Miss Betty Upbright of forty-nine Milligan Street tells me off an awful lot. I hate it. But she doesn’t say it like a telling off. I think that’s what I hate. Because when Miss Betty Upbright of forty-nine Milligan Street sits me down and says “now Nell”, it doesn’t feel like she’s telling me off. But it is. Miss Betty Upbright asks me what I think I did wrong, where I think I can improve, what the root cause was for me to leave our fine china in the bathroom sink… Then Miss Betty Upbright looks at me closely and asks if I understand. I say “yes Miss”, because you have to. There’s nothing else I can ever say. And then I go away somewhere else and feel rotten. Partly because of being told off, partly because I don’t think she ever looks at me properly. Well, not at me really. I’m not sure. I feel like a stranger.
Sometimes Miss Betty Upbright says I’m the loveliest maid she’s ever had, and she’s had three before me. When she tells me that I do a small happy squirm. She also tells me I have the finest hair and the largest eyes and lips… and I shall be married to a very lucky man one day. When she says that, she stops seeing me again.
But I am a good maid. Miss Betty Upbright is a marvel of a woman and runs her own business, with the aid of her brother. But this means that she does not keep her house on forty-nine Milligan Street organised. I clean things, I fold things, I wash things and I dry things. And usually I do it all right.
I even do odd jobs and fetch things for her. One day, on the day the special letters first arrived, I brought in the newspaper and tried to give it to her, and Miss Betty Upbright laughed! She said I was like a dog. I know it was a joke, but I still mumbled that I wouldn’t mind being a dog instead. She just said “no Nell, you’re just right as you are”, but then also said “Have you got the mail?”
And that’s when it first started. When I came back into the room, I handed Miss Betty Upbright a strange letter, along with the usual deliveries. But this letter was in a deep blue envelope and of a deep blue paper! Like the sea. Flowers and patterns adorned each corner with black ink, but the name in the middle had been written in a silvery chalk: “Miss Betty Upbright”.
I stared down at the letter in my hand, apprehensive. Miss Betty glanced at it too and attempted to take it from me, but needed a few tugs to prise it from my hands. Then she read it. I watched her. Her eyes widened and lips parted. Her smooth skin creased and uncreased with unclear feeling. When Miss Betty had finished, she then passed the letter to me, and I eagerly drank in the message.
“It looks like a love letter,” Miss Betty Upbright said.
And it was! A beautifully written love letter for Miss Betty Upbright. So beautiful in fact that many hours later I found myself waking up in the middle of the night and silently slinking downstairs to read it again. Oh, what a hand! What a way with words! The writer said he was called Mr Franklin, and that he had been watching Miss Betty Upbright from afar for a long while, doting on her. I gazed at the single blue paper. The way he crafted each line, spoke with such transparent affections… knew exactly what he want! Oh, how impeccable! How… infuriating. I was not him. He’s only a stranger, like me.
Miss Betty Upbright caught me reading the letter again the next day. She leaned over and asked what I was doing, a queer smile on her face. Staggered at seeing her so close I fumbled, pushing away the letter and shaking my head. Miss Betty Upbright only snickered and told me there was no need to be shy. She said it was completely understandable: Mr Franklin was a very romantic man. I was taken aback and shook my head again, saying it wasn’t like that. But Miss Betty simply said “nonsense.” and walked off. I felt as if I’d been told off again.
Another letter arrived that day. Miss Betty Upbright was more eager to read it this time, but also more eager to have us read it together… which all of a sudden I disliked. She thinks I love Mr Franklin. If only Miss Betty could understand I envied him.
Blue letters, blue letters, black pen, white chalk, perfect words. Many weeks passed, with a perfect letter appearing for Miss Betty Upbright every day. Every day I hated Mr Franklin, and every day I would obsess on his excellence. I began to think on him more and more, wondering what sort of man he was. A loud voiced man? No, a quieter man, but one who breathes with a comfortable authority. Mannerisms? He walks broadly, chest out. Taps his thumbs together when thinking. A gravelly laugh. Animated mouth. Kind eyes. Miss Betty would love him.
One evening I was slinking through the study, trying to be quiet, when Miss Betty Upbright called me over, sounding eager. She pointed at the tied stack of blue brilliance adorning the mantelpiece and asked me what I thought of her “amorous admirer”. I said “He’s very neat, Miss.”
Miss Betty laughed. “And?”
“Rather conceited, Miss.”
She looked startled. I tried to explain. “It’s bombardment, Miss,” I said. “A letter a day… Now I think about it, it’s too much, Miss. It’s not fair to you.”
