The Au Pair – Emma Rous

We have no photographs of our early days, Danny and I. A six-month gap yawns in the Mayes family album after we were born. No first-day-at-school pictures for Edwin, no means of telling which of us two looked more like him at the beginning. An empty double page marks the overwhelming grief that followed our arrival. It’s a muggy evening at Summerbourne, and the unopened window in the study muffles the distant rasp of the sea and leaves my skin clammy. I’ve spent the day creating paperwork towers that cluster around the shredder now, their elongated shadows reminding me of the graveyard. If Edwin has finished his packing, he’ll be waiting for me downstairs; he disapproves of me doing this so soon, or perhaps disapproves of me doing it at all. The swivel chair tilts with me as I grab another photo wallet from the bottom desk drawer – more landscape shots of my father’s, I expect – and I focus on the wall calendar as I straighten, counting red-rimmed squares. Twenty days since my father’s accident. Eight days since his funeral. The packet flaps open and spills glossy black negatives across the carpet, and my jaw tightens. I’ve lost count of how many days since I last slept. The first photo is of Edwin on the beach as a child, and I check the date on the back: June 1992, just weeks before Danny and I were born. I examine this four-year-old version of my big brother for any sign of awareness of the family catastrophe that was looming, but of course there is none: he’s laughing, squinting against the bright sunlight, pointing a plastic spade towards a dark-haired young woman at the edge of the image. Photos of seagulls and sunsets follow, and I shuffle through them until I reach the final picture: a domestic scene both recognisable and unfamiliar.

The hairs at the base of my skull prickle, and I hold my breath, and the air in the room presses closer, as if it too is straining to absorb the details. We grew up with no photos of our early days, Danny and I. Yet here is our mother, sitting on the patio at Summerbourne, her face tilted down towards a swaddled baby cradled in her arms. Here is our father, standing on one side of her, young Edwin on the other side, both beaming proudly at the camera. I bend closer over the image: my mother, before she left us. The details of her expression are hazy, the picture poorly focused, yet she radiates a calm composure from the neatness of her hair, the angle of her cheek, the curve of her body around the single infant. She shows none of the wild-eyed distress that has always haunted my imagination in the absence of anyone willing to describe her final hours to me. I flip the photo over, and my father’s distinctive scrawl confirms it was taken on the day we were born, just over twenty-five years ago. I already know it could be no later, because on the same day Danny and I were born, our mother jumped from the cliffs behind our house and killed herself. My bare feet make no noise on the stairs.

A holdall squats by the hall table, snagging at my dressing gown as I sweep past. I find Edwin leaning against the wooden worktop in the unlit kitchen, gazing through the wide glass doors towards the shadows in the garden. ‘Look at this.’ I flick on the lights. ‘I’ve never seen this before.’ He takes the picture, blinking. ‘Me neither,’ he says. He studies it. ‘The day you were born. I didn’t know we had this, but … yeah, I think I remember it being taken.

’ It’s the first time I’ve seen him smile in days. ‘Dad looks so young. Look at that. Mum looks so … ’ ‘Happy,’ I say. ‘Yeah.’ His tone is soft; his attention absorbed in the picture. ‘Not like someone who’s about to commit suicide.’ His smile fades. I twitch the picture from his fingers and scrutinise it. ‘Why’s she only holding one of us? Is it me or Danny?’ ‘I’ve no idea.

What’s this one?’ Edwin reaches for the other photo I brought down – him laughing on the beach with the dark-haired teenager. ‘Oh, this was Laura. I remember her. She was nice.’ ‘Your au pair?’ I ask. Now that he says her name, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen her in the family photo album. The young woman who looked after Edwin in those carefree days before we were born, when he still had a mother and no need of the full-time rota of nannies that Danny and I grew up with. ‘She’s the one who took this,’ Edwin says, reaching again for the photo of our mother holding the single baby, but I keep my grip on it and take it with me to the kitchen table. I drop onto a chair and straighten the picture in front of me, smoothing a curled corner with my thumb. ‘It’s odd,’ I say.

