The first thing I do when I arrive is light the kitchen fire. Then, I set the living room hearth. I don’t go upstairs yet. The family’s not awake. Mrs. Wentworth is usually in the cellar, filling baskets with potatoes and cheese and dried meats. Gwen, the laundry girl, won’t get here till the hour chimes, her arms full of the washing that’s too big to be done by us. Once it’s light, Victor will be out in the garden, because Mr. Ashworth does all his own driving now.
I used to have help. A girl called Marian, but now I do it alone. The fire lighting and the dusting and the tidying. The beating and the scrubbing and the scouring. Mrs. Ashworth likes the way I arrange the vials on her vanity, the little soaps in her jars. She says my dusting is the most precise, my beds the most tidily made. Mr. Ashworth, he likes me, too.
Before they wake, I fill the kettles, clean their boots, sweep out the hallway and steps. Once I hear them rattling about, I go to the top of the steps and wait. I close my eyes. I imagine girls like me in houses all down the street doing the same. Standing at the tops of steps waiting for their master and missus to call out, to tell them what to do. Now, girl, they ring out in a chorus, and, then, we step forward in a line, like tiny soldiers with raw, red, near-boiled to death hands. We fill their bowls with hot water, we take their dirty things in the crooks of our arms. We stand lips shut as they give us our orders for the day. Mind the corners, today, they say. All the nooks and crannies. You’re always skipping about them, don’t think I don’t notice. I, too, wait until she, my missus, calls, the original Mrs. Ashworth and, when she does, I also step forward.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ I say. ‘Good morning, ma’am,’ I say, and, when she’s given me any extra chores and studied my appearance (hands scrubbed clean underneath a stream of scalding water poured from Mrs. Wentworth’s kettle, stockings and shoes changed and left by the servant’s door), I leave. I go back into the darkened corridor again, to wait for him, for Mr. Ashworth, alone, now in the biggest room at the end of the hall. His door stays closed, always, for half an hour more, and I take note of the daily tasks ahead. Monday, help Gwen wash the kitchen cloths and dusters.
Tuesday, clean Mr. Ashworth’s bedroom. Wednesday, tidy Mrs. Ashworth’s room and the smaller attached salon. Thursday, dust and sweep the dining room, scrub the bathroom, scour the toilet. Friday morning, tend to the drawing room same as the dining room and, in the afternoon, polish all of the brass and silver and gold. Saturdays are for cleaning the kitchen all the way through and, then, in the evening, beating out the carpets, switching each week between the upstairs and downstairs rooms. Sundays, I’m off from the Ashworths’ to mind the mess made by my own children. By the time I’ve made it through the work of the week in my mind, Mr. Ashworth is usually cracking open his door just enough for the light to spill through.
‘Come in, Mary Hester,’ he says. So I do.
I like to imagine the other girls employed in houses on the Ashworth’s street, all of us Marys, and Margarets, and Elizabeths, doing the same. Following the same pattern day-after-day. Moving this way and that, back and forth, turning circles with wash buckets propped just up against our hips, grey water sloshing up wooden sides. I see us all in the morning, waiting there on the landing when the sun hasn’t even woke himself, silent and still. It’s the only time we’re half ourselves, our feet planted in shoes not our own, hands clasped neatly in front of our flat and flabby and pregnant bellies until the man, the master, pokes out his head, and tells us to begin.
Mr. Ashworth asked me to the house early today. He asked me last Friday whilst I was finishing the polishing. I had a silver service spoon with tiny rosettes molded onto one side in my hand when he walked in. The decoration was running rocky between the tips of my thumb and first finger and, more than once, it hit against bone.
‘Mary Hester,’ he said, just as rose hit bone, causing me to wince. ‘Yes, Sir,’ I replied.
‘I’ll need you here at half past four on Tuesday.’
‘Yes, Sir,’ I said. ‘Of course, sir.’
‘Thank you, Mary Hester,’ he said. ‘But, Mary Hester,’ he paused.
The rosettes on the spoon hit bone again and I loosened my grip. I raised my eyes towards him.
‘You mustn’t mention it to mother. You understand?’
He was speaking in a hurried way. Like he was afraid someone else might overhear, though Mrs. Wentworth was tucked into the kitchen, and Gwen was in the garden tending to the wash. Victor never came indoors, and Mrs. Ashworth was down for her nap. The Hemmings were arriving in three hours for tea, and, thinking he misread the time, I assumed he was afraid they might walk in and discover us speaking in a manner too casual for Mrs. Hemming’s tastes.
