She was not much to look at the first time I saw her. She stood in the doorway with her eyes fixed securely on a point on the floor, her hands clasped nervously before her and her breath held fast as though she feared breathing would somehow stain the air. I did not think much of her and though we needed to replace Ana, our last maid, I did not think this waif would do.
William, of course, was on his feet as soon as she appeared. He greeted her as familiarly as he would an old friend, while I dutifully and patiently put aside the book we had been reading to each other and waited for him to sit beside me again.
"Welcome my dear, welcome," he said warmly, kissing her hand and throwing all levels of propriety to the winds, "I am Mr Windsor, this is my home and this..." he gestured towards me in a wide sweeping motion, "is Mrs Windsor, the lady of the house."
She gave me a pitiful curtsey and a forced, 'ma'am' escaped her lips. I inclined my head and rang the bell for the housekeeper, Ms Gibbs to take her away. "You shall have the attic room," William assured her, "it's well kept and perfectly decent and we both hope that you enjoy working here. This is Ms Gibbs, she is the housekeeper so you will answer to her and she shall see that you are comfortable here."
Ms Gibbs took in her measure with one critical gaze before meeting my eyes and I could see my own opinion reflected in her unimpressed stare. Ms Gibbs whisked the girl from my parlour and William returned to me with that cheeky smile I had fallen in love with so many years ago. "Poor little thing, she's so nervous!" he exclaimed sympathetically, "you shall have to break her in gently Mrs Windsor, no more entertaining for a while."
I smiled devotedly upon him and carried on reading to him. He would not know how easy it was for me to not invite the local harpies to chatter incessantly at him and drape themselves over his arm in the name of polite company. It was these evenings with him when his entire focus was on me that brought me the most contentment. We would often sit like this, reading to each other. His books were not to my taste but I kept my silence if it meant we could be together for these few hours. Of course I loved him completely and unconditionally and though he was mine I knew that he did not share my devotion. His eyes often strayed to gaze longingly at younger women and sometimes he stayed out quite late with those gentlemen friends of his, but I would never comment or show my displeasure. Instead I would hold my peace and wait for these delightful evenings where we had each other for as long as I could hold his interest.
For me it was enough.
Ever since the war he worked long hours at the factory. He knew the name of every worker and never failed to inquire after their health or families. That was how this waif like girl came to be in our service no doubt. He would have offered to take her in as a favour to one of those men who have too many children and another on the way. I could never stand how he could socialise with these people so easily but then I assumed he took after his father. The workers would often praise how alike the two were so I could only imagine he had picked up more than just the necessities for running the family business from his deceased father. I was immensely proud of the respect he commanded. Often we would walk in the park and men I barely knew would congratulate me on what a fine young man William was and how lucky I was that he took such good care of me. He would usually flush bright red, he never did learn to take a compliment, but I would smile upon him and thank them kindly for their good wishes.
He led a healthy social life and I was blessed with just how much time he made for me. I know many a young man to come into his inheritance early and squander the lot of it on cheap wine and cheaper women. Not my William, he was a good man and I was indeed very lucky to have him. An occasional blip like him giving a job to this urchin was a small price to pay for his love.
I did not see the waif again for some time. Ms Gibbs had sensed my displeasure on the matter and clearly ensured that I would not set eyes upon her learning her daily tasks no doubt so slowly it would have annoyed me. She had all but slipped from my mind when one day, during a momentary silence at dinner William announced,
"I was thinking of teaching her to read and write."
My fork paused part way to my mouth as I regarded him over the tip of sliced lamb, "who?" I asked, though there were only two hers we both had in common and Ms Gibbs could read and write enough to do her job efficiently.
"That girl we hired. I've been speaking to her father, he says she's a bright young thing. Good with children. I thought if she could read and write it might do grand things for her."
He was looking at me as though it was the most natural thing in the world; to educate one's parlour maid. "William," I said firmly, "why on earth would you want to such a thing?"
