry cashmere jersey and smiled. She could imagine it, the sweet anticipation of preparing for a baby --- she had imagined it often enough, though long ago now. But for a reason she did not examine she could imagine it now quite painlessly, rather than with a vague though sapping sense of regret.
Was it loneliness? A matter of not having enough to do? The beds in all the other bedrooms (I mean not counting the two they'd locked) except the one I was meant to have (which, I did note, was the smallest) were stripped bare when I arrived. It doesn't do much for a bedroom, a bare mattress. It looks as if someone has died or at least left forever, whereas a bed newly made up tells you that someone is expected. The bare mattresses were sad, but it was on the same afternoon that I discovered my new bedroom that I began to mind about them very much indeed.
It was the baby's room, perhaps. All that expectation. Such a cheerful thing, a room waiting for a new person. Or maybe it was my new clothes and my new room that were already making me feel so different, so that the idea of a child of my own seemed just another thing that I'd almost managed to forget about wanting very badly, but could now have.
Please don't think I lost my marbles or anything like that, because certain realities never quite left me. Not even I thought for a moment that I could produce a child at sixty-four. But that evening I took my supper into the drawing room and ate in front of the fire. ('Do not take food out of the kitchen'. Of course the list had said that, but I didn't even think of the list that evening and it would have made no difference if I had.) Afterwards I sat thinking.
I have always liked the sound owls make and that evening the owls were the only thing I could hear apart from the fire. I think they nest in the barn or the eaves of the pool pavilion. As I listened, the thought came to me that this house has stood for over four hundred years; even the teapot made it through a couple of centuries before I turned up. All the bits and pieces I'd seen that afternoon --- the candlesticks, the clothes, the white bear with velvet paws, even the typewriter --- they had all been chosen by somebody at some time, acquired somehow and put here, for reasons which must have been valid enough and perhaps even compelling at the time. But now those reasons didn't matter any more, nor whose reasons they were. Less still did it matter when those reasons mattered, whether last month, last year or 1600, because they were in the past.
I saw then that everything that is ever thought or done by people disappears. All human reasoning and actions die, because the minute they're done with, they belong to a time past and they don't come back. Oh, but you might say, what about memory, or the consequences of what people do? They last, don't they? Well, they may survive for a while, but they are on borrowed time. I mean that quite literally. Though it may be longer in coming, the death even of memory comes around, and the effects of actions grow weaker until they are unfelt and cease, and then it is as if they have never been. What is history, then, I suppose you might ask next, if not the past lasting into the present. And I would reply that history is only what we keep hold of in order to explain the present in a way we like. If history is a sort of looking through a window into the past, we choose not just the shape of the window but the view we get from it too. I have read enough historical biography to see that. History is not the remembering of events that were significant in their own time, it is only the resurrecting and preserving of things dead and past upon which we hang our reasons for the way things are now, in the hope that those reasons may seem less paltry. Nothing in the history of anything, not one thought or deed of a single soul, can ever outlive its usefulness in providing acceptable reasons for the present. So not even history lasts.
But things, things last. They last beyond the time when their significance, or that which originally made them significant, has been forgotten. Whatever the things in this house had meant to someone once, whatever fond stories were attached to them no longer mattered, because time had passed and now the things simply belonged here, neutrally. I could disregard the old stories and tell new ones, and who's to say mine would be less true? That teapot --- looked it up on the inventory --- was made in Canton around 1650, silver gilt mounts added later at Augsburg. Insured for hundreds of pounds (I forget the exact figure, it isn't important). Isn't that ridiculous? Now suppose I were to add that it had been bought by, let's say John Walden, an ancestor on my father's side. I could put that it was mentioned in a Deed of Probate (since lost) at Walden Manor in the mid 19th century. Suppose I were to go on to say that it was used by my beloved great-aunt as a button box? Who's to argue? I will admit that these thoughts, as I sat that evening with the owls calling in the dark outside, quite excited me.
I had already begun to picture this kind great-aunt of mine sewing a button from the teapot on my favourite dress, talking softly as she did so to her little niece Jean, and it suddenly seemed perfectly right to continue with the story (this teapot was letting me tell any story I wanted) and say that at some point later on in all this huge, wasteful expenditure of time, Jean conceived a child out of wedlock, gave birth to a son and had him adopted. Forty-seven years ago, say, that would make it 1955, when I was seventeen, the year after Father died. A man of forty-seven might well have children of his own by now, perhaps even grandchildren! How happy I would be to find him again. This would be a fine house for a large family, with its gardens, the pool, the paddocks, so many fine rooms.
