Sweetness and Light, chapter 21

2005.

The autumn is sliding away to winter now. I’m a slow typist and I’m writing this in the evenings, in the short window between getting home, cooking my dinner and going to bed. Those leisurely days of the summer seem like years ago now. Outside my window the trees are bare. As Herb and I walk to the train station each morning the pavements are slick with ice cold rain. The sky is concrete all day. I wear a second pair of socks. Herb shakes the drops of water off his coat the second we get onto the train.

I write this as proof to myself that all of this happened; that I didn’t make it up; that I didn’t go slightly mad last summer. But I also write it, here, privately, as a way of talking back to those I’ll never see again. As a way of putting my side forward. I’ve never been very good at saying things out loud.

By the end, of course, they were telling me that I’d imagined most of it. Sometimes I start to believe them. But if I unravel that, where does it leave me, what does it leave me with? Almost nothing. And after the events of the summer I am left with almost nothing already.

Not that there’s any way that they’ll see what I’ve written. I know how to find them, of course, though I never would – I’ve got some pride. But they’ve no idea how to find me. And no reason to, of course. Some of them have every reason not to, I suppose, if you believe what I’ve got to say.

But recently, I’ve started to get that feeling again, a feeling that takes me right back to the summer just like a sniff of Imperial Leather can take me right back to my childhood. The feeling of being watched. I feel like someone’s tracked me down.

I went back to my room after overhearing John, Felix and Heidi in the cellar. I sat there for a while, considering whether to go and look for a framing shop, whether to go back into the basement and sort through my prints, or whether to take a cup of tea to bed and wish the world away.

A cold chill slid down my back as I realised that they probably all knew about my darkroom. That I’d looked a fool for keeping it a secret.

I sat on the sofa, staring at the wall hanging that covered the cellar door and I thought about that thin, shrivelled body lying alone in the dark. That was someone’s son, someone’s lover perhaps, someone’s brother. Someone might be looking for him. Did he deserve to still be lying there alone in the dark passage? Keeping it quiet had been the wrong decision – a weak decision. I needed to get him out. I shouldn’t be keeping quiet. If I couldn’t be popular, I could at least be decent. A small part of me thought, and if it’s Ralph, then maybe I stand to inherit even more once he’s officially dead. I pushed the thought away.

I took two flights of stairs up to the second floor, acutely aware of my bravery in getting so close to Clive, in risking his breath hitting the back of my neck. I knocked on the caretaker’s door. There was a long pause.

‘Yes?’ he said. I craned my neck to see a minimally furnished room. A single wooden bed, a couple of chairs, a rough pine table. On the wall to his left, a panel of hooks, each with a different key on.

‘I’ve come,’ I said, stumbling over my words. ‘I mean, I’m here. I’ve something to report. Something’s happened. Not now. A long time ago.’ I spiralled painfully back to my blushing childhood, when getting even a single word out was a battle I normally lost.

‘Perhaps you should start again,’ he said.

‘There’s a body,’ I said. ‘I’ve found a body.’

‘Someone has died?’ he said. ‘Have you called the police?’

‘Not now. Not died recently. Ages ago.’

‘Be clearer, my dear,’ he said. His thick eyebrows reached down to touch his hooked nose.

‘In the cellar. There’s a set of back stairs. Tucked away in a secret passage way there’s a dead body.’

‘Dead body? Secret passageway?’

‘What’s all this?’ Clive’s breath on me. I jumped.

‘She says she’s found a dead body,’ said the caretaker.

‘A dead body? How dramatic,’ said Clive. He glanced at me. ‘Have you been nosing around?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Honestly.’ Though of course I had been doing precisely that. I’d done an awful lot of nosing around.

‘It seems unlikely, to be honest,’ the caretaker said. ‘How would we not have noticed a death on the premises? It’s none of us, so who is it? Felix? Heidi? John? I’m sure I’ve seen all of them alive and well today.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s an old death. It looks like it’s been there a long time.’

‘Amazing,’ said Clive, ‘that it would have gone undiscovered all this time. It seems unlikely.’

‘Not impossible, I suppose,’ said the caretaker.

