An Unlikely Heirloom
by T.K. Andersen
Copyright 2016 T.K. Andersen
Other Shakespir short stories by T.K. Andersen:
The Gates of Golgotha
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An Unlikely Heirloom
”Got a light?” It took a while for John to realise that he was not alone, and that someone was actually talking to him.
“I said, you got a light?” the voice asked again more emphatically.
John flinched ever so slightly before half-turning his head towards the stranger, glancing out of the corner of his eye than looking straight at him.
“Uh, sorry, I don’t smoke.”
Returning to his thoughts, he assumed that the stranger would have left to find someone else to bother, but the voice sounded again, charged with an undercurrent of slight irritation.
“I said, and I don’t like to repeat myself, you got a light?”
Exasperated, John turned, this time directly towards the voice and snapped.
“I already said I don’t smoke, didn’t I?”
The man was unremarkable, perhaps in his mid-40s, wearing an old duster and a hat in a bland grey colour that presumably served to cover a receding hairline. His mouth was fixed in a somewhat vulpine grin that made him difficult to read.
“Yeah congratulations, your mother must be very proud, but as it so happens, I didn’t ask if you smoke, I asked if you had a light”, the stranger retorted, his mouth barely moving as he spoke, “there is a difference, ya know.”
John responded with a decidedly blank look, trying to gauge whether or not the stranger was joking, but his face did not give away any hint.
“Alright, so what kind of light do you want? A match, a lighter, a flashlight?”
“Now you’re getting it!”’ said the stranger, his grin widening.
John was fairly sure that he didn’t, but seeing as the man was not appearing to be entirely sane, it seemed pointless to press the issue. He was struck by a sudden realisation and stuck his hand into his pocket, fumbling for a few moments until his grip around on a small, cold object. He pulled it out carefully and regarded it for a moment. Covered in a faded silver coating, the lighter only faintly reflected the dim glow of the nearby streetlight. He had almost forgotten that was wearing his father’s old coat, but he had been too busy heading out to check the pockets.
“So there is a God after all!” the stranger beamed.
John could not restrain a smile, but he shook his head.
“Sorry mate, it’s no good. This thing hasn’t worked for years.”
He gave the wheel a quick spin, yielding no result save for a faint spark. The stranger gave him a look of mild disapproval.
“You’d think that with such a precious item you’d have been kind enough to refill it if nothing else. Shame when a man lets such a fine lighter go unused. I don’t suppose it’s my place to tell you what to do with your things, but in this particular case it would’ve been more convenient for me. ”
He gave a resigned shrug.
”I’ll find another solution, have a pleasant evening.”
The last sentence made John a bit curious, and although there was something about this man that made him feel decidedly uneasy, his desire to know more prompted him to speak just as the stranger was almost out of sight. Besides, he would have had to wait another half hour for the night bus, so he needed to kill some time.
“What did you need the lighter for?” he called out unsteadily.
The stranger’s saunter came to a slow halt and he seemed to spend a few seconds deliberating before he turned.
“Well, I could show you, but I’m not sure that it would be such a good idea.”
John considered this. Following stranger alone at night seemed statistically unwise, but seeing as he had never done something similar before, he could not verify the statistic with experience. At the end of this perfectly broken line of reasoning he reached a conclusion.
John quickly realised that even though he had often passed through the town, he knew very little about its layout, and the amount of time it took for them to walk down streets and alleyways made it seem much larger than it had any right to be. Most of the people who lived there had worked at the local factory until it shut down ten years ago, and there were very few lights on in the windows they passed by. In the light of the street lamps, evaluating the stranger’s appearance was easier, but the more John regarded him, the more he seemed out of place. But it felt as if they had both accepted a silent gentlemen’s agreement of strangerhood that involved not exchanging names.
“How come you know this town so well?”
It was not an unreasonable question to ask, it didn’t seem like a town worth knowing. “Well… I’d rather not pre-empt my purpose here, but suffice to say this town and I have a history.”
The stranger looked over his shoulder for a moment, raising his voice.
“And now you’re part of it! Ain’t that something?”
