So, was the house haunted? Probably not; but it certainly had some peculiar quirks, and Mrs Gallagher always felt obliged to tell her guests of them. She’d warn those taking the box room that they might be able to hear weird whispering sounds in the night – but there was no doubt it was simply an effect of the wind coming in off the North Bay, sometimes in the winter the wind off the coast could be pretty fierce. There was a spot in the breakfast room, she said, upon which if you stood for too long you’d get a chill right down to your very marrow; I never found that spot, although I looked hard enough, I might have felt a chill in any number of different places but never anything that touched my marrow even closely.
And there was the staircase, and that was harder to explain. There were fifteen steps leading upwards to the first floor, the first nine straight up, the tenth curving around to the left as you ascended. They were covered with a thin shag carpet, and supported by wooden bannisters. Fifteen steps in all – but if you went downstairs in the dark, there, at the bottom, you would find a sixteenth.
It only happened in the dark. If you put the lights on to count, there’d always be the fifteen, looking perfectly ordinary. If you took a candle downstairs with you, the sixteenth couldn’t be found, and nor on nights when the moonlight was pouring in neither. But if it were pitch black, if when you looked down you couldn’t see your feet or where they might be leading, then that extra step would be waiting for you. And only as you went downwards, never on the way up.
It was a strange thing, but not especially unnerving. Mrs Gallagher only told her guests of it so they wouldn’t stumble, not so they should feel spooked or scared. Especially in the holiday season, she said, when the arcades were open late, and the sea was warm enough for night time paddling, guests might come back once she’d gone to bed, and she didn’t want anyone waking her if they tripped. They’d be fine if they went straight to bed themselves, of course; it would be if they came down afterwards for a glass of water, say, that they might run into problems.
You’d get guests trying it out, of course. Especially the young ones, newlywed husbands trying to show off to their wives, squaddies on leave egging each other on. We could tell the sort. We could tell that, first chance they’d get, they’d brave it for themselves. We were smart. We’d encourage them to get it out of the way on the first night, we’d do it before anyone had gone to bed so it wouldn’t disturb. We’d turn out all the lights and pull the curtains and let them have their fun. Down they’d come, counting off the stairs as they did so, maybe laughing a bit, may be trying to scare each other. They’d reach the sixteenth step, they’d laugh a bit more, they might even kick at it to make sure it was real. We’d give them a minute or two, and then they’d lose interest, and we could turn the lights back on and get on with more important matters. It wasn’t as if the extra step did anything once you’d found it; it was just a step, after all.
George and I tried it too, the first night we arrived. Mrs Gallagher asked whether she should turn off the lights so we could check for ourselves, and George smiled in that charming way he sometimes had and said he was quite sure he didn’t need to put her out. Even I was fooled, I assumed he wasn’t interested. But late that night, once he’d had his business with me, and we were lying in the dark, he said that we should go down the stairs and see what this extra step palaver was all about. I couldn’t sleep either, the waves were noisy; in years to come I’d realise there was no more reassuring sound in all this world, but I wasn’t used to it yet. I was a bit afraid, and I told George so, but he pooh-poohed that; he said it would all be nonsense anyway.
George was in his pyjamas, I was in my nightie, and I remember neither of us wore slippers. He held on to my hand, and told me to count the stairs off with him. I was frightened, yes, but it wasn’t a bad frightened, and I told myself it was like all those things at the funfair on the beach, this was the dodgems and the ghost train, all rolled into one. George was even whispering jokes at me, and he had a nice voice when he whispered. We reached the fifteenth step, and George said, “Shall we go on?” And I was going to say no, let’s not, let’s turn back and go to bed, but he was only teasing, of course we went on; he took another step downwards, and he pulled me after him. We stood on the impossible step. “It has to be a trick,” said George, and he sounded a bit angry, the way he did when he thought the foremen was cheating him. My bare feet were cold. The carpet had run out at the fifteenth step – this one beneath seemed to be made of stone – but then, no, not stone, because it wasn’t so hard as all that, and it was getting smoother, like it was old mud breaking under our combined weight or even loosening to our body heat, it was getting softer, even liquid now, and I was sinking into it, and yet it was still so very cold.
