When I was younger, I had what doctors called a “strong attachment to the heavens” and was often prescribed long vacations to the countryside for my ailing constitution. As my father was a very influential man of the high courts and my mother fond of the sophisticated comforts and social gatherings of the city, I often found myself orphaned outside the great oak doors of grandfather’s with my travelling case at my feet and my governess at my side.
Arundel Manor – that was its name – was nearly a day’s hard riding from the nearest town. It was an old house, and had been passed down to my grandfather’s keeping by his father and grandfather before him. He was a strongly built man, tall and handsome, with a pair of capable shoulders and a stubble around his chin. Grandfather lived a secluded, simple life, kept few servants, and rarely entertaining visitors. He preferred quiet company in cotton petticoats over the shuffling of laced satin gowns, the intricate designs of which, he would say with a wink, made his china teacups jealous and his teas bitter. As such, we often spent long afternoons together in his grand private library, him by his desk and I on his knee, basking in the pleasant silence over a steaming teapot and cook’s fresh pastries, with an open book between us. He had a habit of tracing the words with his fingers as he read, and a laugh that was rare but wonderfully contagious; muted yet rumbly all at once, like the purring of a lion. When he smiled, his eyes smiled too.
The smile of grandfather’s eyes. Even now, I remember it clearly.
But he wasn’t always the grandfather I knew, if the old butler’s stories were anything to go by. He was a man of science, and in his youth had travelled the globe, so that his family would often go without him for months at a time. Then a horrible accident, his young lover’s untimely death on the rain-soaked and muddy roads of Mansfield as he was trekking the sun-drenched, salt-bleached sands of Santiago, brought him home with shattered spirits and a broken heart. In parting, she had left to him a child – my father – and vowing never again to repeat his mistake, the continents were abandoned for the manor, with little more to remind him of those many years at sea save for a few yellowing maps and a small collection of souvenirs.
Of the latter, of which he kept well-dusted in his library, there included a stoppered glass jar of red sand, the skull of a large rodent, a single gold coin minted with the head of a three-horned god, and a thin leather-bound volume, warm and soft to the touch. This item was of simplistic design, with thick creamy paper – the edges of which were slightly frayed with age – tucked between maroon covers and a brown spine. Its title, in flowing golden ink, was a single word: Registry.
I chanced upon it one summery morning, sandwiched snugly between two large geology encyclopedias with metal inserts, like mail-decked guards flanking a beautiful princess, or a common convict, as it were. Grandfather would routinely ride to town on business matters, leaving me to the sympathy of Ms.Felicie, and I, as a child well-versed in the ways of governesses, had taken the first available opportunity by which to escape. With this purpose in mind, I was perched precariously on the topmost rung of grandfather’s great sliding ladder, when the aforementioned discovery was made.
Unfortunately, Misfortune caught me that day, and I was dragged, with ample struggles and silent tears, back into the lair of sewing and ladylike mannerisms that was my governess. So it was that the book laid nearly forgotten until the next grandfather-less afternoon, many weeks later.
This time, having been more successful at evading my lessons, the book and I were curled up in the sanctuary under the writing table, two tragic prisoners on the run for each their own reasons, with only the shared goal of escape binding them together. With a cautious ear all the while to the big oak doors leading to the library, I began to read.
The contents of the little notebook was rather like its name suggested. The Registry contained a list of names, one per page, each accompanied with a short account of the individual in question, worked and reworked to perfection, or else constantly updated, for there were nearly as many words crossed and added in the margins as there were initially put down. However, the names were nothing like you’d ever imagine, and the descriptions were each more curious than the last. It began simply: “Property of Miss.Piggy”, in the same curling font as the cover.
Over the following weeks and months I poured over the little booklet, perusing each page with the excitement that often comes from finding a good mystery close at hand but just out of reach. The book became my new companion whenever Grandfather was in town, and we spent countless hours hidden away in various nooks and crannies of the manor, while the sound of my name, in the voice of my governess, floated up and down the rafters. I never mentioned the thing to my Grandfather, not for fear of being reprimanded, but rather the thought of it just never crossed my childlike mind. The Registry was my secret, and mine to keep.
Between its detailed descriptions and my youthful imagination, the book soon provided something akin to an extended family. There was Annee, perfectly feminine, a model lady like the ones my governess would adore. Annee who painted and wrote and played piano beautifully, but when no one was looking, ran and chortled and blew bubbles like the rest of us. Suzie, who lived bigger-than-life by adding plurals to everything, and was something of a scientist for spearheading the discovery of just how much damage too much laughing can cause to one’s internal organs. A Timothy and a Becky followed, the former of whom built castles out of sand and drove away a pair of scary dragons who came to inspect them. A word of thanks was offered to this lone brave knight.
