Polly put the kettle on. Black kettle on the black hob. Black against the black and white of her uniform. Maid of the house. Servant of all. She put the kettle down carefully, not wanting to burn or scald as she did as a child. Her hand, seven-year-old hand, burned, pink to red. Her mother put butter on it. Her father moaned about the expense, said, “Oughta mind where she put her damned hand.” Gone now. He died. Good riddance. Polly smiled and stood back.
Listened for sounds. None yet. Too early. Upstairs slept late. Downstairs, she, Mrs Gripe, and Dudman each did their thing in a dull silence. She moved around the kitchen keeping her eye on Gripe, whose mouth moaned constantly like a dripping tap. Fat woman Gripe who ate as she cooked for those upstairs. Lazy gits, Polly mused. Mistress Elmore, Lady of some sort, dull-witted as a broom, nose bird-like, mouth yakked like silver spoon type. Polly touched a cup. Felt the smoothness of the whiteness and the flowered pattern. It sat in a saucer of said pattern. She lifted them to her lips and held out her small finger. Gripe in the larder. Lifted to her lips and poured daintily imagined tea with her finger outwards. She smiled and put down the cup and saucer gently and looked at the teapot. Bone china. Expensive. Cost a year’s wages no doubt she mused. She lifted the lid. Tealeaves waiting for hot water. She looked around her. Gripe still out of sight. Polly spat in the teapot and put the lid back on.
“Don’t stand about, girl,” Gripe moaned, waddling back from the larder, her bust three steps ahead of her nose. “Plenty to do,” Gripe added pointing about with her stumpy finger.
Polly nodded her head, her white cap moved slightly. Her hands folded against her stomach waiting for work. “Just waiting,” Polly said.
“For what?” Gripe said.
“Water to boil,” Polly said. Gripe pulled a face, looked at the kettle, black against the hob’s blackness. “Make her tea,” Polly said.
“Her?” Gripe said. “Her? Lady Elmore is not a her.” Gripe heaved up her bust and waddled off to the cupboard for something. “Where’s that Susie?” Gripe asked, back turned, backside like a bull.
“In the scullery,” Polly replied, “preparing something or looking for something.” Polly pulled a face at Gripe’s backside. Stuck up her fingers.
Susie was called. Gripe’s voice like foghorn in a mist. Dudman trotted in as if he’s got haemorrhoids. Stared at Gripe and glared at Polly. Looked around the kitchen. Nose raised for smells. Ears cocked for sounds. Hands held church-like under his chin thinking.
“Polly,” he said, “idle hands, make work for the Devil.” Scanned his eyes over Polly’s attire. The white cap hanging out of place. The hair dragged together hastily as if straight from bed without brush or care. His eyes ran over her, taking in her eyes, her chin, her still hands, her legs shapely beneath the black and white uniform. “Get that teapot warmed. Cup and saucer ready?” said Dudman, moving away from Polly searching for Susie.
Gripe dragged a huge saucepan to the hob, her muscled arms like a labourer’s. Polly went to the kettle and felt the side. Steam began to ease from the spout. She looked at Gripe. Fat cow, mused Polly, preparing to move the kettle to the teapot. Hot handle. Decided to hold with a cloth.
Susie entered the kitchen pushed in by Dudman, his finger poking her back. Susie took off the kettle and looked at Polly. “Make the tea,” bellowed Dudman, pointing to the teapot. Polly removed the teapot lid and Susie poured in the steaming water to mix with the tealeaves and spit.
Gripe moaned. Dudman listened. Sounds from upstairs. Voices from afar. Susie put the lid on the teapot. Polly placed it on a tray with the cup and saucer and sugar bowl and milk jug and silver teaspoon.
“You, girl,” Gripe moaned, pointing at Susie, “take the breakfast tray up presently. Polly can take up the tea.” Susie nodded, stood back arms folded. Polly lifted the tray and walked to the door. Dudman glared at her. Gripe stared at Susie. “Open the door for her,” Gripe said. Susie came to life, ran to the door, and opened it. Polly winked. Susie nodded. The door closed as Polly ascended the stairs the back way, the servant’s staircase. The below stairs way.
Polly carried the tray to the foot of the stairs. She looked up at the flight of carpeted stairs and sighed. I’ve been up and down these damned stairs at their beck and call since I started this job. Maid. Servant. Skivvy to the lazy sods. She put her first foot on the stair. Her back shoe unclean; her black stocking had a hole on the ankle revealing a spot of flesh. Mrs Gripe would have a go if she saw that. Darn it she’d say. Get those idle fingers of yours to work my girl. Silly fat crab. Sighed. Polly do this, Polly do that.
Lifted second foot on the stair. She held the tray steady against her bosom. The teapot slid slowly. The cup and saucer shifted too. Grabbed sugar bowl. Placed her chin on teapot lid and steadied her balance. Looked at the stairs. Sighed. Raised the tray slowly and held hard against her stomach. Breathed hard.
Lifted her foot on to another stair. Saw a mouse last month just at the top landing. Almost dropped the tray and broke the precious china. Her ladyship came out in her nightgown and bellowed,” Perkins! What are you doing? You’ll raise the dead with such noise.” She looked like the dead herself. Face like a wet flannel. Hair sticking out all over the place.
Lifted her second foot on to the next stair. Darn that hole. Flesh to flesh. Susie just behind now. Carrying another tray with the breakfast. Poked in the back with the said tray. “What’s taking you so long?” said Susie.
Looked back. Pulled a face. Poked a tongue. Sighed. “Quiet or old Gripe’ll be up here,” Polly muttered. Moved further to the next stair. Susie stopped and juggled her tray. She fidgets in bed at night. Huddled together against the bloody cold in the attic. Her feet in the back. Her breath down the neck. Her cold hands round the waist. Skinny bitch.
Raised feet up the remaining stairs. Tray balanced between stomach and breast. Cup and saucer moved. Teapot steadied, but sugar bowl shook against left tit. Breathed hard. Eyes stared at tray and then on top stair and then the landing. No mouse. Thank God. Looked back. Susie pulled a face. Poked a tongue. Her tray chock full of breakfast. She moved upward. Her eyes hard down on the tray. Hands gripped about the thing. Feet moved. Brown carpet against Black and white of the uniform. Her cap white. Her face pale. Her lips bitten by her teeth in concentration.
Stood outside the door. Tray balanced on stomach. Raised hand formed into a fist ready to knock. Hesitated. Fist poised. Tray between stomach and breast. Tap gently. Want to hammer door down. However, tap gently. Tap.
Susie on the top step. Poked the back. Giggled softly. Silly cow. Tapped again. No response. Tap a little louder. No response. Susie giggled. Poked the back. Hard knuckle against the wood. Tap, tap, and tap.
Susie sighed. Arms ached. Hands shook. Sniffing sound. Susie’s cold. All night sniff, sniff. “Where’s she got to?” Susie said. “Perhaps she’s dead.” Wishful thinking. No such. Tray shook. Noise of rattling. Giggled. Sniffed.
