The Footman’s Story

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Written by Romain Arrayat

Bonjour. Je m’appelle Thomas Brown. I am twenty-eight years old and I am a footman at Ickworth House. Let me tell you a little about my life before I came to live here.

I was born in the year 1907 in a small town in Suffolk where my family own a farm. My father William Brown still lives there with my older brother Harry. My mother Mary died a few months after I was born – I never knew her.

After Mother died it was too much for my father to look after both of us boys as well as the farm so I was sent to live with Mother’s sister who lives in France, in a town called Amboise. She is my aunt but as I grew up she became more like my mother.

Aunt Rose and her husband Henry live in a little cottage just on the outside of the town. You see, they don’t have any children of their own so they looked on me as their son and gave me all the love and affection that parents give to their children. Because I grew up in France I have a French accent – it has its advantages and disadvantages. Laurie, one of the other footmen, loves to tease me about it. But I managed to charm a slice of cake from Cook yesterday so I don’t suppose I can complain. Forgive the spelling errors – I am hoping that by writing this journal my English will improve.

When I was around huit heiht eight years old, Henry took me to the grand house where he worked as a valet. I was trained as the hall-boy – yes, I was very young. Yet so many of the men were at the Front Lines that the gentry were desperate. By this time the Great War had started and most of the men had left the town and the Manor. My uncle too had joined-up to play his part. Not many men came home. Henry returned wounded – he had been sent to the Western Front and was shot in the leg. It was impossible for him to walk without a stick.

After 1918, the family I was worked for the family I worked for suffered a number of deaths which meant that a few years later, with no male descendant, the house was sold.

At that time my life was in France. It was the summer of 1920 when my aunt told me I was going back to Angleterre. Aunt Rose and I made the Channel crossing by boat and when we arrived it was the first time I had seen my father and brother since I was a baby. We had sent Christmas and birthday cards, but I was still scared to meet them. Aunt Rose stayed with us a few days and then took a boat back to her life in Amboise. I would like to visit her and Henry soon as I still miss them and the French countryside.

After about two years of working with Father and Harry, I was still hopeless at the farm duties. At the age of fifteen my father sent me to work as a hall-boy at the impressive hall in Long Melford with the instructions to send half my wages home to the farm. Soon I was promoted to footman and I learned the art of polishing cutlery so you can see your own reflection.

But I never felt like a proper footman there – all the senior servants knew me as the hall-boy and still treated me so. In 1930 I saw an advertisement in the Bury Free Press for the job as footman at Lord and Lady Bristol’s estate in Suffolk. I wrote to the butler, Mr Fox, and after a few weeks moved to the impressive country retreat – Ickworth House.

And so here I am now, scribbling away in the servant’s hall. Mr Fox would like me to set the table for dinner soon so I’ll sign off.

Au Revoir for now.

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Earlier today the family enjoyed a summer picnic by the magical Fairy Lake and so the house was hushed without them all. Most of the staff were down there serving and helping with the hampers but I had to stay behind. Laurie was sent with the car to the station to collect Lord Bristol’s London guest and his luggage. I would have liked to go with him and drive out into the town but Mr Prosser kept me extremely busy today. I have been polishing scores of cutlery, moving some of the guests’ portmanteaus and cleaning the lights on the first floor.

I did manage to escape early afternoon. As it is a Sunday I had my half-day off. It gave me the opportunity to send a letter to my Aunt Rose and one to Father. As I strolled out of the servants’ quarters I could feel the sun burning on my back. It shone bright, deep and warm and if I closed my eyes I could imagine I was deep in the lazy French countryside.

Some of us servants took the bus into Bury and went to the Pictures but I must save some money to go down and visit Father and Harry. So instead, I ate a cooling ice-cream with Ava in the Abbey Gardens. The cheery outdoors was a welcome break from the tight, rigid life in the basement.

We just made it back in time for supper, and enjoyed all the leftovers of the family’s picnic. The food really is the highlight of working here!

Well, I’m off to bed now as Lord and Lady Bristol have more guests that arrive arriving in the morning.

Au Revoir for now.

P.S. I have just found this draft of a letter I’d started to write for Aunt Rose, stuffed in a bedroom drawer from a few months past. It is pasted below.

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Dear Aunt Rose,

The London season is now over and I have returned to the big house in Suffolk. I did miss the smells of the grass and the fields around the house – there is definitely a special way the countryside smells after the sun has warmed the meadows.

For the first time it felt like coming home. I remember a time when I always thought of home as your little cottage. Of course I still think of France all the time, but I have settled in here more than I ever thought. Ickworth is now my home.

Do you mind me writing to you in English? I am practising my spelling and pronunciation at the moment as the other footmen still tease me about my accent and the way I muddle words. I hope I’ll soon be able to speak the language as well as the good King himself.

