changes. Time had stopped pulling me along the way it had begun to, with that letter. It was as if time would let me linger for as long as I wanted, would even linger along with me, but so quietly that I would not notice it at my side.

All this is the wisdom of hindsight, of course. I couldn’t have put it into words at the time. All I could have said for certain back in January was that I was happy in a beautiful house. Also that I saw, for certain, that people are mistaken when they say that joys are fleeting. It’s the opposite. I had arrived thinking, worrying, really, that it wasn’t long until September. But in the first week here I learned that a part of joy is the apparent infinity of it. When you are happy, happiness stretches out ahead of you, its end forever receding even as you suspect that something this good can’t last. But it does. It goes on, and you’re confounded, you ought to be expecting it to finish, and it doesn’t. Then something quite giddy gets into you, and then you start to think you need it to go on. And it does, it does. It’s one of the things about it. Suddenly, because I was happy, the time until September was so, so far away. Happiness surrounded me like trees so I couldn’t see September, waiting.

She had not told Shelley the half of it about the teapot. When it fell and shattered on the dining room floor after what seemed the merest push from the feather duster, it had spilt keys. Several, perhaps forty of them, had skittered and skidded across the flagstones like enamelled seeds from a spent case. Jean was at first offended by the accident, feeling that she had been almost forced into it. The owners’ list had commanded, ‘Use the feather duster. Do not lift objects to dust them’ and Jean had so far been obedient. So really, the breakage could be said to be their own fault, for if she had been using a cloth, or if she had been holding the teapot instead of pushing the stupid feather thing at it as it sat on the sideboard, it would not have slid off and smashed.

But the broken teapot ceased to matter when she picked up the keys from across the floor and considered them, for this was a house with a great many locked doors. Householders varied, Jean had found. Some encouraged a house sitter to move in and treat the place as their own, proffering so much access that it was embarrassing. In her time Jean had been invited to use computers, drinks cupboards, dubious videos, occasionally a sauna and once the client’s electric hair rollers. Others were less profligate but still welcoming, sometimes dust-sheeting and closing unneeded rooms as much for the house sitter’s convenience as their own. But few locked rooms the way these people had, without explanation, but still leaving open four empty bedrooms upstairs and all the downstairs rooms that Jean was supposed to clean and maintain but not use. They had also locked what they called, in their instructions, the pool pavilion, the garages, the potting sheds and implement store. Desk drawers and small cabinets throughout the house also had been locked and the keys taken away. And had been placed in the blue and white teapot at the back of the sideboard, Jean now supposed, lifting and dropping handfuls of keys, letting them clank softly in her palm. Or to be more accurate, placed in the teapot so that they would be hidden from her. Her vague offence over the owners’ behaviour was warming into resentment. They were practically saying they did not trust her. Did they assume that a humble house sitter would be unable to resist the temptation to sully their beautiful and valuable possessions?

The keys that were obviously for cars were of no interest to Jean, who had never learned to drive. Nor did she think she would ever need or want to operate garden machinery using the keys with paper tags marked mower, old saw and new saw. But the largest mortice keys would surely open the locked doors upstairs. They would show her the rooms that were thought too good for her, which would offer up their spaces, grateful that she had come to claim them. The smaller keys, she guessed, would be for cupboards. They would reveal even finer things that would console her for the destroyed teapot, treasures yet more precious, even now waiting to be brought into the light. And the smallest keys would surely turn the locks of some of the carved boxes, of hidden drawers in exquisite cabinets; they would yield with scarcely a click and she would pull out tiny handles and lift lids on secrets that these people, in their insulting way, had thought to keep from her. Next to these pewter-coloured keys, whose dullness merely disguised the scale and richness of what they protected, the bright blue and white, silver-mounted teapot was already losing its glamour. Jean retrieved the porcelain shards, now as discarded and irrelevant as shed skin, and put them in a bag.