I tried to pull away, but George was still holding me. So I pulled harder, I wrenched myself out of his grip, and that’s when I stumbled. I felt myself beginning to fall and I couldn’t stop myself, and all I could see was the black and I didn’t know how far away the ground might be.
It was just a few feet, of course, and I was more shocked than hurt. And there was suddenly light, and there was the landlady, holding a candle, and leaning over the bannister down at us. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Sorry.”
“I did warn you. Please go back to bed.”
She stayed on the stairs so she could light our way. As we passed her she didn’t bother to hide her disapproval. “Sorry,” I said again. George didn’t say a word.
George was cross with me that night. I told him about the cold step, but he said he’d felt only carpet, just like on all the other steps, and that I was being stupid.
You asked me for the truth. And this is the truth as I understand it.
George was not a good man, but he was not a bad man either, not entirely. Mrs Gallagher would say I was justifying again. She said I did a lot of justifying, and I suppose she was right. But I know what’s fair, and I want to be fair to George. I’ve known some bad men. There’s no tenderness to bad men, and George, he could sometimes be tender.
He said what we did wasn’t theft. We’d come into town, and would stay at a little hotel, a bed and breakfast may be, nothing grand. And then when it was time to move on, we’d sneak away without paying. He said that proper theft would have been if we’d taken the silver with us as we went, but we never did that, George had too much pride. But the idea was there in his head, wasn’t it? He’d spoken it out loud. With George, I knew, if it was in his head, if that little seed of an idea was planted, it was the beginning of everything.
But for the time being it wasn’t theft, not really – and we would come into a town, and George would spend the days out looking for work. He’d go to the factories, he’d go to the warehouses. He said that as soon as he got a job he’d return to the bed and breakfasts, every single one, and he’d pay them back. I’m sure at the start he even meant that.
George would come back to the hotels and tell me there was no work to be found – but he’d heard talk of work a few miles away, the next town along, just over the hill, just across the moors, wherever. And off we’d go chasing it. I hated it when we had to move on, but George always looked so much happier, he’d suddenly beam with hope, and that made up for it. He might carry my bags as we walked; he might even sing.
One day we reached the coast. And there was nowhere further for us to go, not unless we changed direction.
“I could be a fisherman,” George said. “I would enjoy catching fish all day long. Good honest work. It’s all going to work out. You’ll see.” As far as I knew, George hadn’t been inside a boat his whole life, but it was wiser not to say anything.
There were lots of bed and breakfasts to choose from. It was a holiday town, but off season, everything was empty. I don’t know what brought us to Mrs Gallagher’s. Fate, I suppose. Who knows why things happen, they just do.
George rang the doorbell, and doffed his hat, and gave that smile he was good at. I did my best to look like the respectable housewife on holiday that I always wanted to be.
Most landladies would ask for a deposit. We had to hand over the deposit without appearing to mind, as if there were plenty more where that came from. Sometimes it was the hardest bit of acting I had to do. Mrs Gallagher didn’t want a deposit.
“No deposit?” said George. “Well, well.” And he smiled wider, but he also frowned, as if suspecting he was being conned.
“No deposit,” agreed Mrs Gallagher. “All my guests pay when they leave.”
She told us about the whispering in the box room, but the hotel was empty, we could pick any room we wanted, and I was glad George allowed us a room that wouldn’t scare me. She told us about the strange chill in the breakfast room. She told us about the step you could only find in the dark.
In the morning she served us breakfast. She didn’t mention the night’s disturbance, and nor did we. She asked us how we wanted our eggs. “Fried, and runny,” said George. I told her I’d like mine poached. She gave a curt nod, then went into the kitchen.
She brought us out plates of sausage and bacon and fried bread. I had a poached egg. “Where’s my egg?” George demanded to know. Mrs Gallagher said she only had one egg, and apologised.
George glowered. He managed a few bites of sausage, then pushed his plate away. I knew how hungry he must be, but he had such pride. He lit a cigarette, stared at me through an ever thickening cloud of smoke. I pretended not to notice. I wanted to eat as much of my breakfast as I could. I hoped that, if I ate fast enough, he wouldn’t say anything until I’d finished.
