“I, who felt the horror of mirrors
Not only in front of the impenetrable crystal
Where there ends and begins, uninhabitable,
An impossible space of reflections…”
Jorge Louis Borges, Dreamtigers 1962.
Tomos had taken the long path around the beach edge that afternoon. The walk had become a routine that began at the old harbor, heavily silted by the river these days, so that only small craft were tied to the jetty wall. He walked quickly past the old large former houses of shipmasters built in more prosperous times and now rented out as summer houses for holidaymakers but during winter became a place for ghosts. He looked forward to the cliff walk and the view out over the open sea. Occasionally he’d catch sight of a pod of porpoises cresting the waves moving further along the bay. The walk was always accompanied by a breeze blowing in from the Atlantic which had the effect of lifting him out of the despondency that exhaustion had brought.
Tomos reached the house and changing out of his walking jacket looked out at the trees that rimmed the hillside at the back of the house. He noticed too, that the year was moving quickly toward autumn. Sitting in the kitchen he felt a sudden coldness in the house that signaled it was time to light a fire in the evening. He’d made a mug of tea and resumed reading WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. But after a short while, he became aware that his concentration on the intricacy of the storytelling was being distracted by the unusual quietness of the house and its occasional noises. He stopped reading and began listening. The clocks steady tock-tick. He could hear the cat licking its black silk-like coat and the loud purring it was making coming from where it had curled in the shelter of the sofa in the sitting room. Under the kitchen table, the border collie sheepdog gave a deep sigh. Tomos also grew aware that his attention was being directed at a variety of noises invading the house from outside. The occasional growling sound made by a passing vehicle on its way through the country lane outside the house. And now and then the wistful sharp song of a Robin in the birch tree in the back garden. In the distance the quiet rumbling drone of the dual carriageway that runs along one side of the valley which was about a mile and a half away as the crow flies.
Tomos understood that his attempt to read was being interrupted and he was being prevented from enjoying Sebald’s wonderful construction involving Professor Janine Dakynn and her interest in Flaubert’s fear of becoming surrounded by stupidity and as a result his thoughts and work becoming infected so that he would find mistakes in his writing. But also Sebald’s curiously insightful description and interpretation of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson and the story’s principal characters pursuit of the skull of a certain Doctor Thomas Brown. Tomos placed the marker in the pages of the book setting it down on the long pitch pine kitchen table and simply surrendered himself to listen to the clock unwinding the day by marking the passing of each second. Or at least that was the current theory.
He sat there, in an almost meditative frame of mind, and listened to the distinct sound of movement coming from the area of the kitchen sink across the room to his left. He became alert to the sound — and immediately the sound stopped. Silence returned apart from the rhythmic and recurring melody of the clock’s mechanism. He resumed meditating on the intricate layering of the story he had been reading. However, the sound as he called it, wherever it originated, once again interrupted his thoughts. He directed his attention, in an attempt, to eliminate the exact source of the sound or whatever it was that caused the abomination. But as he turned towards what he thought had been the direction he felt certain it had originated from the sound stopped again.
For most of his life, Tomos had experienced discomfort being alone in an empty house. This discomfort primarily centered on houses at night and the darkness that comes to occupy the rooms that are empty. To be precise Tomos always felt unnerved by the emptiness of rooms where the occupants are away for some reason. Being the solitary occupant of a house in the darkness of night without the noise of human activity — that is the activity of the living to distract you — allows the individual to become aware of that other life of the house. There are not only noises both explicable and non-explicable but one also has a growing understanding of the movements within the house — that is the movements of the house itself — which Tomos had always understood were quite independent of human influence. Tomos had experienced a profound discomfort of the darkness within a house ever since he was a young child but as he’d grown older familiarity with this sensation had diminished its effect on him to a lesser degree. But if he was given a choice he would still prefer the darkness of the open countryside or watching stars from a mountain top in the blackest of a winter’s night to the pitch blackness of an empty house. And now he found himself living alone in a house.
As he mused about the seemingly irrational episodes of his life and long experiences of houses at night he remembered the odd occurrence that happened in the first year of living in the “old” house. His youngest daughter had been born in the second month after he and his wife had moved into the house. In those first months, the baby had developed a chest infection so that her sleep was interrupted and he remembered waking at her crying and holding her to try and calm her to allow her mother to catch some sleep. He’d always had difficulty with sleep. He would usually wake at two-thirty and remain laying awake. Or if he became too fitful he’d get out of bed and go down to the kitchen and write. Tomos had realized that most nights he’d been lying awake waiting for the baby’s cries from the crib that had been brought into the bedroom.
One night as he lay there in the darkness he noticed the bedroom door opening very slowly and the figure of a small blond-haired boy enter the room. His first thought was that it was his son who was five years of age and blond-haired. Tomos pulled the duvet to one side to get out of bed to attend to his son thinking that something had disturbed him. He turned to see that the child had left the room. He got up thinking the boy had returned to his bed alone. He made his way to the child’s room, stood listening for a minute on the landing but could not hear any movement or sound. He opened the door quietly and could see by the dim glow of the night light the outline of his son lying on his back. The boy lay still and didn’t turn towards Tomos at the sound of the door being opened. He listened to his slow deep breathing as the boy slept. He returned to bed and lay in the darkness trying to gain some understanding of the feeling of familiarity that this experience had generated in his thoughts.
