Authors: Kate Riordan
There was a broad window seat like the one in the small parlour, but the only piece of furniture apart from the bed was an ancient rocking horse and a chest of drawers that stood in one corner. It was painted cream, and above it was a shelf of children's books, with some old favourites from my own childhood. On top of the
chest was a trio of battered tin soldiers in red jackets. Propped up between them was a miniature Union flag, now faded and frayed. An old-fashioned gramophone took up most of the chest's surface, the flower of its brass horn dull with dust.
I turned the wooden winding crank and then dropped the needle gently onto the record that had been left on the turntable, who knows when. I hadn't expected it to work, but the shellac disc began to spin quickly, though unevenly, undulating because it had warped. The sound of static came through after a couple of seconds. It wasn't a constant hiss; the volume rose and died away again, like the sea advancing and retreating on a beach. I put my ear to the horn and thought I heard distant voices or music, but then they fell away.
I let the record continue to spin and looked about me again. The three tin soldiers were still standing facing the room in a dutiful line, but the tiny Union flag had dropped to the floor. I knelt down awkwardly to pick it up, and stood up too quickly. Dizzy, I sat down heavily on the nearby window seat. The lumpy old cushion shifted under me, and for a horrible second I thought I would fall to the floor.
When I got up to look, I saw that, unlike the one downstairs, this seat was not solid but hinged. I pulled the cushion off and lifted the lid. One set of the old brass hinges had broken completely, the metal corroded away.
Inside was a neatly folded blanket. Nothing remarkable: just a scratchy old tartan blanket of navy and dark green. It was low down in the cavity of the seat, so I didn't expect much else to be in there, but when I idly pulled at a corner, I realised that it was wrapped around something heavy.
Just then, the noise from the gramophone changed. The static now seemed to be punctuated by something more solidly rhythmic,
the room filling with the sound. It was like a noise heard underwater, amplified yet muffled. I knew what it reminded me of then: a heartbeat. Perhaps it was the enclosed space, the stale air, and my dizziness, but I thought I could hear other patterns forming, the rushing and ebbing of sounds I couldn't make out.
I slammed the window seat shut and ran to pull the needle off the turntable, the noise swerving and booming as I did. My breathing was ragged in the abruptly silent room, my own heart rushing and stumbling. I looked around, but there was nothing to see: everything was in its place. I still found my mind going to the story of the toys that come to life when the children aren't looking.
The turntable came to a reluctant, creaking standstill as I rushed out, fumbling with the key to lock the door behind me, the iron stubborn again at first. As I hurried down the main staircase, I could feel the alchemist's eyes upon me. If I turned, I thought I would see an amused smirk on his face at my foolish, overwrought imagination.
Mrs. Jelphs came upon me as I was hanging the key back on its hook. I slammed the little door in the panelling in surprise, probably looking more like a naughty child than a grown woman about to become a mother.
“My dear, you have lost all your colour again,” she said softly. “What have you been doing?”
“Nothing,” I said stupidly.
She shook her head gently. “Were you looking for a particular key?”
Her tone was so patient, her words so deliberate, that I felt my nerves unfurl a little.
“Well, yes, I was. I mean, I have already found it. I thought I would have a look in the old nursery. Tom said I might. I hope you
don't mind. I will go back to my sewingâit was just that my eyes were aching, and I thought .Â .Â .”
I couldn't read her expression; it was so dim in the passage. “Did you find anything of interest there?” she said eventually, her voice flat. “There are some things that you can use when the baby comes, but they're not kept there.”
“Apart from the dust, it doesn't look like it's changed since Tom was a boy,” I said, worried that she would turn cold on me, as she sometimes did.
“Ah well. I suppose it ought to be cleared. I can't think now why it hasn't been.” She was battling to keep her voice light, but it was obvious that there was something she wasn't telling me.
“Tom said it's always been a nursery,” I said carefully.
Her eyes were the darkest I'd seen them. “Yes, that's true. Even when there hasn't been a child to fill it.”
With some effort, she smiled.
