Twenty-two. That’s how many steps there are to my bedroom. If you can call it that. It’s a place to rest my head for a short while. It’s not for relaxing or daydreaming, you understand ,for sleeping, and there’s not much of that either. I’ve seen bedrooms meant for grander things – grander things than me.
My room is at the top of the house, at the back, far away from anything or anyone. It doesn’t have a door, only some old curtain that does nothing to keep out the draft. I suppose it’s for my privacy. But being as there is no one else that comes up here, it don’t matter that much. There ain’t any windows in my room, so I don’t have a view. Not that I care.
Don’t have time for views. I am up at five every morning, sometimes four if there is something important going on. There are many chores, and it’s a big house – so Mrs Finch, the cook, tells me. And she knows about all things. I start with raking and cleaning the fire grates, a dirty job that needs doing so I can get them lit again before the master awakes. Otherwise, I’m in for it and he can get furious.
All day long, I’m on me feet, backwards and forwards, polishing, cleaning, fetching and carrying and in general doing as I’m told to do. By midnight, I’m fit for nothing and I drag my heavy legs up each and every one of those twenty-two steps.
My room has a carpet, well, a piece of an old carpet. It’s a bit threadbare in places, but nevertheless it’s a carpet. I have it by the side of my single cot so when my feet touch the floor in the morning; it’s not the cold hard wood they feel.
The mattress is old and lumpy. Springs have broken long since and it slants towards the wall so when I wake up in the morning my nose is pressed flat against the cold damp plaster. There is only enough room for a small chair in the corner, and I do my best to hang my uniform from a nail in one corner of the rafters. My uniform gets cleaned once a week so I have to be especially careful as the master don’t like us to look ‘grubby’,
There is nowhere to put my belongings, not that I have many effects of my own – a cheap brooch which belonged to my mother, a piece of red satin ribbon and a small bible, with fancy lettering and words. I can’t read though, so I stroke the tissue thin paper every now and again and make it up. I have found a loose board under the scrap of carpet, so I put them in there and check on them most nights.
It’s not as if anyone comes up here. Well, no one that is apart from Miss Caroline. She came up on my first day. Asking me all kinds of questions and trying to be friendly.
‘What’s your name then?’ she had asked, staring me straight in the eyes.
‘Mmm…I… I think…, mmm… Mabel, Miss.’ I stuttered and half curtsied, all in a fluster that one of ‘them’ had actually spoken to me. Mrs Finch had told me I wasn’t to speak or look at any of them. As a rule I get called ‘girl’ or ‘useless’ followed by a sharp kick up my backside from Mrs Finch.
‘Well, you don’t sound very sure,’ she had continued, glancing around my room. ‘My name is Caroline. Caroline Augusta Cecelia Smethington.’
‘Crikey, that’s a lot of names.’ I squeaked and then felt daft as she stared back at me.
‘You can call me Caroline. You don’t need to remember the others.’ She smiled a friendly kind of smile. ‘So this is where you sleep?’
I relaxed a little and smiled back.
‘Yup. This is where I sleep. It’s not much, but then I don’t have much sleep.’
‘And what about your family, your mother, does she work here?’
I bit my bottom lip and shook my head.
‘No, Miss Caroline. My mother is dead. I came from the orphanage. Mrs Finch came and picked me out. Thought I was strong, she said, and that I would do as I’m told. So that’s what I do, what I’m told.’
‘Oh.’ She replied going a little red. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘No bother Miss. I never knew me ma.’ I wiped my nose on my sleeve, then realised with horror what I was doing, and quickly shoved my arm behind my back.
I like her, but her mother – the mistress – has said she mustn’t socialise with the servants, and that includes me. Pity, it would be nice to have someone to talk to now and then.
I’ve seen her bedroom too. I could fit ten of my rooms in that one space. An enormous bed sits in the middle, with georgette curtains draped to each comer. It could sleep an entire family from where I come from. I sat on it once and bounced on the thick mattress before I got on with my cleaning. I put fresh cotton sheets and lace pillowcases on once a week and smooth the creases out of the deep plum velvet coverlet.
Miss Caroline’s bedroom has a long picture window which looks out across the tennis court and beyond into the copse. I don’t have time for the view. I dust her dressing table, picking up her china ornaments and silver-backed hairbrushes, replacing them with care. I polish the chest of drawers, writing desk and all the other furniture, until I can see my face staring back through the burnish. A tall, ornately carved wardrobe stands in one comer and has a full-length mirror on the front. I stare at my grey dull uniform and cap and imagine I am wearing one of Miss Caroline’s dresses. The bright canary yellow silk dress with a full petticoat and a satin bow tied at the back. I open the wardrobe and run my fingers over the fine silks and lace, which burst out of the door. All colours of the rainbow, in several styles and fashion. I have never owned a dress in my life. At the orphanage, all we wore were hand-me-down shirts and britches that rich folk would have thrown away.
