Posted: Friday, August 29, 2003
Word Count: 3511
Summary: Children's (11-12-ish) book. Tamsin finds a key which fits none of the doors of the house she has recently moved to. Intrigued by rumours about her long-dead grandfather, intrigued by the people she meets, she tries to find out more. Ultimately, the key unlocks the truth for herself and everyone close to her.
‘Tam! Come down from that box room, will you?’
‘Okay, I’m coming!’ Tamsin pushed the enormous key into the pocket of her jeans. No, that was no use. The shape of it was too obvious. She leaned against the bulging wardrobe to close it, then darted into her bedroom where she shoved the key under her pillow.
‘You mustn’t keep rummaging through Granddad’s things,’ her father said.
‘Why not? He’s been dead for about twenty years, hasn’t he?’
Dad had finished painting the hallway and was now sanding the banisters. ‘Let’s wait until we’ve sorted out all the clobber we’ve brought,’ he suggested, ‘and then we’ll go through the rest of his stuff together.’
Tamsin was impatient to find the door that the key fitted. As soon as Dad was once again absorbed in his task, she fetched the key and wandered around the house, examining the keyholes.
‘What’s that you’re clutching?’ Dad turned round just in time to see her cramming it back into her pocket.
Suddenly the key felt icy cold, through the fabric of her jeans. She laid her hand protectively over it, as Dad said,
‘Nothing? It looked like something!’
Tamsin had to think quickly, whether owning up to having taken the key would be a good or a bad idea. Dad was usually amenable to a harmless bit of fun.
‘Actually,’ she said, ‘I found this old key in the pocket of a manky old jacket in the wardrobe and I was rather hoping...’
‘Really? Let’s have a dekko.’ He extended a dusty hand. ‘Wow! That’s a beauty!’ Dad turned it over and over in his hand. ‘It won’t fit any of our doors, I’m afraid - more like a dungeon key, isn’t it?’
Tamsin detected insincerity in her father’s words. ‘Okay, I know there aren’t any dungeons here,’ she said.
‘And, I’m sorry to tell you, there’s no secret cellar either.’
Tamsin was still hopeful. ‘What about behind the wallpaper in one of the rooms?’ she suggested. ‘I’ve heard of houses where there are bricked-in fireplaces.’
‘The trouble is, dear girl, this house isn’t very old. It was jerry built.’
‘What do you mean, jerry built?’
‘A lot of houses were built in a short space of time after the First World War in the twenties, when there was a shortage.’
‘History lesson? Cut it, Dad!’
‘I’m just trying to tell you that this isn’t an old cottage like the one Granny Simms lives in. Granddad was skint. I don’t know all the ins and outs; nothing to do with me anyway. Your mother probably knows more.’
‘Were Granddad’s lot a dysfunctional family?’ Tamsin enquired. ‘Someone at school told me that’s what we are, because that’s what his family is. Sounds quite posh doesn’t it?’ Dad scrubbed very hard with the sand paper.
‘You never know,’ he suggested cheerfully, ignoring the question, ‘there could be a hoard of treasure stashed away in some alcove, or a vault brimming with coins and old jewellery. Why don’t you go and search for it?’
‘Oh yeah, thanks a bundle, Dad!’ Tamsin squirmed. She knew when he was sending her off on some wild goose chase to keep her amused. A year or two earlier and she might have fallen for that one.
‘You said I wasn’t to go poking around,’ she reminded him.
Tamsin went into her room and slumped on the bed, looking in the mirror. She felt the stunted shape of her ear and the way it stuck out. It was no consolation to be told repeatedly by Auntie Millie that Tamsin’s grandfather had had the same. And trust Auntie Millie to make her have that stupid, short hair-cut, which only just covered it! Her mother never laid down the law like that, well, as far as Tamsin could remember after all this time.
‘Why did we come here?’ she asked Dad at tea time.
‘I’ve told you hundreds of times, your mother sold her half of the house to us, after, after the ... when we got …’
‘Divorced’ Tam prompted. Dad swallowed hard.
