Nanny Heron has died. The children; Alfie, John and Susan, have been given the unenviable task of going through her attic. But there are things up there you wouldn’t believe. When the kids decide to have a brief round of show and tell, Susan’s treasure map comes out on top. X marks the spot, but what treasure did Nanny Heron bury?
‘Bloody hell, she’s kept everything!’ John said.
Susan nodded, pushing aside the ancient rocking horse and opening the next chest. The obligatory cloud of dust rose up, filling the gloom above her. She coughed, waving a hand before her face to clear the air. Once she could see, she pointed her torch into the chest and gasped.
Soldiers. Hundreds of tin soldiers, like the sort you saw in the posh toy shops on the high street down in the old town. They were arranged in neat little rows and at the end of each was a horse. ‘John, come look at this.’
Her brother sidled over from his explorations and looked in. ‘Cor, that’s bloody brilliant.’
‘I do wish you’d stop saying that.’
‘Hah hah. You know what I mean.’
‘It’s just so… coarse.’
‘Do I embarrass you, sis?’
‘Of course not. I just think we’re a bit above using foul language, don’t you?’
‘Not when mum isn’t around.’
He flashed a grin at her and, just like always, she couldn’t help smiling back. John had a way about him. That was how mother described it. He could make the head master smile, minutes after throwing eggs at his car. Not that he ever had, that would be beyond even him. But his face was so guileless, and his smile so open and happy, that one couldn’t help smiling back.
He began to take the soldiers out, organising them just the same way on the attic floor.
‘Maybe we should leave everything where it is, at least until the will is read. What if they’re going to Uncle Eddy or someone?’
‘What if they are? He’s not going to know if I’ve reenacted a quick battle or anything. Besides, soldiers are meant to be played with, aren’t they?’
She shrugged. She couldn’t argue with that. John sat back on his haunches, brandishing a beautiful metal cannon and looking past her into the darkness. ‘She really has kept everything. It’s amazing.’
‘I’m sure most of it’s rubbish.’
‘Come on, this stuff is mint. Maybe we’ll find old Grandpa Heron’s bones.’ He waggled his eyes back and forth and made a strangling motion with his hand. She giggled and shook her head. ‘I hope not. Wouldn’t they be smelly by now?’
‘Not if she soaked them in formaldehyde. I’ve heard about that stuff. You can preserve anything.’
‘How about chocolate?’
He rolled his eyes and went back to the trunk. Susan shuffled away down the attic, pausing at the halfway point and pointing her torch further down the huge roof space. Trunks, rolled up carpets, bits of furniture, huge stuffed teddy bears covered in spider’s webs, three rocking horses, a huge— who needed three rocking horses? One was more than enough, surely?
They called old Nanny Heron a hoarder. Susan hadn’t understood what they meant until they finally entered her house yesterday.
She listened to the creaks and shuffles from downstairs as mother and father did down there, what the three of them were doing up here. Speaking of which…
She shone her beam over to the far corner and caught sight of Alfie, head buried in another of the chests. She crawled over on hands and knees. ‘Hey, Alfie, what have you found?’
He turned to her, big grin on his face and held up a spinning top. It was massive, like almost everything else up here, and still brightly coloured. Yellows and oranges and purples and pinks shone in the light from her torch. ‘Isn’t it brilliant?’
‘Aren’t we a little old for spinning tops?’
‘Yeah, but I mean, just look at it? We get these tiny little things in two colours, tops. Nanny had something the size of my head. Why didn’t we ever get to play with this stuff?’
‘She probably forgot she even had it. You know what she was like.’
‘Yeah.’ Alfie made a face, like he was ghost or ghoul and Susan laughed and gave him a shove. ‘She wasn’t that bad.’
‘Oh yes she was. You wouldn’t remember, you were too young, but we used to come once a week and she’d be doing all sorts of strange things. One day we came in and there were tubs of mud all over the place.’
‘What do you mean?
‘Just that. Tubs of mud. Old ice cream tubs and pots and pans, all full of mud. In the sitting room and the kitchen and everywhere.’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t know. We were all too scared to ask.’
‘Why didn’t mother ask?’
‘She was scared, too.’ He made the same face and she laughed again. He wasn’t like John. His laugh was just shy of a bray and his smile made him look sneaky. But she knew it was all part of the front. He was just as soft as their middle brother and he’d looked after her when they were younger. Alfie might not have the way with everyone that John did, but she loved him just the same.
