Kate threw her keys onto the kitchen table. They skittered across the smooth polished surface and slid over the edge with a clatter. She bent to pick them up again with a loud sigh. This wasn’t turning out to be a good day.
In her bedroom she stripped off her coffee stained clothes and put on her dressing gown then headed to the bathroom to shower. The sticky, brown patches on her arm and legs were proof the incident had happened, but wipe that away and underneath the skin was healthy.
Kate stepped into the flow of hot water, letting it run over her body, easing away the tension in her shoulders and wrapping her in a cocoon of steam. As she relaxed, her mind’s eye replayed the scene in the café.
She watches again as the coffee pours from the jug and the steam from her memory mingles with that of the shower. It had been hot then. So how had she escaped being badly scalded? The vision continues and she recalls the scene in minute detail. It is a cold sensation that spreads along Kate’s arm as the coffee soaks into the sleeve of her favourite powder blue jumper. Brian lurches across the table, grabbing for the pot, but the liquid is already pouring, the waitress is terrified. Behind her Ronnie steps away, not wanting to admit blame and the pool of coffee grows larger, creeping across the table like the tide rising inexorably up a beach.
Fearing for the precious casket, Kate pulls it out of the way of the waterfall of coffee, now spilling over the table’s edge, and the man from the corner gets up from his seat and walks towards them, seemingly unaware of the little drama until he reaches the door and turns, deliberately, to look directly at her.
The feeling of recognition washes over her again and she observes him with detachment. He has short pale blonde hair, the colour of buttermilk, and is incredibly good-looking. He wears a leather jacket, shirt and jeans, all black except for the lining of the jacket, which is red. The white wire of his earphones contrasts sharply against his dark shirt, the end disappearing into the pocket of his jeans, but his most striking feature is his eyes. They are more than green, they are the colour of polished malachite and although she doesn’t know who he is she feels connected to him in a way she can’t explain. His eyes are locked on hers until he passes through the door and it closes behind him. The feeling of loss she experiences as he leaves is inexplicable.
Kate blinked the water from her eyes; it was like waking from a dream. The face she’d pictured with such detail in her mind’s eye a few seconds before was now impossible to capture. Try as she might she couldn’t remember him, but it seemed important that she did. She pressed her fingers to her temples, gradually becoming aware that the persistent ringing in her head was the telephone. She turned off the shower, wrapped herself in a towel and hurried to answer it before the caller rang off.
“Ah finally! Hi Kate, it’s me, Brian. I wanted to check you were OK after this afternoon and – well, all right I’m curious as to what you were going to ask me.”
There was a pause.
“Kate, are you there?”
“Yes, I’m here,” she said, trying to figure out what she was going to say.
“You are OK, aren’t you?”
It was obvious Brian was genuinely concerned.
“Yes, I’m all right.” She paused again. “Brian, I don’t suppose there’s any chance of you coming over here is there? Tonight?”
It was Brian’s turn to pause at that.
“Yeah, I think I can manage that. Is six thirty OK for you?”
“Yes, that’s fine. I’ll see you then.” A sudden thought crossed Kate’s mind. “And bring your toolbox,” she added.
“Right.” Now he was confused. “What do I need…”
“Please.” She cut him off. “I’ll explain when I see you.”
She hung up, biting her lip, and thought about the brief conversation. Had she done the right thing getting Brian involved? What would he think if he found out she’d stolen the box, never mind where it had come from?
I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it, she thought, echoing the words she’d heard in the church.
If it got her inside the box it would be worth it, she decided and went to get dressed.
* * *
It was six forty before Brian’s Jeep Compass crunched through the frozen snow on Kate’s driveway. The motorcycles were for weekends and pleasure, this was Brian’s company vehicle, a respectable car for when dealing with clients and out on field trips to look at Parish Registers and other archives. Eager for his arrival, she’d been pacing back and forth across the front room carpet and stopping at every turn to look out through the window for any sign of him. She was at the door before he even had a chance to knock.
“I thought you were never going to get here,” she said.
“Steady on, what’s the rush? Them roads are treacherous y’ know.”
She remembered Michael, the man she’d rescued the previous night and cringed.
“Right, what’s all this about?” Brian asked, swinging the toolbox by his side.
“How good are your lock picking skills?”
Brian narrowed his eyes at her.
“What did you lose? Car keys, garage keys?”
Kate was beginning to wish she’d thought this through a little longer. She hadn’t yet formulated a story about how she’d acquired the box and why she needed him to open it. From here on in she was thinking on her feet.
“I need you to open a jewellery box for me.”
Kate waited to gauge Brian’s response. Did she need to add anything more or would Brian accept this simple explanation? He raised an eyebrow and Kate dug herself deeper into the lie.
