Was it chance? Destiny? Pure bad luck even? I don’t know. I don’t even know if, had I the opportunity to go back in time and replay the events of the day, I wouldn’t do it all over again. In my head certainly I have played and replayed the entire day. Again and again and, no matter what action I chose, it still came back to that box. An old tired box, Lying forgotten in an attic, covered in dust and cobwebs and an old throw. The box and what it contained.
It was a Thursday. Russell’s mother and father were both at work, leaving Russell alone in the height of the Summer Holiday. His friends had all gone away on holiday to exotic places, Dubai, Thailand, Paris. Except George. He had gone to Bognor for a three day trip with his family. Russell had laughed at him and pointed out those three days with George’s family was the equivalent of a life imprisonment. Now, as Russell carried the wet washing through to the garden, he contemplated the fact that even Bognor Regis looked good. It was, Russell decided, the most boring of days.
The smell in the attic was…well….distinctive one might say. I can still smell it now, all these years later. I catch it on the wind, in antiques shops. I used to find it when I had cause to call upon an elderly client’s house. I remember clearly looking for houses as a young newly married man and ruling out a house in which the smell had taken hold. I don’t know what the smell was. It might have been damp, or age, or even the smell of the certainty of death, waiting. It had the feel of a cemetery. Not in the gruesome drama of death but in its certainty. All I know is that for me, it became the smell of the key. Or rather the events surrounding the key which for me was worse.
He finished hanging out the washing and sat for a while., watching a Red Admiral butterfly drying its new wings in the sun. He was transfixed. Last term in Biology he had been studying caterpillar metamorphosis and he knew that somewhere nearby there lay an empty cocoon. He wanted to reach out and touch this strange creature, feel the power of change and destiny that it had gone though.
“I’ve been reading too many books!” he said aloud. Then looking around to make sure none of his neighbours had seen him talking to himself, he turned away and made his way indoors.
Behind him the butterfly spread its wings and began the last, beautiful but short stage of its life.
I remember standing looking at the attic. I knew that I had been forbidden to go up there. Not for some dark, mysterious reason, but rather as the gaps between the joists had not been filled and one wrong step could have me crashing through the ceiling. But on the other hand I had exhausted all the possibilities though out the house. Whatever the key unlocked had to be in the attic. There was no decision to be made. I had to see.
I pulled down the steps and set my first foot upon the bottom rung. It was then I began to feel the darkness, staring down at me, examining me. I could feel it much as one feels the doctor peering down your throat.
I remembered all the films I had seen where the victim, bravely decides to explore the attic, with only his torch for protection even though he knows the monster is up there. I remembered screaming at the screen in frustration: how could he not realise that it was a bad idea. But now I understood. He didn’t choose to go. He had to – it was written into the script, much as I had to go up these stairs no matter what was up there.
I reached for my torch. At least I could have something which to protect myself. I began climbing.
Russell returned through to the kitchen. He had one last chore to do before his father returned home from work, the washing up.
But before he could start he saw it, lying in the middle of the kitchen floor. It hadn’t been there before, he was confident of that. Or was he. Something about it drew him onwards, just as he had been drawn to touch the butterfly.
“More likely as a fly is drawn to a Venus Fly-Trap.” He thought aloud.
The sound of his own thoughts seemed to echo around the house, silent, still. He wished he had left a radio on, or the television. Maybe he had. Maybe someone, or something had silenced them.
He was moving forward, edging slowly, carefully, but inescapably towards it. He reached out a hand and grasped.. For a second he waited for something to happen. But there was nothing.
From outside the house he heard a distant car pass by and a bee droning from flower to flower busily collecting pollen.
He opened his hand. There, in his palm was a key. It was clearly old, dark and ornate. With what looked like a tigers head making up the top. There were three teeth of differing heights forming the working part. Russell sat down and began to wonder what all this meant.
He was sure it hadn’t been there when he took the washing out. Maybe it had been in the washing. But it wasn’t wet. In fact, it had fragments of what looked to be soil encrusted on the heavily carved tiger’s head. He began to think.
There was no bogey monster, no zombie or escaped axe wielding lunatic. After all I was just me, not a character in some story.
I swung the beam of my torch around the attic and could not help but sigh in disappointment. I don’t know what I had expected. Maybe like the little boy in ‘Shadowlands’ I might find the wardrobe, or the board game to end all board games, like in ‘Jumanji’. But all there was were black bags filled with old curtains; remnants of carpet stretching back to the first day the house was decorated; an old electric fire; and a number of other broken odds and ends.
It must have been nearly an hour he sat, staring at the key, wondering. Whilst outside the lazy summer afternoon dragged on, monotonous, predictable.
Inside a germ of an idea had laid seed, sprouted and was beginning to take hold. This was the answer to boredom. But more than that this was a mystery that had to be solved: Where had this key come from? Why had he never seen it before? How come he had found it? Why now? What did it all mean?
