The Beeches Hospital, Buckinghamshire, England.
She stopped and beads of sweat stood out on her top lip. She should never have started this. They were all staring at her now, not that she cared what any of them thought. Except for Eva, the woman in charge of the group. She was all right.
“Come on, Gina, either put up or shut up,” Calum said.
She scowled at him and couldn’t speak for a moment. She closed her eyes to shut out his face and that other place flooded into view, as if she were back there, as if it was all happening again. Her eyes flew open and, with an effort, she controlled her breathing. Then she shoved the red curls away from her face and turned her back on the boy.
“I was cold, frightened. The stairs were very steep, too steep to go down. I stood at the top, panic stricken. I knew I had to go down, but I was frozen.”
“Yeah, you said all that – And then what happened?”
Eva glared at him.
“That’s enough, Calum, thank you. Go on Gina.”
“My hand was on the banister. A man’s hand came and covered mine and his other hand was on my back. I didn’t know if he was helping me or if – he was going to push me.”
“Who was it? Did you look at him?” Eva asked.
“No, not then.”
Gina looked away. She tried to swallow, but her throat was dry and she felt hot and sick. The sun streamed in through the window and the daffodils along the drive were nodding their heads in the breeze. The bulbs would be out at home now too. Springtime. She’d come in here just after Christmas. A lifetime ago.
“Why not?” Eva repeated, dragging her back to the present.
“I was afraid of him.”
“Why? What made you so scared?”
“I thought he was going to push me down the stairs. I wanted to get away. I flew down, terrified I’d slip and fall. At the bottom, I opened the door and then I turned and looked up.” She paused, and a shiver crossed her spine as she remembered the moment. “He was just standing there, at the top of the stairs watching me. There was a post that ran up all the way up to the ceiling and at first he was hidden behind that.”
“Then he moved and stood so I could see him. So he could see me.”
“Who was he? Did you know him?”
“He had a mask on. The top of his head was covered with a mask. I think it was a bird of some sort. I could only see the bottom part of his face properly.” Gina’s gaze tracked from the window to Eva via the other faces in the room. She shook her head. “I should have recognised him.”
“So you’d seen him before?”
She’d see him a million times, but never in real life. Yet she was sure the bird man was someone she ought to know. She’d always had the visions and knew what most of them were about. Like when Anthony fell out of the apple tree and she’d seen it the day before. And when she’d known Mrs. Grace would have twins.
But now it was different. She didn’t recognise anyone or anywhere in her visions or dreams. It was as if someone very scared was trying to talk to her from a long way off and she didn’t understand. And they were – she couldn’t find the word – foggy perhaps? Like walking through cotton wool. It frightened her. And it was getting worse.
“And is this what you always dream?” Eva scribbled on her pad as she spoke, but Gina hardly heard the question. She turned away again, facing the window as if watching the driveway full of flowers, though she saw nothing. It had been a mistake to speak. She felt worse, not better. She should have stuck it out and kept quiet. It had been easy to believe the soft voice and the persuasion. The others seemed to get comfort from sharing, as if confession made everything fade away. Talking had made it more real, more frightening. Maybe these things were real: happening in some parallel universe. A smile played around her mouth at the thought.
She twisted away from the window, but avoided everyone’s eyes, kept her head down, her eyes on her knees and her arms folded across her chest.
Eva sighed and wrote a few more words in the journal.
“Is there anything else anyone wants to tell me? Gina? No? I’ll see you all again tomorrow, then.” She stood up and gathered her things.
The session over, Gina felt a rush of longing, a desire to go to Eva, tell her everything, but it would only lead to trouble. She might never get out of here. Best if she kept her mouth shut, hoped it would all go away. The nurses came forward and she had that nice one today, Angela, the one she called Angel.
“It’s a lovely day,” Angela said. “Shall we go for a walk?”
The other one would have said ‘Shall I take you for a walk?’ Angel was more subtle, but it amounted to the same thing. Gina wasn’t free to go on her own. She shook her head and they went to her room.
It was on the north side of the building and no sun ever shone into here, though it was pleasant enough and blessedly cool. There was a letter. No prizes for guessing who from. Mum wrote so that her notes would arrive Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, regular. It would be full of nothing. Not easy to write worry all over a page and mum was certainly worried, not to mention ashamed. Her other daughters were perfectly sane, thank you very much.
“I’m sure you’d enjoy a walk,” Angela said. “There are ducklings on the pond. I could get some bread if you like, and we could go and feed them.”
Might be nice to feed the ducks. Normal.
“I think I’d like to read my letter,” she said.
