Curtains and Loud Curtsies

The curtains were drab, dyed a dark, oppressive brown that hurt Miranda’s eyes as she took in the room. The bedstead was plain and the lamps dull, but it was the curtains that made the whole of the room so depressing. Miranda imagined how cheerful the room could be made to look if only the curtains were yellow, but the brown ones were so undeniably present that she gave up trying to make herself feel better, and sat on the bed with a heavy sigh.

There was a soft scuttling sort of sound inside the wall that made her cringe. Mice and rats and spiders and filth, she thought acidly. She was about to cry out, but the maid entered her room without knocking at that very moment.

The girl was as neglected as the small inn. Her apron was singed in places and her little white cap was askew and rather grayer than it should be. Her face was still fresh and young but there was no rosy tint to her cheeks nor a bright glint to her eyes. She looked defeated and tired, as if she were up since dawn and wouldn’t be abed until the small hours of the night. Miranda looked at her with distaste, feeling that maids ought not to look like this.

“Please knock in future,” she said coldly to the girl.

“Pardon me, mum, didn’t mean no disrespect, mum,” the girl curtsied nervously, knees cracking and elbows sticking out awkwardly. She didn’t sound very sincere, but rather tired. “What can I do for ya, mum?”

“My baggage is in the carriage downstairs, as you no doubt saw already. I’d like someone to bring it up. I won’t have it left in the stables for anyone to rob. When is a meal served in this… establishment?” Miranda asked haughtily.

The maid lowered her eyes before answering. She didn’t want the grand lady on the bed to see that her eyes were prickling with tears of shame. “Ya just missed dinner, mum, but tea’s at four and supper’s at six. O’clock,” she added hastily.

“Good, so there is someone civilized here,” Miranda nodded approvingly. She felt that tea should always be at four o’clock and supper should always be served promptly at six. However, she’d lately stayed at rather nicer and more modern – she winced mentally at the word – hotels where they served tea at five and supper at seven. She supposed this inn may have once been a fine place but that it had gone to the dogs when the larger and smoother road had been built a few miles away.

As the maid curtsied loudly again and left the room, Miranda stared at the ugly curtains and reflected on her bad luck. It was no use – she would have to ask her husband to spend the money they’d been saving, and build a road between their estate and the main road to London. She was tired of taking this small, pathetic byway. Every time she visited her sister in London she feared that the carriage wheels would get stuck in the seemingly ever-present mud, and this time it finally happened. Her driver was downstairs, probably getting drunk already. He’d promised that the wheel would be fixed by tomorrow and that she’d be able to get home. It was lucky, he kept telling her, that they broke down near the old inn and that she would have a warm place to sleep that night. Miranda had solidly ignored him, as she often did.

She checked to see if the door to her room had a lock. Thankfully it did, and so she felt able to take off her outer clothed and wash her face and hands in the basin in the privy that lay behind a not-so-discreet door. She touched the handle gingerly and went in. The water in the basin looked and smelled stagnant. She sighed heavily and put her face in her hands. So, she thought to herself, nothing is to go right for me today.

Across Five States: Into Ohio

Night had fallen, my brother was driving, my mother was holding the rat-cage, and we drove into Ohio. Music was blaring out of the speakers from my brother’s iPod, and the two hours driving in the dark were an experience unto themselves. Lamps were scarce on the highway, we were surrounded by trucks bigger than us [several of which were swerving alarmingly at some points] and we were just driving and driving, the road seeming to go nowhere.

A curious thing about the highway through Ohio – there are lots and lots of bridges going over it. Low bridges, just over the height of one of the huge trucks, that seem to go through from one city to another or to lead from one part of town to the other. What we enjoyed about these bridges was the fact that they were all named, the green sign hanging on the bridge for all those driving underneath to see. We passed some boring ones of course, but we found one particularly road with a wonderful name: Bittersweet Road. It conjured up the images of tragedy and drama, a small town in crisis perhaps or a pair of star-crossed lovers.

