#39 Tunnel No. 1

 I started writing this in January after having a strange dream which was partly a memory from a recent holiday, and partly a weird mixture of things I’ve been researching lately. I’ve tried to coalesce these ideas here in a kind of magic realist monster story. Hope you enjoy!

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Image: Ponttovuori tunnel by Tiia Monto: Wikipedia Commons.

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Victor stood on the dark river bank and watched the small motions of the water. It would have been generous to call them waves, he thought. It made him sad just looking at the lapping futility of those tiny ripples touching his shoes. Something about being cooped up in that place, hour after hour in the dim light with the smell of stagnant water all around him made him feel scooped out; hollowed like a shucked oyster. Faces of co-workers blurred in and out of his field of vision, blobs on the periphery, flitting in between trees. They ceased to be individual people, and became like darting shadows, or memories. The sounds of the boats creaking into their moorings, of chatter, and of the last passengers disembarking onto the bank had now died away to almost nothing. Victor had finished his final sweep of area and was simply waiting to be sent home. A headache was clustering behind his eyes. It had started as he began extinguishing the torches. Now he could see their flames every time he blinked, and he could smell the paraffin on his clothes.

Over on the other bank, Tim was flirting with someone. Victor knew who it was without having to look up. She gave muted responses Victor could barely hear. He should have asked her out years ago, but there was never a good time. The music was cut off abruptly. The main spotlights extinguished with a finality, a resounding click which echoed around the cavern. A kind of strained calm descended like a heavy curtain falling. Feelings on top of feelings layered up at the back of Victor’s mind like a scrap heap. He tossed them into some hidden part of himself as if they held nothing of value. He worried that they were worse than useless, that they were slowly but surely poisoning him; rotting carcases poisoning a stream. It was the end of a long day, and he had worked too hard. He had been staring too long into the water.

On the other side of what passed for a sand bar coated in a chattering of palm trees, he saw Rose looking at him. She was pulling an empty boat back in to shore, securing it with a thick rope to the jetty. Her black hair glinted liquorice in the almost moonlight. Her arms with their fine hairs were strong. She had a sweet face. Victor wanted to love her more than anything else in the whole world, but he never had the energy. Words just fell out his mouth like accidents. It wasn’t that he was too nervous, or didn’t have the courage. He was incapable. Someone had cut all the wires inside so he no longer worked properly.

“Hey bud,” he felt a hand slap his shoulder.

“You alright?” Joseph’s hand was wet. Victor felt it soak through the back of his polo shirt.

“Fine, fine.”

Joseph shifted a little. “Almost done for the night, but there’s a boat got stuck back in Tunnel One.”

“You want me to go get it?”

Joseph’s face fell down into a sloppy sort of smile, like someone had pulled away a beam somewhere.

“Oh, would you? That would be great, my shoulder’s getting a little, you know,” he made a show of rolling the shoulder round in the joint, rubbing it with a long pale hand. Joseph probably had a date tonight.

“Sure, go on home.”

Tunnel One was a quite a walk away. You could follow the route the designated path led you along, winding up and through several cold, stone corridors lined by torches. With these now extinguished, and only the guide lights to walk by, it was easy to miss the right turning. Besides, it would be quicker to stay on the bank and just stumble across the scenery. You weren’t supposed to, strictly, but everyone did it. Rose called to Victor as he hopped his way along the sand towards the first of the tunnels, but Victor only waved at her. Her downturned eyes had a haunted look as she watched him pass out of reach. She might wait for him to be finished with this last task so that they could walk to the carpark together, she might, or she might not. Maybe this time she would just give up.

When you really love someone, truly, you will do everything you can to keep from hurting them. It’s as simple as a reflex. Victor had observed it. Had felt it for himself. You could want to hurt them in an instant, but the minute you see what that hurt might mean, you pull back. You can’t really do it. Victor knew that, and so it was easier to be with girls who didn’t think twice about hurting him. That way, he didn’t owe them anything. He appreciated rather than enjoyed the machinations of the girls who wanted the things they could achieve through him. It made him feel needed in a way he could easily dispose of. Victor just couldn’t take Rose pining for him gently all the way over there on the bank like that for no good reason at all except that she loved him. It felt like that kind of investment in him, as a man, was something beyond him. It was more than he had been brought up to expect.

Tunnel Four was short enough. It had a thin lip on either side that allowed you to slink along with your back to the wall. Victor had gotten pretty good at moving that way, he was light on his feet. The truth was that he liked to explore the cavern sometimes. He liked being alone in the dark, it was only sometimes that he felt that ache in his stomach and the feeling that he was choking. It was the people, mostly, not the river, or the darkness, or the artificial palms. People had expectations, and he liked it when he could fulfil them. When he couldn’t, he choked.

Victor passed out into his favourite part of the ride. It was the main scene, where the huge model pirate ship loomed out at you from the third tunnel with the sound of cracking cannons and the sulphurous smoke billowing automatically from her sides. The ship was silent now, all her lights extinguished, but the smoke still lingered to give the air a sickly sweet smell. The waters here were rippling still, though no boats troubled them. The tourists were long gone. It gave Victor pause. He stood at the entrance to Tunnel Three and watched the little waves reverberating outwards. His walkie talkie buzzed at his hip. It was Maurice in the command tower.

“Anyone in there still?” the voice crackled.

Victor pulled the walkie talkie up, and pressed the button with a quick flick of his thumb.

“Can’t see anybody here, Chief. Ride closed half an hour ago.”

He could almost feel Maurice sighing. It made him nervous.

“Ah, forget it. You getting the boat?”

“Yeah, how come you asked?”

“What?” The signal was a little jumpy.

“About there being someone here.”

“Oh,” there was hesitation which might just have been a time lag.

“Oh, well, it’s just our numbers for the last boat were off by one, that’s all.”

“…when you did the transfer?”

“Yeah, switched folks from Boat Two to Boat three. Boat Two got stuck in the tunnel again, but it was the last of the day so we just left it there.”

“Better than being on train tracks eh Chief?”

