The letter arrives by snail-mail, addressed to Mr. R. Griffiths, which raises my hackles. Robin Griffiths, the name on my website states, and because I’m a glazier, people assume I’m male. However, I refuse to add a profile photo to the site, because my gender has nothing whatsoever to do with my profession.
I tear the letter open, wreaking revenge on the envelope, and skip to the valediction. The correspondent is the Chairman of Bilbury Parish Council, a Mr. Jonathan Hargreaves. Not Chair or Chairperson—Chairman. That might explain the gender assumption.
This is the first time a potential client has contacted me by letter in a long time. I massage the bridge of my nose, thinking how much simpler it would have been for both of us had he used the website submission form. He must have found me via my website, so why didn’t he choose to email? Now I’m expected to reply by the same means, as he has not included an email address or telephone number.
I’m tempted to bin the letter, but the words “deconsecrated thirteenth-century church” and “woodland setting” leap from the page, making the contents too appetizing to ignore. Propped on a stool at the breakfast bar, I dunk a second chocolate biscuit in my tea and devour the whole four pages.
Back in the studio, I set to work with the soldering iron. The project I’m working on demands little focus, and my mind wanders in the direction of the church window that Jonathan Hargreaves wants restored.
His enthusiasm for the project had oozed from the page. He’d written that they intended to use the church not only as a place of worship for all faiths and denominations (though how successful that will be I can only imagine), but also as a community center with a variety of arts and social clubs on offer. There was also the Lottery grant, as well as a substantial sum raised locally, plus a committee already assembled and eager to take on the world, by all accounts.
But what tickled my fancy most was his description of the church and its setting: Nestled among fourteen acres of native woodland, St. Sannan’s Church has sat derelict and unattended for a quarter century. We, the committee and parishioners of Bilbury, are eager to see it restored to its former glory.
And the description of the stained-glass window had me chomping at the bit…
The window is situated in the apse, at the far end of the chancel. It faces the altar and is approximately seven feet tall and three feet wide. A magnificent specimen in its heyday, I imagine, though now sadly bereft of almost all its glass sections.
When I read those words, my heart had sunk, imagining having to replace antique glass with modern, but he had gone on to say that a number of sections had been found among the rubble, and he believed that more lay hidden within the building and grounds. The description appealed to the child in me. Finding the missing pieces would be like playing a game of hide and seek.
As a student I studied the art and history of stained glass, but so far I have not been lucky enough to restore such a grand specimen. My studio work tends towards the commercial side of things: bespoke designs, both modern and traditional, for homes and offices, and the odd vintage restoration job, but nothing as exciting as this. My heart lies in antique glass, Victorian Gothic and authentic art deco in particular, but opportunities to restore either are rare.
My guess is the church window originates from the nineteenth century, a period that saw a revival in religious iconographic stained glass, often copied directly from famous oil paintings. What a joy it would be to restore, and in a remote setting, too. An opportunity to exchange the noise of traffic and the smell of exhaust fumes for the wind in the trees and the fresh air, at least for a couple of weeks.
The GPS is as confused as I am and sends me round and round in circles. The chocolate-box town of Bilbury, a mere twenty miles from home, proved easy to find, though having only lived in the county for seven months I’m not familiar with it. The trouble is, after passing through the township, I cannot find my bearings. The location of the church remains a mystery.
Having checked its whereabouts on Google Maps before setting off, I have some idea of its general location, because although the church itself was not visible on the satellite view, the surrounding woods were. A glance at the clock informs me I’m already five minutes late. I hate being late. “If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late,” my father used to say when I was growing up. He was a stickler for all sorts of things, most of which did more harm than good.
Whichever way I turn, I end up driving my van along narrow lanes banked high on both sides, the kind of lanes you drive with your heart in your mouth in case a tractor’s coming in the opposite direction. I regret not having obtained a mobile number from Mr. Hargreaves, though I doubt there’s a signal here in any case.
A nagging doubt enters my mind. What if I’m driving into a trap? This self-labeled chairman might be a crook, one who arranges to meet a woman at a remote location under the pretense of offering them their dream job, while beneath the cloak he is nothing more than a wolf. Come to think of it, why would a committee choose such a remote location for a community center and make people drive miles to get there? They’re usually located within town centers to be accessible to the local population.
