Mysteries had been presenting themselves to me since I was a child. So, I was hardly surprised when I found one in Mrs Pardon’s attic. And I didn’t intend to attempt solving this one either. The door to my imagination was firmly locked.
‘Just bring down my old globe, no need to bother with anything else, Love.’ She’d croaked from her wheelchair as she fingered the black and white picture of her long-lost love. ‘Harry used to tell me about all the places he’d been. You know, in the army and such. Maybe it’ll jog my memory.’
I got up from the kitchen table and mounted the stairs before she could start another story about him. When I took this job, I hadn’t imagined how much listening would be involved. Cooking and cleaning and wiping the old girl’s bottom in return for free board were no problem, but the stories. Oh God, the endless stories.
My parents only read me autobiographical works and textbooks. They limited my consumption of television to the news and documentaries. Films were entirely disapproved of. 'Fantasy teaches you nothing,' my mother would say. 'You're better off learning the truth'. On the odd occasion that I brought home a work of fiction, it would be immediately confiscated. I begged them for a library card, but 'libraries only perpetuate myths'. By the age of 12, I had given up on stories and had no time for the people telling them.
Mrs Pardon was the ultimate test of my patience. I could just about cope with the stories that sounded realistic, but sometimes she went entirely off piste.
The attic door creaked louder than Mrs Pardon’s joints, making me glad that I didn’t have to venture in very often. At least the high beams meant I could almost stand up while I searched for her obscure memorabilia. The relentless clutter crowded around me. In spite of myself, I sparked the idea that the old house was isolated enough to hold multiple undiscovered secrets.
The shelves that lined the walls groaned under the weight of her belongings, forgotten beneath a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. A full set of hard bound Encyclopaedia Britannica was not the only obsolete thing in the collection. I wondered what was more useless, that or the carriage clock with no innards? There were board games, jigsaws, suitcases, plant pots, empty wine bottles, gardening magazines, candle sticks, toolboxes and, perched on the corner of a jutting out brick, a small, glass jar.
If it had been on a shelf like everything else, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance, but I’d never noticed that brick before and it looked a little loose. I reached out to move the jar to somewhere more stable.
A bolt of ice shot down my spine as my fingers touched the glassy surface. I whipped my hand back in shock, shuffled closer to the jar and peered inside. Tarnished foreign coins. Nothing more. I shook off my surprise and tried again. As I lifted the jar, I noticed something that didn't belong in it and jiggled the container to expose the imposter. The coins realigned, and a dull key appeared between them.
I fished it out and discovered that it was no ordinary key. It had no head, just two, old fashioned, biting tips, one at either end. Each tip had an apparently identical set of bites. What was the point of having a double key with both ends opening the same lock? I could not imagine a purpose for it, but suspected it was out of place, so I shoved it into my jeans pocket before I searched for the globe.
The globe appeared after a few minutes. I was glad I’d brought a cloth. It was covered in a layer of black grime that didn’t stop it from spinning on its stand, but did make me unwilling to touch it with more than one finger.
‘I’ve found it Mrs Pardon.’ I trudged down the stairs, holding the globe out in front by its cloth-wrapped base. ‘It needs a bit of a wipe.’ I tried not to allow it to transfer filth on to my pale green jumper as I entered the kitchen.
‘He went to Africa and India and all over Europe. An engineer he was, built bridges.’
‘Never once fired his rifle,’ I chimed in, in perfect time with her words.
‘Oh! I’ve told you, Love. Sorry.’ She picked up the photograph again and her eyes went dewy.
‘No, no. I’m sorry. Why don’t you tell me about the Tanzanian puff adders while I clean this up?’ At least that story was believable.
Mrs Pardon regaled me with the tale of Harry running down the hill on the savanna at sunset, believing he was escaping snakes. But actually, the men with the fire at the bottom of the slope were trying to offer him one.
‘”Nyoka!” They were shouting, “Nyoka!”’ she waved her arms, ‘and my Harry thought the snakes were in the grass, but no. Oh no. The two local men had them in their hut!' she giggled. 'I can only imagine the look on his face when he got there and saw he’d been running towards his greatest fear!’ She couldn’t hold in her laughter at the thought of his misfortune.
‘It’s a wonderful story, Mrs Pardon. Reminds me how much my life is lacking in adventure.’
‘Adventure. Harry always said that the greatest adventures started right here in this very house. “Just open the locked door” he used to say, “and they tumble out.” Of course I can’t tell you his secrets but maybe you’ll find the door when you’re least expecting it. Just like I did.’ She patted her atrophied thighs and sighed.
‘What door are you talking about Mrs Pardon? You’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve never understood where it is.’
‘It’s in full view when the wind sings and will open at a backward turn.’ I whispered the phrase word for word as she recited it out loud.
