HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

HC 52014

No one Looks Sideways at a Servant caused a lot of debate in the judging room. Everyone agreed that the imagery was startling, the action unsettling, but we couldn't quite agree what it was about...until someone came up with the idea of it being a doll's house, when everything fell into place. An existential masterpiece, we decided, if we were right. And it proved later that we were.


Zoë Meager is from Christchurch, New Zealand.

In 2012 she completed a Masters in Creative Writing and in 2013 won the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, Pacific Region, for her story Things with faces, which is published online in Granta.
Her work has appeared in Penduline, The Island Review, Hue and Cry, Flash Frontier, The First Line, and is forthcoming in The New Guard.
She is working on a novella.
HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition Meager





NO ONE LOOKS SIDEWAYS AT A SERVANT


She stands at the bright Aga frying two perfect circles of egg. They overlap somewhere in the middle - two parts of a Venn diagram with very little to agree on. The eggs are nearly done, they are always nearly done. She watches them intently, not seeing them. With one arm raised, her hand floats over the frying pan handle, not touching it. For the moment at least, this is her job. Watching eggs intently. After all, she’s been wearing this maid’s uniform a fair few years, along with the weight of public display, the pinching reminder that every mistake will be noticed, every slight pause in her work marked down against her. But she’ll get used to it in time. She is bound to.

The kitchen towers around her in silence. Vital equipment is missing; there is no sink for bathing babies or window for cooling pies, and the cupboards have never opened. Their sealed mouths keep the secrets of the house. On the table, fruit in the bowl is artificial and hunks of meat are left out for days on end. Sometimes other plates of food appear, dishes of roast or stew or trifle, but only to be left uneaten. Clumsy hand-painted plates have been glued to all three kitchen walls where, too ugly to be decorative, they belie the affluent pretenses of the house. Beneath them, someone has wallpapered over the threat of collapse, given the brittle skeleton of this house a painted-on calm. There is an awful potential in these walls.

He is watching her again, soundlessly. Sitting at the kitchen table with his chair pulled in close, eager for eggs. As if he were the master of the house. They are both aware of their battle, of him behind her, willing the eggs to cook. Hungering for her to turn and serve him, cradling the diagram on a china plate, her face compliant and resigned. Equally, as she stands with her back to him, face compliant and resigned, she wills the eggs not to cook. She is beneath her uniform, beneath her cloak of public show, and beneath his black eyes. Mad scrapings of hair over tiny, rounded shoulders, the cotton apron tied to accentuate her waist, the dark stockinged ankles. From the fourth side of the kitchen a wall of light falls towards them, catching the maid’s porcelain neck and the hand that floats, as if through vibration she will intuit when the eggs are done. But the eggs will never be done. There’s nothing his hot stare can do about that.

The maid never knows what happens next in the story, whether or not the dog gets his eggs because she is whisked off, without explanation, her duty incomplete. For the maid then, cooking is always apprehension, a kind of dread really. Forevermore she will see dread in those disagreeing eggs.

She stands on the landing, a broom in her hands. The landing itself has a polished wooden floor and a door that must lead on to the first floor hallway, of course, although the maid can't remember ever having opened it. She looks down at the black and white chequered tiles of the boxy hallway below. From there, breathless stairs run up to her, a Persian carpet bobbling over them like a tongue running over teeth. It has not been tacked in place. That runner looks like it's ready to fly off somewhere, the maid thinks. It would be easy to take a trip.

She sweeps, the broom handle like a mast above her and below, its bristles from an animal with hair of wire. A hedgehog perhaps, she wonders. She saw one once, a long time ago, in the attic. Back when she was the lady of the house. It had crouched quite still in the middle of the bare dark space and looked back at her, sideways, through one shiny black bead of an eye. She’d liked that. But now here she is, just one of the help, dressed in a maid’s uniform and trying to sweep the landing with this great tree of a broom, in this time warp of a house, relentlessly Victorian, year in, year out.

Quite suddenly he is there. Sitting at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at her, his rear end parked on a white tile as if to say Checkmate. Brown hair flops lazily over his eyes. Tongue hanging pink and glistening to one side of his mouth as he makes a smile of bared teeth, and the maid thinks he would bite off his own tongue if it got in his way. His mouth is always hanging open like that, as if he is perpetually over-heating. A pig of a dog. Dogs attack hedgehogs, she knows, but there is nothing to be done. She cannot bring herself to move away, instead she must finish her sweeping and shuff, shuff, shuff goes the broom, metronoming a two-step back and forth, a heavy black skirt for a partner, a dance of glances over shoulders, a pendulum chasing its final chime.

