Every night, at quarter to nine, Georgia’s mother would shoo her upstairs to her bedroom. ‘Don’t forget your prayers, Georgie,’ her mother would say and turn out the electric light. Nine o’clock was bedtime. It always had been. Even their dog, Jack, was safely in his little house in the garden. If Georgia, or her younger sisters Jenevieve and Penelope, asked, ‘Why? Why nine o’clock?’ their parents answered ‘Because it is’ or ‘Because I say so’. Jenny and Penny gave up on the question at age seven. Georgia had persisted longer, until she was twelve. She wanted to know why the rules were what they were. She wanted to know why children were to be seen and not heard, why she had to wash up before meals, why she must be in bed by nine o’clock exactly. The Sharpe family was always abed at nine.
But not tonight.
Georgia held her breath as she padded down the hall, past her parents’ bedroom. She avoided the creakiest floorboards, but every sound was loud as church bells in her ears. Someone would wake up, someone would hear. But Georgia had to know. She had to see the house in the hours between nine at night and six in the morning. Pausing every other step to listen for trouble, Georgia finally made it to the top of the stairs. She stared into the darkness. It didn’t look like her house down there. It looked like a cave. She thought she might go back to her room and fetch a candle. When she glanced back, the hallway was a cave, too.
Something brushed Georgia’s leg. She slapped a hand over her mouth, feeling a scream rise in her throat, and looked down. Jenny’s Persian cat sat at Georgia’s feet, its tail brushing back and forth over the hardwood floor. Georgia let out a long breath. Expecting to be petted, the cat meowed up at her. Not now, Fluffy. Georgia stepped over the cat and began her tentative descent of the staircase. Fluffy followed. Georgia couldn’t say she was sorry for the company.
At the bottom of the stairs, Georgia made her way left, dodging a side table that reared out of the darkness. She paused at the entrance to the sitting room. Though the curtains were drawn, a little moonlight peered through the crack between the panels of heavy cloth, enough for Georgia to make out the outlines of the armchairs and sofa, hunched like sleeping beasts. The night’s fire had burned down to coals in the hearth. Shadows grew out of the soft red glow. Georgia leaned down to pick up Fluffy, but the cat had gone.
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed midnight. Georgia drew her dressing gown closer, shivering. She fancied she could see her breath. Why was it so cold down here?
“Fluffy,” she whispered, shuffling from the sitting room into the parlour. “Fluffy…”
She should go back. At night, the cat knew the house better than she did. Georgia hesitated by the entrance to the kitchen. Still warm from dinner time, the room reminded her of her mother. She passed it by. Instead, she went into the butler’s pantry and stopped. The cellar door was open.
Every night, before the family went to bed, her mother locked that door. So the cat couldn’t get down there and upset her canned peaches, or something. But Fluffy had got down there now. Why was the door open? Fluffy didn’t belong down there. Georgia didn’t belong here, either.
Not after midnight.