Im wrong. The media interest doesnt die down. I wake up the next morning to find twice as many reporters as yesterday camped outside, plus two TV vans. My mobile is so jammed with messages from journalists who have got hold of the number, Ive given up
listening to them. As I enter the kitchen, Melissa and Eddie are sitting at the table, which is covered in newspapers.
Youre in every single paper, Melissa informs me. Uncle Eddie went down to the shop for them. Look. She shows me a double- page spread in the Sun. Theres a picture of me superimposed on the background of a loo, and someones drawn a toilet brush in one of my hands, ID RATHER CLEAN LOOS! is in huge letters next to my face.
Oh, my God. I sink into a chair and stare at the picture. Why?
Its August, says Eddie, flicking through the Telegraph. Nothing else in the news. Says here youre a casualty of todays work- obsessed society. He turns the paper around to show me a small item topped with the headline CARTER SPINK HIGHFLYER CHOOSES DRUDGERY AFTER RUMORS OF SCANDAL.
It says here youre a Judas to career women everywhere. Melissa is reading the Herald. This columnist Mindy Morrell is really angry with you.
Angry? I echo, bewildered. Why would anyone be angry with me?
But in the Daily World youre a savior of traditional values. Melissa reaches for the paper and opens it. Samantha Sweeting believes women should return to the hearthside for the sake of their own health and that of society.
What? I never said that! I grab the paper and scan the text in disbelief. Why are they all so obsessed?
Silly season, says Eddie, reaching for the Express. Is it true you single- handedly uncovered Mafia connections at your law firm?
No! I look up. Who said that?
Cant remember where I saw it now, he says, riffling through the pages. Theres a picture of your mother in this one. Nice- looking lady.
My mother? I stare in dismay. High- flying daughter of a high- flying mother, Eddie reads aloud. Was the pressure to
succeed too much?
Oh, God. Mum is going to kill me.
This one has a poll, look. Eddie has opened another paper. Samantha Sweeting: Heroine or Fool? Phone or text your vote. Then they give a number to call. He reaches for the phone and frowns. Which shall I vote for?
Fool, says Melissa, grabbing the phone. Ill do it.
Samantha! Youre up!
I raise my head to see Trish coming into the kitchen, holding a bundle of newspapers under her arm. As she looks at me she has the same shell- shocked expression of awe that she had yesterday, as though Im a priceless work of art that has suddenly pitched up in her kitchen. Ive just been reading about you!
Good morning, Mrs. Geiger. I put down the Daily World and hastily get to my feet. Um, what can I get you for breakfast? Some coffee to begin with?
Dont you make the coffee, Samantha! she replies, looking flustered. Eddie, you can make the coffee!
Im not making the coffee! objects Eddie.
Then ... Melissa! says Trish. Make us all some nice coffee. Samantha, you sit down for once! Youre our guest! She gives an unnatural laugh.
Im not your guest! I protest. Im your housekeeper!
I can see Eddie and Trish exchanging doubtful looks. What do they think? That Im going to leave?
Nothings different! I insist. Im still your housekeeper! I just want to carry on my job as usual.
Are you crazy? demands Melissa. Have you seen how much Carter Spink wants to pay you?
You wouldnt understand, I retort. Mr. and Mrs. Geiger ... youll understand. Ive learned a lot living here. Ive changed as a person. And Ive found a fulfilling way of life. Yes, I could make a lot more money being a lawyer inLondon. Yes, I could have some high- powered, pressurized career. But its not what I want. I spread my arms around the kitchen. This is what I want to do. This is where I want to be.
Im half expecting Trish and Eddie to look moved by my little speech. Instead, they both peer at me in total incomprehension, then glance at each other again.
I think you should consider the offer, says Eddie. It says in the paper theyre desperate to woo you back.
We wont be at all offended if you leave, adds Trish, nodding emphatically. Well completely understand.
Is that all they can say? Arent they glad I want to stay? Dont they want me as their housekeeper?
