The Face in the Mirror
The minute she saw it, she knew that was the one. The beautiful first floor flat in St John’s Wood called to her. She was drawn to it and it to her. It was a karmic bond. Hilary had never felt like that about a flat before. As the thought entered her mind, she knew that she was right.
The flat buying process had been surprisingly fast. People at work had warned her about obstacles with estate agents and prepared her mentally for a process that would take months. In reality she moved in two weeks after viewing the place and had come across no obstacles.
As she unpacked, she looked around the high ceilinged, cream coloured living room and thought that old-fashioned brown leather sofas would suit the place and maybe wallpaper with a little floral design. She’d ask at the decorating shop tomorrow.
On her first night at the flat, she fell asleep exhausted but restless. Had she forgotten to lock the door, close the windows, check the switches were off in the kitchen? She looked up at the strangely familiar ceiling. Why couldn’t she shake that feeling that she’d been here before? She closed her eyes firmly and tried to clear her mind as her Meditation teacher had taught her. Soon she felt herself becoming weightless and drifting off to a light sleep.
It was then that she heard a giggle. Her eyes snapped open and the air around her seem to tighten in suspense. The sound had made her skin crawl and the hairs on her upper arms were standing on end. Hilary listened intently, and there it was again; the sound was coming nearer. It seemed to be staccato toned, like a child’s voice. Hilary peered into the night time shadows of the room. There was nothing there. She waited and whatever had made the sound was waiting too.
It was getting chilly and she deliberated whether to put a foot out of bed to grab another blanket. She waited with baited breath, but there was no more sound. It seemed that whatever had made the sound had gone. She reached out of the bed but couldn’t reach the box. So she put a foot out to the cold wooden floor and then the other. Still no further sounds reached her. She gathered her wits about her and got out of bed to get another blanket from her box.
As she reached for the blanket, the voice came out from somewhere to her left, “I knew you would come. You didn’t forget me.” The voice sighed in her ear.
Hilary whirled around wildly looking for the source of the voice in every corner of the room. “Who is there? Show yourself? How did you get in here?” I must have left a window open, Hilary thought grimly. I’m going to get this intruder out right now!
At the foot of her bed she spotted a white mist creeping in from the open window, swirling slowly, spiralling upwards , thickening and solidifying into a shape. The features seemed to form into a shape of a girl with shoulder length hair, a mournful face and a pinafore dress. She was watching Hilary intently.
“What do you want?” Hilary stammered in frozen horror.
“I knew you would come”, the girl said and smiled a ghostly closed lipped smile. She stared at Hilary for a while and Hilary stood rooted to the spot staring back at her. As she watched, the girl started to become more transparent and faded away in a clearing mist .
Where did she go? Hilary rotated around, but that constricting, silent, closed feeling of the air surrounding her had disappeared. The sound had switched on and she could hear the traffic on the road outside and everything seemed normal. She realised that she hadn’t noticed, hadn’t even realised that the noise from the traffic was missing while the ghost was there.
Hilary sat on the end of her bed, shaking with fright and felt a trickle of cold sweat drip slowly between her shoulder blades and down to her lower back. She switched on the bedroom light and the instant warm golden glow from the lamps made the time-warp sensation slowly disappear.
It couldn’t have been a dream, she thought. She pinched herself and felt the sharp pain and watched the pinched area turn from white to pink. Yes, definitely awake! She stood shivering in her bedroom for awhile before walking to the kitchen and making herself a cup of cocoa. The bright stud lighting in the kitchen flooded light into every corner, banishing away the dark demons of the night and soon she felt herself again. The hot comforting cocoa spread tendrils of fire defrosting her from her throat all the way to her toes and fingers.
It must have been a dream she thought as the numbness released it’s hold on her. In the bright chrome and tiles of the kitchen, it seemed impossible, almost laughable that she had just seen a ghostly girl in her bedroom. It seemed the most unlikely thing. She brushed the experience off as a nightmare. I must be hallucinating after the tiredness of moving today, she thought.
After her cocoa she went back to bed without giving the ghost girl another thought.
The following morning she finished off the rest of her unpacking, did her grocery shopping and started looking on-line at decorating ideas and furniture. The current cream colour walls created a neutrality to her home which she liked but she wanted to make it more ‘homey’ and less modern by adding a nice wallpaper. She saw nothing on-line that was close to what she had in mind, so she made a trip to the local decorating shop and described the wallpaper design she was looking for.
