The cab trundled up a tree-lined driveway and stopped outside a red-brick building with an imposing clock tower. When the men got out, and the driver opened her door and gestured for her to exit the taxi too, Matilda had a sense of being cast into one of Mrs Christie’s murder mysteries. But none of the roles – victim, sleuth or socialite – seemed to fit.
When the tradesman offered Matilda his arm, Sister Bernadette remained in her seat. Whispering her prayers, her gaze inward, the nun looked as remote as a statue of the Virgin Mary. Matilda could not interrupt her devotions to ask her to intercede. It was all too clear that she would not be seeing her brother today. She would not be going home.
Her legs wobbled as the tradesman escorted her up the stone steps and a revolving door deposited her in a teak-lined vestibule. She caught a whiff of something sour, like nappies soaking in bleach. After setting down her case on the tiled floor, the cabbie withdrew.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, Matilda straightened her spine. The nuns might perceive this as her penance, but she would show her new employer she was unafraid of hard work. There was no shame in service. Some of her friends had toiled as maids since the age of thirteen.
Yet the odour of excrement and disinfectant prompted Matilda to reconsider. Perhaps the mansion hosted a training school for nannies, not a wealthy family and their staff. Matilda stood taller. Although no doubt inferior to the London college she had been promised, there were compensations in staying local. She could visit her brother at weekends.
A woman emerged from the gloom. She wore a stony expression and a starched white apron over a navy-blue dress. “Miss Osborne?”
Matilda nodded. The woman did not give her name. Or her position, but a tailored jacket and skirt would be more appropriate attire for a college principal.
“Pick up your case and come with me.”
Matilda did not move. She recalled the warning quotation from Dante’s Inferno: Abandon hope all ye who enter here. “What is this place?” She had no desire to acquire a reputation for defiance, but she had a right to know.
“Ghyllside is a hospital.”
“Am I to be a nurse?”
Sniggering, the tradesman strode past her to shake the hand of a man whose face was deep in shadow.
“But I’m in perfect health.” A little under par, but a few days’ convalescence would rectify that. A week’s at most.
“Ghyllside is a mental hospital,” said the woman.
In the schoolyard, it was always other children – the slow kids, the barefoot kids, the kids whose mothers didn’t have a penny for the public bathhouse on Friday nights – who were taunted. Told they belonged in the asylum. Her brother needed her at home. “There must be some mistake.”
“That’s what they all say.” The woman rolled her eyes. “If you’re not a mental case, why are you clad in a flimsy summer frock in the middle of March?”
Panic rising, Matilda spun around. There was her suitcase. Where was her coat? “I’m to be committed for forgetting my coat in the taxi?” She would fetch it and prove her sanity, unless they had already driven away. She pushed against the doors, but could not make them budge.
“Enough of the dramatics, Matilda.”
The familiar male voice made her blood freeze. When the ice cracked, it would splinter her heart. “Father?” The man who ought to protect her would have her silenced. He had threatened as much but she never suspected he would act on it, if only for the sake of his son.
“I’m not mad,” Matilda appealed to the woman she now deduced must be the matron. “Believe me, please.”
The woman made no reply. She simply stared. Following her gaze, Matilda noticed that one of the white spots on her dress appeared irregular, not woven into the fabric but newly formed: a leakage from her breast.
“We also accommodate moral defectives,” said the tradesman, as he bent to seize her case.
Matilda did not waste a moment asking what that meant. She sprang towards her stepfather and grabbed the lapels of his jacket. He smelled of shaving soap and pipe tobacco. “Please don’t leave me here,” she sobbed. “I’ll be good, I’ll do anything you want me to, if you’ll have me home.” When begging did not reach him, desperation sent her screeching, screaming and clawing at his clothes.
A shove, a slap and Matilda lay sprawled on the floor, her cheek stinging. Through a haze of tears she watched the tradesman unlock the revolving doors. She watched the man she had called her father pass through them without a backward glance.
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