I spent a good half hour searching for those keys, looking far beyond where they could feasibly have dropped. The whole time I felt the sensation of eyes brushing against my back, but there was never anyone there when I turned round. There was a small waste pipe in the floor, a few centimetres from the door. All I could conclude was that I’d dislodged the keys when I’d opened the door below and moved about, and that they’d dropped in there, out of sight. But I was relieved to find that my studio door was still locked when I got back, my own keys on the kitchen surface where I’d left them.
That night I dreamed of Clive, his face pressed, distorted, against glass, his breath misting it up, his nose squashed and flat. In my dream I was walking through a long tunnel past endless windows and grills, each with Clive’s face pushed against them. His breath was thin and raspy, a snake’s gasp.
I woke up later than usual with the duvet tangled around me. My heart still felt quick and tender. I’d only met Clive once, but the thought of him followed me around, as if I’d run into a ghost and talked to him about the weather.
Today, I thought, needed to be different.
I made myself some fried eggs on toast and wandered in my socks to the common room for some coffee – not my usual time.
‘Well. I thought you’d moved straight back out again. Quiet as a mouse, you’ve been.’ John was sitting with a newspaper propped up on his knees, a coffee in his left hand.
‘Have I?’ I glanced at the kettle, unsure whether he wanted to be alone.
‘Join me for a coffee. Don’t be shy.’
‘Okay,’ I said, willing my mossy mouth into life.
‘There’s some in the pot. Help yourself.’
His tee shirt was riding up, showing a soft roll of flesh. Outside the window the sun was bright already, the trees glancing and shifting their greens and golds in the warmth.
‘So,’ he said. ‘How’s it going? The exhibition? You were working on an exhibition, weren’t you?’
‘You play your cards close to your chest, don’t you?’
‘I am taking pictures, though,’ I said. Even this felt like stripping naked in front of him. The thought made me blush.
‘Well, that’s a step in the right direction.’
‘Of secrets,’ I added.
He smiled politely. I felt that perhaps the concept had less currency than I’d thought.
‘I don’t know if I’ll put on an exhibition, though’ I said. Make an exhibition of myself, I thought. No, thanks.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘You’re a hobbyist.’
‘It’s your hobby, not your vocation. That’s fine, of course.’
‘No, it’s my vocation.’ Was it? I wasn’t sure. ‘I just wouldn’t know how to go about putting an exhibition on.’
‘I’ve got a friend. She runs a little gallery space in the East End. Here.’ He fished in his pocket. A business card, grey writing on black. Sue James. ‘I only saw her yesterday. It’s her new business card. You could talk to her. Provided your stuff is good, of course.’
‘It might be.’ I held the card carefully in my hand.
He laughed. ‘Secrets sounds about right for you. You really are a closed book, aren’t you?’
‘No! Not really.’
I took a sip of my coffee and tried to settle myself more comfortably into the chair.
‘Do you know,’ I said, as casually as I could, ‘much about the building?’
‘Of course. Dad talked about it all the time when I was a kid. It was built in the eighteen fifties for a group of artists. It’s Queen Anne style, you know that? And you know about the right to inhabit in perpetuity? For a peppercorn a year?’
‘Oh! I haven’t paid my peppercorn.’
He laughed. I pretended I’d been joking and laughed too.
‘Do you know about the inside of the building, I mean,’ I said.
‘Well, we’re on the ground floor. You’ve got that double height room, so you take up some of the first floor too. Heidi and Felix are up there as well.’
‘And the top floor?’
‘No-one goes there. None of us, at least. Not even me.’
‘Not even you?’
‘Well, what with Dad… Anyway. And there’s a store room down here, next door.’
‘What was it like in the nineteenth century, do you think?’
‘Supposedly pretty glam, in that bohemian way. There’s rumours there was all sorts here – a Roman baths, a meeting hall, a gymnasium, all kinds. All for the use and enjoyment of the artists in residence. Can’t be true, though, I don’t suppose. Where would you fit it all in?’
I didn’t say anything.
‘There is a cellar though, you know,’ he continued. ‘You can see it from the skylight out the front.’
