Up and about, early on New Year’s Day morning. A new beginning. It’s still dark outside, and the wind is blowing hard. It’s nice to be inside, in the kitchen within the walls of the ancient house watching the snow rushing around outside. The snow and wind work together making a murmuration. See? Hear the quiet of the house on the first day of the new year. A new beginning.
These were old Imogen’s thoughts as she busied herself that early morning some year ago, maybe just after the televisions got colour. This year was Imogen’s first as the senior female staff member in the household. No more drudge work for her. Overseeing the kitchen was her task. Not the preparation nor the cooking, definitely not the cleaning, Imogen was now senior. For the first time in all her years last night she’d had been the one in charge of the traditional New Year’s Eve toddy that was so beloved of the entire household from upstairs to downstairs.
For her everyday work, she had her checklist. She had to make sure the stove was hot, and the pans of stock and water were in place. Getting things ready, getting things ready, that was Imogen. Had the bags of potatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbages – both colours, both colours – and, of course, the fresh fish been sent up from the estate? Imogen’s job. Was the meat in the meat store: beef and ham and duck. She had checked that two days before. Imogen, though only in her late twenties knew her business. She had the years and the bruises, the heartache and experience. She had been somewhere around eight when she’d started, no one was sure of her age when she had been delivered to the estate.
She dealt with fires and soups, dirty things from the rich ground and river. She made sure that everything was in place and ready for the cooks. Now that she was a senior domestic she also oversaw the makings for the pastries, sweet pies, candied fruits, jellies and the like.
Upstairs the rest of the house was still, it was beautifully quiet. It smelled of long dead hearth fires, extinguished parties, dark behaviours and wet dogs drying. The only movements were the bits and pieces blown about by the wind that found its way in through the cracks in the walls and window sills. Aside from this, the house was as silent as stones; as quiet as empty frying pans.
The house stood on top of a hill with a yew tree on its left and an ash tree on its right both much older than the house itself, which was called ‘Wulfric House’. The hill, called St Margolis Hill after a nun, loomed over the city of Crosschester in the county of Wymshire in the south of the country. Both house and hill were at odds with the countryside they inhabited, which was green, rolling and folding harmonious (maybe even a little bit self-satisfied in its perfection).
The house, that house had heaped itself on itself as the family had added to it, fashionably, for six hundred years. It dug into St Margolis Hill and her several subterranean burial mounds. And it dripped over her, clinging on like muddy dew late in the morning.
Imogen sang as she worked this year. Christmas carols. Her voice was beautifully clear both sweet and soulful and it filled the kitchens with joy as she moved about changing from song to song and king to king and joy to comfort and city to manger and back. Imogen loved singing but given her station in life it was as rare and nourishing to her as sleep and dreams, and as precious as a safe place to rest.
She had been with the house staff since her memory was formed. Like all the maids and kitchen boys she was bullied without mercy by the other members of the household from the lowest of the cooks to the highest of the family. Unlike the other boys and girls however, Imogen was comely.
This is how the Lord Sarsen of Crosschester had described her to his son, Aubrey, after he’d noticed her on her 17th birthday back before colour had come to televisions.
Comely. Will fill out. A fair filly. He’d said this to his eldest son, his heir Aubrey who was back from university or the army or wherever he had been, Lord Crosschester couldn’t remember. Aubrey was back and eager for the New Year’s Day hunt.
That day, in pursuit of foxes, the West Crosschester Hunt rode, expensively shod, over the estate lands, through the villages that bookended those lands, over the fields that fed those lands, in and out of the river, over and in some cases through the newly mended fences and patched up hedges. The old men and young men, honoured guests and followers of the hunt yelled, whooped and shrieked as they went. They congratulated each other all day long until dusk stopped them, then caked in mud and blood, slapping backs and braying self-congratulations the Hunt returned to the house for traditional toddies, leaving their horses, boots and clothes to be dealt with by someone.
Young Aubrey had not had the best of days, having been thrown (fallen) from this horse, called ‘Conqueror II’ twice early in the day and fallen behind the main thrust. He’d missed both kills, he’d missed showing off his seat and his abilities to the ladies who had come down from town to see the good male stock of the county doing its utmost to be seen. Aubrey was, in short, full to the brim with his own potential but empty of any attention. His cousin, Rafe’s day, on the other hand, had been simply outstanding. Fences evaporated beneath him and his bay beast ‘The Commander’, which he’d brought down with him (and his groom) on Christmas Eve. Rafe had caught the eye of Lady Susan Montgray and that was set fair for the evening’s ball.
