There were four people in the church for morning prayer. Four people, all over sixty. One of them asleep. I always applaud the vicar, at the end. Every church I go to, I applaud the vicar. Sometimes I approach him afterwards and I say, it’s a hard job you have, vicar. Somebody should tell them, somebody should show some appreciation. Everyone’s a pagan now, vicar, I say. Cars, shopping, the internet. No-one believes anything. But it’s a test. God has set us a test. You did well today, that’s what I say to him. It’s usually a him, though one of the churches I visit has a woman now. I don’t know what they’re complaining about. The church needs all the help it can get. She’s very nice. I say the same to her. Hardest job in the world you have, I say to her. She’s usually too busy to talk after a service, but she smiles at me. They have a lot to think about.
I go to a service every day if I can. There are many churches around here, of course, scattered around the Bay, in all the old villages. No shops left in most of the villages, pubs closing or turned into fancy restaurants. Big silver cars parked up every pavement, doors closed and bolted. Nobody who lives there was born there. I don’t know where these people come from. It doesn’t matter now. It is too late now to worry about any of that.
What matters now is not here amongst us, I think.
They’re centuries old, some of these churches. Stained glass, roof bosses, Norman doorways, all that. Sometimes folks with come in with booklets looking for reredos or rood screens or historic fonts. If I see them, I tell them: it’s the words you should be looking for. You can see an old sixteenth century door anywhere, but a good sermon: a good sermon is a summoning. From across the centuries, from over the waters, the voice moving on the waters, coming closer. Will it come in? Will it choose to come in and settle, just for a moment, amongst us? A good sermon is an incantation. It is ritual magic. These buildings are nothing without the words.
At the beginning of any service the church is empty like a wood in winter. That’s how you can tell if a sermon is a good one, if the vicar deserves your applause: if they get the spell right, you will hear the Lord enter the building. You will hear the coming. It makes a sound, gentle, rushing. You will feel the Spirit curl itself around the roof beams and settle in. You will be in the presence.
The Spirit will come if you sing to it. It is an animal that must be gently enticed. If you sing it in to the building with the correct words, it will come. It does not care how many people are waiting.
I do not care about the rood screens.
This is the month that Anya died. November. It is six years now. She did well. We did well. Nobody stays married anymore, like nobody goes to church. But we did. We stayed married because it was our task, it was our work, and because we did our work well we built love from it. These people who think love drops from the sky, or is cheap on some supermarket shelf, that you can return it and ask for a refund. These people who think everything is cheap, or should be. Love is work, like God is work, like anything real is work. Love is a practice. Our practice lasted for twenty-seven years.
When I walk home after a good sermon I have only one foot in this world. On this morning I am talking of, this morning when there were only four people in the church, I was passing through a small wood that stands between the village and the shore of the Bay. There is a kissing gate and a clear path and it was mid-morning in October. There were still leaves on most of the trees. Rooks were gathering above the oaks in flocks, bigger and bigger each day as they spiralled towards winter.
And then there was somebody in the wood with me.
When I entered the wood I was still in the church, still in the presence of the Spirit, still with the prayer. I had brought the words with me. In his hand are all the corners of the earth, and the strength of the hills also. I spoke them aloud as I walked, perhaps. I do that sometimes. I wonder if this was what made it happen.
I don’t really know what happened.
I only know that there was someone in the wood with me. I could feel him. It was a presence, but not the presence from the church. It was smaller, darker, more earthy. A man, I felt, some kind of man. Someone very old. He was behind me, I could feel it, but when I turned he was still behind me. I saw nothing at all, but I felt him, all the way through the wood, all the way through until I reached the stile at the other end, as if I had summoned him. As if the words had summoned him to me.
I am old enough now that I do not expect to understand much that happens in this world. But I still walked as fast as I could until I reached the path along the edge of the sands.
In church, sometimes, I see Anya, sitting quietly in the corner. Her swan neck is bowed in prayer, the white light is on her white hair. She is still, as she always will be now, until we meet again, if we do, if anybody does. I watch her. I want her to turn and give me that look. I want her to smile at me one last time. She never turns. But it is fine. Love is a practice, and so is grief. God wastes nothing.
My heart is smitten down and withers like grass, so that I forget to eat my bread.
