Pan-Ross

Pan Ross Collage
Cynthia Rogerson is a Californian, settled in the Dingwall area since 1982.
Her first novel UPSTAIRS IN THE TENT was published by Headline Hoddar in August 2001. She teaches creative writing in secondary schools, in adult education classes, and to special needs groups. She also writes manuscript assessment reports.

Highland Culture

Christopher's Room
    
The only way I can explain it is with a cliche. Nature abhors a vacuum. Well of course. True voids exist a millisecond before atoms of one kind or another blow in. Even when I delete single words on this word processor, every single other character automatically shuffles itself to fill in the gap.

What's not so obvious is why I am the only one with access to the room. I am not a young child or a sensitive dog or cat. Nor would I fit into any category of individuals with psychic powers. I am a 46 year old agnostic librarian, divorced, with two budgies, and a tendency to read too much fiction. I have friends, but none close; I lost the habit during my marriage and now I lack the energy. I eat well and with pleasure, I take daily walks round the park, my habits are regular and wholesome. I have never been drawn to frightening movies or supernatural stories. I have never given ghosts, for instance, a serious thought.

But then I do not believe Christopher is a ghost. That he thought I was the ghost is clear, but I am equally certain I am not a ghost. That this is my first and only existence in time. I am here and I am alive and solid. How could I be typing out these words with my fingers, if I wasn't? I will finish this account, make numerous copies and send them out to people who claim to study subjects relevant to the room. Being a librarian is immensely helpful in finding these addresses. My computer' p-p-p- makes me almost omniscient in the world of written words.

I am sitting in the library right now as I am no longer sure of the permanency of my home. The doors are locked here and I have peace. Not absolute quiet, because I am surrounded by hundreds of thousands of books, and all those voices can never be utterly quiet. Written words do not lie obediently on the dry page; sterile existences cannot be the fate of such earnest and
imaginative efforts. All books murmur. Very old books that no one reads anymore, or books that were never popular in the first place, these have an especially plaintive tone and can make me feel such guilt and sorrow. When one such book shouted to me, I had to put my work down and retrieve it from the masses. It was a small brown book called "Poems From the Forces" written by young soldiers from World War II trenches. Heartfelt poems are words intertwined with souls. They cry out to be taken into another mind, to be heard in other ears.

I read them when I can, I take home mountains of them, but I never satisfy them all. I try, but I am not a big enough receptacle to contain all the unread words.

So here I am, in my home of bound words, and I have belonged here, it is my place. I will try to explain, as clearly as possible, Christopher and the room across the hall. Then I will go home to bed, because home as the library is to me, it does not contain this piece of furniture. I have brought provisions with me tonight, two cheese sandwiches and a flask of coffee, so
hunger will not drive me away before time.

I live on the top floor of a modern block of flats. It was built five years ago and I chose it for its complete lack of character and atmosphere. I had had enough of old houses. I was raised in an ancient freezing cottage and spent the fifteen years of my silly marriage in an even older house in town, with stones in the walls that had been laid during the reign of King Charles. It was drafty, damp, and full of the sense of layered lives, a constant reminder of my own mortality.

In an old house, you cannot fail to notice when you move about a kitchen, for instance from the sink to the stove, that you are treading in the exact footsteps of a multitude of ghostly women. I don't mean ghosts in the sense that they are still there, but that they have left something, an echo, a quickly moving shadow, that mirrors your own activities. Once, as I was taking a basket of wet washing out to the back to hang it up, this sensation of doing it, not for the thousandth time, but for the millionth time, was so overpowering I could not do it. It was too exhausting to even contemplate. I put the basket on the step and just sat the rest of the afternoon, dulled by the fatigue of overwhelming boredom.

So after I left Charlie, I bought this new flat on the top floor. I have to say I feel quite light and energetic, moving through uncluttered air and making my own footsteps echo for some future woman. I am aware that no space in a large city is free of occupation; before this block was built, they had to tear down twelve dilapidated tenements that remembered the plague and men on horseback wielding swords. But they were only four stories high and I am fifteen stories high. I live in air never before occupied by humans.

All of which left me completely unprepared for Christopher.