Susan cleared her throat, an idea springing into her mind. ‘Hey, Alfie, listen.’ He turned from his trunk and she hissed across the attic. ‘John, how about this? Let’s do show and tell. We’ve got five minutes to find the most interesting thing, then we meet in the middle and show and tell. You can make up anything you want about it.’
Her brothers grinned, nodded, and set off in search of new treasures. She crawled further into the dark until her head brushed against the huge eaves of the house that angled down to meet the floor. She glanced up and shuddered. A family of spiders, probably as old as the house, had set up a whole city of webs above her. She squinted, shining her torch on the vast swathes of white webbing. They were as busy as spiders always where when you were watching them. Sitting. Waiting.
She shuddered again and turned her attention to the trunk before her. It opened with a slow groan, but offered only disappointment. It was, in stark contrast with all the rest, empty.
No, not quite. There was a roll of paper in one corner. She lifted it out, blew the dust off, and unrolled it. It was a map of the house and gardens. The back garden made the mansion in which Nanny Heron, and a long time ago Grandpa Heron, lived, seem tiny and insignificant. There had been talk, when she died, of some of the plot being sold off for other houses. Mother said she couldn’t bear the thought of the view out the back being ruined by some modern houses being dumped there. Father said if they sold off just a tiny bit at the back, they’d have enough money to pay off their own house and have this one done up for when they came to live here. Mother said they still didn’t know whether Nanny Heron had left them the house so it was all pie in the sky anyway. Father said she better had of done, after twenty years of visiting the old windbag.
Mother always stormed out of the room at that point.
Susan shone the torch on the map, rubbing her hand across it to clean off the dust.
That was when she saw the line.
It was faint, dotted red against the grey black lines of the house. It started at the bottom of the stairs and headed out into the gardens. Most of the way down, past the vegetable patches and between the fir trees, the dots grew further apart and it finished with a red cross.
A treasure map. Susan’s hand rushed to her mouth as her heart sped up. It was a real treasure map, like in the stories. There was nothing better than a story about hunting for treasure. Adventure and excitement with the big mystery at the end. She smiled in the darkness and pressed the map to her chest. She had her show and tell.
‘Time’s up.’ John’s voice floated across the attic, so she turned and crept back to the centre of the room. John joined her there and Alfie turned up a minute later. They sat in a circle, torches resting on the boards. The light played across the floor, making sharp features of their knees but throwing their faces into shadow.
‘Me first.’ John leant forwards and placed a doll into the space between them. Alfie raised an eyebrow, shrugged at Susan, and reached out to pick it up. John caught his wrist. ‘Uh uh, not yet.’
‘It’s just a doll.’
‘Not quite. Look at this.’ John lifted it gently off the boards and turned it over. He lifted the dress it wore and, beneath it, the back of the doll was cut away. Inside were bones, stitched perfectly in felt, within each limb and the body. It was like seeing a skeleton preserved in a wrapping of wool. Susan wanted to look closer but she couldn’t bring herself to pick it up.
‘Awesome.’ Alfie breathed. The two brothers nodded to one another, sharing that look they got when they found something they thought was gross but really great. She let Alfie explore it before he handed it to her. The doll was faintly warm and the bones not at all scary once you gave them a squeeze. It was, in fact, quite splendid, in an icky sort of a way.
‘Okay, your turn, sis.’ Alfie said.
‘But I’m the youngest, shouldn’t it be you next?’
‘But John went first.’
Alfie shook his head and wagged a finger at his brother. ‘John’s just rude. And possibly a lady.’
He accepted the thump on the arm with good grace and Susan leant forwards. She laid the map down as gently as John had deposited the doll, then unrolled it.
‘Ahh, amazing.’ John said, leaning forward.
‘Brilliant.’ Alfie chimed in, joining his brother in poring over the old map. ‘Does this place have any secret passageways?’
‘I don’t know.’ Susan pushed them apart and put her finger on the map. ‘But look at that.’
They spotted the red line and watched as she traced it up the garden to the faint red X. ‘It’s a treasure map.’ She sat back, smile on her face and waited. John sniggered and Alfie thumped him, then turned to Susan with a look of regret. ‘Sis, I know you love the pirate stories, but there are no treasure maps.’
‘This is so a treasure map.’ She heard the younger sister whine in her voice and scowled at them. ‘It is. Look. It’s a dotted red line, what else could it be?’
