by Charles Wilkinson
From Fall 2018
Because no one could diagnose Edmund Roberts’ illness with anything resembling accuracy, a holiday was the suggested remedy. And so he had driven through countryside headed for The Sanctuary, the facility suggested by Dr. Timmins, through yellow apple sunlight and black-and-white timbered villages, each fixed to the map by a church with a tall spire. These had given way to straggling hamlets and blunt, red-bricked chapels serving barely visible communities, and now, to the west, blue dusk soaked the far hills, dissolving the forests on the upper slopes. The edges of fields softened and rooks rose towards the gathering night.
He drove on upwards, along narrowing roads, grey veins furred with neglected verges and unkempt hedgerows. Far too suddenly it was night and the blackening spears of pine trees crowded him on both sides. He switched on his headlamps: the middle of the road tufted with wild grass, the tarmac a jigsaw of cracks. In the distance, a five-bar gate glimmered. As he approached, he saw nothing in the way of a welcome sign. Perhaps he had taken a wrong turning? But Dr. Timmins had told him The Sanctuary was quite isolated. A very quiet spot he’d said: The silence is of a quality I thought no longer possible in this country.
“Best to press on,” Edmund murmured. He got out, opened the gate and drove through. Here the darkness lifted to a degree as he found himself in open space: an expanse of level ground between densely afforested valley walls. The track widened and became a drive. Statues carved from whitish stone, possibly marble, had been positioned on both sides at regular intervals. In the half-light, it was hard to be certain what they were intended to represent: creatures of some sort or stunted trees, the boughs brutally pollarded.
A large porch appeared in the headlamps, the house behind swathed in such blackness that at first it was barely visible against the dark forest. He parked the car on the verge, but left the headlamps on to show a slanting porch in the style of many Border farmhouses, evidently ancient, flagstones worn thin, and a heavy wooden door set in a stone arch. Still no sign to indicate he’d reached The Sanctuary. He glanced upwards: impossible to know where the upper storey stopped and the night sky began. He searched for a bell push; only a brass knocker in the shape of a head wreathed with wild hair and laurels, a deity from classical antiquity, no doubt. As he raised it, he heard the metallic scratch and clank of a bolt being drawn back. A bald head peered round the door.
“Chorister?” said the man, without apparently moving his lips.
“A singing-man … what wants to join the Choir?”
“Good heavens, no. I’m looking for The Sanctuary.”
‘What are you here for? There’s no point if you won’t audition.”
“There’s been some confusion. I was sent by my medical practitioner, Dr. Timmins.”
The man opened the door wider. He was dressed in a curious gown that reached well below his knees: neither a cassock nor a monk’s habit, but nevertheless a garment implying ecclesiastical responsibility of a kind. Beyond him stretched a corridor, ribbed and somehow intestinal.
“Whoever sent you, you’d best come in. I can tell when someone is expected. Put out those lights first.”
Once inside, he saw the corridor was lit by lanterns hung between a series of grey-painted beams – each arch split from a single trunk. The first cruck had a carving of the god’s face positioned at its apogee, possibly to peg the beams.
“This way,” said the man, taking Edmund’s bag. “You’ll pay in the end, won’t you?”
Surely he meant at not in? Perhaps Edmund had misheard. Neither indubitably Welsh nor English, the man’s accent was hard to place, although it had a Border lilt. He led him up an oak staircase, narrow and winding. The walls were also wooden, and some quality in the lie of the grain made the whole structure seem carved out of the interior of a tree. The space narrowed as they rose compelling them to sidle up the last few steps. The passage at the top was not dissimilar to the corridor near the entrance. On either side were arched doors. Instead of numbers each one had musical notation: sometimes a single note, more often a complete bar, incised deeply into the timber.
“Here’s yours,” said the man.
Although the room was tiny, Edmund could stand without stooping. A single bed, which had been hollowed like a canoe, looked just long enough to sleep in. There was only one half-moon window placed at floor level in the far corner.
“May I have the key?”
“In time, you’ll find out what key it’s in.”
“I meant the key to the door.”
“No need for one,” he replied, turning to leave. “Not in this part of the building leastways.”