Tapped again. Teacup and saucer moved. Teapot spout touching left breast. Memories. Years since. Come on old crab. Sound of movement. Whispers. Voice behind door. From the bed no doubt. “Come in!” Susie smiled. Goofy grin. Silly beggar. Sniff, sniff.
Opened door and entered. Her ladyship up in bed; hands on knees, face stern as sour grapes. Tray steadied. Moved to foot of the bed and stared. The dull eyes peer. The lips moved. The voice reed thin said,” On the side table, Perkins.”
“Yes, madam,” Polly said. Moved tray with hands to said table and put down gently. Stand and gaze at flannel face.
Susie entered. Sniff, sniff. Face stiff. Eyes down on her tray. Lips bitten by teeth. “Here, Simmons, here, girl,” said reed voice. Susie took the tray to the bed. Hands shook. Nose dripped. Face stiff as cardboard. Looked and gaped. Tray placed on bed. Hands fall to side. Face motionless. Sniffed. Her ladyship flicked fingers to dismiss. Susie curtsied. Sniffed. Wiped nose on sleeve. Polly raised eyes heavenward. Pulled a face. Poked a tongue. Her ladyship breathed daintily. Hand held silver spoon. Lips parted. “You can go, Simmons,” said reedy voice. Turned head gazed. “You, Perkins, wait.”
Susie nodded. Sniffed. Leaves room backwards. Gave a look. Giggle held in check. Door closed. Sneeze. Sniff. Cold attic. Frozen hands on waist. Feet like blocks of ice on back. Cold. Sniff, sniff down the stairs. Gone. Good riddance, silly fish-face. Sniff, sniff until out of earshot. Silence, except for the lady’s slobbering lips. The hand and the silver spoon. The eyes cold as Susie's feet. Ignored until needed. Polly motionless. Feet unfrozen. Hands by side. Stiff as soldiers. No such luck. No such luck.
Polly waited. Eyes settled on the wall opposite. Now and again secretly, the eyes moved to the lips and the lifted spoon. Silver spoon slightly tainted, not her job, but Dudman would blame her. Stiff necked and pinched-faced. The lady’s eyes met Polly’s. Coldness as if touched by a corpse. The head held so. The chin poised as if half way between words. The nose lifted for scent; the ears for sounds. Polly’s eyes averted. The mind full of tricks. The waiting game. How long between slurps, she wondered. The lips parted as if words were about to be spilt out, but none came. The hand raised; the spoon paused. Sighed, the lady. Polly held in check the ever-ready smile; the grin settled behind her mask of solemnity. The hands held in front of her stomach; clutched in a prayer gesture; fingers entwined. What a face she’s got on her, Polly mused. What a sight for sore eyes, she mused deeper, thinking of his Lordship away in the country, and Master George off somewhere with his regiment, out of sight and out of touch. Thank the Lord for that, Polly thought, lifting her chin, sensing the ache in her back with the stiffness of it all.
“Tea, Perkins!” the lady said. The tray emptied. Moved to one side. Eyes on Polly; on how she moved; how the uniform seemed drab; the girl such a mess, Lady Elmore thought, taking a breath, settling back against her pillow. Polly moved. The tray of tea things in her hands steadied; the eyes on the bed; and where to place the damned thing, she mused, sensing the eyes on her critical, a sigh breathed out. Laid tray gently on the bed as if baby in a cradle had to be laid there instead of tea, jug, and such things. The lady’s head nodded; the eyes settled on the cup and saucer; the teapot; the sugar bowl and jug. Elmore wants it poured, Polly mused, moving forward, placing finger on teapot, arranging teacup, and saucer just so, turning all to be in reach.
“Pour, Perkins,” The lady said. Head to one side as if she were a bird awaiting a worm. Polly nodded. Sighed under breath. Let hand gently move cup; lift teapot above at an angle; not to let drips fall in the lap; not allow hot tea to scald. The thought, held in check like grin and amusement, permitted the task to be done with the solemnity she’d practised, repeatedly in her sleep. Could sleep now. Coldness in her bones from attic and bed. Susie and her damned cold feet on her back; her grubby fingers around the waist clutching for warmth. The tea poured. The cup settled calm; the spoon, silver and tainted by the side. The lady’s fingers lifted the milk jug. Poured with daintiness; held between the two fingers; poised as if about to dance some ballet in miniature.
Polly watched. Sighed softly. Sensed dampness between armpits; felt her stomach rumble; her eyes scanned the room; the window; the curtains. Such a room she’d never have; never sleep in such a bed; or have scene of greenery and blossoming trees. Polly’s had rooftops and dark walls or dull skies; damp walls and the scent from the chamber pot after a night’s pee. The cup lifted and set before lips. Poised. The hand held in mid air like a bird of prey waiting; the small digit pointing outwards. The other hand rose and waved Polly back to her place. Moved backward. Footsteps slow. Eyes lowered to the floor. Head forward slightly as if waiting her beheading. Polly sensed the wall against her back. Brought her hands over her stomach; settled as if to protect entrance. Master George; hands on and hands off, depending on his mood. Away now, Polly mused, running her tongue over lower lip, taking a small bite of her inner cheek. A cough. Elmore choking on her tea? No such luck. Polly raised the eyes. Elmore closed her eyes. Gone down the wrong way. The tea. Serves her right, Polly mused, hiding a smile. The lady told her to move the tray. And the other one, Susie, dull girl, to take the other. The cough settled. The face flushed. The eyes watery. The hands clutched together like virgin's legs, Polly mused, lifting the tray and curtsying and moving backwards. Holding the tray against her stomach, she opened the door, then out in the passageway she closed it with a gentleness of a tap on the back of a child. Sighed. Grinned. Poked out a tongue. Moved to the top of the landing and stared at the stairs. Susie came upwards. A smile broad as a horse’s backside on her face; her hair gripped poorly trying to escape her cap. Her nose dripping and reddened. Susie stomped the stairs. Giggled behind her hand; pulled a face and nodded towards the far off door where Elmore waited. Let her wait, Susie whispered; let her rot in her bed, Polly mused, remembering cold feet, and a sniffing nose and the coldness embracing her in the attic like death itself enfolding her close in the dark and damp. Smiled. Sighed. Such is life. Life is such. This life.
Polly peeled potatoes; gouged eyes. Sliced through skin; ripped away into the sink. Dudman the butler loomed large pacing beside Gripe the cook. Wish it was his neck, Polly mused. Smiled. Lifted her eyes to the window on the back garden. Air. Fresh air. Turned back to the potato; peeled more.
“Where’s Simmons?” Dudman asked. Polly turned and gazed at him.
“Upstairs.” She held the knife and the potato motionless.
“What’s the girl doing? She’s supposed to be here,” Gripe moaned.
Polly shrugged her shoulders; turned to stare at the sink and potatoes. Gouged the eyes. Imagine it’s Dudman’s neck. Slit slit the knife soft and fast. Mind the fingers. Need them. Sighed.
Susie entered the kitchen; had the look of fear on her face; in her eyes.
“Where have you been girl?” Dudman asked; barked. Stood upright.
“Been doing the backstairs. Dirty with dust,” Susie mumbled; put the broom and dustpan away in the cupboard.
