Authors: Michael Boccacino
Tags: #General Fiction
For my mother
The Other Side
The Unraveling of Nanny Prum
very night I dreamt of the dead. In dreams those who have been lost can be found, gliding on fragments of memory through the dark veil of sleep to ensnare themselves within the remains of the day, to pretend for a moment like a lifetime that they might still be alive and well, waiting by the bedside when the dream is done. They never were, but I could not stop myself from wishing for the possibility that everything I remembered was a mistake, a nightmare taken too literally by the imagination. But morning always came, and with it the startling realization that the dead continued to be so, and that I remained alone.
That night the pleasant rest of black, unthinking oblivion gave way to a dimly lit ballroom without any ceiling or walls, a place lost in the bleak abyss of time. Crystal chandeliers hung above the marble flooring untethered to any surface, threatening to crash down upon the guests, who were dressed in moldering finery that would have been out of fashion decades before. The dance began with a slow, melodious waltz that felt akin to a waking sleep, and I let it wash over me, swaying with the rhythm until someone from behind took me into his arms. I did not need to see his face; I knew who it was. My late husband, Jonathan, turned with me across the ballroom, faster and faster, never reaching any wall or barrier, never colliding with another couple, until he dipped me deeply. My mother and father were next to us, warm and whole, younger than I ever remembered them being. This was the dance of the dead.
The music stopped. My husband let go of me and bowed before retreating into the dark place beyond the ballroom. The room began to fill with people I did not recognizeâleering strangers with faces that were really masks, ready to slip at any moment. My parents disappeared into the crowd. I tried to find them, but the crowd was too large and the music began again, this time an eerie, cruel sound, a broken music box filled with regret. A man appeared before me dressed all in black, his features cloaked in shadow. As he took my hand I knew with a certainty that only dreams can provide that he was not a stranger; we had met before. His hands were cold and his lips, though I could not see them, were smiling. The other dancers spun around us until they blurred together. He pulled me close against his body, into the darkness that surrounded him until I was falling, the chandeliers trailing away as I spun through the void, screaming into nothingness.
I woke upon the realization that the screams were not my own. A woman was shrieking in the night. At first I was deeply annoyed, for anyone blessed with the company of another could at least have the decency to keep their nocturnal enjoyments to themselves. But then I wondered at the length of the cry, and the tone. Whatever was happening didn't sound very pleasurable, and if it was meant to be, then both parties involved had failed. There was something primal and finite in it, and when it stopped it did not begin again. The sound had come from outside my window, and for a moment I thought to tell my father, but then I remembered that he was dead and my heart fell as I lost him all over again. The feeling passed quickly, as it was something I was accustomed to; the same thing happened at the end of every dream.
I shook my head, refusing to dwell on it. A woman was in trouble, and there were not many who lived within the confines of the estate that I would not count as my friends. I threw off the blankets and ran to the wardrobe, pulling out my warm dressing gown. Winter was coming, and the house was growing colder every evening. I pulled my hair over one shoulder, like my mother used to, thinking how much it was like hersâsoft and pale gold in the moonlight, lacking only her distinctive scent of lilac and jasmine. I observed myself quickly in the mirror. Every photograph of my mother had been lost in a fire years before, and when in need of comfort or strength I could sometimes find traces of her in my own features. Though I was taller than she had been, I had the same short, pointed nose and lips that were always slightly parted, as if I had something to say (which I often did), and hazel eyes like my father's. I slid the robe over my white cotton nightgown, the one Jonathan had loved so much, and left my room.
Everton was a large country house, and while it had once been very fine, it had fallen into a comfortable state of disrepair well before my arrival nine months earlier. The burgundy carpets in the hallway were worn and fraying at the edges; the gaslights, turned down to candle flames with just enough light to cast rich black shadows along the walls, were tarnished; the floral pattern of the wallpaper cracked and withered on the vines as it peeled away from the walls. This condition was not for lack of trying. Mrs. Norman, the housekeeper, seemed to hire new maids daily in her futile efforts to bring the house back to its former glory, but it was no use. The manor continued to crumble away. Just the week before, the cook claimed to have seen mice scurrying about her kitchen. The other servants had started to whisper that the spirit of the house, if there ever were such a thing, had died with its mistress the year before.