Aubrey, who had been king of school before he went up to Cambridge to study something or somesuch, would have to make do with the dull Miss Caroline Fitzhoward. She was a distant cousin and an annoyingly clever girl. She was quite definitely not in the same stable as the absolute stunner Lady Susan; nowhere near as thrilling nor as likely to make a night of it. As such Aubrey was in a colossal temper as he downed the hot toddy passed to him by Imogen.
Placing his tumbler back on the tray he considered the serving girl. She was delicate for her place in life, delicate and quite pale. Not unattractively so, in fact the paleness of her complexion gave her deep brown eyes a certain animalistic quality that appealed to him a very great deal. Her hair was black and tightly bunched, crying out to fall over her shoulders he found himself thinking. And her lips. Her lips were shockingly, almost elegantly, perfect. In fact the whole this scullery maid was very appealing indeed.
He took the tray from her and fumbled in one of the pockets of his jacket. He handed her his gold pocket watch.
“You know my room, girl?”, he said summoning up his most adult voice.
“Yes sir”, she replied because of course she did.
“Take this and put it on the sideboard. Do it now, then bring me back down my newspaper so I can finish the crossword”.
“Yes sir”, she replied because of course she must. She hurried off and he forced himself into sporting conversation with the first cousin to hove into view.
Imogen passed the head butler who demanded to know where she thought she was off to. She explained, he doubted her and said so but let her go on her way just in case. At the top of the main stairs a valet grabbed her arm and dragged her into a clumsy dance, then tried to drag her into a side room until she told him in her calm, almost bored, definitely weary voice that she was fetching something for the master Aubrey. He let her go but told her that he would find her later. This was the kind of house it was at that time: infected from upstairs to downstairs. Crooked with desires derived not from love but from the powers-that-be, domestic and landed.
Imogen continued her journey in as much stealthy silence as her years of service had taught her until she reached Aubrey Crosschester’s rooms. She darted in and began her search for his newspaper with his clues filled in on his crossword in his handwriting. She searched and then searched again in the same places. She knew that if she returned without it there would be trouble. She searched on his desk, by his bed, in his wardrobe, in his bathroom and finally she bent, then lay down and looked under his bed.
It was at this point that the door opened and Aubrey strode in.
“What on earth are you doing!” he demanded, throwing his newspaper onto the bed and pulling hard on her legs to drag her out and into the dimly lit room.
She stood, bowed her head and body and whispered in a tone she knew should placate him, “I was looking for your newspaper sir”.
“This newspaper!?” For some reason he whispered as he pointed to the newspaper on the bed. Then he grabbed her hand. “And what are you doing with my watch! How dare you!”
Before she could answer he threw her down. She closed her eyes and disappeared to her habitual place as the door closed on the scene and the house prepared for dinner and the festive ball that happened every year. In the place she had constructed over her brief life she tried to find peace through the pain, sadness and humiliation he inflicted on her. Those things were always more real to her, then anyone, than her construction of mind and emotion, which could only ameliorate her state. This time with this man she has known since he was a whelp a new defence came to her. The future, not too distant, presented for the first time in her life some hope.
Not too much later Aubrey handed her a few coins and stroked her hair and said some words that sounded to her like she imagined a snake would sound. He ushered her out of the room and back to work. She walked slowly downstairs to the staff toilets where she sat and sobbed and considered who she could talk to for comfort. There was no one. The way the house was run, or ran itself, demanded that alliances were subsumed by position. Staff came and went, those who remained knew their places and knew their masters and mistresses.
After a short while of sacred peace, Imogen cleaned herself, washed her hands and face and returned to the kitchen to find work. For the first time in her life she had a plan that was for her own happiness. It was simple plan that required her to be patient, which she knew she was. It required her to endure, which she did. It required her to rise slowly up the ranks of the domestics to a position of trust and some small power. She knew she could do this. Simply by remaining silent and enduring she could do this and she would do this, and then she would be happy.
That was some years ago before colour had come to televisions and before Aubrey had gone into the House of Commons to do nothing of any great importance before his inevitable elevation to the House of Lords to replace his father and to do even less.
This year Imogen sang into the silence of the house and she was happy. She went upstairs and walked from room to room checking the corpses, old and young in the ballroom and the servants quarters. Each one clasped a tumbler of toddy in their hand. Each one had fallen where they stood. Quick, quiet and complete. Not a soul stirred in the house on New Years Day.
When she had finished her work and returned to her chair by the small stove where she picked up the old, battered recipe book she’d left there. She had bookmarked the page where the traditional toddy was detailed. She listened again, the house was silent. She had silenced it. She smiled, and in a strong and confident hand she added her own ingredient to the recipe:
‘Hearts of Yew Tree Berries, fresh or dried’ she wrote in her clumsy, untutored hand.
She closed the book and her eyes and took a draft of the toddy.
She smiled and fell asleep.