The room separating the sitting room from the kitchen known as the inbetween room was like a no-man’s land that led into both rooms without unifying them. Neither positive or negative nor was it liminal, that state of being in transition, unless liminal went nowhere like it did. When occupied, as it was for years by students learning the English language, the children scuttled around it as if it didn’t exist. But it did, as if always in the centre where the heart of them should have been.
The fact that Mya and Ivan were moving to the opposite ends of the earth wasn’t a figure of speech. He really was going to Japan. She to Spain. No adventure any more on a board game or a ‘theatrical’ production of their children’s behind curtains safe in a small room. Mya glanced down at the beiges, browns and blues of the Victorian tiles in the hallway wondering how she’d take her leave of this house after two decades - then looked right into the room inbetween. A bit of this and a bit of that, its purposes though manifold, had never quite helped establish its identity.
A Denning piano polished by John Brinsmead and Sons standing one wall, its shiny surface scalded by circles from the bottom of burning hot mugs, had seen better days in starchy Stamford, but at least here it had been used. A pianist from Madness had taught Mya’s son jazz on it. Nieces playing tentatively at huge family gatherings had sung carols to it, rising and raucous, as many times as there were Christmases and Easters, the orange flames of the coal fire in the next room roaring through the golden-baubled, tinselled tree, or chocolate eggs hidden inside beside its steel strings. Between it and a huge oak chest of drawers that also lined the wall was a French window. Steps for servants entering via a separate side entrance, through a garden gate and back passageway, had once led to it. Mya tried to remember why had they’d taken the steps away. Security was it? She couldn’t recall.
For really she’d wanted this room to be The Library, its four walls stacked with books to the ceiling. But it only ever housed some of her books and instead of becoming The Reading Room became her income, people from Germany, France, Switzerland, Spain, Israel, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Uganda, Rwanda, Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine or Russia paying to stay in it. That meant she could stay at home, be mother to her four children and manage the mortgage.
Though she never kept a visitor’s book they had fine times with their friends from all over the world, sharing stories, food and drink. ‘A right-old-ribald hostel-ry’, a Russian from Irkutsk who’d hunted half naked in the snow around Lake Baikal, introduced as an alliterated tongue twister after they’d swigged back vodka, the softest, purest spirit made from this oldest, deepest and clearest of lakes. The inbetween room had been a palace for a Tutsi, its ensuite bathroom too cold for an Israeli, a place of extended cleaning for a Japanese who washed before taking a bath. Or again a place of agonising pain for a Swiss girl who writhed with stomach cramps on its floor and had to be whisked off to casuality at three in the morning only to be told she was homesick.
The raised and ship-like city-room that looked out on to a bosky green horizon played host to an endless stream of passengers, guitar strummers and piano players, year in year out, and though names and addresses were only kept for a little, the end result would always have been the same. A pleasant blurr of faces of men and women, young and old and black and white sitting round a table famous for its tasty cuisines. Chick-pea and chorizo couscous, cod kedgeree, nut roast, spaghetti carbonara, béchamels and bouillons. Mouths watered. A catholic Argentian who crossed himself before eating wasn’t laughing when he said as he wolfed down pork and apple sausages with sautéed potatoes, these meals were a sacrament for all.
The walls of the house burst with a continual stream of uncomplicated joys. The family’s non-stop lives a busy breeze. Around the spare room but never within it two full-fleshed baby boys and two girls had emerged into olive skinned toddlers splashing in the leafy-shadowed pool in the garden; into primary school children dressing at Halloween in black velvets, candle-flames burning out of pithy orange pumpkins. Then blossomed into willowy teenagers who sicked up on the carpet, smoked meat on garden fires and ‘slept over’.
The dead space that stopped the flow from kitchen to sitting room had always been half-forgotten like the chest of drawers in whose bottom drawer the cat gave birth to kittens.
But now the cat was dead, its ashes scattered on the earth at the bottom of the garden.
What’d happened to the centre where the heart of them - for they had opened their hearts - should have been? Had the inbetween room got too big? Had the inchoate space held them apart? Did students pass through without writing their names because there was no inbetween? Or had she, Mya, destroyed it, waiting in vain for the swelling vacuum caused by the vacation of babies from her body open to invasion - to be filled by a non-existent something else? Or for the time when Ivan or her work would pay better, when they’d not need to let a room, and it would be Their Library?
Whatever it was she’d been waiting for, there was no time now. They were leaving. Not as couples whose children have grown up and left, but as two people separating to go to different worlds, though too much or too little of the world had inhabited their spare room anyway.
What never happens doesn’t always matter Mya decided turning away from the room. When all we’ve built with bricks and mortar, wood or metal, gets destroyed by earthquake, flood and fire, we don’t stop building. We don’t flinch but stir when the sun’s moving beam changes the scene before us: a flank wall to a golden bar, a tree to flames, its shadow stretched, its leaves transparent.
There’s a point in the aftermath when we’re glad to find a transitory thing not lost but changed.
Ivan had given her a huge balloon with a thick rubber skin. A going away Easter present now the piano no longer hid Easter eggs. ‘Go on’ he’d said ‘blow it up’, but she hadn’t the breath, so the children took turns in huffing and puffing and when it was huge they saw the world imprinted on it with markings half rubbed away. Mya had that sinking feeling that although Ivan was pleased to be seen giving her the world, really he was trying to take it away. So when everyone had finished politely admiring it she put the balloon in the inbetween room and waited for people to move on. She could unwind its knot and let it shrivel. But that would take too long. As a different way of ‘blowing it up’ she could put a pin in it. Into the spare room’s world.