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.

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.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 19

2005.

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?’

I nodded.

‘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.

‘Here. Cheers.’

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.’

He laughed.

‘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.

‘This way.’

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!’

‘What?’

‘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.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 18

2005.

‘Tea?’ Heidi’s finger was poised over the button on the kettle.

‘Why don’t we go out?’ John leaned back in the chair, arms crossed. ‘We’re always here. It’s like the walls…’

‘Are watching us,’ I agreed. You could practically feel it.

It’s a medical fact that people have an instinct for feeling when there are eyes on them. I’m not mad. But he gave me that look and it made me retreat into myself,

‘Riigghht,’ he said, drawing the sound out.

‘John,’ said Heidi, warningly. Just like the educational psychologist at school. Full of secret conclusions that I wasn’t supposed to know about. I used to think that anyone could look inside my mind and know what’s in there, browse around like they were in a supermarket. But now, of course, I know that’s not true really, even if I still feel it.

‘Like the walls are closing in on us, I was going to say.’ John had an eyebrow raised.

‘That too,’ I said. I wondered if I’d said something wrong, something they’d laugh about when I wasn’t around.

Over empathising. The fight or flight instinct in overdrive. The psychologist, Miss Green, had drawn me a picture of the primal part of the brain where it lay. The lizard part of the brain, she’d said. I didn’t like that. Anyway. It’s important to hold yourself together, not to show your nerves. It’s important to keep yourself in one piece and present a good front, or you can end up feeling too exposed, a shell-less tortoise in a sandstorm.

‘Let’s go out,’ John said. He lay back in the chair and closed his eyes.

‘We’ve got everything we need here,’ said Heidi brightly. I moved my chair a little to the left. I didn’t like having my back to the wall. ‘So, Rose, how are you getting on here? Do you feel,’ a short laugh, like a hiccup, ‘like the chosen one?’

Maybe I had been chosen to find him. Maybe God, or whatever you want to call it, wanted me to find the man with the withered smile so that he could be properly put to rest. Perhaps that was the purpose of me coming here – fate hadn’t given me the break I deserved; rather, I’d been selected for a greater good.

‘Sort of,’ I said, unsure how much of my workings to reveal. They didn’t know about the body, I had to remind myself. Be careful what you say. It’s important to keep a tight rein on your thoughts and how much of them you let out.

‘Give it a rest, Heidi,’ said John, eyes still closed.

I smiled at John gratefully. Inside my head, the leathery face grimaced at me. Had it crawled through the corridors to a new vantage point? Was it watching me now, or was that someone else? If I did right by it, perhaps it would leave me alone.

Heidi took a plastic bag from her skirt pocket.

‘Forgot these were here. Mind if I pop them in the freezer? I’d hate them to decompose.’ Ten marionette bodies, obediently prone. Did death make everything meek, I wondered, or did some spirits rebel against the eternal deference?

John opened one eye then closed it again.

‘Don’t forget they’re there,’ he said. ‘We wouldn’t want to give anyone a heart attack, finding dead bodies in the freezer.’

I gave John a quick look but his face didn’t betray anything.

‘Do you think that everyone deserves a Christian burial?’ I said.

John laughed. ‘What!’ he said, one eye opening lazily.

‘Rose,’ said Heidi, ‘you really do get more and more random.’

‘I agree with Rose. Those mice do deserve a Christian burial.’

‘Stop teasing Rose, John.’

I still wondered, though. I wondered. But maybe something symbolic was more achievable than a physical funeral.

‘Brew up then, love,’ said John.

‘You get more like bloody Felix every day.’ Heidi took three mugs from the shelf and set them down next to the kettle.

‘Now,’ said John. ‘What shall we chat about?’ His eyes were still shut.

‘Tell me about your childhoods,’ I said, keen to redeem myself with a bit of normality.

‘Oh!’ said Heidi, splashing boiling water onto teabags. ‘It was idyllic wasn’t it, John? I’m sure everyone thinks that about their childhood, but ours really was wonderful. Our parents put everything into us, didn’t they? They made our lives as perfect as they could. Really fuelled our creativity. Piano lessons, art lessons. We had ponies, rabbits, everything children could want.’ She glanced at John. ‘Didn’t we?’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it was pretty perfect.’ A lazy, simian grin. ‘That’s what parents are for, isn’t it?’

‘And yours, Rose?’ Heidi said. ‘You’ve never said much about it.’

‘Oh, you know. Pretty much the same.’

Not that it mattered, but it wasn’t fair. I’d not had half of what they’d had. Who decided how happiness got parcelled out? Why them and not me?

‘Rose is a closed book,’ said John. ‘She likes to keep herself a mystery.’

‘I would too,’ said Heidi, ‘if I was in her position.’

‘What position?’

‘Yes, Heidi, what position?’

‘The chosen… oh!’

The caretaker’s face was pressed between the door and the door frame. ‘Am I interrupting?’ he said, his voice low, as if he was in a library.

‘No,’ said Heidi. ‘Not at all.’ She offered a sliver of a smile. ‘Not at all,’ she repeated.

‘Just checking the supplies,’ he said.

‘Feel free.’ Heidi flicked a yellow curl with a precise fingernail. John folded his arms. I sat up a little straighter. The window rattled as a truck passed. A siren sounded. The boiler hummed into life. I bit a fingernail and chewed at the shard. The walls here were as thin as skin. I looked to my left. I’d swear that was a hole. Could I see an eye behind it?

‘Sorry to disturb.’ He followed my eyes towards the wall. I looked away quickly.

‘No worries,’ said John.

The door closed.

‘Where were we?’ said Heidi. ‘Let’s have some tea.’

‘You know what,’ said John, ‘I think I will get some air after all.’ His hand brushed my shoulder as he passed.

‘Boys,’ said Heidi. ‘So anti-social.’ My thoughts were still resting on leathery faces and how best to appease them. ‘Biscuit?’

The hallway was dark as a forest at night, the only light a thin mist of streetlight through the glass panels in the porch. I crept forward, key in hand, feeling my way along the wall. The wallpaper was smooth, the paper’s edges a regular rhythm against my fingertips. The frame of John’s door. My fingers brushed over the painted wood. Wallpaper again. I kept my footsteps slow and soft.

I turned the key slowly in the lock and eased the door open, tiptoed in. Walls have ears.

The common room was brighter than the hallway, the bare window splashing moonlight and street light onto the chairs and coffee table. I used to like deserted rooms at night – the feeling of secrecy that they have – but in this house, empty rooms weren’t empty. They had an atmosphere you could take a bite out of. My heart swollen in my chest, my shoulders tickled by unseen eyes, I walked quietly to the freezer. Still there. I took a single stiff body out and slipped it into my pocket.

I locked the door behind me.

A fur cheek rested against the fleece of one dressing gown pocket. The other pocket was weighed down by a trowel. I thought of different cheeks, leathered ones, dragged along floorboards as clawed hands pulled a wasted body along, sour juice pooling in that long quiet mouth.  The feeling of eyes on my shoulder was so strong that I felt as though I could reach up and grab the hand that might be resting there too.

I eased open the front door. I didn’t want it to slam shut so I took off a sock and wedged it between the door and frame then stepped carefully out onto the tiled path. The night was clear, just a few thumb smears of cloud over the bright stars. I crouched at the narrow flower bed behind the low wall and pushed the trowel into the hard ground in between two skinny shrubs.

The day had been warm but I needed to pull my dressing gown more tightly around me. The tiles were cold against my bare foot, hard under my knees. The soil was dry, compact and full of stones that the blade of my trowel scraped against. I tucked my hair behind my ear and bent towards the soil. I was so close that my breath warmed it.

Now I had a pile of crumbly, pale soil and a hole perhaps a foot deep. The edges were steep and crumbling, sharp with stones. It didn’t look like a peaceful resting place. I took the white body from my pocket and held it in my hand. The slim pink toes were curled as though they were waiting for another tiny, shell-pink paw to hold. The eyes were closed, the mouth partly open and worried looking. It looked as though it was having a bad dream. It shouldn’t be put straight into the soil. I pulled off my other sock.

Suddenly the feeling on my shoulder intensified. I braced my shoulders against it and looked around. The porch was dark, my sock in the doorway, a sliver of grey down the doorframe, the common room window empty. I glanced up towards the attic windows. The light level shifted just outside my sightline. Had an attic light flicked off? I glanced quickly at the windows but they were dark.

Back to my work. I slipped the body, less cold and stiff now, into my still-warm sock and placed it in the hole.

Should I say something, I thought?

I looked behind me. The hallway was still dark.

‘May your spirit rest in peace, Albert,’ I said. ‘Now you’ve been found.’ I hesitated. ‘Ashes to ashes,’ I said. ‘Dust to dust.’ That was all I could remember. It would have to do. I sprinkled a little soil gently over the sock and then filled the hole in, scratching a cross in the soil with the end of the trowel. You are dust, I thought from nowhere, and to dust you will return.

I glanced back at the attic windows – still dark – and brushed some unseen eyes off my shoulders with dirty hands.

I threw the odd sock into my kitchen bin and climbed into bed, sleeping the heavy sleep of someone who lies beneath a thin layer of earth, alone with the stars and the wormed roots of slow growing trees.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 17

2006.

Today, I got a call from the vet.  Herb hasn’t been claimed and he’s mine if I want him, so I’m going to pick him up tomorrow after work. Already this little warm flat feels like a better place, like a home. I’ve got a friend to share it with. I’ve laid his blanket in front of the fire, ready.

Now I’ve reached the part of my story that I’ve been dreading. Even now as I type in a room miles away the thought of crawling through that tunnel, and the thought of what lay at the end of it, makes me shudder with horror.

