It started with the blast of a whistle: shrill, nasal, ripping her from sleep. The world was hazy as she struggled to her feet.
Sounds echoed: boots slapping against the ﬂoor, shouts. Only the shriek of that whistle was distinct until the door banged open. Attendants piled into the room; she did not know which ones. They were difﬁcult to distinguish, all hard-faced and lined with endurance. Their muscular arms seized hers and pulled them behind her back.
‘Mrs Bainbridge.’ Dr Shepherd’s voice. Relief alighted on her for an instant, but he shook his sandy head. ‘Mrs Bainbridge, I did not expect this. What has happened?’
What had happened?
He gestured to her left. ‘What has happened to the desk?’
She writhed in the attendants’ grip, twisting to see. Her desk had imploded. Drawers lay scattered on the ﬂoor; some upside down, some with the bottoms punched out. There were scores on the wood. Tooth marks? Yes, tooth marks. But whose?
Dr Shepherd approached it and squatted down, as if he were inspecting a scientiﬁc specimen. ‘Remarkable. Quite remarkable. How did it get like this?’
That was the question. Had another patient slipped into her room, while she slept? Surely she would have heard them? It would have to be someone with a key, the ability to lock and unlock doors, to move soundlessly when—
Dear God, no.
Wood; they always came from wood.
A gaunt nurse with cheekbones like blades stepped forward. ‘It’s what she does, doctor. She smashes everything to pieces.’
‘I am not certain that she did,’ muttered Dr Shepherd. ‘What?’
Confusion ﬂickered over his features. She recalled it well: the exact moment she had started to doubt her own senses. ‘For a start, I do not believe Mrs Bainbridge is strong enough to do such damage. And then, look at her arms. There are no tears in her gown, no sign of blood or splinters on her hands.’ He withdrew a pencil and prodded a drawer. ‘I do not comprehend how a person could do this without injuring themselves.’
‘So you’re telling me the desk went and did this all by itself?’
‘No.’ He unbent his legs and bit on the end of his pencil. ‘No, that is, of course, impossible. But did you hear the crash? What was it that prompted the whistle to summon us here?’
‘I blew the whistle,’ the nurse said, raising her chin. ‘I heard an odd noise in here, and she’s usually quiet as death.’
‘A banging noise? She must have been going at it a good while, to get the desk in this state.’
‘No, not a banging. I only heard it for a few minutes. It sounded like – I don’t know. A scrape, like she had some kind of saw.’
He looked straight at Elsie. ‘Would you say,’ he asked, still addressing the nurse, ‘perhaps, that it sounded like a hiss?’
Her knees buckled.
‘Yes, that’s it, doctor. A kind of rasping hiss.’
God, what had she done? She should never have written her story, never have tried to remember.
Dr Shepherd pursed his lips. ‘Never mind. Just have someone come and clean up this mess. Until the room is suitable again, we will have to ﬁnd Mrs Bainbridge some alternative accommodation.’
An attendant’s breath burnt in her ear, alight with the scent of ale. ‘Want us to put her out, doctor?’
‘No, no,’ he said. ‘Leave Mrs Bainbridge be. I shall take her to my ofﬁce.’
‘To your ofﬁce,’ the attendant repeated in disbelief. ‘Yes. Unhand her, if you please. She will take my arm.’
He offered his elbow, pristine and white. She grasped at it like a drowning woman.
The nurse and attendants muttered as he drew her from the room.
It had been a long time since she’d walked like a lady, escorted by a gentleman. She could not appreciate it now. Terror frayed her senses. It was fortunate Dr Shepherd was strong and young, for he practically had to carry her down the endless corridors to a passage where the echoes were dull and the paint peeled from the walls.
‘Just in here,’ he said.
In her story she had been deﬁant, ﬁghting against the companions. Now Dr Shepherd had to heave her through the door and push her into a chair as though she were paralysed. She could not talk and now she could barely move. Was there anything left inside of her but fear?
Dr Shepherd’s ofﬁce was smaller than she had imagined it. The walls were the same green and white that pervaded the rest of the hospital. It housed a good, sturdy desk and a brass lamp, but little else. She noticed a bell beneath the coving, the type used to summon servants. There must be a clock somewhere too for she could hear it ticking, measured, so much slower than her hammering pulse.
‘I am sorry that this has happened, Mrs Bainbridge. Please do not fret over it. In hindsight, I should have realised something of this nature could occur.’ He sat down on the other side of his desk and exhaled. He was a little paler, these days. His eyes sunk further back into his head. The hospital was taking its toll. ‘The hints are there in your ﬁle. When you can no longer ﬂee from unpleasant memories, your natural instinct is to ﬁght them. Quite understandable. A release of anger, if properly directed, can be cleansing.’ He drummed his ﬁngers on the surface of his desk. ‘But it is preferable for you and me to work through your feelings together, rather than release them. I must include all my observations in my report and . . . well, violent acts do not present themselves in a favourable light.’
