A Dish Best Eaten Cold
Meggie finally decided she had to act. She couldn’t think of anything else to make the dreams stop. She knew she wasn’t the only victim. It wasn’t wrong because girls like them didn’t get justice. She packed the revolver in her bag and caught the bus to the village one afternoon. An elderly lady sat down next to her. Meggie shifted over without looking at her and jumped when she heard her name.
The fearsome housekeeper was now a stooped little lady with grey hair.
“Miss McCrimmon! How are you?”
“Och, I’m as well as can be expected at my age. I retired a while ago. No need for me after what happened at the castle.”
“What happened?” said Meggie.
“I suppose you didn’t get much news. Young Alexander was killed over there in France. Her ladyship never got over it.” Miss McCrimmon looked around and whispered with relish. “She took to the drink. They’d closed most of the house by then; I wasn’t there. They say she knocked over an oil lamp when she was in her bed. The place went up like dry straw. No chance to save her, poor thing.”
Meggie noticed that Miss McCrimmon didn’t seem particularly upset by the story.
“Are you here to visit someone?”
“I am,” said Meggie. “Someone I needed to see for old times’ sake.”
They got off the bus together in the village. Meggie waited till Miss McCrimmon was out of sight before heading down the road to the estate gates. Even if she could not confront him, she would face the memory of him. The once immaculate driveway was full of potholes and the shrubbery was untrimmed. It was dark by the time she reached the castle, though the moonlight was almost as bright as day. The pale gray walls loomed up, punctuated by dark, empty window sockets. Ignoring the sign which forbade entrance, Meggie marched defiantly up to the front door, something she was never allowed to do when she worked there. The door was boarded shut but she easily clambered through one of the windows into the once magnificent front hall. The night sky was visible through the tangle of charred beams which had fallen from the upper floors. Her attic room had been somewhere up there. The black and white tile floor glittered with fragments of broken glass which crunched under her feet. Shining a little pocket torch, she carefully picked her way through to the morning room where it had all begun.
The cold, pale moonlight shone in through the skeletal stone arches of the window. She could see her crazed and cracked reflection in the remains of the mirror above the elaborately carved marble fireplace, as if it were reflecting her mind and not her face. She had been a skinny fourteen-year-old in a too-big uniform dress, groggy from rising before dawn. On her knees sweeping the ashes from that very fireplace into a pan, someone had suddenly grabbed her from behind. She had yelped and struggled upright to find herself clutched nose to chest with a young, fair-haired man in rumpled evening clothes. Stale alcohol fumes wafted into her face as he nuzzled her neck. She dropped the dustpan and a cloud of ash billowed up between them. He pushed her away, coughing and cursing, and marched out. She had been told in no uncertain terms to turn her face to the wall and never speak if she encountered any of the family, but no one had prepared her for this. Miss McCrimmon, the housekeeper was not impressed.
“Oh aye, that’s Alexander for you. He’s the oldest son. Bit of a rascal. Were you flirting instead of doing your work? Stay out of his way. You don’t want to lose your position. Now hurry up and finish that room before the rest of them get up.”
Meggie had held her tongue and blinked back her tears. The injustice of it stung, but she did indeed need her position. Competition was fierce amongst the local girls to get a place at the big house. There weren’t many other options.
She returned abruptly to the present, startled by an owl hooting nearby. She cautiously ventured out of the morning room to the great hall. The moonlight pooled on the floor through the cavity of the empty bay window. She closed her eyes and leaned against the wall, conjuring up the memories of that grand ball one summer evening in 1914. She and the other servants had scrubbed, polished and dusted for days beforehand. The housekeeper allowed them to briefly peek at the guests from the upstairs landing after the festivities started. They had gasped at the kaleidoscope of elegant dresses, sparkling jewels, hothouse flowers, and music swirling below, momentarily distracted from their aching feet and chapped hands. Sent to gather up plates and glasses after the last guests had gone, she realized she was alone in the huge hall. Setting down her tray, she whirled around the room with an imaginary partner, humming to herself. Suddenly she collided with someone, stammering an apology as she recognized Alexander.
“Well, well, what have we here?” he said, grabbing her arm and clamping a hand over her mouth. “Let’s have a little fun.” His words were slurred. He dragged her into the alcove of the bay window behind the thick, velvet curtains. Meggie shuddered at the memory. To this day, she could not stand the feel of velvet. The weight of his body, the buttons of his dress uniform digging into her, his arm across her neck so she could hardly breathe, the pain, came back to her now as vividly as the moment it happened. It took minutes, but lasted forever. Afterwards, he pushed himself up off her, arranged his clothes, smoothed down his hair, and pulled her upright.
“There’s a good girl. Don’t want any scenes, now, do we?” He tossed a couple of coins at her and left. Meggie lay stunned for a few moments, then scrambled to pick herself up and straighten her dress as she heard voices. She headed unsteadily for the kitchen, the glasses rattling on the tray. The kitchen staff were still in such a frenzy of activity that no one paid attention to her. In her attic room, she wrestled with the first of many long nights of grotesque dreams where she killed him as he loomed over her, stabbing him, poisoning his drinks, shooting him, waking in a cold sweat as he collapsed dead on top of her. Creeping down to breakfast next morning, she braced herself for questions. But the staff were absorbed in newspaper headlines blaring the outbreak of war. Her distraction was considered reasonable amidst the fears of the wicked Kaiser and his army overrunning the country.
The world changed in the next few months. Alexander left to join his regiment at the front. The staff dwindled as most of the men joined up and the women went for war work. Meggie signed up for nursing as soon as she could. During the war, she thrived, but with peace the dreams returned as if they had been waiting for the opportunity to haunt her, till she found herself here in the moonlight thinking of doing the unspeakable.
She slowly made her way back outside. She had survived this ordeal and the war. A few dreams could be handled. Unspeakably weary, she sank down on the front steps. Her shoulder ached from the weight of her handbag. The revolver. The one she was going to use to kill him. She looked at the dark ugly shape of it. No need for it now. For once, fate had administered justice. She headed for the disused well at the back of the house and dropped the revolver into its dark, moss-walled depths with a sigh of relief. The faint splash below seemed to release her from the spell. Without a backward glance, she set off down the driveway for the last time.