This was by no means the only occasion the little blond-haired boy made his appearance. Tomos recalled on another occasion late one night he had been clearing away in the kitchen. While standing at the kitchen sink he’d begun to dry the plates and utensils from the evening meal when his attention was drawn to movement in the window in front of him which looked out onto the long yard behind the house. He half expected to see a cat or some other animal moving surreptitiously in the darkness caught in the light from the kitchen light. But he immediately realized that he was watching the reflection of a small boy skipping around in the semi-darkness of the living room behind him. Tomos slowly turned and as he did so found once again that the boy’s small figure had disappeared. Incidents like this were repeated on several subsequent occasions. He would be occupied cleaning cutlery and dishes and become aware of the reflection of movement behind him and as he’d turn the figure would no longer be observable in the living room. He remembered thinking that these incidents had almost become a sort of game.
On one occasion he could hear his children were having difficulty settling down to sleep. He listened to their muffled giggling and it was then that he saw the figure emerge from the children’s room and start dancing in the dimmed light of the living room, then turn and go back into the children’s room. Tomos immediately stopped what he’s been doing and made his way to find out the reason his son, for that was who he thought he’d seen, had gotten out of bed and was disturbing his sisters. He entered the darkened room only to find all three children were sound asleep.
A year later Tomos’s son experienced night terrors as he himself had done when he was his son’s age. He remembered his grandmother had said never to attempt to wake a child from such a state — “you never know what will follow them”. When he heard himself repeat the words of his grandmother he felt — oddness — he thought it might be more accurate to say he felt “weird” in the true sense of the word. He began to reflect on his experience of feeling he was being followed. The fact was that the night terrors he had suffered as a child involved nightmares of being not just followed but pursued. And even the word pursued didn’t do justice to the sense of dread he experienced during and after the nightmares. He was left with the feeling of a great and very real fear that he was being hunted.
It was a very definite sound of scraping coming from the region of the kitchen sink that brought Tomos back to the present. He didn’t move. He simply sat observing the sink and its draining board and the window frame. The noise had been brief. But it was very definitely what seemed like a light scraping sound. But as hard as he looked from where he was sitting he could not discern what had made that sound nor did he notice any obvious movement. The clock continued to mark the seconds with its soft tick-tock. Otherwise, the interior of the house remained quiet. Tomos’s thoughts once again returned to the mysterious sighting of the blond-haired little boy and of another memory.
One day when he was eating lunch with his eldest daughter she told him that her brother would often wake at night to find a little boy sitting at the bottom of his bed watching him. Tomos couldn’t remember the context in which his daughter had revealed this information. It’s possible that they were discussing his son’s night terrors and that when these occurred it seemed as though he was wide awake. His eyes were open and he was speaking clearly. But the conversation he was holding was not with any visible person, at any rate, no one that anyone present could see. Occasionally he would walk out of his bedroom in a state of absolute terror pleading for someone to protect him from whatever had invaded his sleep. When attempts were made to reason with his son or to reassure him it quickly became clear that he was not awake. He could hear words spoken to him and he could see those trying to calm him but he was not in the present at all. The only measure that could be used was to carry him back to his room, lay him gently down in his bed, and sit quietly ready to hold him and reassure him that he was safe whenever he emerged from the nightmare.
Thinking of his son’s disclosure to his sister that he had seen a figure sitting at the end of his bed stirred another memory from Tomos’s own childhood. He remembered once asking his mother whether she believed there were such things as ghosts and hauntings of which his grandmother would frequently relate stories. His grandmother was Irish and very often when they holidayed at the family home in Waterford his uncles and aunts would gather at the house. The evening would then follow a familiar pattern that had been established on each visit. A crate of stout would be brought in and the family would sit around the open fire with the turf burning away filling the air with its unmistakable smell.
His grandmother would be encouraged and cajoled to tell stories about the strange things she’d claimed to have seen throughout her life. It was claimed that one night she had seen the banshee lurking outside the window of a neighbor. She reported afterward that the figure was of an old woman heavily hooded and cloaked so that her face was not visible. Tomos’s grandmother described the figure as having rolled away like a small storm of the blackest smoke shrieking as only the banshee could. It was said that the next day the owner of the house who was a land agent for one of the wealthy families was found to have died in his sleep. He was a bachelor with a housekeeper who saw to his basic needs. She reported he’d been in the best of health and when he retired to his bed for the night did not say or make any indication that he was unwell. Rumors began to emerge against Tomos’s grandmother that she was said to be possessed with “second sight”. She was disliked by some families as a result of this reputation.
Tomos’s mother had tried to make light of the ghost stories by telling him that his grandmother had a very powerful imagination and that she did not believe half her stories. He wondered now thinking of his mother’s use of the phrase “half of her stories” and what she had meant by that phrase. At any event, his mother went on to reveal that her younger sister had also experienced the “night visitor” as she called the old woman she would discover standing over her bed in the darkness of the early hours. She said that she and her sister had been staying with family in the Hartland area near Bideford. And again it was only now, thinking of his mother relating her sister’s experience, that Tomos realized the story began on a visit to Hartland. He had no knowledge that his grandparents or his mother and her sister had traveled back to Devon where one side of his mother’s family originated.
