The first time Cassie found the room, she thought it was an undiscovered part of her own house. They hadn’t lived there for long and she’d been busy with unpacking and kids and the usual dramas. It was the view from the windows that changed her mind. She didn’t have such a beautiful pink blossomed tree in the backyard, only a struggling veggie patch, an ivy-covered fence that tilted to the west and a glimpse of her neighbour’s much-vaunted pool.
Cassie sat on the window sill and took in the garden. The pink of the blossoms was a deep, gorgeous shade. Not too pastel, not too dark. And the garden itself was the right balance between wild and tended. There seemed to be other sections; Cassie thought she could see the beginnings of a path leading away. But there was no other door to the room she was in, no way out, except back to her own house and her own life.
The room was clean, but empty. Lots of wood, lots of glass, more than enough space. A half hexagon, which, now that she thought about it clearly, couldn’t possibly belong in her own house, a rectangular child of the ’70s. But there was no sign of the building the room was surely part of. Even learning sideways as far as she was able, Cassie couldn’t see another house. Not even a gate or a set of stairs. All she could see was the garden.
It took some time before she was brave enough to leave; she didn’t want to lose what she thought might be her only chance to visit. But she discovered she was able to walk in and out without any trouble, although the door always found a way to shut behind her. No-one else seemed to notice it. One night, when the kids were asleep, she decided to show her husband. But he was caught up in work emails and then too tired and cranky to listen. Cassie did not try to point it out again. The room seemed something just for her. In the beginning she would take a book to read. A lot of times she lay on the floor and slept. She smuggled cushions in and then pieces of furniture, and she wasn’t that surprised they were never missed. She built a nest for herself. It was always quiet in the room; there were never any footsteps, or muffled voices, though the room itself might creak in certain kinds of weather.
After several months she began to draw. She brought in butcher paper and the abandoned paints and pencils she’d bought for her kids. Occasionally she was so caught up she was late for school pick-up. Only very slightly: the cries of ‘Where were you, Mum?’ were quickly replaced by the traditional after school demands for food. She covered up her lack of guilt with offers of a trip to the corner shop. When the children were older, she sometimes missed texts and semi-important phone calls about forgotten sporting gear. But she never told her daughters where she’d been or what she did. Once she brought out one of her pieces, something she’d painted on canvas, something she was especially proud of, and placed it on the bookshelf. No-one noticed. When, after a few weeks, she saw it through less forgiving eyes, she took it down and eventually painted over it.
The room became her studio. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of canvases were stacked against the walls. Many were views of the garden, the tree in particular. Bare in winter, covered with blossom, bursting with the acid green of new spring leaves. The seasons weren’t completely in sync with her own. It might rain in the garden when Cassie’s house was in the middle of drought. And she began to recognise that the plants were slightly exotic and perhaps a little old-fashioned. She’d seen birds and lizards. None that she recognised, although she was no expert. A great grey, green bird once landed outside the window, gripped on to the outside wall with its claws and tapped way at the glass. She’d tilted her head, whistled and caught it eye-to-eye for a second. For a while after that Casse longed to go down to the garden, explore and escape entirely, but the room was really all she needed.
The secret grew a hardened shell; the knowledge of the room and her time in it something Cassie needed to protect. When her girls grew to adolescence with their own lives and loves and tribulations she was tempted to tell them. But though she came close several times, she never did. Just when she thought she might confide in them, they’d say something which reminded her of the way in which they saw her. The provider of food, care, homework help and clean clothes. Someone to drive them to a party and pick them up again at midnight. There weren’t yet old enough to see her as a person.
It became more difficult to retreat when her oldest daughter dropped out of university and spent hours, days, at home, languishing in front of the television. But Cassie learned ways to cover up her absence. She pretended to be vague and pre-occupied. Didn’t deter notions that she was going deaf.
To Cassie’s horror, her husband turned sentimental in his retirement. He wanted to sit and talk, have lunch, share trips to the supermarket. Her evasiveness required new levels of expertise. She became a master of apparent presence without actual corporeality. She actively discouraged all notions of doing up the house, of selling and moving, even of extended holidays. When he suggested that she was growing stuck in her ways, she didn’t demur. She even acquiesced to suggestions of mild dementia and the need for familiarity that diagnosis would bring. There were moments when she knew he felt neglected and she felt a twinge of guilt. But she also recalled the long hours alone with young children. She’d never decided if she preferred his late work hours or the rants about a succession of various bosses she’d never met. She’d long ago managed to tune out the soliloquies about politics, football, or wine. Wine. She was happy to drink it. She didn’t want to talk about it.
One of her daughters went overseas and sent back occasional missives filled with a brand of positivity Cassie didn’t know how to decode. The other married, had children, became caught in her own cycle of love and tedium. ‘I don’t know how you did it, Mum,’ she said one day, in tears. Cassie was very close to telling her about the room then. But by now she was used to protecting that part of herself. ‘You need to find something,’ she told her daughter. ‘Something of your own.’
‘Don’t be silly, Mum. You never did. You didn’t even work.’
Cassie’s mind spread out to a shocked numbness she recognised as an inevitable part of motherhood. Even so, she agreed to mind the baby every Friday morning. Once she brought the sleeping child into the room, showed him the tree and the garden. She stood in front of her latest canvas for a while, rocking the child to and fro but she left as soon as the baby began to wake up. She loved the way she was painting now. It was the way she understood the world. But she knew it would turn to a kind of dust as soon as she brought it out of the room. She was happy enough to leave it where it was.
The last time she saw the tree it was bare. It caught her once again with its beauty. It had lost one of its larger branches which now lay on the grass, struck silver by frost. Would anybody come to take the branch away? Even now Cassie wasn’t sure. The room itself never changed, apart from anything she left there. The paper lanterns she’d hung up several years ago were faded now. She reached up to touch one and felt a spar of pain along her arm. She sat down heavily on the wooden boards, her collapse partly controlled, partly unintentional. Her chest felt tight, as if she couldn’t breathe properly. She fell to the side and wondered if anyone would find her body. She found she didn’t really care.