#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.

 

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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.

Synaesthetic Review of Peter McVeigh’s “Song for Winter.” feat. Ciara O’Neill.

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This, as you can see, is one of those occasions when I decide to offer up something of a non-fictional nature for your perusal. My friend and consummate musician & songwriter Peter has just realised his new single; he contacted me asking if I would do a review of his song (which is outstanding) from the point of view of a synaesthete.

What follows is thus a moment by moment commentary of how I view the song in terms of the hallucinations it produces when my (neurologically unconventional) brain processes the sounds. The commentary will probably seem bizarre to anyone who doesn’t have the condition or who has never taken a hallucinogen. (For the record I’m a teetotal and I don’t do drugs…after reading the commentary you’ll realise that I clearly don’t need to!) The thoughts I’m about to write down are purely what I’m experiencing. I don’t like to give myself time to think about these things as it might affect the outcome, I want it to be as natural an indication as possible. These are things I see on a daily basis when I hear sounds, words, smell perfume, eat food, feel pain, feel emotions, touch fabrics–I have become used to it, and I often have no idea why certain sensual stimuli provoke particular hallucinations. They sometimes vary, but usually I’ll see/smell the same things when confronted with the same sensory event.

So…to prepare, I’ve dimmed the lights and put on headphones to keep other distractions to a minimum…here we go!

The piano is making me see bubbles and stairs, blues and greens but pale. Pete’s voice is like matches striking, but with cough syrup. I can also see the lyrics as they flash past, again in pale aquamarines. The brushes on the snare drum make monotone scratches across my mind’s eye, Ciara’s voice has come in, it’s like very fine gold leaf or metallic foil, though when she holds notes it becomes a clear white. The strings are faintly visible, in very pale green. When the two voices merge for the harmonies I can see a pattern of colours not unlike a box of fancy macaroons. Jewell colours all sandwiched together and a sweet taste. As the strings become more prominent they appear as a richer more forrest green, and take on the texture of velvet. The smell of leather armchairs comes to mind as the strings take over the track and a deep russet red creeps in amongst them. Sometimes the words will provoke images, (I guess this happens for ‘normal’ people too?) such as stars falling on my head, dragons flying about (when the song mentions stars and legends). All the sounds happen in my mind’s eye, spatially, where they appear in the track. So instruments that are panned left or right, appear left or right to me in symbol form. There’s a lilac which drifts in for “winter boats, I make my way home” during the repeating piano motif. The final string notes are a mixture of gold and that rich red.

There you have it! I wrote this down as I was listening. Sometime pausing, but only so as I could finish the sentence. Like I said this may sound strange and perhaps a little farcical, but it’s what I experience.Sometimes I’ll be overwhelmed by all the images and they will start to blend and become confused, like colours running on a wet water colour painting.

It was a pleasure to record my hallucinations for such a great song. It helps immensely that I love how it sounds. I am yet to work out if the vividness and pleasing aesthetic of the hallucinations influences my feelings of certain tracks, or whether the fact that I like them makes them look more interesting…who knows!

Either way, the beautiful, emotive voices (Ciara’s heartbreakingly sweet and Peter’s rough textured, but melodic) blend perfectly together, combined with gorgeous lyrical imagery. It was a delight to experience!

I recommend you have a listen for yourself and find out how it inspires you too. The video is stunning, and makes a lot more sense than my crazy images…

http://petermcveigh.com/

Big thanks to Pete for suggesting I review this. It’s been fun! (and colourful)

Synaesthesia and the Spectral Locomotive.

Image by Artur84 courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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Last year, I was delighted to take part in a wonderful magic realism blog hop organised by Zoe Brooks, (you can see the short story I wrote for it here.) Check out the links at the bottom of this page for other great blogs by fantastic authors on the hop.

In the previous blog hop, I included a short story, as I didn’t really know what I had to say about the genre. I felt at a loss I suppose. Many others had, and have posted excellent pieces about magic realism, and considering how flexible the genre is inherently, there might feasibly be as many personal interpretations as there are grains of sand.

With this in mind, I thought I’d try this year to talk about what draws me personally to write magic-infused stories, and to enjoy reading them. The answer is perhaps more clinical than you might think. Apparently my brain is hard-wired to see fantastic things.

