Catalyst A: Burn the Bibles
I have already told you that the Guitarist, who turned up one day, walking up our lane as cool as you please, with a guitar case over one shoulder and a rucksack over the other, was in fact a catalyst. And so he was. But the more important piece of the puzzle was the subsequent discovery of my little treasures. Let me tell you first how that happened.
As I mentioned, I am the Librarian of Warfield. That will mean nothing to you and indeed should probably mean little or nothing to anyone at all, except that, because of a series of odd events, silly coincidences, and some good fortune on my part, it has come to mean a little something to a few people. It’s amazing what can happen when you take up residence in a church.
Partly at least because I live where I do, I have come to be regarded as some kind of wise man, or preacher or whatever.
No! Preacher is definitely the wrong word, as neither I, nor anyone else in our little community here, have got even the slightest taint of religiosity about us, as you will see. I don’t do anything holy or God-oriented or whatever, other than to perform the role of caretaker, book-minder and sole resident of this church. In any case, we have no bibles.
My most important role seems to be as some kind of "keeper of the faith". Not faith in the ancient sense, but in the sense that I have become the guardian of what was: a historian if you like, and a teacher and a scholar and an inventor (or re-inventor). I keep the past and the memory of the past alive, and also try to keep alive some kind of promise for the future. A promise that eventually, some day, times will be better than they are now and the good days will come again.
This is a promise in which I usually have little, often zero, faith; but the fact that we welcomed the Guitarist in, listened to his songs and his ramblings, fed him and let him get on his way, if not unmolested then entirely untasted, proves that we are getting somewhere along the road back to……..what? The word ‘civilisation’ sticks in my craw. Let me instead say that we are getting to the point where individual survival can be reasonably and, at least temporarily, expected. Our maladjusted medieval micro-community can now see medium-term survival as a likelihood, rather than as a hope and a desperate plea. But we also know that winter must come again.
My children and I are the only unproductive members of our society, but I have convinced the Farmer that for the community to have any future at all, and for us to have any prospect of improvement in our lives, we must seek to improve and develop and learn. So I look after and teach my children, try to reinvent lost technologies, and run the library.
It has always been my desire to list the books, videos and CDs that we have, by title and author or artist; just like a proper library; and when I found my little stash of treasure that was my first thought. But not my second. I will do it, if I have enough paper left after I have finished this little history of my own, but I have instead decided to write about what has happened, and how and why we have done what we have done. Not really to excuse our wretched treason, nor even, really, as a personal catharsis. (I’m too detached for that and have been for too long.) This is just a record of The End and its aftermath: of how we have survived and continue to survive.
My library consists of four-hundred and ninety-three books, two-hundred and eleven videos and six-hundred and fifty-one CD’s. There used to be one vinyl LP which was found stashed in a cupboard in the Farmhouse, but it got used. We lost four to that particular experiment, two of whom we eventually had to kill, because they were in a terrible state but couldn’t quite die.
The Library is in the Church where I live. There used to be a great many more books here; in the way of bibles, hymn books, song-books and all sorts of other paraphernalia of an ecclesiastical bent. For a while I hung on to them, and counted them as part of my library, though three hundred copies of the same book seemed excessive, even to me; especially as they embodied a faith and spirit which no-one recognised any more. However I kept them because they were there, until suddenly, in the middle of that first terrible winter, I made a serious mistake, though it turned out in the end to be one of those silly serendipitous coincidences which shaped my position here.
That winter was bad. Really bad! We had five weeks of snow on the ground, and sub-zero temperatures for months at a time. It occurs to me now how lucky we were the year before, in the months immediately after The End, when it was wet and not too cold virtually the whole time. Of the many who died that first season, few died from winter’s bite. On the other hand, meat lasts longer in the cold so maybe it would have balanced out.
I remember after the Great TESCO Food Fight, lying with my head on a loud-hailer, on the tarmac in the car park, with two smashed ankles, thinking, "Well, at least it isn’t snowing!" It’s funny the things that go through your mind when you think you’re about to die. I am also amazed that I can remember that feeling, those thoughts, so clearly; when most other things from that time are thankfully forgotten. Selective Amnesia – a handy phrase and a great way to hide yourself from yourself. And from others. I must try to watch out for it.
That first real winter, twelve months after the Bug bit, we didn’t stockpile enough firewood like we do now. By Christmasish we were freezing and starving to death. We had already burned the pews from the church and most of the other furniture around the compound, hoping that we might be able to go out in the spring and liberate more to replace it. But it wasn’t enough.
