things magazine / about / what's new? / archive / photos / projects / order
Bluebeard, by Dai Vaughan
Go on, enlarge that set of keys...
caption link / issue index / archives
things 11
winter 1999-2000
Dai Vaughan

Listen how this box rattles: quite heavy, almost full. It may have something of the sound of money, but it is riches of a different order. It is all my keys: all the keys that have ever come into my possession. I have never thrown a key away in my life. The box, as you will have observed, has a keyhole of its own. But I cannot lock it ­ because where would I then put the key? That is one of my little jokes. I love the light which glimmers from this restricted yet infinitely graded selection of metals: machined steel, pitted iron, pocket-worn brass. And there are scarcely any of my keys whose function I have forgotten - or, at worst, will not be brought back to me by the way the thing sits between my fingers, the way it occupies my hand as its use once occupied a compartment of my being.

This, for example: as primitive a representation of its class of objects as you could imagine, a small tab doubtless stamped out of the tin sheet by the hundred; once chromed now flaking, with only a tiny protrusion to turn a ward which might as well by turned by a bent paperclip. This, with its shred of frayed blue cotton still looped through its hole, was the earliest key of my life. It served to open a stationery wallet bound in blue cloth which contained notepaper, pen, pencil and envelopes. There was also a slim, red-and-black india rubber ­ the red end for rubbing out pencil, the black for ink. The envelopes were never used; but the pencil and paper served me well when, during a long bout of scarlet fever, I developed a compulsion for drawing strip cartoons. The memory, however, far from being a happy one, is clouded by the frustration to which my efforts led me: for, although I had my hero cross mountain ranges, swim oceans, slay dragons, I could not help but be aware that none of these events partook either of revelation or fulfilment; and I was forced to the recognition that I had no idea what was involved in telling a story. 


Now this little fellow, with its dull soapy sheen, belonged to my bedside locker at school ­ for I was sent away to boarding school at an early age. What I remember best about that school is the garters which held up our ribbed grey uniform socks and which, being very tight, had be evening left in the skin of the calf an indentation so deep it would scarcely have disappeared by morning. I was of a broody disposition, and in class habitually mused upon the confusions of language: for example, that mince was meat but mincemeat was not meat, whereas, on the other hand, mince pies were made of mincemeat and not of mince. Absorbed in such thoughts, I would begin kicking my heels back rhythmically against the rung of my bench; at which point Miss Gracechurch would frown her disapproval and I would turn abruptly back to my sums. Miss Gracechurch's main delight was to whack the back of children's knees with a ruler. 

Now here are my first front door keys, a Yale and a mortise married by a ring: those of my parents' house, to which I returned during holidays from school and from college and which, in accordance with conventional usage, I called 'home'. What is my image of this home? It is of the three of us seated around the dinner table which is set with matching chinaware upon an embroidered cloth. A cup of tea would be upset; and my father would instantly assume the role of someone maintaining his composure under great stress as he instructed my mother in sharp syllables to place a cork mat under the cloth so that the hot tea should not damage the polished veneer of the table. (Veneer was prominent in the furnishings of my parents' day. My father at one time took up marquetry in an attempt to calm his over-wrought nerves.) This was a scene which occurred often; and always, when it did, my father would glare at me with barely suppressed anger; not because it was necessarily I who had knocked over the tea-cup, but because ­ I think ­ it was evident from my manner that I was unable to take his antics, his pantomime of assuming command in a situation which would otherwise lead to untold catastrophe, quite as seriously as he did. For him, and for my mother too, life remained tolerable only to the extent that it replicated an illustration in a magazine of good housekeeping. It was a question of surface.

It was a source of some pride to me when, having worked for a few weeks in my first office job, I was entrusted with my first set of keys ­ this one, very delicate, complete with protective plastic cap, is for the Bramah lock ­ in case I should at times be required to start earlier or finish later than my colleagues. The premises had recently been taken over from a defunct company; and, after the fashion of the day, many partition walls had been removed so as to make the area more 'open plan'. Since the former offices had been individually carpeted, the removal of these partitions meant that narrow spaces were left in the floor-covering where they had stood. The result delighted me with its resemblance to the site of an archaeological dig: to one of those abbeys or castles where the greensward is marked with lines of white stones indicating non-existent walls, so that one may tease one's imagination by tracing the path of a chain-mailed soldier from the mess to the watch-house or of a prayer-weary novitiate back from the chapel to his meagre cell. I was filled with unspoken admiration for the company in their willingness to allow this evidence to remain: evidence of former practices, former space-management, former lives. When fresh carpeting was ordered, I resigned and sought employment elsewhere. 