I swear that this notion that I could once have had a baby and that nobody could insist that I hadn't, it actually made me happy, because it seemed not at all an invention but more like a forgotten thing remembered. So later that evening before I retired to my new bedroom for the first time, I made up all the other beds, too.
There was any amount of bed linen. I chose the best, pure linen with lilac piping for Michael and Steph's room, the one with pale dove-grey walls and darker grey velvet curtains (although of course I didn't know then, precisely, that this room would be theirs).
Oh, and that was the evening I burned the inventory, too. Over the course of that day it had become an even greater irrelevance than Shelley's letter, and so it went the same way. I remember that it was still less than halfway through January, and perhaps there was something of a Resolution for the New Year in what I did.
The next day Jean left the house in a beautiful olive tweed coat. In the hall she caught sight of her reflection in the long mirror and noted almost with complacency that she looked elegant. How could one fail to, in such a coat? There was a kind of clarity in the silhouette she made. And the same clarity was beginning to enter her mind, pushing aside anxieties and opening it up to small pleasures, such as the way she could spin almost like a dancer as she twisted to see the swing of the coat from the back. The coat she had arrived in, already in her mind just that old navy thing, was still lying slung across the oak chest. Turning from the mirror, she picked it up gingerly, as if it were a heap of used bandages. It already felt much less hers than the olive tweed, so the feel of the inferior cloth disturbed her only for a moment, off-handedly; but the smell of it, sacky and with a tang of railway station about it, pulled her dangerously close to acknowledging the old Jean who had worn it last. She bundled it into the cloakroom and as she closed the door on it she lifted one olive tweed sleeve and took a deep breath. The new scents, floral, English, reassuringly her own, glided up to her. She still had on the raspberry cashmere things underneath the coat and had taken from the wardrobe some black shoes, gloves and a leather bag, all of which, she hoped, would make sure that the old Jean did not waylay and follow her when she left the house.
The walk down the drive took twenty minutes. She had never seen it in daylight except in the distance from the upper windows, because she had arrived by taxi long after dark on her first evening. Since then she had been outside the house only to walk round the gardens, bring in logs and to try the doors of the outbuildings. Now, walking between the fields of Walden that bordered the drive on both sides, she felt there was little to see beyond their mild contours except for lines of drystone walls and stands of trees. The landscape itself, empty of livestock, people or buildings was pleasant; it harboured no threat and so held little interest. Jean felt mildly grateful, for that was all she required of it for now. In fact the kind of people (Mother was one) who noticed things in the countryside --- interestingly shaped roots or poisonous fungi or how many berries there were --- had always rather irritated her.
Jean did not hurry in the new shoes; she liked to look down at them as she walked along and feel the slight slipping contact of her feet with the leather lining. The rain and winds of the previous few days had blown a thin layer of mud on the tarmac drive into tiny patterns, like sand on a beach after the ebb tide. Trickles of water, dammed by clumps of saturated dead leaves and flung twigs, had found their channels. Jean did not avoid the wet particularly but she was already looking forward to her return, remembering that in the wardrobe there were some warm-looking slippers that she had not yet worn. She would light the fire in the drawing room and spend a quiet afternoon there; she might even stretch out on the sofa and nap after lunch, because her morning in Bath was bound to be rather exciting and tiring. Today the housework would be skipped, of course, but since that did not matter to her, it could hardly concern anyone else. This afternoon she would rest in the drawing room wearing the soft felt slippers while her wet shoes, stuffed with newspaper, dried by the Aga. It was a privilege to own such good shoes and so it was a pleasure, as well as a responsibility, to look after them properly.
It was a further quarter of a mile along the road to the bus shelter, where Jean stood and waited. As the rain began again, she thought a little sadly of the keys, quite definitely car keys, that had been among the others in the teapot. There were at least three cars behind the high doors of the stone garages behind the courtyard, but she could not drive. But almost certainly her son would, and as she climbed onto the bus and paid her fare to the driver she felt a slight, secret superiority over the other people on board. They looked resigned to travelling this way, but this would be the last time she would ever have to wait in the rain for a bus that was running late.
