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95

When the new girl arrived back at the house that evening, longing to put her feet up after traipsing for miles around labyrinthine displays of designer clothing, she was told that Janet was very distressed and too frightened to see her. The new girl’s exact position in the household was presently uncertain. One of the service staff, a girl in an apron, was filling in for now.

The new girl felt that she must burst into action but she was too dazed to think what to do. “What’s going on?” she pleaded. “If there are accusations against me, I have the right to know what they are.” On hearing her own words, the new girl shuddered. Whenever agency staff began to refer to their rights, it was usually all over for them.

But Janet had experienced a setback. For her son, who always arbitrated in the disputes between herself and the staff, was still away on his business trip. And then all at once Janet’s exhilaration was pouring away uncontainably. Nobody else had seen the footage of the mushroom coloured old man: it was Janet’s word against the new girl’s. She knew that the longer this dispute wore on, the more people would start to question or downplay what she had seen.

Janet began to panic. “I want you to take her away” she ordered. “Put her bags outside the front door. Give her a cheque, the amount doesn’t matter.”

“I’m not getting involved,” Marvin replied. He was only apologetic insofar as was courteous.

The new girl was sitting about in the kitchen, unsure of how to help in the running of the household. She had even volunteered to be a kitchen porter, which many in the kitchen had regarded as a noble gesture. The kitchen porters had petted her and they had given her a blackened casserole pot, which they assured her was one of the nicest and most interesting things in the kitchen to scrub.

Finally, the new girl was taken to one side under the stairs and briefed about what the service staff had gleaned so far. Mrs Worthington had visited to inspect the new girl’s room, where she had come across a computer. Here, she had been surprised to receive a Skype call from an extraordinary elderly satyr. Mrs Worthington had been very distressed and some of the things she had seen were, it was felt, not fair on her.

The new girl’s mind was thick with throbbing; there was a feverish rhythm in her head and all she could do was to listen to it helplessly. Nobody had ever known about this old man before and now the entire household appeared to know about him. He had emerged, as if for the first time, into broad daylight, like an attacking supernatural creature which has never before frequented our world. In a spasm of terror which was so keen that it seemed authentically pubescent, the new girl assumed that everybody would be laughing at her, spitefully, mercilessly, in a way in which the new girl had not been laughed at since she was a schoolgirl.

At the same time, however, the new girl was astonished at the invasion of her private room. And her outrage at this was so righteous that it immediately became the card which would trump every other. The new girl was marching about with windmilling arms and all of the blood in her body had suddenly shot into a hot, firm little frown in her forehead. Appealing to Janet was typically like trying to bargain with the weather, but this time the old lady would have to apologise to the new girl. It was impossible for it to be otherwise.

The new girl waited until the afternoon shift workers were leaving and the evening ones were yet to arrive, before she stalked down a neglected corridor to materialise at the door of Janet’s bedroom.

Janet was briefly staring about for help, until she realised that she was alone with the new girl. Then she was peeping shyly up at her and a quick, spreading blush had appeared on her face. The new girl had not expected this reticence and she was confused. All at once, her righteous anger seemed to cut a somersault in the air and vanish.

The new girl’s voice sounded odd and flat. “Mrs Worthington, I have trusted you,” she recited. “I had thought that your home could be my home.”

Janet beamed and next the new girl could scarcely credit what she was hearing. “What a funny old man. He’s quite a sight, isn’t he?”

There was an unexpected, even thrilling, gentleness to Janet’s voice, but still that hint of extra brilliance in her eyes.

The new girl had stopped and she did not know how to start again.

Smiling playfully to herself, Janet began to muse on the subject of the old man. “And how did you come to know him? You seem like a very funny couple.” Were it not for the brilliance in her eyes, she would have resembled the Queen when primly inquiring after well-wishers at an official tea party.

The words sounded on the new girl’s ears without reaching her brain. She was now standing before Janet like a person who was made out of cardboard, a flimsy unreal figure which could no longer speak. The ways in which she had previously appeared in public, the controlled character which she had always presented to Janet and the other girls, that calm and sensible voice which she had always spoken with – all of this was now cardboard.

The new girl then sensed that her real self had walked into the room and that it was walking amazingly around her. This was her real self, this degenerate, wholly decadent little creature which was only a kind of dim acquaintance to her during the daylight hours. This frolicking little person had only ever lived bundled away as if in a hole in the garden, in the company of the old grey goblin. Yet now this figure had capered straight in through the front door; it had taken over the new girl’s job and it was ready to answer the questions which would be put to the new girl. This creature was eclipsing the new girl, thrusting itself audaciously forward with a face which was half teasing, half unrecognisable, and completely shameful!

The new girl stood at the foot of the bed, now strangely expressionless. She tried to protest that Janet’s prying was not something which people were going to overlook. It was abusive and there would be consequences. She could hardly hear her own voice.

Janet was not gloating or outraged; she just pressed onwards with a blind, heedless prurience. “So how did you get to know him? Is he calling from your country? Have you known him since you were a child? That’s funny, you know?”

The new girl looked even more expressionless.

Like all of the girls in aprons, in those breathless moments when Janet became vicious and predatory, the new girl still admired, or even in a way loved, the old lady. But now the new girl was feeling something altogether different, a bewildering rupture in the earth beneath her. There was something magnificently normal and clean about Janet and her world. Everything in it was sensible, and civilisation seemed to spin around in it consummately like a faultless quadrille. This creature and its irredeemably shameful life had no place in Janet’s world, any more than a Tahitian savage would be invited to tea with Benjamin.

The new girl was walking in a sort of frozen way. She veered towards the door and then back towards the bed.

“So who is he?” Janet wheedled. Her eyes widened, as if she was about to make a guess, but before she came to the cruellest possible conclusion and administered the perfect coup de grace, the new girl was running from her.

She did not know where she was running to but she was instantly blundering through a succession of private rooms. She, and indeed most of the service staff, had never seen these rooms before. Her arms floated outstretched beside her as if they were following bannisters. She paused and then she could not get going again – she did not know where she was going to go. Silently, she was scooped up and conducted down a draughty stairwell. She hung frozen in the air, her head bowed and listening to rows of feet clicking smartly. Somebody was away across the house phoning the agency.

Back in her bed, Janet was weeping softly but steadily. She was very afraid.

“They’re going to say it was my fault,” she cried. “I thought she was a good, nice girl. She seemed like a nice girl. Oh no they’re not going to say it was my fault? It’s always my fault, you know?”

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