One of the things I like about writing in the late afternoon or evening is that the light drops without me noticing it. One minute – at least that’s how it seems – the sun is low, but up, and the next thing I know, beyond the glow of my computer screen, the room is dusted with dusk. And I am cold. And I haven’t noticed either the cold or dark silently cloaking me. There’s tension in my back because, without knowing it, I’ve raised my shoulders a third of an inch and held them that way for I don’t how long – long enough for my neck to feel tight. I roll my shoulders, circle my head, and hear something crunch, crack, ease. My body is tired despite nothing but my fingers having moved for hours. Alone, I sit back, find a spot on the ceiling, and watch the silence. The fridge gurgles like the empty stomach it is and a faint chug echoes in my head where my thoughts turn, then come to rest like an old dog finding a comfortable spot in its bed. A magpie calls from the tree outside, it is an unmusical, scraping screech. Not tonight, but some nights I can hear mice in the walls. When they are there, in the recess behind the microwave, that space between the tongue and groove cladding and the brick, they sound like dry rice falling on bare floorboards. A postcard of John Duncan’s portrait of a bare shouldered Niamh, she of Tír na n’Óg, the land of eternal youth, is propped against the radio. She stares across the room at me, aglow with golden hair, asking, Where have they all gone? Things have changed, Niamh, I tell her, there are no visitors these days. Some of them have gone to Tír na n’Óg (or somewhere like that, I can’t be sure), and the others are in their own homes. She is unperturbed and I am talking aloud, alone.
I like this quiet and, for now, I am happy for my words to go unanswered. But this empty flat is full of people. I can’t see or hear them, but I feel their imprint, especially in the silence of early evening. Yes, there are invisible imprints everywhere in this flat, and they become visible to me when the quiet comes. visible just when I need them (as the song goes) at the dimming of the day. For although, in these strange times, I have no idea when I’ll next have a visitor within my walls, I can magic old friends into being, have them borne here like Oisín travelling home on the white horse. Except they don’t touch the ground, they hover just outside the corner of my eye. When the light dims and the sky glows and the clouds’ edges are rubbed with orange, in they come, sinking into peace beside me. The table at which I sit holds their imprint; not one I can forensically dust for, but one I can feel like pockets of warm air when walking the south side of Arthur’s Seat at the end of a sunny day.
There are those who were here long before I was here, whose stories are lost, but for my imagination. There are those who sat at this table with me weeks ago, months ago, last year and the year before, and I can hear snatches of what they said, how they moved, their laughter. And there are some who have yet to visit, but they will come. Those in the realm of possibility, an unknown future, those who stand in the hall, wondering which room to enter.
Both Ireland and Scotland tell stories about ‘thin places’, places where the distance between earth and the eternal world is shortest, and one leap might take you there (or back). I wonder if there is a time of day that has the same quality? I think there exists a thin time, where the softy settling darkness is not yet full but frail, a time when the light and the air and the sound is hung with gossamer so that when you sit very still, watching silence, strange things happen.
Hanging by my table is a wren, carved in relief on a piece of soft wood – pine, I think. The imprint of the wren is trying to come to life, to free itself from the carving and fly off the wall. In bright sunshine, at the height of the day, it flattens, bleeds into the wood, disappears. Only in the dimming of the day when the light is low and shadows bloom can I clearly see its short, stubbed tail perked upwards, its beak held sideways. The wren is a skittish bird, shy, but she keeps me company alongside all of the other benevolent, ghostly imprints that I feel these quiet evenings.
Philip Larkin, Vers de Société (extract)
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.