‘She lived here when she was young, before I knew her and her father left it to her,’ he went on.
‘Why didn’t she sell it? And why didn’t you carry on letting it out to those tenants? They’d been here for donkeys’ years before we came.’
‘She didn’t sell it because she thought we might want it for ourselves one day, well, that is when we were still together.’ He turned away and went quiet for a moment. ‘The tenants left so it was an ideal time to move here,’ he added, after while. This is the ideal place for us to make a go of things.’ His earnest expression made him disturbingly clown-like.
‘I know. Divorce seems to be an expensive luxury doesn’t it?’ Dad looked uncomfortable.
‘Well, with Uncle Peter and Auntie Millie actually begging me to help at the sports complex, well, how could I turn down an opportunity like that when I had just lost my job? Jolly sight better than living in Findlewood if you ask me - all those rowdy motorbikes and jacked-up cars and the neighbours’ cats peeing on my cauliflowers! Anyway, we haven’t moved far!’
‘When are you going to start at the sports place?’ asked Tamsin.
‘Give me a chance, Tam. We’ve only been here two weeks and I’ve got to do a lot to this place first. Anyway, the job isn’t available till after half term.’
‘Will you be earning mega-bucks?’
‘Enough, I hope,’ he said.
‘I could go and live with Mum,’ suggested Tamsin airily. Dad looked absurdly unkempt, flecks of paint on his cheek, his hair full of plaster dust and sticking out wildly.
Tamsin reached across the table for the jam. ‘Glad I never met Granddad. Bet I wouldn’t have liked him. Do you know, one of the boys at school said his granddad knew him?’
‘Nothing wrong in that. It’s a small place so it’s hardly surprising.’ Dad stood up and turned away, to resume his task of fixing the door handle. Then he looked over his shoulder at her. ‘Hey, Tam, you’ve got enough jam on that toast for about four slices!’ he said, obviously trying to change the subject. Tamsin crammed an enormous piece into her mouth, to destroy most of the evidence, and then stood up to clear the plates.
‘Anyway,’ she went on, her voice muffled, ‘Damian said his granddad and his mates knew things about Granddad Wayke and his dad and they used to write things on a wall when they were kids!’
‘Will you sit down to eat that?’ Dad exploded, dropping a chisel on his finger. ‘F..f..flip!’ he rubbed his hand, ‘and don’t talk with your mouth full!’
Tamsin swallowed hard. ‘Sorry, Dad. I remember Grandma Wayke was a grumpy old trout and I know she hated Granddad. What did he do wrong?’
She watched in silence for a moment as her father ran his finger under the tap, muttering quietly to himself. ‘Tittle-tattle!’ he mumbled, ‘from people who know nothing and have got nothing better to do!’
He turned round, to see Tamsin looking accusingly at him as he slumped wearily onto a chair and rested his head in his hands. Dad didn’t say any more. Not about that, anyway. He stared blankly at the table for a few minutes and Tamsin felt guilty.
‘Sorry Dad.’ She hugged him, longing to promise she’d never be cruel to him again, but she couldn’t.
She was relieved when he jumped to his feet and brightly said, ‘How about ice cream with Coco Pops?’
Lying in bed, Tamsin remembered the key. Even though she had no use for it, perhaps it would be worth polishing it and keeping it as a mascot. She was reluctantly coming to accept the limitations of 8, Coombe Rise. ‘Still boring,’ she wrote to Lyddie. 'Seems to have shrunk!’ Pressing ‘send’, her text message vanished into cyberspace.
Tamsin studied the bumps on the ceiling. In her mind, she held her mother’s image on her last visit, her flamboyant, dangly earrings, her long, scarlet nails. ‘Oh, my poor darling!’ she had exclaimed on that occasion, as she viewed her daughter’s fraying jeans, before whispering, ‘As soon as Luigi and I have finished our next holiday, we’ll see about things,’ - a waft of fleur de lis as she bent to kiss her - ‘all right, my treasure?’ The promise had hung over Tamsin like a storm cloud.