‘I understand, Mr. Ashworth,’ I replied.
He nodded his head and muttered a, very well, thank you before leaving me to finish putting the serving set away. I decided then that he had asked after Tuesday because he wanted me to spend extra time tidying his room. The ladies luncheon liked to go upstairs to visit. They liked to place flowers on the mantle, flowers I have to clear away after they’ve gone off, as a way of remembering his late wife, who, along with the other Mrs. Ashworth, used to help their society group raise money and throw parties. Ever since she’d died, there’d be an awful rotting stink in the room, though we’d scrubbed it top to bottom three times.
The room Mr. Ashworth now sleeps in alone is cut in two. One side for a large, wooden four poster bed, and the other for a sitting area mostly the same as the one downstairs, minus its smaller size, with miniature versions of the desk and bookshelves and a piano that I polish until it shines each Friday. The miniature piano was bought by his wife, Anne, who would play it for him as he fell asleep. He hasn’t been able to recreate the routine since her death, even though he’d bought a gramophone to do exactly that a few months ago. It now sits idly by in the corner, shiny and clean, but never getting to work. Often, when I stayed late, or arrived early, Mr. Ashworth could be seen in the windows along the back of the house, pacing.
I reckoned the faint smell of rot can’t possibly be just from the flowers, even though they do often go off before I can get to them. Nor, I think, can it be just from the mess of crumbled sheets and tiny scraps of discarded paper and half drunk glasses of sherry he always leaves in a trail behind him. So, that day, over the polishing, I planned to move all of the furniture and check underneath for anything that might be responsible for making a stink. A plate with a molding piece of cake accidentally forgotten, perhaps. Or a field mouse that’d somehow gotten swept up in the ruffles of the sheets.
I come in the back with ten or so minutes to spare. I like to be early. I slip off my boots by the door so the floorboards won’t creak. The nails of my toes are lined with black sooted grit and, when I pull my stockings off, it crumbles a bit onto the carpet. If Mrs. Ashworth, the mother, not Anne, the dead wife, were to see it she’d certainly kick off, my prints marching away across the rug like little black ants on a fallen log. I bend down and rub at it with my hands and, when it hardly smudges away, I make a note in my mind to come back later and sweep.
Mrs. Wentworth is the only one to live in the house, and I can hear her moving in the servant’s quarters setting about her day. Pouring water into the tin basin, washing in quick, splashing bursts, pinning her hair atop her head. She’s the luckiest of us all, living in the house like she does. She gets to bathe several times a week. She smells always of the soap she makes from leftover lemon rind and the pastry puff she kneads out each morning. The smell of it, whether morning or night, follows her always as she moves from room to room.
Her smell has not yet reached the hallway. Nor have the smells of breakfast cooking. The house is much darker and cooler even though it is just an hour earlier. Shadows come in from the street and play in the lace curtains, peak out across the walls. I want nothing more than to slip unnoticed among them, go upstairs, and climb into the bath, filling it morishly to the brim with rose petaled bubbles and boiling hot water, just like Anne would’ve done. She had the softest, cleanest skin. Like porcelain. Mr. Ashworth always called her his little doll.
I pull on my working stockings instead. Cover my legs with wool. I slip my feet into my working shoes. I make my way down the darkened hall and towards the staircase, its polish, done yesterday morning, shines back at me. From the base of it, I can see Mr. Ashworth’s light on. If I’m very quiet, I can hear his footsteps in between the tick-tocks of the clock in the hallway. The beat of it sounds hurried, angry, then stops, starts again at a softer pitch. I take the steps one-by- one, hesitating in the hall to collect the polishing rags and broom we keep in the upstairs cupboard. There, I tuck a parcel of freshly folded bed linens carefully underneath my arm. At his door, I knock quietly.
‘Come in,’ he says, so I do.
The room is warm, there’s a fire already lit in the hearth. He must’ve done it for himself in the night, or, perhaps Mrs. Wentworth saw to it for him just before bed. He’s standing just beside it at the bookshelves, his back to me, hands reaching for something I can’t quite make out. I stand just inside the door waiting for him to turn and acknowledge me. I wait for him to tell me where to go. He is a tall, thin man with hair that falls in curls just short of his grey eyes, which I cannot see with his back turned to me. He’s wearing striped trousers, a fine white shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, no coat. His feet are bare and it seems wrong for me to see him perched onto the tip of his long, naked toes like this, so I look away, and down at a spot gathering grey dust and hair that I’d very much like to clean just by the bed.
