That old suitcase

(Prologue)

I found an old suitcase in a charity shop.  Didn’t need it, didn’t even want it, but before I realised what was happening my hand closed around the handle and we were on our way home.  There was no key, and anyway the lock had rusted solid.

For years it stood in a corner collecting dust, but I never had the heart to throw it away.  I looked at it, and it looked back at me.  If it had a secret, it wasn’t going to tell.  All I now remember, is its enigmatic smile that said, “I told you so.”

————

(Part 1)

I often wondered what became of that old suitcase.  After I married, my wife felt empowered to move it, and consigned it to the attic.  Our children were born, and soon needed rooms of their own.  The time had come to exchange our house for a larger one, so we moved out, leaving the spider-webs in the attic undisturbed.

“Isn’t this the road we used to live in?” my son asked me one day. “Which was our house?”

I was puzzled.  Most of the road still looked the same but  . . . “Good question son, I don’t know.  There was a large tree out front; that was my marker. The tree has gone, and so has the house!”

The children grew up and moved out; not just out, but away.  Our son met an American girl who whisked him back to the States, and our daughter went off to save the world.  It was time to downsize.

Everyone dreams of buying a quaint cottage in the country and we were no exception.  It didn’t have a rambling rose over the front door, but it was old; set behind a low stone wall with a broken gate. The sort of house you’d only buy on a bright, sunny summer’s day, and live to regret.

The village was small.  There had once been a library and even a post office, but not anymore.  Still, we had nice neighbours, and the last surviving pub was just a short walk away.  We soon became regulars there, mainly to keep abreast of the latest gossip.  I also learned how to make a single pint last for the best part of an evening.

“How are you coping with the plumbing in that cottage of yours,” asked an old-timer one evening.  He’d lived his whole life in the village. “Mable never stopped complaining about it.”

“There’ve been a few leaks, but nothing major.  The worst thing is a whistling noise when the tank in the roof is filling. Like it’s trying to get my attention; summoning me.  It should be easy enough to fix, but I’m past crawling around in dark dusty spaces, so try to ignore it.”

Back home a few days later, my wife called out, “Here’s an email from Sarah; she’s coming to visit.”

“That’ll be nice,” I replied, not fully comprehending what had been said.  My attention was captured by something I’d just seen; strange yet familiar. The beam from my torch was a pale excuse for a light, and the stepladder supporting me shook precariously.  I stared at the shape through the trapdoor in the ceiling, and it stared back.  Across all those years, that same enigmatic smile said, “I told you so.”

————

(Part 2)

She was too old for me to tell her not to speak with her mouth full, so I replied politely, “Sorry Sarah, didn’t quite hear what you said.”

“That old suitcase of yours is just what I need to store all my personal documents in,” she repeated, before stuffing more of her mother’s home-cooked grub into her mouth.  One would have thought she hadn’t eaten for a month; perhaps she hadn’t.  “I need something sturdy, and that case would be perfect.”

“It’s locked and has no key, but you’re welcome to take it with you.”

“Thanks Dad.  I’ve a resourceful bunch of friends back in Goa, they’ll have it open before you can say ‘vindaloo’!”

Striding through the airport, she must have looked an odd sight.  With one hand, Sarah towed her state-of-the-art polypropylene suitcase, whilst from the other, swung an old brown leather bag.  The brown one might have qualified as ‘carry-on’ but she ‘checked’ them both.

Even though she’d done this flight many times before, she was excited to be returning to the sounds, smells and wrap-around warmth of southern India.

After Heathrow, the airport in Goa was tiny; normally quick and easy to negotiate.  But not today.  An irate passenger at the head of the queue had tried to pull rank, claiming to be a princess or something similarly absurd.  The official was having none of it, “Produce a passport, or you’ll be on the first plane back to the UK.”  Sarah knew enough Hindi to recognise that the woman’s reply was not a polite one.  Finally though, the woman capitulated and began pulling everything from her overstuffed bag.  The official leaned back patiently, and closed his eyes.  Time in India moved at a different pace.

