Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Stairway to Heaven

Once when I was a child, quite young -- maybe five or six -- we went to Victoria to visit my Uncle Bill, who is my Dad's youngest brother. He lived at the very top -- the servants' quarters, I suppose -- of one of Victoria's prized buildings. It was a single family house at one time, but had long since been converted to apartments, and Uncle Bill had what you'd call the attic flat. There was a discreet, narrow door off a hallway in the upper storey, and when you opened it you were standing on the bottom tread of a narrow staircase, more like a ladder, which took a sharp switchback at a tiny landing about ten steps up. Then you went up another five or six steps to another, narrower door. When you opened it, you stepped directly into Uncle Bill's living room. And you had to watch your head on the lintel.

Victoria was loaded with such places at the, of course, rich people have bought up all these desirable properties in picturesque Fairfield (or Oak Bay, or James Bay, or Esquimalt), converted them back into single family homes, spent millions restoring them, and work all the hours God sends to pay for it. And, the world being what it is, they probably don't like it too much when passersby stop to take a photo of the beautiful architecture they now own.

Whereas my uncle, and many like him, paid pittance for his three low-ceilinged rooms, and loved to sit in the middle of them on worn futons, drinking strong coffee, and enjoying the atmosphere of the place. Soaking up the history.

On this occasion, it was near Christmas, and we had spent the afternoon at Uncle Bill's. He and my parents were talking, and we kids were amusing ourselves looking out the windows, playing a game I don't remember, and generally thrilling in the difference of the place.

I asked if I could go back down the staircase to the floors below. Could I explore the building a little? I wanted to go all the way to the bottom, back to the brass fronted mailboxes, the funny iron buttons for calling up, back to the plush carpets and potted ferns of the lobby. Then, the gleeful finding of my way, all the way back up to the top. There's a joy about this project...I see it in my own children. The fascination of one house that holds many houses - the mystery of the closed doors, each with a different number, and a different life going on behind it.

Having assured my family that I could perfectly remember how to get back, and would not, no never would I get lost, I was allowed to go back down the staircase. As I closed the white-painted, bevelled wooden door behind me, I remember my Uncle Bill's voice, remarking to my parents that I wasn't likely to come to any harm, since I was staying inside the building.

What fun it was to sneak and sidle along the hallways, looking at the way the thick, dark red carpets ran down the middle of the hallway, bound along their edges by dark, shining floorboards of the kind you never see in houses now. Unchaperoned by any parent, who would surely have stopped me, hurried me, I could touch the funny little brass grates leading I didn't know where, and the little handles on things that, nowadays, we don't think need handles. Small paned windows, little doors, deep baseboards thickly painted with the highest of glosses, layer on layer. The walls weren't flat - they were funny nubbly cream-coloured things. In our house there wasn't any textured plaster. And here, if you let your eyes go all the way up to the top of the wall, you'd see there wasn't a hard line where the ceiling came down; there was a lovely rounded cove, with a pretty line lower down on the wall, and another one inwards on the ceiling. There were ceiling lights, but they were nice ones, quite dim, with cut glass.

It was so quiet in the hallways, and the central staircase was so grand, and I was so deliciously alone, that it began to feel like quite a long time had passed. After I had swept up and down a few times, being queen of course, I started to think I had better get back.

Upwards is simple, but remember that little door leading off the upper storey?

It was not the only little door.

Arrived in that hallway, I stopped and looked, a little doubtfully. Is it left? Is it right? It's not straight ahead, is it? Back and forth I stepped, examining all the doors in turn.

I don't know what made me choose that door, but I finally stopped in front of one and, fearful, I knocked. Maybe it was that I could hear people talking behind it: behind all the other white-glossed doors I had passed, on all the other floors in the house, was only a cushioned and clock-ticking velvet silence.

A few footsteps, and the door opened to reveal not a staircase, but a room. I had a confused impression of voices raised in laughter, a strain of sophisticated music, and a woman calling "Who is it?" Standing in front of me, no doubt just as surprised as I, was a man in a blue shirt and black trousers, holding a glass of red wine in his left hand.

