It’s the last Sunday before Advent – Stir up Sunday, the day when we make the Christmas plum-pudding. Everyone in the house must have the chance to stir the mixture and make a wish. What will my wish be this year? No one will guess.
First, I stone the raisins and cut them in halves. They’ve been steeped overnight in French Brandy and are plump as a baby’s thumb. I often think about babies these days. They come to me in my dreams, pale-skinned and milky-scented, nestled between layers of sheet.
I pop one of the raisins into my mouth and, as I bite, the moisture explodes onto my tongue. Of course, the cook shouldn’t eat the ingredients, but after all this time I think I’m entitled to take a few liberties. This is my thirty-first year with the Thornes; this the thirty-first Christmas pudding. It will be the best one.
I was fourteen when I first came to the house. Fourteen and frightened.
‘You’re not afraid of hard work, are you, Lily?’ Mrs Thorne asked me in my interview.
It wasn’t so much the work that scared me, as the house itself with its endless flights of stairs, its shining surfaces, and its troop of unsmiling servants. But I would’ve been afraid of the work too, had I known how much of it there was.
Mrs Thorne looked me up and down like she was assessing an animal at market. ‘Built like an ox, aren’t you?’
No doubt that’s why she took me on despite my being inexperienced and, worse, from Irish stock. I was tough alright. I’d helped out on my father’s farm from the age of ten. Well, what was the point of going to school when it only made you realise how low down you were? That was my father’s view, anyway, and you didn’t argue with his point of view if you wanted to keep the skin on your hide.
At the Thornes’, I was dropped in at the bottom level, as a scullery maid. Scullery. Sounds like a dungeon, doesn’t it? The place where the skeletons are kept. In fact, it’s a miserable little room full of dirty crockery. The scullery maid helps the kitchen maid, who helps the cook, who feeds the family and the other servants. You’re lucky if the upper servants – the valet and the lady’s maid – so much as look at you. As for the family, well, you must turn your face away whenever they pass, as if even your gaze would sully them. I was the lowest of the low and didn’t I know it.
With a small sharp knife, I slice the candied peel. I made it myself during the summer when there was a glut of cherries. It was in the summer that Connie, the new kitchen maid, came – young and pretty and keen as mustard. You couldn’t help but like her. I showed Connie how to steep the cherries and pieces of orange and lemon peel in sugar syrup and heat it slowly, slowly, until the fruit is saturated with sugar. That was my first mistake.
But I’m jumping ahead. This is a story that must be told piece by piece, in the proper order; which must be sieved and stirred and left to prove, just like the Christmas plum-pudding.
So, to go back to when I started as scullery maid: at first, I returned home every other Wednesday, on my afternoon off, to see the little ones – my five younger brother and sisters. As time went on, however, I visited less and less. Partly, it was because I didn’t want to see my father, steeped in gin, drinking away the money that should have been spent on food for the children. Partly, I didn’t want him taking all my wages. I was saving even back then: saving for something better. And partly, I was simply tired. You try working fifteen hours a day, blacking the kitchen range, scouring the floor and scrubbing copper pans ’til your fingers bleed, and with only half a day off a week. I learnt later that most servants got every Sunday off as well, even the junior ones, but I was a green one then. Green as a gooseberry.
Three years I did as scullery maid. Looking back, I can’t believe I stomached it. At the age of seventeen, I was promoted to kitchen maid, and the kitchen maid before me – a surly red-faced woman called Rose – became the cook. The previous cook, who’d grown to resemble one of her own puddings, flabby and pale, was turned out of the house. I was pleased as you like to have been promoted. As kitchen maid, you’re still near the bottom, but there’s some hope of making something of your life, especially if you listen carefully and learn quick.
Rose, though, was a bitter old harridan. By the time she was made cook, she’d been kitchen maid for nearly ten years and a scullery maid for heaven knows how long before that. I didn’t know her age as she was one of those women who don’t look like they were ever young. She resented my rising through the ranks that much quicker than her and she did her best to keep me down. The cook is supposed to teach the kitchen maid her techniques so that, when the cook retires, the kitchen maid is ready to take over. However, Rose, or Mrs Glover as she made me call her from then on, kept her secrets close to her sagging chest. Whenever I asked her what ingredients she’d put into a particularly tasty sauce or pudding, she’d suck in her cheeks and say,
‘It was one of me grandmother’s recipes, Lily. I don’t talk about me grandmother’s recipes.’
