Bishop of the Bluebells / Kaliane Bradley
Sometimes there’s only about half a glass of wine between genius and disaster. If Leo and I had stopped drinking when we were halfway down the bottle, we probably would have moved over to the bed, bickered briefly about who should have to brush their teeth first and then, eventually, fallen asleep. Instead we kept going, as the evening sank into the deep night, and entered that boozed-up state of tetchy, intense late-night conversation that my mother used to call The Wine Zone.
‘Urban legends,’ said Leo.
‘I know some really good ones,’ I responded immediately.
‘No,’ said Leo, and we glared at one another. His cheeks were flushed and damp, but the alcohol had dried his lips out, and they puckered slightly over his teeth, revealing the tip of one foxy incisor. I thought about running my tongue over it but the mood didn’t seem to be swinging in that direction.
‘No,’ he repeated, more softly. ‘What I wanted to know was, what about rural legends?’
I was in a drunk-sulk. ‘What about them?’
‘They must exist,’ Leo suggested.
‘Why must they?’ I asked, then immediately interrupted myself, ‘There’s nothing rural round here anyway. It’s the ‘burbs. You couldn’t even call it urban, not unless you were really Home Counties.’
Leo’s face lit up. ‘That’s it! Suburban legends. Where the rural and urban meet. It’s what happens when you take an urban legend into the countryside. It makes a new space. Do you see? It makes a crossover point. The suburban legend. The city growing in the wild.’
‘That’s not what suburban means,’ I pointed out; I always had less energy for Leo’s flights of lyrical freeform when I was drunk. ‘You can’t just—oh, I don’t know—take a mirror into a forest, hang it on a tree and say Bloody Mary at it three times.’
Leo’s eyes twinkled as brightly as his tooth. ‘Can’t you, though,’ he murmured.
This was how we wound up taking my beautiful charity shop mirror into Chalet Wood one fine spring morning.
Leo’s legs and spine weren’t up to much on the weekend we’d chosen, and he had to bring out what he called his Road Rager—a slim motorised wheelchair with stunning deep tread wheels that looked like they could take down a horse.
‘I’m not sure you’ll be allowed, Leo, they don’t allow cyclists,’ I said nervously.
‘My dear child,’ said Leo, from an age gap of three years, ‘I am not using this recreationally. They can try and turf me out of it if they like.’
In the end, we agreed to go early enough in the morning that there would be fewer people to complain or report us.
It was an hour-long bus ride to Chalet Wood, which, when one person is carrying a mirror and the other is in a wheelchair, was a more trying situation than either of us would have liked before 10am. But we made it to the wood with body and glass intact. Leo was visibly disappointed when we reached the entrance.
‘But this is so tidy,’ he burst out. ‘I mean it’s next to a golf course. It looks like a forest as curated by Alan Titchmarsh.’
‘It used to be part of the sculpted landscape surrounding the great Wanstead House,’ I replied, ‘often compared to Blenheim Palace.’
‘Are you reading off Google, my girl?’
‘Yes. Look, Leo, I told you, it’s the suburbs. People don’t come here to abandon their orphans and feed their grandmothers to wolves. They come here to have a picnic and say hello to the ducks. We’ve come all the way here, we may as well try to enjoy it.’
‘Well, lead the way,’ said Leo grumpily. I ambled through the gates and onto the earth path.
‘Which way do you want to go?’
‘Let’s try and get deep enough into the trees that we can’t hear the cars,’ said Leo.
I’d grown up nearby and had always found the sound of faraway traffic rather comforting. It sounded like wind with a purpose.
We started to move deeper into the bijou woods. The paths narrowed but were delineated with logs. Beyond the path were thick clumps of grass, flopping and shifting in the faint breeze. Here and there I could pick out a faint violet speck.
‘Is it bluebell season?’ I called to Leo.
‘Probably?’ said Leo. He had pushed on ahead of me—impatient about my constant worrying over the state of the path, the uphill tilt, the power of his wheelchair’s motor, etc—and was turning a corner when I heard him gasp.
‘What? Is everything alright?’ I ran towards him as fast as I could with the mirror in my arms.
‘Oh, kiddo,’ he murmured, ‘it’s definitely bluebell season.’
Round the corner, deeper into the woods, the bluebells had blossomed en masse. Every time the wind rushed through them, the bells would bob and dance, jewels on a sea of green. I had a few clumps of dozy purple Spanish bluebells in my garden, but these were the native, wild British bells. They were smaller, more delicate, with a richer, deeper colour, and their flowers hung like raindrops. When I squeezed my eyes shut against a brief gust of wind and debris and opened them again, the blue was so intense that momentarily each individual bell strobed. Like all wild flowers, they had the quiet energy of something ancient.
Leo and I didn’t say anything. I think we both knew telling one another how beautiful they were would have decentred that moment; suddenly we’d just be two people in a public garden. As long as we stayed quiet, the bluebells tolled their returning centuries in silence.
