Sweetness and Light, chapter five

2005

It’s called selective mutism. There is a great deal of shame in telling you that – saying that out loud about myself. Normal people speak, laugh, dance, shout (I still can’t shout), voice opinions, push themselves forwards, take risks, meet people’s eyes, and say words.

I was not a normal child. I am not a normal adult, but I am slightly better at pretending – just slightly, mind. I have learned how to mimic normality enough to get by, but of course all that makes me is a ghost of a real person; a bad copy.

The word shy fills me with guilt and disgust. You might think it’s a neutral word – to me it speaks of failure, of being an alien.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know the words or understand how to form them, it was that pushing them out of my mouth when the world was full of terrors like bright lights, loud noises, rushing people and peering eyes just felt impossible. It’s not that I didn’t have or don’t have strong opinions. I care deeply about life’s invisible people – the children left to languish in foster care because they’re too old to be adopted, the smart, accomplished women written off as little old ladies, the dogs in puppy farms, the teenage boys who can’t admit they cry, the parents using foodbanks to keep their kids alive – but I don’t know how to express that articulately and confidently, saying hello is a victory won.

The thing with selective mutism is that you’re in a corner that’s exponentially harder and harder to get out of. When you are terrified of a fuss and a big reaction, the drama of suddenly speaking after years of silence gets harder and harder to contemplate. It also becomes more and more embarrassing not to speak. And so you’re stuck between two excruciating places.

The summer I was eleven was spent in the usual way – long weeks at home playing schools with a selection of teddy bears as my pupils or baking sand cakes in the small sand pit in the back garden, and two weeks in Wales, curled into a leafy branch reading Famous Five stories on sunny days, visiting icy seas on beaches with face-grazing sun, wind and rain, and eating fish and chips in the car.

As the summer faded, the dread got heavier in my stomach. In September I’d be moving to secondary school and, alone of everyone in my class, I wasn’t moving to the school closest to our primary school, I was going to one closer to home. I stopped playing schools with my teddy bears and started playing hospitals.

I made me way to Mum in the kitchen when she was washing up our beans on toast plates. How did you get other children to play with you, I wanted to know?

‘You just walk up to them and ask if you can join in,’ she said.

I sat down at the dining table and put my head in my hands.

‘I wish I had a brother or sister,’ I said. ‘I could play with them.’

‘We can’t always have everything we want,’ she said. ‘I wanted to travel the world or set up my own business, but I had you instead.’

I didn’t say anything.

‘You pick one thing or the other,’ she said, a little more gently.

I hadn’t picked though, had I?

The new term started with very little of the chill in the air that marked a new beginning. The days were still hot. I sweated in my new tie and blazer, watching the other kids bouncing off each other like ping pong balls, teasing each other with easy familiarity, playing British Bulldog, tag, kiss chase. The first playtime I waited politely, leaning against the wall, trying to make my face relaxed and ready to smile at anyone who caught my eye. By the Friday, I’d found a spot near the corner to sit on a wall. I tried to make it look as if I was waiting there temporarily. Just ask to join them, she’d said. I knew that was bad advice. It didn’t work like that. I watched and waited instead.

I watched the games they played, listened to the words they used, noticed how they talked to each other – casually, confidently, off hand – and I tried to commit it to memory so that I could do it myself. Like a game of Grandmother’s Footsteps, over the years that followed I eventually I found my way closer to them without them ever seeing me do it.

Now, my bag was sitting on the floor at my feet, a set of keys was in my hand and I was alone. My new life had begun. Only the day before I’d been making lists at home. And now I was here. The blank white of the walls pressed upon my eyelids. Now what?

I unpacked my few clothes and folded them, laying them on the top shelf of the cupboard. Beneath them were five empty shelves. My equipment could go there. I took my camera and laptop and placed them on the second shelf. It was fine: I’d build up more equipment over time. I supposed a proper photographer would have their own darkroom. I glanced around the bright, white space. Not in here, they wouldn’t.

The only thing for it was to explore my new space. I opened the cupboards and doors in the small kitchen. A couple of knives and forks, a mug and a glass, a small saucepan and frying pan. This was something to do: I could write a list of what I needed and use up some time tomorrow shopping. I drew some water into the bath. It coughed and spluttered, but soon enough ran warm. I realised that I hadn’t packed a wash bag. Another list. I perched on the edge of the bath, over its centimetre of luke-warm water, and loosened my limbs, relaxed my face, swung my arms; tried to inhabit the room. My body was tiny in this vast space. I was in the belly of the whale.

I moved to the fireplace. Here, perhaps, was somewhere I could make my own. The cabbage rose wallpaper either side of the fireplace already made it seem less intimidating – softer, like a retired couple’s walls. The sofa and armchair were tatty, but perhaps the gas fire worked. I could buy a few cushions and make it feel like home. After all, I could be here for the rest of my life if I wanted to be. I should breathe into the space and inhabit it. An edge of the paper was loose. I slid a finger under it and then smoothed it down. I stroked the swags of pale flowers on the walls. You’re mine, I thought, more or less. Then I looked nervously behind me at the closed door.

This, I thought, is exactly what’s wrong with you. Living in fear. Unable to take ownership of something you’ve rightfully inherited. A better person would rip this wallpaper off, redecorate; own the room.

There was a tap at the door. Halfway across the room to the door, I realised that this could be one of the artists. I looked down at my shapeless sweatshirt and jeans. Scruffy enough to be messy; not messy enough to seem artful. I mentally flipped through the clothes in the cupboard. The tap again, more insistent this time. I wiped my hands on my thighs and made my way to the door.

