Sweetness and Light, chapter 15

2005.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Of course.’

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

I glanced around the room anxiously.

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

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

‘Alterations?’

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

‘Oh, okay.’

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

‘Well,’ I said. ‘Photography…’

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

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

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

‘I haven’t developed any yet.’

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

I didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We, the undersigned, here agree that:

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

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

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

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

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

Here the undersigned,

Albert Parry

Ralph Parry

15th February 1975

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

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

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

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

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

What I saw was horrifying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetness and Light, chapter 14

1975.

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

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

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

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

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

I found much to occupy my mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well,’ said Clive.

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

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

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

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

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

No-one replied.

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

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

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

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

‘What are you suggesting, Clive?’

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

‘What does that mean?’ cried Annie.

Clive was silent.

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

‘The heir,’ said Jenny.

Another silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A photographer, apparently,’ said Jenny.

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

‘Whatever do you mean?’ Clive sounded irritated.

‘You know,’ said Annie. ‘Fey.’

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

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

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

There was silence.

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

The other two ignored her.

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

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

I glanced at my watch.

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

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

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

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

‘Oh!’ she cried. ‘It’s too much.’

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

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

I’m not concerned.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 13

2005.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I will.’

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

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

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

‘Have you got any pictures yet?’

‘No.’ I was downcast.

She looked down at my print outs again.

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled.

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

‘Rose,’ I said. I didn’t like Rosie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Rose,’ he said. ‘Can I help?’

‘I’ve lost my keys.’

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

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

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

‘It’s fine,’ I said, speeding up.

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

‘What do you mean?’

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

‘Should be John, surely,’ I said.

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

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

‘Ah.’  

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

‘Ah,’ he said again.

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

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

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

‘Oh,’ I said, feeling stupid.

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

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

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

‘And what about you?’ he said.

‘Me?’

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

‘I’ve only just got here,’ I said.

‘Wait here.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘For fuck’s sake!’ she said.

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

I dangled the keys in front of me.

‘Locked out,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A black painted board with cursive, white handwriting on.

Regulations for the Governance of Our Fellowship

There is no possession in Love

Treat everyone as Fellows, except those that are not

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

Please wash up after yourself

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

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

Sweetness and Light, chapter 12

1975.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t disappointed.

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

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

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

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

Here good works will be created.

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

Sweetness and Light, chapter 11

2005.

Heidi reached into her freezer and took out a zip-locked bag. Inside, five mice were lined up like tiny marionettes.

‘Here,’ she said, ‘are our subjects. It’s best not to keep freezing and defrosting them. They lose a little of their lustre.’

‘Where do you get the mice? Do you kill them?’ I was sitting on a kitchen chair without a table. Outside Heidi’s window it was a rare grey day. I felt like I’d been allowed to stay at home and bake jam tarts with my mum.

‘Oh,’ said Heidi. ‘Pet shops will sell them to you. Pet mice or feeder mice. But some will only sell them live, so you have to take care of that yourself.’ She glanced at me. ‘Chloroform,’ she said, ‘and a hankie.’

‘A very small hanky,’ I commented.

She threw me a look. ‘It’s not the mouse’s hanky,’ she said.

I felt my cheeks redden. ‘Of course. I didn’t mean that. Just to get it to their noses.’

‘Anyway. They need about an hour at room temperature to defrost. Luckily,’ she popped her bag back into the freezer, ‘I defrosted some earlier.’

‘Do people really like it?’ I said. ‘Taxidermy?’ That sounded tactless. ‘To buy I mean, not just to put in exhibitions.’

‘Oh, yes. If anything, it’s frustratingly fashionable.’ She reached into the fridge and pulled out a second bag of mice. ‘Now. My tools.’ She pulled out a tray that looked like a memory game. Pliers, tweezers, scissors, wire, cotton wool, a reel of white cotton, black beads. ‘And a surface to work on.’ She pulled a sheet of plastic onto the work surface.

‘You do it in the kitchen?’

‘Why not?’ She threw me another look.

‘Why not,’ I agreed.

‘Now,’ she said, ‘the skeleton.’ She snapped off three pieces of wire with a grim set to her mouth. ‘And the body.’ She threaded pieces of cotton wool onto the wire, twisting the wire tightly with her pliers at key points. She’d made a fat ghost mouse.

‘This,’ she said, ‘is called the voodoo doll.’ She took the reel of cotton and wrapped it around the cotton wool, glancing back and forth between her ghost mouse and one of her victims on the work surface. ‘This keeps the body dense,’ she added. ‘It’s like a little mummy.’

I stopped myself saying, or daddy, just in time.

‘And now the eyes.’ She bit off some cotton and threaded it onto a needle, sewing two beads onto the voodoo mouse. ‘You pass the thread right through the head,’ she said, with some satisfaction. She picked up a scalpel. ‘And now,’ she said, ‘the fun bit.’ She sliced down the mouse’s back, her lips set in grim pleasure. ‘We’re cutting from the shoulder to the hips,’ she said. ‘Where a jacket would lie,’ she added. ‘A pinch of this goes in,’ she sprinkled some white powder inside her mouse’s jacket, ‘and on we go. Separating the skin and sprinkling in our Borax. It comes off easily,’ she said. ‘It’s only loosely attached.’

I wondered if my skin was so loosely attached that a couple of expert fingers could shrug it off so easily. I would have preferred the mouse’s skin to be more closely knitted to its flesh.

‘Don’t puncture the stomach,’ she said. ‘I’ve learned that to my cost. You don’t want to stick your fingers in there.’

‘Poor mouse,’ I said. I felt strongly that the mouse should be shown a little more respect. It had eaten its last dinner with no thought that it wouldn’t have another, with no complicity in this game of treating its laid bare, innocently pink stomach as an irritation.

‘Oh, poor mouse nothing. Don’t be sentimental about it.’

‘What do you do with them when they’re done?’ I asked, dragging my eyes away from her expertly loosening fingers working their way across the mouse’s body.

‘I dress them up,’ she said. ‘You know, dresses, tuxedoes, that sort of thing. They take part in tableaus. Pinteresque ones,’ she added archly. ‘Now the legs and tail,’ she said, the jacket of the mouse being finally free thanks to her busy fingers. ‘Peel the legs off like a sock, right down to the ankle. And snip.’ She reached for her scissors and snapped at the mouse’s leg. ‘It stays attached. We use that. The tail’s a bit harder – there’s reproductive and waste stuff so close.’

‘Poor mouse,’ I said again. She ignored me.

‘But basically it’s just a long, skinny sock.’ Her lips were pressed together, her eyes fixed points of attention in a way they never were when they looked at me. ‘And then roll the whole thing off.’ She held up a double bodied, no headed mouse – the mouse with its jumper pulled over its head. ‘Nearly done. Ears next.’

‘How did you get into taxidermy?

‘I’ve always loved animals. I thought of becoming a vet. We had so many animals when I was a child. Our lovely dogs and horses. But obviously with this place looming over me – my inheritance – I was pushed into doing something a bit more creative.’ She glanced at me as if just realising that conversations were supposed to be two-way. ‘And you? And your…?’

‘Photography. Well, I suppose Mum encouraged it,’ I said, though, of course, it had been my interest at the start, she’d just pushed me to believe in myself.

‘Yes,’ said Heidi. ‘They do that, don’t they? Helping us out, of course. It would be a shame to miss this opportunity. Now. The eyes. This is tricky, as we do want to keep the eyelids.’ Her face closed in in concentration. ‘And then,’ she said eventually, ‘just the nose and we’re done.’ She held up the mouse again, a meat mouse with beady black eyes kissing its fur brother. ‘We break the bones behind the nose.’ A tiny snapping. ‘And we have it.’ She held up the inside out pelt, flattened skin, a bony leg on each corner. ‘We clean this up,’ she rubbed away at the skin with her white powder, snipping pink flesh off the legs. ‘Perfect,’ she murmured under her breath, ‘perfect.’

‘It seems hard,’ I said. Strictly speaking, I felt that it seemed surgically violent, a little glimpse of pure evil.

‘You get used to it. Here we go!’ She held up an empty mouse, turned right side out, triumphantly. She licked a finger and wiped it inside the skin gently. ‘Keep it moist,’ she said. ‘Next we make four new legs.’ She held up four pieces of wire and some cotton wool and set to work.

‘Just mice?’ I said, ‘or do you do other things?’

‘I’d love to get my hands on a dog,’ she said. ‘If you know one?’ She glanced at me. ‘An ill one, obviously.’

‘No, sorry.’

‘Now the easy bit,’ she said. ‘We slip it on.’

The cotton wool ghost mouse filled the skin. Its face emerged and formed, fur wet from its ordeal, eyes plastic but vulnerable.

‘The old man,’ I said, ‘Clive.’

‘He’s not that old,’ she said.

‘Who is he?’

Heidi was pushing cotton arms into the skin, twisting wire around the bones. ‘One of the last lot,’ she said between thin lips. ‘From the seventies or whatever. He shouldn’t come here anymore really, the baton’s been passed on, but he can’t seem to help himself. Always poking around. It doesn’t seem to make him happy. Not that he’s ever really been happy,’ she said reflectively. ‘Even though he was quite a success in his time. You shouldn’t revisit your past, I always say. It’s like he’s prodding at an open wound. I suppose his happiest years were here and he can’t let go. When we were kids, me and John, he always carried a cloud with him. We had such happy times in Sussex, living practically next door to one another. But he had that cloud always, even though the houses and the cars and everything they had was so marvellous. Everything he’d got after leaving the fold. All the good stuff.’

‘He doesn’t live here, then,’ I said, with some relief.

‘Well, like I say, he shouldn’t. He doesn’t officially. But we do let him use a little room up in the attic. A camp bed, a little stove, that sort of thing. More out of pity than anything else.’

She turned the mouse upside down, its chin white and exposed, its legs curled up in a foetal position. I wondered if I could make her an offer and buy it; somehow conspire to give it its dignity back.

‘The tail now,’ she said, holding its tail with one hand and twisting wires with the other. ‘Then we sew it closed,’ she said. I was relieved for the mouse that we’d reached this stage – nearly the end, surely. ‘Do you want to pose him?’ she said, a needle between her teeth.

