I arrived to the heaviest rain I could remember. The route I’d been given took me across fields of drenched, knee-high grass, and my boots were buried somewhere in my rucksack. After a while I began to wonder if the weight of my toolbox might pull my arm out of its socket. But I had been warned.
‘If you want to do this for a living you’ll have to go wherever you can find work.’
Mr Barnett – it took several terms before I felt able to call him Ivor – had been my course tutor. It took less than several terms to realise that beneath the gruff realist lay the rarest kind of mentor: the type that can set your life on its course. He was the reason I was walking, saturated in the early June evening, towards my first paid assignment.
Two gargoyles, eight misericords, a worn brass just in front of the altar, and a window that needed re-leading: I’d quoted, enclosed a reference from the college, and got the job.
‘Do all the modules,’ Ivor had told me. ‘If you can work in stone, wood, glass and metal you’ve got more chance.’
It didn’t mean I ended up with a higher qualification, and it did mean extra ways to end up with cuts, blisters and calluses, but it was still good advice.
I came in sight of the chapel. I’d been warned about the black angel, but the sight of it hanging over the entrance still spooked me. And whoever heard of an angel on a Methodist chapel? I remembered the phone conversation with Fred Elgar.
‘Perhaps you can clean it up? If you find you have time, of course. There’s a local legend that it turned black to deter fools, but to be honest we fear it’s off-putting to just about everyone.’
I could see why. Its wings were dark stubs and its body a menacing hooked shape. It looked like a malevolent raven. I could imagine it glaring down at centuries of reluctant worshipers, reminding each one that their visit would be all about sin.
Fred Elgar had described himself as ‘the custodian’. When I stepped dripping through the entrance door – it was so low I had to stoop – he came forward to greet me. He was a small, goat-like man whose eyebrows quested up at the corners, as if they’d been shaped by decades of enthusiasm.
‘Let me show you the bell tower,’ he said.
A hot bath would have been better, but I followed him up the narrowest of spiral staircases, the stone treads increasingly worn and varied in pitch. He had to be in his sixties, but there was an energy in his springy steps that completely belied his age.
‘I’d like you to see this because it’s typical of what you’ll encounter. The whole building is rich with idiosyncrasy.’
‘The lettering on the bell is back to front.’
He beamed at me.
‘Precisely. Bell foundries existed mainly in cities in the late sixteenth century, so where logistics demanded their craftsmen travelled to cast in situ. In this case they forgot that a female mould can cause lateral inversion if you don’t allow for it.’
No sentence could be more guaranteed to bring on imposter syndrome, but he was an infectious man, and I could see that all he wanted was to share his joy in the place. The bell was a brass alloy, with a deep tarnish and attractively flared lip. It was also completely disproportionate. I had no idea how anyone could have got it up that tower.
Fred Elgar saw my thought and beamed at me again.
‘The top of the tower would have been built around the bell. Think of castles – it’s extraordinary what could be done with hoists.’
I remembered Ivor again: ‘You only really start to learn once you get out there.’ How right he was.
‘I’m afraid there’s no shower, but at least you’ll have the wash hand basin. And the oven is old, but it works.’
We’d made our way downstairs. The chapel, while retaining the same basic shape, diminished in three stages from front to back, the last of which was to be my living quarters.
‘That will be fine, thanks.’ I said. I was to stay there rent-free. I hadn’t expected luxury.
‘I’ll leave you to settle, then. How you go about the work is entirely up to you, but as we agreed, please do all you can to keep the original character.’
The original character. To restore and in some cases replicate the work of craftsmen from that strange culture known as the past, who’d had their skills beaten into them through seven-year apprenticeships and whose mindsets I could hardly even imagine – I was left alone in the chapel to understand exactly what I’d set myself up for.
And that, I suppose, was the moment it really started. I was a city boy, and for the first time in my life I found myself the only person within a two-mile radius. The chapel had endured while the community it served receded, in the way that some events stick in your mind, even when the circumstances that created them are long gone. I dried myself, unpacked my sleeping bag and a roll of foam, and lay down to stare into the silence and darkness.
