For a little lazy Sunday reading, I’ve collected the first five chapters of my serialized story Grandma’s Note together here in one post, before I move on with a new one tomorrow.
Here it is, the story so far.
Winston looked up at the old tree towering above him. It was a large tree, he couldn’t deny, with a massive trunk and a myriad of branches sticking out in all directions like bony old fingers, although from everything he had heard about it he had expected it to be even bigger still. He had no idea what species of tree it was, but that meant nothing as he hardly knew of any species of trees to begin with. ‘The old tree down by the edge of the water of the pond by the old windmill’. That’s how he had always known it and that’s how he had found it.
Driving up he had been increasingly worried that he wouldn’t be able to find it there at all, as almost all of the trees in the entire area had been cut down in the last decade or so, but a little patch of woodland had been left around the old windmill as an island of nature in a sea of suburban sprawl, stretching as far as you could see in any direction. Coming down by the little footpath zick zacking down the hill from the windmill there had been no doubt in his mind which tree it was, without him even having to look for it. It had just stood there, majestic and somehow sort of obviously present. It was one of those old trees that at first glance appear to be dead but that you half expect to start bleeding if cut into, and it must have been an old tree indeed because his grandmother had distinctively referred to it as old already in the tales of her youth.
‘Fourth thick branch from the bottom Winnie. Fourth thick branch.’
Echoed her voice in his mind and he couldn’t help but smile. Oh how he had always hated being called that. He had punched friends in the face over it, but he had never had it in him to tell his grandmother that and now that she was gone he kind of missed it along with her. With the tree now in front of him he tried to work out which branch was the fourth from the bottom, which turned out to be harder than it sounds with the branches pointing out in all directions and the thicker of them all being covered in thinner ones, but after circulating the tree a few times, crouched in different positions to see from new angles, he was quite sure.
Towards the end that one phrase had been all his grandmother had said about it all, over and over again, and he hadn’t heard the rest of the story for at least a few years, but he was confident he remembered most of it, despite having never really believed a word as she was telling it. This had mainly been thanks to his father, who’s attitude towards his mother’s storytelling had served as the template for Winston forming his own.
‘What are you on about now again?’
He had used to cut his mother off by saying.
‘Don’t listen to her Win. I don’t know where she has gotten all this. She talks as if she used to be an actual pirate or something.’
His grandmother had always laughed in response to this and Winston had laughed along with her, but as he grew older he had increasingly found himself wondering what she was actually thinking and what that laugh of hers actually meant. He had also silently made a mental note every time his father had told of how he in fact knew almost nothing at all about his mother’s youth, finally coming to terms with the idea that his father didn’t know where all her tales came from because he actually didn’t really know anything about her, period. Unfortunately, by the time Winston had reached this conclusion his grandmother’s mind had already been steadily on its path along a downward spiral and he had never really gotten the chance to ask any follow up questions to begin making sense of her scattered, and somewhat erratic, web of tales.
Deciding, however, to make an effort to investigate some of the things she had told of to see if he could establish if there was any truth to them, that phrase about the fourth branch from the bottom, that was the one that she had seemed to cling on to all the way to the very end, had appeared to him as the best place to start. It had also been a quite natural point of departure for his investigations for the fact that he was already familiar with the old windmill. It stood merely a few stone throws away from where his grandmother had lived when Winston was little and he remembered the whole family taking a guided tour of it, along with its historical surroundings.
‘Imagine if somebody had known we had it! Just think what could have happened!’
His grandmother had used to say, referring to a note that she, along with a mysterious old friend of hers, was supposed to have hidden in a crack in one of the thicker branches of the old tree by the edge of the pond by the old windmill. The fourth one from the bottom to be exact.
Winston was careful balancing his weight on the branch with the saw in his hand. Testing the branches he had been satisfied that at least the bottom two would be able to support him and since the fourth one from the bottom was a bit tricky to access he had climbed up to stand on the bottom one and, having carefully cut away a bunch of the smaller branches, was resting his hip against the third one, reaching out to saw off the fourth. It was farther off still than he had anticipated and even standing on the branch he had to get up on his toes and really stretch out his full length.
