Queenie was too frighten to go back to bed so Bobby and I sat with her in the tiny main room of the bungalow as lighting flashed through the now bare windows to light up the room as thunder rumbled. “Does Sept 13 mean anything else Queenie?” I asked. “Did something happen to you a long time ago. Or your family?”
“Not that I can remember” Queenie replied as she flinched each time lighting flashed.
“No one ever died of fire in your family…” I asked.
“Queenie is too upset” Bobby said to shush me.
“No. I want to know why I am scared! Why this happens! Unless I find out why then how can it ever stop?”
“Do you have opium pills?” I asked. Bobby came back with one. In India opium was all over the place. Mughals used to have jewel boxes like snuff boxes to offer opium to guests. In the Punjab it was even given away to guests in the most humble of hovels. It was mixed with tobacco and smoked. It was mixed with alcohol and drunk. It was used by everyone. Bombay merchants sold it to China and all around the world. It was India’s biggest export. Always was. Tea plantations were rivaling it but no one could imagine Indian opium ever being trumped by anything. India’s habit was now the world’s habit. But because opium was so universal it was viewed like alcohol or tobacco. It was too universal to be deemed suspicious or dangerous unless people overindulged. Why some people overindulged was a mystery of course. We dissolved the pill in alcohol and Queenie sipped a little bit. “I usually don’t use them” Queenie said. “I don’t want to end up like the Indians who are passed out all over the streets after drinking the stuff.” That was a common sight. But then so was shocking poverty and in London’s Eastend gin drunkenness was absolutely on par.
“Just a sip” I explained. “Relax. Stretch out. Bobby. Put a pillow behind her neck on the wicker rocker. There! That is it! Now. Rock the rocker back and forth. That is it. Calm down. I just want you to feel a little sleepy. Now I want you to tell me about your earliest memories. Try to remember back before the first fire.”
“Oh dear. The fires were always there. Every year.” I gave Queenie another sip and she looked drowsy.
“Think back before the first fire.”
“Oh dear. Back. Back. Back. How far back?” Queenie brushed her short hair away from her forehead and rubbed her brow. Then it looked like she was about to simply fall asleep.
“Before the first fire” I said softly as I clasped one hand gently. “Queenie. Look into my eyes. Look into my eyes. Tell me about the what happened before the first fire.” I turned her face so she had to stare into my eyes.
“You have such strange eyes John. As anyone ever told you that? Your pupils dilate so very oddly….” she exclaimed slightly drugged.
“Tell me what happened before the first fire” I said softly.
“I was…. oh dear…..I was….. I was…. I was three! I remember now….” Queenie said slightly sleepy as the opium kicked in. Bobby checked one eye and it was dilated. She was staring into my ‘unquiet’ grey eyes now as if memorized. “I was three. I remember now. I was three. I was playing with my brother.”
Bobby stared at her confused. “Her little brother Finny was not born until she was almost four” he whispered in my ear.
“How old was your brother Finny…” I asked as I stroked her hand as she stared into my unquiet eyes.
Rex was three you silly! Rex and I were twins….” Queenie giggled sleepily. Bobby stared at me and shook his head. Clearly no one had told him about any phantom twin brother!
“What happened? What were you and Rex doing? Where you playing?” I asked softly as I stroked her hand gently.
“We ….we… .we…… Mother was asleep. I don’t know where nanny was…..and ….and…..”
“Tell me what you and Rex were doing. Where you playing?”
“We found Father’s pipe! And we were pretending we were smoking. Then we decided to pretend to smoke it! Just like father! There was a tapper and we took the tapper and put it into the fire and lit the pipe and ….and….and…..” Queenie suddenly looked like a small child very scared. “But the pipe smoked and Rex inhaled smoke and he made a terrible face and dropped the pipe and the pipe landed on the carpet and the smoking tobacco fell out and Rex was gagging and I dropped the tapper to help him and the fire….on the carpet…. and ….and …..
Then suddenly was a fire on the carpet and Rex was throwing up and I was scared! So I ran to get Mommy who was asleep! And I told Mommy Rex was sick! And then we smelled smoke and ran downstairs and the room was on fire…..and….. Rex….. Rex….. And the maid ran in and cried and ran away! So finally Mother tried to run into the room! But Rex was in the corner of the room! And the room was on fire! And Rex was screaming! He was trapped in the corner of the room…. and Mommy could not get to him! And I was scared! So I ran away and hid…..”
Queenie rolled into a tiny ball in the wicker rocker as Bobby embraced her in his strong arms. I gestured and Bobby got Queenie to sip some more opium to make her sleepy enough to fall asleep. . Well at least we knew the mystery — or did we?