Ladies

Sounds. It’s the first thing to notice, even before you can see the clutter and steam of the workshop. Grandfather’s gears whir and click – the steam engines hiss and the coalfires crackle. Motion — it’s all about motion; pistons thrust and crankshafts churn while pressure builds.

Pressure overcomes friction, the turbines groan and roll over, and then turn and then spin and then whir… and then suddenly there’s the familiar spark of electricity. Energy. The bluish crackle and spastic flare of current spills over the bright knobs and is contained and insulated behind glass and rubber; the noise of it becomes a powerful hum.

Eliza loved to lie on the floor of Grandfather’s workshop, listening to him tinker, listening to the sounds of the everything around them, the everything that moved, that was motion, that gave rise to energy, and powered the world outside.  She would feel the echo of it in her chest, the thrumming that was her heartbeat, fast and racing when she was excited, and the steady tick of a clockwork when she was thoughtful. She would listen quietly, all the while hearing thoughts in her head that would never really be quiet, the kind of thoughts she’d blurt out at the dinner table, often earning her a stern look from Miss Viola, her father’s lady-friend and companion. She’d been at dinner often, since Eliza’s mother died.

Miss Viola had a hundred things to say to Eliza all the time, regarding her behavior. “Hush, Elizabeth,” was the most popular. Or perhaps “Be still, Elizabeth!” was. “Sit like a lady, Elizabeth,” Miss Viola would insist. “Walk like a lady, Elizabeth.” was another. “Eat like a lady, Elizabeth. Ladies don’t do that, Elizabeth!” were familiar as well, and there were dozens more.

Eliza had heard them all, over and over again, from the moment she got up in the morning, “Ladies don’t thunder around in the bathroom as though they were herding elephants, Elizabeth!” to the moment she climbed into bed at night, “Elizabeth, ladies simply do not hide clockworks under their bedclothes so they may work on them in the middle of the night!”

She was fairly certain she knew every single thing ladies didn’t do, by the time she was fourteen, but thought she might have had less of an idea about what ladies did do.  Unless, of course, Miss Viola was the prime example of a lady. In which case, a lady gave a lot of direction to the household — and always reminded it was a man’s place to govern. And a lady insisted the house be full of beauty and elegance — and told everyone to be humble and not vain. And a lady ate her weight in watercress tea sandwiches at home — then derided public gluttons.  And a lady gossiped with the help — but spoke against it in church.

Eliza supposed Viola thought the first and foremost duty of a lady was to cultivate an image of perfection behind which any number of contradictions could comfortably rest.  After enough observation, however, Eliza decided Viola was probably enough lady for them both.

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