From the Czech Republic, her name was Veronika Markova, twenty-two years old, and she was sitting on their sofa, with Max on her lap, although the interview had only just begun.
‘Do you have a first aid qualification specific to children?’ Agatha asked. She had found a list of questions for prospective nannies on a mothering website.
‘Yes. I have the St John’s Ambulance certificate. I have done it one year before. I can show to you.’
Veronika came with a recommendation from Sally and Drew, who were good friends of Henry and May, who Paddy and Agatha had asked for help finding a nanny; that was a fortnight weeks ago—when it hadn’t seemed so real.
‘Max liked her a lot,’ said Agatha, after Veronika had gone. ‘I think that’s important. He seemed to trust her.’
‘Of course it’s important,’ said Paddy. ‘But maybe he’ll like someone else even more. We’ve only seen two people.’
Veronika was the second; the first, Sheila, had smelt strongly of cigarettes, and had said the word fucking twice.
Paddy was arguing against Veronika, partly because of her inexperience and partly because he already found her quite attractive. This was a situation he had hoped to avoid: at one point, he’d even suggested they go for a male nanny. Agatha had said no, although she admitted her reasons for saying no were indefensible. Of course, Paddy couldn’t now say they shouldn’t employ Veronika, because he found her attractive. That would be to bring up the subject, and the subject was really Agatha and how attractive—or not—she felt herself to be. Since the stillbirth of Rose, Agatha had put on two stone. Some of this had gone to her stomach but the rest was in places like her upper arms and her thighs where she knew it was likely to stay—unless she did something extreme, like employing a personal trainer. Paddy still knew how to find her attractive, and not only by thinking of how she had been before. His tastes had changed: the fact that she was Agatha, his wife, was the most beautiful thing about her. He could get turned on by the idea that he was fucking all of that person he knew so well. But they had sex only rarely, due to exhaustion and a feeling that still hung on of inappropriateness: they were Mummy and Daddy. What Paddy, now just a couple of years short of forty, found hardest to cope with was his general desire for young women. This had changed a lot, too. As an adolescent, he had never gone for healthy types—either physically or psychologically; they’d had no substance to them. And he, romantic although in denial of it, had believed he might end up forever with the first young woman that went to bed with him. In his fantasies-of-meeting, the girl was often slightly handicapped. (Handicapped being a usable word, back then.) She wore black and walked with a limp, using an interestingly customized stick. He didn’t mind. She was maybe a Goth – Goths often seemed to be lame, or have spinal difficulties. Recently, however, Paddy had begun to find the young women doing unnecessary aerobics in Europop videos extremely attractive. He saw these on screens at the gym. Since Rose’s death, he was half a stone lighter, and much fitter. The Europop girls had nothing about them but their bodies—and that was now a plus. He was overfamiliar with embedded intimacy. What he fantasized about most often was the contextless fuck. It had taken him almost twenty-five years to realise, but this was what the Page Three girl-type offered. Imagine if you were fucking me now—imagine if you could step through the page, or the TV screen, and just stick it in! Their skin was so flawlessly caramel-smooth—although he knew well enough their moles and even cellulite had been digitally airbrushed.
Veronika wasn’t one of the climb-aboard girls—she was too intelligent for that. But she was closer to them than to the birds-with-broken-wings of his adolescence. Apart from being young, Veronika had blonde hair, a heart-shaped face, smooth skin and seemed very kind. This last was another quality Paddy had come to desire. Although grateful for his love, the limping Goth was also a proto-dominatrix. He didn’t deserve her (he didn’t deserve anyone), so she was perfectly entitled to mistreat him. Veronika, it seemed, would be the understanding sort. The subject hadn’t come up during the interview so Paddy didn’t know whether or not she had a boyfriend. He had been waiting for Agatha to ask, but the question either wasn’t on her list or she had decided against asking it.
Because Max seemed to like her so much, and because they didn’t want to go through another ten interviews only to settle on Veronika, Agatha phoned up the next day to offer her the job. She would start the following month.
As it turned out, Veronika had been married at the age of nineteen and was now in the middle of a long-distance divorce. Her husband had run a nightclub in Prague and was a pimp. This they learnt from Henry and May, who they invited round for tea as a thank you for helping them find her.
‘Apparently,’ said May, ‘at one point he tried to get Veronika on the game as well.’
