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.
In my room in London, there is no mirror. In the morning, getting dressed in the bathroom, I tilt the mirrored cabinet doors ajar and then, as quietly as possible, climb up onto the rim of the bathtub to try to see the middle section of my body. I am not a door-locker, but I lock the door for this ritual; how shameful, how embarrassing it would be, to be caught in the act of trying to see myself. In the moment you stand clothed or naked before the mirror, you are at your own mercy, the cruel, scrutinizing voices, the rare glimmers of pride or satisfaction—none of these should be witnessed by the outside world. The shifts and alterations that you make before the mirror are immensely private; you want your exterior to appear effortless, the careful arrangement of fabrics and colors and even the maintenance of the body—you want it all to appear somehow natural,a natural outpouring of self, something that you couldn’t contain if you tried. It becomes, as the days and weeks pass by, a furtive game, stealing a glance at myself in the gilt-framed glass at the top of the stairs or in the reflective sidings of storefronts on the street.
In the daytime, the children are at school, so I wander the city alone. I have a vague notion of wanting to meet people, but the city is vast and people are busy; I don’t know where to begin, to whom to turn. I find an overpriced café where the wait staff are nice, generally, and from “away,” so I feel less self-conscious at the sound of my voice, the American lilt in a country where elocution is elegant and conversation is careful, reserved. A routine of lattes and croissants begins; these are the sacrifices I must make to my body and my wallet in exchange for a place to sit and write.
I am aware of my stomach as the days tick past. In full-length reflections, it has always been this that I’ve fixated on, checking to see how it’s grown, changed, how it’s been affected by the last meal or six. I have watched the space between my ribcage and my belt as if it were a separate entity, have been convinced, after a meal that has filled me fuller than full, that its visual effects are immediate.
In the absence of the mirror, I rely instead on the judgment of my hands, find them moving to the slight round of my belly like blind but loyal watchdogs, returning time and again to the door of their master. I fantasize about how a week of running every day would change the shape of it, or if I were to stop eating sugar, say, or four croissants a week. But when the family eats dessert, I eat dessert. And when the family has seconds, I have seconds. I try to pretend a kind of loose abandon around food, not indifference so much as the decision not to be too watchful. I think if I maintain this attitude long enough, I might actually believe it.
When I told friends and family about my coming trip, there were three common responses. Ooooh! Katherine Poppins! was the first. It was delightful and sweet the first time. Oh, so are you going to be like Nanny McPhee? was the second, a question to which I always responded yes, though I’d never seen the film. The third and most disturbing was this: people wanted to know if there was potential for chemistry between the husband and me.
What magic! What romance! The au pair has become a trope in our culture, the nanny who comes in and fixes, saves, seduces. Is that the image that so many seek to embody when they go forth to live in other countries, other families? How did we come to endow this difficult and often menial profession with such romance? It’s no coincidence that both Poppins and McPhee have magic at their disposal; it takes more than good will and common sense to piece together a fragmented family, to reign in the whims of willful children. It takes magic to take control—either magic, or, according to the latter association, sex. What relief then, if au pairs and affairs are so commonly linked, to have been able to answer to that latter, tasteless but ubiquitous question, with a clear and steady no.
Beatrix and I are in the car on our way back from a massive shopping expedition, the second of its kind since my arrival in London two weeks ago. The day is her birthday, her fortieth, but the groceries in the back are for another party, a joint birthday bash for her youngest son and one of his classmates, who has just turned eight. Fifty children will be present, dressed to the theme of Harry Potter, and an entertainer has been hired who, we’ve been told, is the best of the best and comes to all parties with magic up his sleeve and a wispy white beard that—whether detachable or no—lends him an uncanny resemblance to Albus Dumbledore.
Arriving back at the house, we spend an hour or so cutting the crusts off slices of white bread and assembling ham and cheese sandwiches to feed fifty-plus. I hate to do this, she says, removing the crusts from another two slices, but I think there will be less waste this way. They’re so spoiled, these children.
Beatrix’s own party is yet to come. The theme: midlife crisis. Ten years ago, she tells me, she had a party themed “the ugly party” to celebrate her thirtieth, asked all her friends to come dressed in the ugliest costumes they could muster, since she would, ostensibly, be getting less and less beautiful from that point forward. Her best friends, a pair of French twins, came with all their body hair grown as long as they could grow it, with mustaches drawn on and hairy hairy legs exposed. Beatrix’s husband, John, wore a leopard print loincloth.
