Cleanliness, punctuality, order and method, are essentials in the character of a good housekeeper . . . Like “Caesar’s wife” she should be “above suspicion” and her honesty and sobriety unquestionable; for there are many temptations to which she is exposed.
—Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
My bus arrived in Richmond far too early for the interview, and I walked up and down the high street peering into department store windows until it was time to catch the next one towards the river. Apart from two American tourists wearing hiking boots, the bus was empty. It made its way through a deserted winding road with woods on one side and cows and horses in their winter blankets grazing in a field on the other. It was hard to imagine that less than a mile away there was a busy town with cinemas and shops and supermarkets.
“Different air they breathe here, love,” said the bus driver as I got off. The American tourists bounded past me, eager to explore Richmond Park. “You’ve got nearly twenty-five hundred acres of park on one side and the Thames River on the other. Film stars, rock stars—they love it,” he went on. “No change from ten, fifteen million quid for any of these houses.”
“I’m going for a job interview,” I replied. “Wish me luck.”
He gave a thumbs-up sign and drove away. It had rained earlier and there was a smell of damp earth and wet grass. A flock of feral green parakeets flew overhead, a neon streak in a
pale wintry sky. The air was filled with their dinning, a strident, joyous noise drowning out the more reserved birdsong from native robins and wrens.
I’d checked the route the night before, but I made a mistake and got off the bus one stop too early. Then the walk took longer than I’d expected, and the houses were so huge and far apart from each other that I had to jog the last bit, my skirt riding up my legs, my tights making that brushing fibrous noise, and my toes cramping, unaccustomed to high heels. I almost missed it because I was looking for a street number and all the houses had names instead. It was only when I looked closer that I saw the numbers painted in brown below the letter boxes. I walked along until I found the one I was looking for, barely visible on a high brick wall. Above it was a bronze plate engraved with a name. Wycombe Lodge. I stood for a minute to regain my composure and wipe the mud off my shoes.
Along the wall was a pair of wrought-iron gates, each bar as thick as my arm. The bottom half of each gate was covered with a solid sheet of black metal, so I couldn’t see anything of the house from the street. I walked along to a wooden door with an intercom next to it. I swallowed hard and pressed the buzzer. The night before, I’d wondered whether to announce myself with my usual “Hi” or go for a more mature “Hello.” I thought the second option would be safer, but I didn’t get the chance to say anything at all. There was no voice at the other end, just a buzz as the door opened and then a click as someone hung up the intercom.
I pushed through to a glorious square house built of wine-colored brick. It was either Georgian or Queen Anne. I could never tell the difference. A climbing rose, still bearing some of last autumn’s hips, reached all the way to the roof, softening what might have been an otherwise austere exterior. Sunlight bounced off the bank of tall windows on the first floor,
almost blinding me. When my vision cleared, I saw I was standing in a graveled forecourt edged by giant topiary balls. An empty stone pond with a fountain stood in the middle, in front of a portico with white stucco columns. The door was open. I glimpsed a flagstone floor and a flash of red from a rug.
I walked towards the door, my shoes with their flimsy leather soles crunching and slipping over the gravel. It was uneven, almost bare in some places. In others, weeds had sprung up and fell over themselves at odd angles. The bottom of the pond was littered with browned leaves. Two pots containing scrawny bay trees stood on either side of the portico. Tucked out of sight behind them were plastic crates of empty wine bottles and dirty dinner plates. A clump of old telephone books, their pages all curled up, lay heaped in a corner.
“Come in, come in,” called an unseen woman’s voice. I walked into the empty hall, my heels echoing on the checkered flagstones before being muffled by a worn patterned rug. A curved staircase led up to the higher floors. Along the hall were three open doors, and at the end a pair of closed doors. I had no idea where to go and paused next to a narrow table with a rectangular gilt mirror leaning over it. Piles of letters were propped against a vase of fading white roses, the water green and scummy. Blotched petals fell onto a pair of muddy trainers.
