Nellie climbed the stairs carrying the tray with teapot, jug, cup and saucer, pressed against her stomach, held by her two hands, thinking of Mrs Topdraw. Not been the same since her son was killed in 1917 at Passendale; his room kept untouched since, apart from the daily polish to keep it fresh, as if he might return from the dead and sleep in there. She paused at the top of the landing; peered down the corridor towards Mrs Topdraw's room. Slept alone now; Mr Topdraw deprived, she thought, holding in a smile, walking along the corridor on tiptoe, eyes gazing at the floor at the worn carpet, which they refuse to replace, because Timothy, the son, had walked and played here as a boy. She stopped outside the door and tapped. No answer. She tapped again, but louder.
-Come in, Mrs Topdraw said, her voice strained.
Nellie opened the door with one hand, holding the tray with the other hand and against her stomach. Her eyes spotted Mrs Topdraw sitting up in bed, her hair unkempt and unbrushed, and her face mournful and drawn. She entered the room; pushed the door closed with her bottom; stood waiting against the closed door.
-Here, Nellie, on the bed, Mrs Topdraw said, her voice tired, as if sleep had not come until late.
Nellie walked to the bed; placed the tray on Mrs Topdraw's bony legs.
- Has the tea been allowed to draw? asked Mrs Topdraw, peering at Nellie, her thin fingers lifting the teapot lid; her head inclined downwards, sniffing the aroma.
- Yes, Madam, Nellie said, nodding, performing a slight curtsy.
Mrs Topdraw smiled weakly; taking the spoon she stirred the tea around the pot, holding the teapot lid in her other hand, the tray balanced uneasy on her legs.
- Anything else, Madam? Nellie asked, looking at the big crucifix above the bed with the Christ hanging, looking forlorn as Mrs Topdraw, with more justification, Nellie mused, feeling her stomach rumble, hunger touching her ribs.
- No, nothing more, Nellie, Mrs Topdraw said, her voice tired, her eyes moving from teapot to Nellie, then up at the crucifix which held Nellie's attention. - That's my Saviour, Nellie, without whom I would not bother to rise from this bed, after Timothy was taken from me. The Lord lifts me from my bed each day, Mrs Topdraw added, her eyes dampish as if tears waited on the rims, like small waterfalls held in check.
- He's missed, Nellie said softly, unsure whether she ought to have said anything, but she had, and so looked at Mrs Topdraw, anxiously.
- He is very much, Nellie, missed, oh so much missed, Mrs Topdraw said, allowing her eyes to move over the crucifix as if they could touch the Crucified's wounds and feel better.
Nellie looked at the dust-laden Christ; thought she or Edna ought to give the crucifix a good dusting, if time and Mrs Topdraw, allowed.
- You can go now, Nellie, Mrs Topdraw said, letting her eyes settle on the maid, taking in the clean look, the crisp uniform of black and white.
- Yes, Madam, Nellie said, nodding and moving away from the bed, curtsying uncertainly, walking to the door. -I'll come back later for the tray, Madam, Nellie said, opening the door, and closing the door behind her with a slight click. She sighed. Poor dear. She paused by the door; placed her ear against the wood panel. She could hear Mrs Topdraw muttering to herself as she often did. Talking to herself or her dead son, or maybe, Nellie mused, to the Christ on his dusty cross.
- What are you doing? Edna asked, putting a hand on Nellie shoulder, making Nellie jump and then place a hand over her breast to feel if her heart was still there.
- You silly moo, you frightened the life out of me, Nellie said in a whispered voice, tapping Edna's hand.
- Couldn't resist it, Edna said, pulling a face.
- You never can, Nellie said, not even in bed.
Edna smiled and raised her eyebrows. - What are you listening to? she asked.
- She's talking to herself, Nellie whispered.
- She often does, Edna replied, her whispered voice touched Nellie's ear. - Either that or she's got some fancy man in there with her.
- Some hopes of that, Nellie said, smiling at the thought.
- Come on, Mrs Tard wants us, Edna said, pulling at Nellie's arm, feeling the soft flesh, holding back the desire to kiss the cheek, the memory of the previous night's hugs and kisses lingering in her mind.
Nellie reluctantly moved away from the door; walked along the corridor with Edna at her side, with a clinging hold of her arm, humming a tune, she'd heard on the gramophone, which Mr Topdraw's daughter, Celia, had played a few days previously when she was home. She sensed Edna's hand by her side; her arm looped through hers; a fleeting flash of memory of the night before; a smile coming to her lips as they descended the stairs, listening to Mrs Tard's voice bellowing from the kitchen like an elephant in labour, and hurrying the last few steps. keeping in the desire to laugh or hum or sing on their way to the kitchen.