Authors: Fiona Neill
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2011 by Fiona Neill
First edition: Michael Joseph 2011
First American edition: Riverhead Books 2012
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions. Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
What the nanny saw / Fiona Neill.
1. Families—England—London—Fiction. 2. Nannies—Fiction. 3. Family secrets—Fiction. I. Title.
PR6114.E55W47 2012 2012009900
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For John and Mags
It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.
—John Maynard Keynes
“When did you first notice something was wrong?”
Ali Sparrow sighed. Everyone asked her the same question. And she was always careful to give the same answer. But somehow she had expected greater originality from Foy Chesterton, a man who had recently sung every verse of “American Pie” at his seventieth-birthday party and organized a signed copy of his self-published autobiography for the three hundred guests as a going-home present. Although, of course, now the happy ending looked a little premature.
Ali had come into the room hoping for solitude and an excuse to examine the objects on the circular mahogany dining table in her own time before the antiques dealer arrived. As had Foy, actually. But by the time she noticed the familiar tousle of wiry gray hair emerging from an armchair by the fireplace it was too late for either of them to retreat without having it look as though they were trying to avoid each other.
“You must have seen things, overheard conversations . . .” His voice trailed off as he peered around the side of the chair to fix her with his blue eyes. “Nannies always have the bird’s-eye view, Ali. People forget you’re in the room. You melt into the scenery. Like wallpaper.
” The tone of his voice was molten, as though every word contained hidden intent. He smoothed down the front of his mustard-colored corduroy trousers with one hand and patted the seat of a stiff upright dining chair with the other, indicating that she should come and sit down beside him.
“You can help us. Help Bryony. She’s been good to you, hasn’t she? We’re all trying to understand what has happened. Nick’s act of folly . . .”
“Acts of folly,” Ali wanted to correct him. Instead she stared at the chair until its red and green silk stripes started to dance before her eyes. This room had always intimidated her. It was less the imposing furniture, the hard bronze statues by Caffieri that straddled the fireplace, or the armchairs in ghostly colors with feathery fringes around their edges. After more than two years, she was accustomed to its bi-tonal formality. It was more what went on here. This was the room where everyone was called to account, and she was no exception. She walked toward Foy, aware that her role had imperceptibly altered over the past month and she no longer needed to humor him, but unsure how little she could indulge him.
Ali was vaguely aware of him looking down at her bare feet. Apart from Foy, no one wore shoes in the drawing room unless there was a party. It was one of Bryony’s rules. Ali enjoyed the way the pile was so thick you could feel it like grass between your toes and trace your tracks back across the room. But there was something vulnerable about bare feet, especially when the rest of your body was covered and you were standing before someone who had an innate ability to make you feel exposed. Instinctively, she curled her toes into the pile, but it was too late. He had already absorbed the gold ring on her index toe and the small tattoo across the instep.
“It’s just decorative,” said Ali, anticipating his next question. “Like wallpaper.” She remained standing, knowing that if she sat down she might never get up. The urge to unburden herself might prove irresistible, and then she would write herself out of her role in this drama. Besides, she was due to meet Felix Naylor in less than two hours for what he described as a “preliminary chat,” and he had given her firm instructions to talk to no one but him because no one else could be trusted.
“Stellar trajectory. PPE at Oxford, Harvard MBA, analyst, associate, vice president, director, M.D. by thirty-five. Visionary investment banker,” muttered Foy, picking out phrases from the newspaper and arguing with himself. “Well, he didn’t see this one coming, did he?”
Ali ignored him.
“So when did you?” Foy persisted. He started to close the newspaper in his lap. It was
. He folded it in half, smoothed the surface so many times that the palm of his hand blackened, and then into quarters, as though engaged in an origami project. Until the scandal broke two weeks ago, Ali had never seen Foy read a paper that wasn’t
, and she tried to think of an appropriate witticism to highlight this unlikely change of political allegiance. Even now, shattered as he was by events of the past couple of weeks, Foy was still someone people liked to please. Then Ali saw he was reading another story about Bryony and Nick, and decided to change tack.