‘Oh! No. No, thanks. You’re the expert.’

‘Okay.’

‘And the others,’ I said, ‘from the seventies. Where are they?’

‘They left. Got on with other things. I’m not the one to ask though. John’s the only direct link with the last generation. Right. Crinoline or suit?’

I considered the mouse, furry cheeks still hollow, so obediently prone and still.

‘A suit,’ I said.

I took a sip of my squash and contemplated the suited mouse. He had a crisp, white shirt on under a black suit, a tiny, black tie. A little funereal, I thought, but maybe that wasn’t inappropriate in the circumstances. I stroked his soft cheek.

‘You’re safe here,’ I said. ‘You’re safe now.’

He stared at me unblinkingly.

I put him inside my tatty kitchen cabinet, where mice should be, and made my way out. He’d cost me a hundred pounds. I needed to be more careful with my money.

I stocked up on Weetabix, pasta, squash and baked beans in Waitrose. I pored over the ready meals and exotic foods, but thought that perhaps I’d try something different another time. This time I’d stick to what I knew.

As I made my way back up Kensington High Street, the sun was dropping in the sky and the day had that feeling of early evening summer promise. People walked a little more slowly, their heads held a bit higher. Skin was burnished and polished, clothes were expensive, well draped, revealing just enough flesh. I bought another black dress on the way home, this one slightly more shaped, and a pair of soft, bitter chocolate sandals. Effortless chic, I wondered on the walk back up Campden Hill Road, or dowdy and invisible? I had no idea.

Back at the studio I stashed it, still in its bag, next to the other black dress. Then I went to the common room, ready to trade on my new intimacy with Heidi.

‘You can’t. It’s none of your business.’ Heidi’s voice, high with strain.

‘I can do what I bloody want,’ said Felix.

I hung back, just shy of the common room door.

‘It’s our business.’

‘The point is, my dear, that it’s not your business.’

‘Don’t call me my dear, you patronising…’

‘Yes? What kind of ladylike language were you about to use on your dear friend Felix?’

‘Ladylike!’ she spat. ‘Who cares?’

‘That much is clear.’

‘You’re impossible.’

‘No. I just don’t always dance to your tune.’

‘I don’t have a tune. I just want to know a few facts.’

‘You want to know what your chances are.’

‘You think like a pleb.’

‘Ha!’ Felix laughed. ‘But I am a pleb, aren’t I?’

‘I don’t know what you are. Do it, Felix.’ Her tone of voice changed, got more wheedling. ‘Please.’

‘I’ll talk to who I want. You and your bloody plots. You put me on edge.’

‘Fine.’ A cup slammed into the sink.

A breath of warm wind lifted the hair on the back of my neck. I brushed it back impatiently.

‘Rhymes with nosy,’ a voice said quietly, close to my ear. ‘Rhymes with nosy, doesn’t it?’

I jumped and looked round. Clive backed up, smiling. ‘Be careful,’ he said, cheeks red, eyes a drizzly blue splattered with pink. ‘Eavesdropping’s one thing, but nosing around’s another entirely.’

He tapped a finger to his nose. I watched him disappear down the mossy corridor towards the stairs up to Heidi and Felix’s rooms, the back of his hair a haze of red.

Rhymes with nosy. I scuttled back to my room before Felix or Heidi could catch me.

As I type this, the autumn wind rattling at my window, a dish of half eaten pasta next to my computer and the heating on full blast, I realise that there’s a voice missing. A voice that tells the other part of the story. A voice that I should bring in.

It’s not a voice that I like. These are words that I’ve read and read. Words that I sped through – hungrily, but not with a wholesome hunger – and then went back to the beginning to re-read. They weren’t words that fed my soul. Instead they were words that ripped it apart, really, if that’s not too dramatic a phrase. Words that I read a third time, a fourth, more slowly, to be sure I’d understood correctly. Words that slid a finger down my spine and expertly loosened the skin.

I don’t have them to refer to, of course – he made sure of that. With the words in front of me, there’d be a little more stability in my shaken identity. At least I could point at the source and say, yes, it really happened. Yes, it was really said. But I’m floundering in nothing, grasping at memories of words. I’m not mad. It was there. It was written down. It happened.

Words scrawled on the back of a typed contract in thick, black handwriting. Pages and pages more of handwritten words like angry eyebrows on a furrowed brow. Large writing with exaggerated loops and spikes, thick dots to the eyes, confident downwards strokes, ‘T’s like gravestones. Real words.

I am not mad.

Those words are important.

They’re burnt onto my mind.

#iamreading #booklovers #bibliophile #books #freebooks #bookchat

Sweetness and Light, chapter 10

2005.

I spent a good half hour searching for those keys, looking far beyond where they could feasibly have dropped. The whole time I felt the sensation of eyes brushing against my back, but there was never anyone there when I turned round. There was a small waste pipe in the floor, a few centimetres from the door. All I could conclude was that I’d dislodged the keys when I’d opened the door below and moved about, and that they’d dropped in there, out of sight. But I was relieved to find that my studio door was still locked when I got back, my own keys on the kitchen surface where I’d left them.

That night I dreamed of Clive, his face pressed, distorted, against glass, his breath misting it up, his nose squashed and flat. In my dream I was walking through a long tunnel past endless windows and grills, each with Clive’s face pushed against them. His breath was thin and raspy, a snake’s gasp.

I woke up later than usual with the duvet tangled around me. My heart still felt quick and tender. I’d only met Clive once, but the thought of him followed me around, as if I’d run into a ghost and talked to him about the weather.

Today, I thought, needed to be different.

I made myself some fried eggs on toast and wandered in my socks to the common room for some coffee – not my usual time.

‘Well. I thought you’d moved straight back out again. Quiet as a mouse, you’ve been.’ John was sitting with a newspaper propped up on his knees, a coffee in his left hand.

‘Have I?’ I glanced at the kettle, unsure whether he wanted to be alone.

‘Join me for a coffee. Don’t be shy.’

‘Okay,’ I said, willing my mossy mouth into life.

‘There’s some in the pot. Help yourself.’

His tee shirt was riding up, showing a soft roll of flesh. Outside the window the sun was bright already, the trees glancing and shifting their greens and golds in the warmth.

‘So,’ he said. ‘How’s it going? The exhibition? You were working on an exhibition, weren’t you?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘You play your cards close to your chest, don’t you?’

‘I am taking pictures, though,’ I said. Even this felt like stripping naked in front of him. The thought made me blush.

‘Well, that’s a step in the right direction.’

‘Of secrets,’ I added.

He smiled politely. I felt that perhaps the concept had less currency than I’d thought.

‘I don’t know if I’ll put on an exhibition, though’ I said. Make an exhibition of myself, I thought. No, thanks.

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘You’re a hobbyist.’

‘A what?’

‘It’s your hobby, not your vocation. That’s fine, of course.’

‘No, it’s my vocation.’ Was it? I wasn’t sure. ‘I just wouldn’t know how to go about putting an exhibition on.’

‘I’ve got a friend. She runs a little gallery space in the East End. Here.’ He fished in his pocket. A business card, grey writing on black. Sue James. ‘I only saw her yesterday. It’s her new business card. You could talk to her. Provided your stuff is good, of course.’

‘It might be.’ I held the card carefully in my hand.

He laughed. ‘Secrets sounds about right for you. You really are a closed book, aren’t you?’

‘No! Not really.’

‘I’m teasing.’

I took a sip of my coffee and tried to settle myself more comfortably into the chair.

‘Do you know,’ I said, as casually as I could, ‘much about the building?’

‘Of course. Dad talked about it all the time when I was a kid. It was built in the eighteen fifties for a group of artists. It’s Queen Anne style, you know that? And you know about the right to inhabit in perpetuity? For a peppercorn a year?’

‘Oh! I haven’t paid my peppercorn.’

He laughed. I pretended I’d been joking and laughed too.

‘Do you know about the inside of the building, I mean,’ I said.

‘Well, we’re on the ground floor. You’ve got that double height room, so you take up some of the first floor too. Heidi and Felix are up there as well.’

‘And the top floor?’

‘No-one goes there. None of us, at least. Not even me.’

‘Not even you?’

‘Well, what with Dad… Anyway. And there’s a store room down here, next door.’

‘What was it like in the nineteenth century, do you think?’

‘Supposedly pretty glam, in that bohemian way. There’s rumours there was all sorts here – a Roman baths, a meeting hall, a gymnasium, all kinds. All for the use and enjoyment of the artists in residence. Can’t be true, though, I don’t suppose. Where would you fit it all in?’

I didn’t say anything.

‘There is a cellar though, you know,’ he continued. ‘You can see it from the skylight out the front.’

‘Maybe the swimming pool and halls were down there.’

He laughed.

‘What are the cellars like?’

‘Oh, we don’t go in them, really.’

‘Aren’t you curious?’

‘I’ve got a lot to be curious about. An old, dirty cellar’s not top of my list. We’ve plenty of storage anyway.’

Good, I thought. Though a tiny thought tinkled in my head. Perhaps I wouldn’t mind him, of all the people I could think of, sharing my secret.

He drained his coffee cup.

‘I suppose I should tear myself away. I’d like to see your photos one day, Rose. Your secrets. Would you let me? Oh Rose, I propose that she shows me her photos,’ he said in a sing-song voice.

‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Maybe.’

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Maybe, Rosie Posey. Maybe, it is.’

I smiled.

‘You could ask,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘to see my paintings.’

‘Oh!’ I said, but it was too late, he’d gone.

I washed his cup up, too, and put money in the jar for both of us, just in case.

I can see the leaves starting to turn outside my little window now. Here in my attic room I’m sitting amongst the tree tops, a sparrow seeking shelter.

I feel so far, now, from the many things that, for a long time, seemed normal and just as far from those things that seemed as though they’d replace them. I’m nowhere, in limbo. But perhaps for the first time in my life I’m actually standing on solid ground. From nine till five-thirty my days are spent filing scientific photographs in metal drawers, their complex numbering system swimming around my brain until I can’t remember whether P comes before S and whether an image that’s categorised with a 1000 suffix comes after a 200 suffix or before. It’s both tedious and complicated and suits me perfectly for the time being. Flicking through paper feels like searching an ordered mind for a safe memory.