‘Tam!’ Lyddie sounded out of breath when she rang. ‘Mustn’t be long,’ she said. ‘Mum says I have to pay for my own mobile top-ups and stop using their phone. Typical eh? My battery’s low. Anyway, getting used to it there?’
‘There’s nothing new that I didn’t discover within ten minutes of moving in,’ Tamsin said.
‘It can’t have changed,’ Lyddie laughed. ‘You sound so hacked off!’
‘It seemed enormous and mysterious when I was little, when we used to visit Grandma,’ Tamsin continued, ‘and the cupboard in the room I’m going to have is full of smelly old suits. Dad says he’s taking them to Oxfam though.’
‘See you at school, Tam. We’ll have a long natter in break.’
‘Hey, we won’t get any homework after the crummy concert, will we?’
‘Shouldn’t do. Lots of nosh though!’ said Lyddie as her voice started to disintegrate and the connection was lost.
Tamsin curled up in bed and reflected on her new life as she drifted off to sleep. She remembered her anticipation when she had found out she was to move to Coombe Rise but it had turned out to be a small house rather like a child’s drawing, with square rooms, black iron fire grates hardly big enough to contain a handful of anthracite, and sludge-brown linoleum on the upstairs floors. The box room, which had been locked for years, was now found to be crammed with rolls of hideous floral carpet, a colossal wardrobe and boxes of junk.
It was in the key - the key, apparently, to nowhere that Tamsin planned to write about on Monday morning. Secrets were safe when embellished and written into a story, yet they could be shared without anyone knowing. Sometimes Mrs. Lorimer would say, ‘You got carried away, Tamsin. You seem to have wandered off the subject.’ Silly woman, Tamsin thought. She has no idea! In English, she could pour her thoughts out without restraint, like shouting from the cliff tops. In maths lessons sums were generally right or wrong - usually wrong in Tamsin’s case. In Mr. Cromer’s history lessons she had been criticised for adding her own variations to the stories.
‘But it seemed a bit boring getting rid of his wives,’ Tamsin explained when her essay about Henry V111 was returned, littered with red question marks. ‘I thought it would be far more interesting if they all walked out on him, then they could all meet up in a refuge and set up a charter for women’s rights and...’
‘History is fact, not fiction!’ Mr. Cromer was definite about this. Tamsin only wished that she could remember the difference.
‘Hands up please if your parents are coming to Parents’ Evening,’ Mrs. Lorimer said, as she started to tick the names in the register. She reached Tamsin’s name. ‘Are your parents coming, Tamsin?’ she enquired.
‘Probably my dad, Miss,’ she answered, wondering anxiously what he would be wearing and would it be covered in paint?
‘Not your mother?’ asked Mrs. Lorimer. She sounded disappointed.
‘She lives in London, Miss.’
Mrs. Lorimer seemed to be thinking. She looked distant as she slid her hand beneath her hair and ponderously rubbed the side of her head. ‘All right,’ she said after a moment and continued calling out the names.
Tamsin took the key from her pocket and nudged Lyddie. Lyddie took it and turned it over in he hands then handed it back. ‘Where did you find it?’ she whispered.
‘In a pocket of …’ She stopped as Mrs. Lorimer fixed he eyes on her. Tamsin began to get her books ready for the first lesson.
‘Have you met my mum?’ Tamsin asked, when she took her dinner money to the teacher’s desk.
‘No… well I may have at some time,’ faltered Mrs. Lorimer. ‘I really can’t remember.’
‘She sold her house to my dad,’ Tam persisted, ‘and she married Luigi, this flashy Italian guy with loads of money.’