‘Maybe the swimming pool and halls were down there.’
‘What are the cellars like?’
‘Oh, we don’t go in them, really.’
‘Aren’t you curious?’
‘I’ve got a lot to be curious about. An old, dirty cellar’s not top of my list. We’ve plenty of storage anyway.’
Good, I thought. Though a tiny thought tinkled in my head. Perhaps I wouldn’t mind him, of all the people I could think of, sharing my secret.
He drained his coffee cup.
‘I suppose I should tear myself away. I’d like to see your photos one day, Rose. Your secrets. Would you let me? Oh Rose, I propose that she shows me her photos,’ he said in a sing-song voice.
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Maybe.’
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Maybe, Rosie Posey. Maybe, it is.’
‘You could ask,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘to see my paintings.’
‘Oh!’ I said, but it was too late, he’d gone.
I washed his cup up, too, and put money in the jar for both of us, just in case.
I can see the leaves starting to turn outside my little window now. Here in my attic room I’m sitting amongst the tree tops, a sparrow seeking shelter.
I feel so far, now, from the many things that, for a long time, seemed normal and just as far from those things that seemed as though they’d replace them. I’m nowhere, in limbo. But perhaps for the first time in my life I’m actually standing on solid ground. From nine till five-thirty my days are spent filing scientific photographs in metal drawers, their complex numbering system swimming around my brain until I can’t remember whether P comes before S and whether an image that’s categorised with a 1000 suffix comes after a 200 suffix or before. It’s both tedious and complicated and suits me perfectly for the time being. Flicking through paper feels like searching an ordered mind for a safe memory.
In the evening I sit in my little room and I write this. A record of what’s happened and proof, to myself, that I’m not mad. And that I wasn’t then either, no matter what they’d have had me think.
Perhaps it’s something else, though, too. I lost my identity this summer. Maybe I’m building a new one, word by word. As time goes by, I do start to feel less ripped raw by it. Something is healing over; something is growing in place of what I lost. Perhaps the need to please, to do the right thing, to be what people expect has been replaced by something else. Freedom? Maybe. I don’t know. I might just have accepted my invisibility. It’s a kind of a superpower, isn’t it, to be able to disappear at will?
I’ve rung the vet every day about Herb, the abandoned white dog. No-one’s come to claim him. They’re looking for a suitable rehoming centre. The thought of approaching Julia at work and asking if I can bring a dog in every day – of pushing myself forward, making demands – makes me blush and squirm. But I’ve made an appointment to talk to her tomorrow and I’ve printed out some internet research on how dogs in the workplace improve well-being and productivity. I’ve bought two dog beds – one for work, one for home – and two sets of dog bowls. Me and Herb can sort the garden out together, too. I have a share of it, after all, and no-one else uses it. It will be ours. A new special place, maybe – a new orchard, a new sparkling hall – just not a secret one this time. I’m hopeful.
Will something else come at the end of this, or is this my life now, filing by day and typing by night? I’m not sure. But the idea of it stretching into infinity isn’t an uncomfortable one. Even now, even after everything that’s happened and everything that I’ve left behind, it seems that I have a way of finding the pedestrian and monotonous and settling into it. I’ve come to accept that the grand and the glamorous are not for me. I like the idea of a quiet life, well-lived, of doing no harm, of being kind to ants and solving my puzzles.
It seems a million miles away now – the old me, sneaking around the cellars with my camera, hoping – a thought I didn’t articulate even to myself, but hoping nonetheless – to create something spectacular and brilliant that would prove my worth to myself and impress others. Impress John, Heidi and Felix, that is. Hoping that it would prove to be the bridge to my new life. Like I say, I’ve come a long way, not least in my acceptance of the limitations of my own talents.
And all of that space around me, the space that scared me so much at the end of the summer – the empty space left by what I’d lost. It’s starting to feel like room to stretch out – to stretch out and just be. Sadness is all the space that’s left after the love leaves. I like that idea.