‘Why don’t you try one on?’ I started at hearing Miss Caroline’s voice behind me and jumped back.
‘Sorry I didn’t mean to startle you, honestly. Well, would you like to try one? We must be about the same size.’ She stood beside me in front of the mirror. We must be similar in age.
‘Oh, I don’t think so, Miss.’ I fretted, looking behind me to check that none of the other servants were lurking. ‘I don’t think your ma…I mean Lady… your mother wouldn’t like it.’
‘Well, she would not need to know about it, would she? Come on, it will be fun.’ She pulled the yellow dress from the wardrobe. ‘Well then, what are you waiting for?’ Miss Caroline tugged at my drab uniform.
I stood there half undressed in my grey vest and knickers, hands crossed in front of me as though I was as naked as on the day I was born.
‘There is no need to be shy,’ reassured Caroline. ‘We’re both girls, aren’t we?’ She giggled, and I relaxed as she pulled the dress over my head.
The silk is soft and smooth as it slips down, caressing my body like a second skin. The under petticoats scratched at my knees and a pearl button became tangled in my hair.
‘Ouch!’ I shouted as Caroline tried to pull the dress down. ‘Something is pulling at my hair.’ She stopped and I could feel her releasing the button.
‘There.’ she said with triumph as the dress fell into place. It could have been made for me; it seemed to fit in all the right places. Not like my sack of a uniform made of thick coarse material that makes me itch.
‘Take a peek in the mirror.’ Caroline twirled me around, her hands resting on my shoulders. ‘Now don’t you look pretty?’
I gaze at Caroline with a puzzled frown.
‘Pretty? Me, Miss? I don’t think so, Miss. All the boys at the orphanage said I looked like a pig Miss.’
Caroline giggled, and I turned to look in the mirror.
‘Crikey, I look like a flippin’ daffodil.’ My lank hair hung in strips around my ears and a tuft stuck up where Caroline had tried to release it from the button. My arms covered with scratches and burns, like two small sticks, and my legs look the same. But I felt like a princess, I had never had the sensation of such luxury against my skin nor worn any other colour than grey. The dress is made up of enough material to make a dozen uniforms and I sink my hands into the soft cool satin. I twirl around and around as the skirt billows outwards. I stop suddenly and the material slows to a gentle flapping at my ankles.
‘Of course, I have shoes to match and stockings, somewhere.’ Caroline rummages through a large set of drawers in the corner of the room. ‘And ribbons for my hair, maybe a hat or two…’ She trailed off as she saw my chin drop.
Shoes and stockings, that match? I only have one pair of shoes and they had once belonged to Mrs Finch’s son. They are too big for me and rub the back of my heel as they slip up and down. Mrs Finch said if I behave myself and do well, I might have a uniform which would include a pair of new shoes, but that was a long way off.
‘Would you like me to put ribbons in your hair?’ Caroline asked, opening a box spewing with an assortment of ribbons and hair combs.
‘Oh no, Miss.’ I ran my fingers through my greasy scalp. ‘Don’t want to make them dirty, Miss. You’d get into trouble.’
‘Oh poppycock.’ Caroline stated point-blank, and I took a sharp breath, scared that her cursing could be heard.
‘Listen, Mother’s out this morning. There is only Mrs Finch around and she’s busy preparing lunch. I will help you with your chores after, so you will not get behind. Let’s play for a little while.’
Therefore, I let Caroline put ribbons in my hair, chatting away in my ear about her lessons and her horses and how she loves to run about in the maze and pick flowers from the garden. Her life is so full of exciting things. I lap up all her stories, mouth as open as a flycatcher, as she hands me gloves, hats and scarves.
‘Too brash,’ she says, taking away the violet-coloured gloves. ‘Too pale,’ plucking off a straw hat. We must have been playing around for almost an hour, when I heard Mrs Finch shouting for me.
I sleep in a thin cotton shroud, which comes down to my ankles and fastens at my neck and wrists. The ribbon is quite worn now and fraying in places. But it protects my skin from the scratchy boiled sheets on my bed. I have one thin grey blanket, which smells of paraffin. I pull it up to my chin, wrapping myself up into a tight ball and just in time remember to snuff out the candle. I am usually asleep within seconds, only waking again, what seems like moments later to start another day. And tonight, I will dream about yellow dresses and hair ribbons with gloves and shoes, which match, and one day – maybe one day – I’ll have a room of my own like my new friend, Miss Caroline.
First Published in Woman’s Own many years ago.