The only time I’m ever alone is when I go to the bathroom, and that’s only since I turned fourteen. Before that, Mary Poppins always sat in there with me, with her face turned away. When I had a bath or a shower or – anything else, she was always present, but not any longer. She does sit outside the door, though, and listen.
She even sleeps in the same room as me, as she has done since I was born.
Before insisting on my independence in the bathroom, the only time I ever knew solitude was in my bed, under my blankets, with my head covered. Then I couldn’t hear Mary Poppins breathing – or snoring – so my mind was all my own.
I’d always had a Mary Poppins. That’s what I called all of them after Mom had read the book to me. Nanny, housekeeper, babysitter, call them what you like, I’d always had a day-and-night companion. My only break from them was during my lessons, but they took me to my school room, and collected me from it when my lessons were over.
I had many teachers too, for all different subjects, and mainly I enjoyed my lessons because the teachers tailor-made them to suit me. History, languages, science, math, English, art – I loved them all. Plus it was the only time I ever got to talk to someone else.
I never thought to ask Mom why I had no-one to play with. She didn’t like me to ask questions, so I didn’t, well, not after the first few attempts. Supper was a meal that Mary Poppins and I shared with Mom, and it usually consisted of me answering questions about what I’d learned that day. Mom didn’t tell me much. She was always a bit sad, and left most of the talking to me.
Our house was big – Mom used to tell me how rich dad had been before he died – and my favourite room was the gallery, a long room with paintings down both sides. Dad had collected these from all over the world, and I was allowed to look at them as much as I liked, as long as Mary Poppins was with me.
My favourites were the dark ones, with the colours to match my mood, like the German and Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th century. Durer, Rembrandt and Vermeer were all soul nourishment to me. The one I loved the best, though, was Peter Brueghel the Elder’s “Hunters in the Snow.”
The hunters and their dogs are making their way home through the snow to a faraway village, where we can see the villagers playing or maybe skating on frozen ponds.
“Mary Poppins,” I said to her, “I want to look at this painting. For a while.” So she brought me a chair and I sat down in front of it, while she stood beside me. Then she did something I hadn’t known her do before. She muttered something that included the word, “bathroom,” and she walked briskly away.
Now her instructions were clear. I was not to be left alone for even a second, and if for some reason she had to leave me, she had to call on cook or one of the servants to take her place until she came back. But it seemed that on this occasion her need was too urgent for her to arrange a substitute. Which was fine with me as I heard her disappear into the distance, leaving me totally and utterly alone.
I started to panic. I was all by myself, in the daytime, in a room that wasn’t the bathroom! What should I do? I laughed aloud, hearing my own voice echo around the gallery. I looked at the painting of the hunters in the snow, and wished that, given this new-found freedom, I could be there with them.
And it was at that moment that I discovered why I was never to be left alone, why I had been treated like a prisoner all of my life, trapped inside an inescapable prison.
Because, at that moment, I escaped. With no feeling of movement, from one second to the next I was transported from sitting on a chair at home to falling full-length in the snow, with dogs sniffing all around me.
And not just any dogs – these were the dogs in the painting! Rough hands hauled me up, and strong men dressed in furs helped me to my feet.
“You shouldn’t be out here, sister, dressed like that,” said one.
“You’ll freeze to death without furs. Quick, come with us,” said the other.
The shock of finding myself outside the house, without Mary Poppins and without Mom, outweighed the shock of the freezing cold which now threatened to kill me. I was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and had slippers on my feet, in six inches of snow. I began to shake violently, and my teeth began to chatter.
“Th-th-thank you,” I managed to say.
“It’s nothing,” said the first hunter, who took off his own fur coat and wrapped it around me. “But you will die here unless we get you inside quickly.” He picked me up as though I was a small child and ran through the snow, followed by his companion and their dogs. In no time at all we reached the village, and he brought me into a small house, a house that was warmer than our mansion at home. A huge fire burned, and animal furs were hung all around the walls.
“Heinrich, what are you doing?” called a woman’s voice. An elderly woman, also dressed in furs, was sitting by the fire.
“It is a stranger, mother. I found her in the woods,” replied one of the two men who’d rescued me. The other hadn’t come inside yet.
“A stranger?” replied the old lady. “There are no strangers in our world. You know that. She must have come from the beyond.”
Heinrich had put me down in an armchair near the fire, still wrapped in his coat. He quickly stepped right up to the fire itself, and warmed himself all over.
