If there was anything, any skill, Erin had picked up in her years of being a farm girl, a country peasant, it was the skill of cleaning. It was too bad it wasn’t a marketable skill — every woman who could not afford to hire someone else to do it did it herself, and those who were hired had to come with a character, references — it was the only thing, other than let a man have his way with her, that she really knew how to do. Well, and act — or what passed for acting in the comedies the theater owner cast her in. Giggling and pretending to be shocked when the hero’s randy sidekick pinched her backside seemed to be all that was expected of her.
But if there was one thing Erin’s grim-faced, pious mother had taught her, it was how to clean. No matter that their cottage had a dirt floor and tables and chairs made of wood so rough one could hardly pass one’s hand over it without coming out with a splinter — it was a clean dirt floor and a polished set of tables. “Cleanliness is next to Wrightliness,” Erin’s mother would intone as she handed Erin an old rag or a broom, and Erin would curse below her breath.
Still, Erin had never before cleaned like this.
Her hands shook as she drew the soapy rag over the counter she had already wiped three times. But it had to be clean. No, more than clean — it had to be perfect. Sterile, almost. She’d almost scalded her hand this morning trying to manipulate boiling water to clean the stove and table.
But it had to be perfect!
Erin’s hands moved faster, the rag catching on the rough bits of the stone countertop and becoming even more ragged. There would not be a grain of dirt — a hint of stink — a speck of dust in this little flat by the time she was through. The little flat would hardly know what had hit it. And when Erin was done, she would take her shoes off and stick them by the door, and she would sit very quietly in the chair farthest from the door, and she would hold her breath for fear of disturbing the clean. If her mother could see her now, she would be proud.
No — no, she would be ashamed, for she would ask Erin for what cause she did this cleaning. And, if there was any love left in Greta Shepherd for her daughter, it would be killed stone dead when she heard the reason.
It was probably a good thing, therefore, that Erin would never see or speak to her mother again. It was an excellent thing that she would never let Greta stand in judgment over her again.
No, the only person who would be standing in judgment over her was Sister Margery, to decide whether Erin was a fit mother to take her Wulf back —
And there was a knock at the door!
Erin almost flung the rag into the nearest empty space, but that would undo all of her hard work — would it not? Instead, she shouted, “Coming!” to the door, wrung the rag out and hung it neatly by the sink, then advanced the few short steps to the door, wringing her hands behind her back.
If this is Nicole …
“Sister!” Erin said, her voice creaking. “How are –”
She barely had a moment to speak before the good Sister enveloped her in a hug.
“I’m very well, Erin,” Sister Margery asked, pulling back with a gentle smile. “How are you?”
“I’m — I’m — I’m fine,” Erin stammered. “How’s Wulf?”
“Wulf is doing wonderfully. He can’t wait for you to next visit.”
Erin grinned. “Ye — ye’re sure?”
“Oh, Erin,” Sister Margery sighed. “Why do you think your own son wouldn’t miss his mother?”
Erin tried to smile. “He’s so young …”
“He’s old enough to know his mama. And speaking of which …” Sister Margery smiled. “Will I be able to tell him that he’s going to be coming to live with her soon?”
“Heh. Well — only ye can tell that, Sister,” Erin answered. She did her best not to swallow. She failed. “Won’t — won’t ye come in?”
“Thank you.” Erin waved the Sister forward, and could little other than stand behind while the Sister looked about her with curious eyes.
“It’s very nice!” Sister Margery said. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”
“Thank — thank’ee,” Erin replied as she shut the door, to keep out any stray bits of dust or dirt carried in upon the breeze.
“Is the furniture yours?” Sister Margery asked. “Or did it come with the flat?”
“Well, ’tis Lord Pellinore’s money what bought it, but I suppose it’s mine all the same.”
“Excellent,” Sister Margery replied. She drew her hand along the edge of the table. “I — I wasn’t always a nun. So I know — I know what having some good furniture means.” As if Erin hadn’t known herself, the Sister murmured, “It’s a safety net.” She gasped and turned to Erin. “Not that — not that the Church wouldn’t help you if you happened on troubled times, of course!”