“Lady, that kind of pattern went out of fashion in the fifties! I’ll show you some of our stock photographs.”
Hilary looked though the black and white photos from an earlier time and spotted something similar to what she was looking for.
“How much would it cost to get that wallpaper made?” she asked.
“Lady, you must really want that paper!”
“Yes, I have my heart set on having my perfect home.” She smiled at the attendant encouragingly.
It was expensive to get the wall paper custom made, but not impossible. Hilary felt it was an investment that was worthwhile. My home will look just the way I want it, she thought with satisfaction.
That night again, she saw the ghostly girl. This time it was in a dream and the girl was younger than she was when she had appeared in Hilary’s bedroom. The girl was sitting next to a Christmas tree looking at the presents underneath with excitement. Giving each one a shake to determine what was inside. The room was only lit by the Christmas lights decorating the tree.
A man walked into the room rubbing his eyes. “Miranda! What are you doing? It’s very late.”
“I’m sorry Papa! I came to see Father Christmas, but he has already been here and left the presents under the tree!”
“Ofcourse he has. He does these things in secret you know!” he said smiling indulgently at his daughter.
“Oh Papa! What do you think he has brought me? I simply cannot guess!”
“You’ll have to wait till the morning like all good girls. Bad children who open their Christmas presents on Christmas Eve night instead of waiting till morning, don’t get their wishes granted.”
She giggled as her father lifted her up into his arms and took her upstairs to bed and tucked her in.
“Do you think Mama will come home soon?” she asked him.
He looked melancholy. “I hope so my darling.”
“Why didn’t you want to go with her and Uncle Brian to the party Papa?”
He didn’t respond, but simply hugged her tightly.
She hugged him back to make him feel better and he stroked her hair and kissed her forehead lovingly.
After her father had left the room, Miranda sat on her bed and pulled out her diary from the bedside table. In the candlelight she completed her entry for Christmas Eve. She must have been in bed no more than a few minutes when she heard the front door open and close slowly. Someone turned the deadbolts as quietly as they could. Then she heard footsteps treading upstairs.
“Oh you are up!” her mother said to her father in the room next door.
He gave a mumbled response that Miranda couldn’t decipher. Their quiet voices became increasingly tense as time went on and they had a whispered exchange in the landing that seemed to go on for a while.
It was horrid. Miranda buried her head in her pillow so she could pretend that everything was ok and wondered why they fought so much. After a very long time, one of her parents went downstairs and whoever it was wasn’t bothering to keep the noise down any more. The front door slammed shut and the house became silent again. Why did they have to be like this?
Miranda drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
In the morning, she woke up sleepily and lazily and stretched her legs to the cold end of the quilt. She stared dreamily at the high white ceiling imagining it to be a snow-covered field undisturbed by footprints. She shifted her eyes down towards the bluebell decorated walls wondering why she was feeling apprehensive. One of the servants had opened her bed curtains and started a fire in the grate. It was crackling merrily away and sending fingers of red, orange and yellow around the fireplace. Outside the window it was snowing and still dark.
They have started the fire early she thought. With a jolt she sat up in her bed remembering what day it was. She vaulted out of her bed and threw on her housecoat and ran downstairs to open her presents.
She ripped open the thick paper and looked inside. She had got a beautiful new porcelain faced doll with yellow hair and painted red lips, wearing a long pink summer dress. She opened her largest present and found a pretty new sailor blue pinafore dress with a crisp white blouse that went underneath. Inside another was a new hairbrush, comb and hand mirror set with an elaborate Chinese floral pattern on the backs, just like the set Mama had and which she so admired.
She went into the kitchen and sat with cook, who gave her a morning cup of cocoa and some bread and butter to tide her hunger over till breakfast. Cook wished her a Merry Christmas and smiled at her enthusiasm. As she was munching her bread, her father came in. He had black rims around his eyes as if he hadn’t slept all that well.
“Merry Christmas everyone!” he hugged Miranda and said, “Miranda when you’ve finished could you come into the Living room?”
“Merry Christmas Papa! Ofcourse! I have such lovely presents from Father Christmas and from you and Mama! Is Mama still sleeping? I heard her come in after I went to bed again.”
Papa just smiled at her, almost sadly. He turned away and closed the kitchen door behind him.
Miranda was puzzled.
When she had finished her early morning snack, she went into the Living room. Her father was bent down looking at a small box he had just unwrapped.
