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 my direction.
"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 hawthorn.
"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.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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