They like to say Pierre brought unhappiness to our town, but that’s bull. He made us realise how unhappy we were. That’s why everyone is gathering to burn down Pierre’s house. They’re at the school hall, officially there for a PTA meeting, but they’re passing out the pitchforks and torches. I should know, I found the pitchforks in our pantry; the Bunnings receipt still attached. Mum never did like putting things in the garage.
I get up and pull my boots on, deciding against breakfast or showering. When I open my closet, I see my school uniform still hanging where Mum put it a week ago. It’s still smooth from the iron. I move it out of the way and pick the dark blue turtleneck that Pierre gave me. I leave the house and don’t bother locking the door. It’s that kind of town.
Pierre lives at the end of my cul-de-sac. It’s an okay place; there’s two lines of evergreens going down the street that make a leafy canopy. There’s a good view of the wheat fields that surround our town, but you can see those from anywhere. My earliest memories are of Mum complaining about the street of the month award. She always blamed ‘the house on the end’ for bringing the rest of us down. She used to say it to Dad, before he left. Now it’s about all she says to me. She has a point, though. In a town as small as ours there isn’t much competition, and Pierre’s house is really an eyesore, even before he bought it.
It’s a two minute walk before I see it. It’s a squat one story house, dumped onto the ground. The mortar started rotting apart a long time ago, and any wooden parts have long since disintegrated. Even the weeds are dead in the garden. The worst parts are the pine wood panels that have been nailed over the breaches in the walls and roofs, and over the windows. Pierre added those. He doesn’t care about the outside.
I knock on the door, and wait. Within a moment it rattles with the sound of the locks coming undone, and Pierre opens the door. His silver hair is turning greyer by the day.
“Alex,” he grins. “What excellent timing. I’ve just unpacked the Crown Jewels.”
I step into his house. Every inch of it is scrubbed clean, and the old concrete floors have been covered by an assortment of thick rugs with colourful designs on them. Oil paintings adorn the walls; portraits, landscapes and sometimes random splashes of colours. My favourite was a painting of a thin man in dark clothes screaming out from the frame. Old shelves hold up hundreds of different little items, china bowls and vases with blue fish swimming on their skins (and goldfish swimming inside them), swords, clubs and guns hang on the walls, either bare or within their sheaths. The jewellery reflects the yellow light like a thousand disco balls.
Pierre waves me over a mouldy box. “Here,” he pulls out a purple velvet crown overlain with gold patterns and encrusted with diamonds and rubies. “What do you think?”
I nod. “Not bad.”
“Not bad? Dear boy, this was worn by kings and queens!”
Pierre laughs. “Is this land not part of the Commonwealth? Where is your sense of place, boy?”
I shrug. Our town isn’t really a part of anything.
Pierre gives up and unpacks a gold sceptre topped by a shining cross. He put the crown on his own head.
“When did you steal those ones, Pierre?” I ask.
“About twenty years ago. In London. You know of London, right?”
I nod. I’d seen 101 Dalmatians.
“I’ll tell you the story of it. Let’s go.” He sets down the sceptre.
“There’s a mob coming.” I tell him.
Pierre didn’t seem to care.
He leads me into what was once a living room. Old maps, fraying and falling apart, of incomplete globes that were the world to people long dead. Pierre was once a cat burglar. Every night he would point at a city and tell me of how he robbed it. Tonight it will be London, apparently.
We sit at an ivory table. There’s a walnut brown egg the size of a football atop the maps. It’s crisscrossed by thin gold bands, and has a tiny sapphire on its face. Pierre said it should have belonged to the last Tsar, whatever that is. Whatever it once was, it is Pierre’s paperweight now. When I first saw it, he told me that he was a believer in making the past a useful part of the present.
I look to a paper map. I start off at London and move down and to the right and find Paris. I skid my finger off to the side and pinpoint Moscow. The spelling is all off, but Pierre told me the cities were still in place today. I reckon our town is seventy years old at most. I keep going over the maps. Cairo. I try to picture it two thousand years ago.
They have maps in school, but it’s not the same. There is something so personal about history when you’re holding it in your hands.
After a while marching steps sound on the street. I had been the first one to find the museum, and when I told my friends about it, word got around. When they heard about his collection, they started to get jealous. I should feel guilty now.
I ask Pierre, “Are you leaving? Are you going to run?”
He shakes his head.
“I’ll stay too.”
Pierre chuckles. “You’re a martyr, boy.”
“No. I just like this stuff.”
The old Frenchman settles in his chair, fiddling with the crown. “Care to hear about London?”
Outside, the light grows brighter as people throw their burning torches. I don’t mind. It’s the first memorable thing to happen in town.