One burning cold night, as the ice crackled in the silvered trees, we sat swaddled together in the Farmhouse, all trying to get close to the single fire that the Farmer had decreed was all we could afford. They had come and carried me over to the Farmhouse, which was nice of them, as by the next morning I would have been stiff and dead in that chilled and cheerless chancel. There were eighty-six of us then, and the Farmhouse could hold us all uncomfortably. We could all just about keep warm enough.
People were packed into all the main rooms for warmth, and circulated osmotically into and out of the Great Hall, where the fire was. That night however we didn’t have enough fuel to keep the fire going to the morning. Not that we would have frozen to death because of that, the house was if anything too warm, full of CO2 and methane - no window would be opened of course, so we suffered in our own reek. The next morning however we would have had a real problem, and the next night a frigid nightmare. At this point I opened my mouth and inserted one of my useless feet.
I was sitting there, unengaged in the Brownian pavanne by virtue of my enforced immobility. I was thinking about the Library, in order to avoid thinking about other, darker things. A long time since, all the books had been rounded up and brought, under executive order, to the Church. So I had all of Tom Clancy’s stuff, all but two of Dick Francis’s novels, a whole bunch of classics, poetry books, philosophy and linguistics works, a 1907 edition of Alice in Wonderland with a dedication inside it to an indecipherable name ‘For perfect attendance, August 1908’, The Diary of Anne Frank, four different editions of the complete works of William Shakespeare; and of course, nine copies of The Lord of the Rings. At least the peaks of English literature will not vanish. All these books came from a variety of sources, but the core of the Library, by volume at least, is the science-fiction collection. This came from the previous inhabitants of the Cottage who clearly had read SF almost exclusively.
Science-fiction is a genre which I was never keen on, but with so many of my books being from the SF collection I have now at least got used to it. The only SF-ish book that I could think of that I had read before The End was ‘Fahrenheit 451’. I think this was by Ray Bradbury, but it is not in the collection so I can’t be sure. I was huddling as close to the fire as I could without charring, trying to recall what it was about. I could remember only that it involved the burning of books. I then also recalled the three hundred odd copies of Good News for Modern Man which I had cursed earlier as a burden and a space-wasteful nuisance. With a finely calculated degree of idiocy I said, "We could burn one or two books to get us through the night. I have a few spare ones we could throw on the fire."
I can only blame the fugginess of the room, my enfeebled state, the ongoing pain in my wretched ankles, and of course my own vast and inexhaustible blessing of native stupidity.
Clearly not one person in
that room had previously considered a book as combustible material. They
cottoned on however with alarming alacrity, and half a dozen men jumped
up and made straight for the door, with the clear intention of burning
whatever they could lay their hands on in the way of valuable literary
resource. "Wait! Wait!" I squealed, rendered almost speechless
by the sudden realisation of my own insanity. Too late, they were gone
out the door. In panic, I crawled on my hands and knees to the Farmers
feet. In panic you understand, not in supplication …Well yes, it was in
supplication, but at that time it was also my only way to get about indoors,
unless people carried me, so that’s the way I
went. I pleaded with the Farmer to stop them, to save the books, to protect our glorious heritage, to save our treasures for our children, for our future generations. I told him that we did have some books to burn but I had to say which ones; the extra ones, the copies.
Of course all of this was partly true, and I now believe that we did achieve a wonderful thing, and that my children are now the benefactors of the Farmers good-will that night. Not that in the end he had any choice, as burning the Bibles became a kind of cause incelebre. At the time however I wasn’t really trying to save the books. Not really. I was trying to save my own skin. Burn one book; burn them all. No books; no library. And what is a Librarian without a library? He’s a crippled liability who can’t pull the plough, or hunt game or kill raiders. He’s lunch.
In the middle of my appalled appeal, the six men appeared back from the Church, with arms-full of books. They made straight towards the fire, evil intent gleaming in their eyes. Actually their eyes were probably just streaming from the cold night air, but you have to grant me some poetic license here, in this moment of career-threatening crisis. Sure enough they had just grabbed the first books off the shelves, a random assortment, as I had not quite got around to sorting them all out since Nursey, my one-time assistant and emotional fixation had crucified herself six months or so before. The Hands dumped them in a pile beside the hearth and one picked up a big paperback, ready to rip it apart and feed it to the hungry flames – it was Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor. (American Edition)
"Not that one!" I screamed. "Not those ones. Let me show you. Burn the Bibles! Burn the Bibles!" The man hesitated, and the Farmer held up his hand and commanded him with his eyebrows to hold on. I turned to the Farmer again and pleaded with him. "Please, we need these books. Or we will need them. Don’t burn those ones. Burn the Bibles! Burn the Bibles! Burn the Bibles!"