Was the whole situation inevitable? My father had never believed in God, but he loved old churches. Somehow I must have absorbed this disparity. If I didn’t actually inherit his atheism, I certainly found an independent route to the same conclusion. And yet the churches we once visited together had cast their spell. Silence distilled over centuries, a sense of hope that somehow clung to the stonework, craftsmanship hinting that, despite all evidence, this world might somehow be transcended: over time these things made a place inside me.
‘Gargoyles and cherubs, often too high for human appreciation but accessible to God. And misericords, basically a carved arse support.’ These had been Ivor’s words when he saw the advert, not placed online but tucked away in the jobs section of our trade paper. But I could see the glint in his eyes. ‘You’d be a fool not to apply,’ he said.
Once I realised exactly what it would entail, I even wondered if he’d foreseen that a chance like this might come along. I remembered the time he’d cut a chunk out of a relief carving I’d spent three fretful weeks trying to perfect.
‘Too shallow,’ he’d said. ‘Take it down to that depth.’
For several days I’d hated him, but now, confronted with a range of pagan-looking iconography, much of it worn away or subject to ancient vandalism, that was exactly the experience I needed.
‘Organise yourself. Work out what each project needs then list the sequences.’
In the midsummer morning the chapel was full of tinted light. Ivor had taught me that, at least at the start, craftsmanship was about managing anxiety – not in those words, of course. I’d got the hang of the oven, made tea and porridge, and sat on a pew tapping out a work schedule on my second-hand laptop.
The stained glass window: where the lead had expanded, water had seeped through and discoloured the wall beneath. As he’d promised, Fred Elgar had arranged a scaffolding platform at the perfect height. That had to be my first task.
‘Don’t be afraid to spend time looking before you start.’
The window was set in a frame of grey stone, bevelled at the edges and crested with a simple arch. I stood at the top of the scaffold looking at the ninth station of the cross: a stumbling Christ, further diminished by fading colours and the whole tableau distorted where the lead had bowed inwards. Now, however, was not the time to reflect on imagery. Although some glass was loose, no panels had been lost.
Every material has its own spirit. Lead is malleable, compliant. The people making this window would have known that. They might not have known that it is also toxic, insistent, a predator once ingested.
‘Keep your hands and your mouth separate and you’ll be alright.’
I began to peel back the lead containing the central panel, careful in case it should split and the more fragile glass dislodge. I went slowly and after an hour the entire panel was loose enough to slide out.
‘For some jobs you only get one chance. Be tentative.’
After that I’d taken a moment to breathe, and then begun to chip away the mortar that secured the outer frame. I blessed the mason who’d set the window all those years ago. It was a soft mix: in some places I could almost rake it out. After a further hour of chipping and scraping I found myself, with a blend of triumph and relief, lifting the outer section away. Now I could start the work of repairing it.
Or so I thought. I had just got the glass down from the scaffold, and was beginning to press it gently onto some hessian I’d laid on the floor, when the front door opened and, silhouetted in abrupt light, I saw the outline of a fair-haired woman, very elegant and assured in her movements, coming towards me. The chapel was a place where everything echoed, and the percussion of her steps resonated around the stone walls and up to the shallow ceiling.
‘I’m Andrea,’ she said.
She put out her hand, and, getting off my knees, I wiped my charcoal-grey palm on my overalls before taking it. She held my hand a moment before releasing, and all I could think of was the membrane of lead, enclosed and poisonous between her skin and mine.
‘Fred might have mentioned me. I’m the bursar for this project. You could think of me as your benefactor.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘We did the interview on Skype, and he didn’t go into that level of detail.’
‘The committee liked your quote,’ she continued. ‘It was the lowest. That got you the job.’
I didn’t know what to say to that, so said nothing. She looked around.
‘I suppose Fred’s filled you in about the history of this place. It wasn’t always Methodist. At some point in the eighteen hundreds it became derelict, and the Low Church people moved in, so to speak. We think that’s why the fancy stuff fell into disrepair. It came with the building but they were probably a bit ashamed of it. Frankly I’m not that enamoured either, but Fred would live here if he could.’