‘It’s staged, like you were marking the occasion. You’d think they’d have made sure both of us were in it.’ Edwin shakes his head. ‘I don’t know. I suppose – there was other stuff going on we don’t know about.’ ‘But Mum looks so calm here.’ I frown at the picture. ‘I know … I do know why we never had any baby photos. Everyone in shock after Mum died. But I can’t believe I’ve finally found one – and I don’t even know if it’s me or Danny in it.

’ ‘Here,’ Edwin says. ‘I’ll take it – I’ll ask Gran about it.’ He reaches for it again, but I press my thumb more firmly onto the corner. ‘Gran never wants to talk about these things,’ I say. ‘No one ever does.’ Edwin sighs. ‘You need to get some sleep, Seph. Do you want to try one of Gran’s pills? Maybe get dressed tomorrow; go out for a walk or something.’ He rubs his eyes briefly. ‘Things will get easier, you know.

’ ‘Do you think we could find Laura?’ I ask him. ‘If she’s the one who took the picture, maybe she could tell us … ’ I bend closer over the image, gazing at my mother’s hair, the way she cradles the baby. ‘This was literally a few hours before Mum died, wasn’t it? This was the day everything here changed.’ ‘Seraphine,’ Edwin says. I look up at him. ‘And we don’t know why. And now Dad’s gone, we might never … ’ The injustice of our situation – of growing up without a mother and now losing our father in such a senseless accident – comes crashing down on me again. Edwin’s gaze travels from my unwashed hair to the coffee stain on my dressing gown, and then he squeezes his eyes shut. ‘Okay, I’m going to stay another night. I can’t leave you like this.

I’ll ring work first thing and explain.’ ‘No.’ I slide the photo away across the table and roll my shoulders, stretching my neck. ‘Don’t be silly. I’m fine, honestly. I guess I was just wondering, really, where Laura went. Afterwards.’ Edwin watches me. I concentrate on relaxing my facial muscles, dredging up an expression of unconcerned interest. He sighs again.

‘She left after Mum died. I’ve no idea where she went. And she’d be – what? In her forties by now. Even if you knew where she was, you couldn’t just turn up on her doorstep complaining that one of you got missed out of a photo twenty-five years ago. She’d think you were nuts.’ I nod, and Edwin pushes himself away from the worktop, heading to the hall. The corner of the photo lifts again, and I draw it slowly back towards me. ‘But if she could tell us what happened … ’ He pauses in the doorway. ‘We know what happened, Seph. Mum was ill.

She took her own life. We can’t change that.’ I press my lips together. ‘Do you want me to stay?’ he asks. ‘I can stay another night. Or, look – pack a bag and come back with me? Go out with Danny tomorrow, have lunch with Gran. Take your mind off things.’ I grit my teeth. For almost three weeks I’ve had my brothers and my grandmother staying at Summerbourne with me, handling funeral arrangements and solicitors and condolence visits. I can’t begin to express to Edwin how desperately thirsty I am now for solitude.

‘No, honestly, I’m fine,’ I say. ‘You need to go. It’s late.’ I fold my hands in my lap and try to smile at him. ‘I’ll go to bed now. I might come up at the weekend.’ ‘Joel’s staying at Michael’s – I could ask him to look in on you, check you’re okay?’ I can’t suppress a groan. ‘Oh, please don’t.’ I’d found it awkward enough shaking Joel’s hand at Dad’s funeral; I hadn’t realised he was staying with his grandfather, our old gardener, Michael, just down the lane. ‘Well, could you ask someone over tomorrow?’ Edwin asks.

‘A friend … someone from work … ?’ His gaze slides away as I shrug. I’ve never felt much need for friendships, never nurtured them, and this baffles my big brother. I think of the phrase Danny uses about Edwin occasionally – ‘he’s not disappointed in you, Seraphine, he’s disappointed for you’ – Danny’s wry tone softening the thorny truth of it. Not for the first time, I swallow down my frustrated response. I’m fine as I am, Edwin. Leave me alone. I allow him to hug me at the front door, leaning against him for a moment, inhaling the honeysuckle scent of the fabric conditioner that our grandmother uses on our clothes when she stays here. When I pull back, I keep my gaze lowered to avoid having to look at the tension creases around his eyes. ‘Get some sleep, Seph,’ he says. ‘I will.