As I fell into a panicked, pleading, paranoic silence, the Farmer stared at me, and at the pile of books beside the fire. Before he could speak however, there came a murmur from around the room. Where before there had been a watchful silence now their seemed to be a vibrant tension; an excitement; eagerness. Everyone was looking at the fire. Their eyes were shining (really this time) and their faces were shining too. Slowly everyone in the room stood up and faced the Farmer and me. Everyone that is except the four children who were left to us. They kept their backs to the walls and their eyes pealed for tricks and treason. And except myself of course, a pathetic huddled wreck on the floor in front of the Farmer.
It started from the back of the room, a cheerless, charmless chilling chant. It grew in intensity if not in passion, and they clapped their hands to the rhythm.
Now, I have seen some strange and horrible things since The End, and participated in many of them. But of them all this is the strangest. The Farmer standing beside the fire, me cringing at his feet and the whole room staring at us, clapping, and chanting. "Burn the Bibles! Burn the Bibles! Burn the Bibles!"
And so we did.
They carried me back to the church, carrying the good books back with us. I showed them where the burnable books were, the hymn-books, the bibles, the Good News for Modern Men (Which burns extremely brightly by the way. Must be something to do with the paper or the ink or whatever.) And they took them away.
Not being a sociologist or a psychologist or a pseudo-religious psychopath, I have no explanation for what happened that night. It is true that before and since no-one, in my hearing, has even mentioned religion other then in the more usual profanities. Nobody seems to miss it or want it or even remember it. When the Farmer says grace it is not to God or Gates, it is not religious at all, it is merely to say thank you to the benefactor who has provided that day’s feast. But there is one other strange thing about that day and those events. A few weeks later the cold weather broke, the snow and ice melted and the first signs of spring started to appear. It must have got ten degrees warmer in the space of two days. Mother Nature unlocked her treasure chest and we could go out and forage again and find new wood. And we had found the superchickens, and the last of the children were crushed and gone. But every night, in the main fire in the Farmhouse, we burned the bibles and the hymnbooks and the psalters and the rest, until they were all gone. All of them. Every one.
I didn’t say a word, which perhaps I should have after crying over my single copy of Debt of Honor. We burned every religious text we had and I didn’t say a word to stop it. And when all the bibles were gone, the nightly ritual stopped and we never burned a book again.
From those times come our worst memories and our darkest forgets and nobody mentions or remembers when we burned the bibles. In fact most people seem never to have thought about it again, leaving a blissful blank in the myopic mind of our community.
Remember what I said about selective amnesia?
I know that the Farmer remembers that night, and I guess everyone else could too, really, but they don’t. We never discuss it and it is never mentioned. But I remember. I run the only library in town, it’s in a church, and we don’t have a single copy of the Bible.
Strange days indeed.
I still worry about the winters. There are many fewer of us now, and we always make sure we have plenty of firewood to see us through, but if something was to go wrong, or the winter is too hard and over long, then someone may remember the time when we burned the books. And this time I might not win, for I have nothing left to offer.
I’m sorry, I have once again digressed from the narrative. I was supposed to be telling you about how I came across the little treasure I have found and somehow got side-tracked. The two tales are not unrelated, however. Because of the events I have just described, everyone seems to have assumed that, as the Church had been cleared of all its bibles, it had also been cleared in the more traditional sense. That is to say, searched thoroughly, ransacked, anything of worth stripped out and stored in our store-rooms, for regulated retention and rational rationing. Everything identified and categorised and enshrined in the Statement of Net Worth, the list of all of the resources available within our community. It turns out that in fact this is not the case.
Because of my crippled condition, I have never been able to get about much. Indeed I spend days and days here in the church on my own, except when my children come; or when they bring my food, when we are not gathered around the central fire, for a communal meal of Forever Stew or whatever. I explored the little church when I first moved in, but I was even less ambulant then than I am now, and I never investigated the way the Searchers would have if they’d ever been let loose. To be honest there is very little to be searched.
Let me describe the Church briefly. It is a typical, ancient, stone-built, small parish church, with stone-flag floors, interspersed with the usual ancient flat tombstones. All are now indecipherable other than the occasional seemingly random string of Roman numerals. On one of them are the words "Hic" and "Fecit" which always remind me of the drunken priest in ‘Father Ted’, a comedy series from the mid-Nineties. No one else seems to remember it at all, which perhaps is not surprising, but I might bring it up again, the next time we try a televisual Remember Remember, and see if I can’t stir something out of those fading memories we still cherish, but which we lose so easily. Not that it really matters, not that any of it really matters
The church used to have a single rank of eight or nine pews, now burned; a wooden lectern, burned; a wooden altar, burned; a stone font, which is still there and which I have used once or twice over the years as a receptacle for things other than Holy Water. That’s about it really, apart from the monsterous murderous cross, and my books, which run along virtually all of the stone ledges, shelves and window casements. Some are, of necessity, stacked on the floor, with the CDs and videos. This is not as bad as it might sound because, of the five inhabitable buildings that make up the compound, this is definitely the coldest and driest. It is cool in the summer, as tradition and the thermodynamics of ecclesiastical architecture dictate, and it is bloody freezing in the winter.