“Papa you wanted to speak to me?” she said.
He wiped his face with the sleeve of his house jacket and turned around. His eyes were pink and his voice was a little choked when he spoke.
“Mama had to go Miranda. She had to go somewhere far away. She left last night.”
“She left without seeing me? When is she coming back?”
“I think she maybe a long time away my darling”
“Do you mean a week? She took a week away last month. I miss Mama! Especially on Christmas. I thought she would want to be with us.” Miranda felt sad and confused. Where has her mother gone this time? She usually bought her something every time she went away, like a dress one time, a beautiful oriental fan or a lovely pair of ballet shoes another time.
She looked into the box on her Papa’s lap. It was a rose pearl necklace with matching earrings.
“Is that for Mama?”
“It can be for you little Miranda. You are growing up so fast and you need something a little grown up.”
“Ooh Papa!” Miranda said reaching over to pull out the string of pearls. She put it around her neck and her father closed the clasp at the back.
“There! You look quite the young lady in the pearls. They were picked by fishermen all the way in the Indian Ocean”
She ran over to the mantelpiece mirror and stood on tip toe to admire herself.
“I’m almost as pretty as Mama! Don’t I look as pretty as Mama?”
Papa smiled sadly. “You look prettier my darling.”
Miranda wore the necklace that whole day with her new pinafore sailor dress and felt grownup. But feeling grown up wasn’t quite as good as she had thought it would be. Her Mama was away on another trip and her father just wouldn’t smile.
Hilary woke up at dawn feeling choked full of emotions that weren’t hers. Miranda was the ghostly girl she had seen. She was certain of that, even though the girl in her room looked older. Miranda’s mother had left her but she didn’t seem to realise the gravity of it. But her Papa had.
Hilary couldn’t go back to sleep carrying her sadness for Miranda’s loss in her heart, so she trotted off to the kitchen and booted up her laptop instead. She might as well make a start on her architecture sketches for her client, so she would have something to show next week when she went back to work. She worked right through till nine that morning and was pleased with the new design. My client is going to love this, she thought looking at the drawing of the slanted roof of the client’s new holiday home in the country.
By ten she was showered and dressed and ready for the decorator from the local shop to arrive at the appointed hour. He turned up half an hour late, complaining of parking in her busy road and carrying his tools.
“So lady, where did you want your new wallpaper to go?”
“I thought of doing the living room with that wallpaper.” As an afterthought she asked, “do you think there was ever a fireplace here?”
“These used to be town houses from the Victorian times, so there probably are fireplaces that are boarded up.”
“If there is, I’d like to open it up again and if possible use it.”
“Not sure about using it, lady. They’ve probably blocked the chimneys and there ‘re health and safety laws to think about.”
“Well lets start with the walls and see how we go”, she said without giving up.
The decorator plugged in his wallpaper stripper machine and pulled down his plastic facemask and began the arduous task of stripping the cream wallpaper section by section.
Hilary went into her kitchen to read through her work emails and catch up with what was happening there. She had been out of the office only a few days, but it seemed like she had been gone a long time. She had sixty emails to wade through. She sighed with frustration at the over-communications of the modern world and set to work going through each and every one.
Twenty minutes later, the decorator came to the kitchen door. “You’d better come and take a look lady.”
“Is something wrong with the walls?” She asked perturbed.
“All I can say is that you are spooky.”
“What?” She felt annoyed that the decorator had disturbed her without finishing his job and walked behind him to the living room to see what the problem was.
The patch of wall that he had stripped was covered in a film of white powder and the dust cloth he had laid down on the floor was also covered in the white powder. In fact, now that she noticed there were clouds of white dust everywhere.
“Well what is it?” she repeated.
“Watch.” He dampened a cloth in his bucket of water and started wiping the area. From behind the dust film emerged a pattern. A pattern of bluebells on aged yellowing background that may have once been white.
Hillary stood staring at the uncovered patch in shock. Her brain couldn’t register what she was seeing.
“That’s impossible! That’s exactly the pattern I chose in your shop yesterday. How can this be?”
“Like I said lady, it’s spooky how you knew what was on these walls!”
“I didn’t know. I just thought this wallpaper would look nice here.” Hilary remembered her dream of the little girl Miranda lying on her bed. “I wonder if there’s a fireplace”, she thought aloud. She was shaken by the coincidence.