Tomos thought it was strange that he remembered the conversation, and his mother’s explanation of her sister’s experience of the “night visitor”, but somehow the fact that it had first occurred in Hartland had not registered with him until now. He recalled his mother telling him that when her younger sister, with whom she shared a bed, woke in the early hours she would recall seeing an old lady standing over her and that she had a kind face. Apparently, his aunt had said that she was not in fear of the old woman. Tomos’s aunt could also recall that she and the elderly woman conversed with one another. But when his aunt said that in the morning when she awoke she could not remember a word of what they had spoken about. From what his mother told him it appeared that the nighttime visits did not stop when they had returned home from Hartland but the appearances of the elderly woman seemed to have followed them and continued to make her appearances to her sister at night in their home in Wales.
Tomos remembered that his mother was reticent at first when he asked whether she’d ever had a similar experience. Or whether, as she shared the same bed with her sister, she herself had woken to see the “night visitor”. He remembered that during one conversation and after some hesitation his mother eventually disclosed there was one occasion when her sister had been taken ill and had gone into their parent’s room to lie between her mother and father. His mother mused that possibly it was the strangeness of having the bed to herself, maybe without the warmth of her sister beside her, that she slept lightly and uneasily. His mother told him that as she lay awake that night she gradually became aware of the presence of someone in the room. She remembered sitting up in bed and seeing at once the figure of an older woman. She told Tomos she knew straight away that the figure was not that of her mother. She also said that the elderly woman could not have been that of her grandmother on account of the fact that she was taller than her grandmother. She said that she remembered seeing the face of this person which she described as “kind” so that she did not experience an immediate fear of her in spite of the circumstances.
Tomos’s mother went on to tell him that the woman stooped near her and whispered some words so quietly that she could barely understand what was being said to her. The old lady seemed to understand this and so she spoke again. His mother remembered hearing the words — “It will be alright.” She was sure those were the exact words. She said that she had no idea what the words meant. Or why she was being reassured by being told these words. The elderly woman sat at the edge of the bed. Tomos’s mother lay back in the bed watching the figure. A sense of fear had begun to nag at her stomach and she was unsure whether to shout for her father or whether to scream as loudly as possible. Instead, she just lay in the bed warily watching this elderly lady sitting there. She said that within minutes she felt overcome with tiredness. Her eyelids started drooping and even though she remembered fighting hard against falling asleep. That is what occurred. She said one minute she was conscious of the figure sitting in the dim mirk at the end of her bed and then the next she knew was that she was awake and it was morning.
She told Tomos she’d never revealed her experience of that night to anyone. She had never told her sister about it and as far as she could remember her sister had never reported her experience to anyone else. Tomos’s mother said that she did not believe in ghosts or what people called spirits. She went on to say that all she knew was that she’d had that experience which she believed did happen but she preferred not to try to explain it within the common vernacular as a “haunting”. She did not believe that she was at risk of being harmed, although admitted eventually, she did feel frightened. In hindsight, she said she simply put this down to her young age and of being alone in a bed that she usually shared with her sister.
Tomos had never had such experiences that his mother described apart from the little boy who seems to have appeared only while his children were young. His wife had never witnessed seeing the boy. But on one occasion when he and his wife found themselves wide awake in the early hours and realizing that for some odd reason they were both unable to sleep they sat up in bed in the darkness. As they sat in the stillness they both became aware that the bedroom door was slowly swinging open. Tomos’s wife clearly thought one of the children was entering the room and he felt her move to get out of bed but firmly held her hand and signaled with his other hand to stay silent. They watched the door open until it could open no further. But no child appeared. And then just as slowly the door closed again. His wife immediately left the bed and on opening the door could see no one on the landing or the stairs, the doors to the other bedrooms were firmly closed. Nevertheless, she checked each of the children’s bedrooms and found them all to be safe and fast asleep.
As far as he was aware that was the last sighting any of the family had of the little boy if indeed it was he who had opened the door to the bedroom. Tomos remembered thinking it was as if the little boy was making his presence known to his wife before he bade his farewell so to speak. Remembering that last occasion Tomos could feel the hair of his scalp begin to rise and that strange tingling sensation move down the back of his neck. He also knew that it was the last occasion the little boy appeared in that house. But he had not made his appearance since.
As strange as the visits were of that little boy to our home such an experience does not compare to the anxiety Tomos encountered finding himself alone in an empty house at night some thirty years before. In 1969 he had been living and studying in Bristol. He had rented a room in one of those large Georgian Terrace houses in Clifton. A posh address but it was more or less a squat. On the inside, the house was very rundown and the occupants took no pride in cleaning the grand hallway and its staircase clean and respectable. It was a typical November night he could hear the rain lashing at the window while he tried to complete an assignment for the next morning. He had been working on a large table in a former dining room which had become a communal room complete with a black and white television that didn’t work.
There wasn’t a carpet in the entire house every floor had been stripped to bare boards. He’d become familiar with other occupants coming in and making their way up over the stairway to whichever room they occupied. Or the reverse, a door closing and the sound of footsteps descending and the loud noise of the front door slamming shut sending reverberations through the entire building, or at least that’s how it felt. On a particular night in question, one by one the occupants entered the room where he was trying to work and announced that they were going out to one of the local pubs in the Clifton area or going to the Students Union. They’d asked if he’d join them. He declined. When they’d all left — the house resumed its state of apparent emptiness. And it was that quietness of the house that inevitably unsettled Tomos disturbing his concentration and it was at such times he would put the drawing instruments to one side and decide to make a pot of tea.