“You enjoying that?” he said too soon, softly, dangerously softly.
I knew there was no right answer. I looked at him. I tried to keep my expression as neutral as possible.
He took my plate. He held it up, as if to inspect it closely, as if to ensure it was fit enough for his queen. He spat on it. Then he put the plate back down on the table, and ground out his cigarette in the middle of the food, in the middle of the egg.
“I’ll be back later,” he muttered, got up, and left.
I was still so hungry. But I didn’t want to eat from my plate, even though the spit was only my husband’s, and I loved my husband. And I didn’t want to each from his, in case he came back.
Mrs Gallagher took away the plates, and if she was surprised they were still heavy with food, she didn’t comment.
I stayed the day in the bedroom.
That evening George came back, and he was all smiles. He said maybe he’d found a job after all – a fisherman had said he would take George out on his boat in the morning, try him out for size. He’d brought back a couple of bottles of beer, I don’t know where he’d got them, and he let me have a little bit. When that night he did his business, he was kind and quick.
The next morning he left early. I got to eat my breakfast on my own. It was delicious.
That same night George came back to the hotel angry. The fisherman hadn’t waited for him. It had all been some bloody big joke. I asked him where he’d been all day, and that was a mistake. Later that night he apologised. He said the fisherman had waited for him, he’d gone out in the boat. But the waters had been very rough, and he hadn’t been well. The fisherman found it funny. He supposed it was funny, come to that. I mean, he’d get used to the sea if he had to, but in the mean time, it was funny. Didn’t I think it was funny? It was all right, he said, he didn’t mind if I did, we could laugh at it together, like we used to laugh at things. I gave him a kiss, and that made him feel better.
He said he try his luck again. Maybe another fisherman would take him out. Maybe the first fisherman wouldn’t have told all the others. We had breakfast together. Mrs Gallagher asked how we wanted our eggs. He said he wanted his fried, but runny. I said I’d have mine poached. She brought me a plate of sausage, bacon, and a poached egg. She brought George a plate of fried eggs, and nothing but fried eggs, the yolks all broken and pooling thickly into one another. George stared at the plate, and didn’t say a word.
Mrs Gallagher asked me my name. I hesitated, and she saw I hesitated – but then I told her my name anyway, the real one, not the one George liked me to use.
“Mine is Nathalie,” she said.
“Nathalie. It’s French.” She didn’t look very French. Her arms were big and thick, her face rough like sand; in years to come I’d think that sand must have blown off the beach and got stuck deep in her skin and she hadn’t been able to scrub it out. Not my idea of French at all; George’s mother had shown me some fashion magazine, back in the days we were allowed to visit, and there were French women inside, and Nathalie Gallagher was nothing like them. “You’re in trouble,” Nathalie Gallagher said.
“No, I’m all right.”
“You’re in trouble. I could help you. You could stay here with me. I can run this place alone if I have to do, but I could use an extra pair of hands. I couldn’t pay much, but you’d get bed and board.”
“And George?” I said.
She didn’t say anything to that.
“George wouldn’t like it,” I said. I knew all he wanted to do was get his own job, and be able to look after me.
“I had a disappointing husband too,” said Mrs Gallagher. She told me that her husband had brought her back to England after the war. She didn’t say which war, and I presumed it was the last one, but it was so hard to tell how old she might be. I didn’t like to ask. “He said he had some property, I thought he must be a duke or something. Turned out he owned a hotel. I had to spend my days learning how to make full English breakfasts. Yes, he was a disappointment.”
“Where is your husband?” I asked. “Is he dead?” The words seemed so blunt, I could have bitten my tongue.
Mrs Gallagher didn’t seem offended though. Indeed, she gave my question some thought. “No, I don’t think so,” she said at last. “He’s probably still alive.”
I kept the job offer in my head, turned it over and gave it a good prod whenever things were bad. Things were bad a lot that week. I thought I would tell George when he was in a good mood, maybe he’d see the value in it, even if it were just short term, even if it could just tide us over a while and give us some sort of home – but George was never in a good mood, there was no work out there, and the mood just got worse and worse, so I decided I’d just have to tell him quickly and get it over with and trust to luck.
