I was on the bus from Liverpool Street, my laptop clutched in a bag on my lap with print outs of a few photos I’d taken at college and a single sheet of paper explaining my Secrets idea.
The road was choked with buses, jammed up against each other like fish in a too-small tank. A crowd of people shoaled across the zebra crossing in front of us, more poured down the steps and escalator back down into the station. Bicycles were clamped to every street sign. A man with bright silver hair and a round belly that filled his shiny, black anorak kept time with the bus. Buildings, pale-slabbed like white chocolate, stretched towards the clouds. The sky ahead of us had that empty feeling of promise, as if the sea was always just around the next corner.
I wore my navy dress and shabby trainers. I was practising what I was going to say.
I hadn’t mentioned to John that I’d called her. I’d just slip an invite to the exhibition under his door. ‘You’re quite the closed book,’ he’d say. I smiled to myself.
We crept past pubs and through traffic lights, and squeezed between glass paned buildings, bikes overtaking us, pedestrians glancing up from their phones before dashing out in front of us.
Stop, start, stop start, towards a skeletal, vaulted bridge. Here a man in a black leather jacket stood on the pavement in front of a long line of belongings – soft toys, a bike, clothes, bags – in military rows. His face was anxious, angry. Past him, under the bridge and we were at my stop. I thanked the bus driver. He gave me a look so blank it must be practised. I stepped off the bus into the muggy, close day.
On the hot pavement now. My feet felt too warm in my trainers. Down a one way street, past scaffolding with candy cane wrapped poles, past an organic cafe and a clothes shop – the skyline lower here, but no more inviting. And here I was, at my destination. An unassuming office block. I rang the buzzer and pushed the door open.
‘Well,’ Sue said, as I spread my feeble looking print outs onto the wooden table in front of her. We were both sitting on old school chairs. My back ached already. ‘Well, yes, they’re nice. Quite lonely.’
‘Yes,’ I said. Are they, I thought? Perhaps that’s my thing.
‘An emptiness. A forlornness. A bleakness. A muteness, even.’
She was wearing a black and white striped tee shirt and slim, black trousers, sipping at a tiny cup of coffee in a white cup without a handle. Her face was tanned, barnacled with life.
‘Oh, good,’ I said, ever keen to please. ‘That’s what I was getting at.’
‘So, you’re a friend of John’s?’ She smiled, a crack in the wood. ‘He’s a good boy, John.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Sort of. We have studios in the same building.’
‘He’s a good boy,’ she said again. ‘Tell him I sent my love.’
‘What’s your proposal, then? Let’s be having it.’
I glanced nervously at the A4 piece of paper in front of me.
‘It’s about secrets,’ I said. ‘Disused buildings, unseen places.’ I warmed to my theme. ‘What do places look like if we stop inhabiting them, stop looking at them every day?’
‘Have you got any pictures yet?’
‘No.’ I was downcast.
She looked down at my print outs again.
‘I can show you some more on my computer?’ It was more old stuff though, dating back to years ago. I fumbled with my laptop. ‘Where is it? I muttered.
‘Don’t worry.’ She looked at me appraisingly. ‘Okay, let’s take a risk. July the fourteenth, my current exhibition ends. My next chap’s let me down. A loss of confidence, I don’t know. He’s scrapped everything he’s done. He’s left me in a bit of a pickle. But it could be your lucky day. If you can be ready by the 15th July, we’ll give you a chance. Don’t let me down, though, will you?’
‘No, I won’t.’ Three weeks’ time – how could I do it? But how could I say no?
‘Great.’ She pushed the pieces of paper back towards me and drummed her fingers on the wooden table. ‘You’ll need to do captions for your pictures. And get them all framed.’ She glanced at me. ‘Just do a word document with the captions.’
‘I don’t think they need captions,’ I said. ‘They’re just empty spaces.’
‘I’ll be in touch. See you on the fifteenth,’ she said, ‘Rosie Acker.’
‘Rose,’ I said. I didn’t like Rosie.
An hour later, I was walking back up Campden Hill Road. I’d organised my first exhibition. I should have been pleased, triumphant even, but I had a hollow feeling inside, the feeling that I was a fraud. There’s a comfort in staying warm in your burrow, staying silent. Showing your face to the light risks burns.
I reached the studios and fumbled inside my bag for my keys. I sat down on the step and pulled everything out of my bag one by one. I emptied my pockets. And then I went through my bag again carefully, tipping the whole lot out onto the step and then putting everything back in, one at a time.
I rang the bell. No answer. So I sat back down on the step and waited, the warm concrete rough beneath my bare leg. To my left was the greened glass of the skylight, the window to my secret world. It suddenly occurred to me that anyone who sat where I was now could watch me wandering around down there with my camera. I peered at the glass more closely. Maybe the green stain obscured the view. I stood up and walked closer to it, the sun emerging from the clouds to hit the back of my neck. You couldn’t see much. No detail. Just a dark space. Maybe a bit of movement.
I bent down and looked more closely. Was that someone moving down there? Just a dash past, that was all. A cobweb shifting in the wind or a trick of the light. A ghost of someone past.
Or, I thought, you’re not the only one nosing around down there. A vision of busy, scurrying people, looking through my private spaces, touching those walls, talking about me, laughing at me even.
I pushed the thought to one side. They were my spaces, my secrets. No-one else’s. It’s important not to let your thoughts run away with you.
The front door opened. The bearded caretaker’s grizzled face peered round it.
‘Rose,’ he said. ‘Can I help?’
‘I’ve lost my keys.’
‘You should be more careful,’ he said. ‘Come with me.’