Tim. John had decided to refer to the stranger as Tim. The name was sufficiently short and innocuous. You never heard about anyone getting assaulted in a dark alley by a psychotic killer called Tim. It had that harmless quality to it that at worst it would belong to an embarrassing uncle or perhaps an annoying co-worker, like Uncle Tim the “reformed” alcoholic or Tim from Accounting who loved to show up and talk about statistics when John had just started flirting with Kathy from HR. That is, if John actually had an uncle. Or a job.
His mind wandered far past the unremarkable three storey flats that dominated the town, barely noticing the subtle transition into rows of identical two storey houses, until his thoughts finally settled as Tim led him to the outskirts, where houses seemed fewer and far between, and where the surrounding woods started to encroach on what passed for civilisation on these parts. It was in that moment he realised that the street lay in total darkness, rows of dead street lamps providing nothing but long shadows in the moonlight. No further away than the next street, the lamps continued to cast their pale and artificial light, so the blackout must be limited to a small area. John knew little about electricity, so far be it from him to question the layout of the power grid, but it did seem odd that one small avenue with only a dozen houses would have its own localised supply.
John noticed that Tim had stopped, possibly a minute ago, and in effect John, too, had stopped without noticing. Tim seemed to regard the house inconclusively as if he was waiting for something to happen without knowing exactly what.
“So what are we doing here?” John ventured, realising that by now the last bus had probably departed and he would have to wait until sometime in the morning.
Not that he was in a particular hurry, but at the very least the prospect of spending the night outside did not occur to him as a very tempting option. It was only then he actually took a moment to regard the house with more than a passing interest. If he had to guess, he would say it was probably about fifty years old, but had been either uninhabited or simply poorly maintained by its owners for the last five. At the entrance to the overgrown garden, there was a ludicrously solitary stone archway that had once likely been flanked by tall hedges. Now it rather looked like the forgotten centrepiece of an abandoned ruin, as weather and disrepair had changed its colour from milky white to various filthy shades of brown and grey. The house itself was fashioned from red bricks, and the presumably black slopes of its roof were almost entirely covered in moss and generous donations of bird droppings.
“You’ll want to watch your step” said Tim, ignoring his question as he walked unceremoniously through the archway, “I think some of the slabs are a bit loose.”
John was still trying to place the stranger’s accent. It seemed like the kind of accent acquired by someone who had never lived in the same place long enough to get accustomed to any one way of speaking, but could not make up his mind about which accent he preferred to speak in, instead choosing to alternate between several different ones at random. There was also something bizarrely arrhythmical about his sentences, speaking fast one moment, then slowly the next. It was entirely possible that this was all on purpose, and that his entire demeanour was part of an elaborate private joke. John tried to watch his step while he attempted not to imagine a gaping chasm underneath the old pavement that led from the archway to the front entrance. The unevenly sized stone slabs were covered in moss, and patches of grass shot up through the numerous cracks. He barely avoided stepping on a fat caterpillar that slithered across to the grass on the other side of the path, and he almost stumbled when one of the slab fragments came loose, revealing a massive colony of woodlice. Tim did not seem to pay any attention to this as he ambled effortlessly towards the door as his hand seemed to search for an object in his coat.
“You keepin’ up?”
The question sounded rhetorical.
When John finally did catch up, the object that Tim had produced from his coat was not, as John would have hoped, a key, but a crowbar, although John could not quite figure out how he had managed to store it there in the first place.
“Hey wait a second! I’m not going to help you break in!” John protested.
“No, as a matter of fact you don’t have to – I’ll take care of that part all by myself.”
John wanted to continue his indignant rant and quite possibly call the police, but he realised that first of all his cell phone battery was dead, and even if he did call the police, they would not arrive for at least an hour, but most importantly the chance that they would even bother to send a car at all was infinitesimal. The authorities would not likely want to spend their time filing paperwork about a break-in at an abandoned house that nobody cared about in a remote town few people had ever heard of. Whatever his background or other qualifications, Tim was evidently not particularly skilled with his crowbar. His method looked like a poor emulation of a scene from a budget heist movie, but as it turned out, half-rotten wood did not provide impressive resistance, and the window did not so much seem to open as simply give up on its existence. Tim barely jumped out of the way as the glass shattered into pieces on the ground. An immediate stench of mould wafted from inside the house, and although Tim seemed largely unaffected, John had to work hard to maintain his composure.