I’m safe here in my small, overheated room, looking out at the autumn leaves below. They’re starting to drop now. The streets are colder and wetter, the sky greyer. This time of year always used to make me feel warm and secure; it made me think of Mum reading Meg and Mog to me, of Halloween, of walking to Brownies in the dark and rain with my hand in Mum’s, of the smell of frying onions and the feeling of pyjamas that have been warmed on a radiator. Now those things are still there in my mind, but it’s different – it’s like seeing a ghost in the place of a warm, solid, living person. It’s faded away.

2005.

I opened the hatch and I peered inside. A dark space with a low ceiling. Too low to be a proper corridor – you’d have to stoop to walk – too big to be a tunnel. It was choked with cobwebs. I pulled myself up into it and, with a quick glance behind me, crawled forward. It felt like the air itself was alive with watchful eyes.

I inched along the floorboards. Every now and then my finger brushed against an old iron nail or slipped in the narrow, furred gap between boards. Behind me, the patch of grey light that lead back to the stairs and from there to the pool and up to the normal, everyday world. Ahead of me darkness, cobwebs, dust; thicker, richer darkness than I remembered seeing before. There was a subtly putrid smell, as though someone had left a packet of bacon here months ago. Decay. My stomach turned.

I’d pulled myself along on my hands and knees for a short distance – just a couple of metres, maybe – when I bumped into something. A rolled up carpet, or perhaps another bag of rubbish. I explored it with my hand – narrow, hard, covered with fabric. A curtain pole maybe, wrapped in its curtain. It occurred to me that it could be handy – a better way to fix the hanging over my door to the cellar. Still the unseen eyes everywhere. My skin crawled.

I pulled the torch out of my pocket and switched it on.

I saw grey fabric, like flannel – almost like school trousers. A thin pole down the centre. I moved the torch back me. On the end of the pole, a shoe.

I screamed.

I flashed the torch back up and to the side. Two poles. Two trouser legs. A belt.

Heart thumping, I shone the torch higher up. An old fashioned, grey tweed jacket, hanging over what would be so sunken if it were a body that it was impossible to imagine it had ever lived. Maybe a Guy Fawkes dummy, I tried to tell myself. I flashed the light higher up still and saw something that made my stomach turn. A twisted, leathery, mummified face, its mouth forever curled into a bitter smile. Tendrils of wispy, light brown hair in tufts on top of the head. One hand against its chest, palm facing outwards, almost as if it were feebly trying to fight off an assailant.

A cold sheet of sweat fell down my back and my brain curled away from what it had seen.

A leather, grinning face.

I couldn’t to turn my back on that thing, have it watching me. I crawled backwards. Was it moving? Did that leg twitch?  My heart was in my mouth.

I reached the end of the passage, dropped down onto the stairs with relief and pushed the panel back into place. Still the sense of eyes all over my body.

Was Clive watching? I looked nervously up the stair. I saw nothing.

I ran back down the stairs, through the sparkling hall, past my darkroom and back up the stairs to my room, trembling.

 I pushed the sofa against the door. I sat in the arm chair, my fingers trembling, my brain prodding away at what I’d just seen, forcing me to grasp that bony, mummified leg again; to stare at that twisted face, smell the scent of old, dry, dead flesh.

Eventually, I stood up, picked up my purse and keys and made my way out into the warm, still-light streets. I just wanted to see street lamps and cars and hear voices chatter and shout. It was like switching the big light on and trying to find a sit com on another channel after watching a horror film.

The road was quiet and peaceful. A young couple were walking a few steps ahead of me, his hand resting lightly on her waist, a rucksack bumping on his back. Her amber coloured hair swayed as she walked, her calves were as rounded and dainty and shell-pink as a doll’s.

I need to tell the police, I thought. I need to go to the nearest police station and tell them what I’ve seen. I need to bring them back to the house and take them through the cellars, up the stairs and show them.

You’ll sound mad, I said.

The police pushing through my sparkling hall, splashing their big feet in the pool room, dragging all my house mates through the rooms, inspecting the gym and the smoking room, upturning it all and taking things away as evidence.

It won’t be yours any more, I said.

My house mates traipsing through the rooms, looking at all those secret spaces – loving them or hating them; either was bad. Looking at me askance and asking why I’d not mentioned these places, why I’d kept them a secret. Commenting on what a strange thing it was to do. Looking at me as if I was odd, different, not one of them.

You won’t belong any more, I said.

He’d been there for years. I’d not put him there; I’d not been in the house when it happened. Was it really so bad for him to stay where he was? I could easily not have found him and then the police wouldn’t have come and messed everything up. Maybe, in a way, it was more respectful to leave him to rest in peace.

I don’t want to talk to strangers, I said.

That leathery face. Tears pooled in the corners of my eyes and a sob of pity and horror tried to force its way out of my chest like a sneeze.

If I passed a policeman or saw a police car while I was out, I’d go to the police station and tell them everything. That was fair.

I pushed my knuckles into the corners of my eyes and I tried to force the thoughts back into the far corners of my mind, tried to shut the door on them as they jammed their backs against it.

I turned onto Kensington High Street and fell into a busier crowd of people with shopping bags, walking and texting, darting in front of cars. The shops were still brightly lit – jewels of hot pink and sunflower yellow against the grey pavements. I realised that it was still early – not yet eight. That sat strangely alongside the truth of the mummified body in the passageway. Both existing together in my mind made neither seem quite real. One was a dream, one was a nightmare, but I was stuck in between both of them.

The clawed hand reached forward, tried to push the door open.

 I pressed the sob back down again, rubbed my eyes, bit my lip.

I wandered up the street, clutching my purse inside my pocket, looking for something to shop for, a purpose to my trip. I saw the Tesco Metro ahead of me and darted into it, a haven of cool air, bright lighting and purpose. There was always something to buy in a supermarket. But I wandered around, pausing for too long in front of the tinned custard or packets of blueberries.

A bottle of red wine. That would do. I took two and paid with the card for my savings account, where what remained of Mum’s money was. Treating it as an emergency fund, would have to wait another day.

My bag heavy in my hand, my brain veering between numbness and horror, I made my way back through Kensington’s smooth faced, wealthy pedestrians and up the quieter, darker hill towards my bed. The wine would make my brain settle on numb, I hoped, and then help it slip quickly into sleep. I turned the key in the lock, scuttled quickly down the corridor before anyone could see me and had poured a measure of wine into a chipped tea cup before I’d taken my jacket off. Then I sat on the sofa and drank the first cupful quickly, trying to erase that twisted, leathery grin from my head.

I hadn’t seen any policemen or police cars. That was decided then. I took a deep gulp and the tears started to drip towards my chin.

Halfway down the mug. What thoughts had given his face that livid leer, just seconds before he died – or even at the moment that he died? What feeling had been preserved there in that awful grimace? What moment was he caught in forever?

And who did it to him?  The building wasn’t safe anymore. The walls were watching me. I looked over my shoulder nervously and wrapped my cardigan more tightly around me.

I stood up to pour myself a second mug of wine. Just as I moved to sit back down there was a gentle tap at the door. I froze. The tap again – gentle but insistent. My heart pushed against my chest. That clawed hand knocking. That leering face waiting for me to open the door. A louder knock.

‘Rose, are you there?’

I put the mug down, wiped my face and walked slowly to the door.

‘Great, you’ve got a bottle open.’ John slipped past me, pulled a mug out of the kitchen cupboard and tipped wine into it. He looked at me. ‘Have you been crying?’

‘Of course not.’ I wiped my face again.

I sat down next to him on the shabby sofa. There were about twenty centimetres between our knees.

‘So, what have you been up to?’ The leering face of the mummified man swung at me. ‘How’s the photography going?’

‘I’ve got,’ I was about to say, a darkroom, but I stopped myself. That was a long thread that led to a crumpled face in a dark passageway. I looked over my shoulder again. The walls were boring into my back, staring at me.

He raised an eyebrow.

‘I’ve got started,’ I said, ‘on a project.’

‘And how’s it going?’

‘I can’t tell,’ I said, ‘until I start developing them. Well – I think.’ I thought of the magical, timeless hours in the cellars before that day. Those times were so peaceful yet so completely awake. If my photos captured only a tiny proportion of that, only a glimmer of it, I’d have succeeded. But what if I developed them to find grizzled, leathered face peering at me from every single one?

‘When are you going to show me?’ He glanced at me, a sidelong, unmistakeably flirtatious glance. ‘Are you ever going to show me?’

‘Of course.’ The exhibition. ‘I’ll show you when they’re ready.’

He leaned back into the sofa. ‘Get the wine,’ he said.

I put the bottle down on the floor, a small, purple dribble landing on the carpet.

The face wouldn’t be pushed back, wanted to be talked about. ‘Would a house like this have secret passages?’ I said.

‘There were back staircases for the models to come and go,’ he said. ‘So they didn’t have to see anyone. Back when it was a shameful business, taking your clothes off for cash.’

‘I thought you didn’t know anything about the history of the building?’

‘Oh, I don’t really. Must have just absorbed some. Dad would talk about it when I was a kid. He thought about it all the time. Obsessively, almost. Mum did some research on its history, but that just annoyed him. Like she didn’t have a right because she wasn’t one of the chosen ones.’

‘Your dad lived here, then?’

‘Of course. That’s why I’m here. Inheritance, like the rest of us. Probably a poisoned chalice, though. It’s destroyed Dad, I think. The way he goes over and over it in his mind. Or at least, I think that’s what he’s doing. Won’t leave it alone. Like a beetle, gnawing away at the wood.’

‘Did he feel like the building was watching him?’

He glanced at me.

‘What?’

People always seem to question your sanity. It made me want to snap at him to mind his own business, keep his nose out. What if the walls were watching, though? I’d better be careful, keep quiet, stay well behaved.

‘Does he ever come back?’ I said.

He looked surprised. ‘All the time. That’s why we let him have that room upstairs. Pity really. Mum left him when I was ten and now he’s got no-one. Just this house to obsess over and wander around. She got a lot of the money, too. The houses.’