We must have stood there for five minutes or so—a long time to look at flowers. Eventually I shifted and the mirror slipped a little, and Leo cleared his throat against the slight chill in the wind. We asked one another, in deferential voices, the sort you’d use in a church, whether we’d like to keep going. Yes, yes, we’d like to keep going. Yes, that would be nice.
We wheeled and walked deeper into the wood.
I knew that just a few hundred metres to my left was a wide clearing where families brought young children and teenagers played rounders during warmer weather. There was a nicely maintained lake, with some ducks, some permanently outraged coots and a couple of swans. It was very pleasant, very neighbourly, but the bluebells had preserved a patch of wildness.
When we came to the shelter, Leo laughed out loud with delight.
It was set in another, much smaller earth clearing. Some intrepid boy scout, or a perhaps a parent-and-child team, had collected long thin logs, not much bigger than Leo’s arm, and, using a leaning tree as a central support, built a makeshift teepee shelter, held together with basic wattling. The entrance was just a gap in the logs, barely wider than a man. I had to crouch down to get in, scuffing the mirror through the powdery earth. Leo stopped his wheelchair just outside.
‘Heave me in,’ he said.
I leaned the mirror against the back of the shelter and crawled out on my hands and knees. Leo wheeled closer to me and gently lowered himself into my arms. I pulled him back in to me and we shuffled in.
There were a couple of larger logs on the ground. We settled ourselves on to one, my arms still around Leo. He slipped one of his around my waist and turned to face me. We were pressed so close together in that little den that I could feel the tip of his nose against my cheek. I could just see, in my peripheral vision, the twinkle of his gaze on me.
‘Better than bluebells, my girl,’ he murmured. I closed my eyes. There was nothing going through my head but a feeling of complete and total happiness; a wordless hum, as if my mind were a cat purring.
After a little while, Leo said, ‘The mirror.’
‘Oh yes,’ I mumbled. I’d forgotten we’d come out here on a ridiculous whim about suburban legends. ‘Well, let’s get that over with.’
I dropped back onto my hands and knees and crawled to where the mirror had been set up.
‘Bloody Mary,’ I told my reflection. Leo snorted and I grinned. ‘Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary.’
‘I could use a drink,’ said Leo.
‘Leo, it’s only just midday!’
‘It’s a breakfast cocktail! Oh, alright, a coffee, then. Is there some kind of café in this park?’
‘I think there is, actually. We’ll take this bloody mirror with us, shall we? I can’t believe you persuaded me to do this.’
‘You wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t privately hoped something would happen,’ Leo said. I gave him what I hoped was a rueful half-smile. He was right, of course. The days had seemed magical, the nights enchanted, these past few weeks. Some part of me really did believe that I might have been able to summon some old ghosts.
With a bit of trial and error, we got back onto the wheelchair and back to the path. The bluebells were still beautiful but there was a strange formality to their loveliness that I hadn’t noticed before. If I squinted, if I was feeling fanciful, I might have said they looked like soldiers in blue shakos, or monks in blue-hooded habits. I mentioned this to Leo.
‘Yes, it’s irresistible to anthropomorphise,’ he said, but he seemed distracted. ‘Dearest, can you hear the cars?’
I cocked my head. ‘Oh. Huh. No.’
‘Doesn’t that strike you as odd?’
‘I suppose? Maybe we’re too far away? Or maybe we’re just used to it.’
We walked on a bit further. The path began to widen and I could make out the lake glinting between the trees. Another big marshmallow of contentment bloomed in me. I like lakes, and geographic features of water in general. There is something very grand and attractive about them. Besides, it was spring. Perhaps there would be ducklings.
Leo still seemed troubled. ‘I can’t hear birdsong either,’ he said.
‘What can you hear?’ I asked him, more to show I was paying attention than anything else.
Leo was silent for a moment. Then: ‘Singing.’
I listened too. Over the whirring of the wheelchair’s motor, there was indeed the faint strains of a voice, lifted in song.
We kept moving towards the clearing, ears pricked. ‘It sounds like chanting,’ I muttered.
‘Yes. Something ritualistic,’ said Leo. ‘Oh dear. I hope we’re not about to walk in on some kind of Wicker Man situation.’
‘I blame Bloody Mary,’ I said.
When we stepped into the clearing, it became clear something was wrong.
There were no ducks or swans on the lake, which was far bigger than I remembered it. The waters were inky black and seemed much deeper than a woodland lake ought to be, and its islets and sunken trees stretched beyond my plane of vision. The entire landscape looked like a bleached photograph, colours drained. The trees shook in the wind but the sound of their leaves reached us as if filtered through layers and layers of gauze.
Most troubling of all, though, was the man sitting on the throne.
The throne had once been a tree, and now its stump was roughly carved into a seat with a high back. It was crude and simply hewn but it exuded an old, old power. Sitting on the throne, in blue robes and wearing a tall hat, like a chess piece, was a man. The singing was coming from him, or rather it was coming from around him. His mouth wasn’t moving.
