They were married in the church at the edge of the village.
It was a small, quiet ceremony; she’d been orphaned when she
was five, and had little contact with her remaining family,
and his relatives were dead. He was older than her, and the
people in the village knew that he had been married before.
People wondered why she married him. It wasn’t for love, since
she’d decided at her young age that love was at best a trick
to sell poetry and chocolates, and at worst a weakness. He
was kind, but so were many others, at least at first. He was
also rich, but she’d never cared much for money. If asked,
she would have thought for a while and then smiled and put
a finger to her lips.
Truth to tell, her reason was this: She was curious. Not the
best of reasons to get married, but there are many worse.
After the wedding he took her home to his mansion, an imposing
old building embraced by the woods. As a child she’d often
dreamt she was living in such a mansion, exploring its many
rooms, breathing in the musty emotions and long-forgotten
ghosts caught in its curtains and rugs, that stared from its
oil paintings and blind mirrors. He held the door open for
her to enter, and as she did she smiled a child’s smile.
After dinner he took her hand. ‘I will be gone all next week,’
he said, looking at her face. ‘The house is yours, for that
time. I’ve sent everyone away for these seven days, so you
can get to know the place, and when I get back we can get
to know each other.’ She liked his way of speaking. ‘Will
you promise me one thing, though?’
She nodded, taken in by his solemnity more than by his words.
‘There are seven rooms upstairs. You are allowed into each
of them – except the seventh.’ He held her hand more firmly.
‘It was my last wife’s favourite, and–’ He smiled, sadly.
She promised, and he kissed her on the cheek.
That night, she dreamt of seven doors, each alike. Her hand
reaching out towards a doorhandle, and then she woke up.
She walks through the first door, slowly, silently. Her eyes
are closed, and she hears birds.
She opens her eyes.
She is standing in a garden. The smell of grass is in her
nose. The sky is a clear blue, and there is a breeze. For
a second she shivers. She is only wearing her nightgown. Butterflies
flutter past, so near she can almost touch them. She feels
the cold of the dew on her naked feet.
She turns around and looks at the small cottage. It should
look quaint, with its thatched roof and the flowerbeds, bright
flashes of colours. As she looks at it, she should be thinking
of grandmothers and home-made preserves. She doesn’t.
From inside, someone calls her name.
She turns around and runs away.
That night she dreamt of birds’ song, and of beetles in the
She walks through the second door and inhales the dark, secret
smell of old paper and leather. Everywhere she looks, she
sees bookshelves, high and old. It must be the light, for
she can hardly make out where the bookshelves end and the
Her eyes wide with delight, she runs her fingers across the
backs of books, feeling the leather and embossed letters spelling
out names she once knew. At random she pulls out a book, walks
to one of the armchairs placed conveniently around this library,
and sits down. She opens the book.
In it, she reads her name, over and over again.
She slams the book shut and, dropping it on the musty carpet,
runs out of the room.
That night she dreamt of paper that felt like dry skin under
her touch, whispering to her in its dry, dead voice.
She walks through the third door, and at first she thinks
she hears the ocean, ebbing and swelling all around her. Then
she sees the clocks. Large clocks standing against the wall,
their pendulums solemnly measuring time. Small, busy clocks
on mantlepieces, their ticking reminding her of piano lessons
she had been taught once. Inside hourglasses many-coloured
sand seeming to fall forever. Their sound mingles, creating
the illusion of the sea, ebbing and swelling.
In the middle of the room she sees a sundial, made from marble.
As she approaches, tiny imperfections in the stone wink at
her. There are no windows in the room; she does not know where
the light that throws the shadow across the marble surface
is coming from.
The shadow changes, swirls, shows her things. Shows her secrets.
With a gasp she turns and runs out of the room. Behind her,
the room goes dark, as if a candle had been blown out.
That night she dreamt of drowning, and death, and of shame.
In her sleep she blushed a dark red.
She hesitates, and then steps through the fourth door. The
slants of sunlight show her a dusty attic, motes floating
around her in the afternoon warmth. On wooden clothesstands
evening dresses and suits are hung, well-kept but long out
of fashion. In a corner she sees an old globe; its world is
the world of her grandparents. Some of the places she does
She opens a suitcase, the one closest to her. It is stuffed
with toys – old tin fire engines, spinning whirligigs, teddybears.
