• Joanna Seldon

  • The Terrible Door

    The Terrible Door | Joanna Seldon

    Kill.  To kill several with one stone – that would be handy.  And to kill with such a beautiful stone.  Smooth; perfect.  That’s what a polished poem is like.  A poem by a ten year old.  How charming.  Then the stone hits.  Kills.

    I’m pincering a name tape, letting thumb and forefinger rub against the embossed lettering.  Daniel Piggot.  I can still feel the painful ecstasy with which, just over seven years ago, I sewed that first batch of name tapes onto every single item my son took with him when he started at nursery.  It wasn’t just clothes: I labelled his towel and the muslin cloth he wouldn’t be parted from.  The hard clench of ‘cl’ and the tongue-twist of ‘th’ being too much for him, he called it ‘foff’.  There were several foffs, needless to say, and I have never been entirely certain whether he realised that the one he clutched tight to the top of his chest on Monday had spent the weekend in the wash, and that come Wednesday it would be replaced by a fresh successor smelling of Persil and Bounce.  He liked to sniff foff, I noticed.  Daniel’s always appreciated clean things.  Perhaps that’s why he never seems entirely at ease with his father.

    And I sellotaped name tapes onto his shoes, his lunch box, his favourite books that, as he progressed through Reception and Year 1, he brought in for Show and Tell.  From an early age Daniel loved books.  It was the smell again, during those toddler years: he’d squash his nose against the spine as he inhaled, smearing the odd dribble of snot between fresh new pages.  Later, as the ciphers on the page started to make sense, we’d snuggle up side by side at 5.30 every day; we’d read together about the adventures of Biff, Chip and Kipper.  Daniel galloped through the reading scheme like a young colt eager to break out into the boundless fields beyond.  I made sure that, when I read him his bed-time story, we were always out there on the heights.  So Daniel was acquainted early with the forest of Narnia, Tom’s Midnight Garden and Middle Earth.  These were the landscapes of his early childhood.  Toytown was strictly out of bounds.  By the time he was eight, and his curiosity overtook my bed-time reading of Northern Lights, he was able to travel to Svalbard alone.

    We read poetry together, too – from Robert Louis Stevenson to Walter de la Mare, John Masefield and Rudyard Kipling.  Last week I found him buried in my Penguin Book of Love Poetry.  He may simply have been attracted by naked Venus (accompanied by Cupid) on the front cover.  I stole up to where he sat cross-legged by my bedside bookcase and knelt down beside him.  The fingernails of his left hand whitened as he gripped in place the unglued page.  His right index finger traced the lines of his chosen poem.  Harold Monro: The Terrible Door.  I believe I know why he’d singled out that one. 

    Who waits at the terrible door, but I?

    I feel a sweep of guilty joy when I think about this, but I cannot stop to puzzle over the curious contingency of love and sadness.

    I can see now it’s nagging at Daniel, this puzzle.  Why do those whom we love the most make us the most unhappy?  That’s one of the reasons I think he should enter the poetry competition.  It will help him to exorcise the distress his father’s caused.  It will be cathartic, as they say.  More importantly, though, the crafting of a poem will prove to my son what I’ve known all along – that, at heart, he’s an artist.  Like me.  Or rather, like the one I used to dream of being.

    Frank would naturally jeer if he knew that his son was going in for some pansy poetry competition.  I can hear in my head the bray of his derision.  But then he always was jealous when he came home from work to find Daniel on the edge of sleep, his eyelids already drooping with the weighty force of Captain Hook or the Selfish Giant.  I never made a point of keeping our son up later than was right for him just so that he’d be able to say good-night to Daddy.  If Frank had really wanted this ritual, he’d have made the effort to get back earlier.

    And in any case, he’d never have read to him.  Not like I did.

    ‘I like all your funny voices,’ Daniel once said to me.  He gave me a sly sort of look.  ‘Daddy doesn’t do it like that.’  He smiled; yawned.  ‘When Daddy reads, you never know who’s talking.’  Now he seemed to be making his own attempt at one of those funny voices.  ‘It’s boring’.

    Through half-closed lids he watched for my reaction.  I made a point of betraying nothing, though there may have been the slightest smirk about my lips.

    ‘Can we have the light out now please, Mummy?’

