Despite what my silence and anxiety might lead you to believe, my childhood wasn’t difficult. It was almost eerily normal. If anything, it suffered from the slight unease that too much symmetry in a painting can bring. The deathlike otherworldliness of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, for instance, its tawny stone arches in perfect harmony, the long, white fingers of Mary’s crossed hands matching those of the angel Gabriel, their halos perfect, burnished circles, a neat picket fence implausibly, to my seventeen-year-old mind, in the background, edging a daisy strewn lawn. I looked at it in my A level art history class and imagined our garden at home peopled by strange, still, deathless creatures, untroubled by imperfection, cocooned safely out of time. That made sense to me in a way that my classmates didn’t.
My homelife was predictable and safe.
So why did I freeze in terror when a stranger spoke to me? Why did roars of anxiety silence me? Why was home the only safe place to gesture, then whisper, then speak?
Safe, that is, during the day, at least. At night I was terrorised by ghosts. I’d brush my teeth, heart thumping, as ghosts peered over my shoulders, unseen but very much felt. They’d crowd around me in my bedroom at night so that I had to sleep with the light on, eyes wide till I fell asleep through exhaustion.
But the rhythm of childhood was comfortable, and I found my place in it. As an adult, the pull to drag me away from this life was a lazy one. It tugged gently at my thoughts then turned over and went back to sleep again. I could hear its raspy breath in the back of my mind, fuelling discontent, spiking my conversations with Mum, but never waking up quite enough to propel me out.
I’d been in the womb so long that now, spun out into the new world of London, I couldn’t quite settle.
As I write this months later in my hot, little attic room, I still feel some of that uncertainty; the shaky, wet legs of the new born lamb. I still think of Heidi, John and Felix with a wistful yearning that I know is a bit pathetic. I don’t want to see them: I want to be them. Despite everything that’s happened, perhaps I still haven’t quite grown up, still haven’t quite learned to stand on my own two feet. I’m getting there, though.
But back then, at the start of the summer, I hoped that my time had come. I mistook the shadow of a mouse creeping around the house on Campden Hill Road for a wolf.
One morning, a couple of days after I’d moved in, I stood in front of the fireplace, a cup of cooling tea in my hand, and I pulled at the stepmother’s blessing of wallpaper.
It peeled off surprisingly easily, seemingly held in place with a tiny amount of glue; whole pockets of paper were barely attached to the wall at all. Soon I held a large piece of flowered paper in my hand, the back yellow with glue. I put it carefully down on the floor next to the fire, pulled off my jumper, rolled up my tee shirt sleeves and carried on. It was satisfying, like squeezing a spot. I could pick up a tin of paint tomorrow. Green. Blue, maybe. Or white, as John had said.
Half of one side of the fireplace was done, as high as I could reach. I moved to the other side and looked for a loose corner. I pulled at it. Here, there wasn’t just yellowing glue and Elastoplast pink wall beneath the paper. I could see the occasional strong black line crossing the pink plaster. I ripped a bigger piece off. The lines seemed more deliberate than I’d thought, perhaps a plumber indicating where piping went. I ripped again. This final rip revealed a face in three quarter view sketched onto the bare plaster – a weighty, dark fringe, a pouting lower lip, a round cheek, heavy eyelids.
She vaguely reminded me of someone.
I stared at the rough portrait.
Then I realised, with a start, who it reminded me of. It was me.
She wasn’t identical by any means, but there was a similarity somewhere – perhaps just in the shape of the cheek or the curve of the lower lip. A good omen, I thought. I pulled back more of the paper and found other sketches, some barely drawings at all – the curve of a forehead, or sweep of an eyelid – some finished enough to be almost recognisable I’d guess, if you knew the people.
Soon I had a pile of scraps of wallpaper at my feet and bare pink wall as far as I could reach, with a ragged fringe of ripped wallpaper about six feet up. On the right side of the fireplace were three recognisable portraits and a handful of half-finished sketches. Two women and a man, I thought, though I wasn’t sure if the women were the same person and the second sketch, with a few, pale lines indicating hair rather than the thick, dark strokes of the first, was just less developed. The man had a thick halo of hair and a bold, jutting nose. His chin, though, was weak.
