Saturday, 22 March 2014

The suitcase

Short Story in the Fantastic Genre

The Suitcase
Wordcount: 4503
The reading of a will is always somewhat awkward, particularly when one didn't really know the deceased and just happens to fall into that extended family that's been left an inheritance by default. Poor Aunt Martha looks positively rancid sitting over there, it won't be long before it's her turn in the dirt. Caroline Derville a young sort of pretty woman who I remember to be a designer in London is pouring tea. She had married into the family a few years ago. Her husband had since died but since she was here I supposed that meant she was still on friendly terms with the family. As for everyone else; I recognised the odd face and a rather peculiar smell of old perfume, but names evaded me. I had not in truth been the best nephew of the dead man, and since my own parents passing away five years ago, I had neglected to visit or even respond to invitations.

What was family anyway? A bunch of people who pretend to get on and care for each other when most the time they can't stand one another and are bonking off with each other's husbands and wives.  Well its true isn't it? There's never a well to do family party without one married person eyeing up another; an affair takes place, the gossip breaks, perhaps a maid saw a naked rear end in the middle of the night retreating quickly and quietly from one room to another, and then there's a scandal, some grandmother or such will be taken over by the vapours for the threat of such tabloid gossip, then it's all hushed up with money and family solidarity and then everything goes along as it did before. Indeed, such is the life of upper class families, they all muddle along, waiting for someone to die and leave them a chunk of estate, hoping secretly a few people will get murdered in the meantime to increase the size of their cut. I decided to remove myself from such a family atmosphere. I have plenty of friends in London, from University and from the museum where I work my week out as a historian. I've always been more interested in the past than the present, nothing exciting ever happens here, it's all happened before and I missed it!

The room has grown terribly smaller with the arrival of the family, they're munching on salmon sandwiches as if they don't know there is another platter awaiting in the lounge, but they do know. I just want to get this over with and get going, I feel strange enough that this Uncle Martin, the brother of my father, has bequeathed me something and I wasn't even around when he died: I was in Rome, studying for a Roman invasion expedition we're holding at the museum. Everyone here seems 'jolly glad' to see me, except Edward, that's the son of my dead uncle, so he'll be getting the lions share I presume. He's an unpleasant sort of fellow, not entirely bad looking but with a sour expression as if he smells something gone off, that may just be that he's standing over poor aunt Martha, the woman positively looks like a corpse! I actually think she may have dozed off. Edward's glared at me once or twice and greeted me with a 'didn't expect you here, glad to see you again' in such a tone as to suggest he couldn't care less if I'd been thrown under a train on my journey here.

Mr Dawson finally coughs a few times for attention and then a few more, Edward raises his voice

"Can everyone take a seat, let's get on with this reading"

Everyone hushes and sits, Aunt Martha is still asleep.

 "Right then, we are here for the reading of the will of Martin Cornilius Carter. As well as a small amount left to myself, Martin was a firm supporter of the local hospital and has donated the sum of a hundred pounds to their new wing while the rest-"

"Get on with it Dawson, we're not interested in the bloody hospital." Edward interrupted speaking through his cigarette pursed lips, "how much are we all going to get?"

Mr Dawson, who was not particularly an old man, but had I understand been a close companion to my uncle looked as if he wanted to smack Edward across the face for his ill manners, however his countenance recovered and he smiled rather strangely, like a cat toying with a mouse it knows it will eat.

"Very well. The will reads thus:

      My family, I finally died then, I'm sure you're all happy about it, especially my son Edward, as unfeeling a son I could ever have been burdened with, he's been trying to poison me for years! 
(At this Edward spluttered and coughed into his drink)

But I never drink before bed, weak bladder.

To each of you I leave the small sum of eight hundred pounds as a token of my death and to not have you feel this was a wasted journey in train fare, although Martha may want to give hers up now if she's still kicking, the woman can't have long left...

There was a pause in which we all looked at poor aunt Martha still oblivious to the goings on around her.

