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a country you remember

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A house is like a heart: it beats. The careful rhythm keeps the linens changing every third day, heavy winter blankets brought out in October’s chill, breakfast laid promptly at ten. 

When a girl goes into service, people like to think she pledges fealty to the family, but that isn’t true. She serves the house. She keeps the house beating. She fuels the house’s heartbeat and keeps life afloat with every liquid thump. 

Molly’s house beats slowly now, but she can still feel the pulsing core of it under the worn floorboards, albeit faintly. She keeps the Folly humming, her and Nightingale, and the new boy, although he has a shocking ignorance when it comes to the necessities of the rhythm. His schedule is unpredictable and erratic, and his understanding of etiquette feeble at best. 

Still, he’s a start. 

Molly airs the new boy’s room when he leaves in mid-mornings, polishing the worn oak bureau to a glossy sheen and turning over the bed. She dusts the walls of empty shelves and thinks about the last time she had been in this room: before the white slipcovers and the war, when the Folly had teamed with heavy footsteps and sweat and magic. She had slept three to a room in the servants’ quarters and only the new girls were frightened of her. The cook would set any of those right soon enough. None of them ever did like to see her laugh, though. She took care to hide her teeth, upstairs and downstairs: it was easier. 

Now there’s only Molly milling about downstairs, kneading pie crust and boiling potatoes, cleaning the larder and polishing the silver. The Folly needs her. She plays cook, kitchen maid, housekeeper, first and second housemaid, valet, even butler — how the old housekeeper would have shuddered. But if she didn’t, who else would keep Nightingale’s shoes mended? Who would light the fireplaces and clean the atrium floors? A house needs its heartbeat. 

Molly doesn’t keep track of time passing. She notes the seasons and the weather and makes sure Nightingale’s winter things are set out at the right time, but she does not know how long it’s been since the last of the parlour maids packed up her things and left. A long time, she thinks. An age. 

Sometimes Molly sits at the window in her attic room and looks out over the square. People seem to dress very oddly now. Hardly anyone wears a hat, which she finds somewhat unsanitary. The new boy never dresses for supper. Nightingale gave her a reproachful look the last time she scowled at him for turning up to her nicely laid table in an undershirt so she keeps the sniffs of disdain to times he isn’t in the room. 

The new boy brought a dog with him. It’s a small, shaking thing, with fierce teeth and squeaky little bark. A few of the old Masters had had dogs, but they were mostly towering mastiffs and sleek greyhounds, the sort of dog you take on hunting week-ends in the country. Not this one. The cat that used to keep rats from the kitchens could have eaten this dog for afternoon tea. 

The dog is called Toby. 

Toby’s nails clatter on the hardwood floors and streak mud in from the street. He sheds on the furniture and gnaws on table legs. He is, in all senses, a nuisance. 

Slowly, grudgingly, Molly begins to like him. 

Toby follows her around during the day when the new boy is busy. He likes to butt his head at her legs whilst she simmers rice for kedgeree in the mornings and he whines so pitifully as she chops meat for the supper roast that Molly has to laugh, the sibilant sound of it echoing over the empty room. Toby never winces nor turns his small face away from her when she shows her sharp teeth. 

At Christmas, Molly receives a book of recipes from the new girl. She is unused to women at the Folly who aren’t spouses or housekeepers, maids or menders, but a house must keep beating. The author is called Jamie Oliver, which she finds faintly off-putting — a nickname on a book jacket? 

When Molly was small — smaller, with narrow calloused hands — the Folly’s large, businesslike cook put her to work alongside the kitchen maid. Mrs Morton liked Molly better than the scullery maid and didn’t make her preference much of a secret. ‘Doesn’t give lip,’ she’d say approvingly, nodding towards Molly silently chopping carrots in the corner. ‘Not like that one.’ Mrs Morton would then glower at the scullery maid, whose name has boiled down to nothing in Molly’s memory. That scullery maid barely lasted another year, and Molly still stews the mutton just the way Mrs Morton taught her. 

Toby mills about Molly’s legs as she studies her new book, the glossy unfamiliar pages, the discussion of ingredients alien and strange. A house must keep beating, though, and she does her best to replicate baked lamb shanks with rosemary, sage and thyme butter. 

It comes out looking a cross between rolled mutton joint and a half-collapsed King Edward lamb shank. 

She feeds a bit to Toby, who yips delightedly. Molly scoffs a little and goes to resurrect her creation on the plate. Toby is a poor judge of food quality. 

Molly leads Toby up into the attic some nights, where he curls at the foot of her bed like a twitching, sentient hot water bottle. In the evenings she holds him in her lap and they look out the window together. Toby likes the sight of squirrels and Molly loves the long, stretching shadows of the Folly over pavement and wet leaves. She wants to tell him about the war, when planes roared overhead and Molly would wake up to see piles of smashed windows and smoking rubble where great houses like the Folly once stood. The Underground station had been used as a shelter and the few other residents of the Folly would sometimes dash out, wrapping scarves over their heads when the warning signal sounded. Kitchen maids, mostly. Silly things. Molly stayed right where she was. She has always been safe in the Folly. She could never imagine leaving. 

Many years later, when the Folly slumbered under dust-cloths and Nightingale had yet to find his new apprentice, Molly watched as the square filled up again with sirens. Nightingale told her later it had been to do with the Underground, although she had not known what was wrong at the time. For a moment Molly could have been in the war again. She could have been sat in the kitchen ripping bandages out of old sheets with the kitchen maids who spoke highly of war-time effort, waiting for the masters and apprentices to return from the war, never thinking that they would not. 

When Molly had been new to the Folly, the men had left to fight and few came back, but the Folly beat on. She’d thought the war would be like that, again. She didn’t know, then, about Ettersberg. 

She wants to tell Toby this. She wants to tell him that the Folly is waking up after a long slumber. She wants to tell him about the packed dining room, the endless parade of steaming dishes, the clatter of silver and raised voices. She wants to tell him about the flicker of anticipation in Nightingale’s eyes; and the fierce way her chest clenches when she thinks of him after the war, staring silent at the wood-paneling for hours. She wants to tell him, if only to tell someone, but he wouldn’t understand. He’s only a dog, and a silly one at that. 

Still, he’s a start. 

They sit quietly and watch the silent square. Toby sits up and claws at the window with his paws when he thinks he sees a squirrel, then calms down, turning round and round in Molly’s lap before settling. 

In truth, Molly would not trade him for a dozen great slobbering mastiffs, but it’s no good to tell him so. Airs don’t suit silly little dogs.