In the evening I sit in my little room and I write this. A record of what’s happened and proof, to myself, that I’m not mad. And that I wasn’t then either, no matter what they’d have had me think.

Perhaps it’s something else, though, too. I lost my identity this summer. Maybe I’m building a new one, word by word. As time goes by, I do start to feel less ripped raw by it. Something is healing over; something is growing in place of what I lost. Perhaps the need to please, to do the right thing, to be what people expect has been replaced by something else. Freedom? Maybe. I don’t know. I might just have accepted my invisibility. It’s a kind of a superpower, isn’t it, to be able to disappear at will?

I’ve rung the vet every day about Herb, the abandoned white dog. No-one’s come to claim him. They’re looking for a suitable rehoming centre. The thought of approaching Julia at work and asking if I can bring a dog in every day – of pushing myself forward, making demands – makes me blush and squirm. But I’ve made an appointment to talk to her tomorrow and I’ve printed out some internet research on how dogs in the workplace improve well-being and productivity. I’ve bought two dog beds – one for work, one for home – and two sets of dog bowls. Me and Herb can sort the garden out together, too. I have a share of it, after all, and no-one else uses it. It will be ours. A new special place, maybe – a new orchard, a new sparkling hall – just not a secret one this time. I’m hopeful.

Will something else come at the end of this, or is this my life now, filing by day and typing by night? I’m not sure. But the idea of it stretching into infinity isn’t an uncomfortable one. Even now, even after everything that’s happened and everything that I’ve left behind, it seems that I have a way of finding the pedestrian and monotonous and settling into it. I’ve come to accept that the grand and the glamorous are not for me. I like the idea of a quiet life, well-lived, of doing no harm, of being kind to ants and solving my puzzles.

It seems a million miles away now – the old me, sneaking around the cellars with my camera, hoping – a thought I didn’t articulate even to myself, but hoping nonetheless – to create something spectacular and brilliant that would prove my worth to myself and impress others. Impress John, Heidi and Felix, that is. Hoping that it would prove to be the bridge to my new life. Like I say, I’ve come a long way, not least in my acceptance of the limitations of my own talents.

And all of that space around me, the space that scared me so much at the end of the summer – the empty space left by what I’d lost. It’s starting to feel like room to stretch out – to stretch out and just be. Sadness is all the space that’s left after the love leaves. I like that idea.

I didn’t slip down to the cellars that day. The dream of Clive’s red face pressed against misty glass, his tongue pushing and flattening against the window, was too recent and felt too real. I could still hear the bored and contemptuous tone of his voice as he told me not to nose around. I still felt uneasy about the missing keys.

The next afternoon, and evening too, I sat in my room, reading my novel and drinking squash before climbing the ladder to my bed far too early and swaddling myself in a warm duvet before the sun had even gone down outside. I lay there, amber light dappling my duvet covers, and heard laughter and clinking glasses from next door. John’s room. I sunk even further into the sheets and pressed my face into the pillow. The voices continued till late into the night, I’d guess around two or three in the morning, before they retreated down the corridor. I didn’t hear the front door slam, so it must have been the three of them, drinking and laughing without me.

Next morning I took a walk down to Kensington High Street as soon as I’d had my Weetabix and cup of tea. Not so much to clear my head as to populate it – I felt stuffed with cotton wool, stuck on mute, empty. I needed bustle, voices and people in my head. I ordered a strong coffee to wake up any verve that was lying latent in my brain and sat outside a café in Kensington Church Street, trying to feel a part of the scene. The white metal chair was cold against my bare legs – I was wearing a navy dress that I’d picked up on Kensington High Street; not unlike Heidi’s, but on me it looked cheap and shapeless, not elegant.

I rocked gently back and forth on the cold chair, the sun heavy on the back of my neck, the coffee strong and bitter in my mouth.

The sky was bright and infinite.

We were tiny ants on the earth’s surface.

I smiled.

I decided to call John’s friend about putting on my exhibition. I’d clear out the ante room in the cellar for a darkroom, too. It wasn’t impossible that I could impress these people – surprise them, even. Maybe soon I’d be in the party room, not outside it.

If I’m honest, despite the way that Clive had unnerved me, those beautiful, private rooms were calling me too. I longed to sit by the apple green pool and listen to its soporific splashes while real time bustled by out of sight.  I still think of those rooms in that way, even now they’re lost to me forever. The thought of them is like cool milk pooling in my brain. They’re outside time, away from the light, untouched, like a memory of a mother’s first kiss.

I knew that I should call Mum and let her know how I was. She’d be anxious to know how I was getting on in my new life. But somehow there had never been the right time. I’d call her soon. Just not today. Let the matching salt and pepper pots and magnolia walls wait a little bit longer before they tugged at me and pulled me back. I think I was waiting for some good news to pass on.

I bought a black dress on the way home.

That afternoon I took myself down to my cellars again, forcing myself to do some work before I’d let myself sit by the pool. I carried all of the rubbish into a corner of the sparkling, vaulted hall. It was a shame to sully the space, but my darkroom was an important project. And maybe it would make a good photo anyway, I thought, the sparkling walls, the light glancing through the caked skylight, the rubbish spilling out onto the floor.

I swept the ante-room out, checked that the tap worked and wiped the sink down. I’d bring a trestle table, a kettle and some washing up bowls down here. There was a cupboard in one corner that would be fine for drying my negatives and prints. I’d just need to pick up some chemicals, amber light filters and an enlarger. I felt buoyed up and excited, picturing myself expertly developing black and white prints, something I’d only done once or twice at university. Sorting it out wouldn’t take too much of Mum’s money, and it was worth it – an investment in my future. She’d approve. I’d write a list that evening.

My back and shoulders ached, but I knew that with just a few minutes by the pool I’d feel better. Camera around my neck and torch in my hand, I closed the door of my new darkroom behind me and made my way to the hall. The sparkling walls made me want to tip-toe, as if to avoid waking up a long-sleeping Anglo-Saxon king. The sun was high in the sky, pouring thick honey through the lichened window. I felt the sparkle fill my soul.

As I clicked away with my camera, that sparkle in my soul turned to hope. Here was a chance for me to be more than the sum of my parts.

The door to the hidden stairs was unlocked, just as I’d left it. I made my way down the thirty or so stairs to the poolroom and pushed open the door, flicking the light on with my left hand. There it was, glimmering and shimmering in the artificial light, even more beautiful than I remembered. My pool. I smiled. After a while – a few moments of quiet thought and a few photos – I pushed the door closed again, ready to go back to my room and write my lists.

But for no reason in particular, I pushed half-heartedly at the door opposite the stairs as I passed it. This time it swung open, revealing a narrow wooden flight of stairs going back up.

I wonder, as I write this, whether anyone would believe me if they were ever to read these pages, even this early in my tale – before events turned far darker. Doors mysteriously opening, keys arriving and disappearing. I sound like a child on a flight of fancy. My problems won’t sound so childlike as I get to later events, but even at this stage they sound improbable, bordering on delusional. Likely the rooms were just dusty cellars, the doors to them were never unlocked, and I superimposed my own fantasies of faded grandeur on them. My own feelings about myself perhaps – that my true powers were neglected and hidden from sight, but unique, beautiful to the right beholder. And the locked and unlocked doors? Just my own nervousness at exploring my own ideas? Who knows. At any rate, in this instance, the truth is the less probable version. And I should leave the amateur psychology alone.

I can’t help but wonder sometimes, though, now that I’m back in a small life, living in a small room in a small part of town, how much I imagined and embellished all of this. It can be hard to get it straight in your head, can’t it, what’s real and what’s not? I suppose that’s why I’m writing it down. Getting it all on paper. So that it’s concrete and real. To reassure myself that I’m sane, even if events weren’t.

Back to that wooden flight of stairs, away from the pool and up again.

I climbed the stairs, expecting to find my way back to the sparkling hall and from there to go back to my studio. But after ten steps up, I found myself pushing at another door, a timid, dusty-haired Alice.

I was in a low room lined with white butcher’s tiles from floor to ceiling, square, white tiles covering the floor. Another door, directly opposite the one I’d come in through. Gurgling, white painted pipes criss-crossed the top of the walls. In the far corner the pipes led to an odd, curtained enclosure, hessian curtains hanging from a semi-circular structure. A shower, I realised, with a mental double-take. On the chipped, tiled floor there were dumb bells, a medicine ball, what looked like leather skittles, all dusty and dilapidated. In front of me were two copper bars on a wooden frame. I snapped away with my camera. I could bring John down here, I thought, when I was ready, if we ever got that close. But if I did that, the rooms wouldn’t be mine anymore.

I imagined the artists who originally inhabited the building spending their leisure hours swimming gracefully, doing turns on the bars, all Victorian handlebar moustaches and leotards. Why close the rooms off, though? If I owned the building I’d swim in the pool every day, set up my living room in the sparkling hall under the skylight, shower in the gym; I’d walk around underground in my grandeur, a mole burrowing away in a goldmine.

This particular day is even more dreamlike than the rest, perhaps because I felt so happy in this hidden world, so convinced it was all mine, so nervous of life upstairs. I remember leaving the gym by the opposite door, finding more stairs that led to another hidden room, this one low, wood panelled, populated by mouldy chesterfields, one with what looked like a bird’s nest in, though how any poor bird found its way down there and how soon it realised it had flown to its own grave, I didn’t like to think. The brass wall lights were sueded with dust. A sign on the outside of the door, in cursive letters: ‘Smoking room. For the delectation and refreshment of members of this house.’

I sat down on a dusty chesterfield, imagining myself cradling a large brandy and holding court and put my feet up on the sage green, leather topped coffee table. The room had the icy, muffled silence of somewhere deep underground. I was swaddled in stone.

In the same dreamlike state, I wandered back the way I’d come, down stairs, through abandoned Victorian leisure facilities, back past the pool and up the stairs to the hallway. I stood in the sparkling hall, bathing in the greened late afternoonsun that poured through the skylight and I tugged the door shut behind me. My hand brushed against something cold.

