Oh low estate, my love my love, the song’s hook went, or seemed to, through the wall of the Ladies’. Bill Koslaw felt it more than heard it, buzzing in his back teeth through the sweaty skin of his jaws as he pushed into this toff tart—Sessilie, he thought her name was, and the rest began with a K—from behind with her bent over the lav itself, hands wide-braced, each thrust all but mashing that great midnight knot of hair against the cubicle’s tiling. And he could see her lips moving, too, half-quirked in that smile he’d literally never seen her lose thus far: Oh low estate, the threat is great, my love my love (my love) . . .
Tiny girl, this Sessilie K., almost creepily so. She looked barely legal, though he’d touched a cupcake-sized pair of breasts beneath that silky top of hers as she pulled him inside the Ladies’, nipples long enough to tent the material and one apparently bar-pierced, set inside a shield like a little silver flame which pricked his hand when he’d tried to flick it, drawing blood. “Oh, never mind that,” she’d said, that smile intact, opaquely unreadable even as she’d leaned forward with her hips hiked high, flipping her skirt up to show her thong already moved neatly aside for easier penetration.
“Bit cruel to your knickers,” he’d commented. “Bet those cost a pretty penny.”
“No doubt,” she’d replied, bum still in the air and both legs wide-spread, aslant on her too-high heels, completely shameless. “But then, it all ends up in the fire eventually. Doesn’t it?”
Punctuating it with a bit of a shimmy, like: well, get a wiggle on. Don’t waste my time, groundling; better things to do, you know. Better classes of fools to fuck.
That airy contempt of hers, especially when delivered in those plummy tones, engorged him. But . . .
He should be liking this better than he was, he reckoned. Some sort of aristocrat, perpetually drunk and perpetually talking, always with her credit card out like it was glued to her palm and no apparent impulse control to speak of; what wasn’t to like, for Christ’s sake?
Just her, he supposed. Her, and almost everything about her.
He slid one hand up to ruck her blouse over her shoulder blades, and flinched from what he encountered there: Something halfway between a grey-on-grey tattoo of uncertain design and a brand with scabby edges, so rough it took on a Braille-like texture beneath his fingers. As though if he knew how, he could read it, but only in the dark.
“That a birthmark?”
“Oh, we all have one.”
“Some of them too, yes.”
“Who was it you meant, then?”
“Oh, Billy, silly Billy. Does it really matter?”
And here she rammed back against him unexpectedly, throwing him off his beat. Singing once more, this time out loud, as she took control of their rhythm: Ohhhh low estate, the threat is great . . .
“Am I boring you?”
“No, no. Do carry on.”
“What’s that, then?”
“Quite like this song, is all. I’ll stop if you’d like. Wouldn’t want to, mmm . . . put you off.”
She shot him a glance back over her shoulder, with that, and reached back down between her legs to run one long nail over the seam of his sack—inch-long nails she had, white with black tips like some odd parody of a French manicure, each with a small black bedazzlement down where the cuticle should be. Pressing just hard enough to make him jump, so she could clamp around him and milk him so fiercely it began to hurt as she tossed a loose forelock out of her eyes and winked at him.
That, right there—as he grunted and came, listening to her give out a rippling laugh in reply, her own orgasm seeming very much like an afterthought—probably marked the exact point at which Bill stopped feeling anything like bad about always having planned to slip her a Rohypnol and rob her house, later on.
• • • •
Bill had come to London on a Kon-Tiki packet, planning to round-trip Europe before moving on to the next leg of his pre-Uni world tour. But that’d all been put paid to when this arsehole, Gary, from Tasmania, decided he’d cheated him out of the proceeds from reselling a bag of weed they’d both gone in on, and took off with his stuff in revenge—passport, money, tickets, the whole deal.
Now it was three months later, and Bill still hadn’t quite worked himself up to the point where he was willing to tell the Old Man what had happened—just kept on moving from place to place, bed to bed, sofa to sofa. Squatted here and there, took under-the-counter jobs, and tried to build up some sort of pad. Going to clubs had become about the next ride home, the next overnight, and then—slowly but surely—about whatever he could pick up around the flat or the house, or wherever, before they woke up: Small items of value, gold and silver, electronics; stuff non-specific enough to pawn or fence without being traced, but nice enough they’d bring a fair turnaround.
Girl like Sessilie, wherever she lived, it had to be just full of stuff like that—a spread of hockable trinkets peppered in and between the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-type stuff: antique firearms, paintings and knickknacks with nice pedigrees, et cetera. That was the assumption, anyhow.