Yesterday we arrived in Bury on the late train and we ate a quick supper when we got back to the House. Over the food we had an hour or so to exchange stories of London life with those who stayed behind over the cooler months. I don’t envy those who had the task of the Spring Clean as all the poor housemaids’ hands are chapped and red raw. Apparently the dust got everywhere and as Ava has an allergy she sneezed one after another for five minutes straight!

We also had some free time to catch up with those who had stayed behind over the winter. Although I am glad to be back in Suffolk I am even more glad I passed the winter months in London. The city is exciting and exotic – I was lucky to have a taste of it.

As for the upstairs family, they return on Sunday and Laurie stayed in the City to accompany them. Mr Fox has informed me that tomorrow will be a very long day and he has already given me a long list of tasks I will have to complete.

Have you heard from Father? I received a letter from Harry last week and he says Father’s cough has gone and he has been out of bed and back on the farm for a few days now. A cough is a nasty thing, and I shall be glad to visit them soon as it will be my half-day off a week on Sunday.

How is life in Amboise? Do you still cook apple tart on every first Sunday of the month? These are the traditions I miss most. In your last letter you said you would love to come and visit one day so I could show you the Fairy Lake and the woods I love so much. Do you think one day you really could?

My lamp is burning low so it’s time for me to say good night. I hope this letter finds you both well – give my best regards to Uncle Henry.

Yours,

Thomas

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Today was the Children’s School Picnic; Lady Bristol opened up the gardens to the children of the village. There was were outdoor games, sumptuous food and iced lemonade. Luckily the sun was shining and the garden looked as wonderful as ever in the yellow warmth. With the exotic smells and shady stumpery, you could have been in Southern France.

For me the day started as normal. I got up at 6.00 in the morning and got on with my duties, starting by taking coals to the sitting rooms, trimming the lamps and filling them with oil before preparing the family’s breakfast table.

I must have had my own breakfast at about eight o’clock, when cook was ready for us. I began taking food upstairs for the family and Lord Bristol was the first to come down but the others followed soon afterwards.

Mr Fox called me down to his office so Laurie and Martin had to clear the breakfast table without me. I can still feel my heart pounding wildly about in my chest as I had no idea why Mr Fox would want to see or talk to me at all. I know that yesterday I made a mistake when bringing the luggage to the rooms but I didn’t think he knew about it. Fortunately I had realised my error in time and exchanged the mistaken luggage before he or Mr Prosser noticed.

When I arrived in his office he did not reprimand me (see – ‘reprimand’ – isn’t my English getting better by writing these entries?).

“Thomas, my boy. As you must know, today Lord and Lady Bristol have invited the children of Horringer for a picnic in the garden. I have asked you to come down here as I want you to aid the preparation of the tables and the setting of the games. When the children arrive you will make sure they all stay within the garden and not come wandering into the house. All your normal duties for today have been shared between the other footmen. Some of the maids will be there in the garden too to look after the children and cook will send someone from the kitchens to attend the food and drinks.” Perhaps these were not his precise words, but certainly the gist of it.

When Mr Fox had explained everything I found myself both relieved and rather excited at the day ahead.

I arrived to see the preparations in progress. Jim asked me to place the games around the cricket field and Alice wanted my help bringing food from the kitchens out into the garden.

By the time the children arrived I’d already had my lunch. I managed to sneak into the kitchens just long enough to filch a slice of lemon cake from the tin…

Lady Bristol had given Jim some bunting to decorate the garden which that had been made by the children themselves for the extra special occasion. She stayed with us to welcome our guests and I must admit I was quite nervous in her presence. However she retired to the house after drinking a glass of lemonade and, to my surprise, playing a game of hopscotch with a group of young girls. It did make me smile to see the look of clear awe on their faces as a real lady joined in their games.

It was nice to be outside today amongst the beautiful gardens at Ickworth – it really was a lovely warm day. I enjoyed a jumping bag race with the youngest children and croquet with some of the older ones.

Later in the afternoon it was time to say goodbye to our little visitors. I helped Jim bring the tables back inside and then joined everyone in the servants’ hall for tea. After that I resumed my day as a footman, preparing the dinner table, serving food, pouring coffee for Lord and Lady Bristol…

I am writing this while I wait to hear the bell to let me know I can clear the coffee tray away from upstairs. It has been a rather different day for me and I have enjoyed the change. I forget how tense and – what’s the word? – tight-of-air the basement can be. No, that’s still not the word I want. Hang on, I’ll ask Rose. She seems to be a marvel with words.

There, I knew she’d have it. Claustrophobic.

Anyway, the bell has just rung and it’s time to go.

Au revoir for now.

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The footmen are forever polishing.

 

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