The decorator shrugged and picked up his wallpaper stripper. “I’ll let you know if I find anything.”
Hilary went back to the kitchen and looked on-line on her laptop to see if there was any mention of the address. After a frustrating half hour she gave up. I’ll go to the Westminster archives tomorrow and see what I can dig up, she thought.
Her stomach was still knotted with the shock of finding the identical wallpaper she had sought, already on the walls. “How is that possible?” she said aloud. I’ve never been to this building before I bought it. I was drawn to it though. Did the flat select her, or did she choose the flat? It wasn’t getting any clearer. That feeling as if she had been here before was sticking to her like chewing gum.
By late afternoon, the decorator had stripped off all the old cream wallpaper and wiped down the bluebell wallpaper underneath. The living room looked just like a bedroom now. There was even a boarded off square section with a rectangular patch above it where a mantelpiece might once have stood around a fireplace.
“Do you want me to open the boarding lady?” He was giving Hilary a quizzical smiling look, as if he knew something she did not.
After the discovery of the bluebell wallpaper, the boarded up fireplace didn’t’ come as such a surprise to her. Somehow she knew it was there. This was Miranda’s bedroom she thought with certainty.
That night she waited knowing that Miranda would visit again. She sat up in bed with the lights switched off. She wanted to know what had happened to Miranda and what Miranda wanted from her.
Hilary started to doze off and immediately found herself walking into a dream looking at the servants putting dustsheets on the leather sofas and other furniture and closing the curtains. Some were sobbing as they did their work and others were grim faced. Something was very wrong.
Hilary found herself walking from room to room. No one could see her and Miranda seemed to be nowhere. No wait, there was a quiet sobbing coming from a cupboard downstairs. Hilary walked through the door and saw Miranda sitting among the mops on an upturned bucket writing and crying into her diary. Hilary leaned over and saw the entry.
Monday 15th January 1896
We buried Papa in the Golders Green cemetery yesterday. It was snowing badly. Everyone was crying but trying to show a brave face for me. Mama hadn’t come home once all of last year. I think it was that permanent sadness of Papa’s that eventually killed him. His health just got worse since that Christmas. He spent all of last Christmas in his bed and barely smiled at me.
Mama hadn’t bothered even to come to his funeral. The necklace that Papa had bought for her weighed so heavily around my neck. Each pearl was like a sad, weighty tear of Papa’s. I could no longer bear wearing it. It made me feel as if the sun would never shine again and as if all hope was gone. It was a deep despair. The necklace symbolised to Papa and me the last day we saw Mama. I miss her still. But I think I will not see her in this lifetime. I am putting the necklace in it’s box and leaving it in my hiding place. If she ever comes back she will know where to look.
With that Miranda closed the diary and tied the jewellery box with a black funeral ribbon. She came out of the mop cupboard cautiously looking for the servants and went upstairs. She had grown taller in that year, Hilary noticed. Miranda was looking withdrawn and older, like the girl who had visited her in her bedroom a couple of nights before.
Hilary woke up and felt the stiffness in her back from falling asleep, sitting up in bed. She stretched herself to shake off the stiffness in her back and limbs. She felt annoyed for missing the scene that showed Miranda’s hiding place for the diary. Hilary sat on her bed pondering. In those Victorian days, this whole building was a townhouse where Miranda lived with her parents. The first floor contained her bedroom and her parent’s bedroom. Now each floor of the townhouse was a separate flat. Her bedroom and kitchen were where Miranda’s parent’s bedroom was and her living room was Miranda’s old bedroom. Where would a Victorian girl hide her diary, she wondered? Bedroom. It must be Miranda’s bedroom.
Hilary went to her living room and switched on the light. None of Miranda’s original furniture survived. The original floor boards were now covered in the new modern wooden laminate flooring. The only things that survived were the fireplace and the wallpaper. Hilary put a hand on the wallpaper. It felt rough. She traced the bumpy bluebell pattern with her index finger. Where can that diary be? She looked down into the hole that was the original fireplace and poked her head inside it and looked up. There was nothing but utter darkness to see. She went back to her bedroom and found a torch which she shone up the chimney. Nothing. There were no bricks jutting out. It was just an old unused musty smelling chimney. She sat crossed-legged in front of it wondering where the diary could be.