In accepting his offer to meet and view the proposed restoration, I had signed the letter Ms Robin Griffiths, thereby establishing my gender. Yes, he had assumed me to be male in his initial correspondence, though what the hell difference would it make if he were some kind of maniac?
If I were to disappear, the police would find no evidence. No contact number on my mobile; no agreed meet-up on my website form. Get a grip, Robin, for god’s sake!
I pull in beside a farm gate and take a few deep breaths to calm my nerves. My palms are slick with sweat, as is my top lip. Perhaps I should abandon the mission. Go home and remain in blissful ignorance of what might have been.
A curious lamb wanders from its mother and stands at the gate, watching me. It bleats a word of encouragement before its mother calls it back. The newborn lambs in the field beyond the gate look so innocent in their white coats that the world suddenly feels less threatening. I’ll drive for a minute longer, I tell myself, and if I can’t find it, I’ll turn around and head for home. I pull away from the grassy verge and head downhill.
Rounding a bend, I spy in the distance what I assume is Coppersgate Woods, since it’s the only woods I’ve noticed since leaving town. Take a sharp left, then bear right, Hargreaves’ confirmation letter had said. You’ll see a dirt track through the woods. After half a mile or so, the church will be on your left. There’s no car park as such, but you can park in front of the gate.
My stomach does another somersault. Am I being baited? Still, I’m here now, and the road’s too narrow to turn around, so I have no choice but to continue.
The track is rutted, and although my attention is focused more on the potholes than my surroundings, I see enough to suggest this woods is broadleaf rather than conifer. The trees are newly budded and peppered with birdsong; the air is tainted with wild garlic.
I spot his car in the distance, parked in front of a stone wall: a silver Peugeot 108 that looks too small to hide a body in, unless he dissected it first.
He must have heard the rumble of my wheels, as he appears at the gate. He’s wearing a crumpled linen suit and a khaki cotton hat more suited to an Australian summer than a British spring. He is older than I imagined, around the age of seventy, I guess. Instinct suggests all is well, especially when he offers a friendly wave. I’ve learned to trust my instinct over the years, after everything I’ve been through.
I park beneath the overhanging bough of a yew, one whose roots have burst through a section of stone wall, causing it to crumble. I turn off the engine and step out of the van.
“Ah, you found us at last,” he says, wearing an innocuous smile and dark glasses—the purple-mirrored kind worn by aging rock-stars—which clashes with the rest of his image. “Take some navigating, these roads.”
“Sorry I’m late.” My face burns red, and when he holds out a hand for me to shake, I swipe my palm down the front of my jeans before doing so. His hand is cool in contrast to mine.
“Never mind, never mind. You made it and that’s all that matters. Jonathan Hargreaves, pleased to meet you.”
“Robin Griffiths.” I manage to return the smile.
He gestures towards the churchyard. “Come on in, but be warned: it’s rather dilapidated.”
At the lychgate he pauses and points towards a tangle of bramble that has woven itself around the wood. “Careful here. It’s the reason I wear a hat whenever I come. Damn thorns will scratch your eyes out good as look at you.” He shoulders his way through the gate and holds back a long shoot to allow me to enter. “I’ve arranged for someone to cut it back at the end of the week. We need to clear the access if we want you builders to be able to do your job.”
I can hardly be termed a builder, but I let the comment slide.
The stress of the last few minutes turns to awe as I step through the gate into the graveyard.
Ahead stands the church, an ancient Cotswold-stone building complete with narthex and bell tower, but it is the graveyard itself that steals my breath. Scattered headstones peep from behind knee-high grass, some of the stones leaning towards each other as if conspiring. The wind whispers through the trees, giving them a voice: visitors, visitors!
“Some of these trees will need to be felled,” he says, startling me from my reverie. “Over the years, nature has done what she does best, and, as you can see, the woodland trees have seeded themselves among the graves.”
He’s right, of course. Here and there, headstones lie toppled by saplings that have matured into full-grown trees, their roots desecrating what should have been someone’s place of eternal rest. I picture bones and roots intertwined. A ribcage through which fibrous strands have woven a web strong enough to pin down the skeleton, ensuring it remains in situ for eternity.
“Anyway, the window,” he says. “Walk this way.”