‘Good morning, Mary Hester,’ he finally says. ‘Are you well?’
‘I’m well, Sir,’ I say. ‘And you?’
He laughs, though I’m not sure why, and leans against the desk.
‘I’m well, Mary Hester,’ he says. ‘Put your things down. I’d like to speak with you.’ Mr. Ashworth is smart and successful and he speaks a great deal, though not often
directly to me. People invite him to talk about art and business and money. Sometimes, those same people come to the Ashworths and we serve them tea. He always looks smart, too, even now, not properly dressed. He has a pocket watch and, in polite company, he always wears a hat.
For his birthday last month, a Lady and a Duke came by and they all stood in a circle around the new Edison electric switches he had put into the walls. Mr. Ashworth smiled and laughed and parted his lips over and over again like some kind of excitable fish exclaiming, Now, look at this! We served guineahen and Mrs. Wentworth prepared three different types of pudding. That night, Mr. Ashworth gave me a halfpenny more for staying late. I bought a stewed eel and half a loaf of bread on the way home, which we three ate in one big bite.
‘I have a very special task for you today, Mary Hester,’ he says. ‘One that requires the utmost patience and attention to detail.’
I notice a lot of things others don’t. I have a very good attention for detail. That’s what makes me a decent maid of all work, though it made me a poor bleacher at the washhouse. I was always noticing the things around me, and leaning too far over the vat, burning bright red welts into my skin. The bright red welts slowly turned to scars, which have faded some over time, but will never be as light as my left arm which is permanently stained. Is it the bleach that does this to you? Mr. Ashworth asked the day he toured round our house. I told him that it happened to the older girls, the ones that had been there since they were young, like me. He shook his head and, before leaving, asked me my name, writing it down on a small scrap of paper he had in his breast pocket. The next day, he returned, offering me the same wage, but, he said, more safety and security. He wanted me to come wash for him and his mother, and, soon, his young wife. He promised I wouldn’t have to go back again. That was four years ago, the same age as my Lissie.
‘I promise it won’t be too gruesome,’ he adds with a wink.
‘I’m happy to help, Mr. Ashworth,’ I say.
He claps his hands together and smiles. ‘Wonderful!’ he says. ‘Mary Hester.’
My name hangs heavy in the space between us. Me by the door. Him propped against his desk. His feet, still bare, crossed at the ankles in front of him.
‘Is it right that you’re usually called Hetty? Short for Hester, Mary Hester?’
‘Yes, that’s right, Sir,’ I say. ‘I’ve always been called Hetty outside of work.’
‘I think I might like to call you Hetty, just for today, if that is alright with you?’
‘You can call me whatever you like, Sir,’ I say. ‘Either will suit.’
He smiles, pushes his hands back into the desk to move himself quite quickly over to me.
He comes so close, so near he could touch me. I can smell sleep on his breath, and it makes me uncomfortable. The smell of his breath, his body. How he looks at such a short distance — the sweat on his brow from the fire, the not-yet shaven whiskers. My shortened name on his wet lips.
‘Hetty, then,’ he says, showing his teeth. ‘I’ve got something for you to consider. But, first, tell me about your children. You’ve got two, yes? A boy and a girl. Are they well?’
I nod my head up and down. ‘Yes,’ I say.
‘Go on,’ he says. ‘Tell me how they are, then.’
I want to say that they are. That I take care of them. But, they aren’t. Edward is seven and
thin as a whip. He’d stopped crying for more ever since Albert had gone, but I know he still wants to. I know I can’t give him enough, and his eyes are starting to go hollow in the way that most every child in our neighbourhood’s do. Lissie is four and still has fat, rosy cheeks, but she coughs through the night and has bright blonde hair that falls out in terrifying clumps.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘You’re very generous with my wages, Sir. It provides for them well.’
He eyes me suspiciously for half a moment more before letting his lips, his fish thin lips, flutter up into a teased smile again. He moves a half step closer to me. When he moves his lips to speak, a chapped piece of skin blows from left to right just above the arch of them.
‘Well, now, that’s very nice. But, you mustn’t lie to me, Mary Hester, I know your husband’s gone. It must be an awful time for your family. Just awful. And, well, if you’ll excuse my frankness, I was thinking there might be something I could do to help you out.’
Mr. Ashworth has, once or twice, instructed Mrs. Wentworth to send me home with extra bits of savoury pie, or the gristled ends of roasted beef, and I think — nay, I selfishly hope — this is what he means.
‘See,’ he says, not stopping to explain what he means. ‘There’s a little game I think I’d very much like to play with you, Hetty. Do you like games?’
