Ohio Edit is pleased and privileged to be publishing Gilmore Tamny’s novel, My Days with Millicent, in serial form.
Millicent, unpredictable, demanding, prone to arrivals and departures with little notice, expected Helvstead to run with maximum efficiency and minimal fuss. She was under the impression that her mind and wants were there for the reading for any competent person who made the smallest effort to do so, and there was an apprehensive snapping to life of the household whenever she entered the front door.
Lucy, the housekeeper, proved a pleasant surprise. Young, and pretty, in a sensible sort of way, with wavy brown hair and blue eyes in a round face, she asked my preferences about meals, following them to the letter, and staying unobtrusively in the kitchen. Besides Lucy, Helvstead employed a day maid, duties alternated by one of two sisters from Clive Cross, Anne and Moira. I saw them sometimes, waiting for their beaus, and they appeared very much modern girls, wearing saddle shoes and smoking cigarettes with heavily painted lips, but they moved through Helvstead’s rooms in their uniforms with near invisibility, a tribute to Molly’s training. I’d catch glimpses of Tony Hesperdes, the groundskeeper, from time to time, striding by, a black spaniel by his side. Tall, with a ring of iron gray hair around a domed bald head, he was taciturn to the point of unpleasantness.
“Not sure he likes me,” I hazarded to Millicent once with a nervous trill I hoped passed for a laugh.
“Tony dislikes all Clives. Always did, even before the argy-bargy with mother. I’ll mention her next time he’s about—you can watch him go quietly incandescent with rage.”
“Oh. Well, no need to—”
“I never did know what it was about,” she lowered the paper, expression thoughtful. “I think Mother forbade his son to come to Helvstead while on leave—mustard gas, you know—and then he died in hospital…or, no, no—that was the gardener’s son. Hmm. Well, something like that. Honestly, I don’t remember. Oh, someone was always in a rage with Mother. It gets a little difficult to keep track, she was such an unmitigated bitch,” she yawned. “Mmm, do you think you might ask Lucy for bangers tomorrow for breakfast? I never thought I’d say it after the war, but I’m crushingly bored with bacon.”
It amazed me at one time how much domestic arrangements had been made without personal contact, between the house phone, and a series of cubbyholes for leaving instructions. I wondered if this reflected on Molly and my aunt’s relationship, which struck me as an uneasy alliance of Titans at best. I found something bathetic in the phone’s presence, unused for so many years, like the profusion of menu cards I found in the desk. Instead of using the phone, the idea of which made me feel mortified, I tiptoed over to the cubbyhole closest to the kitchen, slid in a note card and dashed away. But darting on hearing the squeak of a shoe one morning, as if being chased by wolves, I decided that mortification would be preferable to this absurd skulking. So, after watching Millicent’s car retreat safely into the distance, I resolutely pressed the button for the kitchen extension. Before one ring, the phone was picked up.
“Lucy?” I said, startled; perhaps she’d been waiting for me to do this.
“Yes, Miss Bright,” her voice crackled over the line, as if far away, although I could hear the faintest echo of her voice through the hall.
“Well, Lucy, I wanted to talk to you about a few arrangements, and perhaps it’s best if we use the phone. Instead of using the cubbyholes, I mean,” I hurried, wishing I needn’t mention them. “Would that be acceptable?”
“Why of course, Miss Bright. Let me just get a graphite—yes—all right. I’m ready.”
I gave her some particulars over Millicent’s schedule, wardrobe and preferences for curtains washings. I finished with the most delicate part:
“As to breakfast, Lucy… kippers and bacon, but no kidneys. She really was very… particular.” What Millicent had said was Lucy would get the sack if she smelled kidneys again.
“I do understand.”
I thought I detected a surge of significance, even gratitude in her words.
“Good.” I had been dreading that. “As for myself, I wonder if you could be so kind…” I gathered courage willing my voice to stay firm. “Could you be so kind, as to…to put a tin of biscuits in the morning room—and the parlor.”
“Very well. Hob-Nobs? Chocolate?”
“No, cream biscuits. And the kind with fruit centers, please. And a bowl of fruit on the sideboard in the dining room would be lovely. And some candied orange peel.”
I wished I’d thought to make this last sound more like Millicent’s request, but Lucy seemed not to notice. “Very well, Miss. Anything else? Perhaps some cheese in the larder. I know where I can get a lovely farmer’s.”
“That would be nice. Thank you. Goodbye, then.” Goodbye seemed absurd but I couldn’t think of what else one might say. I put the phone down, my surge of triumph replaced by the feeling I had been ridiculous for not doing it sooner. The adrenalin ebbed and I realized: I hadn’t a jot to do for the rest of the day.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com