This was the first time I’d really seen him, and he was younger than I’d thought. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and had a thick beard, but in his face he didn’t look much older than me.
His mother took control of the situation.
“What is your name, girl, and where are you from?”
“I’m called Emma Durrant, ma’am, and I live in Hampton, New Hampshire. I-I’m not sure how I came here, but I’d like to stay, if I may?”
“Tell me the truth, girl, are from the beyond?” She fixed me with a steely glare.
“What is the beyond, ma’am? I’m not sure what you mean.”
“The beyond is elsewhere. It is outside of our world. There are different people there, different languages, different climates. The knowledge of it is passed down from generation to generation here in the village. Because here, we have other beyonders, like you. They also just appeared in the woods. Some stay and some go back. What would you like to do?”
“Ma’am, it is too soon for me to make a decision. I know what I’ve left behind, but I don’t yet know what I’ve found. Please, let me stay for a few days. I will let you know then, if that’s alright with you.”
“I like you, girl,” said the mother. “You don’t rush into things. You are welcome to stay here as long as it takes for you to make a decision. But you must work, mind you! Clothes must be made and washed, food prepared and houses cleaned. Will you work for your keep?”
“Gladly, ma’am,” I replied, “as long as you show me what I must do.”
“Then let us begin. Heinrich, find her some proper clothes, show her where she can sleep, and teach her how to feed the cattle.”
For the rest of that day I was in a state of amazement as Heinrich showed me the corner of the room which would be my own, gave me furs, and taught me how to do the chores. At the end of the day I collapsed into my new bed, exhausted but happy, but I wasn’t too tired to welcome Heinrich into it with me.
Janet Durrant had had a busy day. Meeting had followed meeting, as she did her best to manage the business her husband had left behind.
Her only regret was the small amount of time that she spent with Emma. So she decided that in this gap between meetings she would go and spend a few minutes with her daughter. She marched into the gallery and was surprised to see Christiana standing alone, beside an empty chair.
“Christiana? Christiana? Where’s Emma?” she barked.
“I don’t know, Mrs Durrant. She was here just a second ago, and I had to go to the…”
“Yes, yes, yes, we’re all human, but where is she?”
Suddenly, Janet heard the words, “Don’t worry, Mom,” and turned round to see an old lady dressed in furs standing in front of the Brueghel.
“Emma? Is that you? What happened?”
The old woman said, “May I sit?” and she collapsed into the chair she had left only minutes before. “Yes, Mom, it is me, I’ve been in the picture. I’ve grown up and married, and got a family. Why didn’t you tell me?”
There was no need to explain to her Mom what she meant. Janet knew only too well.
“I–I was trying to protect you, because I couldn’t teach you how to do it properly.”
“My mother could do it too. She said it skipped a generation, and her grandmother taught her how to manage it.”
”What do you mean, manage it?”
“Well, she could go in and out of movies, and TV too. But she’d been taught all the techniques by her granny. And it was my mom’s task to teach it to you, too. But she couldn’t wait that long. She couldn’t wait for you. One day, when I was pregnant with you, we went to the movies, and in the middle of it she disappeared. She never came back.”
Christiana was listening with her eyes wide open. “What was the movie?”
“‘Gone with the Wind’,” replied Janet. “She loved Clark Gable so much that she couldn’t bear to live without him. So she went into the movie and never came back out again.”
“So you never let me watch movies.”
“Or the TV.”
“Or the Internet.”
“But you didn’t know about paintings?”
“No, I didn’t. So now you can see why I cut you off from the world, from media in all its forms, so that you wouldn’t disappear the way my mother did.”
“You didn’t teach me how to control it, but it came out anyway.”
“Yes,” said Janet. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” replied Emma. “I found love, and a place where I belong. I’m happy there.” Janet began to cry. “Which is why I’m going back. I’m sick, and I don’t have long to live, so I wanted to see you one more time, and try to understand you.”
“And do you?”
“I don’t know. But at least I know why you did what you did to me. And now I know what I have to do for my grandchildren. I have eight, you know, and six of them are girls. There are others like me, and together we can teach them. When they come visiting, you will treat them well, won’t you?”
“Yes, of course, Emma, you know I will.”
“That’s good. Give them the love you didn’t give me. Goodbye, Mom.”
Emma stood up and gave her mother a hug. She waved at Christiana, and disappeared.