Sweetness and Light, chapter 26

1975.

Today I write to draw this long letter – a love letter, I now see – to a close. It’s a love letter to my beloved building – to our hive. It’s also an insurance policy. A copy shall go to my solicitor, as promised. It’s also a farewell letter. I stand at a crossroads, at an ending and at a beginning, and I contemplate both directions with sadness.

I last wrote about the meeting where I sketched Clive, Jenny and Annie onto the walls. I realised that one face was missing and wondered whether to add it, but I decided against it. I’m already a part of this building; I live and breathe it. It’s not necessary.

Since then, much has happened to shake me to the very core. I’ll hesitate no longer in getting it all down on paper and then securing this letter ready to be passed onto the right people. Certainly my solicitor; perhaps, I now think of it, someone else entirely, in the fullness of time.

In the days following poor Albert’s disposal we have all lived like mice within these walls, nervous of each other, wary, jumpy. It seemed as though we were in a sealed container, a submarine if you like, drinking in each other’s breath and treading each other’s footsteps. The air seemed to grow warmer and thicker with each day, the only energy in the house being the crackle of Clive’s nerves. The streets outside – hot, bustling, fashionable Kensington – seemed a world away. We moved around in the soup-like atmosphere slowly and lethargically, not meeting, barely thinking, all of our minds on Albert’s shoulder blades and calves sinking gently into the floor. Or so I thought – it now turns out that some of our party had thoughts of other matters too.

Tomorrow I plan to busy myself with carpentry. I’ve stumbled upon Clive’s tense frame a number of times, shuffling through the corridors towards the door where Albert’s remains had last seen daylight. Picking at a scab. Another good reason to leave a catch on the doors. I see no harm in Clive continuing to worry over the issue – to do penance, as it were. Tempting him to revisit his crime over and over again. Clive’s jangling nerves make him a natural candidate for the strongest and most torturous forms of guilt. Know thy enemy. Who knows what effect this will have on him over the years, the slow repetition of a dark complicity relived again and again? I suspect not a positive one.

Today, however, I’d had enough of the creeping about, the warm breath of guilt on our hive’s walls. Today I felt the need to shake things up, to get some energy back into the air. I called a meeting – this time in the common room. For it was our commonalities that I wished everyone to remember. It was time to move on from poor Albert’s fate and once again go about our true business – to begin to make art again, to begin to make the world into a better place, one small step at a time.

Unfortunately, others had rather different ideas.

Once we were all in the common room I was ready to begin. Annie and Jenny took the sofa. Clive sat in the armchair, a Viking gone to seed. I stood.

Before I could speak, Clive stood up.

‘Sit down, Ralph,’ he said. ‘You’re not running this meeting.’

I laughed.

‘Yes,’ said Jenny – my Jenny, my dear, little Jane, ‘sit down, Ralph. You need to hear this.’

I laughed again. ‘Nonsense,’ I said. ‘Now, before we move to the first item on our agenda, a few words of inspiration.’

‘Ralph,’ said Jenny, more firmly now. ‘Sit down.’

Clive stepped away from his chair. Rather than cause a ruckus, I accepted his seat with good grace.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Do take the floor, Clive. Another time, it might be preferable to notify me in advance so that I can add you to the agenda, but do please go ahead and address the room.’

How I now wish that I hadn’t invited Brutus to pick up the knife!

‘Thanks, Ralph,’ he said.

He stood, not in my usual position underneath the window, but instead in the middle of the chairs where a coffee table might be placed, addressing us in the round.

‘Now,’ he said, ‘here’s the thing. We’re all agreed – Annie, Jane and myself – that we don’t wish to have you as our leader. That the leader of any group must be democratically elected.’

‘Contractually…’ I murmured.

Clive pulled a sheaf of papers out from his back pocket. He thumbed through them.

‘Contractually,’ he said, ‘you’ll find that we are obliged to ‘follow the principles of goodwill and fellowship and mutual agreement’ and,’ he thumbed forward a few pages, ‘to continue in fellowship so long as there is mutual accord and contentment.’ In other words, unless there’s agreement, there is no fellowship. There is no agreement in your favour. Therefore, there is no fellowship.’

He gathered the papers into a tube and slapped them triumphantly into the palm of his other hand.

‘No fellowship, Ralph,’ he reiterated. ‘Without agreement, it crumbles to dust.’

How unlike Clive to descend to metaphorical allusion.

Annie said nothing. My Jenny said, ‘it’s true, Ralph, unfortunately. It has been checked.’

Was she my Jenny or just plain Jane? I wasn’t sure anymore.

‘And yet,’ said Clive, ‘we all have the right to be here under a rather stronger legal framework – that of inheritance. That’s a bit more sturdy than your funny little contracts.’ His face said the words that his mouth didn’t need to: so, what are you going to do about it?