For my part I did not mind the imperfections of the place. There was a warmth to it, a kind of intimacy that only comes with age, like the creases around the mouth that appear after years of excessive smiling, or a favorite blanket worn down from friendly use. It was certainly less intimidating than the cold, austere manors found in the larger towns and cities. Everton was happily flawed, like any person of true merit. It was a house of character, and I sustained that thought as I padded down the dark hallway.
The children had their nanny in a room connected to the nursery, but all the same I felt responsible as their governess to look in on them. Nanny Prum was known to drink after putting the children to bed. She was a very silly drunk, tripping over carpets and talking to birdcages as if they were party guests in a very high-pitched voice that was not at all like the deep baritone she usually employed while sober. Because of her predilections she slept very deeply, and a random sound in the night was unlikely to disturb her whereas it could very well tip the younger of the two boys into a web of nightmares that the both of us would then have to spend the remainder of the evening cooing and coddling away.
The door opened as I approached it, and a small head with wild blond hair emerged from the gloom, peering in my direction with round green eyes.
“Go back to sleep, James.” I took him gently by the hand and led him back into the room, but not before he stuck out his bottom lip with indignation.
“But I heard a noise and Nanny isn't in her room and I'm scared,” he said in a single breath. I sat him down on his bed and smoothed out his hair, brushing it away from his face as his older brother, Paul, growled dangerously from beneath a mound of covers at the other end of the room, apparently as resolute in not being disturbed by the nocturnal rustlings of the house as his five-year-old brother was in taking part in them. James had left Nanny Prum's door half open.
“Are you sure she's not there?” I asked him in a voice just above a whisper. The little boy nodded carefully, wide-eyed and eager to be of help in the strange business of adults that only takes place when children are asleep in bed. I lifted him so that he straddled my waist and entered the nanny's room.
The bed was indeed empty, and I began to worry. Nanny Prum was not the sort of person to leave the children unattended, and she was certainly not the type to wander the grounds of the estate at night, even while intoxicated. She was a woman of some physical substance, and there were few people in the village who were not intimidated by her girth.
I tucked James back into bed and stroked his forehead until he fell asleep again. Paul continued undeterred from his slumber, and I sat in Nanny's rocking chair curled into a blanket like an old maid, which was how I feltâfull of maternal feeling for the children and anxiety at the absence of my friend and confidant. Only a year before I would have been lying next to my husband in bed, the mistress of my own estate. How odd are the places one finds oneself as time passes. It's best not to look back, but how can one resist? I slept very briefly, the specters of the past only just uncoiling from my subconscious like a blot of ink unspooling itself in a pool of water, before the door to the nursery was opened by one of the maids.
“Mrs. Markham?” she whispered in surprise. I put a finger to my lips and met her by the door, careful not to wake the children. She appeared very frightened, and I placed my hand over hers. She was shaking.
“What is it, Ellen?”
The maid closed her eyes and grasped the silver cross that hung around her neck with callused fingers. She was a stout, rotund woman, never one to talk out of turn and hardly ever intimidated by anything, but all decorum seemed to have left her as she took my hand and kissed it. Her lips were as rough as her hands looked.
“Oh, thank the Lord, Charlotte! When I went to your room and found it empty, I was certain that .Â .Â .” She stopped herself and sighed. “You're needed in the kitchen.”
“At this hour?”
“It's a dreadful thing, too dreadful to mention so close to the ears of the children, be they sleeping or awake. I'll keep watch over them while you're gone.”