“I think I will make us some tea,” she said, her tone now carefully cheerful. “There's nothing a cup of tea won't solve.”
I wanted so much to ask her about Elizabethâand Henry tooâbut again felt I couldn't; not just because I had learned to tread lightly when it came to the past, or because I was English and therefore unaccustomed to prying, but because I understood that it is human instinct to guard one's secrets. After all, I did it with my own.
I hoped Tom would be back in time for dinner that night, but as darkness cloaked the valley floor and I still hadn't heard the throaty sound of his motorcar's engine, I gave up. The house felt immeasurably less lonely, the atmosphere lighter, when he was there, and I already missed his presence when he was away more than I would ever have admitted to anyone.
I wouldn't let Mrs. Jelphs prepare me a hot supper that night. Instead I got myself a cold plate of this and that: some ham and cheese, a pickle and a tomato, and some of Nan's homemade bread, which was only just going hard around the edges.
“It's quiet without him here, don't you find?” said Mrs. Jelphs. She'd come in while I was eating alone at the table in the kitchen.
“I hadn't really thought about it,” I lied. In fact, everything was easier when Tom was there. Even the sense that my every movement was noted by Mrs. Jelphsâand Ruck tooâseemed to dissipate in his presence.
“Oh, I've always found it hard when any of the family go away,” she said softly. “They always do, and it never gets any easier.”
I didn't know what to say to that. It's probably why I asked what I did next; some silly worry that the conversation shouldn't falter or be turned towards me and my health.
“Was there ever a little girl here?”
I hadn't known I was going to say it until I did, and I felt my cheeks redden. The food I'd just eaten churned in my stomach. I looked down at my plate and poked at the crumbs with the tip of my finger.
“Why do you ask?” she said, after a pause too long for it to be natural.
I looked up at her, and to anyone else she would have seemed composed, apparently only politely interested. I took a breath.
“I don't mean recently.”
She picked up my empty plate and took it over to the sink. I don't think she wanted me to see her face.
“As I told you before, there have been people here for centuries. I'm sure some little girls amongst them.”
“It's just that I found a toy.”
I didn't know what else to say. I could hardly blurt out that I had been to the summerhouse to read Elizabeth's diary.
“It's like new,” I hurried on, “but you can tell it's very old.”
“It probably belonged to Tom or Henry when they were children. They would leave things in all sorts of unlikely places.”
“I think it's older than that.”
She looked at me quizzically. “What is it, a doll?”
“No, a hare, a little velveteen hare. I thought it was a rabbit at first, but the hind legs are too long.”
Perhaps it was my imagination or a trick of the lightâit was gloomy in the kitchen by afternoonâbut I thought I saw Mrs. Jelphs's shoulders stiffen.
“How strange. It could have belonged to the boys, of course. It doesn't sound like a little girl's plaything. Did you find it in the nursery?” Her voice seemed to quaver slightly.
“No, actually I found it in the chapel, the first week I was here. I meant to tell you, but then I never got round to it. I thought then that it probably belonged to one of the children from the village, but then I realised that no one goes in there except you.”
She remained with her back to me, running the cloth over the plate that was already clean.
“I've never seen anything like that,” she said tonelessly as she turned and dried her hands with unnecessary deliberation. “Now, I know it's not even eight o'clock, but my back is so stiff today that I think I'll turn in early tonight. Do you mind?”
“Of course not. Mine is giving me some trouble too.”
I received a ghost of a smile for that. “At least yours is for good reason.”
I heard her footsteps retreat down the corridor, getting fainter until they disappeared, and leaving me alone with the sounds of the kitchen. The old water pipes whined and grumbled, and the
tap dripped until I got up and used a tea towel to tighten the faucet.
I knew I wouldn't have been able to resist going back to the nursery to discover what was wrapped up in the old blanket, but it was Mrs. Jelphs's peculiar reaction to my clumsy questioning that made me return that same night. I waited twenty minutes, or what I estimated was twenty minutes, and then returned to the cupboard and took down the nursery key again. Not wanting to wake Mrs. Jelphs, I tiptoed towards the stairs, wincing at every protestation from the oak boards. That's when I remembered the old staircase, the one Mrs. Jelphs had warned me not to use. It was much farther away from her room; I would be far less likely to disturb her if I went that way.
