Authors: Cassandra Golds
For now, of course, they were exploring, not Corbenic itself, but the halls of the old woman's memory.
She pulled Deirdre out of the room that should not have been there and away from the dying woman and her new baby, down the fake, unfinished hall, and into the next room. Against his will, but powerless to choose otherwise, Gal followed behind them, walking as if on the still, icy surface of the turbulent arctic sea of his anger.
It was another room that should not have been there. But it was not as old as the first one. This was a room of a style that belonged in the original Corbenic, as they remembered it, although they had never been inside this particular room before. There before them, a young woman, slim and stylish with large dark eyes, was sitting on a made-up bed fully dressed in a suit and a hat and gloves, nursing a baby and crying softly. The baby, also, was crying. An older woman hovered close by, her arms held out patiently to take it.
âThis won't do,' she was saying. âHe knows you're upset. You should put a brave face on it, for him. It's for the best, Elaine,' she added soothingly. âHe'll do well on the farm. He'll want for nothing; your gentleman friend has seen to that. And you can't keep him. You've no choice. You want to stay on at Corbenic, don't you? Gentlemen like Mr Dark may want female companionship but they don't want babies. If he did he'd marry you. Or someone more suitable. Anyway, he already has the young master and the little girl. And you were never one for the domestic life, not really, not like your sisters. Be thankful for what you've got. There's many a girl who'd give their eyeteeth for such an easy life.'
The young woman bowed her head, hesitated, then kissed the baby, and handed him sadly across. The older woman, who could only have been her mother, took him carefully.
âThat's a good girl,' she said briskly. âYou can always come and visit him. But he mustn't know who you are. You can be his aunty, and he'll grow up thinking you're the best aunty in the world. Think of the presents you'll be able to give him!'
Then she said, with a harsh kind of weariness, âYou can't take a baby to Paris, Lainey.'
Suddenly the impish venomous little girl, the spirit of Deirdre's grandmother, darted too quickly, too swiftly to be human, over to the young woman and began to dance around her gleefully, mocking her and taunting her.
âYou had to give up your baby too, didn't you? Good! Good! I'm glad! Serves you right!'
But the woman could not see her. Deirdre and Gal and the little girl were invisible to her. Like Mrs Dark's young mother, laid up in the bed in the other room, she did not know that she was being observed by ghosts from the future.
Which was fortunate, as the ghost child began to grimace and poke her tongue out at her in a frenzy of malice, within inches of her face.
Gal began to feel uneasy, rattled by a sense that there might be more secrets to come.
And, as if she had felt him faltering, the little ghost girl turned suddenly and grinned at him. She had an air of triumph, as if she was about to produce a weapon he had never known existed. She pointed at Elaine, and looked at Gal as if she thought he was so slow he was barely worth bothering about.
âMy father's mistress,' she said.
He knew that. But then she pointed at the baby.
Of course, thought Gal. Mrs Dark's father was the father of this baby, too.
Then she grinned more intensely at Gal, and said something that caught him off guard.
âSee that baby, Galahad? My little half-brother? He's your relative too. Can you guess who he is? Go on, guess! You ought to know, but I bet you'll never get it in a million yearsÂ .Â .Â .'
She waited, staring at him. Gal stared back at her, confused. He didn't know what she was driving at.
âWell, go on!' she said sharply.
âI don't know what you're talking about,' Gal muttered.
âOh, come now. He's the reason I chose you. For my revenge.'
Gal was startled. Something stirred in him, something so far back it seemed to come from the beginning of the world. He remembered her talking to him about revenge years ago, when he was only five. He had never forgotten it. He had always thought she meant her treatment of him through the years: his banishment; the forbidding of his friendship with Deirdre. But for the first time he felt as if she was talking about â not general persecution â but one particular act of revenge, something she had already done, without him having discovered it.
His mind began to race, wondering in panic what she could be talking about.
But before either Gal or Deirdre had time to grasp the significance of what she had said, the ghost child pointed at Deirdre, and added in an old woman's voice, âNever let anyone tell you there's enough love to go around, Deirdre. There isn't. When Father took up with Lainey he forgot me, and I lost him forever. I was abandoned so completely, he may as well have put me out on the street. I wish he had.
âMen have no feelings. They give women babies, and having the babies kills them. And then the men abandon the babies! And women â women are stupid â like you, Deirdre. They always fall for it. They always believe men love them. But men love no one. Not women. Not children. You'll see.'
