Reading Time: 13 minutes
“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.” - Albert Einstein
"This story is mostly fact, though I confess to the introduction of a little imagination here and there! It was first published on UKAuthors in 2006." - Allen Ansell
“Do you remember the pathway… to the top?”
His words bore all the hallmarks of a Master’s illimitable perception. They were measured, calculated, aimed and fired so that they thudded hard into me. And although, mercifully, I did not feel the searing, fiery pain as their razor-sharp tips penetrated my psyche, I soon came to realise that his arrows had embedded themselves inside of me, and that I would indeed, one day, feel the pain.
The stone steps spiralled upwards. Each rise stretching the sinews of my young legs, making every tread a newly discovered plateau of land, which had in fact been conquered rather than simply reached. Along the relatively short, though arduous journey in the narrow confines of the stone tower, I experienced a strong sense of confinement and solitariness. I could barely see five steps ahead, and if I turned, five below. Such light as there was, penetrated through some narrow slits high up in the thick stone walls, the dusty atmosphere of this ancient place was emphasised by the illuminated motes of dust that flurried in and out of the confined sunlight above me. The walls were cool to the touch of my hands, and the sound of my steps echoed in the solid silence. I tried to climb up as quickly as I could. What drove me on was love – or at least what I thought was love.
What is love to a ten-year-old? To me it was Marie – who smelled of strawberries, had pristine white socks, and red leather sandals. Oh, and blond hair.
Eventually, I reached the top of the steps. The muscles in my thighs were crying out in pain, and my whole body was experiencing a bout of trembling from the exertion. My lungs burned from lack of oxygen, my heartbeat was banging away in my ears, and there was a pain in my back as adrenaline surged through my small body from all the excitement and anticipation. There, ahead, was the doorway out onto the ramparts. I stood for a few moments, trying to get my breath back. I didn’t want to make my appearance while gasping for air!
On the tiny, stone landing, the air was heated by the thick, wooden door that was hot to the touch. She had said it was always unlocked. She would wait down in the churchyard for me to carry out my task. This was the demonstration for my Marie that I was fearless. It was also, I had inwardly decided while on the way up the tower, a demonstration of my adoration. All I had to do was burst out onto the top of the Church tower and prove it all to her.
Oh, foolish boy! I never questioned – not for one moment – why I should need to carry out this task.
Seven proud, white knights they were. Standing defiant against the foe.
At home, I was the proud owner of a complete set of twenty-four lead soldiers. In camouflage. Some of them standing with rifles lodged against their shoulders, looking down the barrels to take aim or fire, others flat on their bellies with their rifles set out ahead of them.
When everything had been set up, these little lead men found themselves arranged behind empty matchboxes and cotton reels as battle commenced. The battles were unplanned: a huge index finger would appear from their sky, and amid a cacophony of various, mimicked sounds of gunfire I’d learned to make, it would randomly flick over those who were chosen to die on the Axminster killing field. In the main, there were very few who survived.
Strange, how a child’s mind will choose to place his soldiers in patterns; in chevrons was a good arrangement to offer a more difficult target for the rolling cotton reel weapons of mass destruction.
The seven of them stood, bold as brass, in a chevron pattern. Their whiteness contrasting with the fine, brown, sandy tilth of the prepared killing field. Considerable care had been taken in making sure that their alignment was geometrically correct.
Against them, just ten yards away, stood their two enemies.
It was three in the afternoon when battle was set to commence.
Marie and I were alone. We took up our positions and rolled our balls towards them, down the pub’s skittle alley.
They were doomed, those knights. Defenseless. The wooden balls our hands released towards them, clacked against their hardness and sent them crashing one into the other – like a line of dominoes they fell.
And that was where and when I fell … in love with Marie. The girl with blond hair, blue eyes, and on that particular day, dusty white socks and dirty red sandals. The girl, however, who still smelled of delicious strawberries.
Love! What was that love? Holding hands and walking around the village, mainly. And the day before, my parents had taken her with us, to visit Weston-Super-Mare. We shared the ecstasy of smooth creamy ice creams, built some fantastic sand castles, and behind my father walked hand in hand out, what seemed miles, on the huge expanse of beach. We’d gone so far out, that they put out a call on the tannoys, to warn us that the tide was turning, and we were to get back to the safety of the beach quickly.
Her eyes were blue. Did I say that? And her dad owned the pub where we were staying on our holiday.
We parted company in the Churchyard. I left my damsel waiting for me to fulfil my challenge, sitting on the stone tomb of one Reginald Nash – if I remember correctly. She was wearing a pretty white dress with a pale pink lace trim around its edges.
Reginald was privy to the fact that, before I left her side, I had breathed in those strawberries, and with butterflies dashing around my belly, tasted for the one and only time the sweet softness of her rosebud lips. Such a brief touch. Such an innocent kiss of beginning.
The door creaked open and the sunlight burst through the widening gap like a flash of lightening that momentarily blinded me. Out in the fresh air, I cautiously moved over to the castellated parapet. There was no danger; even the lower parts of the wall came well up my torso. My body was wet with perspiration, and my short trousers were sticking to the front of my thighs as I moved towards the edge and looked down triumphantly.
Marie was nowhere to be seen.
‘Marie!’ I called.
And I called out that name time and time again, for perhaps the two or three minutes I moved around the four sides of the tower, and looked down for her. I was so proud! I had fulfilled my task, and wanted her to see me standing there … her Prince. But she was nowhere to be seen. She didn’t answer my calling.
I returned through the door and stood listening on the landing, to see if I could hear footsteps – her footsteps – echoing up the staircase. There were none.
