I’d been having a bad time of it when I locked myself out of the flat. I couldn’t afford a locksmith, and the friend who had my spare key was away. All I could do was phone my friend Rory and ask if I could stay a few nights.
-Actually, I’ve got a friend who can help, he said.
-What, he’s a locksmith?
-She’s a she. And sort of. I’ll give her a call and see if she can come round.
Rory arrived with Elaine about an hour later. She stood behind him, not looking me in the eye. Elaine was quiet, hair tied back from a serious face. She seemed too delicate to be a locksmith and carried no tools. I decided she probably had some special gadget – perhaps all the tools and gubbins locksmiths normally carried were for show. She’d not even called ahead to ask what type of lock I had, which made me think she knew some special trick.
We stood awkward on the stairs and chatted about the weather. I wanted to get inside and get some sleep, but it seemed rude to hurry things. Finally, Rory turned to Elaine and asked:
– Can my friend stay and watch?
Elaine glared at him.
– I’ve known him for fifteen years, Rory explained. You can trust him.
– Fine, she sighed. Just don’t get in the way, OK? And don’t tell anyone what you see.
– I won’t, I said.
– Seriously. You promise?
– I promise.
I was still expecting some special gadget. Instead the woman knelt down in front of the lock. She just put her face close to the keyhole, too close for her to see it properly, lips just short of kissing it. Rory and I didn’t speak and could hear Elaine whispering. Within twenty seconds there was a click and my door creaked open an inch.
– That’s an easy one, said Elaine
One night, lying in bed, Elaine told me how she learned about locks.
Her brother had dreamed of being an escapologist. He was fifteen months older than her and infuriated their parents. He’d get into trouble at school, or clumsily break ornaments. Elaine did her best to prevent arguments, but there was nothing she could do when Adam started playing at escapology.
Adam refused to keep the keys for his locks – he threw them away, so he’d have more incentive to get free. After the first couple of times his parents would regularly search his room, but he still managed to hide locks and chains. After he was found cuffed to a radiator for the third time in a week, Elaine decided to do something.
Of course, she had no idea where to start. She bought three padlocks with some leftover Christmas money and sat in the dark, playing with them, trying to figure how they worked, talking to them.
Elaine wasn’t quite sure how it happened – she’d never managed to explain it to anyone – but she had a knack. Elaine could persuade locks to open. But she was adamant it must be a secret.
– If too many people find out, she said, it won’t work.
– How do you know that?
– I just do. Same as I know how to open the locks.
Her bedroom was full of old padlocks she’d collected. They dangled open from loops of string attached to the ceiling. On her dresser was a massive lock, three hundred years old, she told me.
Elaine said that sometimes the locks talked back. Occasionally they complained, about the scrapes felt from an incorrect key, or the jabs of a badly cut one.
– Locks don’t use words, she said. But they give off vibrations, sort-of-feelings. Some are clenched tight; others are all serious and workmanlike. And padlocks are happiest when they’re open: you can just tell. They don’t mind protecting something – it’s what they’re made for – but they hate being left locked around nothing.
When she spoke about them, you could tell – Elaine loved locks.
I woke up in the night and saw Elaine wasn’t beside me, the duvet flat where she should have been. Probably gone for a glass of water, or to use the toilet; but what, I thought, if she was speaking to my doors? She could be researching the tiny details of my life, asking the locks who had visited, what times I’d come and gone.
I crept out of bed and into the hall. At the far end I could see light beneath the bathroom door. I went back to bed, slipped under the covers and pretended to sleep. The door creaked open and the bathroom light clicked off, then Elaine’s bare feet padded back to bed. She was soon asleep, breath puttering quietly, as I lay staring at the ceiling. I had no intention of cheating on Elaine – I loved her, I honestly believe I did. But I didn’t like the idea of not being able to keep secrets if I ever needed to, even if I couldn’t think of what those secrets might be.
I could hardly ask her never to talk to my doors, could I? It had to end. As much as I loved her, I couldn’t spend my life with someone I could never have secrets from.