I went back along towards the small parlour to find it. I had never looked for it before. There was a lamp burning in the room I had spent so many hours in, and it looked welcoming as I passed it. I thought for a moment of just going inside, closing the door, and forgetting all about the past for a night, but I couldn't seem to let it rest. At the end of the corridor was a dogleg. Around that was another short corridor. I was gripping the key to the nursery so tightly that the metal almost cut into my flesh.
Finally I came to the foot of the old stairs, which were even more narrow and gloomy than Mrs. Jelphs had described. The very dregs of the day's light filtered through a tall mullioned window to land in distorted diamond patterns at my feet. Its weak glow made the staircase a total void of blackness by comparison.
I climbed the stairs slowly, placing my feet firmly so I didn't stumble. They began to curve round towards the top, the treads narrowing on the inside of the bend. The baby had been kicking gently, but now he stopped moving, as if he knew I had to concentrate and be careful. There was no carpet runner, and however
softly I trod, my steps were clearly audible. My heart thudded harder as it got darker. The top of the stairs brought me out beyond the nursery door, where it would have been obscured by another quirky angle of the manor's architecture. I listened, my hand on my belly, but there wasn't a sound. My feet took me towards the door.
The key turned easily this time. I inched open the door and crept inside. There was little light, but I could make out the bulk of the gramophone on the chest of drawers and the outline of the bed. The light switch, when I tried it, didn't work, but there was a little illumination from the window, so I went over and wiped off one of the panes with my arm. Off towards the west, the sky was draped in wisps of orange and pink chiffon, the navy blue of night slowly spreading to blot them out.
I lifted the window seat slowly. The blanket was reduced to a dark lump in the gloom, so I brought it out to unwrap it where there was a little more light. Inside the folds was a framed picture, and I knew in the instant before I turned it over that it would be the sole photograph that properly showed the likeness of Elizabeth Stanton.
It was a sepia photograph, the edges fading into the pale background so that she looked like an oval cameo. She was certainly beautiful, though not in the way I had come to recognise beauty in the stars I'd seen at the pictures. Her face was soft, her huge eyes vulnerable. Perhaps that was why Edward Stanton had not wanted to hang it: not because there was nothing of her in it, but because there was too much. Without the disguise of laughter and the concealment of social talk, she looked fragile and ethereal, even with her mass of dark lustrous hair to anchor her.
There were three more items at the very bottom of the cavity. The first was a tiny blanket, wrapped in paper. It was the very opposite of the heavy blanket the picture had been wrapped in. This
was gossamer light and cloud soft. Edged in satin, it would once have been as white as snow. A blanket knitted for a new baby.
I reached for the second item, obscured by the shadows at the very bottom of the recess. It was black and covered in a thick layer of dust. As I got hold of it, long-dried earth fell off in brittle chunks more grey than brown. I turned it over and recognised it at last. A child's button boot. Not polished and supple like those I'd seen in my dream, but like a relic from a museum; wrecked by time, the sole curling and cracked, the leather stiff. It fitted comfortably in my hand, but I dropped it back into its hiding place as if it burned me. Leaving the last item, a sliver of cardboard no more than six inches across, I put everything back as quickly as I could and closed the lid. My heart was thudding painfully, and more than anything, I wanted to be shut safely in the small parlour, the warm lamplight pooling on my skin.
I hurried to the top of the old staircase, but then, as I took the bend that would lead to the straight flight of steps and the ground floor, I looked for the window's misshapen diamonds to guide me from below. They seemed wrong in that moment, though I can't rightly say why, and their distortion made me dizzy. I lost my footing and cried out in fright, desperately flinging out my hand to grab at the banister. I couldn't get hold of it, though, my fingertips only skimming the wood. I seemed to stay suspended for a long second before I tumbled down. My last thought was for the baby inside me as I wrenched myself around in the air so that I would fall backwards.