by Paul Gorman
It was her hands that Liam missed. He missed the way her hand fitted into his hand fitted into her hand. The oneness of size and shape, of texture and warmth, of weight and pressure against his own.
Grief had its tides, but they moved to no rhythm Liam could chart. When the tide was slack he felt empty; when it came in he was overwhelmed. It flowed with each breath and caught in his throat. People moved around him, too close. You’re grieving. We’ll call back another time. I’ll give you some space. Txt if u need me. Like ghosts he looked straight through them, mindless of the offence caused.
He stirred from dreams in which Fiona appeared in a High Definition clarity that no waking memory, no photo or video could recreate. And on shaking off those dreams, like a duvet thrust upwards the weight of loss descended again, pushing all the air out. He moved into the spare room. Better a single bed filled only by him than their kingsize unweighted by her absence.
He phoned work, asked Geraldine for another week’s leave. She assented with what was probably relief. He imagined the banter in the kitchen dying, like a tree branch in the sudden drop of wind that had sustained it, as he entered.
He searched for somewhere to go, a place that they’d never been. Somewhere without shared memories but which had a sense of history. A place he could put his own past and future into perspective and return, reconciled and ready. Ready for the office milk-run, for shared memes and for gossip about somebody else, and for all the things Fiona had told him he should do after she’d gone.
She had known her Death was coming. It had been by her shoulder as she spoke, but Liam had refused to meet it. It was Fiona’s constant companion, there even when he was not. It waited, patient and polite. Silent and gentle it had been to her; tender, even, in a way that made him jealous – he, who could never seem to do the right thing at the right moment. But it hadn’t left. It lingered. It was here, while he chopped onions, while he surfed the web. Like a shadow sometimes behind him, sometimes in front.
He found a cottage in a village he’d never heard of, an hour’s drive north. Her Google account on the tablet, her email address auto-filled: the trip was booked in her name, but he would go there alone and he would be there, alone.
Blairbeg stood on the river at the point it broadened to become a Firth. Sandbanks like bones showed under the skin of the water.
Liam knew nothing about the town, had never heard the name. It was not a tourist trap, though to judge by its size had once been a place of consequence. Now, though swollen by new-build bungalows – glaring white in the low winter sun – Blairbeg seemed shrunken in stature. There was an abbey which he could visit, but it was not a pretty town.
He drove with care through narrow streets to the riverside. The cottage’s owner was waiting, swinging keys around his forefinger: a tired-looking man in a quilted jacket whose haircut and moustache said ‘armed forces’. He gave Liam the most cursory of tours and left. There was a tiny patio with a bird feeder, a TV which Liam had no intention of watching, and a little CD player with a selection of soft-rock compilations he had no intention of listening to. Possessed at last of a moment’s quiet, he opened the French door – not, he suspected, an original feature – to freshen the stale air, and leafed through the obligatory folder of appliance instructions, emergency numbers and tourist leaflets. With a tightening in his gut, he switched his phone on. As the notifications surfaced, each emitted its little rondo until the cacophony made him switch the device off again.
The view from the window was of river and reeds. Thick reedbeds swelled out from the shore to east and west; reeds also surrounded the island halfway across the Firth. Behind him, the little town climbed sharply up to a ridge of hill, the face of which was dark with whin bushes and exposed rockface.
Evening fell fast and the wind rose. For the first time, he was surrounded by nothing of Fiona’s, and nothing that reminded him of her. Every angle of their house held her; in every glance, she was there, or just out of sight; in the next room; in the garden; on her way home: in any case, somewhere in the world. Here, things were different.
The wind strengthened through the night and gusts woke him. But he did not dream.
The next morning dawned bright and still. The bird feeder hummed with the pecking and flitting of its visitors. Then they scattered, piping alarm. In seconds, the patio was empty. Only the swinging feeder testified to their visit. What had driven them off? Some predator, he supposed: death came in silhouettes and shapes known from the egg. By the time he’d scanned for signs of a raptor, the finches and tits had begun to return. How swiftly the trauma was voided from their tiny memories.