I was readjusting my assumptions. ‘The caretaker?’ I said.

He looked confused. ‘Clive,’ he said. ‘My dad’s Clive.’

Clive’s red face emerging from the wooden panel. Clive’s breath on the back of my neck. Rosie. Rhymes with nosy. I edged away from John’s leg slightly.

‘Who else,’ I said, ‘was here then? A generation back?’

‘Just the four of them, I think. Clive, Ralph, Annie and Jenny. It was empty for a while, though. They had a big falling out in the seventies and until the next generation was ready there was no-one to stay.’

‘Except the caretaker.’

He glanced at me. ‘The caretaker,’ he said slowly, making the word sound like yes and no at the same time. ‘Let’s have some more wine. Rosie Posie.’

I poured a tiny amount into each of our mugs. ‘I’ve actually got to do some work tonight,’ I said. ‘After this.’ I edged away a little bit further. The leathery fingers tapped me on the back. Don’t forget me.

‘Okay. Well, I won’t keep you from your work.’ He looked put out and drained his mug. ‘I’ll see you later, Rosie Posie.’ I looked at his face intently for a second, trying to remove traces of Clive from it in my mind.

The door slammed behind him. I rinsed out our mugs and unpinned my wall hanging. I wouldn’t go as far as the staircase up, but I needed some time down there to clear my head. A bit of time away from the real world. Somewhere no-one would be looking at me askance. Somewhere the walls weren’t watching me.

I mixed chemicals with water and filled four gallon jugs, sitting them in a warm water bath, then I took a reel of film, one of at least twenty, and turned off the lights. The black of the small cellar was so thick, you could pull handfuls of it into your mouth and eat them. These walls had their eyes shut.

I spooled the film onto a reel and placed it into the developing tank. I hadn’t done this for years, but I remembered the feeling of working in the pure blackness, the comfort and safety of silent, slow movements. I poured the developer into the tank and tapped it onto the counter to remove any bubbles, then counted to thirty and swirled the developer around the tank. Counted to thirty and repeated. Counted to thirty and repeated. I felt soothed, focussed. After I’d counted to thirty twenty times, I poured more chemicals into my tank and tapped it on the surface again. I counted to ninety slowly. Then I tipped the liquid out. I replaced it with chemicals from another container and started to count again. I counted to thirty six times, tapping the tank every thirty seconds. The fourth batch of chemicals. I counted to ninety and turned the light on.

I washed the film in warm water and then pulled it out of the spool. I could already see tiny images on the film, windows into an Alice in Wonderland world. I shook off the water and hung the film up on a clip. I’d make the prints in the morning.

I tiptoed upstairs to bed. The calm, the quiet, the dark and the counting had numbed my brain, soothed it into quiet. I kept the light off in my room, stepping quietly to avoid dislodging the peace. I crawled into bed, staring at the street lamp-lit green of the trees, before letting my eyes close.

The last thing I saw before I went to sleep was a twisted, leathery mouth, somehow merged with Clive so that it was breathing heavily on my neck and whispering my name. Nosy Rosie Posie. My dreams were not quiet.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 16

1975.

We sit here, outside of time, in our beautiful house.

Outside, day after day of hot sun. An occasional grey day. And then more heat. It can only turn the streets of Kensington into an angry buzz of aimless souls. I’d like to shuck them off the skin of the earth like so many unwanted ants. I fantasise about this house being uprooted and transported to the quiet green of the countryside, to peace, order and tranquillity, to the purity of a common purpose, undistracted by heat and traffic and noise.

Notes for a sermon: the pursuit of truth and beauty are our primary aims. Nothing else matters. I have come to realise that some of us are capable of elevating our souls in this manner; some of us are pulled irrevocably back towards the earth. We must all aim to rise upwards and do this house justice.

Clive, for instance, is fuelled by avarice and petty jealousy. Not for his soul the molten gold of his work. No, he is made of tin. And my little Annie and her neat clay pots, streaked with pooling splashes of paint. She wants to be a painter, she says, not a potter. Creating worlds with oil paint may seem preferable to modelling in mud, but that I’m not sure that Annie has it in her. And there is a worker bee honesty to clay. Annie – perhaps the sweetest of them all. No, sweet is the wrong word for her. She is not all sweetness and light. She’s sugar coated, but made of plainer stuff underneath.

This diary is for my eyes only and I must take care to keep it properly hidden. I need to work at maintaining that sheen of confidence on my actions and words, not to let slip a glimmer of frailty. Sometimes I forget how to play the part of Ralph – how to present myself correctly – and I think that this outlet is useful. It allows me to face the world with renewed energy.

Last night I dreamed of being back home in Lewes, sleeping in that wooden sled bed with the high sides. In my dream I’d forgotten to set the alarm and woke up in panic in the soot of the night. There, at the end of my bed, was the figure I dreaded seeing. Tall, hunched, hooded. He stood very still, as if he wasn’t subject to the same physical laws as the rest of us; as if he was suspended outside time and place. I cowered into the far corner of the bed, pressing my warm back against the wood, gathering the blankets up around me. Then, without any sense of movement, he got closer and closer to me – as though the world was turning, but he stayed in the same place. Finally, his face was right next to mine. He lifted his hood with waxy hands. My fear was punctured with the need to place the familiar face that was staring at me, contorted in rage. He reached a hand towards me and I had it. My father. I woke up.

The horror of feeling so small and so helpless. Do other people suffer these feelings of hopeless disjointedness, flicking between confidence and terror like channels on a half-tuned radio? With the correct application and effort, my mind can be focussed, and singular, and strong. I must try harder.

My mind flits back to Annie and her soft weakness and then, inevitably, turns to my Jenny – Jenny who has a core of steel, Jenny who is entirely capable of conducting herself with duplicitousness for the sake of the right ends. And so it should be.

As I said, the pursuit of truth and beauty – sweetness and light – are our primary aims, but I’ve grown to understand that my fellow artists aren’t moved by these causes alone. It would be generous to say, in fact, that they give them a second thought from one day to the next. I need to align them more carefully with our goals – to get this house in order. I could relax, then, and better focus on my work.

Last night I took myself to the front door and sat, cup of hot water in hand (I do not sully my body with caffeine), looking down through the hexagonal sky light at the glimmering hall. I like these hidden glimpses of the world under the stairs – the sense that its magic punctures the real world in places. Earlier in the day I overheard Clive and Jenny in conversation, arranging to meet that evening. I took the opportunity that was presented to me and made my way to the skylight at the appointed hour.

It was a warm, close night. Our street was peaceful, its silence only splintered by the sound of a few night birds, of doors slamming, of car ignitions spluttering and failing. Voices drifted towards me, but they were far away.

 I settled down next to the skylight. Once crystal clear, I could now see the green starting to take her at her edges. But however she ages, fades and changes, this building will always be beautiful to me.

Soon enough, Jenny and Clive arrived. They stared intently at one another for a while, Clive, as is his wont, repeatedly glancing nervously over his shoulder. Looking for whom, I wonder? The fallibilities of man fascinate me. Animals and insects are far more straight-dealing.

I waited and watched. Would they become intimate, the two of them, while I looked on? The thought made me shudder. But no, their lips didn’t touch. Instead, they sat on one of the wooden chapel benches that I’d acquired in the hope of lending my simple ministrations a priestly lift. They engaged in intense conversation.

I had a glass in my pocket, by chance, and found it comfortable to rest there on the pane, my ear pressed against the drinking glass, my eyes gazing skywards. It struck me that this was an apt metaphor for our work here.

Notes for a sermon: we look to the stars for inspiration while listening to the muse our beautiful building provides every day. Heaven and earth. Sweetness and light.

‘It’s impractical.’ This was Clive’s voice.

‘Perhaps.’ Jenny’s voice, clear as a bell, strong as aluminium.

‘But I think he has to go. We have to be rid of him.’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Listen. He’s a tyrant. Quite mad, probably. Intolerable, definitely.’

‘Perhaps.’ An irritated cough from Clive. She continued, ‘He may be all of those things. But what are we going to do about it? And why? We’re not forced to live here.’

‘You know as well as I do that we’d never find a studio like this, on these terms, anywhere else. I certainly couldn’t afford to practise if I had to pay rent. I’d have to go back to working in an office.’

‘Heaven forbid.’

‘And we have as much right to be here as he does.’

‘Slightly less, in fact. He owns the building. We just have the right to use it.’

‘Exactly. We have the right to inhabit it to work. We should be left in peace to do that. We’re followed, spied on, ordered about. The rules change on a weekly basis.’

‘Rules aren’t the end of the world.’

‘He gets inside your head. He leaves no space for anything else. I need to be able to work.’

‘I wouldn’t get yourself worked up about it if I were you. Just do what you’ve got to do.’

‘I feel like he’s deliberately trying to drive me mad. Constantly changing the goal posts, constantly making new demands. It’s intolerable. I haven’t slept in weeks – months. This insomnia’s killing me, and it’s his fault. It’s what he wants. He wants me to go mad. And that’s not the worst of it. He’s pestering Annie.’

Pestering! The way Clive’s mind works is a testament to his failures as a human being.

‘Well…’

‘Well, nothing. She’s my girlfriend.’

‘He’d say that there’s no such thing as ownership in an intimate relationship.’

Precisely, Jenny, precisely.

‘I don’t care what he’d say. It’s wrong.’

‘She’s a big girl, Clive.’

‘No, she’s not. She’s a slip of a thing. She’s just eighteen. She’s barely out of her gymslip.’

‘She knows her own mind.’

‘Does she, though? I doubt it. And there’s the matter of the stolen inheritance. This building should have been mine. By rights, it’s actually mine. He’s slipped someone else in by a side door and left me in poverty.’

‘Anyway. You asked me to meet you here. Surely you didn’t interrupt your precious work just to gossip.’

