The package fell to the floor with an ominous thud. Miriam walked into the hall wrapping her dressing gown close against the cold. She turned the thermostat dial until she heard a click, picked up the package and walked through to the kitchen.
Miriam poured a mug of coffee, sat down at the kitchen table and turned the parcel in her hands examining the label. Untying the hemp string she folded back the brown paper to reveal a cigar box. Opening the lid she spread the contents on the table top: a letter, some old brittle documents, one looked like a birth certificate, and a faded photograph. There was a masculine aroma of tobacco. Apart from the letter, handwritten in English, everything appeared to be in German.
My dear Miriam
You were far too young to remember me. I have enclosed a photograph of your father. He looks quite glamorous in his uniform, do you not think? The birth certificate is yours. Of course, you had a different name then.
I will contact you by telephone. We must talk.
Laying the letter on the table Miriam smoothed the paper with her cold finger tips, as if by doing so some deeper meaning could be deciphered. Outside a neighbour was cutting his lawn. On the wall next to her a radiator ticked, hot water coursing through the pipes, but Miriam felt chilled. She reached out and picked up the photograph. A handsome man smiled at her from some distant time. His peak hat, worn at a jaunty angle, was decorated with the insignia of the Waffen SS. Underneath the stylised eagle, claws gripping a swastika she could make out a skull and crossbones bright on the dark hatband. She turned the photograph over and stared at words written in faint pencil: Rudolph Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, 8 May 1944 – 18 January 1945.
She thought of the numbers tattooed on the papery skin of her grandfather’s left arm, remembered her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah the previous month. This is not possible. Could not be possible.
The buzz of her neighbour’s lawn mower stopped. In the silence the telephone in the hall began to ring.
She held the flowers under her father’s nose. ‘They’re from the garden dad. We still plant them each year just like you used to. In the bed at the edge of the patio. Remember?’
It was unlikely he would. Geoffrey Simms had been suffering from dementia for over two years. He sat slumped in the high-backed chair his chin rising and falling with the wheezing undulations of his chest.
The fragile fragrance of the sweet pea blooms skirmished with the odours of human waste and decay that pervaded the Sunnyvale Care home. Somewhere a patient cried out, the wail dampened as it travelled along the carpeted corridors. Jenny squeezed his hand, the skin as thin as paper. Fragments of memory assembled in her mind like a creased picture, her father tying the sweet pea stems to canes while she played with her dolls on the sun warmed paving slabs.
Her father gasped, dragged air into his lungs. ‘Your mum……’
‘Mum?’ Jenny was not sure what shocked her more. Her father talking or her father talking about her mother. She had left their home when Jenny was six years old. Ran off with another man they said. Jenny placed the white vase on the bedside cabinet. The scent of the sweet peas must have triggered a memory, she thought.
‘Dad. What about Mum?’ she asked with the care of a poacher tickling a trout. ‘Tell me about Mum.’
Feet padded softly in the corridor, a trolley rattled past the door. Somewhere a mobile phone trilled bird like.
‘Dad, please tell me tell me about my mum.’
His left eyelid flickered open, and a tear gathered in the corner of the rheumy eye. ‘She’s buried.’
‘Buried? Buried where, Dad?’
‘The patio. I buried her under the patio.’
In the cold silence the cheerful pastel petals seemed to mock her.
The cool morning wind coursing though his hair brought a memory to Billy. He is a small boy sat on the rustic bench outside his grandfather’s cottage waiting for the sun to rise. The old man steps out of the front door. They smile at each other and before his grandfather sits; he ruffles Billy’s blond curls with his broad hand.
They savour the silence for a while, then as the dawn chorus begins his grandfather, who had been a Gamekeeper on the estate, tells him about the birds that are singing. How the skylarks, song thrushes, robins and blackbirds are the first to sing. Then the wrens and warblers, more sensitive to the coldness of dawn, join in. The still dawn air carrying nature’s hymns.
