Friday nights were always designated family time. For my father, Friday meant a break from his relentless, repetitive, far-too-fiddly factory work. The coins of his wages had scarcely settled in his pocket before they came tumbling back out at the bookies, or the pub, or the counter of the grocer’s as he stocked up on his already more than plentiful stash of cigarettes. It was as though he had a magnet sewn into his pocket lining from which his salary was forcefully repelled on a weekly basis.
For my mother, preparation for these Friday nights meant pressure slowly mounting as the working week crawled towards its end and my father’s expectations for his dinner grew steadily grander - sourcing ingredients, scribbling ideas and improvements into the dog-eared, crinkled pages of her ageing-but-reliable cookbook. In the hours before my dad’s return home, she sweated over the hob, opening the window for air, releasing tantalising smells in a billow down the path. This did nothing to smooth over her frown, however. She knew from experience that she couldn’t afford to get complacent with the dinner. My father had been known to smash a plate against the wall in a crash of wedding china and a splash of gravy if he was welcomed home after a taxing week with a cold or otherwise disappointing dinner.
As for me, this Friday night routine had grown worn and dreary. Back in 1905 I was nineteen and working as a day nanny for a family who lived on a large estate on the other, richer side of town. The Hunters decorated their idyllic estate home with expensive, powder-blue furniature, heirloom tapestries on the walls and four young children (and a dog) who made it their daily goal to destroy it. I was engaged as a sort of preventative measure, allowing Mrs. Hunter to pay calls and recline in the sun without worrying too much about the chaos storming along after little ones. Given how vital a Saturday crammed with social calls was for staying abreast of any village gossip that may have accumulated through the working week, it was my longest working day, meaning that Friday was certainly no cause for a celebration.
My one consolation as I trudged through the dull fields each Winter Saturday was the thought of Charlie. Or more properly, Miss Charlotte Thynne. Since her arrival the previous January, she’d gained a reputation about town as my employer’s wayward younger sister who had been sent to the countryside from Bath in an attempt to curb whatever disgraceful behaviour she had shown there. She never told me which of her many tales of rebellion had landed her here in the back end of nowhere, but in my family any one would’ve sufficed. We shouldn’t have connected to one another at all, and with her status she shouldn’t have found any interest in me, but Charlie was eighteen and compared to her previous daily routine of screaming children and ‘women with airs and graces’ like her sister, my appearance in the house seemed a fresh and appealing prospect to her. And from the first day I saw her and noticed the sunlight flash between the legs of her loose, ballooning, separated skirts - almost like male trousers - I found her equally fascinating. We felt some force of attraction acting between us, each an oddity to the other yet able to share an understanding. She often accompanied me and my challenging charges on walks around the lake, pointing out the tadpoles to her nieces and nephews and even hoisting up her skirts to scoop some into a jar, as I nodded and smiled and pretended I could match her insight into the scientific world – all the while wondering at the new information flowing so easily from her keen mind, secretly as wide-eyed as the little ones.
Since the countryside provided little opportunity for scandal, Charlie had gained back some trust from her parents and had even been promised a Summer back at home in Bath – or perhaps Mrs Hunter had been sending exaggerated letters of praise home in order to shirk the extra responsibility. In a flurry of exuberance on reading me the news, legs sprawled all over a throw on the lawn, she invited me to accompany her. The promise of months spreading before me with Charlie for company, adventuring around the city which she painted so vibrantly, set my heart racing. My gaze ran across her open face and fell on the light splatter of freckles across her soft cheek, which divorced me from all logic and I heard myself agreeing.
Later, my senses rather unpleasantly stuttering back to life, I remembered the true obstacle – gaining permission from my parents, which, given Charlie’s reputation and my father’s high hopes of a productive (read: lucrative) summer for me, seemed like a pipe dream. Spurred on by my affection for Charlie and my desperation to experience life by her side for the summer, I resolved to give it my best shot.
So on this particular Friday, May drawing to a close, the air hung differently in the house, crackling with anticipation. Head and hands fuzzy with nerves, I dropped a tray of potatoes on the floor, put the hob too high, sending a gush of boiling water scalding over the side of the pan and onto my wrist, leaving me banished from the kitchen. I pressed my hair into rollers in my bedroom and watched myself chewing my lip in the distorted and grainy reflection provided by my little round mirror. I couldn’t stop the possible scenarios from reeling through my mind – never being able to picture one in which the conversation ended well.
As my father rounded the corner, I listened carefully to the thud of his footsteps – did that dull smack against the pavement mean a bad mood, or just a heavy sole? Either way the drum of my heartbeat quickened to match his progress.
On arriving in the dining room I found (to my greatest relief) my mother laying a steaming pile of potatoes onto the tablecloth and an appeased father whistling as he flung his coat towards, but not onto, the coatstand. I settled myself at the table, placed my hands as demurely clasped in my lap as I could manage.
‘Dad,’ I blurted, ‘Charlie…Miss Thynne has invited me to accompany her to the city this summer.’ He lay down his fork but didn’t open his mouth, which I took as a sign of enouragement, speaking faster to dissuade him from interrupting.
‘We would be spending the time staying with her parents so it would be completely safe. I’d be back again in the Autumn, in time to start work at the school if you like, and close enough to come home if I was needed. I’d…like to go.’
My voice quavered slightly as I made my case and I pictured Charlie, and how confidently she addressed people. As though she would bet her life on every syllable.
My father didn’t miss a beat. ‘Not likely, love,’ he chuckled. ‘What’s she want you for, a free maid?’
The last word stung and my voice sharpened to a point. ‘A companion, actually.’
I knew I’d taken it too far. My father snapped, slammed his knife down on the table and barked, ‘I know this Charlotte. Dressed like a lunatic, with her men’s clothes and her ridiculous little boys’ bob haircut. I can see how this ends already - she’ll drag you into her mess and me and your mum right along with you. This is the end of the conversation. I will not have you becoming that type of girl, thank you very much.’
As the coming weeks ticked by, it was evident that I’d thrown our rigid routine out of kilter. Permission never was explicitly granted, but the longer I considered, and ruminated, and mused, the clearer it became that I didn’t need it – practically or emotionally.
One Saturday morning in June, I took Charlie’s hand and let her hoist me into her carriage. Our eyes met and we started to giggle. She clasped my hand tightly into hers and I felt a rush of warmth, silently pleading with her never to release it. My mother waved from the doorstep, her forehead a knot of worry. My father stood stiff beside her, nodding at me coldly through the window. I felt a dim clang of worry somewhere within as I looked out at what I was risking – certainty, acceptance, the tedious comfort of monotony – but in this moment, the consequences were far from the focus of my imagination. I was overpowered by the taste of freedom and the sweet perfume of the girl gifting it to me.
A few days after our arrival in Bath, days overwhelmed with fascinating people, shocking fashions, bold new hairstyles, I felt that my world had been torn right open and could never be stitched back together.
I took a moment to pause while changing into my Sunday Church attire – the smartest clothes in my possession – for dinner and scribbled a note to my parents.
I sketched out: ‘To Mum and Dad. Arrived safe, love you.’ and paused, pen resting on my lip, before a moment of boldness flooded my head and I added,
‘P.S. Am bobbed.’