‘But highly unlikely,’ said Clive.

‘I think it’s been there a long time,’ I said again. ‘I think someone should look.’

‘What do you think, Clive?’ said the caretaker. ‘Should we take a look?’

‘If it makes her happy.’

‘It doesn’t make me happy.’ It was dark up there. I wished that someone would switch a light on. The ceilings felt low, the walls felt close. ‘It makes me sad,’ I said, ‘that someone died and has just been left there all this time on their own.’

‘There’s a lot of assumptions there,’ said the caretaker. ‘We don’t even know if someone has died, let alone that they’ve been ‘just left there’, as you put it.’

‘Seems unlikely,’ said Clive again. ‘Perhaps you’ve been working too hard? Having very vivid dreams? Those processing chemicals can be very potent.’

‘I definitely saw it,’ I said. ‘It was as real as you and me.’ Was it? Nightmarish and bewildering, it slipped into focus and then slipped away again, always just out of my grasp.

‘Well,’ sighed the caretaker, ‘I suppose I’d better take a look, then. Are you coming, Clive?’

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ he said and directed a smirk at me before disappearing as quickly as he’d arrived, back into the dark of the hallway.

‘Come along then,’ the caretaker said, and closed his door behind him. ‘You’d better show me the way.’

I remembered that showing him the way meant leading him into my room and through all of my secret, private rooms. My good intentions teetered again. Would this really ensure the right thing was done by this poor, dead man? Was there really any point in disturbing him? What if he wasn’t there, if my mind had played tricks on me? I’d look a fool.

‘Do you know what,’ I said, ‘it probably was a dream. I haven’t been sleeping well. I’ve been,’ I said wildly, making things up now, ‘taking sleeping pills. I must have dreamt it or hallucinated it or something. Maybe I imagined it.’

‘Well, that may well be – in fact, I’m sure that’s the case – but now you’ve said it I need to take a look. You understand? I can’t just leave it there. If there’s a body, it needs to be removed.’

That was a funny way of putting it, to my mind. Removed. I walked slowly towards the stairs.

‘I could take a look myself and then let you know if it’s still there?’

‘Let’s just get this done,’ he said. ‘If I’m going to call the police, I’d rather do it before dinner time.’ He walked towards the stairs. ‘Through the cellar door in your room, I presume. That’s where we’re going?’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Yes.’ Why had I thought that the building’s caretaker wouldn’t know about every nook and cranny of the building? I really had been living in a dream.

We passed Felix’s room, Heidi’s. I didn’t hear a peep out of either. We made our way down the wider, shallower stairs to the ground floor. The stained glass windows to either side of the front door let in a grimy light. The endless spell of blue days had been broken.

‘Here we are,’ he said. ‘Here we are,’ again under his breath. ‘Will you, or shall I?’

He fished around in his pocket; for keys, I realised. Of course he’d have spare keys to my room. I wondered how much privacy I really had. Those eyes on my back. Maybe I was actually happier at Mum’s, where a shut door meant a shut door. I decided to ring her after I’d dealt with this. She’d have calm words to say about it all. She’d make me feel better.

‘I will,’ I said quickly. I opened the door and led him to the wall hanging.

‘I like what you’ve done in here,’ he said sardonically. ‘Ah,’ he glanced at the wall by the fireplace. ‘Portraits. Very nice.’

‘Not by me,’ I said quickly.

‘Of course. Right then, lead me to it.’

So I opened the door and led him down the stairs, past my darkroom, through the sparkling hall, through that most sacred place, my swimming pool and into the back hall. I felt sick, leading him through all of these private places, letting him sully my beautiful swimming pool with his reflection.

He glanced at me. ‘How does it feel?’ he said. He was looking at me keenly.

I stroked the wall. ‘Weird,’ I said. He smiled. ‘Here,’ I pointed at the back stairs, leading up to nowhere, leading up to that shrivelled body. The thought of it still lying there, frozen in its agony, made me shiver. Pole thin legs. At least the sight of it would put my mind at rest. It was real. I wasn’t mad.

‘Come along, then,’ he said.

