In a tiny corner at the back of my mind, I knew that someday, someone would get the wrong idea. The prospect of this misunderstanding seemed so far into the future that I dismissed it even though I knew it would come.
I need time to myself — away.
Away from everyone and everything.
Living in a crowded city makes that almost laughable, but I found a way.
Our building is old — mid-1930s. Which means that the windows open (the ones that aren’t painted shut) and they are huge — almost door-sized huge.
Some paranoid soul, probably a previous owner frightened of being sued, nailed all the windows shut — but he missed one, perhaps because it is in a cupboard on our floor. I doubt that it has always been a cupboard. When the building was new, it would have been a half-width version of all the other double-hung windows, an elegant full stop to the symmetry that ran along the west wall.
For many decades it has cast daylight on brooms and cardboard boxes, coats and hats and probably bicycles.
I discovered the window’s ability one summers night after putting the children to bed.
I knew how it was supposed to work because my father worked on the restoration of old buildings. Invisible cords run through squeaky pullies pulled by heavy counterweights enabling the window to stay open at any height along its full travel.
There is a satisfying rumble as the window glides upward and the counterweights bang around inside the casement.
Cold air rushes in and hits you in the face forcing you to breathe in momentarily.
Hitching my dress up, I step uncertainly onto the wide stone ledge.
In this moment, I am the first human to step onto the stonework since the original builders packed up and went home, almost a hundred years ago. Even the window cleaners don’t step on the ledge. They glide past riding shiny metal saddles, flashing their rubber blades and soapy sponges.
This ledge is mine, shared only by the occasional bird.
Being untroubled by heights is a plus in a situation like this.
On windy days I have been worried, but I have steady hands, and I fix my gaze on a point way off in the distance. I can feel the stress draining out of me as I listen to the sounds wafting up from the street far below.
I cannot make out conversations, they are blown away before they reach me, but sirens and horns sometimes get through.
I hear the unmistakable sound of one of those ancient counterweights falling to the bottom of the wall cavity as the equally ancient cord gives way. With only one counterweight doing the work of two, the sash slowly slides down until it hits the sill and a similarly unmistakable sound of the window lock clicking into place greets my ears.
In rapid succession, my mind plays out what is likely to happen next.
I could stand here until someone assumes I’m going to jump and calls the authorities or I could break the window with my less than appropriate shoes. The second option has its dangers — loss of balance, nasty cut from flying glass, dead pedestrian far below.
I step out here so I can clear my mind and reengage with my world.
However this plays out, I believe that I have lost my only means of escape.
I don’t want to explain it all to them.
It’s so peaceful out here.
Illustration: Kenton Nelson
The mirror has been in my family for generations.
It will only reveal its secrets to a woman; and a beautiful one at that.
The men in the family won’t go anywhere near it, and up until today none of the females in my family have been game to uncover it and test its powers.
I understand their reluctance; what if the mirror does not reveal its secrets to you. The mirror is judging your beauty and if you don’t measure up it is a disgrace from which you are unlikely to recover.
No one will give me a straight answer, but family legend has it that the last female member of the family to sit naked in front of the uncovered mirror was my great, great-grandmother.
She was said to be a famous beauty who gave memorable parties and had many scandalous affairs.
Little is recorded of the reactions of my great, great-grandfather, though I’m guessing that he was none-too-pleased.
It’s been so long since anyone has tested the mirror that no one is actually sure what it does. There are plenty of theories but one thing is for sure, my family has been very successful down through the ages, and even the women who have been too frightened to expose themselves to it have benefited from the presence of it in our family.
How it came into our family and where it came from are two facts that are shrouded in mystery.
My favourite? That it was just an ordinary mirror until it was enchanted by a gypsy princess.
The princess was captured by angry townsfolk who were upset about a poor crop yield, or something like that, and blamed it on the gypsies.
I guess people have always needed someone to blame.
One of my ancestors, who was a poor but chivalrous young man, rescued the gypsy princess.
She was a bit bruised and battered but otherwise unhurt.
She took my young ancestor back to her caravan and gave him a good seeing to, which they both rather enjoyed.
She also gave him the formerly standard mirror. The enchantment meant that the mirror would respond favourable to any female member of his family who was beautiful, naked and brave.
I’m quite sure that I’m all three of those things, so I’m giving it a go.
Most of my cousins have tried to talk me out of it, but I’m determined. If I survive the confrontation, I will be forever known as beautiful, and that will do me.
I’ve got goosebumps and not just because I’m excited; it’s cold in here. Maybe I should have waited ’till summer to do this.
I wonder if the mirror talks?
I wonder if I should ask it a few questions?
Through a dense fog, I hear the splintering of timber. Voices. Male voices.
Something about ‘drifting away’.
I’m being wrapped in a blanket, it’s woollen, I can feel it against my skin. It’s warm.
Strong arms guide me toward my bed. More voices. ‘Cover the mirror’.
Why are these people in my room? What do they want?
I feel very light, and I see myself from a distance. A very comfortable distance.