This year it’s been decided: punk is what midlife crisis would look like for this family, so they’re getting decked out. Early in the week I went with Beatrix and the two oldest children to Camden Town—where the punks come from, she told me—to buy studded suspenders and short plaid skirts, black make-up and fake tattoos. A hairdresser will arrive three hours before the party begins to give them all mohawks and dye the tips green. Beatrix has a vision in mind, the skinny punk look, she calls it. For days now, she’s been declining all offers of pudding and dessert, saying, If I do, I won’t stop. This would be bad for my skinny punk diet.
She is remarkably beautiful, my host mother—one doesn’t need the qualifier for a forty-year-old to make this statement true. Her smile is generous; her eyes are that winning combination of dark and bright, sparkling and magnetic. You feel, when you talk with her, that you are being included in a very special circle, that you are part of her plan, that the two of you are allies. She is always moving quickly with a mission in mind and you want to hurry to catch up.
I used to be slow like you, she says to me some time into my second week. It’s actually much more natural for me to move slowly. I used to spend hours in cafés writing like you do, but I needed to take a break from that this year.
Why is that? I ask.
I was too strict about it, she says. On days when she was writing, she wouldn’t allow herself to talk to anyone between nine and five; she wouldn’t meet friends or answer the phone; because she was self-employed, she had to be rigid—it was driving me a little crazy I think, she says.
Yes, I say. I can understand that.
But I think it’s great what you do, she says. Your writing. I think it’s great for you to have such discipline.
Houses in Newfoundland were built on wooden foundations in order to be mobile. When you bought a house, you didn’t buy the land that it was built on.
The party is inhabited by people in their middle ages—occasionally younger and occasionally old, but mostly middle-fortyish, and dressed to kill. The women wear fishnet stockings and neon bras; leather shorts and short, short skirts; bunny ears, leopard print, a red acrylic devil suit including horns and tail. What of this is irony, what is desperation? The line is blurry and becomes more so as the night goes on. We are all, all of us, dressed as we wouldn’t want our mothers to see.
I weave through the crowd filling glasses of champagne, passing out appetizers and removing champagne glass-made-ashtrays and rubbish from talking hands and bookshelves. For the first time since arriving in London, I know and understand what is needed of me.
I sit, over dinner, in a cluster of forty-somethings I’ve just met, and though I know I don’t really know them, I feel an alliance with them, a closeness. They are artists and they welcome me as England hasn’t welcomed me before. Rachel the art teacher is among them in a leopard print jumpsuit and black high heals; Daniel the actor is there in the full regalia of an obsessive biker—padded shorts, gloves, the rest. He is also handing out flyers for a program called British Military Fitness and leaving trails of them behind him everywhere he goes. Marilee the costume designer is in the cluster also, all in black with short white hair and a prim but kindly well-kept face. She exudes a sense of high breeding, an inherent dignity, set off only by the basketball-sized pillows she has sewn to her chest, in keeping with the party’s theme, of course. Her husband, an Australian fifty-something with several golden chains around his neck and a liberal array of brown and graying chest hair emerging from his open sports coat, comes and goes frequently on the business of refreshing gin and tonics and filling wine glasses.
We sit with our dinners and Daniel the actor begins to tell us about the love he once but no longer has: a woman named Annie whom he adored absolutely, and who was also, incidentally, completely and utterly mad. Everyone else in the cluster agrees with this latter point, and they all have their own story to support it.
I once went to a lunch at her house, says Marilee, who is guilty of having introduced the former couple. I went to lunch at her house and the end of the meal came along and Annie said, would you like any tea, and I said yes, I’d love some tea, thank you, and she said do you take anything in your tea and I said yes, a little sugar would be lovely because I take a little sugar in my tea. Well, she went then to a locked cabinet—
I know, I know, says Daniel, his face in his hands.
She went to this locked cabinet with her two different keys and she unlocked all the little locks and pulled down the sugar—
Oh my God, says Rachel. She didn’t—
Yes, says Marilee, she did! She kept her sugar in a locked cabinet. So she pulled down the sugar and put a little bowl of unrefined raw organic whatever sugar cubes in the middle of the table. And then—I’ve never seen anything like it—the children, from the moment she put the bowl down, they had their eyes glued to it like little wild animals.
Marilee holds her hands up with her fingers tensed like talons on either side of her face and looks at each of us with wild animal eyes.
