How is my book going?
This is an extract from 'The Skivvy's Tale',
which has run to the apex of the first big story arc,
all excitement and drama and betrayal and sex,
and then hit a brick cliche.
Which is a pity, as I was enjoying writing about Gretina
and her new-found life as a scullery maid.
Here's a teaser from the opening chapter.
Let me set the scene...
(Takes a deep breath)
Gretina has just walked many miles, through the
rain and mud, to arrive at the Three Coneys Inn,
where she starts work as a scullery maid.
The Cook takes an immediate dislike to her
(which is ok. The Cook doesn't seem to like anyone
or anything. Not even cooking)
and to the muddy mess Gretina trails in
on her bare feet.
Our heroine is ordered to get a mop and bucket
from the scullery, and clean the floor.
A Man's Shirt
Gretina grabbed a lantern from a wall hook and pushed open a stout door.
Beyond was a tall, narrow room. High above her hung hams and sausages wrapped in muslin. Reaching up towards the distant ceiling were rows and rows of shelves. Preserves and pickles, salt and peppers all ranked with military precision. Some boxes had locks. Others were elaborately carved and clasped in brass. Garlic, in ropes. Cheeses, in jars of clear brine. Glossy, hot peppers and scrolls of cinnamon bark. The scent was overpowering, honey, sage, and bacon. Between sniffs, she wiped at her mouth, her hunger now a ravening wolf in her gut.
Before her was a deep shelf of grey slate. There was a channel around it running with clean, cold water. The whole shelf appeared to be an altar to the art of the pastry cook. It was a pageant of Pies. Wonderful Pies! Stuffed with pork and ham, or oozing plum juice onto golden crust which gleamed with sugar crystals.
Her hand moved of its own accord, towards a hand-raised pie that flaunted its deep filling at her. Veal and ham, crisp pastry, and a boiled egg like a friendly eye, studded in each slice, tempting her cruelly. She could near taste it…
Gretina never even saw Cook, just felt the jarring clunk of the ladle as it smashed down on her cold red knuckles. Then the scrawny hand lashed out fast as a lizard’s tongue and grabbed her wrist, crushing the bones. Cook’s voice screeched like a fork scraping porcelain.
‘You’re in the Pantry, Skivvy! No one is allowed in the Pantry but me! This is my Pantry and it’s not for snot-nosed, dirty, ugly little wenches like you, do you understand?’
Gretina shrieked back and tried to release her imprisoned wrist-bones. This seemed to touch on some deep reserve of malevolence in the gaunt woman and she laboured about her with the iron ladle, ringing it on Gretina’s head and shoulders to mark each word.
‘Do. You. Understand. Skivvy? Not. The. Pantry! Never. Ever. The. Pantry!’
And with that, Gretina was dragged back into the heat and light of the kitchen. Cook gave her one final shake and a slap. The jabbing finger returned and pointed at a crumbling arch with some faded face carved into the keystone.
‘Scullery, Skivvy! Now get out of my sight!’
Gretina dodged around the table and through the arch. She was trembling with rage, rubbing her bruised wrist.
In the dim light, the scullery proved to be a windowless vault. Heaps of earth added to the gloom, with the stringy tails of some roots buried deep and cool. The whole chamber was cold and smelled of soil and mildew. There was a vast copper cistern. There was a solid table laden with turnips and carrots, and a tiny bed on wheels tucked underneath. And there was a rank of mops and brooms with pails to match, all to attention on one wall.
Gretina threw her sack on the floor. She drew off the useless cloak and slapped that wetly on top, along with the shapeless bonnet. Barely formed words spat out at each gesture. She filled a pail with water and, armed a mop, she went out to clean the kitchen floor.
Dipping the mop into the pail, crushing out the water in the basket and swirling it through the mud, she thought deep angry thoughts. Dip. Squeeze. Slop. Swirl. She’d clean this, as she had made the mess, but she wasn’t staying. Oh no. Not here. She wasn’t staying to be yelled at and slapped or hit and shoved. When morning came, she was going. Out the door and off. She didn’t care where. Not-here sounded like a good place to be. And her aunt and Cook and Frog-boy could just choke on it.