The hallway of the house was overwhelmed by the grand scale of the impressive staircase. Each step of what looked like marble, spread out in its ascending array of playing cards complete with an elaborate cast-iron balustrade, rising to the next floor and the floor beyond that. At the end of the hallway, an old grand piano stood. On the wall above the piano a large mirror of that old thick glass that seems somehow to suggest, at particular times, that it didn’t reflect back the entire image of the person admiring themselves in front of it but by some surreptitious trick retained or absorbed some element of that individuals image.
It was once believed that the thickest mirrors kept back something of the person between the outer surface of the glass and the metallic backing and that whatever is kept back is trapped there indefinitely. Tomos’s studies had involved examining the properties of glass making. For reasons that evaded him now, he had become interested in mirrors. His research inevitably uncovered the folk superstitions that surrounded mirrors. For instance, he found that Jews believed that during Shivah, the seven-day mourning period, it is important to cover all mirrors in a house where someone had died. It is said that if the mirrors aren’t covered, the spirit of the deceased may become trapped in one and not be able to move on to the afterlife.
It appears that in other countries people insist that mirrors should be covered during night-time while people are sleeping, to ensure that when a person was dreaming they didn’t wander and get trapped in the mirror. In Serbo-Croatian culture a mirror was sometimes buried with the dead, both to prevent the spirit from wandering, but also to keep evil men from rising.
Tomos also discovered that mirrors were often considered to be portals in some way and that one could never be sure about what might come through at certain times. He was reminded of the Celtic belief about lakes, ponds and rivers where the calm periods of undisturbed water took on a mirror like quality. It is said that the Celts believed at those times that the lake surface was a portal to the other realm — the realm of the dead — and that it was possible to communicate with the ancestors through that doorway. It is for this reason that so many votive offerings to appease or beseech the ancestors or the Gods have been found at the bottom of such lakes. And what could be worse than being in a pitch-black room with a mirror and suddenly hearing something else moving around in the room with you when you know there was nothing there.
Tomos remembered that people held a belief that a mirror in a dark room with no or little light could be dangerous. Viewing a mirror by candlelight could hold very serious dangers for a person who did such a thing. It was believed that viewing a mirror by nothing other than candlelight would show you your reflection but also reveal those of any entities inhabiting your home. It was believed of these other “inhabitants” that once you become aware of them, they also become aware of you and that bad luck or worse may follow.
It appeared that mirrors had always been viewed with suspicion for this reason and Tomos’s awareness of such a belief may have had something to do with his own misgivings each time he had to pass the mirror to gain access to the kitchen. Tomos would openly admit to friends afterwards that on that night when he needed to make a cup of tea and take a break from his work he certainly moved quickly past the mirror through to the kitchen of the house than was usual. The kitchen was large and high ceilinged. It had a black and white hexagonal floor tiles, a Belfast sink and draining board and a large New World cooker that over the years had become filthy with encrusted spillage and burnt food stuff. He had given up cooking a meal in the house but resorted instead to buying a meal at local cafés. On top of the stove was a large enamel kettle still warm from the last person who’d made a hot drink. He quickly made a pot of tea for himself, loaded a tray with the teapot milk and mug and switched the light off after as he left the kitchen. Tomos purposefully closed the door so that if anyone went to the kitchen he would be able to hear the door being opened. He walked quickly through the hall with his back to the mirror and as he entered the communal room he switched the hall light off.
For a moment he stood listening and could hear the quietness of the house and his senses told him that he was alone. Tomos rapidly became immersed in drawing out the design he’d been working on all evening and once that had been completed placed the large sheet of A1 paper on the floor along with the half-dozen sheets he’d already finalised. Occasionally he’d get up and walk around the room to free his body of the stiffness that can take over when sitting for so long in still concentration. He stood in front of the large bay window and looked out over the rows of rooves below. His attention settled for a moment or two watching the indistinct shape of the river Avon far below and the dilapidated dockland, barely discernible, through the orange fog of neon light. He went back to the work table and the light of the standard lamp and turned his back on the partially lit night sky. He once again became quickly lost in concentration, on measuring and calculating the light pencil outline of the plan on the white sheet of paper laid out on the drawing board held by three steel clips.
The sound that brought Tomos’s concentration to an abrupt halt was one single soft note from the piano in the hallway outside the room where he was sitting. He listened but could hear no other sounds. He had not heard the front door open. He had not heard any other sound of movement or of footsteps that would signal someone else was in the house. Tomos knew the house was mice infested and rationalised that it may have been a mouse that had climbed onto the keyboard and managed somehow to depress one of the keys. After all it could not have been a moth which also infested the house. And as he thought about it he immediately recognised it as a ridiculous possibility.
Tomos found that he was listening to the silence of the house return and he resumed working on the drawing before him. As he sat back to examine the drawing another single note was struck on the piano but this time the sound was far louder. Tomos listened to the sound reverberate in the frame of the piano and echo in the bare emptiness of the hall. On this second occasion the idea came to him that someone else must be in the hallway and this was probably a practical joke of some kind. He decided someone was trying to spook him and he wasn’t going to rise to the bait or react as they obviously wanted him to do. He resolved once again to settle down and try to concentrate on the design that he had to complete by the morning. However he was anticipating another disturbance and as a result had difficulty focussing on the task in hand which was a hexagonal design rather like the quincuncial lozenge from The Garden of Cyrus that had so obsessed Sebald’s Dr Nathaniel Browne.
