Alice’s mum told her that Grandad was ‘not with us any more’ and that he had ‘gone to a better place’. Alice knew exactly what that meant and wondered why adults couldn’t speak more plainly. She also heard her stepdad, Calvin, mutter that his father-in-law was ‘going home in a box’. She thought it a little strange that her mum hadn’t gone to the funeral, but Mum explained that Gran didn’t want any fuss and besides, it was a long way to go. Instead, they would all go and visit later that month when the school holidays started. Gran lived by the sea so it could also count as a sort of holiday if the weather held.
On the way down to Pembrokeshire, Calvin smoked cigars with the window open just a crack. Smoke and ash kept wafting around the back of the car. Alice didn’t much like Calvin. Her real dad had ‘gone to a better place’ when she was little. Alice wasn’t sure if she could remember him or not, whether the images in her head were real memories or were just created by things she had been told and the scenes in the photographs her mother had given her. Alice had several of them lined up on her desk in little metal frames.
Gran seemed her usual self, grim and matter-of-fact. She gave Alice a kiss with her slightly bristly face and smiled, though Alice always felt Gran was smiling because she ought to, not because she was happy to see her. No one mentioned Grandad but Alice thought the house seemed bigger without him. She hadn’t particularly liked Grandad, he’d been even grouchier than Gran. ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ was his watchword. When Alice asked to see Grandad’s grave her mum shushed her and said she thought he’d been cremated, but Alice couldn’t see why that should stop him having a headstone.
Gran’s house was an old Victorian Rectory and much larger than Alice’s grandparents had needed, though whenever anyone had mentioned this, Gran had impatiently explained that she and Grandad needed plenty of space if they were to avoid strangling each other, and that they also required plenty of room for storage. Over the years they had lived in a number of different countries, present and former colonies, and accumulated a substantial collection of local artefacts. Alice’s mother had been born in Malaya and Gran had even published a book many years ago concerning Sub-Saharan witchcraft.
A drive wound between a lawn and a row of shadowy pines, their needles covering and killing the ground beneath. The house rose up at the top of the slope, its dark windows frowning from behind the monkey puzzle tree in the middle of the lawn.
One of the first things Alice liked to do when she arrived was explore the house from top to bottom, going to each room, apart from the one next door to that in which she slept, which was always locked – though Gran refused to say why – breathing in the smell of dust, mildew and wood. Downstairs, the adults drank wine or tea in the kitchen.
Alice’s favourite room was the living room, draped and gloomy with its sombre rug and parquet floor that seemed to breathe history and mystery. She inhaled the ghost of her grandad, the lingering scent of pipe smoke that clung to the drapes and the ancient moth-eaten settee.
In the corner of the room was a doll’s house Grandad had made for Alice’s mother, not any house but a miniature reproduction of the house they were in, each room rendered as closely to the original as he’d been able to make it, even the furniture and pictures had been recreated. Alice was even able to see into the locked room next to her bedroom, but all there seemed to be inside was a table with some boxes on it. There were no dolls in the house and Alice’s mother couldn’t remember what had become of them. It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway, Alice wasn’t allowed to play with the house, it was locked and all she could do was peer through the glass of the windows into the gloomy interior. It was too precious and fragile to play with, she was told; she would just end up breaking something. Sometimes when Alice was exploring the house she would imagine she was inside the doll’s house, running up the tiny stairs, turning the corner at the top, onto the landing and into her room, to find staring back at her, unblinking, an eye at the window.
Displayed on the mantelpiece and shelves of the actual living room were Chinese vases, carved ebony figurines of African tribesman and an elephant’s tusk. As Alice gazed up at the shelves she noticed something that hadn’t been there before, a small wooden box with a brass lock. It looked new. Alice couldn’t reach the box but suspected that it would be locked. She ran to the kitchen where Gran was peeling carrots and asked what was in it but Gran, without even bothering to look up, told her to stop being a nosey-parker.
Alice always found the house strange to sleep in, it creaked and groaned and Alice was sure she could hear squeaking coming from the locked room next door. Whenever Alice mentioned the squeaks to her, Gran would bridle and insist she kept a clean house, though everyone knew that was not entirely true. She’d had ‘help’ in from time to time, but they never lasted.
Gran was even less amused when Alice told her that she’d heard Grandad’s voice in the living room and asked if it was a ghost. In fact the old woman looked decidedly unsettled, something Alice had never seen before.
The voice had been faint, distant but still distinctly that of her grandfather. “My pipe,” it had cried, “I want my pipe.” Alice came haring out of the room with eyes wide and nerves aquiver. Gran had told Alice to stop talking such nonsense.
The next day, Alice noticed, the wooden box had been removed from the mantelpiece. That evening after she’d cleaned her teeth Alice spotted it next to her grandmother’s bed, in a room she was absolutely forbidden to enter without Gran present, but when she spotted a small brass key on the dressing table the temptation grew too great.
Gran walked into the village every morning to buy a newspaper and fresh fish from the dock for her breakfast. Alice watched from her bedroom window as Gran disappeared down the drive and into the lane, then dashed for the forbidden room.
The key and the box were they had been the day before. The key slid into the lock perfectly and turned with a tiny click. As soon as Alice opened the lid the voice became audible but as soon as he saw who she was the voice stopped. There in the box, no more than two inches high, was Alice’s grandfather. She gasped and took a step back.
“You’re supposed to be dead. Why are you so small? Why are you in a box?”
He stood with his hands on his hips, his face thunderous.
“Stupid questions. Do I look dead to you? Your bloody grandmother put me in here and…”
“Yes I did,” came a voice behind Alice and a hand snapped the lid of the box shut. A tiny voice could be heard raging inside.
Gran stared down at Alice.
“Follow me,” said Gran, taking Alice’s hand and leading her down the landing to the locked room. She took a key from her pocket and unlocked the door. Alice followed her in. The room was bare but for three boxes on a table in the middle of the room. They were the same sort of box that her grandad had been in. Gran shut the door behind them and went over to the table.
“Give me the key.”
Alice handed it over and Gran opened the first box.
“Look,” she said, gesturing for Alice to approach. Inside was an old man sat in the corner of the box. He barely bothered looking up.
“Mr Humphreys has been here the longest, haven’t you Mr Humphrey’s?” He nodded meekly. “Mr Humphreys used to live next door. He was always complaining about my trees and the fact your grandfather left the bins out on the road overnight. He even contacted the council, didn’t you Mr Humphreys?” Mr Humphreys nodded. “And so into the box went Mr Humphreys.”
“Why is he so small?” asked Alice.
“He isn’t small,” snapped Gran. “He’s very far away.” She closed the lid. “Don’t worry about them. They only stay in the boxes when I have visitors.”
She moved on to the next box.
“You’ll be interested in this one.”
She opened the lid and Alice peered inside. When her father saw her he called her name and reached his hands upwards.
The lid snapped shut.
“I didn’t like the way he spoke to your mother. I don’t much like the new one either, but he’s a slight improvement.”
Alice looked to the last box. Tears were running down her cheeks and she was finding it hard to breathe.
“And this one,” said Gran, opening the lid of the third box to show an empty interior, “is for nosey-parkers.”