Placing his right hand a bit out on the branch to steady it he had the saw ready in his left to cut through it right in by the trunk, but as soon as he had transferred just a fraction of his weight to his grip in order to support his movement he heard a rumbling sound from inside the tree and immediately knew he was in trouble. Next thing he knew, the branch shattered into a cloud of dust and tiny fragments of dried bark and wet rotten wood, and with nothing to hold on to, to support his upper body, he pivoted around his hip against the third branch, like some kind of accidental gymnast, and crashed to the ground, landing flat on his back.
The wind completely knocked out of him, it was a minute before he fully realized what had happened and as he started to come to the first thing he noticed was the saw, still in a firm grip in his hand, and he was thankful he hadn’t seriously injured himself. The next thing he became aware of was an unpleasant crawling feeling making itself increasingly unbearably known along his legs and, managing to sit up and take a look, he realized to his horror that the rotten branch had been home to an army of ants that had now turned into an aggressive invading force of his nether regions. Filling his drained lungs back up again with one big gasp, he flew off the ground and had his pants off faster than ever before in his life, doing a no doubt silly dance and swinging them around like a pathetic pantomime impression of the majestic windmill standing on top of the hill behind him, proceeding thereafter to slapping his legs with them in order to fight off any remaining annoying little enemy soldiers.
When finally confident to have successfully upheld the sanctity of his bodily territory, he bended over, resting his hands on his knees, to draw his first sequence of controlled and regular breaths in what now seemed like a rather long time. He had just settled back into his normal rhythm and was about to break out laughing when he saw it. In the commotion he had forgotten all about it and the sight of it snapped him back into the apprehension of where he was and why. There, on the ground, among ants and bark and rotten wood was a note, a neatly folded piece of old brown paper.
Winston could hardly believe his eyes and would probably have rubbed them had his hands not been so dirty from his falling out of the tree. He carefully picked it up and his hands were actually shaking as he started to unfold it. It was damp and had it been left inside the branch for another decade or so it would probably have started to face the same destiny as the rotten wood it smelled like, but it held together and once unfolded the writing on it was still clear to read.
The note consisted of a body of text, written in what looked like black ink by a hand that he did not recognize to be his grandmother’s, and at the bottom were four different signatures, written in red with what he with a chill thought could in fact be blood. It said
We hereby solemnly swear,
in our heart of hearts,
to always remember but never speak of,
to the end of our lives and beyond,
what happened on Black Reef Island in the summer of 38.
Alice & Wilma
Robert & Erik
The first thing that jumped at him off the paper was the names, one of which was entirely expected while the other three were surprises that all somehow made sense, some in ways that he himself couldn’t make sense of. The one he had expected to find was Alice, the name of his grandmother’s mysterious friend and the name that had frequented her stories by far more often than any other, and Wilma, although not at all expected, he quickly identified as referring to his grandmother. Winston had always known his grandmother’s name as Mina and had it not been for the knowledge of his own name having been chosen for its matching initial letter he might not have ever known that her full name was actually Wilhelmina, but, as it was, he did know that and it wasn’t a stretch that she would instead have gone by Wilma in her youth. The two male names he had not expected to find in any shape or form but looking at them where they stood he could after all produce possible subjects for the both of them. Winston had never met his grandfather, and knew that his father hadn’t either, but the one and only thing he thought he knew about the man was that his name was supposed to have been Robert and he remembered, from a long time ago, his father a few times mentioning the existence of an uncle Erik.
Having examined the names individually the next thing that caught his attention was the ordering of them on the paper. From the placement on separate lines and the presence of the “&” symbols it seemed clear that the names had been specifically ordered in pairs with the girls’ names in one and the boys’ names in the other. Given what he thought to have figured out about the identities of the people involved he got the feeling there might be some significance to that fact that he was, as of yet, entirely unaware of, and it sparked his interest.
