Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Music Box

This one dates back to last summer or so, but I have a soft spot for it so thought I'd share. Now if I could only shake the tendency to kill people off...

The Music Box
The familiar chime of the doorbell roused her from the Telegraph crossword. She wasn’t expecting anyone, so chances were it was an earnest West Indian Christian or an over-eager young electricity salesman. Half-tempted to ignore it, she rallied herself, and strode with a sense of purpose along the hallway to her front door.

The postman. Of course, the postman. He handed her a cardboard box, the size of a shoebox but made of heavier card and bandaged with packing tape. A grunt and a wave of a clipboard translated as “ sign here”. With as pleasant a smile as she could muster in the face of unnecessary surliness, she signed the clipboard, barely reaching the last r-y of her surname before the clipboard was ripped away and the postman bounded off.

She made her way back to the kitchen at the end of the hall and resumed her place at the homely oak table. She laid the package on top of her unfinished crossword and considered it for a while. It was postmarked Brighton, which meant that it had something to do with Beatrice. She needed a deep breath or two before she was ready to open it.

Beatrice’s funeral had been as lonely and dismal as could be. There were just the three of them – the vicar, Alice, and that carer chap who was always sniffing around Beatrice whenever Alice called. Winter had saved the last of its bitter rain for that day; the church echoed with cold and the graveside pronouncements were made at double time.

Back in the church after the burial, Alice paused for a few minutes, deciding it was an apt moment to sit and think about her sister. Bea had died suddenly, as suddenly as anyone aged eighty could die. Pottering in her ground floor flat one moment and crumpled in a heap on the floor the next. She hadn’t suffered. Ironic that a woman whose life consisted of complaining about her suffering had missed out on the chance of a moan at the very end. When the young chap telephoned to tell her, Alice had breathed deeply – much as she did now in the church – and commented that you never knew what would get you and when. All those years of sisterly rivalry, plotting, scheming and competing – those patterns etched in childhood – and now Bea was gone. In a strange and reluctant way, Alice would miss her.

The vicar’s busy day wouldn’t permit him to dwell, but the young chap had invited Alice out for a consolatory cup of tea and slice of cake at the sort of cafĂ© you don’t find in London any more. All doilies and cake stands, nostalgic for a simpler, more delicate time. He was an interesting enough boy – boy – he said he was twenty-seven! – but she paid little attention to his story-telling and his sympathies. Instead she thought about the gap that there now was in her life – she had always been a sister and now, aged seventy-seven, she had become an only child. Whilst Bea had not been a daily presence in her life for many years, the concept of Bea, the certainty of her, had been there all these years. Yes, she would miss her.


And now this package, which must have something to do with Beatrice. Whoever had packed it had been far too flamboyant with the tape, and it took a good ten minutes with the sharpest scissors in the kitchen before she could prise open its cardboard casing. Inside, a selection of ripped up newspaper, toilet tissue and bubble wrap shielded its contents. Rummaging like a child at a fairground stall, she pulled out a folded piece of paper and a small wooden box.

She opened the paper:

Dear Mrs Flannery, It has come to our attention that the enclosed was mistakenly retained by the hospital when processing the personal belongings of Miss Beatrice Sullivan. As her next of kin, we are forwarding this on to you. We understand that Miss Sullivan was holding this item when she was brought to the hospital. We apologise for the delay in returning this to you. Please accept our apologies and our condolences at this difficult time.

It was signed by some administration manager or other at the hospital in Brighton where Beatrice had been taken, no doubt another of those interfering private sector busybodies failing to administrate and getting in the way of the nurses and doctors we really needed. It didn’t take much to get them in a muddle at the hospital. Just a small wooden box.

Alice didn’t recognise the box, but then, Bea had gathered so many bits and pieces over the years it was impossible to keep up. Always in and out of charity shops and jumble sales, car boot sales out of town when she’d been a bit more mobile, picking up this bit of bric-a-brac or that bit of old junk. So many things, small, annoying things that sat on shelves accumulating dust. When the bulk of Bea’s possessions had been sent to her, she had asked the van driver very kindly if he would mind taking them along the road to the shop for the hospice. What did she need Bea’s life for when she had her own?

The box was a curious thing, though. Rectangular, about eight inches wide and six inches deep, standing maybe four or five inches tall off the table. It was of a dark reddish wood, polished so that it had a lustre and a glow that almost seemed to pulse. The top of the box was plain, but around the sides, figures were etched into the wood – dancers, animals, quite a festive scene, based on something Greek, no doubt. At the front of the box, a small metal clasp in the shape of a goblet or chalice held the hinged lid in place.

As she lifted up the box to open it, Alice felt a charge – an electric shock, almost – leap out from the wood into her fingers. But one didn’t get electric shocks from wood, an odd sensation that only added to her curiosity. She unhooked the clasp and lifted the lid.