‘Hello.’ He held out a hand. No paint splattered on those hands, I noticed.

‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I’m Rose.’

‘I know. I’m John. I dropped by to welcome you to the fold.’

My first meeting with John. I try to go back, to see him again for the first time. His habit of pushing his bottom lip out after he finished speaking, when he was waiting for you to reply. His eyes – paler blue than you’d expect in a grown man, the dense blue of a cat’s eye marble.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Thanks.’ I hesitated. He pushed his bottom lip out. ‘I’m a photographer,’ I added, justifying my presence or maybe existence.

‘That’s good,’ was all he said.

‘Yes.’

‘Can I come in? I haven’t seen this studio. Supposedly, it’s the best. You’re honoured.’

‘Is it? It is nice.’ Nice. Did artists use words like ‘nice’? ‘I can’t see why I’d have the best one. I’ve only just arrived.’

‘Let me see it, then.’ He didn’t exactly push past me. I stepped aside. ‘Well. Yes, I’d say it definitely is the best. Congratulations.’

‘I’m sure it can’t be. Though if it is,’ I realised, ‘that must just be because I inherited it? Not because I’ve been singled out.’ I blushed. Of course he wasn’t suggesting that I was singled out.

‘Who knows?’ he said. ‘I don’t think it’s that black and white. You inherited the right to a studio here. I don’t think it matters which.’

‘So, who decides?’

‘The committee.’

‘Oh. Right. Of course. Yes, the committee.’

‘Shame about the wallpaper.’

I glanced at it. He was right. It wasn’t friendly. It was old-fashioned.

‘Yes. It’s a bit grannyish. Never mind, though. I don’t mind it.’

‘I’d take it down if I were you. Look at these beautiful, tall white walls. All this flat, cool, northern light. Why ruin it with this stuff?’ He jabbed a finger at the wallpaper. ‘See, it’s coming off anyway.’ He tugged at the loose edge. ‘Get rid of it.’

‘Can I?’

‘Are you always so timid?’

‘I’m not timid. I’m just…’

‘… a worrier?’

‘Yes. I suppose.’ I wasn’t entirely sure this conversation was going well. ‘Do you want to sit down?’ I gestured at the scruffy beige sofa behind us.

‘Why not?’ He had an air of great confidence and ease, like a general in a oil painting leaning on his rifle.

‘I don’t have any tea,’ I added. ‘Or coffee.’

‘I’ll just sit down for a short time, then,’ he said with a not unattractive smirk. ‘Until my need for tea or coffee becomes too great.’

He made a neat package on the sofa. He looked well put together; well thought out. There was nothing rangy about him – he was all compactness. I felt untidy.

‘So,’ I said. ‘What are you?’

‘What am I?’ he said. He was kind enough not to look amused.

‘What kind of artist are you?’

‘Oh. What kind of work do I do, you mean.’

‘Yes. That.’ I filed the phrase for later.

‘I’m a painter.’ He tossed it at me and waited for me to toss it back.

‘What do you paint?’ I regretted it immediately. I hoped I hadn’t blushed.

‘Faces. Figurative really, but of course elements are partially abstracted. I’m capturing them in extremis. Oil on canvas.’

‘Oil!’ I said, as if this was a revelation, then blushed again.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Oil.’ He glanced at me, legs awkwardly tucked under my body, inhabiting the red chair like a stick insect on a branch. ‘Does that surprise you?’

‘These days…’ I said, hoping that it sounded knowledgeable.

‘And you? What do you photograph?’

 ‘Anything and everything.’ He pushed his bottom lip out. ‘Secrets,’ I said. ‘I photograph secrets.’

‘Are you working on something?’ he said. My mind was blank. ‘An exhibition? A book?’

‘No,’ I said. I couldn’t think of any way to sugar the pill.

‘Well. You should. Make a project up and put on an exhibition. In my opinion, of course. Just my two penny’s worth. But I think it’s good to have a focus.’

‘Okay. I mean, that is worth considering.’

‘It is.’ He tucked his feet together, pushed his palms into the sofa and stood up. ‘I’ll leave you to it. Leave you to your secrets.’

‘I don’t have any… Oh. Yes.’

‘See you around.’

And he pulled open the heavy door and was gone. A painter, I thought. He must consider photography to be far beneath him. No craft in it, no toil in it. Just the click of a button. I stared at the closed door for a second, breathing in the thin air, the silence of the room, my aloneness. Then I went back to the wallpaper and pulled at a jagged edge level with the top of the fireplace. It ripped slowly and haphazardly, like a stepmother’s blessing leaves a sliver of raw, bleeding skin by the side of the nail.

I went back to my unpacking.

Sweetness and Light, chapter four

2005

There was an envelope on the kitchen table that morning. Rose on the front in Mum’s spikey, black writing. Next to it was a glass of orange juice, freshly squeezed from those oranges, with a saucer on top to keep the flies out. I drank the juice and opened the envelope.

A postcard of Kensington and a cheque for five-thousand pounds. I turned the postcard over.

Rose. This has been in savings for you since you were born, so you don’t have to worry about earning money for now. I’m sure that this is the start of a new you. My work is done. Love Jane x

Jane. Mum’s way of showing we were both adults now. Her work was done, as she said. I was touched. I tucked the cheque and card into the front of my bag and had some breakfast while I waited for her to come down to say goodbye. I hoped she wouldn’t be too emotional. I found goodbyes hard.

