'Mysteries of the Heart' by Nigel Hinton

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October 30th 2020
Published: October 30th 2020
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Most good short story texts can be found on the internet. Two exceptions are ‘To See the Sun’, Kingsley Amis’s brilliant vampire short story, and ‘Mysteries of the Heart’ by Nigel Hinton.

I came across ‘Mysteries of the Heart’ years ago, before the internet age, in an English text book. It impressed me so much I copied it out word for word on to my computer. It is perfect for young teenagers, and I have used it many times in my teaching.

To this day, the text of ‘Mysteries of the Heart’ cannot be found on the internet, so I have decided to post it here – in the hope that an English teacher stumbles across it and decides to use it. Hinton is prolific – the author of over 20 texts, mainly teenage fiction – but neither his website nor his Wikipedia page mentions ‘Mysteries of the Heart’.

The story sheds light on family relationships and family secrets. After reading it and discussing it, an excellent follow-up would be to ask students to write a sequel: either Alan’s conversation with his mother about her guilty secret or Alan’s eventual meeting with his biological father.

Here is the story:

Mysteries of the Heart by Nigel Hinton

Come on, Sherlock, do your detective stuff and find my cheque-book for me.”

Alan’s mum was always losing things and for as long as he could remember he had helped her find them. Sometimes they were silly little things like a pair of scissors or a kitchen knife but sometimes they were big things. Like the time they went on a day trip to France, and she lost their passports. Everybody had gone rushing around the supermarket in a panic – even dad – but Alan had decided to run back to the café where they’d had lunch, and he had found the passports under a table.

“How do you do it?” his mum always asked, smiling with relief when he handed her something she’d lost.

In fact it only really worked for his mum, and that was probably because he hated it when she looked helpless or upset. Whenever he saw those worry lines crease up round her eyes, there was a small stab in his heart, and he just wanted to make everything all right for her. That was partly why he hadn’t gone on at breakfast this morning. His dad’s friend had rung to ask if anyone wanted to go sailing with him in his new boat, and his dad had said, “You bet. I’d love to come, and so would Janey.”

As soon as he put the phone down he sort of apologized to Alan, saying that there was only enough room for three in the boat and that Janey deserved a treat because she had been ill for a couple of weeks. That was true, but Alan still felt it wasn’t fair just to choose her without talking about it first. He’d started to say something but he’d seen those worry lines suddenly appear round his mum’s eyes, so he’d forced a smile and said it was OK. The worry lines had gone, so it had been worth it. But now they were back again.

What on earth could I have done with it?” his mum was saying as she searched through her bag looking for her cheque-book. “Come on, Sherlock – do your trick. Dad’ll do his nut if I can’t find it.”

“Don’t be silly – dad never does his nut about anything. He just goes quiet.”

That’s what I mean. He goes all quiet and understanding, and I feel such a fool. That’s because I am one, I suppose.”

“You’re not,” Alan said, putting his arm round her shoulder and noticing that he was as tall as she was now.

Well, let’s just say that I make more mistakes than most people.” She turned and looked him straight in the eyes.

I’ll be taller than you soon,” he said. “Taller than dad too. Fancy two shorties like you having a beanpole like me.”

Her eyes flicked away from his for a moment. Then she laughed and said, “OK, Beanpole, can you see my cheque-book from your great height?”

Don’t worry, I’ll find it,” he said.

But he didn’t. He kept thinking of places – down the side of the sofa, behind the fridge, under the kitchen table – but each time he was wrong.

“It’s no good, love,” his mum said at last. “I’ve got to go - the shops close early on Saturdays. I’ll get some money out of the machine at the bank.”

She asked if he wanted to go with her, but he said no – the cheque-book had to be somewhere in the house, and he’d made up his mind he was going to find it. She grabbed a basket, put on her coat and rushed out of the house.

As soon as she’d gone he sat on the stairs and tried to concentrate: where was the cheque-book? After a moment he stood up and walked up the stairs to his parents’ bedroom. He looked round the room casually and noticed that his dad had left the top off his bottle of aftershave. The bedroom always smelt strongly: a combination of his mum’s perfume, his dad’s aftershave and a vaguely dusty smell from the old pink carpet.

He picked up the aftershave, splashed some into his hand and then slapped it onto his face. He liked the smell of it and the slight sting on his skin. He looked in the mirror and couldn’t help smiling at himself – it was silly putting on aftershave when he didn’t shave yet. He peered closer: there was a definite fuzz round his chin and across his upper lip. It was strange to think that he was going to change – that he had nearly stopped being a boy and was getting ready to become a man.

In the mirror he saw the open door of his parents’ wardrobe. He turned round and walked across to it. There, on the floor next to a pair of shoes, was the cheque-book. He picked it up and slipped it into his pocket. So, he was still the ace detective and he would be able to give his mum a surprise when she got home.

