Sweetness and Light, chapter 20

1975.

Still this hot, relentless sun. It’s a murderous heat. The sort of heat that takes men out of their own minds. But, conversely, there’s the joy of lying here in these quiet, dark rooms, away from all the bother of the modern world. I keep myself away from the masses, their voluminous trousers and their loud music. Let Kensington High Street and all that it stands for be washed away in a violent summer storm.

The passing and pleasant fantasy that our beautiful building, our hive, could be removed from this place and relocated… But it’s as much a part of Kensington as the trees and grass were part of Sussex and I must accept that. There’s a weaker side to me that shies from all of this noise and chatter, but it’s my duty to step up to the mark and be a true leader here. I mustn’t be weak.

I have a lot to thank my father for in terms of the shaping of my character. Our resolutely old fashioned upbringing made my school days less than comfortable at times – so much of it’s about the social side, about fitting in. But once those days are passed you begin to see the benefits of being given firm boundaries, of being encouraged to be bolder, more aggressive on the field as he’d say; encouraged to be more of a man. Whatever my nightmares, that little boy who cowered in his sled bed is banished and that’s largely thanks to my father.

But onto a cheerier subject – Albert. He is settled into his room, as happy as a timid soul who leaves such a light footprint can be. He’s like a dandelion clock. By the fourth puff he’d be gone. There’s a purity about him. He’s unsullied by the resentment and anxiety that seems to fuel the rest of them. His physical frailty, though, remains a concern.

I visited him today in his new home – the back room on the ground floor with the double height ceilings. My room by rights, but perhaps it’ll be his by rights one day. The soaring ceilings give it an entirely different proportion to any of the other rooms here – taller than it’s wide, its vertical aspect can’t help but incline him towards loftier thoughts, towards artistic integrity, towards being a worthy heir.

 And it’s useful. It allows me to lure him into the building’s heart; to see if he has the potential to truly love her as I do. If he does, our contract and his inheritance will reflect that. Will he venture into her cellars? When doors are left unlocked, will he tiptoe through them? Will he visit and revisit? Will he come to feel that they are really his? We’ll see. My program started tonight.

I tapped gently on the door and he answered, skin as white as milk, body so long and slender, pale brown hair gently curling around his anachronous, cherubic face. He looks like a fey Victorian child on stilts. He’s not open, expressive and strong. He’s closed and fearful. That worries me. There is something distasteful and irritating, revolting even, about his childlike fear. But he’ll do; he’ll have to do.

‘Mr Parry,’ he said, pulling the door open a smidgeon.

‘Albert,’ I said. ‘Can I come in?’

‘Oh! Of course,’ he stammered. He opened the door and let me pass.

I stood in the centre of the room, light trickling onto my soul from the double height windows. My nephew stood in front of me, hand in front of his mouth, coughing. He coughed again. I felt that he’d stopped here in Kensington en route to the grave by way of tuberculosis, just like his unfortunate mother – dear, wayward Martha.

I’d locked the door to the cellar before his arrival. It was important to get this right.

‘I’d certainly appreciate,’ I said, ‘a cup of tea.’

‘Oh!’ he said again. ‘But I don’t have any tea bags. I only drink water.’

I knew this of course, having already looked through his cupboards.

‘Get along to the common room, then,’ I said. ‘There’s a good boy.’

He dutifully popped to the common room and I took my trusty key ring out of my pocket and sorted through the keys. There it was – a small, insignificant key for such an important door. I slipped it into the lock – just a hole in the wood, really – and turned it, leaving the door just slightly ajar. Enough for an inquisitive lad to notice once I’d gone.

Albert returned with two mugs.

‘But you don’t drink tea,’ I said.

‘I can,’ he said, ‘if it helps. I thought I’d keep you company.’