Two slices of toast and marmalade and two cups of tea later, the house was still silent. I glanced at the red plastic clock on the wall. Just gone nine. I needed to leave in five minutes or I’d miss my train. It wasn’t like Mum not to be up at the crack of dawn on a normal day, never mind on a big day like this. I dropped my bag near the door and climbed the stairs.

She didn’t answer my knock. I knocked again, then tentatively opened the door, a small terror that she’d died in the night lurking in the back of my mind. Her bed was neatly made, the blue floral throw was tidily tucked over the duvet and pillows, a saucer was over the glass of water by her bed and her red velour dressing gown was hanging on the back of the door, in its usual spot. I closed the door behind me and looked at my watch anxiously. She must be in the shower.

I tapped on the bathroom door.

‘Mum. Mum! I’m going.’

No answer.

I tapped again.

‘I wanted to say goodbye. I’ve got to leave in five minutes.’

Silence. I tried the door. The bathroom was empty, towels folded precisely, shower curtain hanging outside the bath, the way I always forgot to leave it, toilet blue with detergent. I closed the door and looked at my watch again. I’d have to go.

I texted her from the train. Maybe that was easier than a big goodbye anyway. She probably knew that. And maybe she thought that things would be very different for us from then on; that I’d be stepping away from her slowly but irreversibly. Her work was done, as she said. I pushed away thoughts of her days without our comfortable routine, her evenings alone in our living room with the Radio Times and a cup of tea. It was gracious of her to make it no big deal.

The train was nearly empty, just me and a man in his fifties, I’d guess, in a white tee shirt and jeans, holding a Jack Russell carefully on his knee like an unexploded bomb. They got off at Marylebone too, but I lost sight of them straight away.

I stood at the crossroads, looking up the hill. To either side of me were tall, sand-coloured, Georgian buildings, their ground floors cluttered with small supermarkets, pubs, greengrocers and boarded-up shops. Not so far from where I’d come from, this sight, but the air here was different. The streets were wider and the skies were somehow higher. Straight ahead of me, Campden Hill Road curved up and around, its Georgian feet free of clutter. As the street bent out of sight, the sun hit the old buildings square on. This was where I was headed. This was my new life.

As I crossed the road, the world was immediately quieter, stiller and more privileged. My cheeks started to flush and my shoulders hunch, but, you know what, I had as much of a right to be here as anyone, even if I was nothing like them. As much as the driver of that sleek black car. As much as the people who breakfasted in that huge basement kitchen with doors you could see, if you stooped a little, led directly into a leafy garden. For a peppercorn a year, I could live here for as long as I wanted.

I passed icing sugar-pink, blue and lemon houses, ivy-clad cottages that were probably worth more than all the houses in my street put together, neatly painted wrought iron fences. This was order; this was sense; this was proportion. Perhaps this was the sort of life that I was meant to lead. These people were no better than me or Mum; they simply had more money.

A woman in a black suit with dark-dyed hair and a shirt of a whiteness that only money could buy marched past me, the points on her shoes kicking up tiny clouds of dust. An older couple in sandals, her hair honeyed, his snow-white, passed on the other side of the street carrying shopping bags. The trees looked sculpted here; they swept the air with balletic grace.

There it was: on the corner, next to a low house that was buttered with ivy. It was an odd building, my new home. The upper walls were snakeskin-tiled with terracotta, its many-paned window tucked tightly into its chest. To the left, the front door cowered beneath a tall, red brick gable. Three storeys above, attic windows peered blindly at the blue skies. I crossed the road, stepped through the gate towards the white double door and pressed the doorbell. It buzzed loudly. At my feet, a huge hexagonal skylight was green with mildew. I rested my bag on the doorstep.

I had arrived.

‘Rose, I assume?’

He had brown hair with sweeps of iron through it, dirty tan overalls, a bunch of keys in his hand and a thick beard. There was a mop and bucket on the floor next to him.

‘Yes, that’s right.’ I put my bag down on the floor, started to chew a fingernail then quickly took my finger out of my mouth. The hallway was dark, peeling, moss-green wallpaper and nut-brown woodwork giving it the air of a dank forest. A three-armed chandelier with fluted glass shades cast a yellowing light around the room. I instinctively took half a step backwards towards the sunlight of the doorway.

‘This way,’ he said.

With a quick glance back, I picked up my bag and followed.

I didn’t have to walk far. After a couple of steps he pushed open a door to his left. I surveyed it, disappointed. A poky room with a single window, it contained a small, paint-stained butler’s sink, a tatty fridge, a couple of armchairs and a sofa, which I assumed must be a sofa bed if I was to live here. In the far corner, the apple green paint was peeling off a solid but charmless cupboard.

‘It’s lovely,’ I said and smiled at him brightly.

‘This is the common room. An old tradition, I suppose, of artists gathering to seek their muse.’ He said this with an invisible but perceptible shrug.

‘The common room. That’s great.’

‘There’s a jar for contributions.’

‘Contributions?’

‘For coffee, tea, milk and so on.’

There were a few coins in the bottom of the jam jar, a slot crudely forced through the lid with a knife. The room was silent, dusty. There was no sign of people to seek my muse with.

‘Here,’ he lifted one of the keys from the key ring with a thick, browned finger and thumb. ‘If the door’s locked. That’s the key.’

‘Is it normally?’

He looked at me blankly.

‘Is it kept locked?’

‘Open during the day. Locked at 6pm, opened at 9am.’

‘These artists keep very regular hours,’ I observed.

‘There have to be rules,’ he said, ‘or everything falls apart.’