She winds up a monkey and is delighted that it still bangs
its cymbals together, jabbering away mechanically. She laughs
and claps her hands.
She is startled by movement behind her and spins around. Relieved,
she sees that it is only a mirror, covered by diaphanous,
moth-eaten silk. Chiding herself for her childish reaction,
she goes and uncovers the mirror.
What she sees cannot be herself; what she sees frightens her.
She throws the silk sheet back over the mirror and leaves
the attic, pulling her dressing gown tightly around her.
That night she dreamt of spiders’ webs, and of the rustle
of silk against her eyelashes.
She opens the fifth door. The air smells ever so faintly of
popcorn and old-fashioned sodas, and in the dim light she
sees rows and rows of cinema seats. While she still stands
there, the cinema curtains, heavy red plush, open and she
hears the chattering of the projector. She sits down in the
row by her side.
On the screen, jittering monochrome images appear. Mommy and
Daddy – her real Mommy and Daddy – smile at the camera. Daddy’s
wearing a serious, well-cut suit, Mommy a dotted dress that
even in black-and-white looks red. She’s holding a birthday
cake up at the camera, and Daddy lights the candles. They
put the cake (chocolate, she seems to remember) on the table.
The little girl enters the frame, shyly. Her parents motion
her to wave at the camera, which, after a few moments’ hesitation,
she does. She sits down at the table, while Mommy and Daddy
still smile at the camera, infatuated with its single eye.
The little girl looks at the cake and blows out all seven
candles in one go.
She feels sick and stumbles out of the cinema as quickly as
That night she dreamt of growing old, and of the nightmares
that hid under her childhood bed, wearing her parents’ faces.
She opens the sixth door. Behind it is a brightly lit bedroom,
empty but for the large bed and a chest of drawers. She checks
the commode first; the only thing in it is a bible. Then she
looks under the bed, feeling silly as she does so. There are
not even dust bunnies. The bed looks soft and inviting, so
she lies down. For a moment she feels as if she is someone
different – she feels transitory, somehow. Then the feeling
passes. Now the room feels only empty and cold, and sad.
She leaves, closing the door behind her.
That night someone else dreamt her dreams, and in the morning
she felt tired.
She opens the seventh.
Through the Looking Glass
From the bathroom mirror he looks back at me. It’s his eyes,
definitely, his tired expression. His forehead. Not quite
as many wrinkles. Not yet. His lips, thin, parched.
I turn on the tap and splash some cold water on my face. Then
I look back in the mirror, and the moment’s passed. There’s
a fleeting resemblance, but it’s me. Definitely me. The tired
expression on my face comes from not having slept well or
enough for the last few days, not from almost sixty years
of fighting a losing battle against life.
I dry my face with the towel my mother’s put on the guest
bed. This is the first time I’ve spent a night at my parents’
house since I moved out, all those years ago, and it feels
strange not to have slept in my room, my bed, even though
they haven’t been mine for a long time. This hasn’t been home
for a long time, not just for myself, I think. Anyway, the
last couple of days have felt Alice enough already. No need
to add to that by sleeping in a room fifteen years too small.
I dry the sink with my towel – old habits die hard – and
open the medicine cabinet. Inside, it looks like there’s hundreds
of pill bottles. I recognise some of the names, even some
of the labels. There’s a few of the classics, ranging from
Aspirin to Prozac. Most of the bottles are half-empty – or
would that be half-ful, if I popped a few of the pills myself?
Half-empty, half-full, let’s call the whole thing off. I smile,
even though I know the joke’s a feeble one, and see what else
is in the cabinet. The pills, seen through the half-transparent
bottles, look like Smarties. Green ones, yellow ones, red
ones. Almost none of them are blue, for whatever deep psychological
reason, or perhaps he used up the blue ones. Who knows? Go
ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall.
In the lower left-hand corner, folded very methodically, are
the instruction leaflets for this pharmacopia that Keith Richards
would have given his left kidney for. I take them out and
look through them. He’s ordered them alphabetically.
I start to cry. I look at the stupid instruction leaflets,
A to Z, and I cry.
