‘Tom Blackfield’s Travelling Chest’

 

     ‘All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware ’

-Martin Buber-

 

Chapter One

Bury Street, Westminster

         London

         2014

Tom Blackfield and his father stood at the open door of the storage room. The builders had halved the long dusty attic at the top of the house into a bedroom for Tom and the storage room that they now both surveyed glumly. Stuff was shoved in everywhere; chairs piled high, rolled rugs leaning against framed paintings, boxes full of papers and trinkets, and bags gushing clothes onto the wooden floor. And finally, hanging from the heavy A frame beams of the roof, the thick smell of old air.

‘We have to clean this up before they get here,’ Mr Blackfield said, as if to convince himself.

‘Can’t we just shove it all in the corner and throw a sheet on it or something?’ said Tom, stepping inside.

Mr Blackfield sighed. ‘Maybe…But your Aunt…’ The sentence was left unfinished but they both knew what he meant. She was difficult.

‘Wow,’ said Tom, looking around. ‘I bet there’s some really old stuff here.’

‘Yeah probably,’ said Mr Blackfield. He squinted, pushed his glasses up on his nose and followed Tom inside.

‘Looks like years and years of junk. Whose is it anyway?’ asked Tom, running his hand down one of the rolled rugs.

‘I don’t know. Guess it’s just things that have always been in the family,’ Mr Blackfield said. He walked over to peer out the very small window that let in a trickle of English sun.

‘It’ll take hours to go through all this-but she’ll have a fit if we don’t do it properly. And she’s not exactly the type to sleep on the couch.’ He turned to look at Tom. ‘Found something interesting?’

‘A chest.’ Tom knelt down to inspect it further. ‘Haven’t seen it before.’

‘Ah yes, the old Victorian travelling chest,’ his father announced, walking over and crouching beside him. The seams of the chest were clouded with rust and cobwebs had gathered around the lid’s corners. ‘Doesn’t look like it’s been opened for a hundred years. People used to store their clothes in them, you know, like a suitcase when they travelled.’

Tom grunted and fiddled with the lid.

‘It’s locked.’

‘Mmm. Not much we can do about it I’m afraid. The key’s probably long gone,’ his dad said, standing up and walking once around the chest. It was a dull copper colour and mottled all over with dark smudges and dents which indicated it had, indeed, been travelling.

‘I really want to see what’s in here,’ Tom said. It was hard not to think of old coins, stashed treasure or precious jewels that could’ve been stuffed inside long ago. Perhaps this was his moment, when he discovered a forgotten fortune and they got rich? He gave the chest a shove, ‘How annoying that someone would lock it and not leave the key in the hole to open it again.’

‘Yes,’ said his dad. ‘It is strange but….’

Tom grunted again in reply, banged on the lid and then tried to prise open a gap to slip his fingers through. No luck.

‘There’s something in there,’ said Tom. ‘I can hear it moving around. If I could just-hold on-I’ll get my-’ He pulled his pocket knife out of his pocket. It’d been given to him by his Scout leader when he got the Grey Wolf badge. He kept it in his pocket. Always.

Tom slid the blade into the key hole and jiggled it up and down.

‘Gentle. Don’t break it,’ his father said. ‘Not that it really matters I guess…’ and his voice trailed off as they both heard a click and Tom flung the lid back. There was nothing inside. Nothing except a book. And underneath it, a key.

‘Great,’ said Tom with disappointment. ‘Just what I always wanted.’ He tossed the book on to the floor next to him, the key swiftly followed. ‘Why couldn’t it have been something good? And who puts a key in a chest anyway and then locks it? It doesn’t even make sense.’

The ring of the phone from the downstairs kitchen echoed up through the open trapdoor.

‘Bet that’s your aunty. Back in a minute,’ his father said and made for the ladder that poked up in the small landing out the front of the two rooms.

‘Great,’ said Tom again and sat down properly, crossing his legs. He ran his hand through his fringe and blew out heavily. This sucked. But what was he expecting anyway? In the silence he heard a soft drone, like the fridge made at night when the house was quiet. What was it? He looked around but there was nothing electric up here. It must be coming from the street. Tom picked up the book. It certainly wasn’t anything to get excited about. He ran his fingers over the front cover; it was small, but thick and weighty. He could just make out from the faded gilded lettering the title, Professor Sneezum’s Encyclopaedia of English Magical Objects. Huh. Probably just one of those dumb fairy-tale books that belonged to a dead great grandmother.