She patted my hand but would tell me no more than she already had, so I left the boys in her care. The house was still dark, but now there were footsteps in addition to my own, and voices. In another room, a woman who was not Nanny Prum spoke quickly in a trembling voice. I crept along the hallway, down the grand staircase, through the dining room, and into the kitchen, where a small group of people had gathered over a pale figure collapsed on the cool stone floor. It was Susannah Larken, the apprentice seamstress from the village, wife of the local barkeep, and my friend.
Her head was in the large lap of Mrs. Mulbus, the cook, who knelt on the ground and stroked the side of the poor girl's face, which was now nearly as red as her hair. Mrs. Norman, the housekeeper, and Fredricks, the butler, stood anxiously beside them.
I bent down and took her hand. The wild look in Susannah's eyes abated slightly, and her breathing returned to normal.
“Oh, Charlotte, it was dreadful!” She blinked away tears and began to sob.
Mrs. Norman, a severe, controlling woman with a hook nose and an anxious, birdlike disposition, continued speaking where my friend could not. “There's been a murder,” she said with a hungry, ghoulish enthusiasm.
I wanted to slap the housekeeper's face for her repulsive insensitivity, but I restrained myself as Susannah sat up and continued her story.
“I was taking Mr. Wallace home from the pub. He'd had a bit too much to drink, and Lionel was busy behind the bar. Mrs. Wallace couldn't be bothered to collect him. You know how that woman is.”
I nodded in agreement. Mildred Wallace was the village busybody, eager to know everyone else's business so that she might forget her own. For years her husband had been the most loyal customer of the Larken brothers' pub, the Crooked Stool, but she continued to deny it, telling anyone who would listen how much her dear Edgar loved his nighttime strolls about the village.
Susannah curled her lip into a sneer. “Wouldn't lift a finger to help a soul, not even her own husband. I took him home to his cottage and went back by the path along the lake. That's when I heard the scream, that terrible sound, and I saw them at the edge of the forest behind Everton. There was a man standing over a woman on the ground, a man dressed all in black.” Suddenly I remembered the man from my dream. My mouth went dry and a chill prickled across the surface of my skin. I brushed the thought aside as mere coincidence and begged her to go on.
“Lionel had given me the club, just in case I had any trouble.” She fingered the wooden bat at her side, a small, heavy thing with just enough force to knock some sense into a drunken attacker, but perhaps not enough to ward off someone with murder on his mind.
“I ran over to help her, but there was nothing to be done .Â .Â .” Her voice gave out, and she closed her eyes as if to stop herself from seeing it all again. I squeezed her hand, and brought it to my cheek.
“Who was it, Susannah?”
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes.
“It was Nanny Prum .Â .Â . all in pieces. Like she'd come apart from the inside.”
I looked up at the others, but none of them could meet my gaze. They were all lost in shock. Even Mrs. Norman's unpleasant interest in the matter had soured. For myself I could not believe that something so horrific could possibly have happened in a village as quiet as Blackfield, at a house as great and noble as Everton. I believed Susannah and everything she said, but just as I did when I woke from my nightmares, wishing them real and everyone I ever loved still alive and well, I hoped that there had been a misunderstanding, some mistake, perhaps a play of shadows and moonlight over the ground that had made the situation more grotesque than it actually was.
“The constable .Â .Â .” I spoke up weakly but felt as if I might be sick, for when I said it aloud I knew that there could have been no mistake. Susannah, having worked for many years in a dress shop and in a pub, had an eye for detail no matter how small. Something unspeakable had happened to Nanny Prum in the woods. Who would tell the children?
Fredricks spoke up in a wavering, nervous voice that was not much different from the one he normally used. “Mr. Darrow and Roland have already gone to fetch him.”
“He saved my life .Â .Â .” Susannah's eyes began to glaze over again with a look lost in terror and madness. Her nails dug into the flesh of my hand. “When I ran to help her, the man in black tried to come toward me. He smelled dreadful, like the very depths of Hell. It was so strong it burned my throat. I nearly fainted, but then Roland was there and the man fled into the woods. He saved my life.” She started to sob again, but then caught herself. “Someone must tell Lionel.”