Sweetness and Light, chapter nine

2005.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had secrets.

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

Secrets.

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

Then I tiptoed down the stairs and into the dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water. An underground swimming pool.

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

The keys.

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

Infinite Impossibility, chapter three

The day after the end

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no mum and dad.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hello,’ she said.

‘Hi!’ said Dot. ‘Mum. Where…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Who’s that?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Have you rung them?’ Nadia said.

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

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

‘Okay,’ she said. Then, ‘thank you.’

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

‘I don’t know,’ she said sadly.

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

The phone rang. Dot ran to it.

‘Mum!’ she said. ‘Dad!’

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

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

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

‘What?’ she said, panicking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dot, it said. Gone – find your mum.

That was all.

The doorbell rang again.

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

Infinite Impossibility, chapter two

The end

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

Dot sighed happily.

‘And relax,’ she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Not you too. Why’s no-one relaxed?’

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

‘Precisely,’ said Dot. ‘See?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m crap at physics, Dad.’

‘Now, Dot,’ said her mum warningly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I doubt it. Me not mum, I mean.’

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

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

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

‘Mum!’ Dot objected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did you read that article?’ asked Oscar.

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

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

Dot snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetness and Light, chapter eight

2005

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

My homelife was predictable and safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She vaguely reminded me of someone.

Who?

I stared at the rough portrait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hinges. Tarnished brass door hinges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I considered it. It could work.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m here, I thought. I’ve arrived.

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

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

It could be my secret.

It could be new orchard.

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

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

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

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

I was happy.

Infinite Impossibility, chapter one

The start of the end

‘Well?’ said Dot’s dad. ‘What did you think?’

They were walking towards the station, past snow-flecked cinemas, theatres and galleries, and through crowds of scurrying people with slush-tipped shoes. Dot’s hands were stuffed in her pockets. She’d deliberately forgotten her gloves, as usual.

‘It was alright.’ Dot wasn’t a fan of the theatre, but it was a Christmas tradition and she didn’t want to let her dad down by refusing to go.

She felt something small, round and hard in her pocket. A rogue sweet? A forgotten pound coin?  She ran her thumb over its smooth surface. Just a button. She flicked it back into the gritty corner of her pocket.

‘Just alright?’ Dot’s dad wasn’t a fan of short, non-committal answers to questions. He gave Dot a sharp, sidelong look. ‘You mean you hated it.’

‘No, not really. Hated sounds like I just blanket thought it was terrible. And you know mum hates the word ‘hate’.’ They both laughed. ‘You know.’ She tried to think straight. ‘It’s not like real life, is it? People don’t stand and stare into space in a meaningful way when someone asks them a question, do they?’ Her dad was walking through the slush, past pockets of sparkling white snow on either side of their mushy footsteps. He was staring at the yellow-grey sky in a meaningful way. ‘Dad. Dad! Do they?’

Her dad gave her a comedy side-eye.

‘Okay. Sorry. Not funny. You’ve got a sharp eye. I like that about you. Nothing gets past you.’

‘Hmm.’ Dot knew only too well that plenty of things got past her – maths, science and English, for a start.

The tall red brick buildings rose to either side of them, soaring into the sky like they were stretching their necks above the cafes and shops. The white spire of the church loomed up in the dark air, a reminder that they were nearly at the station. The thought of the walk at the other end put an idea in Dot’s head, an idea that cheered her up and distracted her from strange feeling of eeriness and discomfort that had been following her around for the last few days.

‘Can we have fish and chips for dinner?’ she asked. Crunching through hot, salty batter, the ketchup sweet on her tongue, more chips than anyone could possibly eat. Yes!

‘Fish and chips?’ His dad sounded incredulous. ‘On Christmas Eve? Are you actually insane? Your mother would kill us.’

‘Oh, yeah.’ She must be getting old if she’d forgotten it was Christmas Eve. She’d had too much on her mind lately – it was hard to be an average, or below average student in a house of scientific geniuses. And it could be hard to be a football fan in a year group full of very different kinds of girl, but Dot didn’t honestly care too much about that.

‘Come on. We’ll miss our train.’

He pulled on Dot’s arm and they hurried across the road as the green man started to flash. A woman with crinkled, pale brown hair under her wide, purple hat hurried past them, her mouth pursed and her nose pointing towards the sky. A short man, almost as wide as he was tall, ambled slowly ahead of them. His sausage dog ran ten tiny steps to every one of his. The man heaved himself onto the pavement and smiled at the two of them as they picked up pace, the sausage dog offering them a wide-eyed stare at the same time.

