Perpetually alert and infinitely calculating, Janet was sitting up in bed and waiting for the arrival of the new girl. She had instructed that the opposite window be opened fully and she now sat listening to the continual restless buzz of outside. She instinctively craned her neck at the first sound of footsteps. And then, as if the air had stilled, the footsteps were awesomely tiny and immaculate in the massiveness of the driveway and the open parkland.
Janet had already got the measure of this new girl from her footsteps and she was daunted by what she was hearing. The new girl was confident, businesslike, and undeterred by the placid majesty of the house. Janet realised with a lingering thrill that the new girl did not skip a footstep. She did not pause to drink in the sight of the house, as the romantic girls did, or to photograph it on a phone, as did the more materialistic ones.
Janet listened to the voices which rose and clashed briefly in the portico. They were too faint for her to distinguish which was the new girl’s. A sudden tiredness glided down on to Janet, as heavily as if the whole floor above was falling in on her bed. She had a whimsical impression that she could have gone to sleep and that when she woke again, the world would have been cleansed completely of the new girl.
Janet’s apprehension about the new girl had reduced her to a sort of hysterical exhaustion. For a while she lay waiting for sleep to come or for her earlier mental freshness to resume. But in that moment when she might have registered one of the more authentic emotions of old age, Janet only looked more girlish. Her head bobbed sadly, with its few wispy locks of desiccated hair, and her eyes shone with a small child’s woe.
(Marvin the gardener, one of the last contractual staff to remain at Joppa Grange, insisted that Janet was no longer the same. A few years ago, she would have made a morning’s work of that last girl. In fact, the girl had battled on for weeks and even complained about Janet to her son’s face. Janet had had trouble concentrating recently. She was like a cat that is too old to unravel balls of wool, and so just prods and taps them absent-mindedly, stiffly and with less than half a memory of its old animal spirit.)
The new girl was bounding up the stairs energetically. The house was shaking.
Andrew, her son, was away for the week and so it fell to Ted, Andrew’s son, to brief the new girl. For the past twenty-five years, Janet had disliked Ted. When he was a baby and a young man, everything about him had been adorable. But, like a piano going out of tune, he had begun to sound less and less pleasing, emitting disagreeably surprising notes. When it came to making decisions, he was eager about silly ideas and bored by practical ones. All of his work seemed to involve looking after the family’s money, just flushing it around and never noticeably increasing it. His girlfriends had been undistinguished and then they had petered out altogether.
His father, her son, had been a man of such energy that Janet supposed it would take a few generations for the family to recharge its batteries. For Ted, the most loving act would have been the most merciless. Expulsion from the family home, with the flaming sword singeing his shirt tails, and a forced acquaintance with the hardships which most young men had to endure. Most young men suffered and took it manfully and it was good for them. Although you might not think it, as attendants bathed Janet in her bed and wiped specks of grime from her eyelashes, this was her usual prescription for everybody. Life must be bitter and difficult – it is good for you!
They had to knock twice before Janet was ready to admit them. The new girl stepped into the centre of the room and Ted was hovering behind her, with that shiny, empty cheerfulness which always reminded Janet of a politician. Still, politicians were presumably only like this in public life; Ted seemed to swell up with that shabby grandeur, that peace-conference good-humour, at her bedside.
Ted said some suitably stately things in introduction. Janet sat up in bed, beaming and unexpectedly handsome between her wisps of grey hair. The new girl stared down from the bottom of the bed, unconsciously aggressive as if confronting an adversary, but with a face which was searching earnestly for friendship.
The new girl had a puffy face, but one which was full of intelligence and vividly made up to emphasise her tight lips, her disapproving sensible mouth. There was nonetheless something forlorn and unattractive, a splash of clown anguish, within this sensible face. Her hair hung in a fresh, very neat display of tiger-coloured braids. Along with her skinny figure, this seemed to announce that she was harmless, that she was always up for some girl-next-door fun, for slopping about everywhere in denim and doing whatever the boys were doing.
