The house had settled down after lunch; little doors had opened in inconspicuous places and gulped down all of those people who had been marching continually back and forth along the corridors throughout the morning. The postprandial stillness was now as clear as an audible note and it was the same silent note which rang hauntingly through the house during the small hours. Gazing out of her bedroom door, down the length of the corridor, Janet had the strange impression that she was walking out at midnight into golden afternoon sunlight.
There was no walking frame this time but its absence appeared to endow Janet with a certain ghoulish agility. She scuttled along the corridor, bent over completely with her backside bobbing in the air, her shoulder leaning to scrape against the wall, and a single claw trailing to follow the line of the skirting board. This whole display was weirdly noiseless, aside from the scuffing of that exposed elbow against the wall. If any of the service girls had been walking along the corridor and they had suddenly looked down to see Janet coming, they would have gotten the fright of their lives.
But a feeling had put its finger on Janet half way down the corridor, the growing sense that she was unwittingly perpetrating some obscure but definite hypocrisy. She paused, waiting either for knowledge to come to her or for the feeling to drift away again. Then at last she was exultant and utterly dazzled – quite incredibly, it had come to her.
Once, as a little girl, Janet had been taken for a treat to visit a country house in Northumbria. She still possessed a small shard of memory of this day, an image as bright and perfect as though painted on porcelain. She was being led around battlements with her dolly tucked forgotten under her arm, as proud as if she was an inspecting princess. Upon reflection, they had probably been those fake battlements which the late Victorians had clapped, along with Italian fairy towers and cupolas, on to every rectory and villa. Here, Janet had been told a story which had over the years periodically returned to her mind, a tale which had been through some magic exempt from being swept away with the rest of the everyday trivia.
This house had been owned by a niggardly old woman who was always jealous of her servants. The woman had clung to the belief, as fiercely as if it was a Calvinist tenet, that her servants were helping themselves to the best things from her kitchen cupboards. She would scowl down on her dry crusts and imagine the servants sampling the creamiest slices of her bread. She pictured the knowing looks which would dart between the servants; how they would smile over her powerlessness, with that calm smiling superiority which was unendurable to her. Soon, she could taste this humiliation in every mouthful and every meal had become more torturous than if the food was eating her.
And so after dark this old woman had padded along the corridors of her house on her hands and knees, with a candle raised above her head, to spy on the servants. Over the years she had come to be frozen like this in the form of a ghost. Sometimes modern visitors to the house, who ventured to the toilet in the dead of night, would be amazed to encounter this angry old crone as she slithered across the floorboards on raw knees, snorting with determination.
A part of Janet had suspected that this story was unfair to the old woman. She may have been a loving grandmother, who had enchanted generations of adoring children with her kindliness. Yet, as with the Mona Lisa, only a single unflattering image of her had been fixed for posterity.
After scratching her way up a flight of grimy stairs, Janet was surprised, and then very cross, to see that the elevator climbed this high into the house. Then, Janet was horribly startled. The ancient, spindly pod of the elevator had come to rest on this floor and so somebody else must be up here. For over a minute she stopped and listened to the silence which was growling all around her.
She knew that the girls who boarded were supposed to be down on the basement floor. Eventually, she concluded that this was just another instance of how the elevator was prone to meander about of its own accord. Like an unattended baby chattering away to itself, the sounds of its activity would sometimes reach her and the girls on those quiet evenings when they were alone together in the house, closeted in the library.
Next, she had forgotten which of the plain rooms under the eaves had been assigned to the new girl. Uneasily, she assured herself that it must be the same one which had belonged to the girl who had preceded the new girl.
Finally, Janet worried about meeting her grandson. She could picture him descending upon this little room unexpectedly, just to talk, and then sitting back on the new girl’s bed and glowing with a look of sudden relaxation. The talk would wander from the day’s administrative fussing and he would begin to pick and probe, setting little tests for her. In this genteel way, he would beg for sex. Janet could not tell whether the new girl would cave in, but this was more a faith in Ted’s lack of appeal than the new girl’s discrimination.
Were it not for the lowness of the sloping ceiling, the room under the eaves would have instantly resembled a hotel room. There was the same bare furniture, which gives nothing away, and the same collection of personal items which had settled for the time being over the bedside drawers like a film of dust. The new girl would be careful not to concede anything homely to this room; she had not put up a picture of her pompous-looking dog. To dare to make a home for herself in this frosty room would be akin to confessing love to some lout back on the farm who had a different girl in his bed each week.