‘I won’t go quietly,’ I said. ‘I would rather die than be evicted like a common squatter.’ I glanced at Clive. ‘To be clear,’ I said, ‘I don’t mean that entirely literally.’

‘It may be better for everyone,’ said Jane, ‘if you do renounce your right to leadership, Ralph. It may be the simplest solution.’

I didn’t speak. I wanted to wait, to get my thoughts straight before I let them loose upon the room.

But before I could gather them, another revelation, perhaps even more shocking than the last.

Annie’s tears had been gathering in force since we sat down. To be honest, she appears to have done very little but cry since Albert died. It’s not as if they were close. The constant fluid about her face has been irritating, to say the least. Now she began to sob.

‘I can’t keep it in any longer,’ she bawled. ‘I can’t do it on my own.’

‘What, dear?’ said Jane, placing a maternal arm around Annie’s shoulders. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘My dad will kill me,’ she said. ‘I’m supposed to be going to university next year. My life’s ruined.’

The penny dropped. Her weight gain, her sickness. Though pregnancy cannot explain a general tendency towards feebleness of spirit.

‘Are you sure?’ said Jane. ‘In this heat, you might just be feeling wobbly.’

‘I’m sure,’ said Annie. ‘I’m so late.’

‘When was your last period?’ asked Jane.

The meeting appeared to have degenerated into some sort of schoolgirls’ gym talk. I looked to Clive to restore order, since this was apparently no longer required of me. Needless to say, he was standing there, mouth agape, singularly failing to establish any sort of control over the situation.

‘February!’ wailed Annie.

I did some swift mathematics.

‘Annie,’ I said. ‘Could this be the fruit of my loins?’

She just sobbed all the harder.

‘Well?’ said Clive, hair on end like a cockerel’s comb. ‘What’s it to be, Annie?’ Never have I seen someone’s face so adequately illustrate the concept of an expression being like thunder. He moved a little closer to her and jabbed his finger at her shoulder. ‘Well?’

‘Leave me alone! It can’t be happening. I’m not ready to be a mother. My dad will kill me,’ she repeated, as though her father’s approval was everyone’s main priority.

‘I’m sure he’ll come round to the idea,’ said Jane, ever the pacifier.

‘He won’t,’ she said, sniffing great globules of snot back into her nasal passage. ‘Never. He won’t let me in the house if he knows. God. What am I going to do?’

‘Remove yourself of the thing,’ offered Clive.

‘That’s against nature,’ I reminded the room. ‘And I suspect that Annie is too far gone, as you ladies say, for such a solution anyway.’

‘Oh, God,’ she said and started wailing again. ‘I don’t want it! I want to go to university. I want to be normal.’

‘What’s done is done,’ said Jane. ‘What we need now is a way of managing the situation. She’ll have to stay here if she can’t go home.’ The last point was directed at Clive, as if his leadership was now a given.

‘But I don’t want it,’ sobbed Annie. ‘I want it out.’ She pushed angrily at her stomach. ‘Why can’t I have a miscarriage? Why don’t I ever have any luck?’

‘There’s always adoption,’ said Jane.

‘Or,’ suggested Clive cheerfully, ‘a back street abortionist.’

‘If you don’t mind,’ I said, ‘this is my progeny you’re proposing to spike with a rusty knitting needle.’

Jane ignored me. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Clive,’ she said, ‘it’s far too dangerous.’ He just snorted. ‘And surely the child could be yours?’ she said. ‘Not Ralph’s?’

Annie put her face in her hot little palms and sobbed.

‘We were careful,’ Clive said icily.

‘Condoms are the work of the devil,’ I reminded them. ‘A man’s spermatozoa are his energy, his life force, his creative spark. They should not be imprisoned in rubber. Stop them from running free at your own risk. No wonder,’ I offered Clive, ‘your little bits of tin are so lacking in verve.’

Clive raised his fists. ‘I’m going to kill him!’ he said.

As if further proof were needed of Clive’s murderous temper! I shall just leave this point here, without further comment, for future eyes to read.

‘Calm, Clive, be calm,’ said Jane.

‘Stay here forever,’ cried Annie, ‘with this thing?’ She pushed angrily at her stomach again. ‘I can’t. I’ll go mad. Oh, just when I was ready to go and make a new start at university, this happens. I’m trapped, forever.’

‘Don’t be so melodramatic, my dear,’ said Jane. ‘There’ll be a solution, there always is.’

‘Ralph will leave, for a start,’ said Clive.

‘That would be, quite literally I fear, over my dead body, Clive.’

‘Stay, but without being our leader,’ suggested Jane.

‘He’s not capable of that,’ said Clive. ‘He’s psychotic.’

A psychologist would perhaps consider Clive’s insistence that I’m mad to be a projection of his own murderous tendencies.

Annie began to sob more loudly.

‘No child of mine shall be spirited off in the night to be murdered, either,’ I said. ‘Not if I have a say in it.’

