A Remains of the Day Fiction
February 14th 1941
The hall look even bigger than usual, tables and chairs pulled back to line the walls, the heavy velvet drapes cascading behind them, the rich wood panelling stretching to the ceiling. It was as though the war outside did not rage, and Darlington remained cocooned against the horrors. Susan thought of her own humble quarters in the village, a simple little house she shared with her parents and two sisters, she'd never dreamed of living in this splendour, even as a maid, but would have swapped her room in the attic of Darlington for the cottage she had been due to share with Tommy any day. But now that hope was extinguished, her worst nightmares had come true.
Susan flitted across the hall to the fireplace and set down her things. The brushes and rags; the rudimentary cleaning materials, with which she would make the brass fittings gleam. Behind her the bustle of the other servants putting the final touches to the hall churned on; the clipped stride of Mr Stevens echoing off the high ceiling as he officiated. Oh it was alright here, she knew that, it was a good job, the other staff were friendly and even Mr Stevens honoured her with the occasional smile or word of praise. But it wasn't how it was supposed to be. She should be married by now, maybe even have a kiddie on the way, at the very least he should be home from it all, they said it would last more than months but this conflict raged on obliterating the plans of thousands like her. She thought of the telegram on the shabby cabinet by her bed upstairs, an early Christmas present that'd been. Gone. Bloody war.
She leaned into the grate and began to scrub. Trying not to hear the chatter behind her about the Ball. Trying not to remember it was Valentine's day and that her sweetheart… Poor Tommy. She scrubbed harder, unwilling to let herself descend into misery again; she put the burning in her eyes down to the soot. There was a click of heel on the tiles behind her.
'Well done Susan, we'll have the place sparkling tonight with hard worker like you at our disposal,' Mr Stevens ran a finger around the edge of the marble fireplace beneath the mantle, he looked at it briefly before withdrawing a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping it clean. 'See to that when you're done there if you could, Susan?' he cocked his head and looked down at her, his starched white collar tight at his neck.
The maid looked up at him and nodded briefly, 'Yes, Mr Stevens, of course.' Susan felt the emotion in her throat ball up and threaten to choke her. She knew what a fright she must look, red eyes and soot stained face but Mr Stevens held her eye.
'I know this is a difficult time for you but try to stay focused on the work at hand. The smooth running of the hall during functions such as these is imperative. Yes?'
Mr Stevens looked at her with something akin to kindness and let one of his rare gentle smiles play around his lips, 'Good girl,' he said quickly and moved away.
Susan looked back at the grate, the dirt on her hands and the cold grey, marble in the cool light of the winter morning. She thought of the ladies and gentleman already at Darlington, tucked up in the soft beds on the second floor, sleeping through the hours before lunch. They would be excited, happy, able to forget the world outside and is horrors. Half of them probably weren't even affected. How could they be when they were wrapped up against it all in their money and position? It wasn't fair. It was people like her mother and sisters who suffered, like Mary the maid who shared her room, who wept for her when the telegram arrived and placed it softly beside her own. And now this ball. What she'd do to cast aside reality for a night and dance in the timeless world of Darlington.
She took out a smaller brush and began cleaning the rim of marble Mr Stevens had pointed out to her. She didn't notice the delivery of roses arrive behind her, hear the direction given for their arrangement by the new housekeeper Miss Davis, and she didn't feel the brief weight of the butler's eyes on her bended head.
'You not coming upstairs love?' Mary was loitering agitatedly by the kitchen door, 'Miss Davis says if we're quiet we can watch the ladies leave the hall. Oh I do want to see 'em in their finery. Don't you Susan?'
Susan didn't move. It was late and she had been up since four that morning. Valentines Day was drawing to a grateful close as far as she was concerned. Normality, such as that was these days, would return again tomorrow and she would be relieved to have her routine back.