“Yeah,” Maurice chuckled. He had worked for all the major themeparks at one time or another. Too many animatronics, he used to say. Too much to go wrong. Here they had real sand with real boats, even if the palms were plastic.

“Maybe someone miscounted when they loaded the boat up. It’s late,” Victor’s voice had a shrug in it.

“Yeah, yeah maybe” Maurice seemed to be receding into the static. “But you know, Tunnel One…”

There was a pause.

“Yeah. It’s that Déjà vu feeling again,”

Victor didn’t really know what to say. He aimed for flippant but missed.

Maurice’s voice said something which sounded like “Bermuda Triangle,” but the words became distorted and the walkie talkie cut off.

Victor became acutely aware of where he was. It was as if the immediate silence caused by the cut off signal had pounced on him from all around. The waters rippled and the great ship sat, fat bellied, empty of life, staring at him.

Victor continued on through Tunnel Three and out into Pirate Town. Only the guide lights shone so the parapets and mannequins cast uneven shadows onto the set. Bluebeard’s beady black eyes glimmered under the small spotlights beaming up feebly from the ground. These lights were hidden in plastic shrubbery, covered in coloured gels, so that they bathed the figures in an eerie crimson glow. The pirates’ skin had a waxy look up close. Some had scuff marks, peeling patches you couldn’t see from the boats. Their hair was stiff with dust. Only some had the capability of movement. All looked as if they might have some deeply disturbing level of sentience when you turned your back on them, as if there was something staring out beneath the waxen surface that resented imprisonment. Victor stopped and rubbed his face with his hands. His skin felt creepy. There was a breeze coming from somewhere. He was tired. He pushed on past the inhabitants of Pirate Town and into Tunnel Two.

The Cove had a different kind of light. It shimmered in lilacs and aquamarines and the underwater lighting gave the river a lagoon-like quality. Victor enjoyed being in The Cove like this, without the larger spotlights on it seemed even more magical. It didn’t matter to him that he couldn’t clearly see the rag-tag skeletons or the fake treasure chests with their plastic rubies and tin foil doubloons. Two mermaids’ tails hung down over the peak of a rock, and their scales glittered. Engorged, naked breasts sat on their chests like crème puffs with cherry-red nipples, but the top half of the bodies were cast in heavy shadow. There was only the suggestion of something round and inviting, nothing parents could complain about, if they saw it. And if they saw it – as Maurice always used to say – then they really had to be looking. Victor gazed longingly up at them. They were grotesque and silent. Their bodies had no heads. Victor wondered whether Rose had waited for him after all. Shame crawled over him like insects. He usually enjoyed being in this part of the ride most of all, but today it seemed somehow alien to him, like he was seeing it for the first time.

Tunnel One lay ahead, just a wide gaping mouth. There was no light from within, and no sound except a rhythmic slapping. The boat must be trapped inside, its rudder caught on something on the river bed, its prow jammed in an outcropping of rock. It wasn’t the first time. Tunnel One was a bugbear for the guides, and it was the first tunnel they came to. The traffic jams were a major headache for Maurice, who said he was waiting on the go-ahead from the Operations Manager to close the ride for a few days to get that section patched. It was just everyday stuff. But Tunnel One had this reputation. Sometimes people were miscounted when they were placed in boats. Sometimes you could have sworn there were people who went in and didn’t come out. Lone travellers, always. Never families, never couples, never children. Rose swore blind she knew a man who had vanished in Tunnel One. That was six months ago, and she was still jumpy. Then there was Gloria, who had worked with them for a little while. Tall, always in pigtails, Gloria had a loud laugh and liked to pinch the other guides in the dark just for a joke. One day she forgot to clock out at the end of her shift, and never came back. Last time Rose had seen her she was heading into Tunnel One.

Victor pushed his thoughts away like he was pushing hairs out of his eyes. They did him no good, he told himself. The breeze was starting to annoy him. He thought he could hear rain tapping on the roof of the cavern above and felt a momentary chill sweep through him. This was no time to get the ghoulies. He got to moving. He passed through the entrance to the tunnel and the sound of rain vanished. The tapping of the boat against the cave lip was constant, and gentle, but on the other side to where he was poised. Victor made a calculated hop, which should have been enough to carry him across, but it wasn’t. It was if the air had pushed him, mid step. He had slammed into something which couldn’t have been there. Victor landed on his back in the river with a splash, his mouth filled with the rancid taste of stagnant, chlorinated water. He gasped and pushed towards the boat, treading water until he could find his feet. The waterline came up to his neck. It was dark; Tunnel One had no lights. It was supposed to freak out the passengers while spooky pirate music blared out of the speakers before dropping them into The Cove with a splash. The way the tunnel rose up slightly towards the entrance and curved around meant that only a meagre amount of light from the scene ahead spilled in. Victor fumbled for the side of the boat and tried to shake it loose, but something had it well and truly jammed. He struggled with it, having to hold his breath for bouts while he dipped beneath the water. That was when he felt something touch him. Reaching under his shirt to place a cold hand on the small of his back. He spun round, spluttering water but it was too dark too see anything.

“Hey!” he shouted, not liking the way his voice echoed throughout the tunnel. It sounded afraid.

Nothing answered.

Victor swam around the boat and tried to climb up onto the stone lip, but his feet couldn’t settle on a foothold. The stone edge was too slippery for his hands. It was like the water wouldn’t let him go. Panic started in his stomach and spread upwards. He tried to stay calm, and breath deeply. He placed both his hands on the ledge and tried to think of the coolness of the stone and the water seeping into him and making him numb, emotionless. Somewhere far off he thought he heard Rose’s voice calling for him, but he couldn’t seem to call back. The little mind-trick was working, though, he was starting to feel a numbness creeping through his limbs, like slender hands stroking his skin. They reached up and around him, over his waist and chest, down his legs and up towards his collar bone. Whispers rose in the Tunnel, like twin voices. He felt a tugging.

“If I don’t feel anything I won’t lose it,” he said, mechanically.