    I reached down to kiss him, then clicked off his Peter Rabbit night light (he’s had that since he was a baby), and made to leave the room.  As always, I stopped in the doorway for our nightly ceremony.

    ‘Good night.’

    ‘Sweet dreams.’

    ‘Thank you.’

    ‘A pleasure.’

    ‘Thank you for a-pleasuring.’

    ‘A pleasure for a-pleasuring.’

    That final line we always chant in unison.  Then I shut the door – almost, just leaving a chink of light to come in from the landing and keep the night fears at bay.


    ‘And remember to tell Mummy about our little chat.’

    These are Frank’s parting words.  I stand in the hall, listening until the growl of his Audi Sport can no longer be heard.  Then I follow Daniel into the sitting room.  He’s on hands and knees, pushing aside his sprawled jacket and unzipping his holdall.  (How I dislike that object.  Its scutcheon – a red rose – proclaims the England Rugby Team.  A present from Frank – need you ask?  All part of the brainwashing process: his son must learn to love rugby, in preparation for Bridgestone College.)  Daniel’s tossing out the contents, which join the current now flooding my carpet.

    ‘What are you looking for, Danny?’

    ‘Cloth.’  He says it quietly, ashamed.  He can pronounce the word now, of course, but he needs it as much as ever.  Especially when he’s just been staying in the Kentish love nest.

    ‘Are you sure it’s in there?’  I crouch down in a froth of dirty underwear (marvelling as always at Sorrell’s refusal to introduce her stepson’s clothes to the washing machine).

    ‘Course it’s there.  You know…’  For a fraction of a second he hesitates.  ‘You know I always take it.’

    ‘Do you think you might have left it at The Oast?’ 

    Not a problem, really.  I still keep that sweet scented pile at the back of the linen cupboard.

    ‘Oh no.  No.  I remember.  I had it in the car.’  His hands rush to the top of his chest.  ‘I know I had it when we were on the motorway.’

    I feel my jaws clamp as I picture Frank pressing down on the accelerator, the Audi slicing into the M25.  And, in the passenger seat, our son clinging to cloth, thrilled and just slightly afraid.

    ‘You probably left it in the car.’

    ‘So why didn’t Daddy see it after we’d said good bye?  He’d have come back with it.’

    Stabbing at a more credible Tale of Daddy Piggot, he adds, ‘He’d have put it through the letter-box.’

    Why didn’t he?  Because Frank never notices anything.  Looks neither to left nor right.  Eyes on the road, straight ahead, pinned on the place he’s aiming for, his fellow travellers of little interest to him.

    I sigh.  An email to Sorrell is needed.  I don’t care if she sends it back unwashed.  I just can’t afford to let my little pile dwindle.  I must pull myself back from gloomy thoughts of The Oast.  Anagram of oats.  Frank was always greedy for those.  That’s one point he was always perfectly clear on, the one point where his name was curiously apt.  Pull back.  Talk of other things.

    ‘Don’t worry about cloth.  We’ll get it back.  Tell me about the “little chat” you had with Daddy.’

    He’s going to be taller than Daddy.  I feel reassured by that certainty, which comes upon me with a rush of pleasure as I register Dan’s lengthening thigh alongside mine.  Together we’re stuffing back the innards of the England Rugby holdall.

    Daniel continues to tidy up, keeping his eyes on the job as he replies,

    ‘Oh, we were just talking about school.  Where I’m going when I’m thirteen.’

    I’m ready for this one.
    ’No, Dan.  Not when you’re thirteen.  When you’re eleven.  You know that.’

    ‘When I start at my new school, Daddy and Sorrell are going to take me to Paradise Landing.’  His eyes have got that dreamy look, the one he gets when he’s been lost in a book.  ‘When I’m thirteen,’ he adds – firm now, all dreaminess gone.

    I turn aside quickly, a damp rugby sock balled in my palm, so that Daniel won’t see my response.  It’s partly a shudder of horror at the pretentious name Frank has given to this other love nest, the one in the Maldives.  But chiefly it’s the age, on which our son himself now seems so insistent.  Paradise Landing, of course, is just a lure.  Get into Bridgestone College – preferably with top academic and sporting scholarships – and your reward is a holiday in the Maldives.  And Daniel’s fallen for it.  He doesn’t even realise that, by insisting on Bridgestone, and Common Entrance and the Scholarship class and all that four-wheel-drive snobbery, his father is delaying by two years the need to spend anything other than a brief weekend with his son.

