Dr Hillevi Nieminen carefully parked her beloved little Fiat Punto on the drive of the large, slightly shabby late Victorian house on the outskirts of York. The house looked just a little spooky, she thought, a bit like it could be in an Agatha Christie, or more likely that strange story about the governess and the two weird children – The Go of the Screw, was it? But she dismissed such thoughts as unhelpful and unscientific. She had a job to do, and her job was helping people.
Hillevi was Finnish, but after qualifying as a doctor, she had come to England with her English boyfriend and established herself as a child psychiatrist in the state sector. When she fell out with the boyfriend, she simply found another. She was still in her twenties and pretty in the neat, feminine, unemphatic Finnish style – rather short, with fine white-blonde hair, blue eyes, a snub nose, a slim neck and waist, round, firm breasts and (to her slight embarrassment) a rather large bottom. But like most Finnish women, she took good care of her body, jogging, swimming, going to the sauna and having regular workouts in the gym, plus avoiding fatty foods – so the rather large bottom was superbly firm.
She had come to see a ten-year-old girl called Emma Silberstein. She would also, of course, be talking with the parents, Artur and Mary. She had done her homework, and knew that Artur was Swiss in origin, a doctor like herself (but vastly richer and better-known, as he specialised in sports injuries and was in lucrative private practice). Mary was English, Yorkshire born and bred, and worked part-time as a classroom assistant in a local school.
Emma had been referred by her school because she seemed to have no close friends among the other pupils and some of her imaginative writing and art were both amazingly mature and disturbingly dark. This description had not much impressed Hillevi at first. The girl was obviously a very bright kid and not very sociable, but probably more interested in her own imaginative pursuits than in playground chatter. As she grew up she would find like-minded friends. She was an only child, after all, and one could not expect her to be the best of socialisers right away.
One meeting with Emma at the school had made her less sure. There WAS something strange about the girl – not only the grave manner and troubling drawings, but something harder to pin down, a look of somehow being somewhere else, an apartness that went beyond mere introversion. Yet she was not autistic in any conventional sense. Hillevi began to wonder if this was going to be a child abuse case. But she must not jump to conclusions. In all likelihood there was nothing fundamentally wrong: after all, Emma had not bullied other children, or harmed herself, or truanted, she had never been observed with unexplained injuries (or with any injuries, in fact) and she showed no signs of precocious sexual behaviour. Well, thought Hillevi – first to meet the parents.
Dr Artur Silberstein proved to be a suave, quite slim man in his early forties, with black straight hair going grey, watchful, intelligent eyes and thin lips. His wife Mary was a complete contrast except in age – a pretty English rose gone a bit too plump, with fair hair, blue eyes, generous breasts and broad shoulders.
“Good afternoon, Dr Nieminen,” said Silberstein with almost elaborate politeness, waving her to a chair while seeming to size her up with his eyes. “Anything to drink?”
At least he could pronounce her name right, Hillevi noted approvingly. It had been a strange experience going from Finland, where her surname was so common and mundane as to be boring, to England where people saw it as exotic and often (especially if they knew her forename but hadn’t seen her) assumed she must be some kind of Asian. That was fun in a way, but the mispronunciations annoyed her. “Hillevi” they seemed to manage all right, though she had been called “Hillary” a few times; but “Nieminen” got them in all sorts of trouble. She had reached the stage of writing it out to show, in a way the English could understand, how it should be pronounced: “NEE – eh- min – en”; but even then they persisted in calling her “NEE – min – en” or “NY – min – en” or even “ni – MINE – en. And Finnish pronunciation rules were so simple, consistent and rational, unlike English pronunciation! Perhaps it was that very logicality and consistency that bewildered them.
Nonetheless, she liked England and the English. She loved all those interesting old buildings, the way people actually talked to one another in pubs (even compete strangers), the amazing variety of the scenery, the extraordinary politeness of the English (even when she had been mugged in Leeds, the youth had started by politely pointing out that it was dangerous to carry around openly an expensive new Blackberry in that part of town). Finland was beautiful, but just a bit the same, and with only four-and-a-half million people, it stood to reason there were fewer interesting ones.