‘We’d better run.’ 

‘For a change,’ Dot said wryly.

Always the almost missed trains and the screeching up for appointments. Always the running for the school gates and dashing into the cinema as the film started. In twelve years she’d not once arrived at the doctors without a red, sweating face and the fear of being prescribed medicine for a fever when she just had a bad ankle. It was one of the perils of having scientists for parents. People who thought for a living didn’t have any thoughts left over for everyday life.

Suddenly Dot stopped dead in her tracks and stared around Charing Cross Station. She was alone. The world whirled around her.

Where had her dad gone? He’d been right beside her. Startled, she looked all around her, behind her in the distance, even, stupidly, in her pockets.

The snow was starting to swirl outside the arched doors and inside the station it was all glittering lights and hurrying people in brightly coloured scarves. Dot looked up at the snow hitting the outside of the vaulted glass ceiling. She felt like she was trapped in her own snow globe. The panic rose.

Where was her dad? How could he just vanish into thin air? A rush of worry pushed up from Dot’s stomach to her chest. She pushed it back down. He must be somewhere. Where? This had always been her worst fear, for some reason – someone just disappearing and leaving her all alone.

‘Sorry!’ Her dad’s angled face was lit up with a wide grin. There were a couple of flakes of snow on his thick, brown hair, which was a mess as usual. His brown eyes were crinkled with years of smiles and his hand-knitted stripy scarf was neatly tied at the neck. He wore a long, shapeless grey coat and perfectly polished brown leather shoes. He held out a paper bag. ‘Cinnamon Danish?’

‘Dad!’ She was half relieved, half annoyed. ‘You risked us missing a train for a … a … a … a lightly spiced pastry?’

‘Live a little,’ her dad said. ‘Come on. Platform six.’ He bolted across the station concourse, two cinnamon pastries held high over his head in their brown paper bag and his black rucksack bouncing on his back. Dot sprinted after him.

They leapt onto the train as the doors were closing, her dad pulling the brown paper bag through the snapping doors just in time.

‘Exhilarating!’ he said.

‘Erm, if you say so.’

‘We made it, didn’t we?’ Her dad leaned back on the blue, chequered seat and threw Dot a wide smile. ‘See? It was never in doubt. Here.’ He tossed Dot the paper bag. ‘Consider it an early pudding. A late lunch. High tea. Whatever.’

Dot pulled the brown paper back and took a bite of the crumbly, sweet pastry, iced with pure, white sugar and laced with warm spice. ‘Mmm,’ she said. ‘Cinnamon.’

‘I used to have a box of sushi and a cinnamon Danish for lunch every day when I worked round here,’ his dad said, gazing out of the window. ‘Before You Were Here.’ They always said it portentously like that, her mum and dad. It’s because we’re happy you’re here, we like to remind ourselves, her mum had said once. Remind ourselves it could have been different. So it’s always before Dot and after Dot. It reminds us that we’re lucky. And she’d grabbed her and planted a fat kiss on her cheek. She’d wriggled away and rolled her eyes, but inside she was pleased.

‘Sushi and a Danish?’ said Dot now, back in the moment. ‘Dad. That’s disgusting. Also – every day? It’s not like there isn’t any choice. You were in the middle of London.’

‘It’s easier to have the same thing every day. One less thing to think about. And aren’t they delicious? Why have anything else?’ He took the bag off Dot, crumpled it into a ball and rolled it back towards her. He stared at it with an unnatural interest. ‘It knows it’s going to stop there,’ he said under his breath. ‘Or does it stop everywhere?’ Dot, used to this kind of apparently random interjection, said nothing. Her dad picked the bag up and went to flick it back over the small table towards her.

‘Or both,’ said Dot lazily, gazing out of the window himself now. The snow was coming down thickly. With a sudden flurry of excitement she realised that it was going to be the first white Christmas in years. Sledging. Snowball fights. The biggest snowman in the street. She pondered the possibilities.

‘Both,’ her dad was saying slowly and deliberately, pressing the balled up bag between his finger and thumb. ‘Both.’

‘Dad!’ Dot leapt to her feet. ‘It’s London Bridge. We have to change here. Dad!’

