I see Frank Weatherly stumping about the grounds every day, rain or shine. He's the groundskeeper here at Oakfield House. On the day I arrived, he told me he'd been here long before everyone else and would be here long after they'd all gone. See, unlike some people he could mention, he was loyal. He understood that a job was for life.
In the winter, I sometimes see him carrying a bag of compost, surly-faced, over to the greenhouse. The first time, I jokingly asked him if he hated his job, and got back a surprisingly philosophical response. He didn't approve of greenhouses.
"In frost and snow, Mary," he said, "they as cannot survive should pass on. It is the natural way of things. Nowt natural about that," he said, jabbing a finger emphatically at the greenhouse.
My name isn't Mary. I think it was the name of the last maid though.
In summer, I sometimes see him storming through the house, angrily demanding the housekeeper, Mrs Beecham, tell him where she put his special liniment. It's not the cold that does his joints in, he says, it's the bedamned thaw that comes to them when it grows warmer again.
I've lived at Oakfield about a year now. At least once a week, but more likely twice or three times, I'll accost Frank when he's working in the flowerbeds or raking up leaves and ask him to tell me about what Oakfield used to be like. I'll ask him to tell me how it's changed.
"S'not like it used to be," he said to me once as he rammed his spade into the soil. "Ever since that bedamned fire took out the east wing. Of course, the typhus had already taken the master's wife by that time, but he lost his son. Fair few of the servants went too- I was lucky."
"Lucky?" I was sitting on a bag of potting soil. Uncomfortable, to say the least. But I thought I might be on the verge of breakthrough.
"Aye," he said. "My room was close by the door; easy enough to get out."
"You didn't go back in?" I asked. "Maybe to get someone else out?"
The spade, on the verge of biting back into the soil, paused in mid-air.
"Can't remember as I did."
The spade dropped. I managed to sigh through clenched teeth.
That was months ago, and I've made little progress. Sometimes Frank asks me if I know where Mrs Beecham is, or why that chit of a scullery maid is forever breaking plates instead of washing them- he can hear her from his room, even if he doesn't see her. The first time he asked, I smiled noncommittally and said I didn't know. Now I think he only asks for the sake of someone to talk to, even if he doesn't care for me in particular.
Occasionally I ask him if he'd like to take a walk down to the little churchyard just past the house, where I want him to read the epitaph on a particular stone. It is, I think, all that will convince him. The answer is always no. Frank says he has no time for weeping over the dead, and he didn't know so many of the servants as died anyway. The master will return eventually, he says, and the garden must be kept in a good state. A job is for life.
I don't know how to tell him that the master is never coming home. I don't know what he sees when I speak to him; maybe I look like the last maid, Mary, complete in black gown and mob cap? Certainly he doesn't seem to see the jeans and t-shirt, the broken in trainers, or notice that I only ever spend time in one part of the house. My flat's only a couple of rooms on the ground floor. What can I say? It was going cheap. I wasn't exactly filled in on the house's colourful history.
I will continue to talk to Frank, rain and shine, but I don't think I will ever persuade him to leave this place. He'll be here long after I've gone, and maybe long after Oakfield House is nothing but rotten wood and broken windows.
A job, after all, is for life, and longer.
A/N: Not a great deal to say about this piece. I wrote it for Creative Writing and it had a reasonably good reception, although I seem to be getting known for twist endings. Hope you enjoyed it. :) Do review and let me know what you thought.