I can’t quite describe what it felt like, to see him there. It felt like the entire world was cold and sharp, and he radiated a steady heat. It felt like the landscape around me was shading into charcoal and he was a pillar of light. I couldn’t even say that I felt drawn towards him; it was more like the landscape was reshaping itself, shrinking, folding and puckering, and he was at an unmoving centre, so I was inevitably growing closer.
I heard Leo say my name quietly. Or, at least, I assumed he’d spoken quietly. When I’d wrenched my eyes off the throned man, I realised I had been walking, and I was now several metres away from Leo. He wheeled closer, his eyes full of urgency, and said my name again.
‘Drop the mirror,’ he said, his voice level but taut with stress. I’d forgotten I was still holding it.
‘There’s a man there,’ I said vaguely.
‘That’s not a man,’ Leo said, in the same taut voice.
‘Looks like a man.’
‘Venus fly traps look like flowers,’ Leo said. I noticed that his eyes were fixed on me, and he seemed determined not to even glance at the figure on the throne. ‘Drop the mirror.’
‘I bought this in Oxfam,’ I said. I knew what I was saying was stupid and irrelevant, but I felt filled with fog.
‘I’ll get you another one. Drop the mirror, please.’
I made some kind of moue of disapproval. But I dropped the mirror.
The chanting stopped. The trees froze mid-shake. From the throne came a noise like bells.
Leo grabbed my hand. ‘We have to leave.’
I was transfixed by the bells, which had started to split into more complex melodies. The sound was filtering out into the forest now, and I could hear thousands of tiny silvered bells ringing from between the trees. Leo started his wheelchair and I was pulled along by the momentum, but when I glanced back (stumbling over my own feet), I could see that the man in the blue robes had stood up, and was looking directly at us.
‘We need to find an exit!’ Leo shouted over the sound of the bells. ‘Is this the direction we came from?’
‘Pretty much!’ I yelled back. I don’t know what had come over me. I felt disinclined to be helpful. I wanted to sit down and sink into the pealing. Thinking was like dragging my brain through mud and it took a lot of effort not to just topple over and refuse to move.
‘Up ahead! Is that the path out? Does that look familiar?’
The grass of the huge clearing stretched out in front of us—or at least it should have done. We were fleeing back towards the woods and the straight path that would lead to the gate, a walk which had taken us, on the way in, more than half an hour. But the curious sensation of the landscape warping towards the irresistible centre of the man’s presence persisted. Under every step, I could feel metres folded on top of one another. The horizon looked as if it were being tugged and hemmed. I took it all in placidly.
It wasn’t until we had torn down the path and neared the gate that something pierced my odd fug and I realised something was wrong. The street beyond the gate looked bright and normal; I could even see a pigeon industriously rooting around in a bin, and the sunlight dappling the tarmac. But around us the forest was darkening into monochrome, and the air was sweet and cold.
‘I think we woke something!’ Leo screamed at me above the din of the bells. ‘Suburban bloody legends! There’s too much raw belief round here – and it’s spring—things are waking anyway—what were we thinking—'
‘I can see the bus!’ I hollered at him
‘Let’s get on that bus!’ he howled.
I looked back one last time before we threw ourselves through the gate. The man was closer than I’d realised. He was reaching out one of his pale white hands, and he could almost have touched me. Between his fingertips and my shoulder barely even a moth could have passed.
When we crossed over, normality came down so hard it was like being punched. I felt it all the way to my bowels and doubled over, my stomach cramping. Beside me, Leo made the huffing-snarl noise familiar to anyone who is trying not to be sick.
‘You kids alright?’ said a voice from the forest side. I looked up, dreading seeing the blue-robed man, but it was just a bloke and his Labrador, watching us with concern. ‘Sorry you missed your bus, but, you know, another one will be along in ten minutes… Shouldn’t be hurtling around these paths in a contraption like that.’
Shaken, Leo simply horked out, ‘Thank you,’ and went back to trying not to be sick.
I watched the dogwalker disappear into the wood, the pleasant manicured wood where children played and couples strolled. I leant down and put a hand on Leo’s back, between his shoulder blades. I could just about feel the thumping of his heart. After a few seconds, catching his breath, he reached up and touched my arm.
I will never forget the look on the blue-robed man’s face just before we crossed what I must now assume was the border between his domain and ours. It wasn’t angry, or demanding. It wasn’t even especially threatening. But every line seemed to express inevitability. He must have seen so many of us over the centuries, and so few who found a way to cross over. But I think centuries teach patience. He expected us to keep coming back. He expected, when we brought our naked hearts to his forest, that we would stay.
We have rarely spoken of the day we summoned something old and patient out of Chalet Wood. It’s hard to explain, even to one another, what we’re really seeing when we look at the woods—to see the pollarded trees, the trimmed brambles, the domesticated natural, and to see, directly overlaid, like one of those visual illusions that show a vase and two faces at the same time, centuries of earth and leaf and sky shuddering against the horizon to form a landscape, entering through our eyes to take root in our imaginations.
I thought I’d be afraid and that I’d dig up the bluebells in my garden, but do you know, they’re still so pretty.