I didn’t slip down to the cellars that day. The dream of Clive’s red face pressed against misty glass, his tongue pushing and flattening against the window, was too recent and felt too real. I could still hear the bored and contemptuous tone of his voice as he told me not to nose around. I still felt uneasy about the missing keys.
The next afternoon, and evening too, I sat in my room, reading my novel and drinking squash before climbing the ladder to my bed far too early and swaddling myself in a warm duvet before the sun had even gone down outside. I lay there, amber light dappling my duvet covers, and heard laughter and clinking glasses from next door. John’s room. I sunk even further into the sheets and pressed my face into the pillow. The voices continued till late into the night, I’d guess around two or three in the morning, before they retreated down the corridor. I didn’t hear the front door slam, so it must have been the three of them, drinking and laughing without me.
Next morning I took a walk down to Kensington High Street as soon as I’d had my Weetabix and cup of tea. Not so much to clear my head as to populate it – I felt stuffed with cotton wool, stuck on mute, empty. I needed bustle, voices and people in my head. I ordered a strong coffee to wake up any verve that was lying latent in my brain and sat outside a café in Kensington Church Street, trying to feel a part of the scene. The white metal chair was cold against my bare legs – I was wearing a navy dress that I’d picked up on Kensington High Street; not unlike Heidi’s, but on me it looked cheap and shapeless, not elegant.
I rocked gently back and forth on the cold chair, the sun heavy on the back of my neck, the coffee strong and bitter in my mouth.
The sky was bright and infinite.
We were tiny ants on the earth’s surface.
I decided to call John’s friend about putting on my exhibition. I’d clear out the ante room in the cellar for a darkroom, too. It wasn’t impossible that I could impress these people – surprise them, even. Maybe soon I’d be in the party room, not outside it.
If I’m honest, despite the way that Clive had unnerved me, those beautiful, private rooms were calling me too. I longed to sit by the apple green pool and listen to its soporific splashes while real time bustled by out of sight. I still think of those rooms in that way, even now they’re lost to me forever. The thought of them is like cool milk pooling in my brain. They’re outside time, away from the light, untouched, like a memory of a mother’s first kiss.
I knew that I should call Mum and let her know how I was. She’d be anxious to know how I was getting on in my new life. But somehow there had never been the right time. I’d call her soon. Just not today. Let the matching salt and pepper pots and magnolia walls wait a little bit longer before they tugged at me and pulled me back. I think I was waiting for some good news to pass on.
I bought a black dress on the way home.
That afternoon I took myself down to my cellars again, forcing myself to do some work before I’d let myself sit by the pool. I carried all of the rubbish into a corner of the sparkling, vaulted hall. It was a shame to sully the space, but my darkroom was an important project. And maybe it would make a good photo anyway, I thought, the sparkling walls, the light glancing through the caked skylight, the rubbish spilling out onto the floor.
I swept the ante-room out, checked that the tap worked and wiped the sink down. I’d bring a trestle table, a kettle and some washing up bowls down here. There was a cupboard in one corner that would be fine for drying my negatives and prints. I’d just need to pick up some chemicals, amber light filters and an enlarger. I felt buoyed up and excited, picturing myself expertly developing black and white prints, something I’d only done once or twice at university. Sorting it out wouldn’t take too much of Mum’s money, and it was worth it – an investment in my future. She’d approve. I’d write a list that evening.
My back and shoulders ached, but I knew that with just a few minutes by the pool I’d feel better. Camera around my neck and torch in my hand, I closed the door of my new darkroom behind me and made my way to the hall. The sparkling walls made me want to tip-toe, as if to avoid waking up a long-sleeping Anglo-Saxon king. The sun was high in the sky, pouring thick honey through the lichened window. I felt the sparkle fill my soul.
As I clicked away with my camera, that sparkle in my soul turned to hope. Here was a chance for me to be more than the sum of my parts.
The door to the hidden stairs was unlocked, just as I’d left it. I made my way down the thirty or so stairs to the poolroom and pushed open the door, flicking the light on with my left hand. There it was, glimmering and shimmering in the artificial light, even more beautiful than I remembered. My pool. I smiled. After a while – a few moments of quiet thought and a few photos – I pushed the door closed again, ready to go back to my room and write my lists.