Jane sighed. ‘We’ve all agreed,’ she said, ‘that it’s too late for that. I think that the best option for Annie would be to stay with us till the baby’s born and then, if she still feels the same, to look at having it adopted. That way, she can start university just a little bit late and her life can get back to normal. Your dad need never know,’ she added. ‘We have plenty of time to think about this. There’s no rush.’

I was experiencing a startling sensation. It was as if my brain cells were involved in a complex, formal dance. I could see the individual thoughts weaving and darting, creating patterns and fusing new connections, but I couldn’t yet see the final picture they were making. It was like watching the brush strokes of a great artist and waiting for the form to emerge from the chaos.

‘Hold on,’ I said, ‘just one second.’

Everyone waited, staring at me.

‘Here,’ I said slowly, the idea still wet in my head, ‘here’s the plan. Annie has the child here. Then off she goes to university, free of us and other ties that bind. And I bring the child up here. My son and heir.’

‘Or daughter and heir,’ said Jane.

There was a look of horror on Annie’s face. ‘A child? Here?’ she said. ‘Brought up by you?’

 ‘I’d say Annie was correct,’ said Jane. ‘I’m not sure you’re capable of bringing up a child.’

‘Christ, no,’ said Clive. ‘The rusty knitting needle was the more humane option.’

‘Adoption,’ said Annie. ‘A nice, normal couple.’

‘Fine,’ I said, crossing my arms, ‘then I stay and continue to exercise my right to power.’

‘There is no bloody right!’ This, of course, was Clive.

We had arrived at an impasse. The room was silent, the only sound a car noisily backfiring outside and the un-tuned white noise of Clive’s new black and white television in the corner. An entirely inappropriate addition to a house built and maintained in the name of creativity and handcrafting.

‘What do you want?’ said Jane. ‘The child or the heir?’

I considered this point – a pertinent question.

‘The heir,’ I said.

There was a long pause. Then Jenny said, ‘I’ll take it and bring it up until you’re ready for an heir.’

‘Until he’s thirty,’ I said. This seemed a suitable age. Older than this lot – time to have reached a reasonable maturity. ‘Or she,’ I added.

‘Not here though!’ Annie said. Jane shook her head.

No-one spoke. Clive’s beady eye scoured the room and ended up on my face.

‘If,’ he said, ‘you get the hell out of here and leave us alone.’

‘I told you,’ I said. ‘Over my dead body.’

‘Take a back seat, then,’ said Jenny-Jane, ever the placatory influence. ‘That’s fair. Everyone gets what they want.’

Except, I realised later, Jenny. Or did she want a child? Perhaps.

‘I’ll draw up a contract,’ I said.

‘No,’ said Clive. ‘A gentleman’s agreement. I’ve had enough of your bloody contracts to last me a life time.’

‘So be it,’ I said.

And so the fellowship ends.

This letter is three things.

It’s a record of what happened here – Albert’s murder and Clive’s motives for this horrible crime. It clearly implicates Clive, should the matter ever be investigated.

It’s an insurance policy. Clive is a dangerous man. If he’s killed once, he could kill again. Here, as he knows, is a record of his methods and motive in the disposal of poor Albert and his guilty fretting and mithering over the grave. Here, in a safe place, is the amulet that will save my skin from that man’s violent schemes.

Perhaps most importantly it’s a missive to the future. Perhaps one day the child will read it – progeny; heir; emission from my loins. Here’s the truth. Here’s what’s important. Are you an heir in the truest sense? I’ll find out.

As I type the last few words of my letter, I realise that it isn’t the leadership of this mottled association that I need. Just as I don’t need the child, I need the heir. I don’t need the trappings of leadership, I need to be at one with the hive. A queen bee isn’t the leader, she is simply a reproduction machine with a smaller brain than a worker bee. Perhaps I was never the queen. Annie was. Albert could have been the link to a new generation, but he was too weak to do the job. The swarm will disperse while we wait for a new queen to arrive. I’ll go away for now – let them all see what they’ve lost. But in time I’ll return temporarily. When the new queen arrives I’ll be free to leave. Provided she is strong enough for the job, that is. I’ll wait and watch. That’s my duty. And then I’ll retire to Sussex – finally to be at peace with my bees and my woodworking.

What comes next? I’ll depart this house and begin a period of self-imposed penance, a retreat into silence, a humble removal of my ego. There’s a monk like quality to this new phase in my life that isn’t unappealing. I have a leaning towards the ascetic and spiritual that’s been dampened by years spent trying to make these monkeys dance. Let them concern themselves with their own problems. I’ll spend the coming months and years alone with my thoughts. I will be nurturing the inner fire.

Let that fire burn brightly and let it sear away all that is extraneous. Let my thoughts and deeds rise upwards. Let the work of my hands be forged by the pureness of my thoughts.

Let there be sweetness. And let there be light.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 25

2005.

