Within the wrapping was an antique cigarette lighter. It was attractive: engraved, simple. But I didn’t smoke.
‘It’s a time machine,’ said Beth. She was eccentric, but she was my best friend. I raised my eyebrows at her.
‘It’s true,’ she insisted. ‘I found it in the Christmas market.’
Oh, a novelty present. I peered a little closer. Presumably it made a display or played sounds or something. I couldn’t even work out how to take the top off and there was no igniter. It was just a small oblong of silver with squiggles on.
‘Enlighten me,’ I said. ‘If you’ll pardon the pun. Have you tried it?’
Beth’s gaze faltered and she shook her head. ‘I haven’t had the nerve. I thought if I gave it to you, you’d be bound to try it.’
I prodded at the carving and thought about spaceships. Nothing happened.
‘It’s not doing anything,’ I said. Grinning, I went to put it among the Christmas decorations above the fireplace.
‘The vendor said it works with things,’ said Beth.
‘Things?’ I tapped it against a glass ornament. Nothing happened.
‘Not those sorts of things,’ she said. ‘Things with memory – bricks, stone, wood sometimes – not tables, I mean beams, mantlepieces. This is such an old house, I thought it would be interesting.’
‘Well, you should know if it’s interesting or not,’ I retorted. I was her housemate, but the Victorian villa had been in her family since it was built.
‘He said you can’t go forwards other than to return to the present,’ she added. ‘And you can only observe. Go on, give it a go.’
I laughed. I could always rely on Beth to be different. I was more interested in the future than the past but I looked around the room, the old fireplace, the moulded ceiling and out into the garden.
‘Let’s go outside,’ I said. A moment later, we stood shivering. The veranda which ran along the back of the house needed repairing. It was the only part of the house that made me sad, the paint peeling, the roof leaking. There was a statue of a nymph under the hedge at the edge of the garden, weather-beaten and grey. Whenever I looked at her, even in summer, I longed to put a blanket round her, she looked so cold and forlorn. Now, in the near dark, lit only by the glow from the kitchen and the fairy lights I’d put on the trees, I had an overwhelming urge to bring her inside to warm up.
‘I wonder what this looked like in its heyday,’ I said. Beth hugged herself and shrugged. ‘I suppose,’ I continued, ‘if this thing works, it could show us how to repair the veranda to make it authentic. Who knows how many layers of paint is on it.’
I held a support with one hand and gripped the object. There was second’s hesitation before Beth uncrossed her arms and laid her hand on my shoulder.
‘Christmas 1840,’ I said and for reasons I can’t explain, closed my eyes. I expected nothing to happen. The air felt the same, the world smelled the same – a little damp, wintery, wood-smoky. Beth was shivering but it felt like trembling. I opened my eyes and it was so very much darker. There were no lights on the trees. The glow of the kitchen was much softer and fell shorter making the garden little more than shadows on shadow. The nymph… I couldn’t see her. She must have been a later addition. And the bushes where she would later stand were moving in the breeze.
It took seconds for my eyes to adjust and for me to realise there was no breeze. The bushes weren’t moving but a person was. People. They were embracing, a woman in a long dress held tight in a man’s arms; passionate, close, her head back.
And then he dropped her.
There was the shortest of pauses. In the fields beyond the garden, a fox barked. And then the man started digging.
‘So that’s where she is,’ breathed Beth.
‘The great-great-something aunt,’ she said. ‘They said she’d run away. Let’s go home.’
A moment later we were back in the present. The garden twinkled under fairy lights; the nymph hid in the shadows exactly where the woman had been dropped.
‘We need a spade,’ said Beth. ‘And then, as soon as we can, we go back and find out who killed her.’