John’s first story, written when he was 17 year’s old
The old men slowly shut his textbook and rose from the table. Carefully he gathered the dictionaries and exercise books, sorted them so that the largest was at the bottom of the pyramid, and placed them in the corner of his oak desk. The boy stood up and stretched. The end of another lesson. Another timeless interval of confusion, lightened by the enthusiasm of his teacher, and warmed by the knowledge of occasional achievement.
“If you would like to draw the curtains, I’ll see if I can’t rustle up some tea.” The old man disappeared into the kitchen, and the familiar sounds of preparation started to fill the house. The boy went to look out of the window.
Great clouds of darkness hung in the skies, disappearing in random series of silver and grey towards the imperceptible line that separates the sky from the sea. The water held a heavy broodiness broken only by that glint of foam that indicates the first pain of a wave’s death-throe on the cliffs below. Away to the west, the last of the day’s sun was stretching long lines of light across the bottom of the clouds. Soon it would be dark.
Slowly the boy drew the curtains and shook them so that they overlapped. He turned to the fire added another log, and lazily poked the embers into life. Then he lowered himself into one of the wing-backed armchairs and allowed himself to become mesmerized by the flames in the hearth. His ears caught the sound of the boiling kettle, and the creak of his teacher’s shoes in the kitchen.
There was a curious bond of love between the two, built on the fear and respect of the boy, and the kindness of the old man. The boy hated the rigid discipline and infinite knowledge which his teacher would bring to bear on every question; and yet revelled in the vast horizons which were opened up by the same erudition. While the old man envied the earnestness and frenzy of his young pupil. Each gave to the other of their utmost, and in giving, learned more of themselves.
The muted clatter of the trolley heralded the arrival of tea. Vast cups of china tea, with no milk and a piece of lemon, floating. Plates of hot-buttered toast which would be placed in front of the fire, and hastily consumed before they became dry. Pots of honey and Gentleman’s Relish. Silver tea spoons and large saucers, and the second cup which always tasted better.
The sound of the waves and the rising wind of dusk served to emphasize the warmth and peace in that circle of light around the fire. The old man sat back and performed the careful ritual that culminated in the first languorous spiral of smoke escaping from his pipe and expanding towards the darkened ceiling. He crossed his legs, brushed some ash from his lapel, and cleared his throat.
“If I teach you nothing else, I would like to think that there is one thing you will have learned from me.” The boy made himself comfortable. It was unusual for his teacher to talk, preferring merely to encourage his pupil’s mind with the odd interjection. But when he assumed the attitude of raconteur, the boy had learnt to listen, as the old man conjured up dreams that made up for more than all the hard lessons he had to suffer.
“When I was young, there was a girl. She was tall and winnowy, with dark black hair and eyes that started black and disappeared into an impenetrable depth. When we talked, I had the impression that there was always another listening, for she would never look me in the eyes, and her answers contained more than I could understand. The French call it an ‘arrière-pensée’. At no time did she give me the slightest sign of affection, or acknowledge that I was anything than another person of her acquaintance. Yet she held over me a spell that made it difficult to think of anything else. I would spend hours recollecting the careless gesture with which she would toss her hair from her eyes, or the innocent intensity which came over her as she recited her prayers in a pew, before going up to play the organ for Evensong.
I was a curate then in a small parish in the West Country. With the zeal and enthusiasm of youth I had dived headlong into the vocation, and devoted my every waking hour to the service of my vicar’s parish. The people would talk of my conscientiousness, and I was proud to be an instrument of God's work.
Then one day she arrived. I never found out where she came from. She simply walked into the vicarage, and asked the vicar if she could play the organ for him. He had called me, and the three of us had gone over to the church to hear how she played. Up till then I had played the organ, but was the first to admit that my loud chords and carefully rehearsed hymns lacked that gift which the Lord should expect in his house.
She sat down and started to play. It was one of Scarlatti' s early tunes. She had barely had time to develop the first theme when I turned to the vicar and nodded. He smiled back, and I knew he was pleased that I had accepted. She started the next Sunday.
Every Sunday was the same. Arriving exactly half an hour before the service, she would bend herself in prayer, and then as the five minute bell started to toll over the countryside, rise and go to the organ. After Matins she would take dinner with us at the vicarage, after which she would sit by the fire reading one of the leather-bound books from the vicar’s library. She would choose one of the Latin poets or occasionally one of the Greek philosophers. She would sit so still when reading that only the turning of a page would suddenly remind me she was still there.
