As soon as the shriek reached Jessica Smith in the living room where she was folding laundry, that good woman rolled her eyes and flicked a towel severely.
“Playing those blasted video games again instead of doing her homework,” she muttered. “Sooner or later I’ll have to say something to that young lady.” But then, seeing a single unpaired sock, Thomasina’s mind wandered. Somewhere on Earth, she mused, there was almost certainly an enormous clot of orphan socks, a kind of giant garbage patch where misplaced strays had been drawn by some kind of planetary magnetism. The question was, how could one locate the exact spot?
Meanwhile, Thomasina’s twelve-year-old daughter Angela Smith was sitting on her desk chair glaring at a very tall man in a diaphanous tunic who was stooping awkwardly by her wardrobe door. Everything about him irritated her: his fine reddish-brown hair and beard, his gentle smile, the enormous swan-like wings sprouting from his back, even the butterflies that fluttered about him like a living cloud of yellow, violet, red and pink. What’s more, there was a distinctive herbal scent emanating from him that she found utterly repulsive, like honey mixed with eucalyptus.
“I already told you it’s the wrong house.”
Thanatos inclined his head, as if demurring.
“However,” he said in halting English, “The name of you is Herald Smith from the polis of,” he checked a tablet he held in his hand, “Wichita, Kansas?”
“Ugh,” said Angela, rolling her eyes in a manner not unlike her mother’s, “My name is Angela Smith, which is I suppose somehow related to the Greek word for herald—but that’s neither here nor there. Wichita is not a polis, it’s a normal town in twenty-first century America and you have zero business being in my bedroom.”
“Angela,” he inclined his head, thinking. “Yes, it is very like: Ἀγγελία—it is sure that you are the woman child I seek,” he looked happy.
“It is not sure,” Angela retorted.
The creature looked hurt and Angela, being essentially kind-hearted, regretted her harsh tone.
“Mr. Thanatos,” she said gently but firmly, “I’m sorry but there’s been some kind of mix-up. This—” she waved a hand dismissively in his direction, “Isn’t done these days. There’s a whole different procedure.”
“Yes. We don’t go in for all that winged-creature-underworld stuff. We have hospitals and modern medicine and morphine.”
“Morpheus, my dearest nephew, son of Hypnos!”
“No,” said Angela, “Morphine. A drug. A chemical structure. Nothing to do with your bizarre family.”
His wings drooped in disappointment.
“Besides,” Angela continued, “If you just look at me it’s totally obvious I’m in perfectly good health. I’m still a child, technically, and children only die if they one: get in an accident or two: are unlucky enough to get some terrible illness or three: commit suicide.”
He examined her closely, with large, dark, serious eyes.
“The woman-child is dreadful pale,” he said hopefully, “And stomach bloated as if with the famine.”
“Excuse me,” Angela said tugging at her T-shirt. “I’m extremely healthy. I just saw the doctor last month and he said I am well within the normal range. Just because you Athenians subsisted on nettles and moldy olives doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”
Thanatos drew himself up a little.
“My relations sup only on nectar and sweetest ambrosia.”
“Whatever. The point is, your usual…clients, let’s say…probably all had malnutrition,” she sniffed. “And worms, if they lived to my age at all. Also, why are you still here? I’ve got things to do.” Huffily, she swiveled her chair around to read her schoolbook and put her earbuds in, hoping that he would vanish, as he had last time.
Unfortunately, five minutes later she turned around to see that he was reclining on her bed flicking through a copy of Teen Vogue.
“Get off my bed!” she growled, with convincing enough fury that he scrambled up, feathers flying.
“Ugh, I’ll have to wash my bedspread to get that smell off it now,” she moaned
There were three sharp knocks on the door before it opened a crack, to allow better hearing.
“That’s quite enough, young lady. Turn that game off and do your homework.”
“I’m trying to mom, but—” Angela suddenly wondered how exactly she would explain.
“Sorry,” she corrected herself. “I’ll turn the game off now.”
“Any more shouting and I’m confiscating that computer for a day,” Thomasina threatened before shutting the door again.
Angela looked over toward the wardrobe and noticed that there was a shimmering transparent silhouette where Thanatos had been. Gradually, the transparency became colored and three-dimensional—the same annoying demi-god.
“Nice, very brave of you,” Angela sneered.
Thanatos raised his eyebrows proudly.
“You are mistaken, I do not fear the woman. I vanished in order to consult with the King of the Dead.”
“Yes. It seems that you were thinking an incorrect thought.”
“You thought I came to bring you the terminus of blissful oblivion.”
“Hmmph. Is that what you call it?”
“In fact, my task is otherwise. I have come to take you to receive your realm, O Princess.”
Angela looked at him with greater attention.
He knelt on the floor, keeping his distance to avoid kicks.
“Yes, Princess Angelia, Daughter of Hera and Zeus!” he bowed his head respectfully.
“Well,” said Angela, who wasn’t displeased, “I’m actually the daughter of Thomasina and Greg Smith. Though I admit it might be nice to be a goddess.” She twirled a pen thoughtfully between her fingers.
Thanatos lifted his head to gaze wonderingly at her.
“The mortals? They are not your parents!” He said it so solemnly that she felt not only inclined but also compelled to believe it.
“How’s that?” she said.
“When you were an infant, your father Zeus entrusted your care to five lovely nymphs. But you were very…unruly and they could not prevent you from doing mischief. At the age of nine months you snuck into your mother Hera’s house, stole her valuables and handed them over to Europa. She was so angry she could have killed you, but you cleverly hid here in this place. Unfortunately, ever since, you have been unclean.”
“What do you mean?” she sniffed her armpits. “I shower daily!”
“The day you came, the woman in the house was in labor. You were besmirched with the pollution of birth.”
“So that would have been…when Tori was born! I always thought she didn’t seem that much younger than me.”
“And the next week you were taken by the mortal guardian to a funeral procession—so you were tainted by the pollution of death.”
“Grandad. Anything else? Did I fall into a dungheap maybe? Eat human flesh?”
“No, the pollution upon you is very much worse than those trifles.”
“Right. Thanks a lot. So, why are you here again?”
“My lord the king has asked me to collect you for purification in the waters of Acherusia Lake.”
“Which is where?”
“In the realm of the Underworld. And then, after the ceremony, you shall receive your title.”
“So…I would be in the Underworld…but not actually dead?”
“Of course. After the purification, you would enjoy immortality.”
“I see.” Angela flicked the pen very quickly between her thumb and forefinger, making it drum against her leg.
“So, tell me more about the position though. Do I get a crown? And a palace? And beautiful dresses, stuff like that?”
“All, your Majesty.”
The ‘Majesty’ bit took her by surprise. She glanced at him to check whether he was making fun of her, but everything seemed to be in order.
She glanced at the textbook on her desk, which provided a blow-by-blow description of the process of photosynthesis, and her eyes blurred over. She thought about her family—her mortal family, that is–and imagined leaving them. It seemed all right. Tori could have her clothes. She always wore them without asking, anyway. And her mom probably wouldn’t mind. She’d never even bothered to tell her she was adopted, anyway. As for Greg, he probably wouldn’t notice. In fact, he’d probably be happy that the utilities bill was going down. No more nagging about thirty-minute showers!
“OK, sign me up,” she said. “Do I need to bring anything?”
“All will be provided, your Majesty.”
“Then let’s get this show on the road.”
They were gone in a dazzling slow-motion flap of white swan wings. The displaced air knocked a glass off the table so it shattered on the floor.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” a voice cried from without. In a few seconds, the door opened suddenly and Thomasina burst in, looking with fury at the broken glass on the floor. “What in the world?” she murmured.
No window, so she couldn’t have got out that way. She tiptoed around the broken glass and checked in the wardrobe and under the bed. Nothing. Except a strange medicinal smell.
“That will need a wash,” she said, yanking the bedspread off the bed.
“Funny about daughters. One minute they’re appearing out of the blue, next minute they’ve gone the way of socks.”
In hindsight, Sarah may have seen a handsome guy pulling a purple suitcase through the departures lounge that morning, but if she did, it made no lasting impression. The people around her did not register as individuals but rather as elements of the great shimmering international swell, the commotion and spectacle of Guangzhou Airport. They were all chorus members in a great Broadway show in which she was the heroine, a small-town Australian girl preparing to step into the great adventure of her life—her ‘overseas experience’.
Just that morning she’d said hooroo to her granddad in Merimbula, taken a short hop to Sydney then flown from Sydney to Guangzhou, which she knew nothing about except it was in China. It was the first foreign country she’d ever been to (if going to the airport counted), so it felt as if she’d already gone through the looking glass and landed in a strange alternative world.
Two hours later, seated at Gate A129, she was writing assiduously in her diary: In transit at Guangzhou. Only two legs to go! Can’t wait to finally see New York…so many things I want to do there. Top five: Central Park, Bloomingdale’s, eat a hotdog, see a Broadway Show. Oh, and maybe meet someone AMAZING and have a beautiful summer romance. I hope the family I’m working for is nice and let me have heaps of free time.
She chewed on the end of her pencil, wondering what that ‘someone amazing’ might be like. Would he have red hair? Or dark? Would he be more artistic or sporty? On the whole, she preferred artistic. Muscles did nothing for her. What kind of music would he be into? Anything, probably, except country. She was rudely shaken out of this interesting reverie by an announcement:
“Calling passenger Sarah Jellico, please come to Gate A126. This is the final announcement for passenger Sarah Jellico.”