In Bath, she bought stamps, writing paper and a copy of The Lady at W H Smiths and asked for directions to the post office. Across the road from it stood one of those new coffee places with sofas, the sort of place she had never been in before, where they sold fourteen things with Italian names and where, she found, she had to ask carefully to get just a cup of coffee. The smell of the place was better than the coffee actually tasted, but Jean was already tired and grateful for the rest, and she needed somewhere quiet to do the next part. The places around her were filling up, so she shrugged her arms out of the olive coat and let it fall around her like a peel, lining side out. Then she spread her pink cashmere sleeves, as if she were resting heavy wings, across the low table. She set out her paper, envelopes and chequebook, establishing more territory, turned to the back of The Lady and began to read. When she had learned what she had to do, she printed on a sheet of paper:
WERE YOU BORN 1955 AND ADOPTED? Lady in country house seeks contact with her brown-eyed baby boy given (out of necessity but reluctantly) to adoptive parents, south of England, aged 3 weeks. All papers since lost. Mother longs to trace. Replies to Box No. only, treated in strictest confidence.
By the time she had printed out another copy to keep, filled in the form, calculated the cost, written out her cheque, and sealed everything in the envelope and addressed it, she was shaking slightly, and her coffee was cold. She wondered about ordering more but she had already spent half of her week's money on the advertisement and the stationery, and she was worried that if she delayed even to drink a cup of coffee she might be overtaken by objections (although from where she was not sure) to what she was doing. Her courage was fluttering and growing restive, like something trapped and uncomfortable. Her heart started to bang inside her chest, and in her throat. People were looking at her. Oh God, could they hear it? Did it show on her face, how terrified she was? She had to get home. She tried again to stop shaking and could not.
'Excuse me, are you all right?'
So it did show. She had to get home. Now she was certain that all the people here, drinking from foaming cups and talking about their shopping, indeed every one of the thousands of people walking in Bath this morning, would stop her if they could. They would form a mob, a huge furious mob, and stop her. Already this woman at the next table was ignoring what her friend was saying and looking at Jean with what she wanted her to think was concern, but was really suspicion.
'I'm fine. I just need to get home. It's rather warm in here. Thank you.' Jean shrugged herself back into her coat, recovered enough now to see the woman noticing how good and expensive it was. With the woman's eyes still upon her, she crossed the road to the post office and posted the envelope. She stood by the post box until she felt calm again.
Briskly she crossed back and walked into Waitrose, because it had struck her suddenly that a house needed flowers, especially in January. She spent very nearly all of the rest of her money on lilies, roses and freesias, and also picked up a leaflet about Waitrose's home delivery service, hoping that she could place an order by telephone without having to use a credit card. She had never held with credit cards nor, it had to be admitted, had she ever been invited to own one. She had assumed before she arrived that while on this assignment she would go out and do her food shopping once a week or so,as she normally did. But the strain of being away from Walden had proved too great, she realised, walking as fast as she could back to the bus station with her armfuls of flowers. She would not risk it again.
Across town, at the moment when Jean was boarding her bus home, Michael was standing before the magistrates. The Bench --- one kindlooking lady, one hard-faced one with dandruff and a man with sloping shoulders --- had just re-appeared after having retired to discuss his case, and the hard lady was telling him again how disappointed they were to see him. Michael nodded in sad apology and submitted to another telling-off with the hangdog expression that the magistrates liked. He was lucky to be avoiding a period in custody, he heard, and he caught on the face of the kind lady a look of triumphant magnanimity which told him that he had her to thank for that. He answered in a hoarse voice their intrusive but by now expected questions about his earnings and outgoings. It was noted that he still was not working. Did he not have some experience of bar work? Michael gulped and tried to explain about the depression. So had he consulted his GP? They recommended that he see his GP again, leaving unasked the question of whether or not, after a string of missed appointments, his GP would see him. The mess that Michael was making of his life was expanding and filling the room, pressing down on the shoulders of the magistrates, who all now seemed to be sagging, and leaving Michael short of enough breath for explanations. But it was not the exposure of his squalid life that suddenly touched him and made his chin wobble as if he were still a snotty kid; it was the novelty of being questioned. He should be used to the way the magistrates went on by now, but every time it took him unawares. When they asked him about himself, sounding as if it really mattered, he found himself wanting to cry. For a moment he nearly allowed himself to believe that these motherly, judging women cared about him. But he glanced up at the flaky shoulders of the hard-faced one, and remembered that it was not his poverty, nor his upbringing in care, nor his bare little flat, nor the absence of friends and prospects that concerned them. All they cared about was getting money off him, first for driving the van without insurance or tax, and then an extra load for falling behind twice with the payments. Tears of self-pity filled his eyes, and when the hard lady went on to tell him that they were not imposing a community service order on him in view of his health, but increasing his fine and generously re-scheduling the payments, he lowered his head further and his tears spilled down the lapels of the jacket that he had worn to encourage the magistrates' leniency. If he kept up to date with the payments from now on, he would clear his debt in four years. Michael opened his mouth and closed it again. There was no point in saying anything. It wouldn't work. Any institutional sympathy for a child brought up in care was exhausted long before that child had become a struggling adult of forty, so he would not mention it. Now they were asking if he would be able to keep up with the payments this time. He gave the expected yes. And as he was being told that they hoped never to see him again, the kind lady started writing something and did not look up when he left the court.
