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[Image of Mr Impossible] Strata
by Pablo

Isn't it always the smallest things. A shard of pottery. A sharpened piece of flint.

Clearing Nana's big old house was becoming like upside-down archaeology. Downstairs the living space was the ephemeral stuff of daily life - Nana knew the end was coming, and she'd prepared well, but life has a habit of gathering in the corners like dust.

In the upstairs rooms the layers were more settled. Holidays distilled into photograph albums. Years of bureaucracy tied into neat little bundles with a finality I knew Nana would have liked. The further up the house the task took me, the further back it took me.

And not just in her life. It took me days before I allowed myself to even consider going into the attic. I'm not sure why. Saving the best for last, perhaps. I do that. Or just afraid that it would all be gone already. Though I'd no idea who might have taken it. There'd been no-one around even to notice Nana drawing her life to a close. Only Grandad's ghost, she'd have claimed, smiling impishly at the possibility. But not even her only child any more. Maybe that's what told her the time was right.

I sat at the kitchen table, nursing a coffee, looking out towards the churchyard across the fields I'd forgotten could be so green, and unfolded the letter which had brought me thousands of miles back. Nana's hand had still been strong and clear when she wrote it. The message was strong and clear, too. Come home, it said. I have something I need to tell you. Too late now, though. Perhaps that was what she needed to tell me, and, as ever, she'd found her own way. Still, here I was. Home.

The ladder to the attic creaked a little as I swung it down, but it held fast and seemed sturdy. I climbed.

I climbed back into my childhood. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dark, but it was all here. As I pulled back the shade from the window, the summer sunlight spilled across the place that had been mine. The little bed was still snugly below the window, ideally placed for a small, dreamy girl and her bear to watch the stars go by, or wrap themselves up warm and safe against a grumpy rainstorm.

I sat, smiling at the familiarity of the springs' creak. Across under the other side of the roof, Dancer still stood proudly. Older and wiser, no doubt, but still my proud beast. With no regard for his advancing years, I climbed up, wrapped my arms around his neck in friendly greeting, then gently pushed him into an easy canter. He groaned a little, but was soon flying, laughing along with me.

The sun bent across the attic as afternoon became late, finally coming to rest on a small chest in a quiet corner. My hands relaxed on Dancer's reins, and we came, slowly, to a halt. I watched the rays as they stroked across the top of the chest. There wasn't a sound.

No, I hadn't forgotten.

Sitting cross-legged in front of the chest, I loosened one of the heavy catches, then the other. Lifted the lid.

Here too, everything was as it always had been - in my memory, at least. I took out the two fading photographs. In the first, three tiers of primly uniformed schoolgirls looked seriously back at the camera on what had always seemed an endless summer day. Behind them were immaculate playing fields. Beyond, the intimidating bulk of the school. At the feet of the middle girl in the front row, a blackboard read: 'Prefects, 1926'.

I scanned each of the innocent, open faces, as if reacquainting myself with long-lost friends, realising slowly that most if not all of these hopeful, earnest angels would be dead by now. And came to the third girl from the right in the back row. Blonde pigtails dangling, bright eyes flashing, this girl beamed at the photographer as if up to some terrible, wonderful mischief.

The second photograph was of the same girl. She was alone this time, standing stiffly - almost to attention - in front of some grand building, but close enough that it remained anonymous. She was wearing her school uniform here too, though with an even more elaborate formality - pleated gymslip, striped blazer and tie, beribboned boater, gloves - which suggested the enforced putting-on-a-show of a school outing. Still, even here her eyes sparkled and a mischievous smile lit up her face.

I smiled back at Nana. I don't believe she ever really changed. Schoolgirl or not, this was the person I knew. This was my Nana.

Next in the chest, folded carefully in recognition of its heritage, was the same school gymslip that Nana wore in the two photographs. It too was worn and faded now, though the remaining green still held memories of the vibrancy it must have had the day Nana wore it for the first time. I lifted it out, stood, and held it against me. After all these years it was still the right size for me. My size was another of Nana's bequests.

Finally, at the bottom of the chest, a small leather-bound book, tied with ribbon both horizontally and vertically. I sat again, made myself comfortable, then picked up Nana's journal. I was suddenly, irrationally scared again that what I knew was in here would for some reason have vanished like a dream of pure happiness.

Carefully, carefully, as if I might startle the words away, I untied the ribbon, turned the first page and began to read.

'Saturday, September 4th, 1926
Back at school! Finally! Daddy's car broke down on the way in some tiny village. Something about a carburettor - whatever one of those is. We had to wait forever for some man to fix it. Anyway, when we got here it was almost dark, but I did catch sight of the new Headmaster as Daddy brought in my trunk. I said to Daddy that he looks like trouble. Daddy said that he probably thinks the same about me. I poked my tongue out at him, but he pretended not to have seen. More on the whole Headmaster matter tomorrow, after I've swapped notes with the others.'

The rest, like the words to a favourite song once the first few bars of music begin, I knew instinctively. I read a few more pages, though, scolding myself for avoiding looking there. It wasn't as if I couldn't turn to the exact page without really paying attention. And then the page was open there.