And then there was the real question. If this was the key, then where was the lock?
Russell began to look around, his eyes scouring the kitchen for some before unseen lock. Judging by the size of the key it was a small lock; not a door or a padlock, rather a small cabinet or box. Slowly and carefully at first he began to explore each cupboard, and with each disappointment he became increasingly eager, ransacking cupboards, checking over the fridge, under the cooker. Within an hour he had combed the kitchen, the cloakroom, the lounge- all of the downstairs rooms. Then within another hour he had moved through the entire upstairs; his bedroom, the spare room, the bathroom, and finally, though not without a moment’s hesitation, his parent’s room.
At last he had turned over the whole house, without success. Picking his way through the debris of his search, like a soldier sweeping a bombed-out village, he walked to the top of the stairs and, looking upwards, fixing his attention upon the attic.
I was about to turn and make my way down when the beam of my torch caught a shadow. I almost dropped the torch as I swung it back eagerly, or was it fearfully, wanting to see what it was. For a second it appeared to be a lion; coiled, ready to spring. But, and I remember with clear disappointment, the light revealed it to be a stack of boxes, covered with an old throw. I thought for a moment and realised that I had come this far, I might as well look through them. Maybe the lock that this key opened was inside. I crawled across the beams carefully, wary of my father’s warnings, and began to sort through the contents of the boxes.
A key is often given upon the coming of age; sometimes a symbolic gesture, at other times it is the key to the family house or even a car. It is probable that there is a large body of academic study regarding all the symbolic connotations, or anthropological musings upon the subject, but what can confidently be said is that: the invention of the key goes back 4,000 years, to a place called Ninevah. Unquestionably they have been in existence for a long, long time; as has the lock. This begs the question which came first the key or the lock. The answer is surely neither; they were conceived together and as such, from the outset, forged an unbreakable symbiosis. Wherever there is a key there must be a lock. What is more is that where there is a lock there is generally something that needs to be locked away; something of significance.
It was this thought, full of possibility, that kept Russell’s search keen. It was the whetstone upon which he sharpened his focus and encouraged his mental running commentary of what might or might not be contained behind this lock. For he saw forgotten wealth in jewels, in gold coins; he saw magical books full of secret spells, or secrets; he saw mysterious objects which would lead to adventures old or new; he saw indescribable visions. Sadly he held no knowledge, or else he forgotten all thoughts of Pandora.
My father came home that night. The house, he thought, had clearly been ransacked, though a cursory glance told him nothing had been stolen. He went through each room calling for me, growing increasingly anxious. It was as he climbed the stairs he noticed the attic door down. I don’t know if he felt like a character in a horror movie. I don’t know what he thought, what ran through his mind. At the time I was way beyond caring. And maybe, if truth be told, even now , I still do not really care.
Having ascended the attic with much trepidation, Russell looked round at what it contained. He had never before been up here, his father had warned him of how dangerous it could be. Now, as he crept carefully across to a large stack of boxes, barely covered by and old cloth, covered with paint splatters, he began to wonder whether his father might have had other reasons to keep him from being up there. The heat of summer helped bring forth fantasies.
His father was an accountant. Or so he said. But he had always seemed so much more than that. What accountant practiced extreme sports with such determination? And then there were the long periods away, he thought, ‘on business’.
Russell began to have a feeling gnawing away inside of him. A feeling that, inside these boxes was the truth that up till now he hadn’t even considered might exist. Whatever they contained was going to change his life, forever.
I have worn this key around my neck now ever since that day. Maybe the key doesn’t have a lock. Maybe the lock was lost years before I found the key. Maybe, just maybe, I will one day find the lock. They say that every soul has a soul mate, and it is just a matter of meeting them. Maybe one day this key will find it’s lock and a mystery will be solved.
But that is not why I wear it. I wear it as a reminder of the importance of all things. I wear it as a reminder of that night and what I found in that cardboard box. I wear it as a reminder of how much it changed my life. I wear it for the metamorphosis from innocence to adulthood, ignorance to knowledge, as I began to see my family for what they were.
I realised then that there was no-one you can trust, you are on your own; films are just that- films, and that my life is something only I can live. And if that is the case I will make damned sure that I only I can be allowed to ruin it.
It didn’t take long for Russell’s father to see what had happened. The tell tale contents of the cardboard boxes lay strewn across the attic floor. His son weeping amidst them. Inside he felt mixed emotions. Sadness that this was how it was to have happened? Selfish relief that the truth was now known? What he knew for certain was that Russell needed him right now. He gathered him up and carried him downstairs, across the beams, stepping carefully so as not to fall between them, as so often he had warned his son.
Downstairs they sat, two shadows on a sofa, a father cradling his son; hoping that, if he could no longer shield him from the truth, he could help him learn to deal with it in his own way.