He’d long since learned to trust his instincts when it came to such matters, and it had paid off, literally. Hadn’t been wrong once, thus far.
So: “Shouldn’t there be somebody home, this time of night?” Bill asked as he half-walked, half-lifted her up the stairs. The place was dark, like nineteenth century dark; it was the sort of towering three-story house that should really be lit with oil-lamps, not cunning little sodium bulbs on dimmer switches. “Place is a bloody tomb.”
Sessilie’s constant smile skewed a bit to the left, those horrifying nails making a slithery noise on the banister as she dragged them along its curve. “Oh, there’s very little staff left, you know—family holidays, all that. Most of them have already gone down to air out the summer house, for when I’m done with End-of-Term.”
“What about your parents?”
“Hmmm, be quite the surprise if they were here; they’ve both been dead since I was eight.”
“. . . sorry.”
“Oh, no need. Papa crashed a car and killed himself, but Mama held on a few days in hospital, at least. And ever after, it’s just been me and Nanny Grey.”
As she spoke this last name, Bill almost thought he heard something drop in the dark above them—on the next landing, maybe, or higher up yet. A stealthy noise like a single clock-tick, or the sound of a hairpin falling to the floor. Not footsteps, not exactly. But the dim stairwell and its adjacent hallways took on an air of waiting, of watchfulness, even though absolutely nothing which might be qualified to fill such a role evinced itself.
“You . . . still have a nanny?” Bill asked, pushing Sessilie up onto what he thought was the second floor, where she laid a finger against her lips and shook her head, drunkenly. Then tottered over to a side-table in those ludicrous heels, their clacking muffled by a thick oriental rug, and took out a long candle the colour of bone that she fitted onto a nearby holder with an absurd little flourish, before rummaging in her purse for a cigarette and lighting it. She took a long drag, then pressed the tip against the candle’s wick, which flared into life.
“Governess would be the proper term. That’s what Nanny would say, anyhow. Such an old bulldog, Nanny Grey. So protective! She’s always been with our family, you see . . .”
And here she paused, wavering back and forth, her eyes unfocused—yet still retained presence of mind enough to stub the smoke out in the candle-holder’s dish and blink over at Bill, rather sweetly. “’Scuse me,” she said. “I feel . . . rather off-colour, all of a sudden. Might I rely on you to get me to bed?”
Slowest-to-take-effect Rohypnol in all creation, Bill thought, amazed by her stamina. Ought to check my supply, once this is over with . . .
“My pleasure,” was what he said, though, giving her a leg-out bow, fairytale prince-style. To which she tittered and made him a practiced curtsy, so well-learnt she barely even stumbled; he slung a hand under either armpit and caught her up with ridiculously little effort (so light, her bones like a bloody bird’s), letting her fold into him, apparently too tired to yawn. Sleeping bloody Beauty.
The bedroom in question, which she directed him towards with a series of slurry, chest-muffled murmurs, looked almost exactly the way he’d pictured it would—big canopied bed, choked with pillows and fluffy plush dolls: cute versions of un-cute animals, emo anime characters. He set her down in their embrace, and watched her curl into a foetal position, tucking a particularly infectious-looking teddy-bear—the size of a two-year-old, chenille-furred and shedding worn lace in leprous swathes—down tight between those hungry thighs.
Strange little girl, he thought. Well, he was right to want to be rid of her, and not just for the obvious reasons; best to get to it, then flee this damn place. Nothing so big should be so empty, so quiet . . .
And there it was again, from somewhere: that sound. A dog’s nails clicking on the floor, one leg at a time. A mouth opening, pop-gasp, only to shut once more, without even an exhaled breath.
Get going, son, grab what you can find, and scarper.
If only he could tell which direction the sounds were coming from.
Closer, now. To his left; no, right.
Bill shut the door behind him with excruciating slowness, tensed for the latch’s click, and once he heard it, turned left so hard he thought he might twist an ankle. The candle—left abandoned, with only Sessilie’s crumpled cigarette-butt for company—gave just enough light to navigate by, and Bill took the stairs upwards in loping strides, two by two by two. His heart hammered fast in his throat.
The third floor was smaller than it had seemed, from below. Just a door on either side, master bedroom versus guest-room, or maybe office. Forcing himself not to wonder what might be on the other side, Bill twisted the closest knob and slid in sidelong, trying to keep it open just the bare minimum allowable to admit his frame.
