When I was nine we moved to the house Mum still lives in. It was exciting – my first ever house move. We’d been living in a small flat in a purpose-built block. My new bedroom was bigger and we’d have a spare. The new house had room for a dining table. There was a garden. We could grow fruit and veg, sit outside, have pets. I imagined long summer days, playing with my dog and rabbit in the garden, Mum and me growing our own strawberries, an endless stream of visitors using the spare room. I’d show them round the house. And this is the dining area, I’d have the nerve to say. This is my bedroom. This is Patch’s bed. We got him from a dog’s home. He’s had a hard life – lived outside, only ate scraps – but we’ve shown him love and now he’s so happy.
Moving day came. All of our belongings were in boxes, stacked up like bricks in each room. I’d kissed each of my toys goodbye before they went into the box, promising them that I’d get them out and play with them as soon as we arrived, so they needn’t be scared. I labelled it myself with a thick magic marker. ROSE – MY STUFF.
A friend of Mum’s – Ben With The Beard – came round with his van and loaded us up. I carried a few small things. Mum worried over the order the boxes went into the van and the order they’d come out. The last box in said EMERGENCY OVERNIGHT BOX in Mum’s handwriting. It had our pyjamas and toothbrushes in, and cups, glasses and plates. We’d have fish and chips for tea. It was like being on holiday.
We spent all afternoon unpacking boxes, finding homes for things, discovering new love for old belongings. By the evening we were surrounded by crumpled newspaper and eating our chips out of the grease stained pages of a different paper. I put a dirty hand in Mum’s. She smiled at me.
I went to bed after dinner. Mum gave me my pyjamas from the overnight box and tucked me into my old bed in a new room. I could hear her unpacking downstairs – busy footsteps, the rustle of paper. I tiptoed up to my box and undid it, taking out Red Ted, Benny and Woof and kissing them all hello. Then I crawled under the low opening next to my bed into the tiny attic space next to it. I curled up on the floor with Red Ted, Benny and Woof and I went to sleep, dreaming of apple trees and sunshine.
The wall hanging was pinned to the wall over the hidden door, brass drawing pins puncturing the sides at two-centimetre intervals. Its deer turned their long necks to look back at me over their shoulders, slim, petal-studded branches curling behind them. It gave my room a medieval air, I thought. I wondered about a window seat under one of those vast, double height windows, somewhere I could sit and gaze around my room, deer prancing past my eye line.
I’d been living in the studio for three weeks now, sleeping in the big, wooden bed a few feet below the high ceiling’s ornate grid of relief wallpaper. I’d wake up as the pale sun slid through the bare windows and bury my face deep in the duvet, dozing on and off till noon, feeling like I was sunbathing in the clouds. Then I’d get up and eat my Weetabix – my mother’s taste seemed to stick to me more closely than I’d have thought – before wandering to Kensington High Street or Kensington Church Street, window shopping for a better identity. I could slip on this dress or that jacket; I could buy this lampshade or that fabric. I could slide into another life.
I never took my camera with me and I shied away from the thought of it. The studio came with the proviso of artistic sensibilities. It was more comfortable not confronting the issue of whether I had any, particularly since I suspected that I knew the answer. I came back without shopping bags – my five thousand pounds had to stretch – and without photos or inspiration either. I wasn’t exactly sure how this exhibition I’d talked myself into was going to manifest itself, but I felt that John expected it now.
Late afternoon, I’d skulk around the common room, timidly making tea, not sure how much money to leave, bringing a packet of biscuits in case I bumped into John, Felix or Heidi, sliding out again when I’d spent an hour in there on my own. Then back to my room to eat beans on toast leaning against the kitchen units before curling up on the sofa with a novel and a glass of squash, stronger than my mother would have liked me to make it. I was free to explore all of the world’s cuisine, here in London away from my mother’s larder of tins and packets, and I chose, with my freedom, to drink stronger squash.
The door to my secret room stayed hidden and unopened behind the hanging. I thought of its sparkling walls and my hand twitched to open the door, but the image of Clive’s pockmarked face and watery blue eyes came into my head and merged with that feeling I’d had in there of being watched. Of course Clive couldn’t be watching me and couldn’t know what I did behind my own closed door, but I had a creeping unease as well as that eagerness to please and not rock the boat which had always been my Achilles heel. I couldn’t disobey a grownup, as I still thought of the older generation, even if they didn’t know that I was doing it.
One afternoon I sat on my sofa in the low sunlight. Again, I hadn’t seen anyone all day, though there were muted voices coming out of John’s room – a radio, or maybe he had company. Perhaps they were talking about me, I thought. About how odd I was, how I didn’t fit in. Maybe they’d been watching me and thinking that. I sat upright on the sofa, stiff, unable to sink into it, feeling like a fraud; observed and found lacking. The thought of how private that cellar was, how secret, how it was just mine, licked gently at my brain. None of the others had their own special place with glimmering walls, full of old, secret air, did they? So I did have something that they didn’t.
I had secrets.
I put my tea down and went, for the first time, to my cupboard to pick up my camera.
There was a large, powerful torch in the cupboard under the sink. I tucked it into my back pocket and I unpinned one side of the hanging to open the door, wedging a shoe in the gap and pulling the fabric back around it. Unless you looked closely, it still looked like a wall. My secret was safe. Who I thought might creep into my room without knocking, might let themselves in, I don’t know. But you never know, do you, what might go on when you’re not looking? It’s important not to make too many assumptions.