The wallpaper appeared brighter coloured where the boards had covered the fireplace. She inspected it more closely and found an area to a side where the wallpaper had an indent. She pressed the area and nothing happened initially. Then a brick loosened out of the side. Hilary was excited. This is it! She pulled the brick out of it’s place with the tips of her fingers, moving it sideways to ease it out. It turned out to be a small half-piece of red brick.
Hilary shone her torch into the crevice and sure enough there were two shapes that looked like the jewellery box on top of a diary. She poked a pencil into the crevice to pull out the two dusty objects.
She wiped the dust off the jewellery box and untied the black ribbon. Inside encased in blue velvet lay an exquisite string of rose pearls and matching earrings. She touched them with her index finger and felt a spasm of deep sadness pass through her body. She withdrew her finger at once.
Could a feeling, such as sadness be transferred to an object? She had read about psycho-geographic footprints of the past left on buildings. It had fascinated her during her studies of architecture. She supposed that was what had happened with her flat. The trauma of losing both parents while living in this town house must have devastated little Miranda and left an impression of that feeling on the building. But she didn’t feel sadness in her flat. Only when she touched the pearls did an overwhelming sense of grief wash over her.
She closed the lid again and put the box down and turned her attention to the diary. It had started the year before the date of the last entry. It was the Christmas Day of 1895.
Papa told me that Mama had left again last night. I was sad that she couldn’t be with us for Christmas. Papa gave me the pearl necklace and earrings that he had bought for her. They are beautiful. I feel so grown up! I hope I look as pretty as Mama one day.
Papa hardly spoke at Christmas dinner. He is missing Mama as much as me I think. I worry about him. He seems to be taking it very badly this time.
I wore my new blue sailor dress that Mama had gifted to me this Christmas. It is so fashionable! I even have the matching gloves and shiny black shoes to go with it. I wore the pearl necklace and earrings too.
As much I tried to say cheerful things to Papa at dinner, I felt too sad to make a difference to his mood and we both ended up eating Christmas dinner in silence. We couldn’t help it.
Mama has gone away so many times, so why should it be different this time? Why do I feel like this? It is not how I am.
Boxing Day 1895
Papa fell ill. He coughed a lot and we had to call a doctor. As it’s a holiday, it took the doctor a long time to come. He said Papa had the influenza and that it was nothing to worry about as he had given Papa some medicine.
When I went to see Papa in his room, he was lying on his bed looking so pale. I have never seen him like that before.
Hilary flicked a few pages to 1 January 1896.
We didn’t celebrate the coming of the New Year. This time it’s just Papa and me and he is ill. We both slept through midnight and no one disturbed us.
I love my pearl necklace. I think I may never take it off, even for baths. It’s what I have of Mama’s.
A few more pages were flicked to 28 April 1896.
It’s my birthday and Papa has been generous to me. He rented a pony and guide in Hyde Park and I rode along Rotten Row, all around the park. They had put a side saddle on for me and I was so scared of falling off! But the pony was a gentle mare with a steady temperament. I fed her carrots at the Mews afterwards and she picked them out of my hand so gently for such a large beast. Papa’s nurse wheeled him towards us in his wheelchair. It’s such a clever little invention. Without it Papa would have been stuck at home. At least he can move around and be with me on my birthday treat.
Hilary flicked some more pages of the diary looking at the small entries Miranda had made. Her father seemed to be getting more and more ill and the doctors couldn’t find a cure. Miranda had overheard her Papa having a conversation with one of her aunts about sending her away to stay with her in the country. Perhaps that was what had happened to Miranda after her father’s death. Hilary turned another page and a black and white photograph was there tightly wedged into the spine. She pulled it out. It was a photograph of Miranda and her parents. On the back was written 1894. Miranda did look young. Her father had handsome chiselled features and an austere look as was typical in those old Victorian photographs. He had wavy, light coloured hair and dark eyes from what she could see. Despite the formality of the pose, Hilary could see kindness in his eyes. Miranda looked like the younger version of her that she had seen in the first dream of her on Christmas Eve night her mother went away. She was a pretty girl with dark hair tied with a ribbon and large doe eyes.
Hilary then turned her attention to Miranda’s mothers face. She stared at it a long time. Her heart thudding in her ribs. “That can not be!”
She went to her bedroom, switching on the light on her way to the dressing table. She looked at the photograph in her hands again. The heart shaped face with dark wavy hair pushed under a hat. The dark eyes that slanted up slightly at the outer edges. It was the same face that stared back at her from the mirror.
© Tania Dias