I dont want to leave! I say, almost crossly. I want to stay here and enjoy a fulfilling life at a different pace.
Right, says Eddie after a pause, then surreptitiously pulls a What? face at Trish.
The telephone rings and Trish picks it up.
Hello? She listens for a moment. Yes, of course, Mavis. And Trudy. See you later! She puts the receiver down. Two more guests for the charity lunch!
Right. I glance at my watch. Id better get going on the starters.
As Im getting out my pastry the phone rings again and Trish sighs. If this is more late guests ... Hello? As she listens, her expression changes and she puts her hand over the receiver.
Samantha, she hisses. Its an ad company. Are you willing to appear in a TV commercial for Toilet Duck? Youd wear a barristers wig and gown, and youd have to say
No! I say, recoiling. Of course not!
You should never turn down television, says Eddie reprovingly. Could be a big opportunity.
No, it couldnt! I dont want to be in any commercials! I can see Eddie opening his mouth to argue. I dont want to do any interviews, I add quickly. I dont want to be a role model. I just want everything to go back to normal.
But by lunchtime everything is even more surreal than before.
Ive had three more requests to appear on TV and one to do a tasteful photo shoot for the Sun in a French maids uniform. Trish has given an exclusive interview to the Mail. Callers to a radio phone- in that Melissa insisted on listening to have described me as an antifeminist moron, a Martha Stewart wannabe, and a parasite on the taxpayers who paid for my education. I was so furious I almost phoned up myself.
But instead I switched the radio off and took three deep breaths. Im not going to let myself get hassled. I have other things to think about. Fourteen guests have arrived for the charity lunch and are milling around on the lawn. I have wild- mushroom tartlets to bake, asparagus sauce to finish, and salmon fillets to roast.
I desperately wish Nathaniel were here to keep me calm. But hes gone off to Buckingham to pick up some koi carp for the pond, which Trish has suddenly decided she must have. Apparently they cost hundreds of pounds and all the celebrities have them. Its ridiculous. No one ever even looks in the pond.
The doorbell rings just as Im opening the oven, and I sigh. Not another guest. Weve had four late acceptances this morning, which has totally thrown my schedule. Let alone the journalist from the Mirror who dressed up in a pink floral suit and tried to tell Eddie she was new to the village.
I put the tray of tarts in the oven, gather up the remaining scraps of pastry, and start to wipe down my rolling pin.
Samantha? Trish taps at the door. We have another guest!
Another one? I turn round, wiping flour off my cheek. But Ive just put the starters in the oven
Its a friend of yours. He says he needs to speak to you urgently. About business? Trish raises her eyebrow at me significantlythen steps aside.
Its Guy. Standing in Trishs kitchen. In his immaculateJermyn Street suit and starched cuffs.
Im utterly flabbergasted. Judging by his expression, hes pretty gobsmacked too.
Oh, my God, he says slowly, his eyes running over my uniform, my rolling pin, my floury hands. You really are a housekeeper.
Yes. I lift my chin. I really am.
Samantha ... says Trish from the door. Not that I want to interrupt, but ... starters in ten minutes?
Of course, Mrs. Geiger. I automatically bob a curtsy as Trish leaves, and Guys eyes nearly fall out of his head.
You curtsy? The curtsying was a bit of a mistake, I admit, catching his appalled expression. Guy,
what are you doing here? Im here to persuade you to come back. Of course he is. I should have guessed.
Im not coming back. Excuse me. I reach for the broom and dustpan and start sweeping the flour and pastry scraps off the floor. Mind your feet!
Oh. Right. Guy awkwardly moves out of the way.
I dump the pastry bits in the bin, then get my asparagus sauce out of the fridge, pour it into a pan, and set it on a gentle heat. Guy is watching me in bemusement.
Samantha, he says as I turn round. We need to talk.
