I have never been to Newfoundland, but after a summer’s love affair with Annie Proulx, I felt as though I knew it, its craggy shores and rugged, weathered hands, the sheer breadth of its horizon. The Shipping News had occupied two weeks of my summer imagination, had changed the shapes of words and sentences in my head, or Annie had. It was in the midst of this love, this occupation of my writer’s thinker’s mind, that I met John and Beatrix, on holiday from London with their four kids. Annie had me itching with the notion of leaps, life changes, adventures, the discomfort and exhilaration of the unfamiliar, and they, John and Beatrix, met me there.
It was an elderly relative who introduced us, an elderly relative who had a notion that Beatrix could tell me how to launch a London career—a career in what? I asked. Not my own ambition exactly, but I was willing to meet the family, say hello at least.
We met at the horse stables because the children had riding lessons. The day was hot, mid-summer, and Beatrix was on a run when the elderly relative and I arrived. John and I sat with polite conversation, watched Clara, the family’s only girl, ride with natural poise—she loves horses, John said. She’s really very good.
The two youngest boys were chasing the ancient sheep dog round the yard, reaching for its tail with both hands. The oldest sat inside the barn with his father’s iPhone in his lap, mesmerized by whatever was taking place on the screen.
John fixated on the fact of my writing, the little bit of journalism I was toying with. Have you read The Shipping News? he asked. It’s a sign, I thought, as I pulled the book from my bag to show him.
Beatrix arrived glowing and full of apologies for being sweaty at our first introduction. But in a way I’m glad you met me now, she said, because this is when I’m happiest, when I’ve been running.
In a page from my notebook, she wrote down schools I might apply to, programs I could investigate in order to come to London. But the best way to live in London is to be an au pair, she said. If you want to live cheaply, that is.
She could be an au pair for us, said John.
And what did it matter that it wasn’t my idea, that I’d put no thought into the decision? Wouldn’t it have seemed an insult to the universe, a spit in the face of possibility, to deny a doorway like that when it opened up before me?
In Newfoundland, when it came time to move, a family would rig a sled and drag their house across the ice, one point of land to another. Or, when the season warmed and the cove was unfrozen, they’d make a raft of logs and tow the house behind a boat with cables.
When my host mother arrives back from her trip to Spain, she lays a cookbook open on the table before us. I was so excited, she says, when you told me that you liked to cook. I have this feeling that this is going to be the year of cooking.
The recipe she’s put out is for courgette soup. It’s written in French and the measurements are metric, but I figure, once I’m told that a courgette is a zucchini, that I can work my way through it by feel. It’s my first week in London and I am anxious to please.
My role in this family is simple enough: I take care of the children when the parents are out, I run their baths, I read them stories, I help them with geography and history homework and tidy their rooms when they’ve gone off to school. I cook also—cook dinner, bake cakes and breads. My most consistent responsibility is cooking.
On nights when time is limited, I make pasta—pasta with tomato sauce, pasta with olive oil and garlic and herbs. I think at first that the kids are good eaters. On my third day there I write to my father: Yesterday I cooked dinner for the two younger boys (7 and 9) and they each called the pasta “delicious,” and inquired after the recipe. I make soup soon after, butternut squash with parsnips and apples, a risk of unusual flavors perhaps, but they eat that too, and happily, come back even for seconds.
I learn later that it is not my superior cooking that has won them over; it is pasta, and it is novelty—pasta, they will eat forever, plain or with anything on it; novelty however, wears off, and mine does, the novelty of my cooking, the novelty of me.
In my final weeks of college, my peers and I dealt in different ways with the imminent ending of our structured school days. We applied for grad programs and jobs in the immediate future; we played with the idea of teaching overseas; we talked about how we would move to cities and live in shitty apartments and work little jobs until we made big dreams.
I use the word “we,” but, in truth, I kept my distance. I sat apart from the frenzy, listened to my friends as they mulled over possibilities and hopes, but was hesitant to lay out any kind of groundwork myself. I didn’t want to design my future, felt that there was something inherently unnatural about placing myself within a structured path so soon after emerging from another, wanted to let fate, or at least spontaneity, play a central role. Something will come up, I said, and hoped that it was true.
A girl in my writing class made plans to go to Copenhagen as an au pair. She went the whole nine yards, registered with the online nanny website Au Pair World, made a profile and listed her preferences, got matched up with a family that seemed compatible. On the day that we graduated, she had three weeks until her departure. Her plans excited no ambitions in me, but I felt a faint twinge of jealousy at her sense of drive. How lovely, I thought, how lovely it would be to make a decision and be sure that it was right.
John and Beatrix came along as a veritable answer to my pragmatist prayers, a plan for the future that felt at once random and significant, serendipitous in that we each came into each other’s lives at just the right moment. They told me they’d given up on au pairs, had decided not to have one again, unless something absolutely fell into their laps. I told them I’d been waiting for a lap to fall into.
You know you remind me of myself at your age, Beatrix told me. If you want to come, I think this will work very well.