Authors: Mary Hooper
For my Uncle Reg (Hewett), a conscientious objector in the Second World War
Poppy sat, bolt upright and uncomfortable, on one of the carved, wooden chairs in the blue drawing room of Airey House in the village of Mayfield. In front of her, looking equally out of place, sat Molly, the other parlourmaid. They were winding wool: Poppy had her arms outstretched with a long loop of wool around each hand, Molly was winding it into a ball, from right to left and back, catching Poppy’s eye every now and again and giving her a
. Each time she did this, Poppy would have to glance away quickly or risk giggling.
Sitting around them in easy chairs were the ladies of the Mayfield Comforts Group, knitting balaclavas, gloves, socks and mufflers as fast as they could for the boys at the front. Since Poppy and Molly could only manage straight knitting – and because every garment apart from mufflers involved turning corners – Mrs Violet de Vere, matriarch of Airey House, had thought it best to ask her two parlourmaids to wind balls of wool from the long, loopy skeins. Being seated with servants was a little awkward for the comforts group ladies, for they couldn’t speak as openly as they might have wished, but Mrs de Vere had realised that times were changing and she prided herself on being a modern employer. Also, by including Poppy and Molly, she had ensured that everyone was helping the war effort. That was important.
The ladies carried on clicking needles and Poppy and Molly wound on. Poppy thought of all the things she could be doing instead of sitting under the watchful eyes of the comforts group – and all the duties she would be scrambling to catch up with that afternoon, for an hour was a long interlude in a busy parlourmaid’s day.
When their time in the drawing room was up, Mrs de Vere raised her eyebrows and gave Poppy a nod. This meant she and Molly were to disappear, change into their lace-trimmed afternoon aprons and return with pots of tea and a sponge cake. Once restored to their usual stations in life, the two girls served the ladies silently and deferentially and everyone was much more at ease.
As they poured and passed, the talk among the ladies was centred on the war, of course. Far from being ‘over by Christmas’ as everyone had predicted, it was escalating in many unforeseen ways, most recently with the bombardment and loss of life in Scarborough and the surrounding area. The ladies knew of several brave young men who had enlisted already, having been persuaded by Lord Kitchener that their country needed them. Mrs Trevin-Jones actually had a son fighting at the front, so her views on the war were treated with the utmost respect. Young Peter Trevin-Jones had not won any medals yet but the stories of his exploits suggested that it could only be a matter of time.
‘My cousin’s boy, Gerald, has taken a commission in the cavalry,’ one lady interjected, having heard enough of Peter. ‘He’s been riding horses since he was two, so we expected no less.’
‘Well, my grandson tried to enlist but, sadly, they wouldn’t have him,’ said another.
‘I don’t believe there
such a thing!’ came the reply. ‘One is supposed to be over eighteen but apparently they don’t even ask for identification. No, he had fallen arches so he wouldn’t have been able to march. He was furious.’
‘I expect his mother was pleased, though . . .’ said another lady.
This was fiercely denied. ‘His mother thought that fighting for his country would make a man of him. After all, what more noble ambition could there be for a boy?’
There were some murmurs of assent and a few sighs, too. Passing round porcelain teacups, Poppy wondered if her brother, Billy, might join up and, if so, whether war might make a man out of
Thinking about Billy always made Poppy rather cross, for he still hadn’t managed to find himself a proper job. He wouldn’t consider going into service (he dismissed this as ‘licking the boots of lords and ladies’) and though he considered himself too good for factory work, he was not willing to go to evening classes to gain any paper qualifications for anything else. By the prudent pulling of strings, his uncle had managed to get him an interview for an office job, but Billy, being in a bad mood, had not interviewed well. He came back saying that the chief clerk was a stuffed shirt and he wouldn’t take the job even if it was offered. Which it wasn’t.
Poppy, however, had been working for the de Vere family ever since she left school at fourteen. She had won a scholarship to the local college, but with no father, and the college uniform and books costing more than her mother earned in a month of making cardboard boxes, she hadn’t been able to take it up. At Airey House, the de Veres’ home in Mayfield, just outside London, Poppy had started off in the kitchens and then, proving herself capable, had been elevated to a parlourmaid.
Slices of Victoria sponge were being eaten with silver forks when the door to the drawing room burst open and Mr Frederick de Vere, the youngest of the four de Vere children, came in looking cross. He was dressed in hunting gear – an old tweed jacket, plus fours and high leather boots – and looked unkempt in a rather dashing way. His appearance caused a little flurry of delight among the ladies of the circle, who sat up straighter and smiled indulgently at the sight of him. Poppy did
smile indulgently – she thought that
Freddie (as he was still called by most of the servants) was over-indulged by his mother and spoilt by his father. But then, that was the lot of all the de Vere children.
