Sweetness and Light, chapter 15

2005.

Art was never really my strong suit at school. If I shone at anything, it was maths and science. That’s where I got my As and Bs. In art my pencil marks always felt too insubstantial, and the teacher would often take the sheet off me and draw over the top in strong, sweeping lines. It was too hard to pin down. You knew where you were with a right or wrong answer.

It was towards the end of my first summer term at secondary school. For the second half of the term we’d been working on an art project – Andy Warhol style repeat images. Other people had chosen famous faces or iconic images – Madonna, the Eiffel Tower, even a single apple. I’d chosen to do cats. In each picture, I tried to get the essence of a cat across – its haughtiness, its discontent, its inner sadness, its disdain. I’d rejected the idea of doing them in bright, Pop Art colours, instead choosing muted blues, greens and beiges. By the end of the term, nine tiled cat images glared at me. Ashley, sitting next to me, had bright, stylized images of Billy Idol jumping off the page. My cats looked trapped and anxious. Still, I was proud of the subtle way I’d captured what it meant to be a cat in the modern world.

I carried it home on the last day of term, along with the salt shaker I’d made in woodwork. The day was hot and close. I’d rolled my socks down and hitched my skirt up to try to get a tan and I walked slowly down the main road, passed by school buses and cyclists, trying to maximise my time in the sun. In a week we’d be in Wales, and I wanted to arrive in a burst of out of town glamour. A few other children walked in front of me for a while, wheeling their bikes before circling off down an alley. I crossed with the lollipop man and walked the last stretch alone.

At home I unpacked my bag and Mum got out some fig rolls. I handed over the salt shaker and she admired its sturdy shape. Then, proudly, I unveiled my cat study. Mum burst out laughing.

‘Nine suicidal cats,’ she said. ‘Look at that one! It’s actually got a furrowed brow. Hilarious.’

I didn’t say anything, but I rolled the cats back up again.

‘Oh, don’t be sensitive, Rose,’ said Mum. ‘It’s funny.’

I walked up the stairs with slow dignity and ripped the cats up into small pieces before flushing them down the loo.

I look back at that time, at the start of last summer, and I see yet another doorway closing; yet another moment when I could have stepped back from the brink and kept my old life. I spent the next morning in my studio – if it could be called a studio when all I did in it was drink squash and eat Weetabix and toast. I felt plump with inertia. All I wanted to do was sit on my sofa and read a novel.

At midday there was a knock on my door. I quickly took my dressing gown off and put a sweatshirt on over my pyjamas.

‘Rose. Just wondering how you’re doing. How you’re settling in?’ Heidi’s voice was solicitous, but her face was indifferent. ‘Can I come in?’

‘Of course.’

‘I like what you’ve done with it. It’s so domestic. You wouldn’t know it was an artist’s workspace.’

I glanced around the room anxiously.

‘I haven’t changed much. This is just how I found it, more or less.’

‘Of course. You haven’t needed to make any alterations.’

‘Alterations?’

‘Nor did I, really. I just needed a work bench – and a freezer of course. I just love how it looks like a normal kitchen and sitting room. You should see Felix’s! He sleeps on a mattress in the corner in the dust. The rest is pure workspace.’

‘Oh, okay.’

‘And John’s – paint everywhere, canvas everywhere. You never know whether you’re about to drink white wine or turps.’

‘Well,’ I said. ‘Photography…’

‘…is different. Of course.  How’s it going? You must love being able to have all of your focus on your work. I bet you wish you had a darkroom, but this room’s full of all that wonderful light. Unfair, really. It should be John’s.’ She glanced at me. ‘What with him being a painter and everything.’

‘Yes. Maybe we can swap.’ But there was no way I was giving up my secret rooms for anyone, not even John.

‘Can I see? What you’ve been working on?’

‘I haven’t developed any yet.’

‘No rush. It’s not like they’ll throw you out for not producing work. Not in practise, anyway.’

I didn’t say anything.

She took a step back. ‘Okay. I won’t keep you, then. Back to my little mice. See you for a cup of tea later.’