This flat is bigger than my needs. After sharing a house my entire life, I felt greedy for space that was mine and mine alone. When I moved in, I could feel myself gradually unfurl till I filled every corner and crevice. I was everywhere and could completely relax. But of course no single person, who does not have a multitude of friends, uses three bedrooms. One is my bedroom, one is full of things I do not care to look upon, but am attached to. And one bedroom I have painted white, not insipid magnolia, but pure white, and I keep it clean and there is nothing in it. I liked to visit it. I found it very restful. Nobody and nothing to remind me

The world can be a very draining place. We build a barrier to protect us from being used up. We don't even know it's there. It's a skin. My empty white room let me take that layer off for a awhile. I know it's a luxury, but it's what I had instead of a family. Some people unwind in front of the box with a beer and the sound of squabbling over crisps. I had my white room.

Till about two months ago. I remember I'd taken Hugh Walpole to bed. My current read, an old red cloth covered book called Rogue Herries, which was richly enjoying being read by me. It was one of those excellent rare books that have somehow slipped through the net of public consciousness, and its artfully arranged words float free but lonely. I could feel its gladness as I pick it up. When I began to feel that pleasant aching in my bones, as if my muscles were already asleep and away somewhere, I closed my book and turned out the light.

The next thing I knew, my room was flooded with light and there was a tall man staring at me. His feet were not touching the floor.

I was silenced by fear. A big piece of scream was clogged in my throat, which spasmed helplessly and defied my order to open and release it.

Suddenly there was a heart stopping scream and it was from him. I jumped, let out a little scream myself finally, and hung on to my sheets as if they were shields. Then he kind of whimpered, turned and ran out of the room. I heard another door slam somewhere near. I lay there, wondering if it was safe to crawl to the sitting room to phone the police.

A man had entered my flat, turned on my light, screamed and run, and this man was still in my flat.

I tried to remember him. His hair had been funny. Like a curly wig. And his clothes, like pyjamas made of some shiny soft material. His eyes, I had to admit, had been terrified.

I suddenly had a clear picture of him crouched in the dark in the white room, breathing the shallow breaths of complete panic.

I got up quietly and phoned the police. I waited on the landing outside, by my neighbours door, ready to raise the alarm should anything else happen. When they arrived, two of them in uniform, I told them I thought the intruder was still in my flat. They told me to stay downstairs while they searched it.  After what seemed hours, but was probably only ten minutes, they fetched me and said they had found nothing.  No sign of entry, no intruder, nothing.

"Maybe you just heard your neighbours coming home a bit rowdy from a party." The subtext being, maybe I'd dreamt or imagined it. Woman living alone with too many books, I could hear him thinking. His eyes glazed over in a kind of chivalrous boredom.

"We've checked all the locks and windows, everything's fine. But phone us back if you hear anything."

I apologized and let them out and slowly locked my four locks. I made a cup of tea, feeling very unreal, as one does after being woken at three in the morning at the best of times. I couldn't quite trust my judgement. Fear, the real paralysing kind, was still too close in my memory. I could not afford to give in to it, living alone as I did. I lay in bed and listened. The refrigerator humming, the electricity meter clicking, a distant siren, a dog very far away yapping.

I was just putting the light out when I realized I had left the sitting room lights on. I got up to turn them off, listening all the while, when suddenly there he was again, hovering about a foot off the floor. In his silly pyjamas, his hair all over the place, his face white and pinched with terror.

He stood in the hall, trembling, and pointed at me.
"There she is. Quick. Arrest her!"

Silently behind him, three men came into focus, exactly as if I'd adjusted the lens on my camera. From a nothing blur, they emerged sharp and as alive as pyjama man. All dressed in the same dark clothes, looking very butch but at the same time, desperately irritated.

My first reaction was a deep sensation of inevitability. Of course he would reappear because I must be going mad and this was my personal manifestation of madness. A floating persecutor in pyjamas who screams at me. And three henchmen. The fantasy hallucination of all divorced librarians. I had to lean against the wall to stop myself floating away, so weak was my hold on reality. Then the figments spoke.

