Sorry for the radio silence in the last week or two. I've not been very well, and energy levels are currently a bit low. But I was cheered up by the post this morning, which contained a slim volume all the way from California.
Ages ago I submitted a (very) short story to a themed call for entries for 'Caesura 2021', the annual magazine of the Poetry Center San José (http://www.pcsj.org/index.html). The theme for the edition was ‘Unmasking’, and this seemed to fit. To my delight, it was accepted for the print edition. No recompense, sadly, other than a copy of the magazine, which is what arrived today!
For anyone interested, the story is below, and is (loosely) based on a real life mystery in my own family!
I hope you enjoy it.
The suitcase was pushed up against the wall, beneath the bed. A musty smell of long disuse came with it as Louise pulled it out, and dust curled into the air, pricking the tender tissues of her nose and causing her to sneeze.
It had seen better days, the battered leather scuffed and worn with time and travel. One of the straps was frayed, a tarnished buckle hanging by a thread.
‘This is the last, I think,’ her brother said. ‘Just papers, I suspect. Though I suppose we’d better check before we throw it out with all the other stuff. We almost missed it.’
Louise nodded. Peter had been studiously emotionless all day, his way of coping with the poignancy that coloured everything they did here in their late aunt’s flat today and brought the sudden sting of tears or catch in the back of the throat. Grief, curiously unspoken, was a constant presence in the dim and curtain-shrouded rooms still haunted by their recent occupant.
Louise sat on her heels and swept a hand across the suitcase lid to clear coagulated dust and bedroom fluff. Three faint embossed initials in the centre of the lid appeared.
K. R. D.
Kathleen Rosemary Donaldson. Their aunt.
They had not known her well, although she’d been a constant presence in their lives since they were children. A postal order every birthday. Another one at Christmas. The occasional visit to her flat in Cheltenham, a formal rite of mutual connection over tea and shop-bought cakes, strangely stilted and without overt emotion. But that was typical of all their family. There was fondness certainly, but not the unreserved affection often seen in others. Always a distance.
She had never married. Her sisters and her brother, Peter and Louise’s father, were dead. So in the last few months of Kathleen’s life, when her increasing frailty had become a matter of concern, her niece and nephew found themselves, unlooked for and perhaps unwelcome, her de facto carers.
And then, one week after her ninetieth birthday, she had died. Quite peacefully. A quiet and unobtrusive slipping from the world, her death as undemonstrative and private as her life had been. The will had named them her executors.
So here they were, reluctant sifters of another’s life, dividing up her small possessions, cataloguing each according to their own criteria, not hers. They’d spent a day in sorting through what once had held a meaning to Kathleen, and now was merely flotsam on the shores of her long life. Auction. Bin. Recycle. Keep. The latter pile a small and sometimes sentimental trove of familiar ornaments and pictures that they could not bear to simply throw away.
The suitcase was the last. Squirrelled away beneath the bed, unused for years to judge by its condition. Long forgotten.
Peter pulled the case towards him. Snapped the latches. Opened it.
‘What in the world...?’ he said.
Passports. Old and tattered. More than a dozen of them. Every one with all the pages stamped and stamped again, the coloured inks and alien languages a palimpsest of travel.
They read through all of them, their wonder only growing. France and Germany, Spain, Switzerland. And then the Belgian Congo, Niger, Turkey, Yugoslavia, East Germany, the Soviet Union, Poland...
‘Look at the dates,’ said Peter.
‘I know,’ his sister said.
Her travels had begun in the late forties, immediately post-war, and ran almost to the millennium. The photos in the passports showed the passing years and changing fashions, an eerie timeline, snapshots of an ordinary woman’s life from youth to grey maturity.
Luxembourg, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, India, Hungary...
What was this? She had never spoken about any travel other than the occasional mention of a trip to some small seaside town. Lime Regis. Weymouth. Pontypridd.
Afghanistan, Brazil, Columbia, Chad, Monaco...
For forty years she had taught business studies at a school in Cheltenham. They’d found a framed retirement card among the china figurines and blown glass paperweights, now somewhat faded by the sun. “To ‘Miss Donaldson’ from all at Priory View. We’ll miss you. Have a great retirement! No more Mondays!”
Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina...
Both spoke at once, then stopped.
‘What was she doing...?’
‘In the forties and the fifties...’
‘Poland just after the War had ended?’ Peter’s voice was filled with puzzlement. ‘Behind the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War? The Baltics...’
It was a stranger’s home quite suddenly, a place of furtive whispers, and the creeping sense of guilt at some intrusion.
Louise grabbed a handful of the passports. Stared at them as if trying to extract their secret. Her aunt’s face gazed back at her, now young, now old, dark eyes regarding her inscrutably from behind the carefully blank expression of the official portrait. From behind the mask. But there was no-one there she recognised. She carefully laid them down and pointed to the empty suitcase.
‘Look. What’s that?’
She reached out, tentative, and pressed a small indent halfway along the lining seam, so tiny as to be almost unnoticeable. There was a muffled click. She carefully lifted the false bottom of the suitcase, fingers shaking. Behind her Peter shifted nervously.
The dim light gleamed off gunmetal and steel. There was the faintest smell of oil. They stared in wonder at the padded foam compartment and the quiet lethality it cradled, waiting for an owner that was gone.