When Michael got back to the flat it was still freezing, but he was worried about the electricity bill so it was going to have to stay that way. He thought about going across to Ken's, where it was always hot, but this would mean listening to Ken and he was not up to it in his present mood. A thread of guilt tightened inside him. Ken didn't see many people; he ought to go. But not now. He might look in later and see if Ken wanted anything doing. And if he did, if he asked Michael to get him a paper or cigs from the shop at the top of the road or something, or fill him a hot water bottle, it would make Michael feel a bit better about asking if he could have a bath. Ken's bathroom, with the hoist, the handrails and all the surgical what-have-yous on the window sill that Michael couldn't bear to study too closely, gave him the creeps, but the water was always hot.
Michael heated up a tin of soup and took a mug of it to bed. The backpack, empty and gaping open, sat on the bedroom floor next to the row of books against the skirting board. Mr David at Sulis Curios and Objets d'Art had taken the kneelers yesterday for twenty-five quid for the six, which he had counted out and handed over with a dirty look. Bloody act of charity, he had said. Don't try this kind of thing on me again, all right? But they had both known that Michael would. The trouble, Michael decided, spooning up his soup, was his lack of a fallback position. He could not afford to walk away from even the meagre money Mr David put up, because there was always something that made his need for cash immediate and desperate: a bill, the rent, his fines, buying food, something. Every single time he did business with Mr David he came to the transaction with impending disaster at his back, unable to imagine how his life could go on if Mr David was not (as he sometimes pretended) in the mood to buy.
Michael no longer thought it anything other than natural that when he went to Mr David he brought along with him a huge, palpable need to sell, like some outsized, embarrassing relative who had been foisted on him for the day.
If anything it was all getting worse. Michael was now further than ever from being able to build up enough stock to run his stall again at Walcot Market, further away now even than he had been on the day last year when everything had been nicked from the back of the van. True, the van doors had been held together only with twine and a twisted coat hanger, but Michael had thought that he had tied enough elaborate knots to put anyone off having a go. Since then he had not made enough on any deal to buy stuff to get the stall going again. He was managing, badly, from one deal to the next. That meant he had to take whatever Mr David offered him, and it was clear from how very little he did offer that Mr David was well aware of this. Michael had more or less promised him the alabaster figures, and Mr David had more or less promised to give him five hundred for them. That would have been enough for Michael to clear a few debts and start getting some stock together again, so that by Easter he might have the stall back and be well placed for the summer. But he had not got the alabaster figures. And meanwhile, the last mouthful of soup was stone cold, and even if he did get them another day, supposing he dared put himself through all that again, Mr David would sell them on for at least two, possibly three thousand. He tried not to think too hard about that. Mr David had contacts, and you needed the contacts. Contacts of the right sort were just another of the many things that Michael did not have. With this thought he dropped his empty soup mug on the floor, settled under the bedclothes and pulled them around himself.
When he woke it was already after six o'clock, and pitch dark. At least he was now warm enough. If he was lucky he would soon fall asleep again and not wake up until tomorrow.
In the Kiddies' Korner at the back of the beer garden next to the car park of The Masons Arms, Jace was about to hit Steph. There were no kiddies around to see him, it being half past six on a Wednesday night in January; there was nobody to see him at all, a fact that Jace knew perfectly well, and that was worrying Steph. She had miscalculated again. It would have been smarter to head straight for the car and wait while the sight of it calmed Jace down; he loved his stupid Renault 5 Turbo with the stupid alloy wheels and the stupid paint job, and once he was driving along with the sound system thumping he wouldn't hit her. But instead she had run off across the car park and ended up here. The trouble was that when she was pregnant her mind didn't work that way, thinking things out in advance --- she just did things, or just came out with them. It was no good trying to tell Jace that, though. He wouldn't know a hormone if it jumped up and bit him on the leg. He was so mad with her for 'showing him up' he had started shouting even before they got outside. He was still shouting at her. Now it appeared he was angry with her not just for 'showing him up', but also for getting him angry. He was definitely working up to something, and since it was she who had made him angry, it would be her fault if he did give her a slap. Steph calculated that it would probably be just the one. But it would be a further miscalculation, she remembered in time, to try to stop him by saying he shouldn't hit a pregnant woman, because reminding him about the baby was never a good idea. It was the baby that had made Jace inclined to hit her in the first place. It was the baby's first kick that ten minutes ago had caused Steph to clutch her belly and squeal out in the public bar Oh! Oh bloody hell Jace I just felt it! It just kicked me! And if it hadn't been for the barmaid getting sentimental about the time she had her first, and three complete strangers laughing and going on about it, asking when it was due, Steph thought Jace might have let it pass with a grunt. But he had blushed with fury and embarrassment, picked up his car keys and told her to get outside.
