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The Attendant

Jehangir Jilani

Extract from a novel

‘Where’s your Mummy, Henry?’ Ellie asked.

The boy must have been about four. He was a wretched thing – tears rolled down his hard-boiled face, which strained at the effort of vacuum sealing his mouth. He’d been standing in the main room at Russell House, fearfully peering into the smaller side room where Ellie was working. His eyes were already brimming and when Ellie went up and smiled at him, the dam shattered. She had set him on her stool, his red trainers rapidly arcing in the void. It had taken a while to tease out his name.

‘It’s OK Henry, everything will be fine. Did Mummy or Daddy bring you here?’ He nodded. ‘Mummy and Daddy?’ she asked.

A shrill spiked out from his nose, then lowered to his lips as he pulled them in to make a ‘MMMmmmm’ sound.


He nodded. Tears rolled down his chin.

‘And your brothers and sisters?’

He nodded. Two drops fell to the floor.

‘Come on, captain, we’re going for a little walk.’ She lifted him on to the ground and took him by the hand into the bright space of the main gallery. Marta was on patrol.

‘Hi Marta,’ Ellie said. ‘I’m just helping this very brave young man to find his Mummy, who has left him all by himself. Isn’t that nice of her?’

‘O!’ said Marta. ‘Poor niño!’ She rubbed his head with a fleshy palm and walked to the edge of the side rooms.

Ellie led her little friend towards the small foyer, the tread of his trainers creaking on the wooden floor. Under the solemn skylights his blond hair had aged to white. There were fewer people than normal in Russell House; the sun had kept them outside, where this child belonged.

‘Did you like the pictures, Henry?’ she said. He shook his head. ‘No, I didn’t think so. Your Mummy brings you to a boring gallery and then leaves you. What a brave boy you’ve been today. Let’s hope she’s not too far.’

There was a tall woman at the reception, leaning over the high counter and bending the ear of the new intern, Sally, whose nervous tick of pressing her red glasses against the ridge of her nose was on rapid repeat. Three children were holding hands, nervously picket-lining the gallery’s exit. Henry jolted to life at the sight of the family and Ellie let him run ahead. The woman laced a slender arm around him and pinched his chin firmly.

‘Henry, thank God,’ she said, crouching down. ‘Didn’t I tell you to keep together? This is what happens when you don’t listen to me.’ Henry was set to start crying again. The woman jerked a nod at Ellie and ushered the child towards the others.

‘Bye Henry,’ Ellie said. He managed to raise the back of his hand as he was bundled out of the large teak doors. Ellie was walking back to the galleries when she heard Mr Pritchard’s voice calling her from the entrance.

‘Ellie, my dear. A moment of your time. Permit me to introduce you to someone.’ Behind Mr Pritchard stood the Russian man who had come up to her the other day in the sales gallery. ‘This is Sergey. He’s a friend of Russell House.’

‘Enchanted to meet you,’ he said. His cheeks had caught some of the sunshine and they swelled slightly as if a laugh were close behind. He stretched out a hand. Ellie hesitated, but with Mr Pritchard right there she took it. Sergey clasped her knuckle and for an awful moment she thought he was going to kiss it, but he released his grip. Her hand hung pathetically for a second before she let it drop dead weight to her side.

‘Sergey is keen to add to his exquisite art collection,’ said Mr Pritchard.

Sergey chuckled. ‘Yes I have a space somewhere in my dacha to the west of Moscow,’ he said.

‘Would you be so kind, Ellie, to give Sergey a little tour of our new work for sale? Should we say around five?’ He turned to Sergey who acknowledged confirmation. ‘Yes, five would be splendid, and of course that would fit in marvellously with our little drinks party. Thanks so much Ellie.’ They left her standing by the desk.

‘That poor boy,’ said Sally. Ellie stared at her, unable to grasp what she meant.


In the lower level at Russell House a handful of visitors were viewing the paintings for sale, hurriedly ticking off the final display before the gallery closed. Ellie walked with Sergey round the room. He was slightly overweight but had a fluidity of movement that belied his girth. She uttered a few words when they passed each print and painting. Sergey was nothing but polite, asking relevant questions in good humour. In the silences he smiled pleasantly.

They passed two large prints, a cityscape and a portrait. ‘Here we have new work from Hugo Vass,’ Ellie said, ‘a German artist with a studio in East London. Many of his prints are textured with some sort of effect, these are from bacteria – the artist grew his own in an incubator. It creates both an apocalyptic vision of the city and dissociates the woman’s face.’

‘Hugo Vass,’ Sergey said. ‘I know that name. I think I have met him somewhere. Yes, I remember the bacteria. My dacha is a big house near the woods and is a happy place in summertime. I don’t think I wish to see a large picture of bacteria when I’m eating sausages.’

‘Are you hoping to buy something for your kitchen?’

