New Irish Writing: June 2018’s winning short story

The Blue Room by Jane Lavelle, in which an unlikely relationship develops between two women

 

Ladies of rank did not nurse in those days. Besides, the mistress was known as a beauty and giving birth had been perilous enough to her figure. The master would not suffer it to undergo further distortion.

My own Olive was then a fat child with 12 moons behind her. I had not been planning to wean her yet. I liked nursing. I liked the comfort of it. I liked the small, electric tugs at the heart. I had allowed myself to believe that she needed it, too, even though she was lapping up mashed potatoes and bread soaked in the buttery blond milk the Suttons sent over every morning. But when the offer came I was forced to consider whether her claim on my body was spent, and admit that it was. So I accepted. Olive would be weaned and I would nurse the mistress’s new baby.

I would have use of the blue room at the western end of the house, one of those usually reserved for visiting friends. Patrick, my husband, would remain in the servants’ quarters but be permitted to visit us. Olive would sleep in a crib beside the gigantic wooden bed I was to share with the infant, Thomas. I would bring Thomas, freshly washed and dressed, to the mistress in her parlour every afternoon, attend her when she was with the child and keep the room in good order, but I would be relieved of most of my usual work. It would be a significant improvement in our situation.

Thomas was a beauty from the beginning. Indeed, how could he be otherwise, with such a mother? He had his father’s bulbous nose, it was true, but he had her wheat-coloured hair, sky-blue eyes and mother-of-pearl complexion. How rough, how uncouth my Olive seemed in comparison, with her dun tangles and grubby paws! How rude her movements, how base her need for my attention! I loved Thomas as if he were a fine new doll that a fine lady’s daughter had lent me; and he took to my breast like a newt to water. We settled well into the blue room, the three of us.

In the middle of one night, when Thomas began to grouse for a feed, I woke to find a third body in the bed. Being still half-used to Patrick, I did not start – until I realised that it was not Patrick but the mistress herself. She was curled up with her arms around her knees, stroking the infant’s head. She had on a fine nightgown of cambric and lace with no cap and her hair fell around her shoulders like a shimmering golden waterfall.

In my confusion I moved to cover up my body with the blankets, for I had altered my own coarse linen bed-shift to release my breasts in readiness for night-time feeds (and, not expecting any visitors, been proud of my ingenuity). I felt my face burn and opened my mouth to try to explain, but the mistress raised a dainty finger to her own red lips.

“Hush,” she whispered. “Don’t upset yourself. I only wanted to be near him.”

If I had had my wits about me I may have protested at such an intrusion. Instead, I reacted according to the instinct that 20 years as a servant had formed in me. I simply followed instructions – and put Thomas back to my breast.

The mistress spoke not another word. Her body touched neither his nor my own, yet she was close enough that I could feel her warmth, smell her balmy breath. She watched Thomas dreamily as he suckled and dozed. Her presence seemed to calm him and he soon dropped off. My own agitation dissipated too. I felt myself lulled and fell asleep not long afterward. When I woke for the next feed she was gone.

She came back the next night and indeed every night from then on, each time staying a little longer, sleeping a while between feeds, as I and the child did too. At first, she barely spoke. She lay beside Thomas, stroked his hot little earlobes and sometimes sang to him:

Ah! vous dirai-je, maman,

Ce qui cause mon tourment?

It was not long before I began to look forward to her visits, to feel her absence in the blue room as a chill despite the season, as if the fire had been swept and set but not yet lit. In the end I lay awake each night, unable to sleep until she came. I altered my shift again so that each breast could be revealed or concealed with a square of linen attached under the bust and secured around the shoulder with string.

In time, she began to talk to me.

“How is he when I’m away from him?” she would ask with a sigh. “I miss him. Though I might be attending the grandest balls in the kingdom, every hour I miss him!”

So I began to take note of Thomas’s every movement and to describe them to her in as much detail as I could amass. I stored up tales of his achievements and related them with complaisant pride: how he was getting better at bringing up wind; how he chortled and pulled the end of Olive’s nose.

Everything little Thomas did delighted me – that was true. He was a perfect plaything. But I did not deceive myself that the attention I paid him was for his own sake. No. It was in service of the pleasure that illuminated my mistress’s magnificent features when she heard each night about the new things he had done. For by now I was wholly in love with her.

She liked my company too – yes, I do not flatter myself by saying so – and she had a natural and somewhat unruly interest in those around her. Thus the scope of our conversations grew wider by the night. She liked what I told her about the other servants, of whom she saw so much but knew so little.

Finally, she began to ask me about myself, about what I could remember about home. So I told her. I gave her, each one like a sixpence engraved with my initials, the few scraps of memory I could still summon. Clay. Big black pots over trembling flames. The beach glistening with a deep-red tangle of wrack. Feamainn – the word for seaweed, the only one of my native tongue I still knew.

Many of those nights were warm enough for the window in the blue room to be left open and the gentle breeze carried the perfume of summer through the casement. The waxing moon, bold as a bugle in the bare black sky, gave the sense that the constraints of day had been shaken off and that the results of circumstance and decision could be pared away like apple skin. It seemed that anything was possible.

