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Footsteps in the Cathedral

13 Feb

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.’

‘Mary, Mary’, Who the hell is Mary? Who the hell wants Mary? Who the hell thinks I am Mary?

‘Mary, 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?

IMG_0075No 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?

‘Mary, Mary.’

‘Sod off.’

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.’

That was Then

13 Feb

‘Big fight! Big fight!’

Freda took her fluffy red dressing gown from behind the bathroom door, thought it was time she bought a new one. Stiffly, she pulled it on and slid her feet into the fluffy red slippers she had bought to match.

‘Big fight! Big fight!’ The cry swam around her head; it wouldn’t go away.

She took the stairs down, one step at a time, and very, very slowly; her mind was racing backwards at a much faster pace. By the time she had reached the bend around which she required both hands to manoeuvre, she was back to 1957 and The Medda.

‘Big fight! Barney and Ubbold!’ The kids were running in all directions away from the market cross. Running home for windjammers and wellies, then out again and down to the Railway Meadow. Down to The Medda was just that. Dalton, the town in the dale where everywhere was down, except your house and then it was up! Anyway, wherever you lived, The Medda was down.

Down, down, down they ran hoping it hadn’t started before they got there. The steep, slippery, pavements glistened in late afternoon sun but the kids paid no regard. The air was cool; they didn’t notice. Loads of kids, ducking and diving their way to The Medda.

Barney. His hair was sandy and crinkly and resisted the huge amounts of Brylcreem he plastered on it to make it smooth. His eyes, turquoise, could twinkle but then could not, depending on his mood when they changed from brilliant to dark. Today they were dark. And there he stood, on The Medda, awaiting his challenger. Awaiting someone bold enough to think they could take him on and get away with it.

He was the youngest boy in a family of girls and twin to Stella. His father died when he was five. The kids brought themselves up, dragged up, some would say, their mother working where and when she could. Barney had very little schooling. Never went, said they couldn’t make him and boasted that he had never read a book in his life. But he learned, very early, how to fight. Learned to wrestle, learned to bare knuckle box. He earned himself a reputation.

Barney didn’t bother much with women which was why it was strange that he should be on The Medda awaiting an opponent who had offended the woman he loved.

He loved Freda; she lived in a village above and beyond the dale. He had never looked at anyone else. Freda, tall, and slim, with dark hair and flashing eyes. She reminded Barney of a flamenco dancer. Her full lips were painted red, her dark hair, caught up with a slide, cascaded over her white shoulders. They met on Fridays and went to the Rock ‘n’ Roll club in the Market Hall. Barney and Freda were good together on the dance floor. Barney was magic but Freda was terrific; all the boys wanted her to jibe with them; Barney had to just sit back and watch.

Albert Hubbold, known to all as Ubbold, was a great lump of a lad, an apprentice blacksmith. He looked and smelt sweaty. Ubbold was tall and fat but could dance his socks off and got in the queue for Freda every week. She couldn’t stand his closeness but could not refuse him. She would shut her eyes and let the music take her, politely thanking him when it stopped. One night he did not let her go, she felt the stickiness of his clammy hand around her wrist and although she tugged, he would not let go. The struggle brought Barney to his feet. Ubbold threatened to plant him.

‘Yer big, but not big enough.’ Barney responded; they arranged to meet on The Medda the next evening. Word got out and by the late afternoon the town was alive.

Bare knuckles had never let Barney down but Ubbold was massive and tough.

The crowd was growing, kids joined by youths, boys and girls, jostling for a good view.

‘Ubbold’ll flatten Barney’

‘Barney’ll kill Ubbold.’

‘Where is Ubbold anyway?’

Suddenly it all went quiet. The gate to The Medda swung open, all heads turned towards it. Ubbold. Barney braced himself.

It was at that point, Freda fell in love with Barney. Ubbold had lost.

Freda had been thinking about the big fight since she climbed out of bed.

‘How long ago it was, and yet like yesterday.’ She remembered. Freda was on the last few steps now, almost down.

‘Those were the days when Barney treated me like a goddess, worshipped me, fought Ubbold for me, would’ve fought anyone for me.’ She was muttering now. Freda was always muttering, couldn’t stop; she spent a lot of time muttering. Barney very rarely spoke.

‘Can’t be doing wi’ gossip. Can’t tell yer what’s in the paper, yer can read it yerself when I’ve finished.’ And if he wasn’t reading the bloody paper, which was all creased up and in a muddle when he’d finished with it, he was watching the bloody telly.

If they crossed words, Barney would never say sorry. Not like Freda would. ‘Sorry’ she’d say, ‘Sorry Barney.’ The nearest he got was when, after a row and after more than a few drinks, he sang Neil Sedaka’s, ‘Oh Carol’ to her, substituting Carol for Freda. It was a fond memory and one she conjured up occasionally.

Freda never doubted that, in a way, his own way, Barney loved her, but he never told her. Never said much at all. She often felt lonely and lonelier now she couldn’t get around. ‘Aged frailty’, they said, ‘Comes to us all.’

‘Well.’ she was muttering again, ‘Age and frailty came to Barney, years ago.’ She wasn’t being sympathetic.

By now Freda was on the bottom step, she took it gingerly. Barney was already up and dressed.

‘You’re about in good time.’ She said. ‘Never heard you get up. See you’ve got the paper, anything in it? Not got the kettle on? I’ll do it; nice cup of tea to get us started, yes?’