“We’re in here,” said the voice, and I followed its sound into the first door opposite the staircase. Emma stood against the fireplace. Embers smoldered in the grate. She was taller than I’d expected, and she looked younger than she had in the photos, with a small heart-shaped face, the skin tight and gleaming across the bones. Her head was cocked to one side like a curious bird’s. There was a crosshatch of fine lines around her eyes. At first I thought they were green, but then the sun broke through into the room and showed them to be an unusual
clear blue with a dark ring around the iris. She wore Converse trainers and what looked like a thermal vest over a long, trailing skirt, the hem torn in places where she must have tripped over it.
“Hello, thank you so much for coming,” she said in a voice like silk. “What a mess we’re in. I’m so sorry.” She made it sound as if our positions were reversed, as if I was the potential boss and she was the one who was under scrutiny. “We had a few friends to dinner last night.” She did this little fluttery thing with her hands.
Just then Rob walked in, his mobile glued to his ear. He waved and started to walk out again. At the door, he paused long enough to hold his phone at arm’s length. “Hi,” he said. “Back in a minute.”
“Everything went on a bit later than we thought,” said Emma. She moved a vase of fading lilies from one table to another, seeming not to notice the bright yellow pollen sprinkling everywhere. “We’re a bit done in, so sorry.”
I knew the feeling. I’d been up until midnight myself, finally deciding on an irreproachable Marks & Spencer black skirt and checked jacket, an outfit that Emma herself might have advised prospective job applicants to wear to an interview. The unapologetic light above the bathroom mirror had showed the dark rings under my eyes as I practiced answering the questions she might ask. Best pronunciation, all crisp consonants and inoffensive vowels.
“I haven’t actually done this type of work before . . .”
No. Too negative.
“I’m sure I could do the job to your satisfaction . . .”
Did that sound overconfident, arrogant even?
“I’ve been working in restaurants for years, and in so many ways it’s the same as running a house . . .” Yes, that might work. Remember to smile. Try to get some sleep. In bed, I lay on my
back and listened to the rise and fall of my breath. A cab pulled up across the road, its brakes squeaking. The headlights swung on the ceiling as it turned around and drove away. There was the clattering of garbage bins and the urgent scream of a fox, like a person pursued. After that, there was no sound until the raucous ping of my alarm.
Emma was gazing at me, nodding as if she’d agreed with something I’d just said. But I hadn’t said anything at all. I knew she was expecting a response, something that would indicate my suitability for the job, that I wasn’t the sort of person to show up at an interview and not have anything to say about myself.
“You must be so busy,” I said. “With your work and talks and everything.”
Was it the right kind of comment? Too late now. I brushed specks of pollen off my jacket and concentrated on keeping my body still and formal so the nerves inside wouldn’t show themselves.
“I hope I’m not late,” I said, although I knew I was punctual to the minute.
“Of course not,” smiled Emma. Gold hoop earrings danced about her face. “Would you like to take a seat?”
I went to sit down, but she kept standing, so I straightened up again, feeling ridiculous, as if I’d begun to curtsy to her but changed my mind. I smiled, hoping that it was the kind of professional smile that might convey competence and efficiency.
The sitting room was large and elegant, with high ceilings covered in elaborate plasterwork. There were two windows at the front and French doors leading onto a garden at the other end. I sensed its history of lustrous evenings and lively conversation. But now the room and everything in it were at odds with each other, like split personalities. I’d imagined something smarter, maybe some of those Italian modular sofas with walls
in shades of muted beige, and abstract pictures hung at orchestrated angles; or classic squashy sofas in chintz with elegant armchairs and antique sideboards.
I didn’t expect the old-fashioned 1980s egg yolk–colored walls, the cracked bamboo side tables, and the rickety furniture. A high wing chair stood on one side of the fireplace opposite a faded sofa. Strands of stuffing—it looked like horsehair, although I couldn’t be sure—were coming through. Scattered about were pairs of those Edwardian armchairs with cane sides and mahogany legs, all scarred with bits gouged out of them. There were holes in the rugs as well, patched from underneath with pieces of duct tape. Bits showed through, dull silver like discarded coins.