Back in his car, and back out on the highway, Winston was deep in thought. The car stereo was turned up loud, playing a cd with some classic old jazz session that his grandmother had given him as a birthday gift a whole lot of years ago, before she had started to lose her wits. Winston didn’t know much of anything about jazz, and always struggled to remember the names of the performers in the session when he didn’t have the cover of the cd readily at hand to consult, but he liked to listen to it in the car and it always helped him think. Especially so in this very moment in fact since it had almost always been playing in the background at his grandmother’s house as she was telling the stories he was now trying to recall.
The first thing that had caught his attention among the writing on the note, other than the four signatures, was the name of the place where something of immense importance was supposed to have taken place so very long ago. Black Reef Island. Had he seen it that morning it wouldn’t have meant a thing to him, as he had never seen or heard it before that day, but reading it on the note he had remembered seeing at least the name Black Reef on a number of signs along the highway. It had referred, he remembered, to what was probably a town a few hundred miles further up along the road, which would place it in the middle of the river delta if he wasn’t mistaken. Considering the name he wouldn’t be surprised to find it on the river itself, he thought. Of course, the signs had said Black Reef with no reference whatsoever to any island, and there was a chance that the two weren’t at all related, in which case he was now driving hundreds of miles for nothing, but he had figured it good enough of a lead to take a chance on.
Also catching his attention had been the year mentioned on the note. 38. 1938. At the very beginning of the second world war of course but without more to go on he figured that to be a coincidence more than anything else since the war hadn’t had much of a presence in the area, and certainly not as early as that, and he couldn’t remember his grandmother ever mentioning anything that he had connected to the events of the war either. No, he was rather trying to put it in relation to what might have been going on in his grandmother’s life and, born in 1916, he worked out that she would have been 22 years old at the time. 22. He tried to picture his grandmother as a 22 year old and found it a lot easier than he would have expected, but then she had always felt like a young spirit, in both heart and mind, right up to the point when she had very much not anymore. Winston felt a sting of sadness remembering her last few years but quickly shook it off as it was not what he wanted to focus on at the moment.
1938. What was going on in that area during that period of time? He wondered to himself and probed his memory for what he might know in terms of local history. It must have been very much still in the middle of the depression, or at the very least have felt like it to those living there at the time, with the institutions of the formerly so prosperous ship building industry along the river crumbling one after another. As sheltered as the people of the area had been from the horrors of the war, they would surely still have lead a rather bleak existence, he figured. But then again, something appearing as a matter of life or death to a bunch of twenty somethings wouldn’t necessarily have had anything at all to do with the local sociopolitical climate, would it? No, the more he thought about it the more he started to accept that he couldn’t begin to put much together at all with what he knew so far. All he could do at the moment was to enjoy in silence some of his grandmother’s favorite jazz music on his way to Black Reef, and hope that he would find something that could point him in the right direction when he got there.
The wind had steadily picked up during the final stretch of Winston’s drive to Black Reef and as he now was passing the sign telling him he had finally reached his destination, he had both front windows rolled down all the way, letting it blow with full force straight through. Even though he was at least a good fifty miles in from the coast also the air in this part of the river delta had that unmistakable seaside feel and smell that he had always found so enchanting, and although clouds were gathering in the sky ahead for what could very well be a thunderstorm later in the evening the temperature for the moment held steady at the pleasant level of so far during the day. The seemingly endless suburban sprawl had finally come to an end a while back and for the last hour or so he had past through field after field of farmland, which luckily was dressed in its most gloriously colorful outfit this time of year, and after the jazz session had come to its familiar, yet still satisfying, end he had turned off the stereo all together and cruised along in what had felt like an almost spiritual silence. He couldn’t put his finger on it but he had felt a strong sensation of having started something meaningful, a sensation of traveling towards something good, a feeling of exciting expectation.