He didn’t shout, that was good. He turned from me, and lit a cigarette, and stared out of the window down upon the cliffs and the sea, as if in deep thought, as if giving it actual consideration.
“It’s time we left,” he said.
“There’s nothing for us here. We’ll go tonight.”
We packed our stuff, waited until it was dark. Past midnight I said to George that we should get going, but he shook his head impatiently, it wasn’t time yet, he had a feeling for these things. We sat there on the bed, side by side, in silence, and George listened out for noise. At last he took my hand, and squeezed it, and that was the signal, and I think it was done in affection too.
It was pitch black. George carried the bags, he told me to walk ahead of him. I clung on to the bannister rail. I counted the steps downwards, one, two, three, four, and at five the staircase curled around towards the final descent to the front door. Now, we both knew about the extra step that was waiting down there, and neither of us mentioned it, and I dare say we’d both factored it into our calculations, sixteen stops until we reached the bottom. But now I was in the dark I thought of it only with dread – and I mean that, a hard, heavy dread – I didn’t want my feet to touch that step – I didn’t want any part of my body to come into contact with something so cold and so inexplicable – and here I was, inching further towards it, another step down, then another, then another, as if I were falling somehow, as if I were falling and there was no way to climb back up, I couldn’t change my mind, I couldn’t turn around, my husband was behind me blocking my way and he would never let me free. And another step, and another – and I wondered if I’d miscounted already, were there two steps to go, or three? Three before…? I didn’t want to reach that step but I didn’t want to get past it either – and it sounds silly but it suddenly seemed to me that step was a dividing line between all of my sorry past and all the future before me – and if I got past the step, then that was it, the future waiting there in the darkness was just more of the same, just more of the same. Two steps. One. I had miscounted, but there was no delaying it now, that step in front of me had to be the extra one. And then there was light from up above, and the darkness was spoiled, so there was no extra step at all, and the relief I felt was so overwhelming that it took me a moment to realise we must have been discovered.
The candle didn’t give much light, but it was enough. Mrs Gallagher stared down at us.
George said, “We’re leaving. We don’t want any trouble.”
Mrs Gallagher said nothing.
George said, “We’re not going to give you any trouble. We’ll just leave, and be on our way.”
He said, “When I get a job, I’ll come back. I’ll pay you then. I’m not thieving.”
Mrs Gallagher said, “Just go. But don’t you ever come back.”
“Well then,” said George. “Well! Then I won’t. You bet I won’t.” And he actually grinned at her, and doffed his hat.
I wanted to say I was sorry. I couldn’t find the words, as easy as they were. I tried to smile at her, something, but she didn’t look at me, not the whole while. That’s what hurt.
George opened the front door, and we stepped out into the wind, the night, our future together.
I thought maybe he wouldn’t come looking, maybe he just wouldn’t care, and would let me be. I thought maybe he might even be relieved, one less mouth to feed, I wouldn’t slow him down any more. But still I’d keep checking behind me as I walked on, still I’d keep off the main roads, hide sometimes in bushes – because whether he wanted me or not, of course he’d come looking. He had his pride. That’s all he had.
I didn’t even know which direction I was headed in. And so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I reached the coast, but I was. I thought we’d travelled so much further than that, that the coast was weeks behind us. But there it was, the cliffs at my back, the sea in front, and I trudged my way along the beach squashed between the pair of them.
I certainly hadn’t expected to find Mrs Gallagher again. If I had looked for her house I’m sure I wouldn’t found it. But I gazed up, and there it was ahead of me, it was the only place in miles that seem to give off any light, maybe I fancied the only place in the world.
I knocked at the door.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“You’re in trouble,” said Mrs Gallagher. And at last I understood what she meant. Because I was in trouble, and I hadn’t quite dared believe it until then – but of course I’ve known, that’s why I’d run away, wasn’t it? Because it was all right, my being trapped with George for the rest of my life. Maybe that’s all I deserved. But not my child. Not my child. Never.
“You’d better come in,” Mrs Gallagher said.
I arrived just before the holiday season, and there was a lot to learn.
I learned how to make beds, not in the ordinary way, but in the hotel way.
I learned how to clean a room quickly, so that you could give the impression everything was spick and span on the surface, and not draw attention to the real dirt underneath.
