Yesterday was a difficult and strange day. I started training with a different cricket club. It was like being 18 again, and starting university. Going somewhere I’d never been before (only this time driving myself), and finding my way in the dark (nearly got lost). And then the nerves about meeting 30-odd men en masse that I’ve never met before. Introducing myself to people who already know each other, who, however welcoming they might think themselves to be are already a group, familiarities and nick names established. And when we all stood in a line to be picked for groups for the fitness training, it felt like being 14 again, and waiting to be picked to play football in the school playground (newly-arrived from Germany as well), and being the last one picked (it didn’t turn out like that yesterday, not the last pick but anyway). The strangest thing for me was that, after having been with the same club for 15 years, with the same group of men, and effectively having become one of the elder statesmen, joining a different group felt very strange, and, in some way, traitorous, and mostly like walking off a cliff. To be meeting new people, forming new bonds, if new bonds are indeed formed, during a pandemic is a very odd thing to do. Anxieties never go away, they just fade a little.
On my walk round the Heath yesterday afternoon, the birds seemed more agitated than usual, and strangely more reluctant to cede ground to this two-legged creature invading their territory. As one of them flew across my path less than a foot away from me, and less than a foot off the ground, I realised that up here I am always surrounded by thousands of tiny consciousnesses, by personalities and existences that I have no knowledge at all of. What do they think of all these giants wandering around under the ancient trees, across the forest floor that formed their knowledge of the world? Do they feel anger or pride?
Quite a few people messaged me yesterday saying I should definitely put Aggie behind a paywall. It’s tempting, but not yet. She’s not proved herself after two days only. And it’s not like I’ve had hundreds of such messages. I’ve got to give her at least 7 days.
AGGIE’S ART OF HAPPINESS – CHAPTER 3
He pats his jacket. ‘Yes, I’ve got my phone.’
‘For keeping touch.’ The thousands of times they have called her in the past five years and the phone number has always been different. And no answer when she called them back. She has them all written down somewhere.
‘No need,’ he says. ‘We’ll call you when we’re coming back.’
‘You’ve never been gone for so long.’
‘Needs must, and all that,’ he says.
Aggie thinks they’ve never been away before, not really, not without planning it meticulously with her, giving her precise instructions, leaving nothing to chance. The thought is a flash, nothing more, and is gone. ‘Emergencies?’
‘Call the usual people. They have fixed things before. And nothing will go wrong.’
Aggie nods. Her eyes flick to his still unshaven chin. Its harassed quivering. She says nothing.
He picks up the case, turns to go, drops the case, and turns to face her again. ‘The thing is… Don’t let any strangers into the house. Keep the doors and windows locked.’
‘Do you understand?’ He takes a step towards her.
She nods although she doesn’t understand why he’s given her these new instructions. She never would let any strangers into the house. Not in the five years she’s been here has she brought anyone back here. Has never spent a night away. The emptiness in her life has never bothered her, because the safety of this place is more important to her than anything else.
‘Good, good.’ He makes as if to pat her on her shoulder, but changes his mind at the last moment, reducing the gesture to a curt nod, unaccompanied by a smile. ‘Well.’ He stoops to pick up the case again.
Such an old-fashioned device, she thinks.
‘I’ll see you when I see you,’ he says. ‘Goodbye, Aggie.’
The door closes behind him, the key turned in the lock.
Aggie reaches out and puts both her palms flat against the door, absorbing its coolness, its hardness, its impenetrability. She worked out a long time ago that it’s not made of wood but of something harder, steel or another metal. She always thought it was to protect the paintings. Maybe she was wrong. She turns round, leans against the door, stares along the hall, up the stairs, past the chandeliers that are the bane of her cleaning life, pushes herself away and up, back to the kitchen, opens its door, its white wooden door, just wide enough to let her in, rushes to the window to catch a glance of Sir wandering away. But he’s out of sight already, on his way back to the station, on his way to somewhere she doesn’t know where.
Aggie reaches into the oven, carefully takes out the two metal bowls of dough, scoops the dough out and forms it into round loaves, carefully slices their tops with the stiletto of a knife she always uses for this part, and puts them, on their blackened and floured trays, into the top oven that’s been warming ever since she started the first proving. Half an hour and five minutes it will be before they’re ready. She will freeze one of the loaves, and save it for when Sir and Madam come back.
In the brightness of the kitchen, half a room away from the reflection of herself she hates so much, Aggie sits down at the kitchen table and takes a small notebook out of her apron, pulls the small pen from the hoop on the right edge of it, pulls at the ribbon bookmark to find the right page, and starts to write.