Looking at her boarding pass in dismay, she realized she’d been waiting at the wrong gate. Grabbing her old backpack, she scrambled to reach the gate just in time.
In row 15, Alex Huang (the owner of a purple suitcase) sat uncomfortably wedged between a giant man who smelled like cabbage and an elderly woman who poked him with her elbow every time she held a newspaper crossword up to her face. He was ready for the flight to be over when it hadn’t even begun. There was some hold-up. Why was it taking so long?
The reason for the delay suddenly came hurtling down the aisle, apologizing blithely as she accidentally smacked other passengers in the face with her bag. Although Alex had to admit that the girl was technically attractive, with honey-colored curls and smattering of freckles across her nose, his main feeling was annoyance. As she flung her bag in the overhead locker, three books fell out, one of them hitting the crossword lady on the knee. This involved further delay and Alex (along with the rest of the passengers) watched with irritation as she scrambled to collect her scattered belongings.
To his dismay, Alex noticed that the only empty seat on the plane was the one in front of him. Sure enough, this human disaster area plonked herself down and immediately activated the ‘recline’ button. Now Alex was not only hemmed in to the left and right, but a cloud of blonde hair was in his face, tickling his nose. Admittedly it smelled quite nice—she used some kind of fruity shampoo—but that was not the point. The point was that his patience was near breaking point.
“Miss? Excuse me, miss,” he said tensely.
There was no reply. Peering over the seat, he saw that she was wearing earbuds. Tentatively, he tapped her on the shoulder. She twitched as if shaking off a fly but otherwise did not react. Boiling with rage at this point, he pinched her arm quite hard.
“Ouch!” she squealed and leapt to her feet, tossing her head and glaring at him in an imperious way. She looked, he thought, a bit like Boticelli’s Venus if she’d recently been stung by a bee. By now the entire cabin was staring at her, no longer simply irritated but also afraid.
“What did you do that for, ya mongrel?”
“Sorry?” Alex said, confused.
She took her earbuds out.
“What did you say?” she growled.
“I said ‘Sorry?’” Alex replied.
“Apology NOT accepted.”
“Miss!” said a flight attendant hastening along the aisle. “Sit down please miss.”
“I was sitting down until this drongo assaulted me,” she pointed a finger at Alex.
“I would ask that you be seated immediately miss. The plane is about to take off.”
“Did you hear what I said though? This dingleberry assaulted me! How would you like it if it happened to you? What about the global hastag-Me-Too movement?”
“Is this true?” the stewardess asked the general seating area. “Did he assault her?” Everybody shook their head.
“Cowards!” Sarah hissed at them. She then addressed the stewardess. “I’d like to be seated elsewhere. I don’t feel comfortable staying near my abuser.”
“That is not possible,” replied the stewardess, who was now joined by a bulkier associate. “Sit down now or you’ll be escorted from the plane.”
“Throw her off!” a voice called out from row 22.
“Fine,” Sarah huffed, hastily sitting down, “But I’m complaining to the airline. This is a serious violation of my human rights. I’m going to Tweet about it right now in fact!”
“Please don’t use electronic devices while the plane is taxiing for take-off.”
“Since when is that a rule?”
“Miss…” the bulkier steward growled. She hastily turned her phone off.
“And ensure that your seat-back is upright.”
“Fascists,” Sarah hissed, as her seat-back twanged into a vertical position.
As soon as the plane was in the air, Sarah leaned her seat back as far as she could. Alex closed his eyes and pretended not to notice, though a seething hatred burned whitely in his soul.
At John F. Kennedy airport, the crowds were immense and buzzing. Sarah had never seen anything like it before. People from everywhere flocking like birds to this great cultural hub. Despite that little unpleasantness on the plane, she was now in a fantastic mood. Here at last! The air itself seemed alive with possibility.
“I’m actually here,” she whispered.
The immigration line was very long but she didn’t even mind. As she gazed at all the faces, the time passed quickly. Then, over in the U.S. Citizens line, she noticed the handsome Chinese guy who’d been sitting behind her. Grimacing, she thought it was a shame that such a poisonous snake was so good looking. His T-shirt hugged his torso as if it had been painted on, and his biceps were annoyingly bulky. Probably spent hours in the gym looking at himself, what a wanker.
Sarah strode forward, handing the border guard her passport.
“How long will you be staying in the United States?”
“What is the nature of your work?”
“I’ll be nannying for a family in Manhattan,” she said. “The Dixons. Do you know them?”
“No ma’am. May I see your working visa?”
She handed it over.
“They seem like really nice people. So goodlooking. The dad is loaded. And the kids are unbelievably cute. The daughter—she’s five—has these Shirley Temple ringlets–”
“What is the address you will be staying at?”
She gave the address.
“It’s really near Central Park. I’m hoping to see it while I’m there, maybe go see Cats. I’m a big fan of the theater, which is why New Yo—”
The border guard handed her back her passport.
The final step was getting her suitcase. Skipping over to the conveyor belt, she once more spotted that vile excrescence who’d been sitting behind her.
“Well, at least I’ll never have to see him again,” she thought huffily before grabbing a silver Samsonite suitcase off the conveyor belt and hauling it away to the exit.
Waiting for her in the foyer with a sign reading ‘Miss Sarah Jellico’ was a man in a fancy chauffeur uniform.
“Hello!” she beamed. “I’m Sarah.”
“Hello,” he said. “May I see your identification please?”
“Er…OK,” she showed him her passport. He examined it carefully, then nodded. “This way.”
When Alex finally made it to his mother’s house in Queens, he was exhausted. Much to his mother’s disappointment, he didn’t even want dinner.
“You OK, honey? You have a fever?” She touched his forehead. It was unlike her son to turn down clay pot rice.
“No thanks ma, I’m not hungry. I’m just really tired. There was an idiot on the plane in front of me and—well, I’d rather just go to bed.”
“Shall I bring you chicken noodle soup?”
“No, I’m not hungr—” seeing the steely determination in her eyes, he immediately corrected himself, “Well, can you make some ginger milk pudding?”
She nodded, satisfied, and patted him on the cheek.
He hauled his suitcase upstairs. For some reason it seemed much heavier than usual. Maybe he really was getting sick. Considering all the weight training he’d been doing, he can’t have lost so much conditioning so quickly!
When he got to his room, he went to unlock the suitcase and noticed the key didn’t fit. Then he realized that the suitcase wasn’t even locked. Flinging open the lid, he stood and stared for a full ten seconds.
His subsequent cry of anguish echoed throughout the house. Twenty seconds later, his mother was knocking at his door.
“Alex? Are you OK honey?”
Alex gritted his teeth.
“It’s OK, ma, I just stubbed my toe.”
In fact, this was true. Realizing he had taken someone else’s luggage had been the last straw. It prompted him to kick the wall with a bare foot.
Groaning quietly, he stared at the open suitcase and wondered what to do. Inspecting the exterior, he could see no name tag. The only thing to do was to search the contents for something that might yield clues.
The first thing he noticed was that the owner clearly identified as a woman. The reason the suitcase had weighed so much was that it was packed with a salon’s worth of haircare products. There was also a staggering number of bras, lacy underwear, dresses and five pairs of shoes. Other items included a battered looking stuffed koala bear, five packets of Licorice Allsorts, a book about Early Childhood Education, a Hello, Dolly! poster, a pair of hot-pink rollerblades and a Garfield alarm clock. Inspecting the front pocket, he found a small hardcover book with Vincent van Gogh’s A Starry Night on the cover. Opening it, he realized it was a diary.
Sarah felt a bit glum. The chauffeur, Mr. Maduro, had been extremely serious. At first, she assumed he was just shy and therefore resolved to charm him with enthusiastic chat. She’d gushed about how much she was looking forward to meeting the family and baking cheesymite scrolls and pavlovas. She wanted to teach the kids all kinds of games and songs. Then she’d tried to get his opinion of good places to hang out in the city—bars, clubs, shows, things of that nature.
Finally, he’d cut her short.
“Miss, I think you have the wrong idea. I’m gonna tell you this once and it’s just between you and me: This will not be a vacation for you. You will not be going to bars. You will not be fraternizing with the family. There is a chef—you will not be allowed in the kitchen. You are here to work, that’s it. Understand?”
“But—” she started to speak, then stopped. Clearly this man was disaffected. Perhaps he’d had a bad childhood or something. There was no use talking with someone like that, they’d see the worst in everything.
“Oh,” she nodded, “I see.”
“Yes,” he said, warming to his subject. “You have to think of the family like a big company, OK? Like Walmart. You’re an employee. You do your job. You do not share anything personal, you do not show weakness of any kind or they will cut you down, squeeze the blood out of you and drink it like vampires.”
“Sheesh. That seems a bit harsh.”
“Harsh?” he laughed bitterly. “Yes, it’s harsh, believe me. Watch your back. Don’t give them any excuse to take advantage.”
“Um, but, Mr. Maduro? With all due respect, I’m the nanny. I’m working with children so I have to be a bit emotional and personal. Also, the whole reason I came here was to see the Big Apple! How could I possibly miss Broadway?” she snorted.