Tomos was startled by a single extremely loud note struck on the piano in the hallway. It occurred to him that the very loudness of the sound meant that he could not ignore it or whatever was causing it any longer. He got up from the table and walked to the doorway slightly smiling in anticipation of discovering that he was the victim of some kind of practical joke and finding out the identity of the culprit. Tomos expected to find the hoaxer standing in the hallway with pleasure and amusement written all over his or her face. Tomos opened the door and walked into the hall. He had not expected the scene that he was confronted with. The hall was not in darkness. It was lit — barely lit — by a single candle in a tall brass candle stick holder placed on the top of the grand piano. Tomos was completely taken aback. He rushed to the kitchen thinking that whoever had pulled off this stunt must be hiding there. The kitchen was in complete darkness. He noticed the silence of the room immediately as he switched on the electric light still expecting to see the practical joker. The kitchen was empty. He quickly walked through and checked the back door which was locked and noted that all the sash windows were also closed.
Tomos returned to the hallway. He took up the candlestick and examined the piano. Nothing seemed amiss. He could see no mouse scurrying along the hammers. But he had not expected to see one given the loudness of the note that was struck. Something caught his attention in the mirror. He felt as though someone was standing behind him and turned but there was no one standing there. For some inexplicable reason — at least for a reason he still did not understand all these years later — Tomos picked up and blew out the candle and placed it back on the piano. Given his fear of darkness in an empty house he found himself frozen, unable to move from where he was standing. It was then that he noticed the movement in the mirror in front of him. It was an indistinct movement but a definite movement. He could make out the vague figure of a long haired small boy, and behind him a man standing completely in silhouette. He immediately felt himself shaking and drew away from the mirror. He turned and went back to the living room.
Tomos quickly put together the work sheets of his drawings, gathered the pencils, rulers and other drawing implements and placed them in his work bag. He noticed that his hands were shaking uncontrollably. He decided to leave the house. He pulled his coat off the back of the chair and leaving the light on opened the door and somewhat warily entered the hallway. He switched on the light and looking toward the mirror noticed immediately that the long brass candlestick was no longer placed on the piano. Tomos opened the front door and walked out onto the street. He kept walking. He wasn’t sure how long he strode through the streets of Bristol. But eventually he came to the Ship reputedly the smallest public house in the city and it certainly felt like it that night. It was so crowded people were standing out on the pavement. It was difficult enough to get through the doorway let alone to make ones way to the bar and order beer. But Tomos didn’t mind that it felt good being jostled and having to force his way between men standing at the bar refusing to move in an attempt to hold their places. He didn’t feel alone. He felt good being amongst other human beings.
Leaving the bar at stop tap with the rest of the people who had filled the place to the brim he began to walk up Park Row and make his way warily back to the house. He hoped that he would not be returning to an empty house and that at least one of the others he shared the place with had also returned. But as he walked along Clifton Hill he began to notice the sound of footsteps behind him. It was not that late and there had been quite a few people walking through the streets so at first Tomos did not pay any heed. However passing Polygon Lane the sound of the footsteps had become more audible as if the person following was in gaining on me.
Tomos was aware that he was alone on the street and as a matter of his own safety he turned slightly to see who this person was who had been quite obviously following him. He could see no one. Tomos not for the first time that night was astonished and the shaking that had come over his body following the incident in the house had now returned again. He began walking again and this time he hurried to get off the street. But not long after he had picked up a brisk walking pace he once again made out the echoing sound of footsteps behind him. He looked again but there was no one to be seen. He felt the urge to walk back and check to verify whether whoever was following me was somehow hiding. But Tomos preferred to return to the safety of the house in spite of what had taken place earlier that evening.
From that night on Tomos became increasingly aware of the sound of footsteps following him whenever he ventured out into the city streets at night. Even when he moved to Cardiff that summer term the footsteps had become a feature of his nocturnal wanderings. He became so used to their presence that a feeling almost akin to familiarity had begun to take form. He would from time to time turn to check whether he was being followed and know full well that when he turned he would not see anyone. Tomos’s first lodgings in the city, was a comfortable family house with a spare room he rented in Theobald Street. Nothing untoward occurred while he stayed in the house. But walking through the streets at night he would hear the familiar footsteps following him. He often wondered whether he was being followed during the day but was unable to hear the sound of footsteps because of the hustle and bustle of the busy traffic filling streets.
The dock area of Cardiff was still intact at that time but was awaiting the ravages of demolition in the name of improvement that awaited all cities in England and Wales in the so called sixties. Tenement housing still lined Bute Street. The old streets below Bute Terrace and Tredegar Street still stood. Waiting re-development or in reality eradication. Tomos frequented pubs like the Quebec and clubs like Casablanca or the Stork club which he preferred purely because of the difference in music. Neither clubs had been invaded by white people at that time apart that is from drunken Finnish seamen from the timber ships. At that time a lot of the roads were still cobbled and apart from the prostitutes with their plastic knee length boots lurking at the top end of Bute Street the place would be deserted as he walked through in the early hours.