’ Back in the stale air of the study, I switch on the overhead light and eye up the paper towers. An image of a blue company logo niggles in my memory. I start on the documents that I cleared from the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet this morning, and within five minutes, I’m holding the au pair agency form – faded ink on foolscap paper. Laura Silveira was eighteen years old in 1991, and her home address was in London. I type her name into my phone, then try the address, but come up with nothing that convincingly fits a woman who worked here as an au pair over twenty-five years ago. I carry the form down to the sitting room and pull out the family photo album that covers 1991 and 1992, gingerly turning the pages that show life at Summerbourne during her eleven months of employment here, up until the blank double page when we were born. She appears in only half a dozen pictures. The clearest is labelled ‘Edwin with Laura’ in my mother’s spiky handwriting, and as I tilt the page to peer at it more closely, the ancient adhesive gives up, and the photo slides free of its transparent cover and into my hand. I gaze at Laura’s image. In the other pictures, she’s on the margins, glancing away, the focus on Edwin and frequently his best friend, Joel.

In this one she smiles at the camera as she holds Edwin’s hand in front of the rock pools. She’s tall, athletic, with a mass of dark hair tied back. The agency document says she was taking a year out to resit her A levels following ‘difficult circumstances at home’. I study her face. Were there complex emotions within her smile? To me, she simply looks happy. The sun has set, but the heat of the August day lingers. I prop the family photo on my bedside table, and the eyes of my so-much-younger father and brother follow me as I roam restlessly around my room. It was never a taboo subject exactly, my mother’s suicide, but we were only given a limited amount of information as we were growing up. Seeing her in this picture, gazing calmly down at her indistinct bundle, contradicts everything I’ve ever imagined about that day, and reminds me forcibly that there’s no chance now of ever hearing the full details from my dad. But if Laura was there – if Laura saw what happened between this photo being taken and our mother jumping – perhaps I don’t have to spend the rest of my life not knowing after all.

I shove the previous night’s nest of sheets off the bed and stretch out flat on my back, my fingers splayed, as I wait for a hint of breeze from the open window. Inside the red-black of my eyelids flicker the faces of children who were a few years above me at the village school – sly-tongued kids who used to call Danny and me the sprite twins, and ask me repeatedly why I didn’t look like my brothers. Vera, my grandmother, used to tell me they only taunted me because I reacted with fury, unlike Danny, who could shrug off any teasing with a laugh. Bird chatter rouses me, creeping through my window with the first rays of sunlight, and I’m not sure whether I was asleep a moment ago or just lost in my thoughts. A plan is already unfurling behind my gritty eyelids. By seven o’clock I am showered and dressed, with more energy and purpose in my limbs than I’ve felt in the three weeks since Dad died. I tap Laura’s old postcode into my GPS and join the flow of traffic from the coast to the capital, a three-hour journey that often swells to four. Laura’s old address turns out to be a neat terraced house with a semicircle of brightly stained glass in its front door. There’s a small park across the road, surrounded by green railings that gleam in the late-morning sunshine as if they’ve just been painted. I hesitate on the pavement, imagining suspicious eyes watching me from behind the pristine net curtains.

For several heartbeats I consider walking away, but I grit my teeth and knock. The man who answers is grinning before I even finish my question. ‘I’m looking for a Laura Silveira who lived here twenty-five years ago. Do you happen to know where I might find her?’ He has a large hooked nose and a bald head, and he fills the narrow doorway. ‘You from that posh family she used to live with?’ he asks. I blink at him. His gaze travels over my linen shift dress down to my cream ballet pumps, and he curls his lip, still grinning. ‘Wait there. I’ll get her mum. She knows where she works.

