THE DARKNESS OF THE MUSIC OF THE NIGHT

When I moved here I thought – well, this is the middle of nowhere, the end of the earth, but at least I’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep.

It was not exactly the area I would have chosen, but it was the nearest I could afford to move to my ailing mother. This week I have been wondering how much longer I will be here. A few days back I was visiting her at home with a lady social worker and Mum airily referred to me as my friend over there. She was never much of a one for verbal flourishes, but could she have meant it in an elliptical, literary sort of way? Or had she, for that moment, forgotten my name and how we were related? These lapses are only brief; another time she will know me, but for how much longer? Not too long I suspect before it doesn’t really matter where I am; I’ll just need to turn up to visit every couple of weeks and remind her I was once her daughter.

When that time does come maybe I will up sticks and go back to where I once belonged; or go somewhere else new, where I have never belonged. Maybe at that point I’ll discover that what’s left of my gypsy spirit has trickled away and I just can’t face all over again packing my life into cardboard boxes; amassing two great lever-arch files of legal paperwork, one labelled Sale and one labelled Purchase; booking cattery places on an industrial scale and being fawned over by two separate sets of estate agents. Oh for a crystal ball and a magic wand.

Well, it certainly is dark here. We did have a street-light. It gave off a faint orange light, most of the time. The lamp-post is still here, right opposite my house, listing drunkenly to port, but the orange light no longer lights up. Opposite my house is where lorries and delivery vans are obliged to reverse, so being reversed into was something of a foregone conclusion for that poor, solitary lamp-post, but that wasn’t what stopped it working. That was the local Council on one of its economy drives. Since we lived in the middle of nowhere they didn’t think we would miss it.

Almost every night the current custodian of the famous, beautiful and psychic Felix (see FELIX BROUGHT ME A MOUSE) stumbles up and down our unmade road in pitch darkness with a torch in search of him. We have all memorised the potholes and it is possible to avoid them, even in the dark, but you have to concentrate. Firstly Neighbour whistles that anxious, repetitive cat-summoning whistle that cats automatically disregard, then he starts with the calling:

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

Felix quite often lurks in my back garden but I refuse to reveal his secrets. Felix and I have a bond.

I know what’s going to happen next. After ten minutes or so the whistling and calling resumes in my back garden. I am not supposed to notice. I am assumed to be asleep.

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

This does rather annoy me. How come I am the only person in the street whose back garden can be entered by anyone who pleases? Just like I was the only person who could be left sitting around in a waiting room at the eye hospital with both eyes full of atropine drops, unable to read a magazine or even see the time on the clock without help, until the drops wore off and had to be put in again because a lot of more important people came in.

They have a different concept of privacy round here. It’s a cultural difference. At one point I found several children clustered round my side door, laboriously reading aloud a note I had taped to it for the delivery man. My next door neighbour at that time was an Irish lady with a red jumper. She’d never knock, just somehow be outside my side door now and again. I’d pass the side door and either catch her clambering stiffly over the low garden wall that separated our two houses or she’d just be there, silently waiting for me to pass my side door on the inside, catch sight of a scarlet woolly cloud behind the glass and open up. It could have been an hour since I last passed the door.  Had she been there all that time?

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

If the worst comes to the worst Neighbour knocks on my door, wringing his hands in the darkness, distressed, pathetic, imploring, and I have to put on my fluffy slippers and go out into my own rain-soaked garden, with my own torch, in my dressing gown, to search for his cat. Felix, wherever he is, now realises the game is up; Neighbour will almost certainly have disappeared into his own house, a svelte black and white bundle under his arm, long before I get back to my living room, muddy, cross and even less likely to sleep.

Then there are the shift-workers coming home. This tends to be about 2.30 a.m. if they’re on 7 to 2. Their headlights sweep past my window, gravel swishes, rainwater exits deep potholes with a splosh, car radio gets turned off in mid-thump, car door opens, car door is slammed shut. Sometimes they give each other lifts and then there has to be the lengthy goodbye-see-you-tomorrow-all-right-mate conversation.

Then there are the doggy conversations echoing all round the hillside. These have got louder and more frequent since the coming of a giant black dog, Ayesha (Ajska) who was rescued by my next-door neighbour from another, far less kindly, neighbour. Ayesha is actually a lady of Polish origins; she has a Polish passport, even. She also has the deepest, loudest bark imaginable and is an early riser. Four o’clock in the morning:

Wooooooof!!! (It’s ME!!!)

At once a doggy dawn chorus starts up, answering her, answering one another:

Here I am! Me too!! Are you there? No, I’m here! Who are you? Are you her? No, I’m me! Who’s me? Me! You know me! Me down here. You’re down there? I’m up here! He’s over there!

Occasionally there is a party and dance music will drift up to me from open windows. That isn’t too bad – it’s free music after all, and sometimes I sing along. It’s the way the partygoers tend to get drunker and drunker and louder and louder that’s the problem. Then come the arguments and then the bottle-throwing. Everything seems to echo round here. Thunderstorms; parties; Saturday night Karaoke in the social club down the road; police car sirens; ambulance sirens; after-pub staggering home conversations, the boys cajoling, the girls shrieking in response. Once in a terrible while a girl will scream and not stop screaming. Occasionally gangs of caravan site people bump into gangs of locals on the beach and stab one other. Drowning would be a quieter, and the sea is conveniently close, but knives seem to be favourite. Shortly thereafter, the sirens. But that’s only on the worst nights.

There are pleasanter noises. Bats for instance: strictly speaking you don’t hear bats, their cries being ultrasonic, but you do kind of sense them drawing near. Somewhere around nine or nine-thirty, that’s their time. You’ll see them if you are patient: watch for a bird not moving like a bird, something black and winged that dips and swoops, abruptly changing direction. At around the same time the hedgehog is on the move. On moonlit nights, look for a patch of lawn appearing to move; a small, round, scuttling segment of darkness. At around midnight he’ll come closer in search of food. I leave a bowl of cat food out for him; sometimes Felix nabs it first but if there’s any left the hotchi-pig has it. And I always know which one of them it was. Cats will pick from the bowl, and always leave some; hedgehogs stand in the bowl, tip it up, empty it out and clatter it around with their little pointy snouts; and in the morning there is nothing left.

I once went out to change the bowl of cat food. In the darkness, I groped around for the bowl in its usual place and found the hedgehog instead. Hedgehog hearing isn’t good; my hand accidentally brushed the top of his spines. Instantly, a great clattering and scrabbling as he jumped forward and rolled himself into a ball. Sorry, I whispered, putting the new food down and creeping indoors to bed.

IN OUR STRONGROOMS FOR SAFE KEEPING

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.