Picture a land: the skies are soft pink and the trees are vibrant purples and reds. The ground is some kind of strange sand, soft as cotton wool and fiery orange in colour. Little settlements of white stones cottages are dotted across the gently rolling hills, and smiling people wander hither and thither, going about their daily business.
This is the world in which George and Beryl spent their sunny childhood days, grazing their knees and getting mud in their hair. At the end of the day, they'd tumble back home to the flower shop in which they lived, and their mother would tidy up their cuts and scratches. When they were once again in an acceptable state, they would clamber into bed and listen sleepily as she told them a story.
The little family of three had many stories – the magical worlds and characters were almost real to them, and each had many adventures to be told time and time again. But on the cold, windy night on which our tale begins, their mother didn't turn to any of these old friends. Instead, she began a new story; she began the story of Elsie.
Elsie's eyes fluttered open drowsily as the sunlight nudged her awake. She always woke up to the sun – it was a much more gentle start to the day than a raucous alarm clock.
So far there was nothing out of the ordinary about this day. Pulling on some cotton trousers, a light sweater and, on top of it all, her old, worn-out apron, she yelled to her younger brother, Alex to get up. Alex didn't get up with the sun. If it was left to him, Alex would probably stay in bed until lunchtime.
As Alex blundered about upstairs, slamming into doors and dropping everything he tried to take hold of, Elsie started on the breakfast. Had she thought it anything but a perfectly average day, perhaps she would have prepared something special. But no – by that time, everything was still as it should have been, so a simple rack of toast was all she attempted.
Perhaps if Alex had had a little more insight into the uniqueness of that day, he would have paused a little instead of shoving the toast down his throat, grabbing his schoolbag and lunging out of the door. Perhaps if their father, Bert, could have seen the events of that evening before they took place, he would have hurried home from the flower market a little earlier. But no-one could even image how their lives were to change so soon and so quickly, and so no-one did anything but their ordinary daily routine.
Even as the first few steps towards fate were taken, Elsie had no clue. She leant against the shop counter reading up on the latest rare species of tulip to be discovered, completely unaware that the man walking through the door at that exact moment was going to be a key player in her future.
In fact, two men walked through the door that morning, at the exact same time. Elsie glanced up. One was not particularly interesting. He looked a little scruffy, with his clothes sprinkled with mud and dirt. His hair was unbrushed and a dull shade of gingery-brown. Elsie didn't spend much time on him.
But the other man – he was very interesting indeed. He reminded Elsie of a mountain, with his tall stature and chiselled facial features. His hair was dark and smooth, perfectly styled so that it cast a mysterious shadow across his face. His eyes were the brightest blue, like gems or chipped ice, and his every movement had the grace of a feather floating in the breeze.
Elsie watched, entranced, as he carefully studied a vase of scarlet roses. After some time, he selected one. It was perfect, with every petal smooth and in tact. He walked across the shop and laid it gently on the counter. Elsie stared at him, dumbstruck.
"So – how much?"
The sound of that melodic voice shook Elsie out of her trance, and she sheepishly muttered the price of the rose. After that the transaction was speedy and unromantic, without even a brush of the hands as he handed the money over. As quickly as he had entered Elsie's life, this mysterious young man left it.
As she tidied up the shop that evening to the sound of her father whistling in the garden and Alex clattering back in from school, her thoughts swam with the beauty of that young man. She had felt a connection with him. It was as she wandered what role he could play in her life that Elsie came across the key.
It was a little, unimpressive key. It was neither ancient nor elaborate, as all interesting keys should be. It was just a silver key, like the one Elsie used to lock her bedroom window.
But this dull, ordinary key made Elsie's heart skip a beat – what if it was his? She grasped it tightly in her fist and bowled out of the door and into the street, looking around frantically for its owner. She ran into the café opposite her, yelling at the top of her voice.
"Have you seen a man? Tall, dark, ridiculously handsome – maybe with a rose?"
"Elsie, honey," chuckled the middle-aged woman behind the till, "if I had, I'd have locked him in my cellar by now."
Not in the mood for jokes, Elsie left the café at top speed and continued her search for the mysterious man. She searched in every shop she could find for what felt like hours, but finally, as she came to the city park, she gave up. It was useless.
As it was already getting dark, Elsie decided to take a shortcut home through the park. She scowled and kicked the ground, greatly disappointed in the failure of her quest.
It was then that the key began to glow.
It was only a soft, throbbing light at first, and Elsie had to hold it close to her eyes to make sure she wasn't imagining things. But no – as it got brighter and brighter, it became clear that what she once thought was a completely ordinary key was in fact glowing in the palm of her hand.
She span around, searching for someone to help her, someone who perhaps could explain this phenomenon, but no-one could be seen. The strangeness of her situation began to frighten her, and she made to throw the key into a nearby pond –
But the pond wasn't there any more.
Neither was the grass, or the trees, or even the misty air she'd grown up in. All she could see was red and black, burning her eyes and making them water. She stumbled backwards into a wall, and looking up, she realized it was a building, taller than any other she had ever seen – as far as she could tell, it had no top, but went on forever. The air was thick and black like smoke from a particularly vicious fire; Elsie began to choke.
Just then, when she thought she couldn't take it any more, a hand reached out through the smoke and pulled her backwards into a gap in the wall. A door slammed, and the air cleared. Elsie managed to force her eyes open, and saw a face staring at her with a worried expression.
"You!" she spluttered between coughs.
The man stood up and ran his fingers through his hair awkwardly, messing up that mop of ginger-brown even more. The ordinary young man, so faint in Elsie's memory, gave a beaming smile and said:
"Could I have my key back?"