Sarah felt like she’d stood there forever, but with her passport finally stamped, she raced for the carousel, snatched at her suitcase and headed for the exit.  She was about to board the bus into town, when something felt wrong.  Damn it, she’d forgotten that old brown bag!  She sprinted back into the terminal and through the door marked ‘Exit Only’, totally ignoring the protestations of the police officer manning it.  By the time she reached the carousel, there remained just a single item on it, revolving slowly.  As that old leather suitcase reached a point directly in front of her, the carousel stopped.  She frowned at it, and it frowned back at her.  There was no mistaking that admonishing look that said, “I told you so.”

————

(Part 3)

“I swear this case talks to me,” said Ravi nervously, as he withdrew a piece of bent wire from the lock. “What it means, ‘I told you so’?”

Sarah smiled inwardly, pleased that she wasn’t the only one being creeped-out by the old suitcase.

“I will take it to my uncle,” continued Ravi, “He is experienced in these matters; he will know how to open it.”

Ravi set off on his moped, the suitcase strapped to the carrier behind him.  As he reached the river-crossing, the ferry was just pulling out.  He shrugged resignedly and parked his bike beneath a tree.  Nearby, a small group had gathered around an old man sitting cross-legged in front of a grass basket.  Ravi wandered idly over.  It was unusual to see a snake-charmer nowadays, but here was one dressed in traditional robes, beads and turban.  The old man blew into his gourd pipe, waving it rhythmically over the open-topped basket.  At first it seemed like nothing would happen, then reluctantly, a cobra rose slowly from the basket, matching the movement of the pipe.  Instinctively, the small group shuffled one pace backwards, although had the snake decided to strike, that would have sapped the last of its energy.

The ferry was on its way back.  Ravi dropped a coin onto the bare sand next to the old man and turned towards his moped.  He hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps when he froze.  It had gone; Sarah’s suitcase had vanished!

“You’re soon back,” exclaimed Sarah glancing up, but Ravi’s wide-eyed look told her all was not well.

“We must go quickly,” he panted, “Before it is sold.”

“Sold?  Go where?  What are you talking about Ravi?”

“Your bag, it was stolen and already will be for sale in the market.  If we go swiftly, we can retrieve it.  Bring money for we will have to pay.”

“Pay for my own bag.  Are you nuts?  If I see it, I’ll damn well take it!”

“It doesn’t work like that.  Money has already changed hands and the new owner will need to be reimbursed.  I fear there is no alternative.”

The market was a maze of tightly packed stalls selling everything imaginable.  The aroma from piles of brightly coloured spices exploded in Sarah’s brain and the smell of burning incense was intoxicating.  This assault on her senses left her feeling light-headed as Ravi led the way.  Crowds of people shuffled in every direction, inspecting the wares as they passed.  On the floor of the stall to which Sarah and Ravi headed, stood a large metal trunk and sure enough, on top of it, the old brown suitcase.

Sarah and Ravi looked at it, and it looked back at them.  They both understood what it was saying!

————

(Part 4)

The next time Ravi headed towards his uncle’s house, Sarah was with him riding pillion, the suitcase positioned securely between them.  They crossed the river without incident and then along a narrow lane through a grove of coconut palms.  They could have been on a tropical island, so idyllic was the scene.  A modest cottage nestled comfortably amongst the trees.

“Hello Auntie,” called Ravi through the open door, “Something smells good.  Is Uncle home; we need his help?”

“He’s in the shed at the back.  Oh good, I see you’ve brought Sarah with you.  Why don’t you go ahead and send her in here to see what I’m making?”

Sarah needed no further encouragement; the smells were mesmerizing.  “Onion bhajis; my favourite, well, that is along with everything else you cook.”

“You flatter me my dear,” squirmed Auntie, who was just doing something she’d done all her life.  “Please take one,” she continued, as she gently lowered the next into a pot of sizzling peanut oil.

“That’s what does it Auntie.  Back home we use rapeseed oil.  Lower in cholesterol they say, but when bhajis taste as good as yours, who cares about cholesterol?”

Spread around the small kitchen was a further array of exotic aromatic dishes, all begging to be sampled.  Auntie had obviously been expecting company.

Ravi walked in, carrying the suitcase.  “It’s still closed,” said Sarah disappointed, “Couldn’t you get it open?”

