The clock mounted on the face of the organ loft made a muted click as it measured off another minute. Charles glanced up at it – 4:30. It would soon be safe to leave for home.
The inside of the old church was dim. The only light came through the stained glass windows that ran along both sides of the nave. For the first few minutes after you walked in, it felt as if you’d come into a cave walled in colored glass. But as your eyes adjusted to the lower light, the space took shape around you. The ribbed vaulting of the ceiling stole from the shadows. Creatures carved in stone peered down from the pillar tops. Patches of flaking paint appeared on the walls.
St. Bartholomew’s was an old church that had definitely seen better days. It sat in the midst of what had once been a wealthy neighborhood of tree-lined streets and sedate old houses. Most of the trees had now succumbed to age or disease. The lawns had been bricked over, the houses broken into rooming houses. The old Caledon Psychiatric Hospital stood nearby, and outpatients tended to gravitate to the neighborhood. A lot of lost-looking souls walked the streets: people in their private worlds, broken worlds.
Many of the stores along the main street where the church stood had died, or were looking poorly. Some had been boarded up, others turned into makeshift residences with sheets draped over the inside of the plate glass and withered plants languishing on the windowsills.
He had discovered the church one Friday a couple of months back, shortly after he’d started skipping his piano lesson. It had been a March day, and bitterly cold. After wandering the streets aimlessly, he’d stumbled on the place quite by chance. The door was open, and he’d slipped in and spent half an hour sharing the empty church with a handful of homeless people, also escaping the cold. The silence of the place had shocked him. It was as if he’d breached some boundary between worlds.
At the back of the church, as if by way of welcome, there stood a life-sized statue of St. Bartholomew. St. Bart had been one of the original twelve apostles. Tradition had it that he’d been martyred by being flayed alive. The statue depicted him holding the long hooked knife of his martyrdom in one hand, with the slack pelt of his skin draped over the other arm, the way Gran draped her sweater over her arm when she went out for a walk on a summer evening, in case she got cold.
Often there would be one or two other stray souls scattered through the rows of wooden pews, but today the place seemed empty. Even the caretaker, who could normally be seen flitting quietly along the shadowed aisles as he went about his work, had fled into the sun. Charles had seen him perched on a high ladder outside, washing the windows. He could see the shadow of his arm now, moving silently against the glass, like the beating of some great wing.
His book bag lay on the seat beside him. He opened it and pulled out his piano exercise book, turning to the little Bach piece he was supposed to have been practising. It was simply a question of time before they discovered he’d been skipping the lesson. There were bound to be consequences, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter.
Gran had always had a passion for the piano. The ornate old upright had sat in the corner of the dining room for as long as he could remember. One of his first memories was of sitting beside her on the bench while she played. He would bang away on the keys and pretend that he too was playing. She had promised him then that when he was old enough, she would pay for him to take lessons, as his father had taken lessons as a boy.
And so, two years ago, when the bunch of them had moved in with her, she had talked him into going to lessons. But everything had changed by then. He was no longer the little boy banging away on the keys. And though he went dutifully to the lessons and dutifully practised for a long while without complaint, each note cut like a knife, and finally he could do it no more. He knew it would disappoint her, but for his own sake he had to stop.
And so he had simply quit, without bothering to tell anyone he had done it. And now he found himself entangled in a lie, without the courage to extract himself from it, without the words to explain why it had wrenched him apart to play. It was the first really devious thing he’d done in his life, and he still had not recovered from the shock of it. Even now, as the door at the back of the church opened, his heart gave a little flutter and he half expected one of his family to walk in and find him here.
Instead it was a small stooped woman, with a shawl pulled up over her hair. She slipped down the side aisle to the front of the church. A large marble Pietà stood by a side altar there, with a bank of votive candles before it. She rooted through her bag for change, then dropped two coins through the slot of the metal box, touched the taper to a flame, and lit two candles. The taper smoked as she extinguished it, and a thin stream of smoke ascended in the still air. She knelt in the front pew and prayed.
He wondered what she was praying about. He often wondered that about those he saw in the church when he came, for most of them truly were praying, not simply hiding out as he was. Still, he knew that even he was doing more here now than merely hiding out. For some reason he did not fully understand, he was drawn to this old church with its rattling rads and water-stained walls; with its sad-eyed statues and shattered rainbows of light that flecked the floor.