‘Well, your globe is all clean and ready for you to gaze at. The stand could do with a polish. I’ll pick some up tomorrow morning.’
‘Thank you. I’ve never understood why capable young ladies choose to spend their time running errands for a broken old woman like me. If I had my way you’d be off like my Harry, exploring the world and more.’
. . .
I traversed the winding drive at around 11.30am the next day. The sun was approaching its zenith and the birches presented the silver undersides of their leaves. As I shut the car door, the breeze picked up, and the wind chime on the porch tinkled to greet me. I didn’t remember ever hearing it before, but noted a pleasant lightness in the tone. As I carried my shopping up the wooden steps, I studied the front door.
I’d admired those stained-glass panels since the first time I interviewed at the house, but I’d never noticed the compass before. The four panels sat in the top half of the door, each filling a quarter of the square space, with narrow wooden struts between them. They displayed bright moons and stars against a dark blue background. As the wind chime jangled, a subtle change of colour in the glass revealed the four points of the compass, one in each pane. It was as if the centre of the compass sat in the wood between the glass panels and north was pointing towards the top left corner of the door.
A compass. The symbol of adventure and exploration. I put my shopping down on the porch and took the double-headed key out of my pocket. Both ends looked exactly the same. I compared them to my front door key. They were similar in outline but each had an additional piece cut out of the centre, creating a star-shaped hole in the part that would be inserted into the lock.
I pushed one end of the double key into the front door. I held my breath as I turned it, hoping for the unexpected, against my better judgement. The wind rattled the chimes again and I heard the internal mechanism unlock. With a gentle twist of the handle the door swung inwards and I anticipated something great, though I had no idea what.
On the other side of the door was the hallway, with its dull tiled floor and familiar tulip vase on the sideboard. For the first time in my life, I was disappointed by my own hum drum existence. Perhaps Mrs Pardon's stories were starting to change my outlook a little. But my mother was right, 'There's no such thing as magic and those who go looking for it are fools.'
‘Is that you, Love? Back already?’
‘Yes, Mrs Pardon. I’ve got some Brasso for your globe.’
‘Ooo, lovely, that’ll bring the shine right up. I’ll tell you about Harry’s first night in India.’
I unpacked the groceries and half listened to the tall tale of the spider as big as a melon. Harry had impaled it on his bayonet, only to have it sing such a sad and beautiful ballad that he regretted his haste and revived it with a snifter of brandy. He fixed up the wound with surgical tape and by the next day, it was healed. The spider, grateful for the soldier's mercy, had followed him around for a whole week, remaining loyal until Harry boarded the train to go to his next posting. He was only sad he couldn't take it with him.
‘But you know, Love, the greatest adventures start right here in this very house.’
I could have sworn she winked at me.
After I had put Mrs Pardon to bed that night, I took the double key out of my pocket again and examined it under the reading lamp in the living room. There were some small indentations on the shaft at one end. I looked for matching ones on the other, but the tarnish was such that I couldn’t make them out.
I took the key to the kitchen and pulled the Brasso out of the cupboard. Within minutes both ends of the key were shining under the reading lamp and I could make out two words, clearly indented into the metal.
“Fore” and “Aft”.
‘It’s in full view when the wind sings and will open at a backward turn.’ I whispered.
. . .
It was three days before the wind got up enough to clink the bars of the chime together. I was sitting eating breakfast with Mrs Pardon when it did.
‘I’m just going to check for mail,’ I said, and stood up from the table.
‘I bet you are, my Love. I bet you are.’ She winked again.
I chose to ignore her knowing look and crossed the hall, opened the front door, and stepped out on to the porch. I locked the door behind me with my usual key. A few seconds later the wind picked up enough to make the required music and I watched as the compass appeared in the stained-glass. I took the double-headed key, checked the words stamped into the metal, inserted the “Aft” end into the lock and turned.
This time when I opened the door there was a searing bright light. The house and garden disintegrated around me and tiny particles of them floated away into the air. The very fabric of the universe seemed to evaporate before me as I struggled not to panic.
“Where to, young lady?” came a gruff voice from behind me.
I inhaled sharply and turned to look for the source of the words but there was no one there. I was simply surrounded by light and dust. The first thing that came to mind was Harry and the snakes. Before I could say anything I found myself on the African savannah, running down a hill towards two local men with a fire and a hut. They were shouting.
As the electricity of excitement coursed through my veins, I began to understand how valuable Mrs Pardon’s stories were.
. . .
I’ve been exploring behind the door for three weeks now, uncertain of how to get back to normality, but not missing it at all. It didn't take long for me to unlock my mind and stray away from the familiar stories I learned from Mrs Pardon. But I did briefly visit India and am now followed everywhere I go by a large, musical, spider. I've named him Harry. He is surprisingly well received by the people I meet - but perhaps that is because I imagine them to be tolerant and open minded.