‘Really? That’s enough for now,’ said Mrs. Lorimer quietly, looking quite embarrassed. ‘Now, go and get on with your writing, Tamsin.’ As she spoke, Tamsin felt the key, which seemed suddenly warmer in her pocket. She looked at Mrs. Lorimer who seemed to mirror Tamsin’s own reaction. Her eyes slightly widening, as though she felt mild surprise, Mrs. Lorimer seemed to freeze for a second. As Tamsin returned to her table, she put her hand against the key. It had definitely cooled down.
‘Weird, isn’t she?’ Lyddie whispered, grinning through her new brace. Nick pointed at her. ‘Train Tracks!’ he giggled.
‘Chicken Wire!’ added Matt, flapping his elbows. ‘Pluk, pluk, pluk!’
‘Oh grow up! Go and fry yourselves!’ Tamsin hissed, firing an elastic band at Nick.
Everyone around them burst into suppressed laughter as he sat rubbing the back of his hand.
‘Tamsin, is that you causing a fuss?’ asked Mrs. Lorimer.
‘I suggest, young lady that you get on with your work.’
Tam picked up her pen to begin her story. The key lay, icy cold in her pocket. Every now and then, Tamsin slid her hand in her pocket, or took a quick look, trying to visualise the type of the door it would fit. She wrote,
‘Princess Miranda ran down the spiral staircase, clutching the giant key. Behind her, she heard the dreaded footsteps getting ever closer.’
As she finished, she saw the bald head of Mr. Cromer going past the window.
‘Now, those who are singing in this afternoon’s concert, don’t forget to comb your hair and be ready to leave at two,’ Mr. Cromer reminded them, ‘and remember that you are representing the school, so do try to look intelligent. Listen to the old people when they’re talking to you and eat your tea in a civilised fashion.’
He spoke with the forethought of a teacher of many years’ experience, a hint of weary resignation in his words. In fact, after events in public he was usually pleasantly surprised that his flock had not disgraced him, except for that time when Nick Trumberg, who had earlier eaten three boxes of Smarties, was sick all over the steps of the Town Hall over the feet of the Mayor and a host of visiting dignitaries.
‘We’ve only got twenty minutes left,’ Mrs. Lorimer announced, after Mr. Cromer left. ‘Now, I’m going to give you each a work sheet with a list of nouns.’
‘Naming words,’ Lyddie whispered.
‘I want you to write an adjective before each one. Nick, what’s an adjective?’
‘Don’t know, Miss,’ he said.
‘Describing words, you drongo!’ chipped in Tamsin. Matt and Lyddie stifled a laugh.
‘Tamsin, would you kindly put your hand up if you have something to contribute?’ Mrs. Lorimer said. ‘You can answer the first question if you’re so sure of yourself. Come and write it on the board. Come on, write the noun first, then an adjective before it.’ She handed Tamsin the board marker and Tamsin painstakingly wrote ‘family’, her writing sloping upwards, at a jaunty angle. She turned to Mrs. Lorimer, frowning thoughtfully.
‘How do you spell ‘dysfunctional’, Miss?’ she asked.
At two fifteen, the doors of Waylands were opened and the singers were led in. All around the residents’ lounge, the captive audience of old people sat, almost motionless. Mr. Cromer thanked them for allowing his pupils to sing to them, although they looked as if they would have been unable to put up much opposition, had they wanted to. Then, with Matron beaming indulgently, Mr. Cromer sat down at the piano and played his introduction.
‘What a fearful racket!’ spluttered an old man when the last note had faded. A nurse in a green overall hastily removed him in his wheelchair.
‘It’s Mr. Blake!’ Matron told them in a confidential whisper, as if they would know exactly what that implied.
‘Are they from the orphanage?’ piped up a bird-like old lady, her eyes magnified by her spectacles, her gnarled fingers clasping her walking frame like claws on a perch.
‘Sshh, dear, they’re from the school, and they’ve come to entertain us,’ the nurse hissed into her ear, then looked up, smiling apologetically.
The choir sang another song, then another. After each one, the nurses clapped, while most of the old people stared straight ahead, wispy-haired, an occasional toothless smile. Later, the young visitors were asked to hand round the tea.