"Where is she? Look, are you all there mate? I can't see anyone, can you Ian?"
"Can't see a thing, sarge. Just a hall, looks like to me."
"She's standing right there, for christ's sake," said pyjamas, still pointing and staring at me. Then less certainly, "Can't you see her?"
"Look, mister. It's late. You've had your fun and we'll let it go this time. But think twice next time before wasting our time. Alright?"
"I must be ill." Softly. "I'm sorry to have called you out. I don't normally do this. I think something must be wrong with me. I'm so sorry."

I watched as he saw them to the door. Despite everything - my fear and feelings of detachment - I couldn't help but feel a kind of sympathy for this unthreatening man, who had obviously just discovered he was losing his marbles. I could definitely relate. I was also having problems with my vision. I had no peripheral sight, it was like looking down a tunnel at everything. I watched him lock his locks and turn back towards me. I stayed completely still and I don't even think I breathed. He shuffled along and kept his eyes down. Then, without looking up, he said, sadly,
"You can buzz off now, you're only something in my head."
Then he went into the room, my empty white room, and closed the door.

I leaned my full weight against the wall, and slid down it to the floor. I needed to think before I made any moves. I shut my eyes. I couldn't think, my mind was shut down, a mere receptor of sensory information, no cognitive abilities left. I opened my eyes again to find my familiar decor. I looked down the hall to the sitting room and my lamp was still on. I looked the other way, towards the room, and I could almost see the door. But quite clearly, I could see a light shining from the top of the door.

Having given up on thinking, I simply acted. I threw myself towards the door, testing my boundaries as it were. Just how mad was I. If I could invent people then maybe I could invent rooms that contained things, even though they'd been emptied.

The door opened easily and I immediately tripped over an eighteen inch step and sprawled into the room.
 "God damnit." I don't normally swear, but my shins were bruised painfully, and normality seemed to be out the window anyway. I felt quite loose and fatalistic inside. If this was
insanity, then I felt prepared to meet it face on.

But what enemy was this, no challenge at all. He was curled up in the corner, his face inadequately covered with his hands like a little kid, only barely suppressing screams again.

"Oh shit, this is really it now," he was muttering away to himself. I thought it figured that my alter ego would also swear in times of stress. Thinking I had created him gave me a
certain sense of power, and I stood up and limped over to him. Around me, the walls of the room were no longer white and square, but pink and rectangular. I ignored them. Too many fish to fry.

"Excuse me, but can you tell me what's going on?"
He just whimpered.
"I said excuse me. But can you please stop that for a minute and look at me."

I thought that sounded the right tone, authoritative but polite. He lifted his face up and for the first time, I thought he wan't too bad looking, for a wimp. Intelligent around the eyes and mouth. He seemed to gather hold of himself and his voice when he spoke was wary but clear.

"What do you want?"
"Me? I just want to know what's going on. Who are you and what are you doing in my flat. Also, why has this floor been raised? Those are my main questions. Oh yeah, and why does your hair look like a wig?"

Figment or not, it seemed best to proceed as if we were strangers.
He didn't answer at once, but seemed to shake off some of his depression and intelligent curiosity flashed over his features.

"My name is Christopher McKenzie."
"Is it. Well my name is Elizabeth. Elizabeth Murphy and this is an empty room in my flat . So what's going on."'
"I'm very sorry to tell you this Elizabeth Murphy, but this is my flat, I've lived here four years, and I've never raised the floor."
"And the wig?" If we were going to be absurd, might as well play it to the hilt.
He unpeeled it off to reveal a perfectly pink bald head. What a vulnerable baby he looked.
"Yechh, put it back on please. That's better."
"That's what she said too, but it didn't make any difference in the long run."
"What are you talking about?"
"My wife, Shirley. She ran off with her evening class teacher."
"What was he teaching?"

And so on. That was the kind of silly talk we had on the first night. We had both relaxed, as if we were both in our separate dreams and it hardly mattered what we said or did. Then a distant ringing made him leap up.
"Jesus, what's that?"
"It's my alarm clock. I've got to go. To work. I'd better go now."

I backed away from him reluctantly, for there had been something cosy about the space around us. I carefully stepped down the step to go through the door. The sound of my alarm was as strange to me as it was to him, but I pretended it wasn't, and went through the motions of normality. I fully expected to enter another alien universe, anything but my mundane alarm clock and getting ready for work. But as I shut the door, I could feel the ordinariness of morning seep through me. By the time I got to my room, I was not surprised to look back and see the door opening onto a perfectly white empty room.