Im busy. The kitchen timer goes off with a shrill ring and I open the bottom oven to take out my rosemary- garlic rolls. I feel a surge of pride as I see them, all golden brown and wafting a delicious, herby scent. I cant resist taking a nibble out of one, then offering it to Guy.
You made these? He looks astounded. I didnt know you could cook.
I couldnt. I learned. I reach into the fridge again for some unsalted butter and break a knob into the foaming asparagus sauce. Then I glance at Guy, whos standing by the utensil rack. Could you pass me a whisk?
Guy looks helplessly at the utensils.
Er ... which one is the
Dont worry, I say, clicking my tongue. Ill get it.
I have a job offer for you, says Guy as I grab the whisk and start beating in the butter. I think you should look at it.
Im not interested. I dont even raise my head.
You havent even seen it yet. He reaches into his inside pocket and produces a white letter. Here. Take a look.
Im not interested! I repeat in exasperation. Dont you understand? I dont want to be a lawyer.
You want to be a housekeeper instead. His tone is so dismissive, I feel stung.
Yes! I thrust my whisk down. I do! Im happy here. Im relaxed. You have no idea. Its a different life!
Yup, I got that, says Guy, glancing at my broom. Samantha, you have to see sense! He takes a phone out of his inside pocket and starts dialing. Theres someone you really
should speak to. Ive been in contact with your mother over the situation.
You what? I stare at him in horror. How dare you!
Samantha, I only want the best for you. So does she. Hi, Jane, he says into the phone. Im with her now. Ill pass you over.
I can not believe this. For an instant I feel like throwing the phone out the window. But no. I can deal with this.
Hi, Mum, I say, taking the phone from Guy. Long time.
Samantha. Her voice is as icy as it was the last time we spoke. But somehow this time it doesnt make me feel tense or anxious. She cant tell me what to do. She has no idea about my life anymore. What exactly do you think youre doing? Working as some kind of domestic?
Thats right. Im a housekeeper. And I suppose you want me to go back to being a lawyer? Well, Im happy here and Im not going to. I taste the asparagus sauce and add some salt.
You may think its funny to be flippant, she says curtly. This is your life, Samantha. Your career. I think you fail to understand
You dont understand! None of you do! I glare at Guy, then turn the hob down to a simmer and lean against the counter. Mum, Ive learned a different way to live. I do my days work, and I finishand thats it. Im free. I dont need to take paperwork home. I dont need to have my Blackberry switched on twenty- four / seven. I can go to the pub, I can make weekend plans, I can go and sit in the garden for half an hour with my feet up and it doesnt matter. I dont have that constant pressure anymore. Im not stressed out. And it suits me. I reach for a glass, fill it with water, and take a drink. Im sorry, but Ive changed. Ive made friends. Ive got to know the community here. Its like ... The Waltons.
The Waltons? She sounds startled. Are there children there? No! I say in frustration. You dont understand! They just ... care. Like, a couple of
weeks ago they threw me the most amazing birthday party.
Theres silence. I wonder if Ive touched a sensitive spot. Maybe shell feel guilty ... maybe shell understand ...
How very bizarre, she says crisply. Your birthday was almost two months ago.
I know it was. I sigh. Look, Mum, Ive made up my mind. The cooker suddenly pings, and I reach for an oven glove. Ive got to go.
Samantha, this conversation is not over! she snaps furiously. We have not finished.
We have, OK? We have! I switch off the phone and dump it on the table. Thanks a lot, Guy, I say shortly. Any other nice little surprises for me?
Samantha ... He spreads his hands apologetically. I was just trying to get through to you
I dont need getting through to. I turn away. And now I have to work. This is my job.
I open the bottom oven, take out my trays of tartlets, and start transferring them onto small warmed plates.
Ill help, says Guy after a moment.
You cant help. I roll my eyes.
Of course I can. To my astonishment he takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, and puts on an apron adorned with cherries. What do I do?
I cant help but laugh. He looks so incongruous.