Sour as lemons, she was. I watched what she did, though. I watched and I waited for my time. The cream will always rise to the top, after all.
I go to the pantry and take out the suet. I remove the skin, slice the suet into thin pieces and drop it into the mixing bowl. Mutton fat, that’s what it is really, but they call it suet so you don’t think of that as you eat your jam roly-poly or damson tart and lick the moistness from your lips.
‘What you don’t know doesn’t hurt you,’ Connie said when I told her what it was.
But sometimes it’s the things you don’t know about that hurt you the most.
I crack the eggs into a small bowl and watch the sunshine yolks collapse into an orange blur as I whisk. Billy used to bring us eggs. Eggs and butter and cream and cakes. And milk of course, which he’d ladle from his can into the metal milk jug.
‘Is that enough for you, Lily?’ he’d ask. ‘Anything else for you today?’
And then, one morning some three months after he’d started his rounds as the milk delivery man, he said, quietly,
‘How’s about you and me go and have a nice cup of tea together sometime?’
I met him the following Sunday. I almost didn’t recognise him when he arrived, wearing a regular cloth cap instead of his usual peaked hat and a navy blazer with shiny gold buttons. Nervous, he was. Over me! It never got much more exciting than that, sipping tea from china cups in Mrs Davey’s tea rooms, stumbling over our words and catching each other with a smile. But he gave me a lovely warm feeling inside did Billy, like the sweet tea warming my stomach.
The warm feeling soon cooled, however, because Mrs Thorne found out. You see, you’re not allowed to consort with men when you’re in domestic service. She called me into her drawing room – all green velvet and polished wood.
‘Do you have a follower, Lily?’ she said, her back to me.
It’s a horrible term, follower. Makes it sounds like someone who prowls after you at night. Billy was nothing like that. He was always very proper – too proper, if truth be told.
‘There is a young man,’ I admitted. ‘A nice young man.’
‘It doesn’t matter how ‘nice’ he is, Lily. It’s simply unacceptable for you to be fraternising with young men while you’re in my employ.’
I looked down at the plush Turkey carpet.
‘It would be such a shame,’ Mrs Thorne said, turning towards me, ‘for you to throw yourself away on a milk delivery man when your prospects here are so very promising.’
That got my attention. ‘Promising, Ma’am?’
She ran her finger along the string of pearls around her neck. ‘Mrs Glover is getting old, Lily. She is losing her touch.’
Of course, Mrs Glover had got old as a kitchen maid, while waiting for Mrs Thorne to promote her, but the cook had always been so vile to me that I didn’t say anything about that.
‘If you were to rid yourself of this ‘beau’, I might decide that it was time to move up in the household.’
I swallowed. She was suggesting she’d make me cook at only twenty-three, which was practically unheard of. There must be a catch.
‘But what if it didn’t work out so well, Ma’am. Mrs Glover hasn’t taught me all that much. How would I know that you wouldn’t just give me my notice within a few weeks?’
She smiled, baring yellow-tinged teeth.
‘Lily, I’m confident that, if you were to accept the job as cook, you could stay with us for as long as you wanted. In fact, if you were able to commit to staying on for at least another two years, I’m sure we could arrange for you to have an additional payment – for loyal service, let us say. And of course, the longer you stay, the larger the payment.’
That was the decision made for me. It was the first I’d ever heard of a servant being given any kind of security in their job. Most domestic servants live in fear of being sent packing with a week’s wages and no reference. I was very fond of Billy, but I knew it would be a struggle to raise a family on his salary alone (I always assumed, you see, that I would have children). And there would be other men. There wouldn’t be any other offers like this. At least, that’s what I thought then.