A mossy path littered with pine cones and bird shit leads towards the church and then around the back to the chancel. The windows along the longitudinal wall are diamond-leaded with plain glass, most of which is broken or cracked, despite having been covered in heavy-duty mesh. I imagine he will want me to repair these, too, though he hasn’t mentioned it yet. A gust of wind screams in my face as we round the corner, forcing me to stand still for a moment and wait for its tantrum to fizzle out.
“And here we have it,” he says, pointing at the window.
I crane my neck to gain a better view but need to take a few steps back onto the grass to see it properly. The stone sill stands at chest height and the window rises from there, reaching a height of approximately twelve feet. On either side of it are lancet windows, elongated eyes that reinforce the sensation of the structure pointing skywards.
Unlike the other windows, the stained-glass window ‒ if that’s what it can be called, for now only a few determined pieces remain captive within its leaded frame ‒ has no mesh to protect it. Clinging to the wall is a tangle of ivy that reaches long tendrils in heaven’s direction.
I gaze up at the shattered window. It must have been spectacular in its day, but now it is impossible to tell what biblical scene it once depicted. Broken things have always piqued my interest, people included: the ruined, the desecrated, those who have been violated, lure me in, hook, line and sinker.
“What do you think?”
I squint towards the window, hands on hips. “It must have been impressive once. Perhaps there’s some kind of record—a photograph or something—from when the church was in use?”
He frowns. “There are none. Trust me, I’ve looked. I’m the first to admit I’m no dab-hand when it comes to computers, but my secretary is pretty tech-minded, and she’s been unable to find anything. Not a single photograph anywhere.”
“How strange… and the locals? Surely someone must have attended the church in the past. I mean, if it’s only been closed for twenty-five years or so, someone must remember it.”
He pinches his lower lip between thumb and forefinger, a habit, perhaps. “You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Most folk attended the church in town rather than this one. I guess the place is too remote.”
I say nothing, certain he must be mistaken. Surely the church would have had a caretaker at the very least. I’ll do some research myself. And, if I find nothing, at least I’ll have the leadwork to go by. Determining which colors to use will be nigh on impossible without a photo though. “In your letter, you mentioned you found some of the glass. Is it possible for me to see it? It’ll give me an idea of the window’s age.”
“Of course. It’s inside the church.” He turns as if to walk away, then stops. “Actually, you might get a better impression of the window itself from inside. At least the sun won’t be in your eyes.”
He marches ahead, and I follow like a lamb along the narrow path. “So, my guess is the parish council now own the church. Is that right?”
“Indeed,” he says over his shoulder, “and we bought it for a snip of a price. Though once we’re inside, you’ll see the reason for that. The place needs so much work.”
Back at the main entrance, a sturdy wooden door bars the way. Four straps of rusted metal bolster its strength, and a ring of iron attached to an intricately carved backplate serves as a handle. It is unlocked; he must have opened it while waiting for me to arrive. The door yields with no more than a plaintive creak and opens into a narthex and beyond to the nave.
What strikes me first is the biting cold. I’d expected the spring sunshine to have thawed its old shell a little, but this is not the case. Each breath I exhale emits a small cloud, and I clench my teeth to prevent them from chattering. It must be close to zero in here.
A flutter of wings spooks me, but it is just a wood pigeon startled from the rafters by our sudden appearance. I turn my eyes skyward, noting that half the roof tiles are missing. The building is crowned by a wooden skeleton, with nothing more than a tangled wig of ivy and the leafy limb of an encroaching yew to protect it from the elements. Little wonder it’s so cold and damp.
He points at the missing portion of roof. “See what I mean? There’s an awful lot of work to do, but it’ll be worth it in the end, I’m sure.”
I admire his tenacity. The place is a wreck. Far worse than I realized from the outside.
The wood pigeon returns to its barren nest on the rafter, from where it eyes us suspiciously, occasionally cooing its disapproval.
Leaning against a stone pillar, I take in my surroundings. Where door meets lintel, a lace-web spider stops work and watches from the heart of its cunning web. Wrapped in a silk shroud, an insect awaits its fate. I hope it’s already dead.
I cast my gaze around the interior. A central aisle and Gothic arches. The place is imposing, but my god, what a state of ruin! Broken roof tiles lie scattered on pews so thick with dust I could write my name in the dirt.
“Geez, you’re not kidding. Has it been vandalized, or are the elements to blame?”