Once the man’s footsteps had faded away, Edmund went outside and examined the door: several staves, deeply carved, but only a few notes, some barely distinguishable from the wems and knots.
Six months previously Edmund had resigned from his post as producer of Songs of Joy, a long-running religious television series, following a violent outburst. He’d then spent most days alone in his flat, mulling over the incident that had wrecked his career. Although long since converted from High Church Christianity to comfortable agnosticism, his knowledge of hymnology had been unsurpassed at the broadcasting corporation. A degree in Theology, taken at King’s College, London, many years before his loss of faith, was an aid to amicable conversation with all but the most evangelical incumbents.
“I’m afraid we might have struck a nasty low one,” Lionel, his most trusted research assistant, had said, some months before Edmund’s final day’s filming. “St John’s, Holmworth, Bedfordshire. At least it’s not far. But what am I going to wear?”
“Well, it can’t possibly be worse than that chapel in Chelmsford. I wouldn’t have been surprised to bump into Oliver Cromwell,” he’d replied.
St John’s had proved to be an airy but undistinguished church built in the modernist style popular in the 1960s. There were hardly any decorations and no pews, simply wooden chairs set out as if for a school assembly. One wing had been turned into a café with washroom facilities. The vicar surprised Edmund by arriving for their preliminary meeting in a dark business suit and tie. He had a faint Australian accent.
“We’re a broad church here at St John’s,” said the vicar, handing him a cup of coffee. “Both from the point of view of churchmanship and social origins. We’ve quite a good Afro-Caribbean contingent, who’ve upped the standard of singing no end. A few old folk, most of them locals. And some…I’m not sure quite how to put this, Edmund…I guess you might call them charismatics. They only started turning up recently. They get their ideas from America. But they come to praise.”
The phrase made something rise in Edmund’s gorge.For some months, he’d been aware anger was a factor in his illness. It was partly an accumulation of the everyday irritations of London life: the machines replacing people at supermarket check-out queues, the stifling heat of the Underground, the packed pubs where it was practically impossible to reach the bar. But he knew it was mostly that his old choir master, Desmond Blackworth, had again begun making appearances in his life.
“Well, yes…that sounds fine, but…” He told himself to stop tapping the paper on his clipboard. Already the sheet was peppered with pencil pock-marks. And he had to admit, apart from having recommended the Alpha Course, this man was marginally less irritating than he’d expected. He took a deep breath. “Good. Young and old; black and white – all worshipping together. That’s what we’ve been looking for and I think we’ve found it here at St John’s.”
As Edmund awoke, he was aware of fathomless quietude: for a second, an image of white-robed monks, each one perfectly still and alone in his cell, moored in a vow of silence. Then he was drifting in green water. He turned over. A smell of coffee and freshly baked bread. When he sat up, he saw a semicircle of morning lightshimmering on the wooden floor. His breakfast was on a narrow ledge behind him. The door was closed, but someone must have crept in not more than a minute or two previously, for the coffee was hot, the bread warm.
Half an hour later, he was out on the front drive. An unblemished blue sky towered above the valley. Ahead of him the tiered immensity of pines on the high hills, some mixed woodland lower down, then the flat field through which he’d driven the previous night. A few well-placed mature trees suggested the remains of a planned landscape: half-wild parkland, ruined eighteenth-century elegance. He walked a good distance up the drive. In daylight the statues seemed even less easily definable than before. On some, protuberances evoked an arm or a branch, but most had been frozen on the wrong side of full signification.
Once in sight of the five-barred gate he turned round. The Sanctuary was much larger than Edmund had realised. The porch, which had appeared enormous last night, now proved a small entrance for such an edifice. The lower storeys were a jumble of half-timbered jetties and pale orange-red brickwork. To the left side, great beams were embedded in the façade. Greenery smothered the upper levels, seeming to have descended from the woodland behind instead of growing upwards. In amongst the patchwork of creepers and boughs a few platforms, possibly the remains of abandoned tree houses, protruded. To the left of the porch, an oriel window was set in grey stone.
He was half way back before it hit him: Where was his car? He was certain he had parked it in the front drive. Had someone driven it to a garage at the back, in the manner of a groom stabling a horse? Next to the grey stone wing of the house was more red brickwork, perhaps one side of a walled garden. From where Edmund was standing, no entrance was visible. He decided to cut across the park and make his way round.