She closed the door gently behind her, as if I was a sleeping baby. I was starting to find the way everyone was acting as if I was slightly delicate rather irritating.

That afternoon, I took my list of requirements for the darkroom to the shops. My five thousand pounds was getting a little lower than I’d have liked, but I needed to become a proper artist and earn my place in the building. I busied myself purchasing it all, examining each item closely before buying it. I had to get a cab back.

Three hours later I was in the cellar, blacking it out by taping around the door to the great hall and hanging canvas over the doorway to the stairs back up to my room. I surveyed my work proudly.

Then I took my camera for a walk around my rooms, snapping away happily. I hoped that there would be a wealth of good photos to choose from once I started to develop them – I’d got through four films already. As Sue had said, they’d convey emptiness, bleakness; the qualities I’d come to be known for in my career, perhaps. I told myself that, but the thought of a successful future didn’t settle too firmly in my mind.

As usual, the green silence of the swimming pool quietened my thoughts and slowed them down. I sat on the stone step for a while, sweeping my hand back and forth in the water, feeling it slide like silk between my fingers. I thought about taking my clothes off and letting myself fall into the water, sinking to the bottom and then floating to the top, lying just under the surface in the still, timeless, green, like Ophelia. I thought about it so long that it felt hard not to give in and slide into the apple flesh water.

But I didn’t slide in. I stood up and wandered up the second flight of stairs, through the gym, caught outside time like the Titanic’s exercise lounge, before sitting in an armchair in the smoking room. The room was all oranges, browns and greens. It felt like being allowed into your dad’s study. Not that I had a dad, of course. Maybe because of its very absense I had a heightened sense of what it felt like to have one, an overactive imagination. Maybe dads weren’t that different to mums. I pushed my hands down the back of the seat and slid further down. No dad to tell me to sit up straight, not to slouch.

I wondered, yet again, who he was and why he’d never been in touch. What it was about me that wasn’t appealing enough for him to run to get me, want to know what I was up to? Where was he when I was getting drunk with inappropriate boys at sixteen? He should have been stopping me. Where was he when I was picking degree courses, when I was driving my stuff up for my first term, when I wasn’t saving ten per cent of my salary every month? Did he keep track of where I’d be in life, think about me at important junctures? And now – was he wondering if I was married, if I’d had children? Both of those things were so far away, but maybe it would have been different if I’d had a father. Maybe I’d have been a grown-up – been propelled into life instead of dawdling through it. I thought of a father’s intense pleasure at seeing his daughter’s face, and, if I didn’t exactly cry, I could imagine the tears.

I pushed my hands further down the back of the seat, daring my imaginary father to tell me off.

There was card under the seat, holding the leather in place. I pulled at it absent-mindedly and it came free. I ripped it out, irritating my imaginary father no end.

It was a brown envelope. I opened it and pulled out a thin stack of A4 paper, stapled together in the left hand corner, the staple perfectly parallel with the top of the page.

Again, I pause here and stop myself. I push the paper back into the envelope, stuff the envelope back under the seat, stand up and walk back up to my room. I don’t hesitate. I certainly don’t pause at the pool room, look up the stairs to the top of the house and take a step up. I don’t do any of that. I go to my room, put my pyjamas on and go straight to bed. I dream of nothing. That’s important. I dream of nothing.

Or perhaps I dream of those green fields that Heidi and John were always playing in. Those buttercups they held under chins to see if each other liked butter. The daisies that became crowns. The piano lessons, singing lessons, drawing lessons, riding lessons. Long sips of home-made lemonade. Perhaps I dream of something comforting like that.

But that’s not what happened. I pulled the paper out of the envelope and I sat in the smoking room reading it by the dusty light of old Tiffany lamps – lamps whose working lightbulbs I didn’t think to question at the time.

This is a contract between the fellowship that is the association of artists dwelling here, in our studios, our places of work and our home on Campden Hill Road, Kensington, London, as represented by Ralph Parry; and Albert Parry of Sandwich, Kent.