Then, when the light brightens and food, the seeds and insects, are easier to find, the chorus fades.
He can see his grandfather now sat on the bench hunched forward, chin resting on the hands that grip his walking stick. He turns and smiles.
Billy felt the warmth of the rising sun on his face. It was going to be a fine day.
Surprised at the sudden volley, the audience of crows rose cawing from the surrounding trees in a cloud of black feathers and flew into the brightening sky.
The exotically dressed people below waved almost as enthusiastically as the palm fronds that flapped in the turbulence of the helicopter as it rose thudding into the cloudless blue sky. The pale, almost albino, leader had made a speech while his acolytes poured drinks for a farewell toast. Jacob had signalled with his hands his gratitude for the hospitality and that he would return.
“That was absolutely fantastic guys.” Shouted Professor Jacob Rubin as he looked down and waved back. This was the high point of his career. Discovering this hitherto undiscovered race would place him in the pantheon of international anthropologists. He would be up there with Malinowski, Morgan and Margaret Mead. The city, concealed in the chasm, a massive split in the plateau, had astonished him. That such an advanced culture had remained isolated from the modern world was beyond belief. He felt lightheaded with sheer excitement.
Equally excited in the seat next to him sat Eleanor Stanford. A young reporter with the New York Times, she had persuaded her editor to allow her to accompany the expedition. Even now, as the helicopter banked away from the forest cloaked plateau her finger tips were deftly dancing across her laptop keyboard. “I can’t imagine my Editor’s face when this ‘scoop of the century ‘ arrives on his computer.” Said Eleanor. “When will we be in range so I can send emails?”
“It’ll be at least two hours or more.” The pilot’s metallic over the intercom.
“Eleanor, don’t forget our agreement. I must read and approve your report.” Said Jacob.
“Just to make sure his name appears numerous times!” Said his assistant Sam grinning.
“Quite,” said Jacob. “Quiet now, please, I’m going to try and translate the words spoken by his eminence at the farewell ceremony.” He inserted the earphone buds and listened to the recording on his iPhone while writing on a notepad on his knee.
They had been flying for almost an hour when Jacob had made a crude translation. “The leader guy said ….it seems to be a curse, Eleanor… it ends…’Our secret will stay with you always” His uncertain voice trailed away . But the reporter wasn’t listening. She lay against him, her lifeless head lolling on his shoulder. Jacob looked across at Sam who was slumped forwards in his harness. He wanted to tell the pilot but his tongue felt paralysed. His unseeing eyes stared out of the window as the helicopter fluttered down to land softly on the still surface of the lake and sank.
Later the editor of the Times wrote:
It is now six months since the expedition, lead by Professor Jacob Ruben, last made contact with their support team. Extensive searches have found no trace of the personnel or the helicopter and we must now accept that the intrepid explorers including our own brave reporter Eleanor Stanford are lost. It is not the first expedition to search for the mythical civilisation. Two other attempt were made in 1935 and 1957. Both disappeared without trace.
The solicitor peered over his half-moon glasses with grave solemnity and pushed the mahogany box across the vast expanse of tooled green leather that covered the desktop.
“Your Godfather has bequeathed this item to you, Celia. There is an sealed envelope inside.”
Celia lifted the lid. Under the envelope was a strange bird surrounded by a nest of white napkins.
“I understand your Godfather was Geoffrey Soames, a diplomat in India.”
“Yeah, I think so.” Said Celia with the disinterested of a fifteen-year-old. She vaguely remembered a fat bloke squeezing her six-year-old cheeks. She stuffed the envelope in her pocket, closed the box and left the musty office and the ghoulish solicitor.
At home she placed the hideous bird with the sharp beak on the mantelpiece next to her parent’s hideous carriage clock and headed upstairs to her bedroom. The box would be handy to keep her makeup stuff in, she thought, flopping onto her bed.
Then she remembered the envelope.
My dear Celia.
No doubt the gift of the bird will be a disappointment. But, whosoever possesses the bird can make three wishes. Choose carefully.
