THAT’S what we put in our letters. It’s a standard phrase. ‘Your documents will be held in our strongrooms for safe keeping.’ ‘Our strongrooms’ conjures up – as of course it is meant to – images of metal vaults, great clanging doors, time-locks, electronic keypads, uniformed security guards and maybe an alsatian or two. The reality is rather different. Your documents are held in our cellars or in one of three old sheds whose roofs are corrugated iron, whose walls are a haven for spiders and whose floors are thickly carpeted with broken elastic bands. In winter the sheds are silent and smell of dust. In summer the heat of midday draws out the smell of perished rubber and there is a faint scrabbling of birds, insects or mice.
There’s another misleading phrase. Between ourselves we refer to files as ‘gone away’. For most other firms ‘gone away’ actually means gone away. It means the file has been despatched to some distant storage facility and will be sent for if required. But for us a ‘gone away’ file is actually still in our strongrooms, ie our cellars or sheds. Secretaries from rival firms, most of whom have worked for us at some time or other in the past, as we in turn have worked for them, are sympathetic. ‘Still having to go downstairs?’
We are not exactly deceiving you when we write ‘in our strongrooms’. Your documents are safe. The files, which appear to be haphazardly stacked on wooden shelving around the walls of the ten or so separate, low-ceilinged rooms which constitute our cellars, are actually fairly systematically arranged, and indeed it is the sole job of a succession of grumpy old gentlemen to maintain them. The covers of the files may be torn, their labels faded; they may be held together only by those ubiquitous elastic bands, but the cellars are dry, and locked and bolted at night-time. And no burglar in his right mind would venture down those uneven stone steps to enter that musty subterranean darkness.
The little rooms in our cellars have different purposes. They are like a maze – one room leading off from another. It takes months to learn your way around them, for they represent several different, interrelated filing systems – a system for filing your ‘dead’ files, another for filing your will, and yet another for filing your probate when the times come for you to be painlessly translated – from the kind of client who is to be invoiced at regular intervals into the kind of client whose executors or distant descendants are to be invoiced in your stead.
There are amongst the probates boxes and chests of various shapes and sizes. They are never opened but are said to contain belongings – the ledgers of some long-defunct business, maybe, or a deer’s head complete with antlers; a collection of black hats and umbrellas – stored with us by long-since translated clients and never reclaimed. Two rooms are devoted to Scrip. Scrip is the really valuable stuff. It is your share certificates or the deeds and documents relating to your houses, your lands, your farms, your business partnerships. Each system has its own set of filing boxes or rotating files or ancient metal filing cabinets, where you will be listed alphabetically. Probably.
All of the rooms are in darkness if you happen to be the first one down there in the morning. All of them have light switches on the inside so that you have to feel around for them whilst who knows what hairy hand might be feeling around for your hand. But each of us has a least favourite room. Mine is the air-raid shelter – a long, blind tunnel so narrowed by the files stacked from floor to ceiling on either side that there is scarcely room to turn. The shelter is angled in the middle so that from the door you can’t see the far end. And at the far end you can’t see the door. The files are arranged in number order down the left hand wall to the blind white wall at the end, and then up the right-hand wall, so unless you are very lucky the one you need is going to be down at the blind end. It seems to take forever to get to the end, and even longer to get back to the door. The door itself bristles with locks and bolts, and the various keys hang on numbered hooks outside the door so that at any time someone with a grudge could come along and lock you in. It is not a good place to be. Cold, even in the middle of summer. And it has a strange smell, though what of, exactly, is hard to say. And it is inhabited. Something, or maybe more than one something, resides in that tunnel.
It is the secretaries’ job to come down here and find things, but occasionally one of the Partners can also be found, dusty and intent, perched at the top of a set of wooden steps, ‘perusing’. When I first joined the firm all the Partners seemed so weird, so solemn, beaky and birdlike, that I had this fantasy. Down in the cellar I would one day discover, hidden behind a door perhaps or in one of the darkest and least accessible rooms, a row of hooks, each strong enough to take the weight of a skinny human being. It was there, at the end of each working day, that the Partners would suspended themselves, upside-down, folding away their metaphorical wings to await the dawn when they would flitter upstairs to their offices and begin all over again.
Occasionally, also, one bumps into the handyman, who was once a roadie for a famous guitarist. He mostly confines himself to his headquarters in Shed 3 where the oldest and least sought-after files are kept. Here there is a paint-splattered bench and an old chair with the stuffing hanging out. Here, amongst miscellaneous chisels and tubes of glue, he can drink his soup-in-a-cup, read the magazines his wife won’t let him have at home, smoke the occasional unusual cigarette and generally be at peace with the world.
Lastly there is the ghost – the usual white lady, though some say grey – who walks the cellars at ten past two every day. They say even if you don’t see her you can sometimes hear her footsteps tripping along behind you. I have never seen her and I don’t want to. I simply never go down there between lunch at least three, in case she’s running late.
I have often pondered in that semi-intellectual, semi-philosophical kind of way that you do over your afternoon tea, what the cellars actually signify. Having read some Jung I seem to recall that in dreams cellars and basements represent the subconscious, those things about ourselves that we would rather not know. And the cellars may be the equivalent of a subconscious mind for our firm. Here is kept the very raw material of our craft – the stuff we deal in but never can admit we deal in – time and death. Over time, our clients change. They arrange their business affairs, divorce one another or take one another to court for a variety of sins and omissions and we are careful not to remind them – or ourselves, of course – of the triviality and passingness of such matters in the larger scale of things. They make their wills, they are translated, years pass, centuries pass, but their paperwork – all that remains of their lives – remains with us. In our strongrooms for safe-keeping.
Partners succeed one another too, but only very slowly, and previous Partners are referred to sotto voce, as if they might overhear. They stretch back over the years – thin men, rotund men, men in black suits, in wing-collars, in wigs; eccentric men, garrulous men, deadly serious men, men of business, men who were once ‘somebody’ in this most provincial of provincial towns.
The retired but untranslated ones occasionally telephone from their cottages in the country to ask how their shares are doing, or to complain about the wastage of paper since we have been using these new-fangled computers, or to demand that next time we write to them we sent them a stamped, addressed envelope for their reply, or simply to ask the address of Battersea Dogs’ Home. The translated ones stare down at us from their portraits on the wall or from gilt-lettered name boards; they leap out at us as the signatories of old documents, as Executors and Trustees, with all their middle names listed and learned by heart by secretary after secretary. We can never forget them. They are stored – after a fashion – just as you are stored – in our strongrooms for safe keeping.