“Nothing ever feels quite right when you move in with someone else’s family,” Ali responded, pleased to note that the nervousness she betrayed the first time someone had posed the question had been replaced by something approaching quiet confidence.
It was her first line of defense and as close to the truth as she dared go for the moment. She half turned toward Foy and began rattling off a few carefully inconsequential examples that best illustrated her outsider status at 97 Holland Park Crescent, hoping it would distract him from what was surely another blistering piece about his daughter and son-in-law. What was the point in reading everything that was written about them? Ali wondered. It didn’t change anything. It just made everyone feel even gloomier.
“The dog still growls at me when I come into the room, I’m the only one without a nickname, and people sound disappointed when I answer the phone,” she said, muddling up her list of responses so they sounded less rehearsed. Over the past couple of weeks she had discovered that the most persistent inquisitor, even Bryony’s younger sister, Hester, was generally satisfied by a variation on this response.
“Come on, Ali, you can do better than that,” said Foy wearily. It was one of his stock phrases. One of the few he used in English—
being his firm favorites. Although it struck Ali that the idea that the die was cast was totally at odds with the concept of seizing the day. Especially now. This brought to mind an even more appropriate and as yet untapped example of Ali’s outsider status: The expressions invented by Foy and adopted by his extended family when they wanted to pass comment on people without anyone else understanding what they meant. Chesteranto, he called it.
Nick, for example, was currently assumed to be “at forties and fifties.” This was code for depression, although “depressed” seemed an understatement for what Nick must be going through. It didn’t sound monumental enough; Bryony was constantly “in the breakers,” snapping at anyone who crossed her path at the wrong moment; and seventeen-year-old Izzy described a journalist who buttonholed Ali at the end of the road the other day as “menacing,” which meant he was dangerously attractive. Ali had never used any of these expressions. Neither had Nick, which seemed significant now. Although through the prism of the scandal, everything seemed imbued with significance.
“I know you feel more at home here than anywhere you have ever lived,” said Foy, noisily folding the newspaper into an even smaller shape, as though this might somehow diminish the contents of the story on the inside page. He was trying to ensnare her in conversation. Still, Ali winced at the incontrovertible truth of this statement. She hadn’t wanted to become one of those employees who live their life through someone else’s family. She’d seen enough examples of that in the time she had worked here. They attracted that kind. But moving in with the Skinners was like relocating to an exotic country and finding the prospect of going back to live in your own impossible. Life was simply more exciting with them than without them. Especially now.
Ali winced mostly because Foy’s comment was a guilty reminder that she hadn’t returned any calls from her parents for more than a week. There were six saved messages on her mobile phone that needed dealing with. Four from them. One from Felix Naylor and one from Mira, a Ukrainian nanny friend.
For the first time since she had moved in, her parents had left a couple on the Skinners’ answering machine. Bryony dutifully played both to her yesterday. They were sandwiched between a bland message from one of Bryony’s colleagues hoping she was weathering the storm and wondering what to tell her clients and a more urgent request to call Sophia Wilbraham, a parent at the children’s school who lived just down the road. The same Sophia Wilbraham, Ali recalled, who came home after her travel plans were canceled, to find her husband in bed with their nanny of five years. At the time, it seemed there could be no greater scandal than that.
Ali’s messages were banal by comparison. The first and most embarrassing was from her mother, asking whether she was all right and suggesting she might like to come home for a while until things had blown over. It wasn’t the note of anxiety in her mother’s voice that annoyed Ali, it was the treachery implicit in the idea that she would leave the Skinners just when they needed her most. The second, from her father, said calmly that they didn’t believe everything they read in the papers, and it would be nice to hear Ali’s version of events. As he said good-bye, her mother interrupted to say that the neighbors were asking questions that she couldn’t answer.
“Sounds hideous,” Bryony said, raising an eyebrow. “You’d better phone them. Before the alliums bow their heads in shame.”