“Just wait,” he said ominously, shaking his head. “You’ll see.”
Now here she was in a bedroom that was small, spotless and completely white. It had zero personality. Instead of having a view over Central Park, it looked out on a brick wall that was also white. On her bed, she found a printed and laminated letter that read as follows:
Information for Nanny
Welcome to your base for the next few months. Please make yourself at home.
Before you begin your duties, we ask that you familiarize yourself with some of the house rules, which must be followed without deviation.
She yawned and put the letter on the chest of drawers, deciding to read it later. Right now, this room needed some pizzaz, like for example a Hello, Dolly! poster. She took her suitcase and went to open it but found she couldn’t. After a couple of minutes spent trying to pry it open, she gave up and gave the thing a closer look. At that point she noticed a tag attached to the handle.
She went to get her cellphone out of her backpack and realized it had no battery power. Then she went to charge it but realized the plug didn’t fit in the outlet. Then she just flung herself onto the bed and started to cry.
Listlessly eating ginger milk pudding, Alex flicked through the diary, skimming for some kind of contact information or clue. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any. He couldn’t even figure out the author’s name. Or anyone’s name—everyone was referred to by nicknames or initals.
Judging from the bits he skimmed, the author wasn’t exactly a brain surgeon. It was all stuff about best friends and what she wore to a party and boys she liked. There was a little bit at the end about her coming to New York, but that was no use because obviously she’d come to New York or he wouldn’t have her suitcase right now. She seemed to have done a brief nannying course by correspondence, but that wasn’t much of a lead.
Then his eye stumbled on a reference to a trip to Bondi beach. The author was weighing up whether to wear her rose-pink bikini or black one-piece. This engaged his imagination pleasantly for a several moments, until he latched onto was that Bondi beach is in Australia. Australia. It rang a dreadful bell. A country where they used special Australian words. G’day mate. Kangaroo. Drongo.
Sick to his stomach, he grabbed his smartphone and looked up the word ‘drongo’ in the urban dictionary. It was, he read, an Australian synonym for ‘dumbass’ or ‘idiot,’ e.g. “It doesn’t go in the shed, ya drongo!”. his worst suspicions had been confirmed. In one of Fate’s little ironies, the suitcase he had in his possession belonged to the one person in the world he did not want to ever see again: the bad-luck blonde who’d accused him of assault.
He leapt up and paced the length of his room wondering how to approach this problem. It admittedly pleased him that that young harpy must be experiencing considerable distress without her koala bear and rollerblades. On the other hand, he needed his suitcase. Besides, he felt a little sorry for her. After all, she was new in the country and all alone, poor thing. If he returned the suitcase in spite of her rudeness then she might be eternally grateful to him and consider him something like a knight in shining armor coming to her rescue. Maybe she would even throw her arms around him in gratitude, possibly attired in a rose-pink bikini—but that was beside the point. The point was to get the luggage back to its rightful owner as soon as possible.
And in order to that, he had to read the diary again, very carefully, for clues.
Sarah woke to the sound of hammering. It felt as if each blow was reverberating in her head as if she were some hapless squirrel inhabiting a tree being hammered by a woodpecker.
“Whaa—at is it?” she moaned.
“Miss Jellico, it is time for your interview,” a woman’s voice penetrated the door.
“Agghh,” she gurgled. “Just a minute!” she croaked.
“Please come quickly, you are late.”
She jerked herself up suddenly, appalled. The memory of the previous day came crashing into her tender consciousness.
“OK, I’ll be right there!” she sang and snapped into action. She gave her hair a cursory comb, splashed some cold water on her face, tugged at her blouse to smooth out the wrinkles and sprayed her person with Fruity Fresh Body Mist.
“Right, here goes!” she said to the girl in the mirror. “Time to meet your American family.”
As she stepped out the door, she was met by a worried looking woman in a crisply ironed maid’s uniform, complete with white cap.
“Hello,” Sarah said, “Are you the mum?”
“No, I’m the maid. My name’s Mina.”
“Hi!” Sarah stuck out her hand. Mina did not respond.
“Please come quickly, Mrs. Dixon and the children are waiting.”
Sarah followed Mina along a corridor into a living room where everything was eggshell white—the carpet, the walls, the furniture, even the flat-screen television. It made Sarah blink a little. When her vision came into focus, she saw three figures—a woman, a girl of about five and a boy of two, all staring at her and all dressed in the same eggshell white.
“Good morning, Sarah,” said the woman in a soft, musical voice. “Please take a seat.”
“Hi. Um, good morning,” Sarah mumbled.
Mrs. Dixon regarded her for a few moments and Sarah started to squirm under her gaze.
“Did you have a restful sleep after your journey?”
“Yes, it was great! Thanks.”
“Good, good…well, let me introduce you to your little employers. This is Annapurna. Can you tell Nanny how old you are?”
“I’m five,” she declared solemnly.
“And this is Winston. How many years old are you?”
“TWO!” he shouted, grinning and holding up four fingers.
“Pleased to meet you Miss Annapurna and Master Winston,” Sarah beamed. “You can call me Sarah. I’m sure we will get along great.”
Mrs. Dixon coughed gently.
“Actually, the children will be calling you Nanny. We’ve found it is difficult to retain people so just for the sake of continuity and stability, we consider it preferable that every new girl have the same name.”
“Oh,” Sarah considered it. “All right then. Nanny.”
“Did you have a moment to have a look at the house rules we left in your room?”
“Mmm? Oh. Yup, yes,” Sarah nodded.
“And you agree to the terms?”
“Absolutely, they sound great,” Sarah smiled.
“Excellent,” Mrs. Dixon smiled back, each tooth white and polished as a pearl. “That makes things easier, doesn’t it. Then if you wouldn’t mind signing this contract.” She offered Sarah a pen and paper.
Sarah obliged and handed the paper back.
“So. Nanny,” Mrs. Dixon said. “I know it’s only the first day but I’m afraid that you have set an unfortunate precedent.” She glanced at a slim diamond-studded watch on her wrist. “The children and I expected you here an hour ago. Annapurna will now have to miss her ballet lesson and we may even be late for her abstract drawing class. I want to impress upon you the vital importance of punctuality.”
“Sorry about that. The thing is, my cellphone’s on the blink. I do have an alarm clock but it’s in my suitcase and I don’t have it right now.”
“Indeed? But I saw Chaffeur taking it up in the elevator yesterday?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t mine. There was a mix-up. In fact, related to that, I am wondering if you have some kind of universal adapter? You see I need to charge my cellphone and—”
Mrs. Dixon waved her hand.
“As you must know from reading the house rules, your point of contact for quotidien considerations is Maid. I’m afraid that I have a very busy schedule and am unable to spend time thinking about extranea.”
“Little things that don’t concern me. Another thing: I notice you are wearing scent. Please desist for the duration of your employment.”
“Oh, is someone allergic?”
“They are not, but in aesthetic terms it is displeasing and does not accord with the ambient space. Please use toiletry products without scent from now on—they will be provided.”
“Right, roger that. Um. I was also wondering about things like meals. Is there a café in the neighborhood? I, like, really need a cup of joe right now.”
“Meals are to be had in-house at six o’clock sharp, as you know after reading the house rules,” Mrs. Dixon replied. “Lunch will be served in three hours, I’m sure you can wait until then. I’m afraid caffeine is not permitted.”
“Nanny is a bit fat, isn’t she mummy,” Annapurna said, casting a critical eye over Sarah’s voluptuous physique.
“Cheeky little monkey,” Sarah huffed.
“What is that curious accent, Nanny?” Mrs. Dixon inquired.
“It’s Australian. I come from Australia, remember? I said on my application.”
“Oh no, I didn’t handle the paperwork personally, that was handled by the agency. In any case, I wonder if you might tone it down. I’ve been watching a delightful program called The Great British Bakeoff; do you know it?”
What’s that got to do with the price of fish in China? Sarah wondered.
“Yeah, I’ve seen it.”
“Try to talk more like them if you can. Their accents sound so delightfully educated. I would be pleased if the children can absorb some culture.”
“I have Australian culture…I bought some great kids books from there. Paula the Platypus, Donald Plays the Didgeridoo. If I ever get my suitcase back, I can read those.”
“Hmmm. Perhaps. But in the meantime, work on sounding more like Julie Andrews in that old movie if you can.”
“You don’t mean Mary Poppins?”
“Yes, that’s it. That would be perfect. All right, lovely to meet you. The day’s schedule is here on the coffee table. Please refer to Maid if there is anything you need.”
Mrs. Dixon stood up and sashayed out in silk pants, leaving Sarah looking at the two children, and the two children looking back at her, deeply perplexed.
Alex was good at deducing things. As a private investigator’s assistant, it was his bread and butter. But without even a name to go on, this was something of a conundrum. Finding one particular girl in New York amounted to finding a dingo print in the Outback. Essentially, he was working blind.
He went back to the very first page of the diary and started to read.
Worst New Year’s ever. In the history of the universe. I didn’t even get drunk I was that crushed. T. dumped me—just like that–for Shayla Scott. I never even saw it coming.
Well, here I am starting a diary. Here is where it’s at. Tomorrow is the rest of my life! Is that how it goes? Today is the first day of my life? No, that’s not it either. Never mind. I bought this because it’s time to Get Real. My best friends have all gone to uni or overseas and here I am, age 19, with nothing but great hair, $2 in my bank account and a lust for life.
