Strickland’s Glen

Photo @ Raina Flynn Naidoo / Eilís Phillips – Strickland’s Glen, Bangor, N.I.

The waves crashed up upon the rocks in a rushing swell. The sea was an open wound bleeding foam, the sky a kind of gunmetal. I was blown along the coastal way by gusts, questioning my choices. Hands soggy, my hat in my eyes, I kept walking along the path and tried to greet the very few dog walkers I met along the way, whose pups galloped, their coats shining with rhinestone beads, the drops of water they had collected from the journey.

“She’s wile fresh!” Jim called to me as we passed. His dog, Buster, an old chocolate Labrador, squinted up at me and shivered. Dewdrops cascaded away in all directions, discarded gems.

“Where are ye for on a day like that?” He asked me as I petted the dog.

“The Glen for a bit,” I said, “Just to get out.”

“Some day for it! Hah, we need our heads examined!” We both laughed.

“I’ll see you round – take care now!” I watched them trot away round the corner, that bend where you can suddenly see the whole bay as the cliffs fall away beneath, and the golf course rears into view.

The bay was choppy and split open by dark rocks. A few gulls coasted along on the rough waters but most were dark shapes wheeling overhead. I walked out to the crags. I stood a long time, my coat pulled as tight round me as it would go. The path was empty; there were no more walkers in sight. All the better, I thought. It was about 3.30pm and the sun was sinking. I stood at the water’s edge and brought out the parcel, wrapped in silver tissue paper. It was heavy and cold. I ran a finger over the mother-of-pearl and thought about opening the clasp, but I knew my instructions. A sigh escaped my body as I held the thing in my hands and gazed out at the waves. Now was the time though. I pushed my arm up high. I hurled the box into the bay as hard as I could. It was caught with two pale hands. It was accepted by the water. A shudder cascaded over my shoulders and I turned swiftly.

Behind me lay the old Glen. I was facing it now, the road empty still. The little river marked the entrance and wound its way through the mass of tangled branches and a thick carpet of mulchy leaves and twigs. Shapes rustled in its folds. The wind caressed it. I walked towards the entrance and became aware, as I did every time, of the voices. I saw them only as patterns, not sounds. They were the sounds the trees made without speaking. They were not the sounds of the wind, or the birds or foraging animals, not the sound of the river burbling, or gulls overhead. Not the crashing of the waves or the barking of dogs or the tread of my feet, or even of my own breath. They had a pattern completely unlike any other I had seen in my mind’s eye. The first time I noticed it was as I had been leaving the Glen. I think I became aware of it because suddenly all the other sounds fell still. I could see no other vivid patterns, or shapes. Only this, a signal, repeated over and over again with variations. To see it written it might look like Hebrew or cuneiform. If I stood very still, and listened closely, I would start to see the pattern emerge. It moved across my field of vision like morse code. It was boxy; formed from an alphabet of white squares with black dots and dashes. Some boxes were broken, some underlined. It was continuous, but never uniform.

Once inside the Glen I followed the voices up through the winding path which twisted and turns as the river does. At the place where the branches completely overhang the path I stopped. I saw the small waterfall churning to my left, and the little bench up ahead. I waited. Presently a shape appeared. It flickered in and out of vision, not like a neon light, or a bathroom bulb, more like fireflies through smoke. A man with wide eyes and skin covered in cloth like bark became manifest, obscured in a kind of haze. He had long hair the colour of hazelnuts and his forehead came to sharp points at the temples. I came towards the bench and sat close to him.

“I found that box under the bench in Jenny Watts,” I said to him. He only nodded and smiled.

“Why are they compelled to return these lost things? How do you make them do it?” I asked him.

“I am an arbiter of balance” he said to me, still smiling. He looked slightly sidewise at me, with eyes like the ivy, emerald, shot through with silver. “Only certain boons can be called back, the things that are made with a set of hands: gifts stolen from broken love affairs, human things. They must come back.” His voice was a song. He turned to face the woods again.

“Why does the sea take them?”

He put a long thin hand up to his face then, as if stroking an imaginary beard. He was mocking me, but kindly. He had been my liaison for several months now and we had grown strangely fond of one another. We had established a confidence, a rhythm of speaking and listening and knowing one another.

“And so, the sea. I would love to see it again. I was once of it.”

With each meeting it seemed I gained a new piece of his story, as valuable to me as the other gift I had received each time we met.

“What happened to make you as you are, not of the sea then?”

He looked at me and became forlorn, a playfulness melted into pathos in his forest eyes.

“The winds changed…you’re part human, I’m sure you can understand that feeling, that experience, of change. It happens with us, with nature, but there is a ritual to it. An inevitability. Cycles within cycles of change, and continuity.”

“Human change is inevitable and diverse too, just like that.” I said.

“So it is,” he said smiling and nodding as if caught out, “so it is.”

I shivered with the cold and shuffled nearer to him. His bark gave off a heat, a kind of glow, a fire without burning. His voice changed as he sniffed the air, he was paying close attention to it, he gave me my instructions.

“An old guitar. Mahogany, Maple, beautiful woods, hand crafted. Left in the bus station, in the female toilets. You’ll find it in the last stall if you wait until the last train arrives from Portadown 6 days from now.”

“Alright,” I said. And I wrote the information down in my little book, the pages bound open and shut with a length of twine and a thick leaf.

“But I can’t give that to the water.” I said. “That doesn’t seem right”.

He smiled, still looking out at the Glen.

“Bring it here. To me. The sea can’t have everything you know. Sometimes, we are rewarded too. Things of wood must come home. Heavy things of metal, the sea takes. Like your modern ships.”

“The sea has always taken ships,” I said, thinking of my grandfather then, and he seemed to feel my mood shift suddenly because he placed a bark-like hand on my knee gently, and said to me the closing words of our own ritual.

“You are the one who loves the sea and woods together, who sees the trees speak. Are you ready to receive your reward?”

I nodded and smiled. We faced the woods. He spoke something in his own language which came out only as patterns which floated away into the air. In those moments I always felt a kinship with him that I could not find elsewhere, among humans. I watched the patterns. I felt that longing that struck me everytime I came to the woods to see them speak, that desire to be there always, to become a part of something finally, and not be a separate thing alone.

I can’t recount what the trees said. Their speech is not narrative. It can only be felt. It is an intuition. It is a gift I can feel upon my skin which crackles when the wind changes. Sometimes I have come to know things no one else knows, because the trees have told me. Their patterns follow me everywhere I walk in the forest of my life, down to where the sea breaks itself upon the land, and heals again with each great thrust.

A heavy dusk had descended on the Glen, as he reached forward to grasp my hand; his was as light and firm as a thundercloud. I saw the woods at once light up as if the Glen had been draped in a diaphanous sheet of starlight.

And the trees sang.

#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.