Excerpt of The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
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In the Professors case, it only
took a glance at his client card to know that he might be trouble. A blue star
was stamped on the back of the card each time a housekeeper had to be replaced,
and there were already nine stars on the Professors card, a record during my
years with the agency.
When I went for my interview, I
was greeted by a slender, elegant old woman with dyed brown hair swept up in a
bun. She wore a knit dress and walked with a cane.
"You will be taking care of my
brother-in-law," she said. I tried to imagine why she would be responsible for
her husbands brother. "None of the others have lasted long," she continued.
"Which has been a terrible inconvenience for me and for my brother-in-law. We
have to start again every time a new housekeeper comes....The job isnt
complicated. You would come Monday through Friday at 11:00 A.M., fix him lunch, clean the house, do the shopping, make
dinner, and leave at 7:00 P.M. Thats the extent of it."
There was something hesitant
about the way she said the words brother-in-law. Her tone was polite enough,
but her left hand nervously fingered her cane.
Her eyes avoided mine, but occasionally I caught her casting a wary glance in
"The details are in the contract
I signed with the agency. Im simply looking for someone who can help him live
a normal life, like anyone else."
"Is your brother-in-law here?" I
asked. She pointed with the cane to a cottage at the back of the garden behind
the house. A red slate roof rose above a neatly pruned hedge of scarlet
"I must ask you not to come and
go between the main house and the cottage. Your job is to care for my
brother-in-law, and the cottage has a separate entrance on the north side of
the property. I would prefer that you resolve any difficulties
without consulting me. Thats the one rule I ask you to respect." She gave a
little tap with her cane.
I was used to absurd demands from
my employers - that I wear a different color ribbon in my hair every day; that
the water for tea be precisely 165 degrees; that I recite a little prayer every
evening when Venus rose in the night sky - so the old womans request struck me
as relatively straightforward.
"Could I meet your brother-in-law
now?" I asked.
"That wont be necessary." She
refused so flatly that I thought I had offended
her. "If you met him today, he wouldnt remember you tomorrow."
"Im sorry, I dont understand."
"He has difficulties with his memory,"
she said. "Hes not senile; his brain works well, but about seventeen years ago
he hit his head in an automobile accident. Since then, he has been unable to
remember anything new. His memory stops in 1975. He can remember a theorem he
developed thirty years ago, but he has no idea what he ate for dinner last
night. In the simplest terms, its as if he has a single, eighty-minute
videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record
over the existing memories. His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes - no more
and no less." Perhaps because she had repeated this explanation so many times
in the past, the old woman ran through it without pause, and with almost no
sign of emotion.
How exactly does a man live with
only eighty minutes of memory? I had cared for ailing clients on more than one
occasion in the past, but none of that experience would be useful here. I could
just picture a tenth blue star on the Professors card.
From the main house, the cottage
appeared deserted. An old-fashioned garden door was set into the hawthorn
hedge, but it was secured by a rusty lock that was covered in bird droppings.
"Well then, Ill expect you to
start on Monday," the old woman said, putting an end to the conversation. And
thats how I came to work for the Professor.
Excerpted from The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yoko Ogawa. Copyright © 2009 by Yoko Ogawa. Excerpted by
permission of Picador, a division of Macmillan. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.