Macbeth had been abandoned just after the murder of Duncan, which had at least provided a fortuitous ending to the story, and Janet and the service staff were now turning their faces to the house. Janet was back on her walking frame, rattling vigorously and edging painstakingly forward. The wicker chair, the cushions, the tea set and the book were all carried after her. All of this made Janet vaguely resemble the general of a minor army which was fleeing from a skirmish with the open air.
Five o’clock was the hour when Janet met Benjamin. The new girl had been given no warning about Benjamin and when she witnessed him being produced, nosing like a gigantic monstrous louse out of the parlour where he was quartered, she was momentarily paralysed with foreboding. The days when she had had no inkling of Benjamin’s existence were now over forever.
So let us meet Benjamin: a decrepit King Charles spaniel, obese, sightless, deaf, with most of his Blenheim curls and velvet rotted to tatters, and grossly incontinent. “Benjamin!” Janet crooned with pleasure, as though she was delighted to see him looking so well. The service staff ran with napkins as Benjamin paused, cocked his senseless head, and doused the carpet in urine.
The chef always prepared a special lukewarm broth for Benjamin. The new girl would have to bend the dog’s head back and push the corners of his mouth down in a certain way until the liquid began to ebb into his jaws. The new girl noted that Janet’s instructions, whilst usually infuriatingly airy, became unrelenting on the topic of Benjamin’s dietary needs. The new girl, the old lady dictated, would have to press Benjamin’s mouth shut for several minutes whilst they waited for the faint heat of his jaws to dissolve the broth to the right consistency.
Both God and the Devil are laughing at me, the new girl thought gloomily. She needed to say something, else her strange quietness be correctly interpreted as signifying sheer disgust at this half comatose dog. It was in instances like this that intemperate agency girls sometimes found their voices, spoke to their employer as sudden equals, and started to finally list all of the rights that they were being daily denied. Once these girls had become so visible, the new girl knew, they could rarely slip back into the necessary obscurity again.
“Can I wear gloves?” the new girl ventured at last.
Wearing gloves, it turned out, would be a sort of insult to the entire household. Janet was astonished, flourishing her arms and squealing crossly.
And so the new girl squatted under the table, manhandling Benjamin so that the brown fluid seeped successfully into his body. A whole level above her, Janet sat and slurped her pale tea and picked longingly at pretty biscuits which were too hard for her to eat. Benjamin offered no evidence of being alive or conscious, aside from a moment when an arthritic leg ground upwards and an abundance of urine emptied into a large pool beneath him. With all of the splashing, his underside had already begun to sag like a wet sponge.
The new girl could not hold her face down to look at this dog. He stank as if they had literally dug him up from after a month under the garden.
There was a girl in an apron standing to attention beside the sideboard. She was suddenly, almost amazingly, reminded of a scene in a picture book from her childhood. Some credulous Indians had left cakes and buns in front of their idol and when they had returned, the cakes were gone.
Eventually, a suitable dose of the brown fluid had been inserted into Benjamin and he had soaked it up. Janet was now signalling for her teatime to end, but at the same time it seemed that the new girl’s discomfort was not yet over. Janet was leaning confidingly towards the new girl, as if on a whim making a ghastly, thrilling bid for friendship. Her face gleamed as if in a fever. “Benjamin’s a movie star” she whispered. “Shall we see Benjamin at Hollywood?”
The new girl watched helplessly as two of the girls in aprons picked up Benjamin and began to stuff him into a kind of drawer in the wall, crowding around to knead his stiff body into this slot. Then one of the girls stepped back and the other was twisting a small, bright steel wheel in the wall. They were plunged into darkness and the new girl crouched, her heart plummeting several floors, as a gossamer anthem by Enya rose from all around them. Spotlights danced across the room and shot to converge in front of a glass tank overhead.
The tank had been hitherto unobserved by the new girl, or perhaps it had been covered by an internal screen. Inside, there was the shining painted backdrop of a red carpet outside a cinema. Paparazzi photographers were kneeling in two rows on either side of the red carpet like chess pieces. Benjamin was being steadily winched into the centre of this scene; the new girl saw that sunglasses had been perched on his face and that his putrefying body had been somehow squeezed perfectly into a fresh tuxedo. From all around the new girl came the flashes and clicks of paparazzi cameras. Janet shrieked with pride.
“Oh, look!” she gasped. “What a star! What a movie star!”
The dog sat motionless before the panorama, apparently insensible of the lights and the applause.
When he had been wheeled back down, Janet all at once looked like an invalid again. She began to snivel and brush at her eyes. “I should have him put to sleep, shouldn’t I?” she implored. “We can’t keep him like this. The vet says that he’s always in such pain, in agony all the time, even with the painkillers.”
This vet had put his children through Ivy League universities by recommending new drugs for Benjamin. Each of the service staff had on some occasion wondered whether Benjamin had been Janet’s dog since she was a child.
On an impulse, the new girl had sunk to Janet’s level and hugged her tiny, weightless body. Janet instantly drooped and then she was scandalised to realise that she had been defeated, borne away without a struggle on a wave of the new girl’s affection.
“You know, I have a dog back in Latvia,” the new girl recounted. Her face had brightened and it now looked unexpectedly beautiful. “We bought him to be a guard dog for the farm, but he’s too soppy. He just bounds up to strangers and licks them. I have a picture here.” The new girl swiped her phone and Janet found herself gazing at images of a vast, noble-looking dog. It was customary at moments like this, when the fiction that the service staff did not carry their phones about with them came under strain, for Janet to cry out, “No phones! They must be kept at the gatehouse!” Yet Janet merely bit her lip and blushed, cursing her weakness.
“They are very emotional creatures,” the new girl was pleading. “If you love them, this matters more to them than painkillers.”
Janet blew her nose loudly, a honk that would have made any other dog leap to its feet. “Benjamin is so lovely,” she wept. “So lovely and so, so silly.”
By the end of today, the new girl was ahead by several points. Janet lay tucked up in bed scheming, wrapped up in herself like a bat and squeaking incandescently.
Unfortunately, over the next few days, the new girl grew only more efficient and her accomplishments seemed to become unstoppable. Janet watched jealously as the new girl navigated the most intractable obstacles without ever setting a foot wrong. Difficulties which would have confounded Janet’s previous assistants were consummately smoothed over. The service staff started to refer to the new girl in tones of cautious wonder. Maybe Janet had finally got what was coming to her.
What they had known of Janet’s character was becoming muddied. Some of the service staff even began to talk about Janet in a way which would start to take the shine off her. This willful old woman had been allowed to grow unmanageable, carrying on with her stinking dog, and it did her good – it was a kindness, in a way – for her to receive some more practical help. Only Marvin insisted, gravely and without permitting any contradiction, that Janet should not be underestimated.
But Janet was biding her time until the new girl had earned her first day off. The new girl had told Janet over breakfast that she was heading across to Livingstone for the afternoon to look at the shops. Janet had rather cruelly pictured the new girl waddling purposefully around a vast warehouse and examining piles of indistinguishable designer clothing. When the new girl had added that she would be back by nightfall, Janet had accrued all of the information that she required.