Read an Excerpt
Grace can just see the bedroom door handle ahead of her. In daylight it’d be so bright her face would stare back from the brass. But it’s not dawn yet and barely February, so there’s just the night-city glow coming through the glass roof. Size of a schoolyard, it is, all that glass. There’s as much empty space in the hall of this house as there is in a church.
She’s almost there now, made it along the passageway all quiet, and with a dead weight in her grasp. She’s not a big girl, either, is Grace.
The handle is night-cold and turnip-big, fingers only just getting a turn. Slowly, Grace Campbell, for it’ll come, and Lord knows when. If you go quick through it the noise is quicker, though it’ll be a screech.
A foot open the door is when it squeaks, but don’t you stop still, Grace Campbell, for the dead light’s coming in with you. Another couple of inches, that’s all. There it is, and still the bed’s quiet.
She’s in; pull the door to or the draught’ll gush. A week she’s been here and she’s learning fast, though what could get through those shutters and weigh-a-ton curtains is beyond her. The door closed, it’s pitch, and damp from a night’s sleep. Let go the handle slowly now, oh Lord, what’s she in for, the latch might as well be a hoof on stone.
There’s a noise to her left, a starched-sheet rustle. Grace stops and it comes again, a slide, a pat of a pillow.
A light comes on, and Grace is in a room of heavy red and green creeper wallpaper. The room smells of dried roses, and she’s facing a wall of red velvet curtain that has seen better days. Lying in the curtained bed, blankets up to her nose, is a young woman hardly older than Grace. Her face, thinks Grace, is so dainty pale that you’d barely see it on the pillow if there wasn’t that hair all round, thick and brown and shining as though it is brushed all day and night. Grace’s own dark hair is pulled back and into her mob cap, so’s you can’t see it matches her eyes; they’re not like the pair looking at her from the bed, blue that could be ice or sky, who’s to know which. Puts a fear into Grace, not knowing.
The scuttle’s near pulling her arm out now, worse when you’re still, even with how her arms are hardening. She can’t put it down, not on the carpet, ever, though there’s not a trace of coal dust left on the bottom. Though she can’t hold it for much longer and not put it down, she’ll drop it soon enough, and imagine the mess with that. Not to mention the riot she’d be read downstairs. Out it would be, almost as soon as she’d arrived.
The worry’s enough to make her angry. Drop the scuttle why don’t you, Grace Campbell, tidy the sheets with your coal-smeared hands, and tell Miss Beatrice that if she’d went to bed at a reasonable hour she wouldn’t mind being woken now.
The very mildness of the words is water on her heat, almost so she forgets to bob, as well as she can, what with the scuttle and turning. ‘Ever so sorry, Miss Beatrice. It won’t happen again, the door.’
Miss Beatrice sits up and her dark hair falls on to her nightdress, all white like an angel’s gown. She moves her head, hair like rain as it comes down.
‘The door squeaks. You can’t help it. Well, hardly anyone can. There is a trick to it but, but, I’m not quite up to leaping out of bed and giving a demonstration.’
‘Yes, Miss Beatrice. Would you like me to get it seen to?’ Grace almost has it now, talking all respectful as she’s supposed to.
‘No, I meant . . . Oh, don’t worry. I suspect it is an idea of Mother’s so that she can hear when I come in, and she’ll just find some other way.’
There’s no waiting-up here, thinks Grace, not like Ma and Da’d do. Mind you, it wasn’t as if Grace was ever out at those hours. Three or four in the morning for Master Edward, she’d heard from the footmen, who’d be half gone having to wait by the door until he came in. You wouldn’t have thought that was proper, or that Lady Masters would have any of it.
It’s Grace who’s waiting now, poker-straight, even if the coals are trying to bend her.
‘Please.’ Miss Beatrice tilts her head towards the fireplace. ‘Thank you, miss, I mean Miss Beatrice, miss.’ Get it right, Grace Campbell, she tells herself and attempts another bob, a rickety one, though, but to the grate, quick. On your knees and reach right to the back, sweep like you’re icing a cake. If she doesn’t look like she’s just out the mine it’s a miracle then. Speck in her eye, and a big one, eye’s a river but shut it tight, for you can’t stop.
Fire’s lit, and Miss Beatrice’s head is back on the pillow, eyes tight though the lamp’s still on. Scuttle half the weight now, it’s back to the door, tiptoe now.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Yes, Miss Beatrice.’
‘I like that name.’
‘Thank you, miss.’
‘Where are you from, Grace?’
‘Carlisle.’ Somewhere Miss Beatrice has never been, Grace’s sure of that. At least not to Grace’s part of Carlisle. Not grand, her street isn’t, though the houses only joined to one other, and all new, even if the fresh red brick darkened almost as soon as it went up. And they’d had a maid once. Well, a tweeny. Then Ma said it was an extravagance, in the circumstances. Grace likes to think the girl has gone on to better luck.
