Eyes brimming with apprehension, Beth gazed upon her new home. In all honesty, there was very little about it that she thought of as homely. The monochrome façade was sparse and spotless, the curtains in most windows were brusquely drawn, and the monstrous building blocked the midday sun, casting sombre shadows across the driveway. The driver ushered her in and Beth gripped Mr. Teddy tighter to her chest as she stepped across the threshold, the humungous doorway swallowing her small, trembling figure.
In the cavernous entrance hall stood a tall woman, dressed in black cotton, light grey hair neatly coiffed. Beth could make out her piercing blue eyes even through the gloom. They were the eyes of someone you daren’t cross.
“Good afternoon. You must be Elizabeth.”
Beth wrinkled her nose instinctively, but her distaste was promptly ignored.
“Welcome to Hartling Hall. You may call me Mrs. Kingsley. Dennis…” she gestured in the direction of the driver “…will show you to your room in just a moment. He will take you to school on weekdays and pick you up at the end of the day. We dine at six every evening; if you are tardy then you will go hungry. At weekends you have full reign of the house and grounds to amuse yourself as you please, else Dennis or Julia could accompany you into the village if you so desire.”
She paused here, allowing Beth to absorb the information as she hid behind her teddy bear shield. Then, with a daggered stare that could have ripped the toy to shreds and a cold tone that caused the young girl to shiver, the woman continued.
“However, you must not, not ever, enter the last room on the second floor with the red door.”
There was no explanation, no threat of terrible consequences, but they were not needed. Beth nodded feverishly, keen to show that she understood.
“Good. Good…” Mrs. Kingsley trailed off, seemingly uncertain of how to continue the conversation, icy demeanour replaced with awkwardness. “Dennis will take you upstairs now. I shall see you at six.”
She swept across the polished tiles to Beth’s left, revealing a grand sweeping staircase to the upper levels of the manor. Dennis led the way, carrying Beth’s small shabby suitcase and gas mask box, Beth clutching Mr. Teddy in his wake. Her room was in the middle of the first floor and equally as grandiose as all else that she had seen so far. Its enormity swamped the child and her meagre possessions, delicate cornicing lit by towering lace-fringed windows, the king-sized bed a veritable sea of sheets waiting to smother her. In all other aspects the room was sparse, beige and frankly unwelcoming. As Dennis departed, the resulting silence was both deafening and comforting. Beth gently placed her teddy in pride of place on the floral pillow, unbuttoned her navy coat and untied the oversized label from her lapel. Hartling Hall was her home now, although inside, she simply felt lost.
After three months of roaming the expanses of Hartling Hall and its immaculate gardens on her own, Beth had grown tired of her new home-cum-prison. Mrs. Kingsley scarcely spoke to her over dinner; they would exchange initial pleasantries then eat their meal in a silence broken only by the clinking of cutlery and the comings and goings of the cook. Beth got the impression that the woman could not wait to be out of her company. Beth craved social interaction with her London school friends and younger brother; instead, she was forced to read and re-read her mother’s letters as a paltry form of entertainment, and hold insightful conversations with her teddy bear companion. Together, they had noticed a few strange habits of the household. The chef, Irene, liked to sing operettas in the kitchen whilst baking, foolishly believing that she was out of earshot. Julia, the housekeeper, preferred to polish the furniture by completing an anti-clockwise circuit around each room. Dennis the driver greeted Beth daily with a jovial “Good morning sunshine!” no matter the weather. Raymond the gardener enjoyed humming lullabies to the roses (he insisted that it made their petals particularly perfectly velvety). But the oddest behaviour was that exhibited by Mrs. Kingsley herself. Beth had noticed her absences each day following dinner. With her partner, Detective Inspector Teddy, she had deduced that Mrs. Kingsley would always retire in the evening to the last room on the second floor corridor with the red door, sometimes for ten minutes, others for several hours. She had also noted that Mrs. Kingsley kept the door locked, concealing the small tarnished key on her person at all times. However, after three months of spying from shadowy corners, Beth’s curiosity got the better of her. First though, she needed a distraction.
Not long after tea, whilst Julia busied herself in the pantry collecting ingredients, Beth snuck into the unguarded kitchen and stealthily stole three trays from the lower cabinets. Mr. Teddy in one hand, trays in the other, she ascended to the first floor. Then, with all the strength she could muster, she flung the metal dishes into the air, sending them crashing and clattering down the stairs. Hiding in her bedroom, she watched Mrs. Kingsley rush down from the second floor to investigate the commotion, then raced upstairs from whence the woman had run. As suspected, the red door had been left ajar. Beth paused momentarily to catch her breath, then stepped into the mysterious room.
Rather unexpectedly, a faded red, patterned carpet invited her into a child’s nursery. Daylight filtered into the room through moth-eaten lace curtains, glinting off an array of unused toys, which would have been pristine if not for the deep layer of dust settled on each surface. There was a wooden pull horse, a china doll sleeping peacefully in a pretty crib, various stuffed animals and board games and a magnificent dolls house replica of Hartling Hall itself. Taking pride of place in the centre was a splendid rocking horse, comparatively gleaming and dustless, saddle a little threadbare. ‘How could Mrs. Kingsley deny me all these wonderful toys?’ Beth pondered, gleefully straddling the horse and creaking back and forth. Mid-rock, Beth found her attention drawn to something on the floor: an open locket, and a plain white handkerchief spotted with damp patches. She reached for the locket, balancing it carefully on her palm. Inside were two portraits: the first of a handsome young man with gentle brown eyes and a strong jaw, the second of a very little girl with long blonde hair and the dazzlingly bright blue eyes.
A single syllable laden with seething anger and betrayal. Beth froze at the sound of Mrs. Kingsley’s voice, brain fumbling for an excuse.
“I wasn’t- I didn’t- I wouldn’t-,“ she stammered, turning to face her accuser.
To her surprise, Mrs. Kingsley’s stern features softened as she looked from Beth’s cherubic face to the locket in her hand. She paused briefly, composing herself, then spoke.
“She was only four years old,” the woman whispered, “Influenza.” She sighed and used a fragile finger to wipe away burgeoning tears. “She was our angel… William perished in The Great War. They told me that he died in battle. But I think he had nothing left to fight for.”
Mrs. Kingsley retrieved the locket from Beth, who duly dismounted the rocking horse.
“This horse was her favourite. Horace, she called him. So, I share a ride with her, with them, every day.”
Beth flushed and looked down at her feet, wordlessly apologetic.
“These toys and trinkets… they should be played with, not abandoned as a dusty shrine.” She bent down to Beth’s level. “I didn’t realise how much I needed this. Thank you, Elizabeth.”
Beth winced automatically and Mrs. Kingsley’s face cracked into a smile – the first genuine smile that Beth had seen in three months.
“Lizzie is it? No? Sorry! Then it must be… Beth? How old are you, Beth?”
“Nine and a half.”
“Is that so? Well then I have something perfect for you… Julia is baking cookies. Shall we go downstairs for some samples?”
“Oh yes please Mrs. Kingsley, let’s!” Beth said eagerly, taking the woman’s hand, and holding Mr. Teddy with her free arm.
“Please, call me Sylvia.”
They left the nursery room, enticed by the distant smell of freshly-baked goods. For the first time in thirty-four years, the red door was left wide open.
Emma H, age 26, 03/05/2017
This short story was written in response to Sue Vincent’s Child #writephoto challenge. A very different photo this week and an excellent spark of inspiration – I wrote a far longer story than I was originally intending! Many thanks, Sue.