The Girl in the Red Coat (6 page)

13

 We drive for a long time. Then it turns into night and there’s blackness around the car. I get so tired I fall asleep.

When I wake up I see the car windscreen and for a minute I think I’m looking at a big broken TV and the swirling outside the glass is the picture trying to come through.

‘You’ve been asleep, little Carmel.’

I turn my head to look and Grandad’s hands are still stuck tight to the steering wheel as if he hasn’t moved all the time while I’ve been asleep. It’s not a surprise to me he’s there because I didn’t forget about him even though I was asleep, if that’s possible. But something’s made me go prickly, I think it’s the way he said ‘little’.

‘It’s fine, dear, to sleep. It’ll help you with the shock you’ve had.’ And he sounds kind again and I decide he’s probably the sort of person who’s not used to talking to little girls – like Dad’s girlfriend – and it makes everything coming out of their mouths sound wrong and squeezed.

He
doesn’t seem tired at all. There’s a sort of sparkly energy coming from him now. Mum told me once that can happen if you don’t get much sleep. You stop feeling tired and get … ‘wired up’.

I sit up in the slippy seat that’s warmed up I’ve been in it so long.

‘It’s very dark here.’ I’m trying to see where we are.

‘I’ve taken the B roads. They’re always more fun,’ he says.
Though I can’t think what’s fun about it when it’s so dark you can’t even see, except some long grasses lit up by the headlights reaching out and whipping at the car either side. Then he starts singing, ‘I’ll take the B roads and you take the low.’ He laughs at his song like he’s done something clever.

‘Come on, join in, Carmel. I’ll teach you the words.
I’ll take the B roads and you take the low
…’

‘No thanks.’

He clutches at the steering wheel and laughs again. ‘It’ll be fun. Singing always makes a journey go quicker.’

‘No thank you.’ I’m trying to be extra polite but I really don’t want to sing his song. I just don’t feel like it.

He keeps on trying to get me to join in. But he gives up in the end and says, ‘Not far now.’

I stare into the dark, being like a cat, and I start seeing some black hills. It looks like countryside with not even a single house. ‘I thought you lived in London,’ I say.

‘Well … Carmel. The fact is, the fact is – we did. But when your grandmother died I couldn’t settle. Then I met Dorothy, a true gem of a woman, and for the moment, well – we’re staying in Wales. Waiting to see where the wind will blow us.’

‘My grandma died?’ I sit up. ‘
When
did she die?’

‘Several years ago now – did your mother never tell you, dear?’ And he tut-tuts like it’s really sad and the saddest thing of all is Mum not telling me.

‘No, I don’t
think
she ever told me.’ I’m trying to make it better for Mum, by making out I can’t remember whether she told me or not.

‘I think you would have remembered that, Carmel.’ He’s right.

I decide I can’t really be upset about someone I don’t
know – even if she had been my grandma. But it’s funny that Mum didn’t tell me. I’m really wanting to ask why they argued but it seems too rude. Then a thought comes to me that Mum wouldn’t have fallen out with someone for no reason and I make a decision to keep my eye on him, and find out what that reason might be.

I’m so tired now my eyes are burning but it doesn’t stop me worrying about Mum.

‘Can we phone the hospital and see what’s happening to Mum again?’ I ask.

‘It’s too late now. All the staff will be in bed because it’s the middle of the night.’

‘Is it?’

‘Uh-huh. We’ll phone in the morning and God willing they’ll have some good news waiting for us. Besides, we’re nearly there now.’

Then we’re driving up a hill and round and round a winding road and I can hear wind blowing on the car.

‘Here we are at last,’ he says, and in the car lights there’s the tallest pair of iron gates I’ve ever seen.

‘Is this where you live?’ It’s a scary place, but I don’t want to say.

‘Yes, for the time being. It looks very big, Carmel, but we’re only renting a tiny part of it. The rest is empty.’

‘OK.’ I swallow.

He rubs his hands together like people do when they’re thinking of the next thing that has to be done. He gets out of the car and unlocks the big padlock that’s hanging off the gates. With the car lights shining on him it makes his white hair glow around his head. He opens up the gates and comes back into the car.

We drive into a sort of yard and the headlights flash over a great big stone building that looks like a castle. He stops just inside the gates and goes back to lock them up.

