The Ghosts of Gribblesea Pier

Deborah Abela

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

1
The Ghost Train

 
The girl lay in her coffin with a faint smile on her powder-white face. She had been carefully laid out. Gentle hands smoothed down her white silk dress, combed her soft curls, and brushed on her makeup so that her cheeks looked like two faintly pink cherry blossoms.
“So very young,” the taller of two undertakers mused.
“And beautiful,” answered the other, a cruel scar running down his left cheek.
Framed by the flickering light of a candelabra behind them, they fussed around the girl, fixing a lone curl across her forehead, straightening out the black satin ribbon around her waist, and finding the exact place for a single white lily to lay across her chest.
They were never happy until everything was perfect.
The shorter man put his lofty black top hat on his perfectly combed hair. For today’s ceremony he had chosen the one with the flowing gray band and white feather. He’d buffed it with a horsehair brush given to him by his grandfather, who had also been in the business. “We’re ready,” he announced with a flourish of his hand.
The other man’s left eyebrow rose slightly. “You don’t think you’ve overdone it a little with the hat?”
“I think it fitting.” The shorter undertaker positioned his nose, just so, in the air. “It’s dignified yet mournful, graceful yet not too showy.” He scowled and mumbled, “Anyone with an ounce of fashion sense can see that.”
They were twin brothers, born ninety seconds apart. The shorter, younger brother was never one for taking orders or advice from the older—never had been and wasn’t about to start now.
“Fashion sense? You wouldn’t know fashion if it walked down the catwalk and tripped you.”
The rattling of a train in the distance broke through their argument.
“Right on time,” they both whispered with more than a speck of delight.
The wheels screeched along the metal tracks. The carriages strained with the weight of passengers, crawling slowly through the pitch-black night. Eerie, creaturelike shadows jumped out at every bend. The misty, damp air filled with the echo of hooting owls, the far-off screeching of vultures, and the hungry cries of nearby wolves.
Then they heard the first scream.
“Earlier than usual.” The younger man pulled a watch from his vest pocket.
“Yes, but not one of our best.”
“No, no, we must work on that.”
For their work to be successful, everything must be timed perfectly. One slipup, one fall or stumble, could ruin everything.
Another terrified cry sounded, this time closer.
“Two screams.” The older one adjusted his already perfectly adjusted jacket. “Death can be fearful.”
Knife-sharp beams of light lit up the tunnel walls before them.
“Ready?”
“Ready.”
The front carriage of the train loomed around the corner. The undertakers threw their hands up to their brightly illuminated faces.
“It’s coming straight for us!” they cried.
The undertakers appeared to float into the air, as did the candelabra behind them. The lifeless girl between them suddenly sprang forward and screamed. An ear-stabbing, heart-piercing scream. A trickle of blood flowed down her forehead and from the murderous cut roughly sewn across her throat.
“Aaaah!” Whole carriages of screaming dread. One passenger fainted.
Within seconds it was over. The train swooped by. Flashes of sparks faded, and the screeching of passengers and metal wheels drew away into the distance.
The girl’s voice erupted through the murky dark that remained. “That was our best yet!”
The taller undertaker snapped a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at her bloodied forehead and neck. “Your performance gets better each time, young Aurelie. What’s not to scream at?”
“Thanks, Uncle Rindolf.” Aurelie’s teeth flashed from her pale face. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
The shorter one, Uncle Rolo, held his hat in front of his chest. “Nothing like causing a bit of a fright to get the heart going.”
Rolo and Rindolf had sharp gray-black curls and impish faces deeply lined from entertaining audiences since they were boys. They’d stand with apples on their heads for the knife-throwing act, whinny and neigh as the head and rear end of a horse and, of course, terrify innocent passengers on the ghost train.
“We’ll always be guaranteed a fright with that schnoz of yours.” Rindolf threw a look at his brother as he helped Aurelie out of her coffin. “It’s enough to scare a person into an early grave.”
“You might want to look in the mirror before you start talking about frightening features, skunkface,” Rolo shot back.
