"Oh, careful! Don't drop it!"
"All right, I'm - "
"Oh, give it here! Let me - "
The scuffle in the doorway made me look up from my book, just as Sally wrested the large tin box out of Jeremy's arms.
"What about this one, sir?" The weight of it had her wobbling on her heels, but she met my glance with undimmed enthusiasm, peeking over the top of the box.
Jeremy cleared his throat. "Sorry to bother you, Mr Ryder, but we couldn't get it open..."
There was some reason for not opening - nor looking, nor even thinking, certainly not opening - a perfectly good reason, I was sure of that.
When I'd set my assistants to clearing out the attics, it hadn't even crossed my mind what they might find up there, among the dust and clutter of at least three decades. As always, however, giving them one instruction led to a dozen more, as their healthy young legs scurried down the stairs, bearing quibble after quibble, Sally arguing and Jeremy second-guessing until I very much regretted the whole procedure.
Having assistants - being elderly and comfortable enough to hire assistants - was supposed to make one's life easier. I'd seen precious little evidence of that.
"Shall I leave it here, sir?" Sally waved the box at a side-table, deftly avoiding Jeremy's attempt to grab it.
"Yes, yes, for heaven's sake put it down! It might be..."
Fragile, I'd meant to say. Valuable. A great big old-fashioned box, trunk-like, dull metal showing through its faded green paint. They didn't make such things any more in this steel-and-plastic world. Such things belonged in attics; it was cruel, really, to drag them down into the light.
Sally set it down with a rattling thud, and that was the end of the matter, I thought, before realising that both of them were still watching me.
"Need any help with it, sir?" Jeremy asked, bouncing a little on his toes.
My hearing was better than they assumed it to be. I'd heard them, many a time, chattering on the stairs; heard their unedited opinions about their employer, the gist being that I was a terribly temperamental crusty old man.
It amused me, briefly, to wonder what these coddled scions of the once-unimaginable Nineties would have made of my father.
Now, pinned by two curious young expectations of further entertainment, I suddenly felt like exercising the privileges of age and fortune to their fullest. The box, probably older than both of them put together, could not speak for itself. I would protect it, whatever it held.
"But, Mr Ryder..."
"Out, I said!"
My second barked command, louder and crustier than the first, was obeyed with alacrity and not a few disappointed mutters in the corridor. A clatter - a squeak from Jeremy - and they were gone, climbing the stairs to the attics.
Satisfied, I settled back in my armchair.
This tin box deserved better than being pried open for the amusement of strangers. I'd made sure of that, had I not? When I locked it -
A nameless thrill of fear ran through me, stiffening my limbs and threatening to drag the scales from my eyes. Something far too great loomed behind it. Yes, I realised too late, there had indeed been a reason.
When I locked it -
When I... yes, there it was, the narrow key in my hand - one of those unsettling memory-wisps that seemed, for an instant, far more real than the present: turning the key, slipping it into my pocket, autumn chill, a hat on my head, long coat swirling as I turned my back on the box and left it behind with a brisk impatient stride... Years, many years, since I'd walked like that.
The key, I knew all in a moment, was in my desk drawer.
And the memories weren't done with me yet. Not nearly.
"No," I breathed, still gazing at the tin box as I reached for my call-button, the bell that would summon my assistants - for I wanted them back now, needed them desperately, to stand between me and those memories, block them off with the safe bland present day.
Another sheet of drawing paper dropped into the box... And my hand fell away from the button as the next memory took me.
Another sheet, and another, a whole long night of paper covered with my pencil, charcoal, paint and pen... paper piled on a table, sliding to the floor, smudged and torn, cast aside as I reached for another sheet... precious stuff, scarce in the years after the war, but this night, this one wild night, I cared nothing for scarcity or cost as my grief flooded out, pouring onto the paper - fingers cramping, drink untouched, one lamp burning in the dark as the pictures streamed from my hand...
Once, I'd sworn never to return to that night.
The longest night of my too-long life, my night of guilt and rage and mourning; the night I'd lost a new-found faith.
I'd locked it away, had I not?
Slowly, carefully - because at ninety one is always careful, like it or not, regardless of circumstances - I rose from the chair and went over to my desk.
My heartbeat was loud in my ears, too fast and too loud, as I took the key from the drawer where I'd known it would be and turned back to the box.
Open it, Charles.
And now my memories had a voice, once beloved and half a century silent, that urged me on and guided the key into the lock.
I struggled with it, half-tempted to be relieved when my feeble fingers couldn't make the wretched thing turn. A coward's reprieve, perhaps, but surely proof that I was much too old for all this. I should go back to my armchair, my book, the nice dinner they would bring me quite soon...
Oh, don't be so boring!
The lock creaked, clicked and released.
I laid a trembling hand onto the top sheet of drawing paper, touching my own work for the first time in decades, and turned it over, and looked.
Sebastian asleep on the grass in the Botanical Gardens. The suggestion of an elm shading him from the sun. One white-shirted arm curving back beneath his head, the other clasping the bear.
In the dark solitude of this bright clean future world, seventy years from that pictured afternoon, my heartbeat was still too loud.
My heart had known better, that wild night, all those years ago.
I'd known he was dead, known for some months; Cordelia it was who wrote to me, saying it had happened much as she'd predicted, long before. But I hadn't spoken to her, hadn't known any details - hadn't wanted to know - before running into Anthony Blanche one day, for the first time since before the war.
Anthony it was who told me when Sebastian had died. And I'd turned my back on Anthony then, and walked away, and never spoken to him again, that day to this.
I wouldn't share my disbelieving laughter with him, nor the tears that followed.
While my men and I had been settling into our new digs at Brideshead... that very week, almost to the day... he'd been dying all alone, far away in the southern lands.
I didn't even know. I wasn't there. Years before, I'd walked away, telling myself there was nothing more to be done, leaving him to his fate and myself forever hollow at the core. All the barriers, the obstacles so immense back then - how slight they seemed in comparison to death! Years of loss struck me all at once, leaving me torn and aching, moved only to summon a storm of images on paper.
Hard luck, Charles.
"It's all right," I told the empty room at the end of the century.
Back then, it had been so very far from all right. I'd drawn and painted in a fever, a fury of grief, all through the night. Then locked it all away and done my best to forget... Long enough, perhaps, to forgive.
As I reached into the box for the next sheet of paper, I could have sworn I felt another hand clasp mine.