‘Long way. Almost Scotland.’
Grace nods, mouth shut in case her thoughts come out. Your impulses, Grace, Ma says. Hold them in and you’ll go far, we’ll be right proud of you.
‘Don’t worry about the door. I don’t usually wake. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t heard your step before.’
Grace waits; she can’t walk on, not while Miss Beatrice is talking to her, not until she’s been told she can. That’s the rule she’s been given, even if Miss Beatrice has stopped talking and is just looking at her.
Then Miss Beatrice says thank you, sweetly, as though she means it. Of a sudden there’s a warmth in Grace, the tip of a smile spreading on her and pride that is the first since she came to Number Thirty-Five last week. Out it comes, before the words are through her head even, ‘Cup o’ tea, Miss Beatrice?’
‘Is anyone in the kitchen yet?’
What to say to that? If the kitchen maids aren’t in there by now, it’ll be their last day. She’s out of the room and back along the gallery, where she treads careful and quiet down the middle of the carpet, thick and red enough for a palace. A palace can’t be much grander than this house, with all the drawing rooms and saloons, they call them, opening into one another with doors near the size of the front of a house in those side streets Ma always told her to avoid. There’s a ballroom at the back, too, whole width of the house, and at the front there’s five windows, overlooking Hyde Park. Inside could do with a lick of paint, take a year to do it, it would, Grace’s guess, more even. Wallpaper needs doing too, only so much as you can hide behind paintings, and some of those paint- ings, well . . . Grace can feel herself blush. There’s a dozen of them where the people aren’t wearing any clothes at all.
Grace hurries. There’s Lady Masters’ room to do, and her lady’s maid’s, and Master Edward’s. Mary is putting her hand to the big rooms. The large rooms suit Mary, she’s a big girl. In their bed at night Grace is hard pushed not to find herself up against all that thick blonde hair and a chest that the rest of her follows behind. Mary knows how men look at her, she does, and sometimes wiggles a little as she walks, as though her heart’s on her sleeve for the taking, which in a way it is, even for Grace. Let’s be sisters, Mary says to her in their bed at night, like there were no division between them, and Mary not second housemaid to Grace’s third and Grace doing the chamber pots.
Pots! She’s forgotten the pot in Miss Beatrice’s room. Will she now have to do it in front of her, holding a vinegar rag stinking worse that what’s in the pot itself? Perhaps Miss Beatrice walks to the bathroom at the back, the younger ones, they surely do that. What an idea, putting Grace into the bedrooms when she is so new. Years of practice it must take to do it quiet, and there wasn’t a chance of that. Grace has to be up and running fast.
So why’s she gone and offered tea to Miss Beatrice when she shouldn’t be doing tea now and it’ll make her late? She was soft, wasn’t she, after what Mary told her. Miss Beatrice, Mary said when they lay talking at night, had her heart right broken. Just the other day.
Stories that Mary’s told, Grace shouldn’t believe half of them, but she’s a way of making things sound true, pushes any questions there are right aside. Even about the tall one, that she’d swum from her da’s dock – well, not his, but where his work is – right across the Thames and back again. In the East End, too, where the river’s wider, for that’s where she’s from, Mary. East End might as well be on the Continent for the distance it sounds away. Yes, says Mary, it’s another place, and lose yourself in it you do, before you can blink.
It’s still night in the kitchen, downstairs under the street. All freezing grey cavern it is, ceiling only just above ground along the north side of the house. The windows are on the top half, being the only place that overlooks the pavement, and even that’s only on to a high-walled, not-so-wide street at the side that sees little light. Why it’s painted grey in here is beyond Grace. The rest of the floor, the housekeeper’s and butler’s rooms, the servants’ hall, even the passageways, are brown and yellow, and the colour gives a bit of brightness, yellow, warm, too. The kitchen is all black ovens and pots, the only softening the long bare wood table running the length of it. Seat thirty, it would, but the kitchen only crowd around one end of it, rest of it is piled high with choppings and stirrings.
The oven’s heated an hour now, still coal dust in the air, though that could just be Grace’s own fingers, the smell stuck to them. Water’s already on, tiny bubbles there too. Grace and the kitchen maids are over the top, three frilly mob caps in a row.
‘There’s bubbles, that means it’s done,’ says Grace.
‘Hardly see them.’
‘It’s hot enough.’
‘Stew-tea, that’s all you’ll get. But it ain’t my job.’
‘No,’ says Grace, looking at the slag heap of greased plates. Fire or sink, Grace wonders as she climbs the stairs with Miss Beatrice’s tea on a tray, which is the better? Better she says, not good, for better was simply better than worse.