What followed was a typical day, and I lived it without any problems. I was busy. One of my assistants was off sick and we had two school groups in the afternoon. When I thought of the room it was with detachment. Whatever it was, it felt in my control and I was not afraid. Even if I was cracking up, I seemed perfectly capable of dissembling when I needed to. No one else need be aware of anything.

The next night I looked in all my rooms, including my white one, before going to bed. Everything was as always. I was deep in reading my novel when a thumping noise disturbed me. I put my book down and went directly to the room. Again, there was a light showing at the top. This time I knocked. Firmly.
The noise stopped.
"Who is it?"
"It's me. Elizabeth."

The door opened and there was Christopher without his wig. He didn't look as awful this time, and I told him so.
"Leave it off, who cares. Shirley's gone now anyway, right? Do what you want."
"I am. Too hot with it on. Would you like to come in and have a cup of tea?"

It was strange to be welcomed into a room in my own house, especially a nonexistent room, but I accepted and stepped up. Readers have few problems making leaps.       He settled me in an armchair and went to fetch two cups of tea. It tasted different from mine, but very nice.   I asked him what the noise had been - it was his radio - and asked him to keep it down in future as it disturbed my reading.

"Leave off, it's my flat, my music. For that matter, could you not use your shower so early. It wakes me up."
I was startled by his new assertiveness, but when I looked at him he was smiling in that sheepish way I would come to associate with him. An expression that partially belied the
harshness of his words. A sort of humble dignity.

I stayed rather a long time that second night. It was peaceful. Somehow his presence never felt intrusive, and yet was warmly all encompassing. He was comfortable with quiet, a quality non existent in my chatterbox ex husband. There were a lot of notebooks piled on a table he obviously used for desk, and I asked if he was a teacher or student.
"No, those are just scribblings."
"Oh, like journals."
"No, more like stories and poems. Also half a novel."
"You shouldn't be embarrassed." He'd blushed, a give away condition I share.
"Well it is a little embarrassing."
"Why?"
"Because now you're going ask if I have been published, so you can say to yourself he is a writer, not just a scribbler. But I haven't been published, so I am not a writer."

Now I blushed, because that had been my line of thought. To alleviate any further humiliation, I immediately asked to have a look at some of them. I begged.
He shrugged and gestured a help yourself towards them, as if they weren't his heart and soul bared, then picked up a magazine.
I began with the top book, prepared to find the worst and also prepared to pretend it was the best. My protectiveness towards the written unread word had been honed for years. And this is what I found:

A twelve line poem about the moon, the stars and the sun which somehow, without cliches, managed to convey both irony and regret.
A five page story which contained three victorian ladies standing by elaborately laid tables in the snow.
A novel that began "After a hard coldness, a clear warm suffusing of soil, stone and flesh."

"Christopher," I said, and waited till I had his full attention.
"What?' He had the guarded look of an unpublished writer.
 What could I say that he would not think patronizing? I loved his stuff, but had to tone my response down in case he didn't believe me.
"It's ok, You know. Really. I like it."
"Course it's ok. It's brilliant. It's just not any editor's cup of tea."
So I'd misjudged his vulnerability.'
"You've tried then."
"A few times. I'll keep trying, when I'm in the mood."
"Sorry."
"Look, it doesn't matter. I enjoy doing it. No, maybe that's not the right word. I just do it."

I thought of my unread books in the library, all the lonely voices murmuring; all those philosophers, wondering if a tree felled in an empty wood makes a noise. Do acts of creation ache to be witnessed and lodged in hearts? I don't know. Existence is a shadowy thing in a vacuum. I did what I could, as usual, and began reading his stories right away.

We had a little conversation but strangely we never touched on the obvious subjects again, like how did it happen we could see each other but no one else could. Perhaps our intimacy was enhanced by the mystery. Certainly not quite believing in the other's existence helped us lose our inhibitions.

