The School of English

A Story

Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel reads her short story, ‘The School of English’.

‘Lastly,’ Mr Maddox said, ‘and to conclude our tour, we come to a very special part of the house.’ He paused, to impress on her that she was going to have a treat. ‘Perhaps, Miss Marcella, it may be that in your last situation, the house did not have a panic room?’

Marcella put her hand to her mouth. ‘God help them. The family go in together, or one at a time?’

‘There is capacity for all the family,’ Mr Maddox said. ‘The need arising, which God forbid.’

‘Which God forbid,’ she repeated. The idea of group agitation … How, she wondered, does panic ignite and spread? Is it parents to children, children to parents? ‘Can the doctor do nothing for them?’ she asked. ‘There are pills to stop fear. Also they say, breathe into a paper bag. It does good in some way, I am not sure how.’

Mr Maddox – the butler – turned his eyes on her, and she knew she had made an error. Perhaps she had shown over-familiarity. Or perhaps she had mistaken his meaning; this seemed likely. ‘So it is not,’ she said tentatively, ‘a room you go in when you are frightened?’

‘It is not a mere room,’ Mr Maddox said, ‘but a facility. Follow and I will show you.’ But he turned back. ‘If you were making a joke, I heartily discourage you. I myself benefited from the care of English nursery teacher. I am joking like a native speaker. But in such exclusive postcodes as St John’s Wood, or in any leafy part of this great metropolis, it is easy to give offence.’ He patted the paunch beneath his T-shirt. (We are a modern, informal household, she had been told.) ‘Miss Marcella,’ he said, ‘come with me.’

She would never have guessed the door they passed through was a door at all. It seemed like mere wall. Once it was opened, the light came on by itself, and it showed a part of the house that was concealed except to those who were, like the butler, in the know: that was where he said he was.

‘Mr Maddox,’ she said, ‘I am to clean here?’

‘Weekly,’ he said. ‘Vacuum, air freshener, toilet clean. Even if never used.’

‘Which God forbid it should be,’ she said. She looked around her and began to understand the panic room. Mr Maddox showed her the big bottles of water and the cupboard with its supply of snack food. There was a sofa and two chairs, covered in a business-like charcoal fabric; they looked hard and could have used some cushions. There was a lavatory with a cold block of soap, a supermarket soap inferior to that in the rest of the house. Why? she wondered. Why sink your standards of comfort? She saw how, from week to week, the green lavatory cleaner in the unflushed bowl would pool, a verdant lake deepening.

Against the far wall there was a single bed with a frame of tubular metal, made up with starched white sheets and a navy blue blanket tucked in tight. ‘Only one to sleep?’ she asked.

‘Sleep is not envisaged,’ the butler said. ‘Within an hour, and please God within less, either the police or the security service will liberate. The bed is for a casualty.’

‘Sorry,’ Marcella said. ‘I don’t know this word.’

She had irritated Mr Maddox. ‘I thought you came here via the Lady. And good English guaranteed thereby.’

‘The Lady is not my employer,’ Marcella said. ‘It is only a means to an end.’ She stopped and wondered at the phrase: ‘a means to an end’. She said, ‘I am English-tested. In my bag here I have a certificate.’

‘I do not give a fig for your certificate,’ Mr Maddox snapped. ‘As for the Lady, I know it is not your employer. Do not trifle. I repeat: I believed that only a person of great excellence in the English language would peruse the Lady.’

‘No.’ Marcella began to feel tired. She thought she would like to stretch out on the panic room’s metal bed. She had seen worse beds, and some of them across the town, in Notting Hill. ‘The Lady is freely available to all seeking domestic work,’ she said. ‘It is only a magazine. It is not the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It is not a manual of magic spells.’

‘Impertinence will not carry you far,’ the butler said. ‘Only by a short route to dismissal, and no employment tribunal for you, do not think it. Her Majesty’s Government in its wisdom is pleased to remove legal aid from you whingeing type of person. So once dismissed they stay dismissed. I am warning you.’

The floor of the panic room struck cold into Marcella’s feet. The salary promised was small, but she needed a roof over her head, and here was that roof: NW8, live-in, for flexible person must like dogs, with experience of specialist laundry and helpful attitude, non-smoker. At a good distance north of here, there was a room over a fried chicken shop, where certain of her countrywomen gathered and passed the Lady hand to hand, as if they had never reached the age of the internet: they were not digital, they could not recharge, they were unable to keep a laptop in case it was filched from their very laps, or any portable device that simply added to what they had to carry; they feared street robbers. The Lady, therefore, scanned by so many eyes, became limp and grey; it became circled in red, crossed in green, starred in blue. In the room above the deep-fat fryers, a woman might conceal herself from officers, police or other types: hiding if she was wanted, hiding if she was unwanted – that is to say, dismissed. She might resort there for a night or more, if she had no alternative but the streets. Sometimes the women lay end to end, exhausted, rolled into sleeping bags or blankets, grey faces vacant in sleep; when they woke, they hardly knew their own names.