I leave my Tiffany Lamp to Mrs Drover our cousin for you admired it greatly.

The oil painting in the third bedroom to Peter for your collection

And my suitcase, an object that was dear to me in my youth and which I have treasured with more than sentiment, to my nephew Henry, perhaps it will expand your historical knowledge beyond book learning.

My son Edward, I leave my membership at the club where I hope he shall drink himself to death, and my horse King Charles, he's of a violent temperament and may with luck throw him off and crack his neck.

Now for the main chunk of my estate, I leave my home 'Riverdown' and all its grounds to the only one of you I really liked and who will appreciate it, Mrs Derville, the wife of my late beloved second cousin, the estate income being in the region of around fifteen thousand pounds. My shares in the sugar business I have sold for the sum of eight thousand pounds I leave to my nephew Henry Carter, the son of my brother Richard and a finer fellow than my son, I hope to increase his career and knowledge in history which I myself was such a great scholar of.

And so concludes the will.

I was in rather a shock, I hadn't expected so much, but Edward, Edward was past shock. I had watched his face grow redder and redder and his fists clench and unclench, and finally now he blew up in outrage, but it did no good, the will was written in steel and had been written it seemed two years ago well before my uncle was in his sick bed, Caroline looked positively pale, I suppose her designer job paid well enough to keep her in that charming fox fur but the estate was a tidy income and a lot of responsibility, unless she chose to sell up, I wondered if she had any family of her own she would move into the house.

To settle the situation between Mr Dawson and Edward I remarked that someone should wake Aunt Martha! She after all had been left a little sum, everyone fell silent and looked at Aunt Martha, the only one still sitting, she was ever so still and pale, but then according to Mrs Drover she always was. We all stared at her a minute and I wasn't the only one to wonder 'has she died?' It was Caroline in the end who ventured out a hand to touch Martha's shoulder, "Aunt Martha, are you with us?" She said gently, no response, we all assumed the worse and I think Caroline was about to see if it was so, when Aunt Martha's eyes shot open and she jumped violently

"Did I get the suitcase?" She cried

And everyone jumped and sighed,

"No aunt, Henry got that. But you have eight hundred pounds to spend, isn't that lovely."

"No suitcase, oh, never mind."

She looked awfully down about it for a moment but soon her head bobbed up and the rather oddly coloured half wool half net hat she wore bobbed along with her.

"Look here if Aunt Martha wanted the suitcase I don't mind..."

"Oh no!" Cried Mr Dawson "There are to be no exchanges, Martin was very specific on that, the suitcase is yours Mr Carter, and I trust you will respect it with the same care your uncle had for it." He said it so seriously I felt a little like a scolded school boy for suggesting to give the damn thing up. "I actually have it here with me," mr Dawson removed a sheet from a box I hadn't noticed and revealed the suitcase to me. Considering uncle Martin had treasured it, the thing was rather tatty. Frayed at the corners and discoloured but it had a certain character, a crisp steel four digit combination lock was on it, and a letter had been tied to the handle. I tilted my head and saw it was addressed to me in what I assume to be uncles slanted hand writing.

Caroline addressed the room,

"If anyone wants to stay at Riverdown this evening please feel welcome, I have coffee and cake waiting , I've been put up there for a few weeks now while the funeral was settled, and now it's actually mine I feel I'm entitled to invite guests, it would really be nice to have company for a while."

Everyone seemed pleased with this, except Edward, who stormed out of the office slamming doors.

I folded my coat over one arm and took the suitcase in another,

"I'd be delighted to take you up on that, I was going to pitch up at the local pub but cake sounds too good to skip out on."