“No idea, I’m afraid. Now then… the pieces of glass.” He dashes down the aisle, and I follow.
A substantial stone altar sits in front of the apse a few feet in front of the broken window. On first appearance, it looks as if the altar is strewn with litter and debris, but on closer inspection I realize it is not litter but the skeletons of leaves and desiccated flowers. They cover its pitted surface, their once vibrant colors faded to sepia. I pick up a leaf and it crumbles to dust between my fingers. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Hargreaves’ voice brings me back to the present. “Here.” He opens the lid of a crude wooden box. “These are the pieces we’ve found so far.”
I select a shard and hold it toward the light streaking in through the broken window. Oxblood red, roughly crescent shaped, like a miniature spleen. I know in an instant that it’s old because of its opalescence. I hold it in the palm of my hand. “Post 1880, I think.”
He studies me, expecting more.
I point at the window. “My initial guess would be that it was made between 1880 and 1910, art nouveau rather than art deco.”
“And you know this how?” His tone implies interest rather than skepticism.
“Because of the long curving lines. If it were art deco, the lines would be more geometric, more angular.”
He rubs his chin and nods.
“Strange how the leadwork’s intact. It’s as if someone came along and popped the pieces of glass out with a thumb, though I imagine once I’m able to examine the leadwork it’ll be soft. If that’s the case, it’ll need replacing.”
“Hmm…Well, you have my permission to do whatever it takes. By the way, we’ve hired a contractor that works specifically in the conservation of old buildings such as this. Hywel Elliot & Co. You might have heard of them.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t. I moved to this area quite recently. Still finding my way around.”
“They cover all aspects of building work except stained-glass repair, which is why I contacted you.” He pauses. “So, how do you feel now that you’ve seen the place?”
I turn to face him and my distorted reflection stares back at me in the mirrored lenses of his glasses. Despite the distortion, my expression looks eager. “I’m definitely interested, but I’ll need a hand to take out the window, and I’ll require scaffolding because of its height. Once the window’s removed, I’ll be able to work here inside the church for much of the renovation.” In truth, it would be easier to have the window transported back to the studio, but a few weeks’ work in such magnificent surroundings is just what I could do with right now. As long as I bring everything I need, I can set up a workshop of sorts here. And besides, it might be nice to have a bit of company. If other conservation work is going on at the same time, I’ll get to meet new people. Plus, there’ll be others to hand to help me replace the window once it’s restored.
Eyeing the space between the altar and broken window, I picture the scene. Three or four trestles with plenty of space to maneuverer from all four sides.
He sees me pondering. “I forgot to mention in my letter that the other windows will need repairing too. Are you willing to see to all of them?”
“Of course. They’ll be much simpler to repair with the plain glass.”
He claps his hands, then rubs them together. “Rightio. Will you send me an estimate of costs, or is it too soon?”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to see what we’re up against once the window’s removed. It will depend on how much leadwork needs replacing, and on whether the remaining pieces of glass can be found.”
“Of course. I understand.”
I replace the oxblood shard in the box and close the lid. “Do you mind if I take this home? I’d like to dig a little deeper, if that’s okay. And I’ll take a few photos of the window before I leave, for research purposes.”
“Not at all. Do as you wish.”
I whip out my phone and take some photos while he waits.
“How soon can you start?”
I make a quick mental calculation, considering the job I’m in the middle of. “How does a week Monday sound?”
“Grand. The builders are due to start work at the end of this week, so anytime after that will be fine. I’ll give you a spare set of keys. Then you can come and go as you please.”
I lift the box of glass, which is substantial in weight, and tuck it under my arm, eager to return to the warmth of the van. “Is there electricity here?”
“There is, but I’m not keen on it being used until it’s been certified. The builders have been asked to prioritize that. They need electricity to operate their tools, so I’m certain they’ll see to it quickly. By the time you start work, it should be sorted.”
I make a mental note to bring a small heater with me and follow him down the aisle.
“Would it be okay if I pop back in my spare time to look for more missing pieces of glass? I rather fancy a scout around.” I rub my forearms, trying to warm them. “I’ll remember to wear a coat next time. It’s freezing in here.”
“Of course, though I might as well tell you… most of the glass was found outside among the gravestones, not inside.”
We step into the relative warmth of an April day, and he frowns. “It’s strange. You’d swear they’d been scattered to the wind by some giant hand.”
