Authors: Eleanor Hawken
For Victoria, thank you
I saw a ghost today. A grey girl. She was standing at the window of the top-floor dormitory, looking down upon the world below.
I'd never seen the girl before and today was the start of my fourth year at Dudley Hall. My long summer on Uncle Jack's farm already feels like a million years ago. As the car pulled up to the school this afternoon it felt as though I'd never even been away. The stone gargoyles, the twisted ivy and rattling old windows have been my only real home since Mother and Father died.
Mistress Johnson was waiting at the main entrance, ticking off our names as we arrived and telling us which dormitories we're in. Once again I'm sharing with Lavinia, Margot and Sybil. That's not altogether a bad thing, I suppose. Better the devil you know.
We're in a room on the second floor that looks out onto the school grounds. I had to do two trips to get my trunk, tuck box, hockey stick and heavy winter cloak upstairs and because I was the last to arrive I'm stuck with the bed by the draughty old window. Sybil has the bed by the door, and Margot and Lavinia have beds up against the far wall, either side of the fireplace. Lavinia said that because Sybil's nearest the door she has to be the lookout girl. It's her job to peek out onto the landing at night to check that Matron isn't coming whilst the three of us prepare things for the Rituals.
I hadn't even thought about the Rituals all summer. I don't think Lavinia has thought of anything else.
After we unpacked, Mistress Johnson said we could have some free time outside to enjoy the last of the summer air (as if we need reminding that winter is on the way; the windowsill by my bed is already mouldy with damp!). So the four of us sat underneath the weeping willow tree by the river, took off our long socks and dangled our naked feet into the brook. Margot told us all about her summer with her aunt and uncle in Devon, and Sybil told us how her guardian had forced her to volunteer in a London soup kitchen at weekends. Ghastly.
âAm I the only one who did any reading at all over the holidays?' Lavinia complained with her nose in the air. âI took any book I could find on Rituals from the Oxford library. Good job one of us is serious about this stuff.'
âWhen do you want to do the first Ritual this year?' Margot asked.
âTonight, of course,' Lavinia replied, as she splashed her feet about in the cool river water.
We sat and spoke about the Rituals until the air grew colder and we were called in to clean up for supper. As we walked back through the school grounds something compelled me to look up towards the attic dorm rooms that sit above the row of gargoyles. The rooms that the prefects in final year sleep in.
That was the moment I saw her. A horrid shiver ran along my spine as the small grey face stared down at me from the last room on the right. She looked as though she had been carved from frosted glass. As though someone had spat on a hankie and scrubbed out all her colour. It truly felt as though I was staring at a ghost, into the very face of death. I froze as the others walked ahead, and the ghostly girl looked down at me and waved. I quickly found my feet and ran to catch the others up as fast as I could. I didn't look up again. I didn't want to see her. She unnerved me, whoever she is. I don't like her â the grey girl.
Supper time now, and then the Rituals later tonight.
Until I write again,
Ghosts are all in your head. That's what I keep telling myself, over and over. She's dead and buried. She didn't come back.
I was only in Warren House for five weeks before I was discharged. That's nothing compared to how long most people are in there for.
âYou're going to spend some time with Aunt Meredith,' Mum announced down the phone shortly before I left Warren House. âYour father's being deployed to Afghanistan for the next few months, and my nerves are playing up again, Suzy. You need to be somewhere you can be looked after properly. After everything that happened to you at school you need some stability.' Aunt Meredith and cousin Toby are my only relatives in the UK. Dad has a brother but he's in the army too, and my grandparents all died years ago.
That's the story of my life. Mum passing responsibility for me on to someone else. When I was a kid we had an au pair. The au pair did everything with me; played with me, brushed my teeth, helped me with homework and put me to bed. My childhood is filled with memories of Olga the au pair whilst Mum was lying in bed âsuffering with her nerves'. As soon as I was old enough to brush my own teeth I was packed off to St Mark's College, a boarding school. Mum was probably thankful that I was carted off to a loony bin after I had to leave school â that way she didn't have to look after me.
âYou look tired, Suzy,' was the first thing Aunt Meredith said when she picked me up from Warren House. She loaded my single bag into her car boot and slammed it shut. âI think you've lost some weight too â I hope you've been eating properly.'
Trust me, an eating disorder is a problem I don't need at the moment. The truth is the food at Warren House was so disgusting even a hogzillar pig would drop a few pounds.
âDudley Hall is a few hours away,' Aunt Meredith said as we began the long drive through the English countryside. Dudley Hall â Aunt Meredith's new house â was going to be the closest I'd come to a home in the UK for years. âToby's finished school for the term so at least you'll have some company during the day,' she rattled on. One of the only things that Aunt Meredith had in common with my mother was the need to fill silence with inane prattle. âThe doctor told me you've been keeping a diary? Well, I think that's excellent. I had a diary when I was younger. I used to keep an elastic band around it, thinking it would keep your mother out. Foolish of me, I found out a few years ago that she used to steal my diary every night and read what I'd written each day.' Typical Mum â not caring one iota about someone else's private thoughts and feelings. âThe village is quite small,' Aunt Meredith went on, âbut there are a couple of shops. There aren't many people your age, but one of the women who works for us has a nephew who's a bit older than you. I thought perhaps â'
âI don't need help making friends,' I cut in. âAnd actually I'm not keeping a diary any more.' Aunt Meredith's eyes quickly flicked from the road to me. âI'm writing a screenplay.'