‘I’ve been up all night thinking about it. He’s taking away everything that’s mine. My girl. My focus. My ability to work, even. My personal freedom – just the right to go about my day without being watched. My sleep. He’s even stealing my fucking sleep. He’s probably spying on us right now.’

I realised at this point that Clive was not a well man. The heat from those flames all day, the smell of burning, the fumes of molten metal. I’ve always said that metalwork is the work of the devil.

 Notes for a sermon: although there is a woodman bee, there is no metalworking bee. Let us take a moment to consider the differences between the two and the lessons therein.

‘Most importantly,’ Clive continued, ‘I feel that, through all of this, I’m being forced out of my own home. A place I have a historical right to inhabit. It’s my birth right. I should be here.’

‘Okay,’ said Jenny mildly.

‘And he should not be here. He loses that right when he prevents all of us from exercising our rights.’

‘Well,’ said Jenny, ‘I can tell you now, there’s no way you’ll get Ralph out of this building. Not alive, at any rate.’

‘Hmm,’ was all that Clive said, but he didn’t sound displeased. It was the sound of a man who’s satisfied to have guided his audience to the same conclusion as he’s already reached himself.

‘And anyway, legally you have no recourse.’

‘Maybe I’m not thinking of legal routes.’

‘Clive, can I just ask how long it is since you’ve slept? You sound insane.’

‘That’s my precise point. He’s done this to me. I need to get back to my old self. Not to be tormented by that devil, stripped of my sanity.’ He paused. ‘Sixty-four days,’ he said. ‘I’ve had practically nothing in the way of sleep for sixty four days. I feel that the bloody building is watching me. It’s impossible to relax. Don’t you find? Or is it just me?’ This with a self-pitying despair. ‘Am I in the wrong? Am I?’

‘Well, I certainly think you’re a little overwrought.’

‘I need to know. Do I have your support here? I know you’re close to Ralph, but we’ve known each other much longer. Can I count on your support?’

We’ve all heard more than enough of Jenny and Clive’s idyllic Sussex childhood, apple-cheeked cousins running around the fields together, high on home-made lemonade. I didn’t want to hear more. Though they were in fairly easy reach of us in Lewes, we saw them just once or twice that I can remember in my entire childhood. Father didn’t approve of their upbringing. And nor, come to think of it, do I. Though Martha was the wayward one of our generation, of course, and she had a strict, right-thinking upbringing.

I waited for Jenny’s refusal to provide the reassurance that Clive wanted. Her loyalty would stretch out to me, a thin, golden cord, even if we were separated by vast distances or by years of silence.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘of course you have my support in a general sense, but I’d like to know the particulars.’

The way that Jenny expresses herself always sends a shiver of pleasure down my spine. She is as accurate as a marksman.

There was a short silence. Though my eyes were still directed towards the stars, I could as good as see Clive glance over his shoulder.

‘The particulars,’ he said, ‘are that I plan to rid us all of him. For good.’

Clive, let me say it without ceremony, is a showman. He speaks to impress, not to deliver the truth. I wondered whether his place in this house was so impregnable as he supposed. We are here in pursuit of truth and beauty after all – not self-aggrandisement, gossip and the creation of tinny little gold trinkets. I thought about Clive’s contract, in particular some of the small print on the above mentioned issues, and wondered at his confidence.

‘How,’ asked Jenny, ‘do you intend to do that?’

‘Oh,’ he said carelessly, ‘we can discuss that at a later date. Now that I know I can count on your loyalty.’

Jenny made a non-committal sound. They then moved onto such trivial matters as a kitty for biscuits and tea. That they could jump from discussing my dispatch to considering the need to jointly contribute to their custard cream consumption beggared belief.

Now being sufficiently rested, I sat up and replaced the glass in my pocket. I sat in the dirt of our small, tiled pathway, in the heat of the dying sun, in the gathering dark, and felt acutely aware of my small place in the world. Just a humble man, sitting on a red terracotta tile, thinking of the spirit of creation and every man’s God given right to survival. Slowly, I made my way back inside and upstairs to my new room in the eaves.

Now, let me pause for a while in my patient spelling out of treachery, letter by letter, and consider the notion of ownership. It may prove useful for me to lay the facts out here in black and white.

The ownership of this building has been passed down between generations since it was first built in 1850. Josiah William Parry commissioned its erection and began the tradition of renting studio space to deserving artists for a throwaway sum. He was, records indicate, motivated broadly by a desire to propagate beauty and truth. He was also sufficiently solvent to commission such a building from a leading proponent of Queen Anne architecture. He gathered around him a small but intimate circle of loyal followers, eager to hear the truth as he saw and told it.

The thought of my building in its infancy, a hundred and twenty-five years ago, is both stirring and melancholic. Many men must feel like this about the women they grow to love, I suppose – the wistful yearning to have seen her as a small child, to know the starting point as well as the fruition. I comfort myself that few will have known that precise joy.

So Josiah began the noble practise of supporting artistic endeavour and shackling his delightfully butterfly-minded companions to a firm and impenetrably phrased contract. And the tradition came to be passed on with each new generation, a touching of hands across the decades that leads us to today.

Today I, the direct descendant of Josiah Parry, own this building and I, with a few minor tweaks, pass on the same terms to my fellow artists. I’ve added the merest formality of a clause; that unless the artists can prove themselves to be in pursuit of truth and beauty – by my judgement alone, unfortunately; anything else would be impracticable – they are subject to eviction. I cannot do anything about the clause that allows inheritance to pass by circuitous, tortured routes – not only to sons and daughters but also to cousins, nephews, god children; all are considered acceptable inheritors. However, I can, in my own way, ensure that only the worthy can lay claim to a part of our home.

Ownership, as Jenny rightly pointed out, has no place in intimate human relationships, though this is a concept that many struggle with. Clive no more owns Annie than I do. In fact, if you think about it with a cool head, I have more of a claim to her, owning and maintaining the very building that she sleeps, eats and works in; providing the womb for her inspiration, as it were. She couldn’t be truly alive without this building – and the same is true of Clive and Jenny, of course. Ownership isn’t the right word. They’re cogs in a larger machine. They serve the house, as we all do.

Whatever Clive’s plan – the very word flatters him with its intimation of clear thinking and strategy – it cannot succeed.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 15

2005.

Art was never really my strong suit at school. If I shone at anything, it was maths and science. That’s where I got my As and Bs. In art my pencil marks always felt too insubstantial, and the teacher would often take the sheet off me and draw over the top in strong, sweeping lines. It was too hard to pin down. You knew where you were with a right or wrong answer.

It was towards the end of my first summer term at secondary school. For the second half of the term we’d been working on an art project – Andy Warhol style repeat images. Other people had chosen famous faces or iconic images – Madonna, the Eiffel Tower, even a single apple. I’d chosen to do cats. In each picture, I tried to get the essence of a cat across – its haughtiness, its discontent, its inner sadness, its disdain. I’d rejected the idea of doing them in bright, Pop Art colours, instead choosing muted blues, greens and beiges. By the end of the term, nine tiled cat images glared at me. Ashley, sitting next to me, had bright, stylized images of Billy Idol jumping off the page. My cats looked trapped and anxious. Still, I was proud of the subtle way I’d captured what it meant to be a cat in the modern world.

I carried it home on the last day of term, along with the salt shaker I’d made in woodwork. The day was hot and close. I’d rolled my socks down and hitched my skirt up to try to get a tan and I walked slowly down the main road, passed by school buses and cyclists, trying to maximise my time in the sun. In a week we’d be in Wales, and I wanted to arrive in a burst of out of town glamour. A few other children walked in front of me for a while, wheeling their bikes before circling off down an alley. I crossed with the lollipop man and walked the last stretch alone.

At home I unpacked my bag and Mum got out some fig rolls. I handed over the salt shaker and she admired its sturdy shape. Then, proudly, I unveiled my cat study. Mum burst out laughing.

‘Nine suicidal cats,’ she said. ‘Look at that one! It’s actually got a furrowed brow. Hilarious.’

I didn’t say anything, but I rolled the cats back up again.

‘Oh, don’t be sensitive, Rose,’ said Mum. ‘It’s funny.’

I walked up the stairs with slow dignity and ripped the cats up into small pieces before flushing them down the loo.

I look back at that time, at the start of last summer, and I see yet another doorway closing; yet another moment when I could have stepped back from the brink and kept my old life. I spent the next morning in my studio – if it could be called a studio when all I did in it was drink squash and eat Weetabix and toast. I felt plump with inertia. All I wanted to do was sit on my sofa and read a novel.

At midday there was a knock on my door. I quickly took my dressing gown off and put a sweatshirt on over my pyjamas.

‘Rose. Just wondering how you’re doing. How you’re settling in?’ Heidi’s voice was solicitous, but her face was indifferent. ‘Can I come in?’

‘Of course.’

‘I like what you’ve done with it. It’s so domestic. You wouldn’t know it was an artist’s workspace.’

I glanced around the room anxiously.

‘I haven’t changed much. This is just how I found it, more or less.’

‘Of course. You haven’t needed to make any alterations.’

‘Alterations?’

‘Nor did I, really. I just needed a work bench – and a freezer of course. I just love how it looks like a normal kitchen and sitting room. You should see Felix’s! He sleeps on a mattress in the corner in the dust. The rest is pure workspace.’

‘Oh, okay.’

‘And John’s – paint everywhere, canvas everywhere. You never know whether you’re about to drink white wine or turps.’

‘Well,’ I said. ‘Photography…’

‘…is different. Of course.  How’s it going? You must love being able to have all of your focus on your work. I bet you wish you had a darkroom, but this room’s full of all that wonderful light. Unfair, really. It should be John’s.’ She glanced at me. ‘What with him being a painter and everything.’

‘Yes. Maybe we can swap.’ But there was no way I was giving up my secret rooms for anyone, not even John.

‘Can I see? What you’ve been working on?’

