The Attic in The West Wing
The cold woke Bela up. She’d been dreaming about the magpie tapping at her window, so she was not completely shocked to find herself outside again in the middle of the night. She struggled into a sitting position and felt around in the darkness. Behind her there was a brick wall. Beneath, a rough floor made of wooden planks, and, beyond it, nothing but open air. Out to the side, her searching fingers closed round a wooden pole. She realized she was up on the scaffolding that covered the west wing of the house. It seemed impossible, but somehow she must have got onto the roof and climbed across it while she slept.
The thought of being high above the ground in darkness terrified her, but she told herself not to panic. There was a faint pink smudge in the sky. All she had to do was wait, shivering, until there was enough light to climb down.
Soon she could make out the grid of wooden poles. She peered over the edge and her stomach flipped; she was perched at the very top of the scaffolding.
Maybe she should wait. Someone would come out and see her eventually. Bela considered this for a moment, but the thought of her uncle and Dr Krol discovering she was a sleepwalker convinced her to try and get down by herself.
She shuffled to the end of the platform. Round the corner was a window on the same level. She crawled to it and peered in at a dim corridor on the other side. She pressed her fingers against the sash and pushed. To her relief, the window slid open. She swung a leg over the sill and climbed in.
The floor was thick with dust, but a pathway had been cleared by someone’s footsteps. She followed the trail to a door and stood there for a moment, listening for any sound coming from the other side.
She pushed the door open and shivered as a wave of freezing air rolled over her. The room was full of lumpen objects covered in sheets. She could see the outline of iron bedsteads, and her first thought was of furniture stored in the attic, only the taste inside the room told her a different story. The air in here was foetid, but it didn’t have the damp, mushroomy flavour of abandonment she’d expected. It was dense and alive.
Just inside the door was a table with a steel syringe and what looked like medical equipment lying on top. Bela picked up a length of rubber tubing attached to an empty glass bottle that had an overwhelming metallic smell of blood.
All Bela wanted was to get away from that room, but she had to know what was going on in her uncle’s house. With her pulse beating at the root of her tongue, she edged towards the nearest shrouded mound and lifted the corner of the sheet.
A man lay underneath.
She dropped the sheet and stifled a cry. For a moment, she just stood there, her hand pressed to her mouth. At first, she thought the man was dead. But she could hear the faint sound of breathing and the vivid taste in the air told her he still clung to life. He must be fast asleep.
She lifted the sheet again. The man was dressed in a sealskin parka, the fur-lined hood pulled up over his head. Across his chest he held a rifle, like the ones she’d seen in the cabinet in the professor’s study.
Her determination to understand was stronger than her fear, so she stretched out a hand and nudged the man’s shoulder. He didn’t stir. Why wouldn’t he wake up? She nudged him again, harder this time, but he continued to lie still.
Bela glanced round the room and counted twenty- four of the shrouded shapes. She crept from one to another, lifting the corners of the sheets. A sleeping stranger, armed and dressed in sealskins, lay underneath each one.
Then she saw a face that seemed familiar. The man had a bandage across one eye. Wasn’t he one of the soldiers she’d seen getting out of the carriage with Dr Krol?
Bela looked over at the window. Morning was not far away. Soon the house would be awake and she must not be found here in the forbidden wing of the house. She crept out of the room and to the end of the corridor, where a narrow spiral staircase led to the floor below.
Bela began to make her way down and, after a couple of turns, she saw a door ahead. But before she could reach it, she heard the scrape of a key in the lock. The door swung open and Eva came through. ‘Oh!’ she said, stopping dead when she saw Bela.
Bela was just as shocked. She stood frozen on the staircase, her heart thudding in her chest.
From behind Eva came Dr Krol’s voice. ‘Miss Balinsky? What is it?’
Eva said nothing, only blinked her pale eyes at Bela. It lasted no more than a moment, but in that brief time, Bela saw a change come over Eva’s face as if she’d finally come to a difficult decision. She pressed her lips together and turned round, blocking the doorway. ‘I’ve just realized, Doctor Krol, that I’ve left my shawl downstairs and it’s very chilly in the attic.’ She laughed girlishly. ‘I don’t suppose...’
Bela heard the doctor’s irritated reply. ‘Of course. I’d be delighted to fetch it for you.’
When he’d gone, Eva turned back to Bela. ‘Quickly! He can’t see you here.’
She took Bela’s hand and pulled her through the doorway that emerged on the same floor as Bela’s bedroom.
‘How did you get up there?’ she whispered. Before Bela could reply, she shook her head. ‘It doesn’t matter.
Go back to your room and don’t say anything about this to anybody.’ Eva went to leave, but Bela grabbed her hand. ‘Who are those people up there?’
Eva glanced over her shoulder. ‘He’ll be back any minute.’
‘What’s going on in this house?’
Eva flapped her hands to quieten her. ‘There’s no time to explain now... Listen, I’ll meet you at five o’clock, in the woods by the gates. I’ll tell you everything then, I promise.’
Bela slipped back to her room. She climbed into bed, pulled the blankets up to her chin, and rubbed her frozen limbs. It was a long time before her chasing heartbeat slowed and she was warm again. She lay in the half-light, eyes wide open. When she’d blundered into Eva on the stairs, she’d seen her surprise, the split-second decision that flashed across her face. Eva hadn’t given her up, but was she a friend or an enemy? She obviously knew about the men in the attic. Bela’s mind went back to the dim, shrouded bedsteads, the gun each sleeping man held across his chest. She couldn’t make sense of it. They must be an experiment of the professor’s, like the rat. But who were they and why wouldn’t they wake up?