A Winter’s Night on Irsha Street.
Comfortingly back home in my contemporary kitchen, doors locked tight and electric lights all on, I sit with my elbows resting on my old pine table, its enduring strength a prop to my insecurities. My much loved table, despite its many sufferings, it has stood the test of time. I feel the warmth from the log fire sending out its comforting glow across the room, the burning wood crackling a song of the forest, accompanied by a hushed but harmonious howling as air is drawn through small iron vents at its base. Both the table and fire somehow seem to connect me to the past, with happy memories of days that were perhaps not as durable. I pick up and open a note book and begin to write for you, though my senses are still somewhat bewildered by the events that pervaded a visit I made earlier that evening to a little place called Irsha Street.
Irsha, almost a place that time has forgotten, was a quaint little street in a remote old fishing village. Irsha is long and narrow, with only a car width road and no pavements; many small alley ways disappear left and right into a darkness that has lived for centuries between the houses, some paths disappear inland towards the hill and some out towards the sea. The houses on one side of Irsha stand elevated from the sea on a cliff like old stone sea wall. Lower down, even closer to the sea, once stood other old seafarer's houses, but these had failed to endure tide and time and stand no more; no trace remains, as if they never were.
As I write this, something is telling me that I am not entirely alone in this seemingly empty kitchen, something gently touches the crown of my head as if to say they know what I am doing. Perhaps a warning, but there is no sense of dread, not this time, just a presence that has joined me from where I know not and for why I know not.
In any event, alone or accompanied, I’ll still share with you of my visit.
“Call in for a cup of tea sometime,” Joe had said.
So, on this wet winter's night, as occasional drizzle drifted here and there dropping gentle rain on the nearby rugged Devon coast, I thought it time I accepted his kind offer.
I left my car in the poorly lit and deserted quayside car park, put on my long black overcoat and adjusted my scarf and woolly hat against the damp. As I walked alongside the waterfront railings into the darkness towards Irsha, pinpoints of coloured light brightened the murk far across the bay; warnings to sailors of sandbars and rocks; sparkling beacons distant in a dark foreboding sea. As I entered Irsha Street the wind dropped and all became hushed, even my shoes on the tarmac were strangely silent, as were the many houses I passed on either side. The street itself was deserted; and seemingly so were most of the houses, only one or two showed a light, and even then no one was to be seen through the glass, I didn't like to peer inside for fear of someone looking out only to be disturbed by such ill mannered intrusion. Directions and landmarks I’d been given soon led me to the house I sought; it was pleasantly easy to find in fact.
It was dark in Irsha except for the few dim street lights that sporadically lit the narrow roadway; a roadway wet from earlier rain that evening. There was a light on in the house and I could clearly see through the window that I had found the right place; my host was sitting in a large chair in the far left corner of what appeared surprisingly to be quite a large room. I soon found the door, and knocked.
I didn't have to wait long before the door opened and a smiling face greeted me.
“Come on in,” Joe said, “come on through.”
I bowed my head through the low doorway and entered.
Once inside, I found the house was much larger than I had anticipated, I had previously thought that they were all small, two up two down cottages along Irsha. As is so often the case, what we think we see isn't what we think it is; there's many a surprise in life for us all about what we thought we saw. The entrance lobby and first room through which we walked was unlit except for light coming through an opening to the next room, but I could still see the beamed ceiling, tasteful furniture and paintings; underfoot I felt the cold and uneven flags of the 16thC stone floor. We moved through the opening into a similarly presented room. My host, a worldly wise, stocky and affable man of some years was talking to someone that I could not see; it all became clear as he ushered me through a low opening to yet more rooms at the back and there was the lady of the house, the object of his conversation, quietly making tea. She was a pleasantly positive and talkative lady who invited me to remove my coat and sit a while and 'did I want sugar in my tea.'
‘That’s a relief,’ I thought, at least he’s not talking to imaginary people; or worse still, something else of which my mind would rather stay in ignorance.
It was a large and interesting back room, with a central inglenook fireplace complete with old ironmongery for hanging meat and cooking pots. All around were misshapen ancient walls, on which paintings of many seascapes and sailing ships hung as testimony to a maritime past, and floors that leaned this way and that in no particular order. As my tea slowly went cold in my hands my host's conversation continued absorbingly, with tales of smugglers, murders, secret tunnels and of footsteps heard crossing the wooden floors of the empty rooms above. Joe spoke quietly of these things in the manner of a man that knew the truth of this world.
Both the building and its contents smacked of another age; it was almost as though I had gone back in time, as though the energy left by the past was still present. The conversation led me to sense that I too might 'see', 'hear' or 'feel' the past. After tea I was shown around the labyrinth of rooms and stairs of all shapes in which many a hiding place could remain a secret for all times. I stood on steps where once stood the murdered and I walked the floor over which many a contraband barrel had rolled, I looked to the walls and floors beyond which lay secret places and hidden history, in part I felt that my soul saw more than my eyes.
How often have we glimpsed something from the corner of our eye but when we look again there is nothing there … or was there? The child that plays with imaginary friends, or sees something in the night, is soon put right by the knowing and fearful adult. . . “best not to look … no, no, don’t look … don’t tell me any more … there’s nothing there …. Go to sleep, close your eyes.”
I ask you, ‘Whose eyes is it that were really closed?’
Another cup of tea and the invisible hours had passed us by as though they never were.