I have a condition called synaesthesia. Here’s the wiki page. I can’t explain it all that well in terms of the science of it, but essentially it means that my sense are a little more interconnected than they might ordinarily be in most people. I like to use the metaphor of a ghost train, stopping at stations that would have been long since shut down in other  minds. In my brain, strange pathways led to strange places. Smells become sights; colours and emotions and tastes all intertwine.

For example, when I smell a perfume, it also manifests itself as a colour in my mind’s eye. The same perfume will always bring to mind that colour, in the same way that if I asked you to tell me what colour the grass was, you would instinctively think green wouldn’t you?

Chanel make a perfume called Chance. I used to wear it all the time, but my mother (who is also a synaesthete) wasn’t a fan. One day we both realised that the reason we disagreed over the smell was because it was a very light shade of blue. As a child I had loved the colour, but my mother couldn’t stand it. As far as I know, synaesthetes won’t usually see the same colours or patterns for the same things, but sometimes these overlap. So, a lot of synaesthetes might see the letter O as white in colour for example.

Some synaesthetes have only one type of sensory overlap, such as that of colour-numbers/letters. I happen to be blessed (or cursed) with a wide range of sensory entanglements. Numbers and letters have colours, genders and their own personalities. (I thought I was just a little crazy until I realised that some other synaesthetes personify numbers too-phew), whenever I hear music I see patterns, shapes and colours. Emotions have colours (grief and all bitter-sweet feelings are purple). When I touch something hot or cold, that also manifests itself as a colour, and when that something is too hot or too cold both sensations look exactly the same to me, they are both yellow.

Certain words have an amazing power to bring tastes into my mouth, “emerald” being the strongest of these. Whenever I hear or say the word, I experience a rush of sweetness, a bit like syrup, on the back of my tongue. I once heard that these taste sensations are frequently linked to childhood experiences. I think perhaps I was watching The Wizard of Oz, eating a lollipop when the Emerald City scene came on, and now the association is with me for life. Lucky for me it’s a pleasant one!

I could go on and on but I won’t. This is supposed to be a post about creativity, not neurological conditions. I wanted to share this because I wanted to show how magic for me is not so unlikely or remote a thing. I live in a kaleidoscope. When I hear music or conversations the patterns and colours soar around me in great arcs. I sit in lecture theatres and coffeeshops and have to try and not be engulfed in rainbows. It can be terribly beautiful. Terrible because the sensory overload I occasionally experience can tip me into anxiety attacks. Beautiful, because I live in a world where monotony is just impossible.

I recently discovered that, when given the choice, I will rely on my synaesthetic responses over my normal ones. If a friend asks me “can you hear that?” I won’t listen, I will look to see if I can spot the shapes the sound makes. Perhaps vibrations trigger these patterns then, as I often see the shapes before I am aware of any sound. Because of this, I can’t imagine what I would do if I woke up without these strange hallucinations. How would I feel my way around the world? I suppose I would adjust, but it would be like loosing a limb.

When I write about magic in everyday life, it’s because the concept lies close to my heart. I see magical things all the time. Every time someone speaks, or a band plays, or someone hurts me, or makes me happy, I see things that are unique to me. Ghosts are everywhere. Ghosts of sentences, or dogs barking. Ghosts of emotions. When someone talks about “a smile lighting up a room” for me it’s really true. When someone smiles naturally and unselfconsciously it makes me see a giant sunflower, with huge petals opening up, it brightens me too. That may sound horrifically corny, but it’s what I see.

I suppose the one thing my condition and my writing have led me to wonder, is what is magic now? The term and its implications for society have meant so many different things throughout history. Magic can have both positive and negative and (perhaps more rarely) neutral connotations. It represents the wondrous, the heinous, the mysterious, the things we don’t understand. Nowadays it is taken more metaphorically. We say “oh when we got engaged it was just so magical.” I understand that my synaesthetic experiences can be explained by science, but that doesn’t stop them from feeling any less magical to me.

For me, magic is an every day thing. Sudden visions appear and disappear all around me and I walk through them, because I’m too busy and I can’t afford to get distracted. I don’t want to be run over, or I don’t want to miss my bus. Sometimes I allow myself time to enjoy them. I’ll put on my favourite songs and watch the patterns they make as they form and swirl around. Then, I collect the things I see and incorporate them into stories. Being a synaesthete has many draw backs, but I know I’m lucky. I rarely run out of inspiration, because my dreams are all around me.

MAGIC REALISM BLOGHOP 2014
This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (6th – 8th August) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the link below to find out about the other posts and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

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