OK, so what if T. dumped me? On New Year’s Eve. When I literally spent the last of my savings to look so hot. As Gazza says, the fact that he even did ANY of that means he is a giant deadhead and it was a narrow escape. Now is the time to get my shit together. Now is the time to dance in the rain! Now is the time to blossom into Jennifer Aniston post-Brad.
I have to have a plan. I can’t work as a checkout chick at Coles the rest of my life. I mean, it’s a good job and I like the people but you need a plan in this life, I need to get out of Merimbula. And that’s not just because T. still shops there, god I hate him. But I also love him. But I’m trying not to.
I talked to Lobbo about my problem. She says it’s important to have goals and dreams. She has a dream board to help her visualize success—I’ve seen it, it’s nice. She wants to work in fashion and stuff so she’s posted arty pictures of classic dresses and shoes from old issues of Vogue, a really artistic sketch of the Eiffel Tower and inspiring words.
She says the thing you have to do is decide what you really want, then just create a beautiful image of it to put in your room so that you can see every day and it’ll inspire you to move ahead and live your True Reality.
Couldn’t stop thinking about T. How could he do that to me? We were together for three months, that’s practically married at our age. And now I’m wondering if he was hooking up with other people while we were together because now G. says that that absolute skank Shayla is five months pregnant. She was his girlfriend before we were together and now I’m wondering if he ever even really stopped seeing her even while he was seeing me???? When G. told me she was having a sprog, I said I have to ask him if it’s true. I was this close to driving over his place and confronting him. G. and L. physically restrained me and we ended up just having mojitos and remembering school days. School seems so long ago now. But they left and now I feel bad again. How am I ever going to get over this.
So I spent two hours figuring out a goal. I realized that ever since I was little I really wanted to see New York. And I also love kids and want to have maybe 5 kids or maybe more, so what could be more perfect than nannying in New York? Several birds with one stone:
Get the hell out of Merimbula
Get work experience
Get ankle-biter experience
Meet someone new who won’t treat me so bad
Strangely moved, Alex read avidly through Sarah’s record of digging herself out of the pit of despair, of signing up for the nanny course, making new friends, feeling confident and planning for her trip. Then he came to the final entry:
Only one leg to go! Can’t wait to finally see New York…so many things I want to do there. Top five: Central Park, Macy’s, eat a hotdog, ride the Subway, see a Broadway Show. Oh, and maybe meet someone AMAZING and have a beautiful summer romance. I hope the family I’m working for is nice and let me have heaps of free time.
Closing the diary, it occurred to Alex that she must have written this at Guangzhou Airport, just before they saw each other for the first time. He felt the tingle of Fate’s slipper walking over his grave. It was ordained that he would return the book to her and she would realize he, Alex Huang, was the New York Someone she longed to meet. And that T. was a pathetic wrinkled anchovy.
And now he had a lead. She’d worked at a place called Coles in another place in Merimbula. With him it was a matter of moments before he was on the phone.
“Hello? Are you the manager of Coles? Hello. My name is Tillman Harper and I would like to make a complaint about one of your staff. I was in there on—” he paused to squint at the diary—“last Friday and there was a young lady there who was very rude to me. Why didn’t I mention it at the time? Well, that’s a good question. I tried not to make a fuss at the time but it has since festered so, here I am. Anyway, I don’t know this young lady’s name, but she is about five foot eight with long curly blonde hair and a few freckles on her nose. What’s that? You say you know her? She’s done this sort of thing before? And she no longer works with you? Ah. What’s her name please? You see, I’m so traumatized by the incident that I would like to talk to her about it. Sarah…Jellico. I see. Oh, she left for America? Well, that’s too bad, I would have liked to give her a piece of my mind. Thank you. You’ve been most helpful.”
Alex smiled with satisfaction. From now on, it would be a cinch.
Sarah had had one of the worst days of her life. Truly, almost as bad as New Year’s Day when she’d cried her eyes out over Tristan licking Shayla’s tonsils at midnight.
There were so many ways it was bad.
The kids were like something out of a horror movie, especially the little girl. She had that kind of doll-like appearance and preternatural self-possession that made Sarah feel like she was constantly being weighed in the balance and found wanting. Every time Sarah deviated from any ‘house rule’ Annapurna was right behind her, making a mental note so she could report back to the Big Chief. Little Winston had a sunnier, more carefree personality but he reveled in getting himself into potentially suicidal situations. Like a moth to the flame, he was drawn to sharp objects, electrical appliances, the balcony, plastic bags. Even apparently harmless things, like his stuffed ‘sheepie’ was a hazard—Sarah caught him stuffing it into his mouth and turning a pretty shade of blue. When she took it away from him, he started bawling at the top of his lungs.
After a couple of hours of this, she was relieved to hear Mina announce that lunch was ready. This was a chance to lock Winston in a highchair and to momentarily distract Annapurna from surveillance. When Sarah saw what her lunch was, though, she nearly had a conniption fit.
“What’s this?” she asked tremulously.
“This is the house lunch, Miss. A salad of raw vegetables and whitefish, with lime dressing.”
Sarah stared at the small pile of shredded cabbage and carrot with a slimy lump of raw fish next to it. Her eyes began to swim with tears.
“Is it, um, a starter? Is there anything else?”
“No Miss,” said Mina. “That’s it.”
“Don’t you like it?” Annapurna asked, with sinister interest.
“Oh, it looks delicious!” Sarah said. “Why don’t you eat up your soup before it gets cold, dear?”
“After lunch, I will need to get your measurements for the uniform, Nanny,” said Mina. “So I can sew it overnight.”
“Uniform?” Sarah gulped.
“Yes, Miss,” Mina whispered. “It’s part of your contract, you know.”
“Don’t you like uniforms?” asked Annapurna.
“Oh yes, I love uniforms,” Sarah smiled in a sickly sort of way. “Listen, Maid, can I talk to you in the corner for a second.”
Sarah drew Mina apart and whispered.
“Would you mind watching the kids for two ticks while I go out and get a phone adapter?” Sarah whispered.
“No Miss, you’re not supposed to go out,” Mina shook her head.
“What? You mean, like, ever?”
“You must stay at home except for when you are accompanying the children.”
“What?!” Sarah nearly fainted.
“It’s all in the contract miss,” Mina said.
“Why are you whispering?” Annapurna asked.
After enduring a full day of misery, Sarah finally handed the children over to the night nurse and went to her room. As soon as she locked the door behind her, she flew to the nightstand where she’d left the laminated sheet and read the list of house rules:
Information for Nanny
Welcome to your base for the next few months. Please make yourself at home.
Before you begin your duties, we ask that you familiarize yourself with some of the house rules, which must be followed without deviation.
The Nanny MUST:
Be prepared to start work at 7am sharp. Breakfast is served from 6am to 6.30 in the kitchen.
Wear a clean uniform at all times when on duty.
Remain in her room when not on duty, unless given written permission.
Adhere to a strict diet. No caffeine, sugar, red meat or alcohol will be permitted.
Never curse or shout in front of the children. Physical punishment of any kind is grounds for dismissal.
Smile and be happy.
Never use or any electronic device except when off duty and in her room.
Never wear fragrance or scented beauty products.
Never wear jewelry
Dazed and sightless, Sarah let the page fall from her hands.
“Sweet suffering wombats. What have I got myself into?”
“Hello, is this Mr. Jellico?”
“Speaking,” said a raspy voice.
“Hello, my name is Alex Huang.”
“G’day Alex, what can I do you for?”
“Well, it’s about your daughter Sarah.”
“My granddaughter, you mean? That ratbag? What’s she done now? Aw Christ, I s’pose you’ve knocked her up have you?”
“Don’t apologize to me, young fella, you’re the one I feel sorry for. If I were you, I’d change me locks and get the hell out of dodge. Lay low for a while until she calms down a bit. She can get as cross as a frog in a sock when she gets the wind up her. I don’t imagine you’ll be any too popular at the minute.”
“Well, if you didn’t use protection and now she’s with a bun in the oven.”
“Wait, no! I didn’t get her pregnant.”
“No? Thank the big guy upstairs for that, for your sake. I have my doubts she’d be a fit parent, let alone a bloody nanny. God help the family in New York that drew her as a short straw.”
“Actually, Mr. Jellico, that is sort of the reason I’m calling, you see. I’m in New York right now and—”
“Don’t beat about the bush, I haven’t got all day.”
“Right. The thing is, I have her suitcase.”
“Why would you have her suitcase?” Asked Mr. Jellico, puzzled.
“And she has mine.”
“I don’t understand. Is this one of these Japanese games young people play nowadays? Don’t you have other things to be doing? In my day we didn’t have time to play silly buggers, we had real work to do—”
“No, no: it was an accident. At the airport, we accidentally took each other’s bags. Now I need to contact her to get it back.”
“Well, why don’t you just call her for gosh sakes? My word, the world is going to the dogs when a young man from New York has to call a duffer in Sydney, Australia, just to figure out the facts of life. You want to contact Sarah, just give her a bell. It isn’t rocket science.”
“Uh huh, yes, but I don’t have her phone number is the thing.”
