Suggested Audio Candy:
 Camille Saint-Saëns “Danse Macabre”
 Hush and Rest “Creepy Lullaby”
I had been asking myself that very question for the past few hours and no answers were forthcoming. The manner in which I found myself in possession of this ornate receptacle was most bizarre and totally unforeseen. It was yesterday, on the last day of a three-day trip to Paris, France whilst paying a visit to my dear friend Emilie. The past two nights had been hedonistic in the extreme as she introduced me to the Parisian nightlife, which is second to none. Both of us were sporting massive headaches come the third day so we decided to pay a visit to one of the smallest, most intimate flea markets this great city has to offer, Le Marché aux Puces de Vanves.
I was in seventh heaven scouring through crates of vintage vinyl as I have always preferred the authentic crackle it provides. Meanwhile, Emilie had her eyes on a beautiful Hermès scarf and was trying it on for size. Initially I didn’t notice the man standing directly to my left as I was predisposed rifling through the vendor’s wares excitedly. That was until he made himself known by cupping his hands around mine and saying something in his native tongue. My French is somewhat sketchy but I was fairly sure that “c’est pour vous” meant that he was offering me something. Soundly intrigued, I span around to face him and instantly felt a most unprecedented feeling of having met him previously, even though there was no way this could be true.
He may well have been a vagrant; judging by his bedraggled appearance. Long, wiry black hair hung around his face like greasy drapes and instantly I became aware that he had likely not bathed in weeks as a pungent odor began to fill my nostrils without dalliance. My first concern should really have been that he was about to pilfer from my pockets as he appeared not to have eaten a square meal in some time and had an air of desperation about him. He released his hands from mine while I remained stunned and reached inside his pocket, pulling forth an object, and thrusting it towards me requesting that I “prend ça”. Again, I couldn’t be exactly sure of the translation but it was obvious he was offering me a gift of sorts.
I looked over to Emilie, who was sporting her new scarf, and currently thumbing through piles of exquisite Parisian linen. When I glanced back to my mysterious friend, he was nowhere to be seen and had disappeared into the dense crowds, but clutched tight in my left hand was the box. My first consideration was to check my trouser pocket and thankfully my wallet was still there. I then stood on tip-toes and peered across the congregation in an attempt at spotting this unusual fellow. Nothing; it was as though he had never actually existed although the item in my palm suggested otherwise. Just then, the silence was broken and the hustle and bustle of the cramped marketplace returned.
“Êtes-vous prêt? How you say…are you ready to leave?”
“Yes. Yes, I think so”
“It’s good no?”
“Amazing. We don’t have places like this in England”
“Not in London?”
“Yeah maybe. But not quite like this. I could look around here all day”
“But you need to get your train. We have less than two hours left until it departs”
“Of course. Lead the way. I’ll follow you”
“If you are still looking, we can stay for a bit longer”
“I’m good thanks. Got what I came for”
“Okay, this way. There is a patisserie two blocks from here that bakes the most wonderful croissants”
“I don’t suppose you saw that strange guy with me a minute ago did you?”
“No. I’m sorry. What happened? Are you okay?”
“Fine yes. But he gave me this”
I presented her the box and she looked just as intrigued as I as she inspected it further.
“It is beautiful”
“I know right? He seemed intent on gifting it to me and, before I could respond, he had gone”
“Lucky you. It looks expensive. What are you going to do with it now?”
“Keep it I guess. I wonder what’s inside. It feels pretty heavy”
“There is a seal at the top. Shall we go eat? Maybe you could open it there”
If there is one thing about the English that infuriates me it is our lack of culture and pig-headed insistence that it isn’t necessary to learn any other language. Other Europeans make sure that they speak through at least one other tongue whereas we seem to find this superfluous to requirements. I had my trusty phrase book and had taken every opportunity to put it to use but, at this point, “oui” was as far as I had come to constructing a fully fleshed-out sentence. We all have to start somewhere and, if nothing else, I was demonstrating a willingness to try.
The croissants were to die for and accompanied by liqueur coffee which had my taste buds dancing and assisted me in forgetting the intense hangover from the night before. However, I thought it best to leave the box intact, at least until I had returned home. Emilie agreed and instead we guessed its contents all the way back to my hotel, where I collected the rest of my belongings. She joked about Hellraiser and admittedly this cube was every bit as lavish and intricate as the one which the hapless Frank unwittingly procured during a similar expedition. Considering we were both students of horror, the similarities were striking although it was secured by a simple leather latch and wouldn’t require me to solve its conundrum in exchange for revealing its contents. Eventually, after running it close, we arrived at Eurostar just a handful of minutes before my express train was due to depart.