No wind in the trees and the grass so soft, not the slightest whisper from his shoes as he walked along. He stopped for a moment: no birdsong – let alone any audible hum of traffic. The Sanctuary was indeed a quiet spot, almost preternaturally so. Edmund considered testing a shout against the silence, imagining how it might echo around the broad blue sky, but decided against; after all, the man must be around somewhere.
He followed a cinder path that ran along a side wall separating The Sanctuary and its outbuildings from dense woodland, where ferns and alder mixed with tall nettles and the pale flicker of orange-tipped butterflies. Creepers covered the red brick wall. The entrance must be at the back. Then he saw a gate beneath a stone lintel. Although the oak door must once have been entirely blue, the paintwork had blistered and peeled, revealing the brittle wood beneath and a hole where the handle once was. Edmund pushed and stepped into the walled enclosure. Instead of the expected rows of vegetables, there were small gravestones, shadow-anchored, some upright and others leaning, scattered around a brilliance of green lawn. Underneath a beech tree stood a potting shed, the planks of its thin roof patched with lemony sunlight.
This was surely a pet cemetery. He knelt down to inspect the nearest stone. Smooth grey-green lichen obscured part of its surface, yet he could see where it had been incised. There was no name, only staves––and notes ascending. He decided to inspect the other graves. A few were ancient, luminescent with green moss, their lettering invisible. Some bore several bars – memorials to sounds from a single composition?
A creak followed the squeak of un-oiled wheels. He turned round and saw, emerging from the potting shed, a wheelbarrow filled with spades followed by the man he’d seen the previous evening, this time not in a cassock but brown overalls. It occurred to Edmund that they’d forgotten to introduce themselves.
“Good morning,” he said, advancing over the long grass. “I’m afraid that last night I didn’t give…”
“I know your name. Expected, weren’t you!”
“Oh…well, I was booked in. And your name is?”
“No name. The night and day watchman, that’s who I am. And the general factotum, more’s the pity.”
“Certainly there appears to be a great deal that needs doing.”
“There is. And plenty that’s best left alone.”
“Tell me, this place, is it…”
“Thirty-nine graves. I saw you looking, I did. If you’d taken the trouble to count, you’d know that.”
“And who exactly…”
“I’ve digging to do,” said the watchman, starting to wheel his barrow away. “And there is no need for you to be here. Not yet.”
A dour Bedfordshire Sunday. They’d arrived in time for the pre-service rehearsal. The wide windows of St John’s had provided a panorama of council housing, low grey skies and rain. Several of the crew had called in sick and Lionel had been co-opted as a floor manager and assistant producer. Resplendent in his pink mohawk and leather jacket with a rainbow flag badge on the lapel, he’d been sashaying down the aisles and waving a clipboard as he directed the uglier members of the congregation to the back.
The first hymn was being sung with brio by the Afro-Carribeans, but the charismatics were off key and holding their arms aloft as if about to begin a stadium wave. The choirmaster signalled to the organist to stop and then sang a demonstration verse while tapping the top of a lectern with his baton.
“If I may––” Edmund interjected, glancing balefully towards the charismatics, “The hand movements are too demonstrative. I know everyone wants to worship in their own way, but for the purposes of our production less extravagance, please. A little gentle swaying would be more than sufficient.”
In between hymns, Lionel continued to bustle about, asking people to sit closer together or move further apart. At one point, he had a sharp exchange with one of the charismatics, a man with a great flat round face like a wall clock and a pudding bowl haircut. The next hymn was modern: its tune dripping jollity, Jesus mentioned in every line of the lyrics. The charismatics were having a hard time reining themselves in. Three of the women practically jogged as they sang with wide mouths and expressions of bovine simplicity. Clock Face had one hand on his hip as he bent backwards, hollering at the rafters. Edmund would need to warn the cameramen not to allow their lenses to linger on some worshippers.