‘I’m sure.’ I wondered if the job bred an attachment to rules and order or attracted it. I remembered Mr Simpson, the caretaker at school, and the pleasure he took in policing victimless crimes, such as sitting on radiators or untucking the back of a shirt.

‘This way,’ he said.

I followed him further down the corridor, past two closed doors, to a room right at the back of the house.

‘These other doors, they’re all artist’s studios?’

‘Of course. And storage.’

‘Are they in use?’ They looked firmly, unpromisingly, shut.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘They are in use. Artists keep their own hours, don’t they?’ He raised a single thick, dark eyebrow.

‘Of course,’ I said.

‘This is the one.’ He turned a Yale key in the lock. ‘Here.’ He pushed open the heavy wooden door, gesturing me to go through ahead of him.

Two huge, double height windows with a lattice-work of small panes threw light across the parquet floor. The room was barely furnished at all – a scruffy, beige hessian sofa was pushed in front of the iron fireplace, a maroon velour armchair at its side, cabbage rose wallpaper in muted shades bookended the fireplace. All the other walls were white. In one corner were a couple of kitchen units, a white electric cooker, a small fridge and a sink. Behind a screen in the far corner was what seemed to be a claw footed iron bath and a small washbasin. A ladder led up to a platform with a bed on. The room dwarfed all of these things with its tall, white walls and expanses of floor. Here, I thought, I could be someone different. I could peel back the layers to find my true self; expand to fit this space. I took a deep breath.

I heard a cough behind me.

‘Any questions?’ he said, looking at me eagerly.

I gazed around me.

‘The toilet?’ I asked.

He pointed to a door next to the kitchenette.

‘Just mine?’ The thought of getting up in the night and encountering others was unpleasant.

‘Of course,’ he said, looking irritated. ‘Anything else?’

Keen to get him back on side, I asked, ‘rules?’

He gave me an inscrutable look. ‘Here,’ he handed me the key ring.

‘Is there a contract to sign?’ I asked, holding the warm keys and thinking of that brown envelope in the sideboard at home. ‘I wouldn’t worry about that yet,’ he said, and he was gone, leaving me alone with my small holdall, gazing up at the tall windows, and wondering if I had a muse worth seeking

Sweetness and Light, chapter three

2005

‘You’re back.’

‘I got your oranges.’

Our oranges.

‘Thanks, love.’

I put the newspaper down on the kitchen table and filled the kettle up.

‘Lovely,’ said Mum. ‘Make a pot, will you?’

‘Okay,’ I said. An image of a possible future filling canteen sized urns with tea in a staff canteen and brewing it until it was thick as petrol, lit a flare in my head. I used the big cups. I picked up my newspaper on the way out – there were lists to make, CVs to write, letters to draft, stamps to buy.

‘Stay here, love,’ said Mum, ‘pull up a pew. We can drink our tea together.’ Her smile was a fine, fuschia dash.

‘I’ve got to do this, Mum,’ I said, gesturing with the newspaper. ‘It’s time I sorted myself out, isn’t? There’s been enough sitting around feeling sorry for myself.’

She didn’t show any disappointment, though her disappointment must have spanned years. A lifetime – my lifetime, to be precise – spent encouraging me in artistic pursuits, buying me cameras, downloading art school application forms, praising my efforts, and here I was ticking the small ads in the back of the local Gazette and applying for admin jobs in printers.

Back in the warm womb of my room I closed the curtains and opened my notebook. A clean, white page never felt like a fresh start to me, it felt like a wide-eyed stare. I stared back. Then I began to write.

I wrote a list of preparation tasks – buy printer paper, write CV, buy stamps. I made a list of potential employers and application deadlines. Then I turned the page to list my skills. Pale yellow light skimmed the blank white paper. I turned back to the previous page and wrote ‘skills’ again, this time under a list of deadlines. It sat less hostilely on the page when it shared the space. A tree creaked outside my window, the pipes tapped and spat, a bird whistled. I listened. There was a thickness to the silence once I focussed on it. It clustered around me.

Skills.

I closed the notebook.

‘You brought your cup down. Thanks, love.’

‘That’s okay.’ I put it down on the draining board.

‘Rosie,’ she said, ‘Rose, let’s talk.’

‘Okay,’ I said.

‘I’ve noticed something about you recently. Do you mind me saying?’

‘Yes? I mean, no.’

‘You just talk in yes’s, no’s and okays.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Do I?’ I added.

‘You’re in a rut.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I mean, I know I am.’

‘Are you depressed, love, because I know Mrs Riley’s son Tom suffers from that, he gets Seasonal Affective Disorder, so I wondered if you had the same thing. You know – depression.’

‘It’s summer, Mum.’

‘Not seasonal depression, just common or garden depression. You seem listless, you’re quiet, you’re in your room all the time. I don’t know – are you sleeping all the time, because that’s a symptom of depression?’

‘No,’ I said. Mum raised an eyebrow a fraction of a millimetre. ‘I’m not depressed.’ I tried to force some more words out. It felt like pushing honey out of a straw. ‘I’m honestly not.’

Mum narrowed her eyes. She sighed.

‘Anyway. How’s the job hunting going?’

I held out four envelopes, tidy capital letters on the front, just waiting for stamps. She strained to see.

‘Perry’s Printers. Aren’t they in town? You’re not looking in London anymore?’

‘It’s time to be realistic,’ I said. ‘The perfect thing isn’t going to just come along. I need to change my approach.’ I wondered if she was pleased. London was a long way away. It would have pushed me into a different shape: one that might not tessellate with her any more.

‘A printers, though? As what? I thought you wanted a role in a creative company.’