I stood back and contemplated my work. I’d need a ladder, of course, when I picked up the paint and paint brush. Maybe a deep blue paint, like the sea. Or was that the sort of thing that proper artists would consider to be poor taste? Grey perhaps – it reeked of confident understatement. I went back to white. That seemed safe. The portraits, though, seemed to have an ancient power, like cave paintings. They glowered at me. Did I dare paint over them? I didn’t want them watching me.
The wallpaper continued round the side of the chimney breast, covered a narrow strip of the wall to the chimney’s right, then stopped, making way for the bright, white paint that dominated the rest of the room. I pushed the armchair to one side and grabbed a corner of wallpaper.
I pulled off another piece, then stepped a little closer. Could it be…? I moved to have a closer look and to touch what I thought I’d seen.
There, revealed by the torn off paper, was a slim but perceptible crack, ruler straight.
I pulled off some more paper, tracing the crack down.
Hinges. Tarnished brass door hinges.
Heart thumping, I ripped more quickly now, grabbing the paper in handfuls and pulling it off the wall, laying it on the floor like hardening shards of skin.
There, framed by the ripped paper with its festoons of pale roses, was the outline of a door. There was no handle, just a hole where the handle would have been. I pushed my fingertips as far into the crack as they’d go and I pulled. Nothing. A slight give, if that. I pushed my finger into the hole where the door handle should be, but the hole was slimmer than a finger, certainly slimmer than mine.
I stood back, stared at it in frustration and made my way to the kitchen drawer. All I could think about now was getting it open. I pulled out a knife, quickly going back to the door and jamming the knife into the hole. A small sliver of wood found its way to the floor, but the door didn’t budge.
Back to the kitchen. In the same drawer I found a pair of scissors. I pushed the small blades into the hole and twisted them. Something caught, held traction for a second and slipped. Again. And again. I pushed my hair off my forehead and breathed deeply. Then I pushed the scissors carefully back into the hole and turned them slowly, millimetre by millimetre. Something caught, held and this time it turned. I held my breath. A catch clicked. Gently I pulled the scissors back towards me and a door opened.
Thick black space. There was a smell of mildew, of stagnant air, of disturbed dust. I wondered how old the air was. I peered in more closely, trying to accustom my eyes to the dark after the bright white of my room. I blinked, stared at black on black, shadow lacing shadow. Did a gasp of air rush past me, escaping after being locked up so long, and speed into my room? I peered and blinked, trying to distinguish shadow from wall and floor. The darkness zoomed away from me and settled thickly, infinitely, comfortably, in front of me.
Holding the door in place carefully, I put a cautious foot forward. Then another. My second footstep hit air, not solid ground. I stumbled forward, caught myself. My hand grabbed hard at the door behind me. I reached fearfully down with my foot. Where was the solid ground? Gasping, I found a step, leading down. Leading away from my white room into colder, mustier, older air.
With my left hand I fumbled on the wall, looking for a light switch that I didn’t think could possibly work. My hands brushed a switch and I flicked it. A dim light bulb swung over the stairs, lighting drapes of cobwebs, pockmarked concrete steps, shelves stacked high with cans of old paint.
There was a whisper of wind, like a lungless shriek.
I quickly walked back into the bright, white room. I pulled the red armchair towards me and pushed it hard against the open door, pinning it open against the wall.
Then I took a step down the stairs and into the dark.
I will pause there, with my right foot on the first stair into the darkness, my hand still holding onto the edge of the doorway, my left foot in the light of my new studio. I’ll pause there and imagine that it’s possible to stop, freeze frame and rewind. My right foot would lift back off the tread, move backwards towards the light of the studio. My hand would loosen its grip on the door frame, then let go. My foot would plant itself solidly back on the parquet floor. The door would close and paper would float from the floor back onto the wall, resealing itself. Jagged shards would become whole again.
I’d rewrite my conversations with John, Heidi and Felix while I was at it – why not? But more importantly, I’d stand in front of the fireplace, looking up at the wallpaper and decide just to paint over it instead of pulling at that loose corner.
That way, it wouldn’t just be the wallpaper that would stay intact. My life would stay whole. I could reach the end of that summer and be the same person that I always thought I was. Remain the same – for better or worse.
