In the early spring, just as the days were beginning to stretch from the stiffness of a long winter, I received an unexpected phone call from my closest friend. I was in the office room of my apartment in Belfast, pouring over the financial returns of some company or another, when the phone rang. It was unusual for him to call and, somehow, I knew it would be about his mother, a woman who had once been like a mother to me too. I answered cautiously, as if too much confidence might make bad news more likely, but of course it made no difference. His mother, he told me, was sick – badly so – and had been for some time.
I looked out the window onto the busy city street below. Damp umbrellas and glistening heads moved quickly, dodging the traffic outside my building. My friend told me the doctors said she would only live for a few more weeks, so he had flown back home to help her through it and say goodbye. I felt my throat tighten and the blood drain from my head. I tried to say something, but my voice crumbled into a stammer of words and we slipped into silence for a long moment.
I watched the busy traffic outside and found my mind wandering back to his mother’s little house on the coast. How many weekends had I spent there? Days combing the beach and exploring the forest beyond the glen that shadowed the house, eating her meals around their tiny kitchen table, our plates perched between tumbling stacks of leaflets from her climate campaigns and loose pages of her spidery writing I could never decipher. During summer sleepovers, when the dark gathered so late, she would take us out in our pyjamas to watch the ringed plovers come to nest in the sand dunes, their lazy cheeps carrying over our heads and up into the golden summer air.
A car horn blared outside, knocking me out of my reverie, and I watched a woman skirt a grimy puddle and disappear into a soot-blackened building. I glanced over at the neatly stacked papers laid out on my desk, the tidy tables filled with numbers that spelled the fortunes and miseries of companies. I frowned, thinking not for the first time that I had no idea what these opaquely named companies did in the world. My friend was breathing quietly down the phone and I realised that I should say something. The village was just over an hour north of Belfast, so I asked him whether I should visit. He sighed and said that he wasn’t sure. There didn’t seem to be much more to say then, so we hung up and I sat down at my desk and stared at the documents, wondering if I would cry.
In bed that night, my mind kept going back to my friend’s mother and the days I had spent in the village. I remembered the time I had found her book in the shelves of their cluttered living room. I must have been around thirteen. I had gaped at it, my eyes wide, amazed to see my friend’s mother’s name on the cover of a book. I didn’t know anyone who had written a book. Lying there in bed with the low, ceaseless drone of city traffic outside, I could almost see the green clothbound cover before me, but no matter how hard I tried, the title remained obscure to me. Eventually, I must have fallen asleep.
The next morning, sitting at the kitchen table over a coffee, I tried phoning my friend a few times, but the calls wouldn’t connect. The mobile coverage had always been bad in the village. I watched wisps of steam spiral from the coffee and let my mind wander. I recalled the day I had left Northern Ireland for university, over a decade before, the last time I had gone to see his mother. My parents had dropped me outside her house on the way to the airport so I could say a quick goodbye. I stood on the doorstep sick with dread. I knew she hoped I would accept an offer to study environmental science, but at the last minute I turned it down in favour of accountancy. It made more sense and my parents approved, but I hadn’t been able to tell her yet. My parents’ car was idling impatiently on the roadside and suddenly my stomach was painfully awash with nerves. I caught my reflection in the glass of the door and felt ashamed, then stepped off the doorstep and got back into the car. I told my parents that no one was home, and we drove to the airport. Later, waiting for my flight, I sent her a short message saying goodbye. She didn’t write back and I was never sure if she received the message or if it was lost in the strange signals of that area.
I went into my office to get started on the day’s work and put these thoughts out of my mind, but the sight of financial reports and budgets stacked in neat piles on my desk made me unfocused and fidgety. I wanted to scatter the pages over the floor, tear the charts and tables into confetti. Instead, I grabbed my keys and got in the car.
