spaces of a room
Sometimes at night I stand at my window and fly. Out over the hill that drops to the sea, with my fingers dragging through wave tips I drift over oceans, leaving a barely visible snail-trail of luminous protozoa across the skin of the sea.
No creature loves an empty space — except, perhaps, when they are crowded by the concreteness of existence.
A light fitting.
I could write endlessly about the rooms I have lived in, the beds I have slept in and the chairs I have sat in.
I could write hopelessly about the buses I have waited for and the waiting rooms I have waited in.
I could write tirelessly about the spaces I have seen, been and done.
In a small room in a small house on the edge of a paddock where the rye grass lay flat in the wind, I took a mirror from the wall. The mirror was the shape of a sharp-cornered lozenge and its gilt frame was patterned with fat whorls of faux gold. Beneath a corner of the glass there was a mottled patch of disfigured silver where the dampness had drawn itself in from behind and bloomed like russet lichen pressed in permanence beneath the sheet of glass. I laid the mirror on the bare wood floor, in the centre of the small room. And that room, its spaces jammed with things made to fill the spaces—a bed, a bookshelf, a wardrobe, a dressing table, a lamp—was no longer an overstuffed room in a small house on the edge of a paddock. It was a room with a silvered puddle on its floor. It was a room with an uncharted lake of unknown depths. It was a room with a glimmering entranceway to a yet-to-be-discovered land set into its floorboards.
At first I liked living in the small room with its new possibilities of water and enchantment in the centre of its floor. I knelt at the mirror’s side glimpsing herds of pocket-sized deer or musk oxen or zebra drinking from the fathomless lake. I cupped my hands to capture the steam drifting off the hot-spring puddle. When it was quiet I could hear the heart-songs of the inhabitants of the undiscovered lands beneath the floorboards of my bedroom. A tune of dark beauty and melancholy rose from the entrance to that other place and later, when I was away from the small room chopping wood or folding sheets, I would hum the tune.
But then there came a time when the puddle no longer shimmered, the lake clouded over with a motile darkness as shapeless forms glided beneath its surface, and the jewelled entranceway to the unknown world of song and magic became a door that opened onto threat and uncertainty. I would lie in bed peering at the mirror on the floor, telling myself it was just a mirror on the floor, but I had given it too much strength and it now became a thing to be feared. In the dimness of night I became afraid of the black depths of the mirror-lake—it was a sinister vortex seeking to drag me in. It became yet another place of treacherous uncertainty, like beneath the bed and behind the wardrobe, but there it was in the centre of my room.
It was the middle of a day, when the sun was shining hard and yellow, that I got rid of the mirror. The day that seemed like all others was a day when there was no room in the brightness to create fierce shadows of mythical proportions in the mirror on the floor. Perhaps it was the day I forgot a little more of how to fly. Perhaps it was the day I took a step closer to the tangible world. But it was only in the harshness of the light that I was able to lift the lozenge-shaped mirror back onto the wall.
It hung there without the magic. It showed only my face as I looked in it each morning. It didn’t promise me a lifetime of beauty or glimpses into the future. It only ever reflected me, as that damp patch of bloom corrupted a corner of its glass.
There were other places in that house where hidden things were kept. Sometimes they were brought out on special occasions: Burns’ Nights, christenings and Christmases. Sometimes they just lay perdue. Unseen, lost and waiting.
My mother had an entire room full of hidden things. The Dining Room, she called it. Like a silent chapel of middle-class hope amid the clabber and bog of rural life, it was the one room my brother and I were not allowed into. And because of that it had the uncertainty and lure of the forbidden room in Bluebeard’s Castle. But the door to the Dining Room was never locked. There was never a frail silver key to its door hanging amidst the bulky cluster of jangling iron latchkeys and we never rolled those keys through our restless fingers as Bluebeard’s wife had while she waited for the old man to leave the room, the castle, the province; leave her to find her way into the hidden, forbidden places. Did Old Man Bluebeard never think to hide the key to that room where he kept his soul before handing his wife the key ring? Instead, leaving the keys in her tiny, bored hands, he said, ‘Don’t go into the bolted room at the end of the corridor. The one with the wispish aroma of death snaking from beneath the door, don’t go in there.’
The door to my mother’s Dining Room was always closed but it was never locked. There was no need to lock it. The door handle was too high for us to reach. Or, perhaps, we were never brave enough to enter into the forbidden.
We would follow her into the room. Sometimes she let us carry trays of cutlery. Cutlery that earlier in the day she had clustered up in handfuls and poured onto the paper-lined kitchen table like jangling mercurial rivers flowing from her fingers.
We sat at the kitchen table, my brother and I, in front of the silvered jutting mound, our small hands swimming up to our elbows in yellow rubber gloves that we waved through the air like the awkwardly attached limbs of a book-found monster. Dipping ripped squares of tired linen into the viscous pink polish with its acid smell we watched the alchemy of tarnished cutlery as the pinkness of the rags turned inky dark and the silver took on a black greasy mantle of its own.
Then the silver would show itself, hesitantly, awkwardly, and I, with my magpie’s eye, would covet the shimmer that grew and wavered beneath the polishing cloth. But, no sooner had we begun we would tire of the buffing and burnishing. Our monster limbs grew heavy in the rubber gloves, and our fingers wearied from the elaborate navigation of slender fork tines and the raised relief of curlicue motifs on knife handles. So it would be my mother who finished the polishing, her mouth a neat line of concentration as she rubbed at the cutlery, rubbing its glister into existence.
She would fill the kitchen sink with water so hot that a pallid cloud of steam would drift up to form beads of wetness on the painted ceiling. Bundles of spoons, forks and knives would be dropped into the water with a muffled clatter then scooped back onto the bench for the final polish.
And we would follow her into the Dining Room carrying the sheeny piles of polished cutlery on trays covered with linen tea towels: small forks, large forks, small knives, large knives, soup spoons, dessert spoons, gravy ladles, mustard spoons and butter knives. Forks and spoons hard and large in small mouths. Cutlery tasting of the ocean and electricity on the edges of our small tongues.
The Dining Room had a smell—tart and furry, like windfall fruit that had lain too long in the grass. It smelt of stasis and old books. Perhaps it was decay. My mother would lift the sash windows to let the room breathe and let its congestion ebb away. And we would stand, my brother and I, to watch her sort and replace the glossed cutlery into its velvet-lined box. She wore an ancient pair of ladies’ dress gloves on her cracked, earth-sore hands so as not to leave any hint of fleshy touch to tarnish and defeat the hours of silver polishing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
During the last year Sarah McCallum spent uneven amounts of time mowing lawns, watching DVD box sets of The Wire, glazing windows, sitting on Intercity buses, and writing a series of creative non-fiction essays for an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. She also had the excellent fortune to spend parts of 2010 sequestered in a small space with nine poets and a memoirist.