(Thoughts prompted partly by the 2018 J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture by V. E. Schwab, which you can read here; also by attending the book launch of Leaf Stone Beetle by Ursula Dubosarsky & Gaye Chapman, published through Dirt Lane Press).
Even before I read C. S. Lewis’ Narnia, I always suspected there were doorways hidden in wardrobes. As a very young child I had recurring dreams about the secret passageways inside the walls of my house, which you could access from the built-in cupboards. As with many of my childhood dreams, the lines blurred between what was dream and what was reality, for me. In the same way that I was utterly convinced I could fly if I just tried hard enough, I knew that the secret passageways were there. I was so sure that it didn’t even occur to me to check while I was awake – I just knew. (Luckily, this same rock-solid certainty ensured that I never bothered to jump off the balcony to test out my flying skills).
Playing hide and seek by clambering up to the top of my parent’s closet (nose full of the smell of Mum’s clothes), I found tucked away in the back of the top shelf a short sword – an actual, freaking, curved-blade-in-a-leather-scabbard sword. This was an utterly unexpected find in our comfortable, quiet, suburban house – and yet not unexpected at all, because of course secrets are hidden in cupboards. Dad was probably a secret king of a fantasy kingdom and one day of course I would inherit the throne – there was probably a magical prophecy to that effect. I would probably get my own unicorn.
(Turns out the sword came from Afghanistan via carry-on luggage on a plane to Australia 20-something years previously. The 1970s were a very different time for airport security.)
I had a cubby on the top shelf of my own bedroom cupboard where I used to go to enjoy the view of the world from ceiling level – the next closest thing you could get to tree-climbing inside of the house. Hidden inside the top of the doorframe was a little wooden ledge that stuck out maybe a couple of centimetres, and here was where I stashed all of my tiny found treasures. And it is amazing what a four-year-old would consider to be a treasure; a lost button, a chipped blue-glass marble, a fuzzy silver ball from an early-90s craft kit, some sequins, old coins… etc.
I was thirteen years old when I first went to Bali, and I remember being absolutely captivated by the little offerings of woven palm and flowers left everywhere, on doorsteps, windows, alcoves – ordinary, everyday objects imbued with wordless magic. I knew nothing at all of faith or religious devotion or ritual in those days, and these little parcels of colour and scent held a powerful and mysterious fascination for me. They moved me, in a way I couldn’t explain to myself then and still can’t really articulate now.
I have always been unashamedly materialistic in this way: even before I had read Tolkien, I always knew that tiny objects (which are really tiny symbols) can hold great power. I can’t help it; I like stuff. Stuff holds stories, just like houses do. I am terrible at throwing things away, because I get attached to the most ridiculous junk. Recently I’ve discovered that there is a legitimate interior decorating trend called ‘maximalism’, which I’ve totally embraced. As a messy person by nature, it’s a somewhat accidental embrace, but I’m leaning in to it. Even if there was a door to Narnia inside my cupboard, I’d never find it through all of the stuff that’s in there.
It’s a different cupboard now; my childhood home is three bedrooms ago. I still hide tiny treasures about the place, but these days they are more often in the form of words scribbled down and tucked away, little shiny secrets that I get to hoard for myself.
Since my partner and I have our own place now, Dad told me it was finally time to clean out the last vestiges from my childhood wardrobe. I spent a day or two becoming tipsy and nostalgic with my Mum and some white wine, over boxes of old primary school workbooks and diaries and laughably terrible drawings (a visual artist, I most certainly was not). When the cupboard finally stood empty, recycling bin overflowing and a few too many boxes of things I couldn’t bear to part with stuffed into the boot of my car, Dad and I stood in my old blue bedroom and I told him fondly about my Secret Childhood Stash, having totally forgotten about it for the last two and a half decades right up until that moment.
He looked at me with a curious expression, and then reached up above his head into the cupboard (with the height I never inherited) to feel blindly along the inside lining of the doorframe. I didn’t say anthing, but I reached out, and into my two cupped hands he placed all of the shrapnel treasure of childhood, all still there, still waiting.
What a gift.