Monday 27 March 2017

The Housekeeper by Suellen Dainty

Published by Atria Books on March 9, 2017


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.

From THE HOUSEKEEPER by Suellen Dainty. Copyright © 2017 by Suellen Dainty. Reprinted by permission of Washington Square Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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