THE SECRET ROOM

In my present home we have no attic (just a hot and dirty crawl space under the roof) and only half a basement which is wet or flooded most of the year. The house sits on a massive slab of rock so the water table is uncommonly high. No one really has a dry basement around here.
Anyway, problems with building on bedrock aside, what I really wanted to write about is attics and basements. Aren’t they wonderful!
I grew up with both although the basement was really my father’s domain. He had his own bathroom down there with a shower, and his worktable, tool boxes and the tubing and casks and pungent cakes of yeast he used to make wine. But the attic! Oh the wonder of it! Only half of it was finished. A small room at the top of a short flight of stairs, with a tiny window at one end which looked out onto an overgrown garden, the roof beams slanted and exposed, and then on the other side, the rafters about ten inches apart and a temporary floor made out of insulating board so brittle that your foot went through if you stepped on it, and nothing except the rough underside of the roof tiles.
We called the small room, the box room because we kept boxes in it. Mostly boring things like papers and documents which had made the trip over from England but there were photos too of my mum’s ancestors and relatives. Sepia-tinged portraits of bearded men in waistcoats holding round-brimmed hats and walking canes, and ladies with cinched in waists and bodices and bustles in their skirts, and sleepy children too still and clean in their pinafores and knee britches to be real kids. And there were suitcases full of clothes neither of my parents ever wore but were kept anyway. My sister and I played dress-up with them and we made up stories about the people in the pictures and we spent hours in that dusty room at the top of the house. Eventually the other half of it was finished with a proper floor and the peaked walls and roof roughly plastered and painted white. A normal guest room but for some reason there was a walkway left behind the walls, a space about two feet wide that went all around the room, and we used to sneak in there and hide and whisper and peek between the tiny gaps left between where one piece of sheetrock ended and another began, and we’d pretend that we were the rats inThe Tale of Tom Kitten or the minute people in The Borrowers or Liliputians from Gulliver’s Travels.
The attic seemed like such a magical place and even as pre-teens and teens it was our favorite spot to hang out with our girl-friends recording made-up songs and advertisements into a primitive tape recorder or re-enacting scenes from our best-loved movies (Grease, The Sound of Music, Escape from Witch Mountain). One of my recurring roles was as Danny Zuko from Grease with my hair slicked back with Vaseline and my collar turned up. The boys had the better songs and the better dances and besides our friend Kate always wanted to be Sandy and wear her mother’s poodle skirt.
But this is about the other room in the attic. The one I still dream about. A room that wasn’t even there except in my imagination but it was so clear and so fabulous in my mind that I could not believe it did not exist. It was similar to the box room which probably added to the realism. The same but different. There were the slanted walls, the small window at one end although in my dreams this one was made of leaded glass with rectangular hand-blown panes complete with air bubbles and occlusions and a sheen like spilled gasoline, and it looked out onto woods and rolling pastures and a winding, brilliant river. And the air was always fresh as if it had just rained, and there was a sweet, balmy breeze. And there were boxes and steamer trunks and valises and mahogany wardrobes. And hoop skirts, and pelisses trimmed in swans down, and bowler hats, and sword sticks, and Malacca walking sticks with silver cobra heads, and scrolls, and maps on paper so old it crumbled at the edges, and compasses in brass cases, and clocks with open backs so you could see the gears and pendulums moving, and books with illustrations in bright jewel paints and gold with tissue paper covering the pictures, and exotic leather bindings embossed with swirling patterns and hidden faces, and peacock fans, and stuffed crocodiles, and varnished puffer fish, and wind-up animals that played musical instruments or walked stiff-legged and then fell over sideways, and lead soldiers, and carved chess sets with pieces that looked like faerie queens and goblin kings, and polished chunks of amber with wasps captured inside, and fossilized wood, and giant ammonites, and teeth from the prehistoric megaladon shark as long as a steak knife blade, and bows and arrows with flint heads, and doe skin moccasins and necklaces heavy with bits of bone and brightly colored beads, and cages with sulfur-crested cockatoos. And a whole lot more.
I loved that room and I spent a lot of time inside and outside of dreams trying to find it again.
I think that room is the reason I love to read and to write children’s books. Adults just don’t have rooms like that.
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