“OK.” Angela shrugged and opened the door; before she could close it behind her, Gina called out.
Angela smiled and nodded.
“Angel – please – don’t lock the door.”
“Sorry love. Buzz if you want me.”
The door closed, the key clicked in the lock and Gina was alone.
“How did the session go?” Dr. Malone poured two coffees, added milk and handed one to Eva.
“Much as usual. Archer won’t open his mouth. Neither will Annie. He stares at his knees and she cries all the time. Silently.” She sipped the coffee, pulled a face and popped a couple of lumps of sugar in. “Calum’s still a pain in the neck,” she said as she stirred. “It’s difficult to shut him up and he tries to take over. He’ll dominate the session if I’m not careful. Melanie’s so improved I don’t think she should be part of the group any more. Isn’t she due to go home soon?”
“What about Gina?”
“I don’t know.” She bit into a chocolate digestive and considered. “She unbent a bit today, not that I got very much out of her.”
“Hardly anything. I saw your notes.”
“I worry about that child.”
“Very severely disturbed,” he nodded.
“If you say so.”
“You don’t agree?”
She took another biscuit. These sessions played havoc with her diet. She always ate too much while she pondered her conclusions, especially if her opinions differed from Dr. Malone’s, as they so often did where Gina was concerned. Eva shifted her position and leaned closer towards him.
“You’ll have me certified for saying it, but – I don’t think she should be in here at all. I don’t think she’s disturbed. She’s simply frightened.”
“I know that, Eva, but what is it she’s she frightened of?” He removed his glasses and polished them on a soft cloth he took from a case. “She’s a ten-year-old girl from a completely normal, middle class background, with mum and dad and three sisters. She doesn’t seem to have had any bad experiences. Her fear is irrational.” He placed the cloth back in the case and the glasses back on his nose.
She pursed her lips. He was so sure of himself. She believed he was wrong, but she couldn’t have said why. She rarely questioned his judgement, but Gina’s problem was a piece of grit that had got into Eva’s brain. She brushed the crumbs from her neat skirt and tried to sound professional.
“I’ve seen all sorts of disturbed girls, she isn’t like any of them. She’s not repressed, not difficult, not awkward, she doesn’t get into fights, doesn’t refuse food, doesn’t harm herself.” Without noticing what she was doing, Eva took another biscuit. “She simply has nightmares which to her are real and frightening.”
“Frightening for her parents too. She was waking up screaming and covered with sweat. Night after night.” He poured another cup of coffee. “I ought to cut down on this. Drink too much of the stuff and I’ll be having nightmares. Dreams like that aren’t normal, Eva. She needs help.”
“But are we able to give her the right sort of help? This is real to her. Talking about it makes her relive it: I think that’s why she’s so reluctant to say much. She’s terrified to go to sleep. She’s got dark rings around her eyes, she’s so tired. She drags her fingers through all those red curls all the time.” She sighed and shook her head. “She’s suffering from fear, if that’s an illness.”
“I think we might try hypnosis.”
“My God. Do you think that’s such a good idea?” Eva hoped she sounded dispassionate, sensible. Everything in her being was depressed at the thought.
“I don’t believe I do, no.” She thought it was an appalling idea, but she couldn’t have begun to explain why.
Gina finished her letter. Dad had a cold, but otherwise everyone was well. The magnolia was wonderful this year and one of the guinea pigs had died. Mum had managed to stretch it to several pages, but that was about it. Sum total of life beyond The Beeches.
Nothing to be homesick for. Just as well, because there was no way they were going to let her out of here. Eva was all right, but that Dr. Malone was a worry. He was all sweetness and understanding, but he was the one who’d stuck her in here.
What would Dr. Malone have to say if she told him she didn’t need to be asleep. She’d nearly let on this morning in the Dream session. That would put the wind up them. She tried to make them think she was better. She’d stopped screaming the place down every night, doing her best stay awake as much as possible. After all, you couldn’t dream if you weren’t asleep, could you? Fat lot they knew.
She wasn’t going to tell them though. She was going to try something. She was going to try and make a dream happen, determined to make it go to the end and find out what it was all about. It would be nice to tell someone, have someone beside her when she did it. Eva perhaps? Or Angel? She sighed. There wasn’t anyone, so she’d have to get on with it and hope for the best. How dangerous could it be to dream a dream?
Lie down on the bed, close your eyes, and dream.
She’d expected it to be difficult and it had only taken a minute or two. Here she was and this time it was her choice. She was awake and yet asleep.