He was about to turn away when he saw the small metal box at the back of the wardrobe, half-hidden by one of his mum’s coats. He bent down and pulled it out.

It was locked.

Perhaps Janey was right –perhaps he was just a busybody – but he suddenly wanted to find out what was inside. It was a mystery, and detectives always wanted to solve mysteries. Why was it locked? No, that wasn’t the question yet. Where was the key? – that was the question.

He put the metal box on the bed and looked round the room. It was like that game where you hunted for something, and people told you whether you were hot or cold. Nobody would leave the key near the locked box. The chest of drawers? Much warmer. Which drawer? Top? Cold. Second? Warmer. Third? Hot.

He opened the drawer and there, in the corner, was a little jewellery-box. He lifted the lid. Two rings, a necklace and a small key. Not bad. His detective instinct was working well.

He sat on the bed and opened the box. Papers. He flicked through them. Insurance policies, deeds to the house – official documents, that was all. Nothing interesting.

Then why was his heart beating so fast? Why was all his detective instinct telling him there was something important here?

He unfolded one of the papers. It was his parents’ marriage certificate. There was his dad’s name - Leonard John Lewis - and his mum’s name - Susan Eva Bumstead. Thank goodness she’d married someone with a better name. He could just imagine all the boring jokes he would have had to put up with if his name had been Bumstead.

He started to re-fold the certificate, then stopped when he saw the date on the bottom. He thought it must be a mistake but when he checked he saw that the same date was written in two other places. His chest tightened, and a wave of heat swept up his neck to his face.

His mum and dad had only been married for ten years. They had got married two years after he was born.

It was a shock, but it wasn’t terrible. It just made him want to giggle. Lots of people got married because they were going to have a baby. Some people didn’t even bother to get married at all. Why had his mum and dad waited so long, though? Two whole years – nearly two and a half, actually. He did a quick calculation. That meant that his mum was already expecting Jane when they got married. They must have decided to get married because of Janey. In that case, why hadn’t they bothered to get …?

Another wave of heat burned his face. He dropped the paper on the bed and began searching through the box. If there was a marriage certificate, there were probably birth certificates too. Yes. Here was Janey’s. Date of birth – six months after the marriage. And this one must be his. He unfolded it.

The date of birth. The place of birth. His names. His mum’s names. All the details. Except that under the column headed ‘Name and Surname of Father’ it didn’t say Leonard John Lewis.

A shiver shook his whole body. His dad was not his dad.

After the shiver a great calm filled him. Hi mum might be home soon. He put the papers back, locked the box and returned it to the wardrobe, making sure it was just where he’d found it. Then he straightened the cover on the bed – his mum’s and Leonard John Lewis’s bed. Then he put the key back in the jewellery-box and closed the drawer.

He did it all calmly, but it was as if the shiver had opened up his senses wider than they had ever been before. His eyes, ears, nose, taste-buds and skin were recording everything: the pressure of the air, the patterns of light on the carpet, the touch of his mum’s coat on his skin as he put the box back. They were recording everything, and he knew that he would remember this moment for the rest of his life.

Back in his own bedroom he lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. It didn’t hurt yet. It never did at first. When his dog had been killed by that lorry, he hadn’t cried or felt any pain until nearly two days after it happened.

He wouldn’t say anything to them – not until the pain came. He wouldn’t be able to bear those worry lines round his mum’s eyes, or his dad’s – Leonard John Lewis’s – quietness, when he told them he knew. When the pain came, it might be different. It might hurt so much he would have to tell them. He wasn’t as good at keeping things secret as they were.

Janey was right: he was a nosy busybody. Well, he’d paid for it this time. The ace detective had solved a mystery, and he wished he hadn’t. He wished he had gone on never knowing that there was a mystery. Although, thinking about it now, he could see all those millions of tiny clues over the years: the little looks, the sentences started but never finished, the sudden changes in mood. And the bigger clues, of course: the way it had always felt like him and mum together, and Janey and his … Janey and Leonard John Lewis together. No, a real detective would have spotted the truth years before. He was still only a boy detective and he realized how many mysteries he knew nothing about. How could you live with people and not know them? How could people keep secrets hidden in their hearts for so long? And why? He had such a lot to learn. He would have to be more on his toes for the next case.

And, of course, the next case would be a real challenge – he would be trying to find a missing person. There weren’t many clues – just a name on a birth certificate: Colin Mark Drake. Oh, yes, there was one other detail to help the detective: there was a strong likelihood that this mysterious stranger was tall – certainly taller than Susan Eva Bumstead and Leonard John Lewis. See, he was getting better at this game already. He was learning to put two and two together.

Alan laughed and said out loud: “They don’t call me Sherlock for nothing.”

Then he turned and pressed his face into the pillow. The pain had come much earlier than he had expected. And with the pain came tears.


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