When the cold weather swept in, the front-door lock jammed again. Late back on a Wednesday, I found myself standing in a brisk glacial breeze while I jiggled and jiggled the key. I knew there was a trick with it, because it had done this before, and keys, like ourselves, are creatures of habit. This one either liked to be pushed in to the limit, forcefully, or retracted just a little in a mild and forgiving way, letting key and lock gracefully engage. (It is hard to spend much time with keys without sliding into eroticism.)
Unfortunately I couldn’t remember which approach worked, so I tried both, many times. It was only a Yale lock. If I’d had a fish-slice on me I could have prised it open. (Memo: hide fish-slice in garden.) My hands froze into stupidity. How often down the centuries have people stood as I was standing, doubting both the instrument and the door and, at last, themselves, vaguely presuming that they will be barred for ever? How long has one small piece of metal been so artfully cut that it can either smoothly and courteously admit you, or make sure you never, never get in? (A very long time: Roman keys were much like ours. One of the most poignant objects from Pompeii is a fused bunch of keys found by the beach, so precious and now so useless.) How often have we stood amid the screaming scraping of the locksmith’s shop, or the murky banging of the forge, marvelling at what a difference just one jig of the lathe, pulse of the hammer, or millimetre make.
We can open doors in other ways now. In many hotels a swipe of a card has replaced the small key on an enormous fob. Yet they often need that same, slow intricate courtship before they flash green and grant you entry. I could install a biometric lock on my front door which, after longingly observing my eyes, would admit me like a passport gate. Yet that seems an intrusion too far.
Perhaps we have sung too long about keys of the heart, put on our lockets with their tiny keys, and promised to keep secrets under lock and key. As Ophelia tells her brother Laertes in “Hamlet”, pledging to remember his patronising advice: “Tis in my memory lock’d,/And you yourself shall keep the key of it.” What else conjoins affection and security so neatly?
They are also keen symbols of hope. When Alice goes down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, she finds a tiny golden key lying on a table of glass. It opens a door she is too big to get through – for the moment – but beyond it lies a beautiful garden. Little keys speak of musical boxes, treasure caskets, inner compartments of desks containing letters bound with aribbon.
I never throw keys away, even when they seem to belong nowhere, for the very lock may eventually turn up for which they were expressly made. An ancient Chubb sits in my kitchen drawer with its wards wrapped in a label, on which my husband has written: “Useful key”. Useful for what? Ah. You never know.
So here I stand, jiggling the key in the front-door lock again, and again. I might be some medieval steward excluded from my castle, or Samuel Pepys in 1663, “vexed, having left my keys in my other pocket in my chamber, and my door is shut...” I can do no better, and no other.•