Today, Terri Nixon shares with us a very special and exclusive, never before seen prequel ,to Maid of Oaklands Manor.
‘Getting off at Breckenhall?’ the woman asked me, her voice cutting easily through the rising din of excitable children. The train carriage was packed, with the youngsters climbing all over each other and their luggage, and this woman clearly had no intention of taming their behaviour. Why would she, when she was able to ignore them with such practiced ease?
I nodded. It probably looked rude, but my grainy eyes just wanted to close, and open again to find myself back home in Plymouth. Instead all I could see were bobbing heads, and the rapidly flashing tops of trees through the window. It was starting to make me feel sick.
‘Going into service?’ the woman persisted.
I nodded again, and managed, ‘Oaklands.’
Immediately the woman’s mouth tightened. ‘Hmm. Them up at the manor … well, they’re ones to watch, if you ask me.’
I hadn’t intended to do any such thing, but now she had my reluctant attention. Ma had worked at Oaklands for years, and been very happy doing so; she’d never once suggested the Creswells were anything but a normal, if extraordinarily wealthy, family. Cheshire royalty.
‘What do you mean, ones to watch?’ I could have kicked myself, but it was too late to take the question back now.
The woman sniffed, and shifted her position in her seat so that her back was turned to the only other adult in the carriage. I leaned forward, forgetting my queasiness and tiredness for a moment, and her eyes narrowed. ‘Lord Henry Creswell. Him that died in Africa?’
The woman paused with her mouth slightly open, then shook her head. ‘No. It’s not for me to say.’
‘I’m sure you’re going to, nevertheless.’ The words had popped out before I had chance to bite them back, and I saw her plump face darken. She abruptly remembered she had the care of six children, who were currently entertaining themselves by pinching one another to see who could elicit the loudest shout, and she turned to admonish them. They paid as much attention to her as she had so far been doing to them, and I looked away, suppressing a smile.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said after a moment, ‘I’m just a bit tired. It’s been a long journey.’
The woman thawed slightly, and nodded. She abandoned her charges to their own devices once more, and settled back in her own seat. ‘I understand, pet. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll be right as rain. Oh, but watch out for their kitchen maid, Ruth. She’s no better than she ought to be.’
‘Thank you, I’ll remember that.’ It seemed the right thing to say.
‘What’s your job to be? Lady’s maid?’
I shook my head. ‘Nothing so grand, I’m afraid. I’m replacing a girl called Mercy, as scullery maid.’
‘Well, she’s always had her nose in the air when it should be in the grate,’ the woman opined. ‘Scullery maid was never good enough for her.’
‘So, that’s the Creswells, the kitchen maid and the scullery maid,’ I mused. ‘Is there anyone there I might like, do you think?’
The woman eyed me sharply, and didn’t answer. This time I made no apology, although I did feel a glimmer of guilt for the way I’d spoken. My tiredness returned with a crash. All I wanted was to get off the train, and leave this woman and her squabbling brood; she was clearly nothing more than the local gossip, and knew far less than she pretended to.
The train rattled into Breckenhall station and I took my leave with a polite smile – which wasn’t returned – and a huge sense of relief, as I stepped onto the platform and the noise faded into the background. But as I turned my feet towards the road leading out of town, and towards Oaklands Manor, I saw that sudden tightening of the woman’s face again, and heard her words of warning, and I wondered …
Terri Nixon’s Maid of Oaklands Manor is available from Piatkus now!