The hands began to drag him slowly away from the edge, into the water. He saw shapes above him. He was being tugged from the waist downwards. The ground that had been beneath his feet moments ago now just seemed to fall away.  In the last of the light, Victor saw their roundness; their glittering bodies. It made him go limp. He knew them like he knew himself, he thought, and so he let them take hold of him. Their faces were not at all how he imagined them to be. Their skin was puffy and loose. They had cherry-red lips, but their eyes were pale and insipid, almost devoid of colour. He looked into their faces, longing to see the joy, and familiarity he felt, but their expressions were utterly passionless. Workmanlike, they pushed him down beneath them, wrapping his body in their long muscular tails. His hands flailed for them, but they were inconstant. They moved too fast for him to hold anything but air. Their greed for him was rabid, hungry and desperate. He would give them what they wanted for as long as they needed him. It was easier than resisting. It was good to be needed, to give until the point of exsanguination. To feel your own ego, obliterated by another. The waves licked his body in undulations as they pulled him down. Whispers slipped between his ears but breaking through the murmurs he heard Rose calling to him for the last time. There was a sharpness in his heart, and in his stomach. The hands which had been stroking him were claws. The two thoughts converged. He ripped open his lungs to scream but the water swallowed him up with a snap, leaving only ripples.

Rose had waited for Victor, but he never came. When his walkie talkie couldn’t be raised she and Maurice had converged upon The Cove without bothering to consult one another. Tunnel One was a empty; a silent column of darkness. The blue water shimmered as the rogue boat, now turned loose, drifted aimlessly. Rose began to shout out for Victor again, flashing her torch beam in wide arcs, its light penetrating beyond the tunnel mouth to reveal only walls and water. A feeling was creeping its way down her neck like an icicle. Maurice looked over her shoulder. He was making laboured breaths but no movements. He seemed to be trying to come to a decision. Together, they stood like that for a moment, staring into the tunnel, each thinking their own dark thoughts, and the boat slipped gently away behind them, carried off by the lapping waves.

It was then that Rose caught a faint suggestion in the air of a scent. Aftershave. The sound of rain on the cavern roof. A memory of an experience that wasn’t hers. Her name being called. She handed Maurice the torch, and jumped into the water. There was the remnant of a whisper in her ear and a vision of floating, bloated faces. She whirled around as an instinct pulled her gaze upwards towards the rock.

Nothing but a pair of plaster sphinxes. Headless, in the shadows.

Rose plunged into the tunnel, and tasted blood. The water was deeper than it should have been.

Somewhere in the depths, a voice was calling to her.

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#36 She Dreams the Souls of Books (for Jo West).

I wrote story for a dear friend, and beloved bookseller, Jo West. I’d like to thank Jo and her team for all their hard work in making the Blackwell’s University bookshop such a wonderful place for the University and wider community alike, and for doing so much to support local writers and creatives. The shop will be very much missed. Best of luck in future endeavours to Jo and the team. Eilís x

Photo by @eilisphillips : Christmas at Blackwell’s Portsmouth 2017. 

Blackwell's Christmas

The lights go out and there is a profound silence.

Display tables with neatly stacked books lurk as bulky shadows in the corners of her vision. Stray fingers of moonlight trespass across the carpet and she stays a minute, just to watch. This is only her second week. This place feels new, and different. She has been used to the quiet seeping in when the bright lights are switched off at the end of a long day. The tranquillity usually ignored because she must gather her things, make sure that she has not forgotten anything, and remember to set the alarm. She’d be out into the night before realising that a dull quiet had settled on the shelves, upon the books. That bookshop was huge. It had an entire wall of gadgets specifically designed for people who go into bookshops to buy gifts for family members once or twice a year in a rush, usually the family members who are otherwise impossible to buy for. That shop had a Children’s section that was like a creche, with rainbow painted shelves, and its own collection of battered stuffed toys. It had a roster of staff like a football team, complete with reserves who no one ever saw, expect at the Christmas party.

This bookshop is different. It’s old. It has a gentle, lingering smell, it breathes. She hasn’t gathered her things or made her way to the door yet. She doesn’t know why she has stopped, but there is something in the quiet that is nagging at her. She almost expects to see a whole shelf come tumbling down the minute her back is turned. But that’s silly, she says. Still, it’s almost as if the room is waiting. She listens. It’s as if there is a low-lying hum just below hearing, an electric current charging the air. She tuts, and gathers her bag, blaming the season, and that book of old ghost stories she leafed through over lunch. She checks she hasn’t forgotten anything, and heads across the moonlit carpet towards the backdoor. She feels it. The breeze over her shoulder, like a sigh.

Out in the cold winter night, she closes the door behind her, and listens, waiting for the alarm to beep into silence. This done she can go home with another day’s work behind her. Walking away down the street, the rhythmic click of her boot heels on the pavement is the only sound audible. More than once she turns her head to look back but the shop windows are swathed in darkness.

That night she dreams the souls of books. Flitting in and out of their pages, these are their stories, whispering to one another. Their shapes are various, but smokey, illuminated and shot through with moonlight. The gossamer winged souls of literary classics mingle with bohemian shades in the section on Modern Philosophy. Tortured, wraithlike wisps emanate from the shelf marked ‘Horror’ watched sadly from afar by the War Poetry. The Humanities textbook’s pages are riffled through by the souls of Mathematics tomes, who wear the faces of little old men, and frown deeply. But this is just a dream, she tries to tell herself, tossing and turning, half awake, half dreaming. Did I set the alarm? She wakes herself up quickly, panicked, then remembers, and falls back upon the pillow.

As she drifts back into sleep, she returns to the bookshop, where it has become somehow colder, and darker. Globe-shaped lights emerge from corners like will o the wisps. The souls of books have become goblin-limbed and creeping. They dance in a ring around the display showcasing ‘Local Interest’ and in sing-song mocking voices, they single out the books that are to be bought the next day, because they know, you see.

The door rattles. Someone wants in. She sees the figure at the glass and rushes to open it. But she is dreaming, and can only watch, as the door creaks open by itself. The shop has a new occupant. An old man, his face half hidden by a flat cap, a scarf pulled up towards his chin, shuffles in. His clothes are of thick cloth, in mustards, and browns. They remind her of items she has seen in charity shops, clothes her grandfather would have worn. The goblins scatter at the customer’s heavy footfalls, and as they run, they place a finger to their tiny lips and whisper SHHHHHhhhhhh! to the darkness.