As I write this, a year later, my thoughts hang on that possibility for a second. My fingers pause on the computer keys. The wind that’s the first sign of autumn’s approach rattles impatiently at my small window, edging its cold breath past the rotting window sill. I should get it fixed. I can’t afford to get it fixed. The radiator judders. I shouldn’t have the heating on in the middle of the day, but I’m too feeble to put up with being cold. I switch the lamp on – it’s four o’clock and it’s already getting dark – and I stare at the computer screen, imagining a world where none of those momentous things have happened. Where I got to stay me. Where now, in the autumn, I’d still be plain old Rose Acker, like I’d always been.
Then, reluctantly, I put that impossible me away and I go back in my mind to the studio, back to the cabbage rose wallpaper, back to the red velour chair and iron fireplace. I stand in front of the fireplace again and I’m forced to re-start the process which will undo me. I reach a hand up and pull off pieces of wallpaper. Once again, I stand in front of the sketch portraits on the plaster. Once again, I stand in front of the last patch of wallpaper and pull at an edge of the paper. Once again, I stand in front of the door and pull. Once again, I take a step forward into the dark.
The air was heavy and damp. It smelled musky, as though it hadn’t met fresh air in years. The concrete stairs were uneven, worn at the edges, treacherous. The single bulb that swung from the ceiling in front of me was dusty and yellow. I put one cautious foot in front of another. Ten stairs, twelve maybe, and I was at the bottom of the staircase in a small, dark room, lit only by the yellow light of that single bulb. I could still see the white of the studio walls at the top of the stairs, the pale corner of the kitchen units, the dust-suspended, summery light.
Health and safety, I supposed, could be the only reason to shut this off. But no-one need know I was down here. Perhaps, I thought, reasoning with myself about my own senseless journey down there, there might be a nice, enclosed room down here for my darkroom. No reason why I couldn’t slip down and use it without telling anyone. I thought of what John had said. It was my studio, after all. I could do what I wanted. Why stir things up by asking permission?
I turned back and looked for another light switch. I didn’t want to feel around the damp, cobwebbed brick walls. I edged forward, adjusting my eyes to the dark. To my left there was an open door to a small room, piled high with bin bags, old carpets and damp cardboard boxes. I could see the corner of an old sink, the edge of a decrepit work surface.
I considered it. It could work.
I edged forward a bit more. For some reason I glanced nervously back up the stairs with that feeling you get in old houses sometimes, the sense that you’re being watched; that eyes are tickling you between the shoulder blades.
Straight in front of me, there was another door. I glanced quickly back upstairs again to double check that the door to my studio was still open – though who could close it, really? Like I say, it’s funny the feelings that old buildings can give you. Especially this one. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps you could say that the building was watching me. But I wasn’t to know that then.
I tried the handle and the door opened away from me. I stepped through it, blinking.
In front of me was a cavernous, glittering space. I felt as though I’d stepped out from under a cloud into the sun for the first time. My eyes had grown spider-like so quickly that it took a while to adjust back to the brightness.
The walls glimmered with fractured green and white light. The room was vast and empty. At the far end of the room, a huge, hexagonal roof light, arsenic hued. Around me, stone walls that seemed carved out of rock, catching the green sunlight and throwing it back into the room. I sat down on the cold floor underneath the huge window and I gazed up at it into the sun, letting the glitter slip into my soul and give it a push upwards towards greatness.
I’m here, I thought. I’ve arrived.
I lay down on the dirty floor, closed my eyes and let the warm, green light sit heavily on my eyelids and bathed in its unearthly glory.
After a while, I stood up again. Now that my eyes had got used to the change in light, I could see that the room was actually rather dark, the only light coming from the mildew stained window above me. I looked around. There were no more doors in or out of the room, just the one I’d come through. And the only way to get to that was through my studio. This could be my own private space, my place to come to feel my soul stretching out and sighing.
It could be my secret.
It could be new orchard.
No-one, down here, could see my face or expect me to speak.
I smiled, broadly, in the peace of certain solitude.
Back in my studio I pushed the door to the cellar closed behind me and considered the wall. I’d need to cover up the door if I wanted my cellar to stay a secret, if I wanted to keep it as my own. A secret, magnificent space.
A wall hanging, I thought. I picked up the deer patterned throw I’d bought earlier. I remembered seeing some drawing pins in the common room. I held the throw up against the wall and smiled.
I was happy.