It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m shaving in the kitchen. The razor is in my hand and a shard of mirror is propped on the stove where I heated my water.
This story does not take place in the past, or at least not for other people. I’ve moved outside of time, sort of voluntarily, in a similar way to which people move outside of London sort of voluntarily when they can’t afford it or it can’t accommodate them anymore. The world could not accommodate me any more in its present condition, not with what I wanted.
It started with a book. It started with the end of a book, in fact. A book of history and folklore that ended with an explanation that it was, or had turned into, the author’s contribution to “the reenchantment of the universe”. That phrase stayed in my head. It echoed and found resonances that I hadn’t been aware of, vibrations going deep, deep down into who and what I was. My mouth formed the words. The “reenchantment of the universe” I thought. And I thought “nothing less will do”.
It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m shaving in the kitchen. The hot water doesn’t work, not really. You can coax a minute or perhaps two of warm water from the shower but only before six in the morning and for reasons that remain a mystery to me. This suits my purposes well enough. I’ve been rising early to make use of the daylight. Every so often I have a soak in the tin bath I found in a shed by heating pans and pans of water on the range, fuelled with firewood I’ve scavenged from the garden and the park. Taking a bath is, all in, a project for a full weekend, and it puts everything out of my head until it’s done, which can be useful.
The electricity works a little better than the hot water, but not enough for someone wanting to live a proper life. The house is not suitable for a modern person, a normal family. Not without gutting and renovating, exorcising its history and replacing it with sensitively installed modernity, or more likely simply being knocked flat and built over. Not exorcised but turned into foundations and history. Made worse. All these things and more make it suitable for me. A big kitchen range – I live mostly in the kitchen, which is warm and gets a lot of light, and retained a long and solid table – some large airy and mostly undamp rooms for my books; a smaller and damper room with a clear chimney I can keep warm enough to sleep in. High yew hedges outside, an overrun garden with trees that drop wood for the fire, nearby woods and hills and fields. An old landscape, not prehistoric like the mountains outside Edinburgh, where the bones of the earth are exposed, but historic. Overrun with human history: fields that have been worked for centuries, woods that have been forested and poached in, bumps in the hills that mark forts where soldiers watched the horizon before the birth of Christ, and stones that were raised when humans first noticed their humanity. The place I have chosen for my home.
I read. I think. I walk, tracing old paths and trying to imagine back into the landscape season by season. I spend a lot of time layering old maps, tracing changes and finding where old field names map over the new ones. I look at them through an old magnifying glass that used to belong to my grandmother. When she died, we were told we could choose something to keep to help us remember, and I chose that. Black plastic, not special, just functional. I’m trying to find the old ways, to walk a path that will lead me to some place where the old virtues of the world have remained, pooled, somewhere safe.
Some days I work in the old outbuildings. Not true metalwork – nothing is melted and poured, but I’ve got reasonably good at reshaping old things, beating them out, folding them, remaking them into what I need. They don’t look good, but they don’t have to. They’re not decorations.
Some days I think about what my sister would say, if she was telling this story. If you were outside, looking in, you might say
“He didn’t cope well when dad died. Well, I didn’t. No one would, but he…went off the rails. We went through the house, like when gran died, and I said “do you want to keep anything? To help you remember?” I was thinking of the pocket knife dad had, and the time he had, triumphantly, removed a stone from a horse’s hoof with one of the tools and laughed and laughed. My brother looked at me – or rather, turned his eyes towards me, but he was looking somewhere else by then – and said “we’ll have the money”.
I tried not to think badly of him. He went away after that. In all sorts of ways. I wanted to help, but I had my own grieving to do, and he was so twisted up and didn’t want helping and trying to reach him was like putting your hand into a furnace or under the ice. I hope he can come back.”
Maybe something like that. That’s where I was when I finished the book. The reenchantment of the universe one. I had the book on my knee, and was turning the pages with one hand, and holding dad’s with the other. In the hospital. And he finally let go and went. I felt it. And I finished the book and read the words, and then I went to find a nurse.
