St. Nicholas’ Cathedral Writing

Bede’s hands

Edith Braithwaite, suffragette and stained-glass artist, stands on a platform supported by two ladders on the northern flank of the Cathedral. She is moulding a strip of lead around an almond shaped piece of cobalt glass.  Below her, the men of the church go about their business, their long cassocks rubbing limestone flagstones to a high sheen. The organist warms the organ pipes with hot water. They are preparing for matins.

Outside, winter hangs over the streets, black and unforgiving.  The wind has shifted. It rushes in from the north, river cold.  Edith shivers, her fingers, bone white, poke out from the cuffs of her jacket. She wears a shawl in wrapped around her head and neck and wide legged trousers. The toes of her heavy leather boots are stuffed with newspaper.  She is held together by a wide leather belt.

Over the last few weeks, the clergy and congregation have got used to her presence, this bird boned woman with moth-coloured eyes and long limbs. She runs up and down from her perch with buckets filled with glass pieces wrapped in sacking and tied with string.  Occasionally she is accompanied by an engineer or a metal worker to whom she issues detailed instructions in urgent whispers.  Her tools, the chisels, hammers and paintbrushes, are spread out in a neat line on a canvas sheet on the stone floor.  Each night she clears them away. She is a tidy worker.

At this moment she is coaxing piece no 34, into a place above the head of the venerable Bede. She files the piece of brilliant cobalt glass, her face close to the window, and taps the soft lead with her hammer. As she blows away the dust, she whispers something to herself, or to the glass, it is hard to tell. She leans back, letting hers arms hang down, and takes in the whole.  Pieces of amber, turquoise and green glass appear suspended between the lead casings.  Fragments of seedy white glass are set in between to increase the illumination. The cleric Bede sits at his desk. For the moment he is without hands.

The choice of artist was unusual, they had all agreed. She might be a trouble maker. She had once tied herself railings outside the house of the local MP. But the patron funding the new window had insisted on her.   ‘A rare talent,’ he had said, ‘you will see.’ And as the window progressed, they could only agree. There was an unusual intricacy to the design, a brilliance of colour and light.

But Edith had caused some consternation on the day she arrived.  She wore, somewhat provocatively some had said, a purple and green suffragette scarf around her head and she wore trousers, men’s trousers of  the type usually only worn by matelots down at the port.  After some discreet discussion, the bishop instructed Joan, his daughter, to inform Edith about the unsuitable nature of her attire. She was an unmarried woman after all.

Edith, oblivious to  these concerns, blows into her hands and rubs them palm to palm to try to warm them. She holds them for a moment above the candles burning on the stone sill. Behind the boarded up window, she can hear a pair of pigeons cooing softly on the ledge outside.  The tenderness of the sound makes her heart tremble.  She lets out a sigh. There is still so much to be done.

‘Miss Braithwaite,’ a voice comes up from below.  Edith looks down and sees a young woman with anxious eyes. ‘Could I have a word, please?’ Edith frowns, irritated at the interruption.

‘Immediately?’ she says.

‘It’s a matter of some urgency.’ The young woman looks around her, ‘and of some delicacy.’ She almost whispers the last word. Edith descends the ladder in two strides, jumping to the ground. The young woman is much shorter than her.  Edith notices the dark shadows under her eyes, the small bruise on her cheek, the shimmer of light across her pale brow.

‘How intriguing,’ she says, wiping her hands on the rag she has tucked into her belt.

‘Perhaps in the vestry?  This way,’ the young woman throws out a hand from beneath her shawl.  Her fingers are long with neat oval shaped nails.  The palms, wide and flat.  Perfect for Bede, Edith thinks. She follows the young woman, watching the key on her belt swinging in time with her hips.

‘I’m Joan,’ the young woman says once they are in the vestry, ‘the bishop, my father, has asked me to mention something to you.’

‘Something to do with delicacy?’  Edith says.  A rosy blush spreads up from Joan’s collar.  Edith hears Joan draws in a breath.  ‘He is concerned about the appropriateness of your attire in the cathedral.’ The words tumble out.

‘These are my work clothes,’ Edith says amused.

‘The trousers, in particular. ’

‘The bishop is not keen on trousers?’

‘Not trousers generally,’ says Joan, ‘Rather a woman wearing trousers. In the cathedral. He thinks they might be seen as unseemly.’