But what do I sense in the wood? Because it was not only that time I felt it. That was six weeks ago, that first experience. Since then I have experienced this presence four times, and each time it is closer to me, it seems. It is something very old. It is something very old and uncaring. It wants something from me, but it does not care for me. Each time it is closer to me. Each time I walk faster and faster towards the sands.
It would be possible to believe I simply was an old man remembering his childhood fear of bramble thickets and dark paths. But it is not only the wood.
Four times I have felt that presence. And each time, later, I have seen the Angel.
I should perhaps be more precise. Really, I have not seen anything. Not clearly, not with my eyes. If I were to try and show anyone else, I doubt they would see what I see. I think they would see an old man who should wash his clothes more often, who usually has no milk in the house, who sometimes forgets to pay his electric bill. They would see an old man who should be in sheltered accommodation, for his own good. These would be the same people who drive their silver cars up on to the pavement and lock their doors against the moon. These would be the same people who can sit through a church service and feel nothing at all.
After church, I walk home. I have never driven. There is no need. Around here there are footpaths everywhere. Through the woods, over the commons, across the sands. The paths across the sands are hazardous. There are bones under there from each century there have been humans here. I never walk across the Bay, but I do not need to. From the churches I visit to my small terrace, the distance is barely more than two or three miles. I try to avoid the roads. The roads are so busy now.
I try to avoid home also, if I can. I can make tea, I can cook white fish and warm beans. I can sleep, and wake. I can even make the bed, if I want to, though I rarely do now. Anya used to care how things looked, and so I would care too. Without her, there is nobody to care, and nobody to look. Sometimes I will try to clean, but I don’t usually get as far as I had planned to. I don’t care if there is dust in the corners, or spiders on the ceiling. The smell doesn’t bother me. It is not my business. A house is not a home without a woman in it, and I do not like tea without milk.
I go out a lot. I stay out. After the church, sometimes a pub for lunch. Sometimes I will sit on the promenade at Grange and watch the sky. I will watch the ducks around the lake, and the children feeding them. I like to sit by the old lido and remember it before it was ruins. We used to swim there, a lifetime ago. It was so cold you would feel alive afterwards for days.
Mostly, I like to walk. Walking is what we do in this land when we want to think, when we want to move beyond ourselves. Walking is our form of worship in this island, it is our practice, whether we know it or not. There is no reason to head anywhere. Walk empty, and something will find you. Our roads here were made by walking, not driving. This is a land of drove roads and pilgrim routes. We once were walkers, and will be again.
I came out of the wood, that first time, and down to the shores of the Bay. The mist was on the waters, hanging above them, moved by them, a weft of white air on the loom of the sea.
Then I heard the siren.
From the pier and the roadways the sound rang out: the bore was coming. I love to stand on the shores of the Bay and watch the bore approach. The silver line of water comes in steadily from the open sea, from beyond the windfarms and the forts, and it seems so slow but no-one could outrun it. It comes at you, suddenly faster now, and then it is foaming against the pier struts and the railway embankments and the stone walls under the quayside shops. There is nothing else like it. It is water moving as water should, as only water can.
In his hand are all the corners of the earth.
The bore did not look like that this time, because of the mist. I couldn’t see the line of water. Instead, I heard it; I heard its surging breath below the siren, heard it move down towards where I stood. But all I could see was the mist, gently dancing over the rushing waters. The mist, grey-yellow now, the colour of the sand beneath it.
And then, in the mist, something else.
It was nothing, in a way; someone else might have seen it and moved on. As the mist moved with the bore, it brought with it, it created and fanned, what seemed to be a shape at its heart. It was like a clot of mist, as if the moist air were coagulating into a form. This clot of cloud at the heart of the cloud, far out in the Bay, dancing on the bore, it was yellow, gold, it emerged as something almost solid, then melted away again and then reformed. In the wood, I could feel a presence but I never saw it. Out in the Bay, in the mist that day, I could see a presence but I could not explain it, or define it. It was delicate, as if it could be blown away by a gust of wind or a sceptical word. But it was there. Some gold-yellow thing of clotted mist and sand and wind, writhing, dancing across the waters toward me like a pagan goddess with spears, swords, axes in her hands.
I am old enough now that I do not expect to understand much that happens in this world.
I have watched, and am even as it were a sparrow, that sitteth alone upon the house-top.
Four times now I have felt the presence in the wood. Four times now, later, far out on the sands, I have seen the Angel. Each time I have seen them, they have been closer to me. Each time, I have felt their presence more intensely.
