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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.’

Oh Can You Wash Your Father’s Shirt?

10 Jun

Eventually he agreed to sell the bloody piano. I never wanted it from the day it arrived. Before that even. It was bequeathed to my husband by his grandmother because he was her first grandson. She said it was to be a secret. Perhaps she thought if the others knew, they would all want one. Grandma wanted him to have it, before her departure, so the secret would not leak out. My theory? She wanted rid of it.

Summoned one evening, grandma said she had something especially for him because of his unique place in her heart. At the time, we were desperately hard up and the bills were landing on the mat with amazing frequency. As soon as one cleared another arrived. And so, hopes rising, I hastened him off to grandma then sat and waited.

It seemed like hours before he returned, the bills fanned out on the kitchen table. He wasn’t smiling when he arrived back. I fancied he was disguising a big grin but I was wrong.

‘How much?’

Considering some old people value a pound much higher than we, I was prepared for it not being a fortune, I asked again. The electricity bill, maybe or the poll tax? The poll tax, now there lies a tale for another time.

‘How much?’

‘How much? Bugger all. She’s left me the bloody piano.’

‘No.’

granvilleAn old upright she bought at an auction years ago. Actually she bought two and gave one away. It was riddled with woodworm, totally out of tune, marked where hot cups had been placed on the lid and cost us a damn fortune to get it from her house to ours. By the time it had been treated for infestation, polished and retuned, it cost the best part of the aforesaid electricity bill, gas bill and water rates all thrown in.

With it came a piano stool. I use the term loosely. It was more like a few bits of hardboard, nailed to four roughly hewn legs with a lid on top. Grandma had covered it with some padding and material to match the curtains. She was clever that way. Needless to say it did not match our curtains.

Then, there we were, twenty years later and one hundred miles from our original home. The piano came, of course, another utility bill left for the red one to arrive.

Raymond, my husband, bought a Piano Tutor and attempted to learn. He supports self study based on the theory that if you can read you can learn.

‘Not the piano my dear’ I told him as he approached the keyboard, fingers outstretched as if he was about to type an angry dispatch to the local paper. He challenged the piano to obey but it beat him. The lid down, it became the biggest, most cumbersome, telephone table in the area.

We decided to move again and I decided, brave move on my part, that this time the piano was not moving with us. Grandma had passed on, or over, as she preferred to say, and wouldn’t know.

With a heavy heart, Raymond put it on Ebay. Some naive young woman bought it. Five pounds fifty pence and the stool thrown in for free. In all fairness the stool was full of old sheet music which the innocent young thing may have suspected was worth something and sold on making herself a fortune. Ho hum.

Once it left the house Raymond felt bad, felt as though he had dishonoured grandma’s gift. I said nothing, thought a lot.

‘She used to play to us on Sundays, after church.’ He wailed. ‘That’s why I know all those uplifting hymns.’

Uplifting wasn’t how I would describe them. Rock of Ages, The Old Rugged Cross, Abide with me. Uplifting?

‘She would knock them out and we would all sing.’

Again I said nothing but thought a lot. I thought about the family. Grandma, in her Sunday frock, and hand knitted cardi, she was clever like that, on the piano. Grandad small build and very bossy. He was a mason, so it was, therefore, his right. Their daughter, my mother in law, an ex QA and my father in law, ex sergeant, Royal Engineers. I imagined them both standing to attention. Then of course there would be Raymond, sticky up ginger hair and pebble glasses and his younger brother Cyril, chubby and out of control. How did they keep him still? Grandad probably uttered an incantation that rendered Cyril insensible for a couple of hours? That or the threat of the strap. The notion of the tableau made me smile. Well laugh, actually. Well actually laugh a lot. Shhhh.

Anyway, the piano went, went away, went far, far away. I was so excited about how I would use the space. The parlour was now big enough for a party. Should I throw one to celebrate? Better not. The cats were already confused. The grandchildren disappointed, the husband in despair. Was I the only one jubilant, triumphant even?

It took a couple of days for us to all settle down and get back to normal. The cats stopped pacing around and found new hiding places for their forage. I can’t begin to list what they had left underneath the monster that had been masquerading as a musical instrument. The grandchildren decided that screaming the place down was a reasonable substitute for, ‘I can wash a sailor’s shirt.’ And Raymond’s mood lifted somewhat after a couple of pints and the heavy word.

Would there will be a price to pay for my heartlessness?

Saturday arrived as usual and passed without event. That is until the early hours of Sunday morning. At three o’clock, on the button, a piano thumped out, ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away.’ I poked Raymond in the ribs. He opened his eyes, said something in a foreign language and turned over. It was for me to investigate then. Slippers, dressing gown and a pick axe handle was all I needed to fight off a melodic intruder. I tiptoed down the stairs. Light was teeming under the parlour door. When I reached it I heard singing. Singing, robust and loud, ‘Oh dearly, dearly, has he loved and we must love him too’ I pushed the door, it was black and silent behind it. I closed it, ‘And trust in his redeeming blood’, opened, blackness, silence, closed, ‘And try his works to do’.

Every Sunday is the same. No longer with the pick axe handle but, compelled and without fear, I just steal down the stairs, lean against the parlour door and in vigorous voice, join in. Making my way through Hymns, Ancient and Modern It is Be thou my vision, O Lord of my Heart this week.

Raymond? He hears nothing.