I never cared for Christmas.
When December hit, bringing with it the cold and a sudden uptick in runny noses and sneezing, I wished for it to pass by quickly. The ground and windows had a permanent frost covering them and walking through a hallway felt like walking into an icebox. Matron Webster handed out itchy handkerchiefs to those with a cold which made their noses red, and it became impossible to sleep since the dormitories were full of the sound of sniffing or sneezing.
The dresses provided offered little to no protection from the falling temperatures, and within days of the cold front hitting, half of the girls were unwell. Matron Webster paid them nor the rest of us any mind and just ordered us on with our chores when half of the girls were on the edge of collapsing. Sometimes Matron Webster would light a fire to offer a little bit of warmth, but more often than not she would forget.
Despite that, she often retreated to her office and the warmth of her private fireplace. That, at least, gave us the slightest respite from her watchful eyes and offered up more opportunities for us to talk to one another. We were supposed to our chores in silence, but whenever she retreated to her office, we took the opportunity to break the rule. That small act of rebellion became our fire against the cold winter.
“If it gets any colder, I’m going to be an icicle come Christmas,” Charity said. She paused for a second and rubbed her hands together to try and get a spark of warmth.
“At least if you turn into an icicle you can’t get any colder,” Ethel reasoned.
“That’s true.” She paused. “Any chance you can make a fire, Lizzie? A small one?”
“If I had matchbooks for arms, probably,” I said.
“Funny. I thought there might be something in the fireplace.”
With that, a plume of soot dropped from the chimney above me. I shuffled backwards to avoid getting hit in the face with the cloud of black dust. Streaks of soot and ash marked my arms and fingertips, the skin underneath feeling raw from the scrubbing and cleaning. Why I had to clean a fireplace that we never used made little sense to me, but I was not one to argue.
When the dust cleared, I took my scrubbing brush and tried to clean as much of the soot up as possible. The more soot I removed, the more fell but, I attempted to make it look like I had put some effort into my chore so Matron would not force me to climb up the chimney itself to ensure I had finished the job correctly. All I had to do was try not to dislodge any more soot as I cleaned. A job far easier said than done.
By the time I had made a dent in the never-ending waterfall of soot and ash that fell from a chimney, any pink on my hands had been covered by soot. I wiped my fingers along the front of my dress to try and clean them, but it did no good and, I returned to cleaning.
“I think you have the right idea with keeping your hair short, Lizzie,” Charity said.
I turned to face her, watching her push a strand of hair off her face. The front portion of her hair had become sopping wet after her constant need to move it out of her eyes so she could see. Small soap bubbles clung to some of the strands. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing at her.
“See? I told you,” I said.
“Wipe your hands on your dress before you move your hair, or keep it tucked under your bonnet. There’s no need to cut it,” Sally said.
“Easy for you to say,” Charity muttered.
The moment Sall had turned her head, Charity stuck her tongue out at her. I had to hide my face in the fireplace before Sally could see me laugh. For a reason unknown to everyone, Sally had a problem with how short I kept my hair. She had never been that much of a fan of the chin-length cut I had maintained for years. I did not see any reason for her to be fussed by it; it was on my head, not hers.
We fell back into silence and continued with our chores. Other girls dusted or scrubbed the floor until they could see their own reflection in it, and I kept scrubbing the fireplace until the last stream of soot and ash had fallen. I knew Matron Webster would never be pleased with my work, but I could hardly do anything to stop the wind that continued to push soot down the chimney and into the empty fireplace. Had she lit the fire, it may not have been that much of an issue.
Once we had finished the dining hall, we moved out into the hallway where I took up a duster and joined Edith. Dust tickled my nose. I fought the urge to sneeze so I would not have to use one of the itchy handkerchiefs that just made my nose red and sore. I tried not to leave soot-covered fingerprints on anything we had just dusted, but that task was a lot harder than I thought it would be.
A loud knock at the door caught everyone’s attention, all of us temporarily stopping what we were doing.
“Who on earth could that be?” Ethel asked. I looked at her and shrugged.
“Someone should go and answer it,” Sally said.
“Why don’t you?”
“I’m soaking wet!” Sally gestured to her apron and skirts that were soaking wet from the bucket of water she used to scrub the floor.
“I’ll go,” I said.
“Really?” Charity asked.
I nodded and stood up, wiping my soot-covered hands down my apron and dress, but I knew nothing could make me presentable. I had more ash on my skin and clothes then remained in that fireplace, whoever stood at the door was about to get the shock of their lives. The other girls watched me place my dusting cloth to the side and walk the length of the hallway.
The orphanage consisted of a maze of hallways, most of which we were not allowed near since they were part of Matron Webster’s area. She confined us to the main halls, the dining room, our dormitory and a small outdoor space. We were not to venture anywhere else. I followed the hallways we were allowed to walk through, reaching the front door and glancing anxiously up the stairs for Matron Webster. She never heard the door in her office.
With no sign of her, I pulled open the front door, blinking back against the winter sun and wanting nothing more than to shut to the door and push back the bitter chill that tried to fight its way into the hall. My eyes adjusted to the light and focused in on the couple standing in front of the now open door, both of whom appeared to be shielding from the wind.