In an assured professional but friendly manner, she explained to the Silbersteins that she needed to understand a bit about them in order to understand Emma and find out if there was any kind of problem. They assured her they understood, and were helpful.
She discovered that Dr Silberstein was of Jewish ancestry but had been brought up a firm rationalist and atheist and had nothing to do with religion. That was all to the good, she thought, for she dismissed religion as old-fashioned unscientific nonsense and educated people who followed it seriously, in this day and age, were more than a little strange and possibly unbalanced. Mary looked just a shade unhappy as her husband was explaining his views, and admitted to a Church of England upbringing “though I haven’t been to church for a long time.” She had worked in a travel agent’s and had moonlighted as a tour guide and organiser in foreign countries a few times, which had led to her meeting Artur while conducting an “All the Way Down the Rhine” tour. Both parents knew a lot about Emma’s interests, school results and so on, and expressed themselves keen to find out if she needed any special help; but it was clear they did not think anything much was wrong. That was all normal too.
They were an odd couple, though, a strange combination, but she knew logic often vanished when partnerships were forming. If something worrying did emerge from her second meeting with Emma, she would need to talk to each parent separately, but for now that was unnecessary.
“So do you want to see Emma now?” asked Mary. She did - alone. As the parents walked out, she heard the man say,
“She’s entirely suitable,” and his wife reply,
“Yes.” Hillevi was pleased: this meant she was accepted and the parents did have some concerns that provided common ground.
Emma had long blonde hair and a long, pale, serious face. She looked a little older than ten in the face, but not in the body. She wore a rather old-fashioned or formal long pale yellow dress.
“Hello, Dr Nieminen,” she said levelly. “May I sit down?” She too pronounced Hillevi’s name right.
Hillevi started to tease out the girl’s interests and her views on other pupils at school. The interests didn’t sound that unusual for a clever middle-class girl (riding, history, computers, art), but the tone of barely disguised boredom in which she discussed all other kids of her age was unusual. Emma not only seemed to have no close friends – she didn’t seem in the least bothered by this. Asked about her drawings and stories, she became less communicative, just producing minor variants on “that was what came into my head”. She claimed not to remember her dreams and to sleep well. After a while, the girl managed to turn the conversation towards Hillevi – what she thought of her job, how old she was, whether she had a boyfriend and her taste in clothes. Emma did not show great interest, but just seemed to be collecting the information. Maybe it was a form of autism. The possibility of child abuse seemed to be receding – and yet there was something odd and disturbing Hillevi could not put her finger on.
“Would you like to see my book?” Emma asked. Of course, Hillevi said yes. “It’s a very old book,” Emma continued solemnly, “it’s been in the family for a long time.”
“Whose family – your daddy’s or your mummy’s?” asked Hillevi.
“My mother’s, of course,” the girl replied with a shrug. “I’ll get it for you.”
The book she came back with was quite thick and bound in old black leather.
“You can open it and look at the pictures,” Emma said, “but when you come to the last picture you mustn’t turn over the page.”
“How will I know I’ve come to the last picture?”
“I’ll tell you,” Emma replied firmly.
Hillevi opened the book. There was no text, just a full-page coloured picture of a girl of perhaps eighteen in an old-fashioned maid’s uniform, slightly, but only slightly, bent forward. Such a uniform often went with pornography, but there was nothing pornographic about this uniform, though the detail was extraordinary and the girl’s expression – curiosity and a hint of surprise or even fear – was unusual.
Hillevi turned the page. There was nothing on the back, but the next picture looked straight out of a Jane Austen TV adaptation (Hillevi loved those). The expensively-dressed young woman in the rather revealing dress of the very early 19th century was smiling – and again slightly bending forward, her golden hair curled into an elaborate hairstyle, the subtle tints of her skin – palest buff, pinkish, creamy white – set off by the sharp, unrelieved pure white of her frilly dress.
The next page showed another servant-girl, but this one was black and extravagantly busty, though with an innocent face and wide eyes. Page after page featured young women in a variety of outfits, always reasonably decent, always full face, almost all bending somewhat forwards. She looked up to check if Emma’s face or body language betrayed anything – but the girl’s face was impassive and her body relaxed.
