Note: I’ve changed names of family members here, because not everyone likes to have his/her information on the Internet.

To use the phrase that Garrison Keillor has been opening his monologues with for the past 30 years, It’s been a quiet week  — in Coventry. This fortnight of house-sitting for my brother and his girlfriend (ahem!) had always been planned as a quiet time, a break after the relentless adventure of my summer in Macedonia, Hungary, and Turkey.

The week before arriving in Coventry I spent in London, a city so ready for the Olympics that it is crouched on the starting line, waiting for the shot. I sprint-limped through West Hampstead and Covent Garden and the West End; I went to a family party the home of my aunt and her partner, where I met heaps of near-relatives and played giant-pick-up-sticks with them and took photos of men with their shirts off, playing badminton in the freezing cold midsummer afternoon, in between rain showers;  I ate Thai food with my urbane and nervewrackingly witty cousins at an old, Tudor-I-think place named the best pub  in London (2004); I stayed at Fluffy Towers, April’s  three-storeyed London version  of Uncle Bill’s house on the hill in Switzerland – always open to waifs and strays; I saw Billy Eliot on the same day I took the Tube back to Heathrow to track down my lost laptop; my darling cousin April took me to The Eye for the ride of my life, and I who claim not to be impressed by views was elated and delighted; we walked past the Houses of Parliament under the full moon and  found a gorgeous yet groovy old pub no doubt well known to London’s Hansard reporters; we laughed a lot, and at the end of the week I was very happy and very tired.

Coventry then was to be a sedate and settled time, time to do a lot of hotel reviews and a few CURVE and PERCEPTIVE TRAVEL assignments and catch up on blogging and sleep and wash my clothes and rest my knee. It’s been great – I’ve written most of every day, and I’ve earned money and sold article ideas and met deadlines and earned the trust of  two large, fluffy, hard-to-get-to-know cats, Polly (left) and Dylan (below).

I’ve made jam (well, syrup) from a recipe demonstrated by my brother, with damsons grown in the backyard. I’ve eaten my own weight in blackberries and brushed away my own weight in cat hairs. I’ve saved spiders from the cats and thrown away the carcass of a dead bird that I was too late to save.

A few days ago, as I was tidying up the garden, I remembered a dream from a few months ago  about “finding a home,” in which I was given to understand that my true home was in England, in an old house, and it had many blackberries and spiders around it. I looked back at the house – it’s not that old. But it still felt like home, at least for a little while.

Two days before they left, Rose (my brother’s girlfriend, ahem) was looking at a list of what to pack, and she mentioned something about putting the papers into the cases. I glanced at the list and saw that it said “divorce papers.” Oh, I said, were they taking those just in case there was any trouble at immigration?

“No,” she said, engagingly.  And then I knew that she and my brother were getting married; or at least, as she cautioned me to think of it, they planned to if everything went well…

Nothing could have made me happier, and I told her so. I’ve never seen my older brother so relaxed and comfortable than he has seemed here with Rose in Coventry.  He’s quit smoking and cut down on his drinking and lost weight – he seems 20 years younger and many degrees more healthy than when he met her, around 2003.

The plan was for the two to get married in the USA, with my parents and Michael’s kids in attendance – none of them knew about the wedding but all had been requested to show up by  4 pm on the chosen day, for an evening, outdoor ceremony.  I was sorry not to be able to go, but Rose assured me that my taking care of the cats made it possible for them to leave the house and relax about their animals, and I know how important such reassurance  is to a good vacation (let alone marriage).

I was happy to get this image (from a phone camera) a few days ago:

The same day, Neil, Rose’s son, sent me a FB friend request, saying “Aunt get!”  After a few moments of pondering, I caught on: it was cool-young-person’s game-speak for “Receive new auntie.” I was pleased to be so initiated and welcomed to the family.

In the past 16 days  I’ve  left the house only  four  times:  thrice visiting Sainsbury’s Superstore ,  twice the local car-boot sale, and once the hospital walk-in clinic. I’ve been resting my knee and my feet and have seen some improvement in all three; I’ve also been gaining weight from eating tea and biscuits as I write, but you can’t have everything in a staycation in Eastern Green.

Yesterday, after my biggest outing so far I arrived “home” feeling cheerful and glad to get in from the usual rain. I’d taken three buses to get back from the Sainsbury’s, thus saving myself a £5 taxi fare and a long walk, and I had bought interesting things at the car-boot sale and nice food for the week ahead.

I came in, dropped my bags on one of the couches in the living room, and said hello to a cat that wanted to go out. I let her out, took some food into the kitchen and put it away, unwrapped my car-boot booty, put a little pot of parsley in the back garden, did some dishes, let a cat in and/or out through the kitchen door, and topped up the cats’ food bowls. I also put the telly on for 10 minutes to see if New York was still on the map, ate some lunch (Sainsbury’s take-away  salad and pasta, very nice too) and checked my email. At some point  I went upstairs, put away my daypack, moved a cat and stripped the sheets off Michael and Rose’s bed, did a load of laundry, and so on and so forth and up and down and back and fro and somewhere in that time, I lost Michael’s keys.

I realized that they were gone about 4 pm, and spent the next 4 and ½ hours looking for them. I looked not only on all the logical places but also all the illogical ones, such as in drawers I’d never opened and in appliances I’ve never used. I picked through the garbage and recycling bins. I checked the pockets of all my clothes – not just the ones I was wearing that day – many times. I emptied out my daypack and shook it upside down. I searched the cats’ cupboard, the cats, the couches, the kitchen, utility room, bathroom, and study. I looked on top of things I can’t reach the top of and lay on the floor to peer under heavy furniture.