Within, he crept across the floor, tai chi tread, heel rolling straight and narrow to toe with every touch-down, to at least keep the creaks even. This had to be where Sessilie’s dearly departed Mum and Dad once slept—hung with tapestry like some set for Hamlet; a strange mixture of blue velvet and purple trim that shone all the darker in what little moonlight leaked in under drawn blackout shades. Dark like club lighting without the natter of crowds and the underfoot thunder of feet, pulse of music seeping in from everywhere at once as though it were a swarm of tiny biting flies.
(oh low estate)
Bill felt his way forwards, in search of drawers, cupboards, some sort of indication that anything had ever been kept in this damnable room besides memories and a place for wrinklies to shag. Something pushed forward under his fingers, a slick surface impossible to hold onto. Something hit the ground with a crunch, right in the midst of a bright stripe of moonlight: a presumably happy couple trapped under a fresh lattice of cracks, taken someplace sunny enough their faces were almost impossible to make out in detail, except that the man might have had Sessilie’s hair-colour, while the woman’s smile cut the exact same angle as her darling daughter’s . . .
Bill froze, waiting in vain for another of those . . . no-sounds; those weird, unidentifiable lack-of-noises, but none came. So he just kept staring down as though hypnotised, finding himself trying to make out what that was there, on the inside crook of dead Mrs. K.’s arm, just angled so the camera barely registered it; grey on grey, uneven edges. It couldn’t be . . . no, stupid idea.
No one gets a tattoo—or whatever—just like their Mum’s, you twat.
Not even someone as odd as Sessilie, surely. Or—that was it, goddamnit. And that . . . he realized, at pretty much the very same instant . . .
. . . was the noise.
It’s right behind me.
Before he could tell himself not to, he’d already turned.
At first, he genuinely didn’t recognize her without all that high-gloss cack on her face. She’d taken her hair down, proving it to be far longer than it had seemed when knotted up—brushing her thighs in one thick, glossy, dead-straight fall, shiny-black as her own nail-tips. She’d changed, too, into an actual honest-to-God cotton nightie with long, ruffled sleeves and a button-down front, whose collar went up to her jawline. With skin thus mainly hidden yet feet left bare, she looked both younger than before—enough to make him seriously question his own judgement, in terms of where he’d chosen to stick his tackle—and sexier than ever, in a still freakier way.
“Do you like the rest of my home, Billy?” she said, fluttering her lashes. “It’s a bit of a dump, but one does what one can. Still, it must’ve exerted quite a pull on you, for you to go stumbling around here in the dark while you thought I was asleep.”
“Well, uh . . . I was just looking around for . . .”
“The loo? I do know how you appreciate a nice bathroom, after all. One on every floor, dear; two, sometimes. One wonders how you missed them.”
Oh, does one? That tone of hers was maddening; not simply the way in which she spoke, but the sentiment—or lack thereof—behind it. And so difficult to listen to as well. Slipped away whenever the ear tried to fasten on it, pig-greasy with happy idiocy, as though nothing said “like that” could be worth paying attention to, even with only half an ear.
Which was why he found himself trying to focus on the light she held, instead, using its soft flicker to steady himself. “That’s from . . . downstairs, isn’t it?”
“Why yes, it is. Funny you should notice.”
“Why? I was there when you lit it.”
“Course you were, I knew that. But, you see—this is rather a special candle.”
She took a moment to run her finger over its uppermost quarter, hot wax slopping onto her in a way that anyone else would find unbearable, and made an odd little fiddly gesture that seemed to make a perfect little approximation of somebody’s features emerge from the unburnt portion. Not just somebody’s, though—for as she did, Bill heard a fold of tapestry pull back, revealing a long, narrow oval of mirror, and glanced automatically towards its surface. There, hanging inside like a drowned corpse under glass, he recognized himself; his blood congealed, the air itself becoming slow, difficult to move through. He could barely think, barely breathe; his chest heaved painfully, a landed fish yearning for water.
“Whuh . . .” was all he could say by way of reply, and Sessilie smirked.
“Oh, it’s an awfully amusing story. You see, when one of my Mama’s great-great-whatevers was clapped in durance vile over having been accused of merry-dancing with Old Sir ‘S.,’ she smuggled this candle into the clink to make a dolly out of it. And where she put it, I can’t possibly say; a very secret place indeed, if you take my meaning. But . . .”
