Living in a large house with two women, no matter how long our friendship, I was sensitive in avoiding any activity that smacked of the paternalistic. Hence I never sat directly opposite the fire but always to one side, next to the coal bucket. Neither of my companions could then think, even in their most uneasy moments, I was regarding them as decorative adjuncts, bookends to my totemic presence. Symmetry might lead, I argued, to a more monumental preoccupation with Self. Behold the Sultan of Swat.
Hence it was this way that I unquestioningly accepted as part of our furniture in the living room, a five panel screen intended to suppress draughts from the door that led down the scullery corridor. On hot afternoons I could detect the smell of heated green baize, and it was not unpleasant. A previous owner had decorated the surfaces with printed scraps, hanks of wool, brass headed drawing pins and a travelling legend across the top of all five panels in cod Morris letterforms, “ Make sure… haste… home….. travail…..loving long… Harpist.”
I had always speculated what was on the back of the screen but the very act of opening the door prevented access and I can’t say my need to know had been at all tenacious.
It was the last day of the Easter holiday and while I read from books around me in a desultory way, the others drew and sharpened pencils, cut cards and rattled matches. From somebody’s room the music of a harp rose and fell.
It had gone eleven. The fire guttered. Going through my pockets I saw my bus pass had expired. A key was detached from the ring. A cashew nut stuck to my finger. The mantlepiece clock started up and then just as wilfully stopped.
We all looked up, simultaneously. She said she was turning in. I remembered how vivid was her imagination at this time of night. “Do we know what is on the other side of that screen?” I tried for a teasing tone while pointing in a theatrical way.
She looked blankly at me
Again, they looked at each other.
“We have no screen… we have no screen anywhere in the house.”
I stood and remonstrated in a good humoured way. This was surely a room of contrariness. However, seen from my chair, they agreed you could see this glinting dusty five fold screen. From the point of view of their chairs, there was no such article of furniture to be seen. Not even a trick of the light.
Gillespie sat in my chair, and rising, found the screen slowly disappearing the closer she got to it. Frobisher clapped her hands in delight, knowing that no other screen of this impermanence was known to exist anywhere in the world.
Fearing I had initially inadvertently revealed a certain mental frailty, I was heartened that I was the first of us to discover this flux in the permanence of solid objects in the House.
“Well, that’s extremely odd..
It was too late to extend our researches further. Plenty of time at the weekend, we agreed.
There’s a thing. My spirits rose.