Exactly a week before and many, many miles away from where the white-washed house stood, some rather unexpected events took place deep in the chalky Chiltern Hills of southeast England.
There lay there a quiet village called Great Missenden. So sparsely populated was this place that when one stepped onto its two-platform train station, though it was clean and prettily decorated with flowers, it was never occupied more than five people at a time, and this often convinced the weary traveller that somehow the population who lived there had been evacuated and moved on to elsewhere, leaving behind in the air the trace of a discomforting vagueness. It was an eeriness that did not cause fear, on the contrary, it cajoled the mind to form curious questions. It aroused the feet to investigate more.
The silence would occasionally be punctuated, to the delight of the visitor, by the sweet ringing of the bells rung from the Church Of The Immaculate Heart Of Mary. It was difficult to explain, but to hear the peal of the bells, music made by many unseen hands, was always sincere and comforting, persuading the listener to seek the nearest tiny teahouse and take rest, while all the trials of life that plagued the mind was allowed to dissolve away.
Leafy lanes, dense beech woods, streets that coiled and circled with a life of their own, to those who had visited it Great Missenden was undoubtedly an unnoticed gem in the great map of things.
It felt forgotten, when clearly it ought not to be.
Ah, but, things were about to change.
The British Secret Service, MI5, were about to earmark it!
A specialised taskforce of MI5 sought new premises for the expansion of their operational directives. After a rigorous debate, that saw a few of its personnel blow horrendous raspberries at each other so much so that their parents would be ashamed if they had witnessed them at it, a majority vote was achieved. It was decided that the new base of operations should be located in the most inconspicuous and low-profile area in the south of England.
The British Secret Service, by definition, had to do their things in secret. Village or no village, if they had carried out their affairs in open daylight just imagine how, in a swift jiffy, nasty and horrible villains would be able to get their foul minds and dirty hands on precious information and then, quite possibly, go on to destroy the safety of the country and the world beyond. In short, for this project to work, MI5 needed a disguise.
They pondered for weeks and weeks of a shrewd plan that would do the trick, that would let them get away with the building of a large-scale, intelligence-gathering facility, existing right under people’s noses, never detected by civilian eye nor detected by the more seasoned spy of a rival organisation.
Well, a lightbulb moment did arrive, eventually! In every walk of life there is always a genius waiting to happen. On that fateful day in the boardroom, one of the bright young sparks put their hands up and shouted two words, “ROALD DAHL!” His colleagues, dumbfounded by the sheer randomness of his outrageously oddball answer, paused and held their breath for a few seconds before they burst out in laughter, some cried so hard that huge tears squirted out of their eyes, somewhat resembling a leaky tap that had gone berserk!
“Oh do shut up, Travers!”
“Drunk a few too many last night, did you, mate?”
“Who hired this idiot?”
“Still reading children’s books, are we?! For God’s sake, grow up!”
Suddenly the door opened. A tall and dignified man breezed in. Silence fell on the room like a massive meteor that singed all noises out into irreversible extinction. A long pale face with a roman nose, this man had hardly any hair on his head, only that the long feathery white locks from one side had been pitifully combed and flipped over to the other side to give the illusion that he still possessed something up there. To any child of school age that might have been present in that hushed room, he or she would have quickly pointed out the tall man’s shirt and declared that he was wearing graph paper, for it was checked with black lines. The resulting formation of small boxes made it irresistible for anyone with a creative eye to want to go ahead and conjure up ways the boxes might be filled if one only had a marker pen on them! Tick or colour or join them up?!
Incidentally, this man was called Mr Penton. He had recently been appointed to act as the head of operations for the proposed new MI5 site, his confident and graceful movement indeed confirmed this very well. He coolly strolled over to his chair, sat down and laid his thick files on the table before taking out his wooden pipe, filling it with his special herbs and lighting it. Puffing away while staring questioningly at each member of his team he spoke. “And what might be so incredibly amusing about Mr Roald Dahl? I should like to know.”
No one dared to speak. Or, perhaps they had lost their tongue forever. Someone at the back spluttered a bit, but that was it.
“Travers…” Mr Penton left the word hanging in the air for a second or two, he loved to fry people with tension, “… has a point.”
Travers gulped and as for everyone else, well, they were still absent of speech, only now a great confusion had set in.
Mr Penton leaned back on his chair and took the pipe out of his mouth. He began to address his team, his voice was calm, laced with a hidden thunderclap of authority.