Part of it was the pure strangeness of the place. At the back of the church, tucked in a corner on the wall by the magazine rack, there was an old framed article from the Caledon Daily Examiner on the history of St. Bart’s. He had read there that the church’s first patron, who had donated the parcel of land on which it was built, had willed that on his death his heart be removed and interred in the walls of the church. And so it was done. The heart lay sealed now in a niche in the west wall. Charles had found the stone inscribed in Latin that marked the spot, and had stood there wondering at the strangeness of the heart walled in the stone.
Sometimes he would wander the shadowy aisles, sometimes simply sit in a pew, quietly looking around, while the forty-five minutes of the lesson ticked slowly by. And it was as if he were taking a lesson in silence. He could feel the silence of the place seep into him, in the way the faint smell of incense seeped into his clothes. It seeped into him and woke other silences there.
Once, years ago, after a huge snowstorm had struck Caledon, he and Elizabeth had gone with Emily to toboggan down the steep white hills in the park near their home. It was early on a Sunday morning, and there was no one else around. Theirs had been the first footsteps to break the pure expanse of snow. They were like explorers in a new world. And as they walked side by side through the park, pulling the toboggan along behind them, a hush came over them, and he felt the silence enfold them, tucking them under its great white wing.
There was something of that long-ago snowfall here still in this empty church, as though all the silences in the world were heaped in drifts around him here.
George Berkeley did not like heights. His legs felt queer, all cobbled together with wood and wire like a marionette’s, as he clung to the upper rungs of the ladder. He dunked the dirty rag into the pail of soapy water suspended from the ladder and wrung it out, careful not to look down.
He was working his way along the east wall of the church, washing the outside of the stained glass windows. There were six windows in all, dingy with the dust and soot that had settled on them over the years. He had finished the first three and was starting on the fourth. He would do just this one more, he told himself, as he had told himself with each of the others, and that would be it for the day.
He gripped the rung of the ladder with one hand and leaned as far as he dared to reach the far side of the window with the rag. The soapy water ran down the glass and pooled on the sill.
From the outside the window looked lifeless. Dull bits of glass webbed with lead. A stranger passing on the street would not even have known what scene the window depicted. Yet, from within, where the sun’s light shone through, the window woke and was all alive.
This was the St. Francis window, likely the oldest window in Caledon. He suspected that this and the one that faced it across the nave were medieval in origin, though the experts were skeptical that such rare windows could ever have found their way to Caledon. The consensus of opinion was, rather, that they were fine imitations of ancient glass. No less, but certainly no more.
Mr. Berkeley knew better. As a young lad in England in the sixties, he and a group of his friends who were going to art school had apprenticed to the glass craftsmen at Canterbury Cathedral. There was a wealth of ancient glass that had managed to survive the centuries at Canterbury, much of it tucked out of harm’s way in the upper reaches of the cathedral.
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the dean of the cathedral, sensing what was in the wind, had all the ancient windows removed and buried in the crypt under six feet of sand to keep them safe.
When the war was over, as one by one the windows were uncovered and returned to their places, they were first restored: stripped of the old leads, the glass washed, then the whole releaded. It was to aid in this work that George Berkeley and his fellow apprentices had been engaged. And in the course of it, he had come to know the ancient glass intimately — the look of it, the feel of it, the play of light upon it. There was no doubt in his mind now as he studied closely the lacework of the old leads, the pitting in the outer surface of the glass, that this window was kin to those he had worked on then.
It was at Canterbury, too, that he had acquired his dislike of heights, perched on the narrow parapet, sixty feet off the ground, the heels of his shoes hanging out over the edge while he anchored the ladder for the master to heft a mended panel back into place.
He ran his rag over the intricate mosaic of glass. The window depicted several scenes from the legend of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. Here, before its cave, was the great wolf that terrorized the townspeople of Gubbio. Here, strewn on the ground about it, were human bones. There, in the distance, were the walls of the town. He ran the cloth lightly over them. Water dripped lazily from the edge of the rag down to the garden far below, where the feet of the ladder stood anchored in the soft soil.
There upon the path that led from the town through the woods below was Francis, come to meet the wolf. Finally, there was the wolf transformed, placing its paw in the saint’s hand as a pledge that it would do harm no more.
So absorbed was Mr. Berkeley in the tale told by the glass that he failed at first to notice that the ladder had begun to edge sideways along the stone. For as he leaned, the soft soil yielded and one of the ladder’s feet began to sink into the soil beneath.
By the time he noticed, it was too late. He tried frantically to right the ladder by shifting his weight the other way, thought for one blissful moment that he had managed it, then realized with sick certainty that he was about to fall.
From the Hardcover edition.