Title: And Seven for a Secret
Disclaimer: Not mine, no matter how many DVDs and toys I buy! Everything here belongs to RTD and to Auntie Beeb, who already has my licence fee.
Notes: Written for the 2009 tardis_bigbang challenge on LJ. Thanks as always to Mimarie for sterling beta work, any remaining weirdnesses are all mine. Feedback of any variety is much appreciated but not compulsory - I'll post anyway! I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn....
One for sorrow, Two for joy,
Three for a girl, Four for a boy,
Five for silver, Six for gold,
And Seven for a secret never to be told.
- traditional British nursery rhyme
It felt strange, after, walking back out into the world once more and knowing that there was nothing more to be done. The past weeks had brought grief and tears and numb acceptance, the mourning and the celebration of a life lived long and well. There had been so much to do, so many people to contact, so many memories to share, so much paperwork to process, and now....
"So that's that, then."
"Guess so." Ben Haldane pushed his hands into his pockets and frowned at the grey bustle of a windswept London afternoon, at the red buses and black cabs and all the oblivious passers-by who had little interest in the pair standing by the nondescript door with its chipped gold lettering and even less awareness of the office above. Two pigeons and a magpie pecked at the scattered remains of a kebab, hopping quickly out of the way of a free paper distributor and his trolley before returning to their kerbside feast. "All divvied up and passed along...."
"Just how he wanted it - Grandda' always did know how to look after his family." Rebecca Richards sighed and slipped a comforting arm around her brother's shoulders. "You miss him, don't you?"
"Yeah," Ben admitted with a sad smile, watching an empty crisp packet skip along the pavement, a bright flash of colour against the concrete slabs. "I mean, he was always just -"
"Always just there when you needed him. I know." Rebecca gave him a squeeze. "You always were his favourite." She glanced back and stepped aside as the solicitor's door swung open and their elderly aunt pushed past, pausing only to throw them a poisonous glare before clambering into a taxi. "My," Rebecca said dryly, "do you think Auntie Millie is annoyed we got the big house and she didn't?"
"Be fair, Becky." Ben winced as the car door slammed shut and shook his head, wishing that this could have been done without further upset. "She grew up there and she is the eldest."
"Exactly!" Rebecca was unrepentant. "She grew up there - time someone else got the chance to do the same! Me and Brian have been looking for a bigger place, what with number four on the way, and all." She patted her seven-month bump fondly and brushed wind-blown hair back from her face. "The girls are going to whine about exams and leaving their friends behind, of course, but the schools out Aylesbury way are meant to be really good and we'd never be able to afford anywhere that big otherwise. It'll be good to get out of town a bit, as well - all this pollution and the congestion charge and all, never mind the council tax and the local chavs yelling their heads off at two in the morning. And there's really just too much weird shit happening in London these days, what with all the giant flying rocks and tin ghosts and psychotic pepperpots and god alone knows what else. And yeah," she added, almost as an afterthought, "I mean, I know it's half yours, but you don't have kids and, you know, there are enough bedrooms in there that you could have it as a sort of home from home, maybe put in an office. We'd love to see a bit more of you - you've almost been a stranger since, well...."
"I know," Ben said softly, then smiled at his sister's enthusiasm for their inheritance. "You need the house more than I do, Becks."
"Too right, I do - you've got your fancy flat in Shoreditch, all bought and paid for; we've just got a tiny two-bedroom terrace in the arse end of Streatham and the mortgage from hell." She nodded acknowledgement as more relatives made their way out into the blustery day. "Anyway, you got... oh, come on, Ben, aren't you going to open it?"
"No, not here... no." Ben's hand went to the sealed envelope now tucked safely away in the inside pocket of his jacket. One stiff corner poked at his collarbone through his shirt and he reached into his coat to adjust it, the thick paper smooth against his fingers. "I'm sorry, Becks."
"Where, then?" She nudged him with her shoulder. "C'mon, big brother - I'm dying to find out what's in there!"
"I -" Ben shook his head, feeling suddenly possessive of this one last fragment of his grandfather's life, left for him and him alone. "No. Sorry. You heard what Mr Cartwright said up there, what was in the will. It's for my eyes only. I can't exactly go against Grandda's last wish, now can I?"
"Ben!" Rebecca pouted like the child she had once been, back when they had spent their long summer holidays out in Buckinghamshire with their grandparents. "What would he say to you that he couldn't to me, anyway?"
