In the big house

by Jenny

It is Joanna’s first week in the big house and she’s still finding her way around its dark twisting passages and narrow corridors with their flagstone floors and deep, shadowy corners.

It’s very different from her mother’s house in the village, which is crammed with children and noise and mess. This house sprawls, like a great fat spider, and she can sometimes walk around it for an hour or more and not see another soul.

She works as a skivvy; scrubbing in the kitchens, blacking the grates in the Family bedrooms, but her own bedroom is upstairs in the attic. She has been hired to replace one of the two maids who disappeared a month ago and the Family have found no-one who will accept the other position, so Joanna sleeps in her bedroom alone.

She lies awake at night, listening to the heavy tick of the grandfather clock in the hall and wishing herself back home to the warm bed she shared with her sister. Then outside her own door she hears quite distinctly, the dull thud of footsteps.

Not the delicate satin slippered steps of the Family’s youngest daughter, but the heavy tread of someone wearing sturdy work boots, like Joanna’s own. She slips from her thin sheets and lights her stub of a candle.

When she opens the door there is no-one there, though she’s sure she caught the flash of a black skirt disappearing around the corner.

Joanna hurries out in her bare feet. She hears the door at the bottom of the narrow wooden staircase slam closed. She takes the stairs two at a time and emerges on to the soft carpet of the first floor gallery in time to hear the big front door downstairs creak open.

She has never been through this door and it is with a thrill of excitement that she slips through it and into the night.

The crunch of boots on gravel to her left, she turns and follows, the sharp stones cutting into her bare feet. The path winds around the garden and disappears into a small copse.

Under the trees it is dark, but the moon is bright and full, so Joanna doesn’t notice her candle gutter and die. The figure is ahead of her, just out of sight. She speeds up, ignoring the pain in her feet and the chill of the night air.

The ice house looms up suddenly in the dark, a squat, low building, half submerged in shrubbery. The footsteps have stopped running now and Joanna can hear them just the other side of it. She tiptoes around, but they are gone. Instead, she sees a small window cut roughly into the side of the building. The glass is filthy, but when she peers through Joanna can see someone inside.

At first she’s not sure what the person - or is it people? - are doing there at this time of night, but as she rubs at the dirty glass with the sleeve of her nightgown she sees the spatters of blood, the horrified eyes, staring sightlessly up, the mouth locked in an eternal scream and the grubby white maid’s cap perched crookedly on the small broken head.

And as she opens her mouth to scream, Joanna feels something coarse come down over her head and everything goes black.