A set of keys. The set of keys I’d lost.

Slowly, a slight chill slipping down my spine, I pulled the set of keys out of the lock, held them in my hand and stared at them. Then I locked the door, put the keys in my pocket and climbed the stairs back to my studio. They must have been there all along.

Rosie. Rhymes with nosy.

I pushed the armchair against the door to the cellar and went to bed.

Sweetness and Light, chapter nine

2005.

When I was nine we moved to the house Mum still lives in. It was exciting – my first ever house move. We’d been living in a small flat in a purpose-built block. My new bedroom was bigger and we’d have a spare. The new house had room for a dining table. There was a garden. We could grow fruit and veg, sit outside, have pets. I imagined long summer days, playing with my dog and rabbit in the garden, Mum and me growing our own strawberries, an endless stream of visitors using the spare room. I’d show them round the house. And this is the dining area, I’d have the nerve to say. This is my bedroom. This is Patch’s bed. We got him from a dog’s home. He’s had a hard life – lived outside, only ate scraps – but we’ve shown him love and now he’s so happy.

Moving day came. All of our belongings were in boxes, stacked up like bricks in each room. I’d kissed each of my toys goodbye before they went into the box, promising them that I’d get them out and play with them as soon as we arrived, so they needn’t be scared. I labelled it myself with a thick magic marker. ROSE – MY STUFF.

A friend of Mum’s – Ben With The Beard – came round with his van and loaded us up. I carried a few small things. Mum worried over the order the boxes went into the van and the order they’d come out. The last box in said EMERGENCY OVERNIGHT BOX in Mum’s handwriting. It had our pyjamas and toothbrushes in, and cups, glasses and plates. We’d have fish and chips for tea. It was like being on holiday.

We spent all afternoon unpacking boxes, finding homes for things, discovering new love for old belongings. By the evening we were surrounded by crumpled newspaper and eating our chips out of the grease stained pages of a different paper. I put a dirty hand in Mum’s. She smiled at me.

I went to bed after dinner. Mum gave me my pyjamas from the overnight box and tucked me into my old bed in a new room. I could hear her unpacking downstairs – busy footsteps, the rustle of paper. I tiptoed up to my box and undid it, taking out Red Ted, Benny and Woof and kissing them all hello. Then I crawled under the low opening next to my bed into the tiny attic space next to it. I curled up on the floor with Red Ted, Benny and Woof and I went to sleep, dreaming of apple trees and sunshine.

The wall hanging was pinned to the wall over the hidden door, brass drawing pins puncturing the sides at two-centimetre intervals. Its deer turned their long necks to look back at me over their shoulders, slim, petal-studded branches curling behind them. It gave my room a medieval air, I thought. I wondered about a window seat under one of those vast, double height windows, somewhere I could sit and gaze around my room, deer prancing past my eye line.

I’d been living in the studio for three weeks now, sleeping in the big, wooden bed a few feet below the high ceiling’s ornate grid of relief wallpaper. I’d wake up as the pale sun slid through the bare windows and bury my face deep in the duvet, dozing on and off till noon, feeling like I was sunbathing in the clouds. Then I’d get up and eat my Weetabix – my mother’s taste seemed to stick to me more closely than I’d have thought – before wandering to Kensington High Street or Kensington Church Street, window shopping for a better identity. I could slip on this dress or that jacket; I could buy this lampshade or that fabric. I could slide into another life.

I never took my camera with me and I shied away from the thought of it. The studio came with the proviso of artistic sensibilities. It was more comfortable not confronting the issue of whether I had any, particularly since I suspected that I knew the answer. I came back without shopping bags – my five thousand pounds had to stretch – and without photos or inspiration either. I wasn’t exactly sure how this exhibition I’d talked myself into was going to manifest itself, but I felt that John expected it now.

Late afternoon, I’d skulk around the common room, timidly making tea, not sure how much money to leave, bringing a packet of biscuits in case I bumped into John, Felix or Heidi, sliding out again when I’d spent an hour in there on my own. Then back to my room to eat beans on toast leaning against the kitchen units before curling up on the sofa with a novel and a glass of squash, stronger than my mother would have liked me to make it. I was free to explore all of the world’s cuisine, here in London away from my mother’s larder of tins and packets, and I chose, with my freedom, to drink stronger squash.

The door to my secret room stayed hidden and unopened behind the hanging. I thought of its sparkling walls and my hand twitched to open the door, but the image of Clive’s pockmarked face and watery blue eyes came into my head and merged with that feeling I’d had in there of being watched. Of course Clive couldn’t be watching me and couldn’t know what I did behind my own closed door, but I had a creeping unease as well as that eagerness to please and not rock the boat which had always been my Achilles heel. I couldn’t disobey a grownup, as I still thought of the older generation, even if they didn’t know that I was doing it.

One afternoon I sat on my sofa in the low sunlight. Again, I hadn’t seen anyone all day, though there were muted voices coming out of John’s room – a radio, or maybe he had company. Perhaps they were talking about me, I thought. About how odd I was, how I didn’t fit in. Maybe they’d been watching me and thinking that. I sat upright on the sofa, stiff, unable to sink into it, feeling like a fraud; observed and found lacking. The thought of how private that cellar was, how secret, how it was just mine, licked gently at my brain. None of the others had their own special place with glimmering walls, full of old, secret air, did they? So I did have something that they didn’t.

I had secrets.

I put my tea down and went, for the first time, to my cupboard to pick up my camera.

Secrets.

There was a large, powerful torch in the cupboard under the sink. I tucked it into my back pocket and I unpinned one side of the hanging to open the door, wedging a shoe in the gap and pulling the fabric back around it. Unless you looked closely, it still looked like a wall. My secret was safe. Who I thought might creep into my room without knocking, might let themselves in, I don’t know. But you never know, do you, what might go on when you’re not looking? It’s important not to make too many assumptions.

Then I tiptoed down the stairs and into the dark.

I stood in front of the pile of bin liners and rubbish in the ante room, my head on one side. Then I propped the torch up and directed its strong beams at the bags, giving them the stark, morbid glow of a Caravaggio painting, all dark folds and high contrast. I clicked at my camera, filling the frame. I rearranged the scene, piling bag on top of bag, leaning a stack of paint cans against them, draping old dust sheets as if they were an angel’s robe. Then I snapped again. Maybe I wasn’t so bad at this.

I picked up the torch and pushed open the door to the sparkling skylight room. The late afternoon sun was pressing its face against the high window and the walls glittered as if they were made of crystal. A few unloved and forgotten items were scattered on the bare concrete floor – a plastic red coat hanger, a bunch of keys, a crumpled coke can. I picked up the red coat hanger, took off my saggy mustard cardigan and draped it on the hanger, hanging it on a rusty iron nail on the wall. I snapped a couple of pictures of it, then lit it from below with the torch and clicked again. I walked around the perimeter of the room, eyes half closed, stroking the shimmering walls and thinking what other pictures I could set up in there.

My hand brushed past a crack in the wall and I stopped to take a closer look. Another door. Not exactly hidden, but its rough grey were so closely matched to the grey of the walls and it was so featureless that you’d struggle to see it unless you were looking for it. There was no handle, just a small, unshowy hole in the wood. I jammed my index finger into the hole hopefully and pulled. Nothing. Oh well, I couldn’t expect a whole series of doors to magically open for me, like the doors in Wonderland.

Then I glanced back at the set of keys, rusty and discarded on the floor. Surely not? Well, it was worth a try. I crouched on the floor. They were cold, rough with rust, heavy in my hand. Three keys – a simple Yale one, a small, silver padlock key and a long, iron key with an ornate bow. I tried the two possibilities in the lock, as much for the sake of the story that was in my head as anything – the story that would be in anyone’s head, confronted by a locked door and a set of keys. I knew, of course, that there was no chance that it would fit.

The long, iron key clicked in the lock and the door swung open. My hand dropped from the key – still slotted neatly into the lock – in surprise, and I stepped through. The door swung half shut behind me.

I was in a small dark space, dimly lit with some distant natural light. After my eyes adjusted I could see that the room was a small, wood panelled hallway with a flight of stairs leading up and down. Up could only lead back to the ground floor. I suddenly felt acutely aware that perhaps my secret room wasn’t just my secret after all. I felt disappointment, closely followed by a fear that I was somewhere that I shouldn’t be and that someone could find me out and take my secret place away.

I tiptoed slowly up the wooden stairs. Ten steps, twenty, more. I’d have passed the ground floor by now, surely. I counted. I took another thirty steps, thirty-five, forty steps past the wood panelled walls until the staircase came to an abrupt end with just a tiny, dusty window to reward me for my journey, a window so thick with dirt that I couldn’t see through it. I wondered if I was at the top of the house – I must have walked the equivalent of three floors. I’d be level with the attic, I supposed. If John was on my floor and Heidi and Felix on the next, then the attic space must be the caretaker’s and Clive’s, if either of them lived here. I’d have to ask next time I saw one of the others. John, I thought, was probably the tamest.

The thought of Clive on the other side of this wooden wall, perhaps even with his ear pressed against it, made me retreat quickly back the way I’d come. What the point of this staircase to nowhere was, I couldn’t tell. A fire escape? But escape to where? Perhaps once the attic floor had had its own staircase, now blocked off. But, anyway, one good thing was that my secret seemed still to be my secret; my ownership of the sparkling room was unchallenged.

Once I’d got down ten or twenty stairs I relaxed a bit. I had some distance from the image of Clive’s ear pressed to the wood, listening for my breathing. Another twenty steps and I was back in the small, wood panelled hallway. I checked the door, more out of nervousness than anything else, but it was still half open like I’d left it, a glimpse of my platinum, sparkling walls behind it.

I turned and took the stairs down. They curved to the right and I could see a small landing just below. I pushed a door open and felt instinctively on the wall for a light switch, flicking it on.

I was in another huge room. This one was entirely lined in dull green tiles, glinting like poison in the low light. They surrounded an apple green sunken floor, a foot or two below me, with shallow stone steps leading down. The floor was shiny as oil and gently marbled. I took the steps and cautiously put my foot onto the slippery floor. It sunk straight through. I pulled my dripping foot out.