So it was with a look both humble and contrite that Marcella made her apology to Mr Maddox. ‘I only asked the meaning of a word. In future I shall buy a dictionary.’

‘Well, you are young,’ the butler conceded. ‘Perhaps you may yet learn. “Casualty” is an injured person. Gunshot wound for example.’

She could see such a person would need to lie down. ‘Who has shot them?’

‘Intruder. Kidnapper. Abductor. Robber. Outrager. Terrorist. Desperado.’

‘Peril on every side,’ Marcella murmured.

‘This is a very basic panic room,’ the butler explained. ‘A bullet will not pierce it, and the air, being filtered, is able to eliminate most chemicals and biologicals, but it is designed to accommodate only till the security men come at the touch of a button. I mean, the panic buttons,’ he instructed. ‘They are placed in all living areas.’

‘Are they red?’

‘Red? Why would they be?’

‘How shall I know them? If I do not spot them I might press them when I am dusting, at a time when there is no terrorist threat, and this can lead to The Boy who Cried Wolf.’

The butler stared at her. As she suspected, though his English was more florid than hers, his range of allusion was less.

‘Of course they are not red,’ he said. ‘They are concealed so our employers can press them discreetly. They are in hidden places.’

‘But I must dust them,’ Marcella said, ‘hidden or not. I was recently in Notting Hill, where I was dismissed for failing to dust the chair legs.’

‘That cannot have been your only fault,’ Mr Maddox said. He spoke as if weighing the matter, and his tone was dubious. ‘In Kensington, certainly. In Holland Park, perhaps. In Notting Hill? I doubt it. You had better be open with me. What else did you do? Or should I say, what did you omit to do?’

‘I was not raped,’ Marcella said. ‘I consented.’

*

The circumstances were simple and they were these. The family – that is to say, her previous family, in Notting Hill – had left for ski break. The child Jonquil was taken out of school, but Joshua, who was 15 years old, was left behind, either because he was not worthy of ski break, or because it was his exam year, Marcella has now forgotten; there was a row about it in the kitchen, during which Joshua dropped a glass jar of multigrain multiseed on the floor, and this she remembers because of the complaints made for days after, about gritty grains under bare soles. The upshot was that his mother said, we are going for ski break, Joshua, even if you throw the whole of Waitrose breakfast aisle on the floor. You do what you like, Marcella will clear it up. You may get your chance another year, may I remind you we are a hardworking family and we deserve it.

Later, as she was climbing to her room, she found Joshua sitting on the stairs and crying. He was a huge, thick-bodied boy, and it seemed he was using up all the air, his big face wet with tears, his breath heaving in and out. It was her personal stairs he was sitting on; no reason for him to be there; his room was below, second floor. ‘Don’t look at me,’ he said.

She understood he was ashamed of crying, such a large boy. But why did he come there, if not for her to look at him?

She said, ‘Do not snivel, Joshua.’ She meant it kindly, but she saw him stiffen. Perhaps the wrong word? ‘Sniffle, I mean,’ she said. ‘Do not do either. There will be other ski breaks.’

‘It’s not my fault my mother fucked off and left me with her,’ he said. Left me with a stepmother, he meant. ‘But it’s always me that has to be punished for it. Why’s that, then?’

He did not expect her to have an answer. And yet he did. She said gently, ‘When you are punished, Joshua, it is not always because you have been bad. Often it is because others have been bad.’

She waited. He was not intelligent. He did not understand her. ‘The sooner you know this, the better for you,’ she said. ‘It is not just, of course.’

‘Not just what?’ He was staring at her.

‘It is not …’ Irritation bubbled inside her, and swelled inside her mouth like a balloon. Always she tried to feel sorry for him. But perhaps if he did not take up so much room, and if he were more hygienic. ‘I mean to say, it is not fair. But it is the way things are. Now, hurry. Your father is waiting to take you back to school. Among your laughing comrades you will soon forget your miseries.’

Joshua hoisted his bulk to the vertical. ‘Why are you so full of crap?’

‘Your bag is in the car and I have put your chocolate raisins in the secret compartment, six packs. Remember to clean your teeth afterwards, for they are not good for your dentition.’

He looked down at her. ‘Move.’

I will speak, she thought. It is for his welfare. ‘Joshua, it is truly said, “You don’t know you are born.” I have learned this expression recently and its meaning is, a person should count its blessings. You are blessed with loving family, in part at least. You have good health and education, warm clothes and laundry, food cooked for you every day of the year, pocket money is given you for nothing, and no work except try to be pleasant and polish your school shoes after long weekend exeat, which always you fail to do. Be a big boy,’ she said. ‘Only child cries over ski break. A baby, the age of Jonquil. For you, Joshua, it is time to be a man.’