Aurelie giggled.
“And don’t you encourage him.” Rolo waved a finger. “If he thinks he’s funny, he’ll never stop.”
The echoing laughter of passengers seeped into the tunnel as they reached the end of the ride. It was the last train for the night.
“Even with my skunkface, I do enjoy a bit of fear-making.” Rindolf nudged his brother.
Rolo’s face spread into a reluctant smile. “And pants-scaring.”
Rindolf shook with laughter. “We scared the pants right off someone once. Tell Aurelie how we did it.”
Rolo blew out the candles and took a flashlight from his pocket. “I’d be delighted.” He limped a few steps to the exit, held open the door for his niece, and bowed deeply.
Their faces became lit by strings of colored lightbulbs that crisscrossed their way throughout the pier.
“It was in front of the Bulgarian royal family in the capital, Sofia. We went there for a special performance at the king’s invitation. We were warming up the crowd with some simple tumbling and balancing…”
“Rolo’d flip your mother into the air and she’d land on my shoulders. Nothing too fancy.”
“But it did look spectacular,” Rolo added, “because your mother would do it with two flaming torches.”
All around them pier workers pulled down shutters on kiosks selling hot dogs, cotton candy, and soft-serve ice creams dipped in chocolate. Rindolf rushed over to the waffle stand, poked his head between the shutters, and minutes later withdrew three plates of steaming waffles topped with melting swirls of cream.
Aurelie and Rolo sat at a round table shaped like a teacup and saucer. The last of the patrons were making their way to the curled steel gates at the front of the pier. Groups of teenagers slung their arms over each other’s shoulders, couples held hands, and young kids chased each other through clusters of deck chairs.
Rolo’s eyes wandered over them. Searching.
Rindolf handed a waffle to Aurelie and shoved the other beneath his brother’s absorbed look. “Are you going to tell this story or not?” He squeezed into the teacup with them.
“I was waiting for you.” Rolo sank his fork into his waffle and stole one last look. “From up above, in the balconies where the rich people sat, a woman screamed.”
“Ooooh, she was loud. I can still hear the ringing in my ears.” Rindolf rubbed his ears exaggeratedly.
“She was screaming because this young boy—”
“Who couldn’t afford a ticket—”
“Had sneaked into the theater and found himself a safe position behind the rather large skirts of this woman who had fallen asleep.”
“Not all our audiences were cultured enough to appreciate art when they saw it.” Rindolf sniffed.
Aurelie smiled through a mouthful of waffle and cream.
“But as the boy peered over the edge of the balcony,” Rolo continued, “he laughed so much at what he was seeing—”
“We were funny,” Rindolf added.
“That he fell back into the fine lady’s lap. That’s when she screamed. The chase was on. Everyone in the theater was determined to catch the intruder, but he swerved and dodged and, just as he was about to get away, a generously bellied gentleman caught him by the edge of his pants. The man held on, red cheeks puffed out, wheezing, until the boy undid his trousers and stepped out of them in front of blushing ladies, giggling girls, and loud shrieks.”
“I normally hate being upstaged, but it was good sport.” Rindolf nodded.
“What happened to the boy?” Aurelie asked.
Rolo smiled. “We found him hiding in a Dumpster behind the theater. He said his mother would have him whipped from one side of town to the other if he went home without his pants, so we sneaked back inside and found him a new pair in the costume trunk.” He slipped a last morsel of waffle into his mouth and looked at the dwindling crowds. “There’ll be a good ten minutes before the last of our guests leave and we have to lock the gate.”
“To the roof?” Rindolf asked.
“Where else?” Rolo answered.
On certain evenings after they finished their work, when the wind wasn’t too furious or cold, they would climb the stairs to Aurelie’s room above the ghost train. Inside, the walls were hung with rich red theater curtains. Stained-glass lamps sat on handmade tables, while strings of tiny twinkling lights glowed across the room like fireflies. There was a large feather bed covered with cushions and soft toys, and nestled at the end was a trunk full of shawls, blankets, and costumes from years of the Bonhoffens’ shows.
They reached in, grabbed a blanket, and climbed the ladder leading to a skylight. Outside, Aurelie huddled between her uncles.