    And I’m terrified that Daniel will succumb to the entire myth – this idea that real education is all about going to the school at the top of the A level league tables, the school that gets the most pupils into Oxbridge, that wins the Daily Mail Cup (whatever that may be – something to do with rugby, but what a grubby tabloid has to do with posh schools’ sport, goodness only knows.)  Yes, what keeps me awake at night, as I lie there looking at the thin outline of oblong light just visible through my bedroom door, is Daniel’s obvious and growing fascination with the world of the public school.  The world of the boarding school.  I blame J.K. Rowling.  Yes, I knew it was bad news when Daniel turned from His Dark Materials to Harry Potter.  Malory Towers with magic, if you ask me.  No, I haven’t read them.  Not one. 

    ‘You wouldn’t like them, Mum.’  So Daniel advised, after sucking down The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets.  No-one knows my tastes better than my son.  I trust his judgment utterly – or at least, I used to.  So I’ve never tried them.

    Surely Daniel, despite this besotted attachment to high jinks in the dormitory and dinner in some enchanted gothic hall, can see through it all?  Surely my son understands that real education has nothing to do with all this – that it begins and ends with that unmatchable moment when, inspired by the best writers, guided by the best teachers, you discover something for yourself?  You discover a poem, a piece of music, a scientific or historical fact, the answer to a maths problem or – noblest of all – the thrill of creating something that is completely original, completely yours. 

    For that, he needs St Cuthbert’s Grammar.  He’ll get in, with a bit of coaching, surely?  He’ll start at age eleven.  He won’t be boarding anywhere.  And it’s free.  We won’t be beholden to Fab-Dad Frank for the fees.  It’s got a nice uniform – electric blue flaring against a grey background, and I look forward to another session with the name tapes.  I’ve got heaps left.  That other place will probably require me to buy a whole lot of new ones that identify him by his House.  I know that Frank’s always barking out the names of the Houses when Daniel visits The Oats Nest.  I make a point of not remembering them, but Daniel tries telling me about them: he’s checked the college website, and studied the characteristics of each one.  Doubtless he’d be able to provide the name of each and every Housemaster, should I care to ask.

    ‘He’ll be in loco parentis,’ Frank explained to me the last time we had a row on this topic.  That was three weeks ago, when I told my ex about the application form for St Cuthbert’s.  First of all he bellowed at me down the phone, but then switched tack – almost imploring, you could say.

    ‘They’re first class, these Housemasters.  And Deakin is outstanding, truly outstanding.  I had a long chat with him on the touchline when he came over to watch the match.  Now doesn’t that say a lot about him – that he takes the trouble to watch a prep school match?’

    ‘Probably trying to identify the best players – persuade their parents to put his House down as first choice.’

    I know how these things work.

    I could hear Frank’s temper begin to overheat – like the engine of his hard-pressed Audi.

    ‘Now don’t be silly, Bella.  Deakin doesn’t need to do any persuading.  Dunwell is the only day house.’

    Yes, of course.  I should have been listening more carefully to Daniel’s memorised lists.  The plan is that he’ll be a day boy.  A member of the single, despised day house.  I hear on the grapevine that it’s known as Dunbadly House.  I expect Frank knows this as well, and has every intention of getting his son transferred to one of the boarding houses as soon as a bed becomes available.  Which Daniel will be only too eager to do – get away from losers’ corner and join the golden lads, the boys of Gryffindor, the majority for goodness’ sake.  He’ll be a boarder, before a year is out, and I’ll be alone.


    Actually, winning a place at Bridgestone College – scholarship or no scholarship – is considerably easier than getting into St Cuthbert’s.  Of course a top-flight grammar school where you don’t pay fees, where you can claim the moral high ground when you remind people at dinner parties that you’re sending your sprog to a state school, where said sprog is more likely to be offered a place at Oxford or Cambridge precisely because they’re at a state school, is a more attractive option than twenty-five grand a year plus.  I don’t go to dinner parties, but I know what they talk about.  And I had the foresight, when Frank and I split up, to move into the catchment area.  It was expensive, of course, and arguably the additional cost of the house – its value being so increased by its proximity to a sought-after grammar school – was more or less equivalent to the full five years’ fees at Bridgestone.  But I chose a good solicitor, and she made sure the entire sale price of our shattered home went to me.  Frank’s pocket was, after all, already bulging with cash for The Oats Nest.  And Sorrell’s not exactly a pauper.  No children.  Well-paid job.  A job laden with opportunities: that’s how she met my husband.