When he gets back in I ask, ‘Is this a castle?’

He’s smiling as he switches the engine off and when he does that the lights go out too and everything goes black. Now he’s sitting next to me in the dark and I don’t know if he’s still smiling or not. I don’t know
what
the look is on his face.

His voice comes out of the dark. ‘No, dear, it’s not a castle. It used to be something called a workhouse in the old days. But developers started doing up part of it, before they ran out of money, and that’s the bit we’re staying in.’ His voice sounds like he might be smiling.

I’ve heard of workhouses. We did them in school for history. They were for people that … that ‘fall over hard times’. But I don’t ask anything else.

‘Time to get out of the car, dear.’

I do but I’m so tired and it’s so dark I’m stumbling around. There’s a cool wind on my face, fresh, that smells of grasses and flowers.

‘Here, let me help you. I thought there was a flashlight in the car but I seem to have mislaid it.’ He laughs. ‘Silly Grandpa.’

I feel his arm round my shoulders, guiding me somewhere, but I keep nearly falling over because I can’t see my own feet and what they might be stepping on. But somehow, even though there’s not one tiny star in the sky to show the way, I know we’re getting near the building because I can feel a kind of heaviness or a great big weight in front of me, like the way bats can.

Then a door opens and light spills out and down over a row of big stone steps leading up to the door and onto the old-fashioned stones the ground’s made of. This one patch of light is so bright it makes the woman standing there look like one of those cut-out paper puppets where you can only see their black shape.

‘Ah, there’s Dorothy. Waiting for us.’

She’s wearing a skirt that nearly comes down to her ankles and she’s got long hair whipping about in the wind. She looks so much like a puppet of a black witch standing there in her castle that under my breath I say what Mum told me to say whenever I’m frightened.

Courage, Carmel. Courage.

And it always works, well, nearly always. Dorothy doesn’t seem so frightening once we’re inside and I can see her properly in the light coming from a bulb hanging in the hallway. She’s got light brown skin and sort of sleepy but clever eyes. She leans down towards me and says, ‘So this is little Carmel.’

I nod. And even though I don’t know her it’s nice to be with a lady again. She smells of cooking and spices and looks a bit like something from the olden days too with her long black skirt and red blouse tucked into it.

She takes my hand. ‘Come, child, you must be starving.’ I realise she sounds foreign.

We go down the hall and she opens a door and there’s a place with coats and boots and she opens
another
door and there’s a kitchen with a long wooden table running right down the middle of it. It’s much, much newer than the big hall; it’s got shiny new white cupboards.

‘This is our part of the house, Carmel. Isn’t it nice?’

I nod, even though nothing seems very nice at the moment.

‘The rest isn’t finished so we rented it good and cheap, they did us a real good deal.’ Her face looks very pleased about this. ‘Now, would you like to use the bathroom?’

I nod and she takes me through a big living room and up a staircase that goes round and round to where there’s a bathroom. The room next to it is a bedroom and the door is open so I can see there’s suitcases stacked on the floor at the bottom of the bed. She waits for me outside and then we go back down to the kitchen.

‘Sit here, child.’ Dorothy pulls a chair out from the end of the table. ‘What would you like? Would you like cookies and milk?’

‘Yes please.’ Dorothy puts a glass of milk and three chocolate chip biscuits in front of me. I realise how hungry I am and I gobble them down quickly. It’s only when I’m picking up the crumbs on my wet finger I see I’m alone in the room. I feel very strange, sitting at this great big table in such a great big house, like I’m the princess in one of the Grimms’ fairy-tale books at home. I start crying then, I feel so strange and lonely. The fat tears get mixed together with the crumbs on the plate.

Dorothy’s back. Because my eyes are full of water the red of her blouse grows down and sideways. I blink and she goes back to normal.

‘Now then. Child, child, what’s the matter?’

‘I didn’t know where anyone was.’

She sticks her hands up in the air. ‘Lord. What a girl. I was just getting a bed ready for you. Now there’s no need for this, is there? Everything will come out A-OK in the end.’

‘Will it?’

