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'A Garden by the Sea' by Forrest Reid

Introduction by Chris Wright

In his 1981 essay, Escaping from Belfast, V.S. Pritchett wrote at length about a forgotten Ulster writer by the name of Forrest Reid. He wrote about how the likes of Yeats, EM Forster, and Walter de la Mare were all firm admirers of the Belfast born novelist’s work. Forster himself would go on to describe Reid as ‘the most important novelist in Northern Ireland,’ while others referred to him as the ‘first Ulster novelist of European stature.’ Yet today his works, if not exactly lost, can be more than a little reclusive.

In this story, A Garden by the Sea, Reid writes almost elegiacally about how repairing the run down will never restore it to the strength of image held in memory and how sentimental impulses often lead to disappointment and regret. Pritchett spoke of Reid’s self-confessed ‘arrested development,’ combined with a ‘Proustian obsession with memory, and a curiosity about time.’ These traits are clear in A Garden by the Sea. The spectre of time haunts the prose, the regret accompanying it permeating every sentence. Reid’s curiosity, and some might say melancholy, around legacy and remembrance rises from the page, becoming even more poignant in retrospect, given the current status of his work.

Comedian, playwright, and political satirist Andrew Doyle—who himself curated a 2017 collection of Reid’s work, titled Crying for Elysium—said, ‘It’s curious that one of Northern Ireland’s most significant novelists has been all but forgotten. (Reid) was never really appreciated in his hometown, but he would never leave it either. I would say people still don’t know who he is, and that’s part of what I’m trying to redress.’

Experiencing Reid’s work for the first time, I was joyous at discovering this incredible Northern Irish writer, but also saddened that his work has been, for the most part, hidden away in special collections and University libraries.

I now share Andrew Doyle’s wish to redress this literary travesty and hope that, by releasing a piece of Forrest Reid’s work back into the world, we can take one more step towards fixing it.

Thank you to Special Collections at Queen’s University, Belfast for providing this piece.

A Garden by the Sea

To-day, after a period of many years, I revisited the place by the merest chance. I had passed it frequently, but knowing that its former tenants, the people I had cared for, were long since dead and gone, I had never felt any desire to intrude upon their old home. This afternoon, however, perceiving that the green door in the garden wall was slightly ajar, I got off my bicycle and entered. It was scarcely a garden now, scarcely even the ghost of a garden, but a wilderness of weeds, among which only the coarser plants and shrubs had survived. The house, too, wore that forsaken melancholy expression common to houses that have long been empty. The dark bare windows were like sightless eyes in a dead face; a broken urn that had once held a flowering shrub lay in the long grass beside the door step. Questioning one of the men working there, I learned that a new tenant was expected in the autumn. It was for him they were building a motor-shed; house-painters, plumbers and carpenters, would be busy next week; every thing was to be put in thorough repair. I came away with those words sounding ominously in my ears. 'Thorough repair' was certainly needed: on the other hand, not all the repair in the world could bring back the place I had once known, and late in the evening I felt a sudden desire to look again on what remained of it—a desire to catch some last floating shadow of the past before it should be quite irrecoverable—one of those purely sentimental impulses that usually lead to disappointment and regret.

The door, of course, was now locked, for the men had ceased work for several hours, so I scrambled over the stone wall and dropped down among the nettles on the other side. Miss Caroline's rustic bench at any rate was still in its old position, and there, upon the half-rotten branches through which ivy and convolvulus now pushed, I sat down to smoke a meditative pipe. Darkness had brought back something of its bygone beauty to the place. I could almost imagine that the house was still inhabited, its occupants asleep—just as, for that matter, they would have been in the days when I had known them, at this ungodly hour of half-past ten. And the sound of the waves breaking on the beach below filled the night with music....

Quite by accident, when I was a small boy, I had come here first. A butterfly, an 'azure blue', which in my too great eagerness I had failed to net, had flitted over the wall, and boldly I had pushed open the green door, and followed it. In those days I was an incorrigible trespasser, nevertheless I felt a certain embarrassment when—hatless, breathless, with net in hand and one stocking sagging down over my ankle—I found myself immediately confronting an elderly lady, who was walking slowly towards me, a gardening basket and a large pair of scissors in her hands. My first impulse was to take to my heels; but seeing that she smiled at me, I hesitated. 'If you are coming in, shut the door behind you, like a good boy. I don't want dogs: they scratch up the flower beds. You're quite sure you haven't a dog?'

