KATE IN TIMES PAST

The house was at the end of a long lime avenue. The trees were old and in places they still met overhead and made an arch. There were gaps where over the years trees had died which allowed a view of fine pasture-land, part of the former estate now divided, leaving six or eight acres of curtilage with the house.  The house itself was architecturally undistinguished.  It had come to its present form after years, nay centuries, of additions and alterations.   The whole façade, viewed from the lawn, was covered in well-trimmed ivy.  A small river flowed by on the right hand side and all around there was mature timber; beech, oak and one gigantic sitka spruce.

It is arguable that Kate was the most important resident of this house.  She was the cook. Rather, I should have said ‘the more important,’ as there were now only two: Kate and her widowed mistress.   Kate was in her sixties, five feet three or four, slight build with grey hair.  She wore a shapeless black dress and a white band, for all the world like a bandage, across the front of her hair above her forehead, and tied at the nape of her neck.  Years previously all her siblings had gone to America but Kate had failed the medical and was left behind.

When the estate was in full swing she cooked for the family and the farm workers, she held her own quietly amongst the banter of dinner-time in the servants hall.  In the evenings in her room she scratched out traditional tunes on her violin.  Every Sunday and holy day of obligation before breakfast, hail rain or snow, she walked the three miles to eight o’clock mass in the village.  Once a year she went for her annual two weeks summer holiday to Co. Limerick; where exactly and to whom, nobody knew.

After the land had been divided Kate stayed on, and when we were there for lunch, in the large dining room with its long table, its array of family silver on the sideboard and family portraits on the walls, before we left, we would go to the kitchen to thank Kate.  Through the back hall, past the gunroom along the back passage to the flag floored kitchen with scrub topped table in the middle of the floor where Kate, having heard footsteps approaching would always be doing something with her back to the door.   We would knock on the open door and say:

‘Kate we’ve come to thank you for a lovely lunch.’ Kate would not look directly at us nor speak apart from answering our questions:
‘How are you, Kate?’  ‘Well.’
‘Terrible weather we’re having.’  ‘Yes’
On leaving we would put out a hand to shake hands, and reluctantly she would offer her hand with thumb and fingers together, with no grip or movement.

On one occasion we stayed a few nights.  In the mornings Kate brought us tea, and hot water to wash.  At eight o’clock there would be a gentle knock on the bedroom door.  In would come Kate with a tea tray.  We would say:
‘Good-morning Kate,’ to which she would not reply. Looking straight ahead, studiously avoiding looking towards the bed, she would walk down one side of it, across the bottom, up the other side and deposit the tray on the bedside table beside my wife.  Then in a similar way she returned to the door.  Ten minutes later there was another knock.  It was Kate again, carrying a copper water jug of hot water which, again without a word and without looking in our direction, she left beside the basin on the washstand. Our:  ‘Thank you, Kate’ as she left elicited no response.

Kate was above all a loyal servant, to the point that when her mistress had a broken stay in her corset, she took one out of her own and sewed into that of her mistress. I often wondered, and would have given much to know, what went on in Kate’s head, but I will never know.  She pre-deceased her mistress, and although during her lifetime she may not have inherited the earth, if there is an afterlife I have a feeling that Kate will be at the top table.

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