The mess of it all! Empty wineglasses smeared with fingerprints crowded the side tables, and three plates gummed with hardened cheese were scattered on the floor. Emma didn’t seem to notice. She didn’t even pretend to be embarrassed about everything skewed at odd angles, the candles left to collapse into gray stalagmites on the mantelpiece. And me so anxious the night before in my little box with the cushions prancing en pointe along the sofa, the coffee table at a perfect parallel, mugs washed up on the hour.
There had been no need for the Q and A session in front of the bathroom mirror either. Emma only asked two things. When could I start and did I like dogs? Right then, a small hairy cairn terrier made his entrance and peed on the rug right in front of me. Although I could see he was a male, he squatted like a bitch. I’d have tapped him on the nose with a rolled up newspaper and put him outside, but Emma giggled.
“Poor Siggy. All my fault. I forgot to let you into the garden. I’m sorry, little boy.”
The dog’s urine began to spread from a puddle to a large wet patch while Emma smiled and waited for me to reply to
her questions. All I could think about was the urine seeping through the pile and how it would smell. I scrabbled in my bag for a wad of tissues, bent down and began blotting it. Emma did another hand fluttery thing.
“I should have thought of that, how silly. Naughty Siggy.”
The dog wagged his tail and she leaned down and scratched his ears before picking up a wastepaper bin, full of wine corks and old newspapers, and offering it to me with an apologetic shrug. I put the sodden tissues in it.
There was a whoosh of air behind me and Rob came back into the room. He pocketed his mobile and rubbed his hands together. His eyes wandered around the walls and came to rest on me. Behind the rimless spectacles, they were alert and appraising. His gaze moved slowly and unapologetically around my face and head. I wasn’t used to being studied so closely, and I worried that my appearance would be found deficient because of its very ordinariness, its lack of definition. The nervous hammering inside ratcheted up several notches. The room was so warm, almost hot. My neck pricked with perspiration. I shifted my feet. A tiny piece of gravel rubbed against my heel.
His face crinkled into a sudden disarming smile. “Well!” he exclaimed, opening his arms like a concert conductor, waving them around. “I’m afraid you’ve caught us a bit unawares.” His voice had a slight northern burr, and it really was chocolate, the way critics described it. He didn’t sound afraid at all. He was taller than Emma by about half a head, with a handsome olive-skinned face and thick black hair combed straight back from his forehead. He wore a crumpled pale blue linen shirt hanging out over faded jeans. He was barefoot, with long brown toes, reminding me of a monkey.
Both of them had the untroubled, slightly vacant look that I associated with effortless superiority and moneyed ease. Together they were more attractive than apart. Rob’s darkness
made Emma’s fair skin and hair less bland and predictable, and her pale, fine features lightened what might otherwise have been a sallow cast to his face. He moved towards her and touched her shoulder. It was an affectionate gesture, but not an intimate one; just enough to make me feel an outsider. Rob folded his arms. Emma leaned against him and put her arm around his waist
“So, what do you think?” she asked. “Will you take us on? We’re not that bad, really.”
As if on cue from some invisible film director, they smiled. They were so sure I would like them, and they were right. For that moment, both were completely focused on me, and I felt that they believed in me, that they saw in me qualities I’d never noticed before. It seemed they liked me more than I liked myself, although they didn’t know me at all. The feeling was immediate and almost too peculiar to express. It was like walking into a strange room and finding it acutely familiar.
“I hope we haven’t ruined our chances with this mess from last night,” said Emma, still clutching the wastepaper bin. “We promise to try to be good. And Jake and Lily are practically grown up. They’re at school every day and we’re out of the house at work, so you wouldn’t have to put up with us being under your feet all the time.”
She sat down on a cane chair and stroked Siggy’s head with one hand. He closed his eyes and lifted his head. If he’d been a cat, he would have purred with pleasure.
