March 1st (O.S) 1917
Shall I tell you a secret? I am afraid of the dark.
I suppose that's not strictly the truth. I am not afraid of the actual dark itself, but what it brings forward in your mind: your fears and worries, which seem one hundred times more serious when you can't see. I can't tell anyone of course. What would they think, I, Anastasia the Prankster, afraid of monsters under the bed and men with knives in our toy cupboard? I'd be teased relentlessly for the rest of my life. Most of the time it is not that bad. Papa does his best to keep bad news away from us children, or at least he did before the war, and if I have a worry I can usually talk about it with Mashka before going to sleep and we will often end up laughing about it. But some times, like tonight, when my breath is laboured and my forehead burns like a stove because I have managed to catch measles, the night time fears creep out of the shadows to get me...
It all began with our visit to England in 1909, when I was eight. It was a good holiday to begin with, my sisters, Alexei and I had never been further from Russian than Hesse so going all the way to England on 'Polar Star' was the most exciting thing we had ever done. Makes us all sound very dull doesn't it? Papa was going to see his cousin, Uncle Georgie, and Mama was thrilled to be returning to the country where she had spent so many happy childhood summers. We had to have many pictures with our cousins, and Great-Uncle Edward, the King. As far as I can remember he was the only one who was smiling. We children were too hot to sit still and the adults were all acting nervous. I didn't know it then but a lot was riding on that visit.
Things started to go wrong when I was left alone with the boys and Auntie May, while Mama and my sisters went shopping in the town nearby.
'It's not fair!' I'd huffed. 'Why can't I go too?'
'You're too little, you'd just get bored,' Tatiana said, bustling about the cabin like a twelve-year-old nanny. 'And that would spoil it for the rest of us.'
'What she means,' Olga corrected, sitting down next to me and kissing my furrowed forehead, 'is that you'll have much more fun here in the gardens with the cousins. I've told Bertie to watch out for you.' She grinned wickedly. 'He was surprisingly obliging.'
Maria giggled and even I managed a faint smile.
'Play hide and seek,' Tatiana suggested, 'you always win that.'
I did, that was true. What she didn't know then was that I'd climb a tree until everyone else was found then go hide in the most obvious place and wait to be found there.
'Alright,' I sighed. 'But it's still not fair,' I added, to make sure that they knew I wasn't happy with the arrangements.
The Big Pair smiled at me fondly, then ran from the cabin towards Mama's voice. Maria linked my arm as we followed them. 'I'll buy you some candies and a nice surprise,' she whispered in my ear. I squeezed her arm in affection. My lovely, sweet, caring Mashka.
As it happened Bertie, the boy who was so eager to please Olga, was not to be playing with us. Neither was his elder brother, who they call David. Both were to be having lessons even when there were guests staying, something Mama frowned upon severely. The girl, Mary, had gone with Mama and my sisters as she and Tatiana got on well. So, I was left alone with the two little boys: Henry, a year older than me, tall, blonde and highly sure of himself and Georgie Junior, a year younger than i was, giddy, energetic and drunk on excitement and the lemonade Auntie May poured for us as a special treat. He was so giddy in fact that Auntie May decided to leave Henry and I in the care of Great-Uncle Edward and Great-Auntie Alix while she put him down for a rest with Alexei in the nursery. Edward and Alix were not the greatest of babysitters, because as soon as they settled themselves down in the chairs over looking the lawn we were playing on, both fell deeply asleep. After a few minutes, Henry nudged me.
'What?' I hissed.
'Come on,' he stood up and held out his hand to me, becoming for me to come with him.
'Where are we going?' I asked.
'Anywhere,'Henry said, as I took his hand and he propelled me into the gardens around us.
We spend a while just running madly, shrieking like banshees simply because we could, then Henry showed me how to make a bird come to you by whistling and I taught him to do a handstand. He found it particually amusing when my skirt fell down and he saw my frilly underwear.
'Stop laughing!' I ordered crossly, pulling my skirt down again as he hooted with laughter. 'It's not that funny.'
'Oh, it is, it is!' Henry was beyond reason now. 'Do it again!'
'No.' I stuck my nose in the air and tried to act like Tatiana. 'I want to go back to the lawn now. I'm hungry.' But Henry was not listening. He was too busy rolling on the grass and probably getting his clothes dirty.
Really, I thought to myself, making my way back as best I could, Aunt May might as well have put both boys to bed for all it was worth. I was too busy being cross at Henry to notice that I had come the wrong way and was now facing a small cottage with red bricks and lacy curtains in the windows. It reminded me of Anya's cottage back home and made me wonder if the person who lived there would be as friendly and, more importantly, have as full a larder as Anya did.
That was when I saw him. A boy, a little boy standing in the window wearing a sailor suit. It was hard to tell how old he was, because his face seemed ageless but he was about as tall as Alexei, so I guessed that he must be four or five. His face was taunt and pale and his eyes bore into me, causing a shiver to run down my spine and into my socks. I don't know how long the boy and I held that gaze. Maybe seconds, maybe minutes. All I know is that I couldn't tear my eyes away and neither could he.
I turned around. Henry must have calmed down, then panicked because he couldn't see me. There he was running through the trees, a grass stain on his white trousers. I turned back to the cottage, but the boy in the window was gone.
'There you are!' Henry ran up to me, puffing. 'You didn't need to take offence you know...Girls are so touchy...'
'Who lives here?' I interrupted. Instantly, Henry's smile faded.
'What, here? No one.' There was a slight bitterness in his voice that I didn't trust.
'Someone must,' I argued. 'I saw a little boy.'
'Oh.' There was a pause. 'You must have seen the ghost then.'
I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. 'Ghost?'
'Yes. A boy who lived here long ago and died. His ghost haunts the cottage.'
A twinge of disbelieve made me regain myself. 'He looked real enough.'
Henry scowled at me. 'Don't you believe me?'
'No.' I tilted my chin up. 'I don't.'
'Well then, he will have to come to haunt you,' Henry said. 'All those who don't believe get haunted. The last one who didn't...well, we've not heard form him again.'
My stomach churned. It wasn't real, he's just pretending, I forced myself to think, but a niggling voice in my head made me wonder if he was telling the truth.
'You're lying,' I said but it came out weaker and quieter than I'd planned.
Henry arched an eyebrow. 'Am I?' He took a step backwards. A twig snapped somewhere behind him. It was all too much. I turned on my heel and fled.