The cold I have learned to put up with. If it gets really frosty we all tend to huddle round the single fire again, but anything less than beard-frosting I have found I can now put up with, spending entire days here, swathed in warm if pungent sheepskins. As I am allowed no fire in the Church, not that there is a chimney, there is no dust or soot or wood lice to attack the books. Also, there is no sign of damp, and so long as I am careful with them and move them fairly often, they don’t get too dusty or fusty.
I am also fortunate that either the floor is higher than it used to be, or the shelves and windows are unusually low for this kind of building, for I have found that, on my knees, I can reach almost every ledge and niche and planchant finial, whatever they might be. All except one that is, which is the window ledge of the high arched window, about ten feet above the raised stone plinth where the altar used to be.
One day, early this last summer (Or late in the spring perhaps, take your pick.) after a stormy night in which the lords of thunder and the gods of lightning strove to hurl each other from their cloudy thrones, and the wind howled like a thousand banshees caught in a British Rail London to Edinburgh express with no Buffet car, and the………. Screw it! I can’t be doing with all this literary, imagery stuff. I occasionally lapse into it because all I really do is read books. And teach of course, but those are pretty much the same thing. In any case I seem to remember that British Rail was defunct and had been split up and sold to people like Virgin, and Stagecoach.
Right! Enough! It had been a stormy night, I hadn’t slept well, my ankles were aching as usual and, worst of all, I was woken up by the soft and gentle cooing of a pigeon, or a dove or a wood pigeon, or some-such. A gentle cooing, accompanied by a gentle splat. Disaster! Let me say that again, louder.
I flailed about trying to wipe my eyes, clear my head, and release myself from the smothering, fetid and slightly tacky embrace of the old and grubby animal skins I share with several thousand small but inquisitive bed-mates. Sure enough, there above my head was a bird wearing a self-satisfied smirk, considering me with its avian thoughts and staring at me with its avian eyes. (These were almost certainly beady, but I can’t truly say whether they were or not. I was too busy worrying about what it was aiming for next, how I could prevent it, and where the bloody thing had come from.) But I knew why it was smirking. Sure enough, directly below it, all over the shiny soft back cover of the 1972 edition of Emile Durkheim’s Les Formes Elementaires de la Vie Religeuse; birdshit. OK! So maybe the bird was a critic, maybe he disagreed with Durkheim’s Franco-Victorian ethos, presentation, mind-set and beard, but I couldn’t have him shitting all over the greatest literary collection in the world. (Well it might be, I have no evidence to the contrary, and it is certainly vitally important to me, as I have already explained.)
So, first things first. I grabbed an old mole-skin I use for similar purposes, crawled purposefully halfway to the soiled book, thought of something else, whirled around, fell over, squirmed back to my pit and grabbed the roughest of the skins, dragged it back with me, picked up the soiled book, covered the rest of the books in that area with the skin, carefully wiped Durkheim’s magnum opus with my moleskin wiper, replaced it under cover, glared furiously up at the bird daring it to try the same thing again, and wondered what I was going to do next. My next thought was "Where did the brute come from?" and my second next was "Lunch!"
The first of these was easily answered, because by talking a couple of hobble-hops backward I could see that one of the little triangular panes in the bottom of the high window was gone, no doubt blown in (Or sucked out, as it transpired.) by the previous night’s storm.
Clearly I had to stop the pigeon from performing more of its particular brand of air-born literary criticism, preferably by having it for lunch. If I could catch it. Also I had to fix the window so that the bird, and (horror of horrors) its friends, couldn’t revisit the scene of the crime.
Problem. That window ledge is ten feet up, and I, in my stockinged knees, can reach perhaps six feet, at a stretch. Fortunately, that day was a Thursday (Oh Yeah? Yeah!….! I’ll explain that later.) and the children were coming in for their "reeling and writhing and fainting in coils." (A Heinlein quote, from ‘Space Family Stone’.) So, for that day only, lessons were held with my children scattered around the nave, scraps of material and pieces of skin in their hands, with their eyes on the bird, while I read to them about Castor and Pollux, and worried about the window and the books.
At the end of the class I asked two of the kids to go to the Farmhouse and see if they could get the Farmer to send over a couple of Hands to get the bird and fix the window. I sent them off with exhortations about how important it was to protect the library and look after the fabric of the Church. I briefly mentioned the fact that we couldn’t very well stick a big thermometer up outside and ask for donations, but I could see that this was just causing confusion, so I backed away from it and just told them to get someone to come if they could. They scurried off. I knelt in the middle of the little hall, watching the bird, daring it to make any move or movement, but it simply continued to coo and preen, albeit with a Hitchcockian look in its eyes. Eyes which I could definitely say were beady now that I could get a good look.