Tim dropped his crowbar and looked briefly at the remains of the window before casually stepping on the shards as he peered inside.
”Could really have used that lighter right about now. Pity, really.” Before John could say anything, the man was crawling through the opening with unlikely grace, evidently avoiding the sharp glass edges that remained. John fought back the impulse to throw up and only barely managed not to cut himself on the way in.
“What a bleeding shame it is. I mean would you look at that?”
Given that John did not have any other immediate options – apart from closing his eyes and somehow waking himself up from what he sincerely hoped was a dream – he looked, or rather squinted, at his unlit surroundings. There was nothing particularly noteworthy that caught his attention; there was nothing mysterious about reasonably placed furniture covered in dust or the square objects on the wall that he assumed were paintings. There was an old television set and an even older radio, and there was the ornate type of living room table that one might find in the home of anyone born before 1940. The stench became less repugnant after a little while, turning into what John imagined was the smell of the past.
“Been here before?” was the most obvious question John could think of, apart from why the hell did you take me here and what possessed me to actually follow you in the first place? This was at least a question he expected a reasonable answer to.
“Can’t say that I have, but I’ve seen it on a picture if that counts?”
Tim stuck his hand into a pocket and pulled out a crumbled piece of paper that he handed over to John. He unfolded it and tried to make out its contents, made no easier by its poor condition and the lack of light. It was a black and white print of a photo of what did indeed resemble the house. There was a caption underneath the photo which read ‘The home of the late Mr Davies’
“Relative of yours?” he said, handing back the piece of paper.
“Allegedly. There’s supposed to be something in here that belongs to me. I figured I could use an extra pair of eyes, although I’d have settled for some light. I considered going around knocking on doors to borrow a flashlight, but the notion seemed rude to me.”
“Why the hurry? Could you not have waited until the morning or sometime more convenient?”
Like a time when John did not happen to be waiting for the last bus.
“Well here’s the thing. This entire area is technically condemned and scheduled to be demolished within the next few days. I found out about my particular connection to this house only yesterday. I spent the better part of twelve hours getting here to beat the wrecking balls to the chase.”
Tim scratched his head pensively as he looked around, as if his explanation gave sufficient context as to leave any further elaboration unnecessary.
“You could have explained that while we were walking?” John suggested.
“Well first of all I didn’t know if I could trust you, but truth be told if you were willing to follow me out here at this hour for no apparent reason without any prior knowledge of my affairs, I feel it’s safe to assume that you haven’t come along out of personal gain, and that you haven’t the faintest idea of what personal gain means,” Tim paused and added “no offense” in a way which suggested that he really didn’t care.
It was hard for John to muster a reasonable counter-argument that was not a complete falsehood.
“But you know what you are looking for?” John asked hopefully.
“Apparently I was Mr Davies’ last living relative, however remote, and since the house was condemned I couldn’t very well inherit that. But he left kind of a cryptic note in his will.”
Tim closed his eyes as he tried to remember the exact words.
“Oh right… ‘To my last living relative, I leave a wooden box in which he will find my life-long companion that was both my comfort and the cause of my demise.’ Seemed a bit ominous, I’ll grant you that, but if I’m somehow the heir of a magic lamp or the Hand of King Midas – although considering our surroundings I’ve decided to rule out those two options at least – I figure I gotta find out, right? ‘course it would’ve been easier if the old shit had actually had it delivered it to me rather than letting me find it for myself. How ‘bout we split up, eh?”
If John had been more superstitiously inclined, the suggestion might have seemed insane to him, but he figured that the worst thing that could happen to him in this house was an assault on his taste in furniture.
“I’ll check upstairs?”
Tim gave him a blank look in response, then shrugged affirmatively and headed towards the stairs leading down into the unreasonably dark basement. He could not help but wonder at Tim’s untroubled attitude while trying to imagine what this man did for a living. Then again there were plenty of fields of employment where his eccentricity would not be a problem. John could picture him as the owner of an old bookstore or as an antiquities dealer. An obscure heirloom might be an ideal object for his inventory.