She was inside the house – it was vague, but she knew it was the right place. The bird man was nowhere to be seen. Bedrooms. A big one first, apricot and cream and lace and – pretty. Squashy cushions on the bed and matching curtains. A bathroom. En suite they called this, didn’t they? Like in a hotel.
Next, a small room – a nursery, for a little girl. Letters written all around the walls in gold script.
A boy’s room. Full of cars and aeroplanes and dinosaurs. A bit like Ian’s room – her cousin.
Another bedroom here, and this one was a mess. Someone had flung clothes and underwear about and there was a suitcase open on the bed. Not finished packing. Don’t need to pack now anyway. Silly argument.
Cold room, cold, cold, cold.
Bathroom. Huge bath and a shower, loo and a – what did they call these things? A bidet? Lots of bottles of bubble bath and shampoo in baskets. There was a mess in the basin – the shelf had fallen down and dumped toothpaste and toothbrushes and cotton wool balls into it. Stupid shelf. Could fix that. Only take a minute. Need a drill, screwdriver. They’ll be in the shed.
Gina came down the stairs, still inside her dream. No problem, no one trying to push her or stop her. She knew where to find the shed, didn’t she? Back door down this passageway, through the kitchen. Open door –
“Wake up, Gina. I want to talk to you.” The door was open and Dr. Malone had arrived with Angel.
She smiled at him, almost laughed. She had dreamed without going to sleep and nothing awful had happened. She’d been around the house, and it was empty. She was in control and there was nothing there.
“… And I’d like to give it a try. I’ve spoken to your parents and they are willing. Hypnosis can uncover all sorts of things hidden deep within the mind. We might find out what’s frightening you so much. OK?” Dr. Malone looked at her.
He raised an eyebrow as if he expected an answer. She hadn’t really been listening. Hypnosis did he say? She’d seen that on the telly. Where they made you do daft things. How was that going to help?
“Anyway,” he said. “We’ll give it a whirl and if you don’t like it, we won’t push you, how’s that? I’ll need your parents to sign a consent form, so in a day or two. Shall we say, Wednesday, after lunch?”
Gina shrugged and nodded.
“Can I go in the garden with Angel, now, and feed the ducks?”
“Right, Gina. Now I want you to tell me where you are, what you see.” Dr. Malone kept his voice very soft. He glanced across at Gina, who looked small and relaxed in the enormous chair.
“I’m in a garden,” she said. “I can see trees and plants and there’s a bee buzzing in some flowers.”
“Is it your garden?” asked Eva.
“Yes.” Gina frowned. “No,” she said.
“I don’t know.” Gina looked puzzled. “I’ve been here before.”
“When Gina? When have you been before?” Dr. Malone leant forward in anticipation.
“Every day.” She frowned again. “She’s calling me.”
“Who, Gina? Who’s calling you?”
“She’s in the shed.”
Dr. Malone scribbled on his pad and adjusted the volume on the tape deck. Eva asked the question.
“Is it one of your sisters?”
“No. They’re not here.”
“Go and see who it is,” said Dr. Malone. “Do you know where the shed is? Describe it for me.”
“It’s near the house. It’s brick, like a garage, with big double doors.” Gina began to shiver and then to cry softly.
“What is it, what’s wrong?”
“Don’t want to go in,” she said.
“Don’t want to. Scared.”
“What are you frightened of? What’s inside?”
“Don’t know,” Gina was crying properly now, sobbing and shaking her head, “No, can’t go in. No.”
“You have to, Gina. Open the door and go inside.”
“Dr. Malone, I don’t think – ” Eva tried to interrupt. Dr. Malone ignored her.
“Go inside,” he said.
“The door’s not shut, but it won’t open properly,” Gina sobbed. “It won’t open.”
“Why won’t it open?”
“Dr. Malone,” Eva said, “Don’t do this.”
“Why won’t it open?”
“It’s stuck. There’s something behind it.” Gina screamed. “I’m behind it. I’m on the floor, behind the door. I’m on the floor.” She slumped forward in the chair, unconscious.
“Goodbye, Gina. Take care of yourself.”
“Goodbye, Dr. Malone. Thank you ever so much. We’re ever so grateful to you. Say thank you, Gina.”
“That’s quite all right, Mrs. Peckham. As I say, the hypnosis did the trick. I’ve planted a suggestion, so she shouldn’t dream it any more. And if she does, she won’t remember. It will be what it is supposed to be – just a dream.” He beamed at the pair of them.
Gina shivered. Partly because the wind was cold.
Partly because she knew there was a barrier inside her head beyond which she could not cross.