“Ah, I get you now. And you want me to tell you her phone number.”
“Um, yes. Please.”
“Rightyo, lad. Sit tight. I’ve got it written down somewhere here.”
At last, after a protracted conversation with the elderly eccentric, Alex had the number he wanted. He dialed the number and was disappointed to see that the phone was off. However, he left a message and waited. And waited. And waited.
Sarah woke the next morning having had very little sleep. For one thing she was starving and didn’t want to miss breakfast, for another she was racking her brains on how to get out of the situation in which she now found herself.
She was pretty sure that anyone else in her position would simply hand in their notice. But the thing was, she was dead broke, she knew no one in the city, she had no way of contacting her friends and family in Australia. Even if she did get in touch with them, what good would that do? Her friends were as broke as she was and grandad would just laugh, the crazy old coot. Maybe she could escape and call the cops? But it would be her word against the Dixons, and Mr. Dixon was a big-shot judge! Besides, she’d idiotically signed that ‘terms of employment’ thing.
It seemed as if the only thing to do, for now anyway, was grit her teeth and keep going until a solution occurred to her. Just as she’d come to this conclusion, she heard a soft knock on the door. She leapt up, opened the door, pulled Mina into her room then locked the door. Mina dropped what she was carrying in surprise and gave a little whimper.
“Listen Mina,” Sarah snarled, “What’s the deal?”
Mina looked at her with wide eyes.
Sarah grabbed her by her crisply ironed lapels and pushed her against the door.
“Don’t play dumb. Spill the beans. How do you get around these stupid house rules?”
Mina kept her mouth shut. Sarah heard a crinkle and put her hand into the pocket of Mina’s apron, retrieving a giant pack of M&Ms.
“I knew it!” she said triumphantly and shook them in front of Mina’s face. “How did you get them? You have a black market? You have mules? How can I get in on the game?”
Mina shook her head.
“Don’t be a hero, Mina,” Sarah said. “You think Mrs. Dixon is going to like you carrying these little sugar bombs around? Because I will tell her. Unless you help me.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” Mina hissed. “You’re new. You’ll be out of here in two weeks, just like the rest. I’m here for the long haul. I have five kids and two grandchildren in Guatemala.”
“I’m no grass. Besides, I need you. We work together. Right, so what I need is an electrical adapter to charge this smart phone—and I need it by the time I finish my shift tonight. If I don’t get it, then Mrs. Dixon is going to learn that you’re a big old chocolate hog.”
“OK, I’ll do my best,” she muttered.
“Your uniform is on the floor. Put it on if you know what’s good for you,” Mina blurted, before hurrying out.
Ten minutes later, Sarah emerged from her room in a uniquely unflattering outfit. Someone, apparently, had looked up ‘nursery governess uniform, 1910’ on the internet and taken it from there. There was a hideous long black dress with a white collar and white cuffs, all made of some scratchy material. There was a long white apron with a frilly hem and black lace-up boots. There was also a frilly white bonnet, fastened under the chin with a ribbon.
“What have I done to deserve this?” Sarah muttered, looking in the mirror.
When the morning arrived and Sarah had still not phoned him back, Alex started to worry. She did not seem the sort of girl who would ignore a phone call telling her that her licorice allsorts had been recovered and were ready for pick-up. He feared something had gone terribly wrong.
He opened her diary and found the one place she mentioned the family she was going to work for: the Dixons. Apparently they were rich and they lived in Manhattan. Easy. He could locate them in a couple of hours, max.
Except he couldn’t. They were extremely hard to find. There was nothing on social media, nothing in phone directories, no images. Hitting a brick wall, he paced his room and considered. The experience of frustration reminded him of something: looking for someone who’d once been an FBI agent who’d gone underground. This Dixon guy was rich, maybe mega rich. But he wasn’t advertising himself. So what was he? Some kind of top-level government employee? An under-the-radar businessman?
Finally, he had to admit defeat. It was time to call his boss, the peerless International Private Investigator known only as Xeron.
“Why are you calling me? I thought I told you not to call me,” that icon said with his mouth full. He seemed to be eating some kind of sugary cereal, but it was hard to tell because as usual he appeared in silhouette and his features were obscured.
“It’s an emergency. I’m trying to get in touch with a girl,” Alex explained.
“That’s not an emergency,” Xeron scoffed. “That’s life,” he chortled at his own joke.
“I need your help.”
“What is it?”
“I need to find a guy named Dixon in Manhattan.”
“You’re calling me for that? Everybody knows that.”
“I don’t. I couldn’t find anything on him.”
“You think a Judge in the Court of Appeals is going to post his cat pics?” Xeron snorted.
“Yes, of course you can’t find him. He’s not a moron. Evil, maybe, but not a moron.”
“Oh, this and that. He’s come to our attention before. What’s your interest? Oh that’s right, a girl. Who’s the girl?”
“She’s gone to work as a nanny for him.”
“What? Why oh dear?”
“He’s sort of a…what do you call them?”
“I don’t know, what do you call them?”
“Like a …a person who exploits staff… slave driver–you get the picture. Imports vulnerable foreign workers and makes them work in terrible conditions.”
“But surely that’s illegal?”
“Ye-es. He knows how to get around it though. He’s a judge, remember?”
“Well, anyway, what’s his address?”
Xeron gave him the address without having to give it a second thought.
“We’ve been trying to catch him in the act for years, but it never sticks. You know how it is. By the way, why did you need the address?”
“I’m going there right.”
“What’s that?” Xeron dropped his spoon in alarm. “I strongly advise you not to do that. Security in that building is intense. You will not get through to the twenty sixth floor.”
“Thank you, I’ll make a note of that,” said Alex, writing 26 on his hand.
“Alex! No! Please reconsider. If he finds out who you are, he will destroy Bloodhound Private Investigation! It will be very easy for him to do that.”
“I won’t tell him who I work for,” Alex shrugged.
“How can I persuade you that this is a bad—”
Alex switched off the video chat and started getting ready to go.
Mrs. Dixon looked beautiful and pained, like an operatic heroine who’d just learned that her father had just been condemned to death by the tyrannical king.
“Please sit down, Nanny. Annapurna told me something very troubling last night. I want to speak to you to ascertain the facts,” Mrs. Dixon, dressed in a suit of robin-egg blue, clasped her hands on her lap so tightly that the knuckles were white. “She said that you were rough with little Winston. I must remind you, Nanny, that physical punishment of any sort is anathema—”
“What?” Sarah said. “I don’t remember being rough.”
“You took sheepie away from him and hurt his finger,” Annapurna explained in a mature and disapproving tone. Winston pouted and glared at Sarah, the memory revived.
“I do not see the humor,” Mrs. Dixon said, appalled.
“I do not see the humor,” Annapurna parroted.
“He was choking on sheepie. He was literally turning blue, so I had to take it away in a hurry. I didn’t hit him or twist anything, I just took it out of his mouth to save his life.”
“Seepie,” Winston murmured mournfully.
“I’m sorry, but that sounds implausible to me,” said Mrs. Dixon, “But at any rate, see that it doesn’t happen again. Now, the children have a very full program today. I’ve written it all down here. Make sure they get to their programs punctually; Mr. Maduro will be waiting downstairs with the limousine. Any questions, Nanny?”
“No ma’am,” Sarah said. “No questions.”
Just as Alex arrived at the huge shiny apartment building, he saw Sarah emerge. Smitten as he was, even he could see that her outfit was bizarre and unflattering.
“Hey!” he shouted out of the taxi window. “Sarah!”
But she didn’t look up. She was focused on getting two small children into a limousine.
“Can you follow that car?” He said to the taxi driver.
“Eh?” The taxi driver said. “Sorry buddy, that’s not in my job description.”
“I’ll give you two hundred bucks if you follow that car.”
“OK, sir. Yes sir.”
The limousine stopped outside a large modern building called Junior Juilliards. Alex jumped out of the taxi, with the silver suitcase, and hauled it over to where Sarah was helping a little boy carry a miniature violin case.
She stood up straight and looked at him, amazed.
“You! From the plane? How do you know my name?”
“I have your suitcase,” he pointed by way of explanation.
“Oh,” she said. “Thanks.”
“I need to talk to you,” he said.
“That’s OK, you can just leave the suitcase in the limo. Mr. Maduro? This is my suitcase, can you put it in the boot?”
Mr. Maduro scratched his head.
“She means the trunk,” Alex explained, then stepped forward and touched her on the arm.
“I really need to talk with you.”
“Wait a minute! I see what’s going on here…” she stared at him wide-eyed. “You’re a stalker! You deliberately took my suitcase at the airport and you’ve been following me around ever since. I’ve seen movies about people like you. Mr. Maduro, call the cops please.”
“What? No! Don’t call the cops,” Alex said to Mr. Maduro.
“Oh strewth, we’re going to be late for the lesson,” Sarah said, “Come on kids!”
“You’re not supposed to curse, Nanny,” said Annapurna.
“I’ll wait for you here,” called Alex as the three of them disappeared into the music school.
“So, Mr. Maduro—mind if I wait in the limo?”
The chauffeur shrugged, which Alex took to mean assent. He got in the back feeling reasonably pleased with himself. It wasn’t everyone who could have located a single Australian cutie in a city of 8.54 million people.