“Go on!” she said, “You’re much less than halfway through!”
Another picture showed a nurse in what seemed rather old-fashioned uniform, but Hillevi guessed such uniforms hadn’t come in till the 20th century. The nurse was smiling, but somehow the smile seemed frozen as if she had just had cause to stop smiling. Hillevi reproached herself for letting her imagination run riot. She continued to leaf through the book. There was still no text, just these pictures, but it was now clear that the pictures were getting steadily closer to the present day. After a while she noticed that while the quality of the paper seemed excellent, and the pictures in no way faded (which suggested they were not that old), on each page was a small dot or smudge, varying slightly in size but not at all in position: always it was in the bottom right-hand corner.
It was only when she came to the picture of the English policewoman that she noticed something else. The pretty young officer was again depicted leaning forward – a bit more than most of the others – and the uniform looked almost contemporary, though she was wearing a skirt and not trousers. Hillevi’s first English boyfriend had been into policewomen – purely as fantasy, until he’d met an attractive, sexually-liberated real one – and she knew that trousers had replaced skirts quite recently in England, in order, her boyfriend had explained, to help policewomen run faster from lustful men. She guessed this picture might show the uniform around 1990. Taking a bit more interest in the detail, she spotted very small, neat, blue-black handwriting at the bottom of the picture on the left-hand side.
It said: “PC Sandra Rose, Market Harborough, Leicestershire, 27th July 1992”. Hillevi glanced up at Emma, to meet that same impassive gaze. She leafed back to check the other pictures. They all had the same kind of details: the nurse was “Nurse Maire Macdonald, Manchester, England, 24th December 1934”. The black serving-girl was “Judith Bannerman, house slave, Galloway Plantation, Jamaica, 11th September 1823”. The Jane Austen heroine was “Catharine Benington, Bath, England, 16th May 1810”. The very first picture was inscribed “Martha Crowcroft, Kendal, Westmoreland, 1st March 1807”. Most of the pictures were supposed to be of people in England, but three related to Jamaica and four to New York and New Jersey.
“Read it to the end and then stop,” Emma instructed. Hillevi concluded that this was some kind of a game for the girl. It was a thoroughly good idea to join in the game, as it would let Emma gain trust in herself and hopefully lead to confidences. When Hillevi had looked at a picture of a girl of Mediterranean appearance in jogging or athletics gear (Daniella Petronelli, North Yorkshire Moors, 25th August 2009) she was about to turn to the next page when Emma broke in sharply:
“No! That’s enough! Start turning back now!”
Smiling slightly nervously at this somewhat scary little girl, but reminding herself that it was all a game the girl wanted to play, Hillevi did as she was bidden – and had a big shock.
She must have missed a page before. She was facing not the beautiful, slightly sweaty, pleasantly inquisitive face of Daniella Petronelli and her front view – full breasts unconstrained by a bra in a tight white t-shirt, bright blue lycra shorts and long bronzed legs – but an olive-brown arse with a little white V in the middle where the bikini had been. The arse was bent, but not right over. Under it were long, bronzed legs (with crumpled bright blue material round the ankles) and white running shoes. On the lowered torso was some kind of sleeveless white garment. It looked very like a back view of Daniella.
If Hillevi had chanced on the picture anywhere else than in the favourite book of a ten-year-old girl, she would have been amused, even a little sexually aroused. Here, though, it set alarm bells ringing loud. Quickly, she turned back to the previous picture – and again the back page now featured a naked, stuck out bottom. She should have stopped, of course, and questioned Emma right away, but somehow the book was compulsive reading. After contemplating PC Rose’s posterior, however – and around her knees the prettiest, tiniest pair of frilly pink panties with pale blue fringes that anyone could imagine – Hillevi looked up and locked gazes with Emma, who seemed neither disconcerted nor amused.
“Who gave you this book?” she asked.
Emma at last showed an expression – irritation. “I told you. It’s been in the family for ages.”
“Yes, but someone must have given it to YOU, Emma. Who was it?”
