June 8, 2021

Remains of the day

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Chapter nine - Lisa

One of the replacements for the two dismissed maids was a young woman called Lisa. I remember not being very impressed with her references. Moreover, when Miss Kenton and I interviewed her, it became clear that she had never remained in the same job for longer than a few weeks. Her whole attitude suggested to me that she was quite unsuitable for employment at Darlington Hall. To my surprise, however, Miss Kenton was extremely keen to employ her.

'This girl has a bright future,' she insisted, despite my protests. 'I will be responsible for her, Mr Stevens. I will make sure that she does well.'

I continued my protests, but Miss Kenton eventually won the argument. To my amazement, her judgement on the matter seemed to be correct. During the following weeks, the young girl made extremely good progress. Her attitude and her manner of walking - which, during the first days, had been so bad that I had to look away - improved dramatically.

As the weeks passed, Miss Kenton took great delight in her victory. She enjoyed giving Lisa tasks that required more and more responsibility. If I was watching, she would smile at me with a victorious look in her eyes.

'No doubt, Mr Stevens,' she said to me one night as we drank our cocoa, 'you will be extremely disappointed to hear Lisa has still not made any serious mistakes.'

'I'm not disappointed at all, Miss Kenton. I will admit, you have had some modest success with the girl.'

'Modest success! Look at that smile on your face, Mr Stevens. It always appears when I mention Lisa. That smile tells an interesting story. A very interesting story indeed.'

'Really, Miss Kenton? And may I ask, what story is that?'

'It is very interesting that you have been so critical of her from the beginning, because Lisa is a pretty girl. And I've noticed that you dislike having pretty girls on the staff.'

'You know perfectly well you are talking nonsense, Miss Kenton.'

'Ah, but I've noticed it, Mr Stevens. Is it possible that our Mr Stevens feels uncomfortable with pretty girls? Perhaps our Mr Stevens is flesh and blood after all and cannot completely trust himself?'

'Really, Miss Kenton, you're making no sense. I shall simply sit and think of other things while you go on talking.'

'Ah, but why then is that guilty smile still on your face, Mr Stevens?'

'It is not a guilty smile at all, Miss Kenton. I am slightly amused by your ability to talk nonsense, that's all.'

'It is a guilty smile, Mr Stevens. And I've noticed how you can hardly bear to look at Lisa. Now it is becoming very clear why you didn't want her on the staff.'

'The girl was completely unsuitable when she first came to us, as you well know.'

Our conversation continued in this way for several more minutes. Of course, we would never have talked in this way in front of the other staff. But our cocoa evenings, although still basically professional in tone, had begun to allow room for a little harmless talk of this nature. Playful conversations like this helped us to relax after the demands of a busy working day.

However, eight or nine months after she had joined us, Lisa disappeared from the house with a footman. This kind of thing is, unfortunately, a normal part of life for any butler of a large house. It is extremely annoying when it happens, but one learns to accept it.

They had also both left letters. The footman, whose name I cannot remember, left a short note addressed to me. It said something like, Please do not think too badly of us. We are in love and are going to get married. Lisa had written a much longer note addressed to 'the Housekeeper'. Miss Kenton brought this note into my office the morning after their disappearance. The letter, which was full of spelling and grammar mistakes, talked about how much in love the couple were, and their plans for a future life together. One line said: We don't have money but who cares we have love and who wants anything else we've got one another. Although the letter was three pages long, Lisa did not once thank Miss Kenton for the kindness she had shown her.

Miss Kenton was clearly upset. As I was reading the young woman's letter, she sat at the table before me, looking at her hands. When I had put the letter down on the table, she said:
'So, Mr Stevens. It seems you were right and I was wrong.'

'Miss Kenton, there is no reason for you to blame yourself. These things happen.'

'I was wrong, Mr Stevens. I accept it.'

'Miss Kenton, I cannot agree with you. You achieved great things with that girl. You must not blame yourself for anything.'

Miss Kenton continued to look unhappy. She said very quietly:
'You're very kind, Mr Stevens. I'm very grateful.' Then she said, in a tired voice:
'She's so foolish. She might have had a real career ahead of her. She had ability. So many young women like her throw away their chances, and for what?'

We both looked at the notepaper on the table between us, then Miss Kenton turned her head away with annoyance.

'Indeed,' I said. 'Such a waste, as you say.'

'So foolish. And the girl is sure to be disappointed. She could have become a housekeeper one day, but she's thrown it all away. All for nothing.'

'It really is most foolish of her,' I agreed.

I started to gather up the sheets of paper in front of me, planning to keep them in my office, but then I hesitated. I was not sure whether Miss Kenton had intended me to keep the letter or not. I therefore put the pages back down on the table between us and looked at Miss Kenton. But she seemed far away, lost in thought.
'She's sure to be disappointed,' she said again. 'So foolish.'