Paddy wished he hadn’t been told this. He found it disgustingly exciting. These days, the shower was just about the only place he wanked. It was possible, sometimes, to make himself come in bed, alongside sleeping-Agatha, without waking her up. Most often, though, he masturbated whilst the water was blasting him—and his spunk was washed away before he’d opened his eyes. It didn’t take long, start to finish. He could make it happen even during a supposedly quick shower. Apart from this, he had to wait for those rare evenings when Agatha went out with May or his even less frequent trips away to conferences.
Veronika was in the fantasy scenario of his next shower. She was a prostitute, and she loved it. ‘Give me your cock,’ she said. ‘I want it, your fucking cock.’ Paddy had only just penetrated her, from behind, when he ejaculated—and the moment was over. Before he forgot about it, he felt some shame. But the wank had been prophylactic. He didn’t censor his fantasies. They often involved degradation of women, and almost as often degradation of men by women. Sometimes quite elaborate battles of sub-and-dom developed in his head. More than once, he’d thought of May pushing him up against a wall and shoving her hand down his pants. ‘Henry can’t satisfy me. I need you.’ Paddy was amused by the crudity of his own sexual imagination. Images from the porn mags of his youth still recurred: May had been dressed in—variously—pink brassiere and suspender set, in stripey socks and roller skates and nothing else, in a knitted hat and stack-heeled Scholl sandals.
From her first day with Max, it was clear that Veronika would work out fine. Paddy went to work in the morning, but Agatha—who planned to stay at home all that week—gave him a full report that evening.
‘They played hide and seek. Then I let them go off together to the park. I didn’t know what to do with the time.’
Agatha began to cry—something Paddy had been expecting from the moment he got back.
‘I don’t want him to like her too much,’ she said.
‘You’re his mother,’ said Paddy. ‘He loves you more than anything.’
‘It’s you he’s always talking about.’
‘That’s because I’m not here—I’m at work. If you weren’t here, he’d talk about you. He does.’
‘I really think I’d have preferred it if he’d screamed all day, and hidden behind me, and hadn’t let her touch him.’
‘Really?’ said Paddy.
‘I suppose not.’
They had some wine with their chicken and pea risotto, and clinked glasses to toast they weren’t quite sure what.
‘To work,’ said Agatha.
‘To two incomes,’ said Paddy.
‘To Max being a bit more independent.’
‘He is independent. He just – ’
‘I suffocate him. I know. I can’t help it. He has to be safe.’
‘You’re great with him. But I think it’s good he gets to be with other people—not just your mother.’
‘She’s been very good.’
‘Yes, but she’s not exactly able to play the games Max wants to play now. He’s a little boy—he wants to climb everything.’
‘He was certainly climbing Veronika.’
The next evening, when Paddy came home, Veronika and Max were chasing one another around the apple tree in the garden. Max was naked. Agatha came out of the cellar behind Paddy— ‘He got all wet so it didn’t seem worth putting on new clothes before bath time.’
Veronika picked Max up, squealing, and turned him upside down. His long hair brushed the dirt of the lawn and his penis slid from one side to the other.
‘Fine,’ said Paddy.
He went out to see Max.
Veronika put him down straight away, and he ran over to be hugged. But then he returned to Veronika and said, ‘Again!’
There was still half an hour to go before Veronika was due to finish. She looked to Paddy, as if for permission to carry on what she’d been doing.
‘He’s having fun,’ said Paddy. ‘Isn’t he?’
When Veronika bent down to grasp Max’s ankles, he was able to see into her cleavage. It wasn’t as deep as Agatha’s; it was different.
Max swung upside down.
That night Paddy was kissing Max goodnight when he noticed something—the smell of his hair. He no longer smelt of himself. He smelt of Veronika’s perfume. It was all through his hair. She must put it on the pulse point of her neck, Paddy thought. Agatha didn’t wear perfume.
The next week, Agatha began work, as planned. There were more tears, and expressions of doubt, guilt and liberation.
On her first day, she said, she went out to get a coffee at lunchtime. ‘I had a decaf latte,’ she told Paddy, ‘and I sat on a bench and drank it in the sunshine—and it was so wonderful I cried. Then a dirty old man tried to chat me up.’ But even that only seemed to have added to her enjoyment of the day. ‘I felt so bad leaving Max at home.’
‘I’m sure he was fine. They get on very well. They’re friends.’
Questions to Max before bedtime had drawn forth the information that they’d gone to the climbing frame in the park where he had been a monkey.
‘Did you have fun?’ Agatha had asked.
Max had nodded, definitely.