“We did,” replied Ravi, “It took a long time, but as soon as we let go of the lid, it snapped shut and was once again locked.  This case is no use to anyone if it does that every time.”

“At least you must have seen inside.  Was it empty?  Did you notice anything?”

“It was empty, but there is a name and two numbers printed on the inner lining.”

“Ooh,” cried Sarah excitedly, “What is the name?”

“Just an ordinary girl’s name, but Uncle is a superstitious man; says there is something strange about that case, and wants nothing more to do with it.”

“Yes, but no reason for you not to tell me. Why are you being so evasive?  Come on, out with it.”

“Uncle thinks the case must have belonged to a girl named June, since that is the name.  One number is 13; possibly her age.  The other number is 37, for which he has no explanation.”

Sarah, and Ravi’s aunt turned towards the suitcase.  They stared at it, and it stared back at them.  It could only be saying one thing, “I told you so.”

————

(Part 5)

“The clue has to be in the numbers,” growled Sarah, chewing furiously on the end of her pencil.  “Thirty-seven minus thirteen; that makes twenty-four, and twenty-four is two dozen.  Now a single dozen is twelve, and thirteen minus twelve equals one . . .  UNITY.  Yes, surely that must be it.”

“Why not stop torturing yourself,” said Ravi kindly.  “Whatever number you come up with can be of no help.”

He was right, this old suitcase would drive her crazy.  It was no use to her or anyone else, it had to go.  She’d send it on a one-way journey!

The train ticket she bought would only take her as far as the first stop; plenty of time she thought, to abandon the case and then hop off again.  But she had miscalculated.  The carriage was standing room only; packed so tightly with people there was no floor-space left to put anything down on.  Not only that, but still more people had climbed onto the carriage roof and others were hanging on outside, blocking her view through the windows.

A short journey later and the train arrived at its first stop.  Voices from those hanging on outside called a station name. “Yes that’s me,” she cried urgently, “I have to get off here.”  The doors opened and it was only then she realised how far it was to the exit and how tightly she was wedged in.  She was trapped!  Panic gripped her as she realised it wasn’t just the suitcase that would be left behind on the train; so would she.

Then, a near miracle.  Bodies shuffled, and a clear path opened up between Sarah and the exit.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she gasped as she raced towards the opening and jumped off.  The train pulled out of the station leaving Sarah feeling thoroughly humiliated; still clinging tightly to the suitcase.

The return train ride was similarly packed with people, but this time a cunning variation to her scheme presented itself.  Her stop was the end of the line, where everyone would leave the train.  She must try to be last off, unaccompanied of course, by that wretched suitcase.

The plan worked flawlessly.  Sarah hummed a happy tune as she headed for the Café and ordered a celebratory Coke.  She hadn’t quite finished siphoning those precious drops through a straw when a voice behind her said, “Missy, missy, you have left your suitcase on the train.”  Her mood of euphoria popped faster than the bubbles in her Coke as the voice continued, “It is handed in at the Lost Luggage office.  You must go with haste to retrieve it.”

“Thank you,” returned her defeated voice, bereft of any enthusiasm.

So swiftly had the suitcase been found and handed in, that it still stood on the counter in the Lost Property office.  Sarah glared at it, and it glared back at her.  Neither of them was thinking pleasant thoughts!

————

(Part 6)

“I’m glad your flight arrived back on time Sarah,” said her mother, “We’d better go straight to the hospital.  Your dad may not last much longer.”

“Hello dad,” whispered Sarah, kissing him softly on the cheek, “Thanks for hanging on.  You won’t believe this, but I’ve still got that old suitcase of yours.  Just can’t get rid of it.  I’ve put it on the shelf where you can see it.”

He tried to speak, but his voice was so frail she barely heard him.  Sarah moved closer, placing an ear above his lips.  “Did you ever open it?” he asked feebly, “Find anything interesting inside?”

“Yes and no.  I didn’t see it myself, but an old Indian gentleman once managed to open the case and said it was empty, except for some writing on the inner lining.  A girl’s name, June, and two numbers.  One of the numbers was thirteen, which he assumed to be the girl’s age, but the other number, thirty-seven, he couldn’t connect with anything.