Water. An underground swimming pool.

I knelt down. The water was the temperature of flesh. The womb of the building, quietly staying warm from the earth’s heat. I swept my hand through the water a couple of times, the hushed splash echoing around the arsenic tiles. I walked the perimeter of the pool on the stone step, listening to soft, muffled drips. In this room there was no secret door. The arsenic tiles continued unbroken all the way back to the door I’d come in through. I photographed the green tiles reflected in the green water and sat for a while, letting the still, damp air seep into my skin. Then I stepped back into the hallway to carry on exploring. The hush of the pool had moistened my soul. I felt calmer than I had in weeks, years maybe. Straight in front of me, opposite the stairs leading back up, was another door. I pushed, hopefully, but the door stayed firmly shut.

The keys.

I scurried up the steps to the first hall way, the door to my sparkling room still half open, and reached round it to grab the keys from the lock. Not finding them straight away, I stepped back into the glimmering hall. There was nothing in the lock. The keys had gone.

Infinite Impossibility, chapter three

The day after the end

It was that lovely, warm, gradual waking up that you only got the chance to have during the school holidays. Dot emerged slowly from sleep and dozed, half dreaming, half thinking. She burrowed into the warm duvet with her eyes still shut, thinking lazily about getting up. She always opened her stocking on her mum and dad’s bed, but maybe she was getting a bit old for that now she was twelve. She did it more for them, really, these days – not to let them down. Then breakfast, then chocolate, then presents (surely, the new football boots, she must have hinted enough), then chocolate, then lunch, then chocolate, then presents, then chocolate. She smiled, satisfied. She had a vague memory of a bad dream but it didn’t matter now. Nothing could touch you on Christmas Day, could it? You were invincible.

They normally went to Auntie Nadia’s in Norfolk for Christmas but this year they weren’t going till New Year. The idea of a Christmas at home in his pyjamas with no one to be polite to and her own bed to sleep in was actually pretty appealing. Will you be bored, just the three of us, his mum had said? I wish you had a brother or sister. She didn’t mind too much about being an only child. What was the point of worrying about something that you couldn’t change? How could you possibly know you’d prefer something you’d never known?

She yawned, rubbed her eyes and pushed herself up to sitting. Her room was washed with the eerie glow snow gives, as if someone had left the light on outside – football posters lit with a half-familiar, soft light. She leapt up and pulled back the curtains. There hadn’t been a white Christmas since she was four. So why was her stomach still laced with that peculiar dread? She tried to shake it off.

The world outside was thickly iced. The grass in the downstairs flat’s garden. The path down the middle of it. The brown fence where you’d sometimes see a squirrel eating a nut – even, once, a piece of toast with jam on. All white. The roofs of the next row of houses back – you could run across them, cutting crisp prints in the snow, dribbling a ball towards the chimney pots.

She pushed the window open to get the full experience. The silence sang in her ears. Dot revised her day’s plans to include snowballs. And building a snow dog. And getting rid of this stupid feeling in her stomach.

She pushed the window shut again, pulled on yesterday’s jumper – still flung across the chair by her desk – and went to grab her stuffed-full stocking. She was hoping for some football cards, a pair of football socks, the usual Satsuma no doubt and massive amounts of chocolate. But she stopped in his tracks, staring at the empty space on the bed where the stocking would normally be. It must be tucked into the hill of duvet she’d made when she’d thrown it back. No. On the floor then. Had it fallen under the bed? Was there a new place for it now? Had there been a conversation she hadn’t listened to properly where it was agreed she was too old for Christmas stockings? She’d have tuned in to that, she was sure.

Hopping precariously on one leg at a time, she pulled on a pair of thick socks and skidded out of the door, waiting for the wave of Christmas carols on the radio and the smell of cooking to hit her. Nothing. She glanced downstairs. The lights in the hall were off and the curtains were shut. The fairy lights on the big window were dull. It must be earlier than she thought. They’d be in bed having a coffee. Probably waiting with her stocking.

Dot took the mini flight of stairs up to the proper second floor two at a time, leaping lightly and easily up them. Her room was on its own, halfway between downstairs and upstairs, sitting on top of the kitchen like a second thought. The true second floor, up an extra five steps, contained her mum and dad’s room, Oscar’s study and the bathroom.

All the doors were shut and the landing was dark. She flicked the switch on, throwing a bit of yellow warmth onto the bare, wooden floor and the old chest of drawers where Dot stored toys she couldn’t quite decide whether to let go of or not. There was always a bunch of fresh flowers in a vase on top.

Dot could picture her mum standing in front of the drawers, leaning back a bit, pushing flowers into place, peering down the centre of her nose at them. She had a hundred pictures like that in her head, going back years. She’d have her hair a bit differently in one, an apron on in another, jeans and a jumper in one, her glasses tucked down her shirt in another, maybe a research paper tucked into her back pocket. She could flick through them like a set of postcards in her mind, going back further and further in time, selecting the moment she wanted to travel to.

Slowly, in case they were still asleep, she pushed their door open and peered round it. The curtains were drawn and the room was grey, but the bed was neatly made. No mum and dad. No stocking. No radio playing embarrassing songs that were actually quite cosy. She tried to push the panic down, and tell herself that her worst nightmare wasn’t actually coming true.

They must be downstairs. Of course! Wrapping presents. They were so disorganised, of course they’d be doing it at the last minute. They could all take the stocking back to bed. Or open it on the sofa with the radio on as her mum started boiling turkey innards or whatever she needed to do at eight a.m.

She thought maybe she’d creep up on them, make a joke out of seeing what they were doing, but not look really because she hated that disappointed expression they got when a surprise got spoiled.

The presents she’d bought were already wrapped up and waiting under the big tree by the bay window in the living room. A fountain pen for her mum – a proper one, a Parker. And for her dad, a compass. He’d like that because it was to do with the earth’s forces. She’d got him a book about navigating without a compass too, just using weird stuff like the direction the wind had blown a tree. Partly because it was funny to get the compass and the book that showed that you didn’t need a compass. And partly because she knew her dad would love it. She’d found an old photo of the three of them from five years ago when she was only seven – fat faced, dumb looking – and got it framed for her mum, but she wasn’t sure if she was going to give it to her. Her mum would love it. But it was a bit soppy and she didn’t know if she could handle the reaction. She’d play it by ear. See how the day went. There was always her birthday in April if she didn’t want to do it today.

She slipped down the stairs in her woollen socks, letting her feet slide over the edge of each step and drop onto the next. The stairs and the hall were silent. She’d literally never known their flat this quiet. This wasn’t right.

She stopped sliding and bumping and started to walk, rising dread tightening her belly. She walked into the living room. The thick, pea green curtains were shut, the white walls that were hung with framed photos were grey and sombre. The cushions on the sofa were tidy and the coffee table was clear of cups and glasses. The fairy lights were all switched off.

She returned to the hall and walked slowly to the kitchen, but she knew in his heart what she’d find. There were no twinkling fairy lights, there was no radio playing carols, the oven wasn’t on and there wasn’t a big dish of warm chocolate pastries on the scrubbed kitchen table.

There was no mum and dad.

She felt sick. It had actually happened. Her biggest fear. She felt like screaming, but she took a deep breath and told herself to be brave. Be logical. Be smart.

Dot sat down at the kitchen table and thought. Something must have happened. An emergency. Something that had forced them to leave in a hurry – to go somewhere unexpectedly. Someone had been taken to hospital. A neighbour was ill. There’d been a burglary across the road and they needed to give a statement to the police. The list of perfectly believable explanations was endless. There was no need to worry, like a little kid, that her mum and dad had disappeared into nothingness. She just had to wait – probably only a few minutes – and they’d be back. Feeling better, she helped herself to a glass of orange juice from the fridge and took a long, cool gulp. Then she stood up to search for the note that they would definitely have written.

She looked in the kitchen, in the living room, in her room and in her parents’ room. There was no note. She even looked at the marker pen scrawl on the wall. Never mind. They must have left in a hurry. They’d be back soon. She took a chocolate pastry from the bread bin into the living room, opened the curtains and switched on the TV, flicking channels till she found a film that she fancied. She pulled a blanket over her knees and settled down.

The film ended with a fanfare of over the top music and Dot pushed the blanket off her knees and stretched her cramped legs. The bubble of panic and worry and dread was starting to build again. She plodded in her socks to the hall and took the phone back to the sofa with the emergency post-it that had both of their numbers written down on it, along with Auntie Nadia’s and her dad’s friend Arun’s.

She dialled her mum’s number. It rang six times and then she answered.

‘Hello,’ she said.

‘Hi!’ said Dot. ‘Mum. Where…’

‘…this is Jen Whitby. I can’t get to the phone at the moment, but leave your number and I’ll call you back.’

‘Mum,’ said Dot to the answerphone, ‘it’s me. Where are you and Dad? I just wondered because it’s eleven o’clock now and you’re not here. And it’s Christmas day.’ She put the phone down. Should she have said to ring her? She’d know. She dialled her dad’s number.

‘Oscar Whitby,’ said the answerphone. ‘Leave a message.’

‘Dad, it’s me. Where are you both?’ She hesitated. ‘I’m scared,’ she said. She thought for a second but she couldn’t think of anything to add. She put the phone down.

She rang them at 11.30. At 12. At 12.30. At 12.45, 12.46, 12.47, 12.48. At 1.

Then she took the rest of the pastries to the sofa with the carton of orange juice. She stood up and switched on all the fairy lights. And then she sat back down, turned the TV on and tried not to think about it.

At 3 o’clock she rang them both again. Their phones wouldn’t let her leave another message.

At four o’clock the light outside started to drop and dim. Dot gathered the blanket round her a bit more tightly.

At five o’clock she walked back to the hall to pick the phone up again. As she was just a couple of steps away it started to ring, a startling noise in the quiet flat. Dot ran to pick it up.

‘Mum! Dad! Where have you been?’ She was already smiling ear to ear and ready to tell them about her weird, boring day – the worst Christmas ever. It was already a great story. The dread was gone, just like that. Everything was fine.

‘Dot?’ said a woman’s voice. It wasn’t her mum’s. Dot’s heart sank back down to her stomach.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Who’s that?’