It was the same every day.

‘What’ll you have for your breakfast? Porridge? Toast? I’ve got bacon and egg if you fancy?’

Barney didn’t even look up, not even a glance to acknowledge she had spoken. He just sat there, his hands crossed over the paper, still unfolded on his knee. Freda thought she had better shut up otherwise he’ll be telling her.

‘Shut up woman.’ he’ll say, ‘Stop going on.’

It wasn’t like that in the old days. Barney never got fed up of her nattering, welcomed it, saw it as part of her charm. Freda was a splendid companion. When they were in company he would watch her in amazement. Marvel at her ability to chat to anyone, entertain, make small talk. Attractive, amusing, admired and his. He adored her, but that was then.

‘Familiarity,’ her mother would say, ‘breeds contempt.’

Is that what he felt for her, contempt? In amongst his own way of loving her, did he also feel contempt? Is it possible to feel those two emotions at the same time? Freda would never know because she would never ask him.

‘Stew for dinner, with dumplings? I’ll put caraway seeds in them, alright?’

She knew he liked stew with caraway dumplings but she always consulted him, always gave him the chance to change his mind. It was only right. He would sometimes respond by saying,

‘Whatever yer think, Freda, I’ll leave it all to yer.’

Today, nothing. No response, no reaction, nothing; Barney just sat there, hands still crossed over his unfolded newspaper, staring at the floor.

Freda sighed and thought she’d leave her cuppa until she was dressed. She sighed again, ‘Another long day ahead.’ She started back up the stairs at the same snail’s pace she took, coming down. At the bend, she stopped to catch her breath. She heard Barney’s chair scrape as he pushed it back on the tiled floor. He walked to the door, there was some coming and going and conversation in hushed voices. Barney went out and the door slammed shut behind him.

Freda was intrigued and made a supreme effort to haul herself up to the landing, and peer out of the window. She hid behind the curtains; he mustn’t see her nosing.

Barney got into a large black car, it looked like a hearse. Freda was surprised.

‘He never said a word about a funeral’

It moved slowly away from the front door, a wicker coffin in the back. Freda thought she would like a wicker coffin and had often said so. It was wreathed with pink tulips and blue iris, her favourite flowers, intertwined with red roses. The card read, from Barney, with love.

Red Sky at Night

16 Mar

He awoke to a red sky, a red sky in the morning. It had been red when he went to bed, a red sky at night. He remembered the rhyme. But sailors or shepherds, which? He kept repeating it. Sailors, shepherds, sailors, shepherds.

Without thinking of how he got dressed, or even if he was, he walked up the backstreet, turned into another backstreet and another and another. He was in a maze of grey stone walls but not lost. He turned again and was in the centre of town.

There was no one about. No buses, cars, people, the shops all closed. He did not consider this to be unusual, he did not consider it at all.

As he crossed the road to the Town Hall, the sandstone clock tower appeared like a flame exploding out of the main building. Suddenly he had the urge to run – but invisible, elastic cords were holding him back and he needed to get to the High Level Bridge.

The High Level Bridge linked the town to the island where Schneider or Ramsden, he didn’t know which, built a shipyard. Schneider or Ramsden? Sailors or shepherds? He would have to find out.

Then there it was, the bridge. He was on it, looking down into the water. Two black submarines were basking in the shadow of the cranes, the Revenge and the Dreadnought. They looked alike, he wondered which was which? His head was spinning. Opposite, a huge cargo ship with a strange sounding name, registered in a strange sounding country. The quayside was a very busy, active place, in complete contrast to the town – but he didn’t give it a thought. Stevedores, shouting to each other, were unloading fruit and vegetables, particularly bananas, hundreds of bananas. From here the carters looked like matchstick men, with yellow loads, running to and from the ship. And then he saw him, his dad. Dad wasn’t running, he was waiting, waiting for him.

The elastic cords had snapped and he jumped down the steps from the bridge to the dockside and walked towards his father, who seemed to have moved and was now standing nearer the boat. The vessel loomed larger and larger the closer he got to it. It was an immense black mass against the crimson sky and the men working on the deck, just dots. Dad was wearing his tan-coloured bib and brace, his face was ruddy and smiling and his ginger hair was poking from underneath his cap. One hand was in his pocket. He stood out a mile but no one noticed.

‘Hiya Dad, are you waiting for me?’

‘Not not this time, I’m waiting for that fella up there.’

He pointed to a dot dangling over the edge of the boat, balancing, one leg on the rail and one arm hanging on to a net of bananas, slung from a crane.

The sky turned to grey, it had become chilly and silent.

‘Okay, see you.’

Vaguely disappointed but comforted by the fact that maybe another time, he went home. It was still early, he would go back to bed.

He awoke when the cat decided it was time to get up. It was a lovely morning. Blue sky and sunshine. He loved this time of the year. The garden was at its best. He would sit outside with his coffee and decide what to do with the day. The telephone rang. It was his mother.

‘Remember old Tommy Shuttleworth, used to work down the docks when the boats came in? Lived at the bottom of Ramsden Street, or was it Schneider. In one of those old back to backs. Knew your father. You can’t have forgotten, they were always arguing. Red sky at night. If your dad said shepherd, Tommy would say sailor. Came to dad’s funeral. Well, he died in his sleep last night.’