And she turned her back for half a minute to lock the cupboard back up again and they absolutely dove for it, stuffed their cheeks full, gobbled everything up—I’ve really never seen anything like it, she finishes with a flourish and a shudder as if to shake the wild beasts from her own being.
The children, the poor children. At first, says Daniel, he respected her food choices because she told him that she didn’t impose them on anyone else. Except for her children, rises the passionate chorus around him. Well, yes, he says, except for her children, and I, too ended up, well because I adored her, having them imposed on me.
Oh darling, we murmur.
So did you eat with her? How could you? says Rachel.
Well yes, he says, I did. And all the time.
The unbelievable diet in question was a strict and unwavering raw foods regime.
But aren’t raw foods diets generally vegetarian? I ask. Or vegan?
This after he describes to us the raw pork sausages her children ate, the three raw eggs at dinner and the great heaping plates of raw milk cheeses, which Rachel, too, can vouch for—I mean more cheese than six adults could eat comfortably, she says.
And they eat that every day, says Daniel. I mean the poor things are vomiting all the time. But she simply won’t take them to a doctor.
The story unfolds to reveal a veritable clinical case study—a woman who loves him at home but won’t speak to him at parties and hides their relationship from mutual friends, who denies her children access not only to sugar and home-cooked meals, but also to television, radio, and anything resembling conventional athletics. Yoga is okay, as is jogging, but, Rachel says, heaven help any child of hers with an inclination toward rugby.
But I was so taken with her that I put up with it, Daniel the actor keeps saying. I so adored her that I was willing to suspend my judgment.
These minor acts of tyranny, I think. We perform them first on ourselves, and then, as a way of softening the blow, of normalizing the appearance, on the people around us. And as the receivers of these acts, we acclimate ourselves to them, don’t mind them even. Small prices to pay for our love, our loyalty, our sense of belonging.
Marilee’s husband has gone off for more drinks; the rest of us coo in sympathy.
The weeks pass slowly. The party is done with, but the skinny punk diet comes and goes. She runs daily, miles and miles, and John swims for hours every morning. I cook lasagna with butternut squash and parmesan, a savory courgette bread at Beatrix’s request and a sweet one on my own, leak soup and pumpkin soup and parsnip potato soup, egg and cheese casserole with spinach and mushrooms, curries and puddings and a tomato, butterbean, and aubergine concoction that Beatrix suggests. I cook also with meat, a brand new world for me, and enjoy it, mostly because it ensures the kids’ approval. It is so good when they like the food I cook; I am learning, slowly, not to take it personally when they don’t. My hand moves to my stomach of its own accord; in the absence of a full-length mirror, I am testing the changes by feel. It’s getting rounder, I think. It must be.
In the morning, Beatrix comes down the stairs with a bright smile on her face.
Oh, Katherine, I’ve been thinking, she says, and I realized after our conversation the other day, something you could work on is your initiative. Because you really don’t have very much I realized.
The conversation she’s referring to is the one in which it was decided that I would not in fact come back in January, a calm, amicable talk the night after her party, in which the air was cleared of all the tension that had been collecting there. We’ve realized that, with neither of us working now, we really don’t need another adult in the house, she’d said. I know, I’d said. And I think that’s what’s been making it so hard for me to be happy here, is the sense of not really being needed.
This morning, at Beatrix’s request, I am in the process of cleaning the refrigerator and washing dishes in preparation for the arrival of John’s parents, who are lovely and very intellectual, but don’t speak a word of English, I’ve been told emphatically. I’ve been warned how they will try very hard to be accommodating and also how his mother will push the food back and forth across her plate, try to pawn it off on others at the table. It’s pandemic, the weight, the food, the body obsession.
For instance, all the time you spend in cafés, says Beatrix, it’s very nice but it’s not very active.
Something boils up inside me, dull at first, but growing.
And with the children, yesterday you played football with George, which was lovely, but you could do that more you know, and painting with Henry. Anytime you have an idea like that, you shouldn’t be afraid to. You should have more initiative. I think you get a little lost in the cooking, maybe, when you take your time with it so much. You can really do more with the children.
My writing is the house I brought with me across the ice. I cook inside that house to make it home.
I want to, I say, I’m just still struggling to manage the time.
Oh, no no! she says. I’m not saying it’s not hard. I’m just saying you should try to have a bit more initiative in the future.
In the houses of Newfoundland, the kitchen was the central room, the room where life happened.
Yes, okay, I say. You’re right.
