As the sun peaked in through the homemade curtains, the tweeting and chirping gently stirred Dolores. Her smile beamed as she silently recalled the dream that was slowly fading; of childhood summers by the creak; swimming with her friends, blissful in their freedom. She touched her face as the sun warmed her cheek.
‘Good morning, Dolores’ she uttered to herself, alive for one more day.
Her bones creaked and ached as she rose from the bed and hobbled round to the stove, she pressed the ignition three times before it woke. As the flames danced around the kettle, she sat back down on the edge of the bed and massaged her swollen feet. The callouses wept as she cleaned them, then she reapplied the bandage as the nurse had shown her.
Carefully reaching over from where she sat, she picked up the kettle and poured it into a cup, then stirred in a quarter teaspoon of coffee. Despite the pain emanating from her feet, she smiled as she looked around at the home her family had owned for generations. The dresser her mama had bartered for 6 months of Sundays, cleaning pots at Eddie’s Café. The chair, her granddaddy made from scraps he’d found, the nails he’d swapped for a carp he’d caught. The bed she sat on had slept five generations; the wooden slats groaned when she moved.
Over the years she’d taken to waking earlier and earlier, as age slowed her mornings. She got dressed and made her lunch of pickle and cheese sandwiches; these always felt like her treat for a mornings work. She remembered when she’d first gone to the Swan’s place with her mama; she was so nervous and overwhelmed. At lunch she’d found a boulder and hid behind it, blocking out the house completely. It overlooked the township and while she ate, she longed to be down there with her friends; for the first few months this was her routine.
As she left her home, she picked up Master Bruce’s shoes, all shined from the night before, and carefully placed them in her old school bag. The last thing she saw every morning was a photo sitting on a small table by the door, it was of her great grandmother and grandmother in livery, standing outside the Swan mansion with all the other servants; a present from the family.
Walking through the narrow streets people began to stir, babies began to cry for food and dogs barked to be freed. She made her way to the bus stop, walking carefully now, on a surface she used to run down as a child. The bus ride was long, but she’d be able to sit and rest while it snaked between townships and then up to the Swan residence and beyond.
She sat down on a bench, that was carelessly located twenty feet or so from the bus stop; the bus ran past the stop and pulled up next to her.
The doors concertinaed open. ‘Morning, Charles’ she said, ‘you’re late’.
‘That I am, Dolores, that I am’ he replied, getting out from behind the steering wheel to help her up. ‘It’s a beautiful day though isn’t it? Beautiful like you’, he smiled.
‘That it is, Charles, that it is’ she replied, walking towards the back of the bus and ignoring the compliment completely.
‘Hey, Dolorese’ he said ‘that strawberry crop will be ready soon, just in time for Bruce’s birthday’
‘That’s Master Bruce to you, Charles’ she frowned, before turning to look at him and releasing a huge grin. ‘Thank you’ she said, ‘they’ll make a wonderful cake’. As she resumed her walk to the back of the bus, she remembered how Master Bruce loved them last year, the image of strawberry juice dripping down his chin made her chuckle.
People got on and off the bus, always seeing Dolores and giving her a polite nod. They knew she wasn’t prone to gossip, so the courtesy never extended to conversation. Nearly an hour later, the bus pulled up alongside wrought iron gates, flanked by two marble lions on plinths; it was the grandest entrance in the county. Dolores rose from her seat and made her way to the front, holding the back of every seat as she went and clutching the school bag to her breast.
‘Have a nice day, Dolores’ Charles said as he helped her down.
‘You too, Charles’, she replied ‘and give my regards to Mary-Jane’ she said as he climbed back up behind the wheel.
‘Will do. 35 years tomorrow’ he said as he pulled the lever and the door closed.
She stood there gazing at the bus ‘foolish, Dolores, foolish’ she muttered to herself as she turned to face the gates. When she was younger, they were easy for her to push open, but as the years progressed, she needed to put more and more effort into heaving them open. She sometimes wondered whether she should mention it to the Swans’, but she didn’t want to bother them, so carried on heaving with all her might.
The treelined avenue meandered through the grounds, crossing brooks and up and down hills. When Master Bruce was younger, she’d walk him up and down in a stroller, the dappled light always sent him to sleep. He’d taken his first steps on the lawn, climbed his first tree and fallen out of a few, the grass had been fed with laughter and tears. Now he was growing up and she only had a few more years before he went away, to begin his road to manhood. In the distance she heard a commotion; there was banging and crashing from just over the rise. She tried to hurry her steps, but her hips and the hill wouldn’t permit it, so she slowed back down and resigned herself to knowing in her own time.
As she reached the brow of the hill, she saw lorries, men in uniform standing around; a man with a clipboard chewed the end of a pen. This time she hurried; hip be damned she thought.
She managed to reach the man, just as he turned to enter the house.
‘Can I help you ma’am?’ he asked, a look of concern on his face as he studied her.
‘What’s’ was all she could get out, her breathing erratic as her heart tried to cope.
‘We’re packing up ma’am’ he said ‘the Swan’s left this morning’
She dropped the school bag, but I’ve got his shoe’s, was the last thought she had.