After breakfast, he followed the river east towards the abbey. As he pulled his boots on he found himself waiting for her. The path along the shore was broad and empty. He saw for the first time the speed of the current. The river took huge branches swiftly out of sight downstream. The strength was alarming. It was not a river to dip your toe in.
Much of the foreshore was bare as if something had once occupied a huge space that had never been filled. Something industrial, perhaps. His gaze wandered up the dark cut-out of the hill. The sun was low and hadn’t cleared the ridge.
He passed houses, industrial units of flaking paint and weathered signs, and a football ground hidden by fir trees. Theirs was the only scent in the sharp autumnal air. His ambling pace nonetheless overtook a young couple. He saw their hands, lightly clasped; heard a hushed giggle as he passed them. Then the path moved inland and delivered him into the reeds’ embrace. He wiped at his eyes.
Liam could see red crumbling walls in the distance. A soft breeze rose and stirred the reeds with an energy out of all proportion to its strength. They busied around him like friends and relatives, solicitous but unwanted. He wondered how solid the land on either side was.
Despite the earliness of the hour and the lateness of the year, in the sunlight, the abbey’s sandstone had the warmth of spring. An archway was fitted with a modern iron gate. To his surprise, it was unlocked. Nonetheless, he looked all around: directly across the road was a row of cottages which bordered a field of ponies. No-one was about. The gate was stiff. He shoved and with a screech of metal it opened enough to let him enter.
In its day, Liam suspected, it must have been impressive. Ivy covered everything taller than a metre, which wasn’t much. He guessed that it had been destroyed in the Reformation. All that remained were stumps, like a house some fitful child had started to build out of Lego and then, intimidated by the scale of the task, abandoned. Liam tried to picture walls rising above him, and a roof; but the present day was too insistent.
He spun around. A woman, broad in figure and about his own age, dressed in bodywarmer and wellies, was striding across the grass. She held a half-eaten apple in one hand.
“Is it okay to be here? There was no-“
“Oh gosh, yes.” Her accent wasn’t local, but he felt more at ease. “We don’t get many visitors. It isn’t signposted, you see. Are you on holiday?”
“Getting away from it all?”
“Something like that.” Liam shifted. He couldn’t articulate his reasons for being there. Something about the building’s age, a sense of deep time and continuation.
She nodded and extended, for him to shake, the hand not holding the apple.
“Tironensian.” Seeing his look, she added: “The abbey. Tironensian monks.”
“And what does that mean?”
“I’ve no idea.” She laughed. “There used to be a board showing you the layout but it got all weathered and faded. They took it away and we never got a replacement.”
“I don’t think it would have made sense to me anyway,” Liam confessed. “Cloister. Nave. I don’t know what they mean. Just words.”
Angela shrugged helplessly.
“Are you interested in history?” she asked.
“I suppose. I never used to be, when I was young.”
He wasn’t though, not really. He was merely using this place.
“Well, the older we get, the closer we come to the past.“
Liam wasn’t sure he wanted to hear that. He was finding the abbey melancholy. It hadn’t fallen into ruin: this place of peace and contemplation had been ripped apart. He found himself imagining the violence of its undoing. He couldn’t help it. His mind, primed for so long to expect the worst, now pre-empted him and ran along lines of thought he did not want to follow. Muscle memory. Something had recalibrated in his head, and it was poisonous.
“There’s also a cross,” she added.
“A cross?” Liam looked around the ruins.
“Mm. There’s a big house at the other end of the town, it’s in their grounds. Huge stone cross, by all accounts. I’ve never seen it myself. I think you can ask to see it.”
“What sort of cross?”
“Pictish?” She looked vague.
An object of veneration. Something that people invested their hopes and dreams and prayers in.
“Sounds worth a look. Thank you for the tip. How do I find it?”
“Go past the park and there’s a driveway to the estate. You can’t miss it. Where the reeds begin.”
“There’s a lot of reeds.”
“Mm,” Angela mused, her face suddenly solemn.
She let him wander but he felt her gaze upon him. He peered and bent for a time. When he left, heading towards the village, she was in her front garden, watching.