’ He shuts the door in my face. Water drips from a hanging basket of petunias next to the door, and an earthy puddle shimmers on the block paving underneath. Traffic at the top of the road drowns any sound from within the house. I’d prefer a quick answer, but part of me hopes Laura’s mum will query my intentions first; I like to think my own mother wouldn’t have handed out my details to a stranger. A memory niggles at me: my grandmother Vera scolding me when I was a teenager for passing on an acquaintance’s phone number without their explicit permission. The door swings open, and it’s the man again, a slip of paper poking out from between his thick fingers. I glimpse cream-carpeted stairs rising behind him, a large circular mirror on the wall, but no woman – no inquisitive maternal figure come to question me. The man narrows his eyes at me and pulls the door closer to his body. ‘That’s where she works.’ He keeps his grip on the paper for a moment as I try to take it.

‘Is she in trouble again?’ I shake my head. ‘No, not at all.’ He grunts. ‘Tell her to ring her mum, yeah?’ ‘I will. Thanks.’ As soon as he lets go, I fold the paper into my damp palm and hurry away. The address takes me to a grey three-storey office building on a street in north-east London, and a parking space comes free just as I approach, as if reassuring me that my visit is within the bounds of reasonable behaviour. Once parked, I clamber into the back seat, and my tinted rear windows let me peer into the reception area without being seen. I study the receptionist. She springs off her stool behind her high desk to fetch some papers, and I’m convinced she’s not Laura – she’s not tall enough, not old enough.

A dusty pavement lies between us, as well as three shallow steps and a pair of tall glass doors that slide open and shut periodically as people enter and leave. I stroke the curved corner of my phone with my thumb, silently rehearsing what I plan to say to Laura: My name is Seraphine Mayes. You used to be my brother Edwin’s au pair. Our father just died … I squeeze my eyes shut against the threat of tears. I’m feeling less capable of this by the second. The first few tinny notes of an ice-cream van float down from the park at the far end of the street, and an image of my brothers rises in my mind: both tall men, with the sort of open, friendly faces that people warm to instantly. For a moment I wallow in a sensation of separateness, of being different to them, of being disconnected from everyone. I grind my teeth. This is my chance to find out what happened back at the start, on that day we were born. No one else has ever been willing to tell me the details.

But Laura might. I realise I want to see Laura first. I want to see what she looks like before I approach her, before I ask her the question that might change everything. I ease out of my car and head away down the street before looping around to approach the office building from the direction of the park. A cloud of cool air embraces me as I enter. ‘How can I help?’ the receptionist asks, her eyebrows rising into pointy arches. ‘I have a delivery for Laura Silveira,’ I say. A young man leaning on the desk looks sideways at me, and the receptionist’s gaze drops to my hands. ‘Where is it?’ she asks. I curl my fingers.

‘In the van. She needs to come and check it first. We’ll bring it in if she wants it.’ The receptionist exchanges a glance with the young man, who coughs into his hand. ‘What is it, then, top secret?’ she asks. I step right up to the desk, summoning my grandmother’s iciest expression. ‘Are you going to call her down, or do you want me to go back to the depot and have my boss ring your boss?’ I tap my nails on the smooth counter. The receptionist settles back in her chair slightly. ‘Sure. I’ll call her.

And you’re from … ?’ ‘I’ll wait outside,’ I say. I march through the glass doors and down the steps, turning left, restraining my gait to a fast walk until I’m confident I’m out of their sight. Then I cross the road and loop back, pulling my hair loose from its bun and shielding my face as I duck through the slow traffic to dive into the back of my car. I scoot across to peer through the window. The lift doors open, but it’s a grey-haired man in a shirt and tie coming out, calling something to the receptionist. My dress sticks to my skin. I wait. The lift doors open again, and this time it’s a woman. Tall. Broad shouldered.

Easily mid-forties. Her dark hair is tied back at the nape of her neck, and she wears black trousers and a shapeless cream blouse, flat black shoes. Her gait as she walks towards the desk seems heavy, although she’s barely overweight. I can’t be certain she’s the same person as the fresh-faced au pair in our family photo album, but it’s possible. The receptionist says something to her, and she turns and looks sharply through the glass towards the casual shoppers strolling along the pavement, and the row of parked cars within which I’m hidden. I shrink down in my seat behind my tinted glass, half closing my eyes. She steps closer, and the doors slide back, and now she’s standing two metres away, scanning left and right, frowning. There are no vans in sight. Behind her, the receptionist says something to her lanky companion, and he smirks. My nostrils flare.

