This week’s guest blogger from the European Institute of Applied Cyanography is the recently appointed Chief Investigator Kristina Jones who is following up on a previous post.
The customer, whose name was Phelps, was a man with an obsession, He was convinced of the existence of a subterranean passage which ran from a basement somewhere in Chelsea House towards the river. It had once been possible to exit the tunnel in the octagonal summer house built by Lady Cathryn Beck in the grounds of Beck House, according to Mr Phelps. Proof of this lay in a 19th century account of a walk through the tunnel by Henrietta Cole-Elliott, unpublished of course, but thought to be among the papers deposited in our collection.
He had seen the watercolours by Mrs Fletcher showing the summer house and a tunnel, possibly unconnected but I knew she couldn’t always be trusted on the details. I said as much but he wanted to believe differently, as people sometimes do.
I promised to look through the boxes and Mr Phelps reluctantly left. I admit to being in a less than perfect mood that morning. I had finally been appointed to the post formerly held by my colleague and friend Marianne Collins only to be told by the Deputy Director that the new dress code applied to anyone who sat on the enquiry desk or went to meetings outside the building. I had nothing against the black dress and tights but the outfit definitely enflamed the desires of some of the customers. I imagined Marianne would have been quite amused.
Feeling a little guilty about not taking Mr Phelps seriously, I sat down with the Elliott boxes, wearing a warehouse coat and the white archive gloves and looked at every item, checking them against the deposit list. There was no sign of the tunnel account but to be thorough I also went through all our copies of Mrs Elliott’s books. I frittered away some time reading passages from her faery novel but finally got back to business and the last thing I looked at was a large format edition of Esoteric Churches of London (1905) with many photographs. Stuck to the rear endpapers by some desiccated Sellotape was a pamphlet entitled “Traveller’s notes for Lady Beck’s House”. It came away from the book in my hand. The title was so intriguing that despite the air conditioned coldness of the room I settled down in the most comfortable chair with my overcoat draped over my shoulders to read the whole thing.
“For the amateur Traveller Lady Beck’s house presents a particular challenge. At the present time the house is quite empty and lacking in furnishings, particularly the many carpets and wall hangings which were sold at auction when the Lady became a widow. There is no atmosphere to speak of, aside from the feeling of abandonment. I saw no sign of the celebrated tunnel. I found no portals”
There, then – no tunnel. Surely that settled it? I decided to ignore the reference to portals. I have heard quite enough about doors which lead to unexpected places. Marianne has been gone for more than a year and her flatmate Blanka hasn’t been seen for some time. I miss Marianne but not her friend.
Mrs Elliott goes on to say. “Adepts of the Trick will imagine Beck House and wish fervently that it had survived into the age of photography. Or that the strange combination of light and chemicals had occurred to some savant in the previous century. Miss Collins has hinted that the higher adepts had employed other methods, a workaround she called it, an example of her idiosyncratic phraseology.”
She moved on to a discussion of another matter. Nevertheless, I felt the already cold room turn chillier at the thought that this Miss Collins was the same as the one I knew. I put the book aside and let my mind wander off, thinking about her and her sudden departure. I wished I had Blanka there to ask questions.
I picked out a copy of the standard edition of the book and went through both side by side. Closing time rolled round and the motion sensitive lights went out one by one until I sat in a single cone of light, the rest of the basement room in darkness. I put my arms into the sleeves of the coat and buttoned it up before continuing. I did this as surreptitiously as possible out of a superstitious desire not to trigger the lights. By the end of each copy I was exhausted, and I could easily have missed it. But when I forget myself and stretched out my arms several lights went on and I could see the rear end-papers of the de luxe edition more clearly, and the bulge where something had been pasted over. I used a craft knife to cut a slit around the bulge and carefully removed a small envelope. On the front, in neat copperplate handwriting was written my name
Inside was a single piece of card, with fancy edges.
“Beck House, Putney Heath.
Miss Kristina Jones is invited to a fancy dress ball for Halloween, on Thursday 31st October 1906.7.30pm”
On the back was a printed notice: “Lady Beck recommends Mrs Matilda Stuart’s Photographic Studio and Costume Hire, Brompton Road. “
I put the card and the envelope together in a larger envelope which I put in the inner pocket of the overcoat. I didn’t dare put it in my bag, out of an irrational fear that it would vanish or get stolen. I keep a change of clothes in my locker but I didn’t want to linger in the building. I looked up at the picture we call “The Cross Dressing Count”.
I let myself out the back way, my coat belted up and my hat pulled down low as if I was trying to disguise myself.
I had no desk duties or meetings the next day so I dressed in my usual clothes. I subjected the card and the Cole-Elliott collection to some routine enquires looking in street directories and the ephemera collection and particularly looking for photographs. I actually found what looked like the Stuart studio, and several images of Brompton Road from that period. I also tracked down a picture of Henrietta Cole-Elliott in one of the Fletcher family albums.
I didn’t show the picture to any of the others at the Institute. I didn’t want any of them to tell me that the woman next to Henrietta wasn’t Marianne. I knew it was.