‘I haven’t developed any yet.’

‘No rush. It’s not like they’ll throw you out for not producing work. Not in practise, anyway.’

I didn’t say anything.

She took a step back. ‘Okay. I won’t keep you, then. Back to my little mice. See you for a cup of tea later.’

She closed the door gently behind her, as if I was a sleeping baby. I was starting to find the way everyone was acting as if I was slightly delicate rather irritating.

That afternoon, I took my list of requirements for the darkroom to the shops. My five thousand pounds was getting a little lower than I’d have liked, but I needed to become a proper artist and earn my place in the building. I busied myself purchasing it all, examining each item closely before buying it. I had to get a cab back.

Three hours later I was in the cellar, blacking it out by taping around the door to the great hall and hanging canvas over the doorway to the stairs back up to my room. I surveyed my work proudly.

Then I took my camera for a walk around my rooms, snapping away happily. I hoped that there would be a wealth of good photos to choose from once I started to develop them – I’d got through four films already. As Sue had said, they’d convey emptiness, bleakness; the qualities I’d come to be known for in my career, perhaps. I told myself that, but the thought of a successful future didn’t settle too firmly in my mind.

As usual, the green silence of the swimming pool quietened my thoughts and slowed them down. I sat on the stone step for a while, sweeping my hand back and forth in the water, feeling it slide like silk between my fingers. I thought about taking my clothes off and letting myself fall into the water, sinking to the bottom and then floating to the top, lying just under the surface in the still, timeless, green, like Ophelia. I thought about it so long that it felt hard not to give in and slide into the apple flesh water.

But I didn’t slide in. I stood up and wandered up the second flight of stairs, through the gym, caught outside time like the Titanic’s exercise lounge, before sitting in an armchair in the smoking room. The room was all oranges, browns and greens. It felt like being allowed into your dad’s study. Not that I had a dad, of course. Maybe because of its very absense I had a heightened sense of what it felt like to have one, an overactive imagination. Maybe dads weren’t that different to mums. I pushed my hands down the back of the seat and slid further down. No dad to tell me to sit up straight, not to slouch.

I wondered, yet again, who he was and why he’d never been in touch. What it was about me that wasn’t appealing enough for him to run to get me, want to know what I was up to? Where was he when I was getting drunk with inappropriate boys at sixteen? He should have been stopping me. Where was he when I was picking degree courses, when I was driving my stuff up for my first term, when I wasn’t saving ten per cent of my salary every month? Did he keep track of where I’d be in life, think about me at important junctures? And now – was he wondering if I was married, if I’d had children? Both of those things were so far away, but maybe it would have been different if I’d had a father. Maybe I’d have been a grown-up – been propelled into life instead of dawdling through it. I thought of a father’s intense pleasure at seeing his daughter’s face, and, if I didn’t exactly cry, I could imagine the tears.

I pushed my hands further down the back of the seat, daring my imaginary father to tell me off.

There was card under the seat, holding the leather in place. I pulled at it absent-mindedly and it came free. I ripped it out, irritating my imaginary father no end.

It was a brown envelope. I opened it and pulled out a thin stack of A4 paper, stapled together in the left hand corner, the staple perfectly parallel with the top of the page.

Again, I pause here and stop myself. I push the paper back into the envelope, stuff the envelope back under the seat, stand up and walk back up to my room. I don’t hesitate. I certainly don’t pause at the pool room, look up the stairs to the top of the house and take a step up. I don’t do any of that. I go to my room, put my pyjamas on and go straight to bed. I dream of nothing. That’s important. I dream of nothing.

Or perhaps I dream of those green fields that Heidi and John were always playing in. Those buttercups they held under chins to see if each other liked butter. The daisies that became crowns. The piano lessons, singing lessons, drawing lessons, riding lessons. Long sips of home-made lemonade. Perhaps I dream of something comforting like that.

But that’s not what happened. I pulled the paper out of the envelope and I sat in the smoking room reading it by the dusty light of old Tiffany lamps – lamps whose working lightbulbs I didn’t think to question at the time.

This is a contract between the fellowship that is the association of artists dwelling here, in our studios, our places of work and our home on Campden Hill Road, Kensington, London, as represented by Ralph Parry; and Albert Parry of Sandwich, Kent.

We, the undersigned, here agree that:

In consenting to be Ralph Parry’s formal heir, inheriting the estate of Ralph Parry, Albert Parry agrees to renounce the right to any other property or inheritance whether acquired prior to this agreement or not.

Albert Parry agrees to continue the fellowship in the spirit established by Ralph Parry, specifically in following the notes of formation of the fellowship and the rules of the fellowship.

Albert Parry agrees to pass this inheritance on, in the spirit in which it was received, to his descendants, direct or otherwise, provided that they are of common mind with the intentions of the fellowship and are artistically inclined.

Albert Parry agrees to follow the path forged by Ralph Parry in his leadership of this place.

Albert Parry agrees to defer to Ralph Parry in all matters while he is still living, inheritance or proposed inheritance notwithstanding.

Here the undersigned,

Albert Parry

Ralph Parry

15th February 1975

Poor Albert Parry, I thought. Ralph’s stooge. Where are you now, Albert, I thought? Ralph, presumably, had passed on long ago.

Was Ralph my missing, long lost godfather? The thought sent a slight cold tremor through me. One of that generation must be. Clive was clearly out of the picture, still being a regular at the place, not missing presumed dead, as my godfather was. Or perhaps Albert was my godfather.

If it was indeed Ralph, I pictured him reaching a paternal arm around my waist, enquiring about my wellbeing, encouraging me gently in my life’s ambitions, steadfastly protecting me against all naysayers. He’d sit next to me, on a sofa not unlike the Chesterfields in here, and tell me that, in the absence of my father, he considered it his role to guide me through life, support me and offer me his strength in times of need. I leaned back into the leather, smiling. He’d come to the opening night of my exhibition, pleased to be there in a fatherly capacity. He’d stand in the shadows, watching proudly as I shone. Perhaps he’d make a speech at the end.

I stood up and pushed the envelope down the back of my jeans. Strangely enough, this little find had given me more of a boost than anything else had. Finally I felt that I belonged here. Ralph, or someone like him, was my godfather and I was here to carry on the spirit of his work.

I made my way back downstairs to the pool room and then up to the door to the great hall, ready to walk through it and back to my room. But I paused there, by the stairs up to the top of the house, warm and secure in my new sense of belonging – of ownership even – and I glanced up the stairs – up my stairs, as I’d come to think of them.

What I saw was horrifying.

I saw, just in sight, a human head pinned to the wooden panelled wall, like a hunting trophy.

Angular nose, red hair, angry face. Clive’s head. The head struggled and gawped, pinned painfully to the wood. Shoulders emerged, two hands gripped the wood below, and then a whole torso appeared. He looked urgently to his left. I quickly ducked out of sight before he could turn his gaze on me. I waited, hot breath stretching my chest, for seconds, minutes. Then footsteps. I shrank back against the wall, but the steps moved in the opposite direction, away from me. After a few seconds, I peered around the corner and up the staircase. Nothing. More time stretched and the footsteps were long quiet. I peered up the staircase to emptiness, silence.

In a strange daze, I took a step up the stairs, as much to reassure myself that I had imagined it as anything. No head could push itself out of wood. There was nowhere to go at the top of the stairs. He would have come back down by now. Fearfully, I trod each stair to the top. There was no sign of Clive, nothing to say that he had ever been there. The top of the stairs still led nowhere. The tiny window was still dust caked. There was no sign of disturbance.

I crept back down the stairs, doubting my own mind. There, at the place I’d seen Clive’s angry head emerge, I paused. Wooden steps, wood panelled wall. All intact. I pushed at the panel to reassure myself of its solidity. It clicked and it opened, revealing a dusty mole hole of a passage. I looked behind me, to check that there was no red-headed monster there, and I crawled in.

Here, from the relative safety and normality of my little hot room, bolstered against the autumn cold, I can’t tell you why I crawled in there. The building had come to seem like my own, I suppose. I felt timid as a mouse, yet untouchable. It was mine, all mine to explore and play with.

If I could undo that crawl into the dark, though, I would. Of all the things that I would undo, that is one of the most important.

But that’s not what happened. I crawled in, a mole crusted in dust, and what I found in there changed everything, forever.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 14

1975.

The summer continues with its oppressive heat. Kensington is thick with it. I don’t venture down to the shopping streets if I can help it; the squeals of the lipsticked girls, the boys with all that hair and all that sweat. The immorality of a wide-legged trouser. I keep mine close to the leg.

I think back to happier days in Sussex in my early twenties. It was only five years ago, though it feels like more. I’d left Central St Martins without finishing my degree and I was living in a small, rented cottage in Hurstpierpoint, keeping bees and practising my carpentry. My parents still lived in Lewes. Martha had not left home yet; family was within reach but not too close. The late summer sweetened and swelled towards autumn and I harvested apples, plums and honey and carved little love spoons in front of the fire in the evening, or sketched designs for a monumental oak Madonna and Child.

Many bees are solitary creatures – the carpenter bee, for instance; the mason bee. Others are highly social, living in huge colonies of up to a hundred thousand creatures. But I kept the Apis mellifera, or Western honey bee, in my small garden – a swarming, communally living bee. To practise bee husbandry one must be keenly attuned of the cycles of the year. In winter, the queen begins to lay eggs. In the spring, nectar is collected. In late summer, the production of new bees and nectar slows down. In the early autumn, the drones are evicted and die. It’s the cycle of life.

Every colony must have a queen. The queen is the centre –  the link to the next generation. The other females exist purely to collect pollen and maintain the hive, the males to reproduce.