With kindest regards
Yeah, right? Geoffrey. And I’m Madonna.
Later, Celia put her skepticism to one side and made a wish. She decided to start with wish for a fortnight holiday for two in Magaluf and see what happened.
The next morning her father walked into the kitchen. “Registered delivery for Celia Thornton. Must be important.”
Celia slit open the envelope with the butter knife. “I’ve won a holiday for two, dad!” She squealed.
Her excitement soon evaporated when her enraged father told her that over his dead body she would take her feckless, fuckwit boyfriend to Magaluf.
“I hate you dad, I wish you were dead!” She shouted as she slammed the front door.
“The beak penetrated here, Martin. See, just above the left eye.” The pathologist pointed at the small red rimmed hole in the victims head.
“You’re sure it was an accident?” Asked DI Fuller.
“Absolutely certain. I’m guessing he had some sort of seizure. That would explain why he was gripping the ornamental bird so firmly when he fell and impaled himself on the beak. Death would have been instantaneous.”
“A painless death, then.” Said the inspector. “A small crumb of comfort for the family. I’m off to see them next.”
Rather you than me, thought the pathologist running a scalpel around the dead head.
Celia listened, with a growing sense of horror, as the inspector explained the circumstances of her fathers demise to her sobbing mother. This was all her fault. She had caused the death of her father. Hadn’t she wished him dead?
After the funeral Celia lay on her bed floating in a sea of grief and misery. She had wished her father dead. A common enough aspiration of truculent teenagers, but for Celia a wish that had come true.
Then she remembered. Scrabbling under her bed she found the letter. Of course! Three wishes. She had three wishes!
Celia ran from the house not stopping until the fresh earthen mound of her father’s grave lay in front of her.
“I wish my dad was alive again,” she shouted, startling a woman arranging flowers at a nearby grave.
Her father’s eyelids fluttered, then opened to impenetrable darkness. As his fingertips felt the coffin lid inches from his face, he began to scream. His daughter, waiting above, heard nothing.
There is no better sound insulation than six feet of damp soil.
The Last Full Measure
Towards the field of bloody battle
We march the long straight road
To answer the sabres metallic rattle
Of a godless foe who would goad
Peaceful nations to stand and fight
And sacrifice our blood and treasure
For honour, freedom, peace and right
We will give our last full measure
Capricious clouds, cherubic white
Gaze through the gossamer light
From the vaulted pale blue sky
Swallows fly high on zephyr’s sigh
As we march ‘tween Gallic leas
Amidst the tall and slender trees
That stand in line, a guard of honour
As pale cattle of content demeanour
In lush and verdant pasture graze.
I look upon all this and dream of days
Of peace that are, God willing nigh
And we will walk this path, you and I
Two more poems for my epistolary project. The theme is marching towards the front line . My soldier character has yet to experience the reality of warfare.
I think I am in a room.
There is a floor. A solid surface beneath my feet, otherwise I would fall like a dying bird.
There is a ceiling. Reaching up, I extend my arms, stretch my fingers and touch a ceiling. I cannot fly away.
Walls? I reach out into the inky, impenetrable darkness but feel no walls. I need walls. A boundary to make sense of where I am.
I go down on my hands and knees to move across the floor, the only thing of substance, the only reference point I have. I explore the terrain with my fingertips searching for a wall. The surface of the floor is smooth, glasslike, without blemishes. There is no olfactory sensation. No chemical smell or natural scent. When I tap the floor with my wedding ring there is no echo. No reassuring echo. Only the sound of my breathing.
Then I hear a voice. A distant voice.
I move towards the voice and touch a wall. As I stand my hands slide up the surface. It has the same featureless tactile qualities as the floor. I place my feet with care as my hands search for a way out. A door. A window. An exit from this illimitable blackness.
“Now Mr Jackson, to help me reach a diagnosis tell me, describe if you can, what is going on in your head……?”