They jumped out of the doors just as they were sliding closed. The ball of rolled up paper bag stayed on the table, sliding out of sight as the train pulled out of the station into the snow.

‘There you are.’

They slammed the front door shut behind them, a gasp of flakes slipping into the warm hallway alongside their damp coats. The sky out there was full of millions of tiny, crystal, six-sided drops. And it was full of promise. Dot could feel the creep of expectation in her belly. So she was finally feeling Christmassy. The feeling wasn’t gone forever. She pushed aside the strange feeling of dread that was haunting her for no reason and reminded herself to feel happy.

Warm arms were thrown around shoulders, kisses planted on faces. ‘You’re so cold!’

‘It’s snowing,’ said Dot. ‘Like properly snowing. Thickly. Like it will settle.’

‘I heard on the news. It’s going to be the first white Christmas in eight years.’

Dot’s mum’s brown hair was tied back in a ponytail with strands escaping around her face. She had the sort of face that looked permanently excited and happy. Her mouth was always in a big O; her eyes were always wide open. She was small and neat and her clothes always looked tidy, whether she was wearing a smart dress to give a speech or a pair of old jeans round the house. Now she gave Dot a warm kiss on the cheek and beamed at her.

Dot took her wet parka off and hung it on the wooden bannister. The oak floor of the warm hallway was lined with shoes and boots and bags. The spherical post at the end of the stairs, rubbed smooth by hands and years, was strewn with red, purple and yellow scarves. A tall window with brightly coloured stained ruby, emerald and sapphire glass panes looked out onto the side street down below, only one of two houses that had that extra window, because they were at the end of the terrace. The windowsill was hung with tinsel and fairy lights, the green cord trailing across the polished floor. Dot and her mum and dad had the ground and first floor and an attic that they said they’d convert one day, though Dot had always liked its dark, dusty corners. A couple lived in the basement and used the tiny, overgrown garden.

‘Not on the bannister! On the coat rack.’

Dot couldn’t see what difference it made, since both were places to hang something, but she reached for her coat anyway.

‘And hurry up,’ her mum added. ‘Dinner’s nearly ready. Your face,’ she added, out of nowhere. ‘You’re lovely.’ She was always throwing that kind of compliment at her, her mum.

‘I’ll be right down.’ Her dad was leaping up the stairs. ‘Just need to note something down. Something Dot said…’

‘No idea,’ Dot said under her breath. ‘Something about a ball of paper? Makes no sense to me.’

‘Ah. One of those.’

‘He might be a while.’

Her mum smiled. She held out her hand. A small, black key lay in its palm. A rattling sound came from upstairs.

‘It’s stuck! Jen! It’s stuck. Come up here and help me.’

‘Shall we help him?’

‘Yeah,’ Dot smiled.

‘Okay, open it up for him,’ she said, ‘but give him his five minute warning. It’s Christmas Eve. Family time.’

‘Okay,’ said Dot, taking the warm, metal key. ‘I’ll put him out of his misery.’

‘It’s okay,’ Jen called up the stairs. ‘Dot’s got the key. And I’ve got a post it and a pen in the hall. You can write down anything important that comes to you before it goes out of your head. So what did you say exactly?’ she added to Dot, more quietly.

‘God knows,’ she said. ‘Something about a ball of paper. Something about it knowing where it’s going to stop?’

‘Ah,’ said Jen slowly, and then, ‘ah!’ like a light bulb had lit up over her head. ‘Maybe that is what’s missing.’ Living with two scientists, Dot was very used to people seeming to find perfect sense in what sounded like nonsensical ramblings. Her mum shook her head as if she was shaking off the rain. ‘It can wait. Five minutes, tell him,’ she reminded Dot. ‘He’s not going to have that big breakthrough on Christmas Eve. This can wait for a few days.’

‘Dot!’ called Oscar. ‘Help me!’

‘Coming!’

Dot walked up the stairs, trailing her hand along the warm wood of the bannister and wondering vaguely how many people had done that before her. Maybe, she thought, fighter pilots in the wars, maybe nineteenth-century scientists. She imagined Victorian versions of her mum and dad, sitting in their study, poring over books, trying to get to grips with a theory about how the universe worked.

Oscar was sitting on the top step, staring into space. He had a sunflower yellow shirt on, done right up to the top button, and a pair of neat, maroon trousers –standard fashion choices, for him.

‘Dad,’ she said. ‘I’ve got the key.’

Oscar leapt to his feet.