Suddenly they were in a third room, and there were a man and a woman and two children: a boy of about twelve and a girl of five. They recognised all of them from the photos: Mrs Dark's father, middle-aged, handsome, distinguished in suit and hat; dark-eyed Elaine, perhaps half his age, dressed smartly for travel; Mrs Dark's older brother, a bright-looking boy, anxious to please; and of course Mrs Dark as a child, easy to recognise from her photograph, but oblivious to her ghost-self observing her. There were suitcases around them. Every so often a man who was much more humbly dressed came in to take two or three of them away. The adults seemed just about to leave for somewhere and were in the act of saying goodbye to the children.
But although Deirdre and Gal absorbed all this, it didn't really matter. What mattered was the overwhelming grief and distress of the little girl, Deirdre's grandmother as a child. She was clinging to her father's knees and making a sound Gal had heard in only one other place.
She wasn't just sobbing â it was more than that; it was a kind of keening, a mourning, a wailing from a place so deep that she seemed to have tapped into some vast, underground river that contained all the suffering of all the people in all the world.
âWhy doesn't he pick her up?' Gal burst out, for the man was ignoring the child, in so far as he could, and his face was like thunder.
âCome along, Elaine,' he said in a lordly manner. âIf there is no little girl here who is capable of controlling herself and saying goodbye to us then we shall have to leave.'
Poor Elaine looked anguished. Timidly, she reached out to touch the little girl. At that point the child turned with such ferocity that she looked like a small and vicious dog.
âDon't you touch me! You're not my mother! I hate you! I hate you!' she cried, and her father's mistress withdrew as if bitten. Mrs Dark's father did not hit her. Instead, he coldly detached her from his knees â though it took all his strength to do so â and placed her on the floor, where she lay face down, prostrate with grief and fear. Then, although she continued to utter that unbearable sound â to wail, to keen, from that place of abject abandonment and forsakenness â he walked out.
Mrs Dark's elder brother looked stricken. He gathered her up somehow and she sobbed into his neck.
âGoodbye, Father,' he called thinly after them. âGoodbye Aunty Lainey!'
But they were halfway down the stairs and probably couldn't hear him above the sound of the little girl's voice.
Gal felt dizzy with emotion. For a moment, he felt his anger forsaking him. For a moment he began to feel the beginnings of an appalled kind of pity.
But he knew that he couldn't give in to it. He knew he had to hold onto his anger, for without it he would be lost and Deirdre's grandmother would win.
Desperately he tried to regain his own side of the story:
This is not the point,
he felt like saying.
I don't care what happened to you. It didn't give you the right to destroy Deirdre. It didn't mean Deirdre had to spend her life making it up to you.
She was manipulating them, he knew. She was trying to rob from them the sense that they had a right to fight her.
He turned his eyes towards where he thought Deirdre was standing, only to have the terrifying little girl who was the ghost of Deirdre's grandmother shove her face into his. She was floating in midair with her eyes at the same level as his.
So I'm a bully, am I?
' she said to him. â
And he realised, with a shock, something that he should have known â she had been listening to everything he and Deirdre had said to one another since he entered the building.
He tried to look past her at Deirdre but instead found himself looking into a fourth room. When he saw what was in it he felt a sick dread, like none he had ever known before.
It was another bedroom, but the person who was lying in the bed was not a woman. It was a child, a little boy of about two or three, and he wasn't sleeping. He was dead.
He had very dark hair and pale, waxen skin. His black lashes lay like beautiful sleeping spiders just above his cheekbones. There were purple half-moon shadows beneath his closed eyes. He didn't look peaceful. He looked troubled.
There was a young woman sitting by the bed. She was staring at him as if he might wake at any moment.
Then the men came, subdued, professional-looking men in old-fashioned suits.
âMay we bring the coffin in now, ma'am?' the older man said in a hushed voice.
The young woman said nothing. She continued to look expectantly at the dead child. Deirdre felt the ghost child's nails digging further into her hand. But she didn't need to be told what she was watching. She knew this was her grandmother as a young woman. She knew this was the son she had lost.
âMa'am?' said the undertaker.
âWhat are you talking about?' said Deirdre's grandmother. âHe's not dead. He'll wake up in a minute.'
âIt's a pretty little coffin,' the undertaker went on soothingly. âWhite. Like a cradle. With white quilted satin inside. You'll like it, ma'am.'
âYou're not bringing that thing in here,' said Deirdre's grandmother. She sounded perfectly sane. âYou're being ridiculous. Where is my husband?'
âHe's downstairs, waiting,' said the undertaker. âWe'll take good care of him, ma'am, don't you worry about that. There's nothing more you can do now. You have to give him to us.'
Gal didn't know how much more he could stand. But then a strange thing happened, even stranger than the scene they were watching.
âThat's enough!' Deirdre said to the wild little girl in sudden fury. â
I am not seeing this memory again!
I've seen it a thousand times before, and you never let it heal! You just live it over and over! And you make me live it over and over too!'