He’s going through his e-mails. He’s only been connected
to the Internet for half a year, and most of the e-mails go
to his wife’s account. All in all, there’s less than twenty
that were addressed to him, and of those half are ads for
Viagra or get-rich-quick schemes. He’s kept them so far, because
they are addressed to him, but now he deletes them one by
one, reading them first before he sends them down the rabbit
hole because he wants to make sure he hasn’t missed anything.
Finally he clicks on the X in the upper right-hand corner
of the screen. ‘Do you really want to quit the program?’ As
always, he thinks about it before he clicks ‘Yes’.
There’s a knock on the bathroom door. ‘Are you okay in there?’
Sitting on the toilet seat, a sodden wad of tissue in my hand,
I feel a vague, somehow adolescent shame, as if I hadn’t been
crying but doing something else. ‘I’ll be down in a minute.’
I hear her moving away from the door after a moment’s hesitation
and walk down the stairs. I’d know her heavy, deliberate steps
anywhere. His always were more tentative, more self-effacing.
They fit his way of coming into a room as if he was apologising
for being there. He’d apologise for anything and everything.
More than once I’d been angry with him, close to shouting
at him that he didn’t need to apologise, it wasn’t his fault.
Like a predictable sitcom character, although one who’d been
deserted by the laughing track, he’d say he was sorry.
I get up, throw the tissue in the toilet, flush. At random,
I grab a handful of instruction leaflets. Some of them I knew
would be there. Some you’d find in every medicine cabinet
in every semi-detached house in every middle-class neighbourhood.
One or two I know, because they make up the reading on my
own bedside table, in addition to a couple of paperbacks that
are almost as well-read. I didn’t know he was on some of the
same stuff, although it doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise
me is that I feel angry somehow. As if, by talking the same
pills, he was saying he was like me and I was like him.
I don’t have to read those leaflets. I know what’s on them.
May cause drowsiness. Headaches. Loss of concentration. Loss
of libido. (A word that always sounds ridiculous when a doctor
uses it, like a horny little Greek faun, or a dish at the
Asian takeaway. One shrimp libido and fried rice, hold the
soy sauce.) Do not exceed the prescribed dose. In case of
an overdose, please contact a doctor or the closest hospital
I know those pills. They look innocuous enough. They’re a
dusty white, not the M&M reds, greens and yellows that you
sometimes feel you could just gobble down like the childhood
sweets your grandparents would give you when Mum and Dad weren’t
looking. No, these look sensible, grown-up. Do they work?
Sometimes. Give them a week or two. Don’t expect to sleep
much during that time, or to eat, or to get any sensible work
done. Definitely don’t expect to get laid. Instead, expect
to be edgy, sweaty, rude to your friends, neighbours, family.
She never complained. No, strike that. She did complain, all
the time, about him, about all the silly, childish things
he’d do. But never about him turning into Mr. Hyde. All things
considered, she probably would have appreciated the change,
at least for a day or two.
She didn’t complain when she called to tell me three days
ago, not once. Just the facts, Ma’am. Was she glad? Relieved?
Resigned? She was efficient, but then she usually was. We
haven’t really spoken since I’ve arrived. Not about him, not
about what happened. We watched television, some stupid gameshow
or sitcom, whatever it is they used to watch. We didn’t talk,
and she went to bed very early. Organising everything was
a lot of work, and she’d only taken off yesterday and the
day before to arrange things.
I wonder what she’s doing while I’m looking through the medicine
cabinet as if it was some sort of code, red and yellow pills
instead of dots and dashes. Is she clearing out the old stuff
– shoes that haven’t been worn for years, old magazines that
were never read, articles cut from newspapers? Was she answering
the handful of well-meaning cards that had arrived already?
She wouldn’t be putting things off – no White Queen her.
I think I know her well enough to be sure that she’s not quietly
getting sloshed on her fifth or sixth vodka, but how well
do we know our parents? Obviously not as well as I thought
I put the instruction leaflets back, careful not to disturb
He looks out the window. The cat’s sitting on the window
sill, smiling at him. The car’s still gone. She’s at the hairdresser’s,
and after that she’s going shopping. He doesn’t expect her
back before three. There’s a few things he still has to do.
There’s no letters to answer, just as there were no e-mails
that really needed a reply. He isn’t much of a letter writer,
he knows. Still, there’s today’s newspaper. He hasn’t read
that yet. He always reads every page, even the adverts and
those cartoons he doesn’t get. You never know what you might
miss if you don’t pay attention. It’s important to be well-informed.