Finally, Sarah emerged with her young charges. She herded them into the car, helped the kids into their car seats and got in. Thanks to her floppy bonnet, it wasn’t until she’d finished that she realized Alex was there.
“What the bloody hell is he doing here?” she shrieked.
Winston started to cry at the loud noise and Annapurna put her hands over her ears.
Mr. Maduro, intent on getting to Central Park Zoo on time (Mrs. Dixon could track his movements with a GPS device), ignored Sarah’s demands that he stop the car.
Sarah put her seatbelt on and glared at Alex over Winston’s car seat.
“You are going down, mate,” she said. “I have your name, phone number and address. The police are going to be very interested in you.” She fumbled for her phone and remembered she didn’t have it on her.
“Calm down for one second,” Alex said. “In the first place, the police aren’t going to do anything. In the second place, I want my suitcase. In the third place, I have to tell you something and you weren’t answering your phone.”
“So tell me now.”
He looked at the little girl staring at him with wide blue eyes.
“Um, no, I need to tell you in private.”
“I don’t have an adapter for my phone, OK? That’s why I wasn’t answering it. And it’s none of your business anyway.”
They rode on in silence for three blocks and then something occurred to Sarah.
“Wait, what do you mean I wasn’t answering my phone? How do you know? You couldn’t have known my phone number! And how do you even know my name?”
“I read your diary.”
“You—” For once, Sarah was speechless. Alex could see her starting to go into her frog-in-sock routine and hastened to soothe her troubled waters.
“Not like that. I just needed to find out who you were. I’m sorry.”
“You read my diary. You absolute munter! I knew you were the devil incarnate as soon as I set my eyes on you.”
“Look, I know—it sounds bad, but how else was I going to find out who you were? Normal people label their luggage with their address or at least their email or something.”
She glowered but allowed him to continue.
“So I found out you’re from Merimbula and that you worked at the supermarket there. I called them to get your name. Then I called your grandad, who, by the way, is a little bit odd.”
“Yeah, well, at least he’s not a scuzzy perv who reads girls’ diaries,” she pouted.
There was a period of silence.
“Is he your boyfriend?” Annapurna said.
“No, he is most definitely not.”
“Why is he in my daddy’s car?”
“That is a very good question. What do you think the answer might be?”
“I think he’s a jewel thief,” the girl answered decisively.
“You might be on to something there Annapurna.”
“Here is the Zoo!” Mr. Maduro called.
“OK, kids, come on, we’re going to see some animals.”
Alex sprang out of the car, helped Mr. Maduro get a stroller out of the trunk and chased after Sarah and the kids, who were already hurrying away.
With Annapurna gazing at spider monkeys and Winston nodding off in his stroller, Alex finally took the opportunity to explain.
“Look, I see you’re mad at me but the main thing I have to tell you is you’re in danger. I know about your employers. They’re known for exploiting workers.”
“Yeah, why don’t you tell me something I don’t know,” Sarah scoffed. “Do you think I’m wearing this Edwardian garbage bag out of choice?”
“You have to quit.”
“Quit? Oh yeah and then what? Go back to my mansion in the Bahamas? I’m completely broke, mate. I can’t afford a Big Mac let alone a plane ride back home.”
“You can come and stay with me,” he suggested. She looked at him doubtfully. He seemed sincere.
“I mean at my mom’s house. Until you can get home. She’d be happy to have you. She likes having people to cook for.”
“Well, that’s kind of you, I guess. Maybe it’s a good idea. But I dunno, you actually seem nice and all but you’re basically a complete stranger.”
“I don’t think so. I feel like we’re friends,” Alex said.
“Yes, sure,” suddenly he saw something in the corner of his eye. “I know what would cheer you up—wait right there.”
In two minutes he was back, with a hotdog in his hand.
“This is the real deal: mustard, ketchup, pickle, the flavor of immigrant dreams…”
“A New York hotdog from a New York hotdog stand!”
“You got it. Try it,” he held it out to her. She took a big bite and rolled her eyes.
“It’s so good!” she looked as if she were about to cry.
“I thought you’d like it,” he grinned. Seeing a large blob of mustard on her chin he carefully wiped it off with a napkin. She looked at him with a promising hint of distressed-damsel-saved-by-knight in her eyes.
“You know what else you might like?”
“Well, yeah, but how?”
“It’s literally ten minutes’ walk away. Come on, you can’t see New York without visiting Bloomingdale’s! And the kids will love it.”
As it happened, the kids didn’t really love it that much.
“I wanna thee the TIGER!” Winston wailed, when he realized they were leaving.
“They don’t have a tiger anymore,” Sarah said.
“I’ve already seen Bloomingdale’s and mummy said we have a glass-making class after the zoo.”
“Come on, guys,” Alex said. “Let’s go on an adventure!”
On the way to the department store, Sarah was turning matters over in her mind. Strange, she thought, how you can be so wrong about someone based on a first impression. If she’d only known him from the plane, she would have said he was the most revolting cane-toad that had ever hopped out from under a rock. Now, well, it was different. Only this morning she’d considered life barely worth living, but now the magic in living was back. He had really interesting ears and walked a bit like a dancer.
As she was thinking these things, he turned around to smile at her, which made her blush.
They spent a couple of blissful hours wandering around the store. In truth, Sarah was less enthralled with the store than with life itself. Quite suddenly, she realized, she had fallen in love. The specter of Mrs. Dixon no longer bothered her in the least. Every time Annapurna pointed out the shocking irregularity of the excursion, Sarah merely picked her up to give her a hug.
By the time they got back to Central Park, however, Mr. Maduro and the limo were nowhere in sight. Instead, there was a police squad car and a burly cop who stepped forward.
“Miss Sarah Jellico?”
“Yeah?” she said.
“You are under arrest for child abduction. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”
“Two calls in one day? This is a record!” Xeron said jovially.
“It’s about that girl. She’s been arrested,” Alex said.
“What did I tell you? And did you listen? No and no. All right, tell me what happened.”
Alex detailed the day’s events.
“So there you have it. I really need your help on this one.”
“What a ballsup,” Xeron muttered. “OK, I’ll see what I can do. We’ve been sitting on this one for years, waiting for the right time to move. My friend in the NYPD hired me to collect witness reports and he says he’s almost got enough to convict. Then you come in like some kind of sex-crazed bull in a china shop…Let’s just hope this is going to work.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Send the lastest batch of evidence into my pal and urge him to arrest Dixon for unlawful employment practices this afternoon.”
“What about Sarah? Will she be safe? Can you get her out of jail.”
“I think so,” Xeron said. “Give me a couple of hours and I’ll see what I can do.”
Two hours later, Alex was at the family home polishing off a clay hot-pot, when the doorbell rang.
He opened the front door and saw Sarah, with two silver Samsonite suitcases, on the stoop.
“Sarah!” he cried and hugged her.
“Can you pay the taxi driver?” she asked. “I don’t have any cash.”
Five minutes later, she was sitting at the Huang family table with a clay hot-pot in front of her. She had a wonderful tale to relate.
“It was so strange,” she said. “I was sitting in this jail cell and all of a sudden a cop came and said I was free to go. I asked why but they wouldn’t say. And then I said I needed to go back to the Dixons to get my stuff but somehow, all my stuff was already at the jail, as well as your suitcase. The cop said under no circumstances was I ever to try to contact the Dixon family ever again. I had to sign a piece of paper, which I did, and then I was free.”
“Very strange,” Alex agreed, then reached over to squeeze her hand. “But good that it’s all over now. What say you and I go see a Broadway show tonight?”
If there’s one group of people who have already perfected the art of ‘social distancing’, it’s publishers. Like the endangered Ribbon-tailed Astrapias of Papua New Guinea, a publisher would much prefer isolation foraging in its native jungle habitat than having to deal with unknown authors. Writers, in their view, are the moral equivalent of blood-sucking poachers who will wring their necks and wear their beaks as nose rings.
After a week of trawling through inhospitable websites/jungles, I’ve noticed some patterns in this avoidant behavior. The biggest publishers don’t even bother mentioning submissions. When they see you coming, they fly to the highest tree top where you have no way of reaching them without abseiling equipment and a flight suit. Mid-level publishers can’t quite reach those tranquil heights so they use a different strategy; they lead you away from the nest with a series of clever feints. First, they make you to scroll to the bottom of the home page to find a ‘contact us’ link (in the tiniest possible font size, in the faintest feasible color). Once you’ve clicked that link, you scroll to the bottom of the contacts page, down, down, down past all the people the publisher would rather to talk to: readers, booksellers, publicity professionals, lawyers, undertakers… finally, at the bottom of that page you will see a message addressed to you: “RarissimaAvis does not accept unsolicited submissions. Any unsolicited manuscripts, proposals or query letters that we receive will not be returned, and RarissimaAvis is not responsible for any materials submitted,” which is publishing legalese for ‘Bog off bumface’. But then there are the smaller, more sociable niche publishers—the litter-inhabiting wrens—who provide detailed submissions requirements, with the caveat that they only have five staff and millions of manuscripts coming in every minute and can only publish half a book a year and please don’t fax or email them and also they can’t reply to anyone and can’t really justify the cost of reading a single paragraph of your blather.
Such is the sorry state of affairs, and no wonder writers are sad.
