by Katie Lumsden
There was a fire here, some great number of years ago, long before my time in this place. In the nineteenth century some accident or some anger turned into fire, and it ate away at this wondrous building. It blackened the stones and shattered the windows. I have seen paintings of it from when it was built. There were stain glass scenes then in the windows; now iron frames hold empty spaces, and ravens make their nests in what used to be the pews. The roof is mainly gone. The steps up to the spire are crumbling, and the bells rotted. Everything, gone. I like that.
I am twenty-four, a grave young man who never has much to say for himself and never has any desire for company. I like history. I like old buildings. I like destruction. I like absolutely nothing else.
I have always had too much money. My parents’ deaths have left me a fortune that I do not want, and my brother, gone as well, in a different sort of way, has left me a fixed frown and a hatred of all material wealth. The thought, therefore, is natural – I mean, to me, it is natural; to anyone else it would appear ridiculous. But here is my first thought after everything has happened: I think, I want to buy a ruin.
I do not want to repair it. I just want to set up a tent in the middle of the ruin, exposing myself to the dangers of the world, and then live there, alone, entirely alone, watching it crumble around me. That is all.
So, the question is, where? I consider castles. I consider old forts, old manor houses, old palaces. At last I chose a cathedral.
I do not know why. I do not believe in God. Perhaps that is partly the appeal. I want to live in a ruined cathedral as if to prove the absence of God within it.
So I buy a cathedral, and I buy the grounds as well. I buy the site of the old monastery that was pulled down in Henry VIII’s time. I buy the fields that surround it.
A river runs below the cathedral, covered by a huge stone bridge – which I buy too – leading to the once monastery that is now a blank stretch of land. There is nothing but pure grass and wild flowers and willow trees whose leaves weep into the river. I remember once when I was a child on holiday abroad with my family, my brother and I climbed a willow tree and jumped into the lake from there. I was a bad swimmer and he lifted me and carried me out of the water. The memory makes me shudder.
This river brings me nothing but peace. It is beautiful. Still. Empty. Perfect.
No one comes here. I have said that I will not repair the cathedral and if I do anything to this place it will only be to put up walls around my land. But it would not be necessary. I was told when I bought the place that no one comes here; the previous owner seems to think it is haunted. I do not believe in ghosts, but something keeps the locals away, and the animals – except for ravens, and the fish.
I think, if I work hard, I may never have to leave this place. If I plant crops in the ruined chapel I can grow myself vegetables, and if I catch fish in the river, then I will not need to go to the village to buy things. It is a long walk, anyway, and I sold my car when I moved here.
I will be practical, and I will forget the way I lived in the world before here. I have a penknife, and with it I can carve tools from branches I find in the woods. I make pointed sticks with which to catch fish; I make myself a knife, fork, and spoon, a plate and a bowl. All wooden, made of my land, not contaminated by reality.
There are no cars here, no people, no noise but birds. The world is beautiful, but what humans have done to the world is not. I do not need people. I do not need God. My cathedral worships only the sky and the river and the trees. I wake each morning to the sun shining through the canvas walls of my home, and I think I wake happy. I think I do.
I wonder what happiness is, if I feel it like other people do.
In the summer I am happiest. My tent is warm and my crops begin to be ready to eat. I can lie with my back to the grass and stare at the sky and smile. I have more hours of daylight, more hours of safety. The night does not creep up on you as it does in winter.
In winter, things are colder. The chilling air bites me, freezes me. The snow restricts my explorations. All winter is spent longing for the glory of summer, longing for warmth and freedom. I would like to be an animal, so that I might hibernate, and skip all that awful season. There would be other reasons, too, to be a bear or a fish or a raven or a wolf. Human does not quite suit me.
I find, one day, something new. In the grounds of my cathedral, below the old bridge, by the river, there is a chapel, a small old building, a beautiful sort of place. It is less ruined here than the cathedral. The roof is still in tact. Snow would not get in. I may start to pass the winter months here.
It is fascinating how much I still have left to discover about my land. My whole life is spent in exploration of it and yet every day there are new surprises, new fascinations, new beauties.
Summers shine themselves into the past. Winters melt away. Years fade.
I have lost track of time. I cannot remember what year it is.
My cathedral is beautiful. My bridge is beautiful. My temple, my trees, my river, my plants, my tent. My whole world is beautiful. No one ever comes here.
I think I have forgotten how to speak.
Summer is upon me again. I swim in the river in the mornings. Beautiful. I feel so free that I have forgotten what it feels like to not be free. My old life, the old world, is like a dream, like the memory of a past life. I do not want it. I like to think I have always been here, alone, happy.
I tried having a conversation with myself yesterday, to see if I could still speak. I did not like it. I will confine my thoughts to my mind from now on.
I do not like snow. But at least this winter is better than the last. Come summer I will swim in the river again. Now I lie in the snow and grin, because nothing can stop me, nothing can change me. I am so happy, so happy.
I think I may have seen the ghost.
I have been here so many years that I have lost count, and I have kept my scepticism. And yet today I swear I saw a girl walking between the old gravestones. I do not mean a child but a young woman, so much younger than me that I may call her a girl. Of course I have forgotten my age. I am a ruin now, like my cathedral. Timeless, beautiful, happy, empty.
But I saw her. I swear I saw her. There is a ghost in my cathedral. For the first time in God knows how long, I am not alone.
Photograph: Katie Lumsden