‘You must be Rose.’
She was small and dainty with daffodil curls. She pointed her toe as she spoke: a tiny, unfurled flower against the moss green wallpaper of the hall.
‘Yes,’ I said. I put my door key back in my pocket. ‘I was just on my way out.’
‘So I see. I wondered if you’d like a cup of tea later – to welcome you, as it were.’ She didn’t meet quite my eyes. It was as though her whole perspective was out of kilter by about a centimetre. ‘I’m Heidi,’ she said.
‘I’m Rose,’ I said.
‘I know.’ She smiled, just to the left of me.
‘What work do you do?’ I asked. I’d learnt this one.
‘Work? Oh, I don’t work really. I sell the odd thing or two, but I don’t have a job.’
‘What’s the stuff you work on, I mean,’ I said. ‘I mean,’ I struggled, ‘your art.’ My Brummie accent felt big and ugly, my feet lumpen, my posture awkward.
‘Right. That. I’m a taxidermist.’ She pulled a small knife out of her dress pocket and gestured in my direction. ‘I slice animals up. Well, I stuff them, really. Mount them. Display them.’
‘Right. I didn’t realise…’ I stopped.
‘That taxidermy was an art form? Well, it is.’ Her gaze slipped further to the left. ‘It’s what you make it, isn’t it?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I’m a photographer,’ I added.
‘Good,’ she said. ‘We haven’t got one of those. What do you photograph?’
‘You know,’ I cast around for an answer. ‘Secrets.’
‘Well,’ she said. ‘We’d better all watch out then.’ Her lips curled in a couple of different directions.
‘No. Not that sort of thing.’
‘I’m sure. I was joking.’
She glanced at her feet. I glanced at the shopping list crumpled up in my hand.
‘Anyway,’ she said. ‘Tea? When you’re back.’
‘I’ll bring some biscuits,’ I said.
‘Biscuits,’ she said. ‘Great. Four o’clock? In the common room? Do you know where that is?’
‘Yes, he showed me.’
She span on her heel. ‘See you at four.’
I closed the front door softly behind me and stood on the doorstep with my hands in my pockets, gazing at the cool grey of the paving stones, the sandy bricks, the black street lamps. This was home now, but it felt slight and hard to pin down. I half longed for the plainness of my town; the hefty confidence of my city.
I spent the afternoon shopping. My cheque was safely stashed in my bank account, the sun was shining, Kensington High Street was bustling with rushing people carrying more than one shopping bag. I told myself that life was good. I was an artist in a studio in London.
I bought a teapot, two turquoise plates, a packet of ginger biscuits, a striped tee shirt and a heavy throw, ornate with deer, birds of paradise and curling branches. Would the other artists eat ginger biscuits? I wasn’t sure. Perhaps they’d seem ironic. Maybe the bright, azure plate would help, if it didn’t seem too safe and domesticated. I pushed my worries aside and carried on window shopping with my bag heavy in my hand. When I was older and richer I could fit out my studio with swags and drapes, a chaise longue here, a walnut side table there. I could have an acid yellow floor lamp looming over the sofa, soft Persian rugs. Perhaps I’d wear a soot-grey smock. A floor length mirror for the artist’s self-portrait. Would a fancy gilt frame be too much? I’d buy some paint and a ladder tomorrow – Kensington High Street didn’t seem to stretch to that sort of thing. I noted the art supplies shop, though, and wondered if this was a place I might bump into my fellow artists.
I crossed the road and climbed the leafy hill home, the late afternoon sun dappling the red and sand bricks. The thought of Mum was ever-present, with a guilty anxious pleasure that I’d escaped her world – that the lawned common areas had been replaced, for me, by Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. I hoped she was doing okay without me.
I fitted the key to the lock in the white double door beneath the red brick gabling. My roughly burnished Midlands heart felt flitting and uncertain now, but I hoped it would soon settle down and embed itself in this world and call it home.
‘Ginger biscuits. How nice.’ Heidi picked one up between two fingers and placed it delicately on the wooden arm of the chair.
‘Tea?’ The man held up the kettle as if it were a tankard. We hadn’t been introduced.
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I’m Rose.’ I held out a hand.
‘So I hear.’ His hand was marble pale, speckled with black hairs, resolutely not lifted.
My hand dropped back to my side.
‘Felix, be nice.’
‘I am nice.’
‘You’re never nice. Rose, this is Felix.’
‘Hi.’ I put my hand safely in my pocket.
Felix’s hand shot out.
‘Oh, I see,’ he said. ‘It’s like that, is it?’
‘Sorry.’ I took my hand out of my pocket.
‘Don’t worry about it.’ He ignored my hand and filled the kettle up from the aluminium tap, its metal sheen cloudy with dirt.
‘Felix. Be nice.’
‘I am nice. So, Rose, what do you do?’ He hoisted himself up to sit on the kitchen surface and picked his coffee up. He looked monumental up there, an Easter Island statue.
‘Photography.’ I decided to pre-empt his question. ‘I photograph secrets.’
‘How interesting. And do they stay secret or do you exhibit them? Make an exhibition out of other people’s secrets?’
‘Are they people’s secrets?’ asked Heidi. ‘Or just the concept of secrecy?’
I sat down on the sofa. ‘Both, I suppose.’
‘And have you had many exhibitions?’ She gave me a bright, small-toothed smile, just to the left of my eyes.
‘Not really,’ I said, ‘so far.’
‘Oh.’ She looked away.
‘I’m working on one now, though.’
‘Secrets?’ Felix handed me a cup of tea. He didn’t ask if I wanted sugar. ‘Or something else?’
‘And what exactly are the secrets?’ He took a biscuit and bit into it, taking half of it in one go.
‘I can’t really say,’ I said.
