Janet brightened up after lunch and the service staff were alarmed to hear her suddenly wittering away about the garden. For months, she had given no indication of having remembered its existence. All at once, they were each separately trying to recall the last time that they had seen her outdoors.
She was gone for a while and then she had immediately materialised at the doors of the house’s ancient elevator, dizzily upright and stumping along on a wheeled walking frame. It was not so much that she walked but that her whole body shook violently and this seemed to propel her slowly forward.
The grass of the lawn cut her speed in half but she kept shaking with the same vigour. The service staff chased after her wildly with cushions and items of furniture. The new girl plodded in their wake, holding a book which Janet had flung into her hands.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” Janet’s bleating voice seemed as strange as a diving bat in the sunshine. “Where shall we sit?” There were seven of them and they had only one chair.
The staff were arranging the tea table and slotting the cushions in place to prop Janet up, and so it fell to the new girl to seat Janet in the wicker chair. After signalling with a grunt, Janet’s hands let go of the walker and the new girl lifted her promptly up.
To the new girl, the old lady was so awesomely weightless that she had the queer impression of lifting something which had been woven out of practically nothing, like a huge piece of birds’ nest. Perhaps it should have been an electrifying privilege to handle the old lady, to be connected so intimately to this husk with its wisps of hair. The next thing, Janet and her cushions were packed together into the chair and she appeared to have been fastened satisfactorily in place.
The staff retreated, some to the house and others to discreet distances, tripping away like fairies that have carried a baby to the foot of a certain tree. For the first time, the new girl looked down at the book’s cover.
Although she was slightly short of twenty, the new girl spoke in faultless English. Only an imperceptible hairline crack somewhere amongst her words indicated that her English was a second language. She came from one of those Eastern European countries where the education system is more military than our own, and children are probably drilled in transitive and intransitive verbs on a parade ground. But the new girl was not a reader. Amongst girls of her type, books were read only to acquire useful information. Had she been a reader, the new girl might have expected Janet’s reading to consist of fond Victorian classics, possibly with Virginia Woolf as the nearest concession to modernity. As it happened, she looked down at the word “Macbeth” and, like a voice calling down into a well, only the echo came back.
“I’ve never read that one before,” Janet explained. She always said “I’ve read” in defiance of the fact that all of her books were read for her. A succession of bewildered Polish, Spanish and Greek agency workers had been trapped with her on forced marches along inhospitable literary mountain trails. “It looked too much for the other girls, but since you are apparently so intelligent, as a physiotherapist,” Janet added rather gracelessly.
The new girl had walked right into this one. She began to read out the opening scene as if it was a recipe, pausing to clearly name each character before reading their words. Janet was immediately looking about urgently; she needed other people to witness the new girl making such a disgrace of herself. She had to eventually indicate that her peppermint tea needed diluting further. When a girl in an apron approached with a jug, a girl whose name Janet couldn’t even remember, Janet plumped a claw down on to her arm to fix her to the spot.
“Shocking, isn’t it?” Janet whispered, as if not wishing to distract the new girl from her reading. “Supposed to be intelligent, but this is shocking. She has to name the characters so that I can tell which is which!”
The girl with the jug nodded. She looked at the new girl without any apparent expression in her face.
“Is something wrong, Mrs Worthington?” the new girl inquired cheerfully. “If you have particular instructions about how to read this book…”
“She needs instructions!” Janet hissed. “Goodness, will she need instructions when she is sitting on the toilet? Will I need to see to it that she walks in a straight line, as if she was a toddler?”
The girl with the jug blushed and then tried to tug herself away, like a little fly pulling at a spider’s web, but Janet held her firmly in place.
The new girl smiled patiently. “Do you want the book read in a particular way, Mrs Worthington?”
Janet beamed and blinked. “Well, when you are a witch, rather than saying “Second Witch,” you have to put on a witch’s voice. Cruel and vicious, so that it gives me the willies! You have to make every voice in the play different from the others, so that I can tell who is speaking. It’s difficult, you know. I’m not educated like you young girls are. I can’t pick it up like you can.”
