Roisin Sullivan is an immigrant, working for a family in London because that’s the only job she can get. She came to London because her family needed the money, the family she’s working for came a century or so ago for basically the same reasons, and now is focused on getting ahead.
Is this the America of today? No, it’s nineteenth century London. We’re still playing the same games though, and putting up with the same savage inequalities. Only the cast of characters have changed. There are always reasons why people who are different can’t have the same opportunities as the rest of us.
In this installment, Roisin (called Lucy, because her Irish name is too foreign, even for the Jewish family she works for) gets some bad news.
We will bury your mother and your sister today. Famine fever took them, as it has so many others. Please, on no account try to come home! The countryside is emptying as Dublin fills to bursting. The money you sent arrived yesterday, and I thank God for it for it has helped to give Michael and I the means to leave this deathly place. There is nothing but starvation in Ireland now. We will be sailing for America by the time you read this. I hope you will take care now and wait for word, as we will bring you out as soon as we find work. I will send your ticket as soon as we can get it. Carry our love with you until then, and may you stay safe and well in London, my darling girl.
Your loving father
The hand holding the letter slowly drifted down to my lap. I sat on the edge of the bed, dry-eyed, wordless.
“Lucy?” Sarah seemed to appear from nowhere in the doorway of my tiny garret room, the candle in its rough pewter holder casting a pool of light into the now dark room. “Mrs. Rosenthal is asking for you.”
“Mrs. Rosenthal can go hang.”
The circle of light wobbled as Sarah set the candle on our dresser. “What?” she said. “She’s not best pleased. The laundry is still in the yard and you’ve not laid the fire.” She came closer to look me in the eye. “Lucy?”
I felt my hands clenching into fists, and as the letter began to crumple I remembered, and dropped it as if it were a burning coal. The last thing I might have from my family. I dropped to my knees and smoothed it out against the clean wooden floorboards. I laid it carefully on the dresser.
“Lucy, what’s happened?”
I took a deep breath, and the rage receded, just enough for me to remember that Sarah was my employer’s niece, not my friend, even if she was kinder than the rest of them. She had nothing to do with the stealing of my life. “My mother–” The tears came, I couldn’t stop them if I’d wanted to. I was surprised to feel arms around me, and if they weren’t the ones I wanted, they were kind, and I could pretend that there was still someone in the world who cared for me.
It was a long time before I was quiet. Sarah rose from the bed where she’d sat me down and got a cloth. She wet it with water poured into the basin from the pitcher I’d filled and brought up with the letter. The last ordinary act of a day that had my family in it. When she tried to wash my face, I took the cloth and bathed my hot eyes. She understood, it seemed, and left me alone.
Morning came, and I didn’t care. Sarah appeared at the door and called to me.
“Lucy, you must get up. My Aunt is looking for you.”
I said nothing. The bed was warm, and I wanted to go back to sleep. I pulled the covers closer. I didn’t see her take my letter from the dresser as she left.
A hand on my shoulder and a gentle shake. “Lucy?”
It was Mrs. Rosenthal.
I turned to face her, and sat up. My letter was in her hand, and my feet were on the floor. I snatched it from her.
“Lucy!” The look of concern fell from her face, and her fists hit her hips. “How dare you!”
“Where did you get that!” I shouted back.
She took a deep breath. “I know you’ve had a shock, my girl, and I’m sorry for your loss, but I’ll thank you for remembering your place! This is my house, and I have a perfect right to know what goes on under my roof. I’ll thank you to get dressed and get to work.”
Mechanically, I pulled open a drawer. Her footsteps receded down the stairs and I closed it, lay back down, tears streaming down my face.
Sarah came up long after dark, a bowl of cold stew obviously filched from the kitchen in her hand. I knew it hadn’t come from Cook. For a moment the ice where my heart should be began to thaw. She was kind, but she wasn’t my friend. My letter lay between us, even though I had it tucked under my pillow.
The smell of food woke my body to its needs, and as I ate the floating, bodiless feeling I hadn’t noticed receded. I listened with half an ear to Sarah as she told me what I must do, to obey her aunt and do my work. I nodded at the right moments, said “yes,” and “I’m sorry,” and anything else she wanted to hear until at last she left me alone again.
I lay down, crying silently until I drifted into darkness.
The next morning my limbs were like lead, my spirit grey as the rough blanket covering me. I closed my eyes again and turned my face to the wall.
I woke to Mrs. Rosenthal pulling the blanket back from my face. I pulled it out of her hand and turned back to the wall.
“Lucy?” she said, more quietly than I’d expected. “You must get up now. This cannot continue.”
If I stayed silent, surely she’d see reason and let me be. Instead, she stripped the blanket from me, grabbed me by the wrist, and pulled me from the bed. She stood in the doorway while I shivered my way into my clothes. As she turned I grabbed the letter and stuffed it into my pocket. I followed her downstairs, the picture of the obedient servant I’d been for the last fifteen years.
I laid the fire in the sitting room with all the coal in the scuttle. I put Mr. Rosenthal’s’s newspaper on as well and lit it. I left it blazing on the hearth and went out into the yard. I didn’t collect the linens, I didn’t fill the coppers. I didn’t light the fires. I just stood there.
The house didn’t burn. Mrs. Rosenthal found the flames licking at the mantel and ran to the scullery for a bucket of water. She sent Sarah to sit with me, and though I know she spoke to me, I have no recollection of what she said. Mrs. Rosenthal soon returned with my small case. She took me by the hand and walked me through the scullery to the back door. The cook looked daggers at me from her place at the stove as we passed through the kitchen.
Mrs. Rosenthal walked me outside, out of earshot of any of the household. “I can’t have you here, Lucy,” she said quietly, “I’m sorry for it, but you all but had the house in flames. My home, my family aren’t safe with you under our roof.” She took my fingers and wrapped them around a handful of coins. “Go, my girl, and I pray you find some peace, but if I see you near my home again I’ll call the law.”
I walked. Our court met the street, then a larger one, and then I was on the high road leading to the river. See me again? She never would. I walked along the river until I found a place where the walkway passed over the water. I dropped the bundle I carried at my feet and looked down at the tumbling water below. I set my hand on the low wall and began to pull myself up on it.
To Be Continued
Link to Archive Of Our Own: https://archiveofourown.org/works/32247553