Joshua had no handkerchief, despite her laundering. She had never seen him with a handkerchief. In case of need, as now, he wiped his nose on his sleeve. He pushed past her, not looking at her, and clumped downstairs. Every provision for tears is made, she thought, but it is the privilege of the employer and his family to snivel in the wrong way at the wrong time to the wrong person.

On the day the ski break began, once she was sure the family had left for the airport and could not come back, she stood in the kitchen and treated herself to a proper cup of coffee, just one. She drank it standing up, as if that made the offence less. It was made from a coloured pod, and for some time her fingers had hovered over the pod box, choosing which colour to have. Acid and thin, the coffee disappointed her. But the ritual, the moment of ease: that did not disappoint. She left the pod on the worktop, glowing like a sapphire on the granite.

She had made a list of all outstanding matters to be achieved before ski break was over, and it ran to two pages, but for the next six days her time was her own to arrange. For an hour or so after the family’s departure, their voices seemed to echo and reverberate through the house, but then silence stole through the rooms, and she went upstairs, to the attic floor, and closed her door.

The window of the attic was high, but a cute little window she always thought. On her first day, she had stood on her chair to look out of it. There was nothing to see but the rooftops of Notting Hill, glistening with rain. There was a mirror in her room, which fronted a wardrobe no wider than a coffin. Hang up one raincoat, one cotton jacket, two work uniforms (blue check overall) and perhaps three other garments, squash them together and it was full. This disturbed her. Did they expect her not to stay long? She hoped to stay long; the fried chicken room had been taken back by the landlord, who wished to sell it, and accordingly accused her countrywomen of keeping a brothel. So now between jobs there was nowhere to go, and the caprice of an employer, even the spite of a nanny or 24-hour porter, could be enough to make her one of those destitute women who lurked by supermarket paladins hoping for unwanted prawn sandwiches. Papers in bag, certificate of English and the rest: bag in hand, bag stolen: this too often was the fate of her countrywomen. Sometimes, taken up by the authorities, they admitted to being each other. Sometimes, if one was too sick to work, another would take her keys and silently admit herself to a strange house, to mop floors and scour bathrooms; swerving past the mopper in her overall, employers did not notice, and smiled impartially as a body with a bucket shrank past them on the stairs.

So it is incumbent, Marcella always said, incumbent to accommodate to whatever accommodation; the wardrobe offering so little opportunity, she had folded her cotton jacket and put it in a drawer. There was a chest of four drawers, and a second chest, which looked like drawers but was not. It was in fact a cabinet. If you opened it, inside was her bed. The cabinet ran on castors, and you needed to hold it firm with one hand while pulling out the bed with the other, gripping a bar and yanking the metal frame. If you did not exert your strength against the cabinet, it wheeled itself across the room, your bed still inside.

So now in the empty house – ski break underway, time stretching before her – she had a decision to make. She wanted to mark her freedom by lying down. But never during daylight hours had she pulled out her bed. She pictured herself lying on the striped mattress. It did not seem right. In order to have a nap she would need to make up the bed with the sheets and quilt she kept folded on her chair. After her nap, would she put it all away again? Or would she leave the linen in place, and resume her life as if this were a rational house, where beds were not kept in cupboards?

She went down another flight of stairs, to the bedroom of her employers. It was as if the lady were still present, a cloud of her strange scent lying heavy on the air. It was hard to think a man slept in this room. She looked at the king-sized expanse of the bed. It was covered by a light quilt, off-white, a sepia pattern faint against it, a paisley swirl in vegetable dye. It looked as if it had been washed many times, beaten on stones by a woman standing in a stream. But this was not so, for she herself would fetch it from the dry cleaner, swathed in plastic, when the lady spilled her morning coffee on it, or the child Jonquil, climbing affectionately into her parents’ bed, spilled her juice or was sick.

I cannot lie on it, she thought. What if I should pollute? She left the room, closing the door softly to trap inside the scent of roses, basil and lime. She descended one flight, to the bedroom of the child Jonquil. She lay down on her little bed, the headboard stencilled with sheep. Her eyes rested on the nursery frieze. Softly they closed, on an image of long-lashed calves in a meadow of deepest green. The slaughterhouse was not depicted: unless the frieze stretched out, into new rooms, into unknown houses she would clean, long after she was sacked from this one.

At the sound of a door below, she was startled awake. Her mouth was dry and at first she did not know where she was, or who. Because this was broad day, she had not set alarms, either clock or burglar. She got to her feet. I must confront, she thought. Any despoiler. I must defend above all the panelled study with the fitted furniture on which one must not use spray polish, it is forbidden, only wax; I must defend the wall safe, the hardware, the software: I must defend the calves in the meadow, the sepia quilt. She tottered out to the stairhead. Joshua, the son of the house, was coming up to meet her.

‘Joshua? Is it you? I thought you were at school.’

He glared up at her. ‘Obviously not. Moron.’