Her eyebrows rose and she said, flatly, âReally?'
âYes, about my time in Warren House. One day it's going to be made into a film. I'll probably play the lead part. I might direct it too. If they won't let me direct it then I'll have someone like Robert De Niro or Ben Affleck do it instead.'
Aunt Meredith smiled to herself and then continued to drone on about everything and nothing whilst she drove. I noticed that the one subject she didn't touch upon was Warren House. I suppose she was afraid to ask me what they did to me there. I suppose it didn't matter, so long as I was cured. So long as I'd stopped believing in ghosts.
I stared out of the car window and tuned her out as the world outside whizzed by. After weeks of being locked up I had felt sure I was ready for freedom. But sitting in Aunt Meredith's car I suddenly wasn't so sure that I was ready. When I'd arrived at Warren House I'd been a shell of who I once had been. Everything that had happened to me at school had nearly destroyed me. When the doctors sent me to Warren House I thought it would be the final nail in my coffin. But instead it had turned my life around. However horrible it had been, it had been safe. But the outside world was full of limitless possibilities, and the thought of all that unknown waiting for me tightened my belly and filled me with dread. I'd counted down the days until the doctors released me, and now that I was free it felt as though it had all happened way too quickly. It felt surreal, as though it was happening to someone else. I could have been an actress in a movie, playing a part that someone else had written for me.
âNearly there now,' Aunt Meredith chirped, after we'd been driving for hours. We were passing through the small village of Dudley-on-Water. Cobblestone houses, manicured gardens, a small river with an ancient stone bridge and a market square. I wondered if Dudley Hall had been named after the village or if it was the other way around. I looked over at my aunt and considered asking her, but she looked deep in thought, chewing the inside of her cheek and frowning. I had weeks to force conversation, I'd save the question for when I was really desperate.
âCan we make a stop here?' I asked, pointing at a small chemist by the piddly excuse for a village green. âThere's something I need to buy.'
Aunt Meredith pulled up outside the village chemist and I jumped out of the car. The chemist door chimed as it opened and an old lady frowned at me from behind the counter. I made my way down the central aisle to the shelf at the back of the shop. What I needed was on the top shelf. I lifted myself onto my tiptoes and reached for the box. The box was covered in dust â that told me volumes about the people who lived in Dudley-on-Water and the kind of things they shopped for. âJust this please,' I said to the old lady as I put the box down on the counter and pulled out my purse.
A few minutes later I was back in the car and being driven towards my new home. Aunt Meredith didn't ask what I'd bought. Good â if she could manage to keep out of my shopping bags, my diary and my head whilst I stayed with her then maybe the next few weeks would be bearable.
We turned onto a gravel driveway, passing through rusted iron gates that had been pinned back against the hedgerows. The gravel path twisted around a corner before opening up onto a long straight drive that ended at a large, imposing country house.
âDudley Hall belonged to the Dudley family for generations. The village and house are named after the family who once owned the land,' Aunt Meredith explained as the long gravel driveway scrunched beneath the weight of the car. Great, I thought, that's one conversation starter I'd just been robbed of. âAfter the family sold the house it became a school for a while. But when that closed down the house was left derelict for years.'
My head snapped around to look at my aunt as my heart suddenly pounded hard. It felt as though my blood was thickening and my face growing hotter. Dudley Hall had once been a school. I was going to be living in an old school. After everything that had happened to me, everything I'd been through â how could anyone think this was a good idea?
Aunt Meredith ignored the look I gave her and continued, âRichard managed to pick it up for an excellent price. A steal really.'
I didn't like the idea of a house being stolen from anyone.
Dudley Hall was both daunting and magnificent. Not like Windsor Castle or anything ridiculous like that. But it was bigger than any normal house. It was exactly the sort of gothic retreat a screenwriter should live in. It was the kind of ancient house that told a hundred stories as you looked at it. There were three storeys of large, wrought-iron windows capped by a row of gargoyles. Above the gargoyles was another storey of smaller windows peeping out of a sloped roof. Ivy crept up the crumbling walls and the windows towards the top of the house were cracked and frosted with age.
âWe're working our way up with the renovations,' Aunt Meredith told me. âOne floor at a time. The guests only see the ground floor and the first floor. Our rooms are all on the second floor.'
âAnd the top floor?' I asked.
âHasn't been renovated yet,' she replied.
