I last saw my Father in February 1944.
Dad was a bricklayer – plenty of work for him at that time –building air raid shelters had been his main job since 1938 – I could just remember seeing him, ably helped by Mum, building a blast wall to protect the entrance to our little Anderson Shelter. Then at night he was off fire-watching. I was ten years old the last time he picked up his steel helmet and gas mask and disappeared into the darkness. The sirens had just sounded – the Little Blitz was at its height.
“Not nearly as bad as the bombing in ‘40 and ‘41,” said Mum, comfortingly.
Dad paused at the front door, “how bad do you want it?” he asked.
That was the last time I saw him.
There were bombs falling in Woolwich and Greenwich that night, so Dad became one of those who just went out and never came back. It wasn’t that unusual at the time.
Except I knew that Dad had disappeared before. Sometimes for a night or two and once for a whole two weeks. There were always terrible rows when he came home. I wouldn’t be able to sleep for the shouting between him and my Mum. I got the feeling he was quite relieved when the sirens went and he could go out again.
It was seven years before the insurance company thought it was safe to assume that my Dad was dead and pay out his life insurance. At last my Mum was able to pay off the mortgage on our three storey regency house, and our precarious financial state became slightly more stable.
When Mum was dying I sat by her bed and she gave me her trinket box.
“In there,” she said in her soft voice, “is a little something for you, and the answer to a question that I know has been bothering you for the past thirty years – what happened to your Dad.” I put the box aside for a more appropriate time.
It wasn’t until three months after the funeral that I even gave her trinket box a thought. And then it was only because of something else that it came to mind at all.
I had decided to sell the house – Belinda and I had been together for nearly a year – I’d virtually been living at her flat since Mum died. Time to get our own place and lay the bad memories to rest – the good ones too come to that.
I was turning out Mum’s clothes. There was her Robin Hood hat, as I called it. Olive green felt with a feather stuck in the band. I hadn’t seen that since I was ten years old – since before Dad died. There’d been no funeral for him – blown to bits they said – not enough of him could be found to justify a burial. Funny that – Mum never cried you know.
I was crying now, I discovered. Bless her; she’d been a good mum. A practical sort of woman – almost nothing she couldn’t turn her hand to. Just as well with no man around.
Anyway, during the process of packing up, throwing things out and journeys to the charity shop I remembered that I needed to turn out the cupboard under the stairs.
There were various unidentifiable gardening jackets and the like hanging up, which I took down and put in a pile for the tip – nothing salvageable there. Just as I thought I had finished I spied an old blanket tucked into the recess. I could just about reach it if I stretched to my utmost.
Out came the blanket, but wrapped in it was a bit of a surprise. It was an old tin helmet and a canvas bag containing an ARP gas mask.
I recognised them instantly – my Dad’s fire watchers kit. Strange – he must have had them with him when he went out on that last night. Perhaps they were spares and I’d just never seen them.
Oh well, too late to ask Mum now.
Which reminded me about Mum’s trinket box.
I ran upstairs and there it was on her chest of drawers.
I sat on her bed and one by one took out the things that had been precious to her. There was her engagement ring – it had sat in the box since the day my father died. I often wondered why she never wore it again, but something always stopped me from asking her. There were other rings, a few brooches, earrings and even a couple of hatpins.
Near the bottom was Mum’s favourite brooch. It had belonged to her mother, whom I could barely remember. The beautiful piece contained a black pearl, surrounded by garnets in a gold setting – except that the pearl had been removed. Then I found a silver tiepin, with the black pearl set in the centre. This was the ‘little something’ that Mum had told me to look for. Bless her – I hardly ever wore a tie – but I silently promised her that when I did, the tiepin would adorn it.
And what about the answer to the question that had been bothering me for thirty years?
I think that ‘the bother’ had been more in Mum’s mind than mine – but nonetheless, it was the very least I could do to follow her wishes.
At first, I thought it wasn’t there, but then I realised that fitted in the bottom of the box was a velvet covered card that could be lifted out. Underneath was a blue Basildon Bond envelope, bearing an inscription in a familiar and much loved hand – My Beloved Son.
It crossed my mind to burn the letter unread – rather than uncover the heartache that I suspected awaited me within the envelope. But, screwing up my courage, I opened it and withdrew a single sheet of paper.