I talk online one night with the friend in Copenhagen. She’s been an au pair nearly four months now, loves it. She loves the children, loves the family, loves the place, she tells me. And you? I feel a flash of guilt or shame, a sense of failure. A sort of pattern has developed, I tell her. Personal critique sessions, my host mother telling me the areas that need improvement. These areas, they’ve added up. She has told me I am slow, selfish, self-absorbed, ungrateful. I tell the friend that I am struggling. The romance of this position hasn’t lasted.
Nearly every friend I talk to has an au pair horror story that completely dwarfs mine—host mothers who are truly tyrannical, host fathers who make moves, expect reciprocation, children who are monsters. The people I live with are not these things; they are just people who have lives that are busy and stressful. My host mother likes to hold a mirror up, I tell the friend. And it isn’t always pleasant what I see there. And maybe you hold a mirror to her too? says the friend.
Maybe, I say.
Beatrix is not Glinda the good witch, but she isn’t the Wicked Witch of the West either.
And I am not Mary Poppins.
I arrive back to the house a few minutes late from a day spent with my new friend in London, a girl named Quincy who’s become a rock in my time here, a grounding point, a friend. Peter is at the table doing math homework with his father; the youngest two are in the next room, fighting each other with sticks; Beatrix is making tea. I begin to wash and chop vegetables toward dinner.
So what does your friend Quincy do? asks Beatrix.
She’s working in an office for the NHS, I say. And she loves her colleagues, but her bosses are kind of tyrants apparently, so she’s in a bit of a… I trail off, hearing the ugliness of my words, the danger of them. They hang in the air after they’re out and the pause stretches on too long for subject change.
Beatrix cuts the silence. So what about us, then? she says. Tell me what you think about us and what you want to do because you’ll notice, we’re always checking in with you, asking you what you want. And maybe, she says, maybe it’s time you think about us, about what might be good for us.
There is steel in her eyes; she clicks back and forth across the kitchen in sharp, quick movements. Andrew and John keep working at the table.
You’ve lived with us a month now, she continues, you’ve seen how we work and live. And another person is work too, you know. We have already worked very hard to make you happy and now you need to be aware of us. You need to think about what we need because now you’re only thinking about you. You’ve been here long enough to know when you should do a bit more geography with Henry, or clean up a bit. You’ve been here long enough to look and see what needs to happen. It’s only when you are so absorbed in yourself, so selfish, that you can’t see.
In The Shipping News, the house has a life of its own; the cables that bind it to the rock sing when the wind runs through them and when a great storm rises, they let loose completely, let the house free into the ocean. It isn’t meant to be tied down.
Eventually John and Peter exchange a look, pick up their pages, and proceed to the other room.
Don’t cry, Beatrix says, because I’m not saying this is the way you are or the way you have to be. No, really, don’t cry, she says. Because you can change.
A friend tells me a story.
I am dreaming of home, more than I should be, the warmth of it, the kindness of strangers. I’ve been counting down my days here too closely, I tell him. I know this.
We are sitting in a pub, and we are discussing how you can come to know a place, love it or get used to it, settle in it, breathe in it. He’s a tall, soft-spoken London native who leans his neck forward and looks down when he speaks.
It takes three months, he says, to get to know a place enough that you can settle in it. Three months before you can really call a place a home.
This city has been gray for me, and large and unyielding, but I haven’t been here long. Maybe I do have to give it time. He’s slated to become a teacher in the UK’s equivalent of Teach for America—waiting now for his placement, but in the meantime, he’ll be teaching in Palestine. Five months, he tells me—long enough to know if he can love the place. Three months has become a conviction for him, a certainty brought about by family history. His story: in the 1920’s, his not-too-distant ancestors—a great, great uncle and all his family—decided to leave their home in Northern England for opportunities promised somewhere in Canada.
Where? I ask.
I don’t know, he says, but it must have been bleak.
They quit all their jobs at home, sold their land and packed up their belongings, set sail across the Atlantic.
They only lasted five days, he says. Five days on the Western shore of that great frigid sea, and they boarded the next steamer, heading home.
You can tow a house behind a ship across the harbor, but not across the ocean.
They were homesick, he says.
And I can understand how the vast new land would stand impossible before them, blank, yes, but not burgeoning, as they’d imagined it would be, with possibility. They could wait it out, wait to be acclimated, wait for the layout of the land to become instinctive, for the changes of season to come at the expected times, far more than three months they could wait, but all the while, home would be a throbbing presence in their chests.
How can you be full and present in a place away from home when you know that home is waiting?
It must have been Newfoundland, I say.