The small box


 

It wasn’t even an old fire place. It was one of those sixties electric heater-things that seemed to gravitate to floral patterned carpets and knick-knacks. If I’m totally honest, it had almost put me off buying the house, so hideous was the piece of furniture, but my girlfriend had told me not to be so stupid and the deal had gone ahead smoothly.

The last weekend, the first weekend after we’d moved in, I set to at the fireplace. I couldn’t live in a house with a thing that had such a disgusting, fake, brown plastic shell and ostentatious and gaudy gold knobs. You can’t know how satisfying it was to swing the sledge hammer against the side of that beast. The shell split and cracked with a delightful crunch and the whole unit jumped forward out of the old brick fireplace it had sat in, spinning round slightly and falling onto its face like an arrested villain.

Such was the euphoria of my first swing, that I felt inclined to take another. My eyes glinted at my injured and pleading foe and I tensed for a second swing. I pulled the heavy long handled hammer back but, as the cold metal head drew it’s retreating arc, it clipped the open mouth of the fireplace. The portal coughed a shower of soot and brick dust into the room and a few heart stopping clinks of falling bricks forced their way into my ears. I shut my eyes willing the world to stop and, for the briefest of moments, it seemed to comply. Everything was silent.

I opened one eye cautiously and tried to surreptitiously look the fireplace up and down, scared that even the gentle caress of my gaze might somehow cause more of the wall to fold in. The damage wasn’t actually too bad. The cakes of dust covering everything made it look bad, but apart from five or six dislodged and sadly smashed bricks, the fireplace seemed as sturdy as it always had done.

I knelt down and peered into the gaping hole to asses the damage, a light breeze from the chimney brushing at my cheek. It could be fixed, it was OK. I ran my hand along the jagged scar and, forgetting about the amount of soot that had poured out from the chimney moments before, I curled my fingers round inside to feel if any of the bricks were cracked. Around the top of where my hammer had hit, my fingers ran over a smooth brick. Rather than the rough smoke weathered bricks that surrounded it, this one felt like it had been plastered or painted. I pushed my hand up the chimney a little further, my fingers stretching blindly into the unknown space. They touched something soft. I withdrew my hand as if I were caressing a snake that had suddenly spun its jaws towards me. My fingers emerged from the cavern as black as the darkness they had left behind.

Feeling slightly foolish that my reflex had been so pronounced, I paused for a moment to let the sudden sharp burst of adrenalin my body had delivered dissipate. Eventually the curiosity got too much and, putting all my faith in soap, I pushed my hand back inside the chimney breast. I let my fingers slowly search for the softness, scuttling around inside the chimney breast. There it was, something soft and squishy. I prodded it a few times and, when it made no attempt to move, I closed my hand around it and gave a gentle tug.

Another cloud of soot ballooned into the room, forcing my eyes shut. My fingers stroked around the small object as my eyes waited for the ancient smoke to clear. It was cylindrical, with a raised edge going around its middle. Each end had no cap, like a pipe, and the whole thing was easy to compress flat or bend.

Finally I opened my eyes and glanced at my encrusted hands. In them was a small roll of paper, tied with what must have once been a red ribbon around its centre. While the whole thing was ravaged by time and soiled with dirt, it was no where near black enough to have been behind the chimney breast when a real fire had been used.

I fingered the edges of the tube of paper, before giving into temptation and nicking the thin faded ribbon with my thumb nail. The note popped open and, with some reluctance, slowly unrolled. It was a piece of paper torn from a notebook, as far as I could tell. One of those classy leather bound notebooks with thick unruled paper. A short message was scratched onto the sheet in thin blue ink. It said: “Don’t open it, for the love of God don’t open it”

Puzzled, I glanced around the room as if asking it to contribute any ideas it might have on what the message meant. The walls were unforthcoming. It couldn’t be talking about the roll of paper. You couldn’t put a message not to open a roll of paper on the inside of the roll. It would be pointless. Likewise it couldn’t be about the fireplace for the same reason.

Slowly my mind focused back onto the strange smooth brick I had felt inside the chimney breast. Returning to the open mouth of the fireplace, I once again knelt down and inserted my hand into its gaping jaw. With more confidence, brought on by an unerring curiosity, I scrabbled at the other side of the near chimney wall. I found the smooth brick quickly and, with my fingers attacking the edges, I managed to leaver it out. It slide into my hand remarkably easily. It felt too light to be a brick. I pulled my hand back into the light and stretched myself back up onto my feet.

The object in my hand wasn’t a brick. It was a box. A small, highly polished wooden affair with a tiny metal clasp, that must have once been golden, sealing its lid tightly. Very tightly.

The evening passed with the usual drudgery of an autumn afternoon. Wind howled outside and the long branches of a near by willow tree nudged against the upstairs windows like a thousand fingers tapping to be let in. My girlfriend had not stayed for long after she had returned from her Saturday job. One look at the soot encrusted living room and the draughty hole in the chimney and she had announced, in her usual frustrated tones, that she was going round to her friends for the evening.