I span faster and faster on the roundabout. Finally my age was in double figures. Faster. Faster. I was old. I was brave. Soon I’d be as tall as Mum. Faster, faster, faster, pushing with my foot so that the ground grabbed it and grazed it. I picked my foot up off the ground and let the roundabout spin, slow and stop.

‘It’s better if one of you pushes and runs. Then jumps on.’

‘Is it?’ It was Ashley, who rarely spoke to me in art lessons. She looked different. A little less sure of herself.

‘I’ll do it.’ She grabbed the roundabout and started to push.

‘Okay.’

She walked faster, pushing her bottom lip out.

‘I’ll do it next time,’ I said.

‘Okay. I’ve got money for ice cream,’ she said. She rattled her pocket and walked a little faster.

‘Faster!’ I said and stood up on the slatted wooden seat. ‘Faster!’

She started to run.

That woman they made me talk to was right. It wasn’t as hard as I thought.

It was three days later. I’d spent those three days mostly in bed, watching the rain through the tall windows, my duvet tucked around my legs. I got up to get myself cups of tea and pint glasses of orange squash, make a cheese sandwich or heat a tin of tomato soup. I moved slowly, tentatively, as if I didn’t want to shock myself with sudden movements. Deep down, very deep down, I could feel some sort of current building and trying to push me to my feet and launch me out of the door, but I pushed it back down.

The days were sullen, the evenings grey, the nights long, damp and cold. The house was quiet. I occasionally heard footsteps or muted voices, but it felt abandoned, as though the party had moved on. I didn’t venture to the common room. I didn’t want to see anyone.

On the third day I got up and had some Weetabix, sitting on the sofa with my legs tucked under me. I could hear a siren somewhere in the distance. The rain had slowed to a steady drip. My feet were cold, the old hessian sofa rough against my toes. I needed to do something, go somewhere, feel something different. I got dressed, leaving my camera in the cupboard, where it had laid since before the exhibition, and unpinned the wall hanging. The deer glowered at me from their leafy background. I switched the light on and made my way quietly down the stairs.

The current was quietly building.

From my little table here in Forest Hill, the thought of walking downstairs that morning is tinged with sadness – one of the final steps in the loss of my life as I knew it, or at least as I thought it to be.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot – the process of disillusionment, shedding of layers of yourself that turn out not to be true. Disillusionment has a bad press. Who’d want to hold onto lies? But losing them felt like having the raw skin pulled off in pieces then waiting for the skin to heal over, leaving something eerily smooth and shiny where soft skin had once been.

I feel sorry for myself, looking back to that day – I want to protect myself, hold myself back a bit. It feels like watching someone walk into the path of a moving bus.

But what I have now is more real. I feel less like I’m on a see saw, less like I’m a baby with tentative, rounded feet trying to balance on a flat surface. It’s a flatter life than those days in Kensington, but a more solid one with a surer footing.

The letter still sits next to me on the table as I type. Its spiky, black letters have started to feel like friends, the way a man in prison might befriend the spiders that visit and imbue them with all kinds of thoughts and emotions. The fat spikes have started to seem full of personality and liveliness.

I’m still not ready to open it though.

I stepped quietly down the stairs and peered around the door into my darkroom. There was a pile of discarded prints on the work surface. A few were still hanging up on pegs to dry. I avoided looking at the prints, surveyed the scene until the shame crept up uncomfortably round my neck, then closed the door and made my way to the glittering hall – in the grey light from the skylight, transformed from a sparkling palace to an empty, dirty cellar – and from there unlocked the door to the pool room.

Here, there was still a lingering magic. The apple green water swayed glassily. The arsenic tiles iced the walls with cool poison. But it was ruined for me by the memory of what had happened there and what that hadn’t become. As soon as I was in there, I changed my mind. I turned around and walked back quickly, hoping that my embarrassment wouldn’t catch up with me before I’d closed the door on it.

I had my mind on the smoking room, on sitting in one of the big, leather chairs in the half dark and feeling enclosed and safe. I had a novel in my back pocket. I could spend a few hours in there, safely away from the unforgiving, steely light of the real world. Back in my orchard with a Famous Five novel. I listened carefully for movement, just in case anyone else had made their way down here, but as usual it was silent, otherworldly and abandoned. Perhaps my key really was the only one to these more magical rooms.

I avoided looking up the stairs to that other hotspot of my shame, the hidden passageway that didn’t hide a body, and made my way to the smoking room.

I sat in the large leather armchair and switched on the dusty Tiffany light, tucked my feet underneath me and started to read. The room’s quiet, its sightless walls, its low ceiling made it all the more comforting. Traffic, people, sunlight; they all went on above my head, but here I was safe and swaddled. I turned the pages of my book slowly and let myself drift into another world.