At tea she would act as the hostess, carefully adding the milk and sugar, and handing around the crumpets. The vicarage was not given to light conversation, especially on a Sunday, and only once did she ever become involved in a discussion. The vicar had commented on an article in the popular press. It seems that there had been some curious happenings in a church in the north of England, which had culminated in the vicar hanging himself from his own bell rope. Suddenly she had focused an intensity of concentration on the conversation that left us without words. For more than an hour she had discoursed on the power of the devil, and the inability of the church to defend itself from his incursions. It was certain that she had more to say, and with the aid of hindsight, I am sure that we should have allowed her to say her peace. However, the vicar had wanted to clear the autumn leaves from the churchyard before Evensong. She had gone to sit in the church, while we stripped to our shirtsleeves and laboured to complete the task before the congregation arrived.
The service that evening produced an intensity and profundity that bound every last man of the dutiful parishioners. Never had the vicar spoken with more fervour. Never had the people sung with such fear. I could feel the awe of the voice of God within me as I read the lesson. It was the twenty first chapter of the book of Revelations. The one that starts: ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.’ I remember the echo of my voice in the silence of the church; ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end’ and the joy that came over me as I read the final verse; ‘And there shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie; but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.’
As I closed the book and stepped from the lectern, the choir rose. The introduction to Stanford’s ‘Te Deum’ rolled out from the organ, and then the whole church, as one, launched into the glorious psalm; ‘We praise thee O God, We acknowledge thee to be the Lord.’ Exhilaration filled the church as every man emptied his soul into his voice, and sang praise to his Lord and Maker. The magnificent sound hung in the rafters as the choir filed out of their pews and walked before me to the vestry at the west end. As we passed through the body of the church I could see an exhausted happiness on every face. A glow that shone from every eye. The vicar closed the door behind us and we knelt in prayer. I could see him sweating in the knowledge of the power that had been unleashed in his church.
He joined us on knees and crossed himself, opened his book, found his place, lifted his head and made as if to speak. But he never spoke.
From the church came the sound of the organ. A voluntary was being played. There was in that very first chord, a threat so terrible that the vicar was unable to speak. The deep bass pipes were growling through the foundations. A multitude of strange harmonies filled the air. The music carried a depth of feeling beyond my knowledge, rising and falling in great crescendos that fought with my soul. It was not a tune of joy, nor of praise. The terror and the awe showed a knowledge of unlimited pain, of unknown depths of despair, of a fear and dread which will echo through the heart of every man who heard those strains till the day he dies.
Onwards the enormous sounds stretched, telling of anguish and fear, of a soul lost beyond time itself. It was not the music of God, nor of mortal men. An evil intent began to permeate the themes, perpetuated in heavy discordant chords, and caught in another and more aweful theme. It was as if the organ itself was alive, writhing and heaving in some primordial death-throe. The music lost all semblance of tune. Wave upon wave of terrifying sound reverberated over me, driving me down and in, till I felt like a mouse hypnotised by the club hovering over its head. On and on came the aweful music, till it seemed that the whole world was filled with its terror.
My hands began to hurt. I noticed that I was still holding the great cross, clutching it to me till my knuckles were white. Slowly my eyes travelled up its long stem to the carving of Christ hanging from its crosstree. His head hung in death. And yet I saw the benign goodness that the carver had written on his face. The power of his love came to me, fighting the sound of the organ.
My eyes took in the scene before me; the vicar had collapsed. His eyes were open and vacant. Around him knelt the choir, hypnotised into statues. Slowly, using the cross, I pulled myself to my feet. I felt the power of God surging through me. I turned and opened the vestry door. I braced myself as the sound overwhelmed me, fighting to maintain my feet against the cacophony of sound. The ugly torrent eddied around me, seeking to push me back. I took a breath of air and forced a step towards the altar. I held the cross in front of me. A protection against the sound. Every pace was a pain. Every breath felt like a mouthful of fire. My head was filled with noise upon noise. Evil filled the church.
The pillars seemed to have lost their dimensions. The gravestones in the walls were alive. They breathed, larger and smaller. The pews jumped up to hit me in the face, then retreated into an infinitesimal distance. The congregation seemed stunned. Their unblinking eyes stared with the fear of small children. I battled up the aisle. Every step was its own future. My life was concentrated into placing one foot in front of the other. The altar seemed to get farther and farther away. I felt, an exhaustion overtaking me. Suddenly the chancel steps were before me. Like an old man I climbed each tread. Placing my feet as if to avoid glass I surmounted the steps and turned the corner of the screen. My hands gripped the cross as if it were a lifebelt. Sweat poured down my face. The salt made my eyes blink.
At the organ she sat. Huddled in a black gown. Her arms worked the keys like a dervish. Her feet were racing across the peddles as if she were on a tread mill. Only her head, black hair falling below the choir cap, was immobile. In the mirror over the music rest, I saw her lift her eyes. They saw the cross I carried.
It stopped. The music stopped. The echoes hung in the roof, then died. Suddenly everything slowed down. A silence, a solid silence filled the church. I could make out the noise of the trees in the churchyard. Somewhere a sparrow was chirping. I stood rooted to the spot. I was unable to move.
Her body gave an involuntary shudder of relief. Slowly she lifted her feet from the peddles, closed the keyboard and turned, swinging on the organ bench till she faced me. Her eyes were helpless. She lifted a hand to me. I raised mine to her. A gratefulness covered her face. I was in a dream. She came up to me and her eyes thanked me with a simplicity that wrenched my heart. Together we turned, and passed around the screen. Together our feet took each step down the chancel.
She stopped. The congregation were watching. Every face was turned towards her, and on every face was the look of revenge. A hatred, a spitefulness, an anger filled their bodies. They were rising. They filled the aisles. From every pew they poured forth, and came forward to whirl like an eddy before us. In every eye was the same violent motion that said ‘kill her’. An inarticulate murmur came from them. It developed to a growl then to a roar. The roar of an animal. An animal defending its young. Men’s shoulders were working them to the front. Women were pulling themselves forward with their fingers.
I looked back at her. She stood alone. Straight. Her face held terror. A knowledge of what must come. But she didn't move. Her hands hung at her sides. Her hair ran down her shoulders. She faced her fate.
I saw my hand lift and place itself on her shoulder. I took a pace. The congregation froze. It didn't move. I put out my other hand, lifting the cross out in front of me. The voices stopped. Slowly, reluctantly, they pulled back. She came with me. We reached the stone aisle. I could hear my shoes. The leather heels punctuating the lighter tread of her step. We floated down the aisle. The footsteps echoed as if the church were empty. We turned by the table with the hymn books. I opened the door.
Evening floated through. Sunlight faded the world into peaceful tints. Birds called each other. The shadow of leaves on a branch. The white of the evening clouds. The dull red of the barn over the way. I stopped. Her hand reached out and touched mine. It said ‘thank you’. Nothing else. There was nothing else to say. Then she walked on. Out of the porch. Along the freshly swept path. Through the wooden gate and away.
I stood there. Long after she had disappeared from view I remained, holding the cross in my hand. After a while the congregation came out. Slowly, in twos and threes, silently, passing me on either side. No one looked at me. The church emptied. I could hear the verger clearing the pews. I could not move. The vicar appeared. Stopped. Cleared his throat. He knew he could not help me. Quietly, regretfully, he turned away, and walked back to the vicarage. Last, came the verger, but I stood there still, long after the sun’s rays had been lost from the highest clouds. Until the stars came, brightly heralding the moon.”
The old man paused. Slowly he knocked out his pipe, filled it, lit it, sat back and added; “I have never entered a church since that day.”
The fire had nearly died, but the boy didn’t move. He neither knew the time nor cared. The evening became night. The wind’s boldness seeped into the room. The old man began to breath heavily, as if sleeping. The last glow faded from the ashes. The boy could hear the waves, breaking in monotonous rhythm, vying with the regularity of the old man's breathing. The sound gave a lulling effect that cradled him toward sleep.
He found himself awake. It was still dark. The curtained room was impenetrably black. He had heard something. He strained to listen. All he could make out was the same dull rhythm of the waves, and the occasional rushing which indicated the passage of a gust of wind. Slowly he realized that he hadn’t heard anything new. He had not heard a noise which should have been there; the breathing of the old man. Across the cold hearth he could just make out the shape of his mentor's knees, but no sound came from the old man. All that night the boy sat, awake, without moving.
In the dawn he rose. Quietly he let himself out. The dawn carried the tidings of the new day to him as he strode along the cliff path. The grass was wet underfoot. The sea seemed calmer today.