NYC Midnight Challenge. Write a Flash Fiction story in 48 hours. Word limit 1000. My prompts were Historical Fiction, Mansion, a kitten
Set in England at the beginning of the First World War this story recounts one ten-year-old boy’s desire to peep into the house his grandmother worked in before her marriage.
The summer of 1914 in England was ‘picnic perfect’ promoting confidence that nothing could falter in such glorious weather. Thus it was a shock to Albert when war was declared against Germany on 4th August. Albert was ten years old and after the initial anxiety and distress he resumed his usual pursuits, happy on holiday with long days to fill. There was no radio at home and he was not much interested in reading newspapers so war seemed far from his realm.
Albert and his friends spent hours chasing the humming, jangling trams, which they could outstrip with ease. Sometimes they would jump on and ride for a few yards before the conductor chased them off, yelling, ‘Oi, scarper.’ Giggling, they would run off, punching each other’s arms. After that they went looking for ‘empties’, glass Codd bottles that had been cast aside. They had to decide whether to return the bottles to the local shop for the penny deposit or smash them to retrieve the glass marble stoppers. Usually the marbles won.
One of Albert’s favourite pastimes was visiting a copse overlooking Maidling, a striking mansion set in extensive grounds. His grandmother had often taken him there when he was younger. He remembered the swish of her long skirts in the grass and the dust on her boots.
‘I went into service at Maidling when I was a girl, starting as a scullery maid. Your grandfather delivered the groceries there. When I left to marry, I was the under-cook. In those days female servants had to give up their positions when they wed.’
‘Was everything delivered?’
‘Everything except the fruit and vegetables - they were grown in the gardens. Once a week a man brought a basket of fresh fish for Cook to buy. Cook was called Mrs Whiting. That always made me laugh.’
‘You said you had to leave when you married.’
‘That’s right. Mrs Whiting wasn’t married but cooks were always called Mrs, just like housekeepers were. It made them more respectable.’
She told Albert about the beautiful objects in the house and how the family always left Maidling at the end of July to travel to the Isle of Wight for Cowes Week and thence to Scotland and the grouse moors.
This year, Cowes Week had been abandoned because of the war. The grouse season would proceed as usual so, the week before the Glorious Twelfth, he saw servants bustling about, packing trunks into motor cars. Most of the servants would accompany the family but a few would remain to safeguard the house and see to the horses.
Albert watched the motorcade depart for the railway station. As the last car drove sedately through the gates at the end of the drive he slipped into the grounds. The servants would be busy covering the furniture with dust sheets as they always did when the family left. He hoped he would escape notice.
He kept close to the trees lining the drive, excited at the prospect of seeing inside the house. He had never plucked up courage before but now he was ten he felt capable of manly things. Mainly he thought he was fleet enough of foot to escape should the need arise.
He didn’t ascend the steps leading to the great double doors but went round the side of the house where the Library was located. Ever since Albert was a baby his mother, though not an educated woman, had read to him and encouraged him to enjoy books. The Library had floor to ceiling windows and high bookshelves filled with leather bound volumes. His nose pressed to the windowpane, his breath misting the glass, he jumped as a hand squeezed his shoulder and a man said, ‘What d’you think you’re doing, sonny?’
Albert trembled but stumbled out the explanation that his grandmother had been in service at Maidling and he’d always wanted to peep through the windows.
The man asked about her, then smiled. ‘I remember your grandmother. She was kind to me when I was a lad here, missing my family. Come and have a look-see.’
Albert was entranced by wonderful Japanese vases, lacquered cabinets, gilded mirrors. He gazed at crystal chandeliers glittering in sunlight glancing through tall windows. As they passed through each room Albert noticed pretty wall-lights and asked why they were not glowing.
His guide explained, ‘They’re electric. They can’t be turned down like gaslights so they’re switched off when not in use.’
He demonstrated and Albert wondered if his home would ever have anything so exotic. As they walked from the house towards the copse Albert saw a little tabby cat scurrying into one of the loose boxes. He called, ‘Puss, puss, puss,’ but the cat ignored him.
‘She won’t take notice right now,’ said the man. ‘She’s got a litter of kittens. Want to see them?’
Albert nodded. Nestled in a corner were three tiny creatures, one black, the others tabby.
‘Can I touch them?’ he whispered, stretching out a tentative hand. To his delight the mother butted his hand and the kittens purred and blinked at him with their milky eyes, huge ears dwarfing their faces.
‘My grandmother loves cats. She liked the kitchen cats at Maidling. Mrs Whiting said she shouldn’t feed them as they wouldn’t catch the mice if they weren’t hungry but she fed them anyway and they still caught the mice.’
‘Has your grandmother got a cat now?’
‘No, her cat died. She misses her.’
‘How about you take one of these kittens for her as a sort of thank you for her kindness to me?’
Albert’s eyes shone. ‘Yes, please.’
‘The tabbies are toms and the black’s a queen.’
‘Could I have the queen, please?’
‘Got a name for her?’
‘I’ll call her Maidie, after Maidling.’
‘Good name. She’ll be ready in two weeks. All right?’
Albert skipped home, his brain filled with stunning images. He might never live in the mansion but he would always have Maidie and his memories.