#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.

 

Advertisements

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 

astronaut-wallpaper-background-For-Desktop-Wallpaper

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.

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.

Save

Save

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.