The photographs were in a packet at the bottom of the rosewood box. He flicked through them, surprised to see that each one of them was of him – a photographic record spanning thirty years – and then tucked the packet back into the box. Solid, square, with pretty gold inlay, the box carried not only his mother’s small treasures but a whole cargo of family history. It had belonged to his father’s mother and therefore held a special link with the man whom he could barely recall. His memories of this shadowy figure had been jealously guarded, eked out and plumped up with a dozen tiny scraps of information dropped from the conversations of friends and family.
‘Of course, you can’t remember him,’ he’d say to his small sister, Imogen. ‘You were just a baby when Daddy died.’
She didn’t care; Im was blessed with a happy confident nature that made it nearly impossible for him ever to feel superior. She’d shake her head cheerfully, quite content for him to be the one who knew. She didn’t care about the box either. The small treasures he was allowed – under his mother’s surveillance – to put into the delicately scented interior were too fragile for her tiny, destructive fingers: a perfect shell, a frail crimson leaf, a shiny unblemished conker.
‘Shall we put it in the box, Mummy?’ he’d shout, running to bring her these gifts, and he’d watch whilst the little ceremony was performed: the box lifted from its shelf, the key produced and inserted into the gold lock and the lid opened. Eagerly he’d bend to look in, to see the familiar contents. If his hands were clean he’d be allowed to unfold his grandmother’s small silk handkerchief kept in the embroidered, soft suede pochette that smelled of lavender; to take out the letter his father had written to him all the way from Afghanistan, and to look at the photograph that had been enclosed. The letter, which his mother would read to him, made him feel proud and strong; his father told him to be a good boy, to look after his mother and little sister, and then they would look at the photograph: his father smiling at them, standing in a dry, dusty, arid place. The biggest treat was to play with the carved and painted wooden cat which, like a Russian doll, separated into two halves to reveal yet another smaller cat, and then another, until the final, delightful surprise: a tiny mouse. Each cat had a wickedly mischievous expression and even the mouse appeared to be content with his lot, his painted whiskers curling jauntily, one eye closed in a wink.
As he grew older the enchantment gradually faded until he forgot the box altogether except as one of the familiar objects that moved with them from the small house in Finchley to the big, ground-floor flat in Blackheath, and finally to his mother’s room at the nursing-home.
Now the box and its contents were his; the packet of photographs probably collected together and added very recently. Matt sighed and pushed the box and photographs away. It was odd, and perhaps would be hurtful to her, that there were none of Imogen but she needn’t know. Their mother had been distanced from them for so long, first with her gradual descent into depression and alcoholism, and then with the onset of liver disease, that it was unlikely that Imogen would be upset: they were both too used to their mother’s mercurial moods and irrational behaviour to attach much emotional importance to her actions. Even so, he wouldn’t tell Im.
Matt took the packet out of the box again and flipped through the photographs. There was something odd about them but he couldn’t quite decide what it was and he was too restless and preoccupied to study them more closely. The prospect of his next book, unwritten and unformed, pressed on his consciousness. Each new promising idea proved dull, each putative plot stale. And Im’s phone call had unsettled him.