It was dated 15th February, 1944, and it started.
My Darling Boy,
How ironic that I am writing this letter on the day after Valentine’s Day. You saw your father for the final time last night and since I do not intend that you read this until I am dead, it is time that you knew the truth about him.
Your father was a great romantic, although usually not with me, so it is wholly appropriate that he should die on Valentine’s Day. You said goodbye to him when the sirens went that night, and you and everyone else thought that he never came home.
Perhaps I should have told you before, Roland, but he did come home after the all clear had gone. You were fast asleep of course, and he told me that he was leaving me for another woman. I knew who she was, but her name will be of no consequence by the time that you read this.
Perhaps you will still want to find him, although I would prefer that you let sleeping dogs lie. But, there is no reason that my wishes should influence you now. If you really want to know, then you will find a clue if you look in the alcove in the spare room on the second floor. Your next step will then become obvious. You know that we always enjoyed a treasure hunt together, so if I can make you smile for one last time, then the thought of that gives me great pleasure.
If there is another life, my Darling Son, then we shall meet again one day.
My love always,
I smiled to myself – what a woman! How ever could my father have looked at anyone else? Oh well, I suppose that the constant threat of death did funny things to a person’s perception – and their morals.
Still holding Mum’s letter I climbed the stairs to the second floor. I don’t think I had been in that room since I was a kid, but, strangely, I could not remember whether there was an alcove in there or not. There was one in the sitting room, to the left of the fireplace. It ran from the floor to a height of about seven feet and shelves had been put in to hold our books. Similarly, there was one in the same spot in Mum’s bedroom on the first floor, which had been turned into a wardrobe.
By this time I was at the door of the spare bedroom on the top floor. I turned the handle and opened the door. A smell of dust with a slightly damp overtone greeted me. The room had never actually been used for as long as I could remember, and it was full of boxes and clothes that were meant to go to the next jumble sale, and never quite made it.
I looked across the room to the opposite wall. Just as I thought – no alcove. For the moment I was glad to give up my quest. The day’s events had tired me and I was almost past being ready for my bed.
The next morning I thought about it some more. I was well aware of Mum’s sense of humour – but somehow her note hinted that I should take this matter seriously.
It was Sunday, so I waited until a more civilised hour, ten o’clock. Then I went next door to old Reg’s house. He came to the door still holding his Sunday Times.
“Hello young Roland – what can I do for you?”
I had already prepared a lie to serve my purpose.
“Sorry to bother you Reg, but I wonder if you would mind me having a look at your fireplaces. The tiles in some of these houses are quite valuable and I wondered if yours were the same as mine.”
Reg didn’t mind, although I could see he suspected that a loose screw was more to the point than a fireplace. Reg’s house was the other half of our section of the terrace – so it was exactly the same, but right handed, if you know what I mean.
On the ground floor, there was an alcove, adapted much the same as mine, but on the other side of the fireplace. On the first floor there was another, and on the second floor, as I half suspected, was a third one. Having answered my own question, I told Reg that his tiles were the same as mine, and probably not worth very much at all – and thank you very much for your trouble.
Back in my own house I climbed the stairs to the spare bedroom, this time armed with a club hammer and a cold chisel.
When I got close to where the alcove should have been, I saw that the wall was unplastered and that the recess had been bricked over and painted.
The false wall had been beautifully constructed and it took me nearly three hours to make a hole two feet six inches square. Then I realised I had forgotten to bring a torch, so I had to go back downstairs and fetch one.
When I finally manoeuvred the torch and my head into the hole I was already smiling in anticipation of finding Mum’s next clue in the treasure hunt.
The first thing that registered with me was the sight of a piece of tweed cloth.
‘My Dad used to have a jacket in that material,’ I thought. Then I realised that it was my Dad’s tweed jacket and that he was still wearing it.
The skeleton was wedged tightly into the alcove. A long paper knife that for many years had sat on Mum’s writing desk was buried in the left eye socket. A once white piece of paper was pinned to the skeleton’s chest.
On it was written a single word and although the ink was faded I could still make out that it said ‘ADULTERER.’
I sighed. Mum’s treasure hunt clues used to be a bit more subtle than this.