The last time was this morning.
At the service this morning I did not feel like applauding. I don’t know why. I feel that I wasn’t paying attention. It wasn’t the vicar’s fault. I thought of Anya, as I always do in the pews where we once sat together; but I thought too of the figure in the woods and of the Angel and of what seemed to be coming toward me. There was nothing I could have pointed anyone towards. Through all of it, I have felt strangely calm. Somehow, it is not unusual. When you go out walking, things will come to meet you. It is not your work to explain them.
Ten minutes ago I walked out of the woods. This time, this last time, I almost felt like I saw something as I turned, hurrying. Some flash of light, some shape. Not quite a man. Taller. Older. Standing still, upright. Standing still, but hunting. From the corner of my eyes I saw his form. It was the old form, the old shape.
Now I am standing on the sands, waiting for the siren. It is late November. The trees are black and stark now, the sky crystal blue, and the mist is upon the face of the waters. I am waiting for the siren. The bore is due.
Anya and I would come here sometimes and watch the bore together. I would put my arm around her those last years, when she was so thin, and I would say, I have you. I am here. And she would say, I know.
We made a life, she said to me, once. We made a life, and I am proud of it. I am proud of you. When she smiled, I think, it would bruise me somewhere, and the bruise would take weeks to heal and I would not want it to.
I am not the only one on the beach this morning. The sands around the Bay are never crowded, but they are rarely empty. A few hundred yards to my right, down towards Grange, a woman is running her dog, throwing something for him to plunge in to the waters and retrieve. She is always here, with her black dog, lunging in to the salt. To my left, over towards the great Kent estuary, a family is wandering the tideline. A man, a woman, two small children. These people will be here forever.
Behind me, the trees. Far beyond, the fells, snow-capped. When I was a boy, they looked the same. The people change, the mountains do not.
Beneath my feet, the sand is rumpled and raked in circling patterns like an Ouroboros, like the eye of God, like Patrick’s exile of the snakes. My shoes are scuffed. Now that I look, I see that the laces are untied.
I am become like a pelican in the wilderness, and like an owl that is in the desert.
The siren begins. I look up.
The bore takes perhaps five minutes to reach this point once the sound begins. As before, I cannot see the line of water because of the yellow grey mist, now beginning to snake and curl and clot as the water rushes below it towards the place where sand meets soil. I watch. I stand rooted and I watch and keep watching and I hear. I begin to hear the water as the line of it rolls towards me. I smell the salt.
I step forward into the curling mist. I begin to walk out across the sands, across the shifting brown and silver sands, through the clots of cloud and out toward the sea.
And there she is. Out there, far out, I see her begin to coalesce above the water. In the arms and fingers of cloud, in the smoke-like curling of this blanket of sea fog, as the bore heads towards me, as the sound gets louder, stronger, I see her, my Angel. And she sees me. Her shape is clearer now, though it has no boundaries, it never settles, she is flow not object, process not event. Whatever she is, she is not human. The dog walker makes no noise to my right, the family to my left say nothing. She has only come for me.
I continue walking out across the sands, through the mist, towards the bore. Now she has turned and she moves towards me. The Angel approaches, she covers miles and years in seconds and the sound of the water now is everything. The bore must be near. I cannot see in this cloud. I feel the sands below me shift. And here she is now, this movement, this creature of cloud and form, here she is before me.
I turn and look back towards the shore. The cloud parts and I see him standing at the edge of the wood.
I turn back to her, in the cloud, in the water. Now I will be eaten. The sound of the water is more than a sound now, it is the place, it is the second of time it exists in. It is roaring around me. I am shaken. I cannot see my feet.
I will be eaten, now.
For my days are consumed away like smoke, and my bones are burnt up as it were a fire-brand.
But I am not eaten. I cannot paint a picture for you. I cannot tell you what it is or what it looks like. Only that it seems she holds out her hand, and that I know her and always have. She seems to hold out her hand and move towards and beyond and through me, and between the wood and waters, then, something happens that is so small, so untouchable, that it becomes everything.
Sand, water, cloud, light.
I have long given up pretending to understand anything. It is alright. She is here, and it is alright. Nobody else sees. We are alone, and she has come for me and nothing is what I thought it was.
And then I am standing on the sand, alone, and the water is gone and my shoes and trousers are soaked and the day is still as beauty.
They shall perish, but thou shalt endure.
And I must go home.