The Glass Guardian - Extracts
When I was a child I nearly drowned. In a pond. Nothing dramatic, apart from the fact that I nearly died. I fell into a big pool at my Aunt Janet’s house on the Isle of Skye.
I fell from a wooden bridge over the pool. At least, I think I fell. I don’t remember falling. All I remember is drowning – almost drowning – and then I remember being very cold and so sick, I thought I must have vomited up my insides.
I was rescued – well, obviously – but I don’t remember being hauled out of the water. Such memories as I have of the event are just what my aunt told me afterwards, about how I lay gasping and retching on the grass, black with mud and slime, covered in pondweed, like some sinister water sprite.
I do remember one thing though. I remember Aunt Janet shouting at my little playmate, the child who must have rescued me from the pond. She shrieked at him, over and over, ‘Who was it? Did you see him?’ I think she wanted to know who’d pulled me out. Or pushed me in. I remember her screaming (was it in anger or terror?) at the boy who’d apparently saved my life, ‘You can’t have! You’re not even wet!Who was it?’
After she’d given me a good scolding and forbidden me to play on the bridge ever again, Aunt Janet never mentioned my near-drowning. I suppose it was something too terrible to talk about.
But I used to dream about it. I still do.
It’s a black, choking dream in which I feel so cold, it seems more likely I’ll freeze to death than drown. Then something moves through the water, something very pale. And strong. It pulls me, drags me upwards, toward the light. The strange thing is, in the dream, I don’t want to go. I want to stay down in the darkness. I want to die, or rather, I don’t mind dying.
But despite myself, I rise upwards, then just as I’m about to break through, into the light, I wake up. I wake up soaked with sweat, drenched and cold, almost as if I’ve actually been in the water.
It’s a horrible dream. So real.
I didn’t drown, but every time I have this dream, I feel as if I did, but that I was given a reprieve. Another chance. Another go at life.
I didn’t have that dream last night. What happened last night was worse. Far worse. But you won’t understand unless I start at the beginning. And even then, you still might not understand.
In the end I decided it wasn’t so much a case of understanding, but rather believing. Believing it was possible.
Because not believing just wasn’t an option.
Extract from Chapter Four
St Michael at the North Gate, Oxford
(Photo: Kotomi Yamamura)
Tom followed me upstairs. When I got to the landing, I looked along the corridor toward the window. I stopped dead and Tom bumped into me. He apologised, but I didn’t respond, I just stood there transfixed. Then I began to walk forward, approaching the window.
It took up much of the end wall. It was a bright day and the stained glass threw coloured shadows on to the walls and floor. The hall now seemed full of reds, greens and blues, a kaleidoscope of coloured light, from which a person began to emerge. A man… Or an angel.
The figure was roughly life-size, but no bigger than me. His slim, neat body was draped to the knee in folds of white fabric over which he wore a metal breastplate, so he appeared to be both angel and warrior. At his feet lay the contorted corpse of some mythical beast, half-snake, half-dragon. Its blue and turquoise scales cast sea-green shadows on to the floorboards below. Death had been dealt to the creature by a spear that the angel-warrior held aloft, as if he’d just extracted it from the beast’s body and might be about to plunge it in again. The angel’s pale face wore a look of solemn concentration. The battle was over, but not the war.
Where they were exposed, the angel’s limbs were slim, white, and muscular, his sandaled feet beautifully formed, as were his hands: the one clutching the shaft of his spear, the other resting on the hilt of a sword hanging at his hip.
His face was thin, gaunt almost, and there were hollows under his eyes and cheekbones, as if his face had been stripped back to its essence of muscle, tendon and bone. His eyes were watchful and gazed at something above and beyond me, something in the distance for which he was preparing. Danger?... Evil, perhaps.
Behind him stood trees, the same birch and alder trees to be found in the grounds of Tigh-na-Linne, all in exuberant green leaf, celebrating the arrival of spring and the renewal of life, while death, in the hideous form of the serpent, lay sprawled at their feet. I could almost imagine a gentle breeze rustling through those glass leaves and lifting the auburn hair of the angel warrior. Sunlight streamed through his fiery glass locks and cast a russet shadow on the wooden floor, the floor where I’d seen mud and blood.
Beneath the vanquished serpent, there was a scroll which said, “O grave, where is thy victory?” At the very foot of the window there was a small panel of glass inscribed thus: “In loving memory of James, eldest son of James and Agnes Munro, who died at Loos 25th Sept. 1915, aged 35.”
I found myself quite unable to speak. Behind me, I sensed Tom shifting from one foot to the other, then he moved forward, turning to look at me as I studied the window.
‘You OK, Ruthie? You’re very pale. You look as if you’ve seen a ghost!’
‘Do I?’ My voice startled me, as if it had come from some other throat, not mine. ‘No, I’m fine… It’s just that – well, it’s very moving, isn’t it? He must have died in France. At Loos. Thousands of Scots died in that battle. And his poor parents tried to preserve something of him. As the archangel Michael, slaying a demon. Satan, I suppose… Or the Hun.’
‘Ruth—’ Tom laid a hand on my arm and I recoiled, startled by his touch. Just then the sun must have gone behind a cloud because the coloured shadows on the walls faded, then disappeared and the glass figure became dull, his flaming hair now only a deep golden brown.
Portree Bay & the Cuillin mountains,
Isle of Skye
(Photo: Amy Glover)
‘I’m fine, Tom. I just need—’ I struggled to find the words. Any words. ‘What I need is to go and make us a cup of tea. Do you think you could clear all the wood away from the walls and stack it in the garage? Anywhere you like, really. I don’t care.’ I turned back to the window. ‘But I’d like to be able to look without distractions. And I think the hall should be cleared.’ I gestured toward the glass angel. ‘As a mark of respect. Would you mind?’
‘I was going to clear away anyway. I just thought you’d be curious to see the window straight away.’
‘Yes. I was. Thanks… Tea.’ I replied, uttering the syllables in a robotic monotone. ‘That’s what we both need. I’ll go and make us some tea. Won’t be long.’
Without waiting for a reply, I turned and marched along the hall, down the stairs and into the kitchen where I shut the door and leaned against it, my chest heaving, my throat constricted with unshed tears.
Tears of recognition.