There are people in this world who can identify dust by its aroma.
Book dust is widely considered to be the most aromatic and most likely to evoke memories.
I mention dust because the house we rented has lots of it.
If the building had been hermetically sealed before we got there I would have wondered how the dust got in, but it wasn’t, and it did. Get in that is.
The house is about as sealed as a sieve.
Don’t think I’m worried about it because I’m not. I’ve never been prissy about such things.
I like the bare floorboards (they’d polish up nicely — hardwood with an attractive grain), and I love old furniture (the house came furnished). The furniture is functional, but not at all stylish — not now nor when it was new, but that’s okay too.
It has an open fireplace and thin pointless curtains which don’t block out the light or give any kind of privacy during the evening hours.
Some bright spark said that dust is mostly made up of discarded human skin particles, but I know this is bollocks. I’ve explored buildings where no human being has ventured for many years, and the place was still full of dust — neatly settled on every available surface.
Renting the house happened on a whim.
We needed to get away for a while. Someone suggested this country town because of the river and the pine trees and the old general store which doubles as a cafe during the day and a bar at night.
The quietness is deafening.
I need quiet if I’m going to finish this book, but I worried about Rebecca. Would she be bored? She said not, so I had to believe her.
“I’ve got my sewing and my books, and it looks like a great place to go for long walks. I can cook and write and play with Billy (our small dog). That is if he can drag himself away from you. He really is the perfect writer’s dog,” said Rebecca, and I had to agree. “You finish your book, and we will look back on this time as being special.”
Billy, the dog, wandered into my life a couple of years ago when I was sitting at the garden table — I’d left the back gate open, and he took it as an invitation. He curled up next to me and went to sleep. It turned out that he belonged to the Mitchell family from Bent Street, about half a kilometre away. They had six children all under ten years old, and the little dog was exhausted from the morning’s chaos, so he came to my house to get a bit of peace.
Once I worked out where he was from, I left the gate open for him each morning.
When the Mitchells split up, Mrs Mitchell asked if I’d like to have Billy, “I’m taking the kids to my family in Queensland, and I don’t think Billy will enjoy the heat.”
I said yes, I would like to keep Billy and he’s been with me ever since.
Acquiring Rebecca was another matter entirely. Billy had a bit to do with it.
Rebecca worked for the local pet groomer, and I bought Billy’s dog food from them. Billy’s not the kind of dog who needs a lot of grooming, but he is small and white (except for the black bits), and he has a disarming smile.
Rebecca offered to trim his nails, which needed it even though he wore them down while walking with me every day.
I checked with Billy, and he seemed okay with the idea, so I handed him over. After that, he veered violently into the dog groomers every time we walked by. Rebecca would see us and come out from the back of the shop and pet Billy, who squirmed up against her loving touch. I wondered how Rebecca’s boss felt about these frequent trips, but I guess she was happy to put up with us because of all the expensive dog food that Billy consumed.
I’d been living on credit in the house my aunty bequeathed to me, and things were getting a bit grim when I sold the film rights to my first book. That gained me a bit of attention, and my publisher (I use the term loosely — about as helpful as tits on a bull) decided to reissue my first three books and actually put a bit of money into promoting them.
I paid off my debts with the proceeds of the film deal and suggested that Rebecca might want to join Billy and me in a spot of celebration.
Fortunately, she said yes, and the rest you can probably guess.
My publisher set a deadline for my latest literary effort. Rebecca is happy being my muse, Billy is happy to have Rebecca living with us and I’m just flat out happy.
This dusty little house is going to be our residence for a few months, and while we are here, we will make it our home.
It’s getting a bit chilly, so I’d better light the fire.
“The hardest thing in the world to keep is a secret.
No matter how hard you try, someone always finds out.
Even the best-kept secrets are eventually exposed to the light of day.”
The dust from the yellowing pages was irritating my eyes.
The writer was a shadowy figure in my life.
I met her a few times, but she was ancient and small children were of little interest to her; who could blame her.
When she died, I was ‘too young to go to the funeral’. Not that I threw a tantrum or anything, but I was curious.
