Inside the lid a plain white piece of card was stuck to the green felt lining and it had four handwritten words on it.
“Property of Teper Naillian”
It had started with a house move.
The house move had been a success. Well, as much of a success as a house move ever is. The solicitors did their part quickly and without fuss. The funds were transferred, and the contract exchanged, and we had the keys when we were supposed to. The packing up had gone better than expected. The volume of collected detritus had been less than for previous moves. We had spent time decluttering; selling items at car boot sales and on eBay, taking other things to charity shops, and throwing out pieces of junk we, not anyone else in their right minds, was going to use again.
And everything seemed to have made it to the other end in one piece. Even that hideous pink rhinoceros china ornament Jane’s aunt had brought back from some African safari years before. It really needed to have an accident and shuffle off this mortal coil, and the fireplace it sat on. But Jane was strangely attracted to it, and it was the only ornament in the house which the kids had never knocked over. I could only hope.
The only strange part of the whole move was the funny looks I got from the Estate Agents every time my name came up. As if they knew it somehow. I doubted it though and thought I must be imagining it all. In fact, I doubted there was anyone else in the country with the same name as me. The surname was uncommon enough in the UK, being of Irish origin from County Clare, but with the unusual misspelt first name (apparently a mistake, one of the dangers of letting a drunken Irishman register the birth I suppose) I was unique. Or I was the last time I checked back in the noughties when websites to check your name’s uniqueness against the 2001 census were all the rage. And I doubted anyone else had named their kid Teper instead of Peter since.
We had been disciplined about unpacking too. Three days and all the carboard boxes had been emptied, broken down and thrown up into the loft. I remembered a previous move where some boxes had never been opened before we moved again some eighteen months later.
This time we weren’t looking at moving again. Certainly not until retirement in twenty years or so. Or if there was a lottery win. The house had been a bargain, nearly £200k less than others like it. the detailed surveys had no sign of any structural issues or covenants. It wasn’t under a flight path (or proposed one), and there weren’t any new road or rail routes planned. It was bigger than we had been looking for and we felt lucky to find it.
It was a month, possibly a bit longer when Grace found the box. Out eldest had been building herself a cardboard city in the loft using all the broken-down packing boxes. She had found the wooden keepsake box against the gable wall of the loft. A small different coloured area of wood between the laminated chip board that covered the joists and insulation. Being inquisitive she had prised away at the different wood until it tilted, and she was able to pull it out of its hole.
It was a small intricately carved mahogany box; about eight inches long, six inches wide, and four inches deep. There were two brass hinges at the back, and the front had a little brass lock with a key hole. It was locked and had no key with it. I went up to the loft myself and had a look under the boards and amongst the insulation around where it had been found, but there was no sign of any key.
And so, the box sat unopened in an alcove in the kitchen. I would look at it each time I passed, and the kids would ask if I was going to open it. But I resisted. For all of about ten days before I got too curious about what might be in it. I got a fine chisel from the tool box and tapped it into place between the lid and box where the lock was. The box was sturdy, and it took longer than I thought it would, but I finally prised the box open without doing too much damage to it. Inside the lid a plain white piece of card was stuck to the green felt lining and it had four handwritten words on it.
“Property of Teper Naillian”
I’m not sure how long I held my breath for, but I remember eventually exhaling and gasping in some air. How could this box possibly have my name in it? I shouted for Grace to come in. Berated her about where she had really gotten the box from. Had her mum put her up to this? I’m ashamed to say I made my daughter cry. And Jane’s ire towards me was well deserved.
Although the ire did change to something more akin to confusion, and then a feeling of being spooked out, and then accusatory towards me, asking what I was playing at putting the box there like that, just as I had accused our daughter of doing.
I was just freaked out.
I started to take items out of the box. There was a yo-yo with flaking yellow paint on either side. Two old pennies, bigger than two-pound coins. A Matchbox car – a De Tomaso Pantera. A number of Derby County Topps football cards – Colin Boulton, David Nish, Colin Todd, Ray McFarland, Kevin Hector, Gerry Daly, Peter Daniel, Charlie George, David Langan, Don Masson, John Middleton, Steve Powell, and Bruce Rioch. A multi-coloured bouncy ball. A Rainbow badge with Zippy on it. A green and red kazoo. Two little pencils. A red sew on 10m Swimming patch. And half a dozen photos.
A small boy was in them all. Small square photos, in colour but grainy in quality, with a white border around them. I recognised the garden of the house we were in. the shape was the same even if the windows had changed and the colours were different. Another had the boy sat on the knee of an adult. By the clothes and hands, I would say a man, but the boy was the focus of the photo and the man’s head was cut off.
The boy himself has blonde hair, green eyes and a smile. In every photo a large beaming smile. I supposed he could have passed for being me at a similar age. There were definite similarities, but my hair was a bit darker, and you’d have been lucky to get a smile out of me, even as a child. After staring at the items for hours, I put them all back in the box and put the box back in the alcove and tired to forget about it.
