Of Worms And Cakes – Part I

A day late, but here’s the start of Chapter Three…

3: Of Worms And Cakes

In which the island’s religious leaders get a nasty surprise regarding Great Agnes, we glimpse plans to bring a taste of the modern world to Black Island and witness a murderous kidnap plot.

It’s December 2000. The man with the clipboard wipes his brow with relief as he steps off the crude ladder. He takes a moment to get his breath back and then pulls a face, looking troubled. ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Bishop, particularly at this time of year but you’ve got a problem.’

‘Oh dear. You mean you’re not going to be able to list us?’ The Bishop of Black Island looks disappointed. ‘What a shame. I thought you said our church was a unique example of, what was it again… neo-primitive Palladian sacred architecture?’

The expert shakes his head. ‘I’m afraid that’s not the issue.’ He glances around at the squat rows of tinsel-adorned columns that recede into the nave’s murky distance. ‘This is definitely a fascinating and… most unusual building. However, what I’m worried about is your bell tower.’

‘The bell tower?’ The Bishop looks confused. ‘There’s something untoward with our bell tower?’

‘You could say so, yes.’

‘Oh dear.’ The Right Reverend Mosswell Milford looks as if the news has made him unsteady. He turns for support to his Secretary, who is standing just behind and stretches out an arm. The wisp-like Bishop clutches it and sways sideways, robes billowing around his scarecrow figure.

‘Is it serious?’ The Bishop’s Secretary is the physical opposite of his master. Several chins and a set of bulldog jowls wobble in an agitated fashion as the Reverend Leonard Presley speaks.

‘I’m afraid so. Yes.’

‘Oh my. Oh no.’ The Bishop shakes his head. ‘But it’s almost Christmas, we can’t have problems now.’

Reverend Presley looks equally glum. His eyes lift accusingly, not so much to the heavens but towards the bell tower that’s more immediately above them.

The three men are standing in the area of the cathedral known as the sanctuary. Directly in front of them is the altar: a squat slab of polished granite about six feet square. Relief carvings of the disciples adorn its sides. The craftsmanship involved is not the most sophisticated and the saints around the altar appear somewhat menacing. For some, the overall effect is unfortunate: the huge stone block reminding them more of a sacrificial table used by some of the bloodier pagan cultures.

Over on the other side of the altar is a shallow apse. Its centrepiece is a multicoloured stained-glass window. At first glance, the figure it contains could be Christ stooping to offer his blessings. But the appearance is deceptive. The window depicts the cathedral’s founder, Colonel Huntley Black, and the devout pose is one that wouldn’t have been recognised by anyone who knew Black Island’s second governor in real life.

None of that registers, though, with the Bishop’s Secretary. The cathedral, for all its quirks, is the only church the Reverend Presley has ever known. He glances briefly at the patterns of coloured light below the colonel’s image. He’d been hoping to set up the Nativity scene in the apse tomorrow morning. ‘Oh, this is a bother,’ he says. ‘But do we have to worry about it now.’

Their visitor pulls a face. ‘Well, there are no guarantees. Things might stay as they are for another year. But it’s a potentially dangerous situation. I wouldn’t want to take any risks if it was me.’

The Reverend Presley frowns. ‘Can’t we… I don’t know, put a sign up. Tell people to keep out of the bell tower. It’s not as if anyone goes up there often anyway.’

‘I’m afraid it’s not that simple.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s not people going up into the bell tower I’m worried about.’

The Bishop’s eyes widen and his florid-faced Secretary gives a gasp.  ‘What in heaven’s name do you mean?’ asks Bishop Milford. ‘Is there something nasty in the bell tower?’

The trio lift their gazes upwards. The ceiling in most of the cathedral is extremely low: the central nave only twenty feet high and the aisles barely half as tall. It’s a strange design, mostly because Colonel Black couldn’t see the point of employing an architect. Instead, he drew up the plans for the building himself, guided more by supreme confidence in his own god-given talents rather than any skill. The colonel also decided importing workers with experience of ecclesiastical architecture would be too expensive. Instead, he opted for a simpler solution: having his cathedral built using convicts from the prison of which he was also in charge.

There may still have been a chance of the cathedral looking relatively normal if the colonel had hung around to keep an eye on matters. In that case, the cathedral’s founder-cum-designer might have realised some of his measurements were written down as feet when what he’d meant was yards. Unfortunately, Colonel Black never took the time to check on his great work. He was away in Europe: busy riding horses, bedding whores and fighting Napoleon. Instead, the colonel appointed a foreman who doggedly followed the design he was given without the slightest deviation. Lacking any oversight from its benefactor, work on the cathedral continued regardless — even when it became apparent to everyone else on the island that there was a major problem with its proportions.

By the time the roof went on it was too late. The new cathedral looked as if it had been squashed by a giant foot. Not that the colonel cared. He was dead, having lost his head to a stray cannon shot during the Battle of Waterloo.
Around where the two churchmen and their visitor now stand, there’s a bit more headroom. It’s not quite the lofty, soaring space envisioned by its creator but there’s just about enough space for the window depicting Colonel Black in his uncharacteristic Christ-pose. Most of the window anyway. The piece of stained glass — also designed by the colonel — should have shown him treading on a horde of defeated and subhuman Bonapartists. In the end, though, there wasn’t room for the whole thing. Colonel Black’s feet — and the devilish Frenchmen — had to be cut off and left out of the picture. It was either that or his head.

Another striking feature of the cathedral’s sanctuary are the massive columns that stand in each corner where the nave and transept cross. Modelled on the Greek Doric style, the elephantine pillars are ten feet thick at the base and heavily fluted. Between them rises a tall, circular tower, its sides broken only by a few arrow-slit windows.
The design might have been impressive if the scale had been right. Sadly, the result looks more like the inside of a factory chimney than an elegant cathedral reaching for the heavens.

The tower’s simplicity is also spoilt by the rickety ladders climbing to the bell loft almost sixty feet above. As he looks at them now, the man with the clipboard decides he’s owed a considerable bonus for having even attempted the ascent. The good thing though is it’s highly unlikely the Bishop or his Secretary will try going up to check what he’s telling them.

He backs into the nave, making the two churchmen look at him in surprise. ‘You know, it might be best not to stand underneath the tower.’

Reverend Presley frowns. ‘Why ever not?’

‘Well, that bell you’ve got up there… The big one.’

‘What, Great Agnes?’

‘It’s a big piece of metal. It must weigh quite a lot.’

‘About seven tons.’ The Reverend Presley glances up. He and the Bishop are directly beneath the bell tower and something in their visitor’s words begins to penetrate.

The Bishop’s Secretary draws his boss down the steps into the nave and away from the tower. Turning to the man with the clipboard, the Secretary leans forward and whispers. ‘What’s wrong? Is Great Agnes safe?’

‘It’s woodworm.’

‘Woodworm?’

‘And deathwatch beetle.’

‘Up there?’

‘Afraid so. It’s the worst case I’ve seen in a while. You’ve got beetles in your belfry.’

* * *

It’s misty outside and the two boys skid on the wet cobbles as they turn the corner. Nathan grabs Davey for support and they both almost fall. Laughing, they tumble through the open doorway and out of the rain.

‘Bloody hell!’ Davey brakes to a halt and grabs his nose. ‘What’s that stink?’

Nathan pulls a face. An oily smoke billows towards them. It smells like an unholy combination of bacon, old socks and herbal bath oil. ‘Is your uncle experimenting again?’

To be continued…

Next: Arthur tries to develop new talents and Padraig offers his assistance with the cathedral’s problems.

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