“Tabby,” she said doubtfully, looking up from my CV across the linen tablecloth. We had met in the tearoom of a small Edwardian department store; Miss Culvert, it transpired, did not believe in tablecloths herself. Her cherry-wood dining table had a sullen lustre, dark rising through light. A faint, milky ring marred one corner. A maid had once rested a wet glass there without a coaster, I was told, without elaboration.
“Short for Tabitha?”
She sniffed, delicately. “Are you a Muslim?”
“I believe in God,” I offered, “but I don’t really go to mosque any more.”
“I suppose your parents are greatly offended. You’ve run away from them? Or they’ve thrown you out?”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that.” I almost wanted to laugh. Something so dramatic might have been easier to explain. “I was training to be a teacher, in a secondary school. But the school they placed me in was tough, it was really hard, and … I couldn’t do it. I mean, the stress was too much.”
“So your parents are disappointed.”
I said nothing. She looked down again at my CV, and sighed. “Do you know how many English girls applied for this job? Precisely none. Only Poles and Africans, and all of them – to a man – had some background in care work. I didn’t advertise for a carer. I’m not that decrepit yet, God help me. My aunt had a companion, and I knew other women – it was usual, when I was a girl.”
“I was born in England,” I said, “I’ve only ever lived here.” I meant it as a reassurance rather than a reproach, but she gave only another small sigh.
I woke abruptly, the way I used to on school mornings. The previous evening Miss Culvert had not told me to rise at any particular time, and while lying in bed I had not heard anything to suggest that she was up, but I opened my door to the smell of bacon frying. It was my first day, and I was already late. Clutching my dressing gown at the neck I hurried downstairs and followed the smell to the kitchen. Now I could hear the pan sizzle, and the kettle beginning to steam.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I said as I pushed open the door, then stopped. Beside the cooker stood a middle-aged woman in pyjama bottoms and a wax jacket, her feet in Crocs, a smudge of grease on one cheek. Dark curls stood out around a broad, red face.
“You must be the Indian girl,” she said. “I didn’t think about the bacon, but needs must I’m afraid.”
I stared at her.
“Well, come in, close the door. You’ll wake her Highness.”
“Is Miss… Is Miss Culvert not up?”
“Who knows.” She tilted the pan, and the sizzling increased. Beneath the noise of the burning oil and the kettle I heard a scrabbling at the back door, and the woman shouted over her shoulder, “In a minute, Dirk!”
“I don’t mind bacon,” I said. “In fact, I actually like it.” I was all of a sudden achingly hungry. I had arrived at the house while Miss Culvert was eating her evening meal, and been told to wait in the parlour. I had been offered nothing.
An empty dinner plate and a smaller side plate stood on the worktop; the woman speared two rashers of bacon onto the small plate, and shoved it across the worktop towards me. “One each,” she said. She tipped the rest onto the dinner plate, opened the back door, and set the plate down on the step. I had not yet seen the back garden. I glimpsed a patio, a lawn and a stooped old fruit tree at the centre; a chain ran from the fruit tree over the grass towards the side of the house and twitched a little, then leapt up and shook. An Alsatian hurled around the corner, and cleared the back steps in a single bound. I backed across the kitchen floor, almost slipping on the tiles. The dog snapped at the hot food on the plate, and howled.
“Be a man, Dirk!” the woman said, and slammed the back door.
I found a knife and fork, and cut my rasher into small pieces. It would hardly touch my hunger. I ate it standing beside the worktop. The woman made a pot of tea, then ate her own rasher with her fingers.
“I’m Tabby,” I said, when she had finished.
“I’m Gail.” She turned to me with something of the look she had thrown to Dirk. “She has mentioned me?”
“I don’t think so, I’m sorry.”
“Well, that’s typical. I’m her niece. Veronica’s daughter.”
“I didn’t realise she had any family,” I said. “I sort of thought she mustn’t have. I thought that was why…”
“Why she was willing to pay for company?”
Gail snorted. “You’ve a lot to learn, my girl. Some men never take a whore until they get married.”
I was growing more confused by the minute, and starting to feel uncomfortable at the thought of being discovered by Miss Culvert in my dressing gown. “I think maybe I should get dressed,” I said. “I came down to use the bathroom, really.”
Gail nodded. “Don’t let her catch you in that,” she said. “Although she was worried you’d turn up in a burka, so you’re already doing well.”
I let myself into the hallway. As I shut the kitchen door I heard a crash on the back steps, and another howl.
I was not yet certain whether I was supposed solely to be a source of company to Miss Culvert, or to undertake housework and chores. By the time I had washed, dressed and returned to the kitchen, Gail had disappeared, although the frying pan with its blackened and cooling pool of oil remained on the worktop. I swilled it out, and spooned the congealed fat into the pedal bin by the back door, where it landed with a dull patter on top of the fragmented dinner plate. I heard the kitchen door open, and turned, letting the lid of the bin fall.
