Sweetness and Light, chapter 22

2005.

I picked up a print of the smoking room and moved it to the yes pile. The no pile was much larger. Outside, the sun was back after our one grey afternoon – it was shoving in through the glass. I stood up to add more squash to my glass.

There were twenty four prints in my yes pile, hundreds in my no pile. This was normal, I told myself. I’d taken a lot of photos so that I’d have choices, so that I’d be able to select just the best. I needed to be confident in my skill – that’s why I was here, wasn’t it? To be creative? To nurture that side of myself?

Some of the photos just looked like a child’s attempts with a disposable camera. Others I felt had something of that quality I was trying to convey – something timeless, magical, still, secretive. The feeling of caves in the desert or the top of a mountain.

I took the pile of prints in the no pile and leafed through it once more. No. I was happy with my short list. I suddenly felt a shiver of terror at how much I was asking of myself. What if I wasn’t good enough? I pushed the thought to one side. It’s important to keep your thoughts ordered, keep them in check; to keep a secure place for all the ones that you don’t want.

I took my lap top out and started to design an invitation. I spent ages getting the font right, the lettering just so. Sue had given me a pile of their invites to hand out, but I wanted a special one, one that I’d created myself. The exhibition was this week. I hoped that was enough notice. I realised, with a pang, that I had no-one to invite but Heidi, John and Felix. But when they came, maybe they’d see me in a new light; maybe they’d realise that I could be an equal.

I saved the design onto a USB stick and picked up my folder of prints and my purse. The hot sun was beckoning me out. The cool of the cellar could wait. Now that it was potentially populated by Heidi, John and Felix, it had lost its sheen for me. It was still beautiful, but it was a shared beauty and it meant less to me because of that. I hoped that my key would keep them out of the most special rooms, but in this house it seemed that anyone could turn up anywhere. I wondered if they’d let themselves into my room to get into the cellar or whether there was another door that I’d never seen. Both explanations seemed equally feasible. Everything was porous; everything was up for grabs.

I slammed the front door behind me and the sun hit my shoulders. It bounced off the buildings and into my face. The world outside felt bright, normal and optimistic. In front of me a woman with striped, blonde hair walked a small, flat faced terrier, its tiny feet tapping on the pavement next to her. Kensington felt assured, wealthy and unblemished. I was part of it.

I chose simple, white frames for my pictures and took my invitation design to the printer. I printed fifty, knowing that I’d only need four. I couldn’t quite bring myself to admit it to the man behind the desk. I presumed that Sue would invite her usual crowd.

On the way home I bought another black dress, this one a little closer to what I wanted, I thought; a bit closer to the image in my head. Then I sat down outside my usual café and had a coffee, watching tanned legs with shopping bags bashing against them and small dogs lapping up dirty, city water. I’ve arrived, I told myself; I need to enjoy it.

Walking back up the hill, I felt a slight sense of dread as I saw the house tucked behind its ivy-clad neighbour. With its tall gables and strange, red, fish scale tiling it looked out of place, different to the rest of the street; Miss Havisham surrounded by polished young things.

I slipped back into my room and sat upright on the sofa, unsure what to do next. I had no work to do. The cellars weren’t calling me. I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts; they slipped in and out of my grasp. I went to tap on John’s door.

‘Rose,’ he said. ‘Rosie Posie.’ It sounded half hearted. ‘This is a nice surprise.’

‘What are you doing?’ I said.

‘Painting. It’s not working, though.’

‘Do you want to do something?’ I felt like a small child standing there, asking someone if they wanted to come out to play.

‘Why not? Come in while I get myself together.’

I’d never been in his room. I imagined oil-stained cloths, easels, a sofa for models, canvasses stacked in the corner, a roughly made single bed. But that wasn’t what I saw. A large double bed, unmade, dominated one corner. Like me, he had a small kitchenette, but his work surfaces were toppling with bowls of fruit, bags of coffee, half hewn loaves of bread. A huge, orange globe pendant lamp hung from the ceiling. In the far corner an easel stood next to a wooden table that was messy with paints. A tatty leather sofa was in the centre of the room, a large TV opposite it.

He stood at the cupboard next to his bed, reaching up to the top shelf.

‘Let’s go to the pub,’ he said.

‘It’s a lovely day,’ I said, though actually I could see streaks of pale grey in the sky now.

‘We can sit outside,’ he said.

