Jean said nothing, knowing that her silence would be considered a difficult one.

Shelley told her, ‘We don’t like terminating people but it’s company policy. Town and Country’s not in a position to keep people on past retirement age, we’re not allowed. It’s the insurance.’ Breathing of a struggling, bovine kind followed this long speech. ‘I mean, you’ve done sterling work. But you’ve already had four years past sixty. Right. So.’

Still Jean said nothing, so Shelley changed tack. ‘So, you’re doing okay, are you, Jean, as regards the location of the property? Okay popping out and getting your bits and pieces? Because they did say it’d be better for a car owner as you’ve got over a mile to the village and it might be lonely. They said really it’d suit a slightly younger person with a car and maybe a part time job in the area, though I did tell them you were very professional and okay with a mile. You are okay, Jean, are you?’

‘There’s been a breakage,’ Jean announced. ‘Today, while I was dusting. A teapot on the sideboard. Blue and white, Chinese, with silver mountings. Not very large.’

There was another wait while Shelley prepared the tone of her reply and Jean heard the breathing grow unmistakably irritated. ‘Well, you’ve just proved my point. We have to fork out the excess on that now. You’ll need to find it on the inventory and notify us and we’ll have to tell the owners. You have got the inventory, haven’t you? It was in with the rest of the paperwork, with our letter and the owners’ list, you know, all their do’s and don’ts?’

‘Yes, I’ve got the paperwork. And the list, all the do’s and don’ts. Plenty of them.’

‘Yes, well, that’s their prerogative. People can go a bit over the top, especially when they can’t meet the sitter themselves. The Standish-Caves had to fly out the day before you arrived, that was all explained, wasn’t it?’

The list of instructions and grudging permissions for the house sitter that had come from the owners, via the agency, filled several typed pages. They were wide-ranging: no open fires, no candles, do not use the dining room or drawing room, use TV in small sitting room, use only kitchen crockery, do not use the cappuccino machine or the ice cream maker, always wear gloves to dust the books, beeswax polish only- no silicone sprays, you are welcome to finish any opened jars, unplug the television at night. Jean hugged her cardigan closer.

‘You’d think I’d never house-sat before. You’d think I don’t know the first thing.’

‘Well, you can’t blame them, can you, especially not now something’s broken. It is their house.’

‘I could have a go at mending it. I’ve still got the bits.’

‘Don’t touch it! They’ll want it properly mended, if it’s even worth doing. These clients are very particular, that’s why they’re using us. That’s why you’re there. Oh, Jean.’

There was more laborious breathing from Stockport until Jean finally cleared her throat and said, ‘Sorry.’

Shelley said, rather quickly, ‘Well, I’m sure you are but I mean this is the point, isn’t it? This is just the point. You are sixty-four. Suppose it happens again? Suppose you had a fall or something- well, our clients are paying for peace of mind, which they’d not be getting, would they, not in that particular scenario. No way they’d be getting peace of mind if Town and Country let their sitters go on too long.’

‘It’s only small. They probably wouldn’t even miss it, there are hundreds of things here.’

‘Jean, you’re in a people business. The client’s needs come first. That’s key. Isn’t it? You’re in the client’s home.’

Jean sniffed. ‘You don’t have to tell me that. I have been doing this eighteen years.’

‘Yes, and maybe that’s why it’s time to call it a day, isn’t it? After all, we’ve all got to retire sometime, haven’t we? I should think you could do with a rest! Where is it you’re retiring to, again?’

There was another wait while Jean said nothing because she did not know, and Shelley shored up her elective forgetfulness against the disturbing little truth that for eighteen years the agency had corresponded with Jean, on the very rare occasions when there was a gap between house-sitting assignments, care of a Mrs Pearl Costello (proprietrix) at the Ardenleigh Private Guest House in East Sussex somewhere. St Leonard’s, was it? This year Jean had asked as usual for an assignment that would span Christmas, and they had nothing for her until this one at Walden Manor, beginning on January 3rd. Shelley sighed with an audible crackle as her jacket shifted on her shoulders. All right, so Jean had no family. But today was Shelley’s first Monday back from ‘doing’ Christmas for fourteen people of four generations in a three-bedroomed house, and she told herself stoutly that family life could be overrated. Jean probably had a ball at the Ardenleigh.

