Still Me

Page 5


I washed my face and changed briskly into my uniform. I brushed my hair, then let myself quietly out of my bedroom and walked around the corner of the corridor.
And I stopped.
Further up the corridor beside the kitchen, a young woman was curled into a foetal ball. An older man had his arms wrapped around her, his back pressed against the wood panelling. He was almost seated, one knee up and one extended, as if he had caught her and been brought down by the weight. I couldn’t see her face, but a long, slim leg stuck out inelegantly from a navy dress and a sheet of blonde hair obscured her face. Her knuckles were white from where she was holding on to him.
I stared and gulped, and he looked up and saw me. I recognized Mr Gopnik.
‘Not now. Thank you,’ he said, softly.
My voice sticking in my throat, I backed swiftly into my room and closed the door, my heart thumping in my ears so loudly that I was sure they must be able to hear it.
I stared, unseeing, at the television for the next hour, an image of those entwined people burned onto the inside of my head. I thought about texting Nathan but I wasn’t sure what I would say. Instead, at five fifty-five, I walked out, tentatively making my way towards the main apartment through the connecting door. I passed a vast empty dining room, what looked like a guest bedroom and two closed doors, following the distant murmur of conversation, my feet soft on the parquet floor. Finally I reached the drawing room and stopped just outside the open doorway.
Mr Gopnik was in a window seat, on the telephone, the sleeves of his pale blue shirt rolled up and one hand resting behind his head. He motioned me in, still talking on the phone. To my left a blonde woman – Mrs Gopnik? – sat on a rose-coloured antique sofa tapping restlessly on an iPhone. She appeared to have changed her clothes and I was momentarily confused. I waited awkwardly until he ended his call and stood, I noticed, with a little wince of effort. I took another step towards him, to save him coming further, and shook his hand. It was warm, his grip soft and strong. The young woman continued to tap at her phone.
‘Louisa. Glad you got here okay. I trust you have everything you need.’
He said it in the way people do when they don’t expect you to ask for anything.
‘It’s all lovely. Thank you.’
‘This is my daughter, Tabitha. Tab?’
The girl raised a hand, offering the hint of a smile, before turning back to her phone.
‘Please excuse Agnes not being here to meet you. She’s gone to bed for an hour. Splitting headache. It’s been a long weekend.’
A vague weariness shadowed his face, but it was gone within a moment. Nothing in his manner betrayed what I had seen less than two hours previously.
He smiled. ‘So … tonight you’re free to do as you please, and from tomorrow morning you will accompany Agnes wherever she wants to go. Your official title is “assistant”, and you’ll be there to support her in whatever she needs to do in the day. She has a busy schedule – I’ve asked my assistant to loop you in on the family calendar and you’ll get emailed with any updates. Best to check at around ten p.m. – that’s when we tend to make late changes. You’ll meet the rest of the team tomorrow.’
‘Great. Thank you.’ I noted the word ‘team’ and had a brief vision of footballers trekking through the apartment.
‘What’s for dinner, Dad?’ Tabitha spoke as if I wasn’t there.
‘I don’t know, darling. I thought you said you were going out.’
‘I’m not sure I can face going back across town tonight. I might just stay.’
‘Whatever you want. Just make sure Ilaria knows. Louisa, do you have any questions?’
I tried to think of something useful to say.
‘Oh, and Mom told me to ask you if you’d found that little drawing. The Miró.’
‘Sweetheart, I’m not going over that again. The drawing belongs here.’
‘But Mom said she chose it. She misses it. You never even liked it.’
‘That’s not the point.’
I shifted my weight between my feet, not sure if I had been dismissed.
‘But it is the point, Dad. Mom misses something terribly and you don’t even care for it.’
‘It’s worth eighty thousand dollars.’
‘Mom doesn’t care about the money.’
‘Can we discuss this later?’
‘You’ll be busy later. I promised Mom I would sort this out.’
I took a surreptitious step backwards.
‘There’s nothing to sort. The settlement was finalized eighteen months ago. It was all dealt with then. Oh, darling, there you are. Are you feeling better?’
I looked round. The woman who had just entered the room was strikingly beautiful, her face free of make-up and her pale blonde hair scraped back into a loose knot. Her high cheekbones were lightly freckled and the shape of her eyes suggested a Slavic heritage. I guessed she was about the same age as me. She padded barefoot over to Mr Gopnik and kissed him, her hand trailing across the back of his neck. ‘Much better, thank you.’
‘This is Louisa,’ he said.
She turned to me. ‘My new ally,’ she said.
‘Your new assistant,’ said Mr Gopnik.
‘Hello, Louisa.’ She reached out a slender hand and shook mine. I felt her eyes run over me, as if she were working something out, and then she smiled, and I couldn’t help but smile in return.
‘Ilaria has made your room nice?’ Her voice was soft and held an Eastern European lilt.
‘It’s perfect. Thank you.’
‘Perfect? Oh, you are very easily pleased. That room is like a broom cupboard. Anything you don’t like you tell us and we will make it nice. Won’t we, darling?’
‘Didn’t you used to live in a room even smaller than that, Agnes?’ said Tab, not looking up from her iPhone. ‘I’m sure Dad told me you used to share with about fifteen other immigrants.’
‘Tab.’ Mr Gopnik’s voice was a gentle warning.
Agnes took a little breath and lifted her chin. ‘Actually, my room was smaller. But the girls I shared with were very nice. So it was no trouble at all. If people are nice, and polite, you can bear anything, don’t you think, Louisa?’
I swallowed. ‘Yes.’
Ilaria walked in and cleared her throat. She was wearing the same polo shirt and dark trousers, covered by a white apron. She didn’t look at me. ‘Dinner is ready, Mr Gopnik,’ she said.
‘Is there any for me, Ilaria darling?’ said Tab, her hand resting along the back of the sofa. ‘I think I might stay over.’
Ilaria’s expression was filled with instant warmth. It was as if a different person had appeared in front of me. ‘Of course, Miss Tabitha. I always cook extra on Sundays in case you decide to stay.’
Agnes stood in the middle of the room. I thought I saw a flicker of panic cross her face. Her jaw tightened. ‘Then I would like Louisa to eat with us too,’ she said.
There was a brief silence.
‘Louisa?’ said Tab.
‘Yes. It would be nice to get to know her properly. Do you have plans for this evening, Louisa?’
‘Uh – no,’ I stuttered.
‘Then you eat with us. Ilaria, you say you cook extra, yes?’
Ilaria looked directly at Mr Gopnik, who appeared to be engrossed in something on his phone.
‘Agnes,’ said Tab, after a moment. ‘You do understand we don’t eat with staff?’
‘Who is this “we”? I did not know that there was a rulebook.’ Agnes held out her hand and inspected her wedding band with studied calm. ‘Darling? Did you forget to give me a rulebook?’
‘With respect, and while I’m sure Louisa is perfectly nice,’ said Tab, ‘there are boundaries. And they exist for everybody’s benefit.’
‘I’m happy to do whatever …’ I began. ‘I don’t want to cause any …’
‘Well, with respect, Tabitha, I would like Louisa to eat supper with me. She is my new assistant and we are going to spend every day together. So I cannot see the problem in me getting to know her a little.’