I had a shock when I looked at my watch. How long did I stay there, contemplating all my options? Half past nine, it was over. Christchurch had opened its doors to the public; I let out a string of curses, rushing through the stairs but it’s only on the last step that I realized I was entering another world. The varnished tiles were recovered by a thick layer of dead leaves serrated in frost and if the pillars of stone remained, trees rose up in the middle of the nave and everywhere in the cathedral. I had never been an expert in trees but I recognized the verdigris trunk of the beech. The pure and cold glimmer from the Northern chapel was fading away rapidly. They were gone. Without me. The white flowers so beautifully arranged by Hurd on the altar were beginning to wilt. I was too late.
“No! Oh please, no!”
Perhaps, if I’d hurry, would I be able to catch them again? I was about to reach the northern chapel when a firm hand caught me by the forearm and forced me to stop. Brendan had waited for me, behind the stone pulpit.
“Which trees do you see?”
The question was incongruous; I was expected reproaches for loitering, but I read such a sentiment of urgency in his eyes, there wasn’t the time to answer myself more questions but to answer his.
“Beeches, a forest of beech wood.
- Is that all?”
He had let go of my arm and I turned back to embrace the whole of Christchurch. Yes, these were beech trees; I had no doubt about it. They were magnificent with their tall and large trunk, rising up to the ceiling of stone and opening up in a multitude of naked black boughs sinking in the darkness.
“I need to know!”
What answer did he expect from me? “Christchurch, it’s disappearing. It’s snowing, how can it be snowing in a cathedral?”
I raised my head towards the sky, without finding an answer. The ceiling of stone was gone and the pillars merged into the nearest trees. Turning towards Brendan, I finally saw it, just behind him.
“There is another tree, all black, twisted. A blasted tree.”
Brendan was smiling but I barely acknowledged it, the dead tree was mesmerizing and I wanted to touch it, to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. I needed to touch it, feel it. Brendan caught me, prey to a pain so intense it made me fell down in his arms. I was dizzy, I just remember him speaking softly and I felt his lips, in my hair, near my ear.
“Shh... Breathe, it will be ok now, everything is going to be fine. I’m here, I won’t leave you. Here, drink this, it’ll help.”
I drank from his steel and leather flask; the liquid was icy cold, bitter but the sensation of burnt flesh in my back faded away.
“We have to go now; I’ll have a look at this back as soon as we’ll find a roof. The judge has slowed down time so that you can join us, but now we must leave. The power of the trees is already dying. Christchurch will open its gates in a few minutes, we cannot stay here.”
He put on my bag and held out his hand. I took it without turning back, I had made my choice.
The treasure of the cathedral was securely located in the crypt along with old Bibles, there was also a small shop selling postcards, sacred music and a few cheap souvenirs for the tourists, but of course, at this early hour no one was there to take care of it. Even the small café of the crypt was completely deserted and I was wondering where the old man was who addressed me so roughly. We were alone. His attempt at a smile failed and ended up as a grimace.
« Coffee or tea? Oh yes, coffee, of course. ». He had passed behind the stone counter and seemed to know the exact place of each cup, each spoon; I might have been mistaken on his account, if he wasn’t a priest, he had to work here, voluntary service of some sort, otherwise, how could he be so obviously at Home in Christchurch?
“Milk? Sugar? I see that Darragh has brought back muffins and croissants; you should eat something, this morning is cold and the road will be a long one.”
“Just two sugars, thank you.”. I let out a long sigh, at last, I had managed to utter more than two words; I was on edge, he couldn’t have missed it. He wrapped two croissants in the napkins and without asking permission, opened my handbag to slip them into it with a thermos flask. He had brought himself a teapot and waited for his tea to infuse, seemingly unaware of the uneasy silence between us. I took a deep breath and let the long due apology come out: “I’m so sorry for my intrusion in the cathedral; I don’t know how I could have forgotten the opening times, it’s very kind of you to have allowed me to stay.”
He frowned, looking at me as though he hadn’t understood the meaning of my words. I apologized again before he cut me short.
“You’re here because you heard the call, like everyone of us. It’s just the first time for you, it’s normal that you’re feeling a bit lost. Some will say that this is not your place or that you are not ready, don’t pay attention.”
At this stage, I was at the point when a strange dream was the answer for what was happing to me. He swallowed a sip of tea and bit hungrily in a raspberry muffin. A morsel stuck at the corner of his lips. That couldn’t be a dream, no dream is ever so detailed, I could smell the coffee and when I touched his cheek with the tip of my finger to make the crumb fall, I could feel his beard. He had shaved in a hurry. He had let me touch him and I could see in his eyes that he was beginning to amuse himself.
«My Name is Brendan.
- I… my… »
I felt myself blushing like a silly schoolgirl, trying in vain to remember what my name was.
« The call can induce some gaps in your memory. I dreamed a name for you, Aisling would suit you fine. »
I might have been staring at him, totally flabbergasted because he had that amused smile and repeated “Aisling, which means dream in Gaelic. It’s my first time as a soul shepherd; usually the grey priests are taking charge of this task but this once, I had to fill that part. I’m not handling it very well, I’m afraid.”