I learned how to make a proper cooked English breakfast. I got quite good at them, but Mrs Gallagher was always better, so she stayed in charge of the kitchen. “My husband taught me, said he cooked the best fry-ups in Yorkshire,” she said. “His only promise that was worth a damn.”
I was given a room on the ground floor, and at first I was happy about that, it meant I didn’t have to use the staircase at night. But I was never very comfortable there. The little window looked out on to the street, you could hardly tell we were by the sea at all. And sometimes in the night, I could hear noises under the floorboards – like distant footsteps, shuffling about beneath the ground. I told Mrs Gallagher about them, but she just shrugged, said she’d never heard of that before. But she moved me upstairs to the box room. There was that whispering sound in the box room, but it was just the wind and the ocean spray, and I liked it, and soon I found the strange echo it made in the darkness very comforting, like the elements were trying to send me to sleep.
When the hotel packed out, and it did most of July and August, even the box room had to be let. Then I would share a bed with Mrs Gallagher. It was a large bed, and quite comfortable, and there was plenty of room – and I was a little afraid at first that a big woman like Mrs Gallagher would snore, George snored something chronic and he wasn’t half her size. But she slept so still, sometimes it was though she was hardly beside me at all.
I want you to know nothing untoward ever happened between me and Mrs Gallagher. And when August was over, somehow I just didn’t move out from the room, and I just stayed with her. It meant there was one less bed to make.
And when the pregnancy was full on and I couldn’t do much work, Mrs Gallagher never minded. She said I could stay in bed, or sit downstairs, whatever made me most comfortable, and she’d bring me cups of tea, and slices of cake, anything I wanted. “It’s nearly time,” she said to me one day, and I asked whether I should go to the hospital. “You don’t need a hospital,” she said, “I can do this. Do you trust me?” And I did trust her, and I was glad, I hadn’t wanted to leave.
She fetched hot water and towels, and you came out, and it was easy, I think your birth was the easiest thing I had ever done. You were the simplest, most natural thing in my entire life. “It’s a boy,” said Mrs Gallagher, and she looked happy, but I think she may have been a little disappointed. She helped me name you. Did you know that? Do you like your name? It was Mrs Gallagher who picked it.
She told me that I shouldn’t call her Mrs Gallagher, I should call her Nathalie. And I did so, from time to time, just to make her smile. But I thought of her as Mrs Gallagher, and I liked her that way – not formal, you understand, but protective, and strong, and better than me.
I started in my sleep, I couldn’t breathe. I opened my eyes and saw a figure was standing over the bed, and I was held down, there was a hand tight across my mouth. I couldn’t call out.
“Hello,” whispered George, genially enough.
I opened my eyes wide, and blinked, in what I hoped he’d take as a fond greeting.
I didn’t know how he’d found me, and I never did know. I suppose he might have broken into all the bed and breakfast establishments across the country until he’d got the right one. That seems quite likely.
He said to me, “I’ve got a job! It’s all going to be all right. I’ve got lots of money, and it’s all going to be as it was, and you can come back with me now, and you’ll never be hurt again!” That sounded fine, but his hand was still on my mouth, and pressing down hard, and his fingernails had curved round and were digging painfully into my face.
You started to cry. You didn’t care about being quiet, I don’t know whether you were disturbed by the intruder, or just hungry – I’m guessing it was hungry, you were always hungry. George hasn’t even seen the cot, I think; now he whirled around, and he let me go.
“He’s yours,” I whispered.
“Mine,” he said. And he sounded amused, he seemed to like the sound of that. “You’re both mine,” he said. And he wasn’t bothering to whisper any more, and that was bad, it meant he didn’t feel the need to be secret any more.
Mrs Gallagher didn’t stir. “Is she dead?” George asked bluntly, and laughed.
“No,” I said.
“I want to talk to her.”
Mrs Gallagher’s eyes opened at that. She was already awake.
“I didn’t steal from you,” George said. “I didn’t steal from you.”
Mrs Gallagher didn’t say anything to that. Neither did I. George considered.
“Get up,” he said. “Both of you.”
“I’ll come with you, George,” I said. “But you don’t need her, let’s just go.”