I took the stairs slowly. The worst was over. I’d taken him through all of my rooms, shown him my secret door. This part would be bearable in comparison. Halfway up the staircase, I tapped on the wall.

‘Here,’ I said.

He looked neither surprised nor knowing. His face was a blank.

‘Okay,’ was all he said. He stood there, watching me.

I pushed at the panel. For a second I thought it wouldn’t move. Maybe they were right. I’d imagined it all. Then the panel sprang open.

‘The models’ exit,’ he said. ‘As it was. One of them. Go on then.’ He gestured towards the doorway. ‘After you.’

I hesitated for a few seconds and then I crawled in.

This is another of those moments, one of the places when I’d like to pause time and crawl backwards out of the tunnel. Till now, everything had made sense. Some things had been wonderful, some had been terrible, but they all added up and fell into place. After this moment, it stopped making sense. I stopped making sense.

Maybe life is always a series of these pivotal moments and they were just exaggerated by my experiences in that house to become life-changing. Maybe from the time we’re born we pass a series of points of no return without realising it. Once we can walk, there’s no crawling any more. Once we realise that our parents are flawed, there’s no taking that realisation back.

Once we doubt our sanity and honesty, there’s no going back to that safe place before it happened.

I live now with the knowledge that at any point what I believe to be true might not be; that what I’ve seen with my own eyes may or may not be real; that my thoughts can’t necessarily be trusted.

That I’m not who I thought I was.

That the world might be a strange and crazy place.

That I might be quite mad.

I wrote this to prove to myself that I’m not.

I’m not sure if it’s working.

I crawled into the passageway and stood up, stooping, to move along it. I heard the caretaker climb up behind me, felt the thud of his footsteps. I touched the sides of the passage as I walked. Rough brick against my skin. Soft, sticky cobwebs. I could hear his laboured breath.

We were almost there. Those pitifully thin ankles, just poles in fabric. That leering mouth. My stomach churned.

Another couple of steps and we’d be at him. As I remembered it, I was upon the body almost as soon as I’d started down the passage. It just showed how your mind could play tricks on you.

I didn’t want to crawl like I had last time. I didn’t want to risk putting my hands on that shrivelled body without warning. That leg might snap. I could put my fist through his chest. I might stroke that distorted, leathery cheek. But it was so dark in there that it was almost impossible to see.

My hands, brushing the sides of the passageway, hit a wall in front of us. We must have walked straight past him. I turned around.

‘Do you have a…?’

‘Here.’ He flicked a torch on and swept it around the walls and floor. ‘Where is it, then? This body of yours.’

‘I can’t see it. It’s here, though. It was just on the floor. Lying there.’

The torch beam swept back and forth on the floor, white light skating over dusty floorboards. There were thick piles of dust and cobwebs. There were grubby floorboards, the cracks jammy with black dirt. There was nothing else.

‘It seems to have disappeared,’ said the caretaker, ‘your body. Perhaps it wasn’t dead after all – just got up and walked away.’

‘It was dead,’ I said. ‘I saw its mouth.’ As if the mouth told it above all else. But in a way it did. ‘Where is it?’ I felt almost desperate, panic welling in my chest.

‘One thing’s for certain,’ said the caretaker. ‘It’s not here.’

I started to cry.

‘Let’s go,’ I said. ‘Let’s go, then.’ But I couldn’t resist looking around me still, searching for what clearly wasn’t there.

The sweep of the torch beam turned and moved back towards the door. I followed it slowly, checking the nooks and crannies and corners as I went, as if the body of a grown man could hide between some floor boards like a cockroach. He stooped as he walked, swaying a little. I jumped down onto the stairs with him. In the dim, grey light I could only just make out his features – the lumpy nose, the protruding lips, the staring eyes.

‘Well, that,’ he said, ‘seems to have been a wild goose chase. But not to worry.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

‘Not to worry,’ he said. ‘We all have a fevered imagination from time to time. It’ll be the artist in you.’

I’m an artist, I thought. The words flared briefly and then died away, buried by the thought of a frozen, grimacing face and the fear that it was my own mind that had invented it.