by Gill James
Earl Grey tea
“Think of an object of wonder,” the course facilitator said. “This will be the basis of your story.”
Curious objects spread out on the table and arranged on the shelves. Oh yes, this was the stuff of fairy tales.
“Fairy tales aren’t just for children,” the facilitator continued. “In fact they were never for children in the first place. They are there to teach us about wonder.”
Gerri loved this sort of exercise. It got her out of her box. It made her think of something new.
“When you’ve thought of your object of wonder, write it on a luggage label, a post-it note or a card – whichever you prefer. Then we’ll set them all out on the tables and the shelves and see which stories they suggest to us.”
She saw it then. It was a tiny key, quite ornate, and made of silver. It was attached to one of the small luggage labels they were being asked to use. It was far smaller than the label.
Gerri went to pick up a label and watched fascinated as the woman next to her, already with a label and a pen in her hand, began to write. “A tiny silver key.”
“That’s amazing,” said Gerri. “That’s what I was going to write.”
The woman frowned.
“It’s all right,” said Gerri. “I’m not accusing you of copying. How could you know? It must be something in the air – made us think of the same thing.”
The woman shrugged and continued to frown. Oh dear, it looked as if she’d upset her.
It was an intriguing exercise, though. They gathered round the table and shelves and studied all of the objects people had thought of.
“Put three or four of these together and you have the beginning of a story,” said the facilitator.
Yes, indeed. Gerri thought how she might use this for her own writing or as an exercise for her students. This was really useful.
As usual the week after the conference was tough. It was always the same – you go to a conference and come back buzzing with loads of ideas but because you’re a bit tired, real life is even more difficult than usual and you start wishing you’d never bothered.
Yet she couldn’t help thinking about the key. Where had that idea come from? Why was it so important?
On Tuesday she missed her stop and had to walk back from Deansgate.
“You do seem to be in a bit of a daydream these days,” said Ralph, her line-manager. “Is something troubling you?”
She shook her head.
On Friday she came home from the supermarket with half of the shopping missing.
“You really need to take it easier,” said Tim, her husband. “It’s no good, working hard all week then going to conferences.” She could tell he was trying to be kind but he was really a bit irritated.
Forgetting to wash her hair on Saturday was a major shock. She only realised when she gazed at herself in the mirror at lunch time and saw how flat and lifeless her usual bouncy curls looked.
All the time she kept thinking about the key. She soon knew its intricate patterns by heart. She began to notice letters on it. ACW. What could that mean? It began to feel important.
She slept a lot at the weekend, as if making up for the one before. She couldn’t escape the key though. She began to dream about it.
When she woke up from her nap on Sunday afternoon she was covered in sweat and a little bit scared. She couldn’t work out why she was so afraid. The dream hadn’t been particularly frightening. She’d been holding the key and had felt content. Now, though, she thought someone was trying to take it off her.
“Okay?” said Tim.
Gerri shrugged. “I think I’m meant to find that key,” she said.
Of course, he wouldn’t have any idea what she was talking about. She’d not told him about the key. Why on earth would she?
“I’m worried about you,” said Tim. “You don’t seem to be your normal cheery self.”
“I’ll be fine.”
She took the afternoon off on Tuesday and had a look at some of the local antique shops. There were keys galore. Large ones, small ones, black ones, golden ones. There were even a few tiny silver ones, but none of them were her key.
It must exist somewhere; it really mus. And she’d got to find it.
She found herself looking at locksmiths’ web sites. There was even more variety here but very few silver keys, let alone tiny ones, and certainly nothing you might call an object of wonder.
The following Sunday she dragged Tim to the big car boot sale held every week on Patches’ Field.
“What are you looking for?” asked Tim.
“I’ll know it when I see it,” she replied.
“Hmm. Well I hope it’ll be soon. The match starts in an hour.”
Poor Tim. This was so boring for him. She wished she hadn’t asked him to come along. She’d felt a bit wobbly, though, and was glad he’d agreed to accompany her.
There were some fascinating objects being sold. Plenty of story prompts anyway. There were lovely old jewellery boxes, clocks that were wound up by keys and even diaries with locks. Her key, though, was not to be found.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go. I don’t think what I want is here.”
