[Published in Miscellaneous: Writing Inspired by the Hunterian]
For Veronica and Dalilla
I met a beautiful woman from the Ionian University once. Curly hair, big brown eyes. It was the end of September. She had a name that could be from any island.
At a conference in Oxford, where all I could feel was heartache, we sat side by side and presented papers: I on coffeehouses, she on doors.
I assumed she was Greek but Helena turned out to be Portuguese: a woman who did not want to grow old where she was born. She had travelled south of the compass and was now living in Corfu, thinking of doors, mirrors and other reflective surfaces.
I remember Helena as I walk a narrow corridor in Glasgow. I am at a storage house on Thurso Street. We are investigating the hidden collections of the Hunterian archives. My hair is tied back because it might unbalance ancient artifacts. I have taken off my earrings and rings and bracelets and necklaces. The enthusiastic curator asks us what we are interested in. Doors and keys and maps, I say. I am interested in these because they make an appearance in my writing and I am hungry for unlikely sources that may inspire me, and the novel growing inside.
Sally Anne says she has something for me. Amongst the plethora of objects, I see something tall resting against the wall, covered with white linen. She unveils it and I see a wooden structure with etchings on it, and ancient carved figures. Sally Anne tells me this is a small part of a much bigger door, and that it is from New Zealand.
Usually I cannot concentrate on papers presented within my penal. But Helena’s speech lifts the anxiety off my upcoming presentation.
There are many kinds of doors, she says. Wooden doors, metal doors, cardboard doors, stone doors, golden doors. Revolving doors, folding doors, sliding doors, hinged doors, a butterfly door.
I think of the doors a Bulgarian lover had mentioned, half hateful, half flirtatious: did you know, he had said, that we used to build small doors so the Turks would have to stoop when they entered our houses?
Helena says everything about a door matters; its size, its colour, its purpose and where it comes from.
The strange and beautiful door before me is from an island far away. How did it end up here in Glasgow, I want to know. By love or thievery?
I find out it was donated to the Hunterian by a Glaswegian surveyor who worked in the Bay of Islands and Hokianga. While in New Zealand William Clarke fell in love with a Maori woman, they married, had children. Clarke came to visit Glasgow in 1861. He brought gifts with him, the door before me is one of them. In 1864 Clarke was ready to return to his family, but he took ill on board ship. He was buried at sea.
A case of love justifying thievery, perhaps.
I lose touch with Helena after the conference. There are a few e-mail exchanges, but then I cannot reach her. I ask her to send me the paper she presented. I would like to quote her properly. But who knows what Helena is doing and what she is interested in right now. Doors may be an old story to her.
So I recollect, and remold, the things she has said. What doors open to matters. What they close on matters. How you feel when you pass through them matters.
The Maori door used to open to a storage house, this is what I can find from the records in Glasgow. A storage house for food: pots for cooking, spices, rice. Necessary tools, necessary ingredients.
But my interest lies in the surroundings of the door. Does it close on to the night? Is the sky lit by stars? What does the air smell like? Wet grass and summer excitement, or drought and longing? Is there a balmy wind? Is there a slight touch of mystery as Clarke walks toward the door with his wife? Are they holding hands? Are they happy or sad? Have they talked about this? Are they barefoot? Does he still drink tea? Does he miss winter mists? Is she comfortable with her body? Is she longing to be elsewhere?
I imagine the couple walking to the storage house, I imagine Clarke unscrewing hinges. The lovers carry the door above their heads, feet sinking in the sand. They take it to the ship that shall embark for Scotland in the morning. Husband and wife will separate. The tribe will wake to a garner without an entrance.
Helena and I walk in a too neat, too sparse Oxford park. We talk about memory but I don’t remember why.
We think you can make memory videos, like old fashioned, awkward moving, silent films. I am convinced this is possible because I have done so. Once. During a night in Athens I promised to remember a moment forever. And I did, and I do, and I will. Despite what happened afterwards.
You become camera, director, actress. You film the moment with yourself in it. You record a series of moments. I think we managed exactly this as we walked with Helena. There were falling leaves, a sunset amongst trees, a wind that was getting stronger and colder.
So, I made moving memories twice.
The Maori family come over to Glasgow once a year to visit the old door. The descendants change, the memory they construct changes, only Clarke’s gift remains still. Veiled, in a silent corridor, frozen in time; defying the pliability of things.
Had there been no love or thievery, it would have been burnt. It is custom amongst the Maori to burn storage houses once the leader of their tribe dies. He is long dead. The ritual is disrupted by a romantic Glaswegian surveyor.
There are only two doors like this in the world. Both in museums, both displaced. I cannot decide whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
Perhaps we are too greedy, too anxious, too clinging in our wish to remember. Perhaps disappearing, burning, forgetting are necessary for life to abound.
I think Helena would not like this door. You can neither walk in or out of it. You cannot smell it. You cannot touch it. It can no longer feature in a memory video. It is no longer door, it is object.
I imagine us, Helena and I, thieves in the night, carrying the door out and away from Glasgow, the way fishermen escaping land carry their caiques. Longing to go south of the compass.