The new girl reflected upon the implications of this.
“And try to make Macbeth’s voice sound Scottish. The king in this country has never had a Lithuanian accent.”
“I’m Latvian Mrs Worthington.”
“She’s Latvian, is she? Pardon me, don’t blame me. I’m not educated like you are, you know. Now get going please!”
A few minutes later, and Janet had shrunk back amongst her cushions, that sense of dread and hysterical exhaustion swarming hotly all around her and all over her. She had calculated that the reading assignment would make the new girl flustered. Humiliated, the new girl would spin on her heels and cross the lawn back to the house, with tears dropping from her naked clown face. But the new girl appeared only to be amused by this task. Then Janet saw, all too plainly, that the new girl was more than equal to the challenge; that her resourcefulness and some powerful, private sense of the comic had made the reading as easy for her as lifting Janet’s own little spidery body into the air.
Soon the serving staff had tiptoed nearer to listen and the new girl had begun to direct her repertoire of satirical Scottish voices to this audience. There was polite but still uncontrollable giggling in response. Janet slipped in amongst her pillows and schemed feverishly, as Macbeth now fell around her unheard.
She drifted for a while on a wandering current and then her voice had sprung out from amongst the cushions, very faint but deeply clear.
“I’m awfully sorry, oh I’m very sorry yes, but I cannot sit here and be insulted in front of my own household. This is meant to be my home, you know? Don’t blame me, oh I can’t help it, but I am supposed to live here!”
The new girl paused and then she was standing attentively over Janet. “What is wrong Mrs Worthington?”
The service staff were dropping back and Janet had turned to snap at their retreating bodies. “She thinks it’s funny, does she? She’s trying to be funny? Well, that’s okay. Let’s all sit here and be laughed at, shall we?”
It is possible to defer to Janet’s judgement here because Lady Macbeth’s voice had indeed sounded remarkably like her own. Perhaps the new girl had been really up to some subtle mischief and she had misjudged her safety.
“This is all very cryptic, Mrs Worthington,” the new girl continued, in that voice of fake, encouraging gladness.
For a moment, Janet stared about in astonishment, dithering on the tip of her tongue. Finally, she exploded, with spittle flying in a jet. “I’m Lady Macbeth!” she squealed. Some amongst the service staff had never thought that they would ever hear such an admission. “My goodness, when we get back to the house you’re going to have some explaining to do.”
Then they were all looking around and it was as if they had been unexpectedly awakened. Without a sound, Marvin, the gardener, had melted out of the parti-coloured beech hedge. He was holding an ancient, now-colourless rake and he looked vaguely like a figure from a peasant rebellion.
He was a small, almost dainty man, but his body was immensely weather-beaten. His grey-green jaw, his most vivid feature, looked as sleek and hard as wet concrete, and any prize-fighter would surely shatter his fist if he punched it. His face was bronzed and ruined, with dank, dry black hair pouring over it, perfectly straight, as if out of a cup. His hair’s inky colour seemed strangely out of sync with the rubble of his face. He never smiled, or indeed showed any emotion at all, aside from a kind of unprotesting disillusionment whenever Janet’s son roared abuse at him, for he constantly stole things from all around the estate when left unmonitored. He took a step towards Janet and they could see a rare danger in this figure. Marvin was in the mood for clarification.
“She doesn’t know who the lady in the book is,” he said to Janet. He always came straight to the point. “She’s never read it before.”
Janet could not tell if the sun had gone in, but she suddenly felt tired and crestfallen. “You’ve been listening, have you? You’ve been hiding in the bushes listening?” Her voice still sounded petulant, but no longer with the same heart-stopping drama.
“No,” Marvin replied. He propped his rake against a tree and began to walk towards the house, leaving them all to imagine what he had been up to in the bushes. This was his dignity.