“I take it Gail has been here? Good morning.”
“Good morning. Yes, I’ve met her. I’m not sure where she is now.”
Miss Culvert nodded. “I shall have breakfast, and then I thought we might take a walk in the park.”
“Yes, of course. Would you like me to … prepare anything?”
“No, no. You may help yourself to whatever you like.”
After searching through the near-empty cupboards, I spread two crackers with a dark jam made from indiscernible fruit. Miss Culvert, I learnt, ate only Greek yoghurt with prunes for breakfast, alone at the dining room table. Once she had finished, she stopped me from washing up – “the help will do that, when she comes at ten” – and instructed me to fetch my shoes and coat.
We crossed the road and began to walk along the curve of Avonside Avenue, away from the junction. There were no houses on this side of the road, only a high bank of trees and, some way along, a pair of wrought-iron gates which led onto the park. Through the gates we strolled beside a flowerbed as broad as my parents’ back yard. Open grass sloped up steeply on the other side of the path. Three boys were dribbling and passing a ball back and forth, disappearing and reappearing over the crest.
“I had no idea the park was so big,” I said. It was the first sentence I had uttered since leaving the house.
“We are very fortunate,” said Miss Culvert.
We walked on, keeping to the path. A dog bounded past us, barking, and Miss Culvert flinched slightly. I said without thinking: “Gail told me she was your niece?”
“She is my niece.”
“Does she live around here?”
“For the time being. She was living – well, I don’t know where. She’s always moving. She decided three months ago to move here, and she has some sort of – flat, or rooms, somewhere. Her mother died, that’s the reason she gives, although in fact that happened some time ago.”
I was afraid to pry or appear impertinent, but I had after all been hired as a companion. After a short while I persevered. “She seemed surprised that you hadn’t told me about her.”
“Oh goodness, what is there to say? She has blown in and I suppose will blow out eventually, when she gets bored.”
We carried on walking. Although it was autumn the sun was heavy, and I felt breathless in my coat. Miss Culvert showed no sign of discomfort. “I cared a great deal for Veronica,” she said. “But she did indulge the girl.”
“Do you mind the dog?”
“That ludicrous creature … Kurt, or Kirk, or whatever she calls it. Well, a dog can’t help itself. But it is not to come into the house.” She turned to me sharply. “I do insist upon that.”
I thought, holding back a smile: It is not to eat off the best dinner service. I do insist upon that. I would wait for Gail to explain what had happened.
It did not take long for the broken plate to be discovered: when we returned home it was lying in pieces on the kitchen worktop, smeared with bacon fat. Gail was standing beside the table, and a wiry blonde woman between the oven and the open back door.
“I found it in the bin, Miss Culvert!” said the woman, as we entered the room.
“What on earth has happened now?” Miss Culvert stared at the plate, and turned immediately to Gail, who flung up her hands.
“I can’t be accountable for everything, and if you’d let him in he’d just sit quietly, and wouldn’t have to go leaping about for attention – ”
“Let who in? Did the dog do this?”
The blonde woman interjected: “The dog might have broken it Miss Culvert, but the dog never got it out of the dresser – ”
“ – oh, you were there, were you?” Gail swung around, hands on hips to face the woman.
“What, so the dog did get it out of the dresser?”
“Good heavens!” said Miss Culvert, in a voice louder than I’d heard her use before. “I’ve had about enough of this. Please get rid of the plate, Joanne. Gail, I don’t know what to say to you.”
Joanne whirled to the back door, stamped down on the tread of the bin; and screamed, as with a wild rattling of chains the Alsatian sprung up the back steps towards her. She dropped the pieces of plate into the bin, and stood trembling. Dirk strained and keened at the end of his chain.
“Joanne, have you finished the upstairs?”
“Finish it now then, please.”
Joanne pushed past me into the hallway. I could see the sweat shining on her cheek and forehead.
“You may rest until lunch,” Miss Culvert said. It took a moment before I realised she was speaking to me.
I followed Joanne into the hall and up the stairs. Behind the closed kitchen door, Gail began to shout.
A routine emerged. I got up early, so that I could make my own breakfast and tidy the kitchen before Miss Culvert came down. After she had eaten her Greek yoghurt and prunes, we spent several hours together. We walked in the park, or carried out errands in the cluster of shops half a mile from the house. This was the centre of the old village, now more or less drowned by twentieth-century suburbia, but a butcher remained and a red-brick Victorian library and, unaccountably, a shop which sold only hats.