It was while the choirmaster was complaining that one hymn, which appeared to be a particular favourite, had been sung with an utter lack of musicality that Edmund looked behind him. There was to be no anthem; the choir’s job was merely to lead the congregation and he had paid them no attention. But now, in the stalls with the tenors, stood Desmond Blackworth, his old choirmaster, spry in a surplice, the lean face and black hair brushed to a slick finish. His brown eyes, deep with amusement and disdain, were staring at Edmund, as if to say well, what on earth are we doing here?
A hubbub of angry and imploring voices burst from the congregation. Edmund glanced round to see Lionel and Clock Face in a furious altercation. The vicar had interposed a suited arm between them and was speaking to both in emollient, ineffectivetones.
“What’s all this,” asked Edmund, as one of the sound assistants came towards him.
“They don’t like Lionel’s badge.”
Clock Face had pushed past the vicar and was attempting to grasp the crest of Lionel’s mohawk.
“Stop this!” cried Edmund, much louder than he’d intended. “The man you are about to assault is part of my team and I will take responsibility for any offence he may have given. But I have to ask, what kind of a Christian are you?”
Both antagonists stepped back. Then Clock Face swung towards Edmund and unleashed a demented diatribe in which the words Jesus, born again, Our Lord Jesus Christ, saved, and the Rapture were the clearest. Afterwards, what most worried Edmund was how quickly his own anger had seized him as Clock Face sentenced Lionel to everlasting perdition with extra fire provided. Not a moment’s thought had interposed when the noun sodomite sent Edmund’s closed fist fast towards the centre of the face, right where the minute and hour hands might have met. A bucket and mop were sent for to wipe up the blood.
That summer the depth of silence held the valley as if it were underwater. Warm currents of air, uncharacteristic for the Welsh Borders, wrapped themselves around Edmund until he felt a lightness, a buoyancy he’d never experienced before. For the first time in months, he felt at rest. His meals continued to appear on the ledge in his room; sometimes he took his lunch in the park, where he would dine beneath the royal canopy of an oak. Afterwards, he’d pick up a stick and stroll around the grounds, an imaginary architect at his side, indulging the fiction of an aristocratic existence. He’d point to eminences where a Grecian temple might be formed from wild grass, or a Gothic folly fabricated. He avoided the walled garden and the woods beyond.
Was it this contentment, this happiness he’d not known since childhood, that made him forget the disappearance of his car? Each time he’d seen the watchman he’d failed to ask what had happened to it. There was nowhere that resembled a garage. In exploring the grounds hadn’t he already visited the most obvious hiding places? With less than a week of his stay left, he needed to act soon; summoning a taxi would prove expensive. He resolved to find the watchman.
There was no trace of him in the entrance hall. Edmund walked down the ground floor corridor. To his surprise, there was not a single door leading off; only the cruck beams on the ceiling, the flagstones beneath. Yet surely there had to be kitchens. And where did the watchman sleep? Then the corridor seemed to contract, a movement so slight as to be barely perceptible. The beams immediately above him had been painted a raw offal red-pink. The flagstones seemed no longer firm but soft and fleshy beneath his feet. He heard a sound, distant and sinisterly celestial. He turned and went back to the entrance.
Outside on the drive he paused to recover his composure. A visit to the cemetery would be preferable to what he had just experienced. He made his way down past the stone wing and onto the path. The blue door was ajar. He slipped inside the walled garden and immediately took a pace back. The gravestones were no longer spread haphazardly around the enclosure. They were arranged in a horseshoe shape on a narrow strip of mown grass. The grey lichens and viridescent green mosses had been removed, as if in preparation for a great occasion.
A hand on his shoulder swung him effortlessly back onto the path.
“No need for you to be here,” said the watchman, releasing him. “You want to relax, Mr Roberts.”
“Did you move those gravestones?”
“Don’t you worry! It’s only natural that things need rearranging, especially at this time of year.”
“This is unforgivable!”
“I’d go back now while your room’s quiet and peaceful, like. And stop all this running about!”
“And my car – what about that?”
“This is a very quiet place, see. We don’t hold with a lot of racing around. Joyriding and so on. Not in the grounds of The Sanctuary.”
“Where is it? Tell me now or I’ll call the–”
The watchman once again gripped Edmund’s shoulder, but this time almost tightly enough to crack a collar-bone. “The police? They don’t come here. Never have; never will, but if you want to have a little peep…you’ll find what you want in Llud’s Wood, won’t you?” He let go of Edmund and pointed further down the path. “Follow the first track you come to.”
