What’s in there?
I lie on my bed staring up at the cupboard-the one that has never opened. Its contents have been a mystery to me for as long as this bedroom has been mine, which is to say, all my life. When I was little I imagined it full of toys. Barbie dolls mainly. I liked to imagine that those I’d lost or broken would somehow find their way into this cupboard, and one day I’d open it to find them all there, mended by some unseen magic that only worked behind a closed door.
In truth, there’s probably nothing in it but dust. Maybe a dead insect or two. Why even have a cupboard that high up? No one can reach it without standing on something. Not even Dad, and he’s over six foot. Given its lofty position and apparent redundancy, is it any wonder my child’s imagination ran wild? The other cupboards are all familiar to me. I know their contents off by heart because I put them there, but this one remains a mystery. An unexplored realm, the final frontier of my childhood bedroom.
That’s when I make the decision. After all this time, I’m going to find out what’s in it. There’s nothing stopping me. I launch myself off the bed and set off in search of the ladder. I find it in the outhouse, hemmed into a shadowy corner by the lawnmower and old tins of paint. By the time I have wrestled it free, I am covered in cobwebs.
Back into the house I go, narrowly missing the mirror in the hall as I haul the ladder up the stairs. Once it’s in position, I stand back and look at it for a moment. My heart is hammering, and not from dragging the ladder upstairs. It is the prospect of what I am about to find that has ratcheted my pulse rate up. It might be something special, or it might be nothing at all. The only way to find out is to find out.
The steps are rickety and splattered with paint from many a redecoration. The latch on the cupboard has also been painted over, sealed shut by a coating of thick white gloss. It takes several minutes of picking at it with my fingernails to free it, and several more of wiggling it back and forth before it will turn. I try to pull it open but the door doesn’t budge. Determined, I brace with my left hand on the wooden frame, and with my right I give an almighty tug.
With a crack like a gunshot the door unseals itself. The force of it throws me backwards and the ladder gives an alarming lurch. For a few seconds it tilts on two legs, me frantically scrabbling at the door in a desperate attempt to cling on. I just about manage it, although several expletives find their way out of my mouth during those few seconds.
Balance regained, I peer into the cupboard. My stomach promptly stops doing somersaults and sinks. There is nothing there. No childhood toys, no long-lost Barbie dolls, not even so much as a dead woodlouse. I am so disappointed I could cry, which is ridiculous. What was I expecting, really?
I heave a dejected sigh and am about to close the cupboard door when something stops me. At first I think I must be imagining it. That it is just my wishful thinking. But no. I can hear voices. Far off. Muffled. But definitely voices. And the strangest thing is, I think I recognise them.
‘Nah, I don’t believe ya. It ain’t ’er. She ain’t comin’. Not after all this time.’
‘Shush, Brenda, I’m telling ya it’s ’er.’
Of course. I knew I recognised them.
My stomach has risen from its sunken position and has resumed its earlier gymnastics. Tentatively, I reach out a hand and gently push the panel at the back of the cupboard. It swings backwards on a set of concealed hinges, revealing the entrance to what looks like a tunnel.
‘I’ll believe that when I see it.’
The voices are louder now, the words clearer, but they still have a distant, slightly echoey quality to them. Suddenly I know where this tunnel will take me. I know because it’s obvious. All I have to do is follow it.
I place my left foot on the top bar of the ladder and push off. For a few seconds I am suspended, my head and torso inside the cupboard, my legs dangling in the air. It takes a great deal of undignified wriggling, but I am able to propel myself forwards a few inches at a time.
The tunnel is wider than I anticipated. Much wider than the cupboard itself, and high enough for me to be able to crawl along on all fours rather than on my stomach. The walls and ceiling are made of rock and appear to be sparkling, as if they are embedded with tiny crystals. Beneath me is a layer of soft, granular soil, so fine it’s almost like sand. The air is cool and surprisingly fresh; there is even a light breeze blowing from somewhere.
As I expected, the tunnel slopes steeply downwards before curving round to the left. As I edge my way forward, it occurs to me that I must be inside the walls themselves, although how a tunnel like this could go undetected I do not know. Nor do I know where the soft golden light is coming from, but I am grateful for it as I make my descent.
Twenty minutes I spend crawling along, all the while with the curious feeling that there are people listening. They are somewhere up ahead and out of sight, but they are there. I can sense them. Although I have no map to hand, I know exactly where I am. I know that Ruskin Road is behind me, that I have passed beneath Newman Road and am now heading diagonally towards Tennyson, to that big corner house where they lived all those years ago.
They are waiting for me. When I come up through a trapdoor in the back yard, they rush forwards to greet me.
