• Vol. 08
  • Chapter 12
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Guarding the Treasure

Winter light struggled to penetrate the attic’s cobweb-shielded window. Paula waited until Tom’s head ascended through the trapdoor before she pulled the light switch, making the dust-encrusted space seem even more gloomy.
‘What are we doing here,’ Tom said, raising himself to his full height, flicking at dust already settling on his black suit. Paula saw the echo of their father’s face, the turquoise eyes, the soft mouth, always ready to smile. Now he flicked at specks, refused to look around, and Paula had a glimpse of her younger brother, the boy who had clung to her, followed her, who’d do anything for her.
‘You know,’ she said.
‘But what’s the point?’ he asked. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
Snatches of conversation, the occasional pulse of laughter flowed from below. Paula was struck at how comfortable people were at wakes, how they settled in, spoke of the deceased as if they were still with them. He’s dead, she wanted to shout, dead. The unspoken word resounded through the creaking attic.
‘Help me,’ she said, pulling at the book shelves that sat under the window. Still Tom waited, ran his fingers over the spines.
‘You should take these,’ he said, ‘Mam would have wanted them to be read.’
Their books, guarded, treasured, unopened in twenty years.
‘The Yellow Book,’ Tom said, pulling out a hard-backed tome. As he let the cover fall open, Paula heard a humming, looked around the attic. Their mother had hummed every night as she chose a story for them, her reading was like a song, soft, tranquil, a perfect lullaby.


Guarding the Treasure

‘Come on,’ Paula said. Tom pushed the book back, and together they shimmied the bookshelves from the wall. How light the unit seemed, Paula thought, remembering their struggles to move it all those years ago. And there, strung on a wire that hung between two nails was the key. Rusted now, blood-red, dangling from the trembling wire.
‘You take it,’ Paula said. Tom shook his head. Paula watched the key quiver on the wire. This key to their past. To the jewellery box that sang O Sole Mio when the marquetry lid was opened, the mirror underneath, which their mother used to check the earrings or necklace. Her treasures.
‘We were silly kids,’ Tom said. How determined they had been that their stepmother would never open the box. How their father had searched for the key. How they had said, truthfully, that they had never touched it. And they hadn’t. It had been Paula’s idea to hook the key with the wire, Paula who had insisted they mustn’t touch it, who had found a safe place, behind their mother’s books. ‘It’s Mam’s,’ she’d said, ‘they’ve no right.’
Now Tom unhooked the wire, slid the key into his hand, reached out to his sister. Paula tucked the jewellery box under her arm, took his hand. Downstairs, their father’s wife sat by his casket. Their stepmother. After all the years, it was the least they could do.