by Cerridwen Storms
As I pushed the cleaning cart down the hall, I half cursed my parents for cutting my allowance as I studied abroad at Oxford. If was the first day of the job, and I already wanted to quit being a maid for the London tavern. It was a small place, very old and traditional, with a pub on the main floor and a rough dozen rooms for a night's stay on the floors above. Luckily, I was up to the last room for the shift; one of the suites which my boss told me was on lease as an apartment for the friend of a relative. I knocked to see if the occupant was home, and upon hearing no reply, I unlocked the door.
When I opened the door, the first thing that hit me was the musky smell of English tea roses, mixed with dust, burnt birch wood, and the hard scent of varnish. On the floor was a spray of wood shavings and saw dust, colored by light cast by a beautiful stained glass window.
I chose to work on the bed first. Dust and paints and food crumbs were littering the wrinkles of the sheets, and there was a patch of what looked like a soda stain. As I discovered the stain was not from soda, as I smelled the alcohol wafting from the fabric. There were dirty dishes under the bed, along with half a bottle of rum, a stocking and a pair of lady's boots.
It then occurred to me that I did not know if the occupant was male, as I had begun to assume from the bed's appearance, or female, from the feminine articles of clothing I had just discovered.
It was confirmed that the occupant was a woman when I turned to see a small, dusty vanity scattered with a few toiletries. There was little there that was particularly feminine; some deoderant and lotion, a jar of face cream and a tube of lip balm. The most feminine thing present was the rather large bottle of rose-scented perfume oil, from which the room's dominant smell emitted. Beside the perfume was a picture frame that appeared so untouched and dirty that one could not possibly make out what the image was unless they put it right up to their face.
I felt a little bad about prying into this messy woman's life, but my curiosity could dominate my senses quite easily.
Carefully, I lifted the frame from the vanity by it's back-stand, so as to not remove a noticeable amount of dust and give away my activity. Even up close, the grime was so thick on the glass that I had to squint to make out the picture. The photo's quality made me think that it couldn't have been taken more than five years ago. It appeared to be of a lovely, young, married couple (as there were rings visibly on their hands) with a little girl perched on the woman's lap. All of them looked like they were laughing happily. I questioned why this woman would choose to live in this tavern suite, which was barely accommodating for one person, as opposed to being with this family. I looked back at the half-empty bottle of rum that I moved onto the nightstand and the sad looking sheets on my cart, then I returned to the photo and drew my sad conclusion; somehow, somewhere along the line, this woman lost her happy family.
Guilt ridden, I put the framed back down, carefully positioning it on the dust-free line that it left on the vanity, and went back to my cleaning. I cleaned as much as possible without prying into this increasingly sad and lonely woman's life. I swept the crumbs and shavings up from the floor, sent the sheets to the laundry room and the dishes to the kitchen. I went back up to dust and mop, all the while doing what I could to not actually observe my surroundings in fear of what I would find out about this occupant I hadn't even met yet.
I had been instructed by my boss to not go into the second room of the suite, to just work on the bed room and the bathroom. Apparently, the other maids did not know what was hidden there, only that it was a workroom that was not to be disturbed. One superstitious ninny thought the occupant was some crazy witch or occultist who drew circles in the floor and sacrificed cats to the devil, and her silliness apparently spread. So, no one even bothered to look in.
Of course, I could always count on myself to be clumsy at the right moment.
The sneeze I had made while I finished mopping sent me stumbling back right into the thick, make-shift curtain that served as a door between the suite rooms. As I fumbled about to free myself of the fabric I got myself tangled up in, the slightly dusty and cob web-veiled beauty on the workroom caught my eye and I ceased my efforts as I became breathless in wonder.
The occupant was an artist; a wood carver.
The room was filled with beautifully carved relief plaques, statues, elegantly worked staves and wands. Some of them were stained with colors, some left bare, some with metallic and glass inlays. Every piece emitted a strange warmth throughout the room. The colors and shapes all seemed to dance gracefully about. I felt like I had found the lost treasure of Atlantis.
At the center, however, I spotted a relatively large carving that seemed like it was a constant work-in-progress, judging from it's unresolved appearance and the lack of dust on its surface. The two larger figures lifted a smaller figure off the ground. Their bodies appeared genderless for the meantime, but they all had faces of pure joy, laughing and seeming as if they could breathe.
It was as if all of this woman's hopes resided in this room, kept away from the cold, harsh reality of the old in and rainy London.
I think that at this moment, I should have feltsome guilt, like I did when I looked at the photograph on the vanity. But, strangely, instead of feeling guilt, I felt more a kin to this stranger. It was as if standing in this room made me feel her hope. And, with this new feeling, I re-pinned the fabric curtain, tucking this trove away from the cold reality of the outside world, and finished cleaning up.
Perhaps, I thought. I should come up with a nice post of tea for her later. And maybe I'll keep the job after all.