“Took you long enough,” Dudman moaned. Walked to the girl; pulled her towards Gripe at the stove stirring the large saucepan. He stood her at the table; put her hands in the bowl of peas to be shucked and washed. “Work is the way to salvation,” he said, moving away, staring at the girls’ thin back, at her small behind beneath the black dress. Imagined.
Polly imagined Dudman's neck sliced through and his eyes gouged. She smiled. Good riddance. She took a side-glance; caught Susie’s eyes filled with tears. Bastard Dudman and his cruel ways. Ought to be in uniform with others getting his head blown off in the trenches. Poor Susie; poor bitch. Cold feet on her in bed at night. Freezing bloody attic. Share a bed with anyone in such a climate. Huddle huddle cuddle warm. Back embraced in need for warmth.
“Get a move on, Perkins,” Gripe moaned, giving the dark stare, the fat arms folded momentarily away from the stirring. Polly turned away, plunged her hands into the water; grabbed the potato, slit and gouged.
Dudman walked off and out along the passage. Susie put out her tongue at his going; tears washed her eyes. Leaned her stomach on the tableside. Cursed under her breath. Glanced at Polly, smiled weakly. Wanted to hug and hold.
“And when you’ve done that girl, these pots want washing,” Gripe griped. Pulled face like broken glass; wiped her brow with the back of her large mitt. Her bust broad as a battleship heaved and heaved as she moved off into the larder down the passage. Thump thump her large feet away and away.
“Bitch!” Susie moaned, “no rest for the wicked,” smiled weakly.
“He’s back tonight,” Polly whispered.
“Who?” Susie replied, vacant look and folded brow.
“Master George,” Polly said softly, words as butter in her mouth.
“So?” Susie said. “More work, and hands on the backside.”
Polly grinned. More to the man than eyes see. Remembered nights when he was here last on leave. The bed rocking; the kisses; sighs, holding and releasing. “Hope so,” she said, looking for Gripe’s return, hushing her voice in the excitement.
“Who said?” Susie asked, pushing peas out of a shuck.
“Her upstairs, old silver-spoon chops,” Polly said,
Griped returned sour-faced; pushed passed Susie with her broad beam of a backside. Polly turned away to her chore and peeled. Fat cow. Sleep alone rather than with her. Cold or not, freeze rather.
Susie pulled a face, shucked, and pushed peas from the womb of the shuck like babes green and small. Wished her finger could push Gripe’s head from her large shoulders; toss it in the saucepan for her ladyship’s dinner and serve with veg and gravy thick and brown. Smiled. Grinned. Maybe someday. Who knows? Looked at Polly’s back. Huddle huddle warm and cuddle. Not if she’s off to George’s bed, hugging, and such.
Polly thought of soft pillows; George’s scent and smell; the arms about her; between her, him and all. Lovely. Smooth. Love it. Want and want. Nearly caught once. Close thing. Saved the day Master George. Knew what to say, explanations galore he had. Thank God. She smiled in remembrance. The soft pillow; the blankets; sheets embracing her arms and thighs; the Master easing her with his ways and laughs.
Dudman returned grim-faced; passed behind Polly’s back, pressed himself against her in passing. Flesh near but not enough. Felt her backside soft beneath cloth and cloth. Moved on. Sighed. Wished.
“Dinner is to be delayed,” he informed Gripe. “Master George may be later than thought.”
Gripe nodded and sighed softly as if she had wind and eased it out. “Bet he needs his rest. Damn war and all,” she ventured, moving a saucepan onto the stove and another off the range's hotness to cool at the back.
“His Lordship will be back just then, too,” Dudman informed, casting an eye at Susie leaning forward as he passed, feeling her thin frame along the way; reached Gripe’s side to watch; sniffed the air; smell of cooking with a wide smile and folded arms. Gazed at the clock on the high wall. Turned to gaze at Susie; her thin frame; arms moving slow and sluggish. Imagined. Nodded.
Polly peeled and gouged. Hoped and swooned. Sighed; licked her lips with her tongue; thought of him and his; smiled soft as butter melting. Warm and close. Away from the cold attic; Susie’s arms and cold feet on her back; her thin arms embracing against the bite of chill and freeze in their shared bed. Peeled potato. Slit slit bit by bit. Time and tide. Time and tide. And in his arms to hide huddle huddle warm soft cuddle. Smiled. Peeled. Eyes. Clothes. Bed sleep. Perchance to dream soft and warm in George’s arms until dawn’s light or bird’s song catches her ear by pillow’s hold. Polly paused; let her thoughts wander off like playful children; stuck the knife in deep the potato; dug out an eye; balanced it on the tip; twirled it round and round in her wishful desire that simmered and simmered in her secret fire.
Polly stomped the stairs; back stairs; servant’s stairs, dark and dingy. The voice of Mrs Gripe still rang in her ears; the stinging flick of Dudman’s hand still clung to her backside. The Master is home later today, Dudman had said. Now she had to get the room prepared and aired. On the go all the time. No rest for the wicked, as Gripe was always saying. Polly stopped dead on the top of the stairs; stared along the passage. She’d seen a mouse here the other day; it nigh made her wet herself. Nothing. Clear. Sighed with relief.
She opened the door of the Master’s bedroom; smelt the stale air. Smiled. He’d had her here some months back. In that bed as well, she mused pushing the door closed behind her with her rump. She drew the dark-blue curtains; let in the morning light. She opened the window; the cool air of day entered in; flapped about her head.
Gazing at the bed she folded her arms and thought of she and Master George laying there. What Dudman or Gripe would have said she didn’t want to think. "Between you and me," George had muttered. “Not a word outside this room." She smiled again. Sighed. She’d have to make up the bed; tidy the room; make it fit for the Prince himself if he came, she mused, tapping the bed with her fingers. She’d rather sleep here with him, than with Susie with her cold feet and hands, she thought, going out the door to get her mop and bucket and the rest of the things she needed. Poor Susie. Cold as ice she’d be.
Returning with what she needed she started to sweep, dust and mop the floor. She made the bed, polished the woodwork; arranged flowers in a vase by the window. Time passed. Silence alone. No Gripe or Dudman to moan or nag.
She sat on the bed; stared at the pillows and thought of Master George. She brushed her left hand along the bed cover. Leaned forward; kissed the pillow. Sighed deeply.
“Whatcha doing?” Susie said, standing by the doorway.
“None of your business,” Polly said, rising from the bed; glaring at the other maid. “Creeping upon me like that. Enough to give a girl a heart attack.”
Susie grinned. Polly scowled. Polly gathered her things; made for the door.
“Gripe wants yer,” Susie said, standing leaning against the doorframe.
“What’s she want now?” Polly moaned. Heaving a sigh.
“Says you been gone for hours.” Susie pulled a face. Mimicked Gripe.
Polly sniggered. “Give her blooming hours.” Hours of agony if I had my way, she mused, stomping along the landing with mop, bucket and broom. Susie followed. Noisily Polly put the things in the cupboard; closed the door with a heavy thump. She dusted off her hands; wiped them on her uniform. She looked at Susie; stared at the frightened, timid eyes. Thought of her cold fingers around the waist in the night, in their bed in the attic. She shivered at the memory; embraced herself momentarily. Raised her eyebrows; blew Susie a kiss; imagined it was George.