And that evening in bed, Agatha kissed Paddy with the softness that was invitation. He got up to lock the bedroom door, then rejoined her, his erection already full. This was the first time they had had sex since Christmas. Paddy did wonder whether Agatha was thinking about the dirty old man. He tried not to remember Max’s inverted penis and how close it had been to Veronika’s chin.
At the end of the first month, Paddy’s term finished, and he only needed to spend two days a week at the department. He was approaching the deadline for a book about the philosophical problems surrounding artificial intelligence. His working title was I Robot Therefore I Am. The finished book would definitely not be called this. Sometimes he took the London train with Agatha, and went to the British Library. On other days, though, he stayed at home and worked in the attic. They had a shared desk beneath the skylight. From downstairs, he could hear Max’s louder noises—bangings, wailings. Only rarely did Paddy go down to see what was going on—only when he thought Max might have suffered serious injury. Paddy didn’t want to undermine Veronika’s authority or confidence. He also didn’t want to spend too much time with her and Max. It felt disloyal.
By now, Veronika featured in all his shower-fantasies. Max still had a one hour nap after lunch, and Paddy imagined her coming up to the study once Max had definitely gone down. Standing in the doorway, Veronika wordlessly undressed. Her fantasy-breasts hung quite low, once released, but he didn’t mind that. She crawled across the floor, got between his legs and blew him. ‘I was a prostitute, you know,’ she said, afterwards.
In reality, Paddy was quite reserved around her. But Agatha had made proper friends.
One day, Paddy heard Veronika on the upstairs landing telling Max to stay.
‘I want to see,’ said Max.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Stay there.’
A door closed—which Paddy guessed to be the bathroom door. Veronika was going to the toilet.
Max banged on the door for a while then seemed to give up.
‘I won’t!’ he shouted.
There was a flush, and then a long gap, then another flush and then a series of bumps followed by a squeal.
Max had fallen down the stairs. Paddy rushed to see that he was alright—though the fact his son was making noise suggested he was. Veronika, emerging from the bathroom, was there a couple of seconds after Paddy. Max cried for a while, but nothing was broken. Paddy held him, then handed him over to Veronika.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ Paddy said.
‘He wanted come in the bathroom.’
‘I heard,’ said Paddy. ‘It’s fine. Really.’
He went back upstairs, stopping off in the bathroom for a pee. There, in the toilet bowl, was a piece of tight brown shit—a floater. Paddy looked at it for a moment. He wasn’t sure what he felt. It looked a little like a conker. Paddy took a few sheets of paper and laid them on top of the shit, then tried to flush it away. it didn’t go. He needed to pee quite badly, so pissed on the floater, which danced in the pale yellow jet. Then he put more paper down and flushed again. He thought for a moment it had gone, but just as he was turning away, it bobbed up from the u-bend. Paddy got the toilet brush and, after a few goes to create corkscrew turbulence in the bowl-water, managed finally to get Veronika’s shit out of sight.
He spent the whole afternoon upstairs, even though Veronika took Max out when he’d woken from his nap. But when he saw the young nanny that evening, he could tell she was mortified. She knew he’d seen her shit—she had been trying to flush it away when Max fell down the stairs; then, in the panic of him maybe being injured, she had forgotten about it, so hadn’t gone back into the bathroom to get rid of it before Paddy went in. There was no way they could communicate about this, apart from both being extremely embarrassed by the other’s embarrassment.
‘He’s okay, is he?’ Paddy asked.
‘Probably landed on his head, then,’ Paddy said.
Max was always there as a subject, luckily.
After this, Paddy was more relaxed around Veronika. He found that he liked her. His shower-fantasies became gentler. They arranged to meet in a hotel, and made proper love rather than animal sex. It was an affair, not just a fuck. She never mentioned having been a prostitute, though sometimes this was implicit in their scenario.
Then, one evening, when he’d returned late from London, Agatha told him that Veronika had a boyfriend.
‘She just told me.’
‘Is he Czech or English?’
‘Czech,’ said Agatha, excitedly. ‘I can’t see Veronika dating anyone English.’
‘I don’t know. I think her sort like to have some connection with home. It must be very lonely, sometimes.’
Paddy wasn’t surprised by his jealousy, but he did find it extremely grotesque—particularly how annoyed he was with Agatha saying her sort about Veronika.
‘We should have them round to dinner.’
‘Give them a chance,’ said Paddy. ‘It can’t have been going on long.’
‘Nine months,’ said Agatha.
Václav was thirty-four and cooked in one of the hotels on the front. Agatha waited exactly a week before inviting Veronika to bring him over for supper.
