There was this girl who loved the scent of mothballs and wool.
One day an old Fair Isle jumper, knitted by her grandma, made its way to her. She was going to wash it – unfortunately mothballs weren’t a socially acceptable fragrance – but first she pressed it against her face and sniffed at it.
The first breath reminded her of her grandparents, and their house. It had been a big old place in the country, surrounded by green hills, where stories were almost visible among the trees. Inside, the warm rooms were full of curiosities, and cookies, and hugs.
The second breath nearly broke her heart. Her grandparents were dead now. Their house in the country was sold years ago. She had some of their things, but it wasn’t the same. It was all over, all gone.
The third breath brought back the memory of magic doors. When she was little she had climbed into her grandma’s old wooden wardrobe. She had crunched mothballs underfoot, and pushed through woollen jumpers and coats to find…a solid wooden back.
This girl decided to start searching for magic doors again.
People told her that books themselves were doorways to other worlds. And inside the books were more doorways she could pass through in imagination. She could step into a secret, neglected garden; a park full of friendly ghosts; a dungeon where a good pirate lay in pain; a vast underground palace full of gold and jewels.
But imaginary doors weren’t enough.
She started with her own garden gate, on a rainy day. It looked mysterious, but it only led to soaked grass and falling autumn leaves. Pretty, but not what she was looking for.
The park near her house had a tall, wrought-iron gate that nobody ever opened, because the rest of the park was unfenced. But what if, when it opened, it led to somewhere different? It swung ajar with a creak, and she stepped through. No. Just beds of roses and gravel paths.
She climbed into a wardrobe in an old antique shop, and managed to knock on the back before the owner dragged her out. “That’s much too old and fragile to stand in!” It didn’t matter. It was solid wood.
She opened an emergency exit door at the doctor’s surgery. Wouldn’t a magic doorway choose a disguise like that, to hide itself? But it just set off a deafening alarm. She stopped at the reception to apologise and explain, half-hoping they might say there was another door, in a lonely hall, that sometimes led somewhere different… But they only laughed and said they’d let her go this time.
By now, she knew what she was looking for. She wanted the place where she was guided but free to think and choose… protected but walked in adventures… warm in a moth-ball-scented woollen jumper against the bracing winds she loved… well-fed and running wild.
She wanted her grandparents and their old house and her childhood.
Is that why we love magic doors so much?
Because they represent yearning, and hope, and escape? But it could be more than that.
Maybe it’s because we live in a world that’s like a hallway. We walk through it all our lives, then one day we open the door to somewhere different: to the place where we really belong. Maybe we’re aware of this on some level. We’re on the lookout for a new, better world.
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
–Revelations 21:4 NIV
But if this is the door we’re all seeking, consciously or not, we can’t find it until the time is right.
This girl was getting impatient.
She was about to give up. Then she noticed one more door.
A small, faded red door, set in a little brick building with a slanted roof disappearing into the grass. Its lintel reached to her waist, and ivy crept across it, hiding the handle.
She wavered about opening it. It would be locked. It would be a storage room. It wasn’t worth it.
She knocked, just in case, then pushed back the ivy and tried the handle. She was right. It was locked, and wouldn’t budge.
But footsteps were echoing inside. Locks clicked, and the ivy snapped as the door swung inwards.
Steam billowed out, with a sweet clean smell of starch. Inside the door there stood a hedgehog in an apron and an old-fashioned cap.
“This door has never been opened.”
This girl blinked, and the steam cleared. It wasn’t a hedgehog, only a man in a white coat and a hairnet. He stood a few steps below, bending over to look up at her through the little doorway.
He didn’t question her, but trotted off down a curving stair. She stepped over the loose ivy, squeezed through the doorway and followed. The smell of starch grew stronger. The air was damp, and her hair lifted and curled. She could hear the clang of machinery. She was going down into another world.
The stairs emerged in a warm, dim room. The clanging was louder. Metal tubs gleamed in the shadows. Someone spun a wheel and a big door opened with a glare of light, and closed again. The room seemed darker than before. A foul smell billowed towards her and was smothered by the scent of soap. A paddle stirred blue, bubbly water. Wet fabric moved on a conveyor belt, disappearing into the floor.
She could see people moving in the dimness. What was this place?
Was there some magic happening, or was she in a different part of the everyday world?
She followed the man down and around more stairs. The next room was hot and filled with steam. She could see less than before, but the squeaks and the rumbling of gears told her something was spinning.
The man stooped to open a trapdoor, and a seal popped. They went down more stairs, and into a bright room where the air was dry but somehow filled with clouds. White shapes floated, dropped, shrank into nothing. She blinked, and saw people folding clean linen.
Fluffy towels lay in mountains. Folded clean sheets were stacked to the ceiling. People came and went, piling more clean washing, and smiling at her. Another sheet flicked, and she recognised a printed logo. Now she knew where she was. This was the laundry for the local hospital.
“You’re work experience.”
The man wasn’t asking. He swiped and typed on a tablet.
“I’m not, but can I be?”
“We always need more help.”
She told him her details, then put on a hairnet and a white coat. She helped Hedda load soiled linen into the washing machine, trying not to breathe deeply. When it was clean she helped Tip, the hedgehog man, scrape it into the rinser-sanitiser. She took her turn dragging the heavy wet fabric onto the conveyor belt, and watched it drop through into the drying room. She pulled hot crackling sheets, towels, blankets and pillow cases from the dryer, and folded them in the bright cosy room with Steve and Kim.
With each breath, memories drifted back to her. She was lying in a hospital bed with a broken collar bone; they were rushing her feverish little sister to the emergency room; she was watching her grandparents deteriorate. The pain eased as she rested her shoulder against a pillow. She felt the comfort of clean sheets and blankets over her; the relief of being under the hands of experts; the confidence that people she loved were cared for.
This girl forgot how time was passing until everyone paused and looked at the clock. Then she felt the ache in her arms and shoulders.
“It’s time to go.”
She wanted to argue, but didn’t. They’d all been working hours longer than she had. Farewells were over too quickly, and soon she was up the long, curving stairway and out on the street. Tip locked the door behind her.
The next day she rode her bike past the same door. The ivy had crept across it again, hiding the handle. But when she breathed deeply, she caught the faint scent of starch and steam. It brought warmth and cosiness, and thoughts of Kim, Hedda, Tip and all the others, and the magic they wove to protect and comfort the helpless.
This girl knew she couldn’t vanish through a magic door yet. She still had work to do, too; things to find and learn; and adventures to live.
This girl has promises to keep
And miles to go before she sleeps.
–Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost (adapted)
If you’ve ever looked for a magic door, comment and tell me if you found anything (if you dare!); or let me know if you can guess the names of the stories with doors mentioned in the post.
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Thanks for reading 🧡