Actually it was quite a bad look. I used to wear contact lenses, but ran out about five years ago and now use a pair of glasses allocated to me out of our store of miscellany. They are better than nothing, but I use them as little as possible. Not for reading for example, though definitely for inspecting diabolically-inspired feathery book despoilers.
Fortunately my eyesight doesn’t seem to be deteriorating any further, because when it does my goose will be cooked. Maybe I should start learning books by heart, become a Booklegger (As in Fahrenheit 451 - I think?) so that I can still read to the children even if I can’t see the actual words. Time yet. I guess I’m unlikely to last long enough for my eyes to be the bits of me that give out.
Several of the children came back in briefly, with some shards of glass found on a gravestone below the window. I told them to be very careful, helped wrap the splinters in a rag to protect their fingers, and said to take them to the stores, so that they could be booked in under :Objects, small, sharp, miscellaneous. Like me, the Inventory Clerk was an ex-Army man, and for some reason the Army habit of writing everything backwards has continued. I guess it was originally to create a mystique, and to protect the job at the same time, as no-one else can make sense of his records. However he was also in the position which would have been most interested in my little treasures; both because he kept the records of what we have, and because he kept the records of what we have. This issue will become clear later, right now however I sent in the bits of glass simply because we are obliged to hand in anything that might be useful, even shards. I reminded the kid to bring the rag back, as that was in my inventory, and I was responsible for it. He dutifully brought it back the next day, but it had been used. Bastard!
A few minutes later the two kids I had sent to the Farmer came back, and with them they brought no helpful Hands. But they had brought the ladder. Our only and irreplaceable ladder. Irreplaceable? You try making a ladder out of lengths of rough-hewn pine with no nails and no real glue. Perhaps you have, in which case I hope you were more successful than us. Our best attempts look more like they have been stuck together by some giant toddler with a Stik-a-Brik fetish, and are about as useful. I felt almost honoured to be allowed the use of such a vital component of our infrastructure. The kids were definitely feeling honoured at being allowed to carry it. I asked them to prop it against the wall beneath the window and then told them to go and join the others at their evening chores. They of course wanted to hang around and help me: A, to get out of the chores and B, they were hoping I would get the bird and they could have the wings for a snack. I shooed them out because A, I’d have been in trouble if I kept them from their chores and B, it was me against the bird; face to face, eye to eye, two birdbrains locked in mortal combat. Actually, my rationale was that the forthcoming events were likely to be highly embarassing. I was dead right.
So! Sixty-Four Dollar question. Have you ever tried to get up a step-ladder on your knees? No? I didn’t think so. It is bloody difficult, as you have to lean back every-time you go up a step, with the increasing likelihood each step that it will topple over either backwards or sideways, as you have to swing your weight around a lot to get your legs to cooperate. Also, your dangling feet tend to get in the way and get caught up in different bits of the ladder. Well your’s probably don’t, but mine do. Still, "Knees must when the Devil drives" as they say. After addressing the Eight Ps, I set about it.
With much huffing and puffing, grunting and groaning, heaving and hoiking, and with hardly more than a half-dozen instances of perilous teetering, I could raise my head and shoulders above the high window sill. (Aahh! Head and Shoulders. Another thing I miss. My hair is lustrelessly long, uncomfortably unkempt, distressingly dirty and itchily infested…Oh! For a bottle of medicated shampoo, as seen on TV circa 20 years ago. Bugger, Bugger, Bugger, Bugger, as Hugh Grant once most appropriately said.)
There, on the window sill, undiscovered for Gates knows how long, lay….a dried leaf, three or four mummified spiders, and a small puddle of pigeon-pooh. No treasure, and no sign of the bird. I glanced around the room trying to spot the nasty creature, but the action of twisting around atop the ladder had such an undesirable effect on my balance that I had to whirl back and grab the ledge tightly to prevent myself from going arse-over-tit down to the chapel floor.
Equilibrium recovered, I assessed the damage. Apart from a slightly acrid smell from the bird-dung (Ammoniacal is perhaps the word to use, though demoniacal feels better.) the only problem was the missing pane of ancient glass. A small half-diamond, perhaps five inches by three. And I had the very thing to fix it, and from my own resources too.