Dudman appeared along the landing. A face of thunder. Hands behind his back as if he were hiding something in a childish game. He walked heavily towards them. Susie shook. Polly unfolded her arms; fiddled with her fingers.
“You are needed,” he bellowed. “No time to linger and waste time. Time and tide,” he began but did not finish. He poked Susie in the breast; thumbed her on her way. Susie scampered off. “Is the room ready?” he barked.
“ Of course it is,” Polly said. “Whatcha think I’ve been doing?”
Dudman waved his finger in front of her face. His stern features icy and cold. “Respect girl,” he stated, “remember your place.” I know your place, Polly mused, six feet under and no mistake. “You can always be replaced.” His words lingered like a bad smell; she screwed up her nose. He walked around her as if she were a commodity he thought of purchasing. He paused behind her; eyed her rear. Polly held her breath. Sensed his eyes on her like fingers invading her person. “Lady Elmore will want you, Perkins. Best be on your way,” he said.
“Yes Mr Dudman,” Polly said. She backed away and turned. Bloody fool, she mused, wanting to give him the fingers, but thought it best not to; walked at her pace along the passage, knowing his cold eyes were watching her every move; knew what his hands wanted to do; wished him dead as the Dodo; wished him to Hell and rotting.
Dudman watched her go; watched the way her hips moved side to side in a soft rhythmic pattern; wondered and wished; sighed into his chest like a bull; slowly followed her along the passage like death on the prowl.
Polly stood and gazed from the window of Master George’s room. Held back the lace curtains; pressed her small nose against the glass pane. Breath made glass steam up. She brushed it with her hand; gazed at the drive where Master George’s car would come. Best not let Dudman catch me here; hell to pay for if he does, she mused, looking back into the room briefly. Silence. No one.
She sniffed the air of the room; stared at the bed and the neatness of it; the way she had smoothed down the bedcover; made the pillows just so. She tried to recall him and her lying in the bed the last time he was home and remembering, she sighed. Missed him, his touch and kisses. And there were words, too. Soft words, softly spoken. Gentle touch. Lips on lips. Lips on her neck. Sighed. She put her hand across her breast. Imagined him there with her; his hand on hers; his eyes searching hers; his voice speaking.
Voices below. She returned her gaze to the window; peered down through the lace curtains carefully so that no one might see her. Dudman with gardener; gesturing with his hands; nodding with his silly head. She stood back from the window in case Dudman peered up. She could see just the heads now above the windowsill. They were gone, the voices silent. She moved forward and peered again. Both men gone. Good. Breathed out. Relieved. Sighed.
Would Master George have her here this time? she asked, letting the curtain drop into place. Rare moments, precious time, felt whole. Susie’d keep her mouth shut about it. Had the icy bed in the attic to herself. She hated that Susie did. No one to snuggle up with against the cold. Poor cow. Yet, she was a good sort even if she was dim as dusk.
Moving away from the window, she sat on the bed. Sensed the mattress beneath her, the strong springs. She ran her hand over the pillow; tried to imagine his head there beside hers. She leaned down and kissed the pillow. Sighed. Something stirred within her. Her groin tightened. She rubbed her thigh. Pushed her hand between her thighs. Sighed.
Maybe, she mused, rising from the bed, maybe. She smoothed the bedcover and pillow; slowly walked to the door. She looked back at the window and bed. Smiled. Brushed her hair from her forehead and closed the door with gentle thud. She gazed up and down the passageway. No one. Still. Silent. Soon, she mused, soon, and walked along the passageway in her slow daydreaming fashion, swinging her duster back and forth, as if waving hello to her secret passion and Master.
Polly waited for Susie to catch up with her on the upper landing. She spotted Susie’s cap was askew; her hair stuck out at the sides untidily.
“What did Dudman say?” Polly asked.
Susie paused for breath. Looked at Polly with a childlike expression. “To get the dining room prepared,” Susie said.
“That all?” Polly asked, turning around and walking off along the passageway. Susie stood gaping at her. “Anything else?”
“No,” Susie said, running in little steps to catch up with Polly again.
“I did the dining room earlier.” Polly looked ahead of her, her feet pacing along the polished passageway.
“So where are we going?” Susie asked. She blinked. She stared at Polly’s back, at the black and white uniform swaying in front of her.
“Out of Dudman’s way for a bit,” Polly muttered. She paused at a door; looked both ways along the passageway, then opened the door and dragged Susie inside the room with her.
“What we doing in here?” Susie bit her lower lip; clutched her hands together; her eyes scanned the room quickly.
“Hush,” Polly said in a lowered tone.” Do you want Dudman waltzing in here after us? Susie shook her head. “Well keep your voice down.”
“It’s cold in here,” Susie moaned in a whisper.
“What did you expect? This room’s been empty for ages,” Polly said. She rubbed her hands together and walked to the window.
Susie walked to the stripped bed; sat down hugging herself. “Don’t think I've been in here before,” she muttered through chattering teeth.
Polly stared out of the window. She gazed up where Master George’s car was to arrive. She put her hands in the pockets of her apron and clutched them tightly.
“What we waiting for?” Susie asked looking over at Polly’s behind at the window.
“I’m looking for someone.”
“Who?” Susie sighed.
“Master George,” Polly said softly.
“What you looking out for him for?” Susie said. She gripped her arms round her body. “I’m blooming cold.”
“What do you want me to do, cuddle you?” Polly muttered without turning around. She breathed against the windowpane. Then rubbed a message on the glass with her finger.
Susie watched her. “What you writing?”
“You’d know if you could blooming read,” Polly said, rubbing out the message. She stood back, sighed, and then sat on the bed beside Susie.
“You ain’t going to creep along to his bed again are you?” Susie asked.
“If he invites me, I will, “Polly said quietly. She turned to gaze at Susie. “That’s if he comes,” Polly added with a sigh.
Susie nodded. The cold was creeping into her shoulders; her arms ached from clutching her body tight. “I get cold when you’re not in bed with me,” Susie muttered.
“Well he won’t want both of us in bed with him, will he?” Polly said. She breathed out; watched her breath rise like smoke in the cold room.
“Don’t be crude,” Susie said, pulling a face, moving closer to Polly; putting her arm through Polly’s.
Polly shook her head and smiled. “I hope he comes. I feel like a blooming virgin again.”
“Polly!” Susie said in a loud outburst.
Polly put her hand over Susie’s mouth. “Hush to noisy cow. Do you want Dudman to come here?”
Susie shook her head; pulled away Polly’s hand from her mouth.
”No, sorry.” She laid her head on Polly’s shoulder. “Dudman’s a right so-and-so for a butler.”
“They all are,” Polly whispered. “All reckon they’re above their station.”
Susie said nothing. She wiped her nose on Polly shoulder. She felt cosy. She wanted this feeling to last, but she knew it wouldn’t. It never did. “You will stay with me tonight if he doesn’t come want you won’t you?” Susie asked.