***

You might think it’s a perfect recipe for bitterness, living all alone in the house of somebody much richer than you are, but I don’t think I have ever fallen into that particular trap. Besides, this house isn’t the biggest place I’ve done or the most luxurious, nor did I mind not having neighbours. It’s a solitary job anyway, you accept that, and a mile from the village isn’t really that far. Thinking about it I’ve been much more solitary in towns, behind electronic gates in huge opulent houses full of expensive trash, usually in places that are both popular and disgusting, like Bournemouth. Or Wilmslow. I could never be anything other than solitary in places like that. Those houses have carpets so thick you think you’re walking on squashed animals, and big upholstered chairs with huge cushions, like corpulent women in tight dresses in too young a colour. Most often it’s peach. In places like that you are lonely, comfortable and revolted all at the same time.

So, this house, the fifty-eighth, is not the biggest, nor the loneliest nor the richest. It is the most gracious. Put simply, it is beautiful. From the first, I knew it was the first truly beautiful house I’d ever seen, because I could imagine really living in it, as distinct from just staying a while. It’s beautiful in the old way, quietly. I don’t think I’m a snob but there’s such a thing as good taste- though there’s more to it than that. I never really associated this house with its owners. It seems strange even to call them that. I thought about them, a little, in the first week or so, but gradually less, and hardly ever after Michael came.

When I arrived, three of the rooms upstairs were locked. So was the door to the cellar, various other cupboards around the place, and the garages and outbuildings. I was a bit cross about that, clients shouldn’t do that. First of all, one of my jobs is to keep rooms aired and how can I if they’re locked? Second is the fire risk. What if there’s an electrical fault, and a fire starts that you can’t get to? You’re wondering all the time what could happen behind the door and all you can do is rattle the handle and pray that everything’s unplugged. People just don’t think about that, not until they’ve experienced a house fire for themselves. The irony was that on that very long list of things they wanted me to do or not do, they’d put ‘avoid any fire risks’! So, no candles, no open fires, unplug the television. I could have taken that personally, but I kept reminding myself they knew nothing about me and fires and houses. They couldn’t, because Town and Country Sitters didn’t; if they had I should never have been taken on at all. No, the ‘owners’ were just being cautious in case I was as stupid as they were afraid I’d be, being only a house sitter.

Other things on the list that annoyed me: after ‘no open fires’ it said that the radiators were turned off in the library, drawing room, dining room and upstairs, but not in ‘my’ bedroom or the smallest bathroom, or in the small sitting room where the television was. That was an assumption, wasn’t it? That I’d just watch telly and go to bed. Well, I may have been in the habit of doing so, but I didn’t care for the assumption. Straightaway it reminded me of the Ardenleigh where it’s a choice between the bedroom (heating off, discouraged in the daytime) or what they call the lounge, where the television is on all day with nobody watching it but not really doing anything else either, except looking offended. And oh yes, the Aga kept the kitchen warm, the list said. If that wasn’t a hint about where I belonged I don’t know what was.

So almost from the very beginning I lit a fire in the drawing room every evening, right up till the beginning of June. There are enough logs stacked outside in the open shed in the courtyard to last for years and plenty of trees round about anyway. Michael has been lighting a fire again since last week. August evenings can be chilly.

Anyway, I’m supposed to be trying to explain. I admit I wasn’t in the best frame of mind about Mr and Mrs Standish-Cave, but it wasn’t malice. It was more a case of things just coming round in a particular way, starting with me coming here after another Christmas at the Ardenleigh. The Ardenleigh is dreadful at Christmas. It’s half holiday guesthouse and half old people’s home. She (Mrs Costello) takes anybody who pays as long as they’re not geriatric, and I daresay it suits her to have people there all winter. But at Christmas it’s neither one thing nor the other. A plastic snowman on every storage heater, wisps of tinsel (turquoise to match the carpet) sellotaped on to the pictures, the barometer and the cuckoo dock, even on the stainless steel cruet on every table. This year there was an artificial Christmas tree with flashing lights that played Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, until one of the residents had a nightmare about it and wet her bed. It was the talk of the place, would she be allowed to stay? The pictures on the walls are like the tablemats and the tablemats are like the pictures, and I’ve never known grapefruit segments in syrup (first course on Christmas Day) improved for being eaten off a coaching scene from Olde Englande. It’s not uncomfortable exactly; you get used to the sound of the

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