Authors: Anna Rose
By Anna Rose
Glancing up and down the cluttered street as my family and I waited for someone to answer the door we’d stopped outside of some minutes ago, I took in the row of thin terraced houses, all identical in their bleakness, windows thrown open with shabby garments hanging out of them to dry in odorous air.
was to be our new home, I thought in wonder. To think that mere weeks ago we had all been living the life of the privileged upper class only to have it all snatched away from us seemingly overnight following my father’s untimely death. We were a long way from our country estate in Surrey; longer still from our handsome townhouse in London’s Kensington, now at the mercy of creditors.
“Oh, God – it
! And it’s so…depressing.
“William!” My mother warned in disapproval, frowning at my younger brother, but he merely scoffed at her reproachful look.
Insistently, he said, “But it
– I think I’m going to chuck up my breakfast-”
Although I tutted at his theatrics, the smell coming up from the harbour beyond was
rather potent. I swallowed, trying to ease the unsettled feeling stirring in my belly which wasn’t helped much by the nervousness that had been afflicting me all morning.
“It’s just our luck Aunt Sophia resides near a sea port,” William cringed, following my perusal of the dreary Maypole Street with the same distasteful look on his face that my mother wore. “What I want to know, mama, is how you ended up marrying our father and Aunt Sophia end up
…” William arched his dark brows expansively, frowning at our mother in curiosity.
“Really, William,” she scolded. “Sophia has done very well for herself. Why, at least she has a roof over her head. Her poor husband may be six feet under, but he left her with this security at least! What have
? Tell me?”
I patted my mother’s arm in flimsy
comfort as she started to weep, throwing my younger brother a frosty look for his lack of tact.
“We’re lucky she’s taking us in at all,” she continued then on a sniff. “After your father’s good for nothing relations turned their noses up – not to mention our so-called friends! Well, good-riddance anyway, I say! As it happens, I’d not have taken their charity anyway. Now, I’ll have none of your impertinence, William, do you hear me? You’ll be respectful to your aunt and cousins and that’s the end of it,” my mother ordered, face pinched. “Until – well, until things turn out right for us again, we shall be guests in their home and we shall be very grateful for it.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to say severely, “Things will never turn out right for us,” but I curbed my impatience. My mother’s refusal to accept the hard facts was wearying and lately I’d found myself at the end of my tether with her inability to see reason, to accept the truth of our new lot in life; but she had already suffered enough and I hadn’t the heart to chastise her.
knocked impatiently again on the faded door we were all currently huddled around in the cold November morning, our hands full of our remaining possessions, what few of them there now were, and on a frown, I reached tried the door’s rusted handle, looking towards my family in surprise as it opened onto a dark hallway.
“Well, that’s rather unsafe – anyone could walk in,” my mother declared, but she stepped past me into the narrow space. “Come, children,” she waved over her shoulder, placing her luggage on faded wooden floorboards, and I slipped in behind my brother, closing the door on the busy, malodorous street.
“Lydia?” disembodied voice floated over, and a thin woman approached from one of the few doors lining the walls.
“Oh – oh, Sophia!” my mother cried then, throwing herself into the other woman’s arms, sobbing into her neck.
My brother and I exchanged wry looks.
Aunt Sophia looked uncomfortable at the emotional display, patting my mother on the back, her gesture of comfort stiff and awkward, and the contrast the two women made was quite fascinating, my mother in her finest cloak and her finest bonnet, nearing forty years but still looking the picture of indulged youth with her well cared for appearance…and then there was Aunt Sophia in her plain, serviceable clothing, her skin sallow looking, a harassed expression etched onto her face.
“It was all so sudden – Richard died so
!” my mother’s wails rose. “The houses have all been taken; my jewels – everything! How could he leave us destitute?” she implored of her step-sister. “He mortgaged every last thing we owned to feed his gambling habit, curse his hide!”
“Well, you’re here now,” Aunt Sophia nodded, “You’re here,” she repeated on a weary sigh before turning at last to my brother and I. “Hello, dears,” she smiled thinly before pinning me with a grave look. “You must not remember me – I was at young William’s christening.”
“I’m afraid not…” I trailed off, lifting my shoulders. “But thank you so much for having us.”
My aunt nodded, saying rather briskly,
“Well, it was some time ago. Come along, I’ll put on a pot of tea.”
We followed her through the stale smelling hallway into a tiny kitchen which was full to bursting with what I assumed were my cousins – and there were a lot of them.
Aunt Sophia introduced her brood; her four sons, her
daughter, and I nodded vaguely at them all, overwhelmed and a little shy, not the best around new people – especially not those I was a burden on.
“You’ll be bedding with me,” my cousin Helen said by way of greeting, looking up briefly from her task of diligently peeling and chopping vegetables. “We were supposed to be getting in a pallet for you but it hasn’t come yet,” she shrugged, and then my aunt was saying:
“I have managed to secure employment for you all,” she gestured towards my mother and I.
my mother enquired, seating herself at the table, and I shook my head at her grimace of distaste. I could not picture my pampered, beautiful mother working - could not picture dirtying her soft, well-cared for hands. But work she would have to – we would
“Yes. I’m afraid all positions are for below-stairs work. You’ll come along with me to the Jones’ – they’re in need of a new maid since the last one got herself with child. Out of wedlock,” Aunt Sophia’s lips thinned even more, were it possible, as she placed three mismatched cups on the table, pushing my brother and I into seats around the kitchen’s table so that I was practically sitting on Helen’s lap.