Joshua’s trousers slid down around his hips, fell in folds over his huge trainers; it was a style abandoned now on the street, but he and his school chums would stick loyally, for cloistered in Wiltshire half the year they knew no better. Such butter-fed oafs, oozing resentment; they sat in the kitchen smoking, they dropped their ash straight on the floor and laughed, they poked her with their toes and pretended it was by accident as she crept around their ankles with dustpan and brush.

‘Are you alone?’ she said. ‘School knows where you are?’

It came to her, it is Joshua and his ilk who hook the little calves from the nursery frieze, and bite their heads off without even skinning and roasting. Impossible to imagine, that his infant palms in wonder had ever patted the contours of a painted farmyard, or that his childish gaze had rested on a twirling mobile of bluebirds and dragonflies.

She looked him over. He was blocking the stairs. The number ‘69’ was plastered on his grey marl torso, and the hood of the garment was drawn up so his face shone innocent, pink as ham.

‘Do not resent me, Joshua,’ she said. ‘You asked for explanation of your punishment. I gave it.’

‘Make food,’ he said.

‘Very well. I can do that. What would you like?’

‘Call me sir.’

‘No.’

‘Call me sir.’

‘It is not right, Joshua. Even your father, who is made Sir by the queen, says “you must call me Mike.”’

‘I don’t care what you call that turd,’ he said, ‘but you call me sir or you will be sorry.’

‘I expect I will be sorry anyway,’ Marcella said. ‘I usually am.’

*

That night, she heard the sounds of the party below. The smash of shattering glass. The panicked thump, thump of music brutally dragged from its mother, whose name is melody: music wailing and thrashing like an orphan left in a field. What should she do? Joshua had simply not replied to her objections. As if he had not heard her. He had elbowed her aside. She wondered if he really had, or if it was just an expression. Her flesh seemed shaped for his elbow, hollowed; she imagined the bruise. She rehearsed the story she would give to Sir Mike. Mob-handed, and no warning, and bringing strangers; your son has elbowed me aside. What am I to do? In advertising, Sir Mike, you did not state, ‘sole charge’. If you had stipulated, I would have said, who, me, Marcella, control that large boy?

Since she was in this job, roof over her head, not exposed to random street theft, she had a mobile phone, and she could have phoned Sir Mike and the lady: except that her phone was downstairs, inside her bag, which she had left by the coffee machine. She could picture it on the granite worktop, by the sapphire pod; though pod would long ago be lost in the violence. It was a black bag of good quality imitation leather; she had an eye for these things, coming as she did from a country where the people were adept in faking, in the application of false logos and the manufacture of false identities for hardworking citizens going overseas. Why, she wondered, do they not spray the bags with false leather scent? Nothing else is wanting. She could see the bag in her mind’s eye, soft and squishy as best leather should be. Inside was fifty pounds. It was her life savings, which she had been able to make only since she came to this house. She knew the party guests would have robbed it long ago.

By midnight, she had thought, they will fall quiet, go down to the basement to watch porno, I shall then steal down. But at midnight more youths surged in, the music rocked the foundations. Every few minutes, fresh gatecrashers hollered from the garden or barged in at the front door. As they thundered below, security lights flashed from neighbourhood gardens, and she felt as if she were trapped, in a distant country, in the long equinoctial of a tropical storm. The eye of the storm passed over her, and pinned her to the white wall of her room, where all the district could see and judge her: clueless, useless. It was ten o’clock when the first partygoers had begun to arrive and, after being elbowed, she had retreated upstairs. It was now 1.30 a.m. Soon, she thought, some of them must fall down, out of exhaustion. Perhaps I shall hear the crash of their fall. Perhaps I may be summoned for cut heads or cardiac resuscitation: for which I have certificates. It struck her that if she were to save a life, any dereliction of her duty would be excused. The parents of the young life saved would be sure to reward her. Perhaps they would give her a job, even, with a proper bed and a three-day weekend every second week: arrangements making for self-respect and mutual consideration.

She took up a position, vigilant, just outside the door of her room. At the sound of feet coming up, she planned to retreat and draw the bolt. She listened for anything she could pick out, above or below the music’s pounding beat. That morning, she had been up at four, for final packing for ski break. It was therefore almost 22 hours since she had slept. Despite the racket she must have dozed, still on her feet, her head against the wall. When a police siren sounded, she woke with a start. She took the risk of creeping down a half-flight to the landing, where from a narrow window she could see a slice of the street; and from this angle she saw segments of an ambulance lurch to a halt, and fractions of a youth led towards it, his head dropped and a silver blanket shawled around him, like a magic cape that protects from spells.

It was not Joshua. If she had seen him removed, she might have risked going downstairs to pick her way among the fallen bodies. Any partygoers who were still upright would probably not mind her, or even notice her; they would know by her demeanour that she was there to clean. But with Joshua in the house she could not risk it. Now she thought of it, she believed he had hit her. There was a dragging ache in her chest she could not otherwise explain. There was soreness behind it, like a punch: knuckles against her breasts.