She gave me a sideways glance which was almost conspiratorial, and just for a moment I felt reduced to a little boy. But I gathered myself.
‘I can see why he feels like that,’ I said. ‘It’s so unusual and full of atmosphere.’
‘How do you sleep at night?’
‘What do you mean?’ The question came out of nowhere.
‘Are you comfortable in a draughty old church where odd things must have happened?’
‘I haven’t had time to think about it,’ I said. ‘I only got here yesterday.’
‘Well, we must keep you happy while you’re working – here’s my number.’ She passed me a business card. ‘Think of me as your first port of call.’ She turned towards the door, then seemed to have another thought. ‘Let me show you something.’
I followed her into the sharp summer daylight. Graves dotted the steaming grass on either side of the pathway, and she led me over to what I could only think of as a stone pyramid. It was too squat to be an obelisk and completely out of proportion to the rest of the graveyard, with no identifying features and covered in moss and lichen.
‘It predates the church,’ she said. ‘There’s a record that says it holds plague victims carted down from London, but no-one knows if that’s true. Fred thinks it’s more likely to be an overflow from the prostitutes’ grave, and the locals built this over it to stop their souls escaping.’
We stood staring at it. As far as I could see it was only remarkable for its size and incongruity.
‘Perhaps they can seep out at the sides – troubled souls floating about.’
She nodded and pursed her lips to affirm that thought then walked off, in the way some people do when they’re confident the person they’re leaving will still be watching. A minute later I heard the sound of a car starting, and then of the engine noise tapering into the summer air. I turned and walked back to the chapel.
It was always cool inside. As the work progressed I was grateful for that: a private climate – insulation from the outside world. But now I could still feel the touch of her hand, like an imprint. I looked at my palm, grey with lead, and wished it had been clean. My mind wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be. I decided to stop for lunch.
On the front right, and just under the pulpit, was a pew slightly narrower than the others. With a dozen rows on either side to choose from, this became the place where I ate, every day. Church interiors, I understood, were designed to instil repetitive behaviours. They were all about conformity. Perhaps I fell in with the many who had come, and gone, before.
Once I had been appointed I’d listed all the materials I expected to need and Fred Elgar had overseen their provision. He had also installed an archaic cabinetmaker’s bench in the standing area at the rear of the chapel, and I spent the afternoon bent over it, resetting the glass panels and soldering the weakened lead joints. I became engrossed and it was only when the last joint was repaired that I felt the stiffness in my neck and shoulders. But the damage had not been as bad as it looked, and my first challenge had gone well. In the morning I would clean the panes and then fix the window back with fresh mortar.
‘That’s very strange – he’s well-known in this area for commissioning follies, although they weren’t all as hideous as this. It was just a foible and had nothing to do with the plague or prostitutes. I’d have thought Andrea would be aware of that.’
It was later in the week, and Fred Elgar had dropped in, bringing a gift of fresh bread and milk, and some tins. He’d beamed at the window and smiled down approvingly on the start I’d made on the brass in front of the altar. It was a cleaning job, but most definitely not a polishing job. The patina had been burnished by thousands of worshipful feet and had to be preserved.
‘I knew we’d hired the right man,’ he said.
Now we were outside, and he was introducing me to the occupants of some of the older graves. In between I’d brought up the subject of the pyramid.
‘She seemed very definite,’ I said.
‘Andrea is a very definite person,’ Fred was still smiling but the expression in his eyes changed for a moment. ‘To be fair to her a village council is no place for uncertainty, or the faint-hearted for that matter. The pyramid came courtesy of an eccentric and very wealthy gentleman named Joseph Rawlings – he was known as ‘Mad Joe’ around here – and we know it was built after the chapel, because records say it was deemed imprudent to refuse the stipend that came with it.’
His brow had creased but then it cleared again.
‘Anyway, I shouldn’t take more of your time. I must say you’ve proved yourself very workmanlike. Is there anything else we can provide for you?’