I blushed and begged her pardon and told her I hadn't a dog. I dare say I stared at her, for she was a very nice old lady, dressed in black, and with black lace mittens on her wrists in spite of the gardening-basket. Her thin hair, the colour of old silver, was parted in the middle and smoothed closely down on either side of her forehead. She wore a cap of soft white lace with a lilac ribbon in it.

When I had stammered out an explanation of my intrusion, she laughed, and waved her scissors at me. Then she asked me if I would like some gooseberries. But she would not allow me to catch butterflies, which was disappointing, because the garden seemed a veritable paradise of them. A striped purring cat, with tail erect, followed her along the box-lined paths, and when she sat down on a bench jumped into her lap. As for me, I was already busy among the goose berry-bushes. A scent of flowers floated upon the air—roses and mignonette, carnations and sweet-peas. The July sun was hot; bees swung in the foxgloves ; and down below, the slow listless splash of the sea made me plan to have a second bathe in the afternoon. A haunted sea-blue, deep blue, with a narrow line of white foam where the waves curled over on the yellow sand.

When I thought it would be 'rude' to eat any more goose berries, I emerged from the bushes and was conducted to the house, where, in a dim cool parlour, I partook of cake and raspberry wine—rather a greedy little boy, it now strikes me. And here I was introduced to Miss Caroline's sister, and to her brother, an odd-looking old gentleman with a red face and white hair and the queerest of clothes. (Later I learned that he was a retired sea-captain, whose hobby it was to be his own tailor.) The parlour was full of curiosities brought from distant lands, and while I examined these, and talked to the Captain and Miss Caroline, the elder sister sat in a deep chair, with her thin delicate hands folded. She was old-much older even, I thought, than the Captain and Miss Caroline. And she was so frail and so quiet that I should hardly have believed her to be alive at all if every now and again a word or two had not dropped from her lips. Once only she spoke to me directly, and then her voice was so low and toneless that it seemed to come from far away-like a whisper from a star.

That was my first visit, but I paid many others before the ending of the summer holidays took me back to my own home in town. I knew, of course, that for some reason my elderly friends liked me—liked me to be there, within sight or call, even when we were all occupied with our private concerns. They were not clever, I imagine, and my conversation, of which they must have heard plenty, never seemed to bore them. The Captain, smoking interminably, stooping every now and again to pull up a weed, would tell me strange and involved tales that, as I dimly recall them now, can hardly have been more than 'founded upon fact'. His ships appeared to have put in at every port in the world, to have weathered countless storms and to have come through in finitely perilous adventures, but they must have sailed up the rivers of wonderland too. He played the flute, and Miss Caroline played his accompaniments on the piano, with stiff fingers and a questionable mastery of the bass notes. When visitors called, which was very rarely, I amused myself in the garden till they were gone. The hours passed lightly as a dream.

Both sisters probably were readers, for the house was full of books, and the Captain, I know, preferred doing things, making things, to reading. On wet afternoons, and sometimes even on fine afternoons, curled up in the window seat, or lying on my stomach in the garden, I pored over the back volumes of Temple Bar, devouring the romances of Rhoda Broughton, with an obliviousness to all else that no book could produce in me to-day. On several occasions I met Miss Caroline and the Captain beyond the precincts of their little world: I have a dim recollection, too, that Miss Caroline and my mother exchanged visits (in fact, I had made this almost inevitable), but I don't think it can have gone much beyond a formal call and its return. I also saw them in church on Sundays, when they seemed to me to be altered in some mysterious way by their changed surroundings. For me they belonged to this particular house and garden where I had first discovered them: anywhere else they were not in their right setting. Even in those days they must have been old-fashioned ....

The moon had come out from behind the clouds as I sat smoking a second and a third pipe, listening to these echoes from the past. A cat glided stealthily through the grass, dis appearing in the shadow of the wall. The moonlight grew brighter and the shadows blacker. The place, the hour, my own state of mind-all were singularly appropriate to ghosts, but no ghosts came. The Captain, Miss Caroline and with them everything they represented of leisure and graciousness and quiet—had retreated too far to return, and even my memory of them was tinged with legend. Yet long ago beauty lingered here—lingered like the grey moths now hovering among the tangled currant-bushes—lingered for a space before taking flight.

Chris Wright is a writer from Bangor, Northern Ireland. He has been longlisted for the Irish Book Awards Short Story of the Year, shortlisted for the Brick Lane Short Story Prize, runner-up in The Mairtín Crawford Award, and his work has featured in dozens of anthologies and publications. His non-fiction work on the pandemic has been preserved in the Irish Reading Archive at the UCD Library in Dublin for the next 100 years. Chris has an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s University, Belfast. He teaches Creative Writing and is a judge for the Mairtín Crawford Award.

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