Once the police and ambulance had come and gone, there was an uneasy peace: sudden screams cut into it, and the banging of doors. She could listen against this quiet, and interpret: it was more frightening than the noise, which had removed all responsibility to understand what she heard. Against that music, that brute with its alien pulse, no one could oppose a small, human action. But now one must decide. Marcella decided to sleep. She slapped her hand down on the top of the cabinet, and began to remove her bed.

It was space-saving, the lady Sophie had said, on her first day when she showed her where she would live. Marcella bit back an urge to say, but it is my space, and I would rather not save it, I would rather have a proper bed. ‘I hope you find it comfortable.’ The lady looked at her as if she did not like what she saw. ‘The last Filipina was small-boned.’

‘I am not Filipina,’ she said.

‘But of course, if there’s a problem, do just say.’

‘There is no problem,’ she had said; that was the answer the lady wanted to hear.

*

Her sleep, towards dawn, was uneasy. When she woke it was nine o’clock. In silver light, in another country, ski trip had begun. Here, the rain fell. All that day she did not go down. When she did she would have to clean up the vomit and glass, perhaps the blood. She was sensitive to the noises of the house, experienced in them, being ever-alert not to intrude on the family’s privacy. So from signs like the flushing of lavatories, she became aware that several youths remained. The presence of others might offer some protection against Joshua; but then, did she want to meet a gang of them, truculent and still drunk: or worse perhaps than drunk?

Soon the weekend would be over. They must surely have places to be. Parents would expect them, schools. Then she would go down and try to rectify the damage. But first she would eat.

She had taken nothing since her guilty cup of coffee, standing at the counter: the cantucci in a glass jar, she had not dared, though now the thought of almond and orange peel tormented her. There was no food in her room. When she first came to the house she had kept cereal bars, but Sir Mike found them. He had apologised for searching her room in her absence but explained that the last Filipina had agreed to hide Joshua’s stash of drugs, so they found it wise to perform random searches every few days.

‘But I would never hide drugs,’ she had said.

Sophie, the lady, had said, ‘He gave the last girl no choice.’ She said to Sir Mike, ‘He can be very persuasive, your son.’

‘His son?’ Marcella had queried. ‘He is not your son also, lady?’

‘Good God, how old do you think I am?’

‘Forty,’ Marcella said, truthfully.

‘She fucked off to Vancouver!’ the lady shouted. ‘His own mother. She left him. She couldn’t stand the sight of him, so now I’ve got him, for the rest of my life.’

Marcella was bemused. Is it possible that the wife had made this journey mentioned, not on purpose to leave her husband, but in order to leave Joshua? Did people run away from their own children? She would have thought it impossible, till she came to this family. ‘I have led sheltered life,’ she admitted. She turned to Sir Mike, a question on her lips, but he said, ‘Marcella, if you wouldn’t mind, and I say this more in sorrow than in anger, would you not keep those cereal bars in your room? It encourages vermin.’

‘Also,’ the lady said, ‘could you please either call me Sophie, which would be quite all right, or Lady Sophie, or your ladyship, if you must, but don’t call me “lady”. Because it’s just … uncouth.’ She turned at the door. The random search was over. Her voice was cold. ‘Besides, those bars are crammed with sugar and additives. They market them as health food, but seriously, have you read the label?’

After hunger, or rather, with hunger, came the boredom. Marcella had a radio in her room, but she did not dare play it; she hoped Joshua had forgotten her, she did not want to remind him she was there. The eye must have some relief from the white wall, from the yellowish veneer of the chest of drawers that were not drawers, from the scuff mark where last Filipina had dragged her suitcase across the paintwork. She had a copy of the Evening Standard, three days old. She read it and read it. She thought of the Lady, of the room over Cheep Cheep Chicken, of the hot breath of her compatriots when they gathered, the garlic and ginger: of the red circles, green crosses and stars of blue ink. She read the situations on offer but she did not understand the jobs. Dry liner. What is that? Perhaps she could do it?

Then after the boredom and the Evening Standard, the need to pass water. She had a plastic flower vase, and when it was half-full she stood on the chair, balancing it carefully, and opened the attic window. If someone were on the roof, she thought, let us say it is a bird or a man mending the guttering, let us say it is a seagull far from the sea: it will watch a thin yellow hand appear, sliding round the frame; it will see a cautious tilt of the vessel, then the thin stream running down the slates.

Once she had relieved herself in this way, she sat down on her chair and allowed herself to sip from the tumbler of water that, by sheer good fortune, had stood by her bedside when the siege began. It was cloudy, and a small fly or midge had fallen into it, and when she dabbed at it with her finger it dipped beneath the surface, evading her. Finally she trapped it against the side of the glass. She tried to lift it out, but it simply smeared itself, dark and liquid like a spot of blood. Its filthy insect essence was now in the water, but she drank it anyway, allowing six sips. She hoped that before she was sick with hunger, before her bowels became insistent, Joshua would roll out of the house, like a conqueror leaving a blighted nation behind him, and simply go back to his friends in Wiltshire, where he would boast of how he had outsmarted his parents and smashed the help with his arm so she fell and banged her head.