Her dad’s breathing became more laboured, but in a slow whisper he managed to say, “I don’t understand why, but I’ve always found comfort in that old suitcase.”   He stopped, and Sarah moved back.

The plaintive sound of an ambulance siren sounded in the distance, as the light in his eyes dimmed further.

————

(Epilogue)

The expression on the faces of those people gathered around my bed, was of sorrow, but that was not an emotion I shared.  A lightness of spirit, and a sense of release swept over me as I stared across the room at the old suitcase.   With that same mysterious gaze, it stared back, but this time I knew it was about to reveal its secret.

An unexpected gust of wind caught the ward door which swung back, knocking the suitcase from the shelf.  As it hit the floor, the lid sprung open, revealing the name and numbers printed on the inner lining  . . .   June 13.  Not a girl’s name and age after all, but a month and a day.  Today’s date!

My eyes moved to the final figure inside of the lid, and then to the top of the door.  There, in prophetic black numerals was displayed those same two digits.  The number of my private ward . . .   37.

That old suitcase never spoke again.

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canal boat

 

 canal boat

Based on a true event


 

It was the final day of their holiday on the English canals.

Up ahead, Kim spotted the next lock and called to Mandy who was in the cabin below. She appeared with a windlass in her hand and stepped ashore as the boat glided to a gentle halt against the canal wall. She walked to the far end of the lock and began closing the first of the downstream gates.

The gate was heavy, but by applying a sustained pressure to the swing-beam, it inched slowly shut. She looked across the lock towards the second gate, but was more than surprised to see someone already there, pushing against it. The figure hunched over the beam appeared blurred and indistinct. Mandy was puzzled, certain there’d been no one there when she began work on this side.

A low rumble permeated the ground as the gates sealed with an angry hiss. Thin fingers of darkness crept over the lock strangling the last light from a dying sun. Mandy shivered, startled by the sudden eerie gloom and an icy breeze that scraped past her bare ankles. The mysterious figure on the other side, straightened, clambered stiffly onto the beam and began shuffling slowly across towards her. Too afraid to move, Mandy remained rooted, wide eyes fixed firmly on the approaching figure. In a desperate search for reassurance, all she could manage was a faint, dry throated, “Good evening.”

“Good for some, per’aps,” growled the stranger who neither smiled nor looked directly at her, “but others may n’t think so. What are the likes of you doin’ abroad on such a night?”

“I’m with my husband,” replied Mandy, still feeling confused, “in the narrowboat.”

“I see no boat, no ‘usband . You wouldn’t be tryin’ to put one over on an old woman, would you?”

Mandy spun around, staring in disbelief. It might be dark, but if the boat had been there she would certainly have seen it. She turned back, ashen-faced, “No, of course not. He . . . they, were both there a moment ago”. Gripped by doubt and disbelief, her legs began to tremble and she stumbled backwards against the swing-beam.

“There, there, lovey,” said the stranger in a softer tone, “you ‘ave nought to fear. Come sit ‘ere next to me and I’ll tell all.”

Mandy hadn’t the strength to decline. She sat down beside a woman of similar age to herself, but one who looked much older from having lived a hard life. She had dark hair, parted down the middle, showing signs of grey at the roots. Her clothes, which echoed a style from the past, hung loosely about her and were in need of repair.

“What is your name, love?” enquired the woman, who no longer appeared so fearsome.

“Miranda,” replied Mandy, who preferred to use her full name.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miranda. My name is Christina. Christina Collins.” She continued in a graver tone, “I too once ‘ad an ‘usband, and was on journey to meet with ‘im when a dastardly event o’er took the course of me life. I’ve uttered not a word of it before, but this night being the anniversary of such black events, I feel need to speak.” She pointed up the canal, “Yonder, is where they threw me in.”

“Threw you in! What do you mean, threw you in? Who threw you in?”

“Them men. Three of ’em there was. Ugly brutes, by nature as well as by looks. On the day previous, I went to Toll Office seeking ‘elp. I told ‘im in charge I feared they might meddle with me, but ‘e paid me scant heed. I said they was drinkin’ too much, but ‘e said that ain’t a crime. Told me to report ’em on arrival in London.”

“London is a long way from here,” interjected Mandy, “Is that where you were going?”

