Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Glen Donaldson

Stella Cromwell was a once in a generation housekeeper. The calmness that came with keeping house – from dusting vintage wine bottles down in a cellar to the soft, rhythmic sound of a brush-broom as it swept over wooden floorboards – these were small joys that kept her spirits aloft throughout the day.

From beginnings steeped in poverty, Stella had risen to take her place inside households far above her own social standing. Sturdy in stature with an apron permanently wrapped around her expansive middle and a voice as dry as gravel, she was definitely no gold-framed oil painting – though she had dusted literally hundreds of those over the years.

That mattered not at all to her employer, violinist and flair-full music composer extraordinaire Dudley Donegal O’Day, who had not hired her for her looks but instead her dependability and efficiency, both qualities of which he was delivered in ample twice-weekly doses. 

Stella Cromwell, proudly aged 58 and with greying hair perpetually tied back in a bun held together with a single earthen-coloured band, was a soul born to furnish practical solutions en masse to life’s domestic problems. Her lesser-known talents included being a self-acknowledged authority on backache, heartache and moral philosophy, but it was in the day-to-day minutia of things that she made herself indispensable.

A master of the white linen bail wash and someone who knew the restorative powers of honey, for Stella there were few sights more gratifying than a row of copper pans in a kitchen. She knew her satin stitch from her cover-seam and her sovereign remedy for colds – vinegar and angostura bitters mixed with brimstone – had worked a treat in a great many households she’d worked, particularly the ones that included infants and children. She even made her own soap.

Strong minded and super dextrous Stella, who had never married but had in her younger days said no to at least two proposals, also knew with the precision of a clock the comings and goings of the local neighbourhood. Able-tongued, she was a handy person to have around, as Mr O’Day had discovered on a number of occasions during the course of her employment over the last 18 months, an altercation with an over-charging grocer being especially memorable.

 When dealing with tradespeople and the like who might attend the residence in his absence, Mr O’Day had no doubt should verbal push ever come to shove, his formidable housekeeper, if it was called for, would tell the sun off for shining in a voice that could be heard clear across Piccadilly Square.

But even a high-performance brow-mopper as formidable and worldy as Stella Cromwell could still be taken aback by a surprise happening. So it was the other day when she had been tidying Mr O’ Day’s bedroom and happened upon his personal diary which fell open on the previous day’s entry. She avoided looking but her eyes would not obey. “My housekeeper has weak ankles” read the inscription, written in O’Days distinctive forward-leaning handwriting.

Stella guessed this surmisal on her employer’s part was due to her preference for using a small three-step ladder to dust the top shelf of Mr O’Day’s regal looking bookcase, a feat she could accomplish by standing on her tippy toes but chose not to.

But it was the next entry that made her blink and stare wide-eyed at the page in disbelief. “I ventured home today unexpectedly early to find Mrs Cromwell mopping the floor dressed in nothing but her lacey white chemise. I retreated silently back out the same door I came with her unaware. The weather was indeed warm but of this discovery I am unsure what to make.”

For a split second, Stella’s breathing was suspended before a closed lip smile began to slowly spread across her face. She arose from the side of the bed she had sat down on, closed the diary and placed it back on the pinewood study desk.

There were hankerchiefs by the dozen to iron in the main parlour and veal cutlets to prepare for the night’s dinner. She would consult the tealeaves during her break time later that afternoon regarding what to do about the ‘chemise discovery’. For now there was work to do, and plenty of it. The weather was so very warm again.

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