“And Lara will accompany my Helen. She works at the Moreland residence a few miles away. She’ll only be a kitchen maid for the time being but it will be a wage.”
“How – how thoughtful of you, Sophia,” my mother murmured, her expression quite vacant – that was, before she took a sip of Aunt Sophia’s tea. She blanched, her lips twisting in distaste.
Say goodbye to cream-teas, mama!
I thought, shooting her a sardonic look.
“Now, get that tea down you – I’m afraid I can’t join you. I’ve got a dozen and one things to do before the day ends,” my aunt sighed, slipping out of the kitchen.
“I’m off too,” declared my quiet, older male cousin who’d yet to even greet us all, and he rose from the table and slipped away without further ado.
“Don’t mind Roland – he’s always surly,” Helen lifted her shoulders, not looking up from her work.
“Roland said you’re not mum’s blood - so you’re not my aunt,” one of the younger boys said then from across the table.
“You mind your tongue, Simon,” Helen said sharply, and the boy shrugged.
“Our parents met and wed late in life,” my mother explained calmly to young Simon. She stirred her pale tea listlessly, taking in the dark, pokey kitchen critically. “Sophia was ten, I believe, when her father married my mother. But we are still family, all the same,” she finished firmly, even if her eyes betrayed her.
says you’re only here to freeload off of us,” Simon continued, and Helen caught him by the ear and hauled him from the table. “Get upstairs, you cheeky goat! No pudding for you tonight – go on, get!”
Simon cried out in indignation and fled from the room, and I glanced silently across at my mother and brother, feeling an utter burden and horribly uncomfortable at the young boy’s truthful words.
“Don’t you mind what young Simon said, aunt – you know what little boys are like,” Helen dismissed, unperturbed at what to us had been a horribly awkward moment.
She took her place at the table again, and feeling useless, I gestured to the mound of potatoes before her. “Do you want some help with that?”
“You’ll be chopping and peeling so much at work that you’ll be sick of it – I’ll manage,” Helen shook her head.
After speedily finishing our tea, my mother, brother and I left the kitchen and lugged our few bags upstairs.
“Served ditchwater tea in a mouldy kitchen and having to haul your own luggage to your room – some welcome!” William grumbled under his breath as he led the way upstairs.
“What did you expect?” I whispered incredulously. “Cream tea and your own valet?”
My brother shrugged sullenly and I rolled my eyes.
I hovered outside one of the few doors lining the upstairs corridor, a flash of a vanity unit and floral curtains showing through the gap indicating that it was Helen’s room as per her description.
Entering slowly, I set my bags aside, peering about the room, my eyes straying wistfully to the narrow bed pushed against the opposite wall. I had hardly slept the night before, too nervous and heartsick about leaving London and heading to this unknown place with these unknown hosts.
Catching my reflection in the small, dull mirror at the vanity, I glanced grimly down at my thick cloak. I’d been too embarrassed to take it off when we’d first arrived, and since Aunt Sophia had bustled us into the kitchen, her hospitality, as William had so rudely stated, far removed from what we were accustomed to where an efficient servant would relieve one of their outerwear before leading them to their host, it hadn’t seemed odd to keep it on. But I could hardly leave the heavy thing on forever.
Unbuttoning it to reveal a pink, lace-edged gown, I shook my head at the ostentatiousness of it in these surroundings. The dress somehow felt brash and showy where this morning it had been just another of my many gowns.
“A bit different to what you’re accustomed to, no doubt,” Helen’s brash voice declared behind me suddenly, and I started, my hand flying to my throat at the loud interruption to my silent musings.
Charging past me into the tiny room, she shrugged in mild apology of her quarters, “Having so many brothers, I’m lucky as it is getting my own room. I bet even your domestics had better quarters,” she laughed, the sound rich and booming.
“Of course not,” I dismissed – a lie, of course.
I folded the c
loak over my arms, feeling awkward as I stood there hovering by my bags.
“Now, it won’t be easy work, what you’ll be doing at the Moreland’s,” Helen warned then of my new job. “I had to lie a bit about your experience. You’d best get a good night’s sleep tonight.”
“You mean I’ll start so soon?” before I’d finished speaking, I regretted it, feeling me face warming in embarrassment at my surprised question.
Helen gave me sardonic look in the mirror as she settled herself before her shabby vanity unit. “That’s right, and I’ll tell you now, we’ll both be working together but don’t expect me to hold your hand and coddle you. I’ll have enough work without having to play nursemaid to you.”
She said it without heat but I found myself getting defensive anyway, not accustomed to such boldness, saying firmly, “Thank you, but I’m not in need of coddling – I’ll keep my head down and work hard, you don’t have to fret.”
Ignoring my ire completely, Helen mused, looking me up and down, “The boys will be all over you like a rash tomorrow as they are with all the new girls – seeing as how you’re actually a pretty little thing to boot, they’ll be a nightmare. Unless you want to end up bellyful, I’d close my ears to their syrupy compliments.”