Polly nodded and sighed. No sounds. Just the sound of Susie’s breathing and her own in the room. She kissed Susie’s head; then put the white cap straight. “Best be off before old Dudman comes looking for us like a blooming bloodhound,” Polly said.
The two maids rose up from the bed and walked to the door. Polly opened it gently and peered along the passageway. No one. Quiet. She pulled Susie after her out into the passageway; closed the door softly until it clicked shut. Taking Susie’s hand, she walked her long the passageway way as she listened for sounds or signs of Mr Bloodhound Dudman sniffing around the house in search of them. No sign. No sound. Safe. At least for now, she mused, squeezing Susie’s hand, thinking of Master George, his wandering hands, his warm cosy bed and they snuggled up close like fleas on a sweaty dog on a summer’s day.
Polly stood outside the door; listened. Knocked wooden panel; waited for voice of Lady Elmore. Stared up passageway in case Dudman had followed; no sign, good, she sighed, scratched backside, sighed again. Door opened; her ladyship stood; gazed mood-faced, hair on end with drag through look.
“There you are, Perkins,” said Lady Elmore, backing away into the room, allowing Polly to follow. “Cannot abide time wasting,” added she, peering around at the maid.
“Had Master George’s room to prepare, Madam,” Polly said, brushed hair with fingers of right hand.
“Why couldn’t Simmons do that?” Her Ladyship moved to the dressing table; plonked down with resigned sigh. “Told Dudman I needed you. The Simmons girl’s a fool,” muttered the lady to her reflection in the mirror.
“Sorry, “Polly said,” Mr Dudman didn’t say until afterwards.” She stood behind the lady; stared at the face gazing back at her. Corpse like, Polly mused, holding back a smile, picking up the hairbrush. Brought back hair from sour featured one’s forehead; leaned over shoulder, smelt odour of sleep and scent. Brushed hair slow. One hand combing fingers through hair, other hand holding silver brush; bringing through hair like a ship through roughs seas.
Lady Elmore felt her head dragged backwards with each brushstroke. Sensed the girl’s fingers through her hair. Carbolic smell filtered her nose; closed eyes; wondered how often the girl washed; and her hands seemed soft; working hands for all that, she mused, letting her head go back and forth like so much flotsam on wave’s motion.
Polly stared at closed eyes and drained features; brought brush back; let fingers seep through like a swimmer beneath water. Lowered eyes. Hands of ladyship delicate; like the china down stairs; thin and pale as bone. Nails long; fingers ringed with wealth.
The lady mused in the tide-like motion. George home. Company at last. Didn’t want to lose him; yet, she knew some young girl would have him;
The right sort, of course; no seekers of wealth, not those he mixed with at those parties. Opened her eyes. The girl had stopped brushing. She stared at the eyes and young features. Fingers were undoing her gown. Such softness, she thought, the gentleness of a child’s hand. “Forget that, Perkins.” Sat upright, moved around, and pointed to wardrobe. “The green dress, I think,” she muttered, inclining her head to one side like a dog waiting for a bone.
Polly nodded. Went to the wardrobe. Opened up. Searched amongst a sea of dresses for a green dress. Pulled out the nearest green. Held up with one hand, the other hand resting on hip.
“No, “the lady said, “the dark green, with the small flowers.”
Polly replaced; pulled out requested dress. She smiled. More choice than I’ll have in a blooming lifetime, she mused, holding out the dress.
“Yes, that’s the one.” Lady Elmore stood up; took dress. The girl needed better stockings; hole there, she thought, watching Polly close the door of the wardrobe. “See Dudman about new stockings. Those are a disgrace,” she stated stiffly.
Polly looked at her stockings; pulled uniform over offending hole. Blushed. Stood stiffly. Hands held awkwardly at sides.
“Here, Perkins, help me,” the lady said, face stern. The girl’s slow, she thought, holding out the dress. The girl’s hands are red and rough. Yet, seemed so soft through hair, she remembered, watching Polly lay the dress on the bed.
Polly helped undress the lady. Watched the face in the mirror of the dressing table; saw the unloved breasts droop; wondered who saw and cared now. Well fleshed. The body held so. The hair silk-like from brushing. The hands held in front of her as if waiting to be loved. Polly sighed softly. Laid gown on the bed. Watched the nakedness. Wished she hadn’t.
The lady searched through draws for underclothes and such. Once she would have had had her own personal maid, but times were such that she had to make do with the Simmons girl and Perkins, she reminded herself, looking at Polly brushing the dress on the bed caringly with fingers.
The War and war work had taken the rest. George out to France soon. She dreaded the thought. Bit lip. Stared at the Polly in the mirror; watched the fingers brushing. Her own daughter, Anne, married to Captain Stockbridge, hardly seen. Off up country. Missed her. Sighed, gazing at Polly, putting on her undergarments and the rest as the girl stood opened mouthed.
“Master George be here long, madam?” Polly asked, suddenly as thought escaped into words.
Lady raised eyebrows. “No, idea.”
“Just wondered,” Polly muttered shyly, wishing she hadn’t.
“Have you a brother, Perkins?”
Polly replied. Watched the anxiety in the features. Lifted the dress from the bed; began to prepare for dressing of the strained- faced one. Poor George. She mused; hope he’s here a few days at least. Just a night or two. She wanted the feel and kiss of him. She watched as she dressed. The flesh smooth and scented. The flesh of aristocracy. Lines in the features. Ringed with wealth, the hands, she mused, looking at the nails, remembering George’s hands on her flesh. Closing her eyes momentarily, she buttoned up the back of the dress with the skill of her class, sensing fingers undressing her and the long lingering kiss of her master’s touch.
Polly stood in the kitchen stunned; she couldn’t quite grasp the words. Mrs Gripe, the cook, bustled about the oven, her brow wet with sweat, the hat crooked, the large eyes watery.
“Not coming?” Polly spoke the words as if trying them out for the first time.
“That’s what I said,” Mrs Gripe said, giving Polly a stare. “Master George has gone to France with his regiment, all quite suddenly.” She stood still; wiped her brow with her right hand. Polly nodded. Felt as if her heart had stopped. Image of her and George in bed began to break-up. She wanted to ask why, now, but didn’t. Paused all words. Stood staring vacantly. Bit lip.
“But there’s still work to be done,” Gripe said, moving about again, her lard carcass returning to action. “Can’t stand about, gawping.”
Polly moved slowly along by the sink. Stood clutching her hands together to feel the life there. Not coming. What if he never comes? Her mind spoke to her; her limbs wanted to collapse; the reality of the kitchen became doubtful. Tears filled her eyes; her lip seemed bruised and thick where she’d bitten it so long. She began to scrub the pan; blinked away the tears; shut out Gripe’s endless words that still rattled on in the background like a talking machine. Images of her and George in bed the last time he was home, seemed as valuable as gems in her ladyship’s brooches. The bed already, too. Just done the room, the bed fresh, waiting. Blinked eyes to dislodged tears. Damn, she muttered. Scrubbed pan harder. Wanted to run off to the attic; curl up on the cold bed. Sighed. Sod, she muttered beneath her breath.