"I don't know." He shrugged. "Obviously he thought there was something."
Rebecca didn't look convinced, but then their mother emerged, dabbing at her eyes and clinging to her eldest brother, and they were swept into the arms of family once more, into another round of tears and reminiscence, a final chance to mourn. And throughout it all, Ben was acutely aware of the envelope and its unknown contents, a missive from the dead left in his keeping for reasons he couldn't even begin to fathom.
Three days later, Ben set his glass of wine on the coffee table and settled onto the couch, folding his bare feet beneath him. The April rains rattled hard against the flat's tall windows, momentarily drowning out the growl of traffic in the street below, but the double-glazing and the heavy curtains kept the world safely at bay, an illusion of distance that Ben was, in that moment, infinitely grateful for.
The letter sat on the table, propped against the wine bottle, next to a photograph of a childhood holiday in Jamaica: him and Becky grinning at the camera with their cousins, the pair of them looking as pale amongst their father's family as they did dark amongst their mother's. Beyond that happy scene sat another framed photo, this time of Ben and another man, tall and blonde and handsome, arms about each other's waists as they laughed and raised champagne glasses to the camera....
Ben sighed and ran his hands down over his face, feeling the scratch of stubble against his palms. It had been more than two years now since he had lost Colin to whatever madness had happened in Docklands, his bank's offices over-run by the same metal monstrosities that had devastated the rest of the peninsular. The flat still felt oddly empty without him, even after so long. There had been no last words there, no carefully prepared goodbyes, just the shock of sudden loss and a seemingly endless battle with their insurance company and Colin's grieving parents. It had taken months to get DNA confirmation of his death, and if it hadn't been for his grandfather and the ever-efficient Cartwright and Sons, he could have lost far more than -
He shook his head, dismissing the memories as he had so many times before. Life was a fragile thing, too easily gone in a moment, but his grandfather had been old, almost ninety, and there had been little unexpected about his passing. It was different this time, neater, easier to accept, and if there was an odd comfort in the mystery, a sense that the old man was still alive so long as there was this one last thing left to be revealed, the not knowing didn't really change anything.
Losing Colin had been like losing a limb, but this... this he could handle. All he had to do was lift the envelope and open it, discover what secrets might be hidden within its stiff white confines.
He had to open it. He owed his grandfather that much.
Ben reached for the wineglass, draining it in one long swallow, then snatched up the envelope before his nerve gave out. He hadn't been able to find the paperknife, so the open blade of the long kitchen scissors had to suffice, slid under the edge of the envelope and pulled sharply up to reveal the last of his grandfather's secrets. There was a single neatly folded sheet of A4 paper within, one side bearing the words "FOR BEN" in familiar, spidery writing. Setting the scissors aside, Ben took a deep breath, unfolded the letter and began to read.
17th September 2006
My dearest Ben,
It still seems very strange to be writing a letter that will only be read after my death, but I suppose I should make sure I'm getting full value out of my solicitors. As I write, you are still in the throes of bereavement for a much-beloved partner and I feel for you so much - I remember losing my Agnes so very keenly and it can only be all the more painful to lose someone so young. With these reminders of mortality comes the realisation that precious few of us will live forever, and that some things must be said before it is too late. I cannot doubt that you know that far better than you might wish to.
I cannot know how much time will pass before you see this but, as you read this note from the past, I hope that you are well and that you have found your way again. And, selfish though it may be, I hope that my passing was peaceful. I had a good life, full of love and laughter, and far longer than I would have thought possible given some of the events that befell me in my younger years - don't waste your energy in mourning me when you still have so much more living to do yourself.
If Mr Cartwright has done his job, you now know how I have divided my estate. The old house is for you and your sister to use as you see fit - and knowing our dear Becky, she is already planning how best to fit her squabbling brood in. Make sure she remembers that it is still half yours and gives you some rent!
There is one final thing that is for you and you alone. Look in the Dragon's Nest and you will find it.
Ben read through the letter twice more, blinking through his tears. "More later"? And the Dragon's Nest... god, he hadn't thought about the Dragon's Nest in years....
It looked as though his grandfather might still have some secrets to tell, after all.
