The eye sees not itself but by reflection. – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I,ii)
I’ve been thinking a great deal about reflections of late. Not just in the literal sense, but also in a figurative one; I mean, we all spend so much of our lives reacting to things, don’t we? One action or situation causes something else to react to it, to reflect from it as a beam of light reflects from a mirror. Take my mum, for instance; had she not been born in a Victorian bordello, would she have become such an awful prude? And had she been less tightly-wound, would I have been so loose? She was like a left-handed reflection of my grandmother, and I in turn a reverse-image of her. Granny’s actions made her a wealthy woman, and my mum’s aversion to using what she considered a tainted legacy inadvertently preserved it all for my sister and I; then I in turn was shaped in part by not ever having to worry about money. Each generation reflecting from the one before it, endlessly into the past and future, like the row of images one sees when one faces two mirrors toward one another…an endless corridor stretching out in either direction, forever.
Near the end of the Twenties Granny decided she was too old for that sort of thing, and really couldn’t keep up any more. The place had declined quite a bit since its heyday in the Mauve Decade, but it was still very lucrative and could no doubt have supported Mum in fine style. But she would have none of it; though she had followed Granny into the business as expected, she never really embraced it, and as my sister Julia reached school age Mum began to fret about the effect of bringing her up in “that kind” of environment (meaning the same one she had been brought up in; my mother was not the most logical of women). She and Granny had a terrible row, and she stormed out with Julia; they didn’t speak again for several years. Granny sold the business, bought a lovely little place in a small village in Lincolnshire and retired to go bird-watching and fuss with roses. Mum opened a millinery shop, eventually married and was blessed with her only legitimate offspring (meaning me) in ’36. Undoubtedly she intended that I would never meet my grandmother, but Hitler had other plans; when it came time to evacuate us things were hastily patched up, I was given into the custody of Julia (who was seventeen then), and the two of us were bundled out to the country for the duration.
Looking back on it now, I can’t remember thinking of Granny as anything other than an absolutely marvelous old lady who was never too strict about how many biscuits I might have before tea. What I mean is, she seemed much of a muchness with the friends’ grandmothers I had known in London, only more attentive to me (as was to be expected). Nor did I sense anything odd about the relations between she and Mum when the latter came up for one of her frequent visits, though I do remember asking Julia why Dad never came up with her, and never receiving a satisfactory answer. Granny passed peacefully in her sleep in November of ’44; not long after that Julia (who had long since returned to London) married an American bomber pilot, and after the war they moved to California. Then in ’51 Dad (who was ten years older than Mum) succumbed to a heart attack, and that left me alone with an increasingly pious, frustrating and overprotective Mum who seemed to believe that demons were lurking behind every lamp-post and plotting to steal my virtue. I couldn’t get out of the house soon enough to suit me, and I’m a bit ashamed to say that I was less sorry than is proper when she followed Dad via stroke in ’63.
So there I was: barely twenty-seven, beautiful and rich; good business sense runs in the family, and my mother’s business was so healthy its sale more than tripled the trust fund Granny had established for me twenty years before. Most importantly, I was unencumbered by anything remotely resembling a chaperon. As you might expect I went a bit mad, but only socially: when it came to money, I was just as hard-headed and shrewd as Mum and Granny had been. Though I was willing to spend a bit more on a Highgate townhouse than was strictly prudent, I wasn’t about to buy all sorts of new furniture when there was plenty of lovely stuff in storage, much of it things from Granny’s brothel that she had been unwilling to lose when she sold it. And one of those items is the reason for my waxing philosophical of late, and for my writing this.
As I said there were many fine pieces, including some genuine antiques. And one of them was a huge mirror, large enough to cover most of the wall of a small chamber. I say “mirror” because that’s what it evidently was, though the glass had apparently undergone some curious degeneration which turned it a murky black. An expert pronounced the frame Elizabethan, but of a most peculiar design; he said it was almost unheard-of for one so large and so old to have survived with the glass intact, and offered me a ridiculous sum for it. But I was absolutely in love with it and had no need of more money, and I was sure this must have occupied some parlour in my Granny’s old brothel. The fact that it was useless as a looking-glass was immaterial; it was gorgeous and started many a conversation at my frequent parties. And that was even before the glass cleared.
It had occupied my wall for several years when the change came. One night, several of us were sitting on the floor dropping acid, when there was suddenly a strange shift in the appearance of the glass, as though one patch of the blackness had been suddenly stripped away and light was coming through from behind it. The rest rapidly cleared, and then I saw the image of two people in the glass…that is, two people who were not among those in the room. I immediately called my friends’ attention to it, but the view was gone as suddenly as it had appeared; however, it was now a perfectly normal, utterly clean reflective surface. The next day I put the fleeting glimpse of strange figures down to the action of the psychedelic, but the change in the glass was no hallucination: it now reflected the room as though I had replaced the darkened pane with a new sheet of glass. And that, in fact, is what the antique dealer angrily accused me of when I called to ask him how such a thing could happen; he angrily stormed out and cautioned me against wasting his time again in future.
My friends were not so irate as the expert when I told them what had happened, but were no more willing to believe; everyone insisted I was just trying to create a sense of mystery, or hinted that I had been doing too many drugs or watching too many Hammer films. So I stopped trying to convince anyone, and had almost stopped worrying about it when early one morning, while my guest was still upstairs asleep, I wandered into the room and once again saw the image of people – three of them this time – who were absolutely not there with me, despite the fact that I was absolutely sober. And though I use the word “people”, it was clear that these were not wholly human; they resembled us in much the same way as one breed of dog looks like another one: same general features, yet unmistakably different. The vision persisted for only a minute, and by the time I had made up my mind that this was not a figment of my imagination it once again showed only a normal reflection.
The phenomenon repeated itself infrequently and irregularly over the next few years. I was afraid, but not to the point of having it crated up again; after all, they were just images, startling but harmless, and Granny had apparently displayed it for decades without mishap. Furthermore, that was an era of exploration and expanding of consciousness; I was convinced that the images were a psychic manifestation rather than a supernatural one, perhaps an attempt at communication by beings from some other dimensional plane. But the glimpses of that world remained sporadic and wholly unpredictable, and eventually they began to unnerve me so much that I decided to return the glass to the state in which I had found it, stored in a dark crate.
I have not looked upon it in over thirty years now, and to be honest I hadn’t even thought about it in over a decade; that may seem strange to you, my dear, but you must remember that it was a very different time in many ways. But in the process of going over my affairs, I saw it listed in my notes and realized I should tell you about it, since you’ll be inheriting it soon. I’m almost eighty now, and though modern medicine allowed me to survive the event which killed my mother (and no doubt hers), sooner or later I must succumb. You may decide to write this off as an aberration of your senile old Granny who did far too many drugs in her youth, and perhaps you’d be right to; it may be that it was my imagination after all. But before you decide to display it or sell it, consider this: What if the appearance of the mirror, whether black or reflective or a window into an alien world, is controlled from the other side? And during those long periods when we can’t see them…