It was the noises that kept me from sleeping. First night in a new place you hear them, unnoticed during the day, magnified by silence. It’s the creak of boards settling, the hum of the fridge, the clanking in the water-pipes and the whoosh and roar of the boiler kicking-in. Auntie Minty’s was an old system, the water running in the pipes made a sound like little feet skittering, low down behind the walls, and the radiator over by the window ticked. Whenever I laid my head against the pillow, my heart pounded slow, heavy footsteps.
My Dad always said; when you can’t sleep stop trying. It doesn’t hurt to get up, get a glass of water and sit a little. It’s what I’ve always done when I can’t sleep, and after ten minutes or so I usually feel my eyelids growing heavy. Not that night though. I suppose I was excited, alone in my own place. My place. I hugged that thought to myself and wandered, running my fingers over the fresh-painted walls, touching the furniture lightly. Maybe a part of me still couldn’t believe what I had, what was now mine, and that part of me fretted it might all vanish. Smoke and mirrors, a dream.
I got my glass, let the water run until it was icy cold and drank, but when I tried to turn the water off it just kept coming. Dripping steadily no matter how hard I turned the tap. It hit the metal sink in a clear, high note that I knew would be keeping me awake for hours.
Auntie Minty had kept what little tools she’d owned in a box in one of the kitchen cabinets, so I’d done the same. Perhaps my hand was wet, perhaps I was tireder than I’d thought. Whatever the reason, my hand slipped and the board beneath gave way so that I overbalanced and bashed my head against the shelf inside.
I sat back, rubbing my head and gaping at the small hidey-hole I’d found. There was something inside. An old tin covered in rust – a cake tin with a half-obscured picture of some Victorian child pushing a hoop. It had to have belonged to Auntie Minty, but why had she left it behind? Forgotten it perhaps? Only it wasn’t like Auntie Minty to forget anything.
I debated about opening it. Whatever was inside, it was secret. I felt somehow I might be betraying a trust by peering inside, invading the privacy to which even the dead have a right. Or perhaps she’d known it would be found someday. Maybe wanted it to be found, once she was safely gone and couldn’t be hurt by it.
The lid was rusty, but I took it to the table and worked at it with a spoon and then a knife, ruffling the old metal, my hands stained with red-brown dust.
Inside there were letters, a bundle of them tied with a faded red ribbon and some old black and white photographs. It was the photographs I looked at first.