This is a tale written in blackened, gale-dried seaweed along a deserted shore by an unseen hand…
Salt winds blew across the dunes and spat sand at the windows of The Garret. Far off telephone wires sighed. Not many came hunched against the dark and gusty night to listen to the Pilgrim Woman’s new tale.
Yet the faces of all who did lit up with the glow from a driftwood fire. They sat on mismatched pews and benches, with patched blankets and hand-sewn cushions. Only the Lord-beside-the-Sea was too grand for such higgledy-piggledy comforts. He allowed tonight’s companion, the town librarian, speak for him.
‘To suit the night – shall we have something eerie?’ she asked.
‘Very well,’ said the Pilgrim Woman and closed the shutters. She put on a tartan cap before she told this tale:
I’m in an unfamiliar part of town. Davey’s called, says he needs help. And when an old mate calls, you go. All the terraced houses look the same – only the shuttered convenience stores with Cheap Booze in red lettering stand out at all. That and the mid-century flats and parades where the bombs once fell.
He’s never been the same since Moira died. Disappeared off the radar. Glad to hear from him again – you never know, do you? Be good to help the old fellah.
I find the flat above the bookies. Rear entrance – backing on the cemetery. At least it’s green in a cedar-and-ivy kind of way. Better than more flats, anyhow.
Half way up the echoing concrete steps, it comes to me why he came here. I recognise the neat rows of headstones and laurels. It’s her resting place: he still has to be near her. Poor old lad.
I knock. He opens the door. Thin as ever, verging on gaunt, he’s friendly and welcoming.
Inside, I see why he chose the place. Tall rooms – plenty of space for his collection. Floor to ceiling the shelves run crammed with books. Pure antiquarian treasure – poetry, plays, signed editions. He’s not parted with a thing.
The rest of the place is spotless and sparse, God love him.
‘I need to sell some,’ he says and his long fingers sweep past the bindings. ‘I need the money.’
My eye goes to a thin volume in oxblood leather with crisp gilt lettering. It couldn’t be – could it? I reach up to inspect – hoping for handwritten poems.
My fingers drop away from the grimy bookshelf.
‘Take any one but that,’ he says. The tone in his voice makes me truly look at him. How does a face drain of colour, how does the blood disappear leaving only a papery surface over the skull?
‘The poetry in the oxblood binding.’ He swallows. ‘It’s not that it’s valuable-’ his eyes meet mine, hemmed in by crumpled skin, ‘but I’d rather it stayed exactly where it is. I’ll get you a much better edition.’
He comes at the other shelf diagonally, keeps his body away from the book with the oxblood binding. His movement disturbs the air. Scents move: the expected vanilla of old paper – and one of cold clay.
I have a good nose. It goes with my trade. And what I smell belongs outside a kirk: dying flowers and damp stone, rotting wood and disturbed earth.
He holds out a printed copy of his poems. He must know the originals are worth a hundred times more – especially with that provenance.
‘You see she brought them back – afterwards.’
I step back. His eyes are too earnest. Bright as the marble chippings amongst the laurels outside.
‘Nothing would stop her returning them.’
‘I’d best catalogue the rest then,’ I say to deflect the difficult moment. He nods and disappears. Tea and biscuits arrive. Tape, labels and even boxes. He’s certain he wants to do this.
Even without that book, it’s still a wonderful collection. Time goes by. Lights go on and buses pass. It gets too late to leave.
Davey passes me a menu and picks up his phone.
‘Take away? 23 and 47 still your favourites?’
We eat and chat and I bed down on the settee. An ancient bivvy bag, laundered to fraying softness keeps the autumn chill away. But I can’t sleep.
You ever had that moment where you know you’re doing the wrong thing but you still have to? It’s that. That having to see the truth, even though the book’s not mine and my old friend has made it clear it’s not for me to touch. My old friend who’s fed me and put me up and is giving me the chance of a lifetime with his collection.
But still I can’t keep away.
I watch the slit of light disappear from under his bedroom door. I wait till his breathing settles to a steady sleeping rhythm. Pull the zip down slowly. Slip out of the bivvy bag. Sit until I’m sure he’s still asleep. I want to stop myself but I have to know.
The floorboards collude with me; they join in my treachery. I cross the threadbare rug beside the settee and my feet chill at once. Dank air falls from the single-skinned window and slithers under the not-quite -long-enough curtains. A pool of condensation sits on the sill – tinted grubby orange in the streetlights.
I pass it by and reach for the book with the oxblood binding. Footsteps reverberate on the steps outside. I startle. Don’t be so jumpy. Just people from the other flats.
My fingers touch the binding. Cold. Clammy. The book slides off the shelf. Disturbs soot or something.
The smell comes again. I had pushed the memory of it to one side while I worked. But here it is, back again like an earworm. It’s creeping up my nostrils, filling every breath with mould and rottenness.
I open my mouth. Breathe over my tongue. Surely there’s no way I can really taste the smell – taste earth and decomposing silk? It’s that damp on the window ledge, that’s all.
Opening the book makes it exhale a bitter perfume. A faint gasp. It is his handwriting. I read his words of loss – too sad to be ignored. They hold me to this place, to this emptiness. The chill of an opened door trickles down my back. Floorboards dip with shifting weight.
I keep reading. Keep my gaze away from what comes towards me.
A ragged shadow blocks the sodium glare. Slender fingers close the book. The long nails glitter as the book is returned to the shelf. A pat on the spine and a few crumbs of soil fall from a lacy cuff.
The silken thing rustles and leaves, taking the cold reek with it. Duty done.
Thanks for looking into this, Ash.