#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 

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.

29# The Sled

Image by Blamethechicken, Freedigitalphotos.net

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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.