An obliging nature is a fine quality, but how well will it stand him in the future when he’s attempting to control a riotous rabble of lazy and resentful artists? I’m not sure. However, he’s the only heir of this generation. My options are limited. The thought makes panic well up inside me. Forced to leave the building to this weakling, come what may. His fearful eyes make my hands itch.

We stood, sipping at the chipped china mugs. Albert’s mug had a picture of a brown sparrow on it, drooping mournfully on its perch. Mine was a dainty little thing with a tiny handle. On the front, a tiny, red creature waved happily. It read, ‘Mr Small.’

‘How are you finding it?’ I asked. I’m not one for small talk, but Albert would extract it from a mushroom, such is the paucity of his own chat.

‘Good,’ said Albert. He looked at me, a hint of the preyed upon in his eyes. ‘It’s a beautiful building,’ he added.

Yes, he said it. But where was the passion, where was the conviction? Where was the deeply felt truth?

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It is. And how are you, since your mother died? You’ve got other friends, other people you can lean on, I suppose?’ My parents have, of course, passed, and we had no other relatives. I fear that Albert’s without family other than me.

At this moment precisely I had a strange feeling of being observed. I glanced at the wall to my left, the wall that adjoins with Clive’s studio (if a place for melting metal can be called a studio – I’d call it a factory). Just past Albert’s charmingly rustic bathroom, there was a small aperture at eye level that I’d accidentally created with a sharp knife just a few years ago. Although the aperture was tiny, a mere scar, I’d swear I could spy a beady eye peering through it. A red veined, ginger eye-lashed one.

‘Family?’ Albert’s pasty cheeks flushed pink. ‘Well, no. There was just Mum. You’re my family?’ The last sentence had a desperate, querulous quality.

‘Friends?’ Again the milk cheeks were stained with cherry.

‘I hope to make some,’ he said, looking at the floor.

‘You’re all alone in the world,’ I said cheerfully.

‘I have my photography,’ he said.

‘As for that,’ I said, ‘there’s a disused storeroom next door but one. I thought you might like to use it as a darkroom.’

His eyes lit up.

‘That would be wonderful!’ he said, and coughed again. The coughs wracked his body like he was being shaken by a rough hand.

‘It’s as good as ready,’ I said. ‘There’s running water, electricity, a plug for a kettle, a work surface. You can easily tape up the door to keep the light out. The window’s small and in easy reach.’

‘Wonderful,’ he said again. ‘It will be wonderful to do some printing. I’m lucky to be here, Mr Parry, I really am.’ The child’s earnestness is perhaps his worst quality. It’s like ragged nails running down a blackboard. It makes me shiver.

‘I’ll help you with the blacking out,’ I said. Not a service I’d normally offer, but he is my blood and appears to be singularly useless.

‘Thank you, Mr Parry!’

I thought of correcting him to call me Ralph but thought, on reflection, that Mr Parry would do nicely.

It may be worth pausing for a second to reflect on the nature of privacy and the nature of communality.

Notes for a sermon: privacy is an illusion. We are all joined together in the miracle of creation; we all share a common muse (though some cannot access it as easily as others). We are as one.

Notes for a sermon: communal living is the perfect vehicle for creativity. We are like bees in a hive, busy about our own business, each looking after his own waxy cell, his own pollen collection; each with his own task, yet each part of one large hive mind. We are as one.

Notes for a sermon: and as such, all of our walls – mental, emotional, physical – should be porous. We are as one.

Annie is mine and yet she is also Clive’s. Less so Clive’s, since he is of a baser nature than me, but his nonetheless.

Doors may be locked, doors may be unlocked, walls may divide us, but ultimately all is out there, available, to be seen and shared. I am the building and the building is me. I am the queen bee and she is my hive and my honey.  

So I went about my day. I helped Albert to set up his darkroom. I taped cardboard to the windows, fetched containers for his chemicals, hung pegs for his prints.