Wondrously, Janet was now deep into the new girl’s bedroom. The new girl’s private world was laid out neatly for her to inspect, a luxurious spread of innocuous but still marvellous objects. The marvellousness of this seemed to sing all around Janet. As her eyes drank in each object, she felt that her knowledge of the new girl was becoming subtly deeper and more sophisticated. The new girl might never come to appreciate it, but Janet’s power over her had grown immeasurably richer. A sense of this new power flamed through Janet’s brain and limbs until it was roaring in her forehead.
The new girl was plodding around a distant shopping centre, oblivious to what was happening in this bedroom, rather like an ant that might be following its own private trail in the carpet below.
There was a laptop unfolded on the dresser. Janet’s eyes rested without any understanding on the keys but she was not discouraged. She immediately thought of Marvin – the most reliable man who she knew when it came to practicalities – but she recalled that he was unpredictable on moral matters. Sometimes he sided with her and sometimes he didn’t.
There was a silver button, separate from the rest, which surely activated the laptop. She pressed it and the computer began to stir. It turned out to be in an unfriendly mood. Janet would have to name the password if she wanted to log in.
Still she was not discouraged. There was a small dancing chance that she knew the password and she decided to take a shot at it. One morning in the garden the new girl had mentioned the name of her dog: Orlando. She had unexpectedly brightened on uttering this word and for a moment she had looked unfamiliar and disconcerting to Janet. That clown anguish had passed clean out of her face. Carefully locating each key, Janet fed the new girl’s dog into the laptop.
She was logged in. That luck was on her side confirmed to Janet that what she was doing must be correct.
Nevertheless, the computer had immediately quietened down. She did not know how to wake it up again and make it produce answers.
For over an hour, Janet sat in front of the laptop, waiting.
It was like being back at school, elaborately plotting to humiliate and destroy other tyrannical little princesses. You might have concluded that this is, at least for now, a story about two women having a power struggle in the back rooms of a dilapidated house. I urge you to look upon its more magnificent, more cosmic aspects. Imagine that these two were wrestling bitterly across the whole of the sky, with the energy of those giants who are made from constellations.
Janet was suspended in a thin dribbling sleep, following currents of ghostly awareness which were not quite dreams.
She came round when the laptop began to pulsate. It was chirping out a kind of flat electronic foxtrot. She had the option of declining or accepting. Breathlessly, she accepted.
“Hello baby!” the laptop called.
A normal human voice sounded almost miraculous after the hours of near silence. Janet’s eyes were shining over the laptop. There was an image on the screen and her first impression was of a huge battered old cauldron. Yet, with a flutter of the heart, she realised that this was the body of a naked man.
He was a very fat naked man and certainly not a young one. He may have been even as old as herself. His belly was mushroom coloured and gleaming with sweat. He was slumped on what looked like the cement floor of a kitchen or a utility room, with a tiny furry head blinking over his flopping belly. He blinked again, indicating that this was live footage. His penis looked like a lone grape enthroned in a mass of hair.
“Baby?” the old man called indignantly, even angrily. He regarded Janet with a kind of sluggish dismay, before making a perfunctory effort to cup his hand over his penis.
“I’m sorry” Janet chirped gaily at the laptop. “But the new girl is at the shops.” She then cackled again. “Would you like to leave a message?”
“Baby?” the old man repeated angrily. He appeared to be like one of those teddy bears that can utter a single word when you push a button in their stomachs.
“Yoo-hoo!” Janet yodelled with delight. “This is good fun, you know. Hey, I can see something naughty!”
Downstairs, at the doors of the ancient elevator, Janet was on her walking frame and calling to rouse the entire household. Girls came running and wriggling into their aprons at the same time.
“So she gets calls from dirty men? Men older than me, you know. I’m sorry, I’m really very sorry, I don’t want to cause a fuss, but that’s disgusting! Absolutely disgusting! I don’t want to make a fuss, but she’s looking after me, someone who hasn’t been educated like she has. These men call her in our house, you know, without any of us knowing, without any clothes on! That’s not normal, is it? Does anybody think that’s normal?”
Janet was rattling along on her walker, with no apparent destination, calling so as to wake up the very squires in the portraits on the walls. “I could sue her, you know? Somebody should sue her! That would teach her!”
And so the ants poured all over the nest, as if an ankle had erupted through one of their palatial ceilings. It was nobody’s job to defend the old man or to wonder what Janet had been doing in the new girl’s private room. They simply knew that they were required to run after Janet’s outrage wherever it went.
Only Marvin paused, when the news reached him out by the fountain, and this was only to feel a helpless, spurious sadness. As it always did though, the sadness then peeled away from him and wafted into the ether like cigarette smoke.