Ordinarily, self-publishing seems like a better bet. If I were looking to publish my own work, I’d skip the middle man and toddle over to Smashwords, where my memoir about Saudi living Teacher, We Girls! is simmering along nicely with more than 50 sales! However, at the moment I’m sitting on a hot bet—a translation the Sizzlingest Socialist Comedy of the Decade—and feel that if only I can get close enough to one of these secretive publishing birds I should be able to lure it off its branch long enough to gmake friends and let me into its special flock.
To wit, here are 20 of the less-shy publishers of literary fiction and translation. This list is not just for writers and translators, either, but readers who want to find a source of literature in translation. I was a little shocked to learn recently that translation is only 3% of annual publishing in the USA. Considering how quickly a virus can travel around the world, it seems a shame that the riches of global literature are still so inaccessible.
Note: They do not publish previously unknown authors but are open to suggestions for translations of well known works in other languages. The backlist is very niche–you’d basically have to be a furry cup to fit in.
How to submit: It will be 18 months before they start considering single-author collections again, but you can enter their competitions or anthologies in the meantime. Contact email@example.com for questions.
Notes: They are especially interested in translations from smaller regional and minority languages.
How to submit: Knopf usually only accepts mss from agents. You might have a snowball’s chance on a chilly day in Hell, though, so why not try? Just send 25-50 pages and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to THE EDITORS/Knopf/1745 Broadway/New York/NY 10019.
Notes: It will take them a year to get back to you, IF AT ALL.
How to submit: Details here; complete manuscripts are preferred.
Notes: This is University of Rochester’s literary translation press. It publishes 10 books per year. Their website is called Three Percent because only 3% of all books published in the USA per year are literary translations. SAD FACE
One-Eye woke up one day to discover his shadow had gone. He made some preliminary researches. First, he twisted around to bite his back, thinking the shadow might have gotten bunched up where he couldn’t see it. Then he sniffed about on the ground thinking it might have slid into the ditch or blown over the road into a rice paddy. He even trotted along the road to the bits-and-pieces store to glare at the orange cat sleeping on a tree stump. It opened its eyes, glared back and yawned. The cat seemed lazy and insolent, as usual, but not gloating, not as if it had succeeded in stealing his shadow. It was as puzzling and maddening as an unbitten flea.
When anyone in the village had a question they needed answered, there was only one place to go: Old Maria’s. It was a short walk to the cottage, which stood opposite an old stone church whose enormous dark stone bulk was now surrounded by banana trees, coconut palms, passionfruit vines and bouganvillea. By comparison, the little hut seemed ephemeral as a butterfly, like a leaf about to blow away in the wind. This crooked little structure of thin branches and palm fronds was the home of Pinto and Ana, their two children Ernesto and Fernanda and Ana’s mother Maria, who was a very skinny woman with leather-brown skin, white wisps of hair and one front tooth.
Every morning, the whole family except for Maria climbed on a little motorbike and rode away to the city. Ana was a teacher so she and the children went to school while Pinto stood outside in the street, in the shade of the trees, selling ice-cream and drinks out of a polystyrene icebox. When school finished, Pinto packed everything up and they all rode back home to the cottage. Meanwhile, Old Maria spent the day keeping house. She washed the family’s clothes in a big plastic bucket, wrung them out with her strong hands, then hung them out to dry. She shook out woven mats. With one twig-broom, she swept the dirt floors and with another she tidied the garden path of dead beetles, fallen leaves and fruit. She moved slowly but got a lot done. When noon came, she retreated to a large cane chair just inside the front door, where she fanned herself slowly and gazed at the tops of distant hills until her eyelids closed.
It was at this time, when Maria was safely drowsing and unlikely to throw slippers at visitors, that One-Eye ventured into the garden.
Not far from the hut, under the shade of an ancient banyan tree, an enormous pig lay snoring gently in his mud bath. This was Porphyry the Sage, an intellectual giant. Although he was an expert in Psychology, Philosophy, Logic, Classical History, Medicine, Botany and Astronomy, his forte was in Problem Solving.
He’d received his education from his late mother Nellie, a precocious sow who’d given the world 33 other fine little piglets. During her youth Nellie had taught herself to read with the help of an English dictionary that had fallen out of a schoolgirl’s backpack and landed on the roadside near the cottage. One of Nellie’s numerous siblings had chewed from ‘Aardvark’ to ‘Chrysanthemum’ then, finding it dry, left the rest to his sister. She’d carried it over in her teeth to the edge of the property and stowed it in a hollow stump. Something drove her to treasure this book greatly, spending hours gazing at it. Over time, she realized that the small dark patterns were not just pleasing to the eye; they added up to something. She started recognizing the same little shapes wherever she trotted: on signs, cardboard boxes, newspapers.
Being the runt of the litter, Nellie was adopted as a pet by Ana and was sometimes allowed to sit on the step next to her as she helped the children with their homework. As Ana quizzed them on their ABC’s, Nellie sat attentively at her feet. In this way, she learned that the letters corresponded to sounds and that, depending on how they were arranged, they could invoke things that weren’t actually there.
As soon as Nellie realized this, she cherished her mangled dictionary even more. She decided that one day she would know what each and every word meant. Furthermore, when she saw any item with writing on it, she would take it up and carry it back to her nook, the tree-hollow at the edge of the property, to add to the collection. In this way, over the years, she built up a large and eclectic library including a physics textbook, a King James Bible (hardcover), an English-language reader of Robinson Crusoe, a history of philosophy, five cereal boxes, assembly instructions for a wardrobe, a German newspaper and a book about how to make birthday cakes.
In recognition of how important the dictionary was to her, she gave each of her 34 piglets a name beginning with her favorite letter, ‘p’. Porphyry was one of her fifth and final litter, as were Porcupine, Plato, Pluck, Pride, Peace, Peep, Pyx and Paracelsus. She imparted what knowledge she had to her offspring and all of them were able to read, though some of them didn’t really like to. Alas, Nellie was gone now and most of the piglets had scattered far and wide. Now it was only Porphyry who snuffled about the native homestead, meditating on the Nature of things.
It was to Porphyry that One-Eye the dog now repaired.
There was, everyone knew, an accepted procedure for these visits. The supplicant would sidle up to the massive authority, ask him politely whether he had eaten yet and (without waiting for a reply) gently place an offering of food at the side of the mud pool—a mango, perhaps, or a boiled egg or a clump of cooked rice taken from some slop pile. The donation made, the supplicant then respectfully ask for advice. After rising to ingest the offering, Porphyry would then return to his bath, close his eyes and twitch his snout, the only visible sign that he was cogitating. Just as the anxious supplicant began to think that the Sage had gone to sleep, an answer came.
As soon as he saw the large mud-soaked bulk of Porphyry, One-Eye’s tail began to wag gently with renewed cheer. The pig exuded intelligence. Carefully, One-Eye placed his offering at the side of the mud pool. It was especially choice—half a grilled fish wrapped in a banana leaf. He’d snatched it from a roadside barbecue where it had been dropped the night before. With incredible self-restraint, the dog had only taken a single bite, with his small, sharp front teeth.
One-Eye coughed politely to get Porphyry’s attention, then delivered the time-honored formula (quietly, so as not to wake Old Maria):
“Your honor, Porphyry the Wise and Well-brained, I come in the name of all questioners to question Thee, the Trusted Source of All-seeing and Corpulent Spring of Truth. With this fish, I humbly entreat thee, Plump Prophet, assist me in my confusion. This is the knot I wish to untie and this is the darkness I wish to light: I have lost my shadow. The question is where did it go?”
Having said his piece, One-Eye gave one last wag of his tail, then respectfully sat down on his haunches to wait.
Porphyry grunted. After a couple of minutes, with a great squelching, he hauled his bulk up out of the cool muck and wobbled over to the fish. After a couple of snuffles, he addressed himself to the meal, cast an approving glance over to One-Eye, then returned to his couch.
Birds twittered and zipped overhead. So confident was One-Eye in the sage’s abilities that a pleasant drowsiness, almost trance-like, washed over him. He forgot, for the moment, the catastrophe. In fact, his eyes had just fluttered shut when Porphyry finally spoke.
“Where did you see it last?” drawled the hieratic hog..
Suddenly awake, One-Eye shook himself to the task of memory.
“It was…ah yes. It was yesterday evening. I’d gone to visit the herd of white horses at Three-Tree Beach. On my way home, my shadow was in front of me and had changed shape. Usually it looks more or less like a dog, but this time is legs had grown like vines and the body was high and small. I was worried at the time. Now I realize that may have been the beginning of the end. And later in the night, when I sat outside the church door there, listening to the singing, I saw it had changed again—it was weaker.”
“You didn’t see it this morning?” Porphyry asked, with a soft, tired voice that sounded as if it came from a great distance.
“I didn’t,” said One-Eye. “But then,” he added, “I didn’t wake until just a little while ago. In fact, as soon as I realized it had gone, I came straight to you.”
“I see the problem,” said Porphyry. “You did the prudent thing by consulting me so quickly. The diagnosis is a Restless Shadow. I’m afraid it’s rather serious and that if you hadn’t come as you did, then the situation might have gone even further and the shadow would have become permanently unlatched.”
One-Eye looked at him, his head cocked worriedly.