“I think it belonged to my Grandmother. I found it while rummaging around in the attic last night, but there’s no key and I don’t want to damage it and I want to know what’s inside. You know she died before I knew her and …”
“All right!” Brian interrupted her. “I’ll try and open it for you, but if I do you have to do something for me.”
Kate heard the mischievousness in his tone and tried to figure out what he was up to before she gave in and fell into his trap. How bad could it be?
“All right, what is it?
“You have to come out on a date with me this Friday.”
“Oh Brian, you know how I hate crowded places.”
“Yeah, but I’ll look after you and it’ll do you good to get out for once instead of cooping yourself up here alone all the time.”
The prospect of a date with Brian filled her with dread, but she weighed up the pros and cons, and it was too late to back track now, she had no other choice if she was going to get Brian to cooperate.
“OK. But it’s just this once and it doesn’t mean we’re a couple or anything.”
“No, of course not,” he said. “I’m shocked and hurt you’d even think that.” He pushed his way into the narrow hallway. “OK, where’s the patient?”
He let Kate squeeze past him and lead him into the kitchen, where she’d once again placed the box in the centre of the table. The toolbox thumped on the floor where Brian dropped it. He leaned over the casket and whistled in appreciation of its beauty.
“This has been hidden away in your attic?”
“Yep!” Kate lied again.
“Funny thing to have engraved on a jewellery box,” he said, reading the inscription.
Kate shrugged. They stared at each other for what seemed like a lifetime until she was sure Brian had seen through her deception. She chewed at a fingernail, then he too shrugged and bent down to open the toolbox.
He took out a small black bundle and unrolled it, revealing a row of small metal tools. With a feather light touch he lifted the box, turning it this way and that, appraising the lock and how difficult the job would be. When he was satisfied, he replaced it, pulled out a chair and took a seat. He flexed his fingers until the bones cracked and selected his instrument.
As he placed a hooked tool in the lock, Kate interrupted him.
“Try not to damage it,” she whispered, leaning close to his ear.
Brian paused and turned his face to hers.
“Do you want me to open it or not?”
“Right, trust me then.”
She took a step back and closed her eyes, clasping her hands together in front of her as much in a silent prayer that the box would open easily as in excitement at discovering what it held.
Brian proved far more expert at picking the lock than she had been with the hair clip and after hearing a small click, pronounced it open. He handed the box to Kate. She stared down at it, reluctant now to disturb its contents in front of anyone else. Brian nodded in encouragement. All Kate wanted was to be left alone with it, but it was clear Brian had no intention of leaving without getting a look inside, so she pushed the lid upwards.
It opened without a sound, as if it had been made yesterday rather than being hidden in the ground for who knew how long. Kate’s eyes were round and expectant and Brian moved to stand beside her, caught up in the moment, as eager as she was to see inside, but when the contents were revealed they were not what either one had anticipated.
They stared in silence at the objects in the box for several minutes before Brian said what both of them were thinking.
“Not quite what you were hoping for, is it?”
“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Kate murmured.
“Jewellery, I would’ve thought.”
Of course, she hadn’t expected jewellery, but what had she thought would be in there? She hadn’t thought that far ahead. Now she could feel her excitement draining away like water down a sink. Inside the box lay a dirty linen bag and a leather-bound book. There were no markings on the cover or spine and Kate’s initial thought was that it must be a Bible.
“Aren’t you going to open the bag?” asked Brian.
Kate reached in and lifted it out, afraid it might fall apart from years of lying in the ground, but it held together. Maybe it wasn’t as old as she thought it was. The church had been built in the 15th Century, but the bag looked as though it was probably less than a hundred years old. Of course, she was only guessing. She put the box down and weighed the bag in the palm of her hand. It might have been white once, but now it was a dirty grey with splotches of dark brown mottling its surface. She loosened the drawstring and peered inside.
“Well, what is it?”
Brian leaned forward. Kate held it out to him.
“You tell me.”
He took it from her, glanced at the contents, then up at her and back at the bag again before poking a finger inside. He held it up and examined it, rubbing the grey powder between finger and thumb.
“Looks like ash,” he pronounced. “Oh, you don’t think it’s a person’s remains, do you?”
Brian dropped the bag in the box, his face twisted in disgust, and turned to the sink to wash the offending substance from his hand. Whilst his back was turned, Kate picked up the book and opened the cover.
There was something handwritten on the flyleaf and though the writing was easy to make out, it appeared to be in a language Kate had never seen before. In place of letters there were symbols, and assuming that each symbol had been substituted for an ordinary letter, the grouping of first three and then nine didn’t make the words Holy Bible a likely translation. She frowned, unsure what to make of it.