‘It’s me. Nadia. I rang to say happy Christmas.’ She hesitated. ‘Where are Oscar and Jen?’

Dot sighed and took a couple of seconds to get her normal voice together. Be brave. Be calm.

‘Mum and Dad have disappeared,’ she said. ‘I’ve been here on my own all day. I was about to call you. Can I come and stay?’

‘What?’ she said, her voice as warm as melted chocolate. ‘What do you mean? Where have they gone?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said, trying hard to push the lump back down her throat. There was a pause while she tried to get it to stay down.

‘Have you rung them?’ Nadia said.

‘They don’t answer,’ she said. ‘They didn’t leave a note.’ She hesitated. ‘What station do I go to, Liverpool Street?’ She was pretty sure it was, but she didn’t want to get it wrong and end up somewhere she didn’t know in the dark. How much money did she have stashed in the tin under her bed? Would thirty pounds be enough?

‘Don’t go anywhere,’ Nadia said. ‘I’m coming to get you. There aren’t any trains on Christmas Day. Anyway, I wouldn’t have you travelling on your own any day of the week, especially today. I’ll be as quick as I can.’

‘Okay,’ she said. Then, ‘thank you.’

‘Where are they?’ Nadia muttered, almost to herself.

‘I don’t know,’ she said sadly.

After she put the phone down she sat down on the hall floor and felt very, very alone. Then she picked herself up and went upstairs to get dressed. She packed a ruck sack with clothes, thought for a second or two and went downstairs again. She put the compass, the book, the pen and the photo into her bag, put her coat on and sat down on the chair under the phone in the hall. Then she realised it took at least two hours to drive from Norfolk, probably more, and took her coat off again, feeling stupid.

The phone rang. Dot ran to it.

‘Mum!’ she said. ‘Dad!’

‘Dot, it’s Nadia. I’ve rung my friend Emma. She’s coming by with a plate of warm food and her two boys. They’ve got a DVD with them too. I thought you could do with a bit of company.’

‘Thanks,’ she said, the disappointment sinking like a stone in her belly. She didn’t really want any company that wasn’t her mum or her dad. Then she realised what it meant. ‘So you’re not coming?’

‘Of course I’m coming. I’m on the motorway now. Hands free,’ she added, as if Dot were likely to shop her to the police. ‘It’s empty. No one on the roads at all. I think I’ll be another hour and a half, maybe less if I put my foot down. Who’s going to issue speeding tickets on Christmas day?’ There was a pause. ‘Oh God,’ she said.

‘What?’ she said, panicking.

‘Don’t worry. Just a little red light. I’ll be there as soon as I can.’

‘Okay,’ she said, gratefully. She put the phone down. Then she saw, there on the little table in the hall where they kept the phone and the post-its, the small, black key that she’d last seen in the palm of her mum’s hand.

She picked it up and walked up the stairs, slowly at first and then two at a time, past the jagged words written in marker pen up the wall. How could her dad inhabit the house so completely just a few hours before and now there be nothing but empty space where he should be? As she passed her mum and dad’s room she closed the door quickly without looking inside. The sight of the empty, made bed would make her panic.

She wasn’t allowed into her dad’s study normally – the furthest she got was to stand in the doorway and tell him dinner was ready. She tried the door, in case it was unlocked – rare, when her dad was out, but they’d left in a hurry, hadn’t they? Or had they, she wondered? Everything’s so tidy. There’s no sign of a rush. The door rattled but it didn’t open.

It had always struck her as unfair that her dad had a study and her mum didn’t – they were both working scientists, after all. But her mum said that she liked working on the kitchen table in the hustle and bustle of normal life and her dad needed peace and quiet. Her dad said it was because her mum was a better physicist than he was and he needed all the help he could get.

Her heart beating a tiny bit faster, feeling like she was doing something wrong, even though she was doing it for the best of reasons, she fitted the small, black key with the curved bow into the lock and turned it.

Unlike the rest of the jumbled but tidy house, her dad’s study was a mess. The desk under the window, looking out onto the ground floor flat’s garden, was towering with precarious piles of books and papers. A red lamp had its face bent towards the desk and a black bow tie hanging off its angled neck. Dot could count three dirty coffee cups. No, four. In the near corner, just in front of Dot, a green, squishy chair was buried beneath more books and papers. Either side of the unused fireplace bookshelves lined the walls. In front of the books were the random objects that Oscar kept to inspire him – or distract him. A tiny snow globe, the size of a large marble. A tambourine. A small frame with two balls suspended in it – they’d swing against each other forever until you stopped them.

There’s no such thing as forever, he remembered his dad telling him. No such thing as infinity. Just vast amounts of time. And acres of empty space – of nothingness. But there’s always an end to it. Dot remembered rolling her eyes. Now she sort of wished she’d been nicer. She sort of wished she’d listened. She sort of wished she’d said replied last night when they said goodnight. She put the snow globe in her pocket.

She glanced at her watch. Nadia’s friend Emma would be here soon. She’d have to be quick. She switched on the computer and waited impatiently for it to start up. It was taking forever. She corrected himself. It was taking vast amounts of time. She hopped from one foot to another irritably. Come on! Eventually the home screen came up. Her dad’s name, a small icon of a parrot and the space for a password. What would it be? She tried her dad’s name. Her mum’s name. Her own name. Her dad’s date of birth. Nothing. She grunted in frustration. Hint, the computer wrote. Forever. Dot gasped. Infinity, she wrote. No. Vast amounts of time. She thought again. No infinity, she wrote. No. This was impossible.

The doorbell rang. Auntie Nadia’s friend Emma and her sons. And then before long Nadia would be here and there would be no time to hunt for clues. Why hadn’t she thought of this earlier instead of hanging around on the sofa watching films she’d seen a million times before? Maybe she could tell Emma to go away. That she didn’t need her. Maybe she could tell Nadia that. No. A night here alone – no. The bell rang again. She sighed in exasperation and strode across the room, desperately scanning the room one last time for a clue – a hint – anything.

There. On the back of the door. A yellow post-it. Yes! She ran and tore it off the white-painted wood.

Dot, it said. Gone – find your mum.

That was all.

The doorbell rang again.

She stuffed the note into her back pocket, locked the door behind her, put the key in her pocket too and took the stairs down to the empty, fairy light-lit hall two and three at a time. At the bottom of the stairs she paused to stuff the piece of paper with the emergency phone numbers on into her bag on top of her clothes and presents, and darted to pick up a random book from the pile of his mum’s work stuff on the kitchen table. Quantum Time by Arun Singh. You never knew what would be useful. She took a deep breath and opened the door.

Infinite Impossibility, chapter two

The end

The small kitchen was crammed with Christmas decorations. A tiny tree wobbled precariously on the little white fridge, every branch hung with a home-made decoration, some going back eight years to when Dot was just four, a few from her mum’s childhood. The window that looked out onto the garden was draped with fairy lights. Every wooden cupboard door was hung with an intricate, many sided, glass crystal in jewel-bright colours. The air was warm with spices.

Dot sighed happily.

‘And relax,’ she said.

‘Why aren’t you relaxed?’ Her mum had appeared next to her silently. ‘What’s going on?’

‘I am relaxed.’ She pulled out a tomato red, painted wooden chair and sat down at the table. ‘That’s what I just said.’

‘”And relax” implies you weren’t relaxed before,’ her mum said, peering at her and wrinkling her nose.

‘It’s a turn of phrase, mum. Relax,’ she added.

‘Hmm,’ was all she said. ‘Right!’ She pulled open the oven door. ‘Ham.’ She put it down heavily on the pine table.

Dot leaned over the criss-crossed, amber meat that was studded with cloves and breathed in the smell of twelve Christmases already passed and many more to come.

‘Oscar!’ her mum yelled, and reached into the oven again to pull out a dish of steaming, creamy potatoes. ‘Osc… Oh.’

‘Here I am.’ His dad pulled out the chair next to Dot’s. ‘And relax,’ he said.

‘Not you too. Why’s no-one relaxed?’

‘I just said I am relaxed,’ said Oscar.

‘Precisely,’ said Dot. ‘See?’

‘Hmm,’ her mum said again. ‘Right. Help yourself to potatoes. Let’s have a glass of champagne.’ She wiped her hands on the tea towel that was tucked into her waistband, brushed her brown hair off her forehead and opened the fridge door.

The cork popped. She sat down, leaned back in her chair and lifted a glass to her lips. ‘And relax,’ she said. They all laughed.

‘Aren’t you glad,’ said Jen, ‘that we’re here for Christmas for once, instead of going to Nadia’s in Norfolk? Not that there’s anything wrong with Nadia,’ she said quickly. Nadia was Oscar’s younger sister. ‘But it’s nice to be home.’

‘Plus,’ said Oscar cheerfully. ‘Nadia’s adorable, but she’s quite mad, of course. Did you seen what she was wearing when we Skyped her? A purple dress with yellow tights? Really?’

‘Imagine,’ said Dot dryly, and she reached across the table for the potatoes.

An hour later the table was crammed with half empty dishes, a deep bowl of sticky toffee pudding was still oozing caramel and the white jug had a dribble of thick cream down its neck. Dot’s traditional Christmas half glass of champagne had just one sip gone, but Oscar’s and Jen’s were empty.

‘So what was it Dot said?’ asked Jen. ‘That you needed to remember?’

‘Don’t worry,’ Oscar said. ‘I made a note, like you suggested. Sometimes I think that girl is a genius. She just instinctively gets things I labour over for years.’

‘I’m crap at physics, Dad.’

‘Now, Dot,’ said her mum warningly.

‘Sorry. I am though.’ It wasn’t the word crap Jen objected to, it was her describing herself as bad at something. But she was. She wasn’t a thinker like either of his parents – everything at school was a struggle for her. She just couldn’t join the dots and make sense of it all.

‘Different people develop at different paces,’ Jen said.

‘Yeah. I’m developing at the pace of an ant.’

‘Ants are incredible.’ Oscar’s face lit up. ‘Have you ever seen a model of an ants nest? Vast. Glorious. Like an underground cathedral.’