It was early afternoon when I arrived in the village. I stopped short of the house and parked by the train station so I could walk through the village – for old times’ sake, I told myself. The street was deserted and the shops and cafés were closed for the season. The Chinese takeaway opposite the station appeared to be closed permanently, covered with large wooden boards of flaking white paint. My friend and I had bought bags of chips there as teenagers, after long walks in the forest up on the glen above the village. I could see the half-torn remains of one of his mother’s posters on one of the wooden boards. An image of the sea covering the entire village, only the spire of the church visible above the rising water, and the caption ‘Think Global, Act Local.’ On another board, I saw ‘UDA’ scrawled in messy graffiti. She had always been more concerned about climate change than political violence, a fact that some people found eccentric during the dog days of the Troubles. Further down the street, there was a plaque I hadn’t seen before on a concrete planter: Northern Ireland’s Best Kept Village. The date was almost a decade ago, not long after I’d last been there.
I reached the turning onto her street and suddenly felt anxious. There was no rush to get there, I told myself, so I decided to walk on towards the promenade that overlooks the beach. Only then did I realise how cold it was. The sun was smudged by a heavy fog that hung over the sea like a cataract. The beach looked dull and timid, cowering from the choppy water. I thought about the offshore windfarm that my friend’s mother had campaigned so hard for but that had been opposed by the village – they thought it would ruin the view from their houses. On a day like this, with such heavy fog, the view was invisible anyway.
At the end of the promenade, I followed the footpath as it curved back up towards Main Street, away from the sea. The church spire came into view, visible above the sea-facing houses in front of it. Even for that time of year it was quiet – the streets empty, the houses curtained and gloomy. I admitted to myself that I hadn’t really wanted to walk through the village, I just didn’t want my friend’s mother to know that I’d driven rather than taking the train. Glancing out to sea, I noticed that the fog had moved even closer to the shore. It was cold and I wondered if it really was spring. Late winter seemed more appropriate. The seasons had grown so strange. I shivered, pulling my jacket more tightly around myself.
There was a glint of light flickering through the porch window. I walked towards the door and saw the shine of their peculiar doorbell through the glass. An old ship’s bell that had always amused me as a child. It was hung by a simple bracket inside the porch and attached to a pull-chain that dangled limply through a socket in the doorframe. I remembered my parents joking about it after they picked me up from my first visit to the house, saying it was old fashioned and pretentious. I didn’t fully know what they meant at the time, but when I finally asked my friend’s mother about it, she explained that electric doorbells were useless in the salty air, they rusted in no time and had to be replaced. After that the bell took on a new aura, its brassy gleam like a symbol of working with the natural environment rather than against it.
I thought the clatter of the bell might disturb her, so knocked quietly on the door instead. After a minute I knocked a little louder. Eventually, a light was switched on and my friend appeared in the porch. He was wearing a faded hoodie and old jeans that he used to wear as a teenager, which made a strange lie against his greying hair and tired face. The uncanny image knocked me out of time for a moment until I reasoned that he must have come in a hurry and brought few clothes. He squinted at me in confusion.
‘I did try to call,’ I said, ‘but it wouldn’t connect.’ He waved his hand in a gentle motion of atonement. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘phone reception’s still shite here.’
As we walked into the dimly lit hallway, the familiar smell of the house made me pleasantly lightheaded. I almost felt like a teenager again, arriving with my sleeping bag and toothbrush, until I remembered why I was there. My friend pressed a finger to his lips and nodded towards the shadowed staircase. I looked up into the gloom of the upper floor, where his mother must have been asleep. My friend led me into the front room and carefully closed the door behind us, then stood at the window with his back to me.
‘Some fog,’ he said. I took off my jacket and sat down on the sofa, trying to settle into a groove that seemed too small. Seeing him from behind in those familiar clothes, without the tell-tale marks of age on his face, I almost expected his mother to walk in and ask if I was staying for dinner. I shifted uneasily on the sofa, but I couldn’t quite sink into it. Eventually, I told him I was sorry for turning up unannounced. He turned around, sat on the armchair opposite me, and shrugged. The window behind him framed the disappearing sky, the fog filling the space around his head.
‘How’s she doing?’ I asked. He looked at the carpet and frowned, worry lines rippling across his forehead. He wanted her to go to the hospice, but she wouldn’t hear of it. ‘She wants to be at home,’ he said. I nodded and let my eyes wander along the carpet to the bookshelf in the corner of the room, where so many years ago I had discovered her book.