‘You’ve already been great, thanks.’ We smiled at one another and I watched him walk off, very square-shouldered. If I were to need anything I had no doubt who would be my first port of call.
I returned to the brass. I could tell that the back of the plate had been in contact with lime because discolouration had crept round to the front edges. That would need special attention. It was a job I could do in stages while I got on with other things.
‘Before you start carving check the edge of every chisel you intend to use.’ It was one of Ivor’s mantras.
Chapels and workshops are both places of ritual. I’d sharpened all my carving chisels before setting out, but now felt the need to spend an hour honing them again. Perhaps I was glad of a reason to prevaricate, because I’d got to the first really frightening bit: I had to re-carve the damaged misericords. Although there were only eight, I expected this part of the work to take several weeks.
‘We’re sure there were far more originally,’ Fred explained during my interview. ‘But most of them were probably considered too lewd for the Protestant sensibility once the chapel changed hands.’
Misericord – ‘mercy seat’. The online photos I’d studied in preparation were certainly odd and often grotesque, but I wouldn’t call them lewd. But who knows what passed for lewd in the mind of a nineteenth century pastor? Things that apparently did not comprise a strange, stunted bird with a conical beak, a foliate head expressing what looked like pious disgust, a sow playing two pipes simultaneously, and a handful of what might once have been local dignitaries, had it not been for the attached mermaid tails. The rest, in comparison, seemed relatively banal.
‘We’re confident that any woodworm is now inactive. There are one or two obvious instances of historic vandalism – nothing recent – otherwise the wear you’ll find is most likely to be caused by abrasion. We know that a long way back monks worked the local fields between devotions, and their habits were cut from coarse cloth.’
I remembered Fred saying this, and started to itch.
It made sense to begin with one of the more straightforward carvings, a motherly peasant face peering out of a wimple. For an initiation into re-carving ancient wood, it seemed a relatively safe option. To remove the seat that contained it I’d had to ease out handmade nails which still bore the indents of some long-dead blacksmith’s hammer. Once I’d done that I was able to clamp it to my bench, then take photographs and a moulding to remind me exactly what I had to replicate. The face had lost its nose – I would have to imagine that. Otherwise there was no further reason not to start.
‘Take the background down first – only as far as you need to – and then work on the actual carvings. That way you retain their precise outline. For a chapel carving of that age the background is likely to be plain.’
Ivor, as usual, was right. The oak beneath the patinated surface was a rich honey colour, much lighter, as it would have been when the original carver began work. Once this part was actually underway, I quickly began to find it soothing: some things are easier to do than imagine. Perhaps an hour had passed when I heard the entrance door creak open and a recognisable echo of hard heels on the stone floor. I didn’t look up immediately but could smell Andrea’s perfume as she approached me. Then I heard her voice.
‘How’s the artisan?’ She came and stood by me, her shoes crushing the chippings that had fallen by the bench. She peered at the carving and our shoulders touched. I took a half-step away.
‘I’ve started on the misericords.’ I felt reduced to stating the obvious.
She pressed the freshly cut wood with her forefinger. I wanted to tell her not to touch it, but said nothing.
‘Surely you won’t be leaving it this colour?’
I took a breath.
‘Only the surface of wood darkens significantly with age. It isn’t possible to replicate patination exactly, but there are ways to make the carved wood tone in.’
‘Glad to hear it.’
She smiled as if she’d achieved something. I looked down at the misericord and there was a long silence. Suddenly the whole project seemed fragile again. Eventually she tapped a perfect fingernail on the bench.
‘You don’t have to be so dour and sanctimonious. It’s not as though you’re some modern-day anchorite.’ She reached into the bag that hung from her shoulder and put a quarter bottle of brandy on the bench.
‘Be sure to leave some for me.’
Once again I had no idea how to reply. For a moment she scrutinised my face and then, as if she’d seen what she wanted to, turned to leave. I noticed she was dressed as though she’d just done some sort of workout, and, but for that final comment, would have supposed she’d just been passing by. She’d stayed barely three minutes.
