Authors: Deborah White
The next morning, Micky had kicked and elbowed Claire out of a deep sleep. And she’d had another bad dream, though she couldn’t remember this one. Just the dark, whispy threads of it still tangling in her head.
“Get out. Out!” And with one push Claire was on the floor.
“What did you do that for?”
Micky stuck her tongue out, then pulled the duvet over her head and curled up into a ball. “Go away!”
Claire sighed, no use getting cross. Micky was angry and missing their old life too. She picked herself up and went and showered. Washed and dried her hair, got dressed and was halfway down the stairs, when she saw her mum.
“Oh, Claire, I nearly forgot. I found an envelope on Grandma’s desk. It had your name on it. I put
it on the dresser in front of the big blue plate.” She said this over her shoulder as she was leaving to go and collect more things from their old house. “And look after Micky for me. I won’t be long.”
She slammed the door behind her with such force that Claire could feel the shudder through the soles of her bare feet. On and up until she could feel its buzz in her jawbone, and all the tiny bones in her skull.
* * *
It was an ordinary brown envelope, innocently resting against the blue Spode plate. Her name and ‘To be opened only in the event of my death’ written on it in Grandma’s thick italic script. She took it off the shelf. Whatever was inside was unexpectedly heavy. It slid the length of the envelope, and in surprise Claire let it slip out of her grasp. It fell to the floor with a clink. What could it be? A watch maybe, a bracelet, a ring? She bent and picked up the envelope and tore it open. Pulled out a sheaf of yellowing papers tied up with a red linen braid. And something else.
She tipped the contents into the palm of her hand. A ring then, gold and set with a blue stone.
It felt warm and heavy; was luminous against her skin.
Taking a closer look, she saw it was carved with exactly the same hieroglyphs as on the box in Grandma’s room. She tried it on the ring finger of her right hand. Too big. She had small hands. But it fitted perfectly on the middle finger.
The same sign as on the box, and it looked like it was the same shape and size too. Except, the carving on the ring was raised, and the one on the box was indented. As if the one would fit into the other. Just like a key fits into the barrel of a lock.
But underlying her excitement, was the sharply metallic taste of fear, which was stupid, because what was there to be afraid of? Nothing.
So leaving the envelope and the sheaf of papers on the table, she went out of the kitchen and took the stairs slowly. She took measured steps along the landing to Grandma’s room, took one last deep breath, opened the door and went straight to the chair, in its place by the bed. And there was the box, on the seat, half covered over again by Grandma’s dressing gown, which was as cool and soft pink as second skin.
Claire knelt in front of the chair. Lifted aside
the dressing gown. Pressed the ring into the oval cartouche on the box. And it fitted exactly. Yes!
But the box didn’t magically open. Nothing happened at all. Except… She turned her head sharply. Caught the whisper of a scent; musty, acrid, sweet, seductive. And thought she could hear someone calling out her name. So convincing and compelling that she called out, “Yes? What is it?” her heart leaping up into her mouth as she waited for the reply.
But there were no footsteps, there was no rustle of clothing, no answering voice. Only the soft tick, tick, tick of the bedside clock. And the distant sounds of life out on the street. A car. The nasal drone of a milk float. A dog barking. Familiar. Soothing.
, she thought.
You are so stupid
. What did she think was going to happen? It was just a box and an old ring. That was all. It was a puzzle though. Why had Grandma left them for her?
She was looking down at her hand, still wearing the ring, when she heard the car pull up outside. The slam, slam of the car door. Shouting. The rattle of the front door opening.
“Claire, I’m back! Come and give me a hand to
unload, will you? I’ve got bags of stuff in the car.”
Claire jumped up, guiltily, as if she’d been caught doing something wicked. Her first thought was to slip the ring off her finger and hide it. She didn’t want her mum seeing it, because she’d want to try it on, and then if she liked it, she’d want to keep it. She was like that. Acquisitive.
But the ring wouldn’t come off. It was gripping her finger too tightly. Now someone was running up the stairs and skipping along the landing. Micky.
Panicking, Claire was pulling so hard on the ring, she thought she’d dislocate her finger.
“What are you doing in here?” Micky was standing in the door now. But Claire knew she wouldn’t step into Grandma’s bedroom. She was too scared.
Claire quickly pulled the sleeve of her sweatshirt down over her hand and pushed past her out of the door. “Just proving there’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said, turning to look Micky straight in the eye. “Because there isn’t. It’s just a room someone died in. Grandma’s not still there you know.”
