Chapter no 25

The Silent Companions

The pencil was sharp. Dr Shepherd had trimmed it with his penknife. She didn’t like the way it wrote now: scratching along the page; snagging; threatening to snap when she pressed too hard. She had to hold it delicately, as if it were made of glass.

But it was not made of glass, it was made of wood. It smelt of wood, after the trim – she recognised the unsettling scent of trees cracked open.

Over and over again, the same words. Perhaps they would blunt the lead. Make it soft and shining so she could pick up her story again. She refused to continue while the letters looked like this: crisp and startling in their clarity.

Could she blunt her senses also? Once upon a time, the drugs had done that. She remembered shambling down the corridors with Dr Shepherd, barely able to stay awake. But now her traitorous body was growing accustomed, as it had grown accustomed to so many ordeals.

She began to sense the sadness ingrained in the hospital’s bleak white walls and cold tiles. Her whole existence dwindling to a lone, barred cell. Why did chemists manufacture medicines that awoke people, when reality was dismal and hopeless? Better the laudanum dreams, the tranquillisers. For now she felt like a woman in bed on a baking summer’s night – desperate to sleep but turning over and over, unable to rest. Writing the same two words, over and over.

Jolyon. Protect Jolyon.

Her incantation since the day he was born, her twelfth birthday. Protect Jolyon. Yet he was not here and he had not come to visit. That could only mean one thing: she had failed.

The observation hatch slid open. ‘Mrs Bainbridge? Do I disturb you? May I come in?’

She saw Dr Shepherd’s spectacles, glinting behind the gap in the door. The pencil dropped from her fingers.

He shot the bolt from its cradle and entered the cell, closing the door behind him. The stack of papers he carried was thicker than ever.

‘Why don’t you sit upon the bed, Mrs Bainbridge? I am quite willing to stand.’

She did as he asked. The covers were still warm from her body, laced with her own scent. Strange, how a bed had come to mean safety and escape for her. It was not always so.

‘I thought it best that you sit down, Mrs Bainbridge, because I fear our talk today may prove upsetting. Your story has progressed to the point where I begin to understand the pattern of your mind. We have come to the crux of it now.’

His words sank to the bottom of her stomach. She had an urge to pitch herself off the bed and run. Her eyes darted about the room, from the barred window to the heavy lock on the door. No escape.

‘You have written of these “companions”, as you call them. You say you were afraid of them. But do you know what really scares us? It is not things that go bump – or even hiss – in the night. Our fears are much closer than that. We are afraid of the things inside us – be they memories, sickness or sinful urges.’ He tilted his head. His spectacles slid to the left. ‘You, I deduce, are afraid of becoming like either of your parents.’

They were bound to come, of course: the pinpricks of light in her vision and the rush like water in her ears. Childish memories, childish thoughts, that if she squeezed her eyes shut, somehow Dr Shepherd would not be able to see her.

‘I understand what you are feeling. I cannot pretend to be ignorant of the hints you drop, however much natural delicacy would prefer to draw a veil over the subject. And I think that’s what you have done, Mrs Bainbridge: drawn a veil. First through coercion and then

through a sort of mental necessity, you have hidden the fact that your parents mistreated you.’

If she still had a voice she would scream, No, no, speak of anything but that. Or would she? A part of her, a small treacherous part, must want it to be known or she would not have written it, she would not have told him.

He cleared his throat. ‘Believe me, Mrs Bainbridge, I feel deeply for you. A betrayal of trust at such a young age, from those instinct prompts us to hold most dear . . . And a mother, who should nurture and protect, but instead . . .’

She’d hoped to outlive tears, move beyond them to an arid landscape where they never flowed. Yet here they came; hot, sliding down to her chin, restricting her breath. Had they been lurking there all along, just waiting to thaw?

‘I wanted, more than anything, to tell you that this is a positive development. Naturally, it does not feel so – it is forcing you to face a world of distress. Yet you are facing it, Mrs Bainbridge. You have had strength enough to recall these unnatural abuses of your trust. I know you will also find the strength to remember what happened at The Bridge the night of the fire. Then we can make our report. We can clear your name.’

Surprised, she met his gaze: eyes the soft green of buds in spring; pliable, forgiving. And she realised, with a relief so sharp it was almost pain, that he was on her side.

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