‘Here’s Mrs. Huxtable, our oldest resident,’ said a nurse to Tamsin. This resident looked more alert than others around her. As Tamsin sat down, the old lady extended a frail, papery hand, her skin speckled, like the breast of a thrush. She took hold of Tamsin’s hand for a long time, as though reluctant to let go. Then she leaned forwards a little.
‘Come closer, child,’ she rasped. Tamsin nervously moved towards her. Slowly the woman raised her hand and touched Tamsin’s head, then felt her hair, then her ear, where her hand stayed, as if she had come across a long-lost treasure.
‘Edith,’ she whispered, her pale blue eyes looking ahead.
‘No, I’m Tamsin - Tam for short.’
‘You were always beautiful, Edith,’ the woman said, apparently not hearing. Tamsin froze. She had no idea what to say. Still the old woman was feeling her ear. Tamsin saw a plate of fairy cakes. She edged away.
‘Would you like one of these?’ she asked desperately, picking up the plate.
‘You must eat, child. You have to grow.’ The last thing Tamsin wanted was to eat cakes, while Mrs. Huxtable’s eyes pierced her to the core. She glanced quickly around her. Eddie Jones was playing draughts with a white-haired man. Lucy was admiring a lady’s photographs. Nick and Alex were scoffing sandwiches. Tamsin fumbled in her pocket and brought out the key to give her a topic of conversation. But Mrs. Huxtable spoke first.
‘What’s that you’ve got?’ she wanted to know. This was easier to handle and Tamsin began to relax. ‘It’s an old key,’ she said. ‘Two weeks ago I moved into a new house, well it’s an old house really but it’s new to me.’ She realised she was gabbling and tried to slow down. ‘I found this key in a cupboard.’
The fragile hand was slowly extended once again and the fingers closed, in slow motion around the key. Mrs. Huxtable lifted it up, close to her face. Then her expression changed.
‘Has your father been back?’ she asked, sternly.
‘No, well … what do you mean?’
‘Did you see him, Edith? He said he must never come back. Freddie was a good man, Edith, but no-one would have believed what really happened.’
Tamsin had heard that elderly people are often forgetful, so she reminded her again, ‘I’m not Edith. I’m Tamsin.’
‘Freddie will keep us safe if he comes back,’ Mrs. Huxtable whispered as though passing on a secret. ‘Nobody will ever …’ her words trailed off.
‘It’s getting late,’ Tamsin replied brightly, taking a quick glimpse at the clock. She felt trapped and the old lady was becoming agitated. She gently took the key away. It was now warm, almost glowing. She slipped it into her pocket. ‘I mustn’t lose this,’ she explained.
The key continued to radiate heat - so much so that Tamsin could feel the outline of it in her pocket, through her skirt.
‘You haven’t changed, Edith,’ Mrs. Huxtable persisted. Tamsin looked around wildly, trying to find anything to change the subject. She spotted a tank of tropical fish.
‘Those fish are pretty. Do you watch them much?’
‘Fish? You know I can’t bear to look at fish!’ Mrs. Huxtable’s voice started to tremble. ‘Abel was a wicked man! Don’t start talking about fishing boats either, you naughty child!’
A nurse was passing. Tamsin looked at her in desperation.
‘Is Mrs. Huxtable getting over tired?’ The nurse asked cheerfully. The old lady’s hands trembled.
‘She was sent to me. She’s brought the key, I knew she’d be sent to me when the time came,’ rambled the old lady. ‘Take those fish away! I can’t bear to look at them. Now I know why she brought them. I think the time has come!’
‘Don’t worry,’ said the nurse to Tamsin as she released the brake on the wheelchair. ‘Mrs. Huxtable often gets a bit muddled. She’s a hundred and two, you know.’
As Mrs. Huxtable fixed her with one last piercing stare, Tamsin gripped the key in her pocket. It had turned cold again and a shiver went through her entire body.