The farmhouse lay in the Buckinghamshire countryside, at the edge of a small village just outside Aylesbury; close enough for easy access to shops and schools, but isolated enough to give a real sense of privacy. Parking his car in the driveway, Ben gazed up at the old house, momentarily feeling like the small child he had once been. Purchased just after the War, when his grandfather had come into some money, the building had been extensively reworked and refitted and added to over the years - Bert Fletcher, for all his age, had never been afraid of the modern world and its comforts - and had a large, walled garden that held many fond childhood memories. It was likely worth a small fortune, even in these troubled economic times, yet neither he nor Becky had considered selling it for a moment; it was too much a part of who they were.
There was an emptiness to the place now, however, that was painfully unfamiliar, as if the building itself was mourning its lost owner. Much of the furniture and other antiques were already gone, carried away as various relatives emerged from the woodwork to claim their inheritance, making way for the spoils of the assault that Becky was no doubt already planning on the nearest IKEA. Ben smiled at a little at that thought - his sister and her growing family would soon fill the spaces that their grandfather had left, bringing a new generation to the house. There was a future here as well as a past; it was only in this brief span of the present that grief held any power.
And that, of course, was only as it should be.
He left his small suitcase and his bag of groceries in the kitchen and wandered through the rooms, smiling to himself at the memories each contained, of endless summers and the occasional Christmas, of exploring all the various nooks and crannies that were so boringly absent from the housing estate he'd more usually called home. But, for all the joyful reminiscences to be found within the walls of this place, in the end he could put it off no longer. Taking a deep breath, Ben let the final words of his grandfather's letter lead him out into the greenery beyond the back door.
With nobody to tend it, the garden had become more than a little scruffy and unkempt around the edges, but the fresh growth of spring lent it a glorious flush of colour and scent and life that took Ben right back to his youth. Birds sang in the trees, loudly proclaiming their territories, and fat insects buzzed lazily past him, apparently unconcerned by this invader in their domain. Something small and brown skittered away through the ivy stems as he reached the back wall, a vole or fieldmouse diving for cover, vanishing into the shadows as he reached up to brush leaves aside, feeling his way carefully along until he found a notch in the masonry, and just beyond that....
The Dragon's Nest was rather less remarkable than the name - coined as it had been by a seven year old boy with a fertile imagination and a sizeable library of brightly illustrated books - might suggest. In reality it was just a hole in the stonework of the tall garden wall, well-hidden behind a half-century of ivy, and any nests within belonged to nothing more spectacular or fiery than a rat or a robin. But it was at just the right height for hiding things from his little sister during the long summer holidays and he had delighted in secreting things away in its depths, even if he had had to get his grandfather's help to do so in his younger years. It wouldn't surprise him in the slightest if there was still a stray Weeble or Action Man lodged in there amidst the leaf litter.
The debris that filled the hole was damp to the touch, slick with mould, and Ben jerked his hand back as he felt something crawl, feather-light, across the back of his fingers. Gingerly reaching in again, he groped his way through layers of dead and decaying leaves until he suddenly touched something unmistakably artificial, the crumpled plastic cool against his skin. For a moment he thought that it might be a stray carrier bag, dragged in as nesting material by some enterprising rodent, but then he found the edge of what felt like packing tape, wrapped tight around something larger than he'd expected, something solid.
Something that had been quite thoroughly hidden from anyone who didn't know exactly where to look.
It took Ben several minutes to dislodge his inheritance from the wall, the awkward angles, rough stone and slick, slippery plastic making a fight of it. He finally staggered back from the torn ivy with the heavy package clutched to his chest, trying to ignore his skinned and bleeding knuckles and the half-rotted vegetation now sticking to his battered hands and clothes.
"Whatever you are," he muttered as he carried his prize back to the house, "you'd better be bloody worth it...."
A Stanley knife made short work of the outer coatings - three layers of heavy-duty black bin liners wrapped in packing tape, an old towel, two more bin liners and what appeared to be a decorator's plastic dust sheet. Within this hermetically-sealed cocoon lay a large, rectangular metal tin, its lid printed with images of the chocolate-covered biscuits it had once contained, a matched pair of Tupperware sandwich boxes, and another sealed white envelope addressed simply, "To Ben".
Sitting on the back step, wiping his hands on the shredded towel, Ben looked down at this collection of oddities and decided that what he really needed was a cup of tea. And a shower.
