Sweetness and Light, chapter three

2005

‘You’re back.’

‘I got your oranges.’

Our oranges.

‘Thanks, love.’

I put the newspaper down on the kitchen table and filled the kettle up.

‘Lovely,’ said Mum. ‘Make a pot, will you?’

‘Okay,’ I said. An image of a possible future filling canteen sized urns with tea in a staff canteen and brewing it until it was thick as petrol, lit a flare in my head. I used the big cups. I picked up my newspaper on the way out – there were lists to make, CVs to write, letters to draft, stamps to buy.

‘Stay here, love,’ said Mum, ‘pull up a pew. We can drink our tea together.’ Her smile was a fine, fuschia dash.

‘I’ve got to do this, Mum,’ I said, gesturing with the newspaper. ‘It’s time I sorted myself out, isn’t? There’s been enough sitting around feeling sorry for myself.’

She didn’t show any disappointment, though her disappointment must have spanned years. A lifetime – my lifetime, to be precise – spent encouraging me in artistic pursuits, buying me cameras, downloading art school application forms, praising my efforts, and here I was ticking the small ads in the back of the local Gazette and applying for admin jobs in printers.

Back in the warm womb of my room I closed the curtains and opened my notebook. A clean, white page never felt like a fresh start to me, it felt like a wide-eyed stare. I stared back. Then I began to write.

I wrote a list of preparation tasks – buy printer paper, write CV, buy stamps. I made a list of potential employers and application deadlines. Then I turned the page to list my skills. Pale yellow light skimmed the blank white paper. I turned back to the previous page and wrote ‘skills’ again, this time under a list of deadlines. It sat less hostilely on the page when it shared the space. A tree creaked outside my window, the pipes tapped and spat, a bird whistled. I listened. There was a thickness to the silence once I focussed on it. It clustered around me.

Skills.

I closed the notebook.

‘You brought your cup down. Thanks, love.’

‘That’s okay.’ I put it down on the draining board.

‘Rosie,’ she said, ‘Rose, let’s talk.’

‘Okay,’ I said.

‘I’ve noticed something about you recently. Do you mind me saying?’

‘Yes? I mean, no.’

‘You just talk in yes’s, no’s and okays.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Do I?’ I added.

‘You’re in a rut.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I mean, I know I am.’

‘Are you depressed, love, because I know Mrs Riley’s son Tom suffers from that, he gets Seasonal Affective Disorder, so I wondered if you had the same thing. You know – depression.’

‘It’s summer, Mum.’

‘Not seasonal depression, just common or garden depression. You seem listless, you’re quiet, you’re in your room all the time. I don’t know – are you sleeping all the time, because that’s a symptom of depression?’

‘No,’ I said. Mum raised an eyebrow a fraction of a millimetre. ‘I’m not depressed.’ I tried to force some more words out. It felt like pushing honey out of a straw. ‘I’m honestly not.’

Mum narrowed her eyes. She sighed.

‘Anyway. How’s the job hunting going?’

I held out four envelopes, tidy capital letters on the front, just waiting for stamps. She strained to see.

‘Perry’s Printers. Aren’t they in town? You’re not looking in London anymore?’

‘It’s time to be realistic,’ I said. ‘The perfect thing isn’t going to just come along. I need to change my approach.’ I wondered if she was pleased. London was a long way away. It would have pushed me into a different shape: one that might not tessellate with her any more.

‘A printers, though? As what? I thought you wanted a role in a creative company.’

‘As an administrator,’ I said. Our eyes met. I had nothing to add.

‘Right,’ she said.

I felt myself sinking further into the beige carpet. ‘It’s better than nothing,’ I said.

‘True. Well. I have some news,’ she said. ‘Some good news, I think.’ Her hand twitched on the table as if it wanted to slap something smartly.

‘I’ll make some more tea,’ I said.

‘Why not?’

‘And get some biscuits.’

I rooted around for the biscuit tin. I could hear her fingers tapping on the Formica of the table.

‘A crumpet?’

‘Rose. Can you sit down, love?’

I sat down with the cups and then stood up again for the biscuits.

Mum placed her mug carefully onto the centre of the yellow flower on her coaster. With her left hand she fiddled with one of the small, ceramic pill boxes on the side board. I feel pretty, it said, in looped writing that curved beneath a heavily flowered rose branch. One of my seventeenth birthday presents.

‘Right. Are you settled now? I’ve got something for you. A letter arrived this morning.’ She reached behind her and pulled a brown A4 envelope, torn open at the top, from out of the sideboard.

‘A letter for me?’ I reached for it, but she held onto it.

‘For both of us,’ she said. ‘For me and for you.’

I peered at the typed address on the envelope.

Rose Acker and her parent or guardian

‘Parent or guardian? Aren’t I a bit old for that? Who’s it from?’

‘Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it?’ She looked pleased with herself, as the owners of secrets always do.

‘Yes,’ I said, straining to see the typed sheets she pulled out of the envelope.

‘Where shall I start?’ she smiled. ‘Where shall I start, I wonder.’ She put the papers back into the envelope. ‘So. Let’s start with this. Your godfather.’

‘I’ve got a godfather?’