The old man examines the shelves. He needs no light, knowing them just as well in the dark. He has been coming here for over 80 years, and as he shuffles slowly through the shop he inspects the books carefully before returning them to their stands. She has the feeling that he is studying them, one by one, intensely, as if committing them to memory. He picks up one book, and holds it, smiling deeply. He knows this one already, quite well. She watches him, and wonders what his story is, but by now dawn is breaking over the brow of the hill. Shops all along the main street are lit by a glow like the embers of a waking fire. The old man sighs. He turns, and nods to no one, and vanishes in the shadows of the dawn.

The next morning, she arrives to find leaves of frost have crept up across the panes of the windows of the old bookshop. The door handle feels like an icicle under her hand and she has to blow upon her fingers to bring the warmth back. Inside, she sees the pristine rows of books as she left them the night before, sleeping in their covers, awaiting their owners. Though she checks, feeling foolish, they are no wraiths haunting the shelves, no tiny, sooty, footprints around the ‘Local Interest’ display. Only one object is out of place. A book has fallen to the floor by the counter. The sunlight catches its cover, glinting. It is a history of the town. She bends to pick it up, and flicks gently through the pages. A photograph catches her eye, making her rest her thumb upon the spine to hold the book in place, at the picture of the old man. As she holds the book in her hand, looking down into the face of the shop’s founder, a shiver makes its way across her spine, and yet now she smiles, deeply.

 

35# November (For Portsmouth Bookfest)

I wrote this story for Premature Articulation, a Portsmouth Bookfest spoken word event in February 2018. Photo courtesy of longwallpapers.com 

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A man in an astronaut suit sat quietly in the corner of my yard with rain pouring down his face, his helmet on the wet ground beside him like a skid-marked egg.

It was November.

“The stress of re-entry can be hard on these older model suits,” he said, taking off first one puffy glove, and then the other.

I could barely think. I remember seeing myself reflected in the visor of his scuffed egg helmet, my silhouette stretched out of all proportion.

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused you.” He said.

I asked him how on earth he had come to be there, and he replied,

“I’m waiting for a signal. They’re usually quite efficient about recovery on these miscalculated drops but I’ll be honest, it could take days.” He sounded like an electrician giving an estimate.

“It’s alright,” I said, shaking.

He had a long nose which the rain trickled down; his lips forming a vulnerable bow. He was like a man waiting for a train; easy to trust because he made no sudden movements. Suddenly I found I was offering him a sandwich.

He stayed for nine days, and he refused to be entreated indoors, casually remarking that his suit handled all ‘biological imperatives’. I brought him sandwiches and cups of Ovaltine, which he seemed to enjoy particularly. We began to talk a lot. He would not be drawn on any details of his life and so instead we covered the minutiae of mine, and of grander things, like whether God existed, or the relative nature of the concept of time. He was happy with physics, and metaphysics, but when I tried to turn the conversation back his way, he would only sigh, and say, “I wish I could tell you, I truly do.”

At night, I found it increasingly hard to sleep. My bed was next to the wall which was the boundary between the house and the yard. I swore that as I lay with my head near to the wall, I could feel him breathing through the brick, feel his breath falling softly on my cheek. A steady rhythm, a heartbeat.

It amazes me how quickly I told him everything of importance.

The question, “Do you live alone?” solicited effortless from me, utter honesty.

“I have a partner. We’ve been together a long time. He wants to move in, I keep him at arm’s length. I just can’t see myself, in him. I can’t see him within me.”

He nodded, as if the data were interesting, but not useful. He was not collecting anything. I trusted him.

When my partner came around, the astronaut stayed in my backyard, hidden under a stretch of black tarpaulin some builders had left behind long ago.

I apologised for the arrangement but he simply replied:

“I’ll be fine here. It won’t affect my monitoring of the transmissions.”

I threw the tarpaulin over him and just before they were lost under the sheet, my eyes met his. It was something like an electric shock.

My partner didn’t notice a thing, except he had a habit of throwing his boots at the back door when he pulled them off – something I had previously tolerated. I squirmed.

“Not the backdoor,” I thought.

“and what?”  he said.

That night, he and I became intimate, but when it reached the bedroom I faltered. I was too close to the wall. He realised what time it was and fell asleep. I stayed half undressed and pressed my damp eyes to the wallpaper.

The next day I found the astronaut, monitoring.

“Hello,” he said as if nothing had happened.

“Will you talk to me a while?” I asked him.

When I finally went back to my laptop, my hands shook. When bedtime came, I found myself bringing him the Ovaltine, and as he took it from me he said,

“Are you really happy here, with things the way that they are?”

I bit my lip, and it bled a little. His eyes wandered to the place.

After that he came inside.

His skin felt like static; it was so soft and clean. Our movements were soundless, in sync. I grasped hold of him so tightly, to make sure he was real. He tasted like malted milk, and I felt the rhythm of his breath on my cheek as surely as I had felt it through the wall.

As the sun came up I said,

” I don’t know what to call you.”

“November is fine.” He replied.

Later, we drank Ovaltine, and I went out to clear my head. My skin tingled with static.

My partner rang, and after I hung up the phone, I wondered at how such a mundane conversation was now so impossibly laden with horror. All the way home it haunted me.

At home, the man, November, was back in his corner, reading one of my books.

“Marquez,” he said, his mouth turned down in a kind of appreciative expression. He pointed to the reviews on the back cover, “one of the greats.” he said.

“I love that book.” I replied.

“Do you mind me – ”

“Keep it,” I said. “Keep it forever.”

I strode back into the house. I suddenly wished away my words, and that I had said he might only borrow the book. As I was making the Ovaltine I felt a surge climb up my back, I felt my skin itch, like a subtle charge.

I rushed out to the yard with an ache of regret,

but it was empty,

and he was gone.

