Treasures in time

Looking right and left and then right again, she crossed the road. The Green Cross Code man’s voice rang in her ears. Keep looking and listening at all times. There were no cars on her road but she practised anyway as her teachers and parents had drilled the code into her bones. It was almost part of her DNA. 

Her feet felt hot in her brown open-toed sandals with the shiny buckle at the ankle. It had taken a long time to break them in and her dad had resorted to hammering them on the painted red backdoor step in an effort to stop the rub. 

As she stood outside the dark blue front door, sheltered from the August sun by the old rhododendrons, her pockets weighed heavily against her legs. 

She knocked on the door – a small knock at first and then a louder one as she garnered more courage from her gut. She couldn’t reach the doorbell as it was too high. Maybe in a year or two, she could. She waited, the hum of the main road faint in the distance, the sound of distant giggles as someone splashed in a paddling pool down the road. She listened and knocked again.  

She knew he was on his way; she heard the soft shuffling of his carpet slippers on the parquet floor. The door opened. No door chain to keep him safe. He was always confident that whoever it was would not cause him harm. 

Uncle George stood looking down at the girl, whose scuffed knees, dusty open-toed sandals and muddy shorts gave him clues as to why she was here. 

‘Hello mischief, what have you got in your pockets today?’

‘Treasure’, came the reply. ‘Can you tell me the stories about my treasure please?’ said the girl.

‘Does your mum know you are here?’ enquired Uncle George. A solemn nod and a slight flicker of the eyes made him think otherwise. ‘Remember, I have always told you, you must tell your mum where you are or she will get worried. Wait here.’ And off he shuffled as she waited quietly, her shorts sagging under the weight of her treasures a little more. She could hear him dial the phone number and a murmured conversation. He was right, as always, but she had been so keen to share her treasures rather than have her sisters steal them from under her nose. 

‘Righto, your mum wants you home in fifteen minutes – come on in.’ 

His home always had a strange smell – the smell of old books, tobacco and dust. The books were piled up along the corridor into the front room. They took up every little bit of space on the tables and chairs. The books jostled for space with rocks, thousands of them, plus some old clay pipes, medals, rusty bits of metal and more. 

Uncle George was an archaeologist and had taken part in hundreds of digs around the town, unearthing Roman and Saxon sites as well as more ancient Briton settlements. 

He settled in a chair by the window. ‘Come on, let’s see the treasures.’  

She pulled out a pile of pebbles from her pockets and scattered them on the table in a heap.  She had spent the afternoon digging them up from her garden. She had given them a cursory wash in the old blue gardening bucket. They had glittered and shimmered whilst they were in the water. Now they looked a little drabber and a lot less exciting. 

Uncle George put his special eyeglass to his eye and peered at the first one. ‘Mmmm, this one looks like a piece of quartz and this looks like granite.’ And so it went on with each pebble. He brought the magic back to the pile of stones. As he talked she noticed that he kept pushing one particular stone to the side of the pile. At last, he picked it up. 

‘Now this one is a little bit special.’  

Oh, how she had yearned to hear that phrase. 

He turned it over and over in his fingers. She could see the yellow tobacco stains from his pipes colouring his nails and knuckles. ‘This I believe is a bit of a stone-age flint. You can almost see the indentations from someone’s fingers. They would have held it like this to strike it to get a spark. Shall we try it out?’  

Her heart was in her mouth; she could hardly get the word out. ‘Yes.’

He got up from the window seat, taking the stone in his hand, and moved towards his high leather-backed chair by the fire. In front was a little kidney-shaped table with a heavy ashtray which had his pipe resting on the edge. Next to the ashtray was a really old box of matches with Swan Vesta on the side. There was another pile of books which he picked up and put on the floor. From inside the Swan Vesta box, Uncle George pulled out a pack of cigarette papers, just like the ones her dad used to do his rollups.  

‘Right, you scrunch those up and make a little pile of paper in the ashtray.’ He then pulled out another stone from his pocket that was similar to hers but with some glittery sparkles on it. 

‘This is called iron pyrite,’ Uncle George explained. ‘You often find iron pyrite near flint – the ancient Britons knew that if these stones were struck against each other they would get a spark. If I strike this one against yours, we should be able to light the papers. It might take a bit of time, but with patience we’ll get there.’  

Holding her breath, she watched the old man striking one stone against the other, feeling almost as if time had slowed down. 

Then something truly wonderful happened – as the spark jumped from the flint and became a flame, she felt the weight of history flashing into the room. It was as if she had travelled through time back to when the forests had spread out all over the land. She felt the presence of that ancient Briton as she had struck the flint back then to create warmth – warmth to cook some meat, warm her toes or simply to keep her family safe. That same warmth she saw now in Uncle George’s eyes. He watched her face too and he could see how this moment in time had linked them both to the past as well as to the future.  

‘Keep this safe on your way home,’ he said, handing the stone back to her. ‘Now I think I have a Murray mint or two for you. Make sure you use the Green Cross Code when you cross the road. Now off home with you.’