I walked back out again to take another look. As I did, there was a flapping and fanning of wings as a large black crow swooped down over my head and landed on the parapet. It sat there looking at me, raised its head a little, and let out a loud, evil caw.
The crow and I became involved in a staring match. I had never realised how big crows were close-up. And his feathers had a sheen that was sometimes blue and sometimes black. But at the same time, his beady black eyes were very penetrating, and their steadfast watching of me very disconcerting. Fear, however, was only a fleeting emotion. Much more important was to get him out of the way so I could look back over the wall and down into the churchyard again for Marie.
He was brave, I’ll give him that. There was no way I was going to look away first. No way! And, you know, I could not but admire him, both for his beauty and his bravery. But, of course, he finally gave in, turned his eyes away, and literally fell off the wall, outwards into the thin, warm air.
I ran over and watched him gracefully swoop and glide his way down to the churchyard. He sat on top of a large white gravestone next to where Reginald Nash lay at rest, and looked back up at me.
I felt sure he was saying, ‘Come on, then. Follow my lead. Come and find your Marie.’
I didn’t. Though a sense of desolation had begun to sicken my belly. Instead, I walked around the four sides of the tower, looking down for her. She was nowhere to be seen.
The next morning, out of my bedroom window, I saw her holding another boy’s hand. I returned to my bed, and cried myself back to sleep into the pillow.
It was not an uncommon sound. Nor, was it unwelcome. Long, glorious peels of bright, cheery bells … only a few notes, but used in wide variations to make different repeating melodies. In thinking about it though, I just realised I haven’t heard church bells ring like that for many years.
When my friend died on a hot day in July, for maybe half an hour there rang a long sorrowful bell toll from the little church in the French village; just two bells, their tones exquisitely contrasting with one another and as they have for hundreds of years on such occasions, so eloquently telling their sad message to all who could hear.
But, back then in New Southgate, the peels the bell ringers created with such skill, were a joyous sound, and a great fascination to me. So much so, that the leader of the Church Lad’s Brigade to which I belonged, promised to arrange a visit up the tower to see the bells in action.
The steps here, were on massive ladders of oak that rose one sub-floor to the next, until, finally, you were standing in the airy belfry. I remember the steps themselves were firm and solid, every one of them. But the thick and dusty floorboards creaked, when you walked on them, and in the otherwise silent church, their squeaks and the sound of our steps echoed off the stone walls.
The bells, of course, hung silent. They were, I decided, majestic. That was the only word I could ascribe to them.
It was the vicar who showed us around. A bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young vicar, who, I suspect, had not long before been ordained. He was immensely proud of the bells, and took great pains to explain to us – myself and a friend – how everything worked. He did this, using every ploy imaginable to demonstrate to us that he was ‘hip’… I think that would have been the appropriate word at the time. He almost certainly saw this as a recruitment opportunity. Sadly, he was mistaken; I only had eyes – and ears – for the bells.
My association with the Church was the result of my father wanting me out of the house on a Sunday afternoon. In a thick, cheap woolen, short-trouser suit that itched uncontrollably, I, along with my compatriot lads, clomped up and down the church hall learning ‘discipline’. Other than that, rather typically, we also learned how to play ping-pong.
I have often wondered why the leader did not show us the bells himself. It’s curious. More so, when you consider the event that took place just a week or so later.
It was probably at a time of year when it was getting on for winter, as I remember it was dark outside when the leader and his ‘friend’ took me into the bushes around the side of the hall. One of them, the friend, held my arms locked behind my back, while the leader proceeded to nervously attempt the undoing of my fly. I remember being frightened. Of course! I hadn’t a clue what was going on, but whatever it was I decided that I didn’t like it. The leader’s hands were shaking, or should I say trembling, obviously in some kind of weird, and as I now know, perverted anticipation!
I was extremely fortunate on two counts: the first being that the leader had so much trouble with my fly (thank God for button flies and thick woolen fabric!) and so strong was his desire, that instead of freeing my virgin penis – as I now imagine was his intention – he instead began a strange rubbing – no, grinding – of his genital area against mine. This part of the event I remember, very well, and with distinct displeasure.
The second fortunate thing being, that just as the grinding had started, the bell ringers began arriving for their practice session, and a couple of them took a short-cut via the side of the church hall.
I remember the sick feeling inside of me when all this was going on, and when the leader hissed a whispered threat at me to keep my mouth shut if I knew what was good for me, I did actually experience an involuntary spasm of ineffectual vomiting.
I never went back inside the hall. I ran straight home. I never told anyone what had happened. I cannot imagine what my father would have done had he known that while he and mum enjoyed their child-free Sunday afternoon together, the leader of the Church Lad’s Brigade and his mate, were abusing and attempting to deprave his son!
But what excuses I came out with to avoid going back again!
Wild horses wouldn’t have dragged me there.
Amazingly, I still love to hear church bells being rung in celebration. Perhaps they have a subliminal meaning for me!
“So, just what top are you talking about?” I asked him.
I hoped, even before I made the sounds of the words, that the speed of my response and the tone of my reply would surprise him, and give me the upper hand.
How foolish am I!
He was way ahead of me.
When he replied, with, “Life is a series of uphill pathways, my son,” it came to me and I realised that in that brief interlude between his question and my reply, he had been there all the time … inside my head, reading my thoughts, seeing my sights, hearing my sighs, feeling the gentle touch of Marie’s soft virginal lips.
© Allen Ansell 2023
*(originally published on Parapraxis in October 2021)