Sweetness and Light, chapter four

2005

There was an envelope on the kitchen table that morning. Rose on the front in Mum’s spikey, black writing. Next to it was a glass of orange juice, freshly squeezed from those oranges, with a saucer on top to keep the flies out. I drank the juice and opened the envelope.

A postcard of Kensington and a cheque for five-thousand pounds. I turned the postcard over.

Rose. This has been in savings for you since you were born, so you don’t have to worry about earning money for now. I’m sure that this is the start of a new you. My work is done. Love Jane x

Jane. Mum’s way of showing we were both adults now. Her work was done, as she said. I was touched. I tucked the cheque and card into the front of my bag and had some breakfast while I waited for her to come down to say goodbye. I hoped she wouldn’t be too emotional. I found goodbyes hard.

Two slices of toast and marmalade and two cups of tea later, the house was still silent. I glanced at the red plastic clock on the wall. Just gone nine. I needed to leave in five minutes or I’d miss my train. It wasn’t like Mum not to be up at the crack of dawn on a normal day, never mind on a big day like this. I dropped my bag near the door and climbed the stairs.

She didn’t answer my knock. I knocked again, then tentatively opened the door, a small terror that she’d died in the night lurking in the back of my mind. Her bed was neatly made, the blue floral throw was tidily tucked over the duvet and pillows, a saucer was over the glass of water by her bed and her red velour dressing gown was hanging on the back of the door, in its usual spot. I closed the door behind me and looked at my watch anxiously. She must be in the shower.

I tapped on the bathroom door.

‘Mum. Mum! I’m going.’

No answer.

I tapped again.

‘I wanted to say goodbye. I’ve got to leave in five minutes.’

Silence. I tried the door. The bathroom was empty, towels folded precisely, shower curtain hanging outside the bath, the way I always forgot to leave it, toilet blue with detergent. I closed the door and looked at my watch again. I’d have to go.

I texted her from the train. Maybe that was easier than a big goodbye anyway. She probably knew that. And maybe she thought that things would be very different for us from then on; that I’d be stepping away from her slowly but irreversibly. Her work was done, as she said. I pushed away thoughts of her days without our comfortable routine, her evenings alone in our living room with the Radio Times and a cup of tea. It was gracious of her to make it no big deal.

The train was nearly empty, just me and a man in his fifties, I’d guess, in a white tee shirt and jeans, holding a Jack Russell carefully on his knee like an unexploded bomb. They got off at Marylebone too, but I lost sight of them straight away.

I stood at the crossroads, looking up the hill. To either side of me were tall, sand-coloured, Georgian buildings, their ground floors cluttered with small supermarkets, pubs, greengrocers and boarded-up shops. Not so far from where I’d come from, this sight, but the air here was different. The streets were wider and the skies were somehow higher. Straight ahead of me, Campden Hill Road curved up and around, its Georgian feet free of clutter. As the street bent out of sight, the sun hit the old buildings square on. This was where I was headed. This was my new life.

As I crossed the road, the world was immediately quieter, stiller and more privileged. My cheeks started to flush and my shoulders hunch, but, you know what, I had as much of a right to be here as anyone, even if I was nothing like them. As much as the driver of that sleek black car. As much as the people who breakfasted in that huge basement kitchen with doors you could see, if you stooped a little, led directly into a leafy garden. For a peppercorn a year, I could live here for as long as I wanted.

I passed icing sugar-pink, blue and lemon houses, ivy-clad cottages that were probably worth more than all the houses in my street put together, neatly painted wrought iron fences. This was order; this was sense; this was proportion. Perhaps this was the sort of life that I was meant to lead. These people were no better than me or Mum; they simply had more money.

A woman in a black suit with dark-dyed hair and a shirt of a whiteness that only money could buy marched past me, the points on her shoes kicking up tiny clouds of dust. An older couple in sandals, her hair honeyed, his snow-white, passed on the other side of the street carrying shopping bags. The trees looked sculpted here; they swept the air with balletic grace.

There it was: on the corner, next to a low house that was buttered with ivy. It was an odd building, my new home. The upper walls were snakeskin-tiled with terracotta, its many-paned window tucked tightly into its chest. To the left, the front door cowered beneath a tall, red brick gable. Three storeys above, attic windows peered blindly at the blue skies. I crossed the road, stepped through the gate towards the white double door and pressed the doorbell. It buzzed loudly. At my feet, a huge hexagonal skylight was green with mildew. I rested my bag on the doorstep.