I lugged the bloody suitcase up two flights of stairs to a room in Riverdown, where I was to be put up for the night. Despite being a handheld case it still had rather a weightiness to it and by the time I reached my room I had knocked my knees with it twice and resented it wholly. Leaving the damn thing at the end of the bed for most of the night I decided to read the letter later.
When I came back up after dinner I was amazed to find a set of ladders poking above the windowsill of the open window, someone was climbing up. Mr Dawson, who it seemed has resided at Riverdown during my uncles illness, was to be put up for the next week until he travelled to Manchester. He had come up the stairs with me and I called into the hall after him, "I say! Dawson, someone's trying to break in here" the climber must have heard for they began to scramble back down, in the dark I couldn't make out a face, neither could Dawson who came up behind me and peered through the window with me, but the buggar ran off and left the ladders, "how peculiar" I remarked "Why this room I wonder, and why tonight when there are more people about the house than usual?" 
My gaze unconsciously darted to the suitcase, the handle was drooping down in a sort of sad grimace as if it felt neglected for my leaving it and my earlier resentment for the object turned momentarily into regret.
Mr Dawson gave me a peculiar look before he left my room, as if he thought I’d imagined the climber like a nervous boy with wild goings on in his head, but then his glance also turned to the suitcase on the floor, I thought for a moment that there was a hunger in his eyes but it quickly vanished and I ignored the sudden feeling of uncertainty inside my chest. I wondered if it had been Edward at the window, he was dreadfully put out by the contents of the will. What if he thought to take the suitcase out of spite? With this in mind I hauled the suitcase closer to the bed and locked the window.

I was dreadfully tired, and still I hadn't opened the letter, I'd do it in the morning, I had a train to catch back to London and bed was calling me. The suitcase sat on the table and I wondered briefly if it had anything in it, before I fell asleep. 
I was tormented by terrible dreams that night: of climbing into the suitcase and locking myself in despite that I know I couldn’t get in there. I felt suffocated and the suitcase wouldn’t let me go, as if it had a mind of its own! I could hear its heartbeat thudding and I was trapped inside it. I awoke several times in a sweat and sighed when morning finally came.

Waiting for my train, a man in work men's clothes approached me and offered to buy uncle martins suitcase, I was so taken aback I gripped the handle of the suitcase more tightly,

"I'm sorry but it has sentimental value."

The man was insistent

"I can offer you fifty pounds."

"It's not for sale, I'm sorry."

I frowned at the man who looked shifty and dismissively I strolled away to the other end of the platform, I stood for about five minutes when I heard

"That's him there!" I turned in time to see, the man who had pestered me followed by three other surly looking chaps, running towards me. Natural instinct was to run, but what had I to run from?

"Look here chaps, what's all this about?"

"Just hand over the suitcase and be on your merry way."

"I've told the fellow no, it's not for sale."

One of the men tried to grab the case from my hand and I backed away gripping it tighter, "I say this is robbery, get away from me. Officer!" A train was about to pull away and I ran for the doors, jumping into the carriage almost losing my hat in the process I sighed in relief as the men scrambled away. No one either on the platform nor the train seemed perturbed by the commotion, finding this awfully curious I took a moment to gather my wits before taking a seat. Pulling the suitcase up onto my knees I found I was almost hugging it. What the devil was that about? Men climbing up windows, thieves in the station! It hadn’t rained in a while either, was England going positively barmy? Perhaps there is something of value in this suitcase, after all I hadn't opened it yet, and the letter was still dangling from its handle a little creased but still intact and sealed. But then how did these apparently random characters know anything about it, did my uncle make public his costly possessions? By the time I was seated comfortably in a train compartment bound for London, I had entertained several ideas, perhaps the suitcase contained a secret will, one to disinherit everyone and leave all to the hospital, perhaps there were precious jewels and uncle had been a notorious jewel thief none of us knew about! Perhaps there was a mummified hand of some scandalous maid uncle had murdered to keep quiet but had kept her arm as a memento.
I couldn’t take my hands or eyes from the suitcase. I noticed for the first time that two areas on its surface were substantially frayed and tarnished by time’s dust and grime, the marks struck me as looking somewhat like eyes. I felt a sudden sickly churning within my stomach, feeling as if the suitcase was watching me. The leather corners held deep scratch marks where perhaps it had been dragged along the floor…or clawed at by possessive hands? I shook myself, shuddering my shoulders as if that might disperse the sudden ominous atmosphere.
I was surprised to see that the combination lock was not active and on opening the case—good lord! The interior reeked of staleness and a hint of that familiar perfume I recognised from the will reading. Other than an overwhelming desire to slam to case shut again I was extremely disappointed to not find anything inside. It was lined with purple fabric and struck me rather grimly as resembling the inside of a coffin. I closed the lid again, waving my handkerchief in front of my face to expel the lingering odour and took the letter. It, like the case, was rather weighty written on good thick paper. 