#32 The Library of Things No One Has a Use For

Image courtesy of bugtiger at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Dear Amelia,

Today I gave someone a gift. Only then did it dawn upon me that gift giving can be a crime, and that it could be punishable. I gave somebody, in my haste and enthusiasm, a gift they did not want, and that was when I found myself here, in the library of “Things No One Has a Use For.”

I am writing to you on this scrap because they have taken all the blank pages away and left only old leaflets which, if you turn over you will see, advertise church tea parties and bring-and-buy sales from, oh I don’t know when. Some are, perhaps, even from before the War. The paper is not old though, which is perplexing. It feels new. I wonder why, for example, someone has taken the time (and presumably expense) to print images of 1940s tea parties onto leaflets and leave them in the library of Things No One Has A Use For. But wait, I seem to have answered my own question…

Here I go, onto another sheet. This one has a Teddy Bear’s Picnic on one side, isn’t that lovely? I thought you would like that one so I picked it out specially. It was on a table with all those other leaflets. They are scattered as if someone dropped them there from a great height. Some have even spilled out onto the floor of the library.You would hate that, I know. If you were here I’m sure you would stoop down immediately and start putting them all to rights! I bet you would have the table polished too. Then you would turn and look at me staring at you, admiring how industrious you were and you would say, “Well look alive Maria!” and I would be all fingers and thumbs and arms the one length, as Mum would say. No one will clean them up. Imagine that.  I could just leave them here, and they would still be lying like that tomorrow.

I know your next question, but yes there are tomorrows here, Amelia. They come in the usual fashion, when the sun comes up. I sleep with my head in the crook of my elbow in between the bookshelves and I lie on old dusty cushions that appear to have no arm chairs to belong to, and don’t match each other, and smell of tobacco. I put my coat over my head to keep out the light because it gets bright here so early and I can’t bear it when the day starts before I am ready for it. You know the coat. It’s the red one that I thought was so smart the day I saw it in the window of Anderson MacCauley’s. Do you remember how much I paid for it? I bet you do. You never let me hear the end of it. And yes, you were quite right, I never did wear it often enough at all. There was that one dance, and Patrick Foy’s wedding, and then it lay in the back of the wardrobe and never saw the light of day again. Now it sees plenty of daylight, and keeps out the sun, and keeps out the chill and is a brightness here. I wish now perhaps I had worn it everyday, and never bothered about it being too ‘fancy’, but then perhaps I would have been too warm in it. I don’t worry about those sorts of things now. It never gets all that warm in the library. Sometimes I hear pipes coughing in the night, and hope that the heating will spring to life, but no joy.

I’m writing all these things, Amelia, and I haven’t even told you about my first day here, or about how strange things get when it grows dark, or about the food I eat which I don’t remember finding. One minute I am starving, and then suddenly it’s as if I have already eaten and am left holding the remains of my dinner in my hand. Yesterday it was a banana skin, a bone of chicken leg, an empty glass. Today I’ve discarded four empty tea cups, an entire box of chocolates, (full only of empty wrappers- of course) and a large casserole dish with crusted bits along the sides. The strangest thing is that I feel as if I have eaten. I never go hungry, or thirsty for long. I just wish I could remember the pleasure of eating, it’s funny how quickly one forgets. I’ve been here I think two weeks in total, but I can’t really say. I realised that I should write to you, because of course it’s what I would do if we were away from each other, in the real world.

Yes, the strange things at night, I was getting to that. I hope I haven’t alarmed you. I guess I might have because it must have sounded terrible. “Strange things when it grows dark” that was what I wrote wasn’t it, and I know you hate to be frightened. Anyway, I am quite alright in the dark, you know I always was. It’s just that here the place only seems to be busy when the lights are out. People are borrowing books in the dark, it’s the oddest thing. I feel the books moving, and the low rustling of pages. People murmuring and “sssshing” each other, like in a real library. Last night a man whispered, “Oh do excuse me” as he shuffled past my cushions while I was trying to sleep. A few nights ago I grew so curious and incensed by the irregularity of it all that I got up and went to try and engage one of the book borrowers in conversation, but I could find no one to talk to in the dark. They were always just slipping past me, or in the next row, and there are no lights Amelia, it’s infuriating!

I am running low on ink now. I’m sorry that the words are so faint, I will try and go over them again tomorrow when the next lot of pens arrive. They always appear in the morning, but all of them are on their last legs with hardly any ink at all. You see, things are always appearing when I need them, though are never exactly the things I want. The pens are, as you can see, multicolour. There are no black and blue pens. There is no blank paper, no cutlery, no blankets, no soap or lamps. No new shoes or new clothes to wear, no radio or piano, no pillows or doors – the windows all look out onto giant over-grown shrubbery except for the one through which I can see a lawn which never ends…There are no other people here, Amelia. Or there are, but they are of no use to me. The library is full of shadows.

I gave someone a gift you see, that they had no use for, and now I cannot forget his face. It was the last thing I saw, in the “real” world, where you, and he, still are.

That face of his. I had always looked into it with a kind of frightened joy; he was like a treasure never seen before, to me, but we human beings can be very selfish. I didn’t realise that a momentary affection, a turn of phrase, could be a selfish thing. That I could give a gift for the wrong reasons. But wait! I don’t think that’s true, because when I saw him on the stairs, I had an urge to be kind to him, and before my brain could say ” now don’t be foolish” I had reached out a hand and touched the shoulder of his coat. He turned, and I uttered some words, and then I saw his face.

Now here I am, in the library. I thought I might read something, now that I have all this time, but they are all the books that no one ever borrows, Amelia. All the discarded novels you would see on railway stands, religious pamphlets that would end up in the bin. Recipes for dishes that are too dull to make and require all sorts of ingredients you never have in the larder and are too expensive to request from the shop. There are books in languages I can’t read, and books about things I can’t bear to, because they are awful. There are books on painting figureheads on boats (I tried to read that one, but it was so poorly written that I abandoned it after three pages and am still none the wiser on figureheads). Some books are old medical journals full of jargon, others are club newsletters for organisations I have never heard of and have no desire to learn more about. There are no sections-by-topic in this library, nothing is alphabetised (oh how you would hate it), the rows of bookshelves follow on, one after the others filled with volumes of writing which I must force myself to read to keep entertained, and some are so dull that I have fallen asleep within their pages.