‘Going to retire to the seaside, are you, Jean?’

‘I’m looking at a number of options. I haven’t decided.’

‘Good for you. Right, well, I’ll let you get on. Send us on a notification of the breakage. Oh, and can you remember in future when you answer a client’s phone, you should say, “Walden Manor, the Standish-Cave residence, may I help you?” It’s a nice touch. You don’t just say hello, all right? Company policy. And careful with that duster, at least till you’re enjoying a long and happy retirement!’

Jean put down the telephone in the certain knowledge that Shelley in Stockport was doing the same with a shake of the head, a crackle of her clothing and a despairing little remark to the office in general about it being high time, getting Jean Wade off the books.

That evening Jean lit a fire in the drawing room. When it was well alight, she drew the agency’s letter from her pocket and laid it carefully over the flames. Its pages curled, blackened and blazed up as the logs underneath settled with a hiss and a weak snap of exploding resin that sounded to Jean, smiling in her deep armchair, more like an approving sigh followed by faint and affectionate tutting. Only as the flames died, and to her surprise, did she become aware of a dissatisfaction with the emptiness of the room. Jean did not acknowledge loneliness. She had long recognised that two states, solitariness and a kind of sadness, were constants in her life, merely two ordinary facts of her existence. The two things might have been related, but as far as she could she left that possibility unexamined. Because even if they were, what could she do about it? Like many people who cannot abide self-pity, Jean sometimes felt very sorry indeed for a buried part of herself whose very existence irked her. And of course she was alone now, sitting in the glow of the fire and of warm-shaded lamps, in the low, beamed drawing room with its deep rose carpet and the heavy drapes pulled against the dark outside. She occupied a solid wing armchair, one of several chairs in the room which, along with two sofas, were covered in materials that were all different but belonged to the same respectable family of chalky old shades of green, pink and grey. She had never been more comfortable in her life, and she was, of course, alone. And so what dissatisfied her suddenly, she thought, could not be simple loneliness, not some unmet desire for a companion, but more a regret that she was the only person in the world who had seen the short but satisfying burning of the letter. For it had been a ceremony of a kind, watching the maroon, swirling print of the letterhead ‘Town & Country Sitters for total peace of mind’ go up in flames; and ceremonies should be witnessed even if they are not quite understood, Jean thought. She could not say exactly what the significance of hers had been, whether it marked an end or a beginning, a remembrance, an allegiance, a pledge- but it had been in a way purifying, and there should have been somebody else here to watch it with her. Somebody who might afterwards stay a while, and to whom she might talk in her underused voice, all about the letter, and Mother, and houses and growing old, and who, occupying the other chair by the fire, would nod and understand. And who, later perhaps, almost carelessly admiring her cleverness and good taste, would assure her that one smashed teapot among so many half broken things did not matter, that all would be well, even that her ill-chosen cardigan was, in fact, a beautiful shade of amethyst.

***

I felt that way about the objects even before the teapot. And also before the teapot, there was another thing. I felt, walking through the house, that time itself had stopped passing or rather, since that is impossible, that its passing had begun to seem irrelevant in the way that a war fought in another country becomes, eventually. For it seemed to me that in this house the only purpose of time, before it grew dark, was to let something beautiful happen to the light that was coming in through the windows. The hours of those first afternoons just moved over and made space for me to be quietly entertained by the light entering, fading and then leaving us, the things and me. I thought it was the kindest present I had ever been given.

I tested this second feeling for the first few days and reached an accommodation with it. I realised that in a house like this time passes so gently it seems not to be doing so at all unless you pay attention to the way light

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