She was standing next to a plump, lavishly graffitied, moulded resin elephant whose hollow insides were filled with cans and empty crisp packets that someone at some time had tried to start a fire with. She looked away, and with her head lowered she scraped with one fingernail at some peeling grey paint on one of the elephant's ears, finding that she was managing to turn the growing bare patch into a very good likeness of Marge Simpson. She could draw a pretty good Marge Simpson, and an excellent Homer. She had thought at one time of being a cartoonist, until her art teacher had told her cartoonists have to create original characters and not just copy things. She had actually come up with one or two quite good characters of her own, but then found that they refused to cooperate. They just looked at her from the paper. She had not been able to make them say or do anything.
Are you listening to me, you two-ton cow? As she looked up, Jace's hand cracked off the side of her head, which hit the grey elephant wall like a sounding gong. It was such a weird noise, so unexpectedly deep and grand that Steph, leaning against the vibrating elephant's side as the sound died and the singing in her ears became an echo, wondered about laughing. Instead she lowered her head once more and made her way over to the car, where she waited at the passenger side while Jace unlocked the doors with a single, bad-tempered click of his keys in mid-air. Steph understood that he intended only to unlock the driver's door for himself. She understood that it was nothing to him if the click happened to unlock the other doors at the same time because (and it made no difference to him) she could get in or stay out; she could spend the whole night inside the kiddies' elephant with the fag ends and crisp packets for all he cared. She got in.
It took me a day or two to get over the trip. Not for a moment did I feel sorry I'd done it, of course not. What took it out of me was having to be out there again, I mean on the outside, where nobody knew who I was. It made me feel angry that nobody was able to see that inside I had become so much more myself.
I was angry in the way I was when Father died. Father and his clock that became my clock, and the anger I felt apparently towards him but really, even before I found out he wasn't to blame, towards myself. I haven't gone over the clock business in my mind for such a long time. When I do think of it, I tend to remember the way Father would sometimes give me one of his kind looks when Mother was not in the room, and nod towards the dining room and the direction of the ticking and say never you mind, that clock's yours when I go and I would look upset and then he'd say you're not to mind selling it. It's to see you through college, you sort yourself out and you be a teacher, now. Like your Dad. He had been an English teacher, I think not a very good one. It was another of the things Mother kept ready in her mouth, seldom said but ready to sting him with, how hopeless he was not to have made it even to head of department, let alone headmaster. I thought I would like to teach history.
So he always meant me to sell the clock, to see me through university. I think that's why he never really explained to me how beautiful it was, how wonderfully it was made. He never showed me its workings or pointed out what made it so rare, so fine and valuable, for fear that he would not be able to hide from me how much it meant to him. If only he had! If only he had given me eyes to see his clock for what it was, and the words to understand it. I wouldn't have been so deceived over it later if he had just let me see it as he did. I wouldn't have spent so long cursing his memory and thinking he was as big a cheat as Mother.
After I went on the bus to Bath that day to do all that was necessary to place the advertisement, I resolved not to go out again. How it rained in the week that followed! But on the next fine day I found some paraffin and made a bonfire at the side of the orchard.
I burned my old navy coat, and then all my other old clothes. Standing out there watching the clothes go up in flames I went on thinking about Father and the clock, and I remembered another of the things he would sometimes say if Mother was not in the room. I suppose it was the nearest he came to letting me see the clock as he did. I can't remember the exact words he used, but it was something about time passing painfully --- so this must have been in his last year, then, though by some trick of memory it seems to me that he said it at times all through my life, even if time had to pass painfully, even if your minutes and hours offered up nothing but indiscriminate and bigger doses of pain, it was still consoling in a way to have time measured so beautifully, on a clock like his.
And as I watched the old clothes burn I thought how solitary I must look, a woman standing by a bonfire in an orchard in winter. Yet I was not lonely, for I knew that the house and all that it contained would be company enough until such time as my son should come to me.
Excerpted from HALF BROKEN THINGS © Copyright 2005 by Morag Joss. Reprinted with permission by Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Half Broken Things
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Delta
- ISBN-10: 0440242444
- ISBN-13: 9780440242444