I study the woman through the brush of my eyelashes. No visible make-up. Strands of grey along her parting. Two vertical frown lines between her eyes. A silver locket hangs around her neck, but there are no rings on her fingers. She ventures down the steps to look as far as she can along the street in each direction, and her scowl gives way to something more wary. Before I have had enough of scrutinising her, she whips round and stalks back into the building, back to the lift without even glancing towards the pair at the desk. I uncurl and rub the fingernail crescents from my palms. I have found Laura. Now that I know what she looks like, when she comes out again, I’ll be able to catch her and introduce myself.

I tie my hair back up, keeping my gaze fixed on the building. As one o’clock approaches, employees emerge from the lift and spill out onto the street, peeling off cardigans and jackets as they squint up at the sky, pulling phones from bags and pockets. Laura doesn’t reappear. Eventually I clamber into the driver’s seat and turn on the air-conditioning. I can wait. If I was in Edwin’s car now, I would find a spare bottle of water and emergency cereal bars in the glove compartment. If Danny was here, there’s no way he’d be able to sit and wait without nipping off to buy some chips. I watch a woman saunter along the pavement, sipping from a takeaway coffee cup, and my stomach shrivels. I ease off my shoes and angle my feet into the sluggish draughts from the air vents. She’ll have to come out eventually.

I think of my own colleagues in Norwich – eating their sandwiches in the cathedral grounds under this same cloudless sky, sharing the usual jokes after a steady morning managing the recruitment company accounts. I miss the soothing routine of my accounting job: the reliability of the numbers, the clear-cut answers. I don’t suppose my boss imagines this is how I’m spending my compassionate leave. I tug the family photo from my bag and peer at the baby again. I know I was the bigger twin when we were born – amusing, since Danny now towers over me – but I can’t judge the size of this cocooned infant. Edwin’s grin makes my throat tighten: four years old and oblivious to the fact that this was the last day he would ever spend with his mother. Our mother. When I think about her, I picture my heart sending out tentacles, like wriggling strawberry laces, straining to latch onto an emotion. They don’t succeed. Her absence left a hollow space inside me.

Laura’s reappearance jolts me from my thoughts. She strides from the lift, and within seconds is out on the pavement, sweeping past me, marching towards the park. I slip my shoes back on and scramble out of the car to follow her. She glances back over her shoulder once, just before she turns into the park, but by the time I reach the gate half a minute later, she’s vanished. A path bisects the expanse of grass, and people lounge around, finishing picnics on either side, but Laura is nowhere in sight. There’s a second gate further along the boundary with the street. I set off towards it, keeping to the narrow band of shade by the hedge as my eyes seek out potential hiding places: behind the bandstand? Among those trees? Back out in the fume-filled street I still can’t see her. I rub the back of my neck. Across the road is a small newsagent’s, and while I queue to pay for a bottle of water, I continue to scan the pavement outside. A hand on my bare arm makes me flinch.

‘You dropped this,’ a woman in a head scarf says to me, holding out a coin and ducking away from my expression. The photo, the one with my mother in it, still lies on the passenger seat of my car when I return, and I drop into the driver’s seat and turn the picture facedown. I thought I was being so clever, but I’ve messed it all up. I start the engine and sit for a moment, gripping the steering wheel, an uneasy thought prickling underneath my frustration. If I contact Laura properly now – ring her, ask to meet her – will she guess it was me who called her down for a non-existent delivery today? Did she spot me trying to follow her? Will she ever agree to talk to me now? Twenty-one days since my father’s accident; nine days since his funeral. I can’t make any decisions sitting in my roasting car on this tired, dusty street. I wipe my palms on my dress and tap Summerbourne into the GPS. I’ll be able to think about it all more clearly when I get home.



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