“Yes me dear. I was to meet with ‘usband. E’d found work there and sent money for coach, but to travel by freight barge were a lot cheaper. We was not of means, as you might say, so a few shillin’ saved meant a lot.” Christina paused. Her shoulders slumped and head fell forward as she recalled these details.

Mandy placed a comforting arm around her. “Please go on,” she encouraged.

“Durin’ daylight weren’t so bad. I walked along towpath with ‘orse. Big strong fella ‘e was, good-natured too. Took no notice when them men yelled at ‘im. Knew ‘is job was to pull, and did it well. Weren’t ’til after dark that I were filled with deep forebodin’. They’d bin drinkin’ steady all day and by nightfall was fully drunk. I took up me place to sleep, but by light of oil lamp I saw ’em casting lusty looks in me direction. I withdrew as deep into shadows as I could, for you see I ‘ad no space of me own. They was sneerin’ and makin’ lewd suggestions. Then they made their move.”

“Oh my God,” whispered Mandy. Had you no way to defend yourself?”

“I jumped up, ‘I’m a married woman,’ I shouted. ‘eld up me ring to show ’em, but they just laughed and tore it from me finger. Then two of ’em threw themselves upon me. The third took no part, but neither did ‘e try to stop ’em. I put up as best a fight as I could, but them was big ‘eavy men and I ‘ad no chance. ‘ardly ‘ad I begun to scream than a monstrous gnarled ‘and slammed down upon me face, closing not only me mouth, but me nose as well.”

Mandy gasped for breath. She turned to look at Christina who was tugging down on her skirt as if trying to prevent it from being lifted. Her eyes had frozen in a wild stare. Mandy felt sick and helpless.

“Yes, they killed me alright. Dumped me body overboard, and next day proceeded fourth as if nought ‘ad ‘appened. But they didn’t get far. Me body was found and them men was soon appre’ended. They was tried for murder in a court of law, and found guilty. The two what raped me was ‘anged and the third, transported.”

Long into the night, the two women sat side by side, silhouetted by the light of a ghostly moon. Save for the plaintive cry of a distant owl, it was silent. There was nothing left to say.

——-

“What’s keeping you down there?” called Kim’s voice, “Other boats are approaching and we’re causing a traffic jam.”

Miranda raced up on deck, relieved to find the sun still shining!

 

execution

Hangman’s story

 Execution dock
Execution dock

Based on a true event and yes, the pub really does exist.  Turn left as you exit the tube station at Wapping


 

“Do you know what you’re looking at?” inquired a voice from behind me.

I turned, my blank stare indicating that I obviously did not.

“That’s Hangman’s Dock,” said the man, pointing downwards over the low parapet wall.

He had just gained my undivided attention!

It was the 23rd of May and I was sitting in the beer garden of an old London pub, gazing idly at the river Thames. The ancient view of churches and warehouses on the far bank was the same as it had been for hundreds of years. Water flowed in on the rising tide, and out again as it fell. It was now low tide, and a sandy beach stretched between the base of the wall and water’s edge.

“And that’s where the gallows stood,” he continued, pointing to a number of blackened timber stumps protruding from the sand.

In the narrow cobbled street outside the public house, the level of noise had been increasing steadily, as the ever swelling throng of eager people clamored to get a better view. Urchins ran excitedly about and emaciated dogs barked fiercely, until the cacophony of sounds was almost deafening. Everyone was here to view the execution of a condemned pirate.

Further up the street, a horse-drawn cart bearing the prisoner inched it’s way forward. The man it conveyed looked not at all like a pirate, for although his hands were tightly bound he was well dressed and fine of stature. In attendance beside him stood two ugly brutes who clearly relished the thought of the hanging that was to follow.

The procession drew to a halt outside the public house, and the High Court Marshal at its head, dismounted. He nodded to the guards who untied their charge, half pushing, half throwing him from the cart. They too jumped down, giving the captive little chance of escape, then pulled him roughly to his feet and guided him hastily into the public house.

“One quart of ale for the prisoner, landlord,” barked the Marshal. The guards stood back and glared stony-faced, for they must merely watch. The irony of the situation would not have escaped the prisoner, but he did not smile. He drank down the beer, almost to empty, then paused and looked about. All eyes were upon him. Defiantly he threw back the remainder of the ale, then marched resolutely towards the door.

