When lockdown started, we were very grateful for the magic passageway.
On reflection, I suppose the stranger thing is how ungrateful we had been for it before. I always wanted a secret door behind a bookcase, and the familiarity of the magic passageway made it seem banal by comparison. It had always been there, and there didn’t seem to be any reason for it. A secret door had to have something exciting behind it, or why would you make it secret? It wouldn’t just lead to the corner of Emma’s parents’ airing cupboard.
Emma was keen for a full-size snooker table, plus the slidey scoreboards and ideally a pair of bright white gloves to wear when handling the balls, so I suppose I was at least a little closer to having what I wanted.
Still, lockdown came, and with the school year unexpectedly cut short and only our parents and Joe Wicks for company otherwise, we made all the use we could of the magic passageway. Easy enough for me, who only had to squirm through the little hatch to the eaves in my loft-conversion bedroom; a challenge for Emma, whose parents (one working from home and endlessly distracted, one furloughed and discovering parenting for the first time) may have taken her crawling into the airing cupboard as a sign that she was not coping well with isolation. So mostly we exchanged toys and sweets and notes, the last of which was strictly pointless when we could message each other any time we wanted, but felt wonderful nonetheless. And sometimes, when granted an opportunity by conference calls, exercise, the big shop or the middle of the night, we met up.
‘Isn’t this kind of against the rules?’ Emma whispered one four a.m.
We hadn’t talked about it before. We hadn’t talked about any of it when we met up: we did all our poor-taste jokes and anxiety on our phones, and kept the magic passageway for other subjects.
‘We haven’t gone outside,’ I said. ‘If we haven’t gone outside it’s OK.’
‘But you’re not at home. You’re at my house.’
‘Only in the cupboard. And it’s just like a corridor, anyway. It’s just like we’re in the same house.’
Emma thought about it for a bit, rolling her miniature cue ball around the palm of her hand. ‘But,’ she said, ‘my mum and dad don’t know about it, and your mum doesn’t. They’d know if they lived in the same house. It’s not the same.’
‘It’s not our fault if they don’t know about it. And there’s only six of us.’
‘And some people live in blocks of flats,’ Emma continued, ‘so they wouldn’t have to go outside to see each other, and they do just have to go down a corridor. But they’re not allowed to visit each other.’
‘And then what if dad got poorly and then I got poorly and then you got poorly and then your mum got poorly and then your grandma-‘
The cue ball rolled off her palm and hit the bare floorboards with a thud, softer than the full-size version she coveted would have made, but still loud enough that we each held our breath. I could have scrambled back through the passageway and tumbled out into the eaves, of course, but that would have left Emma to come up with some explanation for being in the airing cupboard in the small hours. A few of the worse kids at school had started experimenting with pilfered cigarettes a few weeks before lockdown; maybe they would think she had snuck off to smoke.
Silence continued. Of course it did. Who gets up at four in the morning because they hear one thump? And who suspects that their daughter, bordering on irritatingly precocious, would choose to smoke directly into the family’s clean linen instead of out the window?
But then it continued a while longer, and even after I picked up the cue ball from where it had settled against my leg and passed it back to Emma, it continued still. Suddenly I felt very sleepy.
‘I should go back to bed,’ I said. Emma yawned wide enough to swallow a full-size snooker ball, in theatrical agreement. ‘Night Ems,’ I said. She waved, still yawning, and I crept back through the passage, out of the eaves, and into bed, still a little dusty.
We didn’t meet up again after that. Not properly. Even when the rules changed, even when it was all over. We would still pass notes and swap books, and sometimes I would reach through and borrow a towel when I couldn’t be bothered to dig a fresh one out of the chest in my parents’ bedroom, but otherwise, we shrank back into an ordinary friendship, and then grew apart. Later, at seventeen, when Emma’s parents sold up, prematurely downsizing, I thought we ought to meet up in the airing cupboard one last time, although by that time there were better places to sneak off to in the night. But I didn’t fit. I could get a head or an arm through, but no more. I wedged in an old board to stop up the passageway, wary of new arrivals in what the estate agent called ‘a perfect home for a new or growing family’, and forgot all about it.