For its fourth annual short story competition, the festival asked entrants to write something inspired by the theme ‘Treasure.’ This quirkily entertaining tale took first place and won its author, Dave Loftus, a cheque for £100. It will also be published in an upcoming issue of the Prescot Parish Magazine. (Photo: Alan Humphreys)
OPAL AND JASPER
By Dave Loftus
Half my age ago, when I was a teenager with a face of Krakatoas and hair like an oil slick, I stayed for a week at my Aunt Opal’s house, in the rolling Somerset countryside. To me, my mother’s sister had always seemed a bit odd. A gimlet-eyed, walnut-brown woodland sprite, she flitted between hobbies and pastimes as frequently as a child, but with the worldly determination of a Victorian explorer.
As far as I know, she had never left the country, instead choosing to bring the exhilaration of faraway lands rushing into every nook of her cottage, which sat like a squat, bulbous frog on the edge of the village. Ferns, mangles, marble busts of philosophers, and ornate copper-plated nautical globes gave the house the timeless insanity of an antique shop. In the kitchen, on a wooden perch, a huge African grey parrot sat, but never said anything in my presence.
I arrived at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning and, by quarter past, I realised the week’s schedule had been set when my aunt walked through her door with a metal detector. Despite being more interested in whether there were any girls in the village, I nevertheless acted appreciative and held the machine at arm’s length.
‘We live in a little country with a lot of history,’ she said, gulping down fiery cider from a tin mug, of which she had a growing collection. ‘How hard can it be to find something valuable?’ Before I could protest, she pushed a spade into my hand and dragged me out the front door. Her imagination had clearly been inflamed, and dreams of Roman gold, biblical relics, Saxon jewellery, and the lustrous bones, rubies and death masks of the fifteen richest pharaohs danced in her mind.
‘What I’d like to find is Lord Jasper’s Treasure,’ she said, casually, as if the lost bounty was no trickier to find than a can of soup. My nostalgia tickled, I thought back on a book I had as a child, which told the local legend of a Civil War pioneer burying chests of coins in the dead of night. In my teenage wisdom, I took the lack of evidence as proof the whole thing had been made up. Aunt Opal didn’t share this opinion.
‘Think of it this way,’ she said. ‘We have more chance of finding the treasure if it hasn’t been found, right?’ She winked, as if solving an equation, and pushed through the back door into the meadow behind the cottage.
Plunging the metal detector through the daylight hours and into the twilight beyond, we learned how difficult treasure-hunting was. Scuffing through long grass and wildflowers, I watched my aunt listen to the machine, as it whooped and whistled like a nervy gazelle, but by dusk all we had found was a zipper, a spoon, and a bottle top I’d probably discarded on my previous visit. I laughed at the junk, but Aunt Opal scowled into the darkening sky and remained as tight-lipped as her parrot.
Her euphoria returned the next morning, when she came back from the musty village library with books explaining where Jasper’s mansion once stood. Armed with fresh insight, we tramped down a country lane to a bulge of cornfield, once dominated by the house, and snuck through the gate like burglars. Allowing our electronic bloodhound to sniff the territory, we were soon frantically digging away, and found even less than the day before.
‘Everybody knows he lived here,’ Aunt Opal said, pushing a screw and a penny dejectedly around the palm of her hand. ‘Every metal detector in the country has probably scoured over here at one time or another.’
For the rest of the week, the weather matched our disappointment, and slid low, heavy rainclouds across the sky to drench the earth and halt our adventure. By the time the sun apologetically returned, it was my last day, and I had only an hour or so until I had to catch my bus back home. ‘We still have time,’ my aunt said, grabbing my coat and the metal detector. ‘Let’s take it out for one last spin. What do you say?’
Suffering with cabin fever, I was only too eager to agree, and we followed the curve of a dappled lane out past the cornfields and into a demure meadow I hadn’t really noticed before. There was a smell of distant manure on the breeze and, somewhere, the drilling sound of a woodpecker. Stood grandly in the middle of the field was a stout, sullen oak tree, which shouted at us with its vanguard of twittering birds. Ignoring it, I let Aunt Opal lead the way, and we nosed the detector over twigs and overturned soil till we heard the familiar blips. I was beginning to suspect something amiss when my aunt clutched my shoulder and said, in a low whisper, ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but I paid for that machine. It’s only right I get to keep whatever’s here.’
Unnerved by her tone and tasting betrayal in the air, I scooped trowelfuls of soil from the ground and quickly hit something metal. It appeared to be a tin mug, but before I could investigate further, it was snatched from my grasp by my aunt, who turned it over in her hand to read the words, ‘Happy Birthday, Aunty Opal!’ painted on the side in bright, blue letters. It was brand new.
Tears filling her eyes, she crushed my ribs in a monstrous bear hug and thanked me profusely. I was speechless and baffled, having never seen the mug before in my life. Nobody had told me it was Opal’s birthday and I felt guilty and lost. One hemisphere of my mind wondered what kind of person would concoct such a scheme, but was soon overshadowed by the side which treasured my aunt’s craziness.
‘Don’t mention it,’ I said, at last, and we marched back to the cottage in triumph.