Sweetness and Light, chapter 24

2005

The near unbroken blue of the summer had ended. Skies were grey, pavements were wet, shoulders were hunched. There was still a gaping hole in my brain where a dead body had been. My mind was shaky and so were my hands. But it’s important to keep dangerous thoughts in check. I pressed them into the back of my mind and carried on.

Tonight was my big night. I’d dictated my biography to Sue. I’d had to keep it short, but at least I could say I had a studio space in London. The photos had been framed and collected and my four invitations posted – three through doors in my own building. I had twenty four framed photographs to get to the East End in a cab.

The process made me feel numb not excited. I felt that there should be someone to share my excitement. I hadn’t spoken to John since our awkward visit to the pub and I’d rung Mum four times without getting through. She’d get my invitation through the post, though. I could imagine her face now – so proud, if slightly out of place amongst these artistic city people. I’d reassure her, assuming that I had time to attend to her amongst rushing around and circulating.

Sitting here in my small, hot room with the sleet falling outside the little window and Herb snoring at my feet, I feel more kinship with this Rose than I have at any moment of writing so far. She’s close to who I am now, very close. Just a couple of steps away. The rain, the grey skies, the creeping sense of dread, the rootlessness. This is my bread and butter now.

I’ve been thinking that it’s time to venture out of my little bubble and start trying to make friends. Friends that are in my league this time – it’s best not to overstretch yourself.

Yesterday when I got back from the photo library, I found an envelope waiting for me in our small, dank hallway. It was on the scruffy, cream-painted box panelling around the electricity meter – someone had picked it up from the carpet so that it didn’t get sludge tramped onto it. The pizza menus and letters from Readers’ Digest sat on the mat undisturbed – soon they’d be kicked into the corner with all the others.

I didn’t recognise the writing on the envelope – thick, black, confident and spikey, it didn’t feel like it belonged to the sort of person who’d write to me. I get bank statements, electricity bills, mobile phone bills. I expect to get a Christmas card from the local Indian restaurant. But I don’t get personal letters. Ones with writing like that seemed even less likely. I took it upstairs, put my bag down and put the kettle on while Herb settled himself by the electric fire, ready for me to switch it on. While I waited for the teabag to stain the water, I peered at the letter a little more closely. Seeing the post mark, I flinched and put it to one side. It’s still sitting on the kitchen shelf next to my coffee cups and bowl, unopened.

It’s funny – I didn’t realise how safe I felt in my new life until it was threatened.

The studios were quiet when I left for the exhibition. The rooms and corridors were deserted. It was almost as though the show was over, the curtains had come down and I was the last person to leave, still there in the cheap seats waiting for the next act.

My parcels stacked around me, the taxi drove through the London streets, past Hyde Park, through Green Park and towards the river. The rain was a democratising sheen, giving all the streets, all the grass, all the people the same glassy, grey detachment. We left the river and drove through the City, past hurried legs and splashing wheels. The rain smeared thick drips on the window, gathering and running in fits and starts. The hum of the engine blotted out the sounds of the street. The rain silenced mouths, car horns and music.

We turned into Shoreditch High Street, past banks, empty pubs and chain coffee shops. London’s magic had gone for me. Where it had been an exciting world I was excluded from, desperate to be a part of, now it felt two-dimensional, a photograph with no depth and no emotional pull.

I tipped the cab driver and struggled through the puddles with my parcels, hoping that the rain wouldn’t dissolve the paper. I stopped at a lamppost to adjust my grip, one of the parcels slipped toward the floor and I swore under my breath. A small girl with dark brown hair shaped like a medieval helmet stopped opposite me, hands in pockets, and looked up. A slimanshdhdhspulled at her hand.

‘Lucy, come on!’ he said impatiently.

I piled my parcels on top of one another and took the last few steps to the gallery, ducking my head against the drips of cold water from the door, and shut it behind me.

‘Rose, you’re here,’ Sue said, her dark blonde hair in thick streaks against her head.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I made it.’

I looked around for somewhere to put my parcels.

‘We’re hanging, aren’t we?’ she said. ‘Not you.’

‘You,’ I said. ‘Please.’

‘No captions?’

‘No captions.’

‘See you at seven, then.’ She looked a little impatient that I was still there.

I looked at the parcels with a sense of trepidation. I had a feeling that they’d crumble to dust before my eyes. They were only ever a part of the strange world in the cellar. They couldn’t live out here, couldn’t possibly survive.

I left the gallery and took a bus to Monument and then the tube back home. It was still raining.

I took off my damp shoes and put on some clean, warm socks, then I padded to the common room to make myself a cup of tea because I’d run out of tea bags. I practised the casual way that I’d bring up the exhibition with John, Felix or Heidi, while getting the assurance that they’d be coming.

But the common room was empty. Watery sun was beginning to peer round the window sills as the rain died down. I made a cup of tea slowly, giving anyone every chance to appear. But there was silence. The building felt deserted.

