All twelve of us were in Mercy’s room lounging on her bed when the new housekeeper strode in without knocking and introduced herself. We clamped our lips and nodded, blank-face polite. But as soon as she marched out again and slammed the door behind her we collapsed into hysterical laughter.
“Oh my God! Who’d be called that?”
“She should’ve changed her name.”
“I would’ve changed mine if I’d been saddled with one like that.”
Mercy reached for the dictionary. “In Arabic, it means daughter,” she said, peering at us over her glasses. “It’s also Anglo-Saxon in origin as a surname, meaning ‘one who lived on a bend in the river.’ And of course it’s used as a derogatory term for…”
“Yes, Mercy we knoooow,” we chorused, rolling our eyeballs. We’d already predicted that Mercy would end up as headmistress of a posh girls school, or a librarian, or a vicar’s wife, while the rest of us were busy travelling the world living wild adventures. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
When she had been in residence for a couple of weeks, Miss Bint started patrolling the corridors at night, a diminutive but scary figure if you encountered her in the dark on your way to the loo. She loomed out of the shadows, her grey hair wound up in giant curlers, a long white nightie trailing on the floor, a lighted cigarette hanging from her mouth, and a large wooden rolling pin in her hand to ward off intruders.
Months after the fire, the inquest found the most likely cause was that Miss Bint had fallen asleep while smoking in bed. Over the years stories appeared in newspapers about the house undergoing yet another reconstruction. There was often a line or two about some of its current and past residents claiming to have been startled by a tiny woman in white on the stairs or hovering in the shadows. Photos of moonlight slanting through the window onto the stairs usually accompanied these stories, giving a plausible explanation for what the residents claimed they’d seen.
Miss Bint’s duties involved taking care of the hostel, making breakfast for us twelve girls, and reminding us we had to be back in the hostel by 10.30 on weekday nights and no later than midnight on Saturdays. One night we were woken up by her screeching at someone in an upstairs room. The next day Mercy and her best friend appeared at breakfast white-faced and silent. We noticed they avoided eye-contact with Miss Bint, but they wouldn’t be drawn in as to the reason. After the screeching incident, Miss Bint took it upon herself to listen outside our doors or burst into our bedrooms late at night. If she found any girls sharing the same bed, her rage was incendiary, although back then we had no idea why. Her constant refrain was, “You’re training to be teachers. Your conduct must be exemplary.”
Forty years after we graduated, there was a reunion at the college. After the welcome lunch and speeches we caught up with each other’s lives. We found that the majority of the women we’d trained with still worked as teachers, though some had changed professions. One was a politician, another a social worker, and another made nature documentaries. Some had gone into the police force of all things. Others had travelled and some now lived in other countries. Some were divorced; some were married, though not always to men.
Those of us who’d lived in the hostel trooped back there to revisit old memories. We wandered around the gardens admiring the trees, the flowerbeds bursting with color, and the lawns as smooth as bowling greens. We laughed about the parties we’d had in the house, the weird boyfriends, the heartbreaks we’d witnessed, the ambitious plans we’d dreamed up for ourselves when we had our whole lives stretching in front of us. But underneath our incessant chatter and laughter, I knew we were all thinking of the last time we’d stood outside the house. The night when we’d stood cowering in the dark, watching a fire engine extinguishing the flames and an ambulance crew carrying a body out on a stretcher.
The current caretaker opened the front door and ushered us inside.
“It’s had a few make-overs since your day,” he said. “After that terrible fire it was eventually repaired and turned into a home for delinquents. Then, it was an orphanage and then a maternity home. For the last ten years, it has been an aged care facility. Next month work will begin to turn it into a boutique hotel.”
We walked through the wood-paneled hall, up the wide staircase, in and out of the empty bedrooms, each room full of “Do you remember when…?” Back down the stairs, into the common room, the dining room, the kitchen, past Miss Bint’s old room. The caretaker asked if we wanted to look inside. We shook our heads and hurried on. The caretaker noticed.
“Yeah. Most people react that way when they pass this room. Too many stupid stories over the years about what folk say they’ve seen. Myself, I give no credence to that kind of rubbish. It’s the living you need to be wary of.”
Outside in the sunshine our group breathed a collective sigh of relief. Then we all started up again with our fake jolly voices.
“So good to see the old place after all this time, eh?”
“Yup. Fabulous to catch up with everyone face-to-face.”
“Yeah. Pity some couldn’t make it back though.”
“True. I was hoping to catch up with Mercy.”
“Old Bint hated her.”
“The feeling was mutual.”
“Anyone know where Mercy went after graduation?”
“I think it was South America.”
“Or the Middle East?”
“I heard she became a missionary.”
“Ha! That doesn’t sound likely.”
Then I said the one thing no one wanted to say. The one thing no one wanted to hear.
“I’ve always known that Mercy wasn’t the only one who started that fire.”
Sandra Arnold writes fiction and nonfiction. She has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction. She lives in New Zealand and holds a PhD in Creative Writing.