This keyring is big – when I am carrying it (or as I should say, when I used to carry it) it would weigh down the pocket of my jacket or make my pants sag to one side. It had about 10 keys on it, including 2 old-fashioned big ones, as well as a No. 1 Dad fob that one of Michael’s kids had no doubt  given him 20-odd years ago and which he had treasured ever since.  It is not easy to lose such a large, shiny, significant and heavy collection, yet I’d done it without even thinking about it. (I am starting to think that my losing things is a kind of disease – just two weeks ago I lost my laptop. Less than a year ago my two silver rings from Nicole. And now this.)

Although I wouldn’t be able to replace the keyring, I reasoned, at least I can get replacements made for the keys. This is not an irrevocable error, just an expensive one.  And if the keys can’t be replaced – for example, if I had the only copy of the key to the gate padlock – the locks can be replaced. There is no limit to the number of things I might need to replace as a result of this loss (if not locks, then doors and windows…perhaps foundations or retaining walls, too). I  am prepared to do so, especially since I know that moments after I’ve reproduced every single missing key, the originals will turn up, either in the pocket of the pants I was wearing yesterday, or on the front doorstep.

I beseeched friends on Facebook to use their psychic (or non-psychic) abilities, and Neil, Rose’s son, saw my post and rang me and we had a long, amusing chat about the nature of loss (or material objects) and their likely hiding places. He offered, “If tomorrow comes and if you want to go out and if you want a spare set of keys, let me know and I’ll bring them round to you.” I asked him if those were three separate dependent clauses – that is, was the first one the question of whether or not the next day would come?  We digressed into  our practical need for time machines, whether or not tomorrow would come, or if we might be caught in an endless Groundhog-Day loop of my looking for the keys and asking him for help and then looking for the keys some more and asking him for help…”in which case,” he concluded, “you and I will have this conversation over and over and over…”

This morning (which did come), I continued my efforts. In the past two days I’ve tidied up this house more than it’s been tidied since the owners left. I stripped two beds, flipped the mattress in the room I’m sleeping in, emptied the dryer and the dishwasher (which I never use) and cleaned out the fridge. I’ve straightened everyone’s papers and books and put away half a dozen cups and glasses. I shaken out rugs that I washed last week. I’ve nearly done my back kneeling down and peering under and lifting heavy furniture.

About midday, there was a knock on the (main) front door. I couldn’t open it, but I opened the door to the utility room to see Neil, proffering spare keys. He said he was in the neighbourhood on an errand and thought I might want to go out, and he offered his eyes.

Being a computer game designer, he is a professional problem-solver and no slouch at logical thinking, and I was grateful for his help. He looked everywhere he could think of, including places I had not considered such as the (empty) magazine rack by the couch and in the Harry-Potter cupboard under the stairs, which I did not know existed. He helped me flip the mattress , and he investigated drawers and cupboards that I had never seen, let alone touched.

Neil thinks that Dylan, the male cat, has found the keys on the floor and playfully dragged them somewhere out of sight. (That’ll teach me to call him ‘Silly Dylan’!) As evidence, Neil has pointed out that he has witnessed Dylan dragging a large rug across the living room before – he’s a strong and enterprising cat. I think a magpie or a crow has taken the nice shiny keys from the back garden.  As evidence, I mentioned hearing a crow crow loudly yesterday afternoon.  I don’t think either of us is convinced by the other’s theory.  Hell, I’m not convinced by my theory.

The good part, though, was that after Neil left, I found myself saying under my breath not, “They have to be SOMEWHERE,” as has been my mantra for the past 20 hours, but “What a sweetie.”  How good of him it was to not only offer to bring me spare keys if I needed them and asked him to, but to actually pop by with them, and not only offer to help me look but actually do it, convincingly and conclusively. When the physical search was over, he gamely tried to help me deduce where the lost keys might be. Best of all, he wasn’t a bit critical of me and in fact assured me that he and his family lose things all the time – his father had rung him just that morning saying he’d lost his wallet. Neil appeared most concerned that “These things happen in threes,” and that the next mishap might be his.

He treated the whole sorry incident like an intriguing puzzle rather than a failure of my common sense, and he was a good sport about trying to help me win. He took time out of his bank holiday, and he helped me turn a mattress and otherwise tear the house apart looking for something I’d lost – and he gave me his spare keys.

I was pretty embarrassed about the whole thing, and knew he must think I’m really flakey – which I am. I felt that this brilliant young man, whom I’ve only just met a week ago and to whom I am now officially related – he’s  my step-nephew! – would realize that his new step-aunt is not much of a gain for the family. I just hated looking so dopey.  It didn’t help at all that while Neil was here, I misplaced the OTHER key to one of the back doors (that one, though, turned up in my pocket after only 10 minutes of being gone).

I was so grateful for Neil’s support and generous spirit, and because of it,  I  realized that I didn’t have to be embarrassed about being dumb and disorganized. It’s okay for me to be dumb and disorganized. I’d been worried that Michael and Rose would be sorry that they’d let me housesit (I’ve also burnt a pot, broken a mug, and temporarily mislaid a cat in the time I’ve been here), and that next time they wanted to go on holiday they’d go back to paying someone a large amount to come in and feed the pets twice a day.

But I don’t think they will, now that I’ve spoken to Neil about the catastrophe. He was so understanding, and I think maybe Rose & Michael will be, too.  They’ve just had an opportunity to see something about me that I would have preferred to keep hidden (actual a whole complex of things, including my utter ineptitude with keys, my poor memory, my lack of organizational skills, my tendency to lose stuff), but they’re not going to kick me out of their lives or reject me because of it. I guess, like a lot of people, I try to hide parts of myself, but it’s a great relief, after accidental exposure, not to be rejected.  I must be part of a family.