“Open The Box!” They Cried
by Paddy Mendham
Many years ago, in the days of my extreme youth, I enjoyed exploring new areas of countryside and braving the insides of elderly buildings. We lived in the vicinity of an old forest in the home-counties. Even now parts are still there and if you look carefully you can spot the remnants of long disused tree camps. Picture, if you can, a rutted cobbled cart track that weaved its way alongside a red brick edifice that was perhaps a hundred yards long, covered in matted, withered ivy. There were two doors abutting onto the track, heavy metal doors topped by iron spikes. In the centre of each entrance was a window of frosted glass, inset with criss-crossed iron wires. Also, along the wall there were, every five yards or so, narrow windows of frosted glass showing reinforcing wires like those in the doors.
My brothers and I had not ventured along this lane before and I can still picture the name on the drunken, cast iron road sign at the beginning of this ancient, unwelcoming road – Little Green Lane. The sight of this old place filled me with excitement, although I can’t say that it engendered like feelings in my siblings. However, we carried on over the cobbles and I forced my way through a gap in the hedge at the end and on into a long-neglected side garden, down a path adjacent to the end wall of ‘my’ building. After perhaps another twenty yards, we were rewarded, if that is the right word, by the sight of a further door, this time of wood. A narrow door with a latch and I could not resist pressing it down. Even I felt nervous, but we had come this far so I pushed against the handle and despite some resistance and not a few creaks and squeaks from the door, it opened. Now I couldn’t stop, even if I’d wanted to.
On we stepped – gingerly, because this was an unknown and possibly a forbidden or dangerous building in which to explore. Also, the light was dim and cobwebs were festooned everywhere. We were in a straight, narrow corridor, with doors on each side. I saw a name on the first door, an old-fashioned name, Ebenezer Marner. There were men’s names on each door, although I can’t remember any of the others. None of the doors would open and we carried on to the end. Here the corridor opened out into a large room, with a rectangular table in the middle and number of stacks of chairs along one of the walls. There were several large cupboards on one of the other walls. These did open and revealed piles of blue and white crockery. This had clearly been a dining room but it was of no particular interest to us. It was about now that we all began to feel quite uncomfortable, so we trooped back the way we had come, shutting the wooden door behind us and squeezing back through the hole in the hedge. Further exploration would have to be carried out on another day.
There were still a couple of weeks left in the school holidays, so the second part of this adventure could happen soon. We chose to go on a Saturday when we thought there would be fewer grown-ups about. We reached what I’ll call the dining room very quickly and started to look for more places to explore. In a corner of the room down a short flight of steps there was yet another door and this one was ajar. We’d brought an old bicycle lamp with us so, with some trepidation, we carried on with our light to guide us. We arrived in what I’d now call a cellar and before us was a heap of old cases. We pulled them down and opened some of them. They were not locked. They were also empty. However, hidden under them was an extremely heavy iron trunk, it was locked and also secured by thick metal bands. That was it for the day, so we pondered what we could do next and went home. Our mum was there as usual, although our dad was still away in the navy. We told her what we’d done and apart from being worried she said that we should tell the vicar and ask for his advice. In those days there were two people whom everyone could trust – the doctor and the vicar. Since my brothers and I all went to Sunday school and we were seldom ill, the vicar it was. He said that if we could wait, he’d come back with us to see what we’d found on the Monday, after his really busy day of the week.
We were all up very early on that day but left it till about nine before calling round at the vicarage. Surprisingly, to us, there was one other person who was to join us on the trek to ‘my’ house – the local Bobby. The next part was quite straightforward and we all gathered round the iron trunk and stared at it. The vicar and the policeman had found out that the building had been an old people’s home or perhaps even a ‘lunatic asylum’ and no-one had lived there for years. The two men arranged for the trunk to be taken to the church, why there I know not. Once there we stood round and once again stared. The PC had brought a cold chisel and hammer and he banged off the padlock. We gasped and then almost as one we called out “Open the box”. Then something strange, really strange, happened. As the lid fell back something huge and black burst out of the box or trunk and flew down the church and out through the open door. My brothers and I and perhaps our mum, just cried. As we said later, we all yelled “Open the Box” and cried!
(c) Paddy Mendham 2020