The path appeared too narrow for a vehicle wider than a motorcycle to pass; yet Edmund had no sooner rounded the corner when he saw a mud track corrugated with tyre marks, sun baked and firm as plaster. As he moved further into the wood, the canopy thickened until only a few shafts of poisoned honey light penetrated the foliage. The track vanished in the undergrowth, re-emerging, brindled and serpentine, a few feet along.
The familiar beech, conifers and oaks had been replaced by trees with vast trunks and leaves alive with verdancy, repositories of toxins and their remedies. It was suffocatingly close now. Yet there was still no noise, only the vast silence of a jungle sustained by an unknown imagination.
He was about to retrace his steps when the leafage thinned and he found himself in the clearing. In the centre was a car the shape of the one he owned. The wheels had been removed. Both the windscreen and the body were covered in a coat of squalor, virulently green sludge bedizened with bright red slime and streaked with bitter yellows. He took two broad leaves and wiped away a thick scum from a portion of the number plate: no letters, only a single semibreve.
After leaving Choir School, and before reaching the age of majority, Edmund had been visited by Desmond Blackworth on three occasions.
In his first term at his new school, Edmund had been playing cricket for a lowly eleven. He’d walked off for team tea to find Blackworth, resplendent in a striped blazer and crested tie, established by the silver tea urn; he already had an egg sandwich in hand.
“Ah, Roberts. Three commendable overs, I thought. It’s a shame you dropped that catch.”
“The sun was in my eyes.”
“Never mind, it’s only cricket. Always remember you’ve a voice worth returning to. In fact, we shall both return to it – one day.”
“And Tallis, Roberts. You won’t forget him.”
“A very fine composer, I’m sure, sir.” Out of the corner of his eye, Edmund saw his team captain signalling. “I’m sorry, sir. It seems I’m wanted. Thank you for coming to watch me play.”
Edmund bowled the first over after tea and took one wicket. When he next looked over to the boundary, there was no sign of Blackworth.
At stumps, his coach, who was also an umpire, fell in beside him on the walk back to the pavilion.
“Was that your father I saw at tea, Roberts?”
“No, he’s a master from my old school.”
“You should have let me know you asked him. Anyone’s welcome to watch, but it’s only parents and players at team tea, unless you inform the kitchens and me first.”
“I didn’t invite him, sir. He just…turned up.”
“Really? How very unsound!”
Three years later, during the school holidays, he spotted Blackworth on the opposite railway platform in a small town in Dorset. At first his old teacher showed no signs of acknowledging him, even though the boy caught his eye and raised a reluctant hand in acknowledgement. Edmund’s train came in two minutes early; he jumped in at once. He’d just stowed his luggage and was about to take out his book when there was a rap on the window. Blackworth’s face, not quite touching the glass: he’d crossed the line and somehow levered himself up. Although there was no audible sound, he was singing, with one hand held to his left ear, like a child chorister. The window started to mist from the outside. The last thing to vanish was the mouth; the lips through which the breath-smoke issued were still at work. Then the whistle and the train moving away from the silent music.
After that there were no further sightings of Blackworth until Edmund’s last day at his senior school. He’d been about to collect a shield at Prize Giving when he glimpsed Blackworth sitting at the end of the row with the Governors. He wasn’t applauding, but he smiled at Edmund. What looked like a leather-bound score was resting on his lap.
Ten years later, while attending a Choir School reunion, he learnt of Blackworth’s death. “Cancer of the tongue, which spread,” said one of Edmund’s contemporaries; “rather a sad way for a man with his vocation to go, don’t you think?”
After making calculations on his train back to London, Edmund confirmed what he’d long suspected: the cricket match was the last time he’d seen his teacher alive.
As soon as he awoke, Edmund was aware, even without looking at his watch, that he’d overslept. How had he got back to his room? He’d only a memory of descending a wooden staircase lit with soft greenish-brown light. Slowly he swung his legs onto the floor and rubbed his eyes. On the ledge was the bread, freshly baked as always, but instead of coffee…wine. At last he understood what he had to do. Ignoring his breakfast, he dressed and went out into the corridor. Until now it had always been uninhabited, still and silent. Today there was the faintest stirring behind closed doors and a suspicion of a thin veil of smoke, a suggestion of incense. He walked along the corridor and counted the doors. It was as he’d suspected – forty. Already a sense of vocal exercises performed in preparation for the event, a performance in which he must not take part.
