When Where You Write Colours What You Write

On October 13, 2012

Writing can take you to some unexpected places. A little while back, I was one of nine writers invited to participate in a workshop at the home of the late Kenyan poet and author, Khadambi Asalache. The event was organised by Lambeth Council’s Literary Festival and The National Trust. At around the same time, I was helping Girls Aloud update their autobiography, Dreams that Glitter, for the paperback edition. Pop music and celebrity was much more my area but, as I said, writing can create opportunities you could never have imagined. When Asalache died in 2006 he left his home to the National Trust. From the outside, the modest terraced property on a busy road in south London is an unlikely architectural treasure. Inside, it’s a jewel, a palace in miniature, its walls and ceilings covered in elaborate fretwork. The transformation of the interior began when the writer noticed a damp patch on a wall and decided to do a carving to cover it. He kept going, enmeshing almost the entire house in a delicate filigree.

Credit National Trust Images/Christian Barnett

Walking into the house for the first time was like stepping into a far-flung exotic country. The contrast between outside and in was extraordinary. All the writers were asked to produce a piece inspired by the experience of being there. The bedroom was my inspiration. On the window was one of Khadambi’s carvings, a screen into which he had woven the initials K and S – S for Susie Thomson, his partner, a basket maker. Susie spoke movingly to us about her life with the poet. It made me think about Khadambi painstakingly carving out the next piece, pursuing what became an endless task, and Susie, accepting him and loving him and allowing him to be himself. I wanted to write something that in some way reflected each of them. A couple of weeks went by and we all came together again at the house to read what we’d written. Susie was there. I read my piece in the bedroom with my back to the window and the K and S screen, Susie and the others facing me. It was early evening and dull outside but as I read a bright shaft of sunlight streamed through the fretwork on the window, lit up the room and sent a tingle through us all. Here is my piece, Staring at the Ceiling:

S: I lie beside him, awake, not quite touching. My eyes move around the room picking out shapes, my imagination lending them a secret, shadowy life. In the dark, even the familiar has a different hue. I reach out, searching for his hand, and close my fingers around his. I stare at the ceiling, pick out its dark, intricate web; so many stories woven into the fabric of the house. At the foot of the bed I make out the line of figures that have their roots in my past. Small, solid, silent, they advance through the night taking me with them, my gaze now on the open window at the far end of the room. Sound seeps in from the street. A car passes below. There is the thump-thump of music, the boom of a bass line, and, far off, the rising wail of a siren. Footsteps approach, heels clicking against the pavement. The air around us is warm. I press my thumb into the palm of his hand.

K: From another place, memories stir of dry earth breaking open in the searing heat, the cracks creating a complicated latticework. In a certain light, in a certain mood, this is what he sees when he looks at the ceiling. This room, once his, is now theirs. She comes and goes, brings what she needs, then takes it away, all of it. She does this even though he hasn’t asked her to. There is no need for them to speak about it. It is an understanding, one of many to pass between them without an exchange of words. When he thinks about this it overwhelms him. He takes the wood and works something of her into it, a lasting expression of love. His darling, S. He puts himself beside her. K. The two of them in the middle of it all, leaning on each other, a work in progress.

S: This is how it begins. Strangers in a room filled with other people. He is startling, striking, and yet I don’t see him, not at first. I sleepwalk, eyes shut, without expectation, having no sense of him. This is what can happen in the wake of disappointments. Bit by bit the field of vision shrinks. I occupy my small, manageable space, buffered and safe in its confines, while somewhere beyond its edge he watches, noting every detail, the picture he makes as precise as any photograph. Surely he sees my fear, as real as the wrap around my shoulders.

K: She is swathed in layers. Her hair gleams. He observes its flame cast, the way it falls, the obedient curls that form around one shoulder, the rebellious wave on the other. Something in her being catches at him and he moves towards her, unseen, drawn by more than simple curiosity.

S: The air alters as he speaks and that puzzling thing some call chemistry takes hold. I am oddly elated, my mind ready to run away with far-fetched possibilities. Possibilities, it turns out, that are not far-fetched at all. My world expands. I shrug off my fear and put it away; an old coat on the back of the door, not worn again.

K: Silence suits him. He loses himself in the work, the blade slicing at the wood. As the light fades he stops and sees the tea, now cold, on the step beside him. He cannot remember her bringing it. He runs a finger across the surface of the wood where the jagged leaf of a palm tree takes shape and thinks about her approaching, waiting a moment, and leaving again. There is nothing casual about this compulsion of his with its capacity to absorb so completely. Friends expressing wonder at his ornate home can have little sense of the true price of his passion; the long spells of solitude, the frustrations. It is not only himself he is thinking of here. He is what he is, prone to vanish into his own shuttered space. Still, she chooses to stay, lets him breathe, brings wood for him to work. Her gift is acceptance and with it comes peace. His gratitude is every bit as intense as the passion he has for his craft. Straightening, he stretches, rubs the knot between his shoulders. When he turns around she is there.

Since I was at the house, the National Trust has been restoring it, getting it ready for visitors. Al being well, it will open to the public in 2013. If you get a chance, go.

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