Her visits had a way of burgling my concentration, and it seemed best to pause before addressing the carved sections. I went to my tiny quarters at the rear of the chapel, put the brandy in a cupboard where I wouldn’t have to think about it, and made some coffee and sandwiches. It occurred to me that I might have found myself in the middle of a parish argument.
I sat at my favourite pew and sipped the coffee. Somehow in these moments I felt most part of my surroundings, almost a one-person congregation. It was when my mind seemed to free itself. I began to visualise the noseless face I was about to re-carve and remembered the brass rubbings I’d taken as a kid – strange, stark things in black wax, somehow more ghostly than the brasses themselves. And suddenly I knew my solution. The missing feature would be long, thin and straight, with improbably flared nostrils. The archetypal medieval nose.
‘Take the least prominent parts down to their new level, then reduce the more obvious protrusions. If you can, work from the outside inwards.’
There were times when I almost felt Ivor was standing beside me. I proceeded very slowly, and over the next couple of days the peasant face re-emerged, shrouded in cloth, viewing the world with a simplicity that not even the staunchest non-conformist could object to.
‘Brainless.’ It was a Monday morning and I’d returned the misericord to its pew. Andrea was squatting on her haunches, inspecting. ‘Gullible, credulous, shit-for-brains.’
‘The naivety of medieval peasantry is part of their charm.’ She and Fred Elgar had arrived together, and he stood beside me looking down at the carving, frowning. ‘Contemporary records suggest an appealing directness of belief, and I think Simon has caught it very well.’
‘And now the wood’s been carved the colour’s completely wrong.’ She scratched at the bare oak with one of her long, manicured fingernails.
‘I told you it has to be matched in,’ I said. ‘I haven’t done it yet. It makes sense to stain all the carvings together to ensure they’re uniform.’
‘And the nose looks out of proportion.’
For the first time in my experience Fred Elgar spoke sharply.
‘It would have been recognised that the original craftsmen had artistic sensibility, and hence latitude to carve from imagination. The sheer variety of imagery they produced is evidence of that. Simon is respecting the original work where he can, but where that isn’t possible we must allow him the freedom his forebears would have enjoyed.’
He glared at Andrea, but she only seemed amused. It was quickly becoming obvious they detested each another.
‘Just carry on as you are, Simon.’ Fred patted me on the shoulder. ‘Come along, Andrea.’ He turned to leave and she stood up, looked at me with a single raised eyebrow, and followed him out of the chapel.
I was beginning to find the nights difficult. It wasn’t so much the discomfort of sleeping on the stone floor – physical tiredness overcame that. Neither was it the atmosphere of the chapel itself – I was hardly a stranger to old churches. It was more the sense of finding myself at the centre of a conflict that felt very personal, but was not of my making. I soon realised the exchange between Fred Elgar and Andrea had left an imprint.
A couple of nights later I lay in my sleeping bag, staring into the darkness, still thinking about it. Once the evening birdsong tapered away, the chapel became very silent. Because of this the sound of the front door easing open was unmistakeable, as was the tap of footsteps approaching the place where I lay. I’d just had time to lift myself up to a sitting position when the door near my feet opened and sudden torchlight burned into my eyes.
‘I thought you might be lonely.’ It was Andrea’s voice.
‘I can’t see you,’ I said.
The torchlight swivelled to a disc on the floor.
‘Is that better?’
I could smell her perfume before my eyes focussed towards her outline.
‘What do you want?’ I said.
I felt her weight settle down against my leg, and suddenly her mouth covered mine. Then she drew back, and after a brief rustle of movement, I felt the shock of her naked breasts pressing against me. I could feel my heart thumping throughout my entire body.
‘Poor little nervous boy,’ she said. ‘Perhaps some of that brandy would help.’
‘Leave me alone.’ I could hear that I sounded like a child. ‘I’ve just come here to do a job.’
‘So serious. A bit too serious really. Sensible people take what’s on offer.’
‘But I’ve got a girlfriend.’ Even as I said it I knew it sounded ridiculous.
‘That must be nice for you.’
