“This is Peggy,” Josephine explained as she entered the room. Peggy walked behind her looking very solemn and watchful. Josephine carried lots of interesting-looking things on a tray – coffee, rashers of bacon, small hot rolls that you could crumble in your hand. Peggy trailed a large fan made of peacock feathers.
There were probably, in truth, only a few years between these two women. Yet the complicated weight that the household had placed on its different members had today boxed Peggy into being the girlish helper whilst it had let Josephine flow, as usual, as the experienced and self-important domestic coordinator. Josephine set the tray down in front of her mistress and she poured the coffee so that it tinkled piercingly in the cup. Josephine’s eyes were fixed fast on the pouring coffee, as they had been whenever she had delicately coaxed tiny, itchy splinters out of the pink skin on her mistress’s hand.
Peggy went to the place that Josephine had nodded her to and she began to fan. Josephine then looked up and she made a show of glaring ferociously at her. “Maybe less of a hurricane, please Peggy. M’lady’ll get all of the crumbs from her roll blown all over her nice gown.”
“Yes,” the mistress agreed with a friendly smile. “Up in heaven, all the angels will be crying, and God will be sitting on his throne roaring ‘No! No!’ to Himself, because there are some crumbs blown on my gown.”
Josephine stood fully upright and she gazed vacantly at the mistress as though she was a stranger. She then looked like she might have wanted to say something but she instead turned her face around like a stone slab and walked away.
The fanning had faltered for a second but it now continued, more alertly.
He had been sitting in an armchair, silhouetted against the window, for all of this time. He scrambled sharply to his feet, shaking his newspaper straight, and regarded her patiently. “I’ll have to sort out Josephine,” he sighed, as if mocking her but with something stiff and fragile in it that made the drollness sound faintly unearthly. “I’ll assure her – again – that her mistress is not an infidel. I’ll assure her that we are as devout in our faith as she is in hers.”
He crossed the room on a fleet foot, hoping to catch Josephine before she could serenade the kitchen with her mistress’s amazing irreverence.
She crumbled the roll and picked at the small pieces of it that stuck to her fingertips. She often did not care anymore why she said these crazy-sounding things that so rattled him. Indeed, she was exhilarated by letting her mouth run and listening to what marvellous patterns it would make on the air next.
“You are from the sale at Dr Trezvant’s?”
There was a silence and then Peggy jumped when she realised that it was she who was being addressed. There was an extra stir in the rolling air.
“He was never a man to my taste. I doubt very much that he is to the taste of those who judge men once they have died. They are probably frying him up like ham and eggs as we speak. I’ve heard that he has hundreds of children who run hither and thither everywhere on his farm like geese [the air stirred again]. I’ve heard that he had personally whipped the mothers of these children [another stir].” She brooded for a while over Dr Trezvant, a man who had had countless children but of whom none were currently freed and able to inherit his property. This was why Peggy had been sent here, where the household had been one of the doctor’s many creditors. “Was it he who had named you Peggy?”
A pause, filling up with galloping uncertainty and fluttering air. “I don’t know, mistress.”
Peggy could somehow tell that the mistress was smirking, though she could see only the back of her head. “Well, logically it must have been. I will allow you to choose a new, better name. You need not let his nasty Peggy detain you.”
For all of her cool and her cat-like watchfulness, this girl now looked absolutely thrown. For a moment, the great steady eye of the universe had blinked and she wobbled wide-eyed between Peggy and some new, as-yet-uncoined personhood.
“I-I-I… I don’t… I don’t know.” She shuddered like a stunned animal. The mistress looked up and around and spoke rapidly and reassuringly at where the fan had been previously blowing. “Just pick any name that you like the sound of. Or else reflect on it for a time.”
“Mary,” the girl suddenly blurted out starkly. “I want Mary.”
The mistress found that her smile had got stuck and that she could not move it. And all at once, the horror of what was happening flooded in on her.
It was now she who was quivering and trying to suppress panic. It was as though she and the girl were standing alone together on a hilltop and the spear of lightning that had struck the girl had now hit her.
To her despair, she heard her own voice recite woodenly that, “No, I’m afraid that I cannot allow Mary. I’m sorry.”
There was silence. Then the fanning began again.
The silence was unbearably awful, rather like that after a pistol has been detonated in front of you. The mistress shifted restlessly in her seat and she toyed with her little breakfast things. She decided that it would be altogether fairer to this girl to be candid with her. She had wanted to be kindly and liberal and it was the girl’s fault, entirely unwittingly of course, that she had landed on the one name that could roll back this aspirational benevolence.
“Mary was my daughter’s name. She is no longer here with us. It would be too painful to have her name ringing in my ear every few minutes.”
The fanning went on steadily. “I had a daughter too, mistress,” the girl murmured cautiously. She sounded sympathetic but at the same time almost imperceptibly offended.
The mistress wanted to ask if the girl who had been Peggy and who might have been Mary had any second name that was to her liking. But she felt like her skeleton was crushed or indescribably weary and as if her mouth was a small dry hole, filled with soil and dust, which could no longer comfortably shape words. Peggy would have to do for now. Maybe she could broach the subject of the girl’s name when she felt gayer and irreverent again.