I asked all the questions I could think of. Miss Culvert would have walked in silence, and often we did, but a sense of duty pushed me to talk. I learnt that the house had been her family home: she and Veronica had been girls there when bombs were falling over the streets to the north, where my parents lived now, alongside the canals and railway lines. Underneath the attic window, their father had lifted them one at a time onto his shoulders to see the flames.
Veronica had married a fool, and reared a fool. Between them, the two fools had consumed all of Veronica’s inheritance. “Whatever mistakes I may have made,” Miss Culvert said, reaching to accept a package of ham from the butcher, “they have at least been entirely my own.”
The butcher nodded.
One packet of ham lasted Miss Culvert a week. She never bought bread or fresh fruit, and ate almost entirely cold food, apart from a daily boiled egg with her afternoon tea. There was barely any cooking, and I had little else to do. After lunch I was told to “rest”; I sat on my bed, and read and dreamed as the sun lowered into the park. Sometimes I imagined my mother balancing in the gangway of her crowded bus, the windows steamed up, her coat buttoned to the neck, or stooping to pull handfuls of vegetables from the fridge and swilling them under the tap, chopping them in little pools of water. My father would be in his pyjamas, stiff and yawning; his uniform would be draped over the banister ready for the night shift, but he refused to wear it while he ate. Where was Ayesha? In the library, or in a coffee shop halfway home. I could hear her laughter. I picked up my book, turned through a few more pages.
I did not have permission to go out. When Gail appeared Miss Culvert would call me downstairs, but with Gail present I could hardly make myself heard. She was always speaking and always moving, skimming the cupboards and the fridge, eating crackers from the box, throwing morsels to Dirk. As his great head drew close to my feet I forced myself to stay in place, although I could concentrate on nothing apart from his purple tongue mopping the tiles.
Joanne came twice a week, and did most of the heavy housework. She was brittle and quick-tempered, but she let in the light of the outside world and, in the guise of helping with the chores, I spent as much time with her as I could. She used to come only once a week, but Miss Culvert had increased her hours over the last couple of months.
“She must have a lot of money,” I said, in a stage whisper over the breadth of the bed. I held up one side of the undersheet, and Joanne the other.
“On three,” said Joanne, and we arched the sheet into the air, pulled it taut across the mattress. “Well – she’s got nothing to spend it on, and no one to leave it to. No kids, and Gail won’t see much of it, I bet, however long she spends sniffing around.”
“Is that why she’s here, do you think?”
“Gail? Why else? You see it all the time.”
I tried to tuck the sheet in neatly. Joanne was working quickly down the other side of the bed; she had a technique for knocking the sheet into place with the side of her hand. I could hear the soft little blows as I fumbled on my own side. She went on, without looking up: “It’s why Gail doesn’t like me – I’m a waste of money. She probably doesn’t like you either.”
Gail’s visits were always unannounced, the sound of her tyres on the gravel driveway our only warning. She did not so much park the car as simply stop it from moving. She ran a crumpled little Fiat with one taillight missing, with so much debris piled on the boot shelf that I had no idea how she could drive at all. Released from the back seat, Dirk moped on his chain, secured sometimes to the apple tree outside the kitchen door and sometimes to a column of the front porch.
If Gail arrived after dusk and left Dirk in the drive, he worked himself into a frenzy under the porch light, activating it each time he stretched or shuffled. One evening she appeared after supper and sat with the two of us in the parlour for an hour. She complained about her neighbours; about a man she had lived with in Yorkshire, who kept pestering her with proclamations of love and then vanishing “into empty air”; about the garage which had failed her Fiat’s MOT… Dirk was chained to the porch, and every twenty or thirty seconds came the sound of his chain lurching over the gravel as light blazed through the curtains.
I let my book rest on my lap and gazed at the pages, unable to take in anything I read, and unable to think of any way to join in with Gail’s monologue or to interrupt its flow. Miss Culvert sat silently, staring ahead. After Gail had left she picked up her book from the arm of the sofa, held it for a moment, and placed it back down. Neither of us spoke, and neither of us read. We sat for a few minutes more. Then she stood, and said that she was going upstairs. I was left to put out the lights.
On my second Saturday, I was given the afternoon off. I took the bus into town, and stepping down onto the bustling pavement felt a rush of shock at the noise and surge of bodies all around me. I had introduced my Year Nines to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: “Try to imagine,” I’d shouted, over their din, “walking up that tunnel from the underworld, seeing the sun get brighter all the time, hearing the birds sing…” That was the moment when one of the boys threw his Capri-Sun at the wall behind my head, and lurid juice burst over the board. I stepped back against the bus shelter and tried to catch my breath.
I had arranged to meet my sister at the clock tower, but she was here on the pavement, waving as she hurried closer. She threw her arms around me. “You’ve got so thin! Is that old lady not feeding you?”