He usually gets angry at the people who write letters to the
editor, either because they’re intolerant, or because they’re
too tolerant. Not today, though. Today he doesn’t get angry
at whatever it is the Palestinians and Israeli have been up
to, he doesn’t get angry at the latest stupidities from a
president even he can feel intellectually superior to. He
doesn’t even get angry when he doesn’t get the cartoon.
Today, he doesn’t cut any articles from the newspaper. He
just folds it neatly, because his wife gets annoyed when he
leaves it in a mess, and puts it with the rest of the mail.
Then he gets up and walks up the stairs. The cat, still smiling,
watches him vanish.
I don’t know what it is that fascinates me so much about
the contents of the medicine cabinet. It doesn’t tell me anything
about him that I didn’t know already. Do I think it’ll tell
me anything about myself? Not likely. Even if this is some
sort of pharmaceutical, candy-coloured Rorschach test, I wouldn’t
know how to interpret it. What’s your favourite colour? Your
favourite prescription drug? If you could be any sort of counterindication,
which would you be?
This is silly, and yet I can’t get myself to close the cabinet
and go downstairs to watch some sitcom or chatshow with my
mother. Perhaps I just don’t want to close the cabinet because
I might see him in the mirror again.
Finally I open the cupboard underneath the sink and get out
a plastic bag. One by one I take the pill bottles, open them,
empty them into the bag. The pills in all colours (except
blue) and sizes look as if I’m preparing treats for next Halloween,
although if that were the case I’d be the one trick-or-treating,
not the kids. The pills look like Skittles – all the colours
of the rainbow. Just not as sweet.
I wonder if, for him, suddenly everything was rainbow, rainbow,
rainbow! Or for my mother; after all, this is what she’d been
hoping for, in a way. Alice wouldn’t even venture an answer
on this one. I’m almost surprised he fit down the rabbit hole.
I hope the landing was soft. I remember that when I was small
I used to call him Humpty Dumpty, for whatever silly reason
children do these things. I pray that he’ll be safe from the
Jabberwocky, from the Walrus and the Carpenter, from the Queen
Leaving only the instruction leaflets, arranged alphabetically,
I close the medicine cabinet.
He opens the medicine cabinet without looking at it. He doesn’t
like the mirror and what it shows. It’s the bathroom lights
– they make everything look clinical, dead. Also, they seem
to emphasise every blemish, like the hair growing from his
nostrils, however much he plucks it (he usually forgets to).
Like his watery eyes, or the brown spots that once were freckles
but now only spell out how old he’s grown. He never liked
mirrors, and he likes them even less now.
The inside of the cabinet is more reassuring. He likes looking
at the bottles – there’s something cheerful about the colour-coded
pills, and the ones that aren’t coloured look reassuringly
professional. Pills that look like these just have to be effective,
don’t they? He knows they are, else they wouldn’t be covered
by his medical insurance.
He knows it’s silly, but the colours remind him of his childhood.
He’d go to the sweet shop every Sunday to buy the broken sweets
and toffees that they couldn’t sell otherwise. The colours
were the same, even if the taste wasn’t.
He opens the first bottle and starts taking out pills. It’s
important to him that he’s got the right amount of each. Ten
red – no, make that twenty. Twenty green ones. Yellow –
twenty. There’s not enough blue ones, so he’ll have to make
do with what is there. He never was that keen on blue, anyway.
Twenty sensible, grown-up white ones. One by one he opens
the bottles, takes out the pills, puts them in a neat row,
closes the bottle, puts it back. All the colourful little
globules, disks and oblongs in a row make him smile. It looks
as he imagines all the animals lined up for Noah’s Ark must
have looked from a distance. He’s still smiling as he closes
the cabinet and fills the glass with water. Down the hatch!
he thinks as, pair by pair, he puts the pills on his tongue
and washes them down with water. The water tastes faintly
of tooth paste.
He has to refill the glass three times.
He stands there for a long time after he’s come to the end
of the line. He doesn’t look at himself in the mirror, where
they do things tomorrow, or they did them yesterday, but they
never do things today.
When he falls, finally, the landing is soft.
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