‘Fantastic. Thanks, Dotty girl.’ He grabbed the key from Dot and slipped it into the keyhole. It turned smoothly and Oscar disappeared inside.

Dot hesitated then went to stand in the doorway. Crossing the boundary was forbidden; Oscar’s office was almost holy to him. He had strange, superstitious beliefs about things not being moved, even though the room was a complete mess and Dot found it hard to believe he actually knew where he’d left anything. Oscar would blame all kinds of bad luck on a snow globe being shifted to the left or a Chinese ornamental cat with a waving paw being slightly out of place. When he was supposedly on the verge of a breakthrough, like now, he was even more wound up.

Dot peered round the door. Oscar’s dark head was bent over the computer by the window.

‘What are you working on?’ she said.

‘Oh, you know,’ said Oscar cheerfully. ‘The meaning of existence. The way the universe works.’ He tapped at the keyboard with two fingers. ‘Time travel,’ he added casually. ‘Trivial stuff.’

‘At school, physics is about calculating fuel costs,’ Dot commented. ‘It’s like the most boring thing in the world described in the most tedious way possible. I mean, who cares how much energy a light bulb uses?’

Oscar glanced up at her, as if waiting for the answer.

‘No one,’ Dot confirmed. ‘Light bulb designers, maybe.’

‘Ah’ said Oscar, without slowing down his two-fingered typing, ‘but at its heart physics is about the very stuff that makes you exist. It’s about travelling through time and space. It’s about whether the impossible is possible, about whether the finite is infinite.’

‘Is that what you’re working on? A time machine?’ Dot joked.

Oscar sat up straight and turned round, face deadly serious. ‘I’m working on a theory that will change everything,’ he said. ‘A theory of time…’

‘Oscar!’ Dot’s mum yelled up the stairs, her small frame throwing out a lot of volume per cubic inch. ‘Dot! It’s Christmas! Work is over! Christmas has started!’

‘Coming,’ Oscar called back. ‘Coming.’

He turned back to the computer. ‘You go,’ he said. ‘Appease her. Say anything. I’ll be down in two minutes.’ And he was tapping away at the keyboard again, completely absorbed in something that removed his mind entirely from Dot, from the room and from Christmas and dragged him to another place and time. Reluctantly Dot backed away from the doorway and ambled back downstairs.

A time machine, she thought. If it were possible, it would be pretty cool.

Only a few hours to go till Christmas. And the fluttering rose in her belly as she skidded down the stairs. Was it festive excitement or a stranger, more unformed dread? She couldn’t quite tell.

Sweetness and Light, chapter seven

1975

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

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

We acknowledge our indebtedness to those who have gone before, treading the same path and pursuing the same goals, not least our forebears who created this building as a dedicated space for artists to carry out their labours and who safeguarded the use of it for future generations.

We acknowledge the importance of artists in the past who pursued the concepts of sweetness and light, while staking our own claim to make these virtues strongly and unambivalently our own.

We shall join and remain in this association purely by virtue of our work, not simply by virtue of our birth. Those who are not shot through with the spun gold of talent and passion shall not be required to stay.

None of us shall produce work that is frivolous or base; that is to say, does not reveal the truth; does not have purity and beauty at its heart.

As in art, so in life. None of us shall be covert, duplicitous, deceitful or dishonest in our dealings with one another. None of us shall create ugliness of feeling, of dealings or of act within these walls.

The fellowship is all.

We are united in art and in life.

And so shall our children be.

This date. 21st May 1975

Sweetness and Light, chapter six

2005.

‘You must be Rose.’

She was small and dainty with daffodil curls.  She pointed her toe as she spoke: a tiny, unfurled flower against the moss green wallpaper of the hall.

‘Yes,’ I said. I put my door key back in my pocket. ‘I was just on my way out.’

‘So I see. I wondered if you’d like a cup of tea later – to welcome you, as it were.’ She didn’t meet quite my eyes. It was as though her whole perspective was out of kilter by about a centimetre. ‘I’m Heidi,’ she said.

‘I’m Rose,’ I said.

‘I know.’ She smiled, just to the left of me.

‘What work do you do?’ I asked. I’d learnt this one.

‘Work? Oh, I don’t work really. I sell the odd thing or two, but I don’t have a job.’

‘What’s the stuff you work on, I mean,’ I said. ‘I mean,’ I struggled, ‘your art.’ My Brummie accent felt big and ugly, my feet lumpen, my posture awkward.