By this time he’d moved accommodation and taken a ground floor room in a house with two other students. Tomos usually worked late into the quietness of the night. The neighbouring houses on either side were student houses. There were always people coming in and out, drunken laughter and loud music until eventually in the early hours the sound subsided and he continued to work. He couldn’t remember when he first began to be aware of the sound of footsteps going up the staircase outside his room. But he remembered one night the sound of people going up and down the stairs was so distracting that he was unable to concentrate on the book he’d been reading. It sounded as though the students in the rooms above his were throwing a party and had invited half the college. He wondered why he hadn’t been invited. Eventually he gave up trying to read and walked out into the corridor to investigate. There was no one on the stairs and the rooms upstairs were evidently silent. Tomos returned to his room and listened at the door but the house was as it should be in the early hours — completely quiet.
Over the months that followed the sounds of people moving up and down the stairs of the house became a regular occurrence. He asked the men living upstairs whether they’d noticed any noise. Both denied hearing any disturbance but wondered whether the noise came from the adjoining house where a large number of students rented the property. Occasionally he’d look out to see whether there was any sign of people coming into the house as he listened to the sound of footsteps on the stairs. But there was no one out in the street. Tomos remembered that at one point he’d even convinced himself that the front door of the neighbouring house might have been accidentally left open and some strangers had roamed in off the street. And each occasion that he got up from his desk to check there was nothing to be seen or heard on the street outside the adjoining house.
One night something entirely untoward occurred he had fallen asleep but it was a sleep so light Tomos was aware of the room around him. A girlfriend had once told him that she had woken several times to discover him asleep but that his eyes had been open. She said that she was convinced he was awake. But when she spoke to him he didn’t answer but she told him she could hear by his breathing that he was asleep. On this occasion he became aware that the door to the bedroom had opened and he felt the movement of someone walking past his bed. He immediately wakened but the room was empty.
On another occasion he remembered he’d felt as if someone had brushed past the bedside. He didn’t show that he was awake but had simply lain still in the bed, listening as this stranger, if it was indeed a person, move around the room as if they were searching for something. When he sat up in the darkness he was alone and has been unable to discern that anyone had entered the bedroom. A week after those incidents a strange incident in the kitchen occurred. Most weekends Tomos would be alone in the house. He would boil a kettle for a hot drink and as he left the kitchen he’d switch off the light. A few hours later he returned to the kitchen to find all the lights in the kitchen had been turned on. One night Tomos returned to the kitchen to see that all the electric rings of the cooker were glowing red. The rings were set on maximum and the kitchen was baking hot from the heat radiating from the cooker top. This incident convinced him that he should leave the place. He was lucky and quickly found another flat in a student house.
Tomos turned up at the arranged time to inspect the room. It was a tall four storey Edwardian building in an avenue lined with mature London Planes. Unexpectedly there was no one waiting for him when he arrived. He stood for ten minutes watching the cars and vans move slowly along the road. When at last no one had come out of the building to greet him, Tomos pushed the door which swung open with such ease it seemed as if the house was expecting him. However what greeted him was a grand hallway with black and white hexagonal tiling and on the very end wall, a large narrow mirror and below that a grand piano with a tall brass candle stick placed above the keyboard. He remembered seeing himself in the mirror standing stock still as if frozen with shock.
“You should be told as a child that all the people of the place where you were born will follow you all your life through all the places you will ever live. And you will remember.
It’s the sense of a place.
But it’s much much more.”
Published in The Lark Medium Review US.
Driving through the city late at night he’d become aware of the vehicle following — and its increasing closeness. The car had gradually become so close, almost bumper to bumper. It was dangerous. The line of vehicles in the next lane prevented him from pulling over to let the car overtake. He looked repeatedly in the rearview mirror. His attention moved from the close proximity of the vehicle to the driver. He noticed that the man’s face had an extreme pallor — a yellow ivory whiteness in spite of the glow of his rear lights. After five possibly six times viewing the driver he realized that the driver’s eyes appeared to be closed. He repeatedly checked the vehicle in front as he stared back in the rearview mirror. He lightly touched the brake pedal so that the car behind was lit up by the red light and he could see the driver more clearly. His eyes were definitely closed. Was he asleep? Or looking down at something? He decided the driver’s eyes were closed.
As he looked in the rearview mirror checking the car behind he realized he’d seen the man before. It was just a fleeting thought of recognition. He saw that a gap had opened in the stream of vehicles in the next lane and he moved the Volvo into the slow lane. He watched with a mixture of relief and something close to horror as the vehicle that had followed him so closely continued to drive on until it was sitting bumper to bumper behind the next car. He watched the flicker of brake lights as the cars speeded ahead of him and then disappeared
As he drove on in the slow lane he remembered when and where he’d seen the man. He’d been sitting in the launderette on North Road in Brighton. It was a sunny evening and he’d been impatient to get the washout of the drier so that he could then walk down to the seafront. He remembered staring at the drier wondering how much longer it would take to finish. Sitting next to the window of the launderette, he looked out at the Lighthouse Pub on the other side of the road. But he could also see reflected in the window the other two people sitting behind him. The woman sitting nearest to him had been crying the entire time he’d been sitting there. He hadn’t known what to say. Or whether he should say anything. She’d been staring ahead without acknowledging his presence, without saying a word. After a while, he realized that she didn’t have a wash in one of the machines or clothes in a drier. She just sat there quietly crying, occasionally dabbing her cheeks with the scrunched-up handkerchief held in her left hand.