As the light dwindled outside, I pottered around the house, putting off the big clean by occupying myself with a thousand little tasks. As I ran out of jobs to do, though, I was hit by an unavoidable decision. Either I could retire to bed and watch whatever Hollywood explosion extravaganza the TV controller had decided I would like to watch or, I could get the beaten up old vacuum cleaner out of whatever cardboard box it was still lurking in and do something productive.

I pondered my options for a short while, and was tempted to toss a coin but, something lurked in the back of my mind. I was nervous about which side the coin would fall. I really didn’t want one answer. What surprised me, was that it was the prospect of doing nothing for the rest of the night that I didn’t like. I needed to occupy myself, and if that meant scrubbing the floor and polishing the wainscotting, then so be it.

I entered the front room once more, the first time since I had stood proudly over the smashed electric heater as my girlfriend had chastised me for not putting down plastic sheeting. The room was dark and gloomy, the only movement in it was the occasional popping breeze that rushed down the chimney and billowed into the room. I tried the light switch but my earlier heroics had shorted out the downstairs circuit and I wasn’t sure where the fusebox was.

I left for a moment and returned with a box of candles. Lighting a few, I distributed them evenly around the room, causing a glow like you might get at a midnight mass. The dancing flames caused patterns on the ceiling that would at one moment form a thousand ghouls with out stretched hands and sharpened teeth before dissolving into a rippling pool of water or an intricate Celtic carving.

As I surveyed the illumination a shiver spiralled down my spine. At the centre of the room; at the centre of the lights; where I had placed it earlier; was the little wooden box. The candlelight pooled around the box like it was it itself that was emitting the light. My eyes became locked on the it, I felt tethered like a harpooned whale to the tiny vessel coursing through the candlelight waves.

Even as I moved around the room to start cleaning up, I could feel the link between us, I could feel the box dragging on me. Wearing me down. I bent down to see how much soot was on the floor immediately outside the fireplace. The wind was blowing more constantly down the chimney now, buffeting my hair and whistling in a dull melody. My mind, however, remained on the box. Like when you know when someone is staring at you and you darent look in case your fleeting glance encourages their fascination . I could not look at the box, but I could not think of anything else.

“Don’t open it, for the love of God do not open it.” The words sprang into my mind. This time though, rather than being dull scratching lettering on an old piece of paper, they carried with them an urgency, and a tone. So much, in fact, that it was almost like I was hearing a panicking old man’s feeble plea. The wind howled down the chimney once more and I bolted from the room.

Ten minutes later I was in my bed, still breathing hard. The ministrations of Radio 3’s ‘Wagner Series’ doing little to help my state of mind. I slapped my hand at the radio and the room fell into silence. I liked that even less. I turned the radio back on and and lay staring up at the ceiling. The double bed felt empty. I would have done anything at that moment to have the soft slender body of my girlfriend lying next to me. Even if she had been asleep, I knew her gentle breathing and involuntary rubbing together of her feet would have settled my thumping heart. As it was, all I could hear was the Flight of the Valkyries swooping around the room. The fight was over.

I rolled onto my side and stared at the clock. Time didn’t move. Nothing moved save for the wind, the Valkyries and my panicking heart. Finally I got a grip of myself. I scurried into the bathroom and, in the soft glow of the full moon, I stared at myself in the mirror. I washed my face and spoke gently in soft tones about how I was being ridiculous. This seemed to calm me for a moment, just long enough to decide to throw the box out in the morning. No, not the morning, now. Throw it out immediately and then everything would be all right.

With the sure footedness of a two legged mountain goat, I stumbled down the stairs, my hand gripping so hard to the balustrade that I had to tug from my shoulder to slide it down as I walked.

The candles were lower but seemed to emit no less light. The box still stood proudly in the centre, glistening. As I entered, the rushing wind bustled past me like it was charging to get out of the room as I had done earlier. The reel locked and slowly started to wind back in.

I stepped forward, my head spinning as if I had one drink too many and my legs were desperate to give way and let my body crumple to the floor. Reaching out a shaking hand towards the box, I could feel every movement in the room. The wind howling down the chimney was no longer air but water, crashing all around me. An ocean storm whipping me this way and that. The box bobbed idly in the centre, as my mind was washed up and down on the angry sea, the box stayed steady and firm, it was quiet near the box, it was gentle near the box, it was safe. Over the din of the waves I heard a whisper

“Don’t open it, for the love of God don’t open it.” I was drawn closer by the invisible line, the waves crashing around me now, rather than over me. It was more gentle here. The voice again, louder but, like a man shouting from a long way away. “for the love of God don’t open it.” My fingers touched the smooth wooden lid of the box, the whole world around me paused, the wind stopped, the room settled. “don’t” said a very distant breeze, the last snapshot of motion in the whole of the universe, save mine.

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