Jason checked the ropes once more and then stepped from the railing. Dom and Trev were already below him, kitted out in bright orange. Hardhats and harnesses. He lowered himself over the face of the clock. The neck of the tower stretched beneath him. Scaffolding stood in heaps against the walls of the nave. A flight of gulls swept over Dog Bank, King Street. They cried over the Tyne. River of many moods, now pearlescent and dreamy, as if rendered by a computer. Dom’s voice called up to Jason. He lowered himself further to inspect the mortarwork. The three men made for curious birds, hung luridly on high, wingless and cable-bound.
A cold hour passed. Jason hauled himself back up to the lantern of the spire. He put his hands on the rail and helped up the others. Old hands. Experienced masons. They unclipped their harnesses and Jason looked down over the buildings of the quayside, multi-tiered piles of brick and stone. He squinted. There was something he had not seen before. The apex of a roof had been shorn away. Bulging from the grey tiles was an upthrust of leaves. Small trees, fronds, grasses, spilling wild and unseasonal from the summit of the house. Like a forest contained between iron rails, cut and transplated.
It was dark when Jason got home. He unlocked the ground-floor flat while cars rushed by, shaking the half-dead perimeter bush as they went. Crushed cans and dry leaves lay piled before the doorstep. He pushed through and shut the door. He flicked the light on, workboots creaking on the boards.
Jason re-heated his tea and thought about the garden. The orange glow of the microwave conjured some element of it. As if lit by a light otherworldly. Jason remembered the woods behind his childhood home. He had inhabited that house for nine years. The trees pressed upon the garden. The paris green of spring. The darker greens of summer, when the grass burned but the woods were deliciously cool, flies drifting like motes down sunbeams. Browns and reds like a patchwork quilt in October. Bare and bejewelled with frost in winter. The spire of the parish church, rising eery and mist-bound through the dead canopy. The microwave beeped.
Jason lay abed with his laptop on his chest. Pale-glowing portal. Digital incubus. He crawled along Google streetview. The camera-mounted car slid by increments beneath the church, back and forth along Queen Street, Akenside Hill. He shifted beneath the shadow of Tyne Bridge, about-faced, moved back. The house with the garden was eluding him. He tried to crane the camera skywards. There was the church. He could not see the garden. The laptop whirred on his chest.
As they worked on the lofty heights of the church, mounting a ladder to scale up and down the full stretch of the spire, Jason kept one eye on the roof garden. When he looked away he felt like it was watching him. As if some creature lurked among the shrubs. Once he thought he saw a flash of movement. He could not see how anyone accessed the garden. Perhaps there was a hatchway hidden in the grass. Perhaps a hidden stair.
Jason found himself walking the interweaving lanes below Dog Bank and Akenside Hill. Queen Street, King Street, Lombard Street. Broad Chare, Plummer Chare. He hunted an entrance to that sanctum. He was like a dog on a scent.
Jason’s parents had brought him to the countryside at the age of four. His father, via a long string of contacts, had been offered groundsman’s work for a rural chapel. They had bought a small terraced house in the parish. Jason spent those years overlooked by trees. He had walked in their shadow. He had trod undergrowth, waded beds of dry leaves, scaled branches.
The woodland church was ancient. Its graveyard was consumed by roots. It had no fence and it was not clear where the graves ended and the forest began. Sometimes Jason had found a toppled gravestone far beyond the others, half buried, weathered and illegible. He found one where the trunk of a tree had grown about it, oozing like the limbs of an octopus, folding over the stone.
Overlooking the grounds of the church was an ancient yew, the middle hollowed out, living wood forming a tube. It could be entered by a root-cleft crawlspace. Jason would brace against its inner parts and worm himself up into the nest of branches. The inner working were alive with insects, with moss and fungi, like bacteria inside a gut.
Perhaps Jason had been drinking when he resolved to reach the roof-garden. He did not know what he would do when he got there. Partly it was the challenge. Partly it was his curiosity. He spent much of his life renovating roofs and he was confident he could manage it, though it would have to be done without a harness.
The clocks had just changed and there was a little more time in the morning to attempt the task as light crept into the sky. He planned it quickly. There was a fire escape in Plummer Chare which he could access, from there reaching the higher world of rooftops. He would go by instinct, by a presumed map. He scoured the internet for blueprints, diagrams, photographs. He packed his work-gloves into his rucksack.
He set out while it was still dark, freezing while he waited for the bus, sweating in its musty interior while it swung dully about the roads of the western city. He walked down slumbering streets. Lights flickered in shop windows.
Plummer Chare was deeply enveloped in predawn dark. He crouched and then flung himself, hands outstretched, to grasp the lip of the fire escape’s lowest level. He hung for a moment and then pulled himself upward. The metal was cold, flaked with rust and half-frozen birdshit. He rolled onto the platform, stood up, clambered skywards.
Everything had fallen apart when he had climbed the yew in August one year. It was the summer holidays. His mother was in work and his father had supposedly gone to run errands. Jason wandered the woods under a blanket of heat, seeking its inner shadows. He climbed the yew for its cool, dark passage. It was warmer than he liked inside, and he began to doze in an upper crevice.
He had woken to the sound of voices. A woman’s cry. He moved further up inside the trunk. There were gaps in its shell here and there – twisted looking-holes. He put his eye to one. He overlooked the church, the graveyard. Below, in the neatly-trimmed grass, atop a weathered sepulchre, he saw his father half-clothed. He was bent over a woman who was not Jason’s mother. Her face was flushed. Her bare legs twined over his back.
Jason stood on the upper limit of the fire escape, grabbed hold of the lintel of the roof, and pulled himself onward. The sky was brightening. A few early commuters wandered below. The rising sun gleamed on the Tyne. He trod carefully along an apex. He picked his way from roof to roof. These summits were all folded together, facades kissing, tiles converging. He could see the garden spawling up in the distance. A chaos of leaves bursting between chimney-stacks. He saw the spire of the church above, its clock-face looking down him in disapproval. He moved faster, dropping down a gable, stepping along the roof. In the street below a woman stood watching him, coffee-cup in hand.
Jason pulled himself up onto the last roof. He edged along until he was at the railing surrounding the roof garden. There was a rich smell of loam, fern, pine. A deep calm fell upon him. A breeze stirred out of the miniature trees. Grasses waved. Mosses reached up at him, damp and bulging. A small bird hopped from a branch. Jason stood on the far side of the fence, eyes half-closed.
‘What are you doing?’ gasped a voice. A man stood up from behind a bank of fern. Jason had not seen him there. Grey hair. Broad shoulders. For a moment. For a moment he thought it was his father. He could not be. He could not. Jason found he had let go of the fence. He fell backwards. His hands clutched at air. He fell back from the roof.
He told his mother what he had seen. They had not stayed out the year. He remembered the car curving the lanes, the high banks beyond which the trees watched him painfully. The greyness of suburbs at the end of the road. Modern municipal churches.
The spire swung above him. Birds leapt up screaming.
Nathaniel has previously been published in online magazines Thorn and From the Lighthouse. He completed a thesis on cultural concepts of wilderness at Durham University, after studying English and Creative Writing at Lancaster. He lives in the North East of England, where he works for Inpress and the Poetry Book Society. You can follow him on Twitter here.