“We wouldn’t expect you to start too early in the morning, or stay late in the evening,” she continued. “But we need someone to sort us out, just a bit. Keep us on the straight and narrow. Rob’s got this book to get finished and I’ve got all this other stuff to do. So . . . would you, I mean could you . . . perhaps think about coming to work here?” Her voice was diffident, like she was asking a huge favor from a random stranger.
“Please say yes,” said Rob, beaming and nodding at the same time.
“Yes, then. Yes,” I repeated, not quite believing my good luck, how everything was falling into place around me like blossoms from a tree. “I’d love to.”
I almost leaned towards them on the way to an embrace, before remembering that both Rob and Emma had never set eyes on me before that morning.
“What do you think?” asked Emma. “Maybe start sometime in the late morning and leave about seven p.m.?”
“I hope that’s OK,” said Rob. He mentioned an amount of money.
“It’s fine. It’s great.” I’d never worked such a short day, and the salary was a bit less than I’d earned at Anton et Amis. But I was frugal.
Emma stood up, still clutching the wastepaper bin. “What a relief! Thank you so much. Fiona said that if we didn’t snap you up right now, someone else would and we’d regret it for the rest of our days.”
Once the interview, such as it was, had ended, Rob and Emma both began questioning me, one after the other, often interrupting. Was it true that Tony Blair had dined at the restaurant? Yes, I replied. He’d ordered from the set price menu.
“Really?” said Emma. “How interesting.” At first I thought she was being merely polite, but her intent gaze and frequent nods indicated otherwise. Maybe she was trying to decipher the psychology of Blair’s policy on the Middle East by whether he chose à la carte or prix fixe. Did his choice indicate a man who knew his own mind and would not be swayed by cholesterol-raising heftily priced plates of Scottish lobster and hand-fed beef fillet, or a certain economic meanness and lack of original thinking? How did this illuminate his political decisions? I’d read enough of Emma’s books and blogs to know that any
detail of a life, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, had its own interest.
“And what about Madonna? What did she eat?” asked Emma, her hands clasped, leaning forward, so close that I could smell her scent, something woody and herbal. I had to plead ignorance on that one, as it had been my day off.
“Do people really spend a thousand pounds on a bottle of wine, or is that an exaggeration?” Rob asked.
“Sometimes,” I said. “Hedge-funders on bonus day. People whose horse had won a big race or who’d bought or sold a company.”
“I do hope you won’t get bored too quickly,” said Emma. There was a worried look on her face and she stared at me. “We’re terribly dull and normal compared to all the people you’ve been working for. No scandals in our life. We just plod along from day to day. We don’t even own a car. Are you really sure you won’t get bored?”
“Not at all,” I replied. It felt so good to have someone think what I’d done was interesting. “Besides, I was working in the kitchen, not sitting next to them at dinner.”
“Well,” said Emma. “It sounds pretty glamorous to us.” A phone rang in another room and she jumped up. “That’s someone I have to speak to. I’m sorry. Everything is getting away from me this morning. I wanted to show you around the house, so you’d know where everything is. Can it wait until you start? Do you mind?”
“No, it’s fine,” I said.
She shook my hand. “We’re so happy that you’re going to take up our offer. Really happy.” Then she was gone, her Converse trainers squeaking on the flagstones.
Rob showed me to the front door. “See you very soon then.” He patted me on the arm. “You’re one of us now. Let’s hope you don’t regret it.” We laughed, as if he’d made a ridiculous joke.
“I bet I won’t,” I said. After he closed the front door with a solid thud, I stood on the porch and surveyed the curve of the gravel forecourt, the weathered stone of the pond and the massive topiary balls planted so long ago. Everything had an air of pleasing permanence, despite the peeling paint on the front door and the plastic crates behind the pots. It didn’t matter if weeds grew and the place needed a sweep. Most people would admire its gracious beauty before noticing trivial things like that.
A bus accelerated around the corner and I jolted.
That was the thing with places like this. Their walls and gates and balustrades had stood solid for centuries, through wars and bombs and family feuds. It made you think that nothing could get in. It made you forget that three hundred feet away a number 65 bus was making its way to Kingston.