He slapped me around the face then, and it wasn’t especially hard, but I hadn’t been slapped for a long while and it hurt.
“We’re all going outside,” he said.
“What are you going to do with her, George?”
“I don’t know,” said George, “I don’t know.” And he sounded genuinely worried about that. I thought he was going to cuff me again, but he didn’t bother.
Mrs Gallagher got out of bed. She struck a match, and lit a candle. And it was brighter than I expected, too bright, surely; and I saw two things that startled me. One was George himself – his clothes with torn, and he had a ragged beard that seemed in the flickering light a scar across his face. And I realised he had no pride in anything any more. And the second thing – that was the ugly little knife he was carrying.
“Get moving,” he said.
We walked down the stairs ahead of him. Both of us were in our nightdresses, and I thought how cold it would be out there in the dark, and that maybe that was the least of our concerns; the shag carpet was at my bare feet; and you were in my arms, and bless you, you’d gone back to sleep, you weren’t scared of anything, you were with mummy and you felt safe.
I asked George once again what he was going to do, and I tried to find the right things to say that had always made him feel better, the ones that calmed his rages – but it’d been too long ago, I couldn’t remember any. George didn’t reply, and that was just as well, because it meant I heard Mrs Gallagher plainly when she hissed at me: “Jump.”
We were in sudden pitch black. She must have blown out the candle.
And I felt her then leap into that black, and I didn’t know how far off the ground we were, I couldn’t judge it at all – I couldn’t tell how many steps there might be, or what was waiting for us at the bottom. And I didn’t care, I leaped too.
George gave a cry of – what? Surprise? Anger? Probably a mixture of both, and he started down the stairs after us, and then he shouted out again, and this time it was fear.
Mrs Gallagher struck another match. She lit the candle. The glow seemed to take an agonisingly long time to reveal anything.
George had hit the sixteenth step. And then had carried on going downwards. He had found a seventeenth, maybe an eighteenth too. The floor was up just around his knees. It looked as if his legs had been severed, and he was balancing his body on two unbloodied stumps; no, it looked like the downstairs floor had become a lake, and he had sunk below the surface. And Mrs Gallagher and me, we, we were walking impossibly upon water.
“Help me,” he said. The light seemed to give him some courage, he even dared show impatience. “Get me out of this.”
He grunted, tried to turn himself about, but there was nowhere for his body to go – nowhere, but onwards. And so doing, he took another step.
For a moment I thought his body was in freefall, but it came to a stop, the line of the floor now was across his chest. He looked so frightened. He grunted again, his face contorted with effort, and he pulled one of his arms free, and waved it at us. At me.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Please. Help me. Please.” He reached out to me. And I think I would have gone had it been for my sake alone. I would have pulled him out. Or he would have pulled me in, more likely, in and under, just as he had done over and over for all those years. I loved him. But there was more than my love to think about now.
He saw that I wasn’t going to help. And I thought he might threaten me. I thought he’d tell me he’d kill me. I think that would have been better. But his face just fell, that’s all, and he looked so very sad.
He tried to pull up his second arm. He couldn’t. He put his free hand flat upon the ground, tried to use it to prise himself out. It was no good.
One more step forward. And now only his head was peeking out, and he had to tilt his face toward the ceiling so he could speak. He said, so softly, as if in awed wonder – “The steps are so steep. Oh God. Oh God. They’re so steep.”
Mrs Gallagher stepped out. He looked at her with such hope. He thought she might want to save him, even now, in spite of all. I knew she wouldn’t.
She stood right beside his head. If he’d wanted to, he could have bitten her feet. If he’d wanted to. He looked up at her, and she looked down on him, and she didn’t gloat.
He opened his mouth to say something, and she shook her head, and he closed it again.
She blew out the candle.
When the guests came, we’d tell them of the noises in the attic, and the cold chill in the breakfast room, and of the extra step the staircase would grow in the dark. We didn’t talk of the strange footsteps under the house, the ones you could hear just sometimes, when the sea was quiet and the wind was at lull. They didn’t need to know everything.
I said that nothing untoward ever happened between me and Mrs Gallagher, and nor it did. But I wouldn’t have minded.