My friend stood up and went to the door, listening for noise from upstairs. I thought there was silence at first, but then heard faint coughing and the creak of a floorboard or bed. ‘I need to go up and check on her,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell her you’re here.’
I watched him pad quietly up the stairs and disappear into the shadows of the landing. There was a murmuring of soft voices for a few seconds and then a door clicked shut. I suddenly realised that I didn’t know what to say to her. Sitting downstairs and waiting, I couldn’t help but remember the day I left for university, when I couldn’t find the courage to ring the doorbell. Had she ignored my message that day? Had she seen my parents’ car outside and realised I hadn’t rung the bell?
Agitated, I walked into the hallway and listened from the bottom of the stairs. There were muffled voices from the bedroom, impossible to make out. I felt as if I were waiting to enter the confessional and started to wonder if I should just slip out through the front door and avoid the whole thing. Suddenly a door upstairs opened and the landing was filled with milky light. Holding my breath, I moved backwards and peered through the gaps in the banister. I saw my friend edge slowly onto the landing, his arms wrapped around something. Then she came into view and I almost gasped. She was tiny and bird-like, leaning on her son’s arms and breathing heavily as she struggled towards the bathroom. Her white nightie gave a spectral glow in the weak light of the landing and I wondered if I was seeing a ghost of that commanding woman who marched us about the glen. My friend brought her into the bathroom and closed the door behind them.
I crept back into the living room and stood by the window, unable to believe how desolate she looked. Perhaps to distract myself, I went over to the bookshelf and started scanning the tightly packed spines. It was mostly nonfiction and, unsurprisingly, mostly about the environment and climate change. She had occasionally given me books from these shelves and encouraged me to build up a library of my own, but once I left for university I didn’t find the time to read books like that. I ran a finger along the well-thumbed volumes, impressed once again by her dedication, and wondered what would happen to them when she was gone.
It only took a moment to find her book, but I barely had a chance to look at the cover before my friend was coming back down the stairs. I tried to squeeze it back into the shelves, but it was too tight. I looked around, saw my jacket on the sofa, and quickly stuffed the book in one of the pockets.
My friend came into the room and stood by the window. ‘It’s really coming in,’ he said. We looked at the last sliver of water before the sea disappeared, ghostly wisps of fog blowing up onto the beach like lost strands of seaweed. ‘She’s glad you’re here,’ he said. I nodded, feeling both relieved and more anxious still. ‘She wants to wash first,’ he added, ‘and I need to help her. Can you kill some time?’
At the front doorstep, I told him I might head up the glen and into the forest. ‘For old times’ sake,’ I said. He nodded. ‘Don’t get lost in the fog,’ he said, smiling. There was a noise from inside. He frowned and closed the door, flicking the porch light off. The brassy glint of the ship’s bell seemed more dull now. My throat felt tight, my eyes moist. I told myself it was the cold sea air. I thought about my friend’s mother, alone in the house and dying for so many months, waiting for the earth to swallow her up. Then I turned and walked up the steep glen, fighting the urge to look back.
It's always a shock to learn that the remembered things of childhood have changed. The school building now shrunken, the towering uncle stooped with age, or the bus stop vanished among scruffy tufts of grass on a roadside. As I caught my ragged breath at the top of the glen, I looked down onto a village that I barely recognised. When we were children, my friend, his mother, and I would stand atop the glen after long days spent exploring the cliffs and nearby forest. Exhausted, I would look down at the village with relief, looking forward to the prospect of their warm house. In my mind’s eye, the little houses were kissed with golden light and the sea glazed in a slick of honey. But as I looked down that cold spring day, the village looked abandoned, all brightness drained by the thick blanket of encroaching fog. I thought once again of the poster outside the Chinese takeaway and imagined the fog flooding over the village, covering all the houses and streets, leaving only the spire of the church visible above its grey shadow, and me running back down into it, the little homes ruined and forgotten, searching desperately for their house until I found the hazy glint of the old ship’s bell, and ringing it wildly, its long, clear chimes echoing through the mist for eternity.