She laughed and I felt her hand brushing down my chest and then rubbing my stomach in a slow, circular motion. Despite myself I could feel I was responding.
‘There now. Why bother to pretend?’
I always left my sleeping bag unzipped, and she pulled it open and came on top of me. The room was still shadowy, with a narrow arc of light tapering out across the floor where she’d left the torch. I could hardly see her. I was hyperventilating to the point where I could no longer speak, and my heart beat as if it was trying to escape my chest. And then, suddenly, I was in ecstasy.
‘That wasn’t so bad, was it?’
At some point she had released herself, and I could see her silhouette above me as she slipped her naked form back into a coat. I was still breathing like someone who’d nearly drowned.
‘It sounds as if you need a little time to yourself, poor boy. Sweet dreams.’
The door, closing behind her, left me in total darkness and gradually I began to regain awareness of the perimeters of my body. I realised that for some indefinable period I had lost any sense of individual existence.
‘You look thinner than when you arrived, Simon. I do hope we’re not working you too hard. If you think you’ll need a break, or more time, I’m sure it can be arranged.’
It was a fortnight later and Fred Elgar was paying his weekly visit.
‘I’m fine, thanks. And everything’s on track.’
He looked at me carefully. I’d realised early on he was an observant man with a rare command of detail. More recently I’d begun to notice something else – he was unusually benign, almost radiantly so. Or perhaps it was just my state of mind, amplifying everyday kindness because I felt increasingly lost.
‘If you need any further assistance you only have to say.’ He paused for a moment before adding, ‘And if there’s anything you wish to tell me please feel you can speak in confidence.’
Once he’d left I kept thinking of those words. What did he know, or suspect? Surely not what had actually happened? I had a precious contract, something I hoped I could build a CV around. The last thing I needed was to be sacked for what a church committee was bound to see as gross misconduct.
But after that night Andrea had stayed away, although I felt her absence as acutely as her presence. It was as if she’d locked off the space around me and somehow taken possession of it. It meant I could no longer imagine Ivor standing near, or bring to mind his advice. And I knew that it meant something else too: that I had no defence against her. If she wanted me again she could have me.
I continued to re-carve the misericords as carefully as I could, but without the sense of building new experience into my life that I’d had before. The interior of the chapel was becoming oppressive, and I thought about going outside to start on the gargoyles, or even to clean the black angel. But the weather had broken, with heavy rain for the last three days. So I just steeled myself to keep going and gradually, with the rhythm and absorption the work demanded, it became easier. And, to my growing relief, several weeks passed before I had to face Andrea again.
I had just finished the final carving when she and Fred Elgar arrived together, unusually early on a Wednesday morning. They were both smiling.
‘We’re terribly pleased with your progress,’ Fred looked admiringly at the work piece clamped to my bench, ‘to the extent that we’ve decided to advertise an open morning for people in the parish to come and admire it. We’d be delighted if you could stay to attend.’
Andrea put her hand on my shoulder. I could feel the spread of her fingers.
‘I must admit I had doubts about you, but in the end you’ve won me over.’
The tone of her voice was almost sisterly. I swallowed and felt myself redden.
Fred Elgar saw my expression and came in quickly. ‘Let’s go outside,’ he said. ‘You can tell us what you intend to do with the gargoyles.’
We went and stood at the chapel entrance under the black angel, squinting up at the eaves.
‘I’ve had a close look and really it’s just a clean-up job.’
I could hear my voice was unsteady and I found myself pointing, needlessly.
‘There’s salt staining where the gutters have overflowed, so I’ll need to layer the carvings with latex. It should go deep enough into the pores of the stone to ensure that when it peels off the stain and any dirt will come away too. After that I’ll seal it with six coats of limewash. That will lighten it, but not too much. I can do it all off a ladder – I won’t need the scaffolding moved. I’ll clear out the gutters as well while I’m up there so it will all work as it’s supposed to.’
Fred gave me the warmest of smiles.
‘That would be excellent,’ he said. ‘We think the carvings would always have been slightly different in colour anyway. I had some tests done and, unlike the walls, the stone the gargoyles are carved from appears not to be indigenous.’
