I have chosen a piece that has a woman’s voice in a similar socio-economic milieu to Monique, although later in time than the new book will be. This was done for the Limnisa Retreat Writing Competition, an international competition in which I placed fourth. The theme was a Room of One’s Own. I immediately pictured one of Virginia Woolf’s servants dusting her Room quite strongly. Then I realised there was a real person – Maud – once I undertook some research. This is fiction but I have picked traces of her life.
I dust around her special things—her notebooks, typewriter, and so, so many books. Miss Ginnie that is, Virginia Woolf to those outside the household. Now in Bloomsbury she finally has a Room, away from that awful George Duckworth and his wandering hands. A Room of One’s Own she calls it, because she’s proper posh. And it is, but she needs me to keep in clean. She trusts me with her Room, so maybe it’s my Room too.
Around the dinner table the writers and scientists and revolutionaries speak in words as long as your arm. Their phrases roll off their tongues like a child down a slide. I want those words too, but I’ve not the learning. I know my letters but not much more. As I’m threading in and out between them, meat here, gravy there, more peas, I hear them talk a big talk about disrupting society. But they can’t cook or feed themselves. Still, I’m grateful for the work, the roof over my head. Up into the attic I go at the end of the long day, look over London.
Without their long words I’ve a story to tell myself, but it never gets heard around their lively dining tables, with their thinkers and poets and lovers coming and going. As I dust her Room, if you’ll listen, I’ll tell you.
I was born in Deptford, the eldest child of my little family. While she never thought about it, I was born the same year as Ginnie. My Ma called me Maud—it was her mother’s name. I found out later it means “powerful battler,” and this must’ve been the right name for the both of us. Battles with poverty, battles to survive. Battles to step out from the nameless role of “servant” to vivid human.
Our Deptford house was tiny—but we knew nothing else and we loved its red brick walls, the streets and churchyard with neighbourhood children just outside the door. I’d have to watch my little brother carefully. Down to the muddy Thames we’d go and I was always calling him back from some mischief or other. They were happy times.
As the eldest I had to help Ma. So beautiful and kind is how I remember her. The roughness of her winter shawl rubbing my tender cheek when she pulled me on her lap for a bear hug. Our Da was a good man, so we were lucky. He loved my Ma to bits, stayed away from the grog and came home promptly on payday with the housekeeping money that she’d stretch till next time. Warm, simple meals and some nights he’d get out his tin whistle and play a few tunes.
But next door and down the hall there’d be fighting and cursing, women wailing. Some nights Ma would come to our beds and sing to us the to drown out the racket. By then there were four of us children and she was stouter but still pretty. The hugs weren’t so often now, there always seemed to be a squalling infant she had to soothe.
When Da passed before age 30, the consumption it was, we were stranded us in poverty. Ma and I laid him out, I had to help her, she couldn’t see through her tears. Crossed his hands, pennies on his eyes. Women whispered I was too young to be doing this, but I was twelve and there was no-one else. Then Ma followed him in the Spring. I knew what to do, lay her out, the coins. I put bluebells from the local park into her worn, icy hands. A last bouquet for my dear Ma.
And so it was I was fourteen, and I had to go into service, seek my food and shelter. My younger brother took off into the navy, they were always on the lookout for Thames boys like him nobody would miss.
“Don’t make us go, Maud” my little sisters begged, but what choice did I have? I sent them in a coach down to an Aunt down in Kent, clutching their little bags with almost nothing in them. In the end I just had to leave. From that day to this, I never saw any of them again.
It’s a long way from Deptford to Hyde Park but I was lucky enough to get a position there with the Stephens family. Cook looked me over with an unsmiling face but I passed her test, whatever it was. Girls my age were grumbling about going into service. They preferred shop jobs and the like. For me, I just wanted to know I had a roof over my head.
When I started at Ginnie’s Hyde Park house, her parents were respectable, ran a rambling home with plenty of servants. Enough of us to squabble and gossip. Up early in the mornings, empty the slops, water for the ladies to wash in, curtains back to let in the day. Carpets to beat, floors to sweep and scrub. And then into our black dresses and waiting on the tables. Down into the gloom of the kitchen we’d go, pile up the trays and up to the table again. Weaving in between with the towering plates of meat, tippy jugs of gravy and wandering hands of the men. Up into the attic to sleep at night. I’d slip around the house, mostly unseen, astonished at how Cook would rail and rant and still keep her place. She was a fine cook.
But times move, and people die, even rich people. Through all the deaths I was there—first her mother, then her half-sister and finally her father. Saw Ma’s hand with her bluebells, Da and his pennies on his eyes.
I watched over Ginnie, prayed for her as she came in and out of madness. Prayed like I wish someone had prayed for me.
Just Cook and I came to this new Bloomsbury house. They think we don’t listen, but we knew the young people wanted to try being servant-less. There were days I couldn’t eat or sleep thinking they would let us all go. But Bohemian ways apparently don’t include dusting and slops, so in the end, we came too.
I have my little attic, but it’s not my own. With each move and change I could tumble from my precarious perch. The search for My Own Room must go on.