She appears in the downstairs parlour. This is how her life goes, in stilted bursts, like a wire strung up and punctuated with light bulbs, each a different muted colour. What happens in the gaps between remains a mystery. She’s always been forgetful, or rather, she has blanks. She's often wondered if others share the condition. It wasn’t so bad, whatever it is, when life was slower-paced. She’d felt quite normal most of the time, back when she was the lady of the house. She’d had longer periods of rest then, whole days and nights spent reclining on her narrow single bed. Time then was continuous, like knitting; when the ball of time ran short, another was joined on to replace it, and the thread of things went on its twining way. But these days, what a mess. As if someone has come with steely scissors and sliced that knitting up into sad chunks on her lap. She’ll think I must go upstairs; I dust the master bedroom after I clean the parlour, and the intention of going upstairs will be intact, the memory of standing at the bottom of the stairs, but then she’ll be in the master bedroom with no memory of how she came to be there, as if she hadn't climbed the stairs at all, but magicked. It’s all this living in the Victorian era, she decides, It must be nerves.

In the parlour, just as she’s stooping to empty the ashes and clean the grate, it catches her eye; the yellow blur in its cage. It is nothing more than a knot of yellow wool with a pin jammed in for a beak, so obviously made of leftovers, like a cruel joke at the end of a courtship. Perhaps for this reason it is a hateful thing. The cat is always after it and it's a wonder to the maid that it hasn't yet succeeded, the bird could be so easily toppled, cage and all, from its tipsy one-legged stand. It stalks the house on that stand, hopping from room to room in its tiny brainless way, the tap tap tap like a man with a wooden leg dragging himself through the house. So the ashes are emptied from the fireplace, but the grate is not left gleaming.

She is relieved to fly through to the master bedroom, away from the sticky beak in jail, and away from the pig dog too. This is the finest room in the house, and it is quiet here and safe - no dogs allowed. Nearly one whole wall of the bedroom is taken up by the wooden dresser, and although it looks barren, with its multitude of drawers empty and its shelves mostly bare, thought has been put into showing it to its best advantage; a single long-stemmed rose, made of gold, has been placed in a tall vase in front of the central mirror. The maid longs to feel the stem of that golden rose, to touch each of its cold petals in turn on the pretext of dusting it, but it is far too high for her to reach.

The most important furnishings in the room are the twin single beds. Their turned wood has been polished to a deep shine and the canopies made especially to match the bedspreads; all cream stuff with an acanthus pattern embroidered in deep green thread, so generously applied that the maid can in some places run her hand under the stitches themselves, let it chameleon with the cloth beneath.

Through the wall, the maid hears the lady of the house in the nursery, cooing silently to her newborn baby. The baby has been newborn for years but that lady never grows bored of making those dove sounds for her baby, never longs for her baby to speak, has arms that never tire of holding her baby, they are reserved for that purpose alone. The maid can picture how the nanny looks on, she has seen it many times; the poor girl stiff with a folding feeling of pride and yearning, just the proper thing for a nanny to feel as she gazes endlessly through the window of maternal bonding, standing perfectly still in the corner of the nursery. The maid wonders why there was no role of nanny when she herself was playing lady of the house. Perhaps because there was no one to play at being the baby, she thinks.

Just then, a huff of air can be heard escaping from a tiny pair of lungs. The maid looks to the nearest bed and sees that two eyes are upon her. In the bedroom quiet, the cat is rumbling with pleasure as it kneads the deep green threads of the bedspread, trying to get at the cream underneath, to dip a licked paw into the maid's own delicious secret. In between its pawing, the cat steals defiant glances at the doorway, beyond which the dog hovers, waiting for his chance just outside the forbidden room. The animal on the bed lets out the hissing sound of a kettle, and from the hallway, a low growl is returned.

Cat and dog are long since due to boil over, the maid is thinking, when spotless white porcelain appears inches from her nose. She is in the bathroom now, fixated on the rink of clawed bathtub, bent over as if inspecting her own work.

Faithfully the dog pads in, tongue adrift, noting that the colour of the bath matches perfectly the colour of the maid’s slender neck. The maid hears the pig dog’s saliva slopping onto the tiled floor as she wills herself to move, to turn away from the dry slopes of bath. But she cannot.

Even as the cat rubs into the room, mews once shakily and springs onto the edge of the bath, she cannot move. As it creeps closer to her prone face, her useless arms stiff at her sides, she thinks This egg will cook, by God any minute now this egg will cook. Cat’s doorway eyes so near now she can feel the fishy breath on her cheek.

When tap tap tap the cage hops in behind her with its captive yellow bird, the trio is complete. Just like they were in the packet. They bear down on her, doorway eyes and needle beak and tongue wet with anticipation, all throbbing with the pulse of destruction, and the white bathtub spins, spins away from meaning. Her heart is stopped. All that is left is to cry out Dear God, please help me! Take me away!

And the little maid waits, but God does not touch her.