The hall clock had just chimed noon as Ben, freshly-showered and dressed in clean clothes, with half a box of elastoplasts stuck across his abused knuckles, sat down at the kitchen table with a mug of hot tea and a cheese sandwich. The biscuit tin and the Tupperware boxes were set to one side on precautionary sheets of paper towel, and the letter - perhaps a fraction fatter than its predecessor and definitely a little more battered and bloodstained from its recovery - sat expectantly before him. He stared at it as he ate, caught between curiosity and that uncomfortable sense of finality, the feeling all the more acute here, in the place that held most of his memories of his grandfather. But, as before, the letter was clearly intended to be read and, given the effort that old Bert had put into hiding his secrets away, it was only fair that Ben find out what had driven him to such lengths.
Besides, he had shed blood over this particular mystery now. And if he was to get to the bottom of this before Becky and her brood arrived at the end of the week....
Pushing his plate to one side, Ben picked up the envelope and tore open the flap. There were several handwritten sheets of notepaper within, the familiar scrawl probably cipher enough against any not already familiar with it. Pulling them free, Ben swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat and lifted the first page.
28th August 2006
If you are reading this then I am dead and buried. I hope that I didn't suffer too much. This house is yours and Becky's now, in memory of all those happy summers when you two scamps made an old man feel young again. I hope that Becky's youngsters will be as happy here as you once were.
The house is for the two of you but this, dearest Benjamin, is for you alone. Your sister is right - you always were my favourite. Of all my grandchildren, you were the only one who always listened to my stories, who always wanted to know more, who always seemed interested in hearing what an old man had to say about times that were past long before you were even thought of. I told you things that I don't think I ever told to anyone but my dear Agnes, but there was one story that I never told you, that I never told anyone, not even your Nana. I promised, you see - promised I'd never breathe a word of it for as long as I lived.
Well, I've lived out my allotted span now and so, as you read this, I figure that I am free of that promise. It's all here, in the tin, and I won't blame you if you don't believe a blessed word of it. I barely believe a word of it myself, and I was there! But it's true, all of it, impossible as it might seem, and I beg your patience because I've always wanted, always needed to tell it to someone. It deserves to be told.
The old man always had been a storyteller. Ben smiled to himself and glanced towards the biscuit tin, wondering just what....
But no - the tin and its contents could wait until later. Shaking his head, Ben turned back to the letter.
My life has been all that I could have asked, filled with good friends and a loving family. I have had a good many lucky breaks, and a few where a timely word from an old chum has put me onto the right track. This world has its horrors, but it also has its wonders and you must never, ever lose sight of that, my boy. There is more to this existence than you can even begin to imagine and, although I barely touched its boundaries, I know that there are those who tread paths that lead far beyond the edges of what we poor fools think of as real. They are our defenders, our sword and our shield, and although we may never know who they are, we owe them everything.
All of which is a rather roundabout way of saying that there was a time when I found myself a part of that world outside, albeit briefly. And it was real, so very, very real.
The memory of strange planets in the sky came unbidden to mind, along with that of the metal men who had destroyed so many lives. Yes, Ben thought bitterly to himself, he understood horrors and wonders and the too-jagged edges of reality all too well....
But enough of that. There is a beginning to my tale and that, of course, is where I must begin. You have always known that I was a soldier in my youth, when the war against Hitler and his armies engulfed us all. I never doubted my duty, painful though it was to leave my Agnes and your young aunt Millicent behind. Millie was just a babe in arms when I joined up and I hated the thought that I might never see her again, that she might never know me. But not so much as I hated the thought of her growing to womanhood in a Nazi world, so off I jolly well went to answer my country's call.
You know that I was there at the Normandy beaches with the Middlesex Regiment, caught up in all the blood and chaos of D-Day. You've heard me speak of the hard battle we faced to take Caen, of the fast advance north, of the constant supply problems . You've certainly heard my opinion of the damned bloody fool of an officer whose inability to read a map or take advice led to me and my mates ending up as prisoners of war. You know that I escaped and returned to my regiment and that I returned to my dear Agnes and Millie when at last it was all over.
However, I have never spoken of my brief time in captivity, nor of the details of my escape. Much as you all tried to hide it from me, I know that there has long been an assumption within the family that I suffered horrors at the hands of the Nazis, horrors that I felt no urge to re-live or relate. And in part those assumptions are true - I saw things and did things in that time that I dearly wish I could scour from my mind, things that will stay with me until my dying day. But it was not the fear of memory that stayed my tongue after the war, but rather the promise I made to one of the finest men I ever met. He placed his trust in me, just as I did in him, and he has done damned well by me over these many years.
