My father was a Master mason. I never met the man but I spent the first decade of my life inside the house he built and so I feel that I know him. The lathes of the attic communicated with me as much through their shape (he was exacting when he laid out the angles of the eaves) as much as did the notations he left in pencil on the undersides of the unfinished, unpainted struts which supported the ceiling. I inherited the crabbed handwriting that he used to mark out his measurements, though I am far more articulate than he ever was in artistry, architecture, or print.
Although he was skilled with the trowel and could lay travertine so tightly that its texture was more like marble than limestone, he was more renowned for the beauty of his person that the skill of his hands. He won my mother with his looks and he left her a sad ghost of the gay girl he married, haunting the house that he built on Rue Rogue.
I learned about him through the letters he left to my mother, retained by her in memory of their apparently passionate courtship. They were bound by a bright blue ribbon, an appropriate memento of an innocent girl. One envelope contained a bright lock of hair that must have been his, since mother’s was as dark as a sewer rat’s. The letters were naïve, almost innocently crude. They were full of phrases about the things that he wished that he could do to her body and peppered with prayers for many years of marital bliss. They were written in the kind of cheap ink that an uneducated man would favour. He did not expect them to last, or be held on to. The sepia was grainy and badly mixed, this combined with his handwriting in such a way that it seemed as though his words were written out by a sexually precocious child with a fondness for experimenting with match-sticks. As I said, my handwriting is no better, but at least the ink I use is superior.
I always thought that writing was a bit like the telepathy those spiritualists in the paper are always talking about. It makes sense, if you think about it; one mind communicates to another through a series of black blotches which transmit his thoughts directly into another’s brain. You, reading this, whoever you are, can hear my voice (a sweet, trained tenor) without ever having to worry about viewing the flesh that produces it. This is lucky, for you: all my gifts are internal.
In any case, my current habitations remind me of my childhood home. These damp vaults are rather like the basement where my mother moved my crib once the neighbours complained that my cries disrupted their business. The house my father built was tall and narrow, the walls of dark grey granite, polished to the high shine of gravestones. He meant his home to be a living monument to his skill and a permanent advertisement for his services.
The roof was tiled with slabs of greenish slate, and the windows were small and imperfectly glassed. When I was older, I replaced them as a gift for my mother. I spent a whole afternoon removing the warped and watery panes, replacing them with sheets that I poured myself. I learned the art of glazing, sneaking every night to the factory down the street. When the time came that I had spent enough hours watching the midnight production shift pouring the sheets of reddish molten sand into the mould, I tried my hand at it myself. I waited until the Michaelmas holiday and stole the machinery (I provided my own materials, lugging bags of silicone that I’d found in the cellars among the unopened bottles of wine and the skeletons of rodents). I love the look of glass as it is being poured. It is honest, then, about itself. Cooled, it only seems a solid. It never fully hardens. Over centuries, window glass will melt.
There is no such thing as stasis.
In any case, my mother loved the finished product; windows that let the light in without warping what she saw on the street. She was so thrilled she squeezed my upper arm through the thick fabric of my jacket. I swear, she almost hugged me. In any case, for once she did not shudder at my smell or flinch away from the feel of my oddly corpselike body.
The houses on either side of ours were dedicated, in their own way, to music. Dancing girls and cabaret, absinthe and cheap champagne that the likes of those poets who styles themselves ‘Romantic’ drank themselves to death in. My widowed mother hired men to refurbish the attic into a series of room that she furnished with sticks she bought from the brothels the governor closed in the raids the previous summer. She did not sleep on them and rarely bothered to change the sheets, so she rarely had to worry about bedbugs. She made a good living, I must say, giving the drunks who seethed from her neighbour in the early morning a bed off of the streets.
For my fifth birthday she made me my first (and for a long time only) birthday present; a mask cut from a length of chamois that she bought from a Glover. It was more like a loose sack with holes cut for eyes than a proper garment but it did its job well. The sight of me ceased bothering her. As I grew older, she let me come up more frequently-although once she had a steady stream of lodgers I never had the run of the attic again- my father’s writing was long since buried behind plaster. I wore the mask without complaint- it was far from uncomfortable and it had a nice smell, as did the sachets of mint and violet that she sewed into my clothing. If she almost never touched me, she did love me as best as she was able, being young and easily frightened.
After a few years of proving my capacity with panes of glass and basic home repairs, she hired a blind tutor to teach me letters, music, mathematics. He would come and sit for hours in my basement room, complaining of the effect of the chill on his bones and making me memorize many disparate packets of learning. When I surpassed his ability to teach, as I soon did, I had many books close at hand and I turned to them to expand my knowledge. I read everything from Archimedes to Fairy Stories; as I recall, I had a special affection for La Belle et la Bête. My mother bought me as many books as she could afford, often used, through mail-order. She resold them after I had squeezed them of their nutrients, though I demanded permission to keep the Fairy Tales. They were a balm to me, with their stories of transformation. They provided me with a sharp and dangerous hope.
I could read as much as I liked, so long as I remained hidden. It would not have done for me to frighten the lodgers. I was happy, very happy, so long as I had enough books and candles. I do not believe that anyone but mother and the old tutor knew that I was still alive. The neighbours probably believed that I died in infancy. It certainly would have been safer for Mother to spread that rumour, given the prevalence of local superstition and a widespread belief in ‘changelings’.
When I turned thirteen, she sent me to school.