There is one bathroom. I rush there, thinking I need to spend a penny, and when I get there, I find there is a sink but no toilet. And, when I get there, I no longer need “to go.” I have tried the shower and it works. There are no towels, however.

I have no way of sending this letter, Amelia.There are no post boxes, and no post men. The windows onto the lawn do not open,and cannot be broken. Any tool I might use to break them, dissolves in my hands. There is nothing of use here. Or at least, nothing entirely fit for purpose. But I understand why I am here, and it’s alright, because there comes a point in your life when you know that everything has outgrown you, and found its own little space in the universe but that you have not. Or at least, that is what I have found. I am glad that I have come somewhere where everything is out of place. Perhaps it is a puzzle for me to solve. Perhaps I can pretend to be the heroine, (just like in those old novels we used to read – the girl detective!). I am determined to make myself the most useful thing in the whole library of Things No One Has A Use For. That is what I call it. Perhaps the book borrowers call it something else, I don’t know.

Not everything has a place, Amelia. If you were here I would tell you that. I would say it, not to frighten or hurt you, but because you are a little younger than me, and you might one day find life has over-taken you too. The trouble is, you waste a lot of time trying to find the thing that makes you a jigsaw piece that slots into other pieces to make a whole, beautiful picture. It might be of a train, or a valley, or perhaps a scene out of one of those famous French paintings. You might turn out to be part of a lady’s umbrella, or a gentleman’s hat, or even a large lady in a colourful bathing costume staring out to sea.

But there are also jigsaw pieces here in the library, Amelia. I have tried them all out, and they don’t fit anything. I am going to turn them over, and draw on them with the terrible multicolour pens that run out of ink within minutes. I am going to use the half a pair of scissors I found (you know what I mean, the one blade without the other) and I am going to fix them so they can fit together. I want to give my jigsaw its own little glorious, happy ending, and then maybe it will cease to be here, I don’t know. It’s sort of an experiment. Goodness know what I shall draw. You know I never could make anything worthwhile with my hands. How funny to think that, in the library of Things No One Has A Use For, that I should find a sort of purpose in bringing together solitary pieces of cardboard.

The last of the ink is running out now, what a horrible green colour, I’m sorry about that. Oh and do turn this page over because it has an image of a swan on it, and I know they are your favorite birds, and I miss you so much, Amelia. I will try and write more tomorrow, but now I am afraid that if this letter is in any way meaningful that it might go too. Perhaps the letter might reach you after all, and then, maybe that will be a better way to test my hypothesis than the jigsaw puzzle, which, let’s face it, I may never be able to finish. How you will respond to me though, I have no idea.

There are some gifts you cannot take back. Time, and love, are two of those things, which even when given in a moment, (as words exchanged on a stairwell late at night) can be punishable things. If you see him, Amelia, won’t you please tell him how sorry I was to have broken his train of thought as his hand found the hand rail and he bowed his head to descend. I did it because I saw him that night, looking so alone, and so solemn, and it broke my heart. When he turned around to face me, all I saw were how empty his eyes looked, how heavy his eyelids, and how far away he was from me, and it was so strange. Him of all people! It was like we had never shared a thing together, and there I was, offering him the only thing I had, of which he had no use for.

A desperate yearning, poorly disguised as momentary kindness.

But now, let’s not be sad! The sun is going down over my shoulder now Amelia.

I think I can hear the book borrowers shuffling past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

31# The Tree Father

Photo © Carsten Erler | Dreamstime Stock Photos

dreamstimefree_280762

Thin, spine-like fingers on the window gave a tentative touch. It was a creeping caress, producing a gentle scraping barely audible above the sighing of the wind. Sullivan dreamed he was lost in a forest and that the cold, humid air was flying down his throat like a series of moss-faced devils on broomsticks. Finally they arrived at his lungs, which they poked with their knotted wooden pitchforks. He awoke with a gasp, grabbing his inhaler and gasping in the chemical breath which would soothe him. He relaxed, and fumbled for the light switch, his eyes blurred from sleep, reaching out for a glass on his nightstand. He drank the cold water in long gulps. The light illuminated the room partially, leaving triangular shadows and untouched blobs of darkness lurking in the corners and folds. Sullivan was twenty-eight years old, so he wasn’t afraid of the dark anymore. He reminded himself of this as he settled back down into his bed. He reached an arm out of the duvet to turn off the light, leaving a pale glow from the window to shine across across his bed covers. This sickly glare provided by streetlights was mostly obscured by the sweeping branches of an old lime tree. The wind blew continually, and the tree shivered. Sullivan dreamed again of the forest.

On returning home from work that day, Sullivan hadn’t noticed there had been one more tree on the avenue. No one on the street had noticed. It looked entirely authentic, as if it had sprouted up through the pavement, cracking the stone over a series of decades – more even – so that no one thought to question when it had appeared. It was as if it had always been there. They pushed their prams past it, and detoured around it, and complained about how people should take more care to trim their hedges, and how the council should make more of an effort to improve the roads and pavements and other things that adults talk about. No one had bothered about the tree at all, or noticed that it was not like the other lime trees. Its bark was much darker, though studded with moss. No one had seen the sickly ruby sap oozing from cracks in the wood, though they admired the rich, red leaves.

Sullivan tossed and turned in his bed that night and dreamed he was walking along a corridor of trees with bent branches, hunched over him to make a suffocating canopy which shut out the light. His feet kept catching on rocks and stones, on piles of rotting leaves and branches, on cracks and crevices. That sound came to him; of an imploring hand at the window, the sound of a rough palm being dragged ever so softly down the glass; of a pawing desire. But there were no windows in the forest, he remembered. He continued walking. The wind was picking up, but there isn’t any wind here, he thought. Sullivan trudged on though he had no idea where he was going, only the vague feeling that he was late to meet someone, and that time was marching on. Soon he would be very late. Panic was beginning to set in. He increased his steps. Outside Sullivan’s window there was a rustling, a creak of bark and a snapping of twigs. Something edged closer to the window, brushing the branches of the old lime tree aside, which gave way with a shuddering of leaves. Sinewy ivy tentacles felt the edges of the glass, probing miniscule crevices, grabbing footholds.