But this did not occur. In the late afternoon, Joshua came up the stairs and knocked at her door.

*

‘I thought he might be too sick,’ she told Mr Maddox the butler. ‘Or too lazy, or else simply forgetful of me. But he was not any of those things, he was at the door. I knew that the bolt would not hold him for long. Though I am bound to say, he did not try at once to force entry.’

Ever since she had said the word ‘rape’, the butler had been attentive. Now, she closed her eyes, leaning against the wall of the panic room, and she could hear his impatience; he wanted the rest of her story. ‘Could you not have called for help?’ he asked her.

She shook her head. The street was packed with houses, but who in Notting Hill would hear one lonely female voice from an attic window? Besides, what sort of help would she have called for? ‘I was not,’ she deployed the word carefully, ‘a casualty. No one had shot me. I had gone into my room to panic.’

The butler said, ‘Come, Marcella, you can confide in me. Why do you not call me Desmond?’

‘Because it would not be respectful,’ she said.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I am not asking you for your reason, I am making you an invitation. You may use my Christian name.’ He took pity on her. ‘I see your School of English was not as good as you imagine. You do not understand some very obvious things. Common idioms have escaped you. But I was wrong to fault you when you did not know the word “casualty”. Once it was familiar to all, being the hospital corridor where injured parties were patched together after waiting some hours. Now it is called A&E.’

‘I know A&E. Joshua is always took there.’

‘Watch your grammar,’ the butler said sympathetically. ‘You should say, “Joshua is always taken.”’

When he issued this correction, Desmond stretched out his arm, placed his hand against the wall: as if he were holding life at bay, till the story was finished. She was not prejudiced, but she could not help the feeling that being so black his hand would leave a mark: his fingerprints. He said, ‘Tell your story, Marcella. It is late afternoon, to recap. You are in Notting Hill in your attic accommodation. You are hungry and have not slept well. You are in a state of agitation. You have failed to call for help, not knowing what you should call. Now it is too late. Joshua is pounding at the door. You have reason to believe, since you accuse him of snivelling, that he cherishes resentment against you. Once already he has abused you, smashing with his forearm. And now?’

‘And now nothing,’ she said.

‘No, Marcella,’ Mr Maddox said. ‘Please trust me,’ and he patted his upper ribs, ‘secrecy resides herein. But I do not believe that he went quietly down the stairs again. That is not how this kind of story ends.’

*

The knock at the door was only, she knew, the boy’s way of laughing at her. ‘Sir,’ she had called, ‘the bolt is on. I am having some private time.’

‘I think you are eating vermin bars,’ Joshua said. ‘Come out. You can come down and get some proper food. I need you to clean the house.’

But even as he said it he was rattling the bolt. It gave as soon as he kicked it. He stood on the threshold.

‘What are you hearing?’ she said. ‘From the parents? Ski trip, they are enjoying?’

Even to herself she sounded desperate. Not one of those inquiries would have passed muster at the School of English.

‘You made me break the door,’ Joshua said. ‘It will come out of your wages.’

‘No,’ Marcella said. ‘Your parents will never believe I kicked it in myself.’

‘I’ll say I did it.’ Once again Joshua did not have his handkerchief, and rubbed his sleeve under his nose. ‘I’ll say I had to break in, because you were having a party in here. Black men with drugs. Needles, I’ll say. I’ll tell them they broke the whole house up, your friends.’

‘What do you want?’ Marcella asked. ‘You have my life savings already.’

‘What?’ he said.

‘You have my bag.’

‘What do I want with your scabby bag?’

‘Fifty pounds,’ she said. ‘Inside. Please.’

He laughed. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I have fifty pounds and it’s gone,’ he snapped his fingers, ‘like that. Coupla pizzas. Twelve-pack lager. Gone.’

‘But to me it is everything.’

‘Oh my bleeding heart!’ He clutched the legend ‘69’: he was wearing yesterday’s clothes. ‘Forgive me if I throw up.’

‘Do not do that,’ she said, her voice low. ‘If you do that you have to clear it up yourself.’

‘Listen how it talks to me!’ he said. He seemed outraged. As if it were she who were at fault for the events of the last 24 hours. ‘A person should count its blessings,’ he said. He was mimicking her voice.

‘Let me go down,’ she said. ‘Let me past you, Joshua. I will make you eggy bread. I will get steak from the freezer, as much as you like, and you can have sausages. I will personally buy them. I will make you chips.’

Hunger like a rapture: she felt light-headed. ‘Why do you want to starve me? And keep me here when I am willing to clean for you?’