“Thank you Richard”
“It is I who should be thanking you Emilie. I’ve had the most amazing time and will never forget my stay here”
“You have been such a true friend and I am beyond thankful for that”
“Likewise. Friends forever yes?”
“Forever. Bon voyage”
“I know that one. Safe travels. See I’m learning”
“Indeed you are”
Emilie leaned across and planted soft kisses on both cheeks before waving me off from the platform.
The journey back to London St Pancras International took around two hours and I spent the entire time staring at the box with intense fascination. Part of me was willing myself to undo the strap and peer inside but this was overruled by my desire to do so within my own quarters. Since my arrival at the Gare Du Nord three days ago I had had one of the most emotionally enriching experiences of my entire life and felt like I had truly grown as a person after spending time with Emilie and her wonderful friends. It felt only right that I hold out that little bit longer and wait until the moment was absolutely right to explore this mysterious trinket further.
Emilie had made me promise that, the moment I did so, I call her. She was just as curious as I and the box seemed to have had an almost hypnotic hold over us from the very moment we laid eyes on it. As I muddled through the hectic underground network, I hardly noticed another soul, despite the fact that my arrival back in London had coincided with rush-hour madness. Ordinarily, I loathe travelling this way as common courtesy appears to go out of the window once the subways fill to capacity. Not on this occasion however; I was calm, composed, and no longer suffering from the ill-effects of excessive alcohol. At 7.15 UK time, I arrived home and set the box down on my bedside dresser as I showered away the airborne grunge of deepest London.
There was so much to do upon my return and so many written assignments that I had fallen behind on since taking my trip. This bothered me not as I had infinite inspiration for new stories based on my pilgrimage to one of Europe’s finest cities. After eating a small meal, I logged onto Twitter, shuddered as though somebody was traipsing across my grave in clodhopper boots, and logged straight off again. Maybe tomorrow. My body ached all over and I knew full well that I had missed a myriad of messages since taking my trip so I decided that an early night was called for after informing my nearest and dearest that I had arrived home safe.
As I prepared to slumber, I became aware once more of the box, and it appeared more inviting than ever previously. Still I refrained from opening it and left it where it sat beneath my bedside lamp while doing a spot of reading to unwind and ready myself for sleep. Every now and then my eyes would become sidetracked as it became bathed in illumination from the cars passing outside my window. What’s in the box? I had exercised remarkable restraint up until now and this is not ordinarily one of my strengths. However, I could take no more. After bookmarking my chosen literature, I settled back against my meticulously piled pillowcases and placed the box on my lap, no longer able to resist its curious charm.
The latch came free of its own will and I wasn’t required to apply force to release it from its fixings. Instantly I felt far less assured and began to sweat profusely as I prepared to flip its lid. Something didn’t feel at all right, as though I was about to release something which I would not be able to govern. Hellraiser sprang back into my thoughts and I pondered whether Frank would take back his actions in retrospect. It was too late now to question myself as impatience finally got the better of me and I removed the cover.
There was nothing whatsoever inside short of velvet furnishings. I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated as the weight had suggested there would be something waiting beneath the lid other than open space so I closed it back up and set it down with a sigh of dismay. It would be too late to call Emilie now as it was already past midnight here and the timezone in Paris was an hour advanced, plus she was likely still sporting her own hangover, thus I settled down to sleep.
I have always been rather fond of lurid dreams and normally welcome any subconscious imaginings, even if they take the form of nightmares. However, I have never before felt so much in attendance within one such dreamscape as the visitation that played out that night. I was back in Le Marché aux Puces de Vanves, only this time Emilie was not present. Instead there was only one face amongst the crowd that I recognized, that being the drifter, still looking every bit as dishevelled, but now appearing far less troubled than before. He spoke only two words.
Then he retreated back into the droves of faceless people before I could so much as muster a response. Frantically, I pursued him but it was to no avail and once again he had given me the slip. I woke up moments later, drenched through to my bed linen, which had never been velvet before now worryingly enough, and feeling utterly nauseous. I reached for my bed lamp as the room was now totally eclipsed in darkness and the heat far more stifling than I had remembered. After fumbling about for a few seconds to no avail; I began to grow hysterical and started to hyperventilate. My futile attempts to scream ricocheted back to me as though reverberating from four walls which would never afford my cries the opportunity of escape. I had discovered the mystery of the box and, in doing so, would now be its perpetual prisoner. I always liked the way that velvet felt against my skin; only now decidedly less so.
Artwork by Emilie Flory