Discouraged by the sight of it he drove the length of the main street without stopping, hoping it would instead take him down to the river bank, which it did. He felt drawn towards the water and hoped it would paint a more promising picture but what he found was that the idea of polishing up the town by making use of the water front had clearly not occurred to anyone who was anyone in Black Reef. Instead the entire view of the river, from the direction of the center of town, was all but blocked out by a stretch of crumbling wooden fishing huts in different colors, one more flaked off than the next. With a deep sigh, he still parked the car in what appeared to be a parking lot free of charge and followed a little half tarmac, half gravel walkway that lead between two of the fishing huts down towards the water. Once through, he was surprised to find himself looking upon a perfectly idyllic picture of five wooden piers stretching out into a slow flowing river, with a tall and lush green forest on the other side. Four of the piers were girdled by docked leisure boats, of a rich variety, almost to the very last available spot while the fifth and middle one laid bare, reaching further out into the water than the others. The view made a quite dramatic contrast to what he had seen thus far and he was forced to somewhat reassess his earlier, as it turned out premature, judgement of how the good folks of Black Reef had chosen to make use of its placement on the river. Even the fishing huts appeared considerably better kept up as he instead observed them from this side.
Winston heard noises telling of cheerful gatherings coming from some of the larger boats and considered trying his luck with simply walking up to one of them, but spotting two figures seated in deck chairs with fishing rods in their hands, all the way out on the middle pier, he decided to try them instead. Closing in on them and seeing the figures belonging to two elderly men he dared suspect that his choice had been a wise one and when one of them already upon introduction owned up to having lived in Black Reef his entire life Winston thought that he just might have hit the jackpot. He asked the man if he knew of a Black Reef Island and was told that, although unbeknownst to the majority of the current Black Reef population, the town had actually been named after the island, which was to be found a few miles further up the river. He then went on, needing little to no encouragement, informing Winston that the little island, named for its characteristic black rocks, had been an important reloading station during the very early days of goods transports along the river but that, falling out of use, it had been declared a nature preserve in the early twentieth century. Nowadays, the man concluded, very few people ever took notice of its existence.
Excited and intrigued by what he had been able to find out so quickly, Winston straightforwardly asked the old man if he knew of anything that might have taken place on the island in say the thirties or forties and the man gladly picked up the trail again, explaining that nobody had cared about the ban against setting foot on the island right up until the mid seventies and that, peaking in the fifties, it had been an immensely popular recreational area for families and young people alike. There had even been, the man told, a few cottages built within its midst around that time. Then, the old man concluded anew in a tone that told Winston it was time to leave the two men again to their peaceful fishing, from the mid seventies through the eighties the ban had been rather rigorously enforced and all the visiting to the island had successfully been put to an end. Now, since about a decade back, he said, there is once more hardly any enforcement of the ban but the island has been overgrown to the point where few, if anyone, ever get the idea of walking ashore. Already deep in thought from the newly acquired information, Winston thanked the old man sincerely, wished both him and his silent companion good luck with their continued fishing, and turned back up towards the center of town to try and find somewhere to spend the night.
Having organized with a hotel room for the night Winston was taking an evening stroll through the dark and silent streets of central Black Reef. He had found a hotel merely a block away from where he had parked the car, along the river bank, and to his surprise it had turned out to be of rather high standard, obviously mainly catering to the business community. Of course this meant that the price tag for his room would be quite a lot steeper than what he had anticipated but as it appeared to be the only place offering lodging in the convenient vicinity, apart from a couple of shady looking hostels that might or might not still be open, he quickly decided to spend the extra money and secure for himself a comfortable stay. Not that it appeared to be any risk at all that the hotel would run out of rooms though. From what he had seen so far he might very well be the only current guest. The room he had been given was fresh and modern and he had considered hitting the sack as soon as he set his foot inside the door, but as exhausted as he was from the day’s activities and excitement he felt he might have some trouble falling asleep and not in the mood to watch television or read a book he had decided to go for a walk in the seaside smelling outside air.