Fine. I hand him a tray. You can take in the starters with me.
As we enter the white- canopied room, the babble of chatter breaks off and fifteen dyed, lacquered heads turn. Trishs guests are seated around the table, sipping champagne, each wearing a suit of a different pastel color. Its like walking into a Dulux paint chart.
And this is Samantha! says Trish, whose cheeks are a bright shade of pink. You all know Samantha, our housekeeperand also top lawyer!
To my embarrassment a spattering of applause breaks out.
We saw you in the papers! says a woman in cream.
I need to talk to you. A woman in blue leans forward with an intense expression. About my divorce settlement.
Ill pretend I didnt hear that. This is Guy, whos helping me out today, I say, beginning to serve the mushroom tarts. Hes also a partner at Carter Spink, adds Trish proudly.
I can see impressed glances being exchanged across the table. An elderly woman at the end turns to Trish, looking bewildered.
Are all your help lawyers? Not all, says Trish airily, taking a deep gulp of champagne. But you know, having had
a Cambridge- educated housekeeper ... I could never go back.
Where do you get them from? a red- haired woman asks avidly. Is there a special agency?
Its called Oxbridge Housekeepers, says Guy, placing a mushroom tart in front of her. Very choosy. Only those with first- class honors can apply.
Goodness! The red- haired woman gazes up, agog.
I, on the other hand, went to Harvard, he continues. So Im with Harvard Help. Our motto is: Because thats what an Ivy League education is for. Isnt that right, Samantha?
Shut up, I mutter. Just serve the food. At last all the ladies are served and we retreat to the empty kitchen. Very funny, I say, plonking the tray down with a crash. Youre so witty.
Well, for Gods sake, Samantha. Do you expect me to take all this seriously? Jesus. He takes off the apron and throws it down on the table. Serving food to a bunch of airheads. Letting them patronize you.
I have a job to do, I say tightly, opening the oven to check on the salmon. So if youre not going to help me
This is not the job you should be doing! he suddenly explodes. Samantha, this is a fucking travesty. You have more brains than anyone in that room, and youre serving them? Youre curtsying to them? Youre cleaning their bathrooms?
He sounds so passionate, I turn round. All traces of teasing have gone from his face.
Samantha, youre one of the most brilliant people I know. His voice is jerky with anger. You have the best legal mind any of us has ever seen. I can not let you throw away your life on this ... deluded crap.
Its not deluded crap! I reply, incensed. Just because Im not using my degree, just because Im not in some office, Im wasting my life? Guy, Im happy. Im enjoying life in a way Ive never done before. I like cooking. I like running a house. I like picking
strawberries from the garden Youre living in fantasyland! he shouts. This is all a novelty! Its fun because youve
never done it before! But itll wear off! Cant you see that? I feel a pricking of uncertainty inside. Ill ignore it. No. I give my asparagus sauce a determined stir. I love this life.
Will you still love it when youve been cleaning bath rooms for ten years? Get real. He comes over to the cooker and I turn away. So you needed a holiday. You needed a break. Fine. But now you need to come back to real life.
This is real life for me, I shoot back. Its more real than my life used to be.
Guy shakes his head. Charlotte and I went toTuscany last year and learned watercolor painting. I loved it. The olive oil ... the sunsetsthe whole bit. He meets my eyes intently for a moment, then leans forward. It doesnt mean Im going to become a fucking Tuscan watercolor painter.
Its different! I wrench my gaze away from his. Guy, Im not going back to that workload. Im not going back to that pressure. I worked seven days a week, for seven bloody years
Exactly. Exactly! And just as you get the reward ... you bail out? He clutches his head. Samantha, Im not sure you understand the position youre in. Youve been offered full equity partnership. You can basically demand any income you like. Youre in control!
What? I look at him, puzzled. What do you mean?
Guy raises his eyes upward, as though summoning the help of the Lawyer Gods.