Proper Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance; the Eight Ps, as the Inventory Clerk liked often to remind us. With good and proper organisation, I had taken a selection of useful items up with me in the pockets of my outer-jacket, my boiler-suit pockets being rather too decrepit, and holy, to be useful. These items included two CDs, or rather, two empty CD cases. The library contains quite a few CD cases with no actual CDs in them and these were two of those. One purported to be Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, of which I had a further nine copies anyway, and the second was a German CD, apparently of Baroque chamber music. Either way, neither would be missed. My plan had been to make sure the bird was outside or, by preference, dead; and then to block the offending aperture with the CD cases. But, as I was in no position to look for the flying pooper, never mind chase it, I simply had to get on with the job at hand.
I tied a bit of thread, carefully teased out of an old bit of sacramental curtain or somesuch, looped it round the first CD a couple of times, pushed the CD case through the diamond shape hole, and turned it flat and upright. A tricky maneuver using only the finger tips of two hands which would really have liked to be holding onto something firm for balance. I pulled the CD case back, using the thread, to hold it flush with the outside of the window. It covered the hole completely, and I congratulated myself for coming up with such a brilliant idea.
To complete the job, I got out the other CD case, and from another pocket, a handful of sticky mud from the Church garden. Now keeping mud in the pocket of my jacket may not seem to be a particularly brilliant part of this plan, but it was all I could think of to use for the purpose as I had no readily accessible and acceptable receptacle into which the mud could be glooped. In any case all I had to do was turn the jacket and pockets outside out and wait for a rainy day to hang it on the washing line, where it would be duly washed by wind and rain. If I left it out long enough it would eventually either dry or fall apart. In the latter case it would mean a long cold season.
Holding the outer CD in place with the thread, I sealed the joint between the lead of the window and the plastic of the CD case with the mud, and stuck a large blob of it in the middle of the case. Still holding the thread, I made sure the mud-seal was intact and holding, and then stuck the second CD case to the first, muddily sealed the join between that CD case and the window, and leaned back to admire my handiwork. Bad Idea! Just at that moment the bird, which had probably been planning a dive-bombing raid on the Enid Blyton collection, decided to make a bid for freedom and flew down across the window in front of me. Foolishly I made a grab at it and the rest of the sequence was inevitable.
You know it is often said that in times of peril things seem to slow down, until it is almost as if you are caught up in an action replay of England v India at Edgebaston. In this particular instance things actually did happen slowly. The step-ladder was broad based and still quite strong and it balanced for a long moment at the point of no return. I flung my weight the other way, managed to get the ladder to rock back the way it had come, and I grabbed at the sill with my one available hand as I swung past. By some ill-conceived miracle my other hand held the bird, and unfortunately I didn’t possess a sufficient degree of self-preservation to let it go. My flailing fingers flapped feebly at the ledge, slid through the little pile of avian manure and flicked off the edge of the sill.
My swing-back swung on. I grabbed the ladder-frame as we; the steps, the bird and me, pitched right over and fell. Fortunately we were at such an angle that the ladder fell against the wall and, quite slowly, scraped down it. I single-handedly clung on for dear life, wondering briefly if that was really such a good idea after all, and that maybe I’d do better to make a knee-propelled leap for it. At that moment however the ladder hit the junction of the stone wall of the church and the wooden wall of the little anti-porch which sticks out into the body of the chapel, and steadfastly stopped. I unfortunately did not. My momentum carried me on, ripping away my tenuous one-handed grip on the frame of the ladder. Fortunately by that time I only had about four feet left to tumble, and I managed to lessen the bump by rolling with my direction of fall.
This feat of artistic acrobatics brought me to a halt, more or less upside down, with my arse against the wooden wall of the vestibule. (It probably has some classical name from the history of religious architecture, all I know is that it helps to keep the drafts out. I call it the anti-porch because it sticks into, rather than out-of, the body of the church.)
I remember lying there looking at my feet dangling loosely above me, winded but otherwise undamaged (me that is, not the feet) and thinking "That was lucky" and "Stupid bloody bird" and "I didn’t know there was a briefcase up there". Now, at last, we are getting to it. As the ladder toppled and I slid gracelessly into the woodwork, I caught sight, for the first time, of the dusty flat roof of the little anti-porch. There, though covered in dust and pretty much the same shade as the roof itself, I had clearly made out, as I toppled past, the outline of a briefcase. Or in fact an old-fashioned leather satchel, for such it turned out to be. I hauled myself to my knees, strangled the bird and put it aside for plucking and roasting, dusted myself off ineffectually, and thought "I wonder what’s in that briefcase?"
I crawled to the mercifully undamaged ladder, dragged it over to the side-wall of the anti-porch and climbed once again, but this time not so high. I grabbed the satchel from the roof top, tried to climb back down with it, decided that this was a bad idea encumbered as I was, regretfully dropped the satchel first and then slowly followed it down, one rung at a time. Safer and less worrying if less narrationally interesting than my earlier descent. I immediately went to open the satchel, thought better of it and went to lock the main door of the church. While unusual, this was not unknown. Nobody has ever asked why I occasionally lock the door of the Church, which is just as well, because otherwise I might have felt like a complete wanker. This time I locked the door for the sake of security.