“The pieces of glass.” He makes a wide sweep with his arm. “Here, there, everywhere.”
The thought of someone intentionally scattering the glass makes me flinch. Why would anyone do such a thing? “I wonder, do you have a mobile number I could contact you on?”
He snorts. “What, those modern fandangled things? I refuse to own one. Hate everything they stand for. But I’ll give you the telephone number of my secretary’s office in case of emergencies. Do you have a pen?”
I pull out my mobile and grin. “It’s okay, I’ll store it on this.” However, having added his number, I want to give him mine as well. I check my van and find a pen. No paper though, so I scribble my mobile number on the back of a chewing-gum wrapper and hand it to him. “Here… in case you need to contact me.”
“One moment,” he says, opening his car door. He rummages about in the glove compartment. “Here.” He hands me a bunch of keys. “Feel free to return whenever you like.”
Back home, I boot the laptop and transfer the photos of the window from my phone, preferring to view them on a larger screen. The first photo I open is blurred, so I skip to the next, and the next, frustrated to find all of them blurred. I check the images on the phone and discover the same. Either the camera is broken, or there was insufficient light in the church, and I forgot to use the flash. Damn! I’d taken them in a hurry because I’d been concerned about keeping Hargreaves waiting.
I reload the first image to see if anything can be salvaged from it. If not, I’ll have to go back soon and take some more, because I’m eager to discover what image the window represents. I zoom in, examining one section at a time. The photo is not so much blurred as just indistinct—hazy, as though faded by decades of sunshine.
But when I zoom back out, the image looks different to how it did previously. Now the photo suggests the window is more complete than it was in reality. This is crazy! Nevertheless, the window appears whole again. No evidence of missing glass; instead, it depicts a riot of faded color. If my mind is not playing tricks, a figure dominates the center of the image. Featureless, yet donned in a cobalt and oxblood cloak. A saint of some kind, I assume. Most likely Saint Sannan, the church’s namesake.
I search the name of the church online, hoping to discover an image that matches this one, but the search leads me to two churches in Wales: one in the north and another in the south. I can find no mention of a church named St. Sannan’s in this part of England. The church in South Wales has a stained-glass window, but the saint depicted is robed in green, not red and blue.
I return my screen to the zoomed-in photo and open the wooden box containing the shards of glass. I select the kidney-shaped piece and hold it up against the image on the screen. A definite color match, though the on-screen version is muted.
I rummage around in the box until I find a blue shard and hold it up to the image. Again, an exact match. How is this possible?
The urge to drive straight back to the church is powerful, but a glance out the window tells me the daylight is already dimming. I have a job to complete tomorrow but should finish by around two if I skip lunch, then I can return to the church. One thing I know for certain: the window was missing almost all of its glass. So what I’m seeing here must be a trick of the light. Either that or there’s something wrong with my phone camera. I’ll take my SLR tomorrow, just in case.
My stomach rumbles, reminding me I haven’t eaten since breakfast. A sandwich will suffice. I can eat at the computer.
I spend the next two hours searching for information on the church’s history and discover nothing whatsoever. No entry exists on the National Church Trust database, nothing on any of the historical sites. The church doesn’t even get a mention on local sites. It feels as though today’s meeting with Jonathan Hargreaves was no more than a figment of my imagination. How is it possible for a building to stand for eight-hundred years yet leave no trace?
I guess the answer is simple: either I misread the name on Hargreaves’ letter or he wrote the wrong name.
I slide open the desk drawer, retrieve the letter, and scan the text. No, I was not mistaken, he definitely called it St. Sannan’s. He must have made an error.
But then I remember him mentioning that neither he nor his secretary could find any records. Is it possible there are none?
It makes no sense. This is the twenty-first century, goddammit, it should be easy to find something online. There must be public records of the deeds transfer. If Bilbury Parish Council purchased the church, then who did they purchase it from?
A sense of dread seeps into the room. What if the whole thing’s a scam? What if there is no church-restoration company, and I spend several weeks working on a project for which I won’t get paid? I try to recall the name of the conservation company Hargreaves mentioned but draw a blank. A Google search throws up a list of a few, and I scan the names. There… third result down: Hywel Elliot & Co. I’m certain it was it.
I could call them on some pretense or other to check they’ve been assigned the job, but what excuse would I give? They might consider such information private.
