I visit Mrs. Schiller every Monday afternoon. Mostly I just sit on the sofa, staring at her collection of miniature teapots. Then she asks me if I would like a drink, and I get up to put the kettle on, because she gets out of breath walking to the kitchen. I come back and drink it and she tells me about her hospital appointments. Tobias says it’s good for me. He says I need to get out and think about other people too. Dr. Mylinskj agrees. It’s one of the points on the postcard she gave me: Ten Tips for Good Mental Health. Anything to avoid going back on the tablets, I suppose. I say this to Tobias, although I know he has sleeping pills in the bedside cabinet where he thinks I won’t see them.
Mrs. Schiller knows all about tablets. She has pills for everything: iron tablets, water tablets, stuff to keep her blood pressure down. She says she doesn’t know where she finds time for anything else. I usually agree. I think I get on with Mrs. Schiller because we’re both strangers here, and because we’re both so quiet. One thing I have noticed about Mrs. Schiller’s flat is that she has no music at all. No radio, no TV, no records. Not even a music box. That suits me because I have this sort of thing about music. It’s not a phobia exactly. We all had it when we first came out. It just makes me cry, and I feel as if I’m either going crazy or grasping at the edges of some long-lost sanity. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to avoid music unless you’ve tried. Sometimes I’ve run down the street with my hands over my ears just because of someone’s car radio. I think some of the others can tolerate a little bit now and then, but the house I share with Tobias is always as silent as Mrs. Schiller’s.
I know she has had a hard life because she told me. She lost her little sister back in Brunswick when they were just children.
“Not dead,” she says. “Just lost.”
She went to play chase in the market square and never came home. Mrs. Schiller was fourteen then.
“I should have gone with her. I should have looked after her,” she says. “But it’s a long time ago now. I came here after that. Worked in the factory. Forty-five years I worked there. You should work. Strong girl like you. Do you good.”
I don’t know if I will ever work. Tobias works. He keeps both of us. Some of the others work too. Some have emigrated or gone looking for their families. I never heard that they found them. Two of the girls—Klara and Cornelia, I think—are in a mental home now. I don’t want to go like that so I keep doing as the postcard says and visiting Mrs. Schiller.
It was on the national news when they first pulled us out of the cave. “Scandal of Underground Teenage Hostages.” “Forgotten Kidnap Victims’ First Day in the Light.” Of course, everyone has forgotten now. The news moves on and I’m glad. But at the time, people were outraged. It was terrible, they said, how anyone could do that to innocent youngsters. Leaving them in the dark like that for God knows how long. Poor things couldn’t even remember their surnames or where they came from. I think some police department is still looking for whoever did it. They might as well save taxpayers’ money and close the case.
I was one of the last to come out. The paramedic had to drag me away. I was crying. I wanted to go back in, back down to the valley, under the tree where we used to dance. I wanted to run beside the stream and catch the unicorns again. Cornelia did too. Tobias says there weren’t any unicorns. He says I have to listen to Dr. Mylinskj if I don’t want to end up like Cornelia. It is just like the Inspector said. Some very desperate people shut us up in that cave for reasons we don’t yet know. It was dark and we were frightened and a lot younger. It’s not surprising the experience messed with our minds. But we have each other. We have to build our lives from where we are now.
When the Inspector talked to me, I told him it was all a mistake. If we went back and asked, the King might change his mind. The Piper would speak for us; he never wanted us to leave. I told him how the King had said we couldn’t play in the meadow any more. We weren’t really immortal and it wasn’t right for us to stay in Fairyland and be children forever. He said the Piper should never have brought us in the first place. The Piper got angry with the King then. He said he had to have his wages and, anyway, we were happier here than we would be with those double-dealing mortals up top. The King said we were those double-dealing mortals and it was time we left and lived a mortal life. The Inspector wrote it all down. I don’t imagine it did him any good.
I wonder if I should tell all this to Mrs. Schiller. It would give me something to say beyond “How are you today?” and at least she wouldn’t make me fill in questionnaires or refer me to a counsellor. Tobias says I haven’t got to talk about the fairies any more. It makes him very nervous; his hands shake. Mrs. Schiller’s hands shake anyway. I kind of feel sorry for her, with no family like that. At least I have Tobias. I suppose her parents have been dead a long time now. I wonder what they were like. Her husband has been dead for twenty years; she told me that.
“No children,” she says. “Never any children.”
There are lots of children in my dreams, happy children dancing in rings and under arches. They are always dressed in white with flowers in their hair. The sun shines on butterflies and hummingbirds flying round them. I think I know their names just before I wake up, but when I do, I forget.
Mrs. Schiller forgets things. She forgets that I hate sugar and keeps leaving a teaspoon in my cup. Last week she forgot my name. She called me by the name of her little sister.
“No, Mrs. Schiller,” I said. “Frieda is gone. I am Liese.”
“Oh yes,” she said. “Of course you are.”
Perhaps I remind her of Frieda. I wonder where she went. I wonder why Mrs. Schiller never went with her. Perhaps she thought she was too old to play. I don’t want to get old. In my dreams, no one is old. I don’t want to sit in an armchair with a box of tablets wondering where everyone went and forgetting people’s names. I wonder if the unicorns got lonely without us or if they forgot too.
The big hand of the clock jerks onto twelve. I get up and put my coat on.
“I’ll see you next week, Mrs. Schiller,” I say.
I walk towards the door. Outside, an ice-cream van goes past, playing some jangly tune. The door begins to blur. I can feel my pulse in my temples. It’s like a hundred images are pushing their way through my mind and I just want them to stop. I want them to stop now because, if they don’t, I will fall in love with them again and want them to stay forever. There’s a horrible pain in my stomach. I try to get my fingers to my ears but then I hear something else.
“Come back, Frieda. Come back, Frieda.”
Mrs. Schiller is crying. I go back into the room. The tears in my eyes make it look wobbly, but I kneel beside Mrs. Schiller’s chair and put my arms around her. We are both sobbing and holding each other.
“It’s all right, Mrs. Schiller,” I say. “I’m here now.”
I don’t know why.