It was all standing once. Strong, shining iron girders, holding proud sheets of glass. A square of space to grow in, with brick foundations. There was even an ornamental flourish of wrought iron above the entrance. It had been built for the convent by men who had used bricks fired in kilns not ten miles away. These men had waved at their neighbours and whistled on their way to work in the mornings. They had made jokes about the nuns under their breath, but were generally well-meaning, and they took pride in what they had built. The surrounding trees were young; thick waves of sun washed through the glass. It saw season after season of blossoming tomatoes and peppers. There was even a healthy crop of juicy strawberries during some summers when the air got particularly steamy. The seeds that the sisters sowed shot up and onto the plates of girls I never knew, nourishing generations of hungry Catholicism. Woodlouse dynasties rose and fell in the foundations. It was a kingdom handed down from gardener to gardener and it saw many tests of faith. The sun shone through the glass onto wicked men and good men, and the rain dripped off it onto nuns getting their hands on the vegetables inside. Row on row of ecclesiastical carrots and courgettes were grown and picked within the transparent walls that, save their Lord, were the only witness to any adventurous mischief.
As the suburbs grew, so did the challenges to the faith, and the convent grew smaller and smaller. The number of nuns fell, and those that did come came from further away than ever. Eventually, there was no longer a need for the fruits of the glasshouse and it fell into disrepair. There were rumours spread that they left it with a season’s seeds already sown. New plans were being drawn up that didn’t concern this corner of the world, and it was left to grow wild. Grids of roads and houses were fitted around the wood, and the noise of power tools rang through the trees. The paint flaked and the girders rusted and, around it, the trees grew and regrew as the forest carpet deepened. Cracks expanded in the foundation and, on an unknown day during one of the seasons, three of the four walls collapsed, with nobody watching. The glass rained down on the bricks.
We’re off to find the glass house. The one in the woods. It’s not too far from the road and sometimes you can hear a car, but you feel like you’re in a proper forest. All you can see is trees and ivy. In the summer there are things floating around all the time. I don’t know what they are. They look like little flowers or little feathers. They might be the bits that come off dandelions but some look the wrong shape. That’s not the interesting part, though. There’s glass everywhere! The floor is covered in it. Little shards and huge big panes. And bricks, loads and loads of bricks, just there in the woods. We’ll go after tea but we have to walk round the long way to make it look like were somewhere else. Because Dad says it’s dangerous because of the glass. Mum says it used to belong to the nuns. The nuns that used to live over there. They’re not there anymore, so no-one ever goes there. Mum and Dad say no-one is allowed to go there. They say that the wall is going to fall down soon and it will be gone. There’s only one wall left. Come on, lets go.
We found it many summers ago. It was towards the back of the little triangle of woodland that lay just behind the house I grew up in. The expansion of suburbia is not always perfectly neat, and in some places there are little patches of forest have not been touched by the lines of streets. As my feet got bigger inside my shoes, the parametres of the world they needed to explore expanded like a diaphragm, and it wasn’t long before they encircled the glasshouse. It was only a matter of time before I found it, and only a matter of more time before I gleefully showed it to my friends. After school, we used to run like low flying aircraft through the woods to keep the adult spies from seeing us. Out of earshot, we zoomed and spat propeller noises, and the engines roared out of the corners of our mouths. We shot through the trees and fired rockets from our hands.
That first time I showed it to anyone, the shards of glass shone like gold. The gaze of three pairs of eyes made the gold glow threefold. It was wonderful. How could we not keep going back? We were like magpies, hopping after every glint we saw. For years we flew our planes back and forth through the wood, spending hours playing in the glass. We tentatively wrapped our arms around trunks and branches and tried to climb the trees, but we couldn’t get to any great height. I never found a nest, though we were stung by bees over and over. But we kept going back, stings swelling and with big gaping grins, saying,
‘Come and sting us, come and get us!’
We tripped and cut our arms and legs on pieces of glass and licked the blood from our cuts like lapping up soup from the bottom of a bowl. We were proud of our scars and we cut our shorts to show them.
I always wanted to go and be there in the night. I tried to do it more than once. I had the idea that maybe one day I could sleep there. I waited until everyone had gone to bed and then I snuck out of my window with my torch. I climbed down into the garden, and stood there, looking at the wood, before holding my breath and putting one foot in front of the other as I pushed myself through the trees. The kindest-looking tree looks like a killer in the dark, but every time I tried, I got a little further. Once I even glimpsed the sprinkling refraction of torchlight on glass before I turned and ran. I could never quite get there on my own.