‘Freddie!’ cried Mrs de Vere, pleased that he’d arrived in time to be admired.
‘Mother.’ Freddie spoke in a leaden tone, then bent to kiss her powdery cheek. ‘There’s no one in the kitchen and I’m near starved to death.’ He straightened up, caught Poppy’s eye and gave her a wink.
Poppy’s heart skittered inside her and she turned away quickly, hoping she hadn’t gone red. This had happened two or three times lately: he’d smiled at her for no apparent reason or pulled a quizzical face – and what he meant by it she couldn’t imagine.
Freddie raked his hand through his hair, which was thick, fair, and fell into his eyes. ‘Surely there should be someone who can fix a chap a bit of cold meat when he wants it.’
‘Oh, of course, darling!’ cried his mother. Her eyes – and those of the other ladies in the room – fell on the two maids. ‘Well, Poppy?’ she asked.
‘Please, ma’am, there’s no one there because it’s Cook’s afternoon off,’ Poppy said.
Freddie pushed his hair back. ‘I’m utterly starving . . .’
Poppy, wondering how difficult it would be for him to investigate the contents of the larder himself, looked towards Mrs de Vere for guidance.
you wouldn’t mind fixing him something, Poppy,’ said Mrs de Vere. She smiled round at the group. ‘These boys, you know! Always ravenous.’
‘Let him eat properly while he can,’ Mrs Trevin-Jones said wisely. ‘Peter has been existing on nothing but bully beef and hot water for
Poppy picked up one of the trays and made for the door. As she did so, Freddie darted forward, pulled open the door and, making a mock bow, ushered her through.
‘And no ox tongue, thank you, Poppy,’ he said, his voice following her down the passageway. ‘Just a knuckle of ham and maybe a few slices of roast beef.’
The door closed, but not before she heard one of the ladies asking Freddie what he intended to do for the war. The question was innocent enough, but most of the ladies present had been wondering why the two de Vere boys were still at home. They’d both attended good public schools and Jasper, the elder, had been to Oxford, but neither, as yet, had volunteered to serve his country, despite the fact that they were guaranteed commissions in a prestigious regiment. Both had, in fact, applied for exemption from military service on the grounds that they were needed at home to help manage the de Vere estate.
As Poppy arrived downstairs, Mrs Elkins, the de Veres’ cook, was just hanging up her overcoat. She turned and surveyed Poppy, who was frowning deeply, then said, ‘Oh dear, who’s ruffled your feathers?’
‘Master Freddie!’ Poppy said.
‘Not him again?’
‘He’s so . . . so impudent!’
‘Oh, he’s not that bad,’ Mrs Elkins said, removing her felt hat. ‘It’s the way he’s been raised. They ask and we provide.’ She frowned slightly at Poppy. ‘And it doesn’t do to talk about any of the family like that, miss.’
‘He seems to think we’re all here to –’
‘That’s exactly what we
here for,’ said Mrs Elkins. ‘What else?’ There was a jangle from the dining-room bell. ‘Now, whoever’s that? Would you go, dear?’
‘That’s him!’ Poppy said. ‘I bet that’s him. He’s gone into the dining room.’
‘I’ll make up a tray,’ Mrs Elkins said, and she began to unpack the basket she’d come in with.
The bell rang again.
‘Won’t be a moment!’ Cook trilled, though of course no one upstairs could hear her. The bell rang twice more and she sighed. ‘Run up, Poppy, will you? Say I won’t be a moment.’
Poppy groaned. ‘Can’t he just . . .’
Mrs Elkins turned and raised her eyebrows at her. Poppy went.
Entering the large dining room, which was empty except for Freddie standing by the bell pull, Poppy bobbed a curtsey. If only he wasn’t quite so good-looking, she thought. If only his hair wasn’t so floppy or his eyes such a deep brown . . .
‘I just wanted you to know that I was in here, in the dining room.’
Poppy hesitated, fighting against an inner desire to say that she wasn’t entirely daft. She managed another curtsey – the slightest curtsey possible. ‘Yes, thank you, Master Freddie.’
He smiled. ‘You know, just
‘Oh. Well.’ Surprised and rather alarmed, Poppy took a step towards the door. ‘Cook is back now, and if you’ll allow me to go down again then we’ll bring you up a tray.’
She would get Molly to do it, she thought, or Mrs Elkins. What with the wink, and then being told she could call him Freddie, she felt all of a dither. Besides, it really wasn’t proper for him to tease her in this way. It was almost as if he was . . . But no,