“Mr Dudman just told me,” Gripe said, “even his Lordship’s not coming tonight, either. He’s got urgent business in the House of Lords,” she muttered on, standing still gazing over at Polly. She fidgeted with her breast; sighed deeply; wiped her brow again.
Polly turned around and looked at Gripe. The fat face seemed to have mellowed briefly; the hands were all fidgety, her hat hanging off her head like a seaman clinging to a raft. Wanted to say things and cry, but didn’t. She nodded and blinked. Bit seemingly swollen lip again. Wanted George to come in the kitchen and laugh, kiss her and hold her, and even if Gripe was looking, to squeeze her tightly until all breath was gone from her.
“What’s got into you, Polly?” Gripe said her voice soft suddenly. “He’ll be back in a month or two, so Mr Dudman said.”
Polly couldn’t quite grasp Gripe speaking her name. She hadn’t called her Polly since her birthday and that was just the once. Eyes were watery; lip felt enlarged to twice the size. “When?” was all Polly could say.
“Month or so,” Gripe said. “Her Ladyship’s most upset, Mr Dudman told me. Poor dear.” The latter slipped out like a slippery eel. Gripe stood herself upright like a whale rising from the waves. “But we must carry on, Polly, mustn’t we?” The words were heavy like elephant’s footsteps.
Polly nodded; she didn’t trust for words. Tried to smile and say something, but words clogged in her throat. Damn, she muttered inside her head and sod, came following inside, too. Where was Dudman? Hope he don’t come bellowing about this or that. War. Hate war. Sighed. She turned back to the sink; scrubbed pan. Eyes were so watery she couldn’t see anything clear. Drowning in tears her mother used to say. Drown in tears, my girl, she used to say if her father had given her a beating. Dead now. Good. Hope he rots, she said in her head. Her hand held the pan as if it were her father’s neck; scrubbed and scrubbed. Hate war. Hate man’s folly. Wanted George’s hands around her waist; wanted him beside her in bed; wanted him; wanted all of him.
Gripe came behind her; touched her shoulder. “We all think a lot of Master George. And are those tears for him? You are a softy. Her Ladyship’d be touched that her staff is with her in her moment of sadness and loneliness,” Gripe said gently. Her fat features had softened; her eyes were watery as Polly’s.
Polly laid her head on Grip’s huge breast and sobbed. Not since her last beating had she sobbed so. Damn. Sod. The words rattle in her head like peas in a pod. Soft, the breast of Gripe smelt of sweat and mint; odd combination; a nest to weep into; a haven for a wrecked ship. No Dudman. Just them. Silence. Stillness. And far off a bird sang.
Polly stood in the doorway of Mr Dudman’s anteroom and stared at him at his small desk, reading some papers.
“You wanted me, Mr Dudman?” she said, leaning her shoulder against the doorjamb, her hands at her side, her white cap pushed to the back of her head, untidily.
Mr Dudman looked up at her; seemed to scan her features and then her dress. He returned his gaze to the papers. “Come in; close the door.”
Polly entered the anteroom, closed the door behind her, and studied the room while she waited for Dudman to speak. It was a small room; hardly big enough to swing a cat, containing a small desk, chair and a few shelves where he kept files and a few books.
“You know that Master George has been sent to France with his regiment,” Dudman said, not lifting his eyes from his papers, not noticing Polly pull a face at him, not aware her thoughts were on George and what would not be happening that night in his bed. “Well, these things happen in time of war. A man knows his duty and does it. His Lordship did his best to keep his son from harm’s way as long as he could, mainly to appease her Ladyship, but now, things being what they are France, he could not keep his son from his duty any longer.” Dudman paused; lifted his eyes to Polly. He seemed to study her quite intently for a few moments, Then proceeded to say, “Mrs Gripe told me you had been upset by Master George’s not coming come home tonight, and as commendable as that may be, you showing your feelings for Master George, and his safety and so on, I must impress that he is doing what all loyal subjects of His Majesty must do, and that is go where he is bid, and perform his duty to the best of his abilities, no matter what the dangers may be.” He paused; lifted his head and scanned Polly’s hair and her cap.
“Yes, Mr Dudman,” Polly said and kept her face as straight as she could; did not allow any sign, of what she felt about George and his departure, to show.
“You are an untidy girl; your cap is not as it ought to be,” Dudman said, letting his eyes lower themselves to her face. Pretty thing, he mused, taking in her eyes; watching as she moved her cap forward; how the fingers moved. He looked down at her breast beneath the black and white uniform, at the smallness of it, at the way she held herself.
Polly looked at Dudman’s eyes on her; at the way he gawped at her; his eyes greedy and supping her up, she thought, but saying nothing. She pulled at her apron, at her dress’s hem. “Anything else, Mr Dudman?” she eventually said, lifting herself to her full five-foot-five height. She sighed softly; scratched her thigh; watched Dudman’s eyes leave her and go back to his papers.
“I am not a fool, Perkins,” he said stiffly, pretending to be absorbed in the papers, “I know what you were up to in Master George’s room the last time he was here.” Dudman paused; lifted his eyes to Polly’s face. He noticed she blushed slightly. Dirty little bitch, he mused, putting the papers down on the desk; moving himself in the chair so that he faced her head on.
“Doing?” Polly said. “Doing what?” she added, trying to stop herself from blushing, but unable to stop the blood rising to her face.
Dudman stood stiffly; stared down at her. “You are not the first maid to be utilized by a young master; not the first maid to throw herself at a young master in the hope of lifting herself to the upper classes.” He paused. He wanted to let his words sink into her head. Had it been Susie Simmons he wouldn’t have wasted his words on her, being as she was, he thought, a half-wit, but Polly was different; she had an intelligence of sorts; she had beauty of a different measure than most.
Polly glared at Dudman. “I did no such thing,” she protested, trying to keep her tongue in check, tried to hold back with her temper.
Dudman showed signs of frustration. He coughed. He lifted his frame to his six-foot-two and walked around the maid. “Do not insult my intelligence by lying, girl. I know; I have one as witness.”
“Witness?” Polly said, her eyes narrowing onto Dudman’s nose.
“Yes,” Dudman said, “Simmons. She said you often crept along to Master George’s room and stayed there all night.” He stood behind her and studied her back, letting his eyes move down to her backside. He sighed under his breath.
Polly felt anger rise into her breast; sensed her features redden further. The bitch. Susie, you cow, she mused, wanting at that moment to pull Susie’s hair and slap her face. “She’s lying,” Polly suggested, hoping to defend herself against the truth.
“It is you who are lying; you have added being a liar to being a whore,” Dudman said coldly.
Polly was stunned by his words as if he’d slap her face with them. She pushed her hands into her apron pockets; stood upright and turned to face him. “I love him,” she murmured. “Nothing sordid,” she added. Tears welled up in her eyes; her stomach tightened; her hands folded into fists in the pockets.