Walking through the narrow streets and passageways that made up the quarters behind the tall buildings along the main street he was forced to further reconsider his first rushed judgment of the town. Rather than, as the main street had done, make obvious its modern fate as a ghost town these houses instead stood as an intriguing testament to its former glory and he could almost picture what life there must have been like in another era, imagining boys in knickerbockers running in and out of the small brick walled urban yards. The sound of a church bell in the distance made him think of how nineteenth century literature use the occurrence to let the reader know what time of day it is as well as where in a city the story finds itself at any given moment, by naming the nearest church. ‘The bells struck eleven times for eleven o’clock in…’. He saw before him, but of course couldn’t name the particular church that he himself was hearing at the moment. Slowing his step, he listened more closely to try and make out if it was only the one church he could hear or if there were other ones in the distance but if there were he couldn’t tell. ‘…eleven times for eleven o’clock…’. He thought once more and it struck him that the bells made quite a lot of noise for that late in the evening. Winston tried to remember if he had ever heard church bells that late at home or indeed if the churches there even rung their bells at any time of day. If they did he didn’t think he had ever been aware of it. The sound of them had most likely only formed one more nuance of noise among all the other and never made its presence known. At least not in any way near the way it did there in the back streets of central Black Reef where he felt like he was walking in its shadow.
When the sound of the church bells had since long died away and he had finally grown tired of studying the surroundings Winston moved on to wondering what tomorrow might have in store for him and what in fact his plans were. He knew his grandmother was supposed to have spent a large part of her youth in Black Reef but he had no idea whatsoever where she had lived, for how long or who with, and he also wanted to find out for sure if she indeed had had a brother named Erik, and if so where he had been in age compared to her. Would he be able to get a hold of documents with such information there in Black Reef or were they stored somewhere else? In some larger city? Which one would that then be since there were no larger cities around for hundreds of miles? Should he try to hitch a ride up to Black Reef Island to look around and see what he could find there? Probably not, he decided after thinking it over. As curious as he was to get a look of the place he had to recognize that he might not get too many chances to go out there and he would be well advised to hold off the temptation until he had at least some clue as to what he was supposed to be looking for.
Pondering where he would go in the morning in search of documents relevant to his quest Winston hadn’t paid much attention to where he was now going and suddenly he stopped without really knowing why. Had he heard something or seen something in the corner of an eye? It was still dead quiet and he didn’t think that was it. Looking around he saw that he seemed to have wandered into some very old industrial district that had not yet been either demolished or turned into housing and which seemed to have served as a leisure area at some point in time not quite as long ago, with boarded up old pubs and clubs of various sorts still their to remind of it. He looked back at the one he was just about to pass and saw that it was still advertising ‘live music every night of the week’ even though that appeared to have been a lie for at least a few decades. Wondering if there was something about the place that had subconsciously caught his attention he looked it over with a scrutiny that it was unlikely to have received in a long time but the only thing he noticed that could possibly be of interest was the wall of posters with pictures of performers that had appeared at the club at one time or another. He hadn’t much hope of finding anything worth noting there either but taking his time to look them over his jaw suddenly dropped and he stood frozen, just staring, for a good minute before he could even believe what he was seeing. What he was looking at was … practically himself. Perhaps a decade or so older but there in the old black and white picture on the old brick wall stood a figure that he couldn’t help thinking might just as well have looked back at him from a mirror, holding and resting on a contrabass.
When it had finally sunk in that what he was seeing in fact really was what he was looking at Winston managed to break the spell he had been put under by the sight of what appeared to be himself and could study also the rest of the poster. It was a picture of what had apparently been the clubs resident jazz band in 1946 and below it were all of their names in order of appearance. The name of the man with the contrabass was … he couldn’t believe it. It was Robert. His grandfather’s supposed name. And all the way to the left in the picture, holding a saxophone, was an Erik. So he was looking at a Robert and an Erik, performers in a jazz band in Black Reef in 1946. And here he had thought that the walk was only to clear his head and tire him out before going to bed. With newfound energy and excitement he carefully studied the names and pictures of all the women on the wall but there was no one that either looked like his grandmother or had a name that could possibly be a variation on Wilhelmina. There was however, a few posters over from the one with the jazz band and considerably bigger, a poster with the picture of a young girl who appeared to have been a solo performer, and a popular one at that. Her name, written in large shiny letters across the top of the poster, was Alice.