'Come on Susan!' Mary exclaimed, 'Be nice to see it won't it? Them roses were looking lovely, Miss Davis did them proud, though never quite as lovely as Miss Kenton used to do I must admit. And even Mrs Stevens says it'll do the girls good to see 'em, and 'ee ain';t one for all that romantic stuff is he? Perhaps 'ee thought of Miss Kenton too when 'ee saw 'em... Oh please, Susan, I can't go up by myself now can I?'
'Get one of the others to go with you, Mary, I just want to sit here. I'll see the roses soon enough when I come to clear them in the morning.'
Mary signed had looked as though she was about to argue but then though better of it. She vanished into the bright corridor outside leaving Susan alone. She watched the fire and imagined she saw Tommy's face in the flames. The bells rang for service and the laughter rang with them down the passageways and she wall lulled finally into an uneasy reverie.
She woke to hear the clock chiming two. Heavens she had to be up and around in a couple of hours. She shifted stiffly in her chair, rubbing her eyes and cursing herself for falling asleep in such an uncomfortable position.
'Susan!' she jumped. Mr Stevens, still in his finest uniform was standing over her. 'I must say this shows great dedication, but I doubt you will be summoned to clean a grate at two am.' His eyes twinkled slightly. He held an empty decanter in one hand and a silver tray in the other and was evidently on his way to the pantry.
'I'm sorry sir, I must have dozed off, I'll just go to my bed now then…'
'No I don't think you will.'
She looked at him askance. He set the decanter and tray on the table by her side.
'You see I heard that you were rather reluctant to obey orders earlier Susan and I can't tolerate that from my staff.' Susan still half asleep began to panic.
'Orders sir I never got no orders!
'I'm afraid you did, I would have thought a task such as going upstairs to see the Ball would be one you complied with willingly.' There was something dancing in his china blue eyes now that she could not place.
'I didn't realise it was an order sir,' she stammered, 'I ..just…'
'Well I am afraid that as you refused to do your duty before I have no alternative but to insist upon it now before you retire for the night.
'Yes, sir' she said quietly.
'Good,' and he stepped aside gesturing as he did with one arm to the chair behind him. 'Perhaps then you would like to get changed, we can't have a sooty maid in the ballroom now can we.' Susan couldn't help it, she gasped. She didn't know how he had done it but draped carefully over the chair was a pale dress of pink satin, the latest fashion, with short puffed sleeves and a flattering princess neckline. Below the chair a pair of matching slippers.
'Ten minutes,' Mr Stevens said and lifting the decanter once more vanished from the kitchen.
In the dead night of Darlington Hall Mr Steven lead her quietly along the passages used by the discreet footmen and waiting staff. They glided past the dining room and onto the ballroom which had been decorated for the occasion. It was empty now, row upon row of used glasses waiting for the morning staff, the floor needed a sweep, the fire was burning low in the grate Susan would have to clean the next day, in a few hours. But a few houses seemed a lifetime away. She had let her hair fall in blonde waves down her back, her face was flushed
with the excitement of this new experience, she, just a maid, in this fine dress in this hall. He left her to stand in the centre looking at the flowers displayed down either side. Miss Davis had indeed done a fine job.
Susan jumped as a record player screeched into use somewhere in the corner and Mr Stevens reappeared, the soft music playing eerily in the still night. He approached her with his hands behind his back.
'I'm afraid I was unable to persuade the band to stay,' he said, 'But I did salvage.. this…' and he withdrew a hand from behind him, holding the rose corsages delicately in it. 'May I?' he asked.
Susan felt the beginnings of tears again as he gently pinned the flowers to her dress and asked 'Would you like to dance?'
She nodded a reply trying to control the quiver in her lips. She'd been so lonely and this was so kind. He took her in his arms and began a relaxed dance. They moved in say circles round the room, Mr Stevens guiding her in the strength of his arms and saying as he did so, 'I do hope you forgive me this imposition, but it was so hard to dismiss your unhappiness these last few weeks. I wanted… I needed to tell you that it gets easier, that nothing will ever replace your time together with that special person, but that life will go on…' He slowed the pace and lifted her chin with one finger to look in her eyes, 'I wanted to assure you… that there is a Prince for every Cinderella.'