There was more laborious breathing from Stockport until Jean finally cleared her throat and said, 'Sorry.'
Shelley said, rather quickly, 'Well, I'm sure you are but I mean this is the point, isn't it? This is just the point. You are sixty-four. Suppose it happens again? Suppose you had a fall or somethingwell, our clients are paying for peace of mind, which they'd not be getting, would they, not in that particular scenario. No way they'd be getting peace of mind if Town and Country let their sitters go on too long.'
'It's only small. They probably wouldn't even miss it, there are hundreds of things here.'
'Jean, you're in a people business. The client's needs come first. That's key. Isn't it? You're in the client's home.'
Jean sniffed. 'You don't have to tell me that. I have been doing this eighteen years.'
'Yes, and maybe that's why it's time to call it a day, isn't it? After all, we've all got to retire sometime, haven't we? I should think you could do with a rest! Where is it you're retiring to, again?'
There was another wait while Jean said nothing because she did not know, and Shelley shored up her elective forgetfulness against the disturbing little truth that for eighteen years the agency had corresponded with Jean, on the very rare occasions when there was a gap between house-sitting assignments, care of a Mrs Pearl Costello (proprietrix) at the Ardenleigh Private Guest House in East Sussex somewhere. St Leonard's, was it? This year Jean had asked as usual for an assignment that would span Christmas, and they had nothing for her until this one at Walden Manor, beginning on January 3rd. Shelley sighed with an audible crackle as her jacket shifted on her shoulders. All right, so Jean had no family. But today was Shelley's first Monday back from 'doing' Christmas for fourteen people of four generations in a three-bedroomed house, and she told herself stoutly that family life could be overrated. Jean probably had a ball at the Ardenleigh.
'Going to retire to the seaside, are you, Jean?'
'I'm looking at a number of options. I haven't decided.'
'Good for you. Right, well, I'll let you get on. Send us on a notification of the breakage. Oh, and can you remember in future when you answer a client's phone, you should say, "Walden Manor, the Standish-Cave residence, may I help you?" It's a nice touch. You don't just say hello, all right? Company policy. And careful with that duster, at least till you're enjoying a long and happy retirement!'
Jean put down the telephone in the certain knowledge that Shelley in Stockport was doing the same with a shake of the head, a crackle of her clothing and a despairing little remark to the office in general about it being high time, getting Jean Wade off the books.
That evening Jean lit a fire in the drawing room. When it was well alight, she drew the agency's letter from her pocket and laid it carefully over the flames. Its pages curled, blackened and blazed up as the logs underneath settled with a hiss and a weak snap of exploding resin that sounded to Jean, smiling in her deep armchair, more like an approving sigh followed by faint and affectionate tutting. Only as the flames died, and to her surprise, did she become aware of a dissatisfaction with the emptiness of the room. Jean did not acknowledge loneliness. She had long recognised that two states, solitariness and a kind of sadness, were constants in her life, merely two ordinary facts of her existence. The two things might have been related, but as far as she could she left that possibility unexamined. Because even if they were, what could she do about it? Like many people who cannot abide self-pity, Jean sometimes felt very sorry indeed for a buried part of herself whose very existence irked her. And of course she was alone now, sitting in the glow of the fire and of warm-shaded lamps, in the low, beamed drawing room with its deep rose carpet and the heavy drapes pulled against the dark outside. She occupied a solid wing armchair, one of several chairs in the room which, along with two sofas, were covered in materials that were all different but belonged to the same respectable family of chalky old shades of green, pink and grey. She had never been more comfortable in her life, and she was, of course, alone. And so what dissatisfied her suddenly, she thought, could not be simple loneliness, not some unmet desire for a companion, but more a regret that she was the only person in the world who had seen the short but satisfying burning of the letter. For it had been a ceremony of a kind, watching the maroon, swirling print of the letterhead 'Town & Country Sitters for total peace of mind' go up in flames; and ceremonies should be witnessed even if they are not quite understood, Jean thought. She could not say exactly what the significance of hers had been, whether it marked an end or a beginning, a remembrance, an allegiance, a pledgebut it had been in a way purifying, and there should have been somebody else here to watch it with her. Somebody who might afterwards stay a while, and to whom she might talk in her underused voice, all about the letter, and Mother, and houses and growing old, and who, occupying the other chair by the fire, would nod and understand. And who, later perhaps, almost carelessly admiring her cleverness and good taste, would assure her that one smashed teapot among so many half broken things did not matter, that all would be well, even that her ill-chosen cardigan was, in fact, a beautiful shade of amethyst.
Excerpted from Half Broken Things by Morag Joss Copyright © 2005 by Morag Joss. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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