‘As an administrator,’ I said. Our eyes met. I had nothing to add.

‘Right,’ she said.

I felt myself sinking further into the beige carpet. ‘It’s better than nothing,’ I said.

‘True. Well. I have some news,’ she said. ‘Some good news, I think.’ Her hand twitched on the table as if it wanted to slap something smartly.

‘I’ll make some more tea,’ I said.

‘Why not?’

‘And get some biscuits.’

I rooted around for the biscuit tin. I could hear her fingers tapping on the Formica of the table.

‘A crumpet?’

‘Rose. Can you sit down, love?’

I sat down with the cups and then stood up again for the biscuits.

Mum placed her mug carefully onto the centre of the yellow flower on her coaster. With her left hand she fiddled with one of the small, ceramic pill boxes on the side board. I feel pretty, it said, in looped writing that curved beneath a heavily flowered rose branch. One of my seventeenth birthday presents.

‘Right. Are you settled now? I’ve got something for you. A letter arrived this morning.’ She reached behind her and pulled a brown A4 envelope, torn open at the top, from out of the sideboard.

‘A letter for me?’ I reached for it, but she held onto it.

‘For both of us,’ she said. ‘For me and for you.’

I peered at the typed address on the envelope.

Rose Acker and her parent or guardian

‘Parent or guardian? Aren’t I a bit old for that? Who’s it from?’

‘Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it?’ She looked pleased with herself, as the owners of secrets always do.

‘Yes,’ I said, straining to see the typed sheets she pulled out of the envelope.

‘Where shall I start?’ she smiled. ‘Where shall I start, I wonder.’ She put the papers back into the envelope. ‘So. Let’s start with this. Your godfather.’

‘I’ve got a godfather?’

 ‘Yes. Not that it means anything. It’s a formality, isn’t it? We’re not a godly family. Good solid Midland peasant stock without a religious bone in our bodies.’

‘Who is he?’

‘He’s no-one you know. We’ve not seen him for years.’

‘So why’s he writing to me? Has he met me?’

‘It’s not exactly him writing to you. And yes.’ When she met my eyes, I realised that she hadn’t been looking at me directly since she picked up the envelope. ‘Just the once or so. When you were a small baby. We lost touch.’

‘Why?’

‘There’s not always a why, is there? A why and a wherefore. Friendships end, people drift apart. I knew him when I was a lot younger.’

‘You liked him enough to make him my godfather. Or,’ I realised, ‘Dad did.’

‘It wasn’t like that with your father. You know that.’ By like that, she meant normal, a relationship, something with a history, something that left traces.

‘You, then,’ I said. I’d learnt not to pursue this line of enquiry.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘in a sense, yes. In a sense, no.’ The envelope was clutched tightly between her two hands.

‘Well, so what’s in the letter?’

‘I’m getting to that. Through your godfather’s estate…’

‘He’s dead?’

‘He’s been missing for some years, it seems. Anyway, through his estate, you’ve inherited,’ she glanced at the closed envelope, as though wanting to get the phrasing correct, ‘the right to an artist’s studio for peppercorn rent in perpetuity.’

‘An artist’s studio? Where?’

‘In London. Kensington.’

My heart leapt in terror and joy.

‘Why, though?’

‘It’s an inheritance. So I suppose he had no-one else to leave it to.’

The soft breath of potential was drifting through the room, stroking the G Plan sideboard and the Formica dining table, sliding past the kettle and the toaster and the dusty Soda Stream, breathing warm mist onto the glass of the sliding doors, ruffling the red tulips on the table, slipping over the plates on the kitchen shelves. An inheritance. The fire in my belly gasped to life. I bit my lip and grinned.

She took the papers out of the envelope – typed printer paper, not thick yellowing slabs covered in thick, black handwriting. I was briefly disappointed then thought – who cares, it’s an inheritance.

‘Lots of boring, legal stuff,’ she said. ‘Rights have been passed down since 1850, etcetera, etcetera.’

‘Is that boring?’ I said, holding out my hand.

‘You can read it later. The gist is, a group of artists set up their studios there in the nineteenth century and written into the contract was the right for their descendants, should they be artistically inclined, to rent the same studios for a nominal rent.’

‘A peppercorn,’ I said, stroking the Formica table with my index finger, drawing lines, circles, sweeping arcs. ‘You have to be artistically inclined?’

‘That’s okay. You are.’

‘I haven’t done anything in years. I’ve got a camera, but it doesn’t get used. Anyway, who owns the studio then?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. It’ll all be in here.’ She was studying the pages very closely. ‘This is good for you, Rose. This could be the making of you. This could be what you need.’

‘Yes,’ I said. I smiled.

An inheritance. The breath of potential. An inheritance.

‘When should I go?’ I said.

‘Whenever you like.’ She slipped the papers back into the envelope and tapped it smartly on the table. ‘Whenever you like. It’s your life, your choice.’ She glanced at me. ‘It’s all opened up for you, hasn’t it, Rose, my dear?’

Perhaps this was what I’d been waiting for – fate to tap me on the back. But –  Mum on her own. A new life for me, yes, but that meant a new shape to fit into. Big decisions shouldn’t be rushed into. There was fire in my belly but there was also dread.

I sat on my bed, my nerves quivering my fingers. I pictured myself in an artist’s studio in Kensington, surrounded by light, creating something – I didn’t know what. I saw myself with people who’d always seemed above my station, but who now saw me as a kindred spirit. A bright future full of creative successes and recognition, of being a proper person with an identity and purpose. Of course I had to go.