This set of car keys, shiny as trinkets with their smelly leather, affords me retrospective pleasure of a kind never envisaged by the manufacturers. I had, because it was the done thing, taken driving lessons and passed my test; and I had then bought a car ­ second hand, but in good condition ­ because that too was the done thing. There was convenience, of course, in being able to travel wherever one wished, though it soon became evident to me that there were few places I particularly needed to go. What began to grate on me, however, was the behaviour one was required to adopt in relation to this new possession. It was mandatory to lean on the bar counter in a prescribed posture while referring boastfully to its 'Reg', to feign indignation if it should sustain the mildest of bumps or abrasion to its paintwork and, as a sort of garnish to this ersatz pride, to regale one's fellows with accounts of the imbecile incompetence of all other road users. My reluctance to engage in this charade led to my being shunned as someone unnatural, incapable of human affections. At first I thought of selling the thing. But that would have meant surrendering the keys. Instead I took a two-hour drive northward through the night to where I knew of some bog-land; and there, having removed the number plates for separate disposal, I poised the vehicle at the top of a grassy slope, released the handbrake and watched it roll into the green scum where it settled, seemed to hesitate, seemed for a few anxious moments to have found some sort of an equilibrium, then at once sank with a muddy chortle and was gone. I told my workmates I'd got a tidy price for it, and that drinks that night were on me: my final act of bluster. I do not even remember what make of car it was. 

We each, I suppose, have a sentimental attachment to the keys of our first flat. Here are mine ­ a chunky brass Chubb with the file marks still visible and another for a cylinder-type lock with 'Legge Deadlocking' engraved on it: sleek as a shark and jagged as s stickleback. At first I was overwhelmed with the sense of freedom that came with loneliness: of being able to cook my own meals, to leave the hoovering till another day, to retire to bed at whatever time I wished. But the neighbours were noisy. They played loud music at all hours. For a long time I tried not to mind this, telling myself it was all a part of life's rich pattern. Sometimes I would move into another room where the sound was more muffled ­ even then feeling guilty at the thought that I was trying to cut myself off from worldly activity. But eventually the day came when I found myself all evening unable to read or to listen to my own radio, unable even to hum a tune, unable to sleep even though I dragged my mattress into the bathroom; and I knew that I would have to capitulate and resort to ear plugs. It took me a while to get used to them. At first, afraid of pushing them too far into the auditory canal, I did not locate them firmly enough, and they kept popping out. But then I got the hang of things; and a sudden peace, a sudden hush, descended. It was not that I could not hear the sounds of the world, but rather that they were rendered harmless, muted, all of one substance which was not my substance: sounds heard from the womb and not yet identified; and, somewhere in the foreground, the reassuring soft roar of the amniotic surf as it endlessly sucked the frail spit of human existence onto which thoughts little more than translucent velleities had begun already to clamber with proto-limbs as yet no more than fins ill-adapted for land locomotion. The danger, I realised, was of initiating an evolutionary reversal whereby my cells would begin once more to coalesce and embark upon a journey back towards primal Oneness...

Ah, now look at this specimen; and feel the heft of it. Hand forged, without a doubt. And see the silvery burnish of the iron. I fondle it often, especially when I have been eating shortcake biscuits, and it glows with the oils of my skin and of the shortcake. When I first found it, on a beach, it was flaky with rust; but I knew straight away that it was the key to the palace of my longings. For many years that knowledge was enough to sustain me, and I seldom even asked myself where that palace might be located or what it might contain. Then, one night, in a dream, I took the key to a door ­ a quite unremarkable door as I recall ­ and unlocked it. Inside was an apartment similar to my own except that it was full of rubbish ­ most of which was unidentifiable. On the floor was a descant recorder, ebony, split as if from dryness and extremes of temperature. The shelves were stuffed with books which, as I opened them, disintegrated into flakes no larger than dandruff allowing me only the briefest glimpses of mathematical formulae and of abstruse diagrams and of texts in dead languages. I passed into the bedroom and saw, contorted and deflated on my coverlet, a life-size rubber women, her face collapsed into wrinkles, her hair colourless, her belly perished; and, beside the bed, in a rug shredded to form a nest, the skeletons of six puppies snuggled for comfort. The only thing not in a condition of decay was pinned up over the dressing table: the unfinished strip cartoon of my childhood, fresh because awaiting the return of my attention, still taunting me. Perhaps, I thought, the problem lay in the vermiform segmentation of a strip cartoon into individual frames; and it occurred to me that a worm is not a dramatic structure. Life, of course, is not a dramatic structure either; but neither does it have to be a worm. Perhaps I ought to have entered the palace of my longings earlier, when the puppies might still have clamoured around my ankles and the rubber woman greeted me with open arms and the wisdom of those books might not necessarily have been lost to me. Now, however, the key is all I have for comfort. That and the others. 

things 11, winter 1999-2000

back to top of page