‘You people, Marcella …’ He lingered over her name, as if he were wiping his feet on it. ‘You are so full of crap, and it makes me so fucking annoyed.’

‘I will make you chocolate milk. I will not tell anyone.’

‘Always going about, dusting. Dragging fucking soapy buckets up and down the stairs. It makes me puke.’ His eyes roamed around the room. They did not seem to focus well. ‘Where’s your bed?’

‘In that cupboard.’

‘What?’ he said. ‘That’s never even a cupboard, it’s drawers.’

Let him look for himself, Marcella thought. His eye fell on her bedding, folded in the corner. He began to believe her. ‘Show me,’ he said. Then, because he could not wait a moment to shout out his purpose, he yelled, ‘I’m going to rape you.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘you are not.’

Joshua slammed shut the door. One long stride brought him to the centre of the room. ‘Be a man, you told me. You know you did, if you say you didn’t you’re a fucking liar.’

Unless she flew through the skylight, there was no exit. She made her calculations as to what she would do. Joshua began by kicking the chest that housed the bed, then wrenched at what he believed was a drawer. The front panel fell away, as it was designed to do. For a moment he looked dismayed: as if he did not know his own strength. He peered at the springs of the bed, its underside exposed. His brow furrowed. Inside the chest the foam mattress was folded tight, like a person in a lift doubled by stomach cramps. He pawed at the mattress. The cabinet on its castors squeaked away from him. He lashed out at it. ‘Ow!’ He sucked his knuckles, and she felt the pain deep in her chest.

‘I don’t need any crap bed in a cupboard,’ he yelled. ‘I can do it to you against the wall. Don’t try shouting.’

‘I will not shout,’ she said.

He stared at her. ‘Are you stupid? You have to shout. Did you hear what I’m going to do?’

‘Yes, sir,’ she said, ‘but you cannot. Because rape is forcible violation, it is fighting back. I am not going to fight you, because I am starved and weak, and even if I were not, you are able to overcome me. So I will not take the risk to get hurt and go to the A&E. You need not rip off my clothes because I have no money for more. If you like I will take them off myself, or if you are in a hurry I can just lift up my skirt. Then you can do the thing to me, if you know how. It is not like porno, where the woman is always open. It takes time. It is difficult. It is like getting the bed out of the cupboard.’

*

When, standing in the panic room, he had heard her story to the end, the butler said, ‘In truth, though I blame the boy, you are partly to blame.’

‘How is that?’ Marcella asked.

‘I believe you know how. You taunted him. With chocolate milk. Chips. Chocolate raisins. Implying his position was that of helpless child.’

‘And he wished to show himself a man,’ Marcella said. ‘And if you call it taunting, I do not. For I know of old, if the raisins were not in his bag when he got back to school, he was ringing from Wiltshire and playing merry hell. Frankly I do not wish to live in a world where a woman cannot offer a child a meal without he feels free to concuss her.’

‘We cannot choose what world we live in,’ Desmond Maddox said. ‘Though we can perhaps choose our School of English. Snivel, sniffle: there is a difference.’

‘I myself was accused of having cereal bars. This was unjust. But I did not create mayhem.’

‘I have one question,’ the butler said. ‘How did you get references? From Sir Mike? You did not steal their headed letter paper, did you?’

Marcella was inspecting the snacks in the panic room cupboard. Holding up a little packet she said, ‘This one is out of its sell-by date.’

‘Oh, nuts,’ Desmond said. ‘It will be OK. Or you can take them if you want.’

‘Mouldy, maybe,’ she said. ‘I will take the risk.’ She slipped the packet into her bag. It was her old bag, though without her life savings. When she came home from ski trip, Lady Sophie had found it tossed into the garden. ‘I knew it could only be yours,’ she said, when she handed it back.

‘Once we had a chef who forged his reference,’ Desmond said. ‘He was given the quick march. Such things are always found out.’

‘I cannot guess at his story,’ she said. ‘I do not think it happened to him, what happened to me.’

‘In fact,’ Desmond said, ‘I am moving on myself soon. Down the road, Regent’s Park. To work behind a Nash façade, I should say it is every butler’s dream. So you will be coming to St John’s Wood, Marcella, just as I am going hence.’

‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Just as we had come on first-name terms. Who knows, our friendship might have blossomed. You have given notice already?’

‘Not yet, so hush.’

She touched her breast. ‘Secrecy resides herein.’

‘I found the post in the Lady,’ he said. ‘Nice family. Never come into this country more than one, two, three weeks a year. Bring their entourage with their own chef, they don’t eat English food on grounds of taste and hygiene and because poison might get in it. So it’s cushy number. Security guarding, really, nine-ten months of the year.’

Desmond had taken his hand from the wall. Her eyes searched and searched for a mark but she could not see one. Still she searched; she did not want to be faulted for carelessness, in her first week. She asked, ‘Your new family, do they have a panic room?’

