Kiddo and I were sitting in our attic room prattling excitedly about nothing. We do that a lot. It is our thing. Kiddo is my brother. He’s five and I’m eight. He thinks he can catch up and race me to ten. He’s silly like that, but he’s my best friend. We are happy, just the two of us getting lost in the myriad of worlds that we create.
We live in the attic of the house in which my mother works. She cooks, cleans, shops, and takes care of the master’s house. He doesn’t like it that we call him that, but our mother insists.
The house is beautiful, but barely lived in. Master lives in the city and he comes to stay here few times a year. I wonder what it would be like to live in a city. Kiddo thinks it would be cool, but that’s his new favourite word. I love the house. I love our snug little attic room which smells of sand and sea. Most windows overlook the beach.
Mother is busy throughout the day. It doesn’t matter whether master is in or not. She is constantly working. On days when there is nothing much to do, she will rearrange the furniture, only to put it back the way it was earlier. So, Kiddo and I spend a lot of time together. Mostly, we are in our attic room with its low, slanting wooden roof, two little beds, a cupboard, and the locked door.
The locked door is a source of many adventures. We would spend hours talking about the world that lay behind it and how we would fit right in. Some days there was a fairy land beyond the door, with unicorns, pixies, talking animals and lots of magical creatures, both good and evil. Kiddo took care of the evil side. He could paint quite a picture about wicked witches, hungry, hissing pythons, sly jackals, and his favourite evil magician, Moo. I have told him time and again that Moo doesn’t sound even remotely frightening, but he is adamant. I always picture a sweet, placid cow when he brings in Moo and these adventures generally end in a fight. On other days, especially when Kiddo takes charge, there are skeletons, mummies, fire-wielding sorcerers, pirates, treasures, and various creatively defined forms of ugly, decaying monsters.
Once we made the mistake of asking Mother what she thought was behind the locked door. She said it was most likely a dusty little broom cupboard full of cobwebs and mold. Mother is singularly unimaginative.
Today, the locked door was an entrance to Moo’s deep, dark den. Kiddo has never spoken about Moo’s lair, so I refrained from enquiring if we should take a bundle of hay when we went to visit him. The steps leading down to the black depths were steep and broken in many places. The walls were alit with a reddish glow, and the silence pressing upon our ears was unbearable. Just as we had covered about a hundred steps and defeated several monsters, most of which were stabbed and thrown in the flaming crater by Kiddo, mother entered the room with a pile of washed clothes. The sight of a practical person, doing practical things kills the imagination like nothing else. We gaped at her, and she, in her brisk manner, asked us to get dressed, pack our bags for a night and meet her downstairs in twenty minutes.
Tonight is what we call Night under the Stars. Every year on this night, we pack our bags and walk to the very end of the beach, where Marky waits for us with his big, black telescope. Marky is not his real name. It’s short for something really long which doesn’t even have an M in it. Marky used to be the gardener at master’s house until he won the local lottery. The winnings are said to be enough to ensure ten years of reasonably comfortable living. Marky’s almost ninety, though you would never know that by just looking at him. We hope he doesn’t live beyond a hundred. Mother says we shouldn’t say things like that, but we mean well. He lives alone and fights with almost everyone, so who would take care of him after he spent all his money?
We had a lovely night, counting stars, tracing constellations, and listening to Marky tell us about the stories behind the names of certain stars. We didn’t know if they were true, but lying on the soft sand, under a dark blanket studded with silver, twinkling lights, breathing in the salty air, nothing sounded more beautiful or more believable.
Kiddo was shaking my shoulders and whispering my name. I mumbled groggily at him. He said he had forgotten Mr. Ted at the house. Everyone knows that Kiddo can’t sleep without his soft, brown teddy with its black and red checkered bowtie. I hoisted myself on one elbow to see Marky’s chest rising and falling like waves upon the shore. He let out a puff of breath every few seconds which made his great moustache quake and quiver. It would take a storm to wake this man up.
I agreed to walk back to the house and fetch Mr. Ted on the condition that I get to choose the shapes for all the cookies in our next baking session. Kiddo didn’t look very happy about this, but there was no way he would walk back to the house in the night. He resigned himself to a batch full of heart and angel shaped cookies.
I wasn’t scared of the night. I loved the soft, velvety darkness coupled with the cool sea breeze. I pocketed a pale blue shell. It looked worthy of being an addition to my splendid collection.
The house was dark and silent. I climbed up to our attic room, quiet as a cat. When I reached the top, I froze. A thin slit of yellow light was emanating from behind the locked door. In my mind, it will always be a locked door. I peeped through the gap. I could see a large wooden shelf with many square compartments, lots of books, strange little trinkets, a small desk with an old typewriter and a table lamp casting yellow light. I scanned the room from all possible angles. I pushed open the door and walked in.
For a room that was always locked, it was surprisingly clean. I pressed the keys of the typewriter. In the still night, it sounded like shots from a machine gun. I spun around and waited, but nobody came in. I moved away from the table and ran my fingers over the worn and peeling dust jackets of rows upon rows of books. There were a distracting number of shiny objects on the shelves. A broken pendulum, several pendants, what looked like a compass, a silver thimble, delicately carved miniature horns, strange and fascinating coins, a handsome watch, rings, and scores of showpieces that cast merry reflections on the opposite wall.
“My daughter collected them”, said a soft voice. I started, almost dropping the translucent pearl I had been admiring. Master was standing at the door frame. There was something melancholic about his stance, and the way he seemed to take in the room, in one sweeping look. I greeted him squeakily and fell silent, eyes lowered.
“There’s no need to be scared”, he said. I could hear a smile in his voice. “I was just as curious as you and your brother are when I was your age. A locked door in your room must be a mystery and a constant source of annoyance in equal measures, I’m sure.”
I nodded. He continued to talk with a faraway look in his eyes. “She loved this little nook. It was her sacred place. I wasn’t even allowed in, so it was locked to me as well. Most of these books and objects belonged to her mother. The good die young.”, he sighed. “I always wanted to know what lay behind this locked door. Whenever I would ask, she would smile mischievously at me, her face lit with the ghost of a suppressed secret. Now I wish I never had to know. I could stand not knowing this little secret just to watch her give me that smile again.”
I didn’t know what to say. He walked out of the room and returned moments later with Mr. Ted. “I noticed that your brother left this behind. Now run along and give it to him. He must be having a sleepless night.” I took the soft toy, my gaze lingering on the inside of his wrist which was inked with today’s date.
Kiddo demanded to know what took me so long. I didn’t answer him. I just looked out into the dark sea. I felt older somehow. I don’t think Kiddo and I will be playing The Locked Door game ever again.