As my brother and I sang along to the wonderful voice of Amanda Palmer, the cabaret music of The World Inferno Friendship Society and the hilarious lyrics of Jonathen Coulten, the miles went by swiftly. Eventually, around eleven at night, we followed one of the many blue signs pointing to wayside motels. We chose the Day’s Inn, parked,  and entered.

“Excuse me?” my mother called to the receptionist. He was a young guy who was on the phone. He spoke to us, revealing an Indian accent.

“Yes, hello,” he smiled.

“We’d like a room for three – with two double beds please.”

“Long day of driving, huh?” he asked rhetorically, smiled, and asked my mother for credit card information. Once the transaction was complete, he handed us our room keys – the plastic card kind – and explained that we needed to enter through the back. We did so, and stuck the key in the lock, a plastic box with a red light showing on it. We slid the card in time after time, but it stayed resolutely red. Eventually, we had to go back and get the keys reprogrammed. It didn’t help. Tempers were running high by this time, in the tired sort of way that tempers run when their victims are especially weary. Again, we walked to the receptionist, and this time he got new keys and came with us to make sure they worked.

Finally, we settled in our room, sneaked the poor rats in and fed them and retired to surprisingly comfortable beds.

One-Eyed Steve: Part III

“Ah, my little ones, and so, all atremble, I went out into the inn and walked up to the barkeep. The innkeeper always worked at the bar, and half the people in town didn’t know he was the owner of the inn, so friendly a barkeep he was. So, as I said, I walked up to him and told him what One-Eyed Steve had said. I told him the eye-patch man was there to see him and that he better come right quick ’cause I’d left him in the kitchen alone. The innkeeper, instead of lookin’ confused, looked at me with a fierce look and asked if I was sure of what I was sayin’. This was a big man, mind, and I was already feelin’ faint from bein’ so close to that old pirate in the kitchen.

I told the innkeeper that One-Eyed Steve was in the kitchen as sure as the nose was on my face and the sun rises in the East. He wiped his hands on his cloth then, and he took me by the elbow, takin’ me back to the kitchen with him. Steve was still there, and he was pale and sweatin’ again. The innkeeper let me go after orderin’ me to put a kettle on with boilin’ water. As I was doin’ that, I got to hear what the men were talkin’ about.

‘What is it, old man? Is she alright?’ the innkeeper was speakin’ quietly with Steve, and he seemed worried. Steve answered him in the saddest voice I ever heard a man use.

‘Nay. Nay, brother. She left us in the night.’

The innkeeper froze for a momen’, and then he was huggin’ Steve fiercely, and I could hear both of the men weepin’. Me, a boy of thirteen, couldn’t believe these two grown men was cryin’ – I still thought that men didn’t cry back then, and I damned well hid my tears from anyone if ever I had ’em.

‘She had a long life, Steve, and she was happy with ye. Ye helped her and nursed her and fed her and cared for her when no one knew or cared about her anymore.’ the innkeeper spoke into Steve’s shoulder, still weepin’.

‘Aye. She was the best mother a pair like us could ask for, and she tried to be strong till the very end.’ Steve was holding the innkeeper up now, and he was speakin’ fiercely into his face as the innkeepe  seemed about to fall over with his grief. ‘I’m sorry ye didn’t get to see her, brother, but she sends her love. She told me so right before she closed her eyes and went to sleep.’

My kettle was boilin’ by now, but I didn’t hardly notice it. Only when the whistle of it made the men look up and remember me did I get the tea and mugs. I splashed some strong stuff into each of their teas – they seemed to need it, and I wanted to do somethin’ to help ’em if I could. Eventually, as you may imagine, the innkeeper had to go back and be barkeep and work the night out. Seems no one knew that the mother was still around – she was in bad shape, or so I came to understand later, and she didn’t want people to see her.

My ducklings, don’t fret, this isn’t the endin’ of my story. After this sadness, I wanna tell ye what happened after the innkeeper left the room. I was still in there, continuin’ to wash dishes as I was told to, when the innkeeper dried his eyes and went back out. Steve was still there, and he spoke to me again.