Something easier said than done. It played on my mind. I would find myself sat at the kitchen table, looking at the photos from the box. Feeling there was something in them familiar to me, but I was unable to put my finger on just what it was.
Jane had obviously had enough of me moping around more than I usually did, and the amount of time I returned to the box and looked at the photos. She came back from work one evening with an announcement.
“I’ve had a look at the Land Registry details for this house. You probably won’t believe this, but there was a couple who owned this house back in the seventies. Their surname was Naillian. A Mr A. and Mrs E Naillian. Are they, or could they be any relation of yours?”
I couldn’t speak. They were the initials of my parents. Not that most people would know that, and I wouldn’t have expected Jane to. She’d only ever known them as Fred and Peggy. I doubt more than half a dozen people knew they were really Alfred and Elizabeth. I’m not even going to try to understand where the hell they got the name Peggy from for Elizabeth, but it was the case.
Surely, they couldn’t have lived in this house. The dates were before I’d been born, but not long before. But they had never mentioned living in Derby at any point. Not even when we had told them about moving here. Not even when I had given them the address. If they had lived here, surely they would have said something.
I got up and went to the box, and got the photo of the boy sat on the man’s knee. I looked at it for what must have been the hundredth time. More closely now. Studying it. had the clue been there all along? The signet ring on the man’s finger. Hadn’t I seen that same ring as a child? On my dad’s finger?
I told Jane what I was thinking and what I was putting together.
She wanted to drive to my parents right then. Drop everything and go. I wanted to think it through. We compromised and I rang my parents and spoke to my mum. Told her we were thinking of visiting at the weekend, and she was delighted.
The week dragged. Three days felt like three months. A never-ending period of time. Until finally Saturday morning came, we got the kids settled into the car, and I took the box in a carrier bag into the passenger seat with me. Jane didn’t trust me to drive by this point. I can’t say I blamed her.
We arrived at my parent’s house in Manchester. The house I had grown up in. it had taken two hours, not bad for a Saturday morning. The door opened and both my mum and dad came out. Jane hadn’t even turned the engine off before the kids were out of the car and getting hugs from their grandparents.
Jane squeezed my hand as I took a big deep breath, and she said,
“No matter what, it will be alright.”
We got out of the car, hugged our own greetings and went inside to a waiting pot of tea in the kitchen / diner. The kids got juices and headed off to the lounge and the lure of the television. And the conversation started.
I asked my parents about living in Derby, and there was a solid and quick no. jane said about finding a Mr A and Mrs E Naillian as previous owners of the house we lived in. I said it was their initials, and if it wasn’t them, did they know if it was some other relatives of ours? The denials weren’t as fast, or as solid. My mum glanced nervously at my dad, who was keeping a fixed stare at some point over my left shoulder.
But producing the box changed things. My dad glanced at it and quickly looked away, but paled significantly. My mum refused to look at the box. I took out the photo of the boy on the man’s knee, and pointing out the ring the man was wearing I asked my dad if it was his? He closed his eyes to avoid the photo, but my mum let out a sob. And after the sob came the story.
Teper Naillian was born on the 9th May 1970. He was named Teper by mistake, his father – Alfred, more commonly called Fred – was drunk when he registered the birth and had transposed the P and the T of the name Peter, and even when questioned by the registrar about whether the name was correct had apparently thundered “Of course it’s correct, what kind of idiot do you take me for?”
He was a happy child and although his parents tried, a younger sibling didn’t come.
His dad had got in the car to go to work, and didn’t realise Teper was playing with his own cars, toy ones, in the gravel under the front bumper. There was no speed in the car, but the weight over Teper’s chest was enough.
Heartbroken, his parents couldn’t bear living at the house anymore. The car was sold, and they moved to Manchester and erased Derby from their lives.
I was born in Manchester on the 24th July 1979. I was told that my name was a mistake. But it wasn’t. I was Teper Naillian. The second. I was an only child, or so I had believed all of my life. And to an extent I was, but I wasn’t the first child. I wasn’t even the first called Teper. I was going to be that younger sibling, after nine years my mum was pregnant again. But neither of us got that sibling, he had died five months before I was born. Neither of us knew about the other. Until today.
They had used the same name for me, knowing they were never likely to get it wrong. Never likely to call me by the wrong name. Never likely to let slip what they had left in the past.
My parents had done such a good job of erasing it they never brought it up when they knew I had moved to Derby. Or when they knew I had moved to the same house. Their house. Where the original Teper had lived. Perhaps that was why the Estate Agents had given me funny looks. A man moving to the house where his namesake had been killed in a tragic accident.
What my parents never knew was what that original Teper had done with his keepsake box. They had never known about its hidey hole in the loft and so had never sought it out when they left their old life behind. And no one else in the intervening forty-two years had found it either.
I suppose it was serendipity that Grace did, and I found out the truth.