‘Or they wouldn’t be secrets, would they Felix?’
‘And what about you?’ I sipped my tea, slipped a cold hand under my leg to sandwich it against the rough fabric of the chair. He raised an eyebrow.
‘He’s a sculptor,’ said Heidi. ‘He doesn’t need the light, really. He could work in the dark, like a mole. Good job he hasn’t got the best room. Your room. That northern light that’s supposedly so important would be wasted on him.’
‘Whereas it’s important to you, for turning mice inside out to dry, I suppose?’
Heidi took the knife out of her pocket and poked at her biscuit with it. ‘Photography, too,’ she said. ‘It’s wasted on all of us, isn’t it? The studios should really be given those who need it I suppose, struggling painters or whatever, not just handed out by birth. Aren’t we lucky?’
I thought of all the people I’d done art A level with – people with rougher voices and more uncertain manners than these two, but people with proper talent who hadn’t had a leg up, had no-one to give them one.
‘And who did you inherit it from?’ I asked. Heidi’s face assumed pinched lines. ‘Sorry. That’s a bit personal,’ I added.
‘Not at all.’ She took a delicate bite of her biscuit. ‘My godfather,’ she said.
‘John’s the only direct line,’ said Felix, reaching for another biscuit. ‘They weren’t big on procreation, the last lot, I suppose. I got it through a godmother.’
‘Me too. Well, a godfather. I suppose they were big on god-parenting, then.’
‘Oh yes,’ said Felix. ‘All that stuff. Creating networks. Different concepts of the family. Communal loyalties. All that crap.’
I’d never heard any of this. I leaned forward. ‘Really? How interesting.’
‘Not really. Pretty boring. Pretentious crap. I’ve got no time for it. And don’t believe Heidi when she gives you her democracy spiel. She’s privileged and she loves it. There’s no way she’d share this place with commoners. You should ask her about her childhood. All holidays in France and blackberry picking in the rolling Sussex countryside. Running around with John. The cloistered next generation, being prepared for their inheritance.’
‘Nice. I am being nice. Those lot and all that crap. It’s making something out of art that doesn’t need to be made. It’s just making stuff, isn’t it? It’s not a way of life.’
‘Couldn’t it be both?’ I offered.
‘No. Because one is true and the other is a pile of crap.’
‘You see, you’re not so unlike them. Look at you, pursuing truth.’ Heidi stabbed at her biscuit again. ‘See?’
‘I’m not pursuing truth. I’m just being honest.’
Heidi looked smug, as if her point had been proved.
‘Well, I’ll get out of your hair. Nice to meet you, Rose.’ He jumped down and rinsed his cup under the tap.
I saluted, quickly pretended I was adjusting my hair, and waved at him.
‘Don’t worry about Felix. It’s just his manner. I think,’ she pouted sweetly, ‘that he had a difficult childhood.’
‘Didn’t we all?’ I said, the honestly slipping out accidentally. Anxiety spiked my chest. I felt exposed and vulnerable.
But Heidi just said, ‘oh, quite.’ She stabbed her biscuit again, and sat looking at me with it spiked onto the end of her knife.
‘Well,’ I said, uncertain of what came next.
‘Yes, I better let you get on. I’m sure you’ve got lots of unpacking to do.’
I thought of my two, near empty shelves. I’d unpacked in ten minutes.
‘Okay.’ I brandished my dirty tea cup. ‘Should I…?’
‘Thanks,’ she said. She lounged back in her chair, the sun tickling the edges of her hair, her black dress brushing her knees, then pushed herself up and out of the chair. I could never look so comfortable in my skin as that. I filed away details of the angle of her recline, that sour cream smile. A black, loosely fitting, knee length dress – clearly much more appropriate for an artist than jeans and a tee shirt. I obviously couldn’t buy a black one. But maybe navy blue.
‘That’s okay. See you soon.’ I tried to stop myself from curtseying.
She merely waved the ginger biscuit at me and turned away; the profile on a pound coin.
The door closed behind her. I wandered around the room, cup still in my hand, looking on shelves, opening drawers. There was a cork board on the wall opposite the sink. A post card with the number of a cab company was pinned to it, a takeaway menu – ‘Kensington Tandoori’ – and a yellowing A4 document, stapled at the corner.
This association of artists, craftspeople, makers and doers is hereby formally joined together in pursuit of beauty and truth: in search of sweetness and of light.
We are joined together by our thoughts (which rise in pursuit of truth and light) and our actions (which create tangible beauty and sweetness from the truth and the light).
‘Don’t nose around.’
I jumped. The voice was right in my ear. I could feel his breath on my skin.
I straightened up.
‘What are you doing?’
He was tall, solid, a waft of pale red hair drifting over his skull, features like cracks in rock.
‘Sorry,’ I said again. ‘I was just reading this.’ He stared at me with a predator’s gaze. ‘I’m Rose.’
‘Yes. Rosie. Rhymes with nosy.’
My cheeks were hot. ‘Sorry.’
‘I’m playing with you.’
He was wearing high-waisted suit trousers with a white shirt tucked in. In the low light of the common room, he looked like a Victorian workman, come to deliver coal.
He pushed his hands into his pockets. ‘How’s your room? Made any discoveries?’ He stared at me closely.
‘No,’ I said nervously. ‘Just unpacking, really. Settling in.’
‘Good.’ His eyes were unblinking.
‘I’d better get back to it.’
I pushed open the door. He held it open and watched me go.
I’d taken a couple of steps when he said, ‘Clive. That’s my name.’
I looked around. ‘Okay. Hello. It’s nice to meet you.’
‘And you.’ He added, almost lazily, not looking at me, ‘Like I said, don’t nose around.’
I locked my door from the inside.