Well, that’s nice to know. “So ye were poor once, Sister?”
“Perhaps not what you would call poor — but my mother was widowed when I was very young. We were able to shift for ourselves, but …” She sighed. “We lost everything in a fire.”
“But enough of that!” Sister Margery tried to laugh. “Please, continue the tour!”
So Erin continued it. She showed Sister Margery the kitchen, the fireplace and sofa, the little table she’d bought for Wulf. Sister Margery smiled to see that. After a quick peek into Erin’s bedroom, it was up the ladder with Sister Margery, Erin following.
“How interesting!” Sister Margery murmured.
“I thought you didn’t like to sew?”
“What? Oh … I don’t.” Erin clambered up the last few rungs. “But — well — with a growin’ little boy … I guess I figured I ought ter get used ter it.”
“The seamstress at the theater isn’t willing to repair all the holes Wulf will bring to his clothing?” asked the Sister with a twinkle in her eye.
“I doubt it. Face it, would ye be, Sister?”
Sister Margery snorted. “I already am in charge of repairing the damage he does to his clothing — I do not envy you, Erin! He’s an active little boy, when he’s …”
“Is this to be his bedroom?” Sister Margery asked, gesturing to the door opposite.
“Well, let’s have a look!” And without another word, Sister Margery flung open the door and surveyed the room.
Erin scuttled in behind her. What would the room look like in Sister Margery’s eyes? Was the thatch not fresh enough — was she afraid it would deposit bugs and other critters on the poor babe’s head? Were there not enough toys? What of the changing table — was it out of place? Surely Wulf was too old to need a changing table, or he would be when he came to live with Erin. And the rug! Surely it was too dirty, too old to be a suitable play space for a small child —
To say that the experience of watching Sister Margery decide whether Erin’s best attempt to ready a room for her child was nerve-wracking would be, perhaps, a bit of an understatment.
“Well,” Sister Margery murmured. “Well, well. Erin?”
“Have you — that is — oh dear. Wulf shan’t be in that little bed for long, you know. He’ll be growing out of it before you know it.”
“Aye, I know.”
“Have you — have you a plan to replace it when he outgrows it?”
“Oh, aye. The cabinetmaker said that he’ll take this one back, if I’m sure I ain’t gonna need it fer no more kids, an’ he’d give me a bed fer cheaper.”
“Excellent. And you’ve made arrangements to change the changing table for a trunk or cabinet?”
Before she knew it, the good Sister had turned and was grinning at Erin like a child being given candy. “I knew you could do it, Erin!”
“Could — do it?” she asked as Sister Margery pressed Erin to her heart.
“Find a fine place, and do it up nicely, just waiting for Wulf to come and take advantage of it! Oh, Erin! I’m so proud of you!”
So proud of me …
“Does that mean Wulf’s comin’ soon?” Erin gasped.
“No sooner than we originally planned,” Sister Margery replied. “Remember, we still have a few months left to run on our agreement. You have to keep a steady job for a year before you can have Wulf back.”
“Aye — aye. But — but soon?”
“Sooner than you think.”
“Amen, Erin.” Sister Margery pulled away with a smile. “Remember — though the circumstances are different, she had to raise her son without his father, as well.”
Erin chuckled. “I don’t think my Wulfie’s growing up ter be another St. Robert.”
“You never know, Erin.”
Erin nodded. “True, Sister. True.”
A good hour and a couple cups of tea later, Erin saw Sister Margery out. She stood on terra firma, the ground below her flat, and grinned.
Her son! She’d officially been approved to have her son back! Now, all she had to do was keep her job for a few more months — well, more than that, if she and Wulf wanted to eat when she got him back — and then —
“So ye’ve officially gone and sold out.”
“Marigold!” Erin spun on her heel.
“Aye, me,” Marigold sighed. “So, how does it feel, bein’ respectable an’ all?”
Erin did her best not to flinch. “I’m an actress. There’s plenty o’ Sims who would say I ain’t gained that much respectability at all.”