He opened the first page and read in the fine cursive writing, A Table of Contents; underneath sat all the chapter headings, each one the name of a family by the look of them. Some sort of family history? Bor-ing. He snapped the book shut and the dust snuffed his nostrils. He threw it back into the chest, closed the lid with a thud and ran his hands along the seams. They were cold and bumpy. It had definitely seen better days. But the chest was actually a perfect place to put stuff in because if he kept the key now no one else could open it. He snatched the key up from the floor and slid it into its metal bed. He twisted and turned it, locking then unlocking it to see if it worked. It did. The decision made, he grabbed the chest by one of the little metal handles on each end, and dragged it out through the storage room door, paused on the landing for a quick breath, then back through his bedroom door. Underneath the window was the best spot for it. He pushed it into place. It wouldn’t do to leave the key in the lock so he took it out, (leaving it unlocked for now) and stuffed it into the drawer of his bedside table, then stood back and looked at the chest with satisfaction. Perfect.

His father’s head popped up from the trapdoor a moment later. Tom could easily see the landing through his open bedroom door.

‘That was your aunty. They’re coming in two days’ time. What are you doing with that?’ Mr Blackfield said, and nodded at the chest.

Tom sighed. The annual visit from America of his aunty and uncle was NOT something he looked forward to. In this house, the ‘new’ house, the only spare room now was the storage room, which was, of course, smack bang next door to his bedroom. And it really was a very thin partition between the two. In the old house, they had a proper spare room with ensuite for guests. Here, they would all have to share the toilet and shower, which Tom actually knew was going to be awkward. But the worst thing would be the questions; questions that poured out of his auntie’s mouth like a never ending waterfall drowning everything in its path.

‘Thought I could put stuff in it,’ replied Tom, gently kicking the chest. ‘But, do they have to come now? The holidays are just about to start and you said we were going camping.’

‘Their plans changed. Your Aunt. You know what she’s like. We’ll go the second week, I promise. The weather will be better then anyway. Hey, they’ll probably fly right over your Mother,’ Mr Blackfield said, trying to be jovial. Mrs Blackfield had left that afternoon for a business trip to New York. She was going to be away for two weeks and Tom wasn’t happy about it. So he ignored his Father’s comment and felt around again in his pocket for his knife.

‘What’s the book about?’ said Mr Blackfield, taking the hint and changing the subject.

‘What book?’

‘The one in the chest.’

‘Oh. Nothing much. Something about families I think,’ Tom said dismissively. ‘But seriously Dad, do they have to come now? She’s such a pain and-’

‘Don’t speak about your aunty like that. She’s your mum’s sister and-‘

‘Why not? You don’t like her either.’

‘I do!’ said Mr Blackfield, a little too quickly. He paused, ‘She’s hard work sometimes but she cares allot about you, you know.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ said Tom and flicked the blade of his knife in and out. A short silence followed.

‘You’ve got homework to do?’ Mr Blackfield said, and pushed his glasses up on his nose. An outsider would have considered this a question but Tom understood it to be a statement of fact.

‘Yeah, but not much,’ said Tom. He always had homework but just how urgent it was…

‘We’ll finish this tomorrow. I’ve got to start dinner, so you do your homework now and don’t forget, I know how much you’ve been given,’ Mr Blackfield said and disappeared back down the ladder.

Mr Blackfield knew because he was a teacher at Tom’s new school, Mankinhole College, which was, unfortunately, right across the road from their new house. They’d moved in only a few weeks ago when Mr Blackfield had received an unexpected job offer to be Head of the History Department. Tom was pulled out of his old school overnight but it was, Mr Blackfield told Tom, an opportunity too good to miss. And wouldn’t it be exciting moving into the old Blackfield family home in Bury Street that no-one had lived in for years and years?

No. It would not be exciting but that hadn’t mattered. Nor had it mattered that the statement wasn’t strictly true. No-one had lived in their part of the house for years; the original stone Victorian manor was now five small flats, theirs the middle one consisting of the front entry to the house, the hallway, a slice of the first floor and the entire length of the attic that sat above it all. The remaining flats were let to never seen tenants whose rent was helpfully deposited into Mr Blackfield’s bank account.