In time, my mistress grew more penetrating with her questions. She moved past mere fact. One night, pressing the rubbery nubs of the baby’s toes between finger and thumb, she gently asked, “Are you content, Nora? What do you wish for in the world, I wonder. What is it that you desire?”

I looked away from her. I told myself that it was only curiosity that made her ask, that she had no knowledge of the longings I held in my heart; yet I flushed to such a degree that my very breast reddened under the baby’s cheek. I said the first serviceable thing my mind could conjure.

“Only that anyone who should happen to think of me should think well of me, ma’am.”

Then the tears pricked my eyes – for, despite what the moon told me, I knew that I could no more turn events to my desire than could one of Farmer Sutton’s milkers. But I swallowed my sadness and took pleasure, as I did every night, from watching the gentle rise and fall of her shapely bosom in the moonlight.

And now and again she would shift in her sleep and brush my foot with her own, and for a moment I would lose my breath.

After several months had passed she sometimes came to us a little subdued. On those nights I fancied I caught from her gown the scent of claret and tobacco – and I knew that the master had taken to visiting her chamber again. She talked as little about the master as I did about Patrick, except sometimes to repeat what her mother had told her: that her face and figure had bought her an excellent match.

“I’ve been lucky,” she said, “and I should be grateful. I am grateful.” But her pellucid eyes gave this the lie.

It was on one of those nights that I said a foolish thing. It went to my head, the nearness of her. The truth was that her interest in me thrilled me and, although I did not allow it to give me hope, I wished above everything to preserve it. In trying to keep her amused, I shuffled nightly towards desperation.

She said something about one of the master’s shooting party, a Mr Bradley. The gentleman had visited Thomas in the parlour that afternoon and left after an hour of fussing and cooing, declaring that he was quite enchanting. We chuckled together, my mistress and I, for Mr Bradley was a burly gentleman of 50 who usually spoke only to reprimand his servants.

“But then,” I said, “doesn’t a baby need to be enchanting? His security – his very existence, in fact – depends on his ability to endear himself to those in a position to provide for him. And, when you think about it,” I went on, warming heedlessly to my theme, “well, isn’t that a pitiable way to be?”

It was only when my mistress looked at me silently with those eyes of hers that I saw the hurt in them, and only when she took her leave a few minutes later that I realised my mistake. The next night she approached only to gather the child up into her arms; she took him to sit in the French armchair by the window. It was many nights before she shared my bed again.

Eventually it came time for the infant to be weaned. There was talk of a nanny being taken on. I began to prepare myself to go back to the servants’ quarters, to imagine trying to sleep with empty arms, with the air filled with horse-leather and with Patrick’s hot breath on the back of my neck. But our housekeeper had heard of a lady in the next county who was about to give birth and in need of a wet nurse. The master there had a thousand more a year than our current master. They always had need for skilled groomsmen, too. It would be another improvement for us and, although my stomach heaved at the thought of leaving my mistress, I could not find the will to argue against it.

Thus we gave notice that we were to move on; and, a matter of weeks later, it was with a heart-lurch of anguish that I received from her own pearly hand my final packet of coins and from her pomegranate lips some words of thanks.

“You have been a friend to us, Nora,” she said, and the sincerity beamed through the clear water of her eyes. “I will think of you often, and think well of you.” Without speaking I turned to leave, because her words had undone me, but she bade me wait and went to fetch something from her writing desk. It was a ring – a ring of the type that widows in mourning used to wear. “A token,” she said, “to remember the little one.” And she pressed the fingers of my hollow hand around it.

Later, I examined the ring. Although it was nowhere near as fine as my mistress’s own jewellery, it was handsome. There was a compartment on the bezel secured with a clasp, and coiled inside was a slim braid of hair. The braid was the colour of wheat and had about it the luminous quality I recognised from the baby’s wispy head. But its strands looked stouter than Thomas’s and, when I unwound it and discovered its length, I knew the truth of the matter.

My new mistress was benevolent, in her way. She took little to do with the infant, who was a pristine, placid little creature. Olive liked him. The four of us slept in a large room, painted white, in the servants’ quarters. It was adjacent to the kitchen and I was encouraged to graze there whenever the fancy took me. Patrick found contentment in hard work.

I loosened the string on my bed-shift many times each night in our blank, white room, amid the smell of horse-leather and with Patrick’s hot breath on the back of my neck. And each time the child settled to suckling, I closed my eyes and suffered the small, electric tugs at the heart, and grief swelled over my bed like a dark wave.

Jane Lavelle
Jane Lavelle

Jane Lavelle is an editor who lives in Belfast. Her stories and essays have appeared in the Dublin Review and Splonk and been shortlisted for several prizes. She is working towards a collection of short fiction

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The New Irish Writing Page, edited by Ciaran Carty, and appearing in The Irish Times on the last Saturday of each month, is open to writers who are Irish or resident in Ireland. Stories submitted should not exceed 2,000 words (please indicate if you have been published before). Up to six poems may be submitted. There is no entry fee. Writers whose work is selected with receive €100 for fiction and €50 for poetry.

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