I’m trying to decide. Do I come back or do I drift away? Drift away seems like a nice idea.
I’m not asleep, but I’m not awake either. I’m in that in-between place. It’s nice here.
When I awake, a day and a half have passed.
I’m feeling rested, and it’s quiet because almost everyone is off at work.
I take my time and bathe.
I look at myself in the bathroom mirror; I don’t look any different, but I definitely feel different.
I spend the afternoon quietly sitting in the garden listening to the birds and trying to collect my thoughts.
Eventually, the various family members begin returning to our large family home.
The house is surprisingly quiet as the women prepare the evening meal.
The men bring in wood for the fire and go about the small tasks that men perform to keep a large house like ours running smoothly. There is very little of the usual chatter and what conversation there is, is carried out in hushed tones.
It is not spoken, but everyone is thinking the same thing.
What happened and how will it affect the fortunes of our family?
Even if they did work up the courage to ask, I would not know how to answer.
Quite simply, I don’t remember what happened.
I know that the experience almost cost me my life and I know that I feel at peace.
Something passed between me and the mirror and even though I don’t know what that ‘something’ is I know that it was good. I know that our family will prosper and I know that I will come to be the head of our family, in the fullness of time.
Everyone is looking at me in a different way than they did before, and that is as it should be.
I’m not the same.
I had the courage to face the mirror and that sets me apart.
My self-confidence goes all the way down to the tips of my toes.
I’m the same height, but I feel taller.
My thoughts are now full of answers as well as questions. The future feels bright and full of possibilities.
Sometimes courage is its own reward, and outward beauty has very little to do with it.
I know that my daughters will be vigorous and wise. The experience with the mirror taught me that bravery overcomes all obstacles, but in the end, it is the love that comes from within that holds a family together, no matter how large or small that family might be.
Painting by Alex Alemeny
I don’t have long to wait, which is just as well as I don’t like waiting.
I don’t like waiting, and I don’t like standing in queues, but let’s not get into a list of all the things I don’t like because we will be here all day.
Someone wise once said that you can never know for certain what it is that you want until you have worked out what you don’t want.
Personally, I think there are two types of people in the world; those who know what they want and those who know what they don’t want as well as those who play golf, but they are a different species altogether.
I can see the lights of the train which means that it will be here very soon.
It will take me away to another adventure.
As you can see I travel light for a female.
Only one small steamer trunk, a hat box and an umbrella.
I never go anywhere without my umbrella.
It came in handy during my stay here because this town has the third highest number of rainy days in the country.
I didn’t really mind, I like the rain, and I have my umbrella.
My grandfather gave it to me during a long weekend stay at his country house. He took me aside, paused thoughtfully and said, “Never be without this umbrella”, which to my young ears meant that this umbrella probably had magical powers; Harry Potter style, or was that Mary Poppins? I get the two mixed up.
Anyway, the umbrella has been surprisingly sturdy and has withstood the ravages of time, and although it does not seem to have magical powers, it has come in handy a few times and not just for keeping me dry.
Last November I perforated a mugger when I was working in Sydney.
I tried hard to get out of that job. I don’t feel comfortable in Sydney, but they offered me an obscene amount of money for what turned out to be a few days work, and I really needed that Triumph TR3. It was coming up for auction, and I was a few thousand short.
I always pay cash.
Not only does it get you the best deal it keeps you out of debt; one of the things my grandfather said I should never get into; that, and cars with boys ——- I didn’t listen to that one.
Besides, now I have my own car, so I don’t need boys to drive me around.
The TR3 does not have a top. Not even a rag top. True TR3 owners drive them in any weather and never complain about getting wet. That’s right, we are a bit strange, but we also drive a very cool car.
Unfortunately, I could not bring my car on this trip, but it will be waiting for me when I get home. I rent the garage at the house across the street from my parents. I don’t need a house of my own because I’m always on the road and when I’m in town the company pays for a five-star hotel.
Visiting my car is also a good excuse to visit my folks, so everybody wins.
I guess you might be wondering what is in the trunk and the hat box.
Well, mostly they contain my work stuff. Ordinary travelling containers don’t draw too much attention and the security on trains is much easier than planes, that’s why I don’t fly unless I have to. When I do, the company has equipment waiting for me. I’m very particular about my equipment. You cannot do a good job without the best tools available.
My umbrella falls into this category.
It was made by James Smith and Son in 1880 some fifty years after the company came into existence. It has two secret compartments, and the handle can be easily detached to reveal a dagger. It is also sturdy enough to strike someone and leave an impression, but I would only do that in a dire emergency.
One doesn’t risk damaging such a fine instrument.
Repairs are possible because the company is still trading and is in the hands of the original family.
It’s nice to know that there is some permanence in the world.
My next job is on the other side of the continent, and it will take several days for me to get there, but I don’t mind. I love trains, and I love having time to myself.
I smile when I think that an umbrella and a wily old man could have landed me such an interesting profession.
Paintings by Steve Hanks