John opened his mouth, but closed it again, a faint line marring his forehead. ‘Good question.’
‘Oh come on,’ Alfie sighed, ‘it could be a water pipe. It could be where they brought the electrics in. It could be anything. It isn’t a treasure map.’
Susan stuck her tongue out at him and was about to argue further when a thump beneath them made them all jump. ‘Break time. Your mother’s got some lemonade.’
They leapt up, but not before Susan rolled the map and tucked it inside her jumper. They drank the lemonade, watching the sunlight turn over the dust in great swirls as it poured in through massive windows. They were sat on the top floor and beneath their feet were floorboards that creaked and moved with each step they took. The furniture up here was covered in sheets. Nanny hadn’t used the third floor in years. It smelt of age with a vague hint of berries. Susan’s nose twitched.
Father came in and rested his fists on his hips. ‘Why don’t you children explore the garden for a little while. It’s a lovely day and there’s no reason you should be stuck up in that attic all day.’
He turned to leave and Susan yanked the map out. ‘Can we check?’
John smiled, his eyes lighting up. Alfie looked from one of them to the other, before sighing. ‘Do we really have to?’
‘If it’s just the electricity or something, we haven’t lost anything.’ John said. ‘Why not?’
Alfie sighed again and threw his hands up. ‘Fine, whatever.’
Susan yelped and scampered down the stairs. They reached the bottom and she unrolled the map. Her tummy tightened and she swallowed down the excitement. They were standing on the exact spot the dotted line began. John clapped her on the shoulder. ‘Give us directions, cap’n, where are we bound?’
She straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat. In her best piratical voice, she order them forwards. ‘Proceed south to the rear door.’
She ignored Alfie’s long suffering sigh and led them out into the garden. The tall grass headed away from them like a meadow. The tall fir trees that marked the halfway point swayed gently in the distance. She hoped they could come and live here. She hoped more than anything they could spend the whole summer exploring the garden. Maybe this map would lead them to real treasure and they could buy the house, even if Nanny Heron didn’t leave it to them in the will.
They walked a crooked path, winding around a overgrown rockery, then between two ponds, home only to weeds and one solitary duck. It glared at them, then stuck its beak beneath its wing. Beyond them, they found a path, still identified by tiny pieces of stone poking bravely through the grass. She hopped along them like they were crossing a great river.
She was sweating lightly by the time they reached the fir trees and the long shade they cast was a welcome break from the sun. They paused and her brothers examined the map. Alfie patted her on the head. ‘You appear to have led us to the right place, so far. Well done, sis.’ He succeeded in being both patronising and nice at the same time, so she stuck her tongue out again and headed off.
They went between the firs and found the forest. Trees of all sorts dominated the rear of the garden and she gaped in wonder, forgetting for a moment that she was a pirate captain. John nudged her in the back and she blushed and kept on her way.
They hadn’t long to go before the dotted line changed. They reached it and she stopped them. ‘Something happens here.’
Alfie took the map, scrutinised it and handed it back. ‘Agreed. But what?’
John took a look and was equally confused. She pored over the faded lines, trying to make out whether there had been something drawn here that was no longer visible. There was nothing. The lines were faded, but very much present. She screwed up her face, stamped her foot, and froze. The unmistakable clang of metal beneath them made her heart leap into her mouth.
‘Of course,’ said Alfie and fell on his knees. As he began scratching around in the grass, Susan tapped his shoulder. ‘Of course what?’
‘The line changes because the path goes underground. Come on, help me.’
She paused for a moment, looking at the floor. Now she knew it was there, she could see glimpses of metal between the tufts of grass. John was already hauling it aside and she joined in. Most of it was barely rooted and came away easily enough. Within a few sweaty minutes, the three of them stood staring at a square metal trapdoor, three feet on both sides and still bearing just the tiniest scraps of soil and grass.
‘Goodness. Buried treasure.’ She couldn’t decide whether Alfie was still mocking her, but when their eyes met, she saw something in them that hadn’t been there before. He was interested, if not yet as excited as she was. But he was right. Treasure, real treasure, had to be buried.
They met at one side of the metal, got their fingers beneath it and heaved. Her surprise at how easy it came up was overcome by her feet slipping out beneath her. As the metal lifted, she lost her footing and slipped beneath it. With a shriek, she disappeared into the darkness.