She was the first person to die during my brief existence.
When you are a kid, old people are like creatures from another planet. So far removed from your world as to seem genuinely alien.
There are exceptions of course.
If you’re lucky enough to have grandparents, you’ll know what I mean.
Mine were either too old, too far away, or too dead to play a role in my life.
I’ve heard friends talk about their grandmother as being the one person they could say anything to.
It’s good to have someone who will keep your secrets.
Grandparents don’t feel responsible in the same way that parents do, so they tend to relax. They have been there and seen it all happen. They come at each problem with a calmness that young people react to.
I yearn to say that that’s how it was with Daisy, but it wasn’t.
You notice that I didn’t say ‘grandma’ Daisy.
That’s because my mother always referred to her mother as Daisy.
From reading through these old notebooks and loose pages, I’ve discovered that Daisy liked me, although why she should, I have no idea. I was barely aware of her existence, and I don’t ever remember having a conversation with her, although I must have because she quotes me here in her beautiful handwriting.
“The little one asked me what I was looking at. Both hands on her hips and a defiant look in her eyes. It was all I could do to contain my smile. This little one is going to make her mark in the world.”
‘This little one’, that was me, way back then. I must’ve been about six years old. That was the last time I saw her.
Naturally, I wanted to find more references to me in this box of handwritten memories, but there were precious few references to me.
I discovered the old wooden trunk in the mid-morning, and I sat in the attic and read until it got dark. Time went by in a flash, but that was what these papers were about; time.
Daisy was a spy.
She didn’t set out to be a spy it just worked out that way. Her world dipped headlong into a deadly conflict and her young self-decided that she had to do her bit. She thought she would be shuffling papers in some anonymous war office, but doors opened quickly for Daisy, and she found herself being trained to work behind enemy lines. The theory in those days was that the enemy was less likely to suspect a woman of being a spy. With what I know of the history of warfare, this was a stunning underestimation. Famous female spies go back as far as anyone can remember. So why did these bozos think that females would be safe behind enemy lines?
From her notes, I read that some Daisy’s friends lost their lives. Many because they were betrayed.
Students of warfare know that spies and codebreakers win wars, whereas everyone else thinks that guns and tanks are the only things that matter.
Secrets are one thing, and their procurement was a dangerous business. But the secret alone was useless unless it could be conveyed to those who could use the information.
Codes could be broken and often were.
Both sides went to enormous ends to safeguard their secrets.
Mathematicians were in high demand.
Knowing that any code could be broken at any moment must have made these agents very nervous.
The only unbreakable code was referred to as a book code.
But, carrying around a particular book could be dangerous in itself, particularly if other agents had been captured carrying the same book.
From what I was reading, Daisy had developed her system, but for the life of me, I didn’t understand how it worked.
She seemed to be referring to some person as, “The keeper of secrets”.
It was now very dark, and I was hungry.
Daisy’s trunk full of secrets would have to wait until tomorrow.
My family were more than a little annoyed when I go home because there was no food on the table.
I suggested that there were matches on the stove and that the top drawer held a can opener.
My suggestions were not well received.
I didn’t sleep very well that night, and the next morning after I had bundled everyone out the door with their tummies full of warm breakfast, [it seemed the least I could do after the previous night’s lack of dinner] I got in my car and drove around to my mother’s empty house.
This time, I was a little better prepared. I brought coffee, sandwiches and eyedrops.
Daisy’s papers held countless references to the mysterious, ‘keeper of secrets’, but by mid-afternoon, I was no closer to finding out who this person was.
Daisy wasn’t just a good spy she was a heck of a good writer as well. I was quickly transported into her wartime world, and I could feel the fear and excitement that she felt. She would’ve been very young and probably quite pretty, but inexplicably, my family did not have any photographs of her from this time in her life, so I’m only guessing. She did mention several times that she was able to achieve her objectives because of the effect she had on men, so ‘pretty’ seemed like a good bet.
