“Oh, Grandma,” Hugh said. “What great big eyes you’ve got! And what a great big yawn and what a ridiculous book! What a pretty shawl and snowy white hair. Shall I eat you or take you to breakfast?”
Camellia put down her cup and her book and levered herself reluctantly out of bed.
"Hey ho," she said. "The wind and the rain. I'd better get dressed."
"Everyone else was up hours ago," said Hugh. "This tea is supposed to be a signal that breakfast's ready, not an invitation to stay in bed. You really are a sluggard today." Camellia's face fell. Immediately he regretted joking. She'd looked so pink and happy when he came into the room, he'd forgotten how fragile she was. He hugged her and gathered up the slippery quilt which had fallen to the floor. "Don't worry," he said, dumping it in a pile on the bed. "They're all old people here, wake terribly early; can't sleep for remembering their youth. Shall I find your knickers for you?"
"Go away Hugh," she said crossly. "We're all old people now. That's why we're here!"
He kissed her again and went to sit in the comfortable chair. "I'll wait," he said. "Sorry I've pushed you out of bed the wrong side but I've been up for what seems like hours now myself. I'd expected you to be the same. I didn't know you had so much sleep left."
"Years!" she said. "Years and years of it. I’ll wash later if we're in a hurry.”
"Have you met Maria?"
"I have," said Camellia, from inside her jumper. "She seems to be the only one doing any work."
"Oh," said Hugh, crestfallen. "I was wondering if we might ask her if she'd bring breakfast to us here. There's a cook remember. We could ask for toast? She'll manage. Remember what you were like when we were young?"
"We had servants and farm labourers and gardeners. I couldn't have done it all on my own."
"Don't be silly, Camellia, it's not a farm or an estate. All I'm suggesting is a pot of tea and some toast."
Camellia contemplated the backs of her hands - the raised veins and sinews, the little brown patches; her rough skin, her broken nails, the ingrained dirt, the raw scratches and white scars. "I can't keep doing what I do," she said. "Look."
Hugh looked at his own hands too and sighed. “We can’t give up.”
“No. But rest shouldn't be a luxury; not at our age."
His heart lurched.
“You're not suggesting we stay here?” He looked so shocked, she laughed and a huge and beautiful smile rippled through the lines on her face.
“Heaven forbid! Oh help! No! What a thought! How could you think that!" She bent over and pulled on her shoes. "It's this talk of servants and farm hands - and having Maria to bring me tea. It's made me think of Stephen. Do you think he might stay?"
"Of course not! He's some kind of banker! I'm amazed he's stayed this long, Camellia. He's not going to be a farm worker!"
"But it's going to feel so empty, when we go home."
"Camellia, Stephen's not going to be bringing you cups of tea in bed!" He leaped out of his chair, scooped the quilt into his arms for a second time and put it back on the bed again. "Bothersome thing! Be realistic!"
"I am. We can't go on as we have been."
"I can't go on without breakfast."
"I can't sit with new people while I'm feeling like this," said Camellia bleakly. "I might cry."
"Oh, come on," said Hugh, hugging her tight. "We'll find the kitchen and fetch a tray of tea and toast and have an argument up here about what Stephen should do with his life - turn computers into cashiers or come and toss hay."
"I know what I'd chose," said Camellia.
"Yes, but you're not him, are you?"
"Dead ends," said Camellia as Hugh opened the door and hurried her through it.
"Computers. They've been tried and found wanting. I'd rather have a cow any day."
"Yes, well that's you," he said, nudging her towards the nearest stairs - which weren't the main ones but ones with narrow steps which probably led down to the kitchens. "Come on. Before the cook goes home."
To continue - Forty
For the post before this - Thirty-Eight