I sat in the armchair – the one that I’d seen John inhabit so confidently with his newspapers just a few weeks before. I wondered why he hadn’t come to find me – why he was happy to let the night at the swimming pool stand alone. I pushed the thought aside, finished my tea slowly and washed my cup up in the stained ceramic sink, leaving it to dry on the aluminium dish rack under the felt tipped sign that read ‘WASH UP YOUR OWN CUPS’. Someone had written underneath in spiky writing, ‘or they’ll be smashed’.

I went back to my room and took a long, hot bath.

I was sitting by the fireplace, drying my hair with a towel, when there was a knock at the door.

I pulled my dressing gown tightly around me.

‘Can I come in?’ said Clive. His hands were stuffed in scruffy overall pockets, his staring eyes were pink. The question surprised me. It seemed unlike the Clive I knew.

I hesitated. ‘Why?’

‘I need to talk to you,’ he said. ‘Warn you.’

‘Let’s talk here.’ I didn’t want him in my room.

‘It’s not safe,’ he said, eyes veering madly over his shoulder. ‘People are watching.’

I stepped aside and let him in, though I felt certain that it was a bad idea. He closed the door softly behind him, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear.

‘Rose,’ he said. ‘You need to be careful.’

‘Of what?’ I waited for him to tell me not to nose around.

‘Of your imagination,’ he said. ‘It can get you into terrible trouble. This is a strange building, with a strange history. It gets to you. Don’t start imagining things.’

‘I did see it,’ I said. I’m not mad.

‘I’m sure you did. But that doesn’t mean that it happened. You need to be careful. Creeping around this old place. Getting ideas in your head. Seeing things that aren’t there. It’s happened to better people than you.’

‘I haven’t imagined anything,’ I said. But already the feeling of those brittle bones in old wool was fading. It could have been a curtain pole. An old broom stick. Anything. The petrified grin was a part of my nightmares, not real life. I wasn’t comfortable with the space it had left though.

‘Be careful,’ he said, ‘of your mind. It can play tricks on you.’

And then he was gone.

I checked the time, pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and unpinned the wall hanging.

The cellars were as dark and quiet as ever, but now I knew they weren’t just mine I felt alert and on edge. I felt as though I’d just found out my boyfriend was secretly married; I felt embarrassed about all the intimacies and certainties I’d assumed. I walked quickly and watchfully, looking for lights, half open doors, signs of habitation; listening for lowered voices. But there was no-one. The rooms were peaceful and deserted, covered in the usual fine sprinkling of untouched history. Maybe I’d imagined the argument in the sparkling hall too. Events were starting to disintegrate into a blurry kaleidoscope in my mind. I trod through the pool room quickly, not wanting to be reminded, and crept up the stairs in the half light.

I reached the turn in the stairs that marked the hidden door and pushed the catch, crouching to crawl along the corridor, sweeping my hands back and forth in front of me. I reached the end of the corridor with dusty hands and a sinking heart. It was empty of any horrors. And if I’d imagined this, what else couldn’t I trust myself with?

I walked, stooping, back along the corridor, through the cellars and upstairs to get dressed for my opening night.

It’s a sunnier day than usual today. A chink of icy light through the clouds. It’s a Saturday so there’s nowhere for me to be but here, typing with a cup of tea going cold next to me. After lunch, Herb and I will go for a walk on One Tree Hill.

I know that I wasn’t mad. I know that I’m not mad now. Recording it helps; makes it real and concrete and gives it a truth that the spoken word doesn’t have. It’s important to take control of your mind, not let others talk you into doubting it.

Next to my computer on the desk there’s a white envelope, thick, grosgrain paper with confident, black writing on the front.

Ms Rose Acker

5 Wynell Road

Forest Hill

SE23

It sits next to me. I’ve almost started to think of it as a companion, like a cat. I’ll open it soon. I just need to feel a bit stronger first. When I’ve written a bit more, when my thoughts are straighter. I’ll do it then.

The heating’s on full – the pipes are creaking with the strain. The wind’s rattling the window pane, despite the Indian takeaway menu that’s wedged into its corner. I’m painfully aware that it will soon be Christmas and I’ll have no-one except Herb to spend it with.

I make another cup of tea and I carry on typing. Herb stretches out his legs and sighs.

I sat on the bus towards Shoreditch, bubbles of excitement starting to build in my stomach. My own exhibition. My opening. Mum’s proud face. John, Felix and Heidi impressed and respectful. My pictures on the wall. A glass of champagne in my hand and my newest black dress on, it would be the moment things changed for good after all the stop-start I’d experienced since getting to London. My thoughts lingered on John just a bit longer. The exhibition might give that situation the push it needed.

I missed my stop and got off at the next one, circling back on myself to get to the gallery. The evening was warm and close, rain gathering again. The air was thick with anticipation. A couple of beads of sweat slid down the bridge of my nose. I pushed the door to the gallery open.

It was a small room, the ground floor of an office block. At the entrance, a middle aged woman in a black tee shirt sat on a wooden chair with a clip board. Her bright red lipstick was dry and caked.

‘Name?’ Her biro was poised over her clipboard.

‘Rose Acker,’ I said.

She scanned her list. ‘Acker, Acker, Acker.’

I waited.

‘I can’t see it,’ she said. ‘Did you get an invitation?’

