The Face in the Mirror

By Nicky

He hated locking up.

As the only man in the office it was a responsibility he had been given without any consultation.

From bitter experience he knew that his female colleagues were much fiercer and more courageous than he could ever be. However they had families to go home to and he didn’t. Husbands waiting for their tea. Children home from school, in that tense unsupervised hour between the end of the school day and a mother’s return from work.

So he turned down their insincere offers to keep him company.

“No, you get on home.”

“It’s not a problem.”

“I’m used to it.”

“I can do it quicker on my own.”

A rotating litany of excuses he trotted out each day at half past five.

Repetition created its own reality. He really had got used to it. He no longer felt sick with dread as he crossed the courtyard to the main hall.

Most of the visitors talked enthusiastically about the wonderful atmosphere, the warmth, the sense of history and in the midday sunshine he could agree with them. Late afternoon brought a subtle change, amplified as the last visitors left. He could sense it from his desk, overlooking the entrance to the oldest part of the house.

He never revealed his feelings to his colleagues. It would have been a weakness. The women he worked with could make a joke of their fears, their peculiar little experiences when they went over to the house alone. Their laughter defused the situation, a shared silliness. Just imagination running riot.

He couldn’t afford to be silly. He had to maintain his dignity to keep his authority.

It would be different if there were someone waiting for him at home. Then he would be able to share the silliness and make light of his fears. Some of his experiences were easily explained. The light sensor in the kitchen passage was designed to come on as he walked through, but it never failed to surprise him. All houses, especially one as old as this, settled as the day cooled. Ancient oak and stone relaxed into evening. If the fire had been lit, a log might shift and splutter. Sometimes a swallow flew in to the hall, too high to catch, distressed and trapped until the next day. There were bats too of course. The minstrels’ gallery shifted on its insubstantial supports, the oak creaking like a ship’s timbers. Occasionally a workman would be parked in the top courtyard, finishing off a task in the private apartments.

Thank goodness he wasn’t responsible for locking up that rabbit warren of rooms. You never knew who or what you might find there. Anyone from the elderly housekeeper having a late afternoon nap in one of the guest bedrooms, to some celebrity chef off the television.

Taking a deep breath as he stood in the porch, he read the inscription to Mars on the old Roman altar stone displayed there. He had looked it up. ‘Mars in trousers’ it basically said in the dedication.

“Come on man, straighten up. Wear the trousers. Just get on with it.’

Taking the huge master key, more like a pantomime prop, he started his routine.

Everything was fine tonight. He realised he felt braver and more relaxed than usual. Perhaps he had turned a corner. Maybe Mars was on his side. No sense of footsteps behind him. No half heard laughter or the clink of glasses in the Butler’s Pantry.

No whispered conversations in the Long Gallery. He began to appreciate the loveliness of the rooms, the evening light creating a subtle softness. The plain colours of oak and stone were easy on the eye.

The furthest room on his route was once a bedroom, created as the first private family room in the hall, when fashions changed, and the lord and lady stopped bedding down in the medieval hall with their servants. A life-sized drawing of a previous duchess hung on the wall, a study for a famous portrait in oils. Her languid stare had the power to make him tremble if he caught it unawares. Tonight he knew in his bones that she was just charcoal and paper.

There was a lovely early seventeenth century mirror in the room. The glass was old and tarnished, its reflection gave none of the harsh clarity of a modern mirror. It was an antique equivalent of a soft focus lens. Normally he avoided looking into it as he locked up, having once terrified himself when his torch light beamed back at him. Tonight he decided to lay that particular ghost. He began to imagine a new life outside of work. He would get out more. He would go along with his sister’s match making plans for once. “Who knows, something might come of it”.

As he drew level with the mirror, he turned to face himself, keen to see a reflection of his new state of mind. As he gazed deep into his own eyes, he became aware of the figure of a woman behind him, laughing as she caught sight of his expression of surprise.

More about Nicky


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