As we got older, we brought anything we could to put in our new glass home. As we got bigger, the cuts got smaller and we talked about them less. When we climbed, we reached the higher branches of the trees, and even felt a jolt of fear when we looked down and saw how far we’d come. When we were feeling our strongest, we rolled the biggest logs we could find into the area, but they never rested properly in the uneven foundations. We found pallets and nailed them together to make straight-back sofas. We sat at uncomfortable angles and laughed about how much it hurt. Soon there were pieces of pottery all over the place, parking signs and a squash racquet with green shoots growing through the lattice. We brought a table and swivel chairs and mirrors. The mirrors were the oddest part. It was like a circus, or a hall of mirrors in an amusement park. We looked at ourselves in the wall of glass that we had built, and we laughed at the people who looked back. We tried to make our mirrors a permanent feature by nailing them to the trees, but they fell off and shattered. They rested in the earth and reflected us in broken pieces. The longer grasses and new plants hid the wheels of the chairs, and it looked like they had sprouted there like any other sapling. We tried to make a home, with furniture and walls, and even mirrors, though nothing that we built stayed standing for very long.
We were sitting at the table, swivelling from side to side on our chairs when we saw a deer, head low, eating. We stopped moving. We were silent, but it seemed to feel our stare, and it froze. It raised its head cautiously, then fixed its eyes on ours. It was beautiful, we all knew it without saying, or even looking at each other. There was mutual silence. We broke it first, but it was like we moved in the same moment. The deer bolted, bounding away but on its way we saw its slender front legs buckle and it crashed into the ground. It writhed and its horns dug into the dirt and the glass. I expected it to scream, but I only heard grunts and the sprinkle of glass as it contorted itself in a frenzy. It was as if the deer was dancing. Each jerky movement of its neck sent shards everywhere, like jagged ripples in a pond. We didn’t dare move closer but we could see the blood on its legs. At first, we stayed frozen, but then we ran home. We felt sick and we didn’t go back for a while, in case it was still there.
However, after a while, we did return. There was no sign of the deer. We never asked ourselves what had happened to it, but tried to build things with the rotting wood instead. We made half-projects, without tools. Anything that stayed standing was outgrown in months. Sometimes we were feeling more destructive. We found any panes that were more or less intact, and we flung them. With the flick of a wrist, we sent shards scything through the air and spinning, and there were shouts of joy when they shattered on nearby trees.
The trees grew with cuts and bruises around us, looking down with wooden disapproval. Their faces grew distorted as they wound their way towards the canopy above. We kept climbing higher each time we visited, cheek to cheek with the trees, with scratches everywhere. Each target branch was reached and beaten, and we relished each record set. It was impossible to say whether the wood was resting on that last wall, or whether it was holding it up. It was as if the trees belonged to some seed planted in the greenhouse generations ago that had grown larger than anyone could have known and was now bursting out. A giant’s crop in a doll’s greenhouse. The dolls had given their souls to the Lord years ago, and the fruit of the giants was just beginning to ripen. We could nearly reach the tops now.
We heard giggling once, bouncing off the trees while we approached the clearing, but by the time we had reached our home there was nobody in sight. That’s when we began to pick up the things that people left behind. Cans of beer, coals and the ends of cigarettes. Plastic bags were commonplace but other things less so. Paintbrushes, keys and football cards. Sunglasses with one missing lens. An inside-out umbrella. A single shoe tied to a high branch confused us, until we found its pair directly beneath it on the floor. Once we found a broken radio with its antennae stuck in the dirt nearby as if its metal stem had rooted in the mud. My most exciting find was a blue lacy bra with broken elastic, which I hid under some bricks for a while, before parading it on the end of a stick in front of my friends. Then it was our turn to giggle.
As time moved on, the visits became less frequent. We had often spent whole Sunday’s sitting in the glass, but these days became hours before long. I cant remember when it was, but there came a day when we stopped using my glasshouse altogether. The engines of the planes fell silent, and there was peace in the little piece of forest again, while the rest of the world and our lives sprang up fiercely around us. The leaves grew up around the beers cans and the rubbish; we started buying our own clothes and going into town after school. We took the trains to the cities that were closest, and one of us learnt to drive, so we could get even further away. We weren’t together all the time. We went to different universities, and one of us learnt how to be a builder. When we did see each other, we joked that he could build us another glasshouse that we could ruin ourselves. Together, we went our separate ways and didn’t come home for a while.