    So every little helps, when it comes to gaining a place at St Cuthbert’s.  And I don’t just mean the coaching.  No, right now I’m thinking about that poetry competition.  It’s being run by the English Department at St Cuthbert’s, you see, as part of National Poetry Day.  They’ve even got some local poet coming in to award the prizes.  I’ve never heard of her, I must admit, but that’s not the point.  It would be so exciting for Daniel to shake the hand of a real poet.  To think – if he wins the competition, or even if he’s just a runner-up in his age category, it will draw the school’s attention to him.  That can’t do any harm to his application, can it?  If he wins, they’re bound to remember his name.  And it would be a blinder played against Bridgestone College and Dunwell House and the outstanding Mr Deakin.  When Daniel’s awarded a poetry prize at St Cuthbert’s, he’ll be back on course.  That will be his dream once more.  As I said, he’s always loved poetry.  I saw to that.

    The closing date is coming up soon, and his English homework tonight is to write the poem.  I’ll get him started with a few ideas.  I don’t intend to give him any help, you understand.  That would be cheating.  And anyway he doesn’t need any help.


    In the end, he decides to go with my suggested acrostic.  It means that each line ends up being rather long, because after all if you’ve got only five initial letters you’re inevitably going to have to extend the metre to pack in all your material.  But as I point out to Dan, that makes the metre an alexandrine (I studied The Eve of St Agnes for O level), and he likes the sound of that.

    The choice of subject is entirely Daniel’s.  I say nothing, but I’m pleased, and then come up with the acrostic idea.  I normally insist that he goes up to his room to do his homework (or ‘prep’, as they call it at the cosy little school he currently attends).  But this evening I let him sit at the kitchen table to write the poem.  I creep around him, in near-silent preparation of a fish pie, permitting myself just the occasional glance at him – head bowed over his work, or tilted back slightly, teeth clenching his pen.  He’s got that dreamy look again; he’s galloping over those heights.  And yet, in that tight clench over the pen, upper lip fixed in a kind of snarl, I can also see the beastly Frank.

    ‘There.  Finished.  D’you want to have a look?’

    Immediately, I know that his teacher, Mrs Faulkner, mustn’t see this poem.  I’ll have to tell her we’ll send his entry in separately.  Just make sure she knows to put Daniel’s name on the school list with the others.

    No, this is definitely a poem for strangers’ eyes only.  We don’t want Fussy Faulkner prying into Daniel’s psyche, or leaping to conclusions about dysfunctional families and so forth.  I’m not sure what she’d make of Singapore, maybe Malibu.  But I know what she’d think of A man who divorced my mum, which leaves me sad and confused inside.  Could this be a marker against his St Cuthbert’s application?  Surely not.  The sympathy vote factor might increase his chances of getting into the place.

    I wonder if the judge might suspect the rhyme in the following, and final, line:

    …to see how I am denied.  A sophisticated word for a ten year old.  You’re right: it’s mine.  I also wonder about what comes immediately before this:

    Dad I want you to read these words…  Does he?  Is he planning, once he’s typed it up, to print an extra copy and take it down to The Oats Nest next weekend?

    ‘What d’you think I should call it?’

    ‘What do you think?’

    The cod and haddock aroma seeps from the oven.  I walk away, to drain the potatoes and get mashing.

    ‘Well…  What’s that word?  Cross-stick?’


    ‘That’s it.  The cross-stick can be the title.’

    My Dad.’

    ‘Don’t you think?’

    ‘Yes, I agree.  Keep it nice and simple.  Well done.  Now take it over to the computer before it gets mucky, and then go and wash your hands.  You can type it up after dinner.’

    ‘Smells great.  Don’t forget the ketchup.’

    He swings out – happy, it seems.  Is it the unburdening of emotion that’s made him so – that famous catharsis?  Or is it the joy of creation?  A bit of both, I decide, slamming the masher into the spuds.