Opening the front door to them was awkward for Paddy, as was shaking hands. It was Saturday night. Veronika was dressed up in something flimsy, sparkly and short. Paddy hadn’t seen it before—of course he hadn’t seen it before. She wore more make-up than when working, but her perfume was the same he smelt every weekday evening in Max’s hair.
Agatha led them through into the kitchen. She was worried, she said, she’d never cooked for a professional chef before.
Václav was modest and seemed very likeable. He gave them a bottle of Chilean red and some milk chocolates.
‘I work on frying steaks,’ he said. ‘Hot plate.’
‘That must be very hot,’ said Agatha, then laughed at herself. Paddy saw that she was determined to find the evening delightful. He resolved to make more of an effort himself, and offered Veronika and Václav a drink.
Just then, Max walked through the kitchen door. In pyjamas, he went straight to Veronika and she picked him up into a hug.
‘Hello-ooo,’ she said, then introduced Max to Václav.
Paddy wondered for a moment if this really was the first time they’d met.
‘I told you about him,’ Veronika said. ‘He is my boyfriend.’ Václav looked at Paddy, embarrassed.
‘No,’ said Max, being more babyish than he was. ‘Not your boyfriend.’
Agatha laughed. ‘He is, sweetheart.’
‘No,’ said Max. ‘He is not.’
‘Hello, Max,’ said Václav.
‘Go away,’ said Max.
Veronika turned him away slightly.
‘Max,’ said Paddy, ‘that’s not very nice.’ He was glad to be off the subject of boyfriends.
‘No,’ said Max. ‘No!’
‘He is,’ Agatha said. ‘However much you might not like it.’
‘Let’s get you back up to bed,’ said Paddy. He moved to take Max, and Veronika tried to shift Max into Paddy’s arms. But he stopped halfway, still holding on to Veronika.
‘Daddy boyfriend,’ he said. ‘And not you.’
‘Oh well,’ said Agatha. ‘You’re wrong.’
Paddy tried to pull Max off Veronika, but the boy had tight hold of her collar.
‘Come on, Monster,’ said Paddy. He reached for Max’s wrist.
‘No!’ shouted Max, and yanked hard to stay with Veronika.
A seam gave. Veronika’s dress was torn at the shoulder.
When Agatha gave a shout of annoyance, Max let go and started to cry.
A flap of fabric fell down, exposing Veronika’s right breast. For a moment everyone was looking at it. Then Max started to point.
‘Nipple! Nipple!’ he shrieked. It was the funniest thing in the world ever.
Veronika covered herself up.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Agatha. ‘Max, you’ve ripped Veronika’s lovely dress.’
Václav was standing in between Veronika and Max, as if the boy might try to attack her again.
‘I didn’t,’ said Max, back to tears.
‘We’ll pay for it,’ said Paddy, then realised this was exactly the wrong thing to say.
‘I’ll get you a safety pin,’ said Agatha. ‘Or would you like to borrow one of my dresses? I can easily lend you. It might be a bit big.’
Veronika stood without moving. Paddy was worried that she was about to have hysterics. He heard a trickling sound from the floor. When he looked down, he saw pee dripping out of Max’s pyjama bottoms.
‘Oh, Max,’ he said.
Then he looked across to Veronika’s shoes, and saw that they were a little splashed, too.
‘Come on,’ Paddy said. ‘I think that’s enough damage for one evening. Say goodnight.’
Max said nothing.
As Paddy carried him upstairs, he heard Agatha in the kitchen saying, ‘I really am terribly sorry.’
Once changed and in bed, Max went to sleep almost immediately.
Paddy came downstairs to find Agatha alone in the kitchen.
‘They left,’ she said. ‘They decided to leave. After you took Max, she became really distressed—went into some kind of shock. It was quite scary. They spoke in Czech.’
‘Little bastard,’ said Paddy.
‘Did he say anything?’
The food was ready, so they sat down to eat it.
‘It wasn’t a very nice dress,’ said Agatha.
‘I thought she looked lovely in it.’
‘Well, yes,’ said Agatha. ‘Of course you did.’
Paddy didn’t start the fake conversation he might have done.
‘Nothing was ever going to happen.’
‘But you wanted it to,’ Agatha said.
‘Not really. Not as a practical thing.’
‘How’s that supposed to make me feel?’
‘You haven’t even noticed—I wore a new dress, too.’
Paddy saw no way out but apology.
‘It’s ridiculous. She’s a girl.’
‘Would it be better if something had happened?’
‘Yes,’ said Agatha. ‘Then at least it would have happened, and I could stop waiting for it to happen.’