‘No.’ I hesitated. ‘I’m the photographer.’

‘Photographer?’

‘Artist.’ I blushed. ‘It’s my exhibition.’

‘Oh!’ She unclipped a postcard from the front of her clipboard. ‘Rose Acker,’ she read out. ‘Yes.’ She looked me up and down. ‘Come in, then.’

I peered over her clipboard at the postcard. A reproduction of the photo of the swimming pool. Rose Acker. Secrets. Did it look like a grand, decaying civilisation, or like a bad photo of a cellar?

‘Drinks over there,’ she said, gesturing to a trestle table in the far corner. There was a small crowd in the room, Sue in the centre of it making large movements with her hands. A few people were looking at the pictures on the wall. Most were gathered around the trestle table with glasses in their hands. I scanned the crowd for familiar faces. No-one, not yet. I pushed forward to the drinks table and took a glass of red wine then made my way around the room, looking at each picture as if I was a stranger to it.

These views had filled my mind for the last two and a half months. Apple hued water. Arsenic tiles. Rough, glittering walls. Abandoned chesterfield sofas. Dusty occasional tables. Dumb bells and gym horses made for men with handlebar moustaches. These were the rooms I’d walked through at night, staking my territory, dreaming feline dreams, dusting my paws with the soft dirt of times gone by. These were the rooms that had expanded to be big enough to fill my brain and everything it could possibly ever hold, every person I could possibly ever be. A photographer, a detective, a lover. A success.

I walked around the room, its solidly squared off white walls reminding me of home, of Mum. I took it in slowly, looking at each picture carefully. Here, on the plain walls, framed, out in the open for the first time, I could see them clearly, free of the gauze of hope and anxiety. I saw them for what they were and realised that I was no more a photographer than I was a detective or a lover. The realisation dropped through my mind like a cup of cold milk, sunk to the bottom of my stomach then rose, hot, to my cheeks.

The photos were mediocre at best. Snap shots of damp, unused rooms, abandoned armchairs, piles of rubbish. An A level project, perhaps. Maybe even less than that.

Worse than that, I saw the rooms for what they were, too. These weren’t magical glimpses of another world. There was no sheen of glamour, excitement and theatre. They were disused old rooms, empty and unloved.

I went back to the trestle table for a second glass of wine. Still no Mum. Still no-one from the studios. I drank the wine quickly. When they came, I needed them to drink with me, talk to me – anything but walk round the room and look at the pictures. With a jolt I remembered the talent part of my contract. The last thing I needed was anyone connected with the studio looking at them.

‘Rose!’ It was Sue. ‘Your little exhibition. How does it feel, to see your work on our walls?’

‘Terrible,’ I said, unable to lie.

‘Ah,’ she said, looking over my shoulder and waving, ‘not to worry. Not to worry. Hello!’ she called and was gone, bustling away in her puffed up brown skirt like a partridge in search of a mate.

I glanced at my watch and scanned the room again, picked up a third glass of wine. I was trying to remember if I’d actually spoken to Mum. I’d dialled a few times, but there always seemed to be time to speak to her another day. She’d have got the invitation, though, and wouldn’t dream of not coming. Or would she? She’d been out when I left, not called or written since. Was it so unlikely that she’d miss the exhibition too?

Still, Heidi, John and Felix would be along soon. It was John’s idea, John’s friend’s gallery. Not to mention the pool room. He’d be here. And they’d follow.

I was on my fourth glass of wine. The edges of the room were starting to curl under, the corners of the picture frames were starting to dart back and forth. My lips were sticky and slow. Other than Sue, no-one had spoken to me and I couldn’t bear to look at the photos. I picked up a fifth glass and crept towards the exit, taking large gulps on the way. The woman in black had left, her clipboard resting on the seat in her absence. I tipped the remainder of the glass of wine into my mouth and slipped out of the door without looking back.

‘Rose!’ A man’s voice. My drink-slowed heart leapt.  ‘Where are you going?’

‘Felix.’

‘Who were you hoping for?’ I didn’t answer. ‘Well, I thought I’d drop in on my way home. How’s it going?’

‘Badly,’ I said. If I’d known there was chatting to do, I’d have picked up a sixth glass. It was a little hard to balance. I leaned against the wall.

‘Why?’

‘Terrible photos,’ I said. ‘No-one’s here.’

He glanced through the open door. ‘Looks busy enough to me.’

‘I’m going home,’ I said.

‘Back to the studios?’ Not even Felix genuinely thought they were my home, then. Even he had to check that that was what I meant.

‘Yes.’ I could tell that he was wondering whether he ought to see me home. ‘Have a glass of wine.’ I gestured expansively towards the table. ‘It’s free.’

‘You don’t say.’

‘I’m going home,’ I repeated.

‘I’ll take a look round,’ he said.

‘Don’t expect too much.’

‘I won’t,’ he said cheerfully.

I watched his broad back, slightly hunched over, ambling towards the door. Thick black hair, grey sweatshirt, white hands.

As I made my way to the bus, the first drops of rain were starting to hit the still damp pavements and the pale sun was fading from the gunmetal sky.

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