Then I tiptoed down the stairs and into the dark.
I stood in front of the pile of bin liners and rubbish in the ante room, my head on one side. Then I propped the torch up and directed its strong beams at the bags, giving them the stark, morbid glow of a Caravaggio painting, all dark folds and high contrast. I clicked at my camera, filling the frame. I rearranged the scene, piling bag on top of bag, leaning a stack of paint cans against them, draping old dust sheets as if they were an angel’s robe. Then I snapped again. Maybe I wasn’t so bad at this.
I picked up the torch and pushed open the door to the sparkling skylight room. The late afternoon sun was pressing its face against the high window and the walls glittered as if they were made of crystal. A few unloved and forgotten items were scattered on the bare concrete floor – a plastic red coat hanger, a bunch of keys, a crumpled coke can. I picked up the red coat hanger, took off my saggy mustard cardigan and draped it on the hanger, hanging it on a rusty iron nail on the wall. I snapped a couple of pictures of it, then lit it from below with the torch and clicked again. I walked around the perimeter of the room, eyes half closed, stroking the shimmering walls and thinking what other pictures I could set up in there.
My hand brushed past a crack in the wall and I stopped to take a closer look. Another door. Not exactly hidden, but its rough grey were so closely matched to the grey of the walls and it was so featureless that you’d struggle to see it unless you were looking for it. There was no handle, just a small, unshowy hole in the wood. I jammed my index finger into the hole hopefully and pulled. Nothing. Oh well, I couldn’t expect a whole series of doors to magically open for me, like the doors in Wonderland.
Then I glanced back at the set of keys, rusty and discarded on the floor. Surely not? Well, it was worth a try. I crouched on the floor. They were cold, rough with rust, heavy in my hand. Three keys – a simple Yale one, a small, silver padlock key and a long, iron key with an ornate bow. I tried the two possibilities in the lock, as much for the sake of the story that was in my head as anything – the story that would be in anyone’s head, confronted by a locked door and a set of keys. I knew, of course, that there was no chance that it would fit.
The long, iron key clicked in the lock and the door swung open. My hand dropped from the key – still slotted neatly into the lock – in surprise, and I stepped through. The door swung half shut behind me.
I was in a small dark space, dimly lit with some distant natural light. After my eyes adjusted I could see that the room was a small, wood panelled hallway with a flight of stairs leading up and down. Up could only lead back to the ground floor. I suddenly felt acutely aware that perhaps my secret room wasn’t just my secret after all. I felt disappointment, closely followed by a fear that I was somewhere that I shouldn’t be and that someone could find me out and take my secret place away.
I tiptoed slowly up the wooden stairs. Ten steps, twenty, more. I’d have passed the ground floor by now, surely. I counted. I took another thirty steps, thirty-five, forty steps past the wood panelled walls until the staircase came to an abrupt end with just a tiny, dusty window to reward me for my journey, a window so thick with dirt that I couldn’t see through it. I wondered if I was at the top of the house – I must have walked the equivalent of three floors. I’d be level with the attic, I supposed. If John was on my floor and Heidi and Felix on the next, then the attic space must be the caretaker’s and Clive’s, if either of them lived here. I’d have to ask next time I saw one of the others. John, I thought, was probably the tamest.
The thought of Clive on the other side of this wooden wall, perhaps even with his ear pressed against it, made me retreat quickly back the way I’d come. What the point of this staircase to nowhere was, I couldn’t tell. A fire escape? But escape to where? Perhaps once the attic floor had had its own staircase, now blocked off. But, anyway, one good thing was that my secret seemed still to be my secret; my ownership of the sparkling room was unchallenged.
Once I’d got down ten or twenty stairs I relaxed a bit. I had some distance from the image of Clive’s ear pressed to the wood, listening for my breathing. Another twenty steps and I was back in the small, wood panelled hallway. I checked the door, more out of nervousness than anything else, but it was still half open like I’d left it, a glimpse of my platinum, sparkling walls behind it.
I turned and took the stairs down. They curved to the right and I could see a small landing just below. I pushed a door open and felt instinctively on the wall for a light switch, flicking it on.
I was in another huge room. This one was entirely lined in dull green tiles, glinting like poison in the low light. They surrounded an apple green sunken floor, a foot or two below me, with shallow stone steps leading down. The floor was shiny as oil and gently marbled. I took the steps and cautiously put my foot onto the slippery floor. It sunk straight through. I pulled my dripping foot out.
Water. An underground swimming pool.
I knelt down. The water was the temperature of flesh. The womb of the building, quietly staying warm from the earth’s heat. I swept my hand through the water a couple of times, the hushed splash echoing around the arsenic tiles. I walked the perimeter of the pool on the stone step, listening to soft, muffled drips. In this room there was no secret door. The arsenic tiles continued unbroken all the way back to the door I’d come in through. I photographed the green tiles reflected in the green water and sat for a while, letting the still, damp air seep into my skin. Then I stepped back into the hallway to carry on exploring. The hush of the pool had moistened my soul. I felt calmer than I had in weeks, years maybe. Straight in front of me, opposite the stairs leading back up, was another door. I pushed, hopefully, but the door stayed firmly shut.
I scurried up the steps to the first hall way, the door to my sparkling room still half open, and reached round it to grab the keys from the lock. Not finding them straight away, I stepped back into the glimmering hall. There was nothing in the lock. The keys had gone.