“I know that stupid,” Micky said, kick, kick,
kicking the toe of her trainer against the door frame. “It’s just that…”
“What?” But she knew what Micky was thinking, because she was feeling it too. Pressure. Panic. Fear. Irrational and stupid because there was nothing to fear.
Micky looked so anxious and forlorn, Claire wanted to put her arms around her and give her a hug. But now Mum was at the bottom of the stairs, shouting, “Come on I need some help here.”
And by the time they’d sorted out the plastic sacks of things from their old life, it was too late to say or do anything.
Every day and night after that, I wore the ring tied around my neck on its linen braid. And I waited for him to return. There were so many things I needed to ask him. Who was Sekhmet? How would the ring with its hieroglyphics protect me from her? What would happen if I were to wear it? And why did he need my help?
At first I was downcast when he did not come. I looked for him everywhere. But time ran on. I was kept busy in my father’s shop. It was only in the dead of night that his words came back to haunt my dreams.
Then one day early in March, I read in the Gazette that an Egyptian mummy ‘with all its hieroglyphics’ was on show at the Head and Combe Inn on the Strand. Surely, I thought, this must be fate at work, and I its beneficiary.
Telling my mother that I had an errand to do for my father, I put on my cloak and patten overshoes and slipped out of the house. I was determined to go and see
the mummy at once, for I prayed the hieroglyphics would unlock the secret of my ring.
It was while I was on my way to the Head and Combe that I saw him again. He was standing at the corner of Butcher Row and the Strand. A mass of people, carts and horses swirling about him in the foul and smoky air, as if he was at the quiet centre of a great storm.
I stood stock-still, my hand clutching at the ring, and I thought he looked straight at me. I felt faint, and for a moment closed my eyes. When I opened them again he was gone and the space where he had been was filled with people.
When I arrived at last at the inn, the rope-walker I had seen at the fair was there before me, entertaining the crowd. And so great was the number of people come to see the mummy, I thought I should never get inside. But I pushed and squeezed, trod on toes and elbowed my way through the great press of people until, trembling with excitement, I had my first glimpse of it.
I had never seen one before, though I had read in the
of Herodotus how the Egyptians turned their
dead into mummies. How the embalmers pulled out the brain through the nostrils with an iron hook. How the flank of the corpse was laid open with a flint knife and the contents of the stomach removed. Then the cavity was rinsed out with palm wine, filled with aromatics, sewn up and placed in natron. When 70 days had passed, the body was washed and wrapped from head to toe in strips of linen, smeared with gum.
Just as we swaddle babies as soon as they are born, I thought, so the Egyptians swaddled their dead for the journey and re-birth into the afterlife.
The mummy rested in a gilded wooden coffin. The lid of the coffin, fashioned in the form of a young woman, lay to one side. Her image took my breath clean away. The fullness of her lips. The straightness of her nose. Her black-rimmed eyes soft as a doe’s. Her arms were folded across her breast. Heavy ropes of black hair lay on her shoulders. Her tunic was painted to look like folded linen and was covered in hieroglyphics.
I was close enough now to reach out a hand and touch her. Close enough to look inside the coffin. I was not afraid of what I might see. I had been at my grandmother’s bedside when she died of the ague. I had seen thieves and murderers, men and women both,
hung high from the gibbets on Tower Hill and at Tyburn. I had seen the rotting bodies of traitors picked clean by the kites and the crows. I had even seen an embalmed body. That of Sir Thomas Viner. He had died in the May of last year, but had not been buried until the June. My father told me how embalming fluids stopped his body putrefying in the summer heat. But I had never seen a body such as this; kept from decay for so very many years.
Someone had started to unwind the linen bands from around her. Her cheeks and eyes were sunken. Her skin, stained brown as amber, was stretched tight over the bones of her skull, and what little hair she had left was a dull red. I saw that the ring finger of her right hand was missing.
She must once have been beautiful, but was so no longer, and I felt a surge of pity for her. I should not like to be poked and gawped at by strangers when I die, I thought. If only I could read the hieroglyphics, I might know her name at least.
“It is Nefertaru. I found her in Egypt and brought her safe home with me.” The Doctor was standing close beside me, and now the room was deathly quiet and the door shut firm. The great press of people had melted away like mist over the river at sunrise.
His hand guided mine to a group of hieroglyphics. “Her name and age at death are written here. She was just 14 years old and was a priestess and dancer at the Temple of Sekhmet.”
