10 March 2016

A Canterbury Tale

Living and partly living....

A wintry sun is slipping down, accentuating the shadows within.  

A candle burns where Thomas a Beckett was hacked to death, his blood still glistening on the stones;

Orlando Gibbons looks down from his niche on the wall, humming polyphonically.  

The nave is almost empty, its vaulting greatness overleaping itself in perpendicular defiance.

Outside the city walls traffic stands waiting for another day.  

Across the city the cathedral rises to the end of time.  

A bandstand shelters two young people from each other.  

A fountain bears a plaque imploring passers-by not to rob the Lady Mayoress.

I have an appointment.  I am to meet with a writer, one GC.  Geoffrey, as he likes to be known.  

I hurry down the empty street, past the stains of the tannery, along the trickle of a branch of the Stour,

weaving beside and under ancient stonework. 

In narrow White Horse Lane I push at an iron gate, then pull open an old wooden door, and blink into the dim interior.  

My quarry sits at a table, his woollen hat and coat vaguely familiar.  He raises a hand in greeting, and for a moment I feel the laser quality of his eye as he sums me up.

I offer him a drink: he opts for Street Light Porter. We sit, a moment’s awe clutching my Red Rye.  I thank him for meeting me.  He sighs, slightly, and smiles.

I fumble for my notebook, dropping my glasses in the process.  As I lean uncomfortably under the table to retrieve them, the doors are swollen open and a belch of leathery air frightens the candles.  

Muddy footwear and bedraggled coats muddle past me, stirring smells of human and animal origin, together with wet wool, rusted steel, rotten teeth and ancient cheeses.

I sit back, wiping my glasses.  The room is suddenly full.  A short-shouldered, thick-set man with a foxy beard and a bristling wart on his nose has reached the bar and is demanding ale.  

A stick-like man, smooth-shaved, with short cropped hair pushes close to him.  Another man, with thin yellow hair and bulging eyes calls for a pint in a high, bleating voice.  The room is crammed.  There must be twenty-five or more.  

An elderly man with a beaver hat and forked beard; 

a friar, with a lily-white neck and twinkling eyes; 

an elegant nun with a soft, red mouth; 

a young man with crimped curly hair in a neat, short jacket; 

a monk, whose hood is fastened with a gold love-knot and whose face is fat and greasy; 

a very loud woman with red stockings and a great hat, like a shield; 

and, quietly, at the back, stands a military gentleman, whose spattered waistcoat bears badges from Africa and the Middle East.

I turn to my companion; he raises his glass to a man in a striped coat with a silk belt.  I am introduced to John, a lawyer, from Gaddesden, not far from my home.  They met, I am told, when Geoffrey was working in Berkhamsted, a castle also associated with Thomas Beckett.

The noise is impossible.  Braying voices grapple with each other.  Glasses, money; glasses, money.  I try to ask Geoffrey about his work, but my words are stolen by the row.

My elbow is jogged, and a white-haired man with a red face is trying to join our conversation.  A man with an even redder, pock-marked face, and a scraggy black beard is now standing on a table, singing in a bass voice, tra-la-la-ing to his dishevelled friend’s high pitched, “Come hither, love, to me!”

I feel a heavy hand upon my arm, and a deep voice drums my ear.  I half turn into a fine-looking face, a large man, with glaring eyes.    “I’ll get this one, boss.  He troubling you?”

Geoffrey gestured lazily.  “He’s all right, Harry.”

“No worries, boss…..   Come on sunshine,” his hand jerking my collar.

“But, I’ve….”  GC has turned to talk to two men, one a parish priest….

“Time to go, your lordship. This is a private party!”

As I wrestle to disagree, I catch, for a moment, a figure in green, with a weather-beaten face, just before his mighty hand connects with my chin…..

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes cowthe in sondry londes.
And specially fram every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martyr for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.....

Geoffrey Chaucer
c1340 - 1400
The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

the fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns

T S Eliot

Murder in the Cathedral

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