Aisling, "the dream",there laid the explanation. All of this, this surrealist conversation was nothing else but one of my bizarre dreams. Brendan though, didn’t seem to know he was just a character in my fertile imagination.
“You’ll understand better later, if you decide to answer the call. Ah, I see that Niall has arrived with everything necessary to make a true Irish breakfast, I leave you make his acquaintance? Niall? Let me introduce you to Aisling, keep her company while I make the breakfast. Will Darragh join us? "
The man he had called Niall shook me by the hand and sat at our table without ceremony, keeping his hooded kaki anorak. He was wearing a black hat, covering flaming blond ginger hair.“Cold morning today, he?”He was back behind the counter to grab some cutlery and two other mugs. Obviously, he was perfectly familiar of the place as well.
“Darragh shouldn’t be long to join us; he had to take care of the last luggage. The fog is dense enough now, the gates are wide opened, the horses are waiting, can I give them the order to pass? Hurd was in a hurry, he didn’t wait for any of us. We’ll catch him at the first tavern, the nose in a pint I suppose.
- How many of them?
- About fifty. We’ve begun to attract unwanted attention, but with horses and carts, this is not the best place to pass the gates. Now that the fog is here, it’ll help us conceal our passage. I’ll hurry.”
The sky was perfectly clear when I came into Christchurch about half an hour ago, how could fog settle down so quickly? But Niall had already left before I could ask the question and I decided to join Brendan in the small crypt’s kitchen, guided in this by the smell of roasting sausages.
“Do you want some mushrooms? Or a tomato? Here, grab this pan, give me a hand.
- Can I have an explanation for the horses? And this fog? ”
He was frying eggs in another pan and asked me first to pass him the salt and pepper.
“There are commercial exchanges between this world and ours. Usually, we use gates in less frequented places. Horses and carts in the core of a capital city like Dublin, it’s far from being an ideal location if we want to remain discreet. It needs a few spells; the fog will clear rapidly after they’ll have passed. So tomato or mushrooms? You didn’t answer.”
I spluttered « tomato » and disposed in each plate the potatoes I had just cooked. Upstairs, in the cathedral, I heard the hooves of the horses resonate loudly on the varnished tiles. Then, Niall appeared again down in the crypt, his cheek rose-pink from the cold. “Darragh has closed down the doors, he’s cleaned after the horses and he isn’t particularly happy to have been designed for that chore. I’m hungry. You’re not saying much, did he steal your tongue?
- But… WHO are you?”
Niall roared with laughter but before he could answer me, another man was coming down the stairs.“This is the last time we use the Dublin way, do you hear me? Horses in a cathedral, this is madness!”
I turned back to him only to see his silhouette disappear the narrow corridor leading to the rest room. Niall was still laughing until Brendan dressed each plate with a fried egg, a sausage, a few mushrooms and a tomato for me.
“We need to hurry up, the cathedral will open its doors in 25 minutes, eat when it’s hot. Christchurch may not be the ideal location but it isn’t that often that we have access to a proper kitchen before hitting the road again. Aisling, this is Darragh, my younger brother.”
I had recognized in him the man who had let me enter the cathedral a while ago. There was a certain family likeness, both brothers had the same black hair, but Darragh’s nose was smaller, his eyes of a dark brown. He grumbled a vague « hello » then preoccupied himself only with the content of his plate.
“There’s something I don’t like, Brendan. I… I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I feel it. Niall told me the same thing a while ago, even the horses were nervous, their passing through the gates has been difficult. You shouldn’t delay.
- Yes, I felt it too, but I’m no Master of Time, the Tree hasn’t manifested itself yet. Go along, you and Niall, I’ll join you as soon as possible. Leave your plate, I’ll clean after you. The luggage?
- With the horses. »
Now alone in the crypts, I had hoped that Brendan would give me a beginning of explanation but he remained silent. Things were getting too much for me, nothing was making much sense since I had entered Christchurch an hour ago and suddenly I realized that I had my wallet in my bag. My wallet, reality. I found my ID card and looked at the name on it. The photo was mine, but the name was unknown to me, who was I? That woman on a French ID card or Aisling?
Brendan hadn’t stopped me from looking into my wallet.
“You still have the liberty to go, to leave. The emergency exit isn’t locked. I know that you’ve heard the call of the tree, I dreamed it but you keep your freedom to act and choose. You can refuse to follow that call. You’ll get your life back; you won’t remember this encounter, nothing of it. I let you think about it, don’t take too much time, the cathedral’s doors will open in ten minutes, I shall be away at that time.”