The town did not welcome him and he was glad of it. It made no concessions to the tourist. The river played hide-and-seek as he climbed the slope of the high street. It peeked out from between houses; over a garden fence; behind a shed. On the northern bank, the country was broad and flat. Over there were rich berry-fields, famous throughout the land. Acres of polytunnels ribbed the dark earth. From the top of the street, he saw laid out before him his neighbour, the island.
It was somehow both bigger and smaller than he’d guessed. A kilometre or two from rounded end to pointed tip. For all the width of the estuary, not much clear water was left either side for navigation. The heart of the island was a slender grassy field with a few stunted trees – or at least they looked stunted from where he stood. There was a building, too, of some sort. Another ruin? He couldn’t make it out, his eyes not what they were a decade ago.
He gazed out the window while he ate lunch. The November sun turned the reeds gold and the silvery waters were now blue. Always the eye was drawn to the island, inscrutable behind its curtain of reeds. He began to feel oppressed, that their brightness was a sham to hide something dark.
The driveway of the estate snaked out of sight between shaggy evergreens. He paused at the gateposts. The words Private Road contained a power as potent as any megalith. Even if, ultimately, you ignored the words, they made you pause for thought. What was he here for? How interested was he in an ancient stone, really? Was this just killing time? Was this all he would be doing from now on?
The future had narrowed. It was smaller now by half. When he first met Fi and they spent every hour together – dropping everyone else they knew in those delirious weeks of infatuation – a friend reminded him that a couple shouldn’t be a whole made of two halves, but instead like two circles joined. It was advice Liam agreed with but ignored. And would being one circle have made the loss of the other any less painful?
The morning walk had exhausted the town, so in the absence of other pursuits – and given that he’d come this far and would have to walk back regardless – why not go a little further and see it? Yes: make the decision, decide on a goal and see it through. On a solitary walk without purpose, the mind was more likely to spin into gyres and fling out thoughts. He did not want that. With a suddenness that struck his chest like a blow, he missed the playfulness of a walk with Fi, the compromises and indulgences. Let’s look at this! Do we have to? Oh, go on then.
He was intercepted quickly. From the Land Rover that now drew alongside him. A young man with a broad, bearded face and the build of a rugby player looked out.
“Can I help?”
“I’m looking” – Liam cleared his throat – “I’m looking for a Cross.”
The driver peered at him.
“Somebody in the village told me there was a cross here, a stone-“
The man’s face relaxed.
“The stone! Aye. Sure. Jump in, I’ll drive you to it. Save you the walk.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Liam thanked him and climbed in the passenger door. He’d not been in an old-style Land Rover in decades, since before this driver was born. The ride was as unforgiving as he remembered.
“Are you on holiday?”
“What do you think of the town?”
“Fine view. If you like reeds.”
The driver laughed but said nothing. They turned in front of a large, sturdy house of dun-coloured stone.
“Do you know much about the island?” Liam asked.
“What about it?”
“What’s the building? Is it a ruin or do people live there?”
“Building? There’s no building on the island.”
“I thought I saw something.”
“No. Not any more.” He stopped the Land Rover with a rasp of the hand brake. “I’ll show you the way. It’s easy to miss, believe it or not.”
Liam followed his anonymous guide into a wood in which every metre of ground was colonised by rhododendrons. Their waxy leaves slapped him time and again. If there was a path being followed, he couldn’t see it. Every gap looked like it might lead somewhere, only to end in a dark curtain of foliage. A little further on, the ground seemed to drop. Where were they going? He longed, suddenly, to hold Fiona’s hand, and be led by her through this cold jungle.
“Here we are.”
If it had ever been a cross, it wasn’t any more and hadn’t been for an age. A pillar of engraved stone some three metres high, it tapered to a rounded spire. Moss grew in nooks, smoothing out the contours. The dim light of the little clearing softened the carvings into obscurity. Liam ran a palm down the face of its crumbling topographies. It wasn’t what the woman, whose name he’d already forgotten, had led him to expect. Nor did it have the grandeur and mystique of a true megalith: it was plainly a much later artefact, from history rather than before it. The driver was on the cusp of leaving but awaited, evidently, some acknowledgement.