Do you realize, he says carefully, the storm youve created? Do you realize how bad this all looks for Carter Spink? This is the worst week of press since the Storesons scandal in the eighties.
I didnt plan any of it, I say, defensive. I didnt ask the media to turn up on the doorstep
I know. But they did. And Carter Spinks reputation has plummeted. The human- resources department are beside themselves. After all their touchy- feely well- being programs, all their graduate recruitment workshops ... you tell the world youd rather clean loos. He gives a sudden snort of laughter. Talk about bad PR.
Well, its true, I say, lifting my chin. I would.
Dont be so perverse! Guy bangs the table in exasperation. You have Carter Spink over a barrel! They want the world to see you walking back into that office. Theyll pay you whatever you want! Youd be crazy not to take up their offer!
Im not interested in money, I retort. Ive got enough money
You dont understand! Samantha, if you come back, you can earn enough to retire after ten years. Youll be set up for life! Then you can go and pick strawberries or sweep floors or whatever crap it is you want to do.
I open my mouth automatically to respondbut all of a sudden I cant quite track my thoughts. Theyre jumping about all over the place in confusion.
You earned your partnership, says Guy, his tone quieter. You earned it, Samantha. Use it.
Guy doesnt say any more on the subject. Hes always known exactly when to close an argument; he should have been a barrister. He helps me serve the salmon, then gives me a hug and tells me to call him as soon as Ive had time to think. And then hes gone, and Im left alone in the kitchen, my thoughts churning.
I was so sure of myself. But now ...
His arguments keep playing out in my mind. They keep hitting true notes. Maybe I am deluded. Maybe this is all a novelty. Maybe after a few years of a simpler life I wont be content, Ill be frustrated and bitter. I have a sudden vision of myself mopping floors with a nylon scarf round my head, assailing people: I used to be a corporate lawyer, you know.
I have a brain. I have years ahead of me. And hes right. I worked for my partnership. I earned it.
I bury my head in my hands, resting my elbows on the table, listening to the thump of my own heart, beating like a question. What am I going to do? What am I going to do?
Ive never felt so uncertain in my life. Ive always been so positive about what I wanted, what my goals were, where I was headed. Now I feel like a pendulum, swinging from one side to the other, back and forth until Im exhausted.
And yet all the time Im being gradually pushed toward one answer. The rational answer. The answer that makes most sense.
I know what it is. Im just not ready to face up to it yet.
It takes me until six oclock. The lunch is over and Ive cleared the table. Trishs guests have wandered round the garden and had cups of tea and melted away. As I walk out into the soft, balmy evening, Nathaniel and Trish are standing by the pond, with a plastic tank by Nathaniels feet.
His face lights up as he turns and sees meand something seems to wrench my stomach. Theres no one else whose face lights up like that when they see me. Theres no one else who manages to make me laugh and feel secure and teach me about worlds of which I knew nothing.
This is a kumonryu, Nathaniel is saying as he scoops something out of the tank in a big green net. Want to have a look? As I get nearer I see an enormous patterned fish flapping noisily in the net. He offers it to Trish and she hops back with a little shriek.
Get it away! Put it in the pond!
It cost you two hundred quid, says Nathaniel with a shrug. I thought you might want to say hello.
Put them all in. Trish shudders. Ill come and see them when theyre swimming about.
She turns on her heel and heads back toward the house.
All right? Nathaniel looks up at me. How was the great charity lunch?
It was ... fine.
Did you hear the news? He scoops another fish into the pond. Eamonns just got engaged! Hes having a party this weekend at the pub.
Thats ... thats great.
My mouth is dry. Come on. Just tell him.
You know, we should have a koi pond at the nursery, says Nathaniel, sloshing the rest of the fish into the pond. Do you know the profit margin on these
Nathaniel, Im going back. I close my eyes, trying to ignore the stab of pain inside. Im going back toLondon.
For a moment he doesnt move. Then very slowly he turns round, the net still in his hand, his face expressionless.