It was the wine that really threw me. My family at that time did not partake of alcohol, and I had somehow got the impression that people who did, were loose cannons. It may have had to do with a different uncle, this one a figure of fear, who was widely known in the family as a drunkard, and widely suspected of being violent.

"I think you have the wrong door."
Or maybe it was I who said "I think I have the wrong door."

"Are you looking for someone?"

"I thought this was Uncle Bill's house."

I was rooted to the spot, terrified that he would invite me in. The child I was couldn't have said no, if he had.

I think he gestured down the hall to my left, and he may have said "Bill lives in number 7," or "That's Bill's door there." But in fact I don't remember how I found the right door. I remember the upper flight of narrow stairs, and I remember coming through the second door back into the little, cramped living room, and being weak with relief at finding my family again. And I was amazed and a bit afraid at how, while I was gone, my family, and everything about them, just went on without me behind those little doors, and how everything in all the rest of the houses, just carried on happening behind their little doors.

But I didn't say any of that to my family. I just leaned against my mother and listened to their talk.

Today, a surprise came to me in the mail from my Uncle Bill. He had found some photos from visits of long ago, and decided to send them to me just in case, someday, him being a bachelor, they go astray and are thrown out.

I sat down on the couch with my daughter and, smiling and eager, opened the envelope. I only flipped through a few of them before I was overcome with tears. I couldn't understand, much less explain to her, why it was that I sat and sobbed, my glasses off, my face in my hands, over a few pictures from thirty or so years ago.

It wasn't the losing of the little door, and the finding of it again. It wasn't the glass of wine in a stranger's hand, or the vulnerable fear of a little child.

It's just that all these things have passed. The beautiful houses kept so lovely and quiet for the quiet tenants, their iron door keys and their crystal doorknobs and the layers of glossy white paint. The red carpets and the brass grates, and the way milk used to be delivered through the little doors near the front doors, and the way people used to care enough to put nice-looking, twisty iron knobs on light switches and blind cords.

The way my stocking feet sank into the deep red of the carpets and slipped lightly over the heavy floors, sometimes for a few seconds leaving sweaty small footprints. The way, when alone, I was utterly and terrifyingly alone. Thrillingly, enticingly alone.

The marvellous way that, when I found my family again, they didn't know how lost they had really been.

It has all passed.

It's not my turn anymore. Now, I'm the woman's voice calling "Who is it?" I'm the man who answers the door, his own door, holding a glass of wine. I'm the mother who talks to her brother-in-law while the children explore and, when they get back, I smile vaguely at them, and raise my elbow so they can crawl under my arm, but I don't stop my conversation.

I'm the mother. I can neither lose myself nor find myself. The ability to do it, the freedom to do it and the joy I once found in it, is another thing fallen away with the years.

And when my children come back through my front door damp with rain and shining with the adventure of having walked home in the half light of dusk, I'm the one who, thinking only of what's for dinner and whether I remembered to pay the phone bill, doesn't know how lost I've been.

Uncle Bill's apartment, Victoria - around 1979


Anonymous said...
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Gwen said...

* sobbing *

I remember that he had a funny, tiny bathroom that had once been a closet, with a sloping roof. And there were so many lush plants, and Oriental rugs, and the whole place smelled like spices and coffee and age.

I wish I'd gone exploring with you; we could have held hands.

Kate said...

Beautiful, Shan. Thank you.

Anonymous said...
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kristieinbc said...

Thank you for sharing your childhood memory. It is rich and beautiful, and I am sitting at my computer with tears in my eyes.

Shan said...

Two spam comments on this one post in less than 12 hours, and seven more on other posts this morning alone, so I have disabled Anonymous commenting. Hope that works for everybody!

Suelle said...

Beautiful! You brought back the wonder of childhood to me also, if only for a moment. Thanks.

Rona said...

I loved every single word. What a great memory and perspective from both sides.

Valerie said...

Beautiful writing and remembrance, Shan. Well done!

Dave Hingsburger said...

Another astonishing post. The loss of the ability to be lost - or perhaps the will to be lost - is something I'd not thought of before reading this. You made me pause. You made me think. Thanks.