For a moment I thought she would agree until she waved a flippant hand in my direction, saying that Mr Franklin was perfectly fine with what he was doing, and that I should not be so touchy. I suddenly felt hot, upset at her words. Yet Miss Betty continued, saying how much she yearned to meet him after all this time…
Tears brimmed. I felt my hands juddering, unsure of how to control themselves. I had the energy to pardon myself before scurrying away, my chest sore, my face red. Suddenly, ever so quickly, everything had gone wrong.
The weeks grew darker. Milligan Street grew cold. And, one day, the letters died.
The first day, Miss Betty Upbright did not notice. I brought the letters in quietly whilst she was on the telephone, hoping she would not notice the absence of blue in my hand. But Miss Betty was busy. She nodded at me. I scuttled away.
The next day, it was an oddity. Miss Betty raised her eyebrows, thumbing through the letters in her hand. When she asked me if I had seen the usual blue, I reddened and shrugged, my lips moving but nothing coming out. “How strange,” muttered Miss Betty Upbright. She browsed through the mail again. I retreated into the kitchen.
By the third day, Mr Franklin was a missing person. Miss Betty Upbright got up early for the morning post, peeling through each letter carefully to check she hadn’t missed him. I served her tea. She didn’t drink it. Every day felt like I was being told off.
By the fourth day, Mr Franklin was a lover lost at sea. Miss Betty Upbright wasn’t eating properly. She fretted. She doted. And she made me furious. She started to ask me where he was, and I responded that I didn’t know. Once, when I answered, she told me to “watch my tongue”, as if she could hear in my voice that I didn’t care a single jot about him. Now she had actually told me off. Early the next morning I put all her fine china back in the bathroom sink and, after drying my hands, went downstairs to try to finally kill Mr Franklin.
But, on that same morning, I didn’t look out the window. I didn’t notice Miss Betty Upbright standing outside forty nine Milligan Street. I didn’t notice her wait for the postman strolling up the street. I didn’t notice her question him, beg with him, argue with him, and then finally be convinced that he had never even heard of the blue letters, and had certainly never given any to this address. I didn’t notice her go back into the house.
I didn’t notice Miss Betty Upbright, bewildered and panicking, stride back into forty nine Milligan Street, go to my room, and open the door.
I had thrown it all in the bin but not in time. Miss Betty looked down to see the chalk on my hands, the same silvery chalk that had once engraved her name onto every blue letter she had ever received. And, glancing over, Miss Betty saw all of the blue papers, crushed in the bottom of the bin.
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t deny it. Miss Betty Upbright demanded an explanation. I said nothing. Miss Betty, face whitening, asked me if I had written those letters, all of them, every single one of them, and placed them on the doorstep. I said no. I said no because that was Mr Franklin.
“But Mr Franklin is you!” she shouted. “Look at you!”
I said nothing. She leaned against the doorframe, holding herself, and asked why I would do such a thing. I said that I had no choice. I couldn’t help it.
I waited for Miss Betty to respond, but now she had become speechless, her face frozen and wet. I found myself continuing.
“I never wanted Mr Franklin,” I try to say. “But he’s always with me. I don’t know how else we could have talked to you, Miss.”
“Miss, he… was stealing you, Miss. The letters worked too well… because you loved only him! And I hated it! It went all wrong. But, now I see that doesn’t matter. As long as-”
That’s when Miss Betty Upbright broke down, throwing her face into her hands. I only stood there, apprehensive that I would make things worse. After some time, she stood up straight, smoothed down her hair, and told me it was best if I left her service. I froze, but she left before I could say anything.
It felt like my body was sinking whilst I packed; a horrible feeling, but one I suppose I am used to. I was going to say goodbye to forty-nine Milligan Street forever. I don’t know where I could go next. Not again.
I didn’t see Miss Betty Upbright as I trundled my case behind me through the hallway. Maybe she had found the fine china. A single letter caught my eye, left on the front porch. It was addressed ‘Nell’. Perching on my trunk, I opened the envelope.
“Dear Nell, in due time I am sure you will come to realise how horrible this hoax you pulled was. You cannot have two dispositions Nell, and the very thought of you inventing one to spite me is painful indeed. Or else you are clearly unwell. Or else you believe you love another woman. Whatever the case, I cannot have you with me any longer. I see now that although I thought I loved Mr Franklin, I never knew him. And neither, I feel, did I know you, just as much as you did not know yourself. Thank you for your services, Miss Betty Upbright.”
I placed the letter back in the envelope. Although my chest was still sinking, my stomach suddenly fluttered, happy. She really loved Mr Franklin. And, I suppose, as long as she loved one of me, all was wonderful.
Carefully I slipped the letter in my pocket. Now wherever we went, we could always remember how it felt to be told off by Miss Betty Upbright.