Right, he says.
Im going back to my old job as a lawyer. My voice shakes a little. Guy from my old firm came down today, and he convinced me He showed me. He made me realize I break off and gesture helplessly.
Realize what? Nathaniel says. He hasnt smiled. He hasnt said, Good idea, thats just what I was going to suggest.
Why cant he make this easy for me? I cant be a housekeeper all my life! I sound more defensive than Id like. Im a
trained lawyer! I have a brain!
I know you have a brain. Now he sounds defensive. Oh, God. Im not managing this well.
Ive earned partnership. Full equity partnership at Carter Spink. I gaze up at him, trying to convey the significance of this. Its the most prestigious ... lucrative ... amazing ... I can make enough money in a few years to retire!
Nathaniel doesnt seem as impressed as he should. He just looks at me steadily. At what cost?
What do you mean? I avoid his gaze.
I mean that when you turned up here, you were a nervous wreck. You were like some freaked- out rabbit. White as a sheet. Stiff as a board. You looked like you hadnt ever seen the sun, you looked like you hadnt ever enjoyed yourself-
Im not. Cant you see how much youve changed? Youre not edgy anymore. Youre not a bundle of nerves. He picks up my arm and lets it fall down. That arm would have stayed there!
OK ... so Ive relaxed a bit! I throw up my hands. I know Ive changed. Ive calmed down and Ive learned to cook and iron and pull pintsand Ive had a wonderful time. But its like a holiday. It cant last forever!
Why not? His persistence is unnerving me.
Because! I say, rattled. If I stay as a housekeeper Ill be unfulfilled!
Is that what your lawyer friend told you? Theres a hostile edge to his tone. That youll be more fulfilled working twenty- four hours a day? That theyre only thinking of
your own good?
No! I mean, its obvious. I cant clean loos forever!
Nathaniel shakes his head in despair.
So after all this youre just going to go back, pick up the reins, and carry on as though nothing happened?
Itll be different this time! Ill keep a balance. They really want me to come back, theyll listen to what I want
Who are you kidding? Nathaniel grips my shoulders. Samantha, they dont give a shit about you! Cant you see that? Itll be the same stress, the same lifestyle
I feel a sudden surge of anger toward him for not understanding; for not supporting me.
Well, at least I tried something new! My words pour out in a torrent. At least I went out and tried a different life for a bit!
Whats that supposed to mean? His grasp loosens in shock.
It means, what have you ever tried, Nathaniel? I know I sound shrill and aggressive but I cant help myself. Youre so narrow- minded! You live in the same village you grew up in, you run the family business, youre buying a nursery down the road ... youre practically still in the womb. So before you lecture me on the way to live my life, try living one of your own, OK?
I break off, panting, to see Nathaniel looking as though Ive slapped him.
I ... didnt mean it, I mumble.
I take a few steps away, feeling near to tears. This isnt the way things were supposed to go. Nathaniel was supposed to support me and give me a hug and tell me I was making the right decision. Instead here we are, standing yards apart, not even looking at each other.
I thought about spreading my wings. Nathaniel suddenly speaks, his voice stiff. Theres a nursery inCornwall Id die to own. Fantastic piece of land, fantastic business but I didnt look at it. I preferred not to be six hours away from you. He shrugs. I guess youre right. That was pretty narrow- minded of me.
I dont know how to reply. For a while theres silence, except for the cooing of pigeons down at the end of the garden. It is the most spectacular evening, I suddenly realize. Evening sun is slanting through the willow tree and the grass smells sweet underneath my feet.
Nathaniel ... I have to go back. My voice isnt quite steady. I dont have any choice. But we can still be together. The two of us. We can still make it work. Well have holidays ... weekends ... Ill come back for Eamonns party ... You wont know Ive gone!
Hes silent for a moment, fiddling with the handle of the bucket. When at last he looks up, his expression makes my heart hurt.
Yeah, he says in a quiet voice.I will.