Had to, I thought. Just a minute. I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to. I could go to London if I wanted to. I could stay if I wanted to. Let people think what they wanted. Nothing was decided yet.

But I packed the few belongings I thought would fit my new life into a holdall anyway – one or two dresses, one pair of jeans, a few shirts and jumper. The rest could stay. If I decided to go, that was. I threw in a couple of notebooks and pens and my camera and laptop, and that was it. I’d inhabited my old life lightly it seemed – perhaps this new one would stick a little better. If I went.

If I went.

I zipped up my bag and thought that perhaps I’d have one last night at the pub and see how I felt about going. No point rushing it. Mum, after all, was used to having me around; she might need me more than she’d let on. There were four envelopes waiting for the post. Nothing had been decided yet.

A couple of hours later I walked out of the estate and along the canal to the Red Lion in town. The towpath was close and still, the light dropping to give it back its privacy. I skirted past the horsetail and bindweed, the ragwort and the bulrushes. I’d learnt their names when I’d made it my project to photograph and name every plant on my route to work, happier days in my mid twenties when I worked in a camera shop and was young enough for it to be an in-between job. The project was hopeless – boredom dressed up as an idea – and left me feeling depressed and aimless, lacking that verve that genuinely creative people had and without the urge or skill to do anything else. I shelved photography for a while after that and had only recently picked up my camera again.

Past a clutter of beer cans in the weeds and up the steps to emerge onto a streetlamp-pooled side street, sentineled by waste bins and parked cars. Maybe this wasn’t my world anymore; perhaps I could allow myself to be glad to leave it. The dread pushed a thumb into my heart again. I crossed for the pub at the pelican crossing.

‘Rose!’ called Jim. He was sitting in the far corner of the near empty room with a pint of lager on a damp coaster. His light brown hair tickled his grin.

I waved.

‘Well,’ he said as I sat down opposite him with my bottle of beer, ‘here we are again. Where’s everyone else?’

‘It was a bit last minute. I was a bit last minute.’

‘That’s not like you. The Queen of lists.’

I took a deep breath and a long sip of my beer and tried out the words. ‘I’m leaving. I’m moving out.’ Maybe, I added in my head. Maybe not.

‘Where to?’

‘To London. Something’s come up. An opportunity. I’ve inherited an artist’s studio.’ I said this as grandly as I dared.

‘Have you inherited an artist, too?’

‘I am an artist.’ The words sat flatly in the room. I blushed. ‘Sort of. I studied art, at least.’

‘I know,’ he said. ‘I’m joking. But how come? From who?’

‘From a long lost godfather. It’s quite exciting. It’s an adventure. I’m going tomorrow.’ The words fell a little flat. I waited for Jim to talk me out of it, to advise me to stick with what I knew. To remind me I was someone who hated adventures.

‘Tomorrow!’ He studied me for a second. ‘Well, I’m happy for you, Rose. Maybe this is just what you need.’

‘Do you know how long I’ve lived away from home? Just three years of my whole life. Art school.’

‘And that flat you rented in town for three months.’

‘The one with the cockroaches, where the kitchen ceiling fell in.’

‘Good times.’

‘Good times.’

The pub door slammed a blast of air into the room. I looked round. No-one we knew. Jim picked up his coaster and started to peel the paper off its surface and lie it in a tidy pile in the corner of the damp table.

‘So,’ he said, ‘what will you do for money?’

‘Well, it’s a live-work studio. I won’t need much. The rent’s a peppercorn a year.’ The local printers job would be much more clear cut and reliable – the more sensible choice.

‘Is that fixed? Or will you suddenly start having to pay rent later?’

‘I don’t think so.’ Where had she put that envelope?

‘Do you have to pay bills?’

‘I don’t know. Anyway. Whatever – it will be cheap. All I’ll need is food.’

‘And artist’s materials,’ he said. ‘Whichever artistry you plan to practise.’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘photography, I suppose.’

‘Congratulations, Rose. It’s a step above us lot and our shambolic ways.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure how Mum will cope though. In some ways,’ I said lightly, slipping it onto the table for Jim to pick up, ‘it would be better to take a job round here and keep her company.’

‘She’s a big girl. She’ll manage. Will you stay in touch, then? Or will I just be that ex from your misspent twenties that still lives in the boring home town you escaped?’

‘Both,’ I said. ‘Do you want another drink?’

Nothing was decided yet. Bags could still be unpacked. Letters could still be posted.

Jim and I had another two drinks and he offered to walk me home, his smile not quite touching his curls now. I declined. I fancied the canal walk in the dark. Maybe it would inspire me, bolster me up with a bit of nerve.

I walked through the dimly lit streets towards the canal. I could still feel the spot on my cheek where Jim had kissed me goodnight. I thought of the first time I’d met him – a house party thrown by one of my colleagues from the camera shop. My head was full of the noise and talk and music and all the different people and their different needs and natures. The alcohol blurred it a bit, softened the kaliedacope shrieking.

At midnight Jim and I were sitting alone in the garden. The darkness had a quiet wildness to it. Other people had stood up to go one by one, leaving us sitting side by side at the wooden table, not facing each other, and it felt oddly intimate – as if we knew each other well enough to be sitting on the sofa together or driving in a car. Silences sunk into our slow conversation, the silences of long intimacy not awkwardness. After a while he took my hand and we sat in the dark, listening to the deep quiet punctured by the sharp pin pricks of a shout or a car door slamming or a bottle smashing. He walked me home along streetlamp lit streets, telling me off for considering walking home alone.

Five years ago. I’d been here too long. It was time to go.