 ‘Yes. Not that it means anything. It’s a formality, isn’t it? We’re not a godly family. Good solid Midland peasant stock without a religious bone in our bodies.’

‘Who is he?’

‘He’s no-one you know. We’ve not seen him for years.’

‘So why’s he writing to me? Has he met me?’

‘It’s not exactly him writing to you. And yes.’ When she met my eyes, I realised that she hadn’t been looking at me directly since she picked up the envelope. ‘Just the once or so. When you were a small baby. We lost touch.’

‘Why?’

‘There’s not always a why, is there? A why and a wherefore. Friendships end, people drift apart. I knew him when I was a lot younger.’

‘You liked him enough to make him my godfather. Or,’ I realised, ‘Dad did.’

‘It wasn’t like that with your father. You know that.’ By like that, she meant normal, a relationship, something with a history, something that left traces.

‘You, then,’ I said. I’d learnt not to pursue this line of enquiry.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘in a sense, yes. In a sense, no.’ The envelope was clutched tightly between her two hands.

‘Well, so what’s in the letter?’

‘I’m getting to that. Through your godfather’s estate…’

‘He’s dead?’

‘He’s been missing for some years, it seems. Anyway, through his estate, you’ve inherited,’ she glanced at the closed envelope, as though wanting to get the phrasing correct, ‘the right to an artist’s studio for peppercorn rent in perpetuity.’

‘An artist’s studio? Where?’

‘In London. Kensington.’

My heart leapt in terror and joy.

‘Why, though?’

‘It’s an inheritance. So I suppose he had no-one else to leave it to.’

The soft breath of potential was drifting through the room, stroking the G Plan sideboard and the Formica dining table, sliding past the kettle and the toaster and the dusty Soda Stream, breathing warm mist onto the glass of the sliding doors, ruffling the red tulips on the table, slipping over the plates on the kitchen shelves. An inheritance. The fire in my belly gasped to life. I bit my lip and grinned.

She took the papers out of the envelope – typed printer paper, not thick yellowing slabs covered in thick, black handwriting. I was briefly disappointed then thought – who cares, it’s an inheritance.

‘Lots of boring, legal stuff,’ she said. ‘Rights have been passed down since 1850, etcetera, etcetera.’

‘Is that boring?’ I said, holding out my hand.

‘You can read it later. The gist is, a group of artists set up their studios there in the nineteenth century and written into the contract was the right for their descendants, should they be artistically inclined, to rent the same studios for a nominal rent.’

‘A peppercorn,’ I said, stroking the Formica table with my index finger, drawing lines, circles, sweeping arcs. ‘You have to be artistically inclined?’

‘That’s okay. You are.’

‘I haven’t done anything in years. I’ve got a camera, but it doesn’t get used. Anyway, who owns the studio then?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. It’ll all be in here.’ She was studying the pages very closely. ‘This is good for you, Rose. This could be the making of you. This could be what you need.’

‘Yes,’ I said. I smiled.

An inheritance. The breath of potential. An inheritance.

‘When should I go?’ I said.

‘Whenever you like.’ She slipped the papers back into the envelope and tapped it smartly on the table. ‘Whenever you like. It’s your life, your choice.’ She glanced at me. ‘It’s all opened up for you, hasn’t it, Rose, my dear?’

Perhaps this was what I’d been waiting for – fate to tap me on the back. But –  Mum on her own. A new life for me, yes, but that meant a new shape to fit into. Big decisions shouldn’t be rushed into. There was fire in my belly but there was also dread.

I sat on my bed, my nerves quivering my fingers. I pictured myself in an artist’s studio in Kensington, surrounded by light, creating something – I didn’t know what. I saw myself with people who’d always seemed above my station, but who now saw me as a kindred spirit. A bright future full of creative successes and recognition, of being a proper person with an identity and purpose. Of course I had to go.

Had to, I thought. Just a minute. I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to. I could go to London if I wanted to. I could stay if I wanted to. Let people think what they wanted. Nothing was decided yet.

But I packed the few belongings I thought would fit my new life into a holdall anyway – one or two dresses, one pair of jeans, a few shirts and jumper. The rest could stay. If I decided to go, that was. I threw in a couple of notebooks and pens and my camera and laptop, and that was it. I’d inhabited my old life lightly it seemed – perhaps this new one would stick a little better. If I went.

If I went.

I zipped up my bag and thought that perhaps I’d have one last night at the pub and see how I felt about going. No point rushing it. Mum, after all, was used to having me around; she might need me more than she’d let on. There were four envelopes waiting for the post. Nothing had been decided yet.

A couple of hours later I walked out of the estate and along the canal to the Red Lion in town. The towpath was close and still, the light dropping to give it back its privacy. I skirted past the horsetail and bindweed, the ragwort and the bulrushes. I’d learnt their names when I’d made it my project to photograph and name every plant on my route to work, happier days in my mid twenties when I worked in a camera shop and was young enough for it to be an in-between job. The project was hopeless – boredom dressed up as an idea – and left me feeling depressed and aimless, lacking that verve that genuinely creative people had and without the urge or skill to do anything else. I shelved photography for a while after that and had only recently picked up my camera again.

