The cushion sighs, squashed by a body sinking into the seat beside her. Matty scrunches her already-closed eyes. She does not care for distractions when she has a recital to prepare. And, never able to anticipate when she might be called on to deliver her lines, her day spools out as one continuous rehearsal. Matty’s burden weighs heavily upon her, but she bears it with grace.
A whiff of lavender, but this is not her mother. Matty has been deceived before. The breath is too loud, too erratic. A smoker’s lungs. Matty tilts her head away. Unmoored from the monologue, she is obliged to return, silently, to the start.
Hands folded in her lap, she conjures her mother behind closed eyelids. Mouthing the words from alongside the orchestra pit, her features contorted to magnify the shapes of the vowels. Matty smiles inwardly, as confidence courses through her bloodstream. Although she can reel off the words as readily as her name, her mother’s prompting spells the difference between fourth place with nothing to show for it and a silken rosette.
It cannot be anything important: her stomach signals it is too soon after luncheon for afternoon tea. Poetry pattering in her brain, she clenches her lips as if forming knots in party balloons.
“Matty, they’ll be here shortly!”
Swallowing her vexation, Matty opens her eyes. A maid has a cardboard box in her arms and a small brown suitcase by her feet. “Are you leaving us, dear?”
The maid laughs, baring her teeth, which are in tiptop condition, remarkably so given the lack of affordable dentistry for the lower ranks. “No, but you are. They’ll be coming any minute from Tuke House.”
“Tuke House?” Matty knows of the Palladium and the Royal Albert Hall. She knows of the Folies Bergère, despite its salacious reputation. She has never heard of Tuke House. “Thank you, dear, but the current arrangements are tickety-boo.”
As the maid flashes her teeth again, Matty studies her maw for a wink of precious metal. The prince gave her mother a pair of gold molars to match her wedding band, but when Matty’s were due for renewal she’d made do with plastic.
“We packed your things this morning, remember?” Dipping into the box, the maid parades the bric-a-brac piece by piece: a chunky book with a crucifix on the cover; a crumpled brown-paper bag of chewies; a conker; a poorly-composed photograph of a boy balancing the Eiffel Tower on his head. Is this one of her mother’s parlour games?
“You’re going up in the world, Matty Osborne.” Intent on memorising the contents of the box, Matty failed to notice the housekeeper encroaching. “Seems you’re too good for us now.”
I am? The housekeeper is never uncertain. Never wrong. If she thinks Matty is leaving, it would be unwise to contradict her.
Fishing in her pocket, Matty produces a palmful of coins. “Will this do for the taxicab?”
“Save your coppers for jelly babies,” says the housekeeper. “It’s a five-minute hop to Tuke House. You know, the annexe where the sanatorium used to be?”
“We went for a visit yesterday,” says the maid. “Found your bed in the dormitory and had a cuppa in the lounge.”
The memory roasts her cheeks. The butler, whose coarse accent and casual apparel led her to mistake him for a hall boy or porter, addled her further by asking how she took her tea. As if there were any alternative to the way it comes!
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