“Can you feel that?” Rolo asked. “The wind’s changing. Autumn’s coming.”
“And here I was thinking it was your flatulence.” Rindolf scowled.
Rolo stiffened. “I don’t remember asking for your flimsy, shriveled opinions.”
Rindolf collapsed into a giggle.
“He’s just teasing, Rolo.” Aurelie kissed him on the cheek.
“I have a lot of valuable things to say.” Rolo turned his back on them both. “I should have been in politics. I’d have made a great mayor.”
“You’d have been the best.” Aurelie nudged into him. “I’d have voted for you … if I’d been old enough.”
“Me too,” Uncle Rindolf declared firmly. “If I’d had the stuffing fall out of my head.”
“That’s it, I…” But before Rolo could storm off, Aurelie and Rindolf smothered him with hugs, tickles, and smooches. “All right, all right. Get off, you win.”
“We always win,” Aurelie said. “You love us and, no matter how much we annoy you, you always will. Admit it.”
“Maybe.” Rolo smiled and looked away, his eyes resting on the faint lights of a mansion on the cliffs at the edge of town.
“Why do you always stare at that house?” Aurelie asked.
Rolo buried his chin into his blanket. “I don’t stare at any house.”
“You do. That one on the cliff. You think we never notice but we do.”
Rindolf nodded. “She’s right.”
“I look at lots of houses,” Rolo said. “Sometimes I may wonder who lives in that particular house, but no more than the others.”
“Sometimes?” Rindolf asked.
“Yes, sometimes. I’m an interested man. I like looking at things. And anyway, who wants to talk of old houses when we have Aurelie’s birthday to celebrate?”
“Too right,” Rindolf said. “Close your eyes, Miss Bonhoffen.”
Aurelie did as she was told. After a few seconds of whispering and rustling, Rindolf said, “Open says-a-me.”
He held out a cupcake with a single lit candle, which he shielded with his hands. “Make a wish.”
Aurelie concentrated before blowing out the flame.
“And this is for you.” Rolo took a small brown parcel from his pocket.
Aurelie untied the string and a gust of wind tore the paper away. Rolo snatched it from the air before it was swept out to sea.
In her hand lay a wooden replica of the pier with a small crank on the side. She turned it to hear the tinny notes of “Happy Birthday.”
“It’s perfect.”
“Happy twelfth birthday, Aurelie Bonhoffen.” Her uncles kissed her on both cheeks. Aurelie broke the cupcake into three pieces and they shared it.
Rolo checked his watch. “We better be getting down. Gates’ll need to be shut by now.”
As the three made their way back to the skylight, Rindolf tripped over his big boots and stumbled dangerously close to the edge. His arms windmilled, trying to steady his teetering body—but to no avail. He began to lean backwards.
“Uncle Rindolf !” Aurelie shouted.
Rolo’s face creased in panic as his brother began to fall. An apologetic look filled his eyes, and he pushed Aurelie behind him. She spilled onto the roof, arms splayed to break her fall, and turned in time to witness Rolo pulling his brother to safety.
But there was something unusual about the rescue. It was as if Uncle Rolo’s arms stretched further than their length should have allowed. And that Rindolf had fallen far below the edge of the roof, far beyond any chance of rescue, before he was hoisted upright.
“How did you…?”
“Sorry about the shove, Aurelie.” Rolo scrambled to help his niece up. “Just didn’t want to lose you and my clumsy clod of a brother at the same time.”
“Clumsy, yeah.” Rindolf agreed. “Lucky you were there, brother. Not sure I was ready for a swim tonight.”
“I thought I…” Aurelie tried again.
“We should go.” Rindolf flicked his head toward his brother and rubbed his hands together. “It’s colder out here than I thought. Anyone else cold?”
“It’s cold. I agree,” Rolo said. “Can’t have Aurelie catching a cold on her birthday.”
“But it’s just that…”
“As much as I hate to admit it, Rolo’s right,” Rindolf said. “And that gate won’t shut by itself.”
The two uncles gently coaxed their niece down through the skylight and onto the ladder. They fidgeted and talked incessantly, smothering any chance of her speaking.
“That’s it. In you go.”
For all their attempts at covering what had happened, Rolo and Rindolf knew what Aurelie had seen, but it wasn’t the seeing they were shivering about—it was dealing with their mother, Lilliana Bonhoffen.
“All we had to do was keep her out of the way until they were ready, and now we’ve mucked it up,” Rolo whispered to Rindolf before he stepped down the ladder. “She won’t be happy.”
“She’s been unhappy with us in the past, but this time she’ll pickle us for sure.”

 
Copyright © 2009 by Deborah Abela