Dear nephew,

     We have not by any means been close or even mingled together in any sort of society since you left for university, however your father Richard and I were very close, and he tells me you have had a flare for history since you were a young boy. My own son has disappointed me in many ways and has no interest in the past or indeed the future, he is a selfish boy only concerned with the here and now of his own little life. And yet this suitcase is dear to me, and it should be passed onto family. I came by this from my grandfather and it's given me great enjoyment and knowledge, but also with it comes a great burden. If you have not already you will soon learn there are people around you who will do anything to get their hands on this suitcase, some might kill you for it therefore you must guard it and keep it safe at all times as I have done before you.

This is no everyday item my boy, this is one of a rare few dying breeds. There aren’t many left as far as I know, I spent a good part of my life studying and looking for others with little luck. This is a portal.

Here are your instructions:

Take off your clothes, everything from socks to your hat and place them in the suitcase, also a wise addition would be some money and identification depending on how far you're going back. Shut it up and using the lock combination choose a year...when you re-open the suitcase your clothes will have transformed into the exact clothes worn in that year, they will be of the same quality of the clothes you put in and the money will have changed too. Once you're fully dressed, you will no longer be in 1959, you will have travelled back to the year you have chosen, to where your clothes suit, the suitcase too. You learn to be adaptive and a quick thinker, and to come back you need only reverse the process. You can't go forward, only back and you cannot and should not attempt to change major events, every death and birth is pre written it seems and will happen despite any attempt at change, but you can experience history, you can live it. There are people, time thieves that want the portals of the world to steal the time from them for immortality, you cannot let this happen. We are the keepers of time, it has fallen upon our family for this portal and it must be respected and treasured.

Mr Dawson is my trusted friend, he knows everything, and he will guide you when necessary.

You have my faith,

  Uncle Martin

I say, uncle Martin was off his trot. How long before he died did he write this? Its jolly good for a mental person, I wonder is Caroline knows. I mean he can't be serious, these strange men surely can't believe these nonsense. A time machine indeed, stealing time, immortality! What rot. And thinking Mr Dawson must have supported such fantasies, and he a man of education too, a man of the law, well it's absurd. I stuffed the letter into the pocket of my jacket and spent the rest of the journey mulling over whether or not to continue to lug this suitcase to my London apartment or just dump it in the stations lost property box, it seemed silly to keep hold of it after such a revelation. And still it also seemed callous to the last wishes of my uncle to just dispose of it, mad or not he clearly valued this and had left it in trusted hands. I would make use of it as a shoe box or something once I returned home.

