From the Antipodes to Here- Part 2

I never know what to think about Mr. Simmons, or how to talk to him. He’s young, for a self-made rich man – thirty-five, maybe – but he’s already got lines that spread out from the corners of his eyes like wrinkles on a worn cotton shirt. He doesn’t joke much, or smoke, or drink. Sometimes, when he’s been visiting the Chesapeake fisheries that made him all his money, his clothes smell briney and raw. Sea-like. Before I put them through the washboard, the scent gets all up in my nose and I think of oysters and grainy river sand.

“Good afternoon, Ms. MacCloy,” he says when he sees me in the front hall. He always calls me Ms. MacCloy instead of just Ada, which I suppose is kind of him, but it makes me feel like I’m on tenterhooks when I’m talking to him. “How is Bernadette?”

“She’s as well as could be expected, sir.” Johnson is out fetching more castoff linens – Mrs. Simmons is still bleeding, though it isn’t much – so I take his hat and coat. “I think she’s awake now. If you wanted to see her.”

“I’ll do that.” He moves awkwardly through the room, not gracefully, not the way you’d expect an important man like him to walk. When he reaches the door, he stops and says, “The night of the – incident. You stayed in the room with her, didn’t you?”

I nod. “Yes, sir.”

“That was good of you,” he says, knitting his hands together.

“Well.” I’m not sure what he wants me to say, so I nod again. It’s been three days since Lucille woke me up in the middle of the night. She’s been restless in the kitchen with so little to do: Mrs. Simmons hardly eating, Johnson and Anthony and me content with potatoes or fish. And the skin on my hand’s been itching for lack of chores. I can’t prepare Mrs. Simmons her bath when she’s too weak to take it, or help her dress.

That very morning, as I was reading to her from Anne of Green Gables, she said, “Do you remember when you came here and said I was the most beautiful creature you’d ever seen?”

I got all red in the face then, because it had been a silly thing to say, like saying “You too” when you’re wished a good birthday. But I told her that I did remember it.

“I’m not so beautiful right now, am I?”

“Lord, Mrs. Simmons, you don’t think you look so different now, do you?”

It was the spring I turned twenty-one when I came to interview for the position of lady’s maid at Tintagel, Mr. Simmons’ estate. The automobile ride from Avett’s Landing, where Johnson fetched me in the Tin Lizzie, took about twenty minutes. The whole time I was adjusting and readjusting my gloves. I had borrowed them from Marie, who sold eveningwear at Thalhimers and went to lunch with me twice a week, and the rabbit fur cuffs were too big for my wrists. Then we turned down the driveway to Tintagel and I forgot all about the cuffs.

The house was made of gray stone, with a porch that wrapped all the way around. The stairs that swept up to the wooden front door were wide and graceful, and the roof peaked in funny little towers on each corner, like a castle. Crepe myrtle trees in bloom lined the driveway. As Johnson eased the Ford down the driveway, he drove over puffs of white blossoms lying on the road like heaps of rice thrown at a wedding. I had expected something grand, but this was grander than I’d even dreamed of. Johnson opened the door for me and extended his hand. I put my badly-gloved fingers in his.

Inside, in the sitting room, were Mr. and Mrs. Simmons. I knew from asking around that their names were Peter and Bernadette, and that Peter had come from a Norfolk family – one down on its luck, but even still, he could trace his family back to several of John Smith’s men, and that helped give him a start in the fishery business. He owned fisheries all down the East Coast. If a man in Roanoke or Charlottesville wanted good oysters, chances were high that they bought Simmons oysters, packed in ice and shipped by train.

I hadn’t known what to expect of the Simmonses themselves. The ad hadn’t said much. It had just asked for a woman modest in person and manner, who was fastidious and discrete, who knew how to mend and clean and dress hair and care for clothes. And who was, above all, unmarried and under twenty-five years of age. That last part had surprised me, because I had never heard of such a thing in an ad. But I was sick to death of selling hats all day at Thalhimers, and I didn’t want to live in Richmond with my sister, and I thought, might as well this job as any other. So I wired that I could clean and mend, and could I have an interview?

Mr. Simmons was a tall man, with dark, birdlike eyes and a thick mustache. I could tell right away that his suit was made of a good wool gabardine, but it was ten years out of fashion. It wasn’t him I looked at long, though. My eyes went straight to Mrs. Simmons. She was sitting on the loveseat, and her white-gloved hands were folded in her lap. There was so much blonde hair piled on top of her head that I knew she didn’t need a pompadour frame. Her eyes were a blue so strong I thought of the stories my ma had told me when I was a little girl about sidhe, the fairies. She looked frail and weak, and young, but so fresh and pretty I skipped a breath or two.

I don’t remember much of the interview. I answered all their questions, and I told them what I’d learned in my years of being a maid, alongside what I knew from Thalhimers. I told them I’d been living with my older sister and her husband ever since my ma died, that things had been hard but I was respectable, and I had employers who could provide references.

“MacCloy,” said Mr. Simmons. “That’s your surname, isn’t it? MacCloy. Were you born in Ireland?"

“No, sir,” I said. “My parents, they came here from Galway. But I was born in Richmond.”

“Galway,” said Mrs. Simmons. She’d hardly spoken. Her voice was all dreamy and soft. “I’d like to visit someday. I hear it’s beautiful there.”

“Not as much as you, ma’am. You’re the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.”

As soon as I said it, I clapped my hand over my mouth. But Mrs. Simmons just threw her head back and laughed and laughed. “You’re not like the rest at all,” she said when she had finished, wiping her eyes. “You say what you mean. I like you.”

She told me that after she married Mr. Simmons, she’d had a series of lady’s maids she didn’t get on with. “I’m not used to having any maids at all, you see,” she said. “And these women were older, they were…used to doing things a certain way. I vexed them and they vexed me.” So she’d put out an advertisement for someone younger.

I came back to Tintagel, this time with all my bags and trunks, two weeks later.

I pick up the feather duster and go over the sitting room again. But there’s no dust on the red damask loveseat, or on the shelves of the curio. I cleaned here yesterday, and the day before.

From upstairs, I hear the sound of Mrs. Simmons’ laughter. It sounds thin but bright, like fresh, cold water. I can make her laugh, sometimes, but mostly it’s Mr. Simmons who does it. He’s a strange man, he is, but Mrs. Simmons loves him. I’m envious, sometimes. But that’s just the way things are.

Read Part 3