In front of the door stood a man in a dark brown waistcoat, a brown bowtie and a bowler hat. He had wrapped himself in a grey scarf that obscured most of his face and a pair of thick gloves, though he still looked rather cold. The lady beside him wore a blue dress covered by a white shawl. She had pinned her light-brown hair to the back of her head, most of it obscured by a hat. She wore no scarf, but her gloves appeared thicker than those I had seen on a normal lady.
“Good morning, we are here to see a Matron Webster,” the man said. I could feel the lady beside him staring at me, her eyes running up and down my soot-covered clothing, short hair and the scar that trailed the length of my left cheek.
“She’s upstairs, I can take you to her,” I said.
“Thank you, Miss-” He paused.
The man nodded and I stepped to the side, holding the door open to allow them access into the darkened hallway. Once they were inside, I closed the door behind them to try and cut out the wind, but I knew it would slip in through the cracks in the brick and the gaps in the windows. The man removed his hat but neither of them took off their winter clothing. I did not blame them. I would have given anything for a scarf or shawl.
I led the two of them up the creaking staircase and down a long, dark hall with nothing but a small window at the far end to offer and source of light. Matron Webster’s office sat at the far end of the hall and was the only room that belonged to her that we had permission to enter, but only after knocking and if it was vital. If it were not imperative, we would be in trouble for wasting her time.
“That scar on your cheek, it did not come from here, did it?” the lady asked.
“No, a foster placement several years ago.”
She said no more on the matter and instead, watched me knock on Matron Webster’s door and wait for the response.
“Come,” a voice said from inside.
“Visitors for you, Matron Webster,” I said when I opened the door.
“Thank you, Miss Hayworth. You may go and finish your chores.”
Matron Webster gave me a pointed look no doubt annoyed that I dare answer the door and speak to other people with soot and ash covering my dress and hands. Whatever punishment she may have had tucked up her sleeves, I knew I would find out about it later that evening. I offered a small smile to the couple and closed the door behind them, using a clean spot on my apron to try and clean the dirty fingerprints off the door handle.
After trying to clean the door handle, I walked back down the hall, down the stairs and through the halls to finish my chores. Ethel had almost finished all the dusting and handed me the cloth when I passed her, gesturing to the skirting board on the other side of the room that had yet to be dusted. I accepted the cloth and turned towards the skirting board, crouching down beside it and wiping the cloth along the top.
Across the room, Sally looked at me and I knew she was desperate to ask who had been at the door and what they had wanted, but she said nothing. If Sally had been that curious, she should have answered the door herself, but she would never do such a thing if she looked a state. She had always been determined to get adopted and looking presentable was a part of that. I did not care about getting adopted and would have answered the door in anything.
We gathered our cleaning supplies and moved into the entrance hall, with Ethel taking more a back seat and allowing me to take over since she had done most of the work in the previous hallway.
“Who was at the door?” she asked, watching me dust off a side table that held a wilting plant.
“A pair of toffs. They wanted to see Matron Webster,” I said.
“Bet they were thrilled to see you.”
“Of course, they were.”
I grinned at her.
“Any idea what they wanted?” Sally asked, no doubt getting her hopes up at a potential adoption opportunity.
“No idea. All they said was that they wanted to speak to Matron Webster and then asked about my scar.”
A pair of footsteps creaked across the hall upstairs and we fell silent, turning our attention back to the chores we had been set. I listened to the sound of several footsteps above us, moving across the hall accompanied by low voices. The closer the footsteps became, the louder the voices and I watched Sally shuffle closer to the bottom of the stairs to hear what they were talking about and hoping to be the first person the couple saw when the emerged.
Matron Webster appeared at the top of the stairs with the man and woman, all appearing in deep conversation and none of them paying us the slightest bit of attention until they reached the last step and Sally realised she was in their way. She shuffled off, sheepishly, and turned back to the wooden floor she was supposed to be scrubbing with Charity. Her plan did not appear to have worked all that well.
I kept my focus on the side table I was supposed to be dusting, wiping the cloth over the same bit over again and hoped no one would notice. A slither of winter sunlight crept through the broken window above the door and lit up a small space on the side table, but it did not touch the plant. Much like us, it had spent most of its life in the darkened halls of the orphanage, only seeing a little sunlight.
“Girls,” Matron Webster said, clapping her hands to get our attention. “This is Mr and Mrs Atkins, our new benefactors. They will be visiting a few times over the next month or so and I expect you all to be the courteous girls I know you are.”
“Yes, Matron Webster,” we chorused.
“Good. On with your chores before you recreation time.”
Matron Webster glared at us, a glare that went unnoticed by her guests and we all returned to the work we had been doing previously. I grabbed the cloth and moved away from the side table to the other corner and a coat stand that held no coats, only dust. Matron Webster led the couple through the girls and towards the door, standing just a short distance away from me when she opened the door to gestured them out.
When they went to leave, I glanced over out the corner of my eye, locking eyes with the lady for a few seconds. The lady offered me a smile, which I returned, staring at me for a little while longer than perhaps necessary. After a little while, her and her husband turned to leave with Matron Webster waving them goodbye and closing the door behind them. She pivoted on her foot and turned to look at me.
I knew I was in trouble.