LONDON, AUTUMN 1997
In Mayfair, the owner of an elegant Edwardian white-stone sat down at the garden table with unusually high expectations for breakfast.
It was a bright September morning, quite lovely indeed; the roses in the garden were much more fragrant than in many days or weeks past—more so than anyone could possibly understand—and there was every reason to believe that breakfast would be equally remarkable.
The servant girl would bring tea and scones for a start. The tea would be hot and dark and would swirl together with the milk like vanilla and caramel taffy; the scones would be fresh and warm and appropriately crumbly when broken in two, and the butter would melt into each half like rain into loose garden soil.
The breakfast would be wonderful—especially so because it was no longer necessary to take the medications that accompanied it.
No medications, no nausea. No medications, no mental dullness. No medications, no loss of pleasure in the ordinary, everyday elements of life.
Not taking the bloody little pills was certainly the way to go.
The wonder was why the servant girl still bothered bringing them at all.
Several steps away in the parlor, the servant girl—a young woman, who had emigrated from Russia only a few years earlier and shortened her name to Ilsa (because there was a tennis star of that name and people could pronounce it)—arranged a china setting on a silver serving tray, with all the breakfast components her employer was expecting.
She placed the medications on the tray as well—a yellow pill for the schizophrenia, a round blue one to alleviate the depression caused by the yellow one; and a square white one to deal with the nausea caused by the blue one, but apparently not to great effect. And there was a small pink one, which was related to the effects of the other three in some complicated way that no one had adequately explained.
The pills had been part of the daily regimen ever since Ilsa was first hired. That was almost a year ago now. Ilsa’s employer, just a few years older than Ilsa herself, had lost both parents to an automobile accident at that time, and needed some assistance with the daily routine. Ilsa had been brought in to prepare the meals, to put the medicines on the tray, and to do the housekeeping and other chores. She wanted to do all of her tasks well.
Keeping the place tidy was more trouble than it should have been. Like a cat bringing presents from the garden, her employer kept discovering and bringing in small pieces of furniture and such from the parents’ estate. Ilsa had counted five lamps, three vases, an ancient portable typewriter, and innumerable scrapbooks and folders and yellowed paper items, some of which her employer had begun to take upstairs alone to study in private.
But as difficult as the housekeeping was, what worried Ilsa most was the medications. A new doctor had come by—a man Ilsa did not particularly like—and said not to worry about them. So Ilsa tried not to worry. But she continued to put the pills on the tray anyway, as she had been originally told to do. It seemed to her that she still should do so. And she was uncertain of all the regulations in her adopted country; she did not want to get in trouble.
Now she brought the breakfast setting out to the garden. And she also brought a copy of the Daily Sun.
Ilsa placed the silver tray on the table. Her employer smiled slightly and nodded. Then Ilsa stood at the table and began to read the headlines aloud from the tabloid.
This had been become a ritual in recent weeks, and she took some pride in getting good at it.
“‘Prime Minister Calls for Moratorium on Queue Cutting,’” read Ilsa.
“No,” said her employer.
“‘Prince Harry Fathers Love Child with Underage Martian Girl.’”
“‘Liverpool Louts Stab Man in Front of Pregnant Wife.’”
“No. Page two?”
“And on page three?”
“A woman in her underwear—and nothing on top. Shall I read the caption?” Ilsa giggled just slightly, because she was beginning to understand the British fondness for bad puns, and she was looking forward to demonstrating that knowledge.
“No, Ilsa. I don’t need to know about the page-three girl. Go to page four.”
“Two headlines on page four,” said Ilsa. “The first is: ‘Taxi Drivers a Terror to Tourists?’”
It was an article about a spate of robberies and nonlethal assaults against patrons of Black Cabs. Ilsa read the headline with the proper inflexion, making it sound as alarming as the headline writer clearly intended it to be.
“Hmm.” Ilsa’s employer seemed disappointed and began to butter a scone.
“And the second is a lawyer on Baker Street who denies that he’s Sherlock Holmes,” continued Ilsa. “There’s a photo. I think one might call him good-looking, in a stuffy sort of way.”
Her employer abruptly stopped buttering. There was silence for a moment. Then—
“Let me see it.”
It was just three short paragraphs, not even breaking news; just a follow-up piece, about one Reggie Health—a thirty-five-year-old London barrister—and the unusual circumstances of a trip he had taken to Los Angeles a short time earlier.
Ilsa watched as her employer stared at the passage for a very long time, eyes searching intently, as though there were something more on the page than just the words.
“Is something wrong?” said Ilsa.
“It’s like trying to find a gray cat in the fog,” said Ilsa’s employer finally, getting up from the table, with the Daily News in hand, and without finishing breakfast. “But I think I am beginning to remember.”
Ilsa did not ask what was being remembered. She took the tray away, saw that the medications were again untouched, and wished it were not so.
Copyright © 2011 by Michael Robertson