Ohio Edit is pleased and privileged to be publishing Gilmore Tamny’s novel, My Days with Millicent, in serial form.
The next morning I sat at the desk, discouraged that my letter to Mrs. Cleavus had struck me as an almost exact duplicate of the previous one. Surely something must have happened in the interim that I could report on?
“Excuse me Miss Bright,” Lucy said. “Oh, sorry—didn’t mean to interrupt your writing.”
“That’s all right, Lucy. Just as glad.”
“I wondered if I might have a word…? Thank you, Miss. It’s Mrs. Molly. I’ll speak plainly if you’ll allow. She has some very strong opinions. And I suppose she’s entitled,” her face seemed very young and not a little exasperated. She was finding, I think, the complicated equations of station, such as discussing the opinions of a long-standing, valued servant to a recently-arrived impoverished relation, somewhat wearying. “I wouldn’t want you to be thinking I shared them. Now, I’ve learned more from Molly than I could from anyone. She’s a marvel. But, the way she talks and her opinions on Lady Von Favre…well it’s most extreme.”
I tapped my pen. “She does seem astonishingly outspoken.”
“Could scare the paint down off the walls, as my Mother used to say.”
“Mmm. I think I understand what you’re saying. It puts you in—” and, enjoying how simple understanding sounded magnanimous, “In a rather awkward position.”
“Yes, thank you. I wouldn’t want there to be any misunderstanding. I’m learning ever so much and I do like Helvstead, funny old thing that it is. Oh dear,” A dimple appeared as Lucy tried to forestall a grin. “I suppose I oughtn’t have said that either.”
“Actually, I believe Lady Von Favre would find that a kind estimation. Do you know if Lady Von Favre is aware of the manner in which Molly… refers to her?”
“I can’t imagine much gets past her ladyship. My aunt says she always spoke so downright, but this—frankness of hers—it seems almost…mad.”
“Let me ask you this: how—”
We both turned at the sound of expensive shoes clapping over the threshold. Millicent took in our faces.
“And what is this? Oh, lord, you’re talking about Molly, aren’t you. What’s the old horror done now? Never mind! Don’t tell me. You’ll have to finish your little confab later. Tea, Lucy. Bring the cakes I missed from yesterday, will you? I do want the apricot.”
Millicent flopped down on the sofa, and I returned to my letter, cheeks flushed, feeling ashamed of myself.
“Look, come with me, won’t you, over to the Hound and Field after lunch?” Millicent asked. “Cyclamen’s been favoring his hind leg, barman sells the handiest liniment. But that detestable Clive Cross fete is going on so parking will be a horror—can you imagine they asked me to open?—and you can run in.”
“What did you say? About the fete?”
“Ah,” I said already on my feet. I hadn’t realized how eager I was for an outing. “But, might it be…odd…if somebody sees you, after you’ve turned them down?”
Millicent looked mystified as if trying to recognize some obscure and unpleasant smell.
“Because they might be…offended,” I offered. “That you refused.”
“Oh. God,” she said. “Who gives a damn. Hurry up, will you?”
“Thank heavens Lucy asked me about Cyclamen after lunch,” Millicent said as we drove into town. “Otherwise I’d have clean forgotten.”
“She’s doing a fine job,” I hazarded..
“Mmm…” Millicent shrugged. “Her hollandaise leaves something to be desired and she’s not exactly invisible… but I suppose she’s all right.”
I thought Lucy’s hollandaise lovely, her manner as unobtrusive as one can be without being completely overcome by servility.
“She seems quite sensible for a young person,” was all I said.
“She’ll do, I suppose. Still, she’s no Molly. When Molly goes that will be the last.”
Lulled by the intimacy of the car, I spoke without thinking. “Was Molly—was she very dreadful? Growing up, I mean. I just…” I faltered at her laugh. “Found myself wondering.”
“As a matter of fact, Ramona, I have many blissful nursery memories.”
“Oh, of course.”
She gave me a sardonic look to acknowledge how I’d backpedaled. “Many, in fact, sitting in her lap, in some warm swaddle by the fire, her talking in the most hideous sweetie-sweetie voice; would make your skin go gooseflesh. She still uses it every once in a while, and you know it very nearly works. Ah, me. Molly, Molly. I remember one of those innumerable children of hers seeing me—and the look he cast me! You know, I believe I used to tease that dreadful brood of hers. Said she was really my mummy and they were just puppies. What a little beast I was.”
