Dorothy Dannity learned to take care of the house from her mother, just as her mother had learned to do so before her. Once a week, from the time that she could walk the hill to the gentlemen’s cottage without complaining, she would rise early, tackle the climb to the midpoint of Bracket’s Peak at her mother’s side, and hold open the big garden gate as her mother came through, basket balanced with ease on her hip. In the basket was lunch and maybe other necessary things—a new bar of soap; a fresh spray of herbs; peppermint tea when the stock ran low. There’d be rags, freshly laundered, and silver polish now and again, and the big set of keys that opened the front and back doors. The locks snicked open with ease, and then it was Dorothy’s job to run from room to room, opening up the windows and letting in air.
There was always much to be done, even if the gentlemen were not expected to visit. Inside the house there were floors to scrub and furniture to dust; outside the house a garden to tend to, with climbing roses Dorothy’s mother said had come all the way from Italy. Dorothy liked the inside work best. Arming herself with a duster and some polish, she liked to spend time with the trinkets gathered here and there. There were small animals whittled from sticks, and porcelain dishes painted in vibrant colors, tiny vases made of jade and candlesticks that she took extra care to dust. There were paintings on the wall of faraway places, the kind she read about in books from the library—deserts and oceans and tall ships and dragons turned to stone. There was a well-thumbed deck of cards in the top drawer of the desk in the study, and a quill, and a bottle of ink beside a number 7B pencil, and once when she pulled a book from the bookshelf in the living room, a sketch fell out of a man whom she’d never seen, but liked from the way he smiled. She wondered who had drawn him, that he looked so happy and kind.
Dorothy learned her mother’s secrets—lemon and salt to scrub the kitchen table clean; lavender gathered in summer and tucked between the sheets in the linen cupboard—and learned to keep her silence about the gentlemen who owned the house. It was years before her mother would trust her with the whole story, years before she received a letter from the gentlemen themselves, asking her to take up where her mother would one day leave off, but discretion was her mother’s watchword from the beginning.
“They live . . . lives that are quite different to ours,” she told Dorothy one day when Dorothy was ten. “We make things easier for them by making this a home.”
Dorothy’s mother has been gone these past twenty years, and the gentlemen no longer announce they’ll be visiting by phone, but by text. When a message arrives one blustery evening, deep into September, Dorothy sets down her crossword puzzle, and picks up the tea mugs as she heads to the kitchen. “I’ll be making bread,” she says to Mr. Dannity, who’s deeply absorbed in a book.
“They’re on their way, then?” he asks, looking up with a smile.
She nods. “They’re on their way,” she says, and can’t help but smile back.
Dorothy no longer walks up Bracket’s Peak, but drives, car packed with everything she thinks might make a house a home. There’s fresh-baked bread to set in the bread box, and cheeses and meats, pickles and chutney to stow in the fridge for a make-shift meal when the gentlemen arrive. She fills the pantry with staples, the crispers with vegetables, sets apples in a bowl on the kitchen table. This much she would do for anyone. But over time she’s grown to know something of the gentlemen, noted the spices they’ve left behind and the warm scent of their cooking that lingers in the cottage, noted the dishes they leave on the draining board, and the espresso pot they leave on the stove. So she sets a jar of harissa and cans of coconut milk beside the bags of rice in the pantry, puts cinnamon, cayenne, and garam masala on the shelf where she keeps the herbs, stows fish sauce and fine mustard in the fridge, and sets limes on a plate with blood oranges and ginger. The coffee she ships from London, darker and richer than the instant blend she prefers.
She walks room to room, opening the windows to the crisp, fall air, and shakes out fresh linens on the bed. Where there had once been candlewick blankets and eiderdowns in her grandmother’s time there is a thick duvet inside a blue-striped cover, and two types of pillows on either side of the bed. There are heavy towels to hang in the bathroom, and Dorothy turns on the taps to make sure the water flows and heats. She leaves two number 7B pencils and a thick sketchbook on the desk in the study, fills a vase with flowers to put by the window, and sets a brand-new book of poetry by the comfortable armchair. It’s cold enough at night for a fire, and she brings in wood, sets it in the grate with kindling enough to light with a single match, and sets matches on the mantelpiece where they’re always easy to find. There are lamps to light by afternoon, enough to shine out into whatever darkness will have drawn by nightfall, and Dorothy checks there are torches and batteries, candles enough for any purpose. The cottage is warm, smells faintly of fresh bread and crisp, sun-dried sheets, and is unendingly quiet. She murmurs a little blessing over the threshold before she locks the door behind her.
She doesn’t see them arrive that evening; doesn’t see them pause appreciatively as they get out of the car just before midnight. She knows them as Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, but not as Nicky and Joe, and while she knows their faces, she doesn’t know the exact expression of gratitude that Nicky wears as he lets out a long breath, or Joe’s as he catches up Nicky’s hand and tugs him toward the door. The fresh bread is much appreciated, as is strong, black tea, and Joe bites into an orange to loosen the peel; he makes a face at the bitterness of the pith that makes Nicky laugh. Eventually they turn off lamps and wash and undress, and climb into bed leaving their clothes on the floor. Joe curls around Nicky, nudging his knees, pulling him just so against his chest, settling him just as he likes him while Nicky laughs and protests at being handled like so much luggage. But as they quiet and begin to relax, as they breathe in the faint scent of the past summer’s lavender, Nicky twines their fingers, murmurs, “thank you, Dorothy,” and Joe manages a hmmph of sound agreement.
They sleep. When they wake there is coffee to spoon into an espresso pot, and eggs to cook on the finicky stove, and Joe crowds Nicky against the kitchen sink and kisses him and kisses him, and their hearts have been sore, but grow light.
In the village, Dorothy takes her grandson to nursery school, and tells him about the house that she looks after like her mother before her, and her mother long before that.