‘I think it’s denser.’ We were all staring up again. ‘Because it’s designed to conduct water and whatever else comes off the roof, they probably chose something to withstand the potential erosion.’
‘Absolutely.’ For a moment I thought Fred would hop up and down. It didn’t take much to ignite his enthusiasm. ‘No built-in obsolescence in those days. Anyway, we mustn’t keep you any longer.’ He patted my arm and turned to leave.
‘Go on without me,’ Andrea said. ‘I want to show Simon the menhir. It ties in with his project.’
For a moment I saw Fred hesitate, and then he seemed to make a decision.
‘Very well.’ There was just a hint of the sharpness in his voice I’d heard when they last came to the chapel.
Andrea looked at me as he walked away. Her expression had changed, almost imperceptibly.
‘Don’t look so worried – you’re quite safe today.’
If I didn’t exactly feel safe, at least dealing with her outside in the daylight had some sort of diluting effect on her presence, allowing me to consider her more closely. I could see how easy it would be to misread the artlessness she could manufacture when she chose to, also the evenness of her features – just short of a certain type of beauty. And standing next to her it was unmistakeable that she was the type of person whose abundant energy somehow infiltrates and depletes yours.
‘I’m just here to work,’ I said. It was all I could think of saying.
‘I thought you’d like to see something that relates to the chapel and what you’re doing, that’s all. It’s believed to have pagan origins. You’d be sorry if you found out later it was nearby and you hadn’t seen it, wouldn’t you?’
She looked at me disarmingly, and in the moment I couldn’t think of a way to refuse.
‘Okay, then, but not for too long. I want to get started outside while the weather’s good.’
‘We’ll be there and back in fifteen minutes.’
She turned and I followed her across the graveyard to a stile, which she stepped over easily without needing to hold the rail beside it. I did the same, for some reason feeling that to do otherwise would be to show weakness, and we walked along the narrow path skirting a field where cows were grazing.
‘It’s just to the side of that copse,’ she said. ‘You’ll see it before we get there.’
We walked on in silence for a couple of minutes before reaching another stile, beyond which lay open land, curving upwards in a mild gradient. As it flattened out a taper of grey stone appeared, quickly elongating until I could see it consisted of four intersecting pieces, the middle two separated by a perfectly rectangular opening. The menhir must have been three metres high. It was perpendicular to the ground and had been cut so its surface arced pleasantly into a rounded crest.
‘Go and stand on the other side and look through the gap,’ Andrea said.
I walked over and, bending slightly, peered through. Perhaps a quarter of a mile away, and precisely framed by the stone edges, lay the chapel. I heard myself gasp.
‘Can’t be coincidental, can it?’ She was smiling but watching me intently.
‘It’s as if someone pre-imagined the site of the chapel, god knows how many centuries before it was built.’
‘That’s one theory. Another is that it was to do with human sacrifice, a way of marking territory.’ She paused. ‘I think you’ll understand that. You seem to have made the chapel your personal territory. And you’re very willing to sacrifice your own comfort, aren’t you?’
Perhaps it was the tone of her voice, because the words themselves, when I think of them now, don’t seem so very bad. Perhaps it was the accumulation of all the pressure that came with weeks of very exacting work. Or perhaps by now I’d become acutely aware of how reduced I felt in her presence.
‘Just fuck off,’ I heard myself shouting. ‘Just fuck off.’ Instinctively I avoided looking at her, stumbling away instead, then breaking into a run as the slope lent my steps momentum.
I kept running as far as the first stile, and once I’d stepped over it allowed myself to slow to a walk. I was aware of feeling disoriented, of once again being deprived of any simple relationship with my surroundings. It was as if I’d been taken over by an entity that pumped up my heart rate, disrupted my breathing, and made me an alien in my own body. I tried to remind myself that when I’d felt like this before my work had steadied me, and now I could only hope it would again.
The chapel though, once I reached it, seemed different. I looked around, but couldn’t see any obvious signs of change. And then suddenly I realised there was a new component to the mustiness I’d grown used to, a smell with something like a chemical element to it. But with so much else to preoccupy me I felt unable to trust my senses, and putting aside whatever I was picking up went out to start cleaning the gargoyles in the fresh air.