But for no reason in particular, I pushed half-heartedly at the door opposite the stairs as I passed it. This time it swung open, revealing a narrow wooden flight of stairs going back up.
I wonder, as I write this, whether anyone would believe me if they were ever to read these pages, even this early in my tale – before events turned far darker. Doors mysteriously opening, keys arriving and disappearing. I sound like a child on a flight of fancy. My problems won’t sound so childlike as I get to later events, but even at this stage they sound improbable, bordering on delusional. Likely the rooms were just dusty cellars, the doors to them were never unlocked, and I superimposed my own fantasies of faded grandeur on them. My own feelings about myself perhaps – that my true powers were neglected and hidden from sight, but unique, beautiful to the right beholder. And the locked and unlocked doors? Just my own nervousness at exploring my own ideas? Who knows. At any rate, in this instance, the truth is the less probable version. And I should leave the amateur psychology alone.
I can’t help but wonder sometimes, though, now that I’m back in a small life, living in a small room in a small part of town, how much I imagined and embellished all of this. It can be hard to get it straight in your head, can’t it, what’s real and what’s not? I suppose that’s why I’m writing it down. Getting it all on paper. So that it’s concrete and real. To reassure myself that I’m sane, even if events weren’t.
Back to that wooden flight of stairs, away from the pool and up again.
I climbed the stairs, expecting to find my way back to the sparkling hall and from there to go back to my studio. But after ten steps up, I found myself pushing at another door, a timid, dusty-haired Alice.
I was in a low room lined with white butcher’s tiles from floor to ceiling, square, white tiles covering the floor. Another door, directly opposite the one I’d come in through. Gurgling, white painted pipes criss-crossed the top of the walls. In the far corner the pipes led to an odd, curtained enclosure, hessian curtains hanging from a semi-circular structure. A shower, I realised, with a mental double-take. On the chipped, tiled floor there were dumb bells, a medicine ball, what looked like leather skittles, all dusty and dilapidated. In front of me were two copper bars on a wooden frame. I snapped away with my camera. I could bring John down here, I thought, when I was ready, if we ever got that close. But if I did that, the rooms wouldn’t be mine anymore.
I imagined the artists who originally inhabited the building spending their leisure hours swimming gracefully, doing turns on the bars, all Victorian handlebar moustaches and leotards. Why close the rooms off, though? If I owned the building I’d swim in the pool every day, set up my living room in the sparkling hall under the skylight, shower in the gym; I’d walk around underground in my grandeur, a mole burrowing away in a goldmine.
This particular day is even more dreamlike than the rest, perhaps because I felt so happy in this hidden world, so convinced it was all mine, so nervous of life upstairs. I remember leaving the gym by the opposite door, finding more stairs that led to another hidden room, this one low, wood panelled, populated by mouldy chesterfields, one with what looked like a bird’s nest in, though how any poor bird found its way down there and how soon it realised it had flown to its own grave, I didn’t like to think. The brass wall lights were sueded with dust. A sign on the outside of the door, in cursive letters: ‘Smoking room. For the delectation and refreshment of members of this house.’
I sat down on a dusty chesterfield, imagining myself cradling a large brandy and holding court and put my feet up on the sage green, leather topped coffee table. The room had the icy, muffled silence of somewhere deep underground. I was swaddled in stone.
In the same dreamlike state, I wandered back the way I’d come, down stairs, through abandoned Victorian leisure facilities, back past the pool and up the stairs to the hallway. I stood in the sparkling hall, bathing in the greened late afternoonsun that poured through the skylight and I tugged the door shut behind me. My hand brushed against something cold.
A set of keys. The set of keys I’d lost.
Slowly, a slight chill slipping down my spine, I pulled the set of keys out of the lock, held them in my hand and stared at them. Then I locked the door, put the keys in my pocket and climbed the stairs back to my studio. They must have been there all along.
Rosie. Rhymes with nosy.
I pushed the armchair against the door to the cellar and went to bed.