Authors: Cassandra Golds
The moment they shut the door behind them they saw her. She was walking away from them, quite slowly, but as light as a fairy, a little girl of about five in a long white nightgown, holding a candle. She had long, straight hair â silvery fair. She walked down the hall to the left of the staircase, turned the corner, and disappeared from view.
They both stared after her. Gal collected himself. There was a memory, a picture in his mind he could not quite retrieve â he felt as if he had just relived a scene from his past. But he was too distracted to make sense of it.
âWho was that?' he whispered.
âI don't know,' Deirdre whispered back.
âWe have to follow her,' said Gal. But Deirdre hesitated. âWhat is it?' he asked.
âWe don't think?' she repeated. âWe don't try to remember? We just start exploring?'
âIt's going to be horrible,' she said.
Gal nodded again.
âMy grandmother â my grandmother will show us thingsÂ .Â .Â .'
âShe'll show us her life, Gal. She'll show us her memories.'
âI know. I know. But we can't let her use them to stop us. We have to face them, and push through to what's ours. Don't you see?'
But Deirdre didn't seem to hear him. âYou know,' she said softly, âCorbenic isn't just a block of flats.' She paused for a moment, searching for words. âCorbenic,' she said, âis my grandmother's mind.'
Gal stared at her.
What she had said reminded him of something, although at first he could not work out what. Then he saw the castle of his nightmare, ruined, infinite, with the keening little girl trapped inside it.
It came to him suddenly that if Corbenic was her grandmother's mind, Deirdre was trapped inside of it.
Then he began to wonder if he was too.
Deirdre gazed at him silently. Then, reluctantly, she turned and started walking up the hall. There was no choice. Gal followed.
They had expected to catch up with the little girl in the white nightgown. At the pace she was walking, in the confined space, it shouldn't have been hard. But when they turned the corner as she had, she was nowhere to be seen. Instead they came upon something so shocking, and so uncanny, they both stumbled backwards as if pushed.
They had been in the original part of Corbenic; they should have turned into one of the old halls they knew so well. The extension Deirdre's grandmother had still been building when she died had been constructed around the core of the old building. They should have had to cross through it â the original Corbenic â to get to those new, unfamiliar halls; those new rooms; those new stairs and cupboards and storerooms, in which they had no interest. But instead, all at once, that's where they were.
It felt as if the extension had somehow been thrust in their path.
It felt as if Mrs Dark was somehow using the new part of the building to prevent them from gaining access to the old.
âIt's not possibleÂ .Â .Â .' whispered Gal.
But at the same time he realised that they had entered a dimension where anything was possible.
They were unfamiliar with the new part of the building, never having explored it as children. And the incongruity of the extensions being where they should not have been was strangely menacing â even more menacing than the letters,
, in the ceiling.
Frozen, confused, they stared around them. They were standing at the far end of one of the new halls. Although it had been designed to tone with the old building it was very different: immediately recognisable as something that had been tacked on years later. The ceilings were lower and without the ornate plasterwork; the painting was lighter and newer â in fact, the scent of new paint was still discernible. Even the wood was lighter, less sturdy â it seemed like plastic or some synthetic material constructed to look like wood.
And it was unfinished. The doors had no handles on them, the hall was uncarpeted, the light fittings had loose wires and were unconnected. There were even traces of the builders â a box of nails on the floor, a tray with a paint roller left in it and the paint dried up, some canvas folded roughly nearby.
But more than this, unlike the original building, it seemed artificial, fake. It had the air of something built without the builder having any intention of using it for an honest purpose. It had the air of something built to hide something else.
And there was another difference. Gal had never come upon a hall in Corbenic in which all of the doors were not shut. But each door along the length of this hall was ajar, and each had a separate light spilling out of it. These triangles of light were each slightly different in colour and strength. The variation gave Gal a peculiar feeling. He knew it meant something, but he didn't know what.
Later, he understood that he had been looking, simultaneously, at light from different times.
But there was also a sound. It was the sound of weeping.
At first it was difficult to divide the sound into its separate parts. There was a baby crying. But there was also a woman, terrified, agitated, pleading. Then they realised that they weren't hearing just one baby. There were several, four or five maybe, it was difficult to tell. And there were several women too, their voices rising and falling in a gabble of anguish. And yet there was a sense in which they all sounded like the one baby, the one woman.
Gal stared down the hallway. It was horrible already, just as Deirdre promised. It would have been easy to give up right there, despite his fine intentions. Only â
Gal was still angry. He was so angry that fear could not really touch him; and the more he felt Deirdre's grandmother trying to frighten him, the angrier he became.
âShe's a despot,' he muttered. âBut I won't be crushed by her. I won't. Come on,' he said to Deirdre.
And so they approached the first doorway.
Just when they thought they knew the score â however impossible, however incongruous â just when they thought they were not in the old building as they should have been, but in the new one, they found themselves in a room that should not have been there. Not a new room, not a room that belonged in the extensions, but an old one â older, even, than Corbenic itself.