Naturalistic planting schemes hadn’t reached Cromer, Ali had wanted to point out. It was still all sweet peas and nasturtiums. But she wasn’t even sure that Bryony recognized this description of her own carefully landscaped garden. Instead she had tried to reassure Bryony that their neighbors in Cromer were the kind of people who thought it was rude to hang their underwear to dry on the washing line and the idea that they were pressing her parents for details was ludicrous. Bryony, however, had stopped listening.
• • •
“Ali, you’re ignoring me,”
Foy whined. She was suddenly aware that he was speaking to her again. She resolved to call her parents that evening, knowing that by then her good intentions would inevitably be eclipsed by further drama today. Bryony’s colleague was wrong to describe this crisis as a storm. A storm had a beginning and an end. A storm passed. This was something you couldn’t shelter from, and although Ali could see how it might have begun, she had no idea how it would end.
“What I’m trying to say is that you fit in,” Foy said benevolently. “In a way that none of the others did.” He pointed at Ali with a pair of scissors for emphasis and then unfolded
and began cutting out the story. Since the crisis, Foy spent most of the day in the drawing room at Holland Park Crescent, going through newspapers and trawling the Internet for pieces about Nick and Bryony. He consumed everything he could on the banking crisis and the credit crunch. Ali didn’t have the heart to point out to him that a fat package of photocopied stories arrived from a press-cuttings agency every morning and was read by Bryony almost as soon as it landed on the doormat at six-thirty.
He smiled warmly up at her. It was a rare occurrence these days. Foy was diminished by events. His eyes were watery with regret. They looked for sympathy but mostly found none. Tita, his wife of forty-nine years, seemed to blame him for what had happened. His youngest daughter, Hester, appeared a couple of times a week and was overly solicitous, fetching him cushions and making him unwanted cups of tea. It was her way of silently highlighting the fact that Bryony, the child she perceived as her father’s favorite, not only had finally come unstuck but also was in some way precipitating his decline.
“Don’t try and flatter me into submission.” Ali smiled despite herself.
“So you do know more than you’re revealing,” said Foy.
“Save the analysis for later,” said Ali, quoting back one of Foy’s favorite phrases to him.
“There might not be any later for me,” said Foy, only half joking. “My body is giving up on me.”
“Don’t be so maudlin,” said Ali.
“Do you know that last night I had a dream that I was young again?” Foy said. “It’s the first time that’s happened for years. I think it’s a sign I’m about to pop it.”
He dropped the newspaper cutting onto a pile on the floor, inhaled deeply, and carefully put a hand on each armrest. He splayed his fingers as wide as they could go and dug them into the expensive upholstery to gain purchase. Then he tried to push himself up out of the chair. His arms trembled with the effort, and for a few seconds his hips hovered above the seat. Within seconds he slumped back down, looking forlorn.
“Damn legs,” he muttered.
Ali turned away from him toward the table, knowing that he wouldn’t want her to see the humiliation in his eyes. She heard him grunt as he tried to catch his breath.
“I was at a party and all my friends were there,” Foy wheezed, ignoring what had just occurred. “They had aged, but I looked exactly as I did in my early thirties. People kept coming up to me and telling me how well I looked. Julian Peterson, do you remember him? He’s Bryony’s godfather. He told me in great detail about all his problems with his prostate and how he had to get up four or five times in the night to pee but his stream was reduced to a trickle. He said the doctor was the first person to stick his finger up his arse in twenty-five years.”
“I can’t imagine Mr. Peterson speaking like that,” said Ali in disbelief. She recalled the polite, quiet man who came for lunch at the family home in Corfu at least a couple of times in the summer.
“Well, it was a dream,” acknowledged Foy, grateful at last to have Ali’s full attention. “I couldn’t believe it, either, because he’s only marginally less buttoned up than Eleanor, and they’ve been married for fifty years and I just couldn’t imagine her doing that to him.”
“Absolutely,” agreed Ali, wondering whether bemusement or shock was the quickest way of derailing this unexpected outburst.
“Then I realized it was all just an excuse to overwhelm me with his superior medical knowledge,” continued Foy. “He started talking about partial prostatectomy and how the doctor stuck a resectoscope up his penis.”
“But Mr. Peterson isn’t a doctor, is he?” asked Ali.