But now my years are done, and you, dear Benjamin, have a life still to live. I give this story to you as one last gift, one final look into my life, and as a reminder that no matter how terrible things may seem, there is always a way through them to a brighter, better place. Perhaps, by the time you read this, you will have already worked that much out for yourself. I hope so.
Ben felt his heart clench in his chest, remembering the mess he'd been in following Colin's loss, the grief and the sheer uncertainty he had suddenly been faced with, the need for answers of any variety. The world had been a dark place for him at the time his grandfather had penned these words and, while he had managed, more or less, to fight his way free, the sentiment still struck a chord. Swallowing hard, he continued reading.
The tin contains my tale, the plastic boxes items that, in one way or another, serve to remind me that it was all too real. What becomes of it all next is up to you - forget it or burn it or sell it to the papers; it'll make as much sense as some of the nonsense they print these days. Have a care with it though, for - strange though this may sound - I suspect that I am not the only one to recall the events outlined within and I will not rest easy in my grave if you somehow put yourself in harm's way because of me.
And now, dearest Benny, the time has come to let my tale speak for itself. I will seal this envelope and hide it away with all of my secrets, and then, perhaps, I will call you to see how you are faring, knowing that one day in the future you will read these words that are now in my past. It feels strange, to have committed it all to paper after so very long, but with the completion of that act there has come a lightness that I had not expected to feel for I never truly felt it to be a burden.
I hope that your life is as long and as touched with love as mine has been. I hope that you find all that you need and love all that you find. And I hope that you will remember me and that my stories will not be forgotten in the way that such things so often are.
I hope that your future is all that you could wish for.
All my love,
Ben took a deep breath and ran his thumb slowly across his grandfather's name, feeling the prickle of fresh tears in his eyes. He tucked the last sheet back behind its fellows, spent a moment carefully aligning them all, then laid the letter to one side. "Okay," he murmured to himself, "let's see what we've got here...."
The first Tupperware box held a collection of Christmas cards of varying quality - in both cardstock and artwork - that looked to date back decades, some containing just a few words, others lengthy missives, and a few enclosing folded pieces of paper that no doubt outlined the sender's year. Flipping through a few at random, Ben quickly realised that the writing in most of the cards was in the same elegant copperplate, an almost impossibly neat hand that seemed to remain steady over the years - whoever "Jack" had been, he must have won prizes for his calligraphy at school. There were a few postcards tucked in amongst the more seasonal greetings, along with a handful of more official looking letters, still in their opened envelopes. A single paper-and-plastic Remembrance Day poppy lay amongst the correspondence, a faded flash of colour that made Ben wonder what had become of the people whose letters had meant so much. It was hard not to imagine that his grandfather had been the last of them....
There were more poppies in the second box, some almost new, others clearly dating from before his birth. Scattered amongst them were parade ribbons, crested uniform buttons, cloth insignia patches of several designs, identity papers, ration books, an envelope filled with faded photographs - all the minutiae of a war that had finished a good quarter-century before he had been born. His grandfather's medals, Ben knew, had been left to his eldest son, but everything else seemed to be here in a jumbled mass of history. The significance of some of the items was clear, but others - coins, pieces of gravel, a small and somewhat battered plastic octopus - were less obvious. Ben spent several minutes poking through the various strange treasures, then set the box aside. The answer to these tiny mysteries no doubt lay in the telling of the greater one.
The biscuit tin was heavy, its contents clearly weightier than the confectionery they had replaced. Beneath the printed metal lid - and the inevitable layers of adhesive tape securing it in place - Ben found an expanse of crumpled bubblewrap, and beneath that another layer of the protective plastic enclosing something more substantial. Lifting it from its container, Ben laid this block on the table and carefully unwrapped it to reveal what looked to be a near ream of A4 sheets, held in a neat stack by several half-perished rubber bands.
"For the eyes of Mr Benjamin Haldane only" was neatly centred on the top page, in blocky and familiar dot-matrix type that took Ben right back to his university years. He had given the old Amstrad PCW to his grandfather when he had finally upgraded to a proper computer, a gift donated in the hope that some of the stories that had so entertained him as a youngster might be finally committed to paper. He had never seen any evidence that the old man had taken the hint, but apparently he had put the machine to good use after all.
To very good use.
"Wow." Ben took a deep breath and sat back in his chair. So this was it, his grandfather's legacy in all its glory. It looked as though this might take some time, so he made himself a fresh pot of tea, carried the papers and the boxes through to the lounge, settled himself into his grandfather's favourite armchair, and began to read.
~ continued ~