The queen lays fertilised eggs in the smallest cells in the hive. In twenty-one days these produce female worker bees. In larger cells she lays unfertilized eggs, which, in twenty four days, become the male drone bees, and a special cell which hangs vertically is used to produce a new, virgin queen – a virgin queen who will emerge to slaughter any rival queens. If a queen dies unexpectedly during the summer the bees quickly make an emergency queen in the same type of cell. A weak queen will be destroyed by the hive and replaced.

I found much to occupy my mind.

I passed my days quietly and productively, enjoying the unfussy ceremony of beekeeping and the slow and steady labour of woodwork. And so the autumn moved towards winter and spring tapped on my cold windows. I moved softly through the house and gardens and through the seasons, content with my own company. Every now and then Martha would visit and we’d sit peaceably by the fire with a cup of tea. After that spring Martha’s visits tailed off and my own visits to Lewes were rare. I never got on with my father, truth be told. I was a disappointment to him. He’d wanted a brighter, more athletic, more outgoing son – the sportsman, if you like, rather than the scholar. He was an old fashioned man and had always shown his disapproval with his fist. Mother was not the type to object.

Anyway. The honey days were numbered.  Within two years, I’d moved to Kensington. I knew that this future was waiting for me and I accepted it, but my heart remained in Sussex. I’m a carpenter bee, not an Apis mellifera. The hum and buzz of London isn’t for me. I don’t fit in with these people. Perhaps the son my father wanted would have done.

Today, though – a swelteringly hot day – saw the arrival of a new companion. Continuance is an important part of any association. This much was drummed into me by my father. And particularly our own association, which has its roots so far back in time; which is built on the idea of fellowship – fellowship of feeling as we work together and the renewal of history as we pass on the baton to the next generation. I think of us all holding hands down the centuries and it does make me smile, much as I’d like, in some ways, to quietly unhook my hand and return to my bees. It’s my duty and I won’t shirk it.

Albert arrived this morning, fresh cheeked as a young piglet. He came to our doorstep straight off the train, the bright light from the street framing his pale face, his skinny body hanging lost in a suit that would be tight on any other man;  his waistcoat buttoned up to the chest, his collar saying hello to his shoulders, his trouser bottoms disappointingly familiar with the toes of his shoes.

I installed him in the best room – the double height studio, which is blessed with our famous northern light. Only the exceptional for my nephew and heir, poor Martha’s boy. May the clear, even sunlight fill him up and make him the best he can be. Though he doesn’t look well. He has an air of rickets and malnutrition. He’d better get as much sunlight as he can.

Albert is free of other associations, free to embed himself completely in our fellowship. This isn’t a place for the half-hearted and the part-time. We are all or we are nothing. I can hear my father’s voice in my head as I write. Perhaps, despite the plunge into the icy black of eternity that awaits us all, the dead do stay with us in some way. Will my own voice remain in anyone’s mind? Who knows.

Martha, bless her poor heart in its current state of decay, has left us for a better place and, God knows, the father of her only child was unknown. At least, God may know who it is, but my sister didn’t. Albert is the fruit of a rather indiscriminate womb. I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. But perhaps I may be permitted to speak the truth about this particular corpse. She was as fickle as a magpie and as voracious as an un-spayed mutt. Our father would be the first to say so. I think of her as a soft-cheeked child and her eventual fate saddens me; it  fills me with anger at the world and what it can corrupt. Never mind. She’s gone now and I’m all that that poor orphan Albert has in the world. He is friendless too, I suspect; his is not the open, sociable heart. Much like mine, maybe, in some ways.

He crept around my building like a little mouse. Look about you and there’s the whole world to explore within these four walls – riches, beauties, surprises – and he just crept through the corridors in the dark. Imagine a dog cruelly imprisoned in a single, stenched room since being a puppy. Show it the light and freedom and does it run around joyfully, or does it pad quietly in small circles in an imaginary prison? If you have the answer then you have the sum of Albert.

I’ve thought about Albert a great deal. A blank slate can be drawn upon, but a completed painting needs painting over and even then, the original brushstrokes may show through. Provided he has some creative talent and – and this is important – he loves this building, then he just might do. I can create someone worthy of passing the baton on to when the time comes. We will see. His weakness is a worry, though. Is he fit for purpose?

Albert’s pale skin and haunted eyes. The thought of poor Martha. My father. The eternal dark that waits for us all; a bottomless, black sea, just out of our sightline. It’s always there at my shoulder. I feel it on my skin – a warm shiver, like someone breathing down my neck impatiently. Even as a small child I had this fear. I’d wake up regularly throughout the night to check the end of my bed for the grim reaper. I set an alarm on the hour, every hour. If I could just catch him in tim,e I could shoo him away.

The fear’s never really gone away. The only thing that made me forget it was caring for my industrious bees. Here the buzz of people and traffic – three cars an hour down this street at times – gets into my brain and curdles it, opens up little doorways to let the fear back in.

Dancing, feeding, cleaning, guarding. A worker bee’s duties are connected to its age. At one to two days it cleans the cells. At days five to eleven it feeds the young. Days twelve to seventeen see it producing comb, transporting food, carrying out undertaking duties. At days eighteen to twenty one it guards the hive entrance. After twenty two days it flies from the hive to begin its life outside, collecting pollen and nectar. Kensington is my fate and my duty, but I do find myself missing Sussex and a simpler life.

While Albert was settling into his room – I expected more of an exclamation of wonder, I must confess, when he saw it, than a simple ‘okay’– I did my daily rounds, visiting all of my building’s most private places. Do I love her underbellies more than her soaring ceilings and light bathed rooms? Perhaps. They have a hidden intimacy. And they’re away from the sun-drenched, hectic streets of Kensington. One can relax into them, free from the pressure to fit into the modern world. If I were a bee I’d stay in the same hive for life, unless I was led away by a virgin queen to a new and better place. I wouldn’t have to deal with all of this.

Notes for a sermon: the sun casts its light into the main hall of the cellar so that we may be bathed in it, take it in and convert it to our own kinds of beauty, be they drawing, pottery, painting, carpentry; even goldsmithery (or bashing metal about into trinkets, as I’d describe it).

I passed through the main cellar, slipped up the back stairs and made my way through one of the old artists’ model’s passageways into the disused store – the one with the spy hole that looks into Annie’s room. Back in the day the unsavoury models would be hurried in and out of the house through these secret passages. Now they are mine.

My gaze gradually became accustomed to the smallness of its spyhole and the relative darkness of the room I was watching. Even in the heat of June’s midday sunshine, Annie keeps her thick, brown curtains closed. She truly is one of life’s moles.

I looked through the peep hole at her somewhat uninspiring decor. Was that a Habitat beanbag I saw in the corner? So much for the authenticity of craftsmen at work! Were we now seaming the factory production line, dressing our rooms in items produced for the mass market? I quietly resolved to obtain and dispose of the item at the next available opportunity.

As I was contemplating this point, Annie’s door opened and in walked, not just Annie, but Jenny and Clive too. Clive looked urgently behind his back before shutting the door. The man is morbidly paranoid about his personal privacy. Delusions of grandeur. The three of them gathered in the middle of the room, perfectly in my sight line. Clive glanced over his shoulder again.

‘Let’s sit down,’ said Annie, tucking her mouse hair behind a pink ear. ‘Standing here like this makes me nervous.’ She wore a shapeless, brown, smock-like garment over her jeans (wide at the ankle, I’m afraid). Her feet were bare.

‘Everything makes you nervous,’ said my Jenny, with a not uncharacteristic caustic tone. As ever, she was neatly dressed in a close fitting dress.

‘Now, now, girls. Let’s remember why we’re here.’

They moved out of my sight line, presumably to sit down. But I could still hear them and Annie’s nose remained in clear view.

‘Now.’ Clive’s voice. ‘Let’s remember the spirit in which our little group was formed.’ Well, quite! ‘Fellowship and all that.’

Annie made a noise that sounded like a harrumph, not what I’d expect from my adoring little mouse. In recent weeks, she’s proved herself to be quite obliging and not nearly as submissive as her demeanour would imply. Jenny remains, of course, my number one. Not that I’m concerned with such hierarchies, but the women do like a structure.

‘Art and truth,’ said Jenny. Jenny can always be relied upon to make a succinct point. Her mind is as arid as the desert. It’s agreeable, if not always alluring.

‘Beauty,’ said Clive. ‘Honesty. All that. And how do we all feel it’s going?’

‘Ralph,’ said Annie with a bitterness that made my eyes water. I’m surprised a drop didn’t hit her earlobe, its delicate pink curves just in view. ‘Ralph is a despot and a tyrant. I’m buckling under the weight of his demands.’ Not something she objected to yesterday, I’ll note here for the sake of completeness. ‘I can’t take it anymore.’

She sniffed loudly. A fat globule of water hung delicately from the end of that fine nose, the very nose I’d sketched on the studio wall only days before. Not my studio anymore, I have to remind myself. Such is the circle of life. Things are ours to keep only temporarily. This treachery, however, was unexpected.

‘It’s his building,’ said my fair-minded Jenny.

‘Yes,’ said Annie, ‘but it’s our lives. He can’t control all of it. He even,’ she continued, ‘refuses contraception because he doesn’t want the flow of his inspiration to be impeded by rubber.’

There was an awkward silence in the room as everyone contemplated Annie’s intimate knowledge of my flow of inspiration. Personally, I wasn’t sure how much she would be on the receiving end of it any more. But tomorrow’s another day. Nothing is fixed, nothing is certain.

‘Well,’ said Clive.

I silently accused Clive of being a little on the provincial side at heart. I suspect him of objecting to my dealings with Annie on the grounds that he got there first. In my darker moments I think that he views Annie as his girlfriend – a possessive terminology that we have all eschewed. And, of course, if she belongs to anyone, it’s to me.

‘I can’t take it anymore,’ said Annie, ever the hysteric. ‘It’s driving me mad.’

‘Calm down, Annie.’ Jenny’s dry, soothing tones. ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t have got so closely involved with him if you feel that way.’

