It was a sky blue day. The sun woke me up early and, instead of burrowing back into the duvet, I got up and ate my breakfast leaning against the kitchen counter. The walls’ eyes were shut today. The sun was bright. My mind was on the negatives in the cellar, making prints out of them, seeing the Alice in Wonderland windows come to life.
In my mind the body had already become a part of the beauty and horror of that other world behind the door – wonderful, and now frightening in equal measure, but unreal. I didn’t connect it with real life, with the here and now. But it played on my mind, nibbled away at the edge of it. Disagreements, disputes, disappearances. The mummified face became that of my benefactor, lying in the dark for all these years and now watching me living in his rooms, treading the steps he’d trod all those years ago. I kept the thoughts pushed back, kept the sobs pushed down, kept him in his place. But he kept peering round corners.
The thought of the police ground anxiously in my belly. But the thread that it would pull, the unravelling of so much, was too overwhelming. Let him sleep there peacefully like he already had for so many years. Assuming that the sleep really was peaceful, a little nagging voice commented. Yes, assuming that. I pushed thoughts of sunken cheeks, eroded faces, away. It’s important to keep control of your mind. It’s important to find ways to keep your thoughts quiet. I wonder if the busier your thoughts, the quieter your voice, as if you forget that all the noise is just inside your head.
I flicked through the contract I’d found in the smoking room. Where was Albert now? He’d stood to inherit it all in the seventies. Perhaps he was my godfather, run away from this crazy place before he’d even taken it on. No-one seemed to remember him. Maybe the contract had put him off; I noticed it was unsigned.
I’d ring Mum up and ask her. It was about time I let her know how I was doing anyway. Now I had some background, I could at least probe her for a name, see how she reacted to the names I’d picked up, even if she wouldn’t tell me outright.
I felt sad, thinking of Mum in our house without me. Watching TV next to my empty chair. Making a single cup of tea. Microwaving a lasagne for one. Hoovering the stairs every Saturday morning. Hoovering my empty room. I should have rung her already, allowed myself to get sucked away from this bigger, brighter, more frightening world and brought back to where I belonged. I’d call her later. Tonight.
I took a packet of photographic paper from my near empty cupboard and carefully unpinned the wall hanging. The deer glanced at me over their shoulder, their large, narrowed eyes full of innocence, disappointment, concern. I’d ring Mum tonight. In the meantime, I called Sue at the gallery about my exhibition. I noted down what she said about timings, framing, numbers and sizes. That way I felt that one important call had been made, at least. I hoped that I sounded as though this was normal for me, as though I knew what I was doing.
I took the stairs slowly, checking my back for that brushing, tickling feeling. I felt alone, unwatched. Perhaps my little ritual had worked. My spirits lifted. Not calling the police was the right decision, the respectful decision. It’s important to listen to the voices in your head. I’ve learned that too.
I worked slowly in the warm amber light of the cellar, putting my first negative in the enlarger and focussing the light onto the easel before switching it off and pinning my paper in place. I turned the lamp on again and slid the paper into the development tray. This was my favourite part, watching the shapes emerge as if they’d been there all along and just needed to be called to the surface. I placed the print into the stop bath and then into the fixer before washing it and hanging it up to dry. I moved onto the next negative.
All day and evening and into the next day I carried on, my work punctuated just by short meals grabbed at my kitchen worktop – sardines on toast, biscuits, cakes – and an unsettled night where faces loomed at me from trays of chemicals, emerging like ink monsters. Twisted mouths, angry eyes, halos of hair, dull, leathered cheeks.
By ten o’clock the next night I’d finished. I had a stack of over four hundred prints, the last twenty four drying on clothes pegs. I climbed the stairs back to my room, my eyes heavy and my shoulders aching but free of watchful eyes.
There was a tap on the door. Ignore it, I thought. I’d have a piece of toast with jam and a glass of milk then climb straight into bed. Another tap, this time more insistent. Brown, twisted mummified fingers. Clive’s angry face, knowing that I’d been nosing around. The police, asking why I hadn’t reported it. Another tap.
‘Rose? Rosie Posey? You there?’
I hesitated, wiped the jam from my fingers and opened the door.
‘A bottle of wine,’ he said. ‘For the other night.’
‘Oh, thanks.’ I held out my hand. He had two bottles.
He slipped past me. ‘I thought we could drink it together.’ He rummaged in my drawer and pulled out a tinny corkscrew. ‘This one?’
‘Get some glasses, then.’ He smiled. ‘Or mugs.’
I got a couple of tumblers from the kitchen cupboard and sat down on the sofa, feeling muffled and silenced by hours in my darkroom. My head was full of ink soaked cotton wool not chat.
I took a large sip in silence then reminded myself to speak. ‘How’s the painting going?’ I said.
