In her dreams, Elizabeth was on the ward that had consumed her life.
It had not burnt to the ground as she knew it had many years ago, but was intact and filled with the confused slumber of its patients. The book she had been reading was open at the page where she had fallen asleep. She had done her rounds, had tucked in the sleepers, had recreated the stories she had for them.
The book had taken up three full nights. At its heart was a dark secret of which none of its characters dared to speak. At its core was a girl who had been locked away in the attic of her home for years. She had grown in darkness as a way of keeping her pure. This was her mother’s God.
He was not mercy. He was not forgiveness. God was pain and damnation.
Elizabeth had read the book carefully taking each word at a time and not skimming. She was drawn to the story in the same self-destructive manner that addicts return to the drugs that kill them. The more she read, the deeper she was mired in its lines. On the third night she slept.
In her dream, she woke with the sounds of the sleepers seeping into every crevice of the ward. Waking more, her eyesight adjusting to the night, she raised herself from her chair and felt an energy that had not been there for many years. She looked at her hands and was amazed at how different they were. She turned them over in front of her gaze and saw the backs were now not the veined maps onto which an almost translucent covering of skin was projected. These things she held before her belonged to a younger woman.
She was dreaming and she knew it. She had often woken within a dream and, even knowing that it belonged to the wanderings of sleep, had allowed its tidal ebbs and flows to take her where they would. For the most part, she would forget these nocturnal drifts only for some consciously chanced upon detail to sweep her back. At that, she would stop in her tracks and feel the chill of something reaching out from darkness. These episodes of déjà vu were now starting to fall upon her like leaves in autumn.
It could just be the onset of old age; altzeimers spiked amongst her deepest fears.
In this dream, she moved through the ward, listening to the familiar sound of the invisible ones. She was able to see each bed inhabited by their sleeping occupants and the regular rise and fall of their breathing. All the beds were occupied and it seemed that the ward was not confined by the hospital’s walls. She could see into the shifting darkness and thought she saw beds stretching out for mile upon mile towards some barely glimpsed horizon.
Then there came the sound.
At first it was a low indistinguishable sound that could have been the merest hush of a nervous breeze, but the sound began to grow and swirl around the beds. Blankets began to flutter as if brushed by a passing hand. Elizabeth was frightened.
Every instinct screamed, ‘run’.
She listened knowing that if she heard its true notes, she would be lost. This was the time to swim upwards from this sleep. She pushed upward from the floor, but nothing happened. Movement and sound converged. She was aware of sheets being filled with the forms of sleeplessness. In the far distance was a darkened cloud invading the sky. The stillness that arrived before a storm settle around her.
She would pull herself toward waking. She would tell herself that this was not real, that it was only a dream; a nightmare. Her heart raced and pounded in her chest and pulsed into her temples. Her skin rippled with an ancient angst like a memory locked into despair.
Now, there was fresh movement in the ward. The sigh of bedsheets, the pat of bare feet on the cold floor. But closer still, there was a hand climbing from beneath the starched linen. The hand that was revealing itself from beneath the veil of dread was that of the Piper and the bodies that were rising from their white cotton shrouds were those of her parents, her brother and the neighbours lost so long ago on that summer night.
She would wake now.
That was how it would happen. She would wake and she might even scream. Hairs would stand rigid on her spine. She would be hyperventilating. For a brief moment, there would be a memory of what she had been through. For a moment, she would remember the touch of the Piper’s clammy hand. For one long eternity, there would remain the memory of a world that was not supposed to have been. For an everlasting instant, she would remember awaiting the grasp of the Piper as he claimed her for his own.
But then she would wake.
That was when he had touched her. The hand was warm and she knew it belonged to the boy called Nicholas. She turned torwards where she thought he would be and saw the face of the boy grown old. He had grown and now beckoned her to follow.
She was now old and frail and her bones only left the nursing home for short periods in its gardens. She had lived a long life, perhaps longer than God had intended, but she had always been haunted by those children on the ward. Now she had dreamt of Nicholas, the one who had escaped. The boy who was now a man. She also understood that God had not forgotten her and the debt she owed him.
Although her bones ached with years of rheumatism, she pulled them from her bed. She was upright surveying how the moon had thrown its light through the window. It was a cold night and the one that she had been waiting for. With no regard for the torturous strain brought on by movement, she washed and dressed in silence. She would leave this place of the dying and find her way back to where much of it had started: Fairfields House.
Once she thought that she had cheated God, but she hadn’t.
He had forgiven her and she owed Him.