It had been three years and in that time Alice had mastered numerous bits of technology, learnt to mow the lawn in under twenty minutes and shop for one. She decided now was the time to tackle the attic. She had ignored the rectangular shaped hatch door in the spare room ceiling for long enough, preferring to deal with papers, clothes and books. No one came to stay; she could push away all and any thoughts of the attic.
Gripping the pole, Alice slotted the end into the catch on the hatch opening, twisted and pulled. She pulled again. Slowly the hatch came open, revealing the ladder. Turning the pole round, she hooked off the ladder and yanked. Beads of perspiration were forming, and some had started to run down the side of her face and neck. She wiped her face and sucked her fingers, sweat tasted not dissimilar to tears. Ten steps up and her head and shoulders were in line with the attic space. She fumbled with her right hand for the light switch. There was a fizzing and buzzing sound and the fluorescent tube came to life. Through the shadows and black spaces, she saw a mismatched collection of suitcases, various boxes and carrier bags of old jigsaws, photos and Christmas decorations. On the far side, balanced directly on the rafters, was the old galvanised water tank. Too big to bring down when the plastic one had been installed, remaining stranded as a testament to its life in the house. Taking care, Alice made her way over to the old tank stepping around long forgotten items and memories. She was careful not to step on the part with no boards where the faded yellow fiberglass insulation stretched out to the corners in all directions like a lumpy foam sea. Yes, it was still there. Tucked in one of the corners of the old tank, covered in a layer of dust. Alice wished she had brought up the grabber she used for picking up things, as she realised how far down she had to bend to reach. Holding the tin close to her chest, she wondered if she did want to open it. She was not so sure.
She remembered climbing up to the loft with the old rickety wooden ladder one Saturday when Tom was out fishing. Bringing in the ladder from the shed, it was too heavy for her, in her efforts to carry it up the stairs she had damaged some of the paintwork. There was no light in the attic in those days, so she had brought a torch and remembered dropping it and scrabbling around in the dark on the attic floor. Tom had noticed right away the damage to his precious paintwork when he came home. Anger burned in his eyes and his ear lobes turned scarlet.
“I must have bashed it with the hoover,” Alice said. Was he suspicious? Was it believable someone could knock paint off banisters at knee level with a hoover? For the next two weekends Tom made a great show of rubbing down, undercoating and glossing the damaged area.
Alice had seen the tin in a shop window. They had been on holiday in Devon. Tom had found a fishing tackle shop and was deep in conversation.
“I’ll wander down the High Street,” Alice said. There was no response from Tom. “I’ll be back in thirty minutes, Ok?”
She didn’t know if he had heard but the shop assistant nodded. Half-way down the High Street on a corner with a side street, in the window balanced on top of a wooden table sat the tin. It was shaped as a picnic hamper with pink and green painted wicker. It had a miniature handle and lock. Alice did not hesitate or haggle over the price. Tucking the small tin at the bottom of her handbag, she placed her purse, scarf and hankie on top so Tom would not see it.
It had been a classic sunny day. Tom was at work. Jack had offered to pick her up in the car, but she said it would be best if she caught the bus and they rendezvoused along the way.
“Shall I make some sandwiches?”
“No, I’ll bring a picnic.” Jack said.
She hadn’t known where Jack was taking her, it was to be a surprise. They drove for nearly an hour out of the town and its uniform suburbs into the countryside with its crisscross of fields and hedges, finally arriving at the gates of an English Heritage property. Jack showed his members’ card and turned into the car park. Instinctively Alice looked round, but there were few cars and she didn’t recognise anyone. They chose a spot discretely away from other people under an oak tree whose foliage canopy blocked out the glare of the sunlight. Jack spread out a tartan blanket. He had brought cold chicken, wine and peaches. As midday slipped into the afternoon they lay side by side, fingers touching. Jack kissed her neck and the soft skin below her neck, letting his mouth and hands linger and explore. They drove back in silence, Jack insisting on dropping her off at the end of the road. Tom was not home, giving her time to wash, change and recompose herself.
Sitting on the pile of suitcases Alice opened the tin. At the bottom lay a small pile of white envelopes. There were only four letters. A perished rubber band limply clung to the envelopes. It had felt foolish, like a teenage crush, to use a red ribbon. They had been adults, aware of what they were doing and risking. The fear of discovery ended the relationship as suddenly as it had begun. She was sure Tom had known nothing of the letters, he always left early for work.
Taking out her mobile she was surprised to see there was a signal in the attic. It felt safer ringing from up here even though she was alone in the house. Alice slowly and deliberately tapped in the numbers Jack had written as a postscript on his last letter.