“And,” I asked, hardly able to breathe, feeling the heat of his hand on mine, “do the other hieroglyphics tell her story?”
“They are spells said to protect the soul as it travels from this world into the next. But they must be written and spoken faultlessly, or the spells will be flawed and the soul will be lost for ever. See here,” he pointed to a hieroglyphic. “Someone has been careless… or wicked. They have written NefARtaru and not NefERtaru.”
He laughed, as if the thought of a soul damned for ever gave him some pleasure.
I shivered. “How is it that you know these things? My father says there is no man alive who can read Egyptian writing.”
“Your father is wrong… for I have mastered the skill of reading hieroglyphics.” His gaze held me, as the poacher’s lamp holds the rabbit, transfixed in its light. “But you must tell no one, for my life depends upon it. There are men prepared to kill for the knowledge I now possess.”
And I believed him.
It was nearly teatime and Claire was in the kitchen. Her mum was at the sink peeling potatoes. Any minute now she was going to ask about the envelope. Ask what was inside it. Oh well, Claire thought, she couldn’t keep the ring hidden for ever. She’d have to show her mum sometime. Better get it over and done with.
“You know that envelope Grandma left for me?”
“Oh yes, the one stuffed with old bits of paper. I put it in the dresser drawer, Okay? Anything else in it? Lots of money I hope! We could do with some now.”
“Just a ring. Look.” She held out her hand. Her mum peered at it closely.
“Mmm. That’s strange. It doesn’t look like Grandma’s sort of thing at all. I don’t ever remember seeing her wear it. Do you?”
Claire shook her head.
“It looks Egyptian doesn’t it? Go on, take it off and let’s see what it looks like on me.” Her mum was holding out her hand.
“I can’t.” Claire was pulling at it, but the more she pulled, the tighter it seemed to grip her finger. And anyway she knew it wouldn’t fit her mum. She had big hands, just like Grandma’s.
“Soap will do it.”
But it didn’t, and Claire breathed a sigh of relief when the six o’clock news came on the radio. Someone had dropped dead on the underground; the Central line at St. Paul’s station. A new strain of bird flu. The seventh victim in the last six weeks and now doctors were predicting an epidemic. A modern day Great Plague.
Claire’s mum stopped peeling and let the potato fall back into the bowl. “Well, well, wouldn’t Grandma have been pleased to hear that? A plague… and on her doorstep too. You know she was always hoping that would happen. So she could study it at first hand.”
“But that was her job, Mum, wasn’t it? Of course she would have been interested in it.”
Grandma was a professor who’d lectured all over the world on the spread of epidemic diseases.
Who had a special interest in the history and cause and spread of bubonic plague. Who’d written books about it.
“Not a job, Claire. Not just an ordinary, everyday job. What Grandma did was a vocation.”
Claire had noticed how her mum’s face always looked pinched and sour when she talked about Grandma’s work. It looked like that now.
“Didn’t she ever tell you how on her fourteenth birthday she was given some sodding sheaf of papers, by
grandmother, who said it was a manuscript written at the time of the Great Plague? And how, from that day on, she’d been hooked.”
Manuscript, thought Claire. Was it the same sheaf of yellowing papers Grandma had left her?
“Do you know what happened to it?” Claire asked.
“Don’t know. Don’t care,” snapped her mum. “It’s just a shame she didn’t put as much energy into looking after her only child as she did into researching plagues.
all that other rubbish she was so obsessed with.”
She seemed so angry about it that when she picked up the potato and started peeling it again, the knife slipped and sliced into her finger.
Blood seeped into the flesh of the potato, staining it red. “Even now, just look what she’s made me do!”
* * *
Claire’s mum didn’t mention the ring again for days. There were just too many other things for her to worry about. Grandma’s will for one. Her mum thought she would inherit everything. Who else was there? But she couldn’t be quite sure, because they hadn’t ever really got on. And maybe everything would be left to Claire and Micky, in trust.
“From the minute I was born…” Claire’s mum, talking while she looked in the hall mirror. Checking her make-up before she went out to see the solicitor. Making a face at her reflection so the words came out all distorted. “I was such a disappointment.”
Claire was sitting on the stairs, hunched up, elbows on knees, face cupped in her hands, watching. Taking in every last little thing her mum did. The way she put on her lipstick. Smoothed out her eyebrows. Checked for stray hairs and new wrinkles. Centred the crystal she wore for luck on the gold chain around her neck.