The âguests' Aunt Meredith was talking about were her murder mystery participants. Aunt Meredith has always liked a project. She'd run dozens of short-lived businesses in her time â a cupcake company, a dress shop, a villa in the south of France, and then she imported French foods when she got bored of living out there. She even took up charity work when husband number two got sick. And when Aunt Meredith decided to host murder mystery weekends, she wanted a traditional country mansion to do it in. So Richard bought her Dudley Hall. âWe have a party arriving tomorrow afternoon,' she said, as the car pulled up in front of the house. âSo you'll have plenty of time to settle in before then. I thought maybe you'd like a small part to play in the murder mystery. I actually wrote this one myself; it's called
Murder at the Mansion
.' Aunt Meredith flashed me a satisfied smile as she swung open the car door.
âActually, I'd rather not be involved,' I said, getting out of the car. âI know it would be good acting experience for me, but I'm not sure I want to be an actress any more. I think I want to be a writer now instead.'
âMaybe you could be both?' Aunt Meredith smiled proudly, as if the thought hadn't already occurred to me.
Staring up at Dudley Hall, my new home, I once again allowed myself to fall into the fantasy that my life is just one big film script. If I really was living in a movie, a butler or housekeeper would have been there to greet me as soon as the car pulled up outside Dudley Hall. They would have opened the car boot, âAllow me, ma'am,' and carried my bags inside. But no, there was no one there to greet us and I had to lug my bag out of the car boot myself. I followed Aunt Meredith towards the large, oak-panelled door, heavy rucksack in one hand and my purchase from the chemist in the other.
âRichard's away at the moment,' Aunt Meredith said, as she reached out and twisted the large, rusted knocker and the ancient door opened with a groan. Obviously there was no need to keep your door locked when you lived in Dudley-on-Water. âOn business in Boston. He'll be back in a week or so. He's looking forward to seeing you.' That was a lie. I'd only met her new husband twice, and each time he'd barely said a word to me.
The hallway of Dudley Hall felt like something out of the Middle Ages. I'm not sure what parts of the decor were genuine and what was there for the murder mystery guests' benefit. There was a wide oak staircase at the back of the hall that wound around to the left. A life-size suit of armour stood at the bottom of the stairs clutching a sword as though it guarded the staircase. Light streamed in from a huge domed skylight that sat above the staircase, illuminating the tiny particles of dust that swilled about in the air. The place stank of polish and musk. Scattered around the hallway were large, wrought-iron candlesticks and the stuffed heads of various animals â deer, boars and pheasants. My nose scrunched up at the sight of them. There were four doors leading off from the great hall.
âThe dining room, drawing room, library and billiards room.' Aunt Meredith pointed to the doors. âThe corridor to the left leads to further sitting rooms and studies, and to the right is the kitchen and store rooms.'
A large mirror sat between the two closed doors on my right. I caught sight of my reflection. My bright red dress that I'd made last summer hung off me like a sack. Aunt Meredith was right, I did look too thin. My hair was the colour of rust and my eyes looked sunken and hollow. Haunted.
âI'll take you straight to your room to freshen up. Then you can come downstairs and get something to eat,' Aunt Meredith said, tearing my attention away from my startling reflection.
The floorboards creaked beneath my feet as I followed her past the suit of armour and up the grand flight of stairs. The first-floor landing wound around the staircase, framed by a gold-trimmed balcony with marble arches that reached up to the floor above. The staircase then wound up towards the second floor, the floor that I'd be sleeping on. Four corridors led off from the second floor landing, two to the front and two to the rear of the house. Dudley Hall seemed far too big for one family to ever live in, and I could see why it had once been used as a school. There must have been thirty rooms on the first and second floor alone.
I tried to push the thought that the building had once been a school to the back of my mind and lock it away. I'd had enough of boarding schools for a dozen lifetimes. Just the thought of school shoes running up and down those grand stairs made my chest tighten. I imagined the chatter and giggles of schoolgirls, the sound of gossip in the halls and whispering in dormitories after lights out. Memories of my own school began to swirl into my head and conjure up thoughts of the ghosts I was trying so hard to lay to rest.
But Dudley Hall was silent; you could have heard a pin drop.
Aunt Meredith led me towards the corridor on the right at the back of the house. She stopped at the second door and swung it open.
âI've put you in here.' Aunt Meredith ushered me into the empty room.
It was large and painted stark white. An empty fireplace sat on one side of the room with a bare mantelpiece above it, a double bed with crisp white sheets sat on the other. The room was so white and sterile it burnt my eyes, and reminded me far more of an asylum than Warren House ever had. There was a door at the far corner of the room. âYou have your own bathroom.' Aunt Meredith pointed to the door. âAnd I'll take you into the village tomorrow so you can buy some bits and pieces to put on the walls. Your mum's sending some of your things from school, your posters and photos â'
âI don't want them,' I said loudly. âI don't want anything from school.'
Aunt Meredith looked mildly embarrassed and nodded quickly. âI'll leave you to freshen up.'