She nods. ‘Sure it will. Let’s get you into your bed. In the morning, you’ll feel much better. Everyone always does. Now,’ she puts her hands on her hips, ‘there’s only one bedroom in this apartment, and that’s where me and your grandpa sleep. So, I’ve found a bed for you in the other part of the house. It’s not done nice and new like this part, but it’ll have to do for now. Thank the Lord they gave us the keys for us to keep an eye on it.’ She winks at me.

We go back to the hallway with the bare bulb again. I follow her up the big wooden stairs that our feet clatter on and the echoes go up into the ceiling. At the top of the stairs she unlocks a door to a long corridor with lots of doors. She’s holding a candle which is just as well because it starts getting dark the further down it we go. First she shows me a toilet I can use that has a wood seat and an old-fashioned chain. Then she opens the door next to it.

‘This is your room, in here.’ Inside is nearly empty – just a bed with sheets and blankets and an old chair by the window.

‘There is no electricity in this part of the house,’ she says. ‘Here, I have found one of my petticoats for you to sleep in.’

I look at the bed. ‘Dorothy, am I allowed in here?’ It doesn’t look like anyone’s slept in this room for about a hundred years. And the way it was locked up, it feels like we shouldn’t be here at all.

‘I won’t tell if you don’t,’ she winks again.

I don’t want to change while she’s standing there. So I sit on the bed and hold the petticoat in my hand. Then I hear behind my back her going out and the door shutting –
clunk
. So quick, quick I change into the petticoat, which is white and has frills around the bottom. The door opens again.

‘Are you ready, Carmel?’

‘Yes.’

The petticoat’s so long I nearly fall over it as I take my clothes over to the chair. But Dorothy just laughs. ‘Here – we must make it fit you.’ And she ties the shoulder strings up into bows so it only comes down to my feet and doesn’t trip me up like before. She tucks me in and I’m about to ask her to stay but then I hear the door closing. It’s so dark I can’t see my hand in front of my face, even.

‘Goodnight Mummy. I’m sorry for everything,’ I say, although I never call her Mummy now. And I can hear Dorothy’s footsteps getting further and further away and I shout out quickly in a panicking sort of voice.

‘Dorothy, don’t go. Please come back.’

The door opens so the light comes through in a slice.

‘What is it, child? Are you afraid?’

‘Yes.’ I’m glad she’s said it and I don’t have to explain.

‘Would you like me to sit on your bed awhile?’

‘Oh, yes. Yes please.’

The bed’s creaky and old so it makes a noise when she sits on it. She puts her candle down and holds my hand and strokes it with one of her thumbs.

‘When I was a child I was often afraid.’

The voice she uses is like she’s going to tell me a story. I hope she does, it would take my mind off everything. When she doesn’t say anything for a while I ask, ‘What of?’

She’s quiet for a bit. ‘Things that moved too quickly. My mother said I had bad nerves.’

‘Oh.’

‘So I understand what it is to be afraid. You must have courage, Carmel.’

And her saying this and sounding like Mum makes me feel a tiny bit better and I can’t hold off any longer and start feeling myself going into sleep.

When I wake up in the night she’s gone. The thick blankets on top of me aren’t light and soft like my duvet at home, they’re heavy so they push my legs into the bed. It’s cold. But not inside the bed – that’s steamy and warm like the sheets weren’t dry enough when Dorothy put them on.

I feel achy and tired all over – even my brain. There’s a little bit of morning in the window and I roll over and watch it growing because it helps. I try to understand everything that’s happened. But then I give up. Sometimes, it’s easier to think of things as stories – not real, even. I’ve practised it before – when Dad went away, and another time when two bullies at school were saying words to me – words like ‘wanker’ and ‘weirdo’ that shot out of their mouths like dirty spit. If I made these things into stories I could float away from them, and look at them sideways, or like they were happening inside a snow globe.

All the same, I can’t stop pictures flashing up in my mind. The main one – my grandfather’s face as he unlocked the metal gates, turning to look at me as if he was checking I was still there. I remember how he looks exactly like the man in my picture, his white hair bright in the car lights and his pale owl eyes with their little specs. It seems a million years ago I did that drawing – even though it was only yesterday. I wonder about the rabbit in the picture, listening at his feet, and I wonder who the rabbit is and why he’s there. And then just before I go to sleep again I have a very odd thought. It’s that I know who the rabbit is, and the rabbit is me.

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