“She always wanted a daughter with red hair.” Claire’s mum frowned. Her hand went up to touch her hair. It had once been an ordinary brown, just like Micky’s. Now it was carefully coloured a beautiful glossy chestnut. She gave it a little satisfied pat. “That’s the only thing she’d tell me about my father. He had red hair. Red-gold hair. It was like she thought it was the most important thing about him. As if she’d wanted him just for that!”
She turned and looked straight at Claire. “Of course when you were born, she was over the moon. I’d never seen her so excited. ‘At last,’ she said, as if I’d finally done something right. That really made me cross. It didn’t make her love me any more – but she loved you.”
Did she? Claire would never have guessed. Not in a million years. Grandma had always been so fierce and strict and unbending. “You need to be strong to survive in this world. Strong and independent-minded,” she’d said. “Never let your heart rule your head, or destruction will follow.”
So when her friend Katrin had said she was going off to meet up with some boy she’d met on the Internet, Grandma’s words had popped into her head and she’d found herself telling
Katrin that it was a dangerous thing to do.
“You could get murdered like that girl on the news last week. I can’t let you go. I have to tell.”
“And if you do,” Katrin had said, “I won’t be your friend any more.”
* * *
“But I had to stop her, didn’t I?” Claire desperately wanted someone to tell her she’d done the right thing. “I was scared she might have ended up dead if I didn’t. And now she’s not speaking to me.”
They had been at Grandma’s house: Claire, Micky and her mum and dad, sitting round the big mahogany table, having Sunday lunch.
Grandma had reached across the table, clutched Claire’s hand fiercely and said, “You must always do what is right, Claire. Remember that, even if what happens after is frightening and dangerous.”
She’d wanted to snatch her hand away, because her Grandma’s behaviour was making her feel really uncomfortable. “Oh, Grandma,” she’d said, “Katrin not being my friend isn’t that scary!”
“No. But what is going to happen will be and
you will need all the help I can give you. I should never have left it so late…”
* * *
Now Grandma was dead. Myocardial infarction. Heart attack. Claire’s mum had found her, sitting bolt upright in bed. A cup of tea gone cold beside her on the chest of drawers. Eyes wide open still, in surprise and shock and her hand on the newspaper with its headline:
‘BIRD FLU SWEEPS HONG KONG’
She’d been dead for two days.
* * *
“Right, I’m off.” Claire’s mum was already halfway out of the front door. “Look after Micky. Don’t let her eat all the biscuits. I’ll be back about lunchtime.” Then she slammed the door so hard, the stained-glass panels in it rattled.
Claire sat still on the stairs for a moment. Listened for the sound of the car starting and pulling
away, then jumped up and went to look for Micky.
She was in the back room, next to the kitchen. Where the TV was. And the DVD player. And the Xbox, now that they’d brought it over from the old house.
“Do you want to watch a film?” Claire asked. “I could make some popcorn and we could watch one together.” But Micky was busy. Playing some complicated game of her own. So absorbed she didn’t even answer.
For a minute, Claire just looked at her. Then she sighed loudly. “I’ll be around. Shout if you want me.” But she wouldn’t. Not for ages. Not until she was hungry.
So Claire went out and stood in the hall, wondering what on earth she could do. The whole summer stretching ahead, hot and empty. Whatever had happened between her mum and dad, it looked as if she and Mum and Micky would be living in Grandma’s house from now on. In a whole different, unfamiliar part of London. She didn’t know a single person here, except Micky and her mum.
If she was back at home, her
home, she’d be out all the time, hanging around with friends. Now she was stuck in and having to look after
Micky, because her mum was out all the time instead. Oh God. She could feel the terrible dead weight of boredom pressing down on her already and the holidays had only just started. A whole six weeks stuck in this house, with nowhere to go and no one to see. And no holiday either this year, unless they went with Dad to Cornwall, to see his sister Annie and her children. Jessica who was Micky’s age and little Jo who was still a baby. What was she going to do? How would she get through it? How would she get through the
next few hours
* * *
At first it was exciting going from room to room, peering into drawers and cupboards. Riffling through everything Grandma had kept so neat and ordered. Thinking,
She’d have gone mental if she’d caught me doing this
. Especially poking around in her study. She looked idly around at the shelves of books; mostly about epidemics and disease, but some about the history of the circus, jugglers, tightrope walkers… another of Grandma’s obsessions. Mmm. In one of those tall bendy clip things on the desk, there were two tickets…
she peered closer… for La Cirque du Sekhmet, in the Jubilee Gardens on the Embankment. The tickets were for a Wednesday, two days before her birthday. A birthday present? No. Grandma knew she hated circuses. Tucked underneath the tickets was a flyer advertising a stunt by the circus wire-walkers. A high-wire crossing of the Thames finishing in Jubilee Gardens on the Embankment. The date of the stunt, a week after her birthday, circled in Grandma’s black felt-tip pen. Then she’d glanced at the papers on the desk. Notes for a lecture Grandma had been asked to give in Austria later that summer – ‘The Great Plague of Vienna, 1679–1680’. In the margin and written in red ink, a word that made Claire stop for a moment and read on.
