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JOHANNA SOFTLY blew the dust off the box, then wiped it with her sleeve, leaving white striations behind. She hadn’t come across the object before, even though she’d explored the attic many times, and over numerous decades.
She’d spent all of her days at the top of the Victorian house. She found the attic offered peace and tranquillity — a safe place. And it had been full of surprises, not least of which Al, the old man who’d showed up a month ago.
He made daily trips to the attic, bringing with him the earthy scent of tobacco and — somewhat less pleasing to the senses — the aroma of recently fried kippers.
Sure enough, Johanna knew Al stood behind her now. Before her nose had picked up on the smell of fried fish, she’d already heard his footsteps as he’d attempted to climb the attic stairs without her noticing. She stayed perfectly still, pretending to examine the box in her hands, her back turned to the doorway. It amused him so to make her jump.
“Boo,” he said.
Johanna let out a small and high-pitched, albeit fake, scream.
“Cripes, that never gets old.” Al’s raspy voice indicated the indulgence of too many cigarettes accompanied, perhaps, by an abundance of liquor as well. “How have you been, Johanna?”
She turned around and smiled. “Splendid, thank you, Al. And you?”
“Never better. Keeping busy, as usual.”
Johanna wondered what an old man like Al did to keep busy but she didn’t like to ask. Prying was most unladylike.
“I see you found it.” Al said.
She looked down, realizing how much her grip had tightened. The pine box was roughly the size of an encyclopaedia, but felt significantly lighter. It had turned dark orange from the passage of time and the rusty-red hinges must have lost their shine long ago.
“So, are you going to open it?” Al rubbed his chin and smiled. “I haven’t got all day.”
“Why, yes, you have,” Johanna wanted to say then thought better of it. Impertinence wasn’t becoming. Besides, she thought Al was lucky to be old. After all, she hadn’t aged a day in the 60 years she’d been in the attic, nor would she, she presumed, in the next 60 either.
Johanna let her hands glide over the smooth surface of the box. “I haven’t seen this before, have I?”
Al shook his head.
She looked at him. “But you wanted me to find it?”
His smile revealed browning teeth and made his face crinkle up like a sheet of crêpe paper.
“Aye,” he said, smoothing down his green woollen cardigan. “I thought it was time.”
“Time for you to know who you are.”
“We’ve talked about this, Al,” Johanna said. “I’ve already told you, many times. I don’t need to know.”
“Everybody needs to know,” Al said quietly. “Everybody.”
She looked at him, remained silent for a long while. “But what if I’m not ready?” she said finally. “Not knowing is comfortable. I’m used to not having memories. What if I don’t like what comes back?”
“But you’ve been here for so long,” Al said. “You said so yesterday. You have to find out, Johanna. And,” he paused, “I might not be here to help you for much longer.”
“Excuse me?” While she hadn’t had the pleasure of his company for long, Johanna had become fond of the old man. She’d miss him if he left, she realized. Yes, she’d miss him quite substantially. “Al, are you moving out? Leaving the house?”
Al coughed and tapped his chest with his fist. “Not voluntarily.” He smiled and cleared his throat. “Saw the doc this morning. Says my lungs are shot. I’ll be lucky to live another six months. Anyway.” He held up a hand before she could respond, and pointed at the box again. “Open it.”
Johanna took a deep breath. Trying hard to ignore the tremble in her fingers, she lifted the lid and peered inside.
A black and white photograph caught her eye first. A picture of a man with a baby in his arms. Just like the box, the photograph had an orange tinge around its corners, but the man’s unmistakably proud grin beamed at her.
The fog in Johanna’s brain seemed to shift the tiniest fraction of an inch, revealing a glimpse of something so old and distant, it had almost been forgotten entirely.
“I know this gentleman.” Johanna squeezed her eyes shut as a memory fluttered through her brain, softer than the wings of a butterfly. Remembering things — anything — took so much effort.
“James. . .” Her fingertip traced the man’s face. “No, wait. J . . . Jo . . . John,” she said to Al who was biting his thumbnail, watching her. “Yes, that’s it. His name’s John. He was . . . my goodness, Al, he was my husband.”