‘You’re a cathedral, just underground,’ said Jen, pleased with the analogy. ‘No-one’s seen it yet.’

‘I see it, Dotty my girl,’ said Oscar. ‘Believe you me, one day you’ll be a better scientist than either of us. Well, better than me at least. Your mother’s a bone fide genius, of course.’

‘I doubt it. Me not mum, I mean.’

‘I don’t doubt it for a second. Let’s take our glasses and the chocolates through to the sitting room,’ said Jen.

‘No. More. Food,’ groaned Dot, clutching her stomach.

‘There’s plenty of room in there,’ Jen said, tapping it with a finger and smiling to herself.

‘Mum!’ Dot objected.

‘What?’ She was unrepentant. ‘Here.’ She handed her the Christmas Chocolate Box, a wooden box that had once transported a vast quantity of tea leaves that Oscar had ordered, on impulse, from China, the way some people impulse-purchased a pair of socks. ‘I’ll bring the glasses. Find something Christmassy on TV. I’ll bring you some milk.’

‘Mum, I’m not six.’ She hesitated. ‘Okay,’ she said.

Dot pushed the kitchen door open with one foot. Scrawled in magic marker up the warm grey wall to the second floor was a sentence in spikey capitals.

A PARTICLE TRAVELS TO EVERY POSSIBLE LOCATION AND IT TRAVELS TO ONE SPECIFIC LOCATION AND IT TRAVELS NOWHERE, it said.

‘Uh oh,’ she said. ‘Dad, you’re going to be murdered.’ She shivered when she said it, as if her future self had whispered something horrific in her ear. ‘In trouble, I mean,’ she said quickly.

‘Oscar,’ said Jen wearily. ‘Not again. I said on the post-its.’

Oscar shrugged. ‘Too small,’ he said cheerfully. Dot rolled her eyes at her mum.

They settled down on the red sofa. The room was lit by the twinkling of candles and the glitter of strings of lights. Jen tucked her feet neatly under her and reached back to re-do her ponytail. She was wearing a cosy, dark blue wool dress that she always wore at Christmas. Its colour had always seemed like the midnight of Christmas Eve skies and the soft feel of it made Dot fill up with the happy sadness of old memories. Oscar leaned back, throwing an arm across the sofa behind Dot’s back, and undid the top button of his trousers. Dot reached for the remote.

She could still feel that creeping anticipation in her belly. Was it excitement? She brushed off, again, the thought that actually it felt a little bit more like dread. School was over for a couple of weeks at least. So why did she feel so ill at ease, like the feeling you have when someone’s watching you?

‘Did you read that article?’ asked Oscar.

‘What article?’ said Jen, reaching for the chocolate box.

‘The one that described me as “half genius, half buffoon?”‘

Dot snorted.

‘What utter nonsense,’ said Jen. ‘All genius, all buffoon, more like. Anyway, they’ll change their tune soon enough, when you turn everything they thought about time and space on its head.’

Oscar chortled in delight. ‘Indeed!’ he said. ‘Indeed!’ He thought for a second. ‘When we do,’ he corrected her.

‘Time travel?’ said Dot, interested. ‘Is that even possible?’

‘Well,’ said Oscar, ‘that’s an interesting question…’ He flicked channels and the television froze. ‘What the…?’ He pressed the select button again and again.

The room fell into dead silence. Dot looked around her, confused.

And out of nowhere an eerie wailing fell into the sudden quiet. It swept into Dot’s head and swirled around it, rising and falling, as drawn out and high and sweet as ghost church bells carried on an unreal wind. The world felt as if it had switched gear and slipped to one side.

‘What’s that noise?’ said Dot, but she felt as though her words didn’t make a sound.

And, just like that, the world clicked back into place and the room was just as it had been before.

‘What noise?’ said her mum. ‘Do you mean the carol singers?’

Outside, a single, high, clear voice sang, once in royal David’s city. More, older voices joined in. Stood a lowly cattle shed.

‘Oh yeah,’ said Dot. ‘Must be. Sorry. It sounded weird for a second.’

‘Let’s go to the window and watch.’ Dot’s mum loved carol singers; in fact, she loved anything Christmas related with a passion bordering on obsession.

‘No.’ Oscar leaned back on the plump cushions. ‘Let’s listen from here. It’s nicer. We can imagine them in mufflers, holding lanterns.’

Dot closed her eyes and listened, heart still pounding. Nothing weird at all, she told herself. Just voices singing. Not even perfect ones. You could hear coughing and breathing in the wrong places – she’d be told off for that in choir. But there was a sadness to it – a wistfulness. Carols were always sad, weren’t they, even the happy ones? She couldn’t think why, when Christmas was supposed to be joyful. She let the voices drift over her and imagined himself tramping through the snow of another world, years and years ago. A world of wood fires and biting cold. A world far away from the twenty-first century and decimal fractions.

A warm arm slipped around her shoulders and a kiss landed on the top of her head. She was back in the world of central heating and Tee shirts inside in the winter.

‘You’re drifting off,’ said her mum. ‘Off to bed with you. I’ll bring you a hot chocolate to have in bed, since it’s Christmas Eve. One night won’t rot your teeth.’ She said that every year. She gave her another kiss. ‘Merry Christmas, lovely girl.’

‘Happy Christmas, Dotty,’ said his dad. ‘See you in the morning.’

‘Have I got new football boots?’ she asked, for perhaps the hundredth time.

‘You’ll see,’ said her mum cheerfully. ‘Now, off to bed with you.’

Dot stumbled reluctantly towards the door, walking as slowly as she could. ‘It’s only ten,’ she said. ‘It’s not even late,’ but her eyes were heavy and her legs were leaden and she didn’t plan to put up too much of a fight.

‘Love you,’ Oscar called over his shoulder, and he switched channel to the news. Later Dot would kick herself that he hadn’t said ‘love you, too’ when it would have been the easiest thing in the world to say and when it would turn out to matter so much. But she just wandered upstairs sleepily, listening to the mutterings of the late news downstairs as she brushed her teeth.

She pulled on she pyjamas and fell asleep before her hot chocolate arrived.

She was standing in the playground at school, completely alone. Not alone, everyone-else-is-in-the-classroom-alone, but properly alone, like a plague had killed everyone on the planet and it was just her, the wind and the flies left. It was a weird light, dim but not dark. Like the eclipse she realised, half in her dream and half the normal, waking Dot. That odd light you got in an eclipse, as though someone had turned the dimmer switch on. It was not a light that was to be trusted. It was alien, threatening, cruel.

She started to walk across the familiar but strangely eerie playground. Her footsteps were heavy, as if the whole earth was shaking under them. She stepped on across the silent playground and towards the school field. Her shadow was long in front of her.

But it wasn’t her shadow. Her own shadow was there – small, to the side. Whose shadow was that, then, the one that loomed massively in front of her?

No, not you. She tried to run but her legs didn’t work. Dread seized her body.

Dot woke up with a start, heart pounding painfully. Her room was silent with that muffled quiet you only get after heavy snow. She lay unmoving, eyes shut, still reeling from the nightmare. She could tell from the quiet and from the thick dark that it was the dead of night, not morning yet.

There was a sudden heaviness on the end of her bed by her feet. That’d be her stocking. She kept her eyes closed for a few seconds, like she always did, wanting to believe in the magic, and then she opened them – couldn’t resist it.

Not her stocking, but her mum. She didn’t say a word. She just sat there in the dark and looked at her. It wasn’t the happy, alert, loving face that she was used to. It was a different face – a sad, wistful face. A private face. One she didn’t remember seeing before. She shut his eyes again. She didn’t want to intrude. While she was waiting for her to either say something or go, she must have fallen back asleep.

And when she woke up everything in her safe, happy world had changed.

Sweetness and Light, chapter eight

2005

Despite what my silence and anxiety might lead you to believe, my childhood wasn’t difficult. It was almost eerily normal. If anything, it suffered from the slight unease that too much symmetry in a painting can bring. The deathlike otherworldliness of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, for instance, its tawny stone arches in perfect harmony, the long, white fingers of Mary’s crossed hands matching those of the angel Gabriel, their halos perfect, burnished circles, a neat picket fence implausibly, to my seventeen-year-old mind, in the background, edging a daisy strewn lawn. I looked at it in my A level art history class and imagined our garden at home peopled by strange, still, deathless creatures, untroubled by imperfection, cocooned safely out of time. That made sense to me in a way that my classmates didn’t.

My homelife was predictable and safe.

So why did I freeze in terror when a stranger spoke to me? Why did roars of anxiety silence me? Why was home the only safe place to gesture, then whisper, then speak?

Safe, that is, during the day, at least. At night I was terrorised by ghosts. I’d brush my teeth, heart thumping, as ghosts peered over my shoulders, unseen but very much felt. They’d crowd around me in my bedroom at night so that I had to sleep with the light on, eyes wide till I fell asleep through exhaustion.

But the rhythm of childhood was comfortable, and I found my place in it. As an adult, the pull to drag me away from this life was a lazy one. It tugged gently at my thoughts then turned over and went back to sleep again. I could hear its raspy breath in the back of my mind, fuelling discontent, spiking my conversations with Mum, but never waking up quite enough to propel me out.

I’d been in the womb so long that now, spun out into the new world of London, I couldn’t quite settle.

As I write this months later in my hot, little attic room, I still feel some of that uncertainty; the shaky, wet legs of the new born lamb. I still think of Heidi, John and Felix with a wistful yearning that I know is a bit pathetic. I don’t want to see them: I want to be them. Despite everything that’s happened, perhaps I still haven’t quite grown up, still haven’t quite learned to stand on my own two feet.  I’m getting there, though.

But back then, at the start of the summer, I hoped that my time had come. I mistook the shadow of a mouse creeping around the house on Campden Hill Road for a wolf.

One morning, a couple of days after I’d moved in, I stood in front of the fireplace, a cup of cooling tea in my hand, and I pulled at the stepmother’s blessing of wallpaper.

It peeled off surprisingly easily, seemingly held in place with a tiny amount of glue; whole pockets of paper were barely attached to the wall at all. Soon I held a large piece of flowered paper in my hand, the back yellow with glue. I put it carefully down on the floor next to the fire, pulled off my jumper, rolled up my tee shirt sleeves and carried on. It was satisfying, like squeezing a spot. I could pick up a tin of paint tomorrow. Green. Blue, maybe. Or white, as John had said.