There were many references to a rag doll which was sent back and forth from occupied France. I jumped to the conclusion that messages were concealed within the doll, but this was never spelt out. That doll must’ve racked up some serious miles. I hope it didn’t get airsick, or seasick for that matter, as there were references to the doll being smuggled out on fishing boats as well as being collected by daredevil pilots landing in open fields on moonless nights.
I wondered what had happened to this doll after the war.
If it had been me, I would have kept it as a reminder of my adventures.
I headed home at a reasonable hour and while I was chopping up vegetables and preparing the dinner my mind was imagining a young woman taking her life in her hands on a daily basis. I wondered how she managed to assimilate back into civilian life. Did she find housework as boring as I do?
The notebooks I was reading talked mostly about this exciting part of her life.
Maybe there were other notebooks that talked about the struggles of her post-war life, but they were not in this old wooden trunk.
If my mother had been alive, I would’ve asked her, but my only link with that time was now gone.
Maybe they were up there somewhere talking about times gone by.
Being a mother myself I wondered how Daisy’s mum felt about this young girl being so close to danger. Something told me that Daisy’s mum did not know what she was up to, which was probably just as well.
The next day when I had returned to my mother’s attic, I continue to read Daisy’s wartime journals, but something else was nagging at me and distracting me from my task.
Finally, I put the journals to one side and began going through the other boxes that were stored in this dusty old attic.
This task was made more difficult because my mother never labelled anything.
It was always a voyage of discovery going throughout our pantry and refrigerator when my brother and I were young, because you never knew what was in the jar, or can, or bottle.
It’s amazing that we didn’t poison ourselves.
The first few boxes were full of children’s toys and clothing, some of which were mine and some of which belong to my brother.
Eventually, I found a box that was full of things that I did not recognise, and among these things was an item wrapped in layers of old newspaper.
It occurred to me that the wrapping might be more interesting than what was inside, but I was dead wrong.
The layers of newspapers were protecting an old rag doll.
A very old rag doll.
“I’ll bet you could tell some stories,” I said to the doll as I held it gently in both hands.
“I would never tell. I’m the keeper of secrets.”
The voice was a faint one, but I didn’t imagine it.
The doll was speaking to me, and amazing as it may seem, I wasn’t surprised.
It seemed as natural as it could be.
“What secret do you have for me today Daisy?”
The little doll’s features were now faded and worn, and this made the situation even more bizarre; I was being spoken to by a crudely shaped, almost featureless, rag doll.
“I don’t have any secrets, and my name is not Daisy,” I said, feeling slightly foolish for arguing with a rag doll.
It did occur to me that leaving this house as quickly as possible would be a wise move. Possibly even an appointment with a competent psychiatrist could be called for.
But my curiosity got the better of me.
“You must be Daisy. I only speak to Daisy and the person who knows my name,” said the little doll.
“Daisy was my grandmother.”
“You must be very much like her for me to have made that mistake.”
“Daisy was brave and fearless. I don’t think I am either of those things.” I said, and the words made me sad as I said them. “How did my grandmother find you, and how did she know that you can keep secrets?”
“I cannot tell you. It’s a secret.”
“It doesn’t matter. Even if you told me, it wouldn’t make any difference. No one is ever going to believe me when I tell them this story.”
“So don’t tell them then. It can be our secret.”
I should’ve been frightened, or at least a little apprehensive, but all I felt was calm and brave. Was I channelling my grandmother? Was being close to this rag doll from that dangerous time giving me a sense of my inner courage? All I knew at that moment was that I had to protect this ancient little rag doll.
It was a connection to my mysterious grandmother, but it was bigger than that.
It felt more like an ancient quest.
My sworn duty would now be to keep this piece of magic safe and warm.
“Are you a happy person Susan?”
“I am,” I said, wondering how it knew my name.
“Tell me your secrets Susan and I’ll keep them safe.”
“You are my only secret, and from now on it is my job to keep you safe.” As I said it, I had a strong sense there were adventures to come, and that a small rag doll who can keep a secret would feature prominently.
I’m up for an adventure as long as I can be home in time to prepare dinner.
Who would ever suspect an ordinary suburban housewife of being a spy?