This is a the first part of a two-part short story. A work of fiction in 1700 words.
It was prompted by this photograph, seen on the blog of Sue Judd.
You can see more here.
Violet needed a job. Since returning to Lower Hedley after after her war service in the W.R.A.C., money had been tight. Although Mother owned the tiny cottage they shared, Father’s small pension was not going to be enough to provide for them both, and with Rationing still in force, some extra money for under the counter food would always help. Mother was as good as useless of course. When she had become a widow in 1938, she had retreated into herself, acting like a lost soul. She reminded Violet of Miss Havisham, in Great Expectations. But without the property or the wealth. She had often talked as if Father would come home any day now, and Violet had been left to fend for herself, in her late teens. At least the war had given her companionship and purpose. Training too, with good secretarial skills at the end of it. And London had been exciting, even with the bombs. By contrast, village life was dull, and lacked opportunity.
The small advertisement in the local newspaper caught her eye immediately.
A Secretarial Position.
Please apply in writing to De Vere Hall, Upper Hedley.
Single ladies only. No married women.
Must be smart, and presentable
State experience and qualifications, enclosing a recent photograph.
This is a live-in position, with salary by arrangement.
That was all it said, but it was enough. Violet took pen and paper from the bureau, and applied immediately. She thought it strange that a photo was required, but included one taken when she finished training, and looked smart in her uniform. It was almost six years old, but she hadn’t changed that much. She put a stamp on the letter, and walked down the lane to the Post Box, in time for the three o’clock collection. Late the following evening, she heard the letter box rattle, and walked into the hallway to see what had made the noise. An envelope was on the mat, and it had a crest on the fine linen paper. She opened the door quickly, to see who had hand-delivered it.
But there was only darkness in the lane outside.
It was from De Vere Hall, she could see that from the name below the crest. That family had owned land in Upper Hedley since the Norman Conquest. But they were reclusive, and little was known about them. They employed servants from Ireland to deal with tradesmen, and to run the house. No locals had ever been employed there, at least as long as Violet could remember. People said his money had come from estates in Ireland, but nobody really knew any facts. Violet went back to sit by the fire, and read the contents.
‘Dear Miss Hardacre,
It seems that you would be most suitable for the position of my secretary. I am happy to offer you the post, starting tomorrow afternoon. Please be aware that much of my correspondence is of a personal and confidential nature, so you should not tell anyone where you are working. You will have a comfortable room, and full board will be provided in addition to your salary, which I assure you will be generous.
Please be at De Vere hall by three in the afternoon tomorrow. If you are not there by four, I will presume you no longer want the position.’
Violet was excited, though a little confused. There was to be no interview, and she had already got the job. She read it again, to make sure. The writing of Lord De Vere was structured and immaculate, obviously written using a pen with an italic nib. But his signature was wild and flourishing, taking up all the rest of the page. The Hall was some five miles away, with no bus service. Violet resolved to use Mother’s old bicycle.It was still working well, and she would pump up the tyres the next morning. She went up to her room, and sorted through some clothes to take. Not too much of course. Even with a live-in position, she would surely be allowed to come back and see to Mother, so she could get more things as she needed them. Over breakfast the next morning, she told Mother about getting a job, constructing a story to satisfy her. “I will be working in London again, Mother. Back at The Ministry, like before. Don’t worry, I will be home at the weekends, and I will write to Mrs Allenby. She will pop in and see to you. The old lady shook her head. “Whatever you say dear, I do hope it goes well”.
Violet arrived a little early. The house was imposing indeed. It looked to originate from the seventeenth century, though a large, more modern wing suggested significant development in the Victorian era. There was nobody in sight. The extensive grounds felt peaceful, and she wandered around to the back of the house to take it all in. Next to some impressive planters, she rested the bicycle against the wall, and untied the small suitcase from where she had secured it across the handlebars. It was a good two-minute walk back to the front door, and when she pulled on the handle, she could hear the bell clang loudly inside.
The man who answered the door was dressed in the formal attire of a butler. He was tall, well over six feet, and his hair was shining, plastered down with brilliantine. Violet took him to be somewhere between forty and fifty. “Miss Hardacre, I presume?” He didn’t smile. She wondered if she should extend her arm for a handshake, but decided against it. He showed her into a small room that led off the huge hallway. “My name is Murray, and I am his lordship’s man. You will call me Murray, and address Lord De Vere as ‘your lordship’. His accent was harsh, obviously from Northern Ireland, possibly Belfast. “Your day will not start until three in the afternoon. His lordship is a late riser, and likes to work late in the day too. Will that be suitable?” Violet nodded, and the man turned and walked to the door. She picked up the suitcase and followed him. He headed for one of the two sweeping staircases, talking as he walked. “I will show you up to your room. Your meals will be brought to you, and you will not associate with any of the other servants. I will answer any questions you have, and advise you of any changes to routine. Is that clear?” Violet smiled and said “Clear as crystal”.
Outside the room, he turned to her, his face more relaxed, his tone softer. “You could do well here. It’s an easy job, and you have a lot of time to yourself. Don’t worry if his lordship seems a little eccentric. The De Veres have always had that trait. I should know, as a Murray has served every lord since the time of Good Queen Bess. Now, settle in, and I will return in thrity minutes to take you to meet his lordship”. Violet liked her room immediately. It was the size of the whole ground floor of their cottage, and boasted a huge double bed, a dressing table and stool, as well as a big armchair in the bay window. Opening what she thought might be a connecting door, she was amazed to find a bathroom, with a wash basin, toilet, and a small hip bath. Luxury indeed. She took off her jacket, and checked her hair and make-up in the long wardrobe mirror.
Murray showed her into what he called ‘His Lordship’s study’. The room was the size of the social club dance hall in her village, and sparsely furnished. Lord De Vere sat behind a huge empty desk, his back to a small crackling fire that seemed lost in the inglenook fireplace. He was younger than Violet had expected; perhaps her own age, or a few years less. He pointed to a comfortable chair opposite his own. “Thank you, Murray. Please sit, Miss Hardacre. Or may I call you Violet?” She nodded. “Of course, your lordship, please do”. He leaned forward, resting on his elbows. “Is everything to you liking? Has Murray explained what is required?” She nodded. His hair was a little untidy, but otherwise, he was as immaculate as Murray, and quite good-looking too. She was surprised at his accent, which sounded South African; perhaps even European, maybe Dutch. He was tanned too, as if he had just returned from somewhere hot.
“Your job will consist of taking dictation, then typing up my correspondence for signature. I will usually begin around three in the afternoon, and finish in time for you to have your dinner, at seven. You will type the letters at that desk there”. She turned to follow his arm, and saw a desk under the window, with an old German typewriter on it. “The machine is old, but hardly used, and very serviceable. Paper and envelopes are in the drawers under it. Do you have any questions? If not, then I will see you here tomorrow afternoon. Your time is free until then”.
Violet did have some questions, but when he turned to face the fire, she guessed that he didn’t want to hear them. She would ask Murray, later.
Just after seven that evening, there was a knock on the door of her room. She put down the book she was reading, and walked over to answer it. Outside her room was a tray, but nobody in sight. The food was delicious, perhaps the best she had ever tasted. And there was a bottle of claret too; already open, with a crystal wine glass to drink it from. When she had finished eating, she placed the tray back outside, presuming it would be collected. Then she finished the wine whilst enjoying a hot bath, before putting on her nightdress, and slipping into the soft bed. As she switched out the light, she smiled to herself, and spoke out loud.
“You’ve done well for yourself, Violet. I think you’re going to like it here”.
To be continued, in Part Two.