She felt rough steps under her bottom as she thumped down them. Then her feet struck something hard and she stopped as abruptly as she had begun. She sat still, panting and blinking away the tears that had sprung into her eyes.
‘Goodness, Suse, are you alright?’
‘Sis, you okay?’
She drew a breath and tried to speak, but her voice came out as a whisper. She stopped, took another breath and tried again. ‘I’m fine. Really. Just a bit shocked.’
The metal door vanished from above her and light spilled into the hole. She sat at the bottom of a small flight of steps, in a hole at least eight feet deep. To her right was a wall constructed of mud-covered bricks. To her left, a tunnel, achingly dark, sneaked into the darkness.
The map was still in her hand, but she didn’t need to look at it to know that was the way to go. She peered into the gloom, but could see nothing. Alfie came down the steps and helped her to her feet, brushing mud off her behind and elbows. ‘Are you sure you’re okay?’
‘Really. Thanks. That’s the tunnel.’
‘Isn’t it brilliant?’ John exclaimed, leaping down the stairs and peering past them. ‘Come on.’
Alfie frowned and Susan looked up at him. ‘What is it?’
‘I’m not sure it’s safe, that’s all.’
‘What’s wrong.’ John mocked. ‘Scared of ghosts?’
Alfie gave him a look and thumped on the wall beside them. ‘I mean, structurally, you brush.’
‘Oh. Well, it’s been here a while and not fallen in.’
‘Well, yes, but it hasn’t had the three of us stamping down it, has it?’
John looked contrite and nodded. ‘No, you’re right. But come on, don’t tell me you aren’t interested?’
Alfie shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. Susan smiled tightly and peered again into the tunnel. The knot in her stomach had spread its wings and become a butterfly, flapping around. She didn’t like the thought of entering the tunnel, but there would be treasure at the end, she knew it.
‘Come on, Alfie, please?’ she used her best little sister voice and watched in satisfaction as he crumbled. ‘Fine, but be careful. Who brought their torch?’
Susan already had hers in her hand and led the way. The beam revealed a floor set with the same bricks as the walls. The tunnel was high enough to walk without bowing her head, though both her brothers had to stoop a little bit. She watched the map with one eye, noting as they drew closer to the X. It didn’t take long and she didn’t need the map to know when they were there.
The tunnel widened until the three of them could stand side by side before the door. The light from outside was completely gone and she wondered with a sudden lurch in her heart, what would happen if their torches ran out. But they weren’t going to. Father had put new batteries in them just that morning.
The door was made of dark wood, just like the ones in the house, but it was a frame instead of solid. She took a step closer, before glancing back at her brothers. They were both transfixed by the door and she turned back to it. There was something pinned to it and she brought her torch up.
That was it. A small piece of yellowed paper with one, simple instruction on.
‘What does it say?’ John’s voice sounded small in the tight space.
‘It says knock.’
They were silent for a moment. She should knock. But something was stopping her. Maybe the treasure wasn’t so important after all. ‘Go on then, sis.’
It was Alfie’s voice and she almost obeyed it, but stilled her hand before it could strike the wood. ‘Maybe we shouldn’t.’
Alfie snorted and pushed past her. ‘Don’t be daft. We can’t come all this way and not knock.’
He raised his hand and she opened her mouth to argue, but she was too late. He thumped once, twice, three times on the door.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Nothing. He turned back to them, smiling. ‘Where’s the treasure?’
He turned back to the door and something smashed straight through the centre of it. Susan shrieked as a hand flashed through the beam of light cast by her torch. The hand caught Alfie by the head and hauled him into the door. His face smashed against the rough wood. Her brother struggled, yanking himself back, but the hand refused to let go and dragged him into the door again.
His forehead cracked the weak wood and he stumbled, dropping to one knee. Then a head came through the broken door. It reminded her of someone, but she didn’t know who. It was rotten, horribly rotten, and bore almost no hair. Its eyes were sunken in its skull and so red they were almost black. When its lips peeled back from its teeth, it revealed them to be yellow and split. She screamed.
It opened its mouth and sunk its teeth into Alfie’s skull. She whimpered as she heard the bone splinter. At that moment, John breathed a name beside her and she realised why she recognised the hideous creature tucking into her eldest brother.
Six feet under and about five miles away, Nanny Heron, still smelling faintly of roses and embalming fluid, smiled and stretched.