‘Here she is!’ Grandad Pete announces, a huge grin on his face. He is wearing his tweed flat cap just like in the photos. ‘I told ya, didn’t I, Brenda?’
Nanny Brenda is here too, her eyes sparkling behind her thick round glasses.
‘’Ow am ya, bab?’ she says in her thick Wolverhampton accent, so friendly and familiar. I had that accent once upon a time. University and adulthood have smoothed away most of the edges. Now all I have is a faint twang, although plenty of people are still convinced that my accent is strong. What on earth would they think if they heard a real Wolverhampton accent? I imagine their confused, slightly horrified faces and it makes me chuckle.
‘I’m fine, Nan,’ I tell her, ‘How are you?’
Her eyebrows contract slightly. No doubt she expected me to reply in a similar accent, and the fact that I haven’t has thrown her. It’s not the done thing around here to pronounce the letter h, nor to use the correct form of certain verbs with certain pronouns. It’s not that we don’t know what’s correct and what isn’t, it’s just how we do things. Although try telling that to some people from the Home Counties.
‘Oh ya know, same old same old,’ says Nanny Brenda, recovering herself. ‘Are you ’ungry?’
‘Don’t de daft, y’am lookin’ ever so skinny. Come on in and I’ll do ya a fry-up.’
She turns and bustles off into the house before I can point out that at no point in my life have I ever been skinny. Grandad Pete shoots me a smile that says it would be rude to refuse and we follow her indoors.
‘I bet ya don’t remember this place, do ya?’ he says as I step over the threshold into the kitchen.
‘Not much,’ I reply truthfully. ‘It’s been so long since I was last here.’
Twenty-five years, in fact. I was two weeks shy of four when Grandad passed away, and five and a half when Nanny went. My memories of them and of this place are threadbare at best. Most of them are second-hand, passed down to me through stories other people have told me. They feed into my perception of them, but they’re not my stories. That’s why it’s so good to see them again as an adult.
After a huge fry-up courtesy of Nanny Brenda, Grandad takes me on a tour of the house. First he shows me the master bedroom, completely unremarkable except for the fact there are two birds in there.
A soft hooting alerts me to the presence of the owl on top of the wardrobe. I look up and see a barn owl peering down at us from behind a cardboard box, its beady black eyes like pools of dark water.
‘’Ow’ve ya managed to get out again?’ Grandad Pete asks the owl. ‘Last time ya did that ya scared Brenda ’alf to death.’ He pronounces it deff rather than death. We do not say the th sound around here. Turning to me, he says, ‘Ain’t she pretty? I found ’er on the way ’ome from the pub one night. She was injured so I picked ’er up and brought ’er back ’ere til she’s better.’
But of course, I already know this story. Dad has told it to me many times; it is a staple of our reminiscing sessions. The owl rescue happened long before I was even born, before they lived in this house. So what is it doing here?
Before I can ask, my attention is wrenched away by a loud quacking from over by the window. I peer around the bed, knowing what I am about to see but curious nonetheless. Sure enough, there is a duck in a washing up bowl, swimming round in circles and quacking as it goes.
‘Oh God, not you an’ all!’ sighs Grandad Pete. He goes over to the bedside table, opens a draw and takes out a mouth organ. He then proceeds to play the mouth organ to the duck in an apparent bid to quieten it, although the duck only quacks louder.
Of all the stories I have been told about Grandad Pete, this one is my favourite. The tale of how he came home from the pub one Christmas Eve and, for some unfathomable reason, began playing the mouth organ to a duck. Why was there a duck? Who knows? Why was it in a bowl? No idea, but it is easily one of the funniest stories anyone has ever told me.
The sight of this curious double act reduces me to fits of hysterical laughter, which only serves to egg Grandad on. He plays in an increasingly flamboyant fashion, until Nanny Brenda yells, ‘Will you pack it in!’ up the stairs, at which point he desists.
It is then that I realise what’s happening. That all the stories I have been told about Nan and Grandad are coalescing, condensing themselves into a single visit like a movie montage. It does not matter how long ago these things happened, whether they took place here or in a different house. History is transplanting itself for my benefit, and I cannot wait to see more.
There are no surprises from thereon in, and yet everything is a surprise. Back in the living room, we find Nanny Brenda sitting so close to the fire that the skin on her shins is starting to frazzle.
‘Brenda, ya’m burning!’ Grandad yells.
‘What you on about?’ Nanny Brenda waves a dismissive hand at him. ‘I like being warm.’
‘Warm? You’ll be on fire in a minute!’
He knows she won’t take any notice, so with an exasperated sigh he leaves her. The smell of singed clothing follows us out into the hall.
‘I’ll show ya the animals,’ Grandad says, leading me over to the kitchen window.
The back yard, which was empty when I arrived, is now teeming with dogs and birds.