It was almost as if I had made up my mind not to report the discovery of the bag even before I climbed up to get it. Maybe I just wanted to protect the sanctity of the Church, or the Library, which, I only realised then, had never actually been properly Searched. Or maybe it was a rebellious streak bubbling up from beneath my carefully cultivated public persona - the lonely, obsessed, old cripple persona I present to the world outside, all 28 of them. In fact it was probably just a mixture of stupidity and greed. Whatever the cause, it cannot now be undone. My treasure is my private treasure now, for good or ill. Let me tell you what was in the bag.
First, and least useful of all, was a pair of sneakers, the right size for my feet and looking as if they had been brand new when, twenty years before, they were put away in the bag along with the socks the shorts and the T-shirt. Clearly it was an excercise day for whomever had put the school-bag out of sight in the first place. Why were the trainers useless? After all, although my feet themselves are useless they still very much feel the cold as well as almost continual pain, and I have to take more care of them now then ever before, as they cannot avoid danger and injury for themselves, so to speak. Unfortunately the trainers were useless to me because, after twenty years of not being able to pop down to the local shops every time one might need a new can of crystal polish for one’s chandelier, it is pretty hard to get away with sauntering through the compound, trailing a new pair of Nikes behind one, wrapped around one’s feet. This is likely to raise comment and to ensure a brief and terminal punishment. I racked my brain for a way in which I could keep them, because they are infinitely better than anything else left amongst us. I thought I might secrete them somewhere so that I could find them again later and claim a new discovery, or perhaps arrange for them to be found by someone-else, so that no suspicion would fall on me for having hoarded them.
My problem however, was three-fold. I couldn’t just use them; way too conspicuous. If I claimed to have found them without owning up to the rest of my find, which already I desperately didn’t want to do, they might then come to make a full Search of the Church, which would surely find my undeclared bounty anyway. I couldn’t even hide them somewhere else to let someone else find them. Firstly because everywhere else has been well Searched before, so that any new find would be extremely suspicious and might start a complete new Search of the whole compound. And secondly, it would be highly suspicious of me to crawl around outside with a bundle of trainers under my arm, looking for a place to stash ‘em. Anyway someone else would get them in that case, and I wasn’t having that. The best I was able to do was to put the trainers back in the satchel and hide the whole lot in a deep recess behind the font. I intend to leave the bag there so that if anyone ever finds it, I can disclaim all knowledge and herald it as a wholly new find and hope to super-hide my treasures before a proper Search can find them.
The rest of the gear I reckon I can get away with. The socks I only ever wear under another pair, so they will never be seen until they are as old and tatty and discoloured as the other two pairs I have. The shorts I wear as a third pair of underpants, so there’s no danger of anyone ever seeing them, and the T-shirt I wear as a vest. This is more dangerous and I had to pull some holes in it, rub some wear into the collar, and use it to wipe the floor and other things until it was discoloured enough to pass muster. But, for one glorious afternoon, I kitted myself out in clean knickers, vest and socks, and crawled joyously around the church (door still locked) feeling clean and almost human again for the first time in two decades. It was orgasmic. Literally.
It was immediately after this experience that I had my only pang of guilt. To face up to the truth of course, I am stealing from my neighbours, and my children. Depriving them of the shared benefits of what should be communal assets. Why should I have three pairs of socks when two is the maximum allowance. I am depriving the community of a brand new pair of trainers, when almost everyone is now wearing the hand-stitched, evil-smelling, rabbit-skin moccasins which laughingly pass as footwear amongst us - great for the snows in winter, if you want frost-bite. So I felt this pang, ignored it completely, and carried on with my evil deception, because it was necessary in order to be able to create this memoir.
There were of course three other things in the satchel. These were:-
A copy of the Autocar magazine from November 1999, with over three thousand five hundred new and used cars for sale, an article extolling the virtues of the forthcoming Jaguar X400, and a preview of the new VW Silver Sentinel, due out in the second half of 2002. (Didn’t happen.)
A Jill Dando Memorial pencil case containing: a ruler (short), a sharpener (Pencil), pencils (Five-off), Pens (Ball-point, Assorted, Four-off) and a HandyDandy pocket calculator. (NF)
A block of lined A4 note-pads in original plastic covering containing five-off blocks of fifty sheets (A total of five hundred-off bloody fantastic bloody pages.) of pristine, high-quality, beautiful smelling, unmarked, unpreviously used, untampered with bloody writing paper.
