Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Number 40

Apparently for the last ten challenges, Claire is taking suggestions from friends. I'm a little bit uncomfortable about this idea, because I still remember my fortieth birthday party. At the time we were repainting our kitchen, and we thought it would be a laugh to leave a bit as a graffiti wall, where people could write witty stuff. Caught up in the party, I didn't see the wall till the next day. I was a bit disappointed with the wit. The first person to write on it had written 'Jim is a c***'. Thirteen other people had found this funny enough to write the same. One person had written 'Happy Birthday'.
But Claire's filtering the ideas. So on Sunday night I opened ...
Monday was the first really rainy, windy night of the year, and there are no lights in the little back lanes of Freeland. Squinting through the lashing rain, I thought I saw a 'Church' sign. The lane got narrower and narrower, going down and down, in a tunnel of trees which were blowing down to touch the top of the car.
Ten miles from my own house, I was lost in a classic opening to a horror film. After a few miles I turned back and knocked at the door of the only house with lights. After a couple of minutes, a tall, stone-faced, pale old lady, came to the door. 'Do you know where the church is?' I asked. She didn't change expression at all during the two minute pause, just staring glassilly ahead. 'To the end of the lane, and turn right. The church is on the right through the graveyard.' I thanked her, and she closed the door without a word.
I drove the couple of hundred yards round the corner and parked up.
I got out, braced myself against the driving rain, and walked towards a gothic archway. On the other side, it was pitch dark. I realised then that I never experience pitch dark. I'm always within the range of street lights, or in the car. As my eyes got accustomed, I could see I was surrounded by gravestones. In front of me, I could see a path, I started making my way along it, buffeted by the increasing wind and rain. It was so dark, I couldn't even see the church. A distant memory flashed into my head - Patrick Troughton being speared by a lightning conductor as he ran towards a church in a storm. I ran past the graves, which seemed to be edging towards me, and turned left towards the only faint light I could see. I found myself face to face with a man in a flat cap.
'Neil?', I said.
'We've been expecting you'.
Claire had primed him. It turned out I had half an hour with Neil, who would explain how it all worked, before the bell-ringers arrived and the training started. With no messing, Neil took me up the narrow spiral steps to where the bell-ringing took place, then up two more long ladders to the bells.
He'd given up half an hour of his time to do this, which I appreciated, and was so enthusiastic and selfless that he gave me a very good impression of the bell-ringing world.
In the bell tower, he explained to me how church bells work, and made a bell strike while I was perched next to it. It made me jump an inch off the beam and made my ears buzz for several minutes. I'd never thought about this stuff - six is the standard number of church bells, it turns out. OK - so that's why 'The Six Bells' is a standard pub name. Big churches and cathedrals have twelve - that's where the expression 'knock twelve bells out of someone'.

People were starting to arrive now, so we went down. As people were coming in, Neil taught me the basics about pulling the rope to swing the bell higher and higher until you can sense it's vertical up there in the tower. That's the point where you have to be careful, or you risk being pulled up into the bell tower as in a thousand comedy films going back to the early days of cinema. Six people trickled in, all middle-aged and all very friendly. They seemed pleased to have a stranger in their tower. They showed me the secret code ...
Eventually there was a full house.
'Right,' said Neil, turning to me. 'We're going to get in a circle, and pull off with a hand stroke.'
'Hang on a sec,' I was about to say. 'That's exactly the kind of business that made me leave the rugby club.' But they were off ...'Treble's going ...' called Neil. '... She's gone!' He tugged on his rope followed at split-second intervals by the other five. From up above was the classic village-church downward peal. 'Two to four!' called Neil. Two of the ringers must have put slightly paused or sped up their pull, because the pattern of the peal changed. 'Five to three' called Neil, and the pattern changed again.
And so it went on. It was hypnotic watching this in action, and after an hour watching and listening to the rhythmic sounds and movements in the claustrophobic little circular room, I had no memories of the world I'd come from.
Anthony the Master Bellringer arrived during the break, and gave me some very detailed and strict tuition on the hand stroke and back stroke. My golf-grip thumbs were fine, it turned out, but I took in too much rope, put my hands up rather than let them be taken up by the rope, didn't bend my elbows enough on the way down, mistimed my catching of the sally on its way up, and, most seriously, forgot to flick my thumbs downwards at the end. Despite this, they decided I was up to joining in with a peal.
I was tense as the circle formed. Anthony was next to me, coaching in a whisper. 'Time your pull slightly after Michael,' were his last words before the treble went. I was sweating, my eyes fixed on Michael. As his hands reached halfway in his pull, mine set off - got it! 'Just after Michael!' hissed Anthony. I thought I had. Next time round I let Michael's hands get to the bottom of the pull before I started. Was that better? 'Noo!' whisper-wailed Anthony. 'JUST... AFTER ... MICHAEL'. For ten minutes I tweaked my timing until there was no part of Michael's pull I hadn't used as a cue. 'Stand!' called Neil finally, and we stopped. 'I told you to go after Michael,' said Anthony, perspiring with frustration. 'I was trying to,' I said, gesturing towards Michael. 'Couldn't seem to time it right.'
'Ahem,' coughed the little bloke on the other side of me. 'Actually, I'm Michael.'
not Michael
It was clearly time to go. We had a group photo ...
... and I set off back down the tight spiral stairs. In an hour and a half, I felt I'd already spent enough time with this little group of people to never forget their faces.
I stepped out of the door into the stormy, pitch-dark graveyard - the exact opposite of the cosy circle filled with living bell-ringers. More confident now, I trusted my sixth sense and ran to the car. I jumped in and put 'Terry the lonely reindeer' on to calm my nerves.
I won't go bell-ringing again, but enjoyed being welcomed into this secret little world with a fine group of people for a couple of hours.


Anonymous said...

That was my idea- how exciting. it was just as I imagined- although I hadn't factored oin the gothic churchyard scene! Love living my life through others. Thanks for that- now I don't have to go!

Molly Potter said...

Is Anthony the one with his arms folded? I don't think he had forgiven you by the group photo time somehow.