With a frighteningly massive effort, Bill managed to half-turn himself back towards the door, though his feet seemed snared in treacle, his Achilles tendons shot full of Novocain. He fell to his knees, clutching for Sessilie’s ankles, but she skipped back out of range as though playing hop-scotch, content to let his own weight carry him down onto all fours. And even then, practically parallel with the floor, he couldn’t manage to keep upright everything hurt, impossible to support. His hands gave way, knees bowed inwards, joints unsteady.
“It’s special, you see,” Sessilie went on, “because it can burn all night, and still never quite be consumed. The wax grows back like flesh, so that every new woman of my blood may re-shape the face to their liking, light it, and use it like a Hand of Glory to trap our enemies. Though it has other uses too, of course. Summoning the one who first gave it us, for example, and who is sworn to do our bidding just as we, in turn, swear to eventually pay for that long and faithful service.”
Behind her, a stirring. A wind ruffling those tapestries’ as something passed behind them, dropped pin-quiet, clicking dog’s nails-distinct. A lip-pop with every step.
“As for you, meanwhile,” Sessilie added, “how long d’you intend to make me wait, exactly? And after all this trouble I’ve gone to, on your behalf.”
The answering voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, soft as fallen leaves. Saying, without haste: “A moment’s rest is always pleasant, my lady. You do keep me so very busy.”
“Really, Nanny, you’re very lazy, all things considered; greedy, too. But then, Mama always warned me you were. Rule with an iron hand, and all that.”
“Yes, my lady. Your lady mother was a perceptive woman, with—very good taste.”
“You aren’t being impertinent, are you, Nanny?”
“Only a trifle, my lady. Will you deny me that, too?”
“No, Nanny. You may be as impertinent as you like, so long as you do what you’re told.”
“Yes, my lady.”
She rose up then, manifesting from what might have been the bottom of the tapestries, the dark under Sessilie’s parents’ bed, or a pile of rags in the corner. Thirty at the most, slim and straight and taller than Sessilie yet bent, willow-graceful; coloured white and black and grey like Sessilie’s room, with the occasional hint of red at her mouth, her ears, her distressingly long fingers. The dress she wore might’ve been modelled on Sessilie’s nightgown but copied in negative, its fabric less cotton than bombazine, giving off a distinctive swish of underskirts as she stepped forward in her neat little black patent shoes.
The click, the pin-drop, that was the sound of each movement—not a creak, not a sigh, nothing human. As Bill goggled at the realization, she dipped her head as though he’d spoken out loud, projecting: Yes, I fooled you. I am sorry to play such games. They are the only pleasures left to me, I’m afraid . . . .
(Well—almost. I do not mean to lie. Lying is the provenance of your species, not mine.)
(But we will talk further of such things, soon enough.)
“Where’d you . . . come from?” He asked her, barely able to raise what voice remained to him. She simply regarded him silently while Sessilie frowned, tapping her nails so that the candle-holder rang dully. Replying, impatiently—
“Really, Billy, don’t you listen? I told you already, she’s always here. This is Nanny Grey.”
• • • •
It was a dream—had to be. How else could they have moved from one room to another, on whose walls an array of photos gave way to prints, giving way in turn to portraits, etchings, watercolours, oils? And somewhere in each composition—lurking patient and anonymous, behind or beside the centrepiece arrangement of well-dressed men, women, girls and even some boys who all shared Sessilie’s dead-straight ink-fall of hair, her grey-blue eyes, her cruelly slanted smile—a version of Nanny Grey was present in her long black dress, her sensible footwear, no matter what the era.
“Nanny is my governess, as I said,” Sessilie told Bill as she pressed him back onto what felt like a nest of sheets. “My servant, my lady-in-waiting. She’s my helpmeet, the head of my household; she keeps all of this running, and whatever she does, she does at my pleasure.” Raising her voice slightly here, a coiled lash, brandished rather than used: “Isn’t that so, Nanny?”
“It is, my lady.”
“Since—oh, I forget the year. Thirteen-oh-oh something, Mama said . . .”
“1346, my lady. When the very fount of your blood was almost cut off in full flower, for—was it treason? Yes. You Kytelers are treasonous by nature, I believe. And to kill one’s husband, then, no matter what provocation might have preceded such a desperate act, was considered just as bad as conspiring to kill the king himself. They burnt women at the stake for it just as surely as for witchcraft, soaked in oil and pitch with no hope of merciful strangulation, whilst crowds screamed and pelted them with garbage.”