“As it is,” Porphyry intoned, “We can act now and halt the progress. What I want you to do is to repeat after me the following rhyme:
Shadow, shadow, stick to me,
Not to the boy and not to the widow
Nor for sorrow and neither for joy
Nor to grass nor yet the harrow
But here, where a shadow ought to be.
“In this case, the shadow will still waver but cannot possibly leave you altogether.”
One-Eye, after a few false starts, duly uttered the rhyme. He then glanced around and looked at Porphyry indignantly.
“It didn’t work,” he woofed. “I don’t see it!”
“If you look under your feet, you will see that it is skulking under there.”
One-Eye jumped up, saw that it was true and gave it a good bite, to teach it a lesson.
“You will find,” Porphyry said, “That from now on it will be hardest to find at noon, since it resents being attached to you and will always remember the hour when you finally enthralled it. But in the mornings and afternoons it will calm down a little.”
“I see!” the dog wagged happily. “How can I ever repay you for the service you have rendered me?”
“Well…” the pig eyed him shrewdly, “Just to make sure that the cure sticks, I would recommend bringing a few more of those fish, let’s say once a week? That should do it.”
“Certainly, I would be only to happy to–Ouch!”
One-Eye’s speech was interrupted by a Maria’s ‘throwing shoe’ landing on his backside. Seeing the proprietress coming for him with a broom, he excused himself and hurried away, along with his shadow.
One year after the first one, she had another. She felt it coming on with a mixture of dread and almost impersonal fascination. How could it be happening again?
The first episode had seemed like the end of the world but the recovery was so fast, so astonishingly complete that she was morally certain that the matter was settled. As her doctor kept saying, it was exactly as if a broken egg had spontaneously reassembled itself. “As good as new,” were his exact words, uttered with amazement. There was not the slightest trace of visible damage. Extensive tests were done, academic papers were written, precedents sought: the conclusion of the medical researchers was that she was truly an anomaly. She’d seen a psychiatrist who claimed it was “attention-seeking behavior”. It was only thanks to her doctor, who had a friend of a friend, that she’d managed to get this job.
Now there was the same threatening tremor, the same electric-blue glow in the periphery of her vision. As much as she hated to admit it, she knew there was nothing to do but to wait for the event itself. Would it be a matter of minutes? Or days?
With a trembling hand, she adjusted the drinking glasses on the tray in the boardroom. Mr. Groot was reading through his notes, moving his lips; he wouldn’t notice anyway. He never did; rarely had she met anyone less perceptive about other people. To be honest, it was one of the things she appreciated about him; his disinterestedness allowed her to relax a little, to think her own thoughts.
“Could I have some water please?” He murmured absently, as if to himself.
Already pouring the cold water into a glass, she smiled at his predictability.
“Here you are.”
“Thank you,” he extended his hand. But just as she was giving it to him, it happened. A flash passed across her eyes, she gasped as if she’d been electrocuted, and she dropped the glass.
“What the hell are you doing?” he cried in dismay. Water had spilled on the sleeve of his suit coat and all over his handwritten notes, smudging the inky words and diagrams
“Oh! I’m terribly sorry!” She fled the room to fetch a cloth from the staff kitchen.
While she was in the staff kitchen rummaging around in the cupboard for a dry cloth, she heard the murmur of voices through the wall. It sounded like Charlotte and Liz from Finance, and they mentioned her name. Standing up quickly, Diane felt dizzy and steadied herself against the counter. Closing her eyes, she heard what they were saying with perfect clarity.
“There’s something funny about her. I can’t put my finger on it, but it gives me the chills. That robotic manner.”
“Where was she working before? Is she even from here?”
“Not sure, my boyfriend thinks she looks familiar but isn’t sure why.”
“She doesn’t have family here, does she?”
“Don’t think so. No wedding ring or anything.”
“Well no wonder. I bet she doesn’t even really sleep—she just reaches around and flips the switch at night.”
Diane put a hand to her temple, wincing at a sudden pressure. Pulling herself up to a standing position, she smoothed her skirt and exhaled. On her way to the boardroom, she stopped outside the Finance Room and looked in.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” she smiled tersely. “I was just in the kitchen and heard you were here. Can I get you some coffee perhaps?”
The women shrank back a little, shaking their heads. They looked like cats that had been sprayed with holy water.
The meeting finished early and Mr. Groot and Diane were left alone. Mr. Groot coughed and hummed, smoothing his tie the way he always did when he was nervous. It was decorated with a Christmas pattern—sprigs of holly—and she recognized it as one she had chosen for him (on behalf of employees) a few months ago.
“Diane,” he said, “Before you go…Ah, uhum, a word?”
“Yes, Mr. Groot?” she replied.
“Yes. Ah…” he looked a little lost. “It’s about, you know…just before, what happened with the water.” He frowned at the carpet. “Has this been going on long?”
“What do you mean?”
“This, er, relapse of yours.”
“Oh!” she laughed lightly, affecting surprise. “That! Oh no, this isn’t that. What happened now was just a little clumsiness, that’s all. I do apologize.”
“That’s all it was?” he looked relieved. “Ah, then it’s my turn to apologize.”
“Don’t mention it,” she smiled.
“Would you like time off to see the specialist? You see, it’s so unlike you, that—”
“Not at all. I have a slight headache, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” he said, “It’s terrible the way I make you work so hard, I feel guilty about it. What if it led to your becoming tired and coming apart–”
“Oh no, I enjoy keeping busy—it’s good for me!” she hastily corrected him.
“I thought you did,” he said, mollified. “But, you know, our agreement when I hired you was that, well, I wouldn’t have any choice if–” he broke off and looked so uncomfortable she felt sorry for him.
“Yes, of course, we agreed that if it were to happen again, then there could be no question of me staying on here at the company. But believe me, it’s all fine. I’m fine.”
He stood up a little straighter.
“Good, I’m glad to hear it. After all, Miss Beckett, we’d be sorry to lose you. You learned everything so quickly and now, well, I don’t know what we’d do without you.” He smiled unconvincingly.
As she was locking up supplies before leaving for the day, Diane overheard steps approaching the elevator. Slipping further into the storeroom so that she couldn’t be seen, she overheard Charlotte’s voice.
“My boyfriend looked her up on the internet and it turns out I was right! She is a freak. Listen to this, it’s a newspaper piece from last year! “A downtown block was closed off today, with several emergency vehicles called to the scene due to a disruption at the vitamin company WholeWorks. According to witnesses, sudden, the disruption involved a 33-year-old female employee. Although weapons were not involved and no one was injured, people leaving the scene appeared to be in shock. When Entown News tried to question them about the incident, a policeman informed us that they were contractually bound to silence on the matter but an official statement could be released that evening.”
“Wow! But how does he know it was her?” Liz asked.
“Because she used to be an assistant at WholeWorks—that’s how my friend knew her. She was a rep for them. And then, about a year ago, soon after this happened, she disappeared suddenly.”
“So what happened?”
“No one knows,” Charlotte said. “I think it might even be some kind of FBI secret shit.”
“Well, I think we have a right to know!” Liz said. “Someone should mention this to management. We could be at risk!”
The next few weeks had the potential to be painful. There was a lot of whispering in corners, and everyone, including Mr. Groot observed her surreptitiously. Ordinarily, Diane would have felt crushed on all sides, forlorn and oppressed. Instead, she experienced a kind of impersonal distance from herself and at the same time an odd sense of exhilaration and anticipation. Not long now, she found herself smiling, no, it certainly isn’t long now.
In keeping with her orderly nature, she started making preparations. In the evenings after work, she cleaned her apartment and systematically disposed of things she didn’t need. She finalized her will and cancelled her utilities, memberships and subscriptions. Finally, she composed a letter addressed ‘To Whom It May Concern’ and left it on her table, under an ammonite paperweight.
One Monday, about a month after the glass-dropping incident, things came to a head—or rather, a hand. All three departments were in the corner room having a weekly briefing. Mr. Groot was talking about quarterly sales and pointing to the white board with a little laser dot.
Suddenly, her right hand became detached from the wrist and started listlessly floating away in the current of the air conditioner. Diane kept absolutely still hoping that no one would notice. At first, indeed, no one did notice. Some of them were sleeping, others were looking at their phones, and Mr. Groot was too busy laser-pointing key figures to notice.
It was Charlotte who first raised the alarm. When the hand drifted past her at eye level, she looked at it wonderingly then gave a strangled gasp and hurled herself sideways, knocking the dozing Liz off her chair and upsetting the cup of coffee on the desk.
“It’s a ha- , a ha- AND!” Charlotte wailed, pointing.
Everyone turned their heads to look. Some screamed, others scrambled to get out of their seats, knocking tables over to run out of the room. Mr. Groot stood looking at the melee, confused—he didn’t seem to have realized what had happened yet. A couple of guys had taken off their jackets and were approaching it cautiously, as if about to wrestle a crocodile.
Silently, Diane stood up, walked over and grabbed the hand with her left one, and put it in her pocket. She then turned to Mr. Groot.
“Please accept my resignation as of today, as per our agreement,” she said and walked away with her head held high.
Later that day, commuters reported seeing what looked like crows flying home to roost but that, on closer inspection, were human body parts floating in the warm spring air: an ear, a foot in a kitten heel, a shoulder…attempts to retrieve them have so far been unsuccessful.