Silence For the Dead – Excerpt
by Simone St. James
Portis House emerged from the fog as we approached, showing itself only as a long, low shadow. I leaned my temple against the window of the motorcar and tried to make it out in the fading light.
The driver watched me crane my neck. “That’s it, for certain,” he said. “No chance of confusion. There’s nothing else around here.”
I continued to stare. I could barely see cornices now, the slender flutes of Grecian columns just visible in the gloom. A wide, cool portico, and behind it ivy climbing walls of pale Georgian stone. The edges faded in the mist, as if an artist’s thumb had blurred them.
“A good spot, it is,” the driver went on. My silence seemed to make him uncomfortable, had done so for miles. “That is, for what they use it for. I wouldn’t live here myself.” He adjusted the cap on his salt-and-pepper head, then stroked a thorny finger through his beard. “Table’s low here, so it gets wet. These fogs come off the water. It all ices over terrible in winter.”
I pulled away from the window and tilted my head back against the seat, watching through the front windscreen as the house came closer. We jolted over the long, muddy drive. “Then why,” I asked, “is it a good spot?”
He paused in surprise. I tried to remember when I’d spoken last since I’d hired him at the train station, and couldn’t. “Well, for those fellows, of course,” he said after a moment. “The mad ones. Keeps ‘em away from everyone, doesn’t it? And the bridge from the mainland means they’ve nowhere to go.”
It was true. The bridge was long and narrow, exposed to the wind that buffeted us mercilessly as we navigated its length. Any man who attempted to reach the mainland on foot would be risking his neck. I wondered whether anyone had tried and fallen to his death in the churning ocean below. I opened my mouth to ask, then shut it again.
The driver seemed not to notice. “It wasn’t built as a hospital, you see. That’s what I mean. It was built as a home, and not too long ago, either. Twenty years, give or take. Family named Gersbach, with children, too. Got knows how they did it out here. Four hours on the train from Newcastle on Tyne to town, and then over that bridge. No place for a child, I say. No one saw them much, and no wonder—it was all they could do to get supplies from the mainland, and they never could keep servants for long. I guess there’s no explaining the rich. They left during the war. I hear they were standoffish folk. Typical for Germans.”
We were drawing up to the house now, and he steered the motorcar around the drive, headed for the front portico. We circled a stone fountain in the center of the lawn, unused, sitting dry and stained in an empty garden bed. Patches of mist moved across it, sliding soundlessly over the sad-eyed carved Mary as she opened her blessing arms over the empty basin, blank-faced cherubs flanking her on either side.
“You mustn’t worry.” The driver stopped the motor before the front steps. “It’s remote—that’s certain—but I’ve never heard of anyone being mistreated at the hospital. Your fellow is probably just fine. It’ll be too late for me to come back tonight, but they’ve nice guest rooms here, for family. I’ll just come by tomorrow morning, then, shall I?”
I looked at him for a moment before I realized he thought I was a visitor. “I’m staying,” I said.
For a second his eyebrows flew upward, as if I’d said I was checking myself in. Then they lowered in consternation. “A nurse? I thought—” His gaze flicked to the rear compartment, where my valise lay. It was small enough to be an overnight bag. When he looked back at me, I met his eyes and watched him understand that the valise contained everything I owned.
“Well,” he said. The silence sat between us for a moment. “I’ll just get your bag for you, then.”
He got out of the car, and I opened my door before he could come round, pulling myself from the painfully hard seat. He flapped his hands in frustration and retrieved my small bag. “Be careful,” he said as he handed it to me, his friendly tone gone. “These are madmen, you know. Brutes, some of them. You’re just a tiny thing. Young, too. I had no idea you were coming to nurse, or I would have said. Most of them don’t last. It’s too lonely.”
I handed him payment, the last money I owned. “Lonely is what I want.”
“I get called out here to pick the girls up sometimes when they leave. They’re quiet as ghosts, and we never see the nurses in town. Maybe they’re not allowed. I’m not even certain they get leave.”
“I don’t need leave.”
“What kind of nurse doesn’t need leave?”
Now he sounded almost annoyed. I turned away and started up the steps.
“It’s just you don’t seem the type,” he called after me.
I turned back. “You needn’t worry about me.” I thought for a moment. “It isn’t a German name, Gersbach,” I said to his upturned face. “It’s Swiss.” I glanced past his shoulder to the fountain again, at Mary’s slender, draped shoulders, her elegant arms. Then I climbed the steps toward the front door of Portis House.