I turned away from the village and looked out across the lumpy terrain of the meadow. The military colours of coffee and olives erupted here and there in the lemon yellow of gorse flowers that bloomed so improbably at that time of year. Thin paths crisscrossed the stubbly grass and bracken to the logic of dogs and ramblers. To my right were the high cliffs, where on a clear day you could scan miles of coastline or stare into the vast horizon until you were certain you could see a distinct curve on the ocean. But in that heavy fog the ocean was just an invisible murmur somewhere below and the sheer edge of the cliffs was erased among grey whorls of mist.
There was no clear path that led to the forest entrance, the best approach was to aim for the old farmhouse and then cut across a road. I pulled my feet through the wiry grass and brushy heather, ignoring the criss-crossing paths completely until I eventually reached the farmhouse. It was in the same state of dereliction as I remembered it. Bowed under its own weight, the roof suspended in an endless moment of collapse. Doors and windows long since disappeared, bare cement walls crumbling into grey dust. I wondered how it was still standing after all this time. I peered through a glassless window frame and could see plaster dust and rubble inside. Even the graffiti had the faded look of abandonment. The buckled ceiling was as I remembered it, still poised for a fall that may come the next minute or not at all.
I looked towards the forest, which was over a barbed wire fence and across a quiet country road. The long steel barrier that marked its entrance was framed by skeletal trees. I wondered what they were. Ash or beech? Rowan? Even in their leafless state she would have known. Higher, in the distance, I could see the endless rows of new growth conifers stretched out in lines of industrial order and, beyond them, dark patches of spruce like bruises on the hills. This wasn’t how I remembered the forest at all. I checked the time on my phone. It had barely been half an hour, too soon to return to the house. Besides, I felt increasingly like putting off the moment. So I made my way along the sagging barbed wire fence towards a little copse of newly planted spruce that was poking out of a dip further along.
I walked carefully into the copse and sat down on the cold ground, a thin trunk to my back, and peered through the crowd of saplings out across the glen. The fog appeared to have given up its invasion of the land, huddling somewhere near the cliff edge, but it was hard to tell. The little enclosure of trees was filled with a citrusy smell of sap. I stretched out a little and tried to relax but felt something dig into my hip. It was her book. I had forgotten it was in my pocket. I took it out and looked at the cover – Late Earth: Finding Hope in the Ruins of Nature – then flicked through to the front page.
As this land we share finally awakens from one nightmare, it seems we may only be sleepwalking into a nightmare much darker still.
As a teenager, when I would return home from a weekend at her house preaching about sustainability, my parents were tolerant enough, but sometimes grumbled that Northern Ireland had bigger problems to deal with. As I got older, I thought less and less about how sustainable my life was. Like my parents said, the bad days were over at long last. I looked towards the end of the glen, where it sloped down to a small valley. There were farms down there, but the fields were lost in the fog. I wondered what would happen if the crops failed. The damp gloom made me shiver a little, so I went back to the book, flicking through it and stopping at a random page.
My own generation has the peculiar distinction of having lived through ecological genocide without having noticed it. Perhaps we should not be surprised. It takes memory and patience to notice such things. The memory of playing in fallow fields and meadows as a child, of hearing the strange winnowing of the snipe take flight, or the electric crex of the hidden corncrake. And the patience to return to these places now and listen to nothing but the wind-rustled grass – or is that the drone of distant cars?
I shivered more completely now and pulled my jacket tighter around my shoulders. Something distant was edging into my thoughts, a memory of being on the cliffs with the two of them, mother and son. Summer, seabirds, and the cliffs on the glen. What was it? I flicked further through the book, stopping again at random.
I take my son for walks along the coast, up to the cliffs, and into the forest beyond. I teach him the names of birds and trees. He recites these back to me, pointing out terns and gulls, beckoning me to a pink tuft of sea thrift, and giving grandfatherly names to the few remaining oaks. He does not yet know that his recitation will become briefer and briefer over the coming decades. That in a relatively short period of time – unless we change our path in almost inconceivable ways – this list of words will become a litany of all that has been lost.
