She would have managed to lose track of her own packing, were it not for the fact that everything she owned fitted into her tiny suitcase with space left over. She kept looking down and feeling sure something was missing, or she'd taken something that was not hers to be so free with. After a few moments of absent mindedly smoothing the front of her dress, casting her eyes around the room then peering back in at her small collection of things, she sat next to the case on her little bed, felt her heart as it fluttered away, and smiled.
She'd just come from the little Master's room. They had finally succeeded in filling all his luggage for school. The list had seemed endless and required days of preparation and work. Her thumbs were calloused now, as she had been given the job of sewing his name into every cloth thing that he owned. She'd hardly seen April since the weekend, as her sister had been sent to the kitchens. More hands were needed down there if they wanted to ready all the preserves, sweet treats and comforts the little Master was to take up with him.
She tutted out loud at the end of this last thought; not April! They were away from this place in the morning and she could call her own sister as she wished now. So when she next saw her sister's tired face, she would say to it 'Aibrean' without fear of censure. Or even, remembering the nickname she had once used a thousand times a day, 'Merrow'. And as if her thoughts had been given strength by her happiness spilling into them, or by the magical creatures to which that name referred, her sister unlocked and thrust open the door that very second. 'Hurry!' But what Mairead had to hurry for she had first to wait for, as April spent a few seconds clutching at her side and leaning on the bed frame, gasping for breath. Mairead stood and fanned at her sister's flush face with her dress apron. 'Her iLadyship's/i sent ithings/i to the iquarters/i!' April finally said and the two girls dashed off at once.
They clattered lightly into the room where the staff were allowed to gather after hours and found a tray of hot nuts, some very fine white bread and a new pot of plum jam. The girls gasped at all this, then noticed there was a jug of fizzy ginger and they let out squeals of high excitement and delight. 'You'd think it was Christmas'. Mrs Buxton, the Housekeeper, made her way round the door and sunk heavily into a chair. She sighed and rolled her eyes at the pair, but they knew she was being fond. Everyone seemed to be tired and kindly at the minute. There was a feeling of accomplishment, of regretful but necessary work done well, now that the Little Master was all ready for the off. The loss of the little one made them pull together, not to mention that the two of them were going back home to Ireland for a short time. The house was very keen to hang together this last night.
'Her Ladyship said seeing as how you didn't have any supper, and that it's your last night, we could hardly let you go without. Your Ma'd get it into her head we was starving you, and then she'd never let you near the boat back!' Mrs Buxton chuckled.
'It does itoo/i feel a touch like Christmas, though. Doesn't it Merrow?' April, who was rolling some of the hazlenuts between her palms for warmth, looked briefly annoyed at being addressed so. But it was only brief, as she always seemed pre-occupied now, even when she was sitting at her leisure with food on the table. Mrs Buxton had pursed her lips at the name, and there was no fondness in the gesture this time. Mairead's chin rose a little, an involuntary show at defiance grew out of her hurt at having caused vexation. 'Oh dear, isomeone's/i getting silly in the head'. Mairead glanced round quickly to see Elsie, the scullery maid, winding her way through the half-open door and round the untucked chairs along the table. She had half a smile on. 'Either that or they're iforgetting themselves/i…Oopsie!' She said this last word as she snapped forward and snatched a handful of nuts from the tray. 'If you mean to say your Whopsies about me Elsie Hackett then let me warn you that I certainly haven't been forgetting anything whatsoever. And I shall thank you to be minding your own business if you please!' Just at this point, as Elsie's smile was growing wider and her eyes narrower, as Mairead's face was getting redder and redder, a certain rushing of air made itself heard. This was Mrs Buxton's Grand Sigh, given extra force as she folded herself forward to reach for her glass of tonic, and it was warning enough to the room at large that it should drop that kind of carry on immediately. Mairead busied herself with the bread and jam, while April seemed hardly to have noticed anything at all. Elsie appeared satisfied with her work and only a few moments silence followed this breaking of tension. Soon enough Mrs Buxton was talking through the itinerary for the morning, and about the week just gone, and about how it didn't seem to fit – the little Master heading off to school already. Mairead was caught up in stories of the little Sir and all the little brood from before she'd arrived. Cara joined them before long and so absorbed was Mairead that when there came a strong wrap at the door she half jumped out of her seat. Cara found this hilarious, so of course, soon so did Mairead and the knocker had to try again because no one had remembered to answer. 'Come in if you're coming in then!' Mrs Buxton called.
'Beg your pardon Misses. Oh, and Mrs. I'm awfully sorry to have to disturb you in the ladies' quarters, but the housemaids are needed above stairs'. Mairead and Cara made sure to have one last gulp of their fizzy ginger, then rushed away.
It was half past one in the morning by the time she felt her way back along the damp, uneven passage that led to her and April's room. Her Ladyship had bade her take a tallow candle, and Mairead had thanked her gratefully, even though she knew the tallow candles were kept so close to her own bedroom that there would be no point. Instead, filled with such good feelings as she was, she felt quite content to touch her way along the dark, wet-walled corridor. Like it was some kind of a hiding game. And it was quite refreshing too, after being so close to the roaring fires they keep upstairs, to feel the air cool around you as you descend. When she'd first got to know this dark chill, she'd been afraid of it. But she was so used to it now, not to mention that she was leaving in the morning, that it felt almost like a soft little, familiar embrace.
She opened the door as quietly as she could: moving it slowly at first, then very quickly to avoid it squeaking at the certain angle it didn't like. It struck her that, little though she thought it ever could have when she'd arrived, the place was almost like a home to her now. At least, she quickly corrected, she knew it almost as well as you know your own home. She moved her hand slowly, slowly through the air above the dresser and was able to touch upon the clock without knocking it over. It's more than likely, she thought as she checked with deft fingers that April had wound it, that I'm only thinking these sentimental thoughts because I'm really going home tomorrow. And all my homely feelings are spilling over into this grand, cold, Ocean liner of a house.
Unlacing her boots, she perched on the little chair and thought back to her first few nights as part of the household. How huge and full of things and people it had seemed. That she couldn't understand how nobody got lost. And how unlike a home it felt.
On the second day, when they'd been told their names were too difficult to pronounce she had only felt a kind of shock, whereas Merrow had been quietly angry. As Mairead listened to her sister talk about thoughtlessness, the feeling of being owned and of liberties being taken, Mairead's sense of having been wronged grew. So when they were told they must also refer to one another as 'May' and 'April', Mairead had gone to bed and cried. 'I shall inever/i call you April' she had vowed. 'It's so easy, how can anyone have trouble saying "Abrawn"? iHow/i? The tongues in their head must be grown all slack. It's the way they talk up there, all stiff and quick and quiet with no expression! All the staff can say it well enough. If they had to worry about letters I could maybe understand, but they don't have to spell you, they just have to icall/i you! And Mairead is inothing like/i May! "Maraid" is perfectly simple to say!'
'Well at least they've not named you Margret' said April, as though the matter was closed already. Somehow April was quickest to get over it and get on with things. Mairead wanted to wail and sulk in secret for a long time after.
She was out of her dress with barely more sound than a draft, and crawled bit by bit in next to her sister. Measuring the past against the present, thinking of home, all this would have driven her dizzy were it not for sleep rushing in to weigh her thoughts down. How will it all fit together, when we set foot through the door, kneel down and touch our sick Ma's head, she just had time to wonder. And then she was asleep.