We inhabited a deserted planet, unconnected to everything but ourselves, for weeks and weeks. He wrote, I read. Sometimes I read to him from some of my favourite books and once he read me some wonderful passages by an author I had not heard of. I made a note of it to later order copies for the library, but couldn't find it on the computer the following day. I wrote a letter inquiring about this omission.

I was quite convinced I had an new type of delusionary madness, but since it didn't interfere with my life, I decided I could keep my little secret and if they did bundle me off one day to the funny farm, I could simply take Christopher with me. I was sure I could survive anything, as long as I had him. 'My' white room and the peace it gave me had been replaced to overflowing.

Until last night. There was a soft knock on my bedroom door. I knew who it would be. I called out to come in and as he did, my tunnel vision began again, and it was as though there was two of everything - my flat and his. Even he was semi transparent, so I suggested we go back to his room, where we could both be solid. I took some of my correspondence and a book with me.

"You don't mind, do you, this way I won't have to rush back."
"Not at all. Take everything you need to stay awhile."
He was always the perfect host. I had started taking things to his room and leaving them there. A favourite woolly jumper, too old for work. A few pens and books. The toothbrush was a long time in coming, mostly because I couldn't figure out where his bathroom was. If I left the room to go to my bathroom, there was no guarantee his door would be there on my return. Outside the room the flat was still mine.

So last night, I decided to take the plunge and grabbed my toothbrush. I had to ask him to show me his bathroom. He held my hand and opened a door I had assumed was a fitted cupboard. There it was, very compact and of a style I had never seen before - stainless steel units protruding efficiently from the wall. Ridiculously grateful for this convenience, I smiled and closed the door.

When I returned, he was reading one of my letters.
"Hey, find anything interesting?" Annoyed, but I had reached that stage of courtship where I extended endless credit.
"I don't get it. This envelope says your address is Westeringham, Flat 1555."
"Yeah?"
"It sounds familiar, can't remember why. But it isn't here."
"Of course it is. And outside is Clyde View Ave."
"Elizabeth, I'm sure neither one of us understand all this, I know I don't. But one thing I know for sure is my address. Templeton House, flat 601."
"Oh whatever. Call it what you like." I was not after all, enjoying this game for its relation to reality.
"But you're right, outside is Clyde View Avenue. Come and look."

He went to the blinds and sprang them up. I went and looked. At first it all looked the usual collection of lights and cars. Then I noticed a huge black piece of sky.
"What's that?"
"Connor Towers. You know, across the road. The new development."

A deadly exhaustion swamped me. If it had been a spell, then it was dissolving and the ground under my feet no longer felt substantial. It was over.
"No, Christopher. I'm sure it wasn't there last time I looked."
"Well it's been there all year."
"Look, I think I'd better be getting back to my flat."
I badly needed to cry and wanted to do this alone.'
"Did you forget something? Your book is here."
"No. No, it's just I'm feeling a little tired now."
"I wasn't reading your letter. My eyes just happened to fall on the address."
"No, it's not that. Don't worry, you go to bed."
I started to leave, toothbrush still in hand.
"Hey, I just remembered where I've seen that address."
"Goodnight Christopher." I began the step down to my flat.
"Westeringham. Of course! The fire. Wait a minute."
"What fire?"
"That's why your flat is a little lower than mine. We live in different buildings."
"I'm sure we live in different universes Christopher, unless of course you are entirely my fabrication, or I am yours. Hardly matters now. I am immensely tired. And it's possible my unreal world may need me to go to work in it tomorrow to pay my non existent rent."

He darted across the room and held on to my arm quite deliciously firmly.
"Let me go please."
"Elizabeth. Listen. Westeringham burned down in 1999. Completely gutted. I am not kidding. My building was built after they cleared it all away."
"Please stop talking about the future in the past tense."
"It was a gas fire. There was a huge explosion. Everybody died."
I looked down at his hand holding my arm. It had freckles and a faint birth mark near the elbow. It was very real and suddenly very dear.

So here I am in the library, putting all this down for others to make of it what they will. Tonight I will enter the room for the last time. My bags are packed. Nature truly does abhor a vacuum. With nothing that needed a witness in my white room, nature pulled something from time that did . Christopher.

I hope the librarian who replaces me likes to read.

Cynthia Rogerson

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