I take some of yesterday’s bread and grate it down into crumbs. I’ve sent Connie out to get fresh bread and a few other things we need. It would normally be the task of the kitchen boy, but I said it would be nice for Connie to see the town all lit up and decorated for the Christmas season. I walked into Norwich on Sunday to see it myself: the trees festooned with garland lamps, the shop windows lined with holly and mistletoe and stacked with sweets, dates and sugared almonds. I stopped briefly to admire the rounded glass bottles of festive green and red that glowed from the chemist’s window, and it was then that the idea came to me.
But I’m jumping ahead again. I should tell you about Connie and what happened after she came to the house. As I think I said, she was a lively thing (not like the previous kitchenmaid, a sullen creature who was sacked for her insolence) with blonde curls escaping from her cap and a voice like honey. Only twenty, she is: probably the age my daughter would have been had Billy and I had children. Maybe that’s why I took to her so quick. Well, I decided I wouldn’t be like old Mrs Glover. I would teach Connie the techniques I’d mastered and I’d encourage her to copy from my own recipe book. That way, when the time came when I wanted to retire, she could take over.
You’ll have gathered by now that I never married. I’ve become Mrs Beattie, but only because it sounds silly to call a cook ‘Miss’ once she’s past the age of thirty. I’m forty-four now. I will never be married.
Connie asked me about that a few weeks after she arrived.
‘How is it you never got hitched, Lily?’ she asked
(We were already on first name terms by then, you see).
I told her about Billy, poor Billy who I’d dropped like a hotcake as soon as I had my offer from Mrs Thorne. He sent the milk boy on the rounds after that and, only a few months later, I heard he’d got engaged to a girl who worked at the dairy.
‘I thought I’d find another one,’ I said to Connie, ‘but there’s not many men want a lump of a woman like me.’
She tutted. ‘You’re no lump. You’re just big boned.’
Big boned, well covered, whatever you want to call it, my lumpishness wasn’t an asset. Nor were my plain looks: my stubby fingers, my dull skin and my hair – the dusty colour of the mice that we’ve seen scurrying across the floor of late. The first few years after Billy, I’d go to tea dances with some of the other servants, dressed in my best and even wearing a little rouge. But they could see I was mutton dressed as lamb. Only occasionally would a lad ask me to dance, and, when he did, he’d find I had no grace on the dance floor and no conversation to speak of. Not the kind of conversation they wanted, anyway. And once I told them I was in domestic service, that was the end of it. Looking back, I find it strange that Billy wanted me when so many didn’t. But then, as they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.
I take the spices next. I grate the nutmeg so that it releases its warming fragrance, bringing with it memories of making Christmas pudding with my mother when I was a little girl. Each year she’d let me add the tiny silver treasures – the anchor, the thimble, and the wishbone. Until father sold them, that is. I wish he’d choked on the bloody things.
I stir all of the dry ingredients together and then beat in the egg. I imagine helping my own little ones with their plum-pudding: letting them stick their fingers in the sugar and lick the mixture from the spoon. But there were no children. Not for me, anyway. Verity, Mrs Thorne’s daughter, has three: scrumptious things with flesh like pastry dough, ready for kneading. She barely touches them, though: just hands them over to a stream of nurses and nursemaids who keep them closeted in the nursery, while she lies on the chaise longue with a headache or a book.
I ask Mr Drummond, the under butler, to fetch the brandy from the master’s wine cellar. He pours out the golden liquid into a wineglass, which I then tip into the mixing bowl, unleashing the rich scent of alcohol. Not that I drink myself. My father put me off that.
Georgie is Mrs Thorne’s eldest grandson: four years old with skin like cream. A few months ago, he started coming down to the kitchen now and again, to see what we were up to. I suppose he liked the smells and the sounds and the smiling faces. I’d give him bits and pieces: currants, twists of sugar and the occasional cup of milk. Maybe that’s why he was fond of me, or maybe he was just grateful to be shown a bit of affection after all those surly nursemaids and his own, frosty mother. Really, she has only herself to blame.
Once I’ve blended all of the ingredients together, it’s time for everyone in the household to come down to the kitchen and stir the mixture. Only it can’t be me who presides over the stirring this year. No, I must wait for Connie to return from town. In fact, it should really be her making the plum-pudding, but it turns out she’s never made one before. She doesn’t even like the stuff. So we agreed that I would prepare the Christmas pudding – to ensure it’s a good one – and we’ll say that it’s her who made it.