He found himself watching her reflection. He noticed that she was dressed in a style from the 1930s or ’40s. The dress was cut in a way that was never seen these days apart from second-hand clothes shops that specialized in what were euphemistically called vintage clothes. The clothes the woman was wearing reminded him strongly of his mother’s dresses when he had been a young child — the particular soft blue that she loved and a color one rarely saw these days. A high straight neckline and a waist cut high below the breasts.
The woman was in her sixties. But she may have been older. He couldn’t be certain about that. She wore no makeup. No lipstick. Her blond hair was cut just above the shoulders. He listened to her speaking.
“I’m still waiting. I’ve waited for so long for him to return.”
She spoke in a soft crisp English accent, that clear pronunciation sounding as if it had come from a previous age. He listened as she said to no one.
“When will he come back? He promised he would. I promised I would wait. I’m still waiting.”
He turned and asked her — “Who are you waiting for?”
He immediately regretted it.
“My husband” she answered without turning to look at him.
“He said he would come back”.
“Where’s he gone?”
She replied — “He’s a pilot. He promised he’d be back. I’m still waiting.”
“Can’t you phone the airline? Who does he fly for?”
“He’s in the RAF. He flies spitfires.”
Before saying another word he studied her more closely.
“The war is over,” he told her.
“What did you say? The war is over. Why hasn’t he come back? Where is he? I’ve been waiting for so long.”
“What year is it?” He asked.
“I’ve been waiting for so long.”
Another voice took his attention. The man sitting at the far end of the launderette said something he didn’t quite hear. But he repeated it again more loudly.
“She doesn’t know”
He looked at the man. He was sitting there with his eyes closed. His face was pale ivory yellow.
He spoke again — “She doesn’t know”.
The dryer stopped. He stood to empty the clothes into his old green parachute bag.
“What am I going to do? I’ve waited for so long.”
He left the launderette. He took one look at the man sitting there with his eyes closed. The man sat there unchanged. Before the door closed behind him he heard the woman again — “I’ve waited for so long”.
He walked across the road to the Lighthouse — John Lennon was singing “Working Class Hero” on the jukebox. He ordered a pint of Guinness and sat in the window seat watching the launderette. He could see the woman sitting there. Not moving — just sitting — staring straight ahead. He couldn’t see the man.
His hands shook as he lifted the pint to take a sip and he realized that he’d been shaken by the incident. He wondered whether there were women so traumatized by the loss of a husband that they were unable or refused to believe that it had actually happened. It was 32 years since the war had ended — how had the woman survived in such a state. Was she insane and been kept in a hospital for all this time and somehow got out?
His thoughts shifted to the strangeness of that man who’d just sat there the entire time with his eyes closed. He slowly realized that he recognized him from some time before. Was it him? Was it really that man? What was he doing here?
The sound of John Lennon singing ‘Working-class hero’ came on the jukebox again. He stood at the bar waiting for another Guinness to be poured and settle. He realized that this must be the fourth playing of the same Lennon record one time after another.
When the pint was brought to the bar he asked the reason Lennon was being played.
“He’s been assassinated. It was just announced on the News.”
Colour theory/Or what I learned in Art School
black is not a colour
nor is white
though some whites think
they are whiter than white
those whiter than white whites
lets call them the man
think black is a colour
for them colour theory does not apply
what a surprise is in store
if they open their eyes
open their minds
and let the sunlight in
black is not a colour
any rainbow lays down the rules
black is not a colour
nor is white
I am my own silence
Silences vacancies empty spaces
lemons yoghurt spuds
The silence of the middle class again
think you can close the door
you are deluded
What is the message?
This message of silence
What are you trying to say?
What are you trying to tell me?
With your silences.
Your non replies.
Is it that I haven’t lived
the times I’ve worked through
driving past lorries filled with coal
convoys of lorries on the motorways
filling up the power stations stores
to break the miner’s strike
to break a community
to break a people
seeing strikers in the cells
and expected to collude
with the depravity of the middle class
punishment your silences again and again
WHISHT TO YOU!!!
Is that your message?
I haven’t raised children?
I haven’t saved children?
nothing I’ve seen
nothing I’ve touched
nothing I’ve smelt
in this world of everyday pain
is that your message?
Speaking on behalf of miners wives
in the Fines Enforcement Debtors Court
before those pompous magistrates
in their ties and suits living in piano rows*
stopping the wives going to prison
for non payment of a fucking TV licence
show some fucking respect
not your silence hiding the fact
you have nothing to say
That was then this is now
food banks are empty
food banks keep running out
children go to school hungry
empty hungry empty hungry
that was then this is now
sixth wealthiest nation
empire gone going down
moving the deck chairs around
while Nero’s violin plays a stringent tune
children starving empty hungry
that was then this is now
sliced bread bags of potatoes
pasta rice tomatoes bags of this
bags of that — tins of beans tins tins
anything tinned bags of sugar
anything you can give anything at all
big little or small big little or small
SHUSH AND AWAY WITH YOU
That was then this is now
Global Britain rules the waves
Global Britain rules Covid too
Just remember killers take many shapes
even assassins read poetry
some read ancient Greek
mass killers enjoy a good tune
some love jazz and dance about
Sergei Rachmaninoff knew a thing or two
I’ve lived I’m still here
you can’t own my silence
in this world of everyday pain
IN THIS WORLD OF EVERY DAY PAIN
I OWN MY SILENCE
WHISHT AND BEGONE!!!