Then there was the question of getting to the ball. I knew about Marianne’s ex, Daniel and had even met him once. And I’d spent a few evenings at Marianne’s flat. At the end of an evening, when the creepy flatmate had gone off she had told me about the Trick. And that was how I could get to the ball
If you can believe it, I can explain the Trick quite easily. Some people can use photographs as gateways to other times and places. Marianne’s ex was one of them. And according to her, so was I. She told me this when we were both tired and slightly drunk. The memory had a fuzzy frame around it as if I could easily choose to believe it was a mistake or a misunderstanding. Or it could suddenly sharpen and I could see that my view of reality had been fundamentally altered. She had told me about the first time Daniel had used the Trick. And now it was my turn
I looked through some photos of Brompton Road which looked like they came from the right period. I settled on a couple from a collection by Ernest Milner who took pictures of streets for the new railway companies who were building deep level tube lines beneath them. . I wondered if I could use one of them
There was no problem with a costume. I used to work at the Sekmet Gallery in Holborn. The photographer Aiofe Campbell had an exhibition of her Goth pictures there. The staff all wore elaborate Euro-Goth costumes for the opening, paid for by a Dutch TV company. We kept them. So on Saturday morning I put on a vaguely 18th century outfit, some appropriately gloomy make-up and sat down at the table with the picture in front of me.
The main problem was taking the idea seriously. But after a few minutes I calmed down and allowed the picture to take over all my attention. I ignored the white letters showing the date at first but then changed them in my mind. I imagined the view in 3D. I heard distant sounds clattering. At the last moment there was an unfamiliar smell, quite pungent. I felt myself leaning forward.
The clattering was the wheels of a wooden trolley being pushed along the street. A man in dark clothes wearing a peaked cap was pushing the trolley walking beside another man in an overcoat. A woman in black with a pale face across the road stared at me but showed no sign of seeing me appear out of nowhere. The two men looked at me and shared some joke, but they didn’t seem hostile. I grabbed the skirts of my dress on both sides and walked onto the main road. It was early in the morning. There were a few people about, mostly men, but a few women in dark, heavy dresses, or skirts with white blouses. Everyone looked at me, but no one spoke. One young woman in an elaborate wide brimmed hat smiled at me and nodded. I nodded back. I looked at the shop fronts, noticing the numbers. It wasn’t long before I reached Stuart’s studio.
I had to wait for it to open. A young woman in an ankle length artist’s smock let me in and called for Mrs Stuart a middle aged woman in the white blouse and skirt combination. I couldn’t imagine how they dressed like that every day. My costume was bulky and a little tricky to move around in but it had been made in the 21st century. Compared to the women around me I was lightly dressed.
Mrs Stuart looked me up and down as if gauging how I would look in one of her photographs. I showed her the invitation, now a hundred years older than any other example.
“You’re rather early Miss Jones. But I suppose you had no way arriving at a more convenient time. Please, come into the studio. Many of the guests are coming here today in costume to have their portraits made. You can wait here. Some of us are travelling by automobile, and I know Mrs Hope-Elliott would want me to extend every courtesy to a special guest.”
She was formal, but friendly. If she knew where I was from I must have been an object of great curiosity. Perhaps she was even a little worried. I spent the morning sitting in a hall. Once I’d seen one picture done I didn’t need to stay in the studio and drawer attention to myself. For a while a morose teenager sat with me waiting for her mother.
I carefully took a few pictures on my phone. I was particularly taken with a group of witches.
The day passed. Mrs Stuart put on her own costume.
Four of us got into the rear of a substantial vehicle shut into a cab with curtained windows while a chauffeur and a uniformed attendant sat in front. Mrs Stuart drew the blinds but I knew where we were going, and took a peek as we crossed Putney Bridge. Something was happening in the distance
The new Beck House must have been a step down for the widowed Lady Beck, but it was still a large property. It was only late afternoon
[Picture withdrawn – B. Azdajic]
Inside I started shaking at the thought of actually seeing Marianne who had traveled so far from home and was now presumably stuck in the wrong time. Inside my dress was a packet of photographs I had taken only yesterday and printed on high quality paper. That should be all we would need I assumed. I jumped when I saw her.
But when she hugged me I realised that she had simply made a bit of an effort for the costume party. I asked her what I considered to be the obvious question.
“Couldn’t you just have sent me a letter? Wasn’t it all a bit tenuous? I could easily have missed that invitation.”
“Well, when you send a message across a hundred years you have to be sure it only gets to the recipient.”
“Haven’t you heard of solicitors? Don’t you remember that bit in Dr Who? The guy in Blink who comes to the door?”
“You have to make sure that no-one else gets the message. I’ve been on quite a journey. When I wanted to come home I thought of you. But I had to hide my intentions from anyone else who might be interested. Blanka thought any of the living in the Third City could do the Trick, but she was wrong”
Now that I’d found her I was much more impressed by the Trick and wanted to show off.
“I’ve got a bunch of photos with me. And my phone. Does anyone use those to Travel? I’m ready when you are. Back in time for a tuna melt at that place you like.”
She kept her arm round my shoulder.
“There are a couple of things to do here first. We can’t go from this house anyway. . And like I said, there are other interests involved, and a few obstacles. We’ll have to get past some of the guards.”
She looked out of the window at the Heath. I did the same.
As she said, still a few obstacles
The picture of Ms Jones is a detail from a photograph by the German photographer Luna Feles.
Normal service will be resumed next week.