I told her too late. She was dying, and fading so fast – she’d started the holiday season with the same no-nonsense energy as always, but then she’d got so slow, and so tired, and eventually we just asked our guests to leave and closed the doors on them. She lay in the bed, and I gave her all the space I could, I’d have moved to another room, but she told me she wanted me to stay by her in the night. I said that I loved her. I said that I had loved her for so long, and wanted to show her, wanted to do anything to her that would make her happy.
She smiled at me. She said, “That would have been nice.”
And I kissed her. I kissed her sand studded cheeks, her skin was so coarse beneath my lips and there was nothing I could do to make it soft.
Still she never snored, still she slept so peacefully that some nights I woke up thinking she might already be dead. And there was that one night I woke, and she wasn’t there beside me. She hadn’t moved from the bed for over a week, she hadn’t the strength, and I was so frightened, I thought maybe she’d died and her body had simply melted away. I left the bedroom, went out into the darkness of the house, I lit a candle, I called for her. There I found her, down the staircase, on the bottom step, and she was stamping down on it weakly, without stopping, as if she couldn’t stop, not until I spoke to her. She turned up to me, up to the light. “I can’t get through,” she said. “Why won’t it let me through?” It was the only time I ever saw her cry.
She died only a few days later. I wasn’t there for the very end, but I don’t think it would have mattered much to her, she didn’t know where she even was by then, and if she called out a name it would be Thomas. Her missing husband, maybe? Even a son? Who knows? At the end of the day there was still so little I knew about her.
We found her body, you and I. You weren’t scared at all. You are still so young, and so fearless. You don’t even remember, do you?
I know you don’t remember Mrs Gallagher. My Nathalie. My own. But she was good to you. I wish you’d ask about her, and not about your father.
You know most of the rest of it.
Mrs Gallagher had left the house to me in her will. I had no idea, she had never discussed it with me. But I was not a blood relative, of course, and certainly could not have been considered a spouse, and after the death duties were paid there was no way I could afford to keep it. I sold it on.
Bed and breakfasts were all I knew now, that and the sea. I didn’t want to stay in the town, too many people seemed to know about me and my relationship with Mrs Gallagher, and I had no shame of it, but I wanted nothing to do with them. That’s why I moved us to the south coast, so far away, and bought our little hotel here. The sea here is warmer, the wind not as fierce, but I don’t mind, I’m getting old too.
I want you to understand this. You are not your father.
Your father was not a good man, though he wasn’t a bad man entirely. And you, I know there is good in you. I know you are better than he was. You must try to be better. The path you are treading, it isn’t the way. You have been caught stealing once, and we were lucky that charges were not pressed, and I know that if you’ve been caught once, you’ve got away with it a dozen times before. And I know your business with the girls down town too, you think I don’t hear? Mary Suffolk, and that Annie girl. And I don’t judge. But you mustn’t be cruel to them. Please, not cruel.
And you despise my hotel, and you despise me, and you want to leave, and I understand that. And all you want to know about is your father.
I have told you what I know.
And in the night sometimes, in the pitch black, I have gone down the stairs, and counted them off. I know you have heard me. I know that you have heard, but don’t like to ask. I shall tell you anyway. Because Mrs Gallagher told me. That when all those years ago she lost her husband. Thomas, or whatever his name was, when he found that extra step, and all those steps leading downwards from it, ever on downwards with no bottom most likely. She told me that it wasn’t in that house that she’d lost him. She moved away, and bought another hotel, right at the edge of the land, where she felt she could be free of him. And the extra step had followed her. Her husband had followed.
Because maybe we can’t just bury our mistakes, and move on. Maybe we carry them around with us, regardless. Maybe I’ll never be free of George. That seems right. That seems just. He’s had his punishment, I’ll take mine.
I go down the stairs. And there are twenty-one steps in the daytime. I can feel a twenty-second in the night.
You’re not your father, and you’re young, and you need to make your own mistakes. So go make them. But don’t make too many. I have come too far, and sacrificed too much. I will not tolerate it.
I want to make sure you never have to join your father.
You’ve complained about sounds beneath the floorboards in your bedroom. Stamp your feet hard, that’ll usually shut the bastard up.