Dudman’s features moved slightly at her words. He had not expected the word love to creep into the room, had not expected her eyes to water as they had begun to do. Fool, he mused, carrying a vision of her small backside with him, wishing it had been he that the word love had been attached to. But it hadn’t; he knew and knew it never would. “If Lord Elmore knew what you had been up to, you would be dismissed,” Dudman said quietly, studying her eyes as they watered more.
“He doesn’t know,” Polly said. She sniffed; wiped her nose with a small grey handkerchief and looked at a picture on the wall above Dudman’s desk.
“Maybe not yet,” Dudman said, “but these things get around,” he added.
Polly looked away from the picture and stared at Dudman. “Are you going to tell him?” Polly muttered.
Dudman’s features betrayed nothing. “I would not lower myself to pass gossip, but there are some who might.”
“Who?” Polly asked.
“That silly girl, Simmons, for one,” Dudman suggested. He watched for her reaction; looked at her face for signs.
“She wouldn’t dare,” Polly said.
“She told me.” Dudman pulled his lips into a small smile.
“I bet you threatened her,” Polly said, holding back the tears as best she could.
“I needed to know. I wanted to know what was going on. I am the butler here; I have to know what goes on.” He paused; sat down again in his chair and picked up the papers.
“So, what are you going to do?” Polly looked at Dudman’s dark hair, cut short; his stiff collar, his black clothes.
“Now that I know the truth, nothing. And nor are you. You will not again go anywhere near Master George’s room when he is here; you will not enter his room without my permission. Do you understand?” Dudman said. He looked at Polly with an expression of a judge about to pass sentence.
Polly nodded; she sniffed and wiped her nose. She had expected him to demand something from her for his silence, but he hadn’t. She wanted to spit at him; to slap his smug face; to pull his dark hair from the roots, but she didn’t. She bit her lip. For a few moments the thought of Dudman demanding something from her, calling her into his room at night, pulling her into his bed, made her feel nauseous.
“You understand what I have said?” Dudman said stiffly.
“Yes, Mr Dudman,” Polly said, looking at the door, wanting to escape.
“Then we will say no more about it.” He returned his eyes to the papers.
“You may go; you have work to do.” He waved his hand at her to dismiss her from his room.
Polly went to the door and opened it. She gazed at Dudman, studied his features above the papers, saw that he had no more interest in her or her doings, walked into the passageway, and closed the door behind her.
Dudman lifted his eyes as Polly turned to go out the door. He liked her figure; loved her strength; her eyes; the way her body swayed when she walked. But he knew she would keep; knew he had the key to her now. And with that thought, he lowered his eyes to the papers as Polly closed the door with a gentle click, and allowed a smile to spread thinly over lips like spilt red ink over a white cloth.
Polly knocked at the door; gentle raps; knuckles against wood. She listened for reply. None came; knocked again, harder. Listened; heard rustle of clothes; movement behind the door. The door opened; Lady Elmore stood as if death had visited early.
“Come in, Perkins,” Lady Elmore said, nodding for Polly to enter. “The tray is over there,” she added, pointing to the tray over on a side table. She followed Polly across the room and stood behind her as she went to pick up the tray. “Wait, don’t go, just yet.”
Polly paused; turned and gazed at her ladyship, ready to sigh; show signs of her ill temper, but didn’t. She stood with her hands at her side, a mask of contentment on her face. Her thoughts were on Master George and his vacant bed.
“You’ve heard I expect that my son isn’t to come home tonight,” Lady Elmore said mournfully, staring at Polly, taking in the girl’s features, the tiredness about the eyes, the drawn expression on the face.
Polly nodded, “Yes, Madam, sorry to hear of it,” Polly said, thinking of George’s caresses and kisses when he was last home.
Lady Elmore studied the eyes deeper, saw sorrow there; genuine, she mused, turning away; sitting on a chair by the dressing table. “I’ve doubts he’ll come back,” she murmured, her voice suddenly choked. She gazed at Polly’s reflection in the mirror. “Many have died in that place. Day after day names appear. 1916 has been a bad year. I fear that his name will be there amongst the rest one day.” She paused and taking a handkerchief from her dress wiped her eyes.
Polly felt tightness in her breast, as if someone had gripped her there; someone had pushed into her breast some knife of hurt. “No, Madam,” Polly said before she could hold back the words, before the wisdom of servitude could enlighten her mind. She sensed the visions of George go.
Lady Elmore stared at Polly’s expression in the mirror and frowned. “Daily, Perkins, names and names and names. I fear his will be there. And my husband has failed this time to keep my boy safe.” Chill entered her words. She sighed. Wiped her eyes again. Sat up; gazed at the maid behind her chair. She thought she detected watery eyes, a haunted expression about the mouth.
“Master George can’t die, Madam, he can’t,” Polly blurted out, wanting George to enter her again, to hold her near.
Lady Elmore turned her head and frowning more said, “But he can, Perkins, that’s my deep worry. It’s no good you saying he can’t, when he can.”
Polly sensed tears linger on her lower eyelids; sensed her lips beginning to tremble. Bloody fool, she mused, get a grip of yourself. But she felt unlike herself, as if another stood where she stood and another’s voice was speaking. “He mustn’t die. He’s so much to live for,” she murmured, seeing his dark eyes on her, his hands touching her flesh.
Lady Elmore was out of her depth; never had one of her servants spoke like this. “Calm yourself, girl, calm. Anyone would suppose he was your son, your brother, that faced death,” Lady Elmore muttered, reaching out and tapping Polly’s hand, feeling the flesh, the hand chilled, the skin rough.
Polly sensed the soft hand touch hers; felt the flesh against hers. She bit her lip to prevent further rushes of words. Said too much; spoken out of turn; not my place to say such, she mused darkly, looking at the lady staring at her, the eyes almost human, the mouth slightly poised for more words.
“My only son,” Lady Elmore said. “My only son.” she released the maid’s hand; turned to face her own reflection in the mirror. “Why do men have wars? Why such slaughter?” She paused and sat forward and wiped her eyes. She noticed the maid was wiping her own eyes on a grey coloured rag; saw the eyes watery, the features drawn. “Why, Polly, why?”
The fact that Lady Elmore had called Polly by her first name brought Polly to a certain awareness of who she was and where she was. “ Sorry, Madam, I quite like Master George, and him being off to France, and the chance that he might not come back to us, is too much to think about, and I am so sorry.”The words drifted off; silence rested between them.
Both women looked away from each other. Both felt uneasy. Polly scratched her thigh. An itch. She coughed to clear her throat. “Shall I take the tray now, Madam?”
Lady Elmore looked at the maid. “Yes,” she said softly. But then she stood up and touched Polly’s arm. “I feel deep sorrow; I sense my son’s death may be near, but I want you to pray for him; pray hard; pray he will be spared.”
Polly nodded. “Of course, I will, Madam. As hard as I have ever done.” She felt the hand on her arm tighten; sensed a stretching out of boundaries of class by one hand. She looked at the face opposite, at the tears there and the lips drawn thin and wide across the face.
Lady Elmore sniffed and released the arm of her maid. She sighed and coughed. Let loose a small smile. “Take the tray, now, Perkins. I need nothing more.” She turned away, walked to the window, and looked out at the evening sky.