‘Good days, bad days. Sometimes I keep getting interrupted and I blame that, but of course it’s not that. It’s just some days are good and some are bad. You learn to go with it. Roll with the punches.’
‘Do you?’ I couldn’t imagine ever talking about my photography so confidently, so unapologetically, as if I had a right to be doing it.
‘Tell me about yourself, Rose. I don’t know anything about you. Where did you grow up? Where did you study? What did you do? Who have you loved?’
I thought of magnolia boxy walls, Jim’s kind but bland face, jobs in camera shops, signing on and applying for waitressing work.
‘Oh, you wouldn’t find it interesting,’ I said. ‘I bet your childhood was more exciting. Where did you grow up?’ I tried not to sound too hungry for details.
‘Sussex. A little village. And not really. It was just your standard stuff. You know. Holidays in cottages in Devon, or Heidi’s family’s house in France, running around the Downs in the school holidays, catching newts in the stream at the bottom of the garden. It was just me and Mum after Dad left. Lonely I suppose. Maybe it made me more imaginative.’
I was excited. ‘Me too!’ I said. ‘Well, not all the idyllic childhood stuff, but it was just me and Mum too.’
‘Yes. We almost felt like a couple,’ he glanced at me. ‘If you know what I mean.’
‘I do. We were like Eric and Ernie, me and Mum.’
‘What time is it?’ he said. ‘Let’s go out.’ He tipped more wine into our glasses. We were drinking it very quickly.
‘Or,’ I said, shot through with excitement, ‘let’s stay in.’
‘Rose!’ he said. ‘How forward.’
I was past blushing. ‘Come with me,’ I said. ‘I can show you something.’
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’m intrigued.’
I unpinned the wall hanging and opened the door.
He glanced at the door, glanced back at me, then picked up the bottles of wine with one hand and the glasses with the other, put the corkscrew in his pocket and followed me.
I skirted past the darkroom – this I wanted to keep secret for now. I had visions of John receiving the invitation to my exhibition with pleased surprise, of his face when he saw the photos that conveyed the magic otherworldliness of the cellar rooms, his realisation that I’d developed all the photos myself.
I unlocked the second door and we stood outside the pool room.
‘Are you ready?’ I said.
‘Ready to be taken into another cellar? I think so.’
I pushed open the door and simultaneously flicked the light on. The pool room was there – simple, timeless, apple green. I glanced back at John. Just as I’d hoped, his expression was rapt.
‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Amazing. What is it, glass?’
I smiled and let him approach the pool and touch it.
‘Water? A pool. Rose, this is amazing. What a thing to be here all this time! We’ll tell the others.’
‘No. Don’t tell the others. It’s private. It’s mine.’
He smiled, but he didn’t say anything. Then he sat down by the side of the pool and poured us both a glass of wine.
‘Well, Rose, you’ve surprised me. I’ll give you that.’ He took a long sip.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I said, looking at the pool not at him. ‘It’s a step outside time. It’s like a gate to another world.’
‘What kind of world, though?’ he said. ‘That’s the trouble with hopping between worlds. You never know what you’ll get. Didn’t you read the Narnia books? It’s not all sweetness and light in those other places you know.’
‘In this room it is,’ I said stubbornly. Maybe up the next set of stairs it was something else, but here it was perfect, incorruptible.
He stroked my arm absent-mindedly. I didn’t dare move in case he stopped. We were quiet for a few long moments, staring at the water, accompanied by the slow drips. I listened to our breathing, soft breaths in time with each other.
‘How deep is it?’ he said, emptying the first bottle into his glass and drinking it.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, worried he’d throw the wine bottle in and ruin it all – not just our night but the perfection of the pool’s surface, too.
‘Let’s find out.’ He stroked a finger through the water. ‘Perfectly warm,’ he said. He stood up and pulled off his tee shirt. ‘Come on, then.’
The still green of the water shattered into tiny pieces as his white skin hit the surface. I hesitated for a second then I joined him.
We lay on the warm stone floor, John’s tee shirt underneath us, the second bottle of wine three quarters empty. There were tiny droplets of water on his earlobe. His light brown hair was streaked across his head, like the lines of a marker pen or the marks left by a thick brush, loaded with paint. His eyes were closed.
‘Rosie Posey,’ he said quietly. ‘Rosie Posey.’ His thumb brushed against my knee.
I nuzzled into his warmth, still damp, and turned onto my side, away from him, to stare at the green water. The surface had closed again to a still, glassy green. It was as if we’d never been in there, as if everything that had happened in there had sunk quietly to the bottom, never to be seen again. This world was so quiet, so perfect.
Had I really seen anything up those stairs? I couldn’t quite sort the memory into clear shapes. I remembered impressions, feelings, jangling nerves. Did I remember anything real? I couldn’t make the thoughts form a proper shape so I pushed them away. I’m not mad, I thought, but there was a slight question mark lingering near the end of the sentence. I closed my eyes.