There was something missing in his tone. I put it down to his painting not working and pushed my anxieties aside.

‘Can I see?’ I gestured towards his easel, turned to face the far wall.

‘If you like,’ he said blankly. ‘Like I said, it’s not working.’

I skirted past the sofa and edged past the table to look at the easel. I expected bright, wild streaks of paint, an animal quality, a sense of looking inside someone’s soul at the torture beneath the surface. On the canvas was a neat head and shoulders portrait, not badly executed but not the brilliance that I’d been expecting. The sitter looked to be around fifty. He had an anxious set to his mouth. I couldn’t tell if that was deliberate or not.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Who is it?’

‘That’s not the most intelligent question to ask,’ he said.

‘Sorry.’

‘It’s not anyone. It’s from an old photo.’

‘You don’t have sitters?’

‘No. I painted my dad once.’

I didn’t like to think about Clive being his father so I didn’t reply. 

He pulled a jumper on. ‘Let’s go.’ It was clear that I’d failed in some way. I wondered what a better question would have been.

We left the room in a silence that didn’t feel hostile, but nor did it feel companionable. It struck me just how much of a stranger he was to me, and just how much I didn’t want him to be.

‘I’m having an exhibition,’ I said. It sounded abrupt and odd.

‘That’s great,’ he said mildly. He sounded neither surprised nor pleased.

‘It’s on Friday.’ He didn’t reply. ‘Can you come?’

‘I’m sure I can. Where is it?’ He closed the front door behind us. The street had that humming silence that only summer brings – the sound of time being suspended in warm air.

‘You know. Your friend’s place. In the East End.’

‘Sue?’ He sounded shocked. ‘Well. That’s a surprise. I didn’t think you’d do that.’

I curled up a tiny bit inside. The card had been a polite offering not a genuine suggestion.

‘I hope you can come.’

‘I’m sure she’ll invite me.’

‘She hasn’t yet?’

I’d had visions of him receiving an invitation and recognising my name, feeling surprised and impressed.

‘She does it all last minute. Like a pop up gallery. Even though it’s in the same place.’

‘Oh.’ I didn’t understand.

‘This will do.’ An ivy strewn pub with a chalk board outside. A bearded man with a tall, dark quiff wearing an anorak and trainers sat on the window sill next to a woman in a ginger Crombie. Her hair was pulled back tightly from her forehead. John pushed the door open. ‘Let’s sit outside,’ he said. ‘You find a table.’

I pushed through the muddle of damp tables to the back of the pub and on to the small beer garden. I moved an ashtray aside and wiped the table with my sleeves. A single bird sang. The door swung and crashed. I chewed a nail, straightened up, sat casually slumped, straightened up again.

John put a pint of lager and a glass of white wine down on the table.

‘Didn’t know what you wanted,’ he said. ‘But most girls drink white wine.’ I looked enviously at his cool beer and took a sip of my wine. It tasted sour.

I practised a couple of sentences in my head. Do you know anything about… I found a… I may have imagined…

‘Do you know,’ I said, ‘about a fifth inhabitant in the seventies, called Albert?’

‘Aren’t you going to read me my rights?’

I smiled. ‘Do you, though?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘There were just the four of them, I think.’

‘Why did they fall out?’

He took a sip of his beer.

‘Something about Ralph. They had a row about leadership or something and all decided to go their separate ways.’

‘That doesn’t make sense. Why would they all leave? Surely they’d just agree a new leader. Why did they even need a leader? We don’t have one.’

‘I don’t think it was as simple as that. I think they all ended up hating each other.’

‘And why does Clive – your dad, sorry – why does he hang around here still? Like,’ I realised, ‘a murderer constantly revisiting the scene of his crime.’

He laughed. ‘You don’t talk much and now I can see why. Your brain is busy coming up with conspiracy theories.’

‘What if there was a dead body on the premises?’

‘What? What on earth do you mean?’

I didn’t say anything.

‘Rosie, what are you talking about? I’m not in the mood for games.’

‘I found a body,’ I said, not meeting his eyes. ‘A body in the house.’

‘What on earth! Where? Did you call the police?’

‘Well,’ I stumbled. ‘That’s the thing. It’s disappeared.’

‘What on earth are you talking about? Are you serious?’

‘I saw it with my own eyes. Hidden in a secret passageway. Mummified. Horrible.’