Polly nodded and picked up the tray. She walked to the door; opened the door with one hand, and giving one final glance at the lady at the window, closed the door with a gentle click, and walked along the passageway with the thought of George and his kisses lingering in her mind.
Polly began to undress ready for bed; the attic room was cold; she hurried out of her maid’s uniform and into her nightgown. She heard Susie sniffing from the bed; sniff sniff, sniff sniff. Bloody cold. All I need all night is her sniffing and coughing. Folded the uniform over a chair; looked at the black woollen stockings with the tiny hole. Must sew that or I’ll have old Gripe on at me. She put the stockings on the chair. Her fingers felt cold already. She glanced over at Susie lying in bed; her head on the pillow, her skinny body snuggled down beneath the sheet and blankets and the thick bedcover that Miss Anne had given them when she came last. Good she is the Elmore’s daughter. Not penny-pinching like her parents. More sniffs from Susie.
“I hope you’re not going to lie there sniffing all night,” Polly said.
Susie said nothing, but sniffed again; pulled the blankets tighter around her.
“I’m sorry I smacked your face,” Polly said, “but when Dudman said you told tales on me I got angry.” She stood and stared at Susie snuggled down like a mole.
Susie poked her head out of the blankets and gazed at Polly. “You didn’t have to hit me,” Susie said. “He said that if I didn’t tell the truth, I’d be thrown out with no references, and I was always told by my dad to tell the truth, and if I didn’t I was given a beating, and so I always tell the truth, but I didn’t mean to tell tales, but it was true and well I was frightened.” Susie paused, her thin face, pale as the moon, pleaded forgiveness.
Polly pouted, sighed, shrugged her shoulders, went to the window, and looked out at the roofs of the houses in their part of London. It was dark, but street lamps lit up the ghostly sight.
“Mr Dudman stared at me with those eyes of his; you know how they frighten me; how he can make my life hell if he wants to and he seemed to know about you and Master George; and the way he said it, I thought it was already known by him, and I didn’t mean to let it come out, but he asked me where you went at night when Master George was here, and I said I didn’t know, but he said, I did, and I didn’t want to tell lies because of my dad, and the beatings and so…” Susie stopped; she saw Polly stare at her and put a finger to her lips to indicate for her to shut up.
Polly sighed. I’d given her a bloody beating if I’d caught her after seeing Dudman, she mused, walking from the window, pulling a shawl around her shoulders, standing by the bed. She gazed at the pale features; the teeth biting the lips; the staring eyes; the thin fingers clutching at the blankets. She pulled out the chamber pot from under the bed and urinated. The chamber pot sounded a tune. The air whiffed of urine. Susie sniffed. Polly pushed the chamber pot back under the bed, climbed into the bed beside Susie, and pulled up the sheet and blankets to her chin. The bed was cold. Her feet searched for a place of warmth. Touched Susie’s feet, slightly warm. Better. Rubbed her feet against Susie’s.
“Your feet are cold,” Susie moaned,” and it’s taken me quarter of an hour to get this warm; now you’re here; God it’s cold, now; I’ll have to get all warm again.” She searched out Polly’s body with her thin fingers; clutched her waist.
“If I’d got you earlier, I’d have bloodied your skinny nose, and pulled your hair out,” Polly said, feeling Susie’s fingers clutch at her and pull her closer against the cold.
“You smacked my face,” Susie moaned, pulling Polly closer, smelling the mixture of body odour and soap, the feel of cotton and body.
“I’d have murdered you earlier when Dudman told me what you said,” Polly said, sensing Susie close, her thin fingers searching out her body.
“ Didn’t mean to, “ Susie whispered, “ I wasn’t thinking what I was saying; I was frightened of being thrown out, and where I would go in the dark of London, as I don’t know anyone, and he seemed to know, Polly, he seemed to, and when I was told to tell the truth, I thought of my dad…”
Polly put a hand over Susie’s mouth. “Hush. You’ve told me. I know what he’s like.”
Susie nodded her head. She sniffed. Smelt Polly’s hand; sensed the fingers against her lips. She wanted to hold Polly; wanted to have her close to her.
She pushed Polly‘s hand away from her mouth. “I thought he was going to tell Lady Elmore or his Lordship, and that they’d be angry with me, and then you’d be out in the street and me, too, Polly, me, too,” Susie said anxiously, in case Polly should kick her out of bed onto the wooden floor.
Polly sighed. Felt Susie’s hands holding on for dear life onto her nightgown. “Don’t ever tell Dudman about me again, do you hear?” Polly said in a harsh whispered voice. “I don’t care what he threatens you with, because next time I’ll beat you black and blue, and probably strangle you, you skinny mare,” Polly added. She felt Susie’s lips kiss her cheek. Sensed the fingers holding her nightgown tighter. “I’ll forget about it this time, but remember what I said.”
Susie nodded; smiled weakly. “You’re going to miss Master George tonight,” Susie whispered.
Polly nodded and sighed. Thought about George’s empty bed; thought about him and her the last time together; thought about the lovemaking, the breathing, the warmth, and the glow of it all.
“What’s it like?” Susie whispered.
“What’s what like?”
“What you do in bed with Master George?”
Polly sighed. Scratched her behind. “Better than lying here with you,” Polly said.
“What do you do?” Susie enquired, feeling Polly’s hand on her hip.
“You’ll find out one day, if you’re lucky.” Polly closed her eyes; thought about George out in France with his regiment and the deaths daily in the war.
“Danny the footman told me some things, but they were dirty things and made me blush and he kept on about what people did and I didn’t like it and he said what men did to women and…” Susie stopped. Polly was crying. She thought she was at least. It sounded like her crying. “What’s up Polly?”
Polly had suddenly become overwhelmed with feelings, thoughts, and images of George and memories flooding her mind and Susie going on about things. The silly mare. She couldn’t help the tears now; couldn’t hold back; sensed Susie’s hand and her words meaning well, felt Susie’s kisses and caresses, wished they were George’s; wished he was there with her; wished he was making love to her as they did last time; wanted him to hold and enter her. She sniffed; sighed. Wiped her eyes on her nightgown. Her eyes felt full; her throat choked up. She sensed Susie hugged her tight; sensed the kisses; wished it was George; wished it was he; wished it was he, wished it was, but knew it wasn’t he who kissed and hugged her now, but it was comforting, it was all there was now, nothing more, nothing less, and somewhere far off, a church bell rang, and echoed across the night sky of London, and into the cold attic where they lay huddled against the cold, and buried beneath the blankets like two moles beneath ground, warm and close.
by Terry Collett
November 1, 2006
January 05, 2011 12:38 PM UTCviews: 0 2 people recommend this comments: 16
Polly put the kettle on. Black kettle on the black hob. Black against the black and white of her uniform. Maid of the house. Servant of all. She put the kettle down carefully, not wanting to burn or scald as she did as a child. Her hand, seven-year-old hand, burned, pink to red. Her mother put butter on it. Her father moaned about the expense, said, “Oughta mind where she put her damned hand.” Gone now. He died. Good riddance. Polly smiled and stood back.
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