I sit, chin cupped in hands, and stare at the screen. The counselor's words ring clear in my ears, so close they tickle. You have to learn to trust, Robin, or life will continue to be difficult. I know she’s right, but it’s easier said than done, especially when you’re damaged goods.
I picture Jonathan Hargreaves with his honest smile and firm handshake. His granddad hat to protect him from the bramble. What kind of scammer wears a hat like that?
Gut instinct suggests nothing’s amiss, but there’s a part of me that refuses to let go of the old fears. After all, no one seemed more convincing than my own father. No one. Everyone loved and admired him. Capable of charming the birds off the trees. The definition of altruism. A more benevolent and God-fearing man you couldn’t wish to meet, at least on the surface. Only I saw through the veneer. Even my mother saw no wrong in him, though I prefer to think she did but was too afraid to admit it. A classic enabler, my counselor called her, and I guess she was right. Every narcissist needs at least one enabler in their life, and my mother fit the role to perfection. He also had my sister, the golden child who could do no wrong. And then there was me, the scapegoat.
Yes, each of us fit our roles seamlessly. It took me twenty-two years to realize what those roles entailed and to try to come to terms with the verdict. The family that seemed so perfect was less so once you peeled back the layers.
Trust. I think back to the final conversation I had with my mother, the day I was brave enough to cut the ties for good. Like a portioned cake, the slices could never be put back together again. Not without the jam bleeding into the cream.
Enough dwelling on the past. What I need now is distraction, so—instead of focusing on how the whole thing is a setup—I spread the glass segments out on the desk and turn my attention to researching and recording their attributes.
My instinct was correct: the evidence suggests the glass dates from the late-nineteenth century or thereabouts, though the shape of the window dates back to much earlier: Gothic in style with a pointed arch, typical of the period. Once I’m able to take a closer look and inspect the leadwork and beveling, I can be more accurate. And if I were to discover more information about the building, I might be able to find the name of the original artist, which would be wonderful.
I refuse to surrender. I’ll visit Bilbury Library to carry out some research and make an appointment to meet someone from the local council if necessary. The window has sharpened its claws and refuses to let go.
I step into the street outside my studio, and a chilly breeze whips my hair across my eyes, momentarily blinding me from the traffic. I tuck it behind my ears and wait for the lights to change before dashing across and heading for the bakery.
I’d been in the studio by seven and worked through lunch so I could finish early. The studio, no bigger than a garage, is a little rental just off the High Street and only a hundred yards or so from my bedsit. My father would not approve of either the location or my choice of career, but it’s none of his business, and since I no longer have anything to do with him it doesn’t matter.
Control, that was what my father wanted. Both my parents had pushed me towards the sciences, in which I had no interest—and as for maths, let’s not go there. Because I refused to comply with their wishes, they refused to help fund my university degree. Out of sheer determination to seek a career in history and the arts, I worked two part-time jobs and funded my own
education, managing to get by with a small student loan at the end because of my frugality.
Narcissism isn’t just about appearance and vanity—it goes far deeper than that—and his refusal to help had nothing to do with my choice of subjects; it was all about that control. My parents were quite well-off—my dad working as a senior civil service manager and my mother a teacher—but they used their wealth as a tool to drive a wedge between me and my sister, Wren. It worked when we were children. If there was a specific toy I longed to have for Christmas, they bought it for her instead; but the older I got, the more I saw through their ploy and the less I fell for it. I became adept at hiding my true feelings, thus denying them their craving for control. So what if Wren has never bought her own car. So what if she owns a plush pad without a mortgage. I’ll not be bought like she has.
Pastry in hand, I set off for the church.
As I round the final bend, Coppersgate Woods comes into view, the freshly leaved canopy of trees bursting with spring pride. The van rumbles along the dirt track leading to the church, its tires the only sound for miles, and yet, as I park outside the church, I feel as if I am being watched.
It does not take long for me to spot the culprit. As I exit the van and slam the door, a crow issues a throaty caw. It sits high in the overgrown yew, its claws hooked and tail fanned. Its expression is solemn, and for some strange reason reminds me of my grandmother.
Its beady eyes follow me as I open the gate, remembering to hold back the spiny stems of bramble with the sleeve of my coat. Before passing through, I check to see if I have missed a billboard announcing the name of the church, but there is none.