'Wednesday, January 19th, 1927
I was caned at school today.'

There was more - lots more - but I wasn't reading any more. My eyes had closed, and I was seeing the words in my head, seeing Nana bending tearfully across the high stool in the Headmaster's study, her knickers shamefully down at her knees. Feeling each stroke as it striped her into a sobbing and contrite and good girl. Seeing myself, too - so many times I felt little except shame - Nana's gymslip fitting all too well, proud Dancer taking the place of the stool for me as I bent, legs together and locked straight, as they were required to be, tiptoes raised, girlish panties blushingly eased down towards my knees. Bottom bare, and high, and waiting. And waiting.

I looked down, suddenly having to contend with tears of remembering and yearning. Suddenly aware of how much I missed her.

I knew the shape of the words on the page so well, without having to clear my eyes I spotted that something had changed. At the bottom of the entry for January 19th, some writing had been added in the margin. I pulled out a tissue, wiped and blew. As I read, my heart started to thump so hard it felt like it would burst through my chest.

It had been written very carefully, in light pencil, in a small, neat hand.

'Dear child,'

it said.

'I couldn't help noticing that the journal now seems to fall open at this page. If this means what I believe it means, I would like you to do something for me. Look at the date. Carefully. When you are sure that you understand, please look underneath the chest. What you will find is yours to keep. Take care of it for me. Thank you.

All my love, my darling.'

It was unsigned, though below Nana had drawn a little self-portrait, all smiles in pigtails and gymslip and straw boater, just like the second photograph.

I found myself sniffling and giggling and frowning all at the same time, and must have looked quite a mess. It took me quite a few more tissues to start to process what I'd just read. I'd always been so careful, but, well, I was glad that she'd found out, in the end, in her own way. It seemed that she'd planned for the end more thoroughly even than I'd imagined.

But what she meant by 'Look at the date' was quite beyond me. I looked at it, though I knew it backwards. Wednesday, January 19th, 1927. I'd even as a child gone to the trouble of calculating Nana's age on this date. She had been eighteen years, three months and seven days old, for her first and only caning. My fantasies in the attic on the day when I reached that age had been particularly memorable, as if our common age somehow linked us across the decades.

I certainly felt like I understood a great deal, but was sure that Nana meant something else. With a silent apology I lifted the chest and looked underneath. There was nothing there. I sat for a while, listening to the silence and the sounds of the old house talking to itself, then gathered up the photographs, gymslip and journal, took them downstairs to the kitchen and sought inspiration in caffeine.

Was it a different date she meant? It couldn't be today's date, obviously. That wouldn't make any sense. The journal was full of other dates, but none stood out. In a flash of inspiration I turned over the two photographs, but they weren't dated - just carried an ornate red developer's stamp. Besides, I knew those photographs.

I stood at the window, looking across to the churchyard once more. To the west, the sky was winding itself up for a spectacular late summer sunset.

And I thought: Isn't it always the smallest things.

I picked up the journal again and reread Nana's message. She'd know it could only be read by me, I suppose, and that I'd obviously know who it was from. Still, the fact that she'd signed it with a picture was an odd little flourish. A picture so much like the second photograph.

I picked up the second photograph again. Standing here by the window, rather than in the attic's gloom, it was brighter and clearer, despite the fading.

And then I saw it. Though I wasn't sure at first what it meant. It felt almost newly-added to the photograph, so many times must I have seen it and missed its significance. Still, why would I have been looking for significance in such a detail?

The second photograph was of the same girl. She was alone this time, standing stiffly - almost to attention - in front of some grand building, but close enough that it remained anonymous.

The building was anonymous, yes. But it was dated. Towards the bottom left corner of the photograph, at street level, the building contained a small foundation stone. On the foundation stone was inscribed - I held the photograph closer:

'Laid by Alderman William Newton March 22nd, 1933'

When the second photograph was taken, Nana hadn't been eighteen years old at all. She'd been at least twenty-four. And married. I smiled, because I'd just realised who the photographer had been. Nana's mischievous smile suddenly seemed rather different.

Back in the attic, I pushed the chest aside. Running my hands across the floorboards, I found that one was loose, and lifted quite easily. Reaching into the space below, I pulled out a stack of six more journals, identical to the other in style, tied with ribbon in the same way.

I untied the ribbon on the first, just as carefully this time as last, took a deep breath, and opened the journal at the first page.

'Monday, September 4th, 1933
I was caned at school today.'

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The gymslip did indeed fit me as well as it always had. It hung loosely around my bare legs as I skipped across the fields towards the churchyard, enjoying the feel of the grass between my toes.

I said my hellos to Nana, then sat down beside her, giving her the bunch of wild flowers I'd collected on the way. Then I pulled out the first of the hidden journals with a flourish, as if to surprise her, and read to her from it for a while. I think she liked that.

Soon, though, the day was too late for reading. I tied the journal carefully. I knelt before Nana. Then, hand on heart, swore solemnly to her that I would take the very best care of it and the others. I think she knows I will.

And then, as the sun scattered glory across the sky, we danced, Nana and I. We danced and danced and danced, skipping and spinning, until we collapsed, dizzy and hysterical with laughter, to the warm earth.

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