“I’ll leave you to it,” he said finally. The phrase, offhand though it was, suggested Liam was now at the stone’s mercy.
But he had seen the cross and had no desire to commune further. What figures cavorted up and down its height were not his to decipher; they remained cryptic however much he peered. Whatever message it had once borne it did so no longer.
“When you’re done you can just head down the slope; it’ll bring you out on the riverside path. It’s narrow so mind the reeds.”
“Before you go…” said Liam.
His guide raised expectant eyebrows.
“You said,” Liam cleared his throat again, “that there wasn’t a building on the island “any more”.”
Liam thought of the empty green space by the river, with its regular edges and featureless terrain. Something had stood there once. What had stood on the island?
“That’s right.” The young man scratched his beard. “There was…”
“It was before I was born, and this is only what I’ve been told.” He reached for a rhododendron branch, plucked a leaf with sudden violence, and began to shred it: a tiny ritual Liam wondered if he even knew he was performing.
“There was a farmhouse. I’ve seen it in old photos, a family lived there. They had a boat tied up at the little jetty on the island. If there was a delivery for them there was a wee bell at the slipway on this shore and you rang that, and one of the family would come across in their boat and collect it. Sometimes there was no response: if it was windy, or the river was high or that, so days could go by and you’d not hear from them. But this one time, people had rung the bell for days and still nothing. So, some of the men from the village took a boat across. They found the family in the reeds. Three children, husband and wife. You don’t want to know what had been done to them.”
“My god.” Liam’s voice was a whisper.
“You know the Romans were here, too?” The man was warming to his theme. “This is about as far north as they ever reached. They lined all of their vessels up side by side in order to cross the river. No island in those days, see. Powerful river, isn’t it?”
Liam nodded helplessly.
“And something happened. No-one knows what. But we keep finding things. Artefacts. Remains. Things the river has kept. Things the river has given up. Things the reeds have hidden for two thousand years.”
He slipped and stumbled down a shifting floor of beech mast and dry leaves. No paths guided him. He had to pick his way across the uncertain ground. The trees that screened the river from the estate were still thickly clad. But the reeds were more imposing.
They were endless. Like the ragged fox-tails that farmers hung as a warning from fences, seedheads drooped at the top of stems and hissed in the breeze. As massive as a forest, or a glacier, as awesome in its way as the mountains Liam could see peek over the hills beyond the river. Like a single organism. You could not see the river through them. Upstream they stretched out of sight. Of the town a few hundred metres away, the reeds permitted no view.
The further he moved from the cross, the less inclined he was to take the man’s story at face value. He told himself it had been too polished, like something a tour guide would embellish for the benefit of credulous foreigners. But while the reeds still filled his vision Liam could not quite banish the sensation at the back of his throat.
They unnerved him. To become lost in them would surely be the worst end. An arm’s length from land but unable to see it. As treacherous as the reeds was the mud they sprang from, shifting and duplicitous, promising to take the weight of a foot but clutching and sucking and holding. Land that was not, land that wanted to be water. No-one could enter and navigate. For all the river’s power, its depths and currents were knowable. The reeds had no contours to plot: only stalks that no eye could distinguish from the next. Drowning in the river’s mighty current seemed merciful: an easier death to comprehend than a blind end among the reeds. How many other bodies had this place claimed? The wind dropped and the reeds grew quiet. The soft crunch of his footsteps sounded flat and unreal.
Liam was spooked. He hurried toward the cottage. Coming this way had been a mistake.
Here was something, though. The slightest thinning of the reeds revealed a wedge of crumbling concrete the mud had almost claimed. A slipway. Next to it, suspended from a rusting frame atop a rotting pillar, was a bell.
Hadn’t the young man mentioned a bell? Here was proof that the story at least had basis in fact. A rope, frayed and grey and attached to the clapper, was pulled taut and wrapped around the frame to stop the bell from ringing. He wished he hadn’t asked that final question, answered with relish.