Al nodded, smiled encouragingly at her, seemingly willing her to continue the journey her mind had begun to explore.
“I . . . I remember that day,” Johanna said. “We had a picnic in the garden . . . and . . . and we played croquet. I think I used to enjoy a game of croquet.”
“You’re doing so well,” Al said, and took a step towards her. He gestured to the box. “See if the other things help.”
Johanna gently picked up a cardboard star, covered in silver garland and decorated with splodges of red and green paint.
“I remember this too,” she whispered. “I think . . . I think my son made it at school for Christmas.” She smiled. “Yes, I’m sure of it. And every year we put it on the top of the tree. Every single year until . . . until . . . Oh, Al, I don’t know. Where did you find these things?”
“Look in the box,” Al said. “One last time.”
Johanna slowly pulled out another black and white photograph. A young boy in short pants, a white shirt and a flat-cap. His grin toothy and his eyes bright. She turned it over to read the inscription.
“First day of school, 1947.” Her gaze shifted to Al. “Wait a moment. Al, is this you?”
“It is,” Al took another step towards her.
Johanna frowned. “But what does this have to do with me?”
Al swallowed and she watched as he hesitated before saying, “Mother chose that outfit for me. She was so proud.” His chuckle echoed around the attic. “Asked me to spin around for her over and over again.”
Johanna felt shreds of memories beginning to attach themselves to one another, fitting together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Her eyes darted around the attic, taking in the faded, grubby cardboard boxes she’d looked through before, but never properly seen.
The one in the far corner, a box Al had heaved upstairs after he’d moved into the apartment below, contained a collection of novels — Dickens, Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Next to it he’d put an old tea crate that held a smaller box with a long, flowing, white lace wedding dress inside, carefully wrapped in silk paper. She’d mused about trying the dress on, but a feeling of sadness enveloped her whenever she touched it, so she’d let it be.
Let it be. That’s what she’d done with her memories when she’d woken up — in a manner of speaking — at the bottom of the stairs, unable to recall who or where she was, or how she’d got there. When unfamiliar voices from the floor below became louder, she’d swiftly climbed the stairs and hidden in the attic until all the commotion had passed. Not once had she ventured back down to the unfamiliar surroundings. Whatever for?
The occupants of the house, a man and a young boy, left a few months later, and never came back. Over the years, Johanna had heard other couples and families come and go. Children were born, engagements and weddings celebrated, the dead mourned.
She’d never revealed herself. Not to anyone. Not until Al had carried the old boxes up to the attic, humming Hush Little Baby. She’d felt . . . she wasn’t sure what she’d felt. Loneliness? Some kind of solace? A connection? Yes, she decided, some kind of connection. Although for the life of her, or, she’d giggled at her own joke, for the death of her, she really couldn’t fathom why she felt anything for the old man at all.
But Al hadn’t shown any surprise when she’d murmured “Good morning.” He’d listened to her explain she had no idea who she was. It felt good to finally talk to someone and Al had listened so intently.
“I lived in this house once,” he’d said as they sat on the old tea chest. “And always swore I would again one day. Took me 60 years but I finally made it back. I’ll see my days out here,” he said. “Yep. That’s what I reckon.”
He stared at her closely now. Searching her eyes with his. “Are you all right?”
She gently touched the items in the pine box, the photographs and the star, memories seeping into her fingertips.
“I remember.” She swallowed. “Those books. The dress. They’re . . . mine.”
Al nodded silently.
“I fell, Al,” Johanna said after a long moment. “I fell on those rickety old stairs, didn’t I?”
Al nodded again, his eyes glistening. “Yes,” he whispered. “Such a terrible accident. All those years ago.” He held his arms out. “Please, don’t be scared. Don’t leave again. Please.”
“You were nine,” Johanna said. “You were still a child.” She whispered, “My child.”
“Yes,” Al said, tears flowing freely over the deep lines in his cheeks. “Yes, Mother. Welcome home.”
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