A secret cupboard
When I was a child, we had a narrow built-in linen cupboard in the passage of our apartment. Here my mother kept her stamp collection, a copy of the Decamaron and an erotic work by Anais Nin. She had two albums of black-and-white photographs of her past life in Italy. These included a studio-posed picture of her parents on their engagement day; and a photo of herself with a rabbi among the group of children she had taught in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice. The children were dressed in dark uniforms with white collars.
In the cupboard she kept a tin of assorted buttons, a Quality Street tin full of needles, pins and sewing threads, and the small knitting samplers of various stitches that she’d brought from Italy. Here she also stored the letters her mother and others wrote to her, all neatly bundled. The bottom shelf held bottles of red wine, grappa, sherry, port and various liquors. The cupboard had a particular smell to it, derived from the papers and alcohol, which I came to associate with hidden, wonderful things.
At school there was a girl in my class, with whom I desperately wanted to have a close friendship. Seeking to draw her to me, I told her about a “secret cupboard” that we had, and kept embellishing its contents, adding to their mystery and value, until finally she broke the enchantment I was creating and asked whether she could come to see it.
On the Saturday of her visit, we went straight for the cupboard, but when I opened it and saw the contents through her disappointed eyes, I realised that there was nothing of interest to anyone outside of our family.
She reciprocated my invitation by asking me to visit her home, where I was introduced to the messy-busy interior of her creative and possibly eccentric parents. There were no locked cupboards. All the icons of their lives were open to view. Her father was an architect. His studio, with its drawing boards, pencils and piles of plans and papers, was filled with golden, afternoon sunlight.
We swam in her pool, which was slimy and full of frogs and the long tendrils of their eggs. We ran around in an unkempt garden with knee-high grass and the prospect of snakes. Her cook made us sandwiches of thick white bread and tomato jam. He smoked tobacco rolled in newspaper and glanced out at us now and then to see what we were up to. I wanted to be friends with her forever, but nothing developed from those two views into each other’s homes.
This is an extract from a work-in-progress On Writing – An Annotated African Memoir by Patricia Schonstein