I picked up my nearly drunk tea. . . the cup was cold to my touch. . . “Gosh, is that the time?” I said, glancing at the digital watch on my wrist, “I really must be away home and leave you in peace. Thank you so much for your timeless hospitality, most interesting,” and, reflecting upon their historical revelations, thinking privately, 'and almost beyond belief too.'
I bade farewell and re-crossed the 16th Century stones to the door with Joe, the gentleman of the house. He too seemed timeless, as though he were part of the fabric of the old Inn himself, at one with the hostelry, attuned to the heartbeat of the house that held so many secrets.
Buttoning my long dark overcoat it seemed to fit me better than when I'd arrived, I somehow felt taller, more comfortable and strong, as though younger now, almost like being someone else. I stepped into the rain damped narrow street, the old Inn door closing quietly behind me.
I began a silent, contemplative walk eastwards along the hushed and still deserted Irsha. My mind wandered to the events of the evening, then I glimpsed something from the corner of my eye, something large that loomed out of the darkness. My eyes slowly accustomed to the darkness and a faint breeze carried the smell of salt air to my nostrils and the creaking of timbers and rigging to my ears. . . as the darkness was eased apart by shifting clouds a faint moonlight revealed an ancient ship of two masts riding newly at anchor in the deep water channel, rolling so gently in harmony with the tireless estuary waves, her sails furled. I thought I saw movement on deck, thought I saw the swing of the hurricane lamp, and then nature drew its curtain of clouds once more to hide the moon and I was left with a darkness within a darkness and the sound of water lapping the rocks. A previously unknown knowing came in to my head, she was a Brigantine, yes, that’s what she was, a Brigantine, two masted and shallow draft and not long home from sea too.
If she was truly there or not, now I cannot say, but that night I knew exactly where she was, how tall, how rigged and all such detail that could be seen and told.
All was made more real by the clearly audible, slow soporific swoosh of gentle waves lapping the shore in slow rhythm, with the pauses between almost as though the sea were holding its breath.
As I passed by the little slipway I sensed three men, short and stocky, wearing mufflers and caps, heaving a laden row boat further up the stone slip, for the tide was still not yet passed to the ebb. I did not linger to watch, but somehow intuition told me what they were doing; contraband; how thankful I was now that I had left when I did, this was no place for the faint hearted and those men would not be best pleased to be discovered.
The spectre of a long gone past began to haunt Irsha, and I edged nearer the middle of the empty street for safety. I walked on quietly not wishing to disturb what was happening, yet slightly fearful and knowing I could no longer turn back, it was as if I had entered the sorcerer's cave and now fear to wake him.
Irsha is long and narrow but this night it seemed ever more so, time seemed confused in some way, the street, like time, never seeming to end. Then something walked alongside me, I became aware of two men, who though strongly built seemed of a desperately nervous disposition; their nailed boots trod not on tarmac but on rutted stones and there was a fleeting whiff of rotting vegetation and sewage in the air as if it lay in the street. They walked in a greater darkness than I. It would appear that the men did not see me, or if they did I meant nothing to them; nothing I saw seemed to see me, a cloak of timely invisibility covered me, though at times I feared it would not.
I became aware of the untidy ramshackle quay side with its frames, boxes and nets and the river beyond as though there were now no houses between me and they.
I walked on and on, passing some small cottages that seemed no more than pauper’s hovels and into one of which both men vanished. It was as though they never were, except that the sound of their voices lingered on, it was the last thing to pass ... a curse it was, ‘twas press gangs working the town that they cursed, then their voices followed them into their greater silence, and Irsha was quiet again.
Driven by an unexpected and transient gust of wind some smoke drifted across the street; the smell of wood smoke filled the air and my now heightened senses. I walked on, still slow and in a silence, sensing, as I passed by, places born of centuries past itself, the shivers, the hunger, the fear, a sense of little expectation from life but to survive, a sense of those waiting in vain but in hope of a loved son’s return from the sea.
I walked out of Irsha and onwards towards the Church and graveyard where no doubt we might find their ageing bones and if lucky some inscription marking their passing, even if they be lost at sea.
However, just like the many dead of past and distant wars the poor leave no markers, except perhaps in our hearts that may be touched by their troubled spirits even today.
Somehow transformed by my journey into Irsha, words of noble poetry and stories of the soul sprang to mind and those words triggered feelings; not unlike hearing songs or stories that can fill us all with feelings, feelings as if we were still there, like when we were young; feelings that connect us to our own past and even to our own ancestors and knowing what they must have done and felt. . . For in part, we are them. In our mind we can belong to a different place and time, even if for a brief while; a glimpse is all we need in order to ‘know’; You must have been there yourself; you must have felt this in your own being sometime, somewhere.
Irsha was well behind me now and I carried only memories with me towards the live music that came from the Hotel bar, to my left a glint of Moonlight which had evaded the clouds crossed the river to the street lights of Instow.
The pub was full of friendly people enjoying the warmth of drink and music, the bar was full of life. Warm applause greeted the rag tag and bobtail group of musicians as the song ended, leaving me residual feelings, feelings that were trapped briefly in time past. Once again I felt the strength of my youth and the courage of my forebears, my mind had transcended time and distance if only for a while. I ordered a Guinness from the bar and I reflected on an old saying,
“The end of anything is never a stopping point; It is merely the doorway to new discoveries.”
Perhaps we too will ‘live on’ somehow!
In memory of my friend Joe; Not forgotten.
Joe Webb 25th June 1942 ~ 2nd November 2011
Nor the lady of the house, Barbara, also now passed.