She shook her head, incredulous. The hiss! How did he explain the hiss? And he had said himself that she should have scratches or cuts if she had wrecked the desk. She reached out her hands to tell him, but they were empty – the chalk and slate remained in her room.
‘Yes,’ he said, noticing her action. ‘I thought we might leave them behind. From what Nurse Douglas says, you have begun to articulate. Even if it is only noises from your own story . . . I am
beginning to believe that this “hiss” has more signiﬁcance than I ﬁrst anticipated. Are you able to repeat it?’
Did he truly believe she would try? She would do anything never to hear it again, but even if she deafened herself it would still be there, waiting in her dreams.
To appease him, she opened her mouth, exhaled and shut it.
Dr Shepherd sighed. ‘Well, perhaps not yet.’ He opened a drawer. It made an awful wooden clunk that set her teeth on edge. ‘While we are here, I have something I want to show you, Mrs Bainbridge. It is an old ﬁle of ours that I came across while locating your own. At the time I did not consider it of any importance that we treated another Bainbridge here. But when your account touched upon Rupert’s mother, I had another look.’ He pulled out a ﬁle and placed it on the desk. Its cover was stained and partly ripped. ‘This, indeed, was her. Julia Bainbridge.’
A small explosion in her chest. The crying woman with Rupert’s eyes.
She extended a shaking hand but Dr Shepherd put his palm ﬁrmly on top of the ﬁle.
‘There are no photographs, I am afraid. Not common in those days. But I have read through it and am prepared to give you a summary.’
He didn’t want her to see inside. Why?
Distractedly, Dr Shepherd began to smooth the edges of the ﬁle. ‘In your story, you seem concerned that the other Mrs Bainbridge suffered from a similar malady. That the same circumstances troubled her and, ultimately, conﬁrmed your ghostly fears. But I thought it would help you to know that Julia was, in fact, a very different case. She was plagued by melancholia her entire life. It grew particularly bad whenever she was conﬁned in childbed.’
The tenor of those sobs, so different from Sarah’s or even Mrs Holt’s. She closed her eyes, trying to forget them.
‘The fatal break occurred one summer at The Bridge. Her child, a boy of ﬁve years, attempted to jump a hedge on his pony. It was far too high. The animal was injured past help and had to be destroyed. The boy lingered a while longer but there was too much swelling in the brain . . . Eventually he passed away.’
The patchwork quilt. He must have lain beneath it while Julia hovered, tortured, by his side.
‘It was unfortunate timing. Julia had given birth to a daughter just three months before. Her state remained . . . unstable. She developed a peculiar mania in regards to the rocking horse. She had found it scratched, she said, days before the accident, in the same places the pony received its injuries.’
This was bad enough, but there was something worse. She could feel it hanging between Dr Shepherd’s lips. Slowly, she opened her eyes.
He was staring down at the ﬁle. He seemed to be looking through it, gazing into Julia Bainbridge’s troubled past.
‘After this, the details are conﬂicting. I have the ofﬁcial report, the somewhat stilted correspondence from the lady’s husband . . . and the record of a conversation between one of our admitting physicians and Edna Holt.’
She held her breath.
‘I was encouraged to ﬁnd Mrs Holt conﬁrmed many particulars of your story. For instance, she was not present at the death of either child, but she nursed Julia through her illness. That is, perhaps, the only solace to be found in the sorry tale.’ Dr Shepherd met her gaze. His lips compressed, unsure. Finally he said, ‘Ofﬁcially it was suffocation. Babies do suffocate in their sleep, from time to time. But from hints thrown out by Mrs Holt and Mr Bainbridge, I gather that Julia drowned her baby daughter in the fountain.’
Empty lungs, pressure on her chest: she felt it too. Mother hurt me.
‘Tragic,’ he said. ‘I deduce the matter was successfully hushed up until, of course, your own husband was born. Both the father and the servant became concerned for the child’s welfare. Julia spoke of “protecting” him. These were the same words she had used about little Alice. You cannot blame them for taking drastic measures.’
She thought of her baby, and the antler sticking through Helen’s eye. Perhaps drowning was kinder.
Dr Shepherd drew the ﬁle towards him and folded his arms upon it. There was no real need for him to bring it out, he seemed to know the contents by heart. ‘Despite the hospital’s best efforts, there was no recovery. She remained here for a score of years. Julia died, it
seems, like your husband, at around forty years of age, from a heart condition.’
Poor woman. It was a wonder she had any heart left to break.
Dr Shepherd sat up straighter in his chair. His gloomy demeanour fell away. ‘Strange as it sounds, Mrs Bainbridge, I actually told you that little history to raise your spirits. I feel it is proof we are drawing some authentic memories from you, whatever other . . .’ he waved his hand, ‘embellishments come with them. Progress is being made.’
She thought of the desk, the hiss. Right inside her room. Something was making progress, certainly.
She only hoped that it was her.