‘Bet you thought I was  a villain and a pirate, eh boy?’ he growled at me. I wasn’t so frightful of him anymore – seein’ a person weep can do that to ye. I looked him square in that one blue eye of his, and I said ‘I thought so, sir, but now I know ye ain’t no pirate. Yer a noble man, takin’ care of yer ma like that.’ One-Eyed Steve looked at me as if he’d never seen a boy before.

‘Well, boy,’ he said, a bit of his wicked grin comin’ back. ‘Ye better not tell anyone a thing about tonight. Nay, won’t do to have the boys comin’ to look for me house. I’m fine with bein’ feared. But as a reward,’ and here he started to laugh a little to himself, ‘as a reward let me share a second secret with ye. Aye, me ma was decent as they come. Still, she had her wild notions when I was a lad, just like any ma.’

And then he lifted his eyepatch. Instead of a mangled scar, instead of an empty socket, instead of even a blind and staring eye – all of which I’d imagined to meself – instead of any of those, there was a reular eye under that patch. The skin around it was whiter, bein’ hidden under that patch, and the color was brown instead o’ being ice-blue like the other one, but it was a seein’ eye alright.

‘Ma seemed to think the boys might laugh at me bein’ all dog-eyed like this,’ said One-Eyed Steve. ‘And then I jus’ got used to bein’ a pirate to people.’ He put the eyepatch back over that normal eye, and left the kitchen the same way he came in.

Which only goes to show, my ducks, that ye never know. Ye really never know abou’ a man by his looks. Not ever. And don’t ye forget it.”

The three little figures on the carpet uncurled themselves from the positions they’d kept during the long story. As soberly as any statesman, they all proclaimed that they “will remember, Papa!” and then were scooted off to bed. The man, though, sat for a while longer in front of the fire, and thought about One-Eyed Steve.

One-Eyed Steve: Part II

“Well, my ducks, One-Eyed Steve lived in this town long ago, when I was but a bitty boy meself. Oh, he was a fearsome fellow – long, tangled black hair over a face carved of stone. What a face it was! A wicked grin, full of yellow and crooked teeth and at least a couple of ’em were gold. The lines in his face were alike to craters and the nose on that face was like a hawk’s beak – proud, strong and threatenin’.  To finish off the pretty picture, One-Eyed Steve wore a black eye-patch over one eye, and the other was an ice-blue that would chill ye to the bone.

Now, I know what you, my ducklings, are thinkin’ – with such a frightenin’ face, gold teeth and eye-patch and all, this One-Eyed Steve musta been a pirate. That’s what me n’ the other boys thought too. All the boys in town told stories about Ones-Eyed Steve. Mikey said he heard that Steve had killed ten men and was never caught. Robbie said that he had gotten those gold teeth as a gift from wild tribes on a secret island out at sea. The girls all afeared Steve, and we boys did too, only we never admitted it willin’ly.

It just so happens, ducks, that I, your dear ol’ pa, found out the real story of One-Eyed Steve, and this is how it came about:

When I was thirteen, I worked as a dishwasher at the King’s Bard Inn – that’s what was there before they tore it down and build that Holiday Inn place. So one night, I was workin’ late ’cause Robbie was sick as a dog with the flu and couldn’t make his shift. The inn’s kitchen had closed for the night, and all that was left there was me and a big ol’ pile o’ dishes.

Suddenly, the back door of the kitchen banged open with a crack like thunder, and there, lookin’ as white as a ghost, was One-Eyed Steve. He almos’ fell into the place, he was tremblin’ that hard. I was so surprised that I jus’ stood there – hands all full of soap and my mouth hangin’ open. Steve looked around, frantic-like, and noticin’ me, he asked “Where’s the innkeeper, boy?” With one soapy, wet hand I pointed to the door into the inn proper, and One-Eyed Steve – instead of goin’ right to it – calmed right down and grinned his wicked grin at me. “Well, boy, go get him then, eh? An unrespectable man like me can’t be going into an inn now, can I? Nay, I’m fit for back doors and kitchens. Now be a good boy and get the innkeeper for me. Tell him that the eye-patch man’s here, he’ll come right quick.”

Well, my ducks? What could I do? I dried me hands, made sure there were no valubales around for the ol’ pirate to steal, and I went to find the innkeeper.”