In the dark, he felt how close she was. He had always been a clumsy boy, who had grown into an awkward nineteen year old man. Not that he felt like a man – he was a ‘guy’, a ‘male’ at most, but certainly not a man.
She was his opposite. She wasn’t awkward at all; she was beautiful and confident, always top of the class. He had fallen in love with her at a young age, silently and distantly. Her hands were soft on his face – warm, even in the heat of the day. He didn’t mind that he couldn’t see her, she was always there, whenever he closed his eyes.
In the dark, he listened to the silence of the quarry, listened to her gentle breath as she whispered in his ear: “Hi.”
“Hi,” he said, still sitting with his eyes closed as she moved and sat beside him. He felt the wood of the pontoon settle. She was so close he could feel her warmth, breathing in way she smelled, clean clothes and body spray. Their arm lightly brushed.
“What are you thinking about,” she asked, as usual.
“You. At school.” He opened his eyes, squinting in sun.
“Bobby!” He jumped as her voiced pinged between the glistening walls of the flooded slate quarry to where he sat. He was alone, on the old wooden pontoon someone had built years ago, waiting for her for over an hour. But she wasn’t late, she came exactly when she said she would.
Bobby searched the cliff’s edge for her silhouette against the perfect blue sky. He felt that familiar swoop in his stomach as he watched her flutter effortlessly down the rock face and down to the edge of the pool on the other side of the quarry.
“Hi,” Bobby shouted back, “about time!”
She stopped, and he could make her out checking her watch. “It’s only four o’clock now,” she said, confused, “I said four, didn’t I?”
He laughed as she came around the water’s edge, a perfect mirrored surface. “Yeah, you did. I’ve been here a while, though.”
With the wooden clump of her shoes on the boards, he mentally counted the steps – four, five, six. He stared out over the quarry, the sun’s kiss warming his arms and knees as his legs dangled over the edge of the water. Then her soft hands covered his eyes.
“ ‘Keep all of your’ what’s?” he asked his mother. He had brought down the two photographs and the book to show her. His mother had simply stared silently as he explained what he’d found. He showed her their photograph. And her note. She took them with shaky hands, willing herself to unlock the past as easily as her son had unlocked the drawer. She simply shook her head, a frail hand clasped over her quivering lips.
“He kept them all those years…” she spoke as if to herself, as the years of her life faded into one intoxicating rush, and she was back with him in her prime, coy and excited and innocent. “It’s time,” she said, and Arthur watched her stare through him like a shadow.
He was unnerved by her reaction; his mother had almost been as distant as his father.
“Barton Manor is a very old school,” she said, holding her hand out for the picture of Arthur. “All the boys of this family have attended down the years, as you did. However,” she studied the picture a moment, “this is not you.”
“It’s written…father said…”
“…that you’d find truth?”
“Then you must look for it.”
Inside, was a small leather-bound book with yellowing pages. On the front was the same symbol as the wooden box and below that, a single word: Axioms. It was printed in black laminate, as though glossy on the front of the black book. Hidden truths, he thought to himself, amused.
The book itself contained little that interested Arthur – it seemed to be some kind of doctrine, a guideline for a society or cult or something of that nature. It was his father’s own copy, the perfectly neat inscription on the inside: Truth is not to be feared if there are none who act upon it; our time is like a watch set on the walls. We cannot speak of what we seek, but hand it on when we are gone.
He mused over these words, flicking back through the book again. Neatly placed about two-thirds of the way through, he found a note, and another picture. Arthur recognised his mother’s face more than his father’s, but they were both beautiful in youth. The note was in her handwriting: cursive and flowing, as in every birthday and Christmas card: This is for you to keep, as I keep all of yours.
“Ask if you need anything,” she called. Then, in the silence that followed, he knew she’d gone back to whatever she had been doing.
He stood and went to the window, looking down into the garden. He saw clearly, as though projected onto the grass, a young version of himself playing in the garden with his younger brother. Hours were spent, acting out adventures about spies on dangerous missions to take down corrupt political leaders and save the world from tyranny. They would work together, the perfect duo. He remembered often looking up, longing for father’s attention, seeing him standing in the window watching, from where Arthur stood now. He’d never known his father’s occupation, something official, government work of some sort for the home office, but he never shared specifics.
Turning back to the treasure found in the desk, Arthur was no closer to ‘the truth’. He took his father’s letter, reading again for some missing hint, but it’s meaning remained unchanged.
The box on the table remained closed, its mysterious symbol drawing Arthur’s attention. It was vaguely familiar, although it remained tantalisingly out of focus in his mind. He opened the lid, doubting that he’d find anything revelatory inside.
He turned the photograph over, looking again at the image. It was a definitely a photo of him at school, the school that generations of boys in his family has attended. Yet, as he stared again, he tried to recall this moment. Something bugged him, a nagging thought lurking deep in the chapters of memory that he had not delved into in many years. It was a whispered thought in a crowded mind, barely heard over the confusion crowding in. He placed the photograph carefully on the tabletop, neatly in the corner, and turned his attention to the drawer again.
The only things that remained now were three more photographs, each with men he did not recognise, and a smaller wooden case, which housed two fountain pens of his father’s, which he recognised instantly. He took one and inspected it closely. The brushed steel surface was cool to the touch. He unscrewed the pen’s cap, finding that the nib was lightly crusted by long-dried ink. He replaced the cap and put it back next to its twin in the case.
His mother’s ancient voice crept up the stairs, startling him: “Arthur, are you alright?”
“Fine, mother,” he called, “just thinking.”
The drawer slid open with little effort. Unlike the other things in the room, the drawer’s mechanism was still in perfect condition. It released the distinctive smell that is only achieved by such prolonged neglect; not unpleasant at all, rather, it enticed him further, adding a sense of grandeur to this discovery. He was struck by the absurd idea that in this moment he was, in many ways, closer to his father than he ever had been in his childhood.
He took out a stack of letters, that lay at the top of the drawer. Most were addressed to his father. He had a quick flick through, although no names meant anything to him. Beneath the letters in the drawer there was an old box: wooden, skillfully carved with some kind of crest, an emblem or seal, perhaps. Then, beneath that, he made the most surprising discovery: a photograph of himself on a horse, taken many years before, at school, when he was a boy.
Gingerly, he took out the photograph. Of all of the events in the last couple of days, this had unsettled him the most. He turned over the photograph: Arthur, here lies. Barton Manor, late 1869.