Short Story – Mum – Part Five

At the back of the top shelf in the bedroom wardrobe, Audrey found something: an old suitcase, well out of sight and coated in dust so deep that she doubted it had been touched since Naomi had moved in twenty years previously. Without a chair to stand on, she managed to prod at it with her fingers, poking through the slatted shelves until it toppled forward with a sigh. Then it was a simple matter to grab the handle and slide it down onto the floor. It was surprisingly light. Sticky grime concealed a brown leather case with elegant, stitched handles. Not one that Audrey had ever seen before. When she tried the hasps, they held fast, and she had no wish to break them or spoil the leather. There must be a key, or a combination somewhere. Distractedly turning around the room, she remembered the bureau and hurried through to the lounge.

She tried all the hinges, the locks, all the angles on the desk that she could get any purchase on.  Nothing moved. She studied it from all angles, looking so closely that she might have been hoping to coax it: Where do I find a key for you, eh? What should I do now? Naomi had been straightforward. She had never had time for devious or clever games, so a key had to be nearby. Perhaps stuck to the base? Kneeling down and lifting a corner of the bureau experimentally, it was surprisingly easy to peer up and see – nothing taped there – and then walk it forward. On the newly exposed carpet, there was only a small piece of paper, a scrap torn from the edge of a newspaper. Seeing Naomi’s strong, confident handwriting down the margin of a “Glasgow Herald” scrap, Audrey wilted sorrowfully. All this would never bring her sister back.

It looked like a phone number, a three-four sequence, but not one she recognized. It might be worth a try. She fetched the suitcase, wiped the top with the cuff of her cardigan – instantly regretting the grey line which marked the knitted blue fabric – and tilted it onto her lap. Sitting alone on the carpet she felt like a schoolgirl tampering with something forbidden, trembling and fearful that someone would march in on her and give her a row. But these last of her sister’s belongings were hers now, a realization that finally brought home her loss. Rocking forward, she held her knees and cried, the tears dripping off her face and marking her trousers.

It was the thought of the removers coming that made her sit up suddenly. Idly fingering the locks of the briefcase, she twisted round the stiff combination until she selected the numbers in their left-right sequence. Audrey was so lightheaded from crying, she forgot to be surprised when the suitcase opened first time. As easy as that, the hasps flicked up, she lifted the lid and the hinges slid stiffly into position.

She found a brown envelope and a man’s grey suit. The jacket, Audrey had not seen before. Before unfolding it and allowing her fingers to feel something she might prefer not to, she opened the brown envelope, which contained keys, letters and papers. Hurrying, aware that now was not the time to be looking too closely, Audrey lifted the keys, two of them, small, identical and tied together with yellow string. It was satisfying to put them in the keyhole of the bureau and notice how smoothly they turned in the lock. Lifting the lid revealed shelves and two drawers. Solving the puzzle so easily, Audrey quickly scanned the contents of the bureau, spotting what looked like post-war photograph albums, several diaries, a fountain pen, a blotter and some stationery. All of this would be gone through, but not now.

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