I wanted to know more, I wanted him to ask me to come but he has already turned his back and I saw Brendan disappear in the stairs. With him gone, it felt like awakening from a bizarre dream. A gate to another world, these horses in Christchurch cathedral, I was under the impression to be the little Lucy Pevensie just after her tea with Mr. Tumnus. It was totally ridiculous and I directed my steps towards the ladies. C’était totalement ridicule et je me dirigeais vers les toilettes. My back against the corridor wall, I considered the exit door. One push and I’d be over that silly dream, one push and I’d wake up in my hotel room, with my half finished luggage, and a ticket back to France. Going back to France, this was the last thing I wanted. If that was only a dream, then don’t let me wake up from it.
At first, I thought I was alone in the church on this crispy morning of November. It wasn’t the season for tourists now that Halloween had ended, there were people in the streets of course, the usual population of working class men and women hurrying to get to their office. I only had a few hours left in Dublin before I ought to get back to my life again and I intended to make the most of it, even if that meant skipping breakfast at the Brooks to be in time for the cathedral’s opening. It was my fourth time at Christchurch and I couldn’t explain why I was so eager to go back there again. Surely, I had taken enough shots –bad shots- of the windows, the painted varnished tiles, the statues, the altar, to make a book and yet, I had felt that strange attraction to the place since the first time I went there.
The man at the door had that tired look you get when you haven’t slept enough and he barely answered my cheerful «good morning” before handing me my entrance ticket, probably hating every tourist for not staying in bed when it was still almost dark outside. It was only after I had pocketed the change and found a handkerchief to blow my running nose that I realized it was way too early for Christchurch to open its doors to the tourists. 8 am, no wonder he was in such a bad –a bed- mood but when I turned to ask him that question, the man had vanished and the door had closed. I was locked inside the cathedral with not much prospect of a hot coffee before the crypt would open in an hour and a half. The cathedral didn’t look all that welcoming in the dim light and complete silence and yet, I felt strangely at peace. I wasn’t home but it was the closest thing, I suppose.
I made my way to my favourite spot near the pulpit, so beautifully carved, figures of saints in the white stone, or were they apostles? I really didn’t know why I had felt the urge to come back here so early in the morning, but here I was, standing with a sentiment of belonging and a silly smile of contentment on my lips. I was deep in my thoughts, my mind wandering around the ornate tiles of the floor, making my way to some kind of Paradise lost when I realized I wasn’t alone in the locked and dark cathedral. I first felt a presence, something caressing my neck softly. How long had I been there, ten minutes? Half an hour? My eyes were getting used to the poor light of dawn and I noticed a dark shadow in the Northern chapel, someone was watching me for a fair amount of time without moving or making any sound.
I should have been afraid, at this point, locked in that dark place with no means to escape, but I wasn’t. After all, cathedrals aren’t the place of choice for killers and sociopaths, especially that early in the morning; it was probably one of the priests who dared not intrude in my solitary meditation. I was about to apologize for my presence at this inappropriate time when a croaking voice coming from the crypt broke the holy silence.
“What are you doing here? Christchurch is not open to visitors before 9.30 am! Who let you in?” The tone was far from friendly and I was about to answer when the shadow at my back did it for me, in a sharp tone.
“She heard the call, like you. Leave her be!”
A very old man, in a snow white halo of dishevelled hair had emerged from the crypt with an armful of pristine peonies and lilies. He was short, round, smaller than me and his beard bristly with anger pointed in my direction, clearly disapproving of my trespass. I tried to explain, to apologize, but the man behind me wouldn’t let me talk.
“Leave the flowers on the altar and don’t come back before it is time. She has every right to be here with us. She heard the call.”
The grumpy old man took his own sweet time to arrange the flowers beautifully on the altar, then, with a last groan stepped back downstairs to the crypt. The other one, who obviously had an authority over him, had quickly retreated in the Northern chapel and I stood there for a while, wavering between curiosity and reluctance to intrude.
“She heard the call”, his words had struck something in me, it was true I had felt the urge to come; he pronounced it for argument’s sake and won the last word. Definitive, final. I was intrigued, I couldn’t deny it, what “call” have I heard? God’s? Surely, that was not what he had meant, besides, I never attended service on Sundays, not even at Christmas or for Easter. I loved visiting churches, especially Dublin’s, but that didn’t imply I had received some special grace all of a sudden. I loved the peaceful atmosphere and pure beauty of Christchurch and that was the end of it. The only call I now felt was the urge to have a hot cup of coffee. The temperature inside was dropping and I looked into my handbag to find my red hat only to realize I had left it at my hotel.
“The gates are opening, you shan’t stay here, you’ll catch your death. Come, let’s have a cuppa downstairs... (A silence) Are you afraid of me?” I looked at him. Definitely not a priest. He was tall, probably more than 6”1, short black hair, his face was rather sharp, high cheekbones, a nose just crooked enough to give him character and thin, slightly sad lips. His eyes were most fetching, intelligent, dark green. I hadn’t seen any opening of gates but a cold wind was blowing from the northern chapel he had just left and I was now shivering.
“It’s just a cup of coffee. No obligation for chitchat.” Usually I was the talkative sort, today, I couldn’t utter a word, I shook my head and followed him down the stairs to the crypt, hoping the angry old man wouldn’t invite himself to our table.