‘I’m not sure,’ I say. ‘My children like to play pretend King and Queen.’
‘Ah,’ he says. ‘See, that’s exactly what I was going to ask you to play.’
‘Pretend King and Queen?’ I ask. It seems, I want to say, a silly game for adults. I think that there are many more real things than pretend things that must be done during the day.
‘Yes, well, more like just pretend,’ he says. ‘I’d very much like to play pretend with you,
but you’ll still be you, and I’ll still be me. We’ll just be acting a little differently, you see?’ I don’t. I am looking down at the carpet, and when I look up I see that, he too, is not looking at me, but rather at a framed portrait of Mrs. Ashworth on the bedside table. She is small and fair and beautiful. Her eyes are shaped like bright crescents, and her skin looks like the sort of clouds that only dot blue skies. There are no lines, creases, or dark spots underneath her eyes. My own face is like the moon compared to hers, full of fear and doubt. My eyes are wide and deep. A man could get lost, my husband used to say. And never found. On any other lips, it might’ve sounded something like a lover might say to his sweet. But not on his. I knew it was a tease, and that Albert didn’t mean it kind.
‘She was beautiful, bless her,’ Mr. Ashworth says, catching me looking with him.
Mrs. Ashworth, yes. Lost in my thoughts, I’d nearly forgotten it was her I was staring at. Bless her, yes. Bless her, indeed. Beautiful and fair, but too delicate. She bled far too much when you cut her. Even the tiniest of knicks caused her to spout. When she fell pregnant, the doctor told Mister and Missus Ashworth that she was sure to die. They didn’t tell a soul what the doctor had said, and, the whole three months of the pregnancy, she smiled cheerfully. She even knitted a tiny bonnet and embroidered a row of daisies on a christening dress, which I put away neatly for her each night. She bought a bassinet, ordered fine leather shoes in very small sizes. But, it seemed, even then, like her happiness was the pretend sort of happiness you feel when you know you must feel it for someone else. Her eyes began to darken the tiniest bit then, but never when Mr. Ashworth was round. For him, she always kept them bright, as any good wife would. When she died, Gwen and I had to throw out all of the bed sheets.
‘You know, this is not something I would’ve even ever asked Anne,’ Mr. Ashworth says, turning his eyes back towards me. ‘It’s something I’ve only thought of because of you. And, really, Mary Hester — Hetty — I think it could be of great help to us both.’
‘Alright,’ I say, still unsure of what he wants of me. Unsure of how to play pretend. Unsure of my discomfort which, by the second, grows deeper. Especially in the sight of Mrs. Ashworth. And, so near to her bed.
‘It starts like this,’ he says, gently taking my left hand by the fingertips. His own hands are cold, despite the warmth of the room, and I want to pull mine away, but I stay still as stone and picture him as my Lissie giving out pretend orders to a pretend court as pretend Queen.
‘I’ll need you to roll up the sleeves of your dress, yes, like this right here,’ he says, rolling my sleeves, one-by-one, for me as he speaks. First, up the scarred right arm, then the lighter left, finally cuffing them tightly around the bends of my elbows.
‘And then,’ he says, ‘I’ll also need you to just take this off, just for a moment.’
He unties the sashes of my pinafore, letting it droop down in front of me. I quickly grab its tails in my hand, and take a half-step back. The cuffs on my arms pinch and I feel sweat down the back of my neck. I want to say something, anything, about how I feel, but I don’t know how.
‘I’m afraid I don’t understand, Mr. Ashworth,’ I finally say. ‘This is part of my uniform.’
‘Ah, yes, yes, I know, Mary Hester, but not for this morning, okay? I’m just going to take this off of you, and then have you fold it. Yes, like this, and just put it right over here on the bed.’ He takes the sashes from me again, and I let him. The pinafore drops to the ground. I lean over to pick it up, and then move towards the bed to carefully fold and leave on the side not rumpled by sleep.
‘Wonderful,’ he says. ‘Excellent, Hetty. Just marvelous. Now!’
I turn to face him again, staying at the foot of the bed, where I can see the door.
‘You’ll need to follow me, right over here, to the piano.’
I make to pick up my rags, my duster, the things I need to clean, and left foolishly by the
door. He stops and turns around.
‘Ah, no, no!’ he says. ‘No need for those. Here, let me show you.’
He grabs me by the hand and his smooth, cool skin chuffs against the warm hardness of mine. He moves me to a standstill just over the piano, the skin of my left, bleached arm exposed just above the wood.