 A few days later I had not used the suitcase for a shoe box, in fact I’d stowed it beneath my bed and found myself every night waking in a sort of panic checking to see that it was still there. The day I was to return to work at the museum I was inconceivably reluctant to leave the blasted thing alone in my room, I debated taking it into work with me but what cause did I have to lug such a thing around? I told myself I was being downright foolish and left for work. As I walked to work my footsteps echoed like the beating of a heart, I thought of the suitcase unguarded in my room. I half turned back twice and ended up being late.
Mr Gilam, my employer; a short overly podgy man with tiny shrunken eyes that squint behind his glasses, sought me out on my arrival. The man had always struck me to resemble a fat mole that’s sprouted as a carrot does from beneath the ground and squinted in the direct sunlight. His shiftiness put me on edge as he told me in haste that he was very concerned regarding some gossip he had heard from Lucy one of the cleaners in the museum, who happened to be the cousin or niece or something of my landlord. Mr Gilam had been told, in no uncertain terms, that they feared I was going around the bend after the death of my uncle. I had been heard muttering and shouting out in my sleep and hadn’t eaten properly for the last few days. I say what the devil are these people about? How dare they discuss my personal habits with my employer, how inappropriate! And to think I had left my precious suitcase in my room alone, under their safe keeping! I was thinking to excuse myself from work in order to retrieve the suitcase from home when Mr Gilam spoke up again and asked me what the business was about this strange suitcase. I almost recoiled back from him.
“What the devil! How do you…What’s this got to do with my suitcase?” I demanded
“Well the cleaning lady mentioned that you won’t let it from your sight, and have for three days carried it into the dining area, only to hardly eat a bite anyway. Look Henry, I’m concerned…”
The mole wasn’t able to finish voicing his concerns, I already had one arm in my jacket and the other on the door handle,
“I must go Mr Gilam, my landlord wants my suitcase, and he won’t get it I tell you, it’s mine! It was left to me, it’s mine! I must go!”
“Henry dear chap, what’s all this about?”
“He’s a time thief don’t you see! I must make haste.”
I ran from Mr Gilam, cursing myself for speaking so brazenly to him. After all I could trust no one, the squinty old scoundrel might be one too! I ran like a mad man the three streets from the museum to the house, flying into my room and to the suitcase. One coincidence too many had me stripping off my clothes. They all wanted my suitcase, I must get it out of here. I had to follow Uncle’s instructions. Tripping over my trouser legs as I fumbled out of everything I crammed each item into the suitcase along with a wad of money from a savings tin under the bed, I closed the lid standing in my bedroom stark naked and chilly. Turning my shivering attention to the four digit combination, I chose 1840 in a hurry and holding my breath re opened the suitcase. If I were a man of lesser stuff I may well have fainted, my clothes had transformed into the perfect outfit I'd need for Victorian London, a calf length frock coat, waist coat, breeches, shirt, cravat and my trilby was now a fine top hat. I quickly gathered a few more outfits and threw them inside intending to stay a while if this actually worked and put on the original outfit. As I pulled on the leather knee high boots I jerked back as if falling off my feet from a terrific blow and then straightened up breathing slowly, had anything happened I wasn't sure then I looked about myself and I felt slightly sick. My room was no longer my room, I could hear unfamiliar noises out of the window, I peered down and laughed in amazement, my suitcase and I were in Victorian England. There was a commotion below where a horse and carriage had halted in the road for the gentleman aboard to converse with a well-dressed lady upon a grey mare, across the road was an ale house tossing out a drunken chimney sweep with a sooty face. I heard a knock on the door behind me and jumped immediately hauling up the suitcase into my arms protectively.
Meanwhile still in 1959, a young maid entered Mr Carter’s room to carry out the weekly housekeeping, she noticed immediately that the wardrobe doors were thrown open and a selection of clothes were missing. She stepped on a half crumpled piece of paper, which had fallen it seemed from a jacket pocket tossed over a chair, an envelope cast nearby. Picking up the apparent letter she frowned noticing it was blank never the less she smoothed it out and put it atop of a tatty old suitcase sat on the bed. The suitcase struck her as being extremely odd but for reasons she couldn’t put her finger on. It seemed to stand out and glare at her as she went about her cleaning. Finally the maid grew so agitated by the object that she turned to leave without changing the bed sheets, not wanting to touch the suitcase. As she left she turned back and fancied she had heard a voice, for a moment she had a horrifying thought of someone being trapped inside the case. She longed almost desperately to open it up but it simply wasn’t done for maids to open a gentleman’s suitcase. So she hurried away telling herself that she must stop reading the thrillers Betsy lent her. 

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