‘That’s Honey there,’ he says, pointing to a beautiful Golden Labrador. Honey is lying in the sun fast asleep, alongside a couple of spindly greyhounds that are used for hunting rabbits. I happen to know that one of them has a liking for chicken, and once managed to steal the Sunday roast fresh out of the oven. After wrestling it back, Nanny Brenda washed it off and instructed the kids not to tell their dad. I’m not going to be the one to break it to him after all these years.
There are ducks in the yard too, which probably explains the presence of the one in the bedroom, as well as chickens and several geese. I’m glad they weren’t there when I arrived; those geese are vicious. I’ve heard tales of them pecking people’s fingers as they come in through the side gate. How many of these birds will find their way into the pot, I wonder. Most if not all of them, probably. I crane my neck, trying to see if I can spot a chicken with a lazy eye. He must be out there somewhere.
Funny Eye was my auntie’s pet chicken when she was growing up. Every night she would save some of her own dinner for him, until that fateful day when, on announcing that she was going to feed Funny Eye, Nanny Brenda told her, ‘You’ll ’ave a job, he’s just fed you.’ Lainey was heartbroken, as anyone who had unknowingly eaten their own beloved pet would be.
Before I can spot the ill-fated bird, there comes a sharp knock on the front door.
‘Ah, that’ll be the council,’ says Grandad Pete with a conspiratorial wink. I follow him out into the hall and hang back as he opens the door to a disgruntled looking man with a clipboard. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he gets straight to the point.
‘It has come to our attention that a newly erected telegraph pole has been cut down right outside your house. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about it, would you?’
‘I’m afraid not,’ Grandad Pete says. He is remarkably convincing, somehow managing to tow the line between innocence, confusion and sincere regret at not being able to help. I wish I could act like that.
‘You didn’t see or hear anything?’
‘Nothing. I’d tell ya if I ’ad. Ya didn’t see or hear anything, did ya, Brenda?’
‘Nothing at all,’ Nanny Brenda calls from her chair by the fire.
I take a few steps forward and peer round the doorway into the living room. Next to the fire is a basket piled high with the splintered remains of the telegraph pole. The metal rungs are still attached, incontestable proof should anyone happen to look through the window.
‘Well, if you do hear anything please don’t hesitate to give us a call,’ says the man from the council.
‘I will do,’ Grandad Pete vows before closing the door.
We manage to contain our laughter for the few seconds it takes the council worker to reach the end of the path, and then all three of us begin howling uncontrollably. The noise is enough to draw out the mouse that lives down the back of the sofa. It comes skittering out into the hall and streaks away towards the kitchen, pursued by a ferret that can only belong to Grandad. I jump back in alarm as they dart past me, the ferret almost colliding with my feet. I watch it go, wondering if this is the same animal Grandad once threw at Auntie Ness in a bid to get her labour going. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Shame really. Think of all the time, money and resources that could be saved if all it took to induce labour was chucking a ferret at unsuspecting pregnant women.
Eventually the giggles subside, and I look up at the man I barely remember. How accurate is this version of him, I wonder? Probably not very. It is merely my own projection that stands before me, pieced together from scant memories and titbits other people have told me. My brain has rolled them all into one to produce whatever this is. Dream. Hallucination. Something in between. It isn’t real. There’s no way it can be. Time does not collapse in on itself like this. Wardrobes do not really contain secret tunnels to the past.
‘None of this is real, is it?’ I ask. I can feel myself deflating as if someone has punctured me.
Grandad looks confused.
‘What ya talking about? Course it’s real.’
‘But you died years ago.’
‘Yeah, but we’re still ’ere, and ya can always find yer way back to us. Ya just ’ave to follow the tunnels.’
Tunnels. So there’s more than one. Where are the others, I wonder?
Grandad is walking towards me. He is taking off his flat cap and placing it on my head, swivelling it so it sits at the same jaunty angle as when he wears it.
‘There,’ he says, smiling. ‘Every time ya think we ain’t real, stick this on yer ’ead. It’ll remind ya.’
I still have it-the flat cap. I get it out on special occasions like their birthdays and anniversaries. Sometimes I put it on, other times I just look at it. It is one of my most treasured possessions, a faded disc of grey tweed that has seen better days, much like everything else in this story.
There are dozens of tunnels, it turns out. Their entrances turn up in the strangest of places. Beneath the rug in the living room, the changing rooms in clothes shops, behind the shed at my parents’ house. It’s as if they’re following me, the past tailing me wherever I go. A past I never knew, but one that has been handed down to me by other people, so vivid and colourful that I can reach out and touch it. Lose myself in it, if I feel so inclined. Those are the moments when I know there is a tunnel nearby. All I have to do is find it.