John had bumped his head into the deceptively low sloped ceiling above the stairs as he made his way up. He was still rubbing his head when he arrived at the top. The first floor consisted of a narrow hallway that branched into several rooms. He started on his left, finding a small yet practical bathroom mostly stripped of its inventory save for an old worn-out toothbrush and some towels. The next room was not much larger and looked like it was meant for guests. There was a single, rather uncomfortable-looking bed, a nightstand and a closet. He opened the latter to reveal some nondescript spare clothes in various sizes and a pair of wooden clogs that looked impressively unpleasant to wear. The smell of dust and old was overwhelming, but also somewhat comforting and familiar.
Finding nothing else of interest, he moved on to the next room, which turned out to be the master bedroom. It did not have a closet, but rather a coatrack and some shelves, though everything had been removed. On the wall above the bed was an idyllic portrait of what he assumed the house had once looked like. It was signed P. Davies and dated May 7th 1956. On the other walls were various black and white photographs of people who were all presumably deceased, and although John’s eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness, it was still difficult to make out the details. He could only guess if any of these faces represented the last owner, although it was difficult to imagine any of these people having any relation to Tim. Had they even known that he existed? In his mind he imagined all these faces fading away into obscurity, every smile and sombre expression robbed of the importance of familiarity. History books would not remember them, and when the wrecking balls came swinging, the frames would shatter and the pictures would get crushed underneath the rubble, and a new foundation would be built on their remains. It was strange to think that he was most likely the last person who would ever lay his eyes on them.
The last room was a small study with a desk and a solid chair. The walls were lined with shelves containing mostly classical works; Shakespeare, Dickens, Keats, Milton and numerous others, and at the bottom he found the collected volumes of an old edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. It seemed strange to leave all these works unaccounted for in a last will and testament. Maybe the late Mr Davies simply felt that their time had come. Again, his hands found the cold grip of his father’s lighter as he wondered about its history. He had never been close with his father, and he had no idea where the lighter was from. There was nothing that made it particularly unique or gave away any hints as to its origins. If he had not known the person it had belonged to, it might have been no different from any other lighter. If he dropped it on the street, even that last fragment of its history would be lost. As he looked at the books again, he was overcome with a strange sadness that he could not save them, and then a desire to set them all on fire because they could not be his. He wanted the ability to know their history at a single touch and know all the people in whose possession they had been and feel their sense of wonder for each turned page or sense of indifference as the shelved each volume never to look at it again. This overwhelming sensation left him dizzy and he staggered out of the room, closing the door behind him and climbing down the stairs, wishing he had never come here. Tim was nowhere to be seen on the ground floor, so John assumed that he was still in the basement. He walked over to the top of the stairs and called out.
“Are you down there?”
“I was last time I checked!” said Tim in an insufferably cheerful way.
“I think I hit the jackpot!” The shabby man emerged from the depths, holding a wooden box with a small iron lock in his hands. Tim, as always, had an air of mystery about him, looking unreadably smug. John was still feeling weirdly sick and detached from reality, but maintained his composure enough to speak somewhat steadily.
“So what is it? Was it worth going to the middle of nowhere for?”
“Well that depends…” Tim shrugged.
“Well can I at least see what’s in it?”
John tried not to sound exasperated. Tim seemed to consider this for a moment, then flashed that vulpine grin of his.
“Tell you what. You give me that old lighter of yours, and I’ll give you the box.”
John was trying to determine if the man was joking, but judging by what he had seen in the last hour, it was not likely. He pulled out the lighter again and was suddenly overcome with a desire to get rid of it. Its silvery surface was becoming a reflection of bad memories, and he could not help but ponder on the pointlessness of keeping something that would one day be lost and forgotten. If he traded it off, at least he would know what was so important as to be the only thing Mr Davies had mentioned in his will.
“Alright” he said at last.
He handed him the lighter and received the box in return. Tim also gave him the key and tipped his hat.
“If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll be off now,” he winked, “don’t miss your bus!”
As the stranger walked out of the house and out of his life, John regarded the box in silence. There was nothing special about it, no carvings, and no impressive decorations, just regular wooden craftsmanship that gave no indication of magical lamps or cursed amulets. He inserted the key and twisted, hearing a satisfying click, then he opened the box. There was only a single object in it, and as he took it out to look at it, he erupted in hysterical laughter.
In his hand was a small silver lighter, completely identical to his father’s. And it was empty.