“Mr Roald Dahl – the inimitable Mr Roald Dahl – lived in Great Missenden for 36 years of his life, where he wrote the best examples of children’s fiction ever to be engineered in the history of literature. He is a genius. A masterpiece of an artist. He cannot be replaced. One of a kind. But is it not unusual and grossly unfair that this man – this beacon of inventiveness – had no museum built in his honour?”
Some of the team had begun to understand where Mr Penton was going with this.
“A great man should be remembered. And greater and nobler still is the effort to action this into reality.” Mr Penton sent a smile of comradery to Travers. A little spooked by the surprising outcome of watching his idea rising to higher places, Travers strained a nervous smile back at the man.
“To children and families, both here and across the world, this museum of wonders, a tribute to a fine writer, will be a dream come true. They will flock by their thousands. BUT, oh yes, but, all eyes and all ears, even noses, will be too distracted by the animated pell-mell of the masses to notice our secret operations whirring away behind the scenes, discreetly and safely.”
“That is a brilliant idea, sir!”
“You are seriously amazing!”
“Splendid, just splendid!”
Mr Penton did not smile when he leaned forward on the table, resting his elbows in front of him, his pipe clamped in between his thumb and index finger. “Let us begin the construction of The Roald Dahl Museum And Story Centre at once! It is the centenary year of his birth – 2016, a marvellous year to open the gates for them…. AND for us.”
Indeed, not three days had passed that The Roald Dahl Museum And Story Centre, with a stroke of magical suddenness, appeared on the main street in Great Missenden. A building had popped out from nowhere! Many of the local residents swore they could not remember any part of its construction. Did a truck come down the road in the middle of the night and unpack the house out from the back of the vehicle and place it on the street? Who knows!
A kind of white-washed building, its front was endearingly signed with typical Dahlian phrases accompanied with a lovable sketchy illustration of the man himself. As soon as the gates opened the screaming children and their sleepy parents poured in by the bucket loads. Upon entry a team of very lively faces, the ever ebullient front-of-house staff, presented each family with a guide of the venue, and after payment of the entrance fee, everyone received a blue wristband made of thin paper. The children often squealed in excitement at having this tied around their little wrists, whereas the adults could not wait to take it off! There was so much cheering and laughing and giggling that the walls of the building shuddered and shook.
After emerging from the ticket booth a colourful map of the grounds sparkled from the wall and this was often the point in the trail where parents received their first bombardment of inquisitive questions from their chubby-cheeked offspring!
“Mummy! Mummy! I want to see the hut! Can we go to the hut first, Mummy?!”
“Dad, I need food! Please, please, can we go to Café Twit now? Please! Pretty please!”
“Grandpa, are we really going to see a flying plane in that room?”
“Grandma, what shall we do when we see the crocodile? I’ve never dodged a crocodile before!”
“Aunty, it says ‘loos’ but there is only toilet paper in there! How do I keep it in if I am desperate?”
“Uncle, why does ‘Wonka’ look like a big earthworm with a gap in its tummy? Wasn’t he a funny man in the book?”
And so the questions came and came, and they were endless and awfully funny to hear. It would have nudged even the most depressed person to light up with a smile just by standing there and eavesdropping on these little comedies that were being inadvertently played out by the children and their grownups. It was delightful.
The map was a dazzling preface for whetting the appetites of visitors, fuelling their intrigue, making them wonder as to what scrumptious things laid in wait, however, it was not a complete map. It had a very important part missing from it. Purposefully left out.
The ‘Solo Gallery’ was not completely solo, to speak. It was here that Mr Roald Dahl’s famous writing chair could be found from which he penned his masterpieces, so it was arguably the highlight of the tour, but what none of the children, and nor did their grownups catch a whiff off was that under the chair there was more.
There was a secret trapdoor!
Of course, the trapdoor was not visible, the chair had done a spiffing job in masking it completely from view. If, by chance, the chair was moved a little, any onlooker most certainly would frown and bend down for a closer inspection. You see, the trapdoor was not a plain white door. It had a bright poster stuck on it depicting an old book whose cover was painted of vivid tones of red and yellow, and on it showed a figure of a man with a pipe donned in the strangest looking attire. This book was not written by Mr Roald Dahl! ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’, a classic in its own right, was a peculiar choice and even more peculiar was why it had been glued onto the trapdoor. Whatever could it mean?
When the museum came to close in the evening, and the clamour of voices and rushed feet were no more, and when the lights were all switched off, that is when it would happen. That is when the lights underneath the trapdoor would blink and come on. ♥♥♥
Photography & Words: © Masufa Khatun | Mazzy Khatun Photo Stories | Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre |Great Missenden | Buckinghamshire | UK 2016