The loft smelt damp and fusty. I grasped for the cord in the darkness, feeling for the ceramic stopper Dad had fitted. I expected a flushing sound each time I pulled. The light clicked on bathing the loft in warm amber. Motes of dust drifted around the bare, swinging bulb.
‘Tea up,’ Mum called.
‘Down in a minute,’ I said.
‘You only need to bring the box down.’
I sighed. ‘I know.’
‘Only I don’t want you rooting around up there. I know what you’re like. You’re just like your Dad once you get started.’
‘I’ll be down in a minute.’
The box was wedged between a stack of Dad’s lever arch files and Mum’s off-cuts of carpet. I stretched to reach the flap of the box and tug and something shattered beneath my knee. I cursed, dusted off my jeans and saw shards of a golden Christmas tree bauble. A tear of blood dripped from my left thumb.
‘It’s on the table,’ Mum said, all singsong.
I took an old T-shirt from a bag of damp clothes and dusted off the box. Someone had sealed it with tape and reopened it, tearing the brand from the cardboard. It was still possible to read Zest Soap.
‘Are you coming or not?’ Mum said.
I shifted my weight along the roof beam. Dad had hammered boards into the joists with leftover masonry nails.
‘I’ll be down in a minute.’
Something jagged in my foot. I stretched and my foot jerked involuntarily with a twinge of cramp.
‘What are you doing up there?’
‘Trying to find a new striker for the Wolves,’ I snapped, prompted by a scarf in the Old Gold and Black colours.
Underneath the scarf was a clutch of old, dog-eared football programmes. Dad used to find his way to the bar or directors’ box and get them signed for me. One had Dennis Waterman on the front supping from a glass tankard. The floorboards creaked on the landing.
‘How long does it take to bring a box down?’
‘Is that a joke?’
I set the programmes aside to read later. They were from another era, when football club chairmen owned car lots and welding firms, rather than oilfields and baseball franchises. The match-ball was sponsored by Mel’s Butchers – ‘We’ve got chops!’
‘Your tea’s getting cold.’
The auto-jug had only just clicked, but Mum could down her tea straight from the pot. Dad said she had asbestos guts. Nestling in a scrunch of newspapers was Dad’s ship in a bottle. Mum had bought him the kit as a distraction when the medicine was kicking. He hadn’t taken to it. The bottle, of course, was empty. It was glued to a scratched mahogany plinth. I remember coming in and seeing it on the mantelpiece.
‘So what is it?’ I said.
‘It’s the Marie Celeste,’ Dad replied, deadpan, scratching his chin.
A month later the bottle was still empty and so was Dad’s chair. I took the programmes, spilling them into a carrier bag. Dad had marked each player out of ten, scribbling some notes.