Read an Extract from The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Read an Extract from The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

1

Charles Bramwell Brockley was travelling alone and without a ticket on the 14.42 from London Bridge to Brighton. The Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin in which he was travelling teetered precariously on the edge of the seat as the train juddered to a halt at Haywards Heath. But just as it toppled forward towards the carriage fl oor it was gathered up by a safe pair of hands.

He had scattered the like many years ago in the rose garden at the back of the house. But surely these could not be human remains?

He was glad to be home. Padua was a solid redbrick Victorian villa with honeysuckle and clematis framing the steeply pitched porch. The cool, rose-scented, echoing space of the entrance hall welcomed the man inside from the relentless glare of the afternoon sun. He put down his bag, replaced his keys in the drawer of the hall table and hung his panama on the hat stand. He was weary to the bone, but the quiet house soothed him. Quiet, but not silent. There was the steady tick of a long-case clock and the distant hum of an ancient refrigerator, and somewhere in the garden a blackbird sang. But the house was untainted by the tinnitus of technology. There was no computer, no television, no DVD or CD player. The only connections to the outside world were an old Bakelite telephone in the hall and a radio. In the kitchen, he let the tap run until the water was icy cold and then fi lled a tumbler. It was too early for gin and lime, and too hot for tea. Laura had gone home for the day, but she had left a note and a ham salad in the refrigerator for his supper. Dear girl. He gulped the water down.

Back in the hall, he took a single key from his trouser pocket and unlocked a heavy oak door. He retrieved his bag from the floor and entered the room, closing the door softly behind him. Shelves and drawers, shelves and drawers, shelves and drawers. Three walls were completely obscured and every shelf was laden and every drawer was full with a sad salmagundi of forty years gathered in, labelled and given a home. Lace panels dressed the French windows and diffused the brash light from the afternoon sun. A single shaft from the space between them pierced the gloom, glittering with specks of dust. The man took the Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin from his bag and placed it carefully on a large mahogany table, the only clear surface in the room. Lifting the lid, he inspected the contents, a pale grey substance the texture of coarse-grained sand. He had scattered the like many years ago in the rose garden at the back of the house. But surely these could not be human remains? Not left on a train in a biscuit tin? He replaced the lid. He had tried to hand them in at the station, but the ticket collector, cocksure that it was just litter, suggested that he put it in the nearest bin.

‘You’d be amazed at the rubbish people leave on trains,’ he said, dismissing Anthony with a shrug.

Nothing surprised Anthony any more, but loss always moved him, however great or small.

Nothing surprised Anthony any more, but loss always moved him, however great or small. From a drawer he took a brown paper luggage label and a goldnibbed fountain pen. He wrote carefully in black ink; the date and time, and the place – very specifi c:

Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin containing cremation remains?

Found, sixth carriage from the front, 14.42 train from London Bridge to Brighton.

Deceased unknown. God bless and rest in peace.

He stroked the lid of the tin tenderly before finding a space on one of the shelves and gently sliding the tin into position.

The chime of the clock in the hall said time for gin and lime. He took ice cubes and lime juice from the refrigerator and carried them through to the garden room on a silver drinks tray with a green cocktail glass and a small dish of olives. He wasn’t hungry but he hoped they might awaken his appetite. He didn’t want to disappoint Laura by leaving her carefully prepared salad. He set the tray down and opened the window into the garden at the back of the house.

The gramophone player was a handsome wooden affair with a sweeping golden horn. He lifted the needle and placed it gently onto the liquorice-coloured disc. The voice of Al Bowlly fl oated up through the air and out into the garden to compete with the blackbird.

The very thought of you.

It had been their song. He released his long, loose limbs into the comfort of a leather wing-backed chair. In his prime, his bulk had matched his height, and he had been an impressive fi gure, but old age had diminished the fl esh, and now skin lay much closer to bones. His glass in one hand, he toasted the woman whose silver-framed photograph he held in the other.

‘Chin-chin, my darling girl!’

He took a sip from his drink and lovingly, longingly kissed the cold glass of the photograph before replacing it on the side table next to his chair. She was not a classic beauty; a young woman with wavy hair and large dark eyes that shone, even in an old black and white photograph. But she was wonderfully striking, with a presence that still reached out from all those years ago and captivated him. She had been dead for forty years, but she was still his life, and her death had given him his purpose. It had made Anthony Peardew the Keeper of Lost Things.