‘Oh, it’s not just that. He’s everywhere. I feel like he’s slipping between my brain cells and making a home there. I feel like he’s watching me now, even.’

‘The point being,’ said Clive, ‘that he’s a self-appointed leader, not a democratically elected one. His ownership of the building is neither here nor there. Is he a subscriber to this sort of out-dated notion of property and hierarchy?’

No-one replied.

‘And,’ Clive continued, ‘we, the artists, do have the right to inhabit the space, rights that go back as far as his family’s ownership of the building.’

‘Perhaps ownership always brought leadership with it.’ This was Jenny, of course.

‘I can only speak for myself,’ Clive said, ‘but personally, I feel that Ralph’s assumption of leadership wasn’t democratic. I can’t support it.’

‘Do we even need a leader?’ asked Annie in a voice bright with tears. The other two ignored her.

‘What are you suggesting, Clive?’

‘I’m suggesting,’ he said, ‘a bloodless coup.’

‘What does that mean?’ cried Annie.

Clive was silent.

‘And what about this Albert person?’ she said. ‘Who’s he?’

‘The heir,’ said Jenny.

Another silence.

‘Ah,’ said Clive after a few moments. ‘I’d rather hoped that was up for grabs. Ralph having no living relatives. Our rights to inhabit going back so far. And so on.’

For grabs, no less. The very idea of anyone grabbing my lovely building in some sort of shameless, avaricious embrace made me shudder.

‘Well,’ said Jenny. ‘No such luck. Albert’s a living heir. His nephew, I believe.’

‘Heirs,’ said Clive. ‘Bloody Victorian system of distribution of wealth. The meek shall inherit the earth. What about the deserving?’

 ‘He doesn’t seem well,’ commented Annie, master of the non-sequitur. ‘I heard him coughing away all morning. And have you seen him? So slight he’d struggle to make a pigeon jump.’

Clive coughed or laughed, I’m not sure which. ‘Unwell,’ he said. ‘Yes. Feeble.’

‘The sister – his mother – died of TB, so I hear,’ commented Jenny, ‘and he’s got a weak heart.’ A gossip mongering side I’ll confess I haven’t seen in her before, but it’s true. Martha died a poetically apt death – the death of a Victorian prostitute.

‘He’s stolen my inheritance,’ said Clive. ‘Don’t feel too sorry for him.’

‘I thought you didn’t believe in inheritance?’ said Jenny.

Clive snorted. ‘I’m broke,’ he said. ‘Believe me, I believe in it. When it’s coming in the right direction.’

‘What does he do,’ asked Annie, ‘this Albert?’

‘A photographer, apparently,’ said Jenny.

‘Ah,’ said Annie. ‘He looks the type.’

‘Whatever do you mean?’ Clive sounded irritated.

‘You know,’ said Annie. ‘Fey.’

‘This meeting,’ said Clive, ‘isn’t proving particularly productive. Let’s focus on one thing at a time. How to depose Ralph.’

This was no less shocking to hear a second time. I sat back a little to allow myself to take it in.

And,’ he paused dramatically. ‘Who should take the reins.’

There was silence.

‘I don’t know if we need a leader,’ said Annie quietly.

The other two ignored her.

‘Let’s meet again in a week or so,’ said Clive. ‘Take some time to consider our course of action and meet up – more productively – next week.’

‘Okay, Clive.’ Annie sounded relieved. ‘Let’s say the same time next week.’

I glanced at my watch.

‘That’s good for me,’ said Jenny cheerfully. She’d certainly taken the news of my deposition with some aplomb, I must say.

The sound of footsteps, farewells and Annie’s door closing. Throughout, her damp nose remained in frame. Then it rose into the air and left the picture entirely.

‘Oh, I can’t stand it!’ she cried. ‘I can’t stand him!’

Then there was the sound of her slight body hitting the bed springs – a noise I am, I’ll admit, familiar with – followed by sobs wracking her small body. She does take things hard, Annie – my little, grey mouse. I considered going to her door to offer her some comfort.

‘Oh!’ she cried. ‘It’s too much.’

The decision was made. I unharnessed my eyeball from the peep hole and made my way to her room.

Some time later I write this, having helped Annie rid herself of some of her mental demons. I’m struck by the tenor of my response to the proposed treachery. Far from angry; far from vengeful; far from horrified. In fact, I’m calmly confident. Such small rebellions are, of course, inevitable.

I’m not concerned.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 13

2005.

I was on the bus from Liverpool Street, my laptop clutched in a bag on my lap with print outs of a few photos I’d taken at college and a single sheet of paper explaining my Secrets idea.

The road was choked with buses, jammed up against each other like fish in a too-small tank. A crowd of people shoaled across the zebra crossing in front of us, more poured down the steps and escalator back down into the station. Bicycles were clamped to every street sign. A man with bright silver hair and a round belly that filled his shiny, black anorak kept time with the bus. Buildings, pale-slabbed like white chocolate, stretched towards the clouds. The sky ahead of us had that empty feeling of promise, as if the sea was always just around the next corner.

I wore my navy dress and shabby trainers. I was practising what I was going to say.

I hadn’t mentioned to John that I’d called her. I’d just slip an invite to the exhibition under his door. ‘You’re quite the closed book,’ he’d say. I smiled to myself.

We crept past pubs and through traffic lights, and squeezed between glass paned buildings, bikes overtaking us, pedestrians glancing up from their phones before dashing out in front of us.

Stop, start, stop start, towards a skeletal, vaulted bridge. Here a man in a black leather jacket stood on the pavement in front of a long line of belongings – soft toys, a bike, clothes, bags – in military rows. His face was anxious, angry. Past him, under the bridge and we were at my stop. I thanked the bus driver. He gave me a look so blank it must be practised. I stepped off the bus into the muggy, close day.

On the hot pavement now. My feet felt too warm in my trainers. Down a one way street, past scaffolding with candy cane wrapped poles, past an organic cafe and a clothes shop – the skyline lower here, but no more inviting. And here I was, at my destination. An unassuming office block. I rang the buzzer and pushed the door open.

‘Well,’ Sue said, as I spread my feeble looking print outs onto the wooden table in front of her. We were both sitting on old school chairs. My back ached already. ‘Well, yes, they’re nice. Quite lonely.’

‘Yes,’ I said. Are they, I thought? Perhaps that’s my thing.

‘An emptiness. A forlornness. A bleakness. A muteness, even.’

She was wearing a black and white striped tee shirt and slim, black trousers, sipping at a tiny cup of coffee in a white cup without a handle. Her face was tanned, barnacled with life.

‘Oh, good,’ I said, ever keen to please. ‘That’s what I was getting at.’

‘So, you’re a friend of John’s?’ She smiled, a crack in the wood. ‘He’s a good boy, John.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Sort of. We have studios in the same building.’

‘He’s a good boy,’ she said again. ‘Tell him I sent my love.’

‘I will.’

‘What’s your proposal, then? Let’s be having it.’

I glanced nervously at the A4 piece of paper in front of me.

‘It’s about secrets,’ I said. ‘Disused buildings, unseen places.’ I warmed to my theme. ‘What do places look like if we stop inhabiting them, stop looking at them every day?’

‘Have you got any pictures yet?’

‘No.’ I was downcast.

She looked down at my print outs again.

‘I can show you some more on my computer?’ It was more old stuff though, dating back to years ago. I fumbled with my laptop. ‘Where is it? I muttered.

‘Don’t worry.’ She looked at me appraisingly. ‘Okay, let’s take a risk. July the fourteenth, my current exhibition ends. My next chap’s let me down. A loss of confidence, I don’t know. He’s scrapped everything he’s done. He’s left me in a bit of a pickle. But it could be your lucky day. If you can be ready by the 15th July, we’ll give you a chance. Don’t let me down, though, will you?’

‘No, I won’t.’ Three weeks’ time – how could I do it? But how could I say no?

‘Great.’ She pushed the pieces of paper back towards me and drummed her fingers on the wooden table. ‘You’ll need to do captions for your pictures. And get them all framed.’ She glanced at me. ‘Just do a word document with the captions.’

‘I don’t think they need captions,’ I said. ‘They’re just empty spaces.’

She smiled.

‘I’ll be in touch. See you on the fifteenth,’ she said, ‘Rosie Acker.’

‘Rose,’ I said. I didn’t like Rosie.

An hour later, I was walking back up Campden Hill Road. I’d organised my first exhibition. I should have been pleased, triumphant even, but I had a hollow feeling inside, the feeling that I was a fraud. There’s a comfort in staying warm in your burrow, staying silent. Showing your face to the light risks burns.

I reached the studios and fumbled inside my bag for my keys. I sat down on the step and pulled everything out of my bag one by one. I emptied my pockets. And then I went through my bag again carefully, tipping the whole lot out onto the step and then putting everything back in, one at a time.

I rang the bell. No answer. So I sat back down on the step and waited, the warm concrete rough beneath my bare leg. To my left was the greened glass of the skylight, the window to my secret world. It suddenly occurred to me that anyone who sat where I was now could watch me wandering around down there with my camera. I peered at the glass more closely. Maybe the green stain obscured the view. I stood up and walked closer to it, the sun emerging from the clouds to hit the back of my neck. You couldn’t see much. No detail. Just a dark space. Maybe a bit of movement.

I bent down and looked more closely. Was that someone moving down there? Just a dash past, that was all. A cobweb shifting in the wind or a trick of the light. A ghost of someone past.

Or, I thought, you’re not the only one nosing around down there. A vision of busy, scurrying people, looking through my private spaces, touching those walls, talking about me, laughing at me even.

I pushed the thought to one side. They were my spaces, my secrets. No-one else’s. It’s important not to let your thoughts run away with you.

The front door opened. The bearded caretaker’s grizzled face peered round it.

‘Rose,’ he said. ‘Can I help?’

‘I’ve lost my keys.’