Mechanical music started to play – oh, the shock of it! Alice jumped in her seat, taken aback by her response to the suspense of opening a silly little box. It was a music box – she’d had one when she was a child, and bought one for her daughter Margaret when she was little. Margaret’s music box – which she would have forgotten by now with her busy life and her infrequent phone calls – Margaret’s music box had held a solo ballerina, frozen on one pointe, arms akimbo, forever spinning to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This box was much more elaborate. The tableau in front of Alice featured a series of mechanical metal figures – a dancing bear who lifted his right arm and leg in time with the music, a circus ringleader beating a tiny drum, an acrobat performing backward somersaults (a clever piece of design, she thought) and a heartbroken clown – a Pierrot – turning lonely pirouettes and dipping his head as he sobbed through his dance. Each little figure performed its ritual, isolated, unaware of its companions but completely in time with them, lead by the tinkling beat of the mechanical music.

The tune was unfamiliar, a funny, quirky melody over a strange, jarring rhythm. It seemed to repeat itself though, and every time she thought the melody and rhythm had fallen out of time, they managed to complete a circuit and fall into place again.

What a bizarre little curiosity, she thought. Typical of Bea to have picked up something like this, probably she was dusting it when she collapsed and died. Perhaps it’s worth a few pounds; she resolved to watch out for anything similar on Antiques Roadshow and maybe have a chat with that nice man at the flower shop who seemed to know about all sorts of things.

As her mind wandered, Alice had the sense that the music was growing louder, a trick to bring her attention back to the box. It worked – she focused again on the quartet of bear, ringleader, acrobat and clown and watched them strut and fret on the tiny stage. The music started to accelerate and the dancers too, although she had not wound the key. Come to think of it, there was no key; it must have a very strange mechanism to keep working this way. The music got faster and faster and the dancers’ movements became more and more blurred and Alice felt her eyes starting to struggle to pick out each arm and leg, each somersault; her ears could no longer identify the melody or the rhythm or the drumming of the ringleader. Faster and faster it all went, until the music was almost a single continuous tone and Alice started to hear instead the lively organ music of an old carousel, and the scratchy energy of her father’s old fiddle, and the swing band playing as she danced her first dance with her new husband, never were they more beautiful or more together than at that moment. And she could hear the tinny drumbeat of some young lad with headphones on walking in front of her in the street. And the pounding thump of the music from the television news. And Judy Garland singing Somewhere over the Rainbow at Christmas. And a gaggle of children singing Happy Birthday, out of time and out of tune at one of Margaret’s interminable childhood parties. And it felt to Alice that within the single tone coming from the box, she could hear every piece of music that she had ever heard, and music that she hadn’t, and music that had not yet been written, faster and faster, louder and louder, quickening her heartbeat, bringing a sheen to her brow and tremors to her hands, shivers through her fingers and her arms, sharp twitches to her legs, a jolt through her belly as if she were a little model figure dancing to the wild wild music, always and inevitably dancing simply because there was music playing, simply because someone had lifted the lid….


A few moments later, the lid snapped shut.


It was the man from the flower shop who first called the police. It had been a week or so since he saw Mrs Flannery. She always popped in for a chat when she was on her way to the fishmongers or the greengrocers, an antidote against the frenzied modernity of supermarkets and takeaways and everyone hurrying everywhere. Once he got over his initial annoyance – why couldn’t she find someone else to talk to? – he’d started to appreciate what she symbolised and to look forward to her visits.

He knew that she lived alone and independently; she had told him that her sister died not too long back and her daughter was only in contact once in a while. He’d apologised to the policeman who’d answered the phone, saying it was probably nothing and agreeing that yes, it was always better to be safe than sorry.

And so it was that the florist accompanied two policemen – one round and middle aged, the other young and stringy – to Mrs Flannery’s house. After a good ten minutes of knocking, the young, stringy policeman had displayed surprising strength and kicked the door hard enough to pop the lock straight off. As soon as they entered the house, they knew there was something wrong, the air was stale with a sweet smell of rotten honey and they could hear the buzzing of flies from the kitchen. The policemen suggested he wait in the hallway, but he was inquisitive and had never seen what he expected to see, a dead body. So he followed them in. There, slumped across the kitchen table, was Mrs Flannery, her face resting on a half finished Telegraph crossword and her hand lying close to a reddish wooden box.

The round policeman placed two fingers against Mrs Flannery’s neck. “Dead”, he said, “I’m sorry.” Walking away a few steps, he started to mutter into his radio. The stringy policeman occupied himself staring out of the kitchen window, while the florist could not quite look away from the wooden box. It had a certain light about it, a certain quality, and it almost seemed to pulse when you looked at it. He picked it up from the table, then gave out a little exclamation as he received what felt like an electric shock.

“I wouldn’t touch that, sir,” said the stringy policemen, suddenly paying attention.

“Evidence?” asked the florist.

The round policemen responded before his colleague had a chance, “ Don’t worry, sir, you go ahead. I don’t think there’s anything suspicious gone on here. Just an old lady whose time had come.”

The florist turned the box in his hand, eyeing the etchings around the edges.

“What do you think it is, sir?” one of the policemen asked, as the three men gathered closer around the object.

“ I don’t know,” said the florist, lifting the lid….


A few moments later, the lid snapped shut.

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