June 14, 2021

Remains of the day

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Chapter twelve - Miss Kenton's Aunt

Over the following weeks, Miss Kenton suggested several times that we start meeting again over cocoa in the evenings. I have often wondered whether things would have happened differently if I had agreed. It seems clear to me now that my small decision to stop our evening meetings was, in fact, another important turning point in our relationship.

But, I suppose, if one keeps searching one's past for 'turning points', one will start seeing them everywhere. Perhaps the most important 'turning point' of all was neither of the two incidents I have just described. Perhaps it was my meeting with Miss Kenton in the dining room soon after she had heard of her aunt's death.

News of the death had arrived some hours earlier. Indeed, I had handed the letter to Miss Kenton myself. I had stepped inside her room for a brief moment to discuss a professional matter, and she had opened the letter while we sat at her table, talking. She suddenly became very still, but she showed no emotion as she read the letter through at least twice. Then she put the letter carefully back in its envelope and looked across the table at me.

'It is from Mrs Johnson, a companion of my aunt. She says my aunt died the day before yesterday. The funeral takes place tomorrow. I would be grateful if I could have the day off, Mr Stevens.'

'I am sure that can be arranged, Miss Kenton.'

'Thank you, Mr Stevens. Forgive me, but perhaps I may have a few moments alone.'

'Of course, Miss Kenton.'

I made my exit but, just after I had left her room, I realized that I had not offered her my condolences. Her aunt had been like a mother to her, and her death must have come as a terrible shock. I paused outside her door in the corridor, wondering if I should go back and say a few words. But then it occurred to me that she might prefer to be alone with her private grief. I hesitated for several minutes outside her door. Eventually, however, I decided that it would be best to express my condolences later, and I continued on my way.

I thought about Miss Kenton all morning, wondering how I could help her in her time of grief, but I did not see her again until the afternoon. I was busy with a task in the hall when I heard her footsteps entering the dining room. I waited for a couple of minutes, then followed her in.

'Ah, Miss Kenton,' I said. 'How are you this afternoon?'

'Quite well, thank you, Mr Stevens.'

'Is everything in order?'

'Yes, thank you.'

'I was wondering about the new members of staff. Have you been experiencing any problems with them?' I gave a small laugh. 'There are often problems when so many new people join the staff at once.'

'Thank you, Mr Stevens, but the new girls are very satisfactory.'

'You don't think that there should be any changes to the present staff plan?'

'I don't think so, Mr Stevens. However, if I change my view on this, I will let you know immediately.'

She turned her attention back to her work and, for a moment, I thought about leaving the dining room. In fact, I actually took a few steps towards the doorway, but then I turned to her again and said:
'So, Miss Kenton. The new members of staff are making good progress, you say?'

'They are both doing very well, I assure you.'

'Ah, that is good to hear.' I gave another short laugh. 'I was only wondering because neither girl has previous experience of working in a house of this size.'

'Indeed, Mr Stevens.'

I watched her while she worked, waiting to see if she would say anything more. When, after several moments, it became clear that she was not going to speak, I said:
'There is actually something that I would like to say, Miss Kenton.'

Miss Kenton glanced over her shoulder in my direction, but continued working.

'I have noticed that there has been a slight fall in standards recently, Miss Kenton. One or two errors have been made. I do feel that you need to pay a little more attention to the new members of staff.'

'Whatever do you mean, Mr Stevens?'
'I myself like to pay extra attention to things whenever there are new staff members. I check everything, and see how they behave with other members of staff. I regret to say this, Miss Kenton, but I believe you have been a little careless in the matter.'

For a second, Miss Kenton looked confused. Then she turned towards me, and a certain strain was visible in her face.
'I beg your pardon, Mr Stevens?'

'For instance, Miss Kenton, I have noticed that the dishes are not being put back correctly on the shelves in the kitchen.'

'Indeed, Mr Stevens?'

'Yes, Miss Kenton. Furthermore, that little corner outside the breakfast room has not been dusted for some time. And there are one or two other small things I could mention.'

'You have made your point, Mr Stevens. I will, as you suggest, check the work of the new maids.'

'It is not like you to be so forgetful, Miss Kenton.'

Miss Kenton looked away from me with a look of confusion on her face. She looked more tired than upset. Then she suddenly turned away from her work, said, 'Please excuse me, Mr Stevens,' and left the room.

But it is pointless now to wish that particular incidents had ended differently. Naturally, when one looks back on moments like this, they may indeed seem to be 'turning points'. But of course, at that time, these things did not seem so important. There seemed to be a never-ending number of days, months and years ahead - plenty of time in which to sort out the small problems that existed between Miss Kenton and me. There was nothing at the time to indicate that small incidents like these would, in the end, be responsible for destroying whole dreams.