The back of my neck prickles as I recall the words my grandmother spoke the first time she took me to visit Pappi’s grave: Yew trees thrive on corpses, Robin. The dead provide good nutrients. The tree will feed on them, and a new yew will spring forth from the old. That’s why they’re the symbol of death and rebirth. I guess I inherited my imagination from my grandmother, because neither of my parents have a creative bone in their body.
The way in which the sunken headstones lean towards one another, combined with the whispering long grass, once again gives me the sense of the dead conspiring. I tell myself not to be ridiculous and pick my way along the path towards the door.
I retrieve the keys from my coat pocket, select the largest, and insert it into the lock. The backplate is intricately carved, but the metal is too pitted and oxidized for me to make out the pattern clearly. I peer closely and can just make out some kind of scrolled foliage with the outline of a figure at the center, around which the foliage weaves a path, disguising the figure from prying eyes.
I look for the name of the church inside the narthex, but again there is none. On entering the nave, I am greeted by a cold blast of air, and the old wood pigeon takes flight in a frenzied flutter. The sound of its beating wings startles me, just as it did the first time.
Sunlight pours in through the once-stained-glass window, extending a long-armed beam down the aisle. Breathtaking! But I am here for the purpose of research, not to get carried away by the atmosphere of this derelict place. I check the walls close to the entrance, in search of the church’s name. Nothing but flaking paint and spider webs.
No evidence of the church’s name anywhere. Jonathan Hargreaves could have called it anything, and I’d be none the wiser. Perhaps this is why I can find no trace online.
Once again, my sixth sense issues a word of warning. Tread carefully, it says. All is not what it seems.
I cast my gaze around the whole interior, taking in the Gothic arches that straddle the aisle, the steeply pitched roof, and the chancel that runs east to west at the furthest end. A musty smell hangs in the air, tickling my nose. I sneeze, and the sound echoes all around, emphasizing how alone I am.
The building has been stripped of all artifacts and furniture, apart from a few rotten pews and the stone altar. No wall-mounted memorials, candlesticks, crucifixes, or any religious paraphernalia remain. The altar, which sits at the top of two steps in the chancel, was far too heavy for anyone to remove, I imagine. Is this how the committee inherited the church, or have they stripped it of its artifacts in preparation for renovation?
I concede defeat in my mission to discover the church’s name and turn my attention to the stained-glass window. Because much of the leadwork remains, from this distance it is possible to gain an impression of the overall window. As the photos had revealed, the design suggests that a figure once resided within the center. A vague outline of a head and shoulders remains, but that’s all. But the computer screen had shown color, too. I’m certain. The previous evening feels like a dream. A warped sense of reality, my mind over-fatigued and therefore open to imagining all kinds of scenarios.
My father had always belittled me for what he termed prone to embellishing the facts. He used it as a way of making me doubt myself and to suggest I was lying, whereas he, of course, was nothing but honest.
My mother, the dutiful enabler, reinforced his opinion of me on so many occasions that I came to believe it. Only when I was knee-deep in therapy did I begin to think differently.
I walk the length of the aisle, up the chancel steps, and stand in front of the window, straining my neck to study its full height. At the thought of what this will take to renovate, my fists clench from both self-doubt and excitement. If only I had an image to work from. I have no intention of giving up on that hope yet. Perhaps the library in Bilbury will offer something in the way of records.
I raise my hand and imagine drawing a line, sectioning off the bottom six or seven inches with an invisible divider. Then I use the leaded outline to count the missing pieces of glass from that section. Twenty-two. Given that the window is seven feet tall, the total must be around three hundred pieces. The box Jonathan Hargreaves gave me contained fifty-five. My heart sinks. The box contains a trifling number of pieces compared to the total number. What on earth have I let myself in for? The urge to run from the building and never return overwhelms me, but at that moment the sunlight highlights a twinkling sliver of glass trapped between wall and skirting board.
I remove the camera from around my neck, place it on the altar, then kneel on the stone-cold floor and try to pluck the piece out with my thumb and forefinger. Not enough of the glass protrudes, and I fail to grip it. It reminds me of long ago when a sliver of glass from a jam jar had buried itself in my finger as I twisted the lid. The tiny sliver had refused to budge, though it eventually worked its way out of its own accord, my body rejecting the foreign object.