And Gretina was deep in her angry thoughts when a movement caught her eye. Wary of the snake-fast hands of Cook, she jerked up her head and stared.
There was an open doorway, where she couldn’t remember seeing a door, and beyond it rose a flight of stairs. And through that doorway had floated a woman. Not a lady, most definitely not, but clearly a woman. She had skin of soft gold. It gleamed, as if rubbed down with satin gloves anointed with powdered honey. The harsh kitchen lamps turned lustrous on the fine bones of her shoulders, the long line of her thighs and the flare of her smooth, peach-shaped buttocks. Over those glowing shoulders, and down to those round hips, coiled heavy, wayward hair. It was as dark and shiny as blackberry wine, but not as dark as the woman’s velvet eyes. To show off such exotic beauty she wore a fine cambric apron. It was starched and bleached exquisitely. The translucent fabric gathered into ruffles and finishing with an ornate white bow in the small of her back, like fae wings.
It was all she wore.
Gretina felt herself flush deep crimson in the face of such uncaring immodesty. But then the woman smiled tenderly, so sweet and giving a smile, that Gretina made a small sound and moved two steps towards her.
‘Why…Good evening, child. Have you seen Cook?’ The woman’s perfect brow creased into a furrow of concern. ‘Bless me, but you’re soaked to the shift!’
Gretina opened her mouth.
She closed it again.
‘A moment, dear soul. Stay there just one moment. I have something for you.’
And with that, she turned and disappeared through the door, closing it behind her. Once closed the doorway vanished into the panels of the walls. A brief scent, like falling honeysuckle petals, was all that remained.
Gretina stared at the wall, willing the doorway to reappear but nothing happened. Even the sweet scent withered in the heat of the kitchen. She sneezed and shivered. She must be running a fever. A bad fever with delirium in which naked women appeared and disappeared through the wall.
There was a screech in her ear.
‘Have you finished yet, Skivvy?’
‘Well hurry it up, girl! The serving dishes will be back directly. You need to finish this, before you start on them. And see they’re done right!’
Mutely, rebellion rising again, Gretina went back to mopping the dirt she had trailed over the floor. Dip. Squeeze. Slop. Swirl. Repeat. She wiped her nose on her sleeve as she worked, scowling between sniffs.
She did not see the hidden door open but she smelled cool summer flowers and the woman was there once more. A long robe of some soft and heavy cloth was negligently belted around her waist. Gretina could not help but see her breasts and her belly but again, the woman showed no embarrassment or bashfulness.
‘Here, child. Take off those soaked clothes. Please, put this on instead.’
Into Gretina’s hands she placed a man’s linen undershirt. It was clean and well-made, but it was still clearly for a man.
‘Oh, no, Miss. Mistress. I can’t take that. That wouldn’t be proper. That’s for a lad, that is.’
The woman offered a smile that seemed to contain amusement, disappointment and understanding all at the same time.
‘Are you quite sure? It’s laundered and aired. Much better than wearing all those wet clothes, yes?‘
Mop in hand, nose running, Gretina stared up at the dark eyes. She wanted very much to say ’yes’ and brighten those eyes with agreement. But the mere idea of wearing a man’s undershirt was so wrong all she could do was shake her head again.
The woman’s dark mouth plumped in a compassionate pout and she nodded.
‘Very well. I understand. I’ll leave it here in case you have a change of heart.’
She found herself nodding in return, just to see the beautiful face smooth out in that smile.
‘I’m Topaz. Call me Topaz, please. Everyone does. ‘And the woman drifted away, her robe flowing around her, and vanished though the magic door.
Gretina glanced around her, still unsure that she was not delirious. The range bubbled under a vast iron cauldron, the lamps hissed and the only evidence that Topaz existed was the folded undershirt.
Thank you so much for reading!