We lived in a big house in a curly suburb, a purgatory of mock-Tudor houses and cold grey cars. It was, as they say, depressingly middle-class. My older sister and I had brown toast and orange juice for breakfast, and mummy drove us to school while daddy stayed home to play the stock market. On our days off we’d sometimes see him walking from his office to the kitchen in his raggedy jeans and grey sweater. Mum ran errands during the day and attended charity events. Even after submitting to the life of a kept woman she had her own interests and sidelines. She spoke out on women’s and environmental issues, her two pet causes, and held an honorary degree from the local university.
Our house, although innocuously expensive and well-maintained from the outside, on the inside was somewhat like a Gothic castle, in that a network of secret passages ran behind the whitewashed modern facade. The house had been in our mother’s family since 1912, when it and one or two others in our street were the only few for a mile around. The passages were installed so that servants could move unobtrusively between rooms, serving coffee here, changing bed-sheets there. (Even though the house was only ever large enough to keep a serving staff of about five, who lived in a small quarters in the back garden which now served as a shed.) The family apparently wanted their servants to be invisible. The passages themselves were rounded at the top like train tunnels, and no wallpaper or carpet covered the bricks and wood.
By the end of the Second World War the family was no longer prosperous enough to keep a serving staff. The secret passages fell into a brief period of disuse, until my grandfather, in the 1950s, re-opened them so that his sister, who served as my mother’s nanny, could look in on her at night. Sometimes granddad liked to look in, too. Whenever mum remembered this, she’d smile to herself in a sad way, trailing off so that she was no longer looking at her audience, but at something only she saw.
Granddad still lived in the house when my sister Jessica and I were growing up. Our grandmother died when mum was a child. She remembered her as an obese, bed-ridden woman, but no-one seemed to remember her intimately except granddad, who never discussed her. He’d since moved into one of the spare bedrooms so my parents could occupy the main. Jessica and I were in mum’s old room. Each bedroom had a door to the secret passages. Mine and Jessica’s was located behind an immense wardrobe. If you pushed the clothes apart on the rail and put your hand through a hole in the back, you’d find a doorknob. Turn the knob and let the door swing open, and you could enter the passage by gently pushing the wardrobe’s back, which would swing on hinges into the newly unoccupied space.
I sometimes have nightmares where I’m sleeping, and yet fully aware that the back of the wardrobe in that room is swinging open, behind its closed doors, a hand pushing apart the clothes on the rail, the man belonging to the hand getting further and further into the room until the doors themselves swing open, slowly, creaking like a rusty gate, and the last thing I see before waking is an old, withered hand, with an old-fashioned camera clasped in it, snaking through the valley forged by the parted clothes, behind which lurk two strange, un-winking eyes…
The first time I had this nightmare, I started screaming and became fully conscious in my mother’s arms as she held me. Jessica was kneeling on her bed, in her nightgown, watching me with a mix of sympathy and fear, as if she wanted to comfort me but was afraid of contagion. ‘Is Brian okay?’ she said in a small voice. ‘He’s fine, darling, just a bad dream. Get back in bed.’ Mum said this while stroking my hair. Dad had come in now, and was looking at the wardrobe, the left door of which was slightly ajar. ‘Do you think he woke your dad?’ he said in a voice that I was too young to interpret, exactly. ‘Don’t be daft, Jim. Dad sleeps like a brick, you know that.’ Dad snorted and left. He and I had barely made eye contact, but then that was par for the course.
The next morning was a Saturday, and after breakfast I stood in the dining room, looking through the glass doors and the conservatory, into the back garden, where granddad was bird-watching, his favourite pastime. Occasionally he’d scribble some notes in an ancient calfskin pad, then take a photograph of a bird which had alighted on the flagstones around the swimming pool. He should take the picture first, I thought, in case the bird flies away. Jessica was in town with mum, and dad, as always, was locked in his office. For some reason, it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never seen him make eye contact with granddad, let alone hold a conversation. I felt sorry for granddad. He must be lonely, I thought, as I walked through the conservatory and out into the garden. He didn’t see or hear me until I was almost beside him.
‘Brian, my boy!’ he cried, his usual chipper self. ‘Come to help me catch the pigeon?’ I smiled and said sure. On a little garden table stood a small wooden long-box, clearly intended for photographs. I moved to open it, but granddad caught my wrist. ‘Oh, no no no,’ he said, suddenly all anxiety, ‘don’t look in there, my boy, they’re nowhere near ready.’ I wasn’t raised to contradict adults, so I assumed he knew best and left the matter there.
Over the next two years I had the nightmare several times, enough to be labelled “a nervous child”. Dad grew increasingly impatient, until one day, after walking into me on his journey from the study to the kitchen, he lashed out and slapped me so hard that I almost spun around. Mum ran out of the kitchen, where she’d been making a sandwich, and slashed at dad with the dirty kitchen knife. ‘You get the f— away from him, you b——!’ she screamed. It was the first time that I’d heard an obscenity, let alone two in one sentence. She’d torn through one of dad’s sleeves, and his arm was shedding blood. He fell back against the wall, wide-eyed, legs threatening to give way, then turned and ran back to his office.
And that was the last time I saw dad while growing up. Later in life I searched for and found him, living with a wife twenty-five years his junior. He’d had a baby with her and seemed much more attentive to it than he ever was to Jessica or I. I asked him if he’d seen Jessica at all. He seemed vaguely ashamed and said he hadn’t. I didn’t ask if he knew what had happened.
What had happened was this: a year after dad left, Jessica and I were sent to bed at nine in the evening, and mum came up a few minutes later to kiss us goodnight. We fell into sleep. I woke up around midnight needing to pee, and after I’d returned from the bathroom I noticed that Jessica’s bed was empty and the wardrobe door slightly ajar. Gone off to explore the passages, I supposed. Years had passed since she had, at least to my knowledge, and anticipating a game, I followed in her footsteps. Through the hinged back wall and the hidden door, into the dungeon-like passage, wood warped with age and bricks rotten… It was pitch-black, and I remembered being told that when my aunt and grandfather used these passages, they lit their way with a paraffin lamp like characters in a story. I saw a light then, but a perfect circle of electric light. Jessica had a torch. Tip-toeing, thinking I might scare her for a laugh, I followed the beam. As I neared it, two figures became vaguely distinct, one lying on the floor, one seeming to kneel beside it. The beam illuminated a patch of night-shirt, soaked in red. An old, withered hand held an old-fashioned camera, and suddenly the kneeling figure looked up to reveal itself as Jessica, her hands both occupied, one by a torch and one by a kitchen knife… I screamed and screamed and screamed, and behind the scream I heard a pair of feet running towards us.