And we did have the money. I didn’t mean to hurt when I said that I was just finished remembering my own life and ready to do other things, and selling a house your dad bought in Camden in the 70s and kept in good nick lets you do all sorts of things. It is, in its own way a kind of magic, especially if you’re not worried about buying in a commuter town or looking for a house that has itself been kept in good condition.
This was always in me, this retreat. Solitary, as a child, always preferring to read in my fortress of a room and as an adult reserved. Never quite willing to give myself fully to anyone or anything. Perhaps I would always have ended up here. I retained into adulthood a ritualistic, nigh obsessive approach to Christmas. I made endless lists of what I wanted to pack in over the brief season: the books and music and food and films that made Christmas, to me, Christmas. If anyone had asked me what I was doing in this frantic planning I would have called it “drawing tight the boundaries” and I wouldn’t quite have understood why.
I was equally obsessive as I drew tight the boundaries around my new home. It didn’t matter what my tools looked like, as I beat them out of old scraps of metal but in some things appearance is a tool. This was a magician’s house now and if it looked right, people would think it and say it and mean it and it would be true. So I learned to trim and care for the yew hedges and draw them up into impassable green walls, thick with red berries. The drive was raked but no car was in evidence (I seldom drove anywhere and my Landover was in a shed with a sheet thrown over it). Magicians don’t have cars. Just in view from the road was a statue I rescued from decay in a deconsecrated churchyard. A collapsed, winged thing, impossible to say if it was an angel or a gargoyle. It seemed fitting. I’d loved to see houses like this when I was a child and imagine who could live there and one of my great disillusionments was when I realised that it was mainly stockbrokers. Well somewhere in the world would be a magician’s house with a magician in residence, seeking the reenchantment of the universe.
It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m shaving in the kitchen. This is the night. Not the Solstice, not Christmas Eve – I had the house lit up with candles for that and brought in evergreens,and feasted. By myself, but a feast nonetheless. New Year’s Eve is a night to change the world. When people look up and think about new things, I will be outside, making something new. Christmas was warm and wet, but in the week since the weather has got colder and thicker, and the snow has been coming down all day. Now the skies are clear and the fields are covered in a thick white blanket. Perfect. It’s a good sign.
An hour before midnight I assemble my tools and set out, across my gardens. A climb over the fence that marks the edge of my property – but not my boundary, which in walks and signs carved in trees has been marked somewhat further out. I reach the stone circle and stand there in the snow, under the stars. My coat flaps about me. This is a timeless moment. A man out of time stands in a stone ring older than any human civilisation. He takes a silver bowl off his back where it’s been strapped and puts it on the ground in the middle of the circle. Takes a flask from his pocket and pours it into the bowl where the stars are reflected. As above, so below.
I watch the man at work like he is not me, until everything is assembled: the silver bowl and water, the flint I knapped myself, the knife taken from the museum, the holly stick I cut from the spray in the garden. The candles, set and lit. When everything is laid out, like a doctor prepared for an operation, which is what I am in a way, I return to my body and look out through my eyes again and begin.
I quarter the bowl of water (and the sky itself) with the flint, and the knife and holly wand. I drop into it symbols I’ve made out of different metals – votives, offerings. I speak in English, Latin and a language I wrote myself. I ask the world to wake, to show itself to us again. I ask the old doors to open, the old ways to show themselves and the people of the wood to come out. I ask for the lights to be lit in old windows, old promises to be remembered, and old sins forgiven. I keep talking because I don’t want to listen to the silence. I beg the world to help me. I bring the knife across my palm and as the blood drips into the snow I beg, I beg for a single miracle, however small. I demand, snarling, to be shown something. For meaning. For it all to make sense. I beg. I pray to the oldest gods I have: to a fox god I made up when I was a boy, and to Sherlock Holmes and to Father Christmas (who is Old Father Time, and Odin and my dad) and I fall backwards into the snow, which catches me and it’s silent.
My sisters words wander across my brain. “Very sad”. “Difficulty coping”. “Breakdown”. I had failed. I was so terribly strange and lost and I don’t think there is any way back for me. I’m lying in the snow and I’d been lying to myself for a long time. The candles went out. I gave up.
And then the stars moved