Friday, May 11, 2012
First light filtered lazily in through the attic window. I am glad that winter has finally left its grasp of us. The damp, constant present of chilled draughts surrounding me has only been replaced b the lack of ventilation and heat radiating from the roof tiles. But I am thankful all the same. With no fireplace in winter, I’m nearly crushed by the weight of any material I can use to cover myself, thought the shivering generally means it finds it way to the floor in the early hours of the morning. In the summertime, I must cope with the sweltering evenings. Spring, especially May, is my favourite time of year. Especially today.
I throw the covers from me and push myself up. The rough floor boards are freezing. I creep over to the water-set and splash a small amount of liquid into the deep bowl. My fingers trace the chipped rim and run down to circle the delicate floral design on the side. It’s more grand than anything the Reeve in my home village may have had, despite the cracks and chips.
I glance upwards and give thanks for the kindness her Ladyship has shown me. Although the food is far less appetising than what is served on the Lord’s table, at least I know I have a meal every day. Much more than most folk can say.
I tease out the tiny sliver of soap from its dish and make a luxurious lather before scrubbing my face clean. I try not to feel a tingle of pride as my fingers whisper along the skin on my face. A maid’s work is hard with long hours, but it keeps me out of the harsh sun. My complexion is still as dewy as a twelve year olds and for that I give further thanks for my position at the Manor.
I slip on my best dress. Its cold as it shimmies down my frame and I realise that its a little tight across the chest. The moment I wonder if Thomas would notice, I blush deeply and put the baker’s apprentice out of my mind.
I loosen my hair from the thick plat and brush it fiercely with the whale bone comb the young mistress flung out the window in one of her rages. I flick my hair up, sweeping it into a bun and secure it tightly on my crown, ensuring no wisps escape around my ears. Her Ladyship will inspect all of the staff before they set off to their Mother Churches this morning. She warned us that if a thread or hair were out of place, she would not allow us to leave as it would bring shame on her name.
I decide to loop a shawl around my shoulders as it will hide the puckered material across my chest. With my sturdiest boots in my hand, I creep down the stairs and make my way down to the kitchen. Dawn has just broken and I can only imagine her Ladyships displeasure should she be woken by my clomping heels above her.
I shiver with delight, anticipating the freedom once I leave the Manor Gates. The world is seen through the gratings of the kitchen windows or from atop in my attic room. I see the well to do folk promenade up and down the streets, hear the hiss and crackle of the gas lanterns at night. One day a year I too can experience this world outside the Manor.
Nellie smiles at me as I enter the huge kitchen. She pokes the roaring fire and sucks on her pipe as she points to the steaming kettle set on the table. Blowing a stream of smoke from her nose, I stifle a giggle as I try not to verbalise her dragon nickname. I bob a thanks to her and make a cup of herbal tea. Nellie likes to think she is above the rest of us girls and forces us to cursty first thing in the mornings; as if she was the Mistress of the Manor.
“Yer Simnel Cake is over there luv. It come out real nice too. Shows a dumb cluck like you can learn somethin’ other than to mop a floor.”
I bite back a retort and smile demurely. “Thanks to your good teaching Miss Nellie. My Mam will be pleased.” My herbal tea steeps, its aromatic smoke winds its way around my head.
“Best be on yer way then. You’ve two good hours walk ahead of you to get home and them church bells wait for no-one.”
I look toward the doorway. “But her Ladyship. She - “
Nellie drew a huge breath in through her pipe and formed rings as she exhaled slowly. The other two housegirls crept in and bobbed their greetings.
“Her Ladyship is indisposed this morning. Put me in charge of your morals and whatnot.” Nellie tapped out the ash of her pipe on her shoe. She squinted at the three of us. “I don’t reckon I needs to be telling you how to behave today.”
I shook my head vigorously. A tiny bead of sweat tricked down my back. The only day in the year house staff were allowed to leave the Manor was Mothering Sunday. Christmas, Easter and all other festivals were simply days were there were more guests to feed and clean up after. I chide myself for feeling so hard done by. Other members of my extended family were taken in as apprentices in factories or continue to work on the land in farms and dairies. Although its true that in no other trade that there is a lack of personal freedom, I remind myself that the benefits of living under the care of the Manor far outweighs the limitations. Her Ladyship does not tolerate friendships around the kitchen table, with certainly no laughing or horse play at any time. We work from the time we wake at dawn through till at least 10.30 at night; ceasing only for a meal break. I miss the sunshine, though in London, the grey days never extend to bright skies. Our only break of the week is the walk to church and bible study afterwards. I give thanks again for our Ladyships broad mindedness which allowed the housemaids time on the Sunday afternoon to learn to read. For my part, I persevered when the others gave up. I can hardly wait till I embrace my mother and read from the family bible to show her how much I have learnt in the past year.
I glance up at Nellie as she lights her pipe from a long straw kindled at the fireplace. She blows the glowing tip out and sucks at her clay pipe.
“There’ll be no chattin’ to the apprentices along the way, nor stoppin’ in at no hay barns. I’m Nellie, see.” She blows smoke from her nostrils. “And I hear everything. You’ll not be bringing any disrespect on this household by your actions, nor your words.”
We all bobbed and mumbled our agreeance. My fingers were sweaty, but I dared not rub them on my skirt. Once a year I am allowed to visit my mother and the rest of my family. Once a year, we were allowed to venture to the village we were born in. Through the generosity of our mistresses, we were allowed to bake and decorate a special fruit cake and deliver it to our mother. A twitch of an eyelid or speck of dirt on the hem of a skirt could mean that privilege were take away and another 365 days would pass before the opportunity was place before us again.
With a sickening realisation, I remember my boots are still in one hand. My bare feet curl on the flagstone flooring. I bend my knees a little to ensure my toes don’t poke out or are discovered. A bang at the door jolts Nellie from her scowling regard of our presentation.
“Just like the butcher to be early for once.” Nellie set her pipe down on the table. “Well, get your cakes and wrap them securely with those bindings over there. Would be no good if all your hard work landed upside down on a country lane now would it?”
The door banged again.
“No-one will be looking for those squares tonight when you get back. A clever seamstress could fashion a nice blouse for themselves from them.”
Adele frowned. I bumped her with my elbow and shusshed the question as it formed in her mouth. We quickly bound our cakes for our journey and farewelled one another.
“Daisy.” Nellies voice ripped panic through my heart.
I turned, careful to hide my boots and to bend my knees so that my feet remained hidden.
“You might want to put yer boots on before you are leaving the Manor. We don’t want anyone getting the wrong impression about the housemaids.”
I met her eyes. “Happy Mothering Sunday Nellie.”
“Don’t you be telling anyone Nellie has gone soft. Now be on your way before I change my mind.”