In Lewes I became sick with fear. I mean, sick enough to have to pull the car to the side of the road. In the eddying snow, I leaned over the wall behind the Pelham Arms and I threw up. But I made myself get back into the car and go on. The doctor had left me in no doubt about my duty. And I try never to shirk duty. Because I’ve hoped, in every year since that one, that duty done would repay love betrayed. It never can but what other course is there? Does anyone know a better way?
Pulling into the drive, I realise I shall have to walk from here. As I turn the key, the engine dies and the headlight beams, packed with falling snow, disappear. The darkness is complete. A darkness I never find in London now – reminiscent of the blackout and so, of course, thronged with horrors. But I speak aloud, as I did so often then, Gennie, people are relying on you. They’re not really. A dying old man has been told to expect my presence but he’s unlikely to know me from a stranger. I am a stranger. I have made myself a stranger for twenty four years. He won’t see the girl of eighteen he saw onto the London train.
In the war years I was relied upon. I pulled my uniform jacket over a white shirt grey with sweat and smeared red sometimes. I lifted children clear of broken parents. I lied to old men blown open in the night. I served seven years in the police force and I left only because appendicitis left me too weak to pass the medical exam. I found courage in those years. But, perhaps more than that, I held the shame in check. Held it under the surface. Tonight it is rearing like a black horse in the snow.
The snow has hidden the track but I navigate, in shaking torchlight, by the trees and the wire fence of the field. My shoes are overwhelmed instantly. The wool of my stockings soaked. I picture myself peeling them off beside a fire in the house. Like that night when I arrived from boarding school. That was rain. My small suitcase bouncing on my shins. The maid who helped me to unpack – draped my wet stockings over the rail beside the fire. Evie. A fox crosses the finger of light from my torch and turns, suddenly static, something soft in its mouth. Then it runs into the darkness.
The windows of the house are shuttered. I know Uncle Silas has been using only two rooms for years. Mrs Richardson brings his meals across the green – held between two plates. Mr Richardson does the bare minimum of maintenance – to keep pigeons from the upper rooms and rats from the lower ones. I find the brass of the bell pull and hear the chime inside the house. Someone draws back bolts. As the door opens, I find I have stepped away, out of the porch. A small drift of snow, on the collar of my coat, slips down inside. In the ice, the rapid melt of it against my skin, I plead, silent. Don’t make me go inside.
The nurse is young. Her uniform, with brooch pinning a little cape over her shoulders, makes her look like a school girl.
‘Miss Symington? Do come in from the cold. You walked up the drive?’
She opens the door of the room in which Silas is sleeping. In the light of a lamp I can see a frighteningly small form under a grey blanket.
‘He’s very ill now but the doctor came this afternoon and I can give him his sedatives. He’s not in pain.’
‘Will you sit up with him?’
‘Yes, I’m the night nurse. Nurse Hawes will be here in the morning – as long as the bus is running out from Brighton.’
She shows me into the next room – the library, I think. Empty bookshelves line the walls. A fire is burning in the grate and there is a camp bed made up close by. She brings me a cup of tea.
‘I’ve a primus stove next door. If you wake in the night then do come and make another cup.’
I fold my clothes and place them on a chair. Such a different first night. It’s cold. I slide under a sheet that feels damp with chill. The utility blanket is thin. The room smells damp – musty. Decay is evident everywhere. A gust of wind hits the door and it bounces open, revealing a slice of dark corridor. I’ve passed nights on the platform of Clapham Common tube, children wailing, brick dust in clouds. I’ve lain in my bed, too dog-tired to heed the siren and daring Hitler to do his worst. I would pay with all I have – my little flat, the bookshop, my Morgan, Flossie, anything – to pass another of those nights. Closing my eyes under this roof is worse. Closing my eyes under this roof is something I thought I’d never have to do again.
I wake to her fingers on my thigh. Miss Gennie, please… I lurch from the bed, my foot sliding on the rag rug beside the hearth, struggling to stay upright. My heart is so hard at my ribs that I cough. She sits up and turns to me, the sheet falling to her waist. It’s a dream, Gennie. It’s not. She laughs and tilts her head a little. Miss Gennie… Say it for me?
I press the heels of my hands into my eye sockets. I can’t. I’m sorry… I feel her hand on my wrist, pulling. She’s not cold. I can smell carbolic from her skin. She is perfect, naked, standing beside me in the firelight. She holds my fingers to her neck. Sorry, for what? Sorry for this, Miss Gennie? And under my fingers a ripe purple is blossoming on her skin – the vivid circle of the cord. She whispers, You in the yew… Say it… I am fighting to pull my hand away. Please. Please don’t. And she laughs again. I said that, Miss Gennie, remember? When he raised his stick over me? Tears have started to run from my eyes – the steady tears with no sobs that have always been Evie’s.
She is hissing now. I said, please don’t, Sir, and he brought it down round my head while you stood there and watched. I crawled under your washstand. You were pulling on your dressing gown. You watched him smashing the furniture around me. When I ran, I ran alone. When I waited – that night, bleeding in the darkness of my room, despairing – I waited alone, Miss Gennie. I wanted you to come. You said you loved me. I thought you’d come. Now you’ve come. Stay with me this time…
She drags me from the room. Her body is more powerful than it should be, or I’m weaker. I stumble in the dark and strike my ankle bone against the bottom stair. I fall. Her palms in my arm pits lift me as if I were a child – a force I can’t resist. And we are running now on the landing, something squealing ahead of us – a rat. Evie tugs me to the left and we are on the back stairs now – up, up to the attic.
The door of her room opens before us. Everything is flooded yellow with the light of a gas lamp. The metal bedstead is covered with the patchwork quilt her mother made. The bible is on the mantelpiece. The calendar on the bedside table is turned to December 1929 – a blue tit on a holly bush – the 30th is ringed. Evie’s seventeenth birthday. Beside it is the powder blue strap of her new wristwatch – my present. Too much.
This time, Miss Gennie, help me… I watch as she sits on the bed and, in looping handwriting, writes ‘Mum’ on the envelope. She folds the sheets in half and slides them inside – holds out the gummed strip. Lick it? She runs the envelope across my tongue and then her mouth is on mine. I am kissing Evie again – I can stop her. Please, this time. She places the envelope on the pillow and reaches for the looped cord of her dressing gown – a navy blue twist. She hands it to me and bows her head.
It’s just a daisy chain. It’s the daisy chain I put round her neck in June, in the dark of the hollow yew. It fell against her breast. I told her, I like you in the yew, Evie. She giggled.
Now she drags the cane chair across the floor and I must watch. Steel pins are holding me to the floorboards. My eye lids won’t fall. They are stitched open. I watch her climb up, fling the cord over the beam and knot it tight. She is looking into my eyes as she steps forward and kicks the chair away. Her body drops, twists, kicks in the air, against nothing.
As she stills, I find my feet are free again. I back towards the door and her eyes dart open in the purpling face. Stay with me, Miss Gennie. But I abandon her again, running, headlong, in the dark.
NIECE FOUND DEAD AT STANMER
The body of Genevieve Symington, aged forty two, was found at Stanmer House yesterday. It is believed that Miss Symington, niece of Mr Silas Symington, was paying a visit to the house. Local police report that she appears to have ventured into the upper rooms of the property, which had been unused for many years. Nurse, Barbara Hazeldine, discovered the body of Miss Symington at the foot of the back stairs. Cause of death is unknown.