“Well. She sounds—she sounds lovely,” I finished.
“Now you’re being ridiculous. She was the same abominable martinet. She’d creep up, seeing me contemplating some naughtiness, and whisper, ‘You’ve got the devil in you, Miss Millie, I can see it clear as day, and I’ll beat him out of you, if it’s the last thing I do. A few hard whangs with a silver hairbrush! Then I’d demand a strawberry fool she’d make it for me. Always the servant first, of course. Do you know she once saved my life? From God, what was his name—Pintypots! That stupid hound bitten nearly everyone, savaged a few of the gardeners; but he had such an extraordinary nose, Daddy couldn’t bear to have him destroyed. I believe I teased him—what a fearless little blight I was—and he went for my throat, and nearly got it. Molly grabbed Reggie’s cricket bat and quick as you please, broke his spine. Angrier than Moses, she was for I was wearing my best frock. Then I got the tub. Scalding, if I remember right.”
I turned to her quickly. I hadn’t known she’d had those too, although hers of course, were from Molly, not her mother.
“Never minded the scalding as much as the freezing,” Millicent continued. “Daddy and your Mum, had them too, you know. The Clive cure for all unpleasant behavior. Molly picked it up along the way, I gather. ‘You mean old witch!’ I’d scream. ‘I hate you!’ But then Mummy put a stop to it. Thought it might wreck my womanly insides. I really gave it to old Molly about those baths later, said she ruined me for motherhood. Ha! Well, something clearly did.”
“Ah,” I said. “You mean you…can’t…”
“Oh! No, no. No idea. Never tried. But wholly unsuited. No protest from you there, I see. No, don’t hedge, Ramona. Well, at the end of the day, yes, Molly and I had our rows, actually we had nothing but rows, but still…she was my Molly. You seem surprised, Ramona.”
“Well, I didn’t realize, how much…time you spent with Molly as a girl.”
“Oh, yes. Ah, well. Molly. ‘Just a servant.” It was an odd, Millicent thing to say, deliberately callous, her tone managing to indite herself, her class, her experience, without refuting any of it. She pulled out her cigarettes, passing me one.
“Do you know,” Millicent said, pushing in the lighter. “I don’t think Molly even liked children—must have been a bore for a woman who had so excessively many of them. Twelve, I believe, and do you know nearly all the little horrors lived? One was always being ferried off to an obscure relation. I can’t say Molly seemed to mind unduly.”
“She seems as if she were most attached to you.”
“Oh well, the Clive blood worthy of some veneration. Imagine if I’d been a Tudor, good Christ, she’d have been my slave.”
I hesitated. “But still, all that…nonsense about you…being in consort with the devil …”
“True, but royalty is second only to Christ. Although you know she believes that royal families were descended from him. Some convoluted argument she trots out now and again.”
I thought of contradicting this, then, imagined Molly with the hairbrush.
“Were you afraid of her?” I asked.
“Of Molly? Mmm. Not really. But I wasn’t really afraid of anything as a child. Except Mummy. But, then everyone was. Now, they never really got on. Molly thought her a painted woman—and, well, in fairness that wasn’t completely Molly’s usual prudish mania. More than one of Daddy’s friends creeping downstairs in the wee hours of the morning without his shoes. Still, I think Mother detested her more. Or perhaps was…revolted by her, would be more correct. ‘Her hands,’ Mummy would say, ‘they’re the most frightfully ugly things I’ve ever seen in my life.’ Right in front of guests, too. And, in fact, Molly does have exceedingly ugly hands. All those years in the laundry, doesn’t exactly give you beauties. Ah, dear Molly. Well, I know Molly’s horrid, Ramona. I’m not gaga. Still. I have my memories. When I had nightmares, most likely due to one of those blood-curdling Bible stories she told me before bed, now that I think of it, she was always there. Watching like a hawk, bringing me hot milk, clouting me over the head, putting the ribbons in my hair. Ah, Nana Molly.”
There was real affection in her voice. Cigarette bobbing, she said: “Now I’ve really shocked you.”
“Yes, I think you have. Millicent,” I said.
I watched the English countryside stream outside, bemused, even astonished. The reason that Millicent kept Molly around wasn’t the obligation of a family towards its long-time servant: it was sentiment.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com