I followed him up the wide, shallow stairs, past the brass wall lights and onto Heidi and Felix’s floor, the landing overlooked at the back by a vast stained glass window – a grid of pastel coloured squares, outlined in black lead. At the centre of each of four panels a circular motif – a hare, a swallow, a robin, a fish. We passed Felix’s door, then Heidi’s. Voices were coming from Heidi’s room, raised in anger. I thought that it was John’s voice that I could hear, but I wasn’t entirely sure.
‘Want to stop, listen for a bit?’ asked the caretaker, shifting his eyes sardonically towards Heidi’s door.
‘It’s fine,’ I said, speeding up.
‘They’ll be arguing,’ he said, ‘about succession rights. They’re riled up about it most of the time. It’s quite the thing around here.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Who’s to inherit the building? Should it be John, with his direct family line? Or should it be a god-child of one of the others, for who’s to say that blood’s more important than fellowship?’
‘Should be John, surely,’ I said.
‘Or should it be earned?’ he said. ‘Should worth be proved? Should the next one be selected, chosen?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s just a building.’
I glanced at the warm wood, the pink light glancing along the banister from the stained glass window. ‘A beautiful one,’ I added, more to myself than to him.
‘Ah,’ he said again.
We took the stairs up to the attic rooms. I hadn’t been this far before.
‘Why are they arguing? Why do they care? They all have the right to be here.’
‘An admirable sentiment,’ he said. ‘Property has value, especially in this part of London.’
‘Oh,’ I said, feeling stupid.
‘And then,’ he said, ‘there are more important things. The feeling of carrying something on, of status, of owning something bigger than yourself. Tradition.’
The stairs were narrower up here, the ceilings lower, the wallpaper peeling off the walls.
‘I see,’ I said. I thought about the private rooms downstairs. The idea of people grabbing at them. ‘They should leave it alone,’ I said. ‘Let it be.’ I blushed. I sounded mad. He just smiled.
‘And what about you?’ he said.
‘Do you feel you have the right to inherit this place?’
‘I’ve only just got here,’ I said.
The narrow hallway was dark, the light coming from a single bare bulb. There were two doors. The caretaker slipped through one. I leaned against the wall and waited, feeling uncomfortable, glancing at the other door. A fly buzzed, zooming past my head, out of sight, and back again. There was no window. It was hot and airless up here. I thought perhaps I could see a fine line of light under the other door. The fly settled on my cheek. I batted it off. Distantly, in another world, an ambulance sounded and faded away.
Eventually the caretaker’s door opened again. I tried to peer in, but he closed it quickly behind him.
‘Here,’ he said, handing me a brass key ring. ‘Be careful this time.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, moving towards the stairs.
‘And remember,’ he said, ‘you have as much right as anyone. It all remains to be seen.’
‘Thanks,’ I said again, and quickly made my way back down the stairs to the first floor.
Heidi’s door was open now. John was standing at the threshold.
‘It’s irrelevant,’ he said, ‘and what’s more, it’s beneath us.’
‘For fuck’s sake!’ she said.
‘Oh! Rosie. What are you doing skulking around up there? Being nosy?’ He placed a warm hand on my shoulder.
I dangled the keys in front of me.
‘Locked out,’ I said.
‘I meant to say,’ said Heidi brightly, and went back into her room. ‘Your keys,’ she called.
‘Come and see my paintings?’ said John, his hand still on my shoulder, which was tingling beneath his warm fingers.
‘Here,’ said Heidi. ‘I found them in the hall downstairs.’
It wasn’t like me. I was always so careful. I looked at the second set of keys in my hand and glanced back up the dark staircase. People might sneak into your room when you weren’t looking. It was important to be careful.
‘Keep them,’ said Heidi. ‘Always useful to have a spare.’
‘Come on,’ said John, and pulled me towards the stairs to the ground floor, his hand warm in mine. I kept my hand in his a little too long. He let go.
‘Oh,’ he said, his key in the lock, ‘I’ve just remembered. Got a call to make. Come round later?’
‘Okay,’ I said, trying not to look disappointed. I was about to ask what time, then I realised that it wasn’t the right thing to say. ‘See you later.’
‘See you, Rosie,’ he said, and the door shut. Maybe I’d tell him about the exhibition after all – that would give me a reason to visit beyond his half-hearted invite.
I stood in the sparkling underground hall with my camera. There was always something new to see – the light glancing off the walls, the curiously flesh-like pink- grey of the floor, a butterfly poised on the skylight – but I never knew if I’d captured it on film. I still had to finish turning the ante-room into my darkroom. After my initial burst of energy I’d lost my way.
I unlocked the second door and made my way to the gym. I liked to pick up the old dumb bells and medicine balls – to feel that they were full of history, full of stories and all mine. I sat on the leather pommel horse, camera round my neck, and looked around for something to take a picture of. A board was turned against the wall. Maybe it was another sign. I jumped off the horse and took a closer look. On the back a typed label said, ‘Regulations. Agreed and approved May 15th 1973.’ It had been typed on a manual typewriter, some of the letters bolder than others. I turned the board around.
A black painted board with cursive, white handwriting on.
Regulations for the Governance of Our Fellowship
There is no possession in Love
Treat everyone as Fellows, except those that are not
Please do not let non-Fellows into the underground parts of the establishment
Please wash up after yourself
I took a photo of the board. Though perhaps this history was a little too recent for Heidi, John and Felix to appreciate. I turned it back to the wall.
Despondent, I made my way back upstairs. For once, my rooms hadn’t filled me with joy. I felt the weight of them a little heavily on my back. These rooms weren’t just mine, they had a long history with people who would have likely had no time for me and my flabby thinking and inadequate art. I thought perhaps another day would be a better time to visit John. I went to bed early, wishing that the window had curtains.