The Secret in the Attic

Eric heard the windchimes as soon as he got out of the car. Gosh, this view was so stunning, he had forgotten how mesmerising it was. It had been what, five, six years since he had been here? Grammy – as he called his grandmother – had been the rock of his childhood and teen years, less so since he had been working in Bordeaux. His job as an oenologist meant that he had less time on his hands to go and visit Grammy in Eauze, a small village in the Gers département of France. Her stone house was tucked away up a long lane and surrounded on all sides by fields of sunflowers. In the summer, the house seemed like a jewel in a yellow jewellery box and it was definitely a gem. A memory from years gone by came to his mins like an echo of his old self down the path of souvenirs; Grammy urging him to climb the orchard trees to pick the cherries and him eating more than he picked for the Clafouty (a cake of cherries, typical of France) and Grammy laughing so much that she fell in the grass at the bottom of the tree he was so badly doing the harvesting. Grammy must have been about sixty five then and him a mere twelve year old boy. It had been a wonderful summer for them both; long hot and sunny days, fishing in the shades of the river under the trees and picking fruit from the orchard – two and a half months of holidays it was then. They would eat under the vines that hung down from the trellis of the veranda and stuff their faces with duck, Gers’ chicken, vegetables from the garden plot and of course fruit from the orchard. And they had such a giggle in those days. Eric spent every school holiday there until he was eighteen and even after college he made a point of visiting at least four times a year. Even in winter, the place was magical and the cold days were not so many and the frost came and went quickly. Eric sighted. Grammy had passed away a month ago and it was the first time he was back since the funeral, keys in hand for the house he had inherited as sole descendant. At forty, he could not complain; his grandmother had lived to a grand old age and passed away in her sleep – that was a blessing! He finally opened the door and let himself in. The house smelt as it always had and it was some comfort. Each room lay exactly as he remembered and as Emily had left it; clean, uncluttered and smelling of lavender. As in some kind of ritual ceremony, Eric went through each room and with the visit, more memories emerged… Grammy trying out a recipe for a cheese soufflé found in her grandmother’s cooking notebook, that turned out to be as flat as a pancake. A local friend from the village bringing fresh eggs who tripped on the kitchen rug with all twelve eggs flying with him and making a patchwork of the kitchen floor. A neighbour visiting with a home-made apple tart that proved as bitter as the woman herself and of course, the little girl who lived down the lane and visited Grammy almost daily with a little bunch of wild flowers. What was her name again? Poppy? Daisy? The name would not come right now but he would remember it later. The last room to view was the attic. When he was young, he used to play there on rainy days but he had not been up there lately and had only vague memories of what it contained. The attic had three rooms; the first one contained furniture from the old ancestral house where Emily grew up, the second was a treasury’ trove of dresses from the 19th century, and the last one used to be a dark room where his grandfather developed his photographs until he died in 1984. Eric was five then and the memories from this ancestor were very limited but he had a vague image of an eld.erly man who looked far older than his grandmother and less spirited. Rummaging through the crates down memory lane, he came across a photo album containing old photos of people he did not recognize. Nowadays, everything is numeric but in them good old days, you only had the physical evidence of a photography to hold memories down. He supposed those were of Emily’s or Paul’s family but there was something strange about them; they were all of dead people. Victorian people used to take photographs of their dead family members and some even put pennies over their eyelids. In Ireland and Scotland, it was the custom to lay the deceased out for a wake prior to burial. It became the habit to put pennies on the eyes of the deceased to keep the eyes closed and to stop them springing open to muscular contraction – something that if it happened in the midst of a wake must have been deeply disturbing to all concerned.  Eric closed the album. This was quite disturbing. Instead, he found a very dainty address book containing contact details of famous people. Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, H.G. Wells, Clemenceau, Laurence of Arabia and last not but least Roosevelt. Why were all these famous people on the address book? Eric looked through another crate and dug out piles of letters bound together by ribbons. That was so much the style of correspondence in the 1930’s and 1940’s. At first, he thought those might have been love letters exchanged between his grandparents, but as he untied the bundles, he realised there were of a more serious matter than love however grave that might be. The letters were all dated 1939 and addressed to prominent figures of the time. Eric knew his grandmother’s maiden name – Emily Atkins – but he never thought she may have been a key player in the events leading to the second world war as the letters seemed to indicate. What was odd was that they only contained very casual messages however one does not write to Clemenceau asking if the dog has eaten well, or to Churchill to tell him that the cat had caught five mice! There must be more to it than just pleasant conversation between friends. Eric did not find any reply from the famous contacts and only the letters that she had sent them. Why? The answer did not offer itself freely and Eric continued searching the attic for more clues. An hour later, he had not made much progress and decided to sit down on an old crate containing books. As he moved the box towards the light, he noticed that there was a slight protuberance from the floorboards. He took out his Swiss army knife and with the knife tool tried to lift the mischievous piece of wood, to no avail. He had to climb down and get a proper tool. After what seemed like ages, he found a chisel and hammer that would certainly do the trick. Back upstairs, Eric proceeded to lift the floorboard that gave some resistance but not too much. Eventually the wood gave and he was able to see a box in the cavity. It was one of these metal boxes that would have once contained biscuits but when he lifted the lid, there was no edible content to be found. A single piece of paper lay in the box and a few photographs. The images were old and faded but he certainly could recognise his grandmother as a much younger woman than he had ever seen her and there was no mistaking the powerful figures of world leading decision makers that the late 1930s brewed. In 1939, all nations were desperately hoping that war was not on the horizon but as we know, one man had already decided that the fate of Europe was in his hands… A man once called ‘The Bohemian Corporal’ who would prove to be the worst war criminal the 20th century had seen so far. A man whose hatred of Jewish and Polish people was unparalleled but whose madness brought heresy and slaughter to a climate. Adolf Hitler – himself not a very fair version of his ‘Arian’ philosophy – had a plan to get rid of all the inferior races and rule the grand supremacy of fair skin, blond hair and blue-eyed genes. Eric knew all of this but he had never suspected that his Grammy was ever linked so closely to those events. As far as he knew, his grandparents had suffered as much as any French citizen but nothing out of the ordinary. He took a closer look at the paper and realised with a shudder that this was actually a cypher. He applied it to the letters and found out that ‘The Dog’ was Hitler who was ‘gathering troops’ and that he was ‘planning to annex five countries’. Eric did not have a clue as to his grandmother’s involvement until now, but he couldn’t stop marvelling at her stoicism and, more than ever, he felt proud to have had such wonderful people as his ancestors and understood for the first time why his Grammy used to tell him that being a spy is ‘not that fashionable’.   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!