After a while – six or seven chapters; I had no idea how much time – I stood up to stretch my legs and wandered around the room, picking things up and putting them down, like you do when you’ve been left unattended in someone else’s house. A worn out tie, curled up on the table like a sleeping snake; a dusty biro without a lid; a wine cork; a stack of yellowing, blank paper; under it, a manila envelope. I turned the envelope over. On the front, in thick, black writing, was a single word: ROSE.

I looked over my shoulder, back at the envelope, nervously towards the door. The room was as quiet, as buried deep in the earth, as empty, as ever.

My heart was racing. It felt like the whole universe had raced into my body. My eyes were hot and alert. My hands were trembling. I sat down on the leather sofa, my novel still upturned on the chair, and put the envelope down in front of me. I looked at it for a few seconds. I swallowed. My cheeks were on fire. Then I opened it and pulled out the sheaf of paper. Pale yellow, foolscap, smaller and squarer than A4, and flimsy; almost like carbon paper, the first page was covered in typing from a manual typewriter, the occasional word struck through and re-attempted. On the back of that page and crawling over the rest was thick black handwriting with exaggerated loops and spikes.

This association of artists, craftspeople, makers and doers is hereby formally joined together in pursuit of beauty and truth:  in search of sweetness and of light.

We are joined together by our thoughts (that rise in pursuit of truth and light) and our actions (that create tangible beauty and sweetness from the truth and the light).

I sat back and I started to read.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 24

2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Lucy, come on!’ he said impatiently.

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

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

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I made it.’

I looked around for somewhere to put my parcels.

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

‘You,’ I said. ‘Please.’

‘No captions?’

‘No captions.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pulled my dressing gown tightly around me.

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

I hesitated. ‘Why?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I did see it,’ I said. I’m not mad.

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

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

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

And then he was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Rose Acker

5 Wynell Road

Forest Hill

SE23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Rose Acker,’ I said.

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

I waited.

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

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

‘Photographer?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Terrible,’ I said, unable to lie.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Felix.’

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

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

‘Why?’

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

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

‘I’m going home,’ I said.

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

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

‘You don’t say.’

‘I’m going home,’ I repeated.

‘I’ll take a look round,’ he said.

‘Don’t expect too much.’

‘I won’t,’ he said cheerfully.

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

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

Sweetness and Light, chapter 23

1975.

A queen bee that is weak will be replaced by the workers in a procedure that is known as supersedure. The workers will kill the inadequate queen by clustering tightly around her and stinging her. That process is known as balling.

I think longingly of fleeing – thoughts of virgin bees setting off from the mother hive with their own swarm and starting again. But I’m tied to this place – at least until a suitable replacement is found. And, of course, we are further from that than ever.

Another nightmare last night. I stood, looking down at a hunched, pathetic creature in a wooden box. It was thin, cowering, disgusting. A wretch. Its skinny, weak legs were trembling, its lips pulled back against its thin skull. The sight of it filled me with fury and disgust. I stepped closer to it, my hands twitching and itching to shut it up, to stop its snivelling. The nearer I got, the more it cowered. Finally, I stood over it and reached down to snap bones and throttle flesh. My disgust was like a boil that needed lancing. Finally, breathing heavily, I straightened up and looked down, vision clearing. I was looking at my own young body, a small child in the old sled bed, broken and still. I stepped back and lifted up my black hood with clawed hands.

Enough of nightmares. There is enough to concern us in the real world!

Poor Albert. So little time in this world. As I stood looking at his body in the darkroom yesterday I felt that he was already looking less human, already seeming more like mere matter. His soul had departed. That such an event should occur in our close knit, loving community. I was horrified.

I knelt down to stroke his cold cheek.

‘You could have had it all, Albert,’ I whispered. ‘You could have been my heir, could have been the hub of this beautiful building and its worker bees. You could have had it all.’

The thought of what poor Albert had missed out on suddenly filled me with immense sadness. There was so much love to be had in this building. My thoughts turned to dear Annie and Jenny and how much love they had shared with me.

Notes for a sermon: if all borders and walls are porous – if, indeed, we are all one collective consciousness – then why not take our love to its logical conclusion and share it as one, in one bed?

I gave Albert’s poor cold cheek a last stroke.

I wondered at the coppers in his hand. Was Albert so badly off that he was stealing money? Hiding it in his developing fluid? It was all so strange and mysterious that it deepened my pity for his poor, timid soul.

I left him on the floor, his hand still clutching those few coins, and went to find my comrades.

Jenny was the first person I came across, striding down the corridor, pencil and notebook in hand.

‘Jenny,’ I said. ‘The worst has happened. The worst you can possibly imagine.’

She stopped dead and turned to face me. I swooned against her a little in my shock.

‘What?’ she asked crisply.

‘Albert.’ I couldn’t say anymore. I gestured towards his darkroom – his poor, barely used, darkroom.

Jenny pushed open the door and screamed.

‘Oh, dear God!’ she said shakily.