Past a clutter of beer cans in the weeds and up the steps to emerge onto a streetlamp-pooled side street, sentineled by waste bins and parked cars. Maybe this wasn’t my world anymore; perhaps I could allow myself to be glad to leave it. The dread pushed a thumb into my heart again. I crossed for the pub at the pelican crossing.

‘Rose!’ called Jim. He was sitting in the far corner of the near empty room with a pint of lager on a damp coaster. His light brown hair tickled his grin.

I waved.

‘Well,’ he said as I sat down opposite him with my bottle of beer, ‘here we are again. Where’s everyone else?’

‘It was a bit last minute. I was a bit last minute.’

‘That’s not like you. The Queen of lists.’

I took a deep breath and a long sip of my beer and tried out the words. ‘I’m leaving. I’m moving out.’ Maybe, I added in my head. Maybe not.

‘Where to?’

‘To London. Something’s come up. An opportunity. I’ve inherited an artist’s studio.’ I said this as grandly as I dared.

‘Have you inherited an artist, too?’

‘I am an artist.’ The words sat flatly in the room. I blushed. ‘Sort of. I studied art, at least.’

‘I know,’ he said. ‘I’m joking. But how come? From who?’

‘From a long lost godfather. It’s quite exciting. It’s an adventure. I’m going tomorrow.’ The words fell a little flat. I waited for Jim to talk me out of it, to advise me to stick with what I knew. To remind me I was someone who hated adventures.

‘Tomorrow!’ He studied me for a second. ‘Well, I’m happy for you, Rose. Maybe this is just what you need.’

‘Do you know how long I’ve lived away from home? Just three years of my whole life. Art school.’

‘And that flat you rented in town for three months.’

‘The one with the cockroaches, where the kitchen ceiling fell in.’

‘Good times.’

‘Good times.’

The pub door slammed a blast of air into the room. I looked round. No-one we knew. Jim picked up his coaster and started to peel the paper off its surface and lie it in a tidy pile in the corner of the damp table.

‘So,’ he said, ‘what will you do for money?’

‘Well, it’s a live-work studio. I won’t need much. The rent’s a peppercorn a year.’ The local printers job would be much more clear cut and reliable – the more sensible choice.

‘Is that fixed? Or will you suddenly start having to pay rent later?’

‘I don’t think so.’ Where had she put that envelope?

‘Do you have to pay bills?’

‘I don’t know. Anyway. Whatever – it will be cheap. All I’ll need is food.’

‘And artist’s materials,’ he said. ‘Whichever artistry you plan to practise.’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘photography, I suppose.’

‘Congratulations, Rose. It’s a step above us lot and our shambolic ways.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure how Mum will cope though. In some ways,’ I said lightly, slipping it onto the table for Jim to pick up, ‘it would be better to take a job round here and keep her company.’

‘She’s a big girl. She’ll manage. Will you stay in touch, then? Or will I just be that ex from your misspent twenties that still lives in the boring home town you escaped?’

‘Both,’ I said. ‘Do you want another drink?’

Nothing was decided yet. Bags could still be unpacked. Letters could still be posted.

Jim and I had another two drinks and he offered to walk me home, his smile not quite touching his curls now. I declined. I fancied the canal walk in the dark. Maybe it would inspire me, bolster me up with a bit of nerve.

I walked through the dimly lit streets towards the canal. I could still feel the spot on my cheek where Jim had kissed me goodnight. I thought of the first time I’d met him – a house party thrown by one of my colleagues from the camera shop. My head was full of the noise and talk and music and all the different people and their different needs and natures. The alcohol blurred it a bit, softened the kaliedacope shrieking.

At midnight Jim and I were sitting alone in the garden. The darkness had a quiet wildness to it. Other people had stood up to go one by one, leaving us sitting side by side at the wooden table, not facing each other, and it felt oddly intimate – as if we knew each other well enough to be sitting on the sofa together or driving in a car. Silences sunk into our slow conversation, the silences of long intimacy not awkwardness. After a while he took my hand and we sat in the dark, listening to the deep quiet punctured by the sharp pin pricks of a shout or a car door slamming or a bottle smashing. He walked me home along streetlamp lit streets, telling me off for considering walking home alone.

Five years ago. I’d been here too long. It was time to go.

It was a bright night and sections of towpath were lit by the streetlights, but other parts plunged you straight into a treacly wilderness of grabbing brambles and oil-black water. Creatures rummaged unseen, birds whistled and hooted with a low cadence – a stroke or a whisper instead of the daytime shouts and calls. I felt less comfortable than I’d expected and took an earlier gate out than I’d planned, walking the last few hundred yards at street level through the identikit, vanilla safety of the estate, which could, for all I knew, hide murderers and thieves. It was always the last place you thought to look.

Our house was quiet and still. I’d planned a last look round, but felt bad for Mum, rummaging around in her life and patronising it. I did look in the sideboard for the brown envelope, but it had gone. I’d get it in the morning.

The warm cotton of my pillow cupped a cheek that was moving on to different things; lay under a head whose thoughts had already flown over the featureless rooves, finding the way for me to follow.

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