I’ve lived I’m still here
you can’t own my silence
in this world of everyday pain.
WILL YE WHISHT AND BEGONE.
Footnote: piano rows* houses of skilled working class and lower working class who had pianos in their front room for a child to practice.
Darkness comes darkness goes then there’s grey
sometimes some people can dance through darkness
Some of the time some people hide in the darkness
apparently- there’s no light to look into the darkness
A boy dances to make the woman his mother smile
she is lost in the darkness he wants her to laugh or dance sometimes
do anything to see her smile a boy dances for the woman
who closes the door the door closes darkness closes in
The woman re-appears fully dressed shopping bag in hand
closes the door says I won’t be long he sits on the bottom stair
looking at the frosted glass window of the bottle green door listening
a glass spider hangs from a thread in the glass window staring
The old house was burned down exactly a year after we moved out
to another house up the hill exactly a year since the neighbour
from hell moved in next door with her drunken antics, and theatrics
late night dramas, shouting and swearing anytime the woman
my mother hung clothes on the wash line on a sunny day
anytime she left the house to catch a bus to shop in town
she my mother closed the door and stayed in the darkness
she my mother trapped left the house for as long as she could
Scorched and smoking the house of my childhood
the place of my memories boarded and smouldering
an Angels feathers falling
Nights were light, nights were long
back when the sun held on to all the skies
unwilling to sink below mountains dark lines
but darkness came all the same as it was bound to do
each long day, as it must do each and every night
when we were young and brightness filled our eyes
Standing with clouds
it was a time of childhood a time of innocence
of days walking hillsides and high mountains
there was no other time there was no other place.
When did the beginning start to commence?
When did the beginning alter its course change stop?
When did the beginning of a story forget itself?
I stand here in the highest place
when we were young it was a time
when our dreams were golden
your star brightened night skies
your silence your absence now is a hurt
I choose not to bear.
Old names have been deleted
a constant pasting over of history
that endless creep
the landscape has lost a sense of itself
blackened elder dip tipped branches bow into the rivers sweep
floodwaters adorned stems with fluttering plastic waste
brought from upriver towns to befoul ocean seas.
On the black grey slabs of Twyn Bryn y Beddau*
we played the old games of hunt and seek
watched from rushes deep channelled
tunnelled walls of the old graves.
And the walled field
Ffynon yr saith erw*
while processions of white
walk the hill
to the statue of Mair*.
And the blood field of Brithweunydd*
the death place of a prince.
- Twyn Bryn y Beddau* means Hill of the Graves which in this case are megalithic ‘Round Barrows’
- Mair* means Mary as in mother of Jesus — in this case, relates to the Statue of St Mary which was constructed in the early 1950s to commemorate the miracle of Mary and the be-jewelled and gold plated statue which was stolen by Oliver Cromwell. The original statue marked the place of a Miracle and was on the pilgrim route from Canterbury Cathedral to St David’s Cathedral.
- Ffynon yr saith erw* means well of the six graves not in this case ‘Round Barrows’.
- Brithweunydd* means stone littered or speckled place…
The late Oliver Rackham, world-famous authority on Trees and much more — in his authoritative book “The history of the Countryside” describe the South Wales plateau as an intact “funerary landscape” that had largely escaped the ravages of the Industrial Age. This landscape is the place I played and spent so much of my time as a child and teenager. It is the place where I live and still walk and write about.
Of course truth must be written
in a struggle witth untruth
and it cannot be general, elevated, ambiguous.
For to be general, elevated, ambiguous
is precisely the nature of untruth.
From the frontispiece of the The Broken House:Growing up under Hitler.
by Horst Kruger.
Ten White Birds Fly Out of the Darkness
Today the dream palace is being destroyed
the place of dreams is being knocked down
it was a palace where dreams were made
love kindled love sparkled in the darkness
A dream palace with names that changed and changed again
Royal Clarence Theatre, New Theatre, County Cinema, Bingo
one hundred and thirty-one years it took to destroy
the palace of dreams with bulldozers and cranes
Ten white birds fly out of the darkness
Fly and fly and keep on flying out of the darkness
It was a place of meetings, of sharings, of kissing
of arranging, of touching, of feeling, you know what I mean
it was the only way people saw the world outside
freedom but not free of the colonial sneer national anthem
It was the place to go on a Friday or Saturday night
a place to hide out of the rain there was a lot of rain about
a place to laugh a place to sigh to cry a place to cheer
when the bad guy dies, a place for newsreels of the war
Ten white birds fly out of the darkness
fly and fly and keep on flying out of the darkness
It was the place your father’s cousin, Ros, trod the boards
before she went on to play with Lawrence and Norman
with all those other famous names of stage and screen
now she’s gone too, a small funeral in a covid year.
Ten white birds fly out of the darkness
fly and fly and keep flying now they’re gone too.
The rows of seats lookout, keep staring out, keep waiting
the screen is gone, the cascading curtain someone’s memory,
the proscenium arch bricks and rubble, the seats lookout
the seats look on, tomorrow they’ll be gone, the seats look on.
Ten white birds fly out of the darkness
gone gone gone. The ten white birds are gone.