I don’t remember much about the next couple of days. Augustus Sly left, saying that he would be in touch. “I’ll text,” he said, tapping the side of his nose significantly. Then the nurse came back in and told me off for shouting. “We could hear you in the Community Space,” he said, shaking his head and giving me pills. I think that they increased the dosage of my medication (I hope that I never get so inured to them that I say my ‘meds’) because, as I say, I don’t remember much of the next couple of days.
Then, as promised, Augustus Sly texted.
I have a plan. Will take a few days. Read [imp. not trans] Cousin Alicia’s book. P 96 et seq. Regs, Augustus Sly. PS Delete this message.
I had no copy of Shallow Assets of my own so I put on my dressing gown and went down to Reception, where two or three volumes were available to be borrowed by those curious about the history of their current place of resort. There is a big, not to say grandiose, sign above the heads of the receptionists, of whom the institution runs unnecessarily to two. Beneath an escutcheon that undoubtedly fails to comply with the rules of the Royal College of Arms it reads:
Part of the P- Group
Providing Worldwide Care
For the Mentally Frail
Then, on a separate and rather more chatty bit of board it tells us:
Shallow Assets was the country home of General Sir Featherington à la Blague (1856 – 1921). Sir Featherington was widely famed as a friend of the North African Moslem Community. The unusual name of the house is possibly osier-linked. The mentally frail have been cared for at Shallow Assets since 1957 and it passed into the custodianship of the P- Group in 1999. The P- Group is proud to take its place in an exemplarily fine tradition.
I had been intrigued how Sir Featherington had contrived to befriend the North African Moslem community here in rural Gloucestershire until I read Cousin Alicia’s book, in which she tells us that he was known affectionately in the village as ‘the Hammer of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies’, following some imperial war in that part of the world. That must be what the P- Group had in mind.
I bore the book away.
“Only a few pages, Mr Alablague,” said one of the receptionists. “Don’t tire yourself.”
I assured her that my intended researches were highly specific.
The relevance of the incident to which Augustus Sly drew my attention was not immediately clear. It concerned a washerwoman.
When I was still a child a curious incident occurred regarding a poor unmarried woman of the village, who took in the washing of some of the household’s linen. She was not of an age where one would suspect her to be susceptible to romantic inclinations; nor did the attractions of her features encourage any such thoughts. She was, moreover, big of bone. It was therefore a surprise to us all when it was reported that she had attained a certain condition and was no longer to be seen in the village. Needless to say, these rumours found their way to the Nursery long after they had exhausted their novelty in the Drawing Room, and some of what I have to relate I assembled in my mind long afterwards.
It is still not clear what happened. Months later she reappeared, but not in the way in which she had been accustomed to attend upon the household: modestly and at the back door. It was in the middle of the night, long after all were abed. She was seen striding through the corridors. The butler was sent for but he was found to be so profoundly asleep that by the time he had been awakened and properly dressed for the intended encounter the woman had gone. This happened on more than one occasion.
Dame Rumour, it need not be said, made play. The woman had died, it was conjectured. The more extreme theory among our friends below stairs, to which as I say I became privy only years later, was that the natural course of her condition had reached its conclusion most unnaturally: unaided and fatal. Accordingly, concluded those to whom this version appealed, the woman seen prowling the corridors was her ghost.
Was there a suggestion that the household had failed her in some way and that the revenant was there for the purpose of casting blame?
Papa, when I spoke to him of the matter years later, had a simpler explanation.
“That was no ghost. Stuff and nonsense. She was a healthy one. She’d been seen in the village with Belkin, the under footman. I was pretty sure that he was intimately concerned in the condition in which the woman found herself. No proof of course, but I sent him to the London house till it was all over. It was him she was after, I reckon. Revenge or marriage. One of the two. Probably didn’t know which herself. Or distinguish.”
Those determined for the supernatural explanation pointed out that the doors were all locked at the time of the woman’s visits, more particularly after the first, and that there was no apparent explanation for the means of her entrance and exit.
I returned the book.
“I’ve been reading about the ghost of the washerwoman,” I said.
To my surprise they knew only too well what I meant.
“Oh, she appears every so often,” they said. “Mind you, some of the poor souls here may be over-sensitive to seeing that sort of thing. Begging your own pardon, of course, Mr Alablague.”
I smiled to show that I had taken no offence. It’s safest in a place like this, where they dispense powerful drugs according to whim.
But why, I wondered, had Augustus Sly drawn my attention to the passage? And what was there about Edwardian washerwomen, nagging at the back of my mind?