But I also saw to his soul. I crept about, unlocking doors, luring him through them, encouraging him to see the beauty and grandeur, the elevation of the soul that our building could bring – her sweetness and her light. And peep through those doors he did, wandering around the rooms at night, slipping a timid hand into her waters, sitting in the smoking room to read through the contract I’ve prepared for him, coughing as he smoked, as if the smoke was forcing the life from his lungs.

So there are some signs of Albert’s affection for our building. He may not have the power of passion, but I think that he feels a timid love. But it is this timidity that worries me; revolts me even. The hive needs a suitable queen – a strong one to take it into the future. However, the correct course of action will come to me and I will pursue it fearlessly in protection of our industrious hive.

Today my love saw true horror. She is sullied. I am beside myself.

Before I tell it, I must give what I now know to be important context. The background upon which this horror will be printed.

Clive’s tepid, talentless eyes have been everywhere. I see them peeking through peep holes in the walls. I hear his breath behind closed doors. He’s particularly interested in me and Albert. Jealousy, of course; jealous of my attention, jealous of Albert’s place in our little family; jealous of Albert’s status as heir apparent.

Clive’s jealousy rankled my soul. I decided not to appease it. Instead, I’d provoke it and see whether it set fire to his tinder-like interior and brought about a violent explosion. It would serve him right, and I mean that phrase in the strictest possible sense.

So whenever I felt Clive’s beady, ginger eyes upon us, I didn’t say, ‘Oh, Albert, what will be will be. Ownership isn’t everything.’ I said, ‘I look forward to the day when you shall be my one and only heir, when all of this shall be yours.’ I stressed to him that the other occupants had no rights beyond the right to occupy, and that that could be revoked by him at any time. I could feel that beady eye getting greener and greener.

Albert noticed nothing, of course. He’s pure as water and twice as wet. He’s also distracted by his hacking cough. I suggested to him that he might want to see a doctor, but he dismissed it out of hand.

‘What good did that do Mum?’ he asked and then seemed close to tears.

‘Never mind,’ I said.

To my mind, Albert’s cough had got significantly worse since he came to us. I worried that his health was deteriorating. As well as his cough, he seemed increasingly weak and confused, and often complained that he had the flu. How can any flu last weeks, I wondered to myself? I didn’t trouble him with my opinions though, but how I wish, now, that I had.

This morning, I crept through the hall to knock on Albert’s door. There was silence. I knocked twice more and then, worried, I took out my key ring and opened his door. A quick glance around established that Albert wasn’t present. His bed was either freshly made or hadn’t been slept in. I could still see his blue and white pyjamas folded neatly on the pillow, the cool, northern sun striping the bed sheets.

My next thought was to try the cellars – I know only too well how beguiling they can be. Perhaps he’d been there all night, or had rushed to them first thing in the morning. But the door to the cellar was locked, the key in the lock on Albert’s side of the door.

My next thought was his darkroom. Albert could have been working there busily all night, developing prints of who knew what, since he hadn’t seen fit to show me a single of his photographs.

I quickly stole back down the green corridor to the darkroom, tapping at the door and waiting for his quiet but cheery ‘hello’, followed by the usual hacking cough and wheeze. There was no reply.

Now I really was worried.

I took my trusty keys out again and opened the door.

There, immediately, my eyes were confronted by the sight of Albert, prone on the floor, his hand clutching at his throat, his mouth horribly twisted. He looked as though he’d died in the very process of trying to force air into his poor lungs. A daddy long legs, felled at the end of the day, his gangly legs splayed ingloriously.

I stepped over him to view his work area, to look for a final word, as it were – a sign of how Albert had felt in his last moments.

There was a scattering of black and white prints, one still in the developing fluid, surrounded, oddly, by one pence pieces. I looked back at Albert. Clutched in his hand and falling onto the floor next to him were even more pennies.

But then my peace was shattered even further. The other bees of this hive took it upon themselves to take this tragedy and turn it into a weeping sore. More of this another day. I am exhausted and we’ve all suffered enough.

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