Household Management

By Ellen Klages

In September, the autumnal gales beset London with exceptional violence. For a week, the wind has screamed and the rain has beaten against the windows like beasts in a cage.

In weather such as this, few people come calling. The streets are deserted, not just in Marylebone but throughout the city. Although an inconvenience for many, it is a respite for those like myself, a woman of a certain age whose pleasure it is to sit by the hearth with a cup of tea and a good book, safe and secure from the elements raging outside.

For others, however, it is an unbearable confinement. Such is the case with my upstairs lodger. For two days I have heard him pacing incessantly across his rooms, back and forth, up and down, muttering and cursing. He has lived in my house for a score of years, and I can tell from the dull sound of his tread that his usually keen spirit is chafing against the involuntary inaction occasioned by the storm.

After I took up his breakfast this morning, I was granted a brief reprieve, but within the hour his pacing ceased and he began to play his violin. Not a melody, merely the sound of a bow being swept across loosely tuned strings. The noise is dreadful. I try to ignore it and go about my chores, dusting the shelves and airing the linens, but the infernal, funereal wailing and screeching is worse than the howling of the wind.

He is, perhaps, the worst tenant in all of London. His malodorous chemical experiments have left stains on each rug in his rooms, he is prone to insomnia, and the drapes on every window reek of his strong tobacco. Although, to his credit, his payments are princely, his rents promptly paid, and in his dealings with me he has always been unfailingly polite.

In return I provide him lodging, prepare his meals, accept packages, relay messages, greet visitors, and manage all the domestic details of his life. It is an arrangement that ordinarily suits us both.

But this noise is intolerable. With a sigh, I stopper my ears with cotton wool and go into the kitchen to do the washing up. The running water helps to cover the sound. When the last of the plates is dry, I pour a cup of Earl Grey and venture back into the parlor. Quiet? I remove the cotton wool. The screeching—oh bliss—has stopped. I settle into my favorite chair by the fire with one of Mrs. Southworth's novels and —

Bang!

I nearly jump out of my skin. On the mantle one of my little Staffordshire dogs teeters and threatens to tumble.

From above I hear faint ticks as bits of plaster—my plaster—fall from his sitting room wall to the floor. He is a man of keen intelligence, and when he is working on a case, when he has a focus, his considerable energies are channeled. But when he is idle, when he has naught to engage his nimble mind save foolery, bravado, and cocaine, he endeavors to relieve the tedium in any way he can. His weapon of choice, I know from past experience, is a revolver.

Bang! Bang!

I close my book, mutter a mild oath of my own, and go to the kitchen to prepare his luncheon tray. Perhaps once I am upstairs, I can put a stop to this by distracting him. It will be the matter of a moment to notice something amiss—there is always something amiss in his rooms—and to feign the sort of hysteria he believes is so common to my sex. By the time I am "settled" on his sofa, he will have poured the tea himself and given me a tentative, almost avuncular pat on the hand, most attentive for a few minutes. Long enough, I hope, for me to slip the revolver into my knitting bag and spirit it away. He will notice its absence, of course, but in his current state will likely assume that he has mislaid it, and the ensuing search through his unholy mess of papers and apparatus will afford me a few moments of peace.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

Oh, dear lord. He has already reloaded. Tea and hysteria will not be enough to divert him today. I hesitate for a moment, aware that I am well-paid for his proximity, which does entitle him to a certain amount of privacy. I am loathe to interfere, no matter how outrageous his actions. But his eccentricities have tried my patience to the breaking point. I am a reasonable landlady, and have more than a modicum of understanding. He has never known the gentle rule of a woman, and cannot help himself.

But I can.

And I shall.

For my own sanity, not to mention the household furnishings, I have found that, on extremely rare occasions, it is in my best interests to see that he is kept occupied.

In a city such as this, it is a matter of no difficulty whatsoever to obtain any number of noisome items that might be required for the management of a proper household: ratsbane, flypaper, tablets for the complexion, even the Paris green wrapper from a box of sweets, the dye soaked off in a bowl of scented water. In a well-appointed kitchen, a practised hand such as my own can use the most common of ingredients to create a marvelous variety of unique teas and unusual recipes.

My late husband was fond of my cooking, and I made certain that he had a nice tea each afternoon. An almond cake, perhaps? With enough sugar, any residual bitterness is well-disguised. Or a savory biscuit—a strong curry powder masks any underlying flavor. He was especially fond of the pleasing and unusual tang of my clotted cream.

Alas, our marriage was brief. He had a temper, but my baking could coax him into the parlor. I would pour, then offer him a plate of cookies, often taking one myself. They do not affect me in the least. I began taking Dr. Mackenzie's arsenical complexion wafers after the first bout of our honeymoon, increasing the dosage gradually over time. When he was contrite, my husband so admired the roses in my cheeks and my bright eyes. To this day, I am the very picture of health, and quite immune to my own delicacies.

Bang! Bang!

It is time. I wrap myself in my heaviest shawl against the weather and leave the house with a covered basket of scones and cream for Vivian, a neighbor whom I began visiting when the storms began. She has been feeling more and more poorly with each passing day, and grows convinced that her husband, an apothecary and an uncaring fellow, may be tiring of her. She is beginning to suspect foul play.

My visits seem to cheer her. Each afternoon I listen to her sad tale, and if she begins to weep, I proffer a linen handkerchief, laundered in a soap of my own formulation, dabbed with a bit of my special elderflower water. I have assured her that my clever, if vexing, lodger might be of assistance. Today I will insist that she accompany me back to the house.

It is the least I can do.


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Ellen Klages is the author of two acclaimed YA novels: The Green Glass Sea, which won the Scott O'Dell Award, the New Mexico Book Award, and the Lopez Award; and White Sands, Red Menace, which won the California and New Mexico Book Awards. Her short stories have been have been translated into Czech, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, and Swedish and have been nominated for the Nebula Award, the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Campbell awards. Her story, "Basement Magic," won a Nebula in 2005. She lives in a small house in San Francisco, where she does not play the violin, although she recently bought a ukulele. To contact her, send email to ellen@ellenklages.com. For more about her and her work, see her website.

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