ABRACADABRA. Often used as a magic charm, sometimes written on a triangle of paper and worn tied about the neck on a red linen braid. It was said to guard against evil and sickness…
She shivered, even though the room was hot and stuffy. The ring was making her finger throb. It was so tight she couldn’t even twist it round.
I wish I’d never put it on
, she thought, then, suddenly, she felt quite sure that Grandma had meant her to; was still trying to influence what she did, even after death.
Well, Claire wasn’t having any of that. So she ran up to the bathroom. Soaped furiously around the ring and her finger again. But however hard she twisted, it still wouldn’t come off.
Oil. Bath oil. That might do it… but it didn’t and now there was a dark stain all down the front of her sweatshirt. She could feel hysteria rising up inside her. She picked her mum’s nail file off the windowledge and stupidly thought she could saw the ring off. The file slipped in the oil and made a gouge in her finger and now it was bleeding. She got blood on her sweatshirt too.
Then she just pulled and pulled and pulled, until it seemed like all the colour had drained out of everything and she felt cold and clammy. She sat down quickly on the toilet seat. Called out, “Micky!” But the back-room door was shut and she couldn’t or wouldn’t hear. “MICKY!”
Now she had the same weird feeling that she’d had in Grandma’s bedroom, of pressure, panic and fear. There was that smell again, musty and
sweet. The same compelling feeling someone was calling her name. Pressing in close behind her and whispering in her ear. She needed to get out. Go downstairs to Micky. But she was afraid if she stood up she would faint. So she crawled on hands and knees out of the bathroom and along the landing. Shuffled on her bottom, bump, bump, bump, down the stairs. Had just reached the last step when the back-room door opened.
Micky came out, trailing a buzz of noise, singing tunelessly, but loudly, along with music only she could properly hear, and went into the kitchen.
Claire took a deep breath and stood up. Her legs felt wobbly, but her head felt clearer. She followed Micky, who was standing over an open dresser drawer, pulling things out, sifting around, looking for something. Claire clutched at her shoulder, making her jump. She looked startled and then pulled out the earpiece, spilling music as she did. “What?”
Claire had been going to say she’d felt really ill and needed Micky to help her, but…
“Nothing. What are you doing?”
“Looking for my Star Mix. I had a whole bag
and now it’s gone. Mum’s always tidying things away. I thought she might have put them in here.”
“They’re in the next drawer along. I saw her do it.”
“Oh thanks!” said Micky and in a flash she had the sweets and was gone again. Leaving the first drawer open and empty.
Claire sighed. She started to put all the rubbish heaped on the table back in the drawer. And there, right at the bottom of the pile, was Grandma’s envelope. She reached in and pulled out the sheaf of yellowing, brittle papers, tied with a red linen braid that still had the remains of a wax seal stuck to it.
She pulled out a chair and sat down. Slipped off the red braid. Held the two pieces of the seal together. Saw that the imprint in the wax matched the carving on her ring exactly. Another piece in the puzzle. Then she counted the pages out. Tried to read the first one. But the writing was cramped and spiky-looking and the writer had made use of every spare centimetre. Lines criss-crossed from left to right and from top to bottom. And there were splatters of black ink, making it almost illegible. But on the first page there was a name, Mary, Martha… no… Margrat? A surname
beginning with a J? And on the second page, a date. The 27th day of February 1665.
She knew that date. The year the Great Plague had swept across London killing thousands. She shivered. Let the page fall from her hand. Plague. Black Death. Sickness. Fever. Imagine if those scratchy-looking words were written by someone just about to die of it.
Trying not to breath in, she shuffled the papers hurriedly together and, putting them back in the envelope, she leaned across and dropped it into the dresser drawer. She slammed the drawer shut, not noticing that her arm had swept the braid onto the floor. Then she hurriedly got up and went across to the sink, where she scrubbed and scrubbed her hands with soap. She turned on the hot tap and held her hands under the water until they turned pink with the heat.