It was just after noon when Maisie returned from her car with her laptop when she almost bumped straight into Katie crossing the hall.
The older woman was all smiles again. ‘Lunch will be served in a few minutes if you would like to join me. I hope you like homemade vegetable soup.’
‘Thank you. Yes, soup sounds lovely.’
‘OK, I’ll take it to the Great Room, as it was called. I can fill you in on its history while we eat.’
Maisie thanked her again before off-loading her laptop into her room.
The soup was delicious and Maisie said so as the two chatted at one end of the grand antique dining table that could seat twenty easily. ‘I can’t imagine sitting at this table filled with guests. Do you actually cook for them all?’
‘Not so much these past ten years. I do remember assisting the housekeeper Hilda and a second cousin of Stan’s.’ She leaned forward as if to tell a secret. ‘Cousin Merle stayed until she gave birth to her still-born son, but we won’t go into that.’ She paused while she spooned another mouthful into her mouth and tore a small piece from her home baked dinner roll. ‘When I married my husband Stan, we bought a modest cottage in town. I didn’t want to burden his parents and grandparents with another mouth to feed and to be honest, I hated the house back then and it wasn’t over friendly at times. Merle was a spoiled brat when she first came but I think her situation and Stan’s parents parenting skills changed her by the time she left.’ Katie ate a little more before speaking again.
‘Remember I mentioned Tom earlier?’ She waited for Maisie’s nod. ‘Well he was courting me for a while before I met Stan. Oh, we all turned out to be good friends, especially when Tom met Suzie and married before Stan even proposed to me. We lived in town a few years before both Stan and Tom went off to the Gulf; Stan was Navy and Tom was Army. They never set eyes on each other again.’ Her voice was almost a whisper. She cleared her throat and continued. ‘Stan was killed when his ship struck a mine just after his ship entered the Gulf. Tom returned a year later with an injured leg. He still walks with a limp. Anyway, Stan’s father wouldn’t hear of me living on my own. Besides, I couldn’t pay the bills or buy food for myself.’ She smiled at the memory. ‘Stan didn’t want his “little lady” working after we were married.’ She cleared her throat again. ‘Now, where was I? Ah yes. There were no local jobs I could do so I was contemplating returning to Parramatta where I still had family…’
‘How interesting,’ Maisie interrupted. ‘That’s where I live. Sorry. Please go on.’
Katie shook her head. ‘That’s fine. Fancy that? Anyway, that’s when the invitation came from Stan’s parents. Of course, I had to work for my keep and I was only asked to help where I could until I settled in. After a few months, I found myself taking care of Stan’s grandmother who by then was confined to bed. She was a cranky old thing but we grew to love each other and enjoyed spending long days together doing needlework and chatting. After she died, I took over the care of all the upstairs rooms. Oh, and Merle had returned to Sydney by then and became a mid-wife or so we heard. After guests left for the day, I cleaned and readied everything up.’ Here Katie smiled. ‘I guess that’s how I got into a habit of cleaning upstairs in the afternoon.’
Maisie smiled too. ‘So how was it that you were left with this huge place. Surely there were other family members around.’
‘Sadly no. Stan wasn’t the only son who died during the Gulf War. There were three other sons and three daughters. The youngest boys both died before they married. Stan’s eldest brother returned but never married. I think he died from a broken spirit. He never spoke much about the war but it was obvious that it caused him more than physical pain. Stan’s father died in his late seventies and his mother soon after. Stan and I hadn’t been married long, so we had no children of our own.’
‘And the sisters?’
‘One went to Melbourne and married there. We heard soon after that she had died from natural causes. I never knew what. She was only in her early thirties. One sister, Christine, was living in town with her husband but they were much older than Stan and I. They never had children and Christine didn’t want the place. She died only last year in a nursing home. There was one other sister, Marjorie. She was the youngest. The solicitor who managed the affairs when Christine died even tried looking for her back in Ireland. Nothing. It was like she just vanished into thin air.’
After Katie had been silent for some time to finish her soup and bread, Maisie quietly asked about how she managed on her own for so long.
‘I down sized, I guess you could call it. I only cope with up to six guests at any one time. I open up the house on occasions for bus trippers but just for afternoon tea and a guided tour. It helps with the bills.’ She sat up straight. ‘You know what? I haven’t given you the guided tour. I won’t charge you,’ she laughed. ‘I just know you would appreciate it.’
‘WOW! Thanks! That sounds wonderful. Would this afternoon be a good time?’
‘Give me an hour while I tidy upstairs. It’s just you and me so it won’t take long.’
‘I can clean up these dishes if you like.’ Maisie stood and picked up her empty bowl.
‘Well, I don’t see why not. Thank you. You’ll find everything you need in my little kitchen. Oh, just put the lid on the soup pot and check that I turned it off. I’ll deal with it later.’
The afternoon was everything Maisie expected and didn’t expect. The building and all its history turned out to be the perfect place to break her recent writer’s block.
© Chrissy Siggee – 2019