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The Address
Author:Fiona Davis

The Address by Fiona Davis


London, June 1884

The sight of a child teetering on the window ledge of room 510 turned Sara’s world upside down.

After several years toiling as a maid and working her way up the ranks, she’d been awarded the position of head housekeeper at London’s Langham Hotel a month prior. One of her largest tasks was keeping the maids in line, all young girls with hardly a shred of common sense among them. When they should have been straightening the rooms, she’d more often than not find them giggling in the hallways or flirting with the boys delivering tea trays or flowers.

That morning, she’d been called into the manager’s office and reprimanded for not being harsh enough on her charges.

“You’re soft. We’re starting to wonder if you’re simply too young for the position,” said Mr. Birmingham from behind his walnut desk, which, despite its elegant spindle legs, was roughly the size of a small boat.

Having recently turned thirty, Sara didn’t feel young in the least, not that she’d ever acted that way. When she’d first arrived at the Langham, she’d skipped the giddy overtures of friendship from other maids her age, knowing that she had to stand out if she wanted to move up quickly. Her coolness had paid off, and her higher salary more than made up for the lack of companionship.

But for Mr. Birmingham, who found pleasure in making the younger maids cry, Sara’s self-imposed isolation wasn’t enough.

He directed her to take a seat, but once she had settled herself, the perspective in the room suddenly felt off, as if something in the furniture’s configuration had changed since Mr. Birmingham last summoned her to this spot—or else she was so annoyed by his request for an interview during the busiest hours of the day that she’d worked herself into a kind of nervous imbalance. Sara’s employer was short and had the poor luck to have a torso shaped like a chicken egg with a double yolk. She towered over the man by several inches. Yet somehow Mr. Birmingham was peering down at her from his thronelike seat. She stole a glance at the floor. The bottom five inches of his chair’s legs were stained a different color than the rest. He’d had them lengthened.

When she looked back up, he puffed up like a songbird, clearly peeved that she’d noticed.

She shifted in her seat. “I’m sorry, Mr. Birmingham, I will be tougher on the girls.”

“If they’re difficult, give them a slap. Better yet, send them down here and I’ll do it for you.” He licked his lips.

Right. She imagined he’d enjoy it immensely. “Is there anything more?”

“No, Mrs. Smythe. Off you go.”

She was still getting used to being called Mrs. Strange how a single promotion afforded not only a living wage but also a new moniker that had nothing to do with her marital status, or lack thereof. No head housekeeper could be called a Miss. Wasn’t proper. The girls were still getting used to addressing her by her full name, and she had to be firmer with that as well. It wouldn’t do for Mr. Birmingham to overhear them calling her Sara. It might be the last straw on what was a very unstable haystack.

That hot June afternoon, after patrolling the halls and basement to break up any assignations, she retreated to her office on the sixth floor to double-check the laundry bills. She needed a rest from shooting dour looks at the girls; her face was tired from scowling. The one window in the room was open as wide as possible in order to catch some semblance of a breeze, but the weather refused to cooperate. All day, the air had been still and humid, making the hotel feel—and smell—a little like the greenhouses at Kew Gardens. A movement from the curtain drew her up from her desk in the hope that an afternoon thunderstorm was brewing.

To her disappointment, the sky was a hazy blue. She looked across the courtyard and there, one floor below, a flash of flesh caught her eye, a chubby arm with fingers that grasped the edge of the sill. Then another arm flailed out and did the same, followed by a head covered in golden curls. The girl sported a velvet bow on the back of her head at a skewed angle. Sara’s breath caught in her chest. Surely a minder would appear at any moment and guide the child back into the room.

With some effort, the child eased her chest up onto the windowsill and stayed motionless for a second, surveying the ground below, arms dangling downward. Sara willed the child away from danger. If she called out, there was a chance she would frighten the child into pitching farther forward. But still no one came. To her horror, a foot swung up and over the sill—three limbs in all. The child was climbing up, possibly drawn to the cooler air and away from the stifling room.

There was no time to waste. Sara sprang out of her office and down the corridor, one hand clutching the heavy chatelaine of keys that dangled from her waist. She lifted her skirts far higher than was decent and dashed down the stairs, her eyes riveted on the few feet in front of her so she wouldn’t lose her footing on the slippery marble. At the fifth floor a couple of guests stepped off the lift and she swooped by them, muttering a quick apology, without losing a beat. Then a turn left and what seemed like an eternal race to the door of room 510. No banging, it might startle the child, and at this point it didn’t matter if she was barging in on anyone. Even if doing so was against hotel policy.

The key turned smoothly in the lock and she opened the door. The girl, wearing a peach-colored dress, now stood upright on the sill facing out, one hand clutching the casing. She had to be around three years old. What was she doing alone?

Walter, one of the porters, and Mabel, the floor’s chambermaid, appeared by Sara’s side, breathing heavily. They must have sprinted after her, knowing something was terribly wrong.

Sara put out her arms to stop Mabel and Walter from moving any farther into the room. “Shh. We don’t want to send her off balance.”

“Where’s her minder?” whispered Mabel. “Is anyone in the bedchamber?”

“I don’t know.” Sara took a step into the room, walking as if the floor might give out at any point. The plush rugs softened her footfall.

As she grew closer, she realized the child was singing to herself. A lullaby about being on a treetop.

The child turned her head and stared at Sara. Her rosy lips parted and her eyes grew round.

Sara held out one hand, palm up, and began humming the same tune softly. In response, the child laughed, but then, with the changeability of her age, her eyes suddenly filled with tears.

“Mama!” the girl demanded, then shook her head. Sara didn’t dare move any farther, and her muscles tensed with the effort of doing nothing, staying frozen. A breeze blew in and ruffled the girl’s curls, pushing her slightly off balance. If she fell backward, into the room, Sara might be able to reach her in time to break her fall.

But instead, the little girl overcorrected, and her hand began slipping off the window frame. Such tiny fingernails, tiny fingers.

Sara lunged forward. Her hand grazed the voluminous skirt of the child’s dress, and she gripped as much of the material as she could, yanking hard. The girl, shrieking, flew off the ledge, inside, to safety. They hit the ground together in an awkward tangle of limbs and petticoats, the girl practically sitting on Sara’s lap.

The girl twisted around and looked at Sara, blinking in astonishment. Sara was sure she’d cry out, but instead the girl resumed her babbling song while reaching up with one hand to stroke Sara’s chin.

“Well done, just in time,” said Walter as he and Mabel gathered on either side of her.

“Do you think she hurt herself?” asked Sara.