‘Beneath those houses,’ the butler said, ‘you should see what goes on. No one suspects the half of it. The whole earth is dug out. Spaciousness beneath. The panic room is seven times the size of this one. The whole of London can fall down around them and yet their freezer is fully stocked. All showers are multi-jet steam cabinets, plus the kitchen has coffee machine built in, ice machine, temperature-controlled cabinet for wine storage, sous vide machine with vacuum sealer, and an air filtration system that is suitable for allergy sufferers. The walls are built to withstand a nucular bomb.’

‘Nuclear,’ she said.

She saw the look that flitted across his face: don’t you correct my English, yellow bitch. At once it was replaced by a look of bored neutrality, as he led her from the panic room and up the stairs. But she had seen it; she would not forget it; she did not forget things, except that she had forgotten those events that followed the first blow. There was an area of darkness, a darkness that flowed like a river, a darkness that pooled like a lake; then after some time, how long she could not know, there was bright light, and voices and pain. When she opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was the puzzled, anxious face of the child Jonquil, who dabbed at her mouth with a tissue held in her small fingers. She realised that, in default of her own bed, Joshua had used his sister’s for her violation, but she recalled nothing of that; the bruises were fresh on her back where he had dragged her down the stairs, but she did not feel it at the time. The stencilled sheep on the headboard said yes sir, no sir, three bags full; the calves sank to their knees in the lush meadow grass; the bluebirds shivered on their wires as the mobile chimed in the breeze.

*

In subsequent days, after Desmond had said his farewells and she had settled into her new situation, she thought of the butler and his new employers at Regent’s Park, and wondered how they were all getting on. If they came just once, twice, three times a year, they might never visit the panic room. But if the need should arise, and they found themselves below ground: what would they do when the first panic ebbed, when it subsided into that dull state of fear in which so many of us live our lives, once we leave our native shores, our parents’ houses? How would they pass the weeks, while London crumbled and the feral dogs scavenged in the streets, while the air filters clogged and the freezer’s stocks were depleted? Would they have books to read? Would they complete puzzles? Would they play games? She imagined solemn gentlemen from the Middle East, white robes hoisted to show hairy legs and black silk socks; she imagined their black-swathed wives, hands emerging to clutch hands, each finger weighted with jewels. Here we go round the mulberry bush. Ring of roses. She remembered the newspaper, the Evening Standard, that had sustained her during those lost hours in Notting Hill. The situations she could have had. ‘Work waiting,’ the adverts said. ‘Operative wanted for confined spaces.’

Work is always waiting, you cannot escape it. Dry liners and fitters were needed, trackmen, jointers and underpinners, multi-trade operators and plastering gangs. When she got out of hospital, and was ready to work again, she had visited an agency. She mentioned these trades and confessed she did not know what they were. They advised playing to the strengths listed in her letter of recommendation: Marcella is always willing. ‘However,’ they said to her, ‘your cosmetic impression is bad.’

She did not deny it. She had lost teeth in the attack. But we all lose them, sooner or later. She had said this to the woman at the agency: who then agreed to keep her CV on file. A week went by, and nothing, despite ringing them every day.

Every day she looked at the Standard. Welders were wanted, painters and fabricators. The word snagged her attention: fabricators. She had turned as usual to the columns of the Lady, and there she found her current post in St John’s Wood. When she was called for her interview, a friend went for her, one with more teeth; and when she presented herself on her first day, no one had said, you are not the woman we saw last week. Desmond had simply told her, ‘I am Mr Maddox, the butler’; his glance had passed over her; he gave her an overall, showed her over the house, and allowed her to visit the panic room, the first she had ever seen.

Sometimes, in St John’s Wood, she has dreams about her previous job and how it ended: in a hot exchange of words, in the banging of the cabinet bed across the floor: in blackout, in absence. She is no longer sure that the facts were exactly those she had given to the butler. It may be she has been a fabricator. That some painting has occurred, or underpinning. Time has passed. It is a great healer or so they aver. Perhaps the pain she felt was heartbreak, not knuckles. Perhaps the story did not happen to her, but to her friend; women work for each other’s wages, names are erased and histories pooled, and you cannot tell these friends apart, when they are rolled in their blankets, only heads visible and eyes closed, lying in the miasma of chicken fat and frying oil. The boy will be punished. He will say he does not understand why. The camera will catch him on the steps of the law court, a burger in his hand, his mouth open in anticipation. Contested versions of conversations will be aired. (Snivel, sniffle.) The issue of consent will be raised; when did she give hers? Was it when she left her country? Was it when she took the job? Was it when she agreed to be born? The case will collapse for lack of evidence. Money will change hands. Here in St John’s Wood she will be safe, or not. She dreams of awakening, and it is only the dream that makes her think, this happened to Marcella, no one else; she sees the Alpine sunlight sharp as glass, and the child Jonquil, back from ski break, sniffling as she dabs the blood from her face.