Here be treasure
The problem with having a pirate in the family is that the lust for treasure does tend to take over all our lives occasionally. Not only treasure, in fact, but also the hunt for the perfect chest to put it in. We have made treasure chests out of cardboard, clay and paper. We have painted them, drawn on them, stuck stickers on them. We have even saved up pocket money and bought a sturdy little plastic one. But none of them is quite right.
Last weekend, the pirate’s father had a brainwave. ‘I think,’ said he, ‘I know where we might find a real treasure chest. I think there might be one in… the dungeon.’
This is the wonderful thing about growing up in a castle. There really is a dungeon. Well, no, that’s not quite true. As far as I know it was never actually used for chaining up disagreeable guests. It used to be known as the muniment room, in the days when the family papers were kept in locked chests in the castle rather than deposited in a national storage facility. But if you come with us on the treasure hunt, I’m sure you’ll agree that the new name suits it better.
First, we unlock a heavy wooden door with a huge key. We are leaving the parts of the castle used by the family: there is a cold draft seeping through the keyhole. Stooping under the low stone lintel, we find ourselves in a dark, arched passage. Why, you might ask, are there those corroded iron rings hanging at intervals from the ceiling? Your guess is as good as mine….
At one end, the passage is lit by pale light filtering down the spiral staircase of an empty tower.
Deep-set windows help to show us our way towards the dungeon. Beware, though: there are creatures lurking here that have stood guard since long before you or I were born.
At the darkest end of the passage, we come at last to the dungeon. It is at the base of the oldest tower in the castle, with walls many feet thick and no windows. We can’t see its door in the gloom, so we have to fumble for the handle and reach into the cold, cobwebby blackness within to find the light switch. (Can you tell that this is my worst moment? Thank goodness for the stout-hearted electrician who installed the light.) By the dim bulb, we can make out that the door is built of ancient oak planks studded with iron nails. There are ragged holes where the old latch used to be; an incongruously domestic-looking brass door handle has been substituted at some point. Around the old latch, you can still see the remains of coloured sealing wax on the wood. Presumably the muniments were kept sealed up to prevent theft or tampering. Let us hope that the scribe was not sealed up with them…
But what is this we can glimpse within? Not a skeleton, but something almost as astonishing. Under the low vaulted roof, blackened by fire generations ago, the room is packed with broken suitcases, cardboard packing cases, an old wicker laundry basket, and…. well, what do you suppose our young pirate thought this was?
This was worth a quest down any number of spooky dark passages. It is, as anyone can see, quite obviously a real treasure chest. It even has an old label, stained with some mysterious green liquid, saying in which part of the ship’s hold it should be stowed:
Squeaky with excitement, the pirate captain gives orders to his daddy to break open the chest. At last the buckle is undone, the lid is creaked back. Inside, gleaming slightly where it catches the light, is a large pile of carefully folded tissue paper. Under the tissue paper…more tissue paper. And more tissue paper. And at the very bottom, lining the chest: a copy of The Times from September 1935.
Of course, it would have been very nice if the treasure chest had been full of pirate gold. Once over the initial anticlimax, though, the pirate and his parents came away well pleased. I love old newspapers. This one tells us what Mussolini is up to in Africa, and advertises that The Times Diary of The Season, 1935, is now available, price sixpence. We read that, for six guineas, the discerning gentleman can find the perfect summer suit from Harrods,
and that he can relax after a hard day’s fishing with a smoke in the bath.
The pirate himself, meanwhile, is extremely content. He has finally tracked down a real, full-size, antique treasure chest. His father is happy too, because the pirate has requested the treasure chest for his birthday, which sorts out the annual present headache. It seems, then, that there be treasure in this here dungeon after all. Towers, treasure chests and dungeons: no wonder our littlest boy spends half his days dressed as a knight or a pirate. I feel very lucky to be able to share this childhood with him.
See also: A-vast! (birthday cake, that is)