Monday, 19 October 2009

Story: "Gifts"

It was a bright day in October, with the autumn sun glinting off leaves left damp by recent rain, when Jennifer came to visit her aunt in her cottage on the Somerset coast. They had not met for some time. After tea, Jennifer was taken into a small sitting-room looking out onto the sea. The tide was coming in.
"Now", said her aunt, "I've asked you here for a purpose. You're not my nearest relative, of course, but I've followed your life with interest, and I think you're sensible and strong-minded enough for what I'll need you to do. You see, my dear, I'm going to die soon".
Jennifer, caught by surprise, could only utter some kind of gasp.
"Oh, it's all right", said her aunt,"you needn't feel sorry for me. I'm not in pain or anything. But I know these things, you see: I know I'm not going to last much longer. And it's very inconvenient, because I know all sorts of things are likely to happen very soon; probably very unpleasant things; and I won't be here to deal with them. That's where you come in. You'll have to take over from me when I'm gone. Now come over here".
She led a bemused and silent Jennifer to a glass-fronted display cabinet containing a random-looking collection of small objects: just the sort of collection a middle-class maiden lady might be expected to have accumulated during a long life.
"Now take a good look", she said, "You won't be getting anything from my will, but you can have some of these now. Which would you like?"
Jennifer felt an inexplicable sense of dread come over her; so much so that she was hardly conscious of making a rational decision; but finally she said, "The ring. I'd like the ring, please". Why she had chosen that, she wondered. It wasn't a special-looking ring at all. It had a blue stone, but it probably wasn't a genuine sapphire. Her aunt smiled.
That's good", she said, "You shall have the ring. Now for your second gift?"
"The litttle horse", said Jennifer. Again, she couldn't precisely say why she had made the choice. It was a small earthenware animal, Chinese in inspiration, though probably not in manufacture. Once again, her aunt looked pleased.
"Not much to look at, is he? But it's the right choice again. Now just one more to pick".
Jennifer knew what she would have to choose next, but by this time she was feeling positively frightened. She hesitated a long time before finally saying, in no more than a whisper,"The suffbox". Why did it alarm her so? There were peculiar decorations on the lid, and it probably wasn't even real silver.
Her aunt unlocked to cabinet and removed the three small objects. "Actually, it's not a snuffbox, but never mind. There! You've made the right choice three times running: it's a very good sign. I knew I was right to call you down here.
"You can wear the ring if you think you're strong-minded enough, which I think you are; but you must be prepared to see some very strange things if you do; often quite disturbing things". She walked across to the window, where twilight was already descending on Bridgewater Bay, and lights were twinkling away northwards on the Welsh shore. "I've seen a lot of very strange things out there. Some of them I was able to help deal with ....."
Her voice faded, then strengthened again. "The horse will help you. You'll find out how to summon him when you need to.
"As for the box, it must never be opened. I can't stress that too strongly. I'm not precisely sure what's in it, you understand, but I'm certain it's something very nasty indeed. You must think of yourself as the guardian of the box. I've guarded it for more than forty years, and now I'm passing it on to you.
"Now you really must go. I've booked you into a hotel in Taunton for the night, and it wouldn't be at all a good idea for you to be driving along little country roads in the dark with these things on board".
Jennifer was past asking for explanations, but she did say, "Hadn't we better wrap them up?"
Her aunt smiled. "Oh, you needn't worry about them bashing into each other and getting broken: they can look after themselves! But you're quite right: we should treat them with proper respect".
So they wrapped up the three gifts very carefully in tissue paper and put them in a shopping bag.
"Now you can kiss me goodbye", said her aunt, "You won't be seeing me again. It's up to you now".


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