started a long time ago when I was renting a room from an old lady in Blackheath. Her name was Clarissa. She was in her eighties and she had lived alone for a long, long time in an Edwardian mansion right alongside the heath itself. I was renting the very top room. I remember it was quite large, with sash windows that opened out onto the roof where I kept strawberry and tomatoes plants. When the weather was warm, I would sit out and watch the buses trundle down into Lewisham.
Every night Clarissa would show me another part of the house. As darkness fell, she would wait as she usually did, at the bottom of the stairs with a large bunch of keys in her hand and together we would open up another room. The place was vast and it seemed to have endless corridors and cellars and secret passageways and rooms behind rooms. Every inch of the house was covered with things. Everywhere you looked there were antiques of every period imaginable; 17th century French chintzes, Chinese puzzle boxes, African masks, Spanish colonial muskets. Everything was collected my her late husband who had travelled the world exclusively and extensively. Nothing was ever moved, nothing was ever dusted. Every evening, after she had shown me some new cranny filled with a set of air-twist glasses or a collection of keys that wound grandfather clocks, I would go to bed and continue to dream of the house.
Soon, I knew that place better than she did.
One night whilst asleep, I discovered a small latch on the side of the fireplace in the main living room that opened up a screen onto an extension attached to the side of the house. Nobody had been in it for many years. I spent hours there looking through the collections of embroidered handkerchiefs, vodoun talismans, men’s monocles … it went on and on. There seemed to be no end to the things I could look through and no end to the pleasure I got from handling every object I found.
In fact, I immersed myself so deeply in those things, that it was not long before I realised that I had actually taken on the persona of that house in my dreams. I started to identify with every corner, every cubbyhole, every unlit corridor, every cobweb in that place until they had become corners of my own psyche; unlocking room after room crammed with bits and bobs waiting to be dusted off, turned over, examined.
There came a time when I realised I had gone completely mad. I knew I had become obsessed with my inner world of tiny hidden treasures. Work-a-day reality became meaningless – so much so that I was not happy until the night came and I could be in my bed, dreaming of what I could find next. There really was no hope for me.
Then one autumn, a few years after I had first moved into the house, I was awoken from my dream. After a drawn-out illness from a spider bite that Clarissa had received whilst out picking blackberries on the heath, she was taken to hospital and later died. Her son and daughter came in to clear out her possessions and sell the house. They opened room after room, systematically clearing, collating, pricing and selling off all that had been stored there, everything that had laid there quietly, unseen for decades. On the night before I left that house however, I had one last dream. In it, I dreamt that they both had completely missed the small latch that lifted the screen onto my secret room and all that laid in it remained undisturbed.
The next morning, although I was out on the streets again, for the first time in a long while, my mind felt clearer and I knew which way I needed to go next. Although I was sorry to leave, sorry that I would never see Clarissa or her treasures again, it no longer seemed so important to me. I had had my strange initiation in the house with a thousand and one curios and from then on I had this crazy idea that everything was going to be okay.