“It was mine all along,” said Emma. This was obvious opaque fantasy. If Hillevi had many hours to spend, she might enter Emma’s weird self-made world and understand it – but for the time being, she would have to leave it a mystery.
“So you’re saying neither your daddy nor your mummy gave it to you?”
“Of course not, stupid! It’s mine!”
“Do they know you’ve got it and what’s in it?”
“Yes. Why?” Hillevi could hardly answer “because I want to find out if they’re perverts,” so she fumbled for an answer and was quite relieved when Emma continued, “Anyway, you’ve got to go back and read the book properly. Leaf through till you get to the last page and THEN you can look at it.”
Unsure whether she was wasting time or gaining Emma’s confidence, Hillevi did as she was told. As she leafed rapidly through the pictures it did occur to her that this strange little girl was almost establishing dominance over her and leading her into things instead of the other way around. Could Emma actually be dominating her parents? No, ridiculous.
Hillevi had reached the picture of Daniella Petronelli. She glanced at the impassive Emma, smiled complicitly, and turned the page.
It was blank. But somehow it held her gaze. In fact it seemed to grow, and she felt rather dizzy. Then she seemed to be sucked into some kind of vortex, to be whirled round and round and to be the plaything of strange but gentle forces.
Her dizziness seeped away. She was an image in the book, almost flat, looking up at the giant creature that was Emma, unable to move. Emma picked up the book and slammed it shut. Hillevi felt a moment of stunning pain. The Emma opened the book again at the same page. Hillevi was entirely a flat image like the others.
Emma smiled – not a quick come-and-go smile, but a lingering one. She rubbed a finger across Hillevi’s image. Hillevi felt a cool draught on her bottom and knew she too would now present a bare bottom on the back page. Ridiculously, she tried and failed to remember what panties she had put on that morning.
Emma’s smile widened. She now held a pen. Meticulously, she wrote across the page:
“Dr Hillevi Nieminen, York, England, 9th January 2010”.
She called happily:
“Got her! She’s in! Come and look!”
And Dr and Mrs Silberstein did indeed come and look, to admire and to comment.
“Well, there’s work to do,” said the doctor, ushering his wife out.
Emma smiled at Hillevi and said, slowly and very clearly as one might speak to a small child,
“I’m so glad you’ve joined my collection, Hillevi. While I’ve got the book open you can see and hear, but as soon as I shut it you cease to be. You depend on me to revive you. Well, I suppose you’re wondering how I did that. It would be beyond you, so there’s no point explaining.
You’re probably also wondering how a ten-year-old girl got involved in this. Silly Hillevi! I like that, by the way. Silly Hillevi, Hilly Sillevi, Silly Billy Hilly.
Well, I’m not ten years old – I’m 229. All the pictures in this book were collected by me! I emerge as a human baby and grow like a human till I’m human fifteen. Then I revert. Each time I’ve recruited suitable people to be my parents – some new ones, but there’s a sort of circle within which the knowledge of me is passed on. When I revert, either their daughter has died or the family have emigrated to Australia or somewhere. It’s getting harder because more and more things are recorded. This controlling state you’re developing is a real nuisance. And by the way – I’m not human. The parents are, but I’m Regenan.
Why am I collecting all these pictures, you ask? Well, maybe you don’t ask, but you can’t speak, so I’ll assume you are asking that. You see, Silly Hilly, I like them.
You probably didn’t notice, because you’re quite stupid, that there was a little dot on every page. Well, that’s like your microdots only less primitive: it has all the relevant information we want about you – measurements, materials and colours in clothes, contents of last meal, any thing worthwhile in your brain records, chemical composition of your body and so on. But when the book is full – that’s just another sixteen pictures now – I’ll take it back to my real parents on Regena and they will be SO pleased! Doesn’t that make you pleased?”
“Yes,” Police Sergeant Roy Copeland was saying over the phone, “we’ve found Dr Neeminen’s car at Askwith Moss, thirteen miles outside town. That fits with her having set out to see these Silberstein people but having been abducted on the way. Yes, the Silbersteins confirm she never arrived.”
Emma had shut the book and Hillevi did not exist – until her page was opened again.