I stared off into the nowhere space of the glen. The book fell onto my lap and the pages made a whispery sound as they fluttered closed. Summer up on the cliffs, seabirds, the three of us. The memory came back to me. I must have been about fourteen, on another of my weekend visits. His mother wanted to show us the cliff birds and teach us how to identify them. We were playing a videogame and my friend complained that we didn’t want to go, looking at me for support. I was bored of taking turns on the game, so just smiled sheepishly. She unplugged the PlayStation at the wall and told us to get our coats on. I felt a little tense, not sure if she was angry or just making a point. ‘The summer birds won’t be there much longer,’ she said, ‘and you have no right to ignore them.’ My friend groaned, but I felt strangely thrilled by her conviction. I didn’t know anyone who cared so much about something outside their own life.
We walked up to the meadow on the glen, not far from the cliff edge. I wandered off by myself at first. The sky was perfectly blue and the long grass was being tousled by a lazy breeze. Bees and butterflies swayed drunkenly between lavender and heather, and little tawny meadow pipits flitted about the ground. I lay down on the soft grass and felt the warmth of the earth on my bare forearms. This memory of earthly serenity seems so distant to me now. ‘Come over here,’ my friend’s mother shouted, her voice barely reaching me over the soft grass. I looked around and saw them crouched on all fours at the cliff edge, pointing into the space below. I could imagine my own mother’s voice castigating me for even considering it, asking what could be so important as to put myself in danger. As I crawled towards the edge to join them, the gentle summer world of the glen suddenly dropped away. Waves shunted noisily against boulders two hundred feet below and gulls shrieked as they strafed the basalt rockface. I hung back a little and watched them spread flat on their stomachs, leaning their heads over the edge, pointing excitedly below. She turned to me, her eyes glistening with excitement and the sting of cold sea air. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘it’s fine, just slide forward a bit.’ I smiled and tried to move closer to the edge, to lean as far out as they were, but the sense of empty space and the deafening noise of squawking made me queasy. I wanted to hear her reeling off the names of every bird below us, but it was too noisy and I couldn’t get close enough, couldn’t look at the sheer immensity of it. Every shared sighting seemed to send a quiver of excitement between the two of them, and as we walked back to the house later that afternoon, I sulked as I heard my friend frantically recite puffin, guillemot, razorbill, peregrine, and kittiwake.
I looked between the saplings towards the cliffs and imagined crawling through the fog towards the invisible edge, stretching my fingers out to find where the land ended, peering down into a swirling grey void, and hearing the ghost shrieks of extinct birds echoing off the sheer granite below. It was too late now. Even in the height of summer it would be impossible to see what they had seen. Some of those birds were now so rare that they were never seen, some were simply gone for good.
My thoughts drifted back to her ghostly image on the landing and my chest tightened. I imagined her sitting limply in the bathtub, my friend leaning sadly over and washing her dying body. She had nurtured so much hope for the future within me, but at some point I had started to take a strange solace in believing that most things were out of my hands. Now, I felt the weight of every thought I had avoided facing, everything I had put off until another time. I thought about my life in Belfast, my warm apartment, my job that was routine and well paid. It seemed so distant from this cold glen at the edge of the land, this place where a woman who had meant so much to me was dying, where I had learned something once only to forget it later on. The glen blurred and trembled as my eyes filled with tears.
It was still and silent on the brushy meadow, but suddenly, a single shrill cry broke through the cold air and the seraphic white form of a gleaming common gull issued forth from the dense fog. I watched it gyre above the desolate meadow, crying out once more, and then slip back into the dense whorls and out of sight. I wondered where it was going and what it would find that I couldn’t see.
It was getting late. I wiped my eyes and walked back across the meadow to the top of the glen. The fog had pushed up onto the streets and when I got to the bottom of the hill I had trouble finding their house. The air was damp and the stale, sulphury smell of the sea was particularly pungent. The houses looked identical in the mist, so I walked slowly down the street, straining my eyes down every driveway. There was a dull glint of light at the end of one of them, a faint shimmering golden hue. It was the old ship’s bell. On her doorstep once again, I looked at the pull-chain and hesitated. I took a breath and pulled it, then listened to the bright note of the bell ring in a long, steady tone. I imagined it ringing all through the village, up onto the glen, shaking the dust from the old farmhouse, echoing through the valley and the farms, and singing its clear bight note off the edge of the cliffs and into the fog. Further down the road, grey wraiths of mist pushed up from the promenade and stalked the street. I waited at the door and hoped I wasn’t too late.