This house is more than old memories. It’s like a museum, a mausoleum.
Or a moment of catastrophe, preserved like a body trapped under pumice and ash.
36 Westeryk Road
The crumbling, creepy old house in Mirrorland is haunted by all that has happened inside its crimson red walls, because it symbolises something that must be confronted, a history that cannot be escaped.
It’s also a real place. The eccentric 200-year-old Georgian house in Leith, Edinburgh where my grandparents lived. It has been in my life—and mind—for a very long time, and has appeared in many guises in many short stories over the years. It was probably inevitable that I would write a novel about it someday. The house is where my mum grew up, and where my sister and I spent every Christmas and most of our holidays throughout the 80s and 90s. The big and gloomy listed building couldn’t have been more exciting or different from our sensible suburban bungalow. A lot of the elements of 36 Westeryk Road have been lifted wholesale from my memories: the high-ceilinged and wood-panelled rooms crammed with mismatched antique furniture, every spare inch of wall covered in china plates and framed pictures; the Throne Room, the art-deco bar, the servant bell pull system (electronic and Victorian rather than the older Downton Abbey-style bell board in Mirrorland). The high-walled back garden and orchard, including the best climbing-tree in the world, Old Fred. And, of course, the stoic little washhouse and long wooden-roofed alleyway: the components of Mirrorland itself.
The house was freezing—it had no central heating—so we would run around to stay warm, playing hide-and-seek, sardines, wink-murder. There was a ghost in our bedroom called Beatrice, a witch in the vaulted cellar, and faeries under the rockery at the bottom of the garden. I often remember hiding in the dark, waiting to be found, convinced I could hear someone breathing behind me.
When my grandparents died and the house was sold, it felt almost as if we were losing another family member. I remember we spent a last evening in the house—aunts, uncles, and cousins—sitting eating takeaway on the floor of the dining room, its walls stripped of all but its gold wallpaper. And then we said goodbye to the house together.
Because that crumbling, creepy old house might have been a little crazy and a lot rundown, but it meant something to all of us. It was our past. Our history. It was the place we came back to; the place where we were together. Families will always have their fair share of secrets and betrayals. But home will always be home. And love—in all of its forms, good and bad—will always be love. That, more than anything, is what I wanted Mirrorland to be about.
There’s a darkness all around us, and I can feel it close in. The fire crackles.
I can hear the grandfather clock tick, tick, ticking in the shadow of the hallway.
And all around us the house groans and breathes and laughs.
Mirrorland is the imaginary childhood world created by identical twin sisters, Cat and El. Full of pirates and brigantines; witches, outlaws, and Clowns, it’s as imaginative and exciting and deliciously creepy as a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. As Wonderland, Neverland, Narnia or Middle Earth. Kids have wickedly dark imaginations—I can remember the terrible games my sister and I used to come up with (Murder O’clock was a favourite, as was another where we had to keep one step ahead of hairless witches who wanted to boil our bones for soup). Cat and El can only get to Mirrorland through a door that is hidden inside a cupboard in the pantry. But Narnia wasn’t the inspiration behind it—at least not directly. Just as the house in Mirrorland is real, so is that door to Mirrorland. Kind of.
When my sister and I and our cousins were running around that big, creepy old house, one of our favourite games to play was sardines. It’s a pretty common childhood game—like hide-and-seek, except that only one person hides and everyone else seeks. Once you find the hider, you have to join them, until everyone is hiding in the same place except for the last seeker—who is then the loser. Sardines, therefore, can only really be played in big, creepy old houses. You need a lot of room. And a lot of hiding places.
Once upon a time, Mirrorland was rich and full and alive. Gloriously frightening and steadfastly safe.
Exciting beyond measure.
Hidden. Special. Ours. Magic.
The room at the back of my grandparents’ house was not the Pantry, but the Sewing Room. It was long and thin and freezing cold. Along one exterior wall was a vast wooden cupboard. And you could climb up into that cupboard. So, of course, it was a great—if obvious—choice of hiding place in a game of sardines.
It was also a bit scary. Because it was dark. And the Sewing Room was far enough away from all other rooms that it was also very quiet. And, I may have mentioned, it was freezing. I vividly remember crouching down at the back of that cupboard behind racks of clothes in a hanging queue to be mended, my legs and feet going slowly numb as I waited—hoped—to be found. It’s not actually that much fun hiding in the dark in a crumbling, creepy old house—especially if you have a pretty active imagination.
There was a door in the back of that cupboard. A proper, full-sized door. I can even remember what it looked like: it had four vertical panels and was painted white. In some places, the paint was peeling, revealing the dark wood underneath. It had a glossy round cream handle that rattled. The door was always locked. And it never once occurred to me to wonder why there was a full-sized door in the back of a cupboard, much less why it was set into an exterior wall that was at least eight feet above ground level—a locked door that went nowhere. Because I knew, of course, that it went somewhere. I knew that one day while I was hiding in the back of that cupboard the door would open. If not onto a snowy winter forest and a tall Victorian lamp post, then somewhere. Somewhere that only kids could go. Somewhere exciting and wicked and wonderfully creepy.