‘Right. That. I’m a taxidermist.’ She pulled a small knife out of her dress pocket and gestured in my direction. ‘I slice animals up. Well, I stuff them, really. Mount them. Display them.’

‘Right. I didn’t realise…’ I stopped.

‘That taxidermy was an art form? Well, it is.’ Her gaze slipped further to the left. ‘It’s what you make it, isn’t it?’

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I’m a photographer,’ I added.

‘Good,’ she said. ‘We haven’t got one of those. What do you photograph?’

‘You know,’ I cast around for an answer. ‘Secrets.’

‘Well,’ she said. ‘We’d better all watch out then.’ Her lips curled in a couple of different directions.

‘No. Not that sort of thing.’

‘I’m sure. I was joking.’

She glanced at her feet. I glanced at the shopping list crumpled up in my hand.

‘Anyway,’ she said. ‘Tea? When you’re back.’

‘I’ll bring some biscuits,’ I said.

‘Biscuits,’ she said. ‘Great. Four o’clock? In the common room? Do you know where that is?’

‘Yes, he showed me.’

She span on her heel. ‘See you at four.’

I closed the front door softly behind me and stood on the doorstep with my hands in my pockets, gazing at the cool grey of the paving stones, the sandy bricks, the black street lamps. This was home now, but it felt slight and hard to pin down. I half longed for the plainness of my town; the hefty confidence of my city.

I spent the afternoon shopping. My cheque was safely stashed in my bank account, the sun was shining, Kensington High Street was bustling with rushing people carrying more than one shopping bag. I told myself that life was good. I was an artist in a studio in London.  

I bought a teapot, two turquoise plates, a packet of ginger biscuits, a striped tee shirt and a heavy throw, ornate with deer, birds of paradise and curling branches. Would the other artists eat ginger biscuits? I wasn’t sure. Perhaps they’d seem ironic. Maybe the bright, azure plate would help, if it didn’t seem too safe and domesticated. I pushed my worries aside and carried on window shopping with my bag heavy in my hand. When I was older and richer I could fit out my studio with swags and drapes, a chaise longue here, a walnut side table there. I could have an acid yellow floor lamp looming over the sofa, soft Persian rugs. Perhaps I’d wear a soot-grey smock. A floor length mirror for the artist’s self-portrait. Would a fancy gilt frame be too much? I’d buy some paint and a ladder tomorrow – Kensington High Street didn’t seem to stretch to that sort of thing. I noted the art supplies shop, though, and wondered if this was a place I might bump into my fellow artists.

I crossed the road and climbed the leafy hill home, the late afternoon sun dappling the red and sand bricks. The thought of Mum was ever-present, with a guilty anxious pleasure that I’d escaped her world – that the lawned common areas had been replaced, for me, by Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. I hoped she was doing okay without me.

I fitted the key to the lock in the white double door beneath the red brick gabling. My roughly burnished Midlands heart felt flitting and uncertain now,  but I hoped it would soon settle down and embed itself in this world and call it home.

‘Ginger biscuits. How nice.’ Heidi picked one up between two fingers and placed it delicately on the wooden arm of the chair.

‘Tea?’ The man held up the kettle as if it were a tankard. We hadn’t been introduced.

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I’m Rose.’ I held out a hand.

‘So I hear.’ His hand was marble pale, speckled with black hairs, resolutely not lifted.

My hand dropped back to my side.

‘Felix, be nice.’

‘I am nice.’

‘You’re never nice. Rose, this is Felix.’

‘Hi.’ I put my hand safely in my pocket.

Felix’s hand shot out.

‘Oh, I see,’ he said. ‘It’s like that, is it?’

‘Sorry.’ I took my hand out of my pocket.

‘Don’t worry about it.’ He ignored my hand and filled the kettle up from the aluminium tap, its metal sheen cloudy with dirt.

‘Felix. Be nice.’

‘I am nice. So, Rose, what do you do?’ He hoisted himself up to sit on the kitchen surface and picked his coffee up. He looked monumental up there, an Easter Island statue.

‘Photography.’ I decided to pre-empt his question. ‘I photograph secrets.’

‘How interesting. And do they stay secret or do you exhibit them? Make an exhibition out of other people’s secrets?’

‘Are they people’s secrets?’ asked Heidi. ‘Or just the concept of secrecy?’

I sat down on the sofa. ‘Both, I suppose.’