Of course what I had found was a senior schoolboy’s going-back-to-school-for-the-new-term school-bag. What it was doing in the Church I have no idea. I suspect that either he decided to bunk-off school, arranged to meet his mates (Or a bit of totty perhaps.) and dumped his satchel meaning to reclaim it later, and never did. Or, perhaps more likely, it was stolen as a prank, hidden up there and never returned. None of the schools ever did reopen of course, so the satchel may have been forgotten about because it was never actually needed. I don’t know and frankly I don’t give a shi……lling. (Must try to keep this account cleaner than I have been doing so far.) For me, the bag represented manna from heaven.
When I first saw the satchel I was excited. Upside down and flying through the air, but still excited. When I first opened it and saw the clothes and the trainers I was ecstatic; worried and ecstatic, but ecstatic. But when I saw the five pads of paper……quite literally I almost fainted. I sat and hugged them to my chest. Cuddling them, crooning to them, making love to them (There! Clean you see.) Having Oral Sex with them. Having Nasal Sex with them. (What’s Nasal Sex? Fuck Nose! Sorry, that one just slipped out. Blame the Vet.) And when I found the pens and pencils and things, I had to lie down to still my beating heart and defibrillate my fluttering breast.
This was treasure beyond the dreams of avarice. Not, I felt sure, beyond the, nasty grasping, rapacious, dreams of avarice that lurked menacingly in the black and evil cess-pit of a mind of that black and evil, thrice-cursed swamp of malevolent ooze, the Inventory Clerk. I thought of him; getting his hands on my new-found but already precious little treasures, putting them in his lists and using MY paper to make those self-same lists, and using my pens to write them out. I felt suddenly like Bilbo Baggins, asked by Gandalf to pass his ring on to Frodo. Already this treasure was "MY PRECIOUS!" I would not, could not give it up to the evil Clerk. I wanted it. I needed it. It had come to me. It should be mine. It is mine. It is mine.
Sorry, a little bit of parody there, but not all that far from my actual state of mind that afternoon in the church. The car magazine I put in the pile of Country Lifes, Elles, Vogues and GQs which no-body bothers to read anymore. The calculator actually worked when I tabbed it on, almost giving me another heart-attack. Unfortunately it quickly decided that 2 x 3 was 888888888 and that the square-root of 16 was E or perhaps 0.8EEE84. Then the poor thing died. We kept a few solar power calculators going until about ten years ago, but this was the first time since that I had seen the magic of an LCD. I suspect it will be the last. I put it back in the satchel with the Nikes.
The pens and pencils and paper I hid in the bottom of the small metal box that lies at the side of my bed, in which I keep my dry underwear, any scraps of food I might find, and my car keys. Not a desperately safe or secure hiding place, but still the best I have thought of, so that is where I will keep this journal too. At least there it is safe from damp and mould and insects and Clerks, so long at least as it remains secret. The paper unfortunately started to go yellow almost as soon as I unwrapped it, some process of oxidisation I suppose, after twenty years in plastic. So I wrapped it up again as much as possible and only take it out as I need to use it.
And that is the tale of how I found my little treasures and why I decided to keep them. I had not previously planned or consciously even thought of creating a record like this. As I said earlier, I have long wanted to make a list of all the books and the videos and the CDs. And when I am finished with this I will try to do so, though that too will have to remain private, probably until I am dead. Looking back though, I can now see that my fingers have been itching for a long time. Since even before the Guitarist. Itching to give expression to what was inside, an urge to escape from the dreadful drudgery and desperate desolation of our daily existence.
My first thought was to write a novel; a fantasy, a romance, something that would lift me out and away from this slime-pit. But then I thought that that would be purely selfish, doubling the guilt of my crime. I also thought that if I wasn’t any good at it before, then I wasn’t likely to be any good at it this time, though at least there’d be less competition. I abandoned this idea out of lack of conviction and, truth to tell, lack of talent. I decided instead to create this record of our existence now, and how we came to it. I do not pretend to myself that this in any way is sufficient as a justification of my crime, but it is at least, I hope, not something wholly selfish. I hope to capture for posterity our life and times – such as they are.
Sorry! I just re-read that last paragraph and it is complete and utter crap. Reader! Ignore it. Editor! Strike it out. I cannot edit it and I don’t want to despoil these stolen resources by putting a pen through it. But I must make it clear, I am doing this because I want to. I am putting down my thoughts and experiences and attitudes. I cannot justify it, I am just doing it. It is pure and simple self-gratification and a little bit of personal therapy. It’s wrong, I know it’s wrong, but, in the words of the all too mortal Magnus Magnusson, "I’ve started, so I’ll finish."
Anyway, what’s life without a little excitement?
Copyright © Jock Howson 1999
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