There was no sound, from the trees or the river or the distant village. He longed, suddenly, for a noise to break the silence, a noise to prove that there was life. He picked at the knot to loosen the rope then swung the clapper.
From reeds and trees, unseen birds erupted. The clap of pigeons and the thrum of waders. Wingbeats flickered in the gloaming. But no echoes rang out over the riverside. In moments it was as if the sound had never been. Liam re-tied the rope, making sure it was secure and the clapper immobile. The quiet oppressed him even more as if he’d only accentuated the silence he’d tried to break and flushed out what life there was. Now nothing was left behind. Just the fucking reeds.
Liam turned, about to head for the comforts of the cottage. He felt suddenly small, as if nothing he might do could disturb things, that neither his presence nor absence mattered. Wasn’t that what he’d wanted? He craved suddenly the security of walls and a roof and the reassuring banality of radio or television. Anything to hold off a great emptiness he could sense looming behind him. A loneliness that he had held off by all manner of little constructions in his mind, now threatened to blow straight through them. He ran, the blood in his ears louder than the footfalls on the path.
The lights were all on. The TV showed muted images, and in the background, the radio reception came and went as he clattered around the kitchen. Every noise was an affirmation. While he was busy chopping, measuring, pouring, stirring, simmering, the outside world – a flat inky blue beyond the kitchen spotlights – was kept at bay.
He sat with his back to the windows, scanning the radio frequencies. His meal cooled on the table but he needed, suddenly, to hear something buoyant, however trite or sentimental it might be. The white noise was too suggestive. He gave up and snapped it off. As he looked for the remote to turn the TV volume up, from somewhere, and sounding like a whine in the ear that you mistake for an external noise, he heard a bell. Liam froze.
It came again, softly: the unmistakeable tolling of a bell.
Hadn’t he tied the clapper firmly? Had the wind unloosed it and now set it swinging with each gust? It was his responsibility to tie it back up. On the threshold he paused, but of course, there was nobody to wait for.
There was no wind. The black soil of the path rasped underfoot. Somewhere in the village, a car engine backfired. The river sucked and swashed as it struck the embankment. Then the reeds began, and everything else was lost to eye and ear.
He stopped. The bell clanged without rhythm, yet it sounded no closer. He walked on, certain that by now he’d reached the spot where the little slipway crumbled into the river. Softly now the bell sounded. Liam held his breath and listened. It was between him and the cottage. Somehow he had walked past it. He retraced his steps. Though the evening was no colder than the daytime had been, he shivered.
He pulled out his phone and switched on the torch. He pointed it into the reeds and scanned their ranks for a break. He looked for some irregularity to confirm he hadn’t been hallucinating. His memory was less certain than he’d thought. In places, the ground was soft where earth became mud, and grass gave way to reeds. With each sweep of his hand the light spread reed-shadows: a rippling barcode his mind wasn’t agile enough to process. He tripped on an edge of concrete and realised he’d found the little slipway.
But something was different. The one earlier had not been so overgrown, and on this concrete pillar – he stepped up to it, angled the beam of light all over the bare summit – there was no bell. He looked around, unease fastening itself to him like an embrace. He felt it in his spine, his muscles, his scalp. If the bell had been here before, it wasn’t any more, but there was no sign of debris. Had he broken it? The mud wasn’t deep enough, surely, to swallow something that size. He leaned over to look and his phone knocked against the pillar. It slid from his sweaty hand. The light flashed as it spun in the air, then darkness. A radiant blue amoeba filled his vision. He tried to blink it away. Liam squatted and blindly stretched his arm to where the phone must surely lie.
Something warm, and soft, and dry took hold of him: a hand, unmistakable and unique, that Liam knew in a single skipped heartbeat. It slid the cushioned pads of its palm into his and clasped gently. The grip – gentle, trusting, familiar – exerted no force. It did not pull him toward it or use him to draw itself up. It simply held him and the empty weeks fell from him in a moment. An emotion he could not name flooded through his body. As the slack tide slowly pulled taut it held him and he, in return, held it.