When Amir woke that morning, the first thing that he did was to lie in his bedsheets and listen to the silence of the house drifting along. He luxuriated in this silence, his nerves swimming in excitement. Next, he crept to the door of his bedroom and after the soft sounds of his feet in the carpet had ceased the silence blared up again, as loud as a car horn. On the landing all of the bedroom doors were thrown open and he peeped around at them with an awakened curiosity.
The entire house was his. It had been dropped and left, all to him. He felt akin to a hyena that was marvelling over a bone that some lions had lost interest in.
It was his temporarily. In four days his parents would be back, recolonising all of the rooms with their noise and bustling ordinariness. Whilst Amir had slept, they had quietly woken each other and dressed and conferred and a taxi had collected them and taken them to the tram that would take them to the airport. Now they would be… well, Amir’s vision of what they would be doing here became soft and wobbling, like ice-cream that might suddenly trickle down the cone. He was always haunted by the feeling that his parents were wound up tightly for a stage show and that there were relaxed areas backstage that he could never access. Now they would be sitting in a plane over southern Europe. In his mind, however, they had been switched for half-strangers – actors who still wore the same faces but without being enhanced by the familiar patterns of mannerisms. What could they be possibly saying to each other?
They were going to Hyderabad for a wedding. The groom was an old friend of Amir’s father, but Amir could not recall his name ever being mentioned before around the family’s meal tables. He was obviously somebody whose lifestyle was not explicable to children – somebody who, when children looked up and surveyed the mountainside of adulthood, would need to be kept hidden behind a bush.
In any case, Amir had to apply himself to the next round of exams and his parents had wanted him firmly in Edinburgh. As if his family had been promptly unclipped without his parents, he and his sisters had separated. They had gone to sleepover at their aunt’s, whilst an ancient babysitter had been invited to stay at the house to look after Amir. Their parents had judged that it would be unfair on either the aunt or the babysitter, both of whom were rather foolishly fond, to make them adjudicate alone over the siblings’ bitter, non-stop quarrelling.
Nanny Peters would move in this evening. Amir was almost eighteen. Many of his fellow students now did the school run in the driver’s seats of their own cars. He knew of two girls his own age who had babies of their own, and who cared for them with a ferocious competence and thoroughness. He was aware that to be babysat, at his age, was near to exceptional. Yet this babysitter was in truth doubling up as a kind of servant. If Amir was required to cook a meal, he would not know the first cupboard to open and the first utensil to pick up. Both he and his parents dismissed cooking as a menial skill that serious young scholars should pursue at a later date.
Amir had known Nanny Peters for as long as he had possessed a mind. She was present at the very start of his memory, like an old trouper from a soap opera’s original core cast. Back then she had seemed bigger and doughtier and her voice could comfortably reach the ceiling. Now, he was quick to locate worrying signs of frailty. Her eyelids looked hard and heavy, as though they were shaped from cement; her voice sounded increasingly like a wheel that was too stiff to clatter about with its usual merriment. Her hands looked tiny and chilled and so dainty that they should be kept wrapped in tissue paper.
Some things never changed. Whenever Amir pictured Nanny Peters in his mind, her hair was a glamorous silver-blue. In reality it had always been a dirty grey. Her reasoning hummed with that superstition-riddled wisdom that hangs around kitchen gardens and handed-down cookery books. She equally had a level and even rather tart common sense, one that sometimes shocked Amir whenever his admiration for her grew too complacent. She was never vulgar, though. Indeed, she had been originally recruited as a babysitter due to the impression that she gave of an almost histrionic working-class, penny-pinching scrupulousness.
Her voice and presence were like some low earthen passageway that leads back to a treasure-house of memories from infancy. Perhaps Amir might have located the same route in the aroma of a certain cough syrup, or the frank face of a teddy bear that was currently unlocated, in a box in the attic.
As had occurred on the previous occasions when Nanny Peters had babysat, a great fuss was made over where she was expected to sleep. Amir’s parents had invited her to make full and free use of their own bedroom, an equality that had scandalised her. So a particular sofa that could climb out of its own shape and become a bed of excruciating discomfort, rather as cars can stand up on their hind legs in the Transformers, was enlisted to her service. Here, Nanny Peters would eke out a meagre sleep under equally meagre blankets. She always rose energetically at a bewilderingly early time of the morning and the bed would be somehow wrestled back into a sofa before Amir had descended.
She would never put a foot on the stairs. She had decided that the upstairs were the family’s private quarters and out-of-bounds to her, so she remained in her understood zone like a perfectly trained dog. Her head was full of these intricate, urgent calculations about what was proper and Amir knew that he could never budge any of them.
Nanny Peters had been babysitting for two days when Amir received the first email. It had been sent to the address that was publicly advertised for his company. The email contained a single link to a YouTube account. Instinctively, the boy detective understood at once that this email was not spam. He clicked the link.
It was a video message from Ellen Stewart. She was sitting at a desk in what looked like an overly bare suburban room, say a box room or the sort of place that had to look sufficiently like a room if a door accidentally opened onto it. Ellen spoke to Amir flatly, familiarly, not quite coolly but with no detectable warmth either. She delivered her message in a low voice, as though she was in constant danger of being overheard. She occasionally glanced up, in such a way that the boy detective could tell that she was facing an open door.
He was to meet her. They were both in great danger, but he was the only one who could be of any use to her now. She would slip out of the house where the doctor was keeping her. The doctor always slept late and so she could do this at dawn. The boy detective should meet her at five the next morning. Their venue: the ornamental duck pond at the base of Blackford Hill.
The boy detective knew as soon as this information had splashed onto the surface of his brain that it was a trap.
It was eerie being addressed by Ellen in this way, since they had never conversed before in real life. It was as though a familiar figure on television, such as the Prime Minister, had suddenly looked up during a news report and started to speak to him personally. Yet the boy detective could tell from some subtle way in which Ellen held her face that she was not inhabiting her normal personality.
Still, the boy detective wanted to learn what manner of trap was being laid for him. He vaguely supposed that he would be confronted and scolded. She would tick him off for spying on her. It did not seem plausible to the boy detective that they would wreak significant violence on him.
So he would go, experimentally, and he would be careful. He would approach the venue for the meeting from behind a screen of trees. He would be silent and watchful. He would be as blithely safe as a tiny fish bumbling around the mouth of a whale. He still retained the fearlessness of a child who cannot imagine that somebody who is as central to life as themselves can ever come to any harm.
He was more worried about having to explain himself to Nanny Peters. She knew about his detective work – the cutting from the Edinburgh Evening News had been proudly filed away in her scrapbooks – but she would be inevitably dismayed and confused by what being a detective actually entailed. Creeping about early in the morning? A secret rendezvous with a strange lady. The boy detective felt that Nanny Peters could be hardly expected to come down into this world and jostle about familiarly amongst its practices.
[I had the strange impression that Nanny Peters had featured in several prior stories and instalments. I can only track her down to a single appearance in the Borneo adventures though.]