It wasn’t like Jenny to invoke God’s name. Not out of prissiness, more fastidiousness – she doesn’t believe in God, so why use his name in moments of extremis?

‘What on earth has happened?’ she said. ‘Have you called an ambulance?’

‘I think it’s too late for that,’ I said, indicating Albert’s frozen grimace, his stiffly clutching hands. Once more, I sat down and stroked his cold cheek, held that icy hand. The sight of those coppers clutched in his grasp was pathetically poignant.

‘Call the police, then!’ she said. ‘Ralph! He’s dead!’

‘I know. It’s horrifying.’

‘Ralph. The police. You need to call them now.’

Clive slid into the room, eyeballing Jenny and I jealously.

‘Where’s Annie?’ he said.

‘Clive!’ Jenny pointed at the floor.

‘Fuck,’ he said. ‘Fuck! Fucking hell Jesus Christ Almighty.’

 ‘We need to call the police,’ Jenny reiterated.

‘What the fuck happened?’

‘Clive,’ I reprimanded gently. ‘You are swearing over a corpse, barely cold. Have some self-restraint.’

‘Christ,’ he said. ‘Look at his face. It’s disgusting.’

We heard another set of footsteps in the hall outside the darkroom.

‘What’s all the… oh my God!’ Annie clutched her hand to her mouth. ‘I’m going to be sick!’ she said.

‘Be calm, Annie, be calm,’ I said, wrapping a consoling arm around her waist. ‘Be calm. The end of life is as natural as its start.’

‘It’s not natural,’ she said. ‘Look at him! How did he die? I don’t understand. He was so young.’ She started to cry. ‘Where are the police? Oh my God.’

‘You might find it helpful,’ I said, ‘not to think of it as a life cut short, but as a life completed.’

‘Easy for you to say,’ said Clive, ‘when you’re in no immediate danger of completion.’

‘I certainly hope not,’ I said. ‘One death is unfortunate; two is a little harder to explain.’

‘The police,’ said Jenny, ‘need to be called. Now.’

Clive said nothing. Annie wailed. I held her a little more tightly.

‘Come here, Annie,’ said Clive, with a characteristically minimal approach to charm and grace. She unwound my arm and went to his side.

‘I’ll be right back,’ said Jenny. I suspected that she was going to the telephone in the common room.

‘One second,’ I said. ‘Let’s just take a moment to think about this. Albert’s going nowhere. There’s no rush.’ We all looked at his stricken, twisted face. The abyss that we all teeter on the edge of daily. ‘Let’s think about this,’ I reiterated. ‘A death – of a young man, at that – in our house. An unexplained death. It looks suspicious by anyone’s reckoning.’

‘It may not be unexplained,’ said Jenny, ‘after a post mortem.’ This sort of clear-eyed rationality was typical of Jenny, though not wholly welcome at that particular moment.

‘He always had a nasty cough,’ offered Annie, between sobs.

‘How will it look?’ I said, ‘to a policeman? Here we all are, a bohemian community, living apart from society’s usual rules…’

Clive coughed sarcastically.

‘Living apart from society’s rules. A young man dies in what may be seen as suspicious circumstances. Where will the finger point?’

‘Could have been TB,’ said Jenny, again with unwelcome rationality. ‘His mother died of it. He lived with her till the end. He never seemed well. That hacking cough, as Annie said.’

‘Could have been,’ I agreed. ‘What do you think, Clive?’

‘I’m no doctor,’ he said. ‘Personally, I thought people stopped dying of TB back when we all stopped wearing breeches.’ I glanced at my own, rather natty, tweed trousers, buckled below the knee. ‘But what do I know?’

‘His mother,’ wailed Annie. ‘Poor thing. At least they’re together now.’

‘Martha,’ I said. ‘Yes.’ Martha as a small girl putting the kettle on the stove at breakfast. Martha making a daisy chain and crowning me with it. Martha standing between me and father and begging him not to hit me. Martha stroking the blood from the corner of my mouth with a tiny, soft hand. I pushed the thoughts away.

 ‘It seems likely,’ said Jenny, ‘in the circumstances. What other explanation could there be?’

‘I don’t know. Any ideas, Clive?’

‘Why do you keep asking me?’ he said. ‘What am I, Poirot?’

‘I just thought you might have some insights,’ I pointed out. ‘Your father is a chemist, after all.’

‘What’s that got to do with it?’ he said. He was so touchy that I wondered if I’d inadvertently touched a nerve.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’m just wondering what sort of questions a policeman might ask, when a young man unexpectedly dies in a darkroom full of chemicals.’

‘Yes,’ said Clive. The red sea that spread across his face spoke a thousand words.

‘Photography chemicals aren’t dangerous,’ said Jenny, somewhat impatiently.

‘Well, I’m no expert. Clive could probably tell you more.’

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘My dad’s the chemist, not me.’

‘Why are there coins in the developing fluid?’ asked Jenny. ‘That’s odd.’

‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘Something foul’s at play.’

‘There’s not much ventilation in here,’ said Jenny.

‘Alright, alright,’ said Clive, ‘let’s not get too morbid.’

‘How much more morbid can it get?’ sniffed Annie. ‘There’s a dead Albert at my feet.’

‘I’m just thinking on my feet,’ I said. ‘As the leader of this group…’ Clive grunted. ‘I need to protect us. Protect us from querying and questioning. Think about it. Albert’s in our care. He dies suddenly, unexpectedly, in strange circumstances, surrounded by chemicals. Clive’s father is a chemist…’

Everyone was silent. We all looked at Clive. Then at Albert.

Eventually Jenny said, ‘but what would we do with his body?’

We all looked at Albert again. Then Clive said, quietly, ‘he has no family or friends.’

‘Just us,’ said Annie and sniffed.

‘Don’t be sentimental,’ said Clive. ‘He’s dead now.’

‘For once,’ I said, ‘Clive’s right. Nothing will undo the sad fact that Albert has passed. It’s how we now deal with it sensibly that’s in question. How we protect what we have here.’ I didn’t need to say, how we protect Clive. He understood.

‘Let’s all have a cup of tea,’ said Annie. No one replied.

 ‘I suggest,’ I said, ‘that Clive and I tidy up in here.’ I gestured towards Albert. ‘And you girls go and relax and try to cleanse your mind of what you’ve seen.’

‘God,’ said Annie, ‘it’s too much.’ She started crying again. ‘Poor Albert. We’ve killed him.’

I took Annie by the shoulders and shook her. ‘Never,’ I said, ‘Never say that again.’ She just stared at me dumbly, tears running down her face. I shook her again, harder this time. She nodded. ‘Jenny, take Annie off and give her that cup of tea.’

‘Jenny,’ muttered Clive in a sing song voice. ‘Stupid pet names.’ I ignored him. He was just trying to irritate me.

Jenny led a shaking Annie out of the room and I was left alone with Clive.

I gave Clive a man to man look.

‘You realise,’ I said, ‘what this means? What it means for us as a group?’

He didn’t reply. I didn’t need to expand on it. We were jointly implicated.

Clive took Albert’s legs and I took his arms. We took him upstairs, through Clive’s room and into the passageway to the back stairs. There we lay his body in the dry, cool dark where nature would do its duty in dismantling the flesh.

We both stood over his body for a few seconds. I couldn’t see Clive’s face, couldn’t tell what guilt and fear riddled it, but I said a quiet, Godless prayer for Albert’s soul.

‘Now,’ I said, ‘onto practicalities. These doors,’ I indicated the door to Clive’s studio and the door to the rear staircase, ‘are far too obvious. Far too inviting of exploration.’

He thought for a second. ‘Not us,’ he said slowly, ‘but future generations. Whoever might inherit my studio.’

‘Exactly.’

‘We should conceal them.’

‘Seal them,’ I suggested.

‘Perhaps a hidden catch,’ he said. ‘Just in case. You’re a carpenter.’

I am, though my leanings are more towards the aesthetic than the purely functional. Leaving Albert in peace, we made our way forwards, towards the rear staircase.

‘What about that?’ said Clive, pointing upstairs at the attic door.

I sighed. It seemed I would have many hours work ahead of me.

On reflection, I’ve chosen to seal up the door from my old room too. The greater good calls. Never mind. The rear stairs will still be accessible if one knows where to look.

Later that day I gathered my companions around me again. Clive’s face was red and tense, his jaw set, his red-gold hair seemingly standing on end through the sheer force of his thoughts. Jenny’s face was pale as setting plaster of Paris; Annie’s, pink, swollen and muddled under her mouse brown hair.

‘Comrades,’ I said. ‘Despair not!’

‘Spare us,’ said Clive.

I ignored him. ‘We have encountered something terrible,’ I said. ‘And we have survived. Our close bond has saved us, bound us even tighter than before.’

‘Can I sit down?’ said Annie. ‘I feel faint.’

Annie’s feebleness is an irritation. I’m beginning to tire of her, if I’m honest. Jenny’s strength has a more lasting appeal. Just us, I thought, and it will stay just us. There were no descendants in the offing and opening our house up to civilians was now even more unlikely than ever. Only people who have a vested interest in the maintenance of our privacy can ever live here now.

Annie reiterated, more forcefully this time, ‘can we all sit down? I feel sick, too,’ she added. ‘It’s the thought of his face. His hands. Where is he? Where have you put him?’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ said Clive. ‘It’s done now.’

Jenny said nothing. I understand her well enough to know that any uncertainty about our chosen course of action would now have been replaced with a pragmatic determination to preserve us.

‘Let’s sit down,’ I said.

We were in my old room – Albert’s room, more recently. It seemed a fitting place to convene and re-establish our bonds, under the gaze of those double height windows that slipped the northern light onto our skin.