‘And have you had many exhibitions?’ She gave me a bright, small-toothed smile, just to the left of my eyes.

‘Not really,’ I said, ‘so far.’

‘Oh.’ She looked away.

‘I’m working on one now, though.’

‘Secrets?’ Felix handed me a cup of tea. He didn’t ask if I wanted sugar. ‘Or something else?’

‘Secrets.’

‘And what exactly are the secrets?’ He took a biscuit and bit into it, taking half of it in one go.

‘I can’t really say,’ I said.

‘Or they wouldn’t be secrets, would they Felix?’

‘Ah. Right.’

‘And what about you?’ I sipped my tea, slipped a cold hand under my leg to sandwich it against the rough fabric of the chair. He raised an eyebrow.

‘He’s a sculptor,’ said Heidi. ‘He doesn’t need the light, really. He could work in the dark, like a mole. Good job he hasn’t got the best room. Your room. That northern light that’s supposedly so important would be wasted on him.’

‘Whereas it’s important to you, for turning mice inside out to dry, I suppose?’

Heidi took the knife out of her pocket and poked at her biscuit with it. ‘Photography, too,’ she said. ‘It’s wasted on all of us, isn’t it? The studios should really be given those who need it I suppose, struggling painters or whatever, not just handed out by birth. Aren’t we lucky?’

I thought of all the people I’d done art A level with – people with rougher voices and more uncertain manners than these two, but people with proper talent who hadn’t had a leg up, had no-one to give them one.

‘And who did you inherit it from?’ I asked. Heidi’s face assumed pinched lines. ‘Sorry. That’s a bit personal,’ I added.

‘Not at all.’ She took a delicate bite of her biscuit. ‘My godfather,’ she said.

‘John’s the only direct line,’ said Felix, reaching for another biscuit. ‘They weren’t big on procreation, the last lot, I suppose. I got it through a godmother.’

‘Me too. Well, a godfather. I suppose they were big on god-parenting, then.’

‘Oh yes,’ said Felix. ‘All that stuff. Creating networks. Different concepts of the family. Communal loyalties. All that crap.’

I’d never heard any of this. I leaned forward. ‘Really? How interesting.’

‘Not really. Pretty boring. Pretentious crap. I’ve got no time for it. And don’t believe Heidi when she gives you her democracy spiel. She’s privileged and she loves it. There’s no way she’d share this place with commoners. You should ask her about her childhood. All holidays in France and blackberry picking in the rolling Sussex countryside. Running around with John. The cloistered next generation, being prepared for their inheritance.’

‘Be…’

‘Nice. I am being nice. Those lot and all that crap. It’s making something out of art that doesn’t need to be made. It’s just making stuff, isn’t it? It’s not a way of life.’

‘Couldn’t it be both?’ I offered.

‘No. Because one is true and the other is a pile of crap.’

‘You see, you’re not so unlike them. Look at you, pursuing truth.’ Heidi stabbed at her biscuit again. ‘See?’

‘I’m not pursuing truth. I’m just being honest.’

Heidi looked smug, as if her point had been proved.

‘Well, I’ll get out of your hair. Nice to meet you, Rose.’ He jumped down and rinsed his cup under the tap.

I saluted, quickly pretended I was adjusting my hair, and waved at him.

‘Don’t worry about Felix. It’s just his manner. I think,’ she pouted sweetly, ‘that he had a difficult childhood.’

‘Didn’t we all?’ I said, the honestly slipping out accidentally. Anxiety spiked my chest. I felt exposed and vulnerable.

But Heidi just said, ‘oh, quite.’ She stabbed her biscuit again, and sat looking at me with it spiked onto the end of her knife.

‘Well,’ I said, uncertain of what came next.

‘Yes, I better let you get on. I’m sure you’ve got lots of unpacking to do.’

I thought of my two, near empty shelves. I’d unpacked in ten minutes.

‘Okay.’ I brandished my dirty tea cup. ‘Should I…?’

‘Thanks,’ she said. She lounged back in her chair, the sun tickling the edges of her hair, her black dress brushing her knees, then pushed herself up and out of the chair. I could never look so comfortable in my skin as that. I filed away details of the angle of her recline, that sour cream smile. A black, loosely fitting, knee length dress – clearly much more appropriate for an artist than jeans and a tee shirt. I obviously couldn’t buy a black one. But maybe navy blue.