Half of one side of the fireplace was done, as high as I could reach. I moved to the other side and looked for a loose corner. I pulled at it. Here, there wasn’t just yellowing glue and Elastoplast pink wall beneath the paper. I could see the occasional strong black line crossing the pink plaster. I ripped a bigger piece off. The lines seemed more deliberate than I’d thought, perhaps a plumber indicating where piping went. I ripped again. This final rip revealed a face in three quarter view sketched onto the bare plaster – a weighty, dark fringe, a pouting lower lip, a round cheek, heavy eyelids.

She vaguely reminded me of someone.

Who?

I stared at the rough portrait.

Then I realised, with a start, who it reminded me of. It was me.

She wasn’t identical by any means, but there was a similarity somewhere – perhaps just in the shape of the cheek or the curve of the lower lip. A good omen, I thought. I pulled back more of the paper and found other sketches, some barely drawings at all – the curve of a forehead, or sweep of an eyelid – some finished enough to be almost recognisable I’d guess, if you knew the people.

Soon I had a pile of scraps of wallpaper at my feet and bare pink wall as far as I could reach, with a ragged fringe of ripped wallpaper about six feet up. On the right side of the fireplace were three recognisable portraits and a handful of half-finished sketches. Two women and a man, I thought, though I wasn’t sure if the women were the same person and the second sketch, with a few, pale lines indicating hair rather than the thick, dark strokes of the first, was just less developed. The man had a thick halo of hair and a bold, jutting nose. His chin, though, was weak.

I stood back and contemplated my work. I’d need a ladder, of course, when I picked up the paint and paint brush. Maybe a deep blue paint, like the sea. Or was that the sort of thing that proper artists would consider to be poor taste? Grey perhaps – it reeked of confident understatement. I went back to white. That seemed safe. The portraits, though, seemed to have an ancient power, like cave paintings. They glowered at me. Did I dare paint over them? I didn’t want them watching me.

The wallpaper continued round the side of the chimney breast, covered a narrow strip of the wall to the chimney’s right, then stopped, making way for the bright, white paint that dominated the rest of the room. I pushed the armchair to one side and grabbed a corner of wallpaper.

I pulled off another piece, then stepped a little closer. Could it be…? I moved to have a closer look and to touch what I thought I’d seen.

There, revealed by the torn off paper, was a slim but perceptible crack, ruler straight.

I pulled off some more paper, tracing the crack down.

Hinges. Tarnished brass door hinges.

Heart thumping, I ripped more quickly now, grabbing the paper in handfuls and pulling it off the wall, laying it on the floor like hardening shards of skin.

There, framed by the ripped paper with its festoons of pale roses, was the outline of a door. There was no handle, just a hole where the handle would have been. I pushed my fingertips as far into the crack as they’d go and I pulled. Nothing. A slight give, if that. I pushed my finger into the hole where the door handle should be, but the hole was slimmer than a finger, certainly slimmer than mine.

I stood back, stared at it in frustration and made my way to the kitchen drawer. All I could think about now was getting it open. I pulled out a knife, quickly going back to the door and jamming the knife into the hole. A small sliver of wood found its way to the floor, but the door didn’t budge.

Back to the kitchen. In the same drawer I found a pair of scissors. I pushed the small blades into the hole and twisted them. Something caught, held traction for a second and slipped. Again. And again. I pushed my hair off my forehead and breathed deeply. Then I pushed the scissors carefully back into the hole and turned them slowly, millimetre by millimetre. Something caught, held and this time it turned. I held my breath. A catch clicked. Gently I pulled the scissors back towards me and a door opened.

Thick black space. There was a smell of mildew, of stagnant air, of disturbed dust. I wondered how old the air was. I peered in more closely, trying to accustom my eyes to the dark after the bright white of my room. I blinked, stared at black on black, shadow lacing shadow. Did a gasp of air rush past me, escaping after being locked up so long, and speed into my room? I peered and blinked, trying to distinguish shadow from wall and floor.  The darkness zoomed away from me and settled thickly, infinitely, comfortably, in front of me.

Holding the door in place carefully, I put a cautious foot forward. Then another. My second footstep hit air, not solid ground. I stumbled forward, caught myself. My hand grabbed hard at the door behind me. I reached fearfully down with my foot. Where was the solid ground? Gasping, I found a step, leading down. Leading away from my white room into colder, mustier, older air.

With my left hand I fumbled on the wall, looking for a light switch that I didn’t think could possibly work. My hands brushed a switch and I flicked it. A dim light bulb swung over the stairs, lighting drapes of cobwebs, pockmarked concrete steps, shelves stacked high with cans of old paint.

There was a whisper of wind, like a lungless shriek.

I quickly walked back into the bright, white room. I pulled the red armchair towards me and pushed it hard against the open door, pinning it open against the wall.

Then I took a step down the stairs and into the dark.

I will pause there, with my right foot on the first stair into the darkness, my hand still holding onto the edge of the doorway, my left foot in the light of my new studio. I’ll pause there and imagine that it’s possible to stop, freeze frame and rewind. My right foot would lift back off the tread, move backwards towards the light of the studio. My hand would loosen its grip on the door frame, then let go. My foot would plant itself solidly back on the parquet floor. The door would close and paper would float from the floor back onto the wall, resealing itself. Jagged shards would become whole again.

I’d rewrite my conversations with John, Heidi and Felix while I was at it – why not? But more importantly, I’d stand in front of the fireplace, looking up at the wallpaper and decide just to paint over it instead of pulling at that loose corner.

That way, it wouldn’t just be the wallpaper that would stay intact. My life would stay whole. I could reach the end of that summer and be the same person that I always thought I was. Remain the same – for better or worse.

As I write this, a year later, my thoughts hang on that possibility for a second. My fingers pause on the computer keys. The wind that’s the first sign of autumn’s approach rattles impatiently at my small window, edging its cold breath past the rotting window sill. I should get it fixed. I can’t afford to get it fixed. The radiator judders. I shouldn’t have the heating on in the middle of the day, but I’m too feeble to put up with being cold. I switch the lamp on – it’s four o’clock and it’s already getting dark – and I stare at the computer screen, imagining a world where none of those momentous things have happened. Where I got to stay me. Where now, in the autumn, I’d still be plain old Rose Acker, like I’d always been.

Then, reluctantly, I put that impossible me away and I go back in my mind to the studio, back to the cabbage rose wallpaper, back to the red velour chair and iron fireplace. I stand in front of the fireplace again and I’m forced to re-start the process which will undo me. I reach a hand up and pull off pieces of wallpaper. Once again, I stand in front of the sketch portraits on the plaster. Once again, I stand in front of the last patch of wallpaper and pull at an edge of the paper. Once again, I stand in front of the door and pull. Once again, I take a step forward into the dark.

The air was heavy and damp. It smelled musky, as though it hadn’t met fresh air in years. The concrete stairs were uneven, worn at the edges, treacherous. The single bulb that swung from the ceiling in front of me was dusty and yellow. I put one cautious foot in front of another. Ten stairs, twelve maybe, and I was at the bottom of the staircase in a small, dark room, lit only by the yellow light of that single bulb. I could still see the white of the studio walls at the top of the stairs, the pale corner of the kitchen units, the dust-suspended, summery light.

Health and safety, I supposed, could be the only reason to shut this off. But no-one need know I was down here. Perhaps, I thought, reasoning with myself about my own senseless journey down there, there might be a nice, enclosed room down here for my darkroom. No reason why I couldn’t slip down and use it without telling anyone. I thought of what John had said. It was my studio, after all. I could do what I wanted. Why stir things up by asking permission?

I turned back and looked for another light switch. I didn’t want to feel around the damp, cobwebbed brick walls. I edged forward, adjusting my eyes to the dark. To my left there was an open door to a small room, piled high with bin bags, old carpets and damp cardboard boxes. I could see the corner of an old sink, the edge of a decrepit work surface.

I considered it. It could work.

I edged forward a bit more. For some reason I glanced nervously back up the stairs with that feeling you get in old houses sometimes, the sense that you’re being watched; that eyes are tickling you between the shoulder blades.

Straight in front of me, there was another door. I glanced quickly back upstairs again to double check that the door to my studio was still open – though who could close it, really? Like I say, it’s funny the feelings that old buildings can give you. Especially this one. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps you could say that the building was watching me. But I wasn’t to know that then.

I tried the handle and the door opened away from me. I stepped through it, blinking.

In front of me was a cavernous, glittering space. I felt as though I’d stepped out from under a cloud into the sun for the first time. My eyes had grown spider-like so quickly that it took a while to adjust back to the brightness.

The walls glimmered with fractured green and white light. The room was vast and empty. At the far end of the room, a huge, hexagonal roof light, arsenic hued. Around me, stone walls that seemed carved out of rock, catching the green sunlight and throwing it back into the room. I sat down on the cold floor underneath the huge window and I gazed up at it into the sun, letting the glitter slip into my soul and give it a push upwards towards greatness.

I’m here, I thought. I’ve arrived.

I lay down on the dirty floor, closed my eyes and let the warm, green light sit heavily on my eyelids and bathed in its unearthly glory.

After a while, I stood up again. Now that my eyes had got used to the change in light, I could see that the room was actually rather dark, the only light coming from the mildew stained window above me. I looked around. There were no more doors in or out of the room, just the one I’d come through. And the only way to get to that was through my studio. This could be my own private space, my place to come to feel my soul stretching out and sighing.

It could be my secret.

It could be new orchard.

No-one, down here, could see my face or expect me to speak.

I smiled, broadly, in the peace of certain solitude.

Back in my studio I pushed the door to the cellar closed behind me and considered the wall. I’d need to cover up the door if I wanted my cellar to stay a secret, if I wanted to keep it as my own. A secret, magnificent space.

A wall hanging, I thought. I picked up the deer patterned throw I’d bought earlier. I remembered seeing some drawing pins in the common room. I held the throw up against the wall and smiled.

I was happy.