The Larid's Holiday
By Andrew Collins
‘I’m going back to bed, you may do what you like’ the Housekeeper said. And with that, authority turned her heels and the boots clacked down the polished red linoleum of the servant’s corridor. Having seen several carriages of luggage off at the back door of the looming Baronial pile, the other staff now looked askance at one another, unsure what to do next. The click-clacks grew faint and then disappeared as Mrs Condie reached the small carpeted stair which led up to an adjoining corridor which housed, amongst other things, the ground floor entrance to the recently installed lift. ’So, what do we do now?’ asked the most junior member of the remaining staff, the still-room maid ‘wee Mary Duncan’. ‘We do our duties as we see fit’ answered Maggie, the oldest of the three housemaids, with some degree of ambiguity.
‘But does that mean we can go back to bed?’ the middle housemaid, Ina chimed in; the lifting in the question betraying her hopes. A silence hung there as they heard from the far end of the corridor the sound of the door to the lift opening, the gate clanging open, the door shutting with a thunk, the faint sound of the gate closing, then quiet. The de-facto head of the House was away to the fourth floor. ‘I mean, if Mrs Condie has gone then who is in charge?’ Mary questioned, who, still in her first months at the castle had yet to experience the skeleton staff of the Lairdless property. From a staff of nineteen the previous day, there now remained but six girls, aged between fifteen and forty-nine: the Housekeeper, three housemaids, a laundress, and the still-room maid. They had been left behind to hold down the fort while the Laird and his retinue spent Christmas and the New Year in London and thereabouts. Six girls, one-hundred-and-ten rooms and the Laird was not due to return till Easter.
‘They’re not going to be back for four months, would it really matter all that much if we did go back to bed?’ Ina pondered aloud. Her eyes were heavy with her disturbed sleep. The cruel sleep of knowing you were to be roused long before the normal hour. During the night it had began snowing. When the alarm clocks stung their reveille at four o’ clock the scene from their lofty windows was a glimmering snowscape illuminated by the fleeting moonlight. The snow clouds soon drew closed and night returned. Still the snow fell, silently, gently. Meanwhile there was work to do. They’d had to collect the luggage from all corners of the Castle, two to a case as they lumbered down the grand stone wheel-stair, through a narrow door onto the servant’s passage which led to the Luggage Door where the girls stood presently. Before, and out of sight, the family had been seen off with the travelling household by Mrs Condie at the Entrance Hall door, her mittens waving them off. Now their effects had been despatched from the ‘tradesman’s entrance’. Piles of cases were safely on carriages, beginning their way along the fleecy white, sleeping drive, to the distant gatehouse where not a lamp shone in the windows yet. There they would meet the turnpike road and left and up the long brae to the station which served the village and the wider estate. And there, at the platform sat a modest locomotive with three carriages invitingly illuminated inside. Steam pleasantly hissed and rose in the frozen pre-dawn. Occupying the first carriage were the fortunate staff who had been selected to travel south with the family for the season. They would speak in sleepy whispers about the anticipation of the journey, the Society they would encounter during the season, and the wonderful warmth of the staff-accommodation in the Mayfair house. The middle carriage was to be packed tight with the trunks and bags now on their way through the dark forest of the estate. Finally, the last carriage was reserved for the Laird and his consumptive wife, their two secretaries, his daughter and his son-in-law, the English Major. Breakfast would be delivered to them once they arrived at the City in an hour’s time. In fourteen hours they would be delivered, weary in a springtime evening of the Capital; ready to meet their fresh beds for an early night, before beginning the season the next day, the first day of December.
‘I really don’t know. It feels somewhat dishonest, they’ve been gone but twenty minutes’ explained Maggie, assuming her sudden position of influence. The door to the outside world was still ajar, letting in the chill air of a day yet to start in earnest. Little flakes of snow blew through the threshold and settled on the girls’ hair. They watched the snow, sleepily mesmerised by the soft display. Maggie, as much as any of them yearned to return to the warm womb of her bed for a few more hours. They had all been cruelly stripped from their blissful oblivion. They had stumbled up and down the many stairs and along many miles of corridor carrying loads she felt the bloody, lumpish estate-men should have been up to cart. Suddenly, she felt owed those lost hours back. She had not even had a cup of tea yet. She was settled. ‘I make it a quarter past five’ she said addressing her watch, she paused for effect, ‘I don’t want to see any of you buggers until half past eight’. The girls gasped.
Such a sleep-in was unheard of, even on a Sunday. You would have long missed breakfast and would be in danger of missing the first post. They began to bounce on the spot, giddily. Sleep, suddenly assumed a power beyond any lust or material want. They were going to reclaim the hours they’d been deprived of by the departure. ‘I will come back down at eight to get the post, if he makes it up the drive, the rest of you can have an extra thirty minutes. You need the beauty sleep more than me’ she jested smilingly. Opiated, they finally closed the hulking luggage-door, shutting out the day they were reluctant to begin just yet. They greedily shuffled along the long artery of the servant’s corridor to the stairs. It was as if they were running from the snow. Unlike Mrs Condie, none of the girls felt senior enough to turn-left and make use of the elevator for such slothful purposes. In close file they began the long climb up the small spiral-stair, clicking on the stone steps, all four floors to the landing which took them back through to their sainted quarters, with its heavenly beds. There they would lay and race one another back to sleep. But in those final moments before falling away they would survey the Estate in their minds. They would move from bustle of the station, the train still to depart. They would move from cottage to cottage, as the workers enjoyed the final stretch of their slumber, unawares of the snowscape they were to wake up to. They would finally turn to the parks where the ewes huddled stoically, resolute, thinking only of the clink of the pail that let them know the night was at an end, and the farmer was coming. And then, back in the castle, the girls would finally drift back to sleep.