Trigger warning: references to abuse
Lucy was six when she first discovered the secret of the cupboard under the stairs
She had been trying to hide from her father when it happened – Daddy always said he didn’t mean to get angry, but he still hit her anyway. She stumbled into the cupboard, hoping to squeeze herself behind the vacuum cleaner, and found herself in a world of rainbows and unicorns. Everything glittered and sparkled – including Lucy herself; and after a while, she realised that she could unfold the gauzy wings that grew on her back and join the other beautiful fairy creatures she saw as they swooped and dived in a game of chase around the lollipop trees and gingerbread buildings. She was having so much fun that she almost didn’t hear her mother’s voice calling her for tea.
The memory of under-the-stairs kept her calm for almost a whole week afterwards, although she didn’t mention it to anyone: she just assumed everyone had a secret place in their understairs cupboard. The next time she visited, the candyfloss clouds and sparkly unicorns had been replaced with an equally idyllic setting with fields and a river and rabbits – lots of rabbits. She spent a peaceful and very happy afternoon playing with the cuddly creatures and felt much better when she left and went back to her own world.
Every week, there was a fresh adventure to discover in the cupboard. No matter how horrid the real world was, the lands she discovered when she ran to hide under the stairs were always delightful. In true Disney fashion, birds sang and tweeted above her head as they dropped daisy chains around her neck, and squirrels scampered up to her bearing gifts of berries so sweet and juicy they were better than any ice cream or chocolate she’d tasted before. She sometimes wondered why no one else mentioned their own understairs cupboard at school - maybe she was the only one with a special place like this; and then she read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and felt a thrill of recognition when her namesake, the storybook Lucy, stumbled through the back of a wardrobe and found herself in Narnia. It must happen to lots of children, then, if people wrote about it in books. That gave her the confidence to talk to her friends at school about the secret land she visited every weekend, but they all stared at her as if she was mad. The teacher said she had a vivid imagination; and after that, Lucy resolved not to tell anyone else.
She must have been visiting cupboard-land for several years when she realised that she was not alone. Often, when she was walking through a wooded park or paddling in the sea, she would feel an awareness of someone watching her. If she turned round quickly, she would glimpse something not quite there. Eventually, she was quick enough to catch sight of a boy her own age with dark curly hair. She waved to him and he waved back; and from that moment onwards, they were friends.
Henry became her constant companion, exploring the mountains and lakes with her and pointing out birds and flowers as they walked through countryside that was always sunny. As the two of them grew older, she began to notice how handsome he was; and her heart fluttered every time he took her hand in his. It was a source of great sadness that he could not leave the cupboard and visit her in her own world.
The land inside the cupboard changed as she grew older – sometimes it was reminiscent of Venice with canals and gondolas; and there was one particularly romantic evening when Henry played a small guitar and sang her a love song (in Italian, naturally) as they floated along on a moonlit boat ride. Another time, she found herself in a French chateau complete with bewigged servants and a breath-taking ballroom lined with hundreds of mirrors that reflected the waltzing couples over and over again in a kaleidoscope of decadence. The chateau was gorgeous, but when she and Henry explored further, they heard the screams of tortured prisoners in the dungeon and found the emaciated corpses of the ones who’d been too weak to withstand their maltreatment – that was when she realised that not all the lands under the stairs were nice. Sometimes the cupboard was downright scary: after reading ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’, Lucy found that the landscape took on a Gothic quality and she constantly felt as if she was being followed as she roamed desolate heaths and dark forests, searching for Henry, with the sounds of wolves or maniacal laughter echoing in her ears. She tried not to stay for long if that was the land she found when she opened the door.
After a while, Lucy began to wonder if she was somehow subconsciously influencing what she found inside the door – after all, the first land she’d visited had looked very much like the drawings in her My Little Pony picture book, and her mother had been reading her Watership Down at the time Lucy had discovered the fields of rabbits. She was currently studying Romeo and Juliet at school and could not help visualising herself and Henry in the titular roles. So far, he had not declared his love for her; but she had just finished the scene at the masked Capulet ball and her mind was already dreaming about Henry wooing her with word play and clandestine kisses.
Sure enough, the world she entered when she slipped into the cupboard that Friday evening was definitely Elizabethan in nature. For one thing, her own clothing had changed as it so often did when she entered a different time or culture – she was in a full-length gown in dark green with a brocaded bodice and long, pointy sleeves; and Henry himself was dressed in doublet and hose, looking for all the world like the Romeo of her fantasies. For a moment, she simply stood and looked at him, her heart anticipating the moment when he would place his lips on hers and gently awaken her with a kiss.
It was only as he began to berate her cruelly, accusing her of being a strumpet and then pushing her away, that it dawned on her that she had recently read Hamlet too and that Henry was channelling the Danish prince’s madness.
Returning to the ‘real world’, feeling shaken and scared, she decided that Shakespeare was too risky – after all, the plays she knew were all tragedies. Perhaps the Victorian era was a safer place for her first kiss – at least there, the strict societal rules meant that gentlemen were courteous to their ladies; and although Mr Rochester had seemed surly at first, he had wooed Jane Eyre passionately and asked her to marry him. (She decided to ignore the fact that he had a secret wife stashed in his attic at the time of his proposal.)
This time, as she entered the cupboard, she found herself wearing a long white nightdress, which puzzled her since the only heroine she could think of thus attired was Cathy at the start of Wuthering Heights – and the ghostly apparition had been desperately weeping for Mr Lockwood to open the window and let her inside. And then she found herself once more on the wild and rolling heath, as night closed in around her and the wind whipped her face and a hand reached for her and thrust her to the ground. Henry/Heathcliff loomed over her, his dark curls and gipsy eyes now taking on a menacing quality. As he held her struggling body down, she suddenly recognised her father’s features and remembered why she had entered the cupboard – but it was no longer a haven of safety but a place where he could continue to terrorise her.
After he had left, she lay still for a while, her bruised and battered body trying to make sense of it all. There was now nowhere left to hide. The imaginary land she had retreated to ever since the abuse started was part of her nightmare; and as the key turned in the lock, she knew it had become her prison.