Brian’s voice made her jump. For a moment she had forgotten he was there and she snapped the book shut and held it tightly in her hand.
“What’s that then?”
He nodded at the book at her side.
“An old Bible,” she said.
The more lies she told, the easier it became.
Kate tensed as Brian stepped towards the table where the casket lay. She wanted to grab it, not let him touch it again, but he leaned past it, replaced the tools he’d used in their holder and rolled it up, putting it back in his toolbox and snapping the lid shut.
“Looks like you discovered a dead relative in your attic then. Ugh, creepy. Fancy not knowing it’s been up there all the time you’ve lived here, especially now you’re on your own. I wonder if your mum and dad knew it was there?”
“I don’t think so,” Kate said.
“So what are you going to do with it – him – her?”
What was she going to do?
“Put it back and forget about it, I suppose.”
“Creepy,” he said again with a shudder.
There was a moment of awkward silence as Kate stared at the box and Brian waited for her to say something. He decided she wasn’t going to, so he gathered his things to leave.
“S’pose I better get off before them roads freeze up again.”
“Oh yes,” Kate said, distracted. “Um, thanks Brian. I appreciate you coming out to do this for me.”
“Sorry it wasn’t what you expected,” he said, then grinned. “And don’t forget you promised me a date.”
Kate pulled a face, shaking her head at him.
“Don’t worry, I won’t forget.”
She ushered him towards the door.
“Err, I could stay, like, if, y’ know, you feel a bit scared with them ashes in the house.”
“They haven’t hurt me yet, have they?”
“No, but you didn’t know they were there before. You’ve disturbed ’em now, they might not be too happy about that.”
“I’ll be fine,” Kate said, ushering him down the hall and outside, closing the door behind him.
He pressed his face to the glass.
“Well, if you need me, y’ know my number.”
Kate laughed, then walked back down the hall to the kitchen. She leaned back against the cooker and contemplated the box and its contents. The sound of Brian’s Jeep receded into the distance and she was left in silence. She opened the bag and pushed her fingers into the grey dust. The fine particles coated her fingers and a profound sadness welled up within her. Without knowing why, she began to cry. She gathered the book and the linen bag in her arms and hugged them to her, sinking to the floor. Overcome with grief, she rocked back and forth as the tears rolled down her face. Over an hour later, cried out, exhausted and more than a little bewildered, she picked herself up, placed both items back in their resting place with unusual reverence, closed the lid and took herself and the box to bed.
She fell asleep within minutes of closing her eyes, but it was far from peaceful. Her dreams were filled with strange faces, people she thought she knew but couldn’t name. And though she seemed to recognise her surroundings, her body was a different matter. It did not feel as if it belonged to her, she felt younger, but not the girl she remembered as her childhood self. There were voices all around, taunting, shouting, hurtful and though the language was familiar it was not quite modern English.
The scene changed, and she found herself imprisoned in a small cell with no idea of what her crime might be. The questions her gaoler fired at her were unceasing. She was confused, frightened and fighting to get free and when, at last, she thought she would succumb to madness, she heard a low, soothing voice whispering comfort to her. She was cradled in the warm glow of a healing mellow light, and her pain and fear were gone. Then the dream changed once more to a confrontation with a shrieking mob. Her eyes stung with smoke and the last thing she saw, before she woke, screaming, was the figure of a man. He stood alone, watching her burn and behind him was a church.
Her skin slick with cold sweat and her throat parched and sore, she stumbled, trembling, out of bed, down the stairs and into the kitchen in search of water. After gulping down a whole glass she stopped to catch her breath. She’d never had a nightmare so real. She had felt the heat of the flames as they rose up around her and the barrel she bizarrely appeared to be standing in, and though she had lurched awake before they touched her skin, the final image of the dream had burnt itself into her mind.
In her dream it had been a smaller, plainer building, but a vision of what it would one day become had superimposed itself over its predecessor. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, which church it was. She had visited it the day before. All Souls, in the village where she had been born. The church from which she had stolen the box.
Once she had calmed down it was easy to rationalise an explanation for the nightmare. Finding someone’s ashes in a casket would bring burning to anyone’s mind. It may not have been the cremation one would expect, but a cremation of sorts all the same, and Brian hadn’t helped by putting images of unquiet spirits in her head. No, the tension of the past couple of days and the events culminating in the opening of the box had had a more profound effect on her than she’d realised. Tomorrow, without even touching the book again, she would return the box to the church, anonymously, and that would be that.
With an effort of will, Kate returned to bed. Whether by sheer determination or through complete exhaustion she didn’t know, but she soon fell back to sleep and didn’t wake again until morning.