‘Here,’ he says. ‘Like this.’
He pretends to move my arm back and forth for me across the top of the piano, hovering just above, skin lightly touching. I step closer and lean into the instrument. It’s smooth and pretty. Its top, cleaned last Friday and not touched since, reflects pure back at me. There is no need for it to be cleaned right now, least of all by me, like this, and I think of all the better ways my time could be spent here in the room clearing things away, setting things back, rearranging the sheets. I think of Mrs. Ashworth and how she always liked things neat. Mr. Ashworth lingers behind me, watching with one finger to his mouth.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘That’s right, Hetty, use yourself to clean it. That a’way, now.’
I cannot explain why, but the oddness of his voice suddenly reminds me of my dead husband, Albert, and how he, despite having perfect vision, carried a pince-nez until the day he died after finding the pair discarded by someone he thought more careless than him in an alleyway. He was so proud of them, so protective. He took such care. Much more care than he took with anything else. He often breathed hot air onto them before rubbing them clean with a piece of spare cloth. I’d seen Mr. Ashworth do the same on a magnifying lens he kept for reading the small print of maps. The piano, reflecting back at me, looked just like the sort of glass put into men’s glasses, so I lean forward, and breathe into it, hoping, without my cleaning things, I can get it to shine all the same, just like them.
‘Yes,’ Mr. Ashworth mutters behind me. ‘Do that again.’
I feel him come closer to me and press the palm of his hand to my head, his thrust shifts the pins in my hair and they stick me. My eyes water, but I lean in again and breathe slowly through my nose, then breathe out through my mouth in a long, single huff. The smooth skinned wood of the piano fogs up in front of me, then disappears again. My face stares back at me.
‘Perfect, Mary Hester,’ he says. ‘Again.’
I do it again, twice more, his hand pushing my head further each time, so far down my nose nearly touches, smudging the whole thing all over. Finally, after the third time, he releases his hand, takes a step away from me.
‘Excellent, Mary Hester,’ he says. ‘You’re very good at that. I’ve never seen such shine!’
On the edge, I can see where my fingers have gripped onto the belly of the instrument, though I tried very hard to balance just on my own two feet. I’ll have to come back later to clean it properly, back when I have my things, and when my uniform is complete. I look over my fingerprints on the piano and, when I turn around, Mr. Ashworth is back at the bed, running his own fingers across the top hem of my pinafore. I didn’t even hear him walk away, but I can certainly hear him now. He is breathing much, much louder, and the sound of it makes my neck hot and red. He picks it up and turns on his bare feet. He walks slowly towards me, and, suddenly, I am overwhelmed by the smell of rotting minced meat. I don’t know where it is coming from, or why it has hit me now. Perhaps, I think, there is some dish long forgotten underneath the bed, or, a smell from the rubbish set out on the street coming in through the cracked windows. Whatever it is, I cannot help, despite the foulness of it, but grow hungry.
‘I’ll give you a full pence more, today, Mary Hester,’ he says, stood directly in front of me now, one hand holding out my pinafore. ‘If you will return next Tuesday at this same time.’
He does not seem to smell the rotting meat, or, if he does, it does not affect him so. He stands before me as calmly as if he were speaking to his mother, or a Lady, or a Duke. His face looks exactly the same as it always does. Calm and kind, albeit a bit streaked by trails of sweat dripping down from his forehead. I make a note to come up later and raise the sash on the windows, allow the place to cool and air out. The fire was done far too hot. The ladies would have a fit if they saw the room like this, and the temperature would never do as they walked all about it in their skirts and fur collars. I can hardly stand it in my done-up sleeves.
‘A full pence more for just today, Sir? Or a full pence every time I come?’
My face warms at the sound of my smart mouth, the cheek of the question, the ungratefulness for my position, but he doesn’t correct me.
‘A full pence every time you come, Mary Hester.’
‘Alright, Sir,’ I reply, running the figures in my head. A pence extra each week, four extra pence a month. More than enough, or, at least more than we’d ever had.
‘Wonderful,’ he says, handing my pinafore back to me. ‘You know,’ he begins before hesitating. He stops to tilt his head. He has heard something, though I know it to be the sound of Gwen or Victor or both coming round the back garden for work. He listens for a moment.
‘You’re a fine girl, Hetty,’ he finally says. ‘The best my mother and I have ever had. We enjoy you so much, and you serve us so well. I’m glad we’ve found an arrangement.’
‘Yes, Sir,’ I say. ‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘Me, too.’