I pull the keys from my pocket, select the smallest, and insert it into the narrow gap between wall and skirting. However, rather than helping to lever the slither out, the key jams. I jiggle the key about until eventually it springs free, but not without having pushed the shard of glass deeper into the groove. I groan with frustration. Finding one more piece of glass is a spit in the ocean, but I can be obsessive, and I refuse to relinquish possession of the piece.
I get to my feet and look around for something sharp to use as a lever. In the far corner of the chancel, I find a nail: an old-fashioned type with a hand-forged head and burred shank, but to me it’s a gift of gold.
My heart pounds as I slot the nail into the gap, fearing it might push the shard in deeper just as the key did. I wipe the sweat from my palm on my coat so I can grip it properly. I’m aware of the sound of my own breathing but of something else, too. The breath of another. Again, the sense of being watched is real, and I raise my head to look around before I can focus on the task in hand. Needless to say, there’s no one here.
At last, I manage to dig the nail in deep enough and hook it underneath the piece of glass. Little by little, I prise it from its hiding place until enough of it is exposed for me to grip with my fingers. The sense of satisfaction as the piece reveals itself is immense. Approximately three inches by two, the shard is roughly rectangular with rounded corners, and the color of good cognac with a hint of smoke. Another old piece, for sure. I slip it into my pocket for safekeeping and then shuffle the length of skirting on my knees, searching for any other pieces lodged there, but I am disappointed to find none.
Reminding myself that the main purpose of today’s visit is to take photographs, I retrieve the SLR from the altar and take some pictures of the window, taking care to ensure the flash is on.
Shivering with cold, I wander outside and take a few external photos. At least the sun is behind me, which I’m grateful for, since I’ve forgotten to bring the lens hood.
While I’m outside, I scout around to see if I can find any pieces of glass near the window. I focus my search on the ivy that clings to the wall, hoping a shard might have got caught among the leaves. I trail the vines with my finger. Is the ivy poisonous? I might develop a rash later as my skin is particularly sensitive. Despite the risk, I cannot resist digging deeper into the tangled vines, and my efforts are rewarded when I find two more pieces: one blue, the other rust-red, like a bloodstain that’s been left too long.
On the ground, jutting a centimeter or so above the dirt, is what looks like a third piece. I dig about with the toe of my shoe. There—it’s cobalt blue but caked in mud. I kneel on the damp grass, flicking my beige coat out of the way to keep it clean, and scrape the dirt with my fingers. They come away soiled but bearing a gift. I spit on a corner and rub at the glass with a tissue, revealing a shard the color of a dunnock’s egg.
Finding the pieces has turned into an Easter egg hunt; the thrill of discovering each shard provides a tiny dopamine fix and incites a lust for more. The thought sparks a memory of my father berating me for eating too many chocolate eggs. His voice rings loud in my head: You’ll make yourself sick, Robin; and besides, you’ll get fat. You’re already too plump around the middle, if you want my opinion.
I did not want his opinion. I had never wanted his opinion, though he gave it often enough. God forbid I should put on weight and destroy his image of the perfect little family. I mean, what would people think if he had a fat daughter? The memory is sobering, and I am suddenly deflated.
I’ve done what I came here to do, so I decide to call it a day and head for home. There’s always tomorrow. Shoulders hunched, I skulk around to the front of the church and along the path, but halfway to the van I remember the church door is still unlocked. I head back to the main door to secure the church. The rusty lock squeals in protest as if it does not wish to be held captive.
As I approach the gate, the call of the crow sends a shiver down my spine. It stands on guard, perched on the left gatepost and eyeing me with black-beaded pupils and pure-white irises. An old crow then, not a juvenile. Perhaps it thinks it owns the place and sees me as an intruder.
I draw close, and it refuses to move, though it hops from foot to foot as if it cannot bear its own weight for long.
I shouldn’t be afraid of the frail old thing. “Shoo!” I say and push the gate open. It squeals on its hinges. Still, the crow does not move. It hops forward and issues a loud craa! that makes me cower.
I hurry through the gate, shoot the lock, and jump into my van, slinging my bag onto the passenger seat. As I pull away from the church, the bag gapes open, revealing my camera. I hope and pray that today’s photos will prove more successful than those I took previously. The sun reads my thoughts and winks at the camera lens, temporarily blinding me.
Copyright © 2023 Catherine McCarthy