Tim looked at his watch. “Good. We’ll be just in time.”
She couldn’t stop thinking about it and the need to find it was getting painful. She either had bad dreams or it kept her awake. She slept so badly the following Tuesday night that she had to report in sick on Wednesday.
“You should go and see the doctor,” said Tim.
She shook her head. “I’ll be fine if I just rest.”
Tim left for work and she tried to sleep. It was no good. Her mind was still too lively. It was those letters ACW. They were becoming so familiar. Was that because she was thinking about them so much?
She turned on the radio. The news was just beginning. Anita Dorman was reading. Anita. Yes. Of course. Her great grandmother. Anita Christina Williams. Her heart began to race as she remembered that somewhere in their attic was Anita’s old jewellery box. Might it contain a little silver key or even be opened with one?
It wasn’t easy getting the ladder down. She knew she would have to be careful to only tread on the joists and not in between otherwise her foot would go through the bedroom ceiling. And goodness, there was so much junk up here. How on earth would she ever find the box?
It didn’t take long, actually, in the end. The box wasn’t far from the hatch. Her hands trembled as she opened it. It was full of cheap but glitzy costume jewellery. She rummaged through, not sure what she dreaded most: finding the key or not finding it.
There it was. Exactly as she had always seen it. It even had a small rather crumpled luggage label attached.
Her hands were shaking even more violently now. She just about managed to pick the key up.
“Anita’s diary. Ha, ha, you’ll never find it,” she read on the label.
Ah. So, one mystery solved, another one presented. What was she supposed to do now? Look for the diary? As far as she could remember, the jewellery box was all that she had of her great grandmother. If the diary wasn’t in there – and it didn’t look as if it was - goodness knows where it might be.
So, there’d been no magic after all. She must have seen this key before. She’d simply remembered it.
Mind you, it didn’t explain the other woman having the same idea. Maybe there was a bit of magic, then.
Now that she’d found the key perhaps shed stop worrying about it.
Her eyes slowly became used to the dull light. Should she have a look around the attic and see if she could find the diary. Maybe it was here after all.
She was a little afraid to move. She was very aware of how difficult it would be balancing on the rafters. She just didn’t dare make a hole in the ceiling. Tim would sigh and groan and then become a martyr.
Something caught her eye, though. That was surely it. A little book. Tiny. And on it an even tinier lock. As tiny as a lock should be that would have such a tiny key. The key felt hot in her hand. Surely that was just because she was holding it so tight?
As she put her hand out towards it, she began to feel dizzy. A sharp pain started in her throat and seared down towards her stomach. If it had been over on the left she would have thought she was having a heart attack. It was definitely on the right.
She put the key in the lock and turned it. The diary opened. The pain in her chest got worse. Now it was all over the top half of her body. Perhaps it was a heart attack after all. “Help!” she shouted as she staggered through the door.
She was lying down. A bright light shone into her eyes. She could hear voices speaking softly.
“Ah there you are my dear,” said a woman’s voice. “She’s awake.”
“Gerri?” Are you all right?” Tim.
“I’ll get the doctor.”
Tim was holding her hand now. “What on earth were you doing in the loft?”
“Looking for the key.”
Tim sighed. Then he groaned. “You’ve got to give that up, you know.”
“I found it though, I found it. I found the dairy as well. That’s when I had the heart attack.”
Tim laughed. “What heart attack? You fell through our bedroom ceiling. You didn’t have a heart attack. It’s a good job you fell on to the bed but you did crack your head on the frame as you landed. You’ve been out cold ever since. ”
The nurse came back, accompanied by a young woman in white coat.
“She’s rambling again, Doctor. Something about that dratted key. This time though there’s something about a diary and a door as well.”
Tim frowned and ran his hand through his hair. “See what I have to put up with? I think you should give her that psych test you mentioned earlier.”
“You don’t understand,” mumbled Gerri. “I found it. I really did.”
The pain came back again only worse than before. She tried to shout for help but nothing came. She was dying and they hadn’t noticed.
About the author
Gill James is published by, amongst others, Tabby Cat Press, The Red Telephone, Butterfly, The Professional and Higher Partnership and Continuum. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Salford University.
She edits CafeLit.She has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing