The key was so cold his first instinct was to drop it. He held on, afraid to make a noise. All day, he’d kept to the edges as though watched, as though judgment could be passed.
He studied the key. It was heavy, large and ornate as though it might unlock a pirate’s treasure chest. Why was it under the carpet, not in the kitchen? When he was a child the keys, dangling on the line of brass hooks, held possibilities he’d never dared voice. His grandmother locked everything: her brass and glass; the tea and sugar; even his toys. He’d had to ask permission to play.
Thinking of her, his unease threatened to curdle into fear. His chest constricted. To ward off terror he thought of Danielle. ‘What’s up, love?’ he made her say.
‘I can’t get my breath.’
‘Did you bring your inhaler?’
He shook his head. She tutted and walked away. Ever practical, even in his daydream, she sorted the pile of bedding he’d bunched in a corner of the room. He allowed her to fade, and the empty room returned: floating motes of sparkling dust; a crumpled mess of sheets and a feather duvet.
The constriction of his chest was his old allergy flaring up, that’s all. He couldn’t possibly be afraid of his grandmother after all this time. Besides, she’d never hit him, only locked him in his room until he was itchy with packed-down fear. He’d run away when he was 16. Just like his mother. But he didn’t leave a sickly, asthmatic baby behind to grow in the shadows. Over the years he’d tried to find her. The Internet offered nothing but false leads.
He put the key in his pocket, rolled up the last section of the carpet and stood. Unhooking the nets covering the windows, he saw the grass was thick and spotted with white daisies. With his grandmother dead, the garden had forgotten its place.
Clearing the outbuildings had been a very clear stipulation in the old woman’s will. Once that was done, once the house was sold, he would be free. He was unclear about how his life would be different from the last 30 years, but it would change. Cheered by the thought, he ran downstairs, allowing noise to echo in the hall. He let himself out. A sappy green smell hung heavy in the warm air. He walked towards the brick-built shed at the very end of the garden.
As a child, this place had been out of bounds. At the door he felt his eyes sting, the same itch he’d felt in the bedroom. Feathers. He listened, but there was no sound of birds. He stepped back to look at the roof for a nest, when he noticed the large keyhole. Aha! He fished the key out of his pocket. It fitted the lock. The door swung open. The shed had a scattering of white downy feathers on the floor and a single large chest in the middle. Was it a treasure chest? Could be. The old woman was rumored to be rich but he hadn’t unearthed a single trinket, no stack of unused banknotes beneath her lonely bed.
On top of the chest was an envelope addressed to Tom in his grandmother’s hand. He tore open the envelope but couldn’t read. His eyes were smarting.
‘Be more careful. You’ll have an attack.’ Danielle. Calm, reassuring.
He retreated and sat on the grass. He waited until his chest was less tight and his heart had stopped fluttering. He read the letter.
I’m surprised you got this far. I hid the key away from those nurses. They were always stealing, prying, lying. I didn’t have much hope that you would know what the key was for. You are as stupid and sickly as your mother. Open the trunk if you want to know more about her.
This was better than any treasure. Finally there was an answer, a clue. It was stupid to go back in the poisonous shed for too long, but perhaps he could drag the trunk into the clear air.
‘Don’t be silly, Tom,’ said Danielle. ‘Wait. I’ll do it later.’
‘No,’ he said, mouthing the word, surprised to find himself saying it. Even in his imagination he rarely defied Danielle.
‘At least until you fetch your inhaler.’
He shook his head to rid her voice. He was alive with urgency. He strode into the shed. His chest constricted but he ignored it, holding his breath. He gripped the handles on the side of the trunk and pulled. It was too heavy.
‘Please stop,’ Danielle said.
His determination was fiercer than thoughts of his wife. What he needed to do was to grab whatever was in the trunk and run. He lifted the lid.
The old witch. She always used his allergy against him. A memory came, clear and sharp, of a single small feather pushed underneath the locked door of his room. Were feathers his punishment now as they had been then? Or was there really something of his mother in here, cradled in soft down?
He took a gasp of poisonous air, pushed Danielle from his mind, and pulled his sleeve as low over his hand as he could. He plunged it into the chest.
Beneath the soft down was something solid and round. He knew what it was before he pulled it out. A skull. In his hand was a skull of a girl. Sixteen. His mother.
‘Leave now!’ said Danielle.
The door, the fresh air, the garden with new life, was only a step away. He didn’t move. He was a little boy again, afraid, gasping. His face burned, eyes smarted. The last 30 years, Danielle, his house and job, were lost as though they’d never been. He stared at the skull. Overlaid across the bone was the sharp image of a single feather, white as death, pushed beneath his bedroom door.