The new girl began to introduce herself, with her eyes heartfelt. It was as if she had suddenly taken a chance on Janet and resolved to confide in her. The new girl spoke a lot about herself, Janet perceived, but it was probably expedient not to complain about this for now. The new girl had left her family in Latvia and she had come all the way to Scotland to study. Her dream was to become a physiotherapist, but she had to work first because the costs were so scary. She whispered the word “scary,” confidingly. She was very sad to leave her family and very lonely. She was looking for new friends and new friends of any age. She got on with everybody and some of her best friends had been from her grandmother’s generation. But she was also very hard-working; her family were farmers and so she had been taught from the get-go that the work never stops. She could provide references from other care homes and she always carried around a letter of introduction from a beloved schoolmistress.
Ted pounced, immediately dazzling them with practicalities. The wages were this, the days off were that. Some of the girls protested about being given such a small room in such a huge house, but she had to understand how difficult it was to keep large rooms heated in a house as old as this one.
Janet gave a kindly smile, but with slightly too much brilliance in her eyes. The new girl smiled back and Janet registered again that hint of clown distress.
“A physiotherapist!” Janet tittered happily. She was genuinely trying to compliment the new girl, but she gave the impression that in her house a physiotherapist was something as marvellous as a talking frog. “And do you have a boyfriend?”
The new girl looked perplexed, as if not sure how to answer this. Her face gradually settled into inscrutability.
“Strange not to have a girl with a boyfriend. These days, we find, all the pretty girls have boyfriends. Just to stop themselves from being pestered. They saddle themselves with some big, dopey lout who actually bores them rigid every day, just so they can say, “oh yes, I have a boyfriend, thank you.”” Janet beamed and blinked expectantly.
The new girl laughed with pleasure and amazement. But in the corners of her eyes her secret clown face was dismayed. Janet had disappointed her and, by instinct, the new girl’s attitude had already started to harden towards Janet.
“She won’t say if she has a boyfriend!” Janet hissed to Ted, before spitting with laughter. “She won’t say!” There was more laughter and Ted grinned at them both with obvious discomfort. “Oh well,” Janet crooned, “I guess we’ll just have to do without knowing! I’ll just have to manage I suppose!”
The new girl frowned pleasantly. “Mrs Worthington, it’s not right that I speak about my private life, just as it wouldn’t be right if I asked you about private things in your life.”
For the most part, they had already reached a point in their relationship in which they would proceed no further. Janet would talk loudly about the new girl in the third person, recruiting anybody who happened to be at hand as a generally noncommittal ally. The new girl spoke to Janet with patience, as if Janet might behave properly once it was explained to her, simply and good-naturedly, how badly behaved she was being.
That sad clown face, with its drooping mouth and gaunt complexion, Janet was determined to coax out of the new girl’s smiling confidence and fix permanently in place. After Janet had been arranged before her lunch, with her stringy body propped upright between pillows and cushions, she had displayed a liveliness which the service staff had not seen in months.
“She’s going to stand there and watch me eating fish with bones in it!” Janet hissed to her attendants. “That’s okay, then. I’ll just eat these bones and then we’ll see what happens.”
“Would you like me to remove the bones, Mrs Worthington?”
Janet was so excited that she was pounding on the table. “Oh, I think it’s morning! We’re awake are we? Goodness me! Are you going to use a fork then, or are you just going to fritter my lunch to shreds with your fingernails?”
“If you want something done for you, Mrs Worthington, you only have to ask.”
After lunch, Janet seemed to deflate abruptly. “Splendid! Oh well, it’s nice to have a bit of fuss made now and then! That’s what I think, anyway,” she sang sadly, as if she was only an uncomplaining spectator at this circus rather than the ringmaster. The service staff remembered that she had been like this at her zenith: she would rave about her carer in bouts of superhuman energy, and then she would look frightened and taken aback, she would shrink into a child and plead grovellingly for reassurance.