Quite a business this church thing. You can use your camera if you pay and if you don’t want to, you can buy postcards. You can donate to keep the roof on or buy a brick to fit in the wall to stop it falling down. Didn’t Jesus throw the money changers out of the temple?
I sat in a pew at the front, thought I would say a prayer but worried someone would approach me for a contribution. Instead of kneeling and putting my hands together, I decided to stay upright and close my eyes.
I slid down a bit, sinking into reverie and quietness. Quiet, that is, except for a chattering, chubby man in churchy glad rags who was slagging his wife off to his friend. A friend, not in churchy glads, maybe not a friend at all, maybe a visitor. Surprised that a man of the church would speak badly of his wife, I tuned in. He moved on from wife beating, figuratively speaking, to catching the arm of a passing, unsuspecting workman and asked him for the cones off the top of the Christmas tree when it was taken down at Epiphany. Give me a break.
Bored now, I switched off from chubby chatterer and slipped back into contemplation. Fixing my eyes on the ceiling I wondered whether my man, the one I came with, would stop for a gossip and wreck my character with a stranger or stop to collect pine cones. Or maybe would he make it down from the cathedral tower without incident. I don’t like heights.
I’m not religious, why did I want to say a prayer? I was christened like most babies in days long gone, went to Sunday school as a child and confirmed when I was thirteen. Is it a case of, ‘once a catholic, always a catholic’? Does it still count if you’re C of E? Probably. According to the Creed, which I had to learn, I promised to believe in the holy catholic church. That must be it.
Confirmation classes were on a Tuesday evening, so was the Rock and Roll Club in the Market Hall. I managed to fit them both in. Dad always collected me at nine o’clock. Dad was cool and embraced the music of the devil but he did blame me for killing the budgie by playing Rock around the Clock, full blast, on the Dansette.
Back to my prayer. Maybe if I prayed enough for something, it would happen. You hear of it don’t you? But, do you pray and wish or pray and hope. Do you need to pray at all or just sit in silence, think hard and wait? Wishing, hoping, thinking., praying, all the same thing? Not sure. What did I want to happen? It was like sitting in front of Google with hours to spare and not knowing what to search for.
Confused, I abandoned the whole idea and decided to just sit. The organist arrived for a practice. The music was lovely. Blocking out everything else, I wished Squirrel Nutkin to take his time.
Footsteps, click clack, click clack, coming up the aisle broke into my trance. Click clack, click clack. They stopped directly behind me. Well pass me or sit down, don’t hover. It was akin to being followed up a dark alley late at night waiting for someone to pounce, unable to act until they did.
A whisper, right into my ear. ‘Mary, Mary’. I could feel warm breath on my neck and a face close to mine. I turned, quickly. No one.
‘Mary, Mary’, Who the hell is Mary? Who the hell wants Mary? Who the hell thinks I am Mary?
I had to look again, this time, softly, softly. Still no monkey but I felt a smooth cheek leave mine, jerking back as I made to turn.
Suddenly there was no one around. I felt vulnerable and alone in this public place. Where was my pine stasher? The silence was heavy, the organist gone home, chattering man up and left. Just me, in the front pew, unknown just behind me.
‘Mary, Mary’, again. But this time, ‘Mary, the tower, come to the tower.’
‘Who are you? Where are you?’
‘I’m in the tower.’
How could that be, the voice was right in my ear?
‘I’m not Mary.’
‘Mary, you must come now.’
Why I got up and headed for the tower I don’t know. There was a charge of £3.50. £3.50 to pay and follow instructions from whom?
No one there to take my money, no guide. I felt my way in the gloom. The staircase was spiral and steep. Steep and slippery. The handrail, cold, damp and black. I felt the rust, rough and loose, as I gripped it. The flat of my other hand was against the slimy wall. The dripping water reverberated as it hit the bottom. The bottom of what? The echo was tinny and thin. This must be like clambering up the inside of a well. I wasn’t sure I had even started on the first step and was loathe to look down. All the time, ‘Mary, Mary.’
I kept going up, up, the voice urging me on. I knew I had to get to the top to turn around and to calm down, before beginning a descent. I stopped for deep breaths, in out, in out. They weren’t helping. I was fifty steps up. Yes, I count steps. How many to the top, one hundred, two hundred? I looked up, no sign of daylight yet. Dear god, please tell me the sun hasn’t gone in. One hundred and twelve; I could see sky. Dark sky, night sky, the moon high, nudging in and out through menacing clouds. I counted another twenty and hauled myself to the top, staggering onto the parapet. Unsure of where to put my feet, I shuffled back from the edge. Nothing to stop me throwing myself over, if I so desired. I didn’t. I stood back from the crumbling barricade. Soon my eyes adjusted and I had a chance to look around. No one there but me. My heart was beating rapidly now, pounding in my ears. I ached to get back to the protection of the front pew and my bloke. What the hell was I doing up here?
I faced the nightmare of the decline and decided I would do it on my bottom. Slid down Croagh Patrick like that, years ago; wore the backside out of my trousers. Here I was in another holy place facing a similar challenge. I’d overcome the climb now the descent, which, as on the holy mountain, I feared more.
I sat, and dangled my legs and slithered onto the top step. One hundred and thirty one to go. My knuckles glowed in the half light, my heels slid, I released my grasp to save my arm from leaving its socket and I was off. I didn’t miss one. One hundred and thirty one bumps, lumps and bruises. The moss and ferns slid through my fingers as I put my hands out to keep my balance. I sped around, around, around, hoping I would hit the deck alive. I felt like Alice but not so pretty and how was I going to get back to the safety of the pew with a bare behind?
I stood up, amazed that I had no pain, no pain anywhere. I thought my husband was a pain in the neck when he decided we would go out for the day to yet another historic pile. He hadn’t reckoned with the charges of course.
Sensing that I still had a complete pair of pants and I was not covered with slime and mould, I staggered to my safe haven.
I sat and thought about saying a prayer but worried there may be a charge.
Just a minute.
Footsteps behind me, click, clack, click, clack. A voice, soft, masculine, familiar. ‘Mary. Ready? Let’s go and get a cup of tea somewhere.’