‘Are you sure, Lily? I don’t want to take all the credit.’
‘Quite sure,’ I said. ‘You’ll learn how to make it yourself in time, dear, but you don’t want to mess up on your first Christmas as cook. Think of it as my parting gift.’
I’m leaving, you see. I’ve been given my notice. I suppose I should have seen it coming.
He kept visiting us, little Georgie. And the more I saw him, the sweeter I grew on him. He was so untainted. So pure. One day last week, he appeared in the kitchen when I was having one of my sad moments – moments when I realise I’ve spent thirty years alone among the fish kettles, milk pans and soup pots, broiling and roasting, chopping and blending, sieving and mashing, and never really having a life of my own. Georgie must have understood in some way that I was out of sorts, because he came up to me as I was sitting at the big oak table and clasped his pudgy arms around my neck. In all these years, it was the only time that any of the Thorne family had touched me. And I couldn’t help myself: I hugged him back.
So it will be Connie who leads the stirring this year. When she returns home, the family will come down and each take their turn to stir the pudding mixture and make a wish. I will stay out of the way while they’re in the kitchen, as Mrs Thorne has told me that I must not go anywhere near the children. I am to take my things and leave, tomorrow. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that she won’t be giving me my loyalty reward. She’ll be paying me my month’s wages and nothing else. Someone downstairs told someone upstairs about the hug, you see.
‘You have overstepped the mark, Lily. You have disappointed us all.’
After the family have left the kitchen and the staff have taken their turn to stir the mixture, I’ll add the last ingredient and I’ll press the pudding into a buttered mould. I will tie it tightly with an unfloured cloth and boil it. Then I will go to my room and pack my few possessions in preparation for tomorrow’s journey.
In the morning, a horse and cab will come to take me to the train station.
In just over four weeks’ time, it will be Christmas day. Connie will take the Christmas pudding, plunge it into boiling water and turn it out of its mould, releasing a wave of steam and spice. It will be perfect.
She will place a sprig of holly in the centre of the pudding as I’ve told her, and she’ll ask Mr Drummond to pour a wineglass of French brandy over it. Just before he enters the dining room, Mr Drummond will set light to the liquor so that, as it arrives at the table, the pudding will be encircled in a wave of blue flame, like a phantom.
The Thornes will ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ until the flames burn out and then they will each be served with a piece of the pudding, which they will eat with brandy butter. They will search for the silver tokens, and they may notice that one is missing.
Later, in the servants’ hall, everyone will take a piece of the left-over Christmas pudding. All except Connie, because, as she has so often said, she does not like plum pudding.
And of course, it will be her signature in the chemist’s book, for it was she who went into town to buy the poison for the mice: arsenic. Because yes, it was she who told Mrs Thorne that I’d behaved unnaturally towards her grandson. After all, I’d taught Connie all I knew. She knew she was ready to take my job.
What about the little boy, you say. Well, yes, that is a sad thing. But purity like that only lasts so long before it spoils, like milk left out in the sun. I’ve no doubt he’d grow up to be as cruel and toffee-nosed as his family. Better, perhaps, that time stops for him on Christmas day.
And me? I will be on a boat crossing the heaving Atlantic with a ticket I bought with the money that I have saved and saved and saved since I first came to the house as a young girl – fourteen and afraid. In my purse, I will have some extra items: a brooch or two, a string of pearls, and a tiny silver token: a wishbone. For luck.
Short Story Sunday Festive Special
This story is part of Short Story Sunday’s ‘5 Days of Christmas’ Festive Special which features an original festive tale each day in the four days before Christmas leading up to the grand finale with this, our final story on Christmas Day.
Don’t Miss This Sunday’s Story
Whilst ‘Proof of The Pudding’ concludes the Short Story Sunday festive special, do tune in on Sunday for our next story – an intriguing tale about a daughter’s complicated relationship with her father which comes complete with a ‘magical’ twist…
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