‘Kitchen, living room, dining room. We eat wherever we like – we are not bound by any tradition. This is boring. I would be very interested to see some of your work.’

‘My work? I’m an attendant in the gallery.’

‘Of course, of course. But Mr Pritchard tells me you have studied art. You must do something more than this. I won’t believe it if you tell me different.’

Ellie turned to him. His features were slightly compressed which seemed to hide his eyes in shadow. There was a vigour about his complexion and he had a defined paunch; the pros and cons of good living.

‘I like it here; there are always things to do. Sometimes I work in a studio, but only on pieces for commission. We’re a group of art students all doing the same thing, like a selection of clay flowers for a new play. No scope for personal touches. Nothing that would interest you.’

‘I could help you get work, a lot more work. I have many contacts, people who owe me favours, people who will listen. Some very interesting projects. This man Hugo Vass for instance. I could get you an introduction. People don’t say no to me. They know better than that.’

Ellie picked at the buckle of her belt. ‘I don’t think so. I don’t accept favours from people I’ve just met. It’s not how I do things.’

‘How do you like to do things? Stand in a gallery all day and think about getting a break? It doesn’t sound like much of a plan to me.’

‘Friends! Do take a glass.’ Mr Pritchard strode over with two flutes of champagne. Sally the intern trailed behind, holding a platter with two more laid on top. Mr Pritchard handed them out and made everyone clink; Sergey’s benign smile roared at Ellie when their glasses touched.

The four moved to an adjacent room where the attendant Marta was talking with a senior member of the management team. An elderly couple, Jim and Mary, were also there. They wore matching tweed jackets; Jim’s had faded leather patches at the elbows. The pair spent their retirement travelling the world and buying art. Mr Pritchard held a set of keys to their house in Kensington and whenever they were abroad Ellie placed a recently bought work on their huge dining table where it remained, waiting to greet them like a new member of the family on their return. Ellie helped herself to skewered chicken and a small disc of quiche from a side table and went over to hear about their latest trip to Vietnam.

After an hour of chat about the authenticity of London’s beef pho’s, the joy of playing hide and seek with anxious parents for lost children, and the habit of men staring at attendants’ breasts as if they were part of the exhibition, Ellie believed she had fulfilled her duties for the evening. She approached Mr Pritchard, who was talking with Sergey, and gave her excuses.

‘So sorry you’re leaving us, my dear,’ said Mr Pritchard. ‘Get home safe.’

‘Which part of London do you live?’ Sergey asked.

‘In the south, near Brixton,’ Ellie answered. The question needled her.

‘Oh, me too!’ said Sally. ‘I’ll come with you.’

‘Why don’t you both take my car?’ said Sergey. ‘My driver is waiting outside, trying to learn English from the radio. He’s beginning to talk like a DJ.’ Mr Pritchard and Sally laughed. ‘I will take a taxi home.’

Ellie was going to object but Mr Pritchard thought it an excellent idea, ‘most generous of our Russian friend.’ The matter was settled.


The black Mercedes was an inscrutable bundle of shiny curves and tinted windows. One of them sank smoothly and the driver greeted them with a tip of the hat. Sergey, who had rung from the gallery, had been right – he was listening to the radio. Ellie and the intern stepped into the rear and placed their bags between each other on the black leather seats.

‘We go to Brixton?’ said the driver.

The women gave him street names.

‘It’s awfully decent of Sergey to do this for us, he’s a real sweetie,’ said Sally.

A glass pane separated passengers from the driver; Ellie checked the speaker switch was unlit. ‘I don’t think we’ll save any time driving through Central London at this hour,’ she said. ‘We may as well have taken the tube.’

‘A bit of luxury is always welcome. And it’s great to see how the other half live, don’t you think?!’

Ellie grunted in reply.

They drove by the parks, through Victoria and across Vauxhall Bridge. The car was long; Ellie could stretch her legs out and her shoes wouldn’t touch the far seats. She noticed that the driver manoeuvred the large vehicle effortlessly. He seemed to know every turn, angle and lane to drive in, and the precise moment to change positions. It was a skill she’d previously only seen among drivers of black cabs.

Unprovoked, Sally spoke about her college folk-art sculpting project and how she was trying to convince Mr Pritchard to invest more in the medium. Ellie was drawn to the streets and the faces of those on the outside, at their inability to see the eyes of the one observing them. The journey allowed her to drop deeper into the anonymity of the city.

Sally got out in central Brixton, close to the Underground station. A few minutes later the car reached Ellie’s destination and she thanked the driver.

The street contained squat, two-storey Victorian houses. Ellie walked alongside a rolling low wall topped with angular hedges and pushed silently though a gate. A light was on in one of the upstairs rooms but it was the ground floor darkness that had drawn her in. At the outer door Ellie stood frozen in amber, key in hand. She glanced around; the car had turned the corner and was heading north. Her home was two streets away. She began to walk, then burst into a sprint.


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