‘That’s okay. See you soon.’ I tried to stop myself from curtseying.

She merely waved the ginger biscuit at me and turned away; the profile on a pound coin.

The door closed behind her. I wandered around the room, cup still in my hand, looking on shelves, opening drawers. There was a cork board on the wall opposite the sink. A post card with the number of a cab company was pinned to it, a takeaway menu – ‘Kensington Tandoori’ – and a yellowing A4 document, stapled at the corner.

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

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

‘Don’t nose around.’

I jumped. The voice was right in my ear. I could feel his breath on my skin.

I straightened up.

‘Sorry.’

‘What are you doing?’

He was tall, solid, a waft of pale red hair drifting over his skull, features like cracks in rock.

‘Sorry,’ I said again. ‘I was just reading this.’ He stared at me with a predator’s gaze. ‘I’m Rose.’

‘Yes. Rosie. Rhymes with nosy.’

My cheeks were hot. ‘Sorry.’

‘I’m playing with you.’

He was wearing high-waisted suit trousers with a white shirt tucked in. In the low light of the common room, he looked like a Victorian workman, come to deliver coal.

He pushed his hands into his pockets. ‘How’s your room? Made any discoveries?’ He stared at me closely.

‘No,’ I said nervously. ‘Just unpacking, really. Settling in.’

‘Good.’ His eyes were unblinking.

‘I’d better get back to it.’

‘Yes.’

I pushed open the door. He held it open and watched me go.

I’d taken a couple of steps when he said, ‘Clive. That’s my name.’

I looked around. ‘Okay. Hello. It’s nice to meet you.’

‘And you.’ He added, almost lazily, not looking at me, ‘Like I said, don’t nose around.’

I locked my door from the inside.

Sweetness and Light, chapter five

2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t say anything.

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

I hadn’t picked though, had I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I’m Rose.’

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

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

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

‘That’s good,’ was all he said.

‘Yes.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘So, who decides?’

‘The committee.’

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

‘Shame about the wallpaper.’

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

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

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

‘Can I?’

‘Are you always so timid?’

‘I’m not timid. I’m just…’

‘… a worrier?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘So,’ I said. ‘What are you?’

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

‘What kind of artist are you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘And you? What do you photograph?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t have any… Oh. Yes.’

‘See you around.’

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

I went back to my unpacking.

Sweetness and Light, chapter four

2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tapped on the bathroom door.

‘Mum. Mum! I’m going.’

No answer.

I tapped again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had arrived.

‘Rose, I assume?’

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

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

‘This way,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

‘The common room. That’s great.’

‘There’s a jar for contributions.’

‘Contributions?’

‘For coffee, tea, milk and so on.’

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

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

‘Is it normally?’

He looked at me blankly.

‘Is it kept locked?’

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

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

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

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

‘This way,’ he said.

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

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

‘Of course. And storage.’

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

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

‘Of course,’ I said.

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

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

I heard a cough behind me.

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

I gazed around me.

‘The toilet?’ I asked.

He pointed to a door next to the kitchenette.

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetness and Light, chapter three

2005

‘You’re back.’

‘I got your oranges.’

Our oranges.

‘Thanks, love.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skills.

I closed the notebook.

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

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

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

‘Okay,’ I said.

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

‘Yes? I mean, no.’

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

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Do I?’ I added.

‘You’re in a rut.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I mean, I know I am.’

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

‘It’s summer, Mum.’

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

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

Mum narrowed her eyes. She sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Right,’ she said.

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

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

‘I’ll make some more tea,’ I said.

‘Why not?’

‘And get some biscuits.’

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

‘A crumpet?’

‘Rose. Can you sit down, love?’

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

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

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

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

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

I peered at the typed address on the envelope.

Rose Acker and her parent or guardian

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

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

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

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

‘I’ve got a godfather?’

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

‘Who is he?’

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

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

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

‘Why?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well, so what’s in the letter?’

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

‘He’s dead?’

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

‘An artist’s studio? Where?’

‘In London. Kensington.’

My heart leapt in terror and joy.

‘Why, though?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s okay. You are.’

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

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

‘Yes,’ I said. I smiled.

An inheritance. The breath of potential. An inheritance.

‘When should I go?’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

If I went.

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

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

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

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

I waved.

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

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

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

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

‘Where to?’

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

‘Have you inherited an artist, too?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Good times.’

‘Good times.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do you have to pay bills?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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