I span faster and faster on the roundabout. Finally my age was in double figures. Faster. Faster. I was old. I was brave. Soon I’d be as tall as Mum. Faster, faster, faster, pushing with my foot so that the ground grabbed it and grazed it. I picked my foot up off the ground and let the roundabout spin, slow and stop.
‘It’s better if one of you pushes and runs. Then jumps on.’
‘Is it?’ It was Ashley, who rarely spoke to me in art lessons. She looked different. A little less sure of herself.
‘I’ll do it.’ She grabbed the roundabout and started to push.
She walked faster, pushing her bottom lip out.
‘I’ll do it next time,’ I said.
‘Okay. I’ve got money for ice cream,’ she said. She rattled her pocket and walked a little faster.
‘Faster!’ I said and stood up on the slatted wooden seat. ‘Faster!’
She started to run.
That woman they made me talk to was right. It wasn’t as hard as I thought.
It was three days later. I’d spent those three days mostly in bed, watching the rain through the tall windows, my duvet tucked around my legs. I got up to get myself cups of tea and pint glasses of orange squash, make a cheese sandwich or heat a tin of tomato soup. I moved slowly, tentatively, as if I didn’t want to shock myself with sudden movements. Deep down, very deep down, I could feel some sort of current building and trying to push me to my feet and launch me out of the door, but I pushed it back down.
The days were sullen, the evenings grey, the nights long, damp and cold. The house was quiet. I occasionally heard footsteps or muted voices, but it felt abandoned, as though the party had moved on. I didn’t venture to the common room. I didn’t want to see anyone.
On the third day I got up and had some Weetabix, sitting on the sofa with my legs tucked under me. I could hear a siren somewhere in the distance. The rain had slowed to a steady drip. My feet were cold, the old hessian sofa rough against my toes. I needed to do something, go somewhere, feel something different. I got dressed, leaving my camera in the cupboard, where it had laid since before the exhibition, and unpinned the wall hanging. The deer glowered at me from their leafy background. I switched the light on and made my way quietly down the stairs.
The current was quietly building.
From my little table here in Forest Hill, the thought of walking downstairs that morning is tinged with sadness – one of the final steps in the loss of my life as I knew it, or at least as I thought it to be.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot – the process of disillusionment, shedding of layers of yourself that turn out not to be true. Disillusionment has a bad press. Who’d want to hold onto lies? But losing them felt like having the raw skin pulled off in pieces then waiting for the skin to heal over, leaving something eerily smooth and shiny where soft skin had once been.
I feel sorry for myself, looking back to that day – I want to protect myself, hold myself back a bit. It feels like watching someone walk into the path of a moving bus.
But what I have now is more real. I feel less like I’m on a see saw, less like I’m a baby with tentative, rounded feet trying to balance on a flat surface. It’s a flatter life than those days in Kensington, but a more solid one with a surer footing.
The letter still sits next to me on the table as I type. Its spiky, black letters have started to feel like friends, the way a man in prison might befriend the spiders that visit and imbue them with all kinds of thoughts and emotions. The fat spikes have started to seem full of personality and liveliness.
I’m still not ready to open it though.
I stepped quietly down the stairs and peered around the door into my darkroom. There was a pile of discarded prints on the work surface. A few were still hanging up on pegs to dry. I avoided looking at the prints, surveyed the scene until the shame crept up uncomfortably round my neck, then closed the door and made my way to the glittering hall – in the grey light from the skylight, transformed from a sparkling palace to an empty, dirty cellar – and from there unlocked the door to the pool room.
Here, there was still a lingering magic. The apple green water swayed glassily. The arsenic tiles iced the walls with cool poison. But it was ruined for me by the memory of what had happened there and what that hadn’t become. As soon as I was in there, I changed my mind. I turned around and walked back quickly, hoping that my embarrassment wouldn’t catch up with me before I’d closed the door on it.
I had my mind on the smoking room, on sitting in one of the big, leather chairs in the half dark and feeling enclosed and safe. I had a novel in my back pocket. I could spend a few hours in there, safely away from the unforgiving, steely light of the real world. Back in my orchard with a Famous Five novel. I listened carefully for movement, just in case anyone else had made their way down here, but as usual it was silent, otherworldly and abandoned. Perhaps my key really was the only one to these more magical rooms.
I avoided looking up the stairs to that other hotspot of my shame, the hidden passageway that didn’t hide a body, and made my way to the smoking room.
I sat in the large leather armchair and switched on the dusty Tiffany light, tucked my feet underneath me and started to read. The room’s quiet, its sightless walls, its low ceiling made it all the more comforting. Traffic, people, sunlight; they all went on above my head, but here I was safe and swaddled. I turned the pages of my book slowly and let myself drift into another world.
After a while – six or seven chapters; I had no idea how much time – I stood up to stretch my legs and wandered around the room, picking things up and putting them down, like you do when you’ve been left unattended in someone else’s house. A worn out tie, curled up on the table like a sleeping snake; a dusty biro without a lid; a wine cork; a stack of yellowing, blank paper; under it, a manila envelope. I turned the envelope over. On the front, in thick, black writing, was a single word: ROSE.
I looked over my shoulder, back at the envelope, nervously towards the door. The room was as quiet, as buried deep in the earth, as empty, as ever.
My heart was racing. It felt like the whole universe had raced into my body. My eyes were hot and alert. My hands were trembling. I sat down on the leather sofa, my novel still upturned on the chair, and put the envelope down in front of me. I looked at it for a few seconds. I swallowed. My cheeks were on fire. Then I opened it and pulled out the sheaf of paper. Pale yellow, foolscap, smaller and squarer than A4, and flimsy; almost like carbon paper, the first page was covered in typing from a manual typewriter, the occasional word struck through and re-attempted. On the back of that page and crawling over the rest was thick black handwriting with exaggerated loops and spikes.
This association of artists, craftspeople, makers and doers is hereby formally joined together in pursuit of beauty and truth: in search of sweetness and of light.
We are joined together by our thoughts (that rise in pursuit of truth and light) and our actions (that create tangible beauty and sweetness from the truth and the light).
I sat back and I started to read.