Except for a small area around the gallows, the sandy beach was now packed with people, restrained by a line of soldiers ensuring no one came too close. Today’s spectacle had been eagerly awaited. Boats of all shapes and sizes jostled to hold their positions as close as possible to the shore.

A spontaneous cheer arose from the crowd as the execution party emerged from between two buildings and descended the steep wooden stairs onto the sand. The prisoner needed no urging; he held his head high as he mounted the steps to join the other figures already on the gallows platform. The executioner removed the prisoner’s hat and placed the rope around his neck. A white silk scarf he wore crumpled as the noose tightened. The attending Chaplain, who not for one moment had ceased his incantations, now raised his voice to even higher pitch, and cried out for the condemned man to confess and repent. Such entreaties however had no effect on the prisoner; his face remained expressionless, masking any emotion.

The Marshal gave a signal. The rope snapped taught as the trapdoor opened and the condemned man dropped. A collective gasp issued from the expectant crowd, and for one brief moment, utter silence prevailed. Time froze.

The spell was broken as the Marshal and Chaplain turned, visions of their postponed quarts of ale drawing them swiftly back towards the public house. The guards climbed the gallows steps and began hoisting the body back up, but the prisoner was not dead! The fall had been insufficient to break his neck. His bloodstained eyes protruded wildly, his wide open mouth gasping for air. The entire body shook with spasmodic convulsions in a most grotesque manner.

I could endure to look no longer. I turned to the man behind me, smiled weakly, thanked him for his information, then made my way out of the pub. On a pole beyond the door, a painted sign hung limply in the lifeless air. I glanced up at the picture of a pirate, and above it the name, ‘CAPTAIN KIDD’.

An African tale

African story

A young barefoot boy stood alone in the hot African sun gazing upwards, as a bright silver object passed slowly overhead. He had no idea what it was, but they were commonplace, and posed no threat. Much like the sun, the moon and stars, for him they had always existed.

Aircraft no longer landed in Africa; it had been like that for more years than anyone could remember. All they ever did now was pass high over the continent as they journeyed from one part of the world to another.

The boy lowered his head and leaned forward, his bare black skin glistening in the sunlight. His hand gripped a long blade of grass which yielded as he gave it a sharp upwards tug. He bit off the soft juicy end portion, chewed once and swallowed. With deft movement he pushed the remaining stiff piece of the shaft between two of his rear teeth. A small scrap of meat from last night’s ‘indaba’ had become trapped there. Meat was considered a luxury and consumed only on special occasions. The boy had no parents, well, none that he could remember, but the people of his village took care of him. His life was simple and wants minimal. One contented day passed like any other.

Satisfied he had cleared the obstruction from his teeth, the boy spat. He watched expressionless as a green-fly fell instantly upon the small saliva coated scrap, where it landed on the parched earth. The fly had barely begun to feast before a column of tiny red ants also found it. They would gladly have consumed the fly too, had it not immediately abandoned its prize and flown away. Within minutes the ants dissected the scrap and carried the pieces unceremoniously down into their nest.

In the past, many nations had tried to assist Africa by supplying material and financial aid, but more often than not it had the opposite effect. Corrupt officials simply enriched themselves, buying expensive cars and building grandiose houses. Little if any of the aid ever reached the people for whom it was intended.

Throughout the entire African continent, the infrastructure degraded, then finally collapsed. Roads and bridges crumbled, airports ceased to function and harbours silted up. Africa slid further and further into a state of lawlessness and decay, until the only way to prevent this contagion from spreading to the rest of the world was to isolate the entire continent.

The African populace, who by now were so preoccupied with simple basic survival, hardly noticed. Power lines were down and once the remaining home generators ran out of fuel and batteries were exhausted, all electronic communication fell silent. As the last aid worker left, contact with the rest of the world ceased.  Africa had returned to its primal state.

The bright silver object faded slowly from view. For one brief moment, a puzzled frown appeared on the face of the boy, as if trying to recall something long forgotten. He shrugged, and padded slowly on as dry dust puffed out from beneath his feet.