It was a bedroom with a young woman laid up, feverish, in the large, ornamental bed, and a cradle beside her. Her hair was damp with perspiration and sitting back hectically from her forehead. She was holding a very new baby, perhaps only hours old, while another woman, who had her back turned to them, was trying to coax it from her.
âPlease don't take my baby!' she kept saying. âPlease don't take my baby! Please don't take my baby!'
She was shrinking further and further back into her pillows, and holding the baby closer and closer to her chest. The other woman, who was older and had an air of patient, professional detachment, kept making calming noises and trying, gently but firmly, to take the baby from her. The baby was crying.
âJust for a little while, pet. You're too weak to hold her. We'll put her down and you can both go to sleep.'
âNo!' said the young woman frantically. âI can't fall asleep!'
âOf course you can. Sleep is what you need. You're exhausted. Having a baby is hard work. If anyone deserves a good rest â'
âYou don't understand. I don't mean I won't. I mean I mustn't!'
âYou mustn't fall asleep? Why ever not?'
âBecause,' said the young woman desperately, âif I fall asleep I'll die!'
âNonsense. What in the world gave you that idea?'
âIt's true! I know it's true! That's why you're taking her from me!'
âYou have to rest and grow strong, pet. I want you to sleep. The baby will be right beside you. There'll be no talk of such things in my nursery. And you were so brave! You don't have to be brave any more. It's time to rest. Let me take her, there's a good girl.'
âBut I have to keep awake. I have to stay alive. I can feel it, I can feel death coming, and if I fall asleep I won't be able to fight it. And if I die, she'll be alone! Poor little baby. Poor little baby. Don't take her from me. Please, please, please â'
Then suddenly a shrill little laugh rang out from above them. They looked up.
A blonde little girl dressed all in black, her hair cut in a short bob with a fringe, hovered as if suspended somehow from the opposite corner of the ceiling.
âYou both look so sad!' she shrieked. âIt's so funny!'
For a moment, Gal's vision faded into black. That's how much she had shocked him. But then the colours came back, he saw the little girl again, and knew who she was.
It was Deirdre's grandmother. As a child. Anyone would have known her from the photographs in her flat. But even if he had never seen the photographs, he would have known her anyway. The venom was unmistakeable.
It was as if their minds were being stretched, distorted somehow, pulled out of shape. It was as if time itself was being contorted into something unnatural.
Deirdre stared up at her, as if at a malevolent god to whom she was utterly in thrall. Even death had not broken the spell.
Gal looked up too. He knew what he was looking at. He knew he was facing his enemy. He even knew that she was probably more powerful than he was. But again he felt the anger, so intense that he was elated with it.
It wasn't a question of overcoming fear. It was a question of controlling anger. If he was afraid, he was afraid only of what he could do if he let go of it.
His calm was sublime, because the anger fuelled it.
âWhy is it funny?' he asked the child, the ghost of Deirdre's grandmother.
âBecause that's me!' the ghost child shrieked back at him. âThe baby is me!'
So this, the scene they were watching, was the beginning of Deirdre's grandmother's life.
They should perhaps have recognised her mother from the photograph of her in the flat. But a calm, stiff studio portrait of a woman in a high-necked dress and upswept hair was no representation of that woman in the most extreme exhaustion and distress.
It was as Deirdre had warned. Her grandmother was showing them the story of her life. She was showing them her memories.
They had set out to explore, to search for what was their own; instead she had made herself their guide. They were seeing only what she wanted them to see. Not their story: hers.
She was pulling the power back from them already.
At that moment the nurse succeeded in getting the baby out of the young woman's arms. She wrapped it more snugly in its blanket, and put it down in the cradle. But the baby kept crying, and the woman kept making a noise between a sob and a moan, which got weaker every time she made it.
âJust rest, dear,' said the nurse. âWe will all still be here in the morning.'
âHa!' cried the wild little girl â the spirit of Deirdre's grandmother â in the corner of the ceiling. âLiar! She died!'
Then, as quick as an evil thing in a nightmare, she whipped down from the ceiling and landed in front of them. Her little face was as piquant and alien as it was in the photo, and she was wearing the same calf-length black dress, drop waisted with long black tight-fitting sleeves and black stockings and shoes. She looked about six, but here was where she was different from her photographed image â she also looked much older.
Her face was like a kaleidoscope: one minute the pattern fell into a picture of a child's face; on the next turn she was an old woman. And, unlike in her photo, there was no ambiguity about her expression. She had so much energy, it was as if she was made of electricity. She seemed fraught, not with any kind of vulnerability, but with the most intense hostility, a hostility too intense to be human.
And it was all directed at Gal. She stared up at him, and he felt that he had never in his life been looked at with such absolute hatred.
âWell, come on,' she said, slipping her cold little hand into Deirdre's without taking her eyes off Gal. âYou've come back to explore, haven't you? And there's so much you haven't seen!'