"Father always believed in such things. He taught me to treat your workers well and do what you can for them. If I taught the girl to read and write then maybe she could do better than dusting our ornaments?" I rolled my eyes, this was another of his father's crazed, radical ideas. I was quite content to hire staff and they'd be damn grateful for the privileges I granted them, but William's father was so close to his workers he had always wanted to do that little bit more for them, give them an extra penny on holidays, sponsor the odd child through school I should not have been surprised that William would on occasion come out with a queer thought. The war had not exactly helped, ever since the men came back the women seemed to think they should carry on as they had in their absence. It was hard to find good staff since then. Most of the maidservants felt they should be paid more money, have more freedoms, William unfortunately seemed to agree.
I put my fork down and tried a different tact. I would not convince him just by telling him he was wrong, "But darling, when will you have the time?"
He gave me that winning smile, "I'll make the time. Maybe this will be a welcome diversion, you won't have to read to me anymore. God knows that should be a blessing for you, you can read what you want instead of sitting me through those tedious novels I like." He said it with such a light laugh that it took a moment for me to realise what he had said. My heart had fallen somewhere from my chest. He could not mean it. He could not think I thought his taste in literature tedious, it was not my own but I tolerated for the time it accorded me with him. How could he choose to spend time with some wretch we paid tuppence to scrub the floor? He was joking of course, he would not go through with it I was sure. It was joke on his part. He could not possibly leave me for the only real time I ever had him completely to myself. He revelled in my company as much as I did his, he would soon forget this passing fancy of his.
We did not speak of it again for the rest of dinner, leading me to believe he would indeed forget and our routine would continue as it had for these many years now. But that evening as I retired to the parlour and pulled out the volume we had been pouring over for some weeks I heard his feet on the stairs as he made his way to the attic room to talk with her. I tried to fool myself into thinking that he was merely checking up on her, he was surely going to talk with her about her progress. But when he came down half hour or so later it was with a triumphant smile and an amused laugh that while he had been arranging a meeting with another woman, I had been dutifully waiting in the parlour for his return.
My life was to change forever.
At first I just had to put up with him traipsing up and down the stairs visiting her room at night. At dinner he started regaling me with stories of just how bright she was and how apt a student she was becoming. He encouraged me to take an interest but I just shook my head and insisted this whole endeavour was a fool's errand. She would not better herself from his wasted time, he could spend years perfecting her spelling and grammar and she would not be any better than the maid she was today. Give her a year and she would still be cleaning the brass.
I started resenting dinner times. They were the only times we could spend together but he insisted on talking about the waif and her progress. Why we couldn't go back to the way we were before escaped me. I appreciated that she was his new project but I wanted my William back. I imagined he would lose interest, hopefully after he had been working with her for some time he would give up on her and we could spend time together like we used too.
It just got worse. One evening as I retired to the parlour I found them both pouring over one of my novels. They both paused as I came in. There was an uncomfortable silence as I caught William's eye. He was considering whether to ignore my presence and carry on while I wondered whether to just take a book and retire to a different room. Of course inevitably it was I who gave in. I did not want to stay and have to listen to her muddle nervously over the words and I would never have asked William to leave. I picked up my book and left in silence. As the door closed I heard William mutter something before it snapped shut and the girl's laughter rang out. She had a pleasant laugh but my face flushed red with embarrassment and anger. For a moment I just stood there listening to the hum of their voices before it became too much and I retired to my bedroom to read a while.
I started to see her more often. She was a far cry from the nervous, shaking wretch who darkened my doorstep just a couple of months ago. She was blooming into a confident little thing, she no longer needed the watchful eye of Ms Gibbs and I was loathe to admit that she did her job well. I could not help but notice what a pretty girl she was. She had delicate features that lit up whenever William entered a room or called her to him. He often looked for her when he walked through the house and made conversation beyond the realms of small talk. All the while I would sit in my chair and watch my beloved William cavort with this woman under my very nose. They did not go to the parlour again, instead they started spending their evenings in the attic room and William stopped talking about her at the dinner table. For some reason this bothered me more than when he had talked incessantly about her. He started to spend time with me when he returned from work, we started making our slow way back to normality. But while William laughed at the appalling Surrey bowling in the cricket pages I was filled with a strange emptiness. After dinner we would share a drink, he would have a cigarette and then just as I left for bed, he would make his way up to the attic room. The stairs creaking under his every step. At least while he talked about her and tutored her in the parlour I knew where they were, what was happening. Now their meetings seemed to be becoming more secret, almost illicit. Sometimes I would lie awake listening to the soft drone of their conversation wondering what it was they were talking about. I started to doubt the innocence of their rendezvous. Why did they need to spend all their evenings together just to read some novels? Why were their meetings suddenly so secretive? Memories of conversations I'd had with friends, rumours of men having affairs with their maids starting coming to me. The thought that William, my beloved boy could chose to love this woman, in my house, under my very nose made me nauseous.