“Boiled eggs and cold cuts…”
“What for the love of God is a cold cut?”
“I’m starving,” I said, pulling out of her hug. “You don’t even want to know what it’s like there. Oh my God. Can we get something to eat?”
We ate, then I followed Ayesha around the shops, then I ate again while she watched me and sucked lime cordial through a straw. It was five o’clock. I pushed away my empty plate, and rested my head in my hands.
“Tabby,” Ayesha said softly, “Listen. You can’t go back.”
I looked down at the table through my fingers. My sister was two years younger than me, but everyone imagined she was older. She was sillier, funnier, and more certain.
“I was meant to bring you a message from Mum and Dad. They say that you’ve not been answering the phone when they ring you, not replying to their texts. They think that you think they’re disappointed with you.”
She paused, then after a minute carried on.
“They’re not disappointed, or angry, but they’re worried. They don’t like you being there, locked up, some sort of housemaid… I don’t like it either. It’s not you, Tabs, it’s not who you are. Mum and Dad want you to come home, and they said however long it takes for you to find something else to do, something that suits you, it’s alright. They just want you to be alright.”
I stared through my fingers at my empty plate. A deep crack almost bisected it, under the glaze, which I hadn’t noticed while I was eating. I felt a pressure in the bridge of my nose, and drew in my breath. “I have to go back,” I said into my palms. “My stuff is there.”
“Well, okay. Go and get your stuff. Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, no. I can’t just leave tonight, anyway. I have to give her some notice… I don’t know what to do.”
“Come home. Don’t be proud, Tabby, not with us. Come back home.” She reached over the table and pulled down my hands from my face.
By the time I got off the bus at the end of Avonside Avenue, it was completely dark. The tears had come, after I had climbed up to the top deck and curled myself into a window, and now I felt half exhausted, half full of a ready, reckless nerve. With my fists in my pockets I plunged along the pavement, one porch light firing after another.
The Fiat was angled sideways in the drive. A lamp burned behind the glass panel of the front door, and as I neared the porch I could hear voices raised in the hallway. I hesitated, then knocked. Miss Culvert would not allow me my own keys: she perhaps regretted having given a set too willingly to Gail. A shadow swept behind the glass, and the door swung inwards.
Joanne, her hand on the doorknob, flickered her eyes over me and turned back to Miss Culvert and Gail in the hall. “There’s no point keeping on,” she said. There was a catch in her voice. “It’s the final straw, and I’ve always said I wouldn’t work in a house where there was dogs, and that’s just it.” She was holding one arm stiffly away from her body, the sleeve pushed up to the elbow to expose a puffy bruise flecked with blood. In the hallway I stepped back against the wall, the front door crashed shut, and her rushing footsteps faded on the gravel.
Gail’s face was red, her mouth open. She panted a little. Behind the kitchen door Dirk began to bark, and Miss Culvert’s pale face twitched into life. “Gail, will you at least get that animal out of the house,” she said. “Just take it outside.”
Gail turned; the kitchen door opened and closed.
My heart stamped in my chest, and my voice began before the words had resolved in my head. “Miss Culvert,” I said, “I’m afraid that I’ve decided this job isn’t for me. I’m sorry. I can stay a bit longer while you find someone else – ”
I could hardly focus on her thin figure at the end of the hall, but her voice travelled clearly. “There is no need for that,” she said. “If that’s your decision, there is no need to prolong things. You have somewhere to go tonight?”
“Yes – I’m going back to my parents’ house.”
“Then go. It’s quite alright. I will write a cheque for your wages.”
It took me only a few minutes to pack, although my hands shook as I folded my clothes. I was still wearing my coat. I switched off the light, and the dreary glow of the streetlamp on the opposite side of the avenue fell limply through the window, over the headboard and pillow.
I carried my suitcase down the stairs. The dining room and the parlour were both in darkness, and gently I pushed open the door to the kitchen. Cold air slithered into the hallway, and I saw the back door wide open, Dirk on his haunches on the step. Miss Culvert sat at the table. Gail stood behind her. I picked up the cheque which Miss Culvert pushed towards me across the table-top, then stepped back towards the door.
“Thank you,” I said.
Miss Culvert inclined her head graciously. Her mouth looked small, her lips almost to have disappeared into the thin, grey flesh of her face, but in her old voice she said, “Good luck. Perhaps you will return to teaching.”
“Perhaps,” I said. Gail was silent, her pink Crocs obscenely bright against the floor.
“I hope you will be successful.”
Gail’s hand fell to Miss Culvert’s shoulder and I saw her shrink, for a second, the way she had shrunk from the dog in the park. I hesitated, then turned too quickly, banging my hip against the edge of the kitchen door. Whatever she had wanted from me, she would not ask me to stay. All I wanted was to go home.