But the real reason they moved so quickly (although they never talked about it) was to escape the memories. The old house was full of his sister’s things, things that poked her smell, her laugh, her smile into Tom’s brain like the end of a red hot needle. And being her twin made it worse; even though she’d died in the accident months before it felt like she’d never really left him. He’d still heard her breathing in the empty bed next to his, heard her footsteps at night down the hallway when she got up to get a drink and the crumpling sounds of the sheets as she turned in her sleep. But it wasn’t like she was haunting him. At least he told himself she wasn’t. It was more like his memories of her just kept playing over and over again like some ghostly movie reel.

Whatever it was, it was unbearable and not just for him. Tom suspected his mum and dad felt it too, but not quite like he did. And they never said anything about it. At least not to him. Which was why, when the job offer came, his dad accepted straight away although Tom could tell his mum didn’t want to go. Tom pretended not to mind too much. Not at the start anyway. Moving from the country to the city sounded pretty cool and his dad sweetened the deal by saying Tom could have his new bedroom in the converted attic. He was a bit sad to leave his one friend behind but he was happy to give him up if it meant that the movie reel would stop playing at the new house. But it hadn’t.

He looked down at his schoolbag on the floor with his maths homework sitting on top. Not now. Maybe later. He glanced out the bedroom window at Mankinhole College; its clock tower rose high up to meet his bedroom window and cast its shadow over the street. He poked his tongue out at it. The kids were rougher here, but it was inner city London so he wasn’t really surprised. The teachers were angrier too and the Headmaster, Mr Rake, was definitely strange. Tall, skinny and with long claw like fingers he reminded Tom of a raven whose beady eyes watched him from afar.

He hadn’t actually spoken to Tom yet, but whenever he saw him in the corridor or in the yard or the luncheon room, he always looked at Tom sideways and it made Tom’s skin prickle. He hated this school; being the new kid was a lot tougher when you didn’t have a cool twin sister to back you up. Tamara had been pretty and popular, which had meant immunity from being bullied about their dad being a teacher at the old school. At Mankinhole College he had no such immunity. And going it alone was proving hard. The kids had new ways of bullying that Tom hadn’t quite worked out how to avoid yet.

Thinking of school again reminded him of his maths homework. He dragged it out of his schoolbag, sort of did the first two questions, gave up, had dinner and went to bed. There wasn’t much worth staying up for. Alone in the dark at the top of the house Tom thought of his mum. He always did at night time. It was easier than thinking about Tamara. Since she’d died it seemed like his mum was always going away on work trips. And then when she was home, she was always fighting with his dad, the arguments travelling through the walls at night when they thought he was asleep. His mum had only stayed here, at their new house, for the last two nights. She hadn’t even unpacked her boxes of clothes; they were shoved into one corner of the bedroom that she was supposed to share with his dad. But now her boxes were slowly being covered with his dad’s dirty, discarded shirts.

It was late now, much later than Tom would usually be up. But he couldn’t sleep. Not tonight. He felt hot and his legs itched and burned, even flexing them didn’t help. He pushed off the covers, his feet searching for the coolness. He closed his eyes, folded his hands behind his head and tried hard to ignore his restless legs. There was that humming noise again. What was it? Someone using a hairdryer in the flat next door?

He stared fiercely into the darkness and his eyes began to water. He closed them in exasperation and tried to slow his breathing to relax. After a while he began to get drowsy, his legs becoming still and heavy. But as he began to drift off he thought of the Headmaster, Rake, and in his half- conscious state his imagination twisted Rake’s face; his mouth became a sharp hooked beak, his eyes grew round and black and his hands turned into scaly talons. He was now a raven Headmaster, who punished naughty students in the basement under the school, thrashing them mercilessly with a cane until they bled. Tom’s mind continued playing with this story, each version getting more and more frightening until surprisingly, he dropped off to sleep.

But the raven didn’t let him rest. He dreamt it sat on his window ledge and watched him through the night then towards morning it started tapping on the window pane, and Tom, in his dream, did not want to let it in. He somehow knew it boded ill. He was now half awake and realised with a start that the tapping he heard was no longer in his dreams but in his room. And it was not coming from his window. It was coming from the chest.

 

Copyright © Belinda Lyons-Lee 2014