Clive and Annie sat on the sofa, Jenny took the armchair. I was standing.

I’d asked everyone to dress for a formal occasion. Clive’s thick frame was squeezed into a cerulean blue suit, flaring out from the knee, and a frilled, white shirt. Annie wore a brown velvet dress, gathering under her bird-like bosom and flowing down to the floor. Her feet, as usual, were bare. Jenny’s blonde hair was tidier than ever and she was neatly dressed in a blouse and skirt. Her only concessions to fashion were cuffs that flowed over her capable wrists. I wore a shirt, tie and narrow tweed trousers.

‘I’d like,’ I said, ‘us to remember all the ties that bind us and be grateful.’

‘Oh God,’ said Clive under his breath. ‘Another sermon.’

‘Pardon?’ I said, although I’d heard him perfectly well.

‘I just wondered whether the preaching side of things could be left for the Great Hall downstairs?’ he said. ‘Or left altogether,’ he added, under his breath.

I wasn’t offended.

‘I’m not preaching,’ I said, though I do see myself leading them towards the light – not of Christianity, but of spirituality through art, as a worker bee dances to show his companions the direction of the good nectar. ‘I’m sharing a few words about our brotherhood.’

‘Go on,’ said my ever-faithful Jenny.

Annie sniffed. I noticed that she was looking a little fatter than she had. Only eighteen and already past her prime. So it is with some women. They flower so briefly. Jenny was still slim and upright as a daffodil, despite being a few years older. If only the fates were more even in the favours that they bestow.

I reached into my pocket and took out a piece of charcoal.

‘I thought,’ I said, ‘I’d draw all of your portraits. Embed them into the very fabric of the building,’ I pointed at the bare plaster of the walls, already embellished with a few of my working drawings – a nose here, a chin there. ‘Tattoo you onto her, as it were.’

‘Sheer egotism,’ remarked Clive, quietly again.

‘Clive,’ I said, ‘I do wish you’d voice your opinions to the group or not at all.’

In fairness to Clive, he was no doubt harbouring some very complicated and uncomfortable feelings at that time.

‘I don’t want to be embedded,’ Annie said. ‘I hate it here now he’s dead. He’s watching me, I can tell already. I don’t want to be in the walls.’

‘Go ahead,’ said Jenny. ‘I’m fine with it.’

One might hope for greater enthusiasm for the scheme, but nevertheless I accepted the group feeling in favour of my plan and began to sketch Jenny’s profile.

‘Let’s get this straight,’ said Clive. ‘What are you exactly? A painter? A carpenter? A sketcher in bloody charcoal?’

‘I’m all of those,’ I said, finishing Jenny with a fine sweep of charcoal. Onto Clive. How to capture his essence? A potato with a wig on it might suffice. However, I attempted to outline his features in sooty black. And finally little Annie.

Clive sighed heavily and took a hefty intake of breath. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘Let’s just come out with it. We’re through with you and your dominating ways, your fucking insanity.’

I didn’t like to say that I’d already heard his plans and his crass  speech held no surprises.

‘Let me just come out with it too, then,’ I said. ‘I’ve written a letter outlining poor Albert’s demise, describing the circumstances, clearly presenting the knowledge of chemistry that certain inhabitants of this house have; their likely awareness of the poisonous emissions from copper when added to developing fluid. Let me be clear: the letter is lodged with my solicitor alongside my will. It also outlines a certain nervousness about my own safety. Let’s be direct about it. My death wouldn’t suit you.’

The letter is, of course, still in the process of being written. However, Clive isn’t to know this.

‘Jesus!’ he ejected. ‘You live in your own little world. This isn’t a fucking Wilkie Collins novel.’ A surprising literary reference from the potato-skulled goldsmith-cum-murderer.

 ‘I can’t cope,’ said Annie. ‘I feel sick.’ And she was sick at her feet. So very fragile.

‘Let’s calm this down,’ said my Jenny, leaving the room with the air of someone who planned to wipe up vomit.

‘I am calm,’ muttered Clive.

Jenny returned with a bowl of soapy water, a sponge and a glass of tap water.

‘Why don’t you go and lie down?’ she said to Annie, handing her the glass.

Annie nodded, stood up unsteadily and tip-toed out of the room.

Jenny knelt in front of the sofa and sponged at the parquet flooring.

‘It’s insufferable,’ said Clive, his head in his hands.

‘The point is,’ I said, ‘that we’re all in this together now. You’re stuck with me.’

Clive sighed deeply and pushed at the wrinkles on his brow with his fists. Jenny sponged Annie’s sick into a beige plastic bowl of warm water. This was not the fellowship that I’d dreamed of; not the artistic community I’d hoped for. Not by a long shot.

As Jenny sat back on her heels to survey her work and Clive shook his head and left the room without a word, I took stock of my situation and wondered whether, in fact, there was another way. A different solution.

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.