Standing on the flagstones that acted as a forecourt, I took a moment to scan the graveyard spread around me, then lifted a couple of loose, heavy stones from the grass to foot my ladder. I mixed some catalyst into a pot of latex, and climbed the rungs. Seeing the fields beyond the chapel grounds, and no sign of Andrea, I began to feel better. And the gargoyles were little miracles of carving really: two almost identical hooded, wraith-like creatures, each with spade-shaped tongues of lead to conduct the rainwater away. Apart from some pitting around the mouth area the stone was in excellent condition. It took less than an hour to apply the latex, and by the time it was finished my mind had cleared somewhat.
Back inside, however, I immediately noticed the chemical smell again. It was, perhaps, not as strong as it had been before, and I couldn’t link it to any material I’d used. I shrugged to myself and decided to have lunch, and then begin the task of staining the misericords.
Sitting in my pew beneath the pulpit, it was impossible not to keep Andrea out of my thoughts. Perhaps she was simply bored, and saw my presence as a welcome distraction. There could at least be some consolation in viewing the situation like that. I knew I was completely out of my depth, and somehow, realising that, allowed me to think of Ivor again. In almost any situation I’d found myself he would tell me to get a strategy. I decided to complete the work as quickly as possible and skip the open morning. This would mean leaving the angel above the front door as it was – after all it had not been part of the actual contract. Fred, I hoped, would understand: I wanted to name him as a referee for any future work that came my way.
The latex would need twenty-four hours to cure before I could peal it off the gargoyles, so the only task left was to begin the gradual process of staining the misericords. I intended to create my own water-based dye and build the colour from a palette of pigments I’d brought with me. I set about mixing and testing on some spare pieces of oak Ivor had suggested might be useful. Once I’d produced a tone that could serve as a good base coat, I took the mix to the first carving, said a short secular prayer, and brushed a sample onto a flat outer section.
The dye simply ran off. I tried again, with exactly the same effect. I watched, stupefied, as the liquid dripped onto the protective cloth I’d spread underneath. This was inexplicable. The wood was old, hard and dense, but it was wood and therefore porous. I put the brush down and sat, trying to steady my breathing, and as I did so I became aware again of the chemical smell. I bent forward and sniffed the carving, and in that moment understood. It had been treated with a sealant, the sort that looks like water, leaves no mark, but sinks deep into any receptive material, making it impermeable.
I got up and walked round to the other misericords I’d worked on. Each smelt the same, and beneath a couple I noticed tiny splashes of clear liquid. I knew in that moment there was nothing more I could do: the effect would be permanent. Without the possibility of treatment the carvings would look utterly incongruous, and that was how they would have to remain.
‘You’ll know you’re a real craftsman when you can put right what’s gone wrong.’
Another of Ivor’s aphorisms – and his panacea in the face of my frequent ineptitude. But this situation hadn’t arisen through my own clumsiness or oversight, and I had no idea how to correct it, or even, in the light of everything that had happened, if there’d be any point if I did.
It took less than half an hour to pack my things. I would email Fred when I got home, though I had no idea what I’d say. I did know that something had broken inside me that felt like it might never heal.
As I walked away across the fields I felt compelled to look back for the last time. The chapel stood alone amongst the fields, a symbol of quiet endurance. The angle of the sun both lightened and shadowed the slates on the roof, and the black angel hung over the doorway unaltered, still hunched and brooding – still supposedly a deterrent to fools wishing to enter.
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story ‘Breath’, published by Fictive Dream, was nominated for the 2019 Pushcart Prize. His story ‘Blurred Edges’, published by Lunate, was nominated for the 2020 Pushcart Prize 2020. His story ‘The Homing Instinct’, first published by Cōnfingō, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story ‘The Violet Eye’ is available from Nightjar Press as a limited edition chapbook. His website: https://www.polyscribe.co.uk. His Twitter: @polyscribe2.