Someone was at the window, Sullivan knew, but he couldn’t get up to open it because he was still in the forest. He began to run, but the scene ahead of him was all shadows, and showed no sign of any new horizon. It was always light enough to see his path, but no more. Sullivan stopped running the instant he heard the sound of his window being prized open, the wood screeching as the pane of glass was pushed roughly upwards. All around him the forest closed in and drowned him in its noises. All was relatively quiet, but the faint sounds of the forest were so many that it was like being scratched with a thousand small needles all over. Hands had reached out for his bed. Long hands, long fingers, green flecked, spine-like. They pulled back the covers and crept over his body. Sullivan was still dreaming. The forest had tripped him, he was lying on the ground as tree roots snuck over his limbs and entwined themselves around him. Sullivan felt a new lethargy descend that wasn’t tiredness, but was dream-like. Dreaming within his dreams Sullivan became part of their roots.

In Sullivan’s bed, newly formed branches rested. The long green hand retracted, pulling its new limb with it, out of the window like a retreating snake. The dark-barked tree held the new limb high up as if to observe it, and then sent the branches down towards the ground. There the tree-limb lay, and upon contact with grass and soil, part of it seemed to wither away, leaving only a sapling. The new tree threw out roots like tentacles, rippling. It shook, and grew and became tall. It raised its branches to the moon and sprouted fresh leaves. These leaves began instantly to fade into the deep, rich red of autumn, and its new bark cracked, and became dark, as the ruby sap oozed.

The sapling, now grown, departed. Darkness obscured its path. The Tree Father retreated from its place opposite Sullivan’s window. It began to creep up the sleeping street past the neat rows of houses facing one another amicably, their inhabitants asleep, and dreaming of forests.

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30# Men of Ice Have No Business Being Near Fires.

Image FreeDigitalPhotos.Net by franky242

ID-100137686

I am a man made out of ice. No, I’m not your Jack Frost. I don’t leave glinting white fern trails on windows overnight. I just walk around in the dark, and I try not to touch anything.

When the sun comes up I’m face down on the grass. I can’t feel the wetness of the morning on the green blades as they pierce right through me. Exhaustion makes me grab at the ground to pull myself up, but I pull up no clods. There is currently no earth under my fingernails. I am transparent in the sun, the world walks right through me. I can barely see my own hands.

During the day I find myself inside houses, trying to open doors. It takes a lot of concentration, but if I try I can open them. I know there are things inside but I can only vaguely see objects huddled on shelves, furniture in corners. Afterwards I always feel disappointed. I know shouldn’t touch anything, but I don’t know why. It’s just a feeling I have that it isn’t right for me to be touching them. Sometimes I can’t. I reach out for a door handle and find my  whole arm is gone. In the back of my mind I can hear screams, as if I someone was in those rooms with me. I turn around thinking I must not be alone, but all I ever catch is the edge of a skirt, or the heel of a shoe, and a tap-tapping, frantic, down the stairs.

I said I was a man made out of ice. This isn’t strictly true, but I make things cold. I know this because voices tell me. Cats sneeze when I come near them, and back away. I can see the breath of animals. I know that I carry my own cold with me everywhere. I don’t know if I feel cold, because I always feel the same. Exhausted. I don’t remember things like warmth and comfort. I can see a fire burning in a hearth and sometimes I’ll have a recollection of what it meant to be beside one. I can put my hands out now, towards the fire, and I see only a fog around my hands. Men of ice have no business being near fires.

At night, I feel more substantial. I don’t know quite why. I think perhaps it has something to do with the way the darkness fills up the spaces where parts of me should be. I hold my hand up to the sky, and when I look through it, I can see stars sometimes. The moon makes me feel like I have an outline. Sometimes, I think I can see people. For a moment there will be a face on the street, lit up with a sudden panic. They vanish after that, and the street is empty again.

Once, I met someone just like me. He was standing in the graveyard, under an old yew.

“Do you ever wonder why the trees, and the animals and everything here looks real, but you never see any people?” He asked me. I shrugged. It had been so long since I had seen anyone like me that I had forgotten about talking.

“Well I wonder about that,” he said.

I thought perhaps the conversation was over. I thought about leaving, but part of me wanted to try to talk to the man. It had been so long, but I was sure that I used to talk to people, and feel warmth, and eat and laugh and do all those sorts of things.

“There’s just the cold now, isn’t there. It eats right through you. You just feel like an icicle, walking around, spreading the fog, and the chill-”

“You have it too?” I asked him. I couldn’t hear my own voice.

“Yeah course.” He said. “Course I do, everyone like us does. Once you get to this stage, it’s hard to thaw. You want to, but when people come near you and feel the cold they scarper. You can’t get enough warmth from them to put out all that ice inside. Can’t even hold yourself together. You fall away in bits. That’s what happens if you don’t thaw.”

I mused over what he had said. I told him about about how my hands fogged up when I went near a hearth. “I’ve come to the conclusion now that it isn’t worth your while trying. Men of ice have no business being near fires,” he said.

I last saw him a few months ago. He was in a state because a girl had started coming to the graveyard at night. There are no fences around it, only the road which winds round a little stone wall. Foxes dart about between the trees, up and over the wall, and into the traffic, They give night drivers quite a scare. I see the cars, but not the drivers.

He was agitated because the girl was coming regularly, and it made him feel uncomfortable. He worried she would know he was there, and it would get awkward. He was older than me I think, but I don’t know. He just seemed like someone old. Thinking about that made me wonder if I was old, because I couldn’t remember. But he definitely seemed older than me. I thought it was funny that he was so worked up about the girl, but I sort of knew what he meant. I didn’t like having to see people either, or being seen.