‘You should be more careful,’ he said. ‘Come with me.’

I followed him up the wide, shallow stairs, past the brass wall lights and onto Heidi and Felix’s floor, the landing overlooked at the back by a vast stained glass window – a grid of pastel coloured squares, outlined in black lead. At the centre of each of four panels a circular motif – a hare, a swallow, a robin, a fish. We passed Felix’s door, then Heidi’s. Voices were coming from Heidi’s room, raised in anger. I thought that it was John’s voice that I could hear, but I wasn’t entirely sure.

‘Want to stop, listen for a bit?’ asked the caretaker, shifting his eyes sardonically towards Heidi’s door.

‘It’s fine,’ I said, speeding up.

‘They’ll be arguing,’ he said, ‘about succession rights. They’re riled up about it most of the time. It’s quite the thing around here.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Who’s to inherit the building? Should it be John, with his direct family line? Or should it be a god-child of one of the others, for who’s to say that blood’s more important than fellowship?’

‘Should be John, surely,’ I said.

‘Or should it be earned?’ he said. ‘Should worth be proved? Should the next one be selected, chosen?’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s just a building.’

‘Ah.’  

I glanced at the warm wood, the pink light glancing along the banister from the stained glass window. ‘A beautiful one,’ I added, more to myself than to him.

‘Ah,’ he said again.

We took the stairs up to the attic rooms. I hadn’t been this far before.

‘Why are they arguing? Why do they care? They all have the right to be here.’

‘An admirable sentiment,’ he said. ‘Property has value, especially in this part of London.’

‘Oh,’ I said, feeling stupid.

‘And then,’ he said, ‘there are more important things. The feeling of carrying something on, of status, of owning something bigger than yourself. Tradition.’

The stairs were narrower up here, the ceilings lower, the wallpaper peeling off the walls.

‘I see,’ I said. I thought about the private rooms downstairs. The idea of people grabbing at them. ‘They should leave it alone,’ I said. ‘Let it be.’ I blushed. I sounded mad. He just smiled.

‘And what about you?’ he said.

‘Me?’

‘Do you feel you have the right to inherit this place?’

‘I’ve only just got here,’ I said.

‘Wait here.’

The narrow hallway was dark, the light coming from a single bare bulb. There were two doors. The caretaker slipped through one. I leaned against the wall and waited, feeling uncomfortable, glancing at the other door. A fly buzzed, zooming past my head, out of sight, and back again. There was no window. It was hot and airless up here. I thought perhaps I could see a fine line of light under the other door. The fly settled on my cheek. I batted it off. Distantly, in another world, an ambulance sounded and faded away.

Eventually the caretaker’s door opened again. I tried to peer in, but he closed it quickly behind him.

‘Here,’ he said, handing me a brass key ring. ‘Be careful this time.’

‘Thanks,’ I said, moving towards the stairs.

‘And remember,’ he said, ‘you have as much right as anyone. It all remains to be seen.’

‘Thanks,’ I said again, and quickly made my way back down the stairs to the first floor.

Heidi’s door was open now. John was standing at the threshold.

‘It’s irrelevant,’ he said, ‘and what’s more, it’s beneath us.’

‘For fuck’s sake!’ she said.

‘Oh! Rosie. What are you doing skulking around up there? Being nosy?’ He placed a warm hand on my shoulder.

I dangled the keys in front of me.

‘Locked out,’ I said.

‘I meant to say,’ said Heidi brightly, and went back into her room. ‘Your keys,’ she called.

‘Come and see my paintings?’ said John, his hand still on my shoulder, which was tingling beneath his warm fingers.

‘Here,’ said Heidi. ‘I found them in the hall downstairs.’

It wasn’t like me. I was always so careful. I looked at the second set of keys in my hand and glanced back up the dark staircase. People might sneak into your room when you weren’t looking. It was important to be careful.

‘Keep them,’ said Heidi. ‘Always useful to have a spare.’

‘Come on,’ said John, and pulled me towards the stairs to the ground floor, his hand warm in mine. I kept my hand in his a little too long. He let go.

‘Oh,’ he said, his key in the lock, ‘I’ve just remembered. Got a call to make. Come round later?’

‘Okay,’ I said, trying not to look disappointed. I was about to ask what time, then I realised that it wasn’t the right thing to say. ‘See you later.’

‘See you, Rosie,’ he said, and the door shut. Maybe I’d tell him about the exhibition after all – that would give me a reason to visit beyond his half-hearted invite.

I stood in the sparkling underground hall with my camera. There was always something new to see – the light glancing off the walls, the curiously flesh-like pink- grey of the floor, a butterfly poised on the skylight – but I never knew if I’d captured it on film. I still had to finish turning the ante-room into my darkroom. After my initial burst of energy I’d lost my way.

I unlocked the second door and made my way to the gym. I liked to pick up the old dumb bells and medicine balls – to feel that they were full of history, full of stories and all mine. I sat on the leather pommel horse, camera round my neck, and looked around for something to take a picture of. A board was turned against the wall. Maybe it was another sign. I jumped off the horse and took a closer look. On the back a typed label said, ‘Regulations. Agreed and approved May 15th 1973.’ It had been typed on a manual typewriter, some of the letters bolder than others. I turned the board around.

A black painted board with cursive, white handwriting on.

Regulations for the Governance of Our Fellowship

There is no possession in Love

Treat everyone as Fellows, except those that are not

Please do not let non-Fellows into the underground parts of the establishment

Please wash up after yourself

 I took a photo of the board. Though perhaps this history was a little too recent for Heidi, John and Felix to appreciate. I turned it back to the wall.

Despondent, I made my way back upstairs. For once, my rooms hadn’t filled me with joy. I felt the weight of them a little heavily on my back. These rooms weren’t just mine, they had a long history with people who would have likely had no time for me and my flabby thinking and inadequate art. I thought perhaps another day would be a better time to visit John. I went to bed early, wishing that the window had curtains.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 12

1975.

This is my own copy of what was drafted and signed today. My signature, Ralph Parry, in thick, black pen. First on the list of signatories, for these are my own words. For the most part I’m happy with it, though I didn’t see the need for the clause about acknowledging our debt to past artists. Clive insisted on this through, I’m sure, his disapproval of our appropriation of the term sweetness and light. What is a slight failure in Clive, I’m afraid, is this unwillingness to take ownership of concepts boldly and fearlessly. He’s limited by what I can see to be his timidity and what he would, doubtless, reassure himself by naming honour.

Never mind: it’s signed and we’re the better for that. There’s no use in an informal grouping. That sort of feebleness of association will manifest itself in a feebleness of thinking and, it directly follows, of artistic output.

To our critics, and there would be many, I’m sure, were our goals more outward facing, I would say just this: that there’s no shame, no loss, in being unfashionable. That by its very definition, that which is fashionable is that which is transient. Art does not set out to be transient. That is not its truth. To those who would have us involved in industrial design, graphic design or other such fripperies, I say we are pursuing beauty and truth not the pound note.

This building that we have inherited is a gift in many senses. Of course in the sense that we have been granted it, through birth, for just a peppercorn a year. But that is not the way that I think. It shares its unique qualities with us every day. The even, pale northern light is a gift to all of us – painters, goldsmiths, cabinet makers; we all benefit from its cool, blinkless stare. But more than that – there’s a warmth in the wood, in the plaster, in the terracotta tiles. It soaks up the sun – the light and the life – and it radiates them back gently throughout the day. We’re in an incubator. We cannot fail to be exceptional. Our work cannot fail to be infused with warmth and feeling.

Today after our meeting we sat in the vast, dark, vaulted cellar space, lit only by candles, the glimmer of rough stone catching the soft light and fracturing it. I looked around the handful of people in the huge space, watched their faces and saw trust there, and confidence, and even a little admiration, but their expressions shifted and fractured like the light reflected by the rough walls and I saw other things there too – a holding back, a restraint, a slight disquiet.

I handed out the signed copies of the foundation principles of our association and I dissolved the meeting. When they’d gone back about their business, I unlocked the door at the back of the room and I climbed two flights of the narrow, windowless wooden stairs, my breath a drum beat.

At the top of the second flight I took a key from my pocket, tarnished brass with an elaborate, heart-shaped bow above the simple blade. I turned it in the small lock – a rough hole that you’d hardly see if you didn’t know where to look; and indeed, who else could? Then I crawled along the narrow space, pushed open another hatch and stood in the large, empty space of our one disused studio. Bathed in the late morning light of this early summer’s day after my time crawling around in the dark like a mole, I couldn’t help but close my eyes and lift my arms heavenward. Then I pulled back a corner of the woven rug and put my eye to the slit in the floor. The aperture that had once seen vast canvasses lifted and dropped from floor to floor, now just had my own small eye pressed to it in the hope of being let into some of this beautiful building’s secrets.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Soon enough there was movement below. The gold-red head of Clive – a Norse God by looks, a feeble mouse by nature. Next to that, the rabbit brown of Annie’s sparse locks. Now, she has the appearance of the mouse, but does she have the nature of a passionate Norse God? Only time will tell. It was an interesting thought, one that held my attention for a good few minutes before I realised that, far from witnessing the building’s secrets, I was merely witnessing these two begin a somewhat joyless coupling. After a suitable interval I drew the rug back into place and sat back on my heels.

Perhaps my building hadn’t revealed any of her secrets today, but if there were secrets to reveal and she was ready to show them, she would. I made my way through the narrow passageway again and back the way I’d come.

Enough of this. The association has been formally founded and this day is an important one in our own small history: and who knows, perhaps its importance will one day be recognised beyond these four walls.

In the meantime, we sit here quiet and unassuming as mice, going about our labour with both humility and pride. Navigating this tautology shall strengthen our souls and our resolve.

Here good works will be created.

And on these pages of mine our little efforts shall be recorded, for no-one’s eyes but my own – least of all those who appear upon them.