“Better by far to turn to the Devil than God, under such circumstances,” Sessilie chimed in, with an air of quoting something learned by rote. “Or easier, anyhow.”
“Down there in the dark, yes, amongst the rats and bones. A bad place for any pretty woman to end. But then again, that is where your ancestor Lady Alyce eventually found me, after all—where we found each other, more accurately.”
“Quite. But the promise behind our contract isn’t enough to satisfy Nanny, you see, not always. And though it’s such a bother to arrange for boys like you to come visit every once in a while, Nanny does so much work on our behalf that she really must be kept happy. It’s only good manners.”
“I do value good manners, you see. Courtesy, common or otherwise. The little gestures.”
“‘Manners maketh man,’ and all that.”
“A party-dress on an ape, that’s all they are, when everything is said and done. But since there’s no alternative, they simply have to do.”
“Given it must’ve been God who deeded you to us in the first place, directly or in-, do you think perhaps we might be part of your Hell, Nanny?”
“I often ask myself that very question, my lady.”
“But to no avail?”
“None, my lady.”
“That’s prayer for you, Nanny.”
“Yes, my lady.”
Nanny Grey eddied forward with one long white hand on her breast, head bent down submissively. And when she looked up, eyes pleasantly crinkled, she smiled so wide that Bill could see how her teeth were packed together far too numerously for most human beings, bright as little red eyes in the wet darkness of her mouth. While her eyes, on the other hand, were white—white as real teeth, as salt, as a blank page upon which some unlucky person’s name had yet to be inscribed.
“Little master,” she murmured. “You wished a tour, I believe, and no one knows this house better than I. Come with me, please.”
“Oh, it will be no trouble; what my lady orders, I do. For as she told you, this is the bargain between us—the terms of my employment.”
“Yes, and I do hope you were finally paying attention, silly Billy. Because with so little time left, I’d hate to have to repeat myself.”
Sessilie leant down then, pressing one ear to Bill’s chest, in a vile parody of post-coital relaxation. But when Nanny Grey laid one of those too-long hands on his forehead a moment later, he felt his heart lurch and stutter as though he were about to have a heart attack, pounding double, triple, quadruple-time. Sessilie must’ve heard it, for she gave yet another of those rippling laughs, and he wanted nothing more than to be able to rouse his limbs enough to tear her soft white throat open with his thumbs. She drew back and pouted.
“I’m going to tell you something now, Billy,” she said, “because I actually quite like you, all things considered. One day, when I turn Nanny over to my daughter the way Mama turned her over to me, she will take me wherever she’s taking you—wherever she took my Mama, and hers before her, so on, et cetera. Back to the first of us, great Lady Alyce in her shit-filled cell. So there; that might help.”
Bill swallowed hard, barely scraping enough air to whisper: “It . . . really . . . doesn’t.”
“Mmm, s’pose not; shouldn’t think it would. But then, I did only say ‘might.’”
He sank down further then, excruciatingly slow, into a deep, deep blackness. Only to hear them still arguing, as he went—
“Do this, Nanny Grey; do that, Nanny Grey. Eat up, Nanny Grey. You’ll expect me to digest him completely as well, I’m sure, just to save you the trouble of having to cover up your own indiscretions.”
“Well, I could simply take him away now, if you’d prefer—but what on earth would be the use of that, considering? There are limits to even your perversity, I’m sure.”
“Really, it’s you Kytelers who are the lazy ones. Never doing anything for yourselves . . . what sort of example do you think that sets, for everyone else?”
“Oh, pish-tosh, Nanny. Why should we have to make the effort, when we have you to do it for us?”
“. . . crazy . . .” Bill told them both, through stiffening lips, to which Sessilie only smiled, as ever. While Nanny Grey raised a single perfectly-arched eyebrow, expressionless as a cast pewter mask, and murmured, in return: “I had wings once, little master. You’d be disappointed too, I’d venture, if you found yourself where I find myself now.”
“Poor Nanny. Quite the come-down, wasn’t it?”
“A fall, yes, both long and hard. And at the end of it—”
“Me,” Sessilie supplied, brightly. “Wasn’t that nice?”
A pause, infinite as some gigantic clock’s gears turning over, millennial, epochal. Deep time caught in the shallowest of all possible circuits, and only digging itself deeper. After which Bill heard the thing that called itself Nanny Grey reply, with truly terrible patience—
“. . . even so, my lady.”
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