‘What secret passageway? When was this? Have you called the police? What did they say?’ I noticed just how blue his eyes were, and how cold. With the sun behind him, his hair looked almost red.

‘The one that leads from the back stairway. No, I haven’t. When I went back to look, it had gone.’

John’s expression changed to one that I was familiar with. ‘Right. I don’t know about secret passageways, but there was a back staircase for the models.’

‘Yes. You said.’ He wasn’t the only one who could be cold.

‘So where did the body disappear to?’ He was half mocking me, but there was something else; a distance, a wariness. Like I say, it was familiar.

‘I don’t know, John, but it did.’

‘I think maybe you’ve been inhaling too many of your photography chemicals.’ I didn’t say anything. I was trying not to cry. ‘Did you ever set a darkroom up? I meant to say you could probably use the storeroom downstairs.’

‘I’m fine,’ I said.

‘You’ve got one?’

Reluctantly: ‘yes.’

‘Seriously, you should be careful with those chemicals. My grandfather was a chemist. He was always lecturing us about everyday dangers. The chemicals you use to develop film can release a deadly poison.’

‘Right.’

‘You’ve got to be careful with copper. They react with it. It was his favourite perfect murder story. While we’re on the subject.’ His eyes teased me again, but this wasn’t a joke, it was real. Those delicate, bird’s wing legs, that horrified grin, those clawed hands. It wasn’t a joke: it was a horror and a tragedy. That mouth had smiled and yawned once. Those eyes had had sleep rubbed out of them.

It’s even less of a joke now – now I know what I know about that body and what killed it. They can think what they like. I’m not mad.

‘Luckily, I don’t have an abundance of copper,’ I said.

‘Don’t be spikey, Rosie Posie.’

‘Okay.’ I relented.

‘And remember to ventilate your darkroom.’

‘Okay, sir.’ I took another sip of my wine. That mummified grin rested in the back of my head, as real as the chair I was sitting on, but I was losing my grip on its reality. I didn’t trust my mind anymore; it was throwing demons at me. Perhaps it was a good job that I hadn’t embarrassed myself by calling the police. The face still leered at me, though, and plucked at the corner of my mind for attention. It didn’t want to be forgotten.

He doesn’t want to be forgotten.

As we walked back to the studios, the warm, honeyed sun was starting to drop. The trees glittered with it, holding their branches out to catch every last drip. A bird tweeted as we passed and the warm, darkening air offered promise. I reached out for John’s hand. He squeezed my hand, held it for a couple of paces then gently extracted his.

We walked the last few metres to the door in silence. John took his key out of his pocket.

‘Better get on with it,’ he said. ‘You should never go to bed on a bad painting. Always leave it when you’re feeling ahead.’

I thought of his adequate but clumsy painting and said nothing. Maybe he wasn’t so far out of my reach.

‘You’re coming though?’ I said. He looked blank. ‘To my exhibition.’

‘Yes, yes,’ he said absent-mindedly. ‘I’m sure we’ll be there.’

The long shadows in my room emphasised its emptiness. I thought that maybe it was time to buy some cushions, some curtains, a vase or two. I’d ask the caretaker about using the store as a darkroom the next day. Somewhere more official than the cellar room; somewhere I didn’t have to sneak to and from.

Mum, I thought. I still hadn’t spoken to her. I made myself some sardines on buttered toast and a cup of tea and sat down with my mobile phone. I let the soft light from outside slip onto me. I liked to sit there without the light on until it got too dark to see. It was peaceful and reassuring – a slow sinking into the night.

There was no answer. I’d try again tomorrow.

I hung up and sat in the darkening quiet with my unease sitting heavily next to me. I wondered what the source of it was – my exhibition was nearly ready, John was coming to the opening, I’d told the caretaker about the body and cleared my conscience.

But there was a nagging feeling that maybe I wasn’t listening, wasn’t paying attention to what was screaming out for my attention.

For the first time, I let my mind settle on the place where I’d kept the things that didn’t add up. Maybe there was never a body. Maybe Clive was just an old man who missed his heyday. Maybe I looked for drama to such an extent that I convinced myself of mysteries that didn’t exist – that I imagined dead bodies in the dark. Maybe that leering face was a part of my own mind. Maybe he was part of me.

Maybe I wasn’t in control. Maybe I was mad.

I didn’t go down to the cellars that night. I stayed in my room with all the lights on.

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