“Perhaps. But those Sims ain’t seen ye kissin’ a nun goodbye and promisin’ ter visit the orphanage soon.”
Erin stuck her chin in the air. “I’m doin’ what I have to ter get me son back.”
“An’ enjoyin’ every minute of it.”
“So — so what if I am?” An’ I ain’t, Erin thought. Ye think I like havin’ ter deal with those gossipy fishwives an’ ol’ broads who like ter stick their noses where they don’t belong?
“This ain’t ye, Erin! Ye know better than –”
“Marigold!” Erin cast a furtive glance around the deserted square before she stomped over to Marigold. “Ye –”
“Did ye see that?”
“What ye jest did!”
“What I jest did?”
“Ye looked around, like ye was afraid ter be seen talkin’ ter me!”
Erin blinked — and that was all the weakness she needed to display.
“Ye ain’t no better than us, Erin! Ye ain’t no better than me, fer all that me hair’s green an’ I got bark growin’ all over me!”
“I ain’t never said I was!”
“Ye don’t want ter be seen with me!”
“I gotta be respectable! I got a son ter raise!”
“A son! Ye ain’t the only one who got a son ter raise!”
“I ain’t the only one who’s got a son, ye mean! I don’t see ye doin’ much raisin’ o’ yours!”
“That ain’t –”
“Ye jest dumped him with yer brother and ye don’t ever go ter see him no more!”
“That ain’t true!”
“I ain’t never seen ye leave ter go there!”
“An’ did ye never think that might be because ye needed to sleep, an’ I didn’t, so I went while the rest of ye was sleepin’?”
Erin had not thought of that.
“Wright! I still care about Thorn! But I didn’t abandon me friends fer him!”
“Nobody ever told ye it was yer — yer friends or yer son!”
“Did the good sister tell ye that?”
Erin could not answer that.
“She didn’t! I knew it!”
“She — she — I have ter stay respectable, if I don’t want Wulf sufferin’ fer it!”
“Instead, ye let Tambu an’ Mirelle an’ Wei Li suffer fer it!” Marigold spat.
“Wei — Wei Li?”
“Ye said ye’d visit! Ye didn’t!”
“She’s welcome ter come whenever she likes! But I — I ain’t had time!”
“Can’t? I said she could!”
“She’s pregnant again! She can’t go nowhere!”
Erin blinked. “I — I didn’t –”
“Naw, ye didn’t know that, because ye never bothered ter come an’ ask after us!”
“I ain’t had time!”
“In eight months, Erin? Eight months?”
“I got a job! I got a life! I got –”
“Ye got bitten by the respectable bug, an’ ye know it!”
“It ain’t no bug! It’s — damn it, Marigold, ain’t ye ever been drawn into somethin’ larger than yerself?”
“Aye! Ye! Tambu! Mirelle! Wei Li, who misses ye more than anythin’!”
“She don’t need me like Wulf does!”
“Maybe, but that don’t mean she don’t need ye!”
“I’ll see her when –”
“I know, I know. Ye’ll see her when ye have time. Well, I hope ye have time soon. This is the fourth kid she’s had in as many years, ye know!”
Erin almost gasped. “Ye — ye mean — is she –”
“She’s fine — now. Who knows how long it’ll stay that way?”
Erin swallowed. “She — Wei Li is strong …”
“Do ye even still know that?” Marigold snapped. “Ye were her best friend, her only friend, Erin. An’ ye haven’t even seen her in eight months. I hope ye think long an’ hard about that. An’ I hope ye see her soon.” She ran her hand through her leafy hair. “Now I gotta get out o’ ‘ere — before any o’ yer newfound friends decide ter see if I light up like the bark on me arms.” Without so much as a “farewell,” Marigold stomped off, taking one of the numerous shawls from her waist and tossing it over her head.
Erin watched her go. Could she …?
No, no, she wasn’t being serious. She was just trying to guilt trip Erin. Wei Li was more dependent on female companionship than the other girls, so perhaps …
Perhaps she would go see Wei Li. When she had time.
Aye, Erin thought, shimmying up the ladder and into the waiting flat, I’ll go see her — when I have time.