He rushed back to his room. Nothing of himself must be left in this place. The rich scent of a wine which could wrap his tongue with silk, rose from the glass, mingling with the warm scent of the bread. Such fare could conjure a South American jungle from a Welsh wood; turn a pink passage into a throat or a twitching sphincter; a room into a living larynx.
As he packed, he recalled a long-ago evening in the vestry. The song books and surplices being put away for the summer holidays after the final service of the year. He’d performed the solo in the anthem. Beyond the arched windows, melancholy light gilding the close, the cries of the day pupils running to the car park, open cardboard boxes piled high with hymn sheets and spare prayer books, a smell of dust and wax candles, and the great black block of the King James Bible.
He was the last boy left, alone with Desmond Blackworth, helping to store hassocks and music stands. Remembering rumours about the choirmaster’s predecessor, Edmund took a step or two away from his teacher, whose loose sleeve had brushed his hand.
“Don’t worry, dear boy,” said Blackworth, his smile utterly indefinable. “It’s your voice I admire, not your body. Your solo was splendid. I believe that every serious singer has one performance he can never surpass. That may have been yours.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’ve often wondered what it would be like if one could somehow subsume forty parts, the strains of every chorister, at the peak of perfection. Why one could sing Tallis’s great motet all by oneself! A mad thought, I know. Yet who can tell what we achieve through death?”
Edmund must have shown more than a shudder of alarm, for Blackworth laughed and added: “Don’t worry about my whim. It’s simply a way I have of amusing myself. Although, in the end, we will all be incorporated in God’s great voice.”
Now Edmund knew from which work the musical quotations on the doors and headstones came. He picked up his suitcase and fled the room. Silence in the corridor, the singing swelling from below. He would have to pass through the entrance hall. There was no other way out of the building.
Half way down the staircase, he heard the devil-damaged music: Tallis’s Spem In Alium, the celestial score, which he’d once loved so deeply, now sung by the infuriated dead, a sonic catastrophe, every note distorted and amplified a thousand fold. He flung away his suitcase and covered both his ears. In the entrance hall, the music was a physical force coming from outside and within him. The corridor was wider, bowel-red and arched with dark; each voice shifting the terrors of the antiphonal. As he was swept towards where the passage flexed, he understood he would be swallowed. He was the missing fortieth part. When the voices converged in the final cacophony of anti-music, he would be caught, sliding and singing, sucked up into the dark intestinal embrace. He twisted round. Through the entrance he saw his car, just as he’d left it on the evening of his arrival. He took one difficult step towards freedom, then another. Had denying the morning’s dream-infected Eucharist given him hope? He was moving away from the Choir and through the door. Deprived of the missing part, the voices were fading. He clambered into the car and drove from the park.
At the forest’s edge, he realised where he had taken a wrong turning. He drove a few more miles along the road and it was not long before he came upon a large blue sign announcing The Sanctuary: A Place of Peace in gold letters, the real refuge recommended by Dr. Timmins. At the end of a tree-lined drive was a white Regency house set in a rose garden. No doubt the staff would have been puzzled by his failure to check in. He decided out of politeness to pay a visit. If his booking hadn’t been automatically cancelled, he might even stay a few days. He went into a bright reception area with armchairs and sofas in primary colours. The young man behind the desk looked up with a welcoming smile.
As soon as Edmund gave his name, something within him altered. He tried to clear his throat, but when he spoke again he heard a once familiar voice: his own as a twelve-year-old boy. The receptionist stared at the stranger who’d arrived with no luggage, a man recounting a barely believable explanation for his late arrival in a strangely high register. Edmund turned and ran. Surely the change will not prove permanent? he thought; in time, he must regain his even tenor. Yet now he knew what he’d struggled to acknowledge: inside him there remained, essentially enduring, an unbreakable connection to himself as a musical child, a bond both of great worth and black misery.