I saw her in the graveyard, she was vague at first, but the more I saw her, the more she became quite real. He had said she was a girl, but I thought she was more of a lady. I think the old man called her a girl because he was old. I like now to measure myself somewhere in between the old man and the lady, in terms of age. It makes me feel more substantial. I like knowing that something about me can be measured.

She reads books on the benches, or on the grass at the edges of the graveyard where a little light from the street lamps floods in. The foxes don’t know what to do about her either. She tries to talk to them but they panic and run. She saw me one night, and looked at me for a while, her eyes grew very wide, but I think she could tell that I didn’t like it, and so she went back to reading her book. I could see that her hands were shaking though, and I felt bad, so I left.

I keep coming back to the graveyard. Sometimes I sit on the bench and watch her read. she talks to me now and I think I reply but I can’t hear my own voice most of the time. Sometimes the words come out though, and it makes her smile.

One day she asked me. “Why are you always so cold?” I told her the saying, “Men of ice have no business being near fires.”

The next night she brought me a candle. She showed me how to hold it. “The trick is not to let go,” she said. Somewhere beneath the wisps of fog I thought I could see a pair of hands.

They were my hands.

 

29# The Sled

Image by Blamethechicken, Freedigitalphotos.net

aurora

We live in West, in the realm of ice, Banneran and I, and the wolf-dog woman Orkoosh. I have no memory of being born, unlike them. I used to think I was their child but Banneran said, no, I had come to them from across one of the ice plains to the East. One of the old women had put me on a sled and sent me cascading across the plain wrapped in coats of pelts. He said the sled bounded and danced – Orkoosh saw it coming as she was out hunting and came running to him saying, look, a wonder! There is a child in the sled Banne!

I had asked, but how did you know it was an old woman?

Orkoosh had said that it was because she remembers. I don’t understand it but that was all she said about it. Except that the East was a land basked in Sunshine, where we had only the Moon. Sunshine was a different kind of light, she said, which was much brighter than ours, but that, as we had the beautiful stars and the emerald light, we had nothing to complain about.

I mentioned to you just now about not remembering being born. Apparently that’s a gift that the people of the West have, they remember being born just as the people of the East remember dying. I have lived a long time now in the snow of the West and I don’t remember being born and I don’t remember dying. This has led Orkoosh to wonder if I am from the East at all. What memories do you have? She asks me all the time. I answer her, only of you and Banneran. Then she laughs as if it has all been a joke, and pats my head and will say, of course.

She then motions to the sled I was brought on. Go and play, she says. In an instant she will turn from me and slink gracefully into her wolf-dog form and I will harness her to the sled and we will race about the snow plains under the purple-black sky covered with emerald lights- the lights that come from some other place, and know us, and watch over us as we play. Sometimes when we stop for breath I will ask Orkoosh to turn back into a woman and ask her questions. I ask her how long I have been with them, and she will say, don’t you remember? You have been here for one hundred and eleven years. I will question her,  how does she know this? and she will say it’s because all shape-shifters know the passage of days.

When you talk of the old woman, what do you mean? I say to her, and she replies Old age is something that happens elsewhere, and I say to her, what happens elsewhere? She will shake her head as if she thinks I’m silly, and then off she goes again -ZIP!- slinking back into a wolf and we fly across the ice back to the hut, and to Banneran who loves us. Then Orkoosh will change and they will always greet each other as if they been apart for a long time, and don’t quite know each other. He will ask her if she would like to sit down, for example, and then we will all eat. After dinner, Orkoosh and Banneran will seem to remember that they know each other, and will sit in the warmth of the hut and comb each other’s hair. This will take a long time because Orkoosh’s  long, unruly locks will have gathered many tangles from the ice wind. Banneran will nod over to me and say, well, where is your comb young man? Then I will put my hand in my pocket and there it is, the comb made of wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Orkoosh says that the old woman gave it to me. I begin to comb my hair too, because Orkoosh says fondly that the old woman would want me to look my best.

Then I will listen as Orkoosh tells Banneran stories.

It is tradition that Orkoosh tells him stories each time that we return. I don’t know where she gets them from, they are always fantastical. My stories are about little fish that I see, glinting in the ice pools, or bears in the distance, or the moon rising. Orkoosh, however, always has stories about princes and magicians and priestesses and treasure and great ships that roam the sky, flying along on the vapours left by the burning emerald lights. Banneran responds to Orkoosh’s stories. He says playfully, no no Koos, you have told that one before I think, even when she hasn’t. Or, akakaka, (he clicks his tongue) Koos I don’t like this story, the prince is too arrogant, the priestess would never grant him an entire kingdom for rescuing just one golden key. Be serious!

When I ask Banneran how long he has loved Orkoosh he smiles and says he doesn’t know. When I ask Orkoosh she laughs and says, almost forever, and that she knows this because she remembers being born. Then, after the stories are told, they say goodnight to me, and I creep through the pelt curtain on the East-hand side of the hut and am in my own den. Banneran has lit a fire in there for me with his magic, and from my bed I look up to the space in the roof where one brick is made of glass, because I asked Banneran to put it there. I asked him to make a glass brick, so that I could see out and watch the emerald lights fade, and the clouds race across the stars. The fire crackles with blue and lilac flames, Banneran’s magic will keep it burning while I sleep.

*
Sometimes I wonder, as I look up through the glass brick to the sky, what we are, and why we live apart from others. I wonder how Orkoosh came to be a wolf-dog woman, or how Banneran came to have magic. Or who I am, and why I will never grow old, or remember being born, or remember dying. Orkoosh smiles at Banneran, rolling her eyes, when I ask her these questions, and says only Because we are in paradise.

When I ask her what that means, Banneran answers. He says that sometimes the people in the East have dreams they don’t wake up from, and that we live in one of those dreams. That somewhere, a boy exactly like me grew up, lived his life, and then died, and in that final dream he imagined that he was a little boy again, and that his grandmother wrapped him in pelts and sent him across the ice on a sled to the West, where the people remember being born. When I say I don’t understand, Orkoosh answers, you said you only remember me and Banneran, is that true? I nod. Then you are from the East after all. She says, and smiles. I crawl to my den and sleep, and when I wake, I wonder why it is that I never remember my dreams.