It was a bright night and sections of towpath were lit by the streetlights, but other parts plunged you straight into a treacly wilderness of grabbing brambles and oil-black water. Creatures rummaged unseen, birds whistled and hooted with a low cadence – a stroke or a whisper instead of the daytime shouts and calls. I felt less comfortable than I’d expected and took an earlier gate out than I’d planned, walking the last few hundred yards at street level through the identikit, vanilla safety of the estate, which could, for all I knew, hide murderers and thieves. It was always the last place you thought to look.

Our house was quiet and still. I’d planned a last look round, but felt bad for Mum, rummaging around in her life and patronising it. I did look in the sideboard for the brown envelope, but it had gone. I’d get it in the morning.

The warm cotton of my pillow cupped a cheek that was moving on to different things; lay under a head whose thoughts had already flown over the featureless rooves, finding the way for me to follow.

Sweetness and Light, chapter two

2005

My madnesses have always been so closely swirled into my thought-patterns that I couldn’t see them. I look back now and realise that I’ve been crippled with anxiety my whole life, but the landscape was so familiar to me I didn’t notice that it was unusual. It was normal to me to take a day off work because I couldn’t cope with the idea of people seeing me. It was standard to work hard to copy other, more socially successful people and exhaust myself by trying to mimic them. It was business as usual to fear being caught out and choke on my own terror with a smile on my face; to try and please people so they’d accept me as normal then go home and hide.

Last summer I was thirty and still living at home with my mother, still searching for a career that I could grab and hold onto. I’d gone off to art school but ambled my way back to a nineteen-eighties estate semi with mathematically spaced pansies, a beige stair carpet with hoover stripes and matching salt and pepper pots. As my fellow students floated effortlessly off into the sunnier waters, I sunk quickly back to the muddy bottom.

And I was still there. I sat in my childhood bedroom all day with a pen and paper in front of me, waiting for the germ of an idea, the edge of a brilliant drawing, the start of a book.

They didn’t come, so I wrote lists. Not bucket lists, not lists of ideas to put into action, not even lists that were eccentric in the smallness of their focus – lists of egg recipes; dog breeds; famous men born on the 14th April. My lists were the flotsam and jetsam of a life unlived. Feed birds. Rearrange bookshelf in alphabetical order. Walk for twenty minutes. Read fifty pages of Middlemarch. They were the lists of a prisoner untroubled by thoughts of redemption or escape.

Pushing the day’s list to one side, I polished the wooden desk in my room with a near-empty bottle of Mr Sheen and the wrong kind of cloth. I circled the soft cloth clockwise, anti-clockwise, clockwise. The alarm clock tapped out the seconds. A car revved. Clockwise, anticlockwise, clockwise.

I pushed my chair back against my desk, pulled the thin, floral duvet cover back over the single bed and drew back the curtains, replacing the sickly yellow glow of the big ceiling light with the dishwasher-murk cast of a cloudy summer’s day. The bevelled edges of the small mirror above the chest of drawers chucked fragments of the room back at me. I rearranged my features, opened my eyes a little wider, stood straighter; I threw back my shoulders and looked for a spark. You’re only as small as your imagination, I told the pale face in the mirror. I glimpsed my own brown eyes, bright for a second with ambition, and I flushed and looked away in shame.

We lived alone, me and Mum, always had. A twosome, a pair. There were pairs of everything. Toothbrushes in the glass. Armchairs facing the tele. Pots of low-fat yoghurt for pudding. Our nest of three tables had always had a spare. I tiptoed through our dimly lit life, but every now and then in the dark tiny wings flitted against the bright heat of success, recognition and glamour.

I padded downstairs in my socks. We didn’t have bannisters, just smooth, boxy walls the colour of gone-off cream. In the kitchen our old Soda Stream still stood next to the kettle. I put two pieces of brown sliced bread into the toaster and filled the kettle. As the toaster buzzed softly I looked out of the window, across the grass of the common areas, as Mum called them, to the identikit, biscuit coloured eighties houses across the way. I wondered if someone dressed just like me was looking back at me out of her small window, waiting for her toast to brown. To our left, shopping trolleys drifted in the canal’s dirty water and white dog poo littered the  tow path. Past that, the estate pub, sandwiched between the newsagent and the launderette, where we’d go for a treat every Saturday dinnertime – jacket potatoes with tuna or cheese and beans, a diet coke for me, a small glass of white for Mum.

The toaster popped. I spread on Flora and marmite and took my toast to the table with a cup of tea. The shame spread through me like warm wee; if I didn’t get a job soon I’d be here forever, fading into the fleur de lys carpet. Eventually Mum would die and I’d sit in my seat alone, watching tele next to her empty chair, living off a state pension and giving the canal ducks names.

 ‘Hello, love.’ The front door slammed. ‘Are you still here, Rosie?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Have you been out?’ The kitchen door opened.

‘No.’

‘Are you going out?’

‘Yes.’

Mum tucked her pale hair behind her ear and put her handbag down on the table.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Just into town.’

She sat down opposite me and tipped the contents of her handbag onto the table, sorting receipts into two piles, pushing lipsticks together into a stack, flicking through a small notebook and squaring it on the table.

‘When are you going?’ she said, lining her mobile phone up with her notebook.

‘Now,’ I said. ‘Now-ish.’

‘Let’s talk when you’re back, then, love. Are you taking your camera with you?’

‘No. I’m just going to Boots.’

 ‘You never know what you’ll see,’ she said, brushing the end of her nose with her knuckle. ‘Something might strike you.’

I paused long enough to dismiss the idea without saying it out loud.