I had arrived.

‘Rose, I assume?’

He had brown hair with sweeps of iron through it, dirty tan overalls, a bunch of keys in his hand and a thick beard. There was a mop and bucket on the floor next to him.

‘Yes, that’s right.’ I put my bag down on the floor, started to chew a fingernail then quickly took my finger out of my mouth. The hallway was dark, peeling, moss-green wallpaper and nut-brown woodwork giving it the air of a dank forest. A three-armed chandelier with fluted glass shades cast a yellowing light around the room. I instinctively took half a step backwards towards the sunlight of the doorway.

‘This way,’ he said.

With a quick glance back, I picked up my bag and followed.

I didn’t have to walk far. After a couple of steps he pushed open a door to his left. I surveyed it, disappointed. A poky room with a single window, it contained a small, paint-stained butler’s sink, a tatty fridge, a couple of armchairs and a sofa, which I assumed must be a sofa bed if I was to live here. In the far corner, the apple green paint was peeling off a solid but charmless cupboard.

‘It’s lovely,’ I said and smiled at him brightly.

‘This is the common room. An old tradition, I suppose, of artists gathering to seek their muse.’ He said this with an invisible but perceptible shrug.

‘The common room. That’s great.’

‘There’s a jar for contributions.’

‘Contributions?’

‘For coffee, tea, milk and so on.’

There were a few coins in the bottom of the jam jar, a slot crudely forced through the lid with a knife. The room was silent, dusty. There was no sign of people to seek my muse with.

‘Here,’ he lifted one of the keys from the key ring with a thick, browned finger and thumb. ‘If the door’s locked. That’s the key.’

‘Is it normally?’

He looked at me blankly.

‘Is it kept locked?’

‘Open during the day. Locked at 6pm, opened at 9am.’

‘These artists keep very regular hours,’ I observed.

‘There have to be rules,’ he said, ‘or everything falls apart.’

‘I’m sure.’ I wondered if the job bred an attachment to rules and order or attracted it. I remembered Mr Simpson, the caretaker at school, and the pleasure he took in policing victimless crimes, such as sitting on radiators or untucking the back of a shirt.

‘This way,’ he said.

I followed him further down the corridor, past two closed doors, to a room right at the back of the house.

‘These other doors, they’re all artist’s studios?’

‘Of course. And storage.’

‘Are they in use?’ They looked firmly, unpromisingly, shut.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘They are in use. Artists keep their own hours, don’t they?’ He raised a single thick, dark eyebrow.

‘Of course,’ I said.

‘This is the one.’ He turned a Yale key in the lock. ‘Here.’ He pushed open the heavy wooden door, gesturing me to go through ahead of him.

Two huge, double height windows with a lattice-work of small panes threw light across the parquet floor. The room was barely furnished at all – a scruffy, beige hessian sofa was pushed in front of the iron fireplace, a maroon velour armchair at its side, cabbage rose wallpaper in muted shades bookended the fireplace. All the other walls were white. In one corner were a couple of kitchen units, a white electric cooker, a small fridge and a sink. Behind a screen in the far corner was what seemed to be a claw footed iron bath and a small washbasin. A ladder led up to a platform with a bed on. The room dwarfed all of these things with its tall, white walls and expanses of floor. Here, I thought, I could be someone different. I could peel back the layers to find my true self; expand to fit this space. I took a deep breath.

I heard a cough behind me.

‘Any questions?’ he said, looking at me eagerly.

I gazed around me.

‘The toilet?’ I asked.

He pointed to a door next to the kitchenette.

‘Just mine?’ The thought of getting up in the night and encountering others was unpleasant.

‘Of course,’ he said, looking irritated. ‘Anything else?’

Keen to get him back on side, I asked, ‘rules?’

He gave me an inscrutable look. ‘Here,’ he handed me the key ring.

‘Is there a contract to sign?’ I asked, holding the warm keys and thinking of that brown envelope in the sideboard at home. ‘I wouldn’t worry about that yet,’ he said, and he was gone, leaving me alone with my small holdall, gazing up at the tall windows, and wondering if I had a muse worth seeking

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