Sweetness and Light, chapter 17

2006.

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

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

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

2005.

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

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

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

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

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

I screamed.

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

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

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

A leather, grinning face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll sound mad, I said.

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

It won’t be yours any more, I said.

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

You won’t belong any more, I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Rose, are you there?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

He raised an eyebrow.

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

‘And how’s it going?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Your dad lived here, then?’

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

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

He glanced at me.

‘What?’

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

‘Does he ever come back?’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Except the caretaker.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetness and Light, chapter 16

1975.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Perhaps.’

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

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

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

‘Heaven forbid.’

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

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

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

‘Rules aren’t the end of the world.’

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

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

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

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

‘Well…’

‘Well, nothing. She’s my girlfriend.’

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

Precisely, Jenny, precisely.

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

‘She’s a big girl, Clive.’

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

‘She knows her own mind.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Okay,’ said Jenny mildly.

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

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

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

‘And anyway, legally you have no recourse.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetness and Light, chapter 15

2005.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Of course.’

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

I glanced around the room anxiously.

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

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

‘Alterations?’

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

‘Oh, okay.’

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

‘Well,’ I said. ‘Photography…’

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

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

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

‘I haven’t developed any yet.’

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

I didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We, the undersigned, here agree that:

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

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

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

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

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

Here the undersigned,

Albert Parry

Ralph Parry

15th February 1975

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

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

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

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

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

What I saw was horrifying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetness and Light, chapter 14

1975.

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

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

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

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

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

I found much to occupy my mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well,’ said Clive.

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

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

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

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

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

No-one replied.

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

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

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

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

‘What are you suggesting, Clive?’

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

‘What does that mean?’ cried Annie.

Clive was silent.

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

‘The heir,’ said Jenny.

Another silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A photographer, apparently,’ said Jenny.

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

‘Whatever do you mean?’ Clive sounded irritated.

‘You know,’ said Annie. ‘Fey.’

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

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

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

There was silence.

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

The other two ignored her.

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

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

I glanced at my watch.

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

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

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

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

‘Oh!’ she cried. ‘It’s too much.’

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

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

I’m not concerned.

Sweetness and Light, chapter 13

2005.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I will.’

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

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

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

‘Have you got any pictures yet?’

‘No.’ I was downcast.

She looked down at my print outs again.

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled.

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

‘Rose,’ I said. I didn’t like Rosie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Rose,’ he said. ‘Can I help?’

‘I’ve lost my keys.’

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

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

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

‘It’s fine,’ I said, speeding up.

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

‘What do you mean?’

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

‘Should be John, surely,’ I said.

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

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

‘Ah.’  

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

‘Ah,’ he said again.

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

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

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

‘Oh,’ I said, feeling stupid.

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

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

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

‘And what about you?’ he said.

‘Me?’

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

‘I’ve only just got here,’ I said.

‘Wait here.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘For fuck’s sake!’ she said.

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

I dangled the keys in front of me.

‘Locked out,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A black painted board with cursive, white handwriting on.

Regulations for the Governance of Our Fellowship

There is no possession in Love

Treat everyone as Fellows, except those that are not

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

Please wash up after yourself

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

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

Sweetness and Light, chapter 12

1975.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t disappointed.

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

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

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

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

Here good works will be created.

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

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.