‘I’ll see you later.’

‘Bring us back some teabags, will you?’ she said. ‘And half a dozen oranges.’ Her palms were spread on the table, pressed into the wood as if she was preparing to do a handstand.

‘Okay,’ I said. I waited. ‘Do you have some money?’

She didn’t sigh or roll her eyes, she just took five pound coins from one of her neatly stacked towers and handed them to me. ‘Thanks, love.’

I scanned the sun-warmed pavements. A puddle of green paint? A pigeon staring at its reflection in a window? The glow of the sun blazing a blond man’s hair into thin flames? What would someone who took proper photographs, photograph?

I made my way to Kendall and Browns Department Store, two carrier bags jostling my knee and pressing sweat into my palms. The local paper was tucked under my armpit.

For nine years now I’d been living at home and claiming benefits or doing bits of cash in hand work. I needed a job to pay the rent. I could move out of Mum’s, even if it was just to a cheap flat or bedsit just down the road.

I wove between tables in the department store’s low lit café, carrying my filter coffee on the flimsy plywood tray. The windows were heavily draped, swags of thick burgundy pretending we were still in the sixties. I found a banquette seat in the corner and opened the paper to the jobs section at the back.

Salesroom assistant, Carpet It Right. Office administrator, Perry’s Printing. Staff canteen assistant, Woodman’s department store. I ticked all of them. It didn’t matter what it was, what mattered was taking that step away from home before I settled forever. Mum would be okay. She’d managed without me before, hadn’t she? I thought of our five o’clock cup of tea. With these jobs, I could drop in on her after work.

On the way home the pavement warmed my feet through my thin soles and the plastic bag of oranges shoved red welts into my fingers. The thought of Mum on her own in that house, no-one to watch Eastenders with, strummed at me.

It seems like years ago now, but it’s just a few months.

Sweetness and Light, chapter one

2006

This book is documentation. It is evidence. It is proof.

When I was young we’d go on holiday to the same house in Wales every year, one of those small, stone cottages. It had a red door and white windows with curved, pale-painted stone surrounds. It looked as though it was smiling, eyes crinkled up against the sun.

You walked straight into the living room, where a heavy log burner squeezed, shoulders tight, into the stone fireplace and a couple of tatty, brown velour sofas warmed their arms. Most of the furniture and every kitchen unit was that orangey pine. The kitchen units had gingham gathered curtains instead of doors. A mouse lived by the back door.

The two eaves bedrooms were so pressed into the roof space that the windows were at floor height. You had to crouch down to look through them onto the street outside. My bedroom barely fitted a single bed. I’d lie on it, perfectly still, talking to the people in my head.

If you went to the end of the back garden, you could crawl under the fence and find yourself in a small orchard of overgrown grass and gnarled apple trees. It hummed with bees, wasps and flies, its branches crackling with hidden electricity. I’d spend all day curled up in one of its warm branches, racing through a book and eating sun-poached apples. Sometimes the electric hiss and whisper would find its way into my bones and I’d spring off the branch and race through the trees, arms wide open, eyes closed. I was tiny enough to be a single, fizzing cell. I was huge enough to be a roaring sun.

Mum would have macaroni cheese or potato pie waiting and we’d sit together quietly as the sun got thinner, leaving its warm dust on my arms. The orchard was my secret. A place that said that I was bigger than my skin.

Most places other than that orchard and our home made me feel sordid, unseemly and grotesque. My skin crawled with horror and fear a fair amount of the time.

I didn’t speak until I was ten. I could whisper or gesticulate to Mum if we were alone, but I froze, blank-faced and terrified if there was anyone else around. The first word I said properly out loud was ‘sorry’, in a strong Brummie accent. I didn’t talk to anyone outside the family until I was eleven. At fifteen I discovered that litre bottles of cider helped loosen my tongue, but also brought their own, quite different problems.

A lot has happened since then.

Today at the picture library as I re-filed the entire ‘AX-1000’ section, I flicked through some images – DNA sequencing, the subject was – and began to have the beginning of an idea of a photographic project to do with nature, pattern and mathematics.

It’s autumn outside my attic window this evening. I sit here typing, a cup of tea at next to the keyboard, my soup warming on the gas ring.

Three nights ago on my way home I passed a small white dog tied to the railings outside the train station. I stroked his head and rubbed the back of his ear, and he looked up at me with pebble eyes – wariness a thin sheen in front of hope. Don’t worry, I told him, your owner will be back soon. But in the morning he was still there, and again in the evening. He was straining to get closer to a puddle to have a drink. His eyes looked more distant and he was thin as a whip. I went to the supermarket and bought two bowls, a bottle of water and a tin of dog food. As he drank, I wondered if I could come back every day and do the same, save his life quietly, without fuss. I thought of calling the RSPCA, but I hate speaking on the phone. I gave his ear a rub and turned to go, but his eyes weighed heavily on me. I sighed and took my phone out of my pocket, practising the words in my head and blushing with anxiety.

They said he was likely to have been abandoned and said that he should be taken to the vets to check for a chip. What if no-one wants him, I said? He’d go to a dog rescue centre, the man said. People shouldn’t be allowed to have dogs, he said, not unless they could prove they were responsible. He didn’t look angry or sad; it wouldn’t be the right job for me. I’d not be able to cope with seeing the cruelty. If he’s not claimed, I’ll give him a home, I said. I could already see the spot for his bed in the living room, in the alcove next to the fire. The man smiled. Lucky dog, he said.

He gave me the number of the vet where Herb’s been taken. That will be his name if he’s mine.