By William Gallagher
“THERE! Did you feel it?” Nellie wanted to grab Mr Nettlefold and pull him over by the archway but settled instead for wheedling. “Sir, you must have felt it. Sent a chill right through me, it did.” She cautiously stepped back but now there was nothing, no more than the tiniest of draughts from the window just behind the arch. “Honest, it did, sir. The cold is on its way forever, it’s why the house is called Winterbourne.”
No, wait, is that how servants really spoke in 1909 or am I just channelling too much period TV?
Mr Nettlefold put away his pocket watch. “It’s called Winterbourne because I like the name. And yesterday I do believe you were telling Mrs Nettlefold that we were bringing the fires of damnation into our home. So which is it, hmm? Fire or ice? Or are you saying I should rename my home Summerbourne just to please your superstitions?”
God, customers. I’m sorry, sir, I was just making some stock notes. No, apparently the power is out in the whole area. But E-on says it’ll be back on shortly. You and your son are welcome to wait in the tea room. Right behind you, through the archway. I’ll send someone through to take your order just as soon as we’ve got electricity back in the kitchen. That is a good word. Who’s a clever boy?
It is a good word. I’m having that.
Nellie folded her arms. “Sir, who really knows what electrickery does? I don’t understand it and none of the staff do, because I asked them. Mr Peters says he does but I know he don’t. He’s just trying to impress Daisy, not that I care anyway, and she knows better than to listen to the likes of him.”
“Which one is Dai – no, I don’t need to know. Nellie, get back to work. We’ll have tea in the drawing room in one hour.”
It probably was a drawing room a hundred years ago. Sad to think that we’ve preserved Winterbourne but at the cost of turning that one room over to a tea shop. I don’t think about the Nettlefolds when I’m doing a shift showing visitors around their rooms but I do whenever I go through that arch.
I think about them a lot. Impossible to accept that it’s the same room, that a family played in it then and tourists eat cake there now. Nothing changed in the space, in the building, bar some extra heaters and now a wi-fi router, but everything else so totally different. I think of the walls looking on at all that’s happened, all that’s changed. I think of Winterbourne having memories and so I can’t help think of what the house thinks of what it’s lost.
I think of the connection these walls have between then and now. I think of the people long gone. Of how they had daily worries just as I do, just as we all do, and of how all our concerns will be as easily, as completely forgotten in another hundred years. I think about whether anything they did then can be felt now. I think about whether anything we do now can be felt then.
“Yes, sir,” said Nellie.
Mr Nettlefolds left, making a point to pause by the archway and show Nellie that it was perfectly and naturally warm there just as it was everywhere else in the house. Then he was gone and in the distance she could hear the voices and the orders that meant another test was coming. This time she kept away from the arch, deciding to leave it be until the electric was switched off again.
And there we go, E-on was good to its word for once. I hadn’t noticed the day getting dark until now when the lights sprang back on. Peter! Daisy! Check the dishwasher, get the urn fired up, will you? I’m just writing a complaint to E-on. Well, what else could I say? That I liked having this time off to write? That I prefer scribbling to dealing with customers? I’ve got a City and Guilds, I’m in charge.
Nellie wished she’d been to school and understood things like Mr Nettlefolds. But then it happened again. This time it came just as Nellie noticed it was getting dark outside and this time the coldness felt strong. This time the coldness was joined by a new rumbling hum – and a glow. She screamed and ran for the kitchen, ran for normality, ran to get out of that room and to look for a new job in a new household with proper gas lamps like God intended.
Yes, sir, sorry, sir, I’ve just been waiting until the tea is nice and hot. It’ll be a few minutes yet, I’ll come take your order myself. Certainly, just take a Coke now and I’ll put it on your bill. Just behind you. In the chiller cabinet by the arch.
© William Gallagher 2016