The following day I arranged for a small diversion. I invited over my friends
I confronted him the very next day. "You're spending a lot of time with that girl," I said bluntly when he came back from work the following day. He had dropped into a chair and had just picked up the daily paper when I took my chance.
He looked up at me confused, "which girl?"
"The maid," I said bluntly.
His face split into a huge grin and he laughed, "Oh! I suppose I have, haven't I? I am sorry, she is such a bright student and she's actually quite good company."
"Darling, is it entirely appropriate for her to be good company for you?"
"Oh my dear!" He chuckled, "have I been neglecting my duties to you?"
I shifted in my seat, I would not tell him that I was jealous, he would have no time for such things. "Of course not," I snapped, "I just think you should be keeping more appropriate friendships than a servant."
His surprise at my outburst was evident, "You know she is a person too, she's quite lovely."
"We don't hire her to be lovely, William. I just don't know what's gotten into you recently." But I did know. A gap was forming between us and he was moving far beyond me. And it was all that girl's fault. Right on cue she stepped into the room bringing another jug of water for the table. She set it next to William who said something to her under his breath. She giggled at his words and left again. I stared at William, waiting to see if he would say something. He didn't. They had some private joke which I was not to be privy too, maybe it was about me. Maybe all those times I heard them laughing together they were talking about fussy old Mrs Windsor, how I wasn't 'moving with the times.' The thought of William, my dear, darling William laughing at me hurt me deeper than I thought. I rose to my feet and hurriedly excused myself, bile rising in my throat. I retired hastily to my room, spitting into a handkerchief.
I could hear the clanking of the crockery and knew that cook was cleaning away the remains of dinner. I heard William's footsteps on the stairs but he was not coming to check on me, he was continuing past my room up to the attic. Almost immediately I heard their happy banter drift into the house. I heard her surprise that dinner had ended so soon, and his murmured responses. Another laugh, no doubt directed at me. They would probably spend the evening laughing at the poor Mrs Windsor and how she was powerless to stop what was clearly blooming between the two. I crossed the room and opened the door just a crack just in time to hear William say, "we have all evening."
A red mist descended over my eyes, blinding me from reason. William had been playing me for a fool, his attempts to spend time with me a mere distraction from his affair. While I had been dutifully waiting for him to come back to me he had been with another woman under our roof, in the house we shared together. The girl's laughter was taunting me, she was with my William! There was a letter opener on the dressing table. A gift from William no less. I do not remember picking it up but it was in my hand as I followed William's tracks to the attic. As I approached I heard no voices except the occasional word pass between the two. I was flushed with anger, at least when they were talking they were not...I would not allow my thoughts to wander there. I reached the door, stopping to listen for just a moment. I wanted her out of my house, away from my William. With her gone William and I could be at peace again, we could live our lives the way we had done for years, everything would be alright.
The thoughts must have dictated my actions. I remember the door being flung open as I rushed towards the two. In the back of my mind I registered confusion. I expected them to be entangled in each other's arms, but instead they were sitting side by side at the small table in the room. William turned, his face falling when he saw the not so harmless letter opener in my hand. "Mother!" he shouted, he rushed towards me trying to wrestle it from my hand. I swiped at her but William was between us and it cut into his face. The girl was screaming now, it just fuelled my anger. I lunged towards her but William was still between us, he stumbled backwards into the table knocking the book to the floor. "Mother! Stop!" he shouted again. I stabbed at him again and again. If I had to go through him to get to her so be it, he had betrayed me. My darling, loving William was already gone and in his place lay this traitor. My hand came down over and over again and soon William stopped struggling. I turned to the girl, soon she would be gone and my William and I could be alone again. She was crying, between her muffled sobs I heard her say," your son, you killed you son."
I stepped towards her, as I did I stepped over the book that had started all this. Lying open on the floor it was stained with William's blood and the waif's pouring tears.