I’m always drawn to books that contain hidden rooms and secret passages. From the ivy-covered door in the wall of the secret garden to platform nine and three quarters, secret chambers and magic portals (along with their smaller cousin the hidden compartment) have always signaled to me that it’s time to curl up in my coziest chair for a reading adventure.
Since it doesn’t seem quite fair to talk about other books without letting you other Bookworms read some of mine, once or twice a month I will be posting some of my own work. Here, in a chapter from my novel, The Caregiver, is a
contribution to the hidden room genre. Grab an afghan and a cup of tea and enjoy.
The next Tuesday was a bad day. People always complained about Monday, but Lillian found Monday to be a good, no-nonsense, back-to-work day, a day that filled her with new resolutions and plans for the week. It usually took until Tuesday for those plans to be shot to hell.
This Tuesday, she’d planned to plant some annuals in the garden and dust that appalling, gloomy dining room, but Ellen seemed to wake up with other plans. Lillian was up and down the stairs a hundred times that morning. Ellen turned against tea, requiring Lillian to unearth and scrub out the ancient percolator, which had become, some time in the last decade or so, where old pantry moths went to die. Then the coffee had too much milk, not enough sugar, the room was too cold and the blinds, opened for warmth, let in too much light.
“I don’t know what you want to always be running off down there for,” Ellen said irritably. “I’m your patient. I’m up here.”
So Lillian stayed put, arranging pillows, moving Ellen’s pillows around this way and that, turning on the television, switching channels, turning it off. Then on again. She dusted Ellen’s dustless dresser, hoping that all the fussing would aggravate Ellen enough that she would order her downstairs, but today of all days, Ellen seemed positively pleased by the attention. Lillian sighed inwardly and settled down in the uncomfortable armless bedside chair, prepared to wait her out. After lunch, Ellen finally fell asleep, but the air had turned dark and muggy, and Lillian had caught Ellen’s irritability.
I should just go take a nap, she told herself, but instead she went downstairs, dragged out a broom and dust mop, clean rags and furniture wax. As always, the dining room depressed her.
At least I can keep it clean, she told herself firmly, and started, as she always did, immediately to the left of the door. Left to right, top to bottom, as ingrained as language, as thought. The one thing her mother had taught her that she’d never questioned.
A room this dark never even looks any better after you clean it, she complained to no one. I couldn’t see the dust before and I can’t see the absence of dust now.
She wanted to take a break, go get a glass of lemonade, but she kept going, doggedly. The humidity was giving her a headache. She kept going, working her way around the walls, flicking dust off old Whitmore’s portrait, passing the one stingy, over-draped window, around the corner to the menacing old china cabinet.
She’d always skimped here before, dusting the outside only, not bothering with the inside shelves or pulling the massive mahogany thing out to get behind it. Her mother never left furniture in place when she cleaned.
Because she had a headache, because she was in a bad mood and wanted to quit, Lillian began unloading the cabinet, piling the old dishes with their blue and gold scrolled border pattern in the middle of the dining room table. Finally the cabinet was empty. She pulled it away from the wall and got the broom. A room cleaned by her was going to be a clean room, no matter what. It was then that she noticed the door. A broom closet, she thought,.
The door opened onto an empty space ull of murky light. Eight long panes of glass made up the walls of a room she had never imagined was there. Around each long pane, small rectangles of glass made a narrow border; these border panes were made of glass that was faintly bubbled and green, so that when you looked through them you saw a world that had an otherworldly tinge and was distorted by the bubbles to look quite different from the world you saw through the clear glass in the middle. Lillian liked having the option of taking the world plain or fancy, depending on which part of the window she looked through.
From a distance, the effect of the two types of glass was that each view was a framed painting, of the hedge, the lawn, the sky or the bed of tall perennials, hollyhocks, phlox and black-eyed susans that partially surrounded the glass room. It irritated Lillian to see that the flower bed was mulched and weeded. Some hack employee of the landscape service had known about her discovery, her secret room, all along.
The room had a floor of the same slabs of blue-gray slate as the screened porch at the other end of the house, and the ceiling was of triangular panes of glass, either frosted or dirty, Lillian couldn’t tell which, that all met in a point on the top, which was ornamented with a peculiar knobby iron object. A pinecone or a pineapple, Lillian supposed. The inner wall, where the room attached to the house, was covered in green tiles, which surrounded a wall fountain in the shape of a hirsute man’s face. Beard and hair formed a single wild curly frame around the bold eyes, nose and mouth. From the face’s mouth, a trickle of water was meant to run down into a tiled half-moon basin.
The copper face, greened by age and oxidation, gave, Lillian considered, the impression of a very nauseous person vomiting; she in no way regretted that the fountain no longer worked and that only a white streak on the wall remained of the water that must once have flowed from between those lushly bearded green lips.
Furnished, the room might not have appealed to Lillian. It had probably been meant to hold a few exotic houseplants and a fussy little iron and glass dining set for ladies’ lunches in the spring and fall. The fountain would spew, goldfish would swim in the basin, the cushions of the chairs would be covered with material printed with palms and macaws.
But standing empty, the room called to Lillian. It was clearly not useful for cooking or eating or sleeping, or even reading or conversation. It was full of a cool, greenish light, and the light and the silenced fountain created a climate suitable only for thought.
Lillian thought that if she could only stay here long enough, she could think of everything, all the thoughts she had been too busy for all her life, thoughts too shy to approach while she was forced to live in rooms that were full of needs and objects and activities. Full of people. The secret room looked like people had never been there, and were not expected.
She forgot, after a time, about her bad Tuesday, her headache, her grumpy determination to clean behind the cabinet. The air, the light, the room itself all calmed her.
There was always a magical quality to the room for Lillian. Whenever she had the time to unload the cabinet and pull it away from the wall, she always held her breath, wondering if the door was really there, if it would be there again. Later, when she remembered finding the room, she thought that she must have simply known it was there. Maybe years ago, maybe when she was a child, she had dreamed or imagined this room with the windows of two kinds and the fountain with the curly-headed god (that might, she supposed, be Bacchus or Poseidon or Zeus), and it had waited for her, here.