The characters continued with every flip of the page. Many, like Suzie’s, were nearly black with ink, with doodles in the margins and words cramped so small they nearly ran off the page. Others, including a page for Tama (the llama) appeared much less haphazard – though not any more logical – with only a short but incomprehensible verse about a bunch of potassium and a sketch of a banana peel. There were two consecutive pages, titled “Star” (‘hopeless romantic (her words) and possible the cutest combustible item on the planet (mine)’) and “Orange” (‘vitamin C is absolutely vital for very many things, from avoiding scurvy to evading insanity’), who’s owners must have often been up to no good, for extra pages had to be sewn in to document it all.
Sometimes, for whole pages at a time, a sort of odd reasoning would surface. The page for “Kitty” included the words ‘to be rewarded with catnip and pink-flavoured gush at regular intervals’, while under a page cryptically entitled “NaC18H35O2 (Washing Soap)” was written ’19 moles at last weigh-in. Specialized in diffracting and collecting light rays. To be kept well away from water.’ Just when everything starts to feel familiar again, a flip of the page could present something utterly incomprehensible, like “Wing” (‘chicken turned dinosaur, but still aiming for new heights, I’m sure’), diffusing all hope of reaching a mutual understanding.
And so, without apparent purpose or pattern, the pages went on, character after character, like actors in a play with no end. There was a “Kiri” (‘onee-chan~!’), and a tiny, tiny “Angel” (‘perfectly quaint’). A set of three sisters, M, G, and H, who “gives amazing hugs, the kinds that squeeze the air right out of you!’ and a certain “Jo”, for whom ‘constant slight worry is necessary’. A pair of amphibians in the form of “Mr.Frog” and “Ms.Froggy”, although I am given to understand that they are not the least bit related, nor have they yet to meet. “Elsie”, who could answer just about any question in the most energetic of ways, and an “Andriase”, who’s page was entirely devoid of words, covered instead by massive globular doodles of ribbons – just ribbons – spiralling, plated, knotted, and appearing utterly indecipherable from every direction. A “G-Duck” followed (‘A most dangerous cross between a giraffe and a duckling, although one cannot fail to appreciate the difficulties faced by the chromosomes belonging to such an individual.’), and a spectacularly detailed tree of sorts brought up the rear, unlabelled save for the words “Daimochi Family” scrawled along the bottom. It continued this way, up until the very final page.
Try as I might, I never was able to uncover the true identity of Miss.Piggy, nor any of the citizens from her world. There was never any doubt in my mind that they were real, and lived, or had lived, or were living, the lives from which the descriptions in the letter-bounded paper belonged to, but as I had no real clues with which to arm myself in searching, the Registry, like a silent riddle, soon returned to its little corner on the top shelf. I’d like to believe that the contents of that book always remained, ingrained, in some small part of myself, but as the seasons change, so did my governess, and by that same strain, so did I, until the little girl disappeared and a young woman came to take her place.
In this way, time buried the little volume until it was no more.
。 。 。 。 。
It was an early wintry afternoon. A young women of perhaps two and twenty was emerging from a carriage stopped at the side of the road. Slighting the coachman’s bemused expression and proffered hand, she alighted with a rather unladylike “omph” onto the cobblestone curb and scrunched her nose at the smokey London air. Then, smoothing her crisp linen skirt with one expert hand, she adjusted her hat and walked curtly into a small, dingy office building. A thin young man, secretary of the premises, took one glance at the caller in black and pointed her into a chair amidst a sea of papers, which she accepted, folding her bag neatly into her lap as she sat.
From this position, the young woman was provided with an unobstructed view out of the lone window. She looked out of it now, and would have seen the orange table lamps of the diner across if not for the grease and dust fogging the glass of the tiny restaurant and the advertising board shielding the office from the already occluded sun.
She knew by heart what was written on the other side: “Waldman and Jefferson, Proctorship”.
“Ms.Percival? You can come in now.”
She followed a second, stouter, older man up a narrow, spiralling set of stairs into another office. This one was much more spacious and well-furnished than the one before, and had the added comfort of a true window, although the scenery was just as uninspirational as it would have been if viewed from downstairs. Having been offered a second seat and a cup of lukewarm tea, the young woman sat down and waited.
“You know, of course, why you were called here today?”
“I must admit I had no notion of such a thing until I received your letter last week.”
“Yes, the discovery of another clause caught all of us by surprise. But as you know, the manor contained a great deal of personal possessions, and it is quite natural in our line of work for such things to escape notice in these more complex cases.”
The man placed a small package on the table between them. It was neatly wrapped in brown paper and tied with a length of twine. Inserted between the string was a sealed envelope, labelled with what she recognized immediately as her grandfather’s hand.
“Will this be all?” The young lady spoke.
“Yes, this is it.”
She picked up the package and rose to go.
The young lady turned, revealing a neutral but courteous expression.
“Once again, I am sorry for your loss.”
She bowed her head slightly and retired from the room. He listened to a pair of small feet as they made their way down the steps and out the door.
As the carriage pulled away, the young woman gingerly slipped the envelope open, revealing a single line in the same recognizable hand. As she read, she smiled, and gently touched the package on the seat beside her.
“Your grandmother would have wanted you to have it.”
word count: 2130