We, the undersigned, here agree that:

In consenting to be Ralph Parry’s formal heir, inheriting the estate of Ralph Parry, Albert Parry agrees to renounce the right to any other property or inheritance whether acquired prior to this agreement or not.

Albert Parry agrees to continue the fellowship in the spirit established by Ralph Parry, specifically in following the notes of formation of the fellowship and the rules of the fellowship.

Albert Parry agrees to pass this inheritance on, in the spirit in which it was received, to his descendants, direct or otherwise, provided that they are of common mind with the intentions of the fellowship and are artistically inclined.

Albert Parry agrees to follow the path forged by Ralph Parry in his leadership of this place.

Albert Parry agrees to defer to Ralph Parry in all matters while he is still living, inheritance or proposed inheritance notwithstanding.

Here the undersigned,

Albert Parry

Ralph Parry

15th February 1975

Poor Albert Parry, I thought. Ralph’s stooge. Where are you now, Albert, I thought? Ralph, presumably, had passed on long ago.

Was Ralph my missing, long lost godfather? The thought sent a slight cold tremor through me. One of that generation must be. Clive was clearly out of the picture, still being a regular at the place, not missing presumed dead, as my godfather was. Or perhaps Albert was my godfather.

If it was indeed Ralph, I pictured him reaching a paternal arm around my waist, enquiring about my wellbeing, encouraging me gently in my life’s ambitions, steadfastly protecting me against all naysayers. He’d sit next to me, on a sofa not unlike the Chesterfields in here, and tell me that, in the absence of my father, he considered it his role to guide me through life, support me and offer me his strength in times of need. I leaned back into the leather, smiling. He’d come to the opening night of my exhibition, pleased to be there in a fatherly capacity. He’d stand in the shadows, watching proudly as I shone. Perhaps he’d make a speech at the end.

I stood up and pushed the envelope down the back of my jeans. Strangely enough, this little find had given me more of a boost than anything else had. Finally I felt that I belonged here. Ralph, or someone like him, was my godfather and I was here to carry on the spirit of his work.

I made my way back downstairs to the pool room and then up to the door to the great hall, ready to walk through it and back to my room. But I paused there, by the stairs up to the top of the house, warm and secure in my new sense of belonging – of ownership even – and I glanced up the stairs – up my stairs, as I’d come to think of them.

What I saw was horrifying.

I saw, just in sight, a human head pinned to the wooden panelled wall, like a hunting trophy.

Angular nose, red hair, angry face. Clive’s head. The head struggled and gawped, pinned painfully to the wood. Shoulders emerged, two hands gripped the wood below, and then a whole torso appeared. He looked urgently to his left. I quickly ducked out of sight before he could turn his gaze on me. I waited, hot breath stretching my chest, for seconds, minutes. Then footsteps. I shrank back against the wall, but the steps moved in the opposite direction, away from me. After a few seconds, I peered around the corner and up the staircase. Nothing. More time stretched and the footsteps were long quiet. I peered up the staircase to emptiness, silence.

In a strange daze, I took a step up the stairs, as much to reassure myself that I had imagined it as anything. No head could push itself out of wood. There was nowhere to go at the top of the stairs. He would have come back down by now. Fearfully, I trod each stair to the top. There was no sign of Clive, nothing to say that he had ever been there. The top of the stairs still led nowhere. The tiny window was still dust caked. There was no sign of disturbance.

I crept back down the stairs, doubting my own mind. There, at the place I’d seen Clive’s angry head emerge, I paused. Wooden steps, wood panelled wall. All intact. I pushed at the panel to reassure myself of its solidity. It clicked and it opened, revealing a dusty mole hole of a passage. I looked behind me, to check that there was no red-headed monster there, and I crawled in.

Here, from the relative safety and normality of my little hot room, bolstered against the autumn cold, I can’t tell you why I crawled in there. The building had come to seem like my own, I suppose. I felt timid as a mouse, yet untouchable. It was mine, all mine to explore and play with.

If I could undo that crawl into the dark, though, I would. Of all the things that I would undo, that is one of the most important.

But that’s not what happened. I crawled in, a mole crusted in dust, and what I found in there changed everything, forever.

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