‘ Do you think they are unseemly?’ Edith asks, staring into Joan’s eyes, which are a very limpid blue.

‘No, well,’ Joan hesitates, ‘but the congregation might.’

‘And all and sundry being able to look up my skirts while I am up the ladders is deemed preferable?’ Joan’s face flushes scarlet.

‘No, of course, that would be…’ she looks up at the ceiling, searching for a word.

‘Unseemly?’ ventures Edith.  She watches the expression of bewilderment passes across Joan’s face. Edith thinks how tedious is must be to be so caught up with all these conventions. But she needs this commission. It is the first she has had for months.

‘Perhaps I could wear a cassock over the top?’ she suggests.

‘Do you not have anything more suitable at home?’ says Joan.

‘I could borrow one from here?’  Joan seems uncertain but and goes to the vestry cupboard. She picks out a cassock and hands it to Edith.

‘I’m going to need some help, ‘says Edith, examining the garment. Joan helps her to lift the cassock over her head. Edith bends her knees, stoops forward, stretching out arms. She tries and fails to avoid a clash of heads.  Joan pulls the fabric down. Arms bump into arms, as Edith twists her body and Joan dances about her.  The tunic catches at Edith thigh, Joan bends to shake it out.

‘Do you think that this will meet with your father’s approval? ‘Edith says smoothing down the fabric.  Joan looks up at her.  ‘I mean he can hardly object.  It is a church vestment after all.’

That evening when Edith finishes her work, her body is stiff with cold despite the extra layer. Unsure that she should take the cassock home, she leaves it hanging on door handle of the vestry.  She has made a start the first of her five saints,  Cuthbert, her favourite.  When she had received the commission, she had taken his route from Holy Island, crossing the steeping stones over the river. She had decided then that she preferred the walking saints.

The next morning when Edith arrives, Joan is already there, waiting. Edith follows her into the vestry Joan helps her with the cassock. This time everything runs more smoothly. Joan has given the process some thought. She has gathered the sides up into neat folds.  The robe smells of dust, but behind that something else that Edith takes to be the smell of the previous owner – wood smoke, candle wax, cedar oil.  She imagines a priest before a fire in the evenings, running a hand over his close shaven head, reading by the dim light of a church candle. She tightens her belt around her waist, planting her hands on her hips.

‘Seemly enough?’ Edith says. Joan nods, almost a bow and Edith catches the first trace of a smile.

In the days that follow, the early morning ritual with the cassock establishes itself.  They move together in unison. Edith bows her head, keeps her hands to her sides, until Joan touches her lightly on the elbow and she lifts her arms.

‘Today I am working on Bede’s hands,’ Edith says, once she is dressed. She pulls a sketch from her pocket. ‘See here, he’s at his desk writing. Could make a close drawing of your hands? Borrow them, for Bede?’

‘Mine?’ Joan looks surprised, pleased.

‘Like this,’ Edith sits at the table, takes a pencil from her pocket, laying the palm of one hand flat, the other curled around the pencil. Joan pulls up her sleeves and arranges his hands as she has been shown.  Her skin is very pale, almost translucent in the milky light.  ‘They are perfect,’ says Edith. She sharpens the end of her pencil with a small knife, then sketches fast. Joan keeps very still, Edith senses Joan is watching her face as she works.  When she is finished, Edith blows the pencil shavings from the desk onto the floor.  ‘At last the writer will have his hands, his very beautiful hands,’ she says.

The next morning when Edith enters the vestry she finds Joan sitting with the cassock pressed against her face. Joan looks up, startled.

‘I was just trying to identify the scent,’ she says, reddening.

‘I dip the glass pieces in lavender oil after I have shaped them,’ says Edith, ‘It helps to clean the glass of the dust and makes the pieces easier to push into place.  It’s my trade secret, so don’t tell anyone, and I like the smell. It reminds me of the summer.’

‘Yes, I was thinking that too,’ Joan says, smiling.  She stands in front of Edith and lifts the cassock ready for her.  Their movements are slower than usual. Edith feels the rough fabric touching her face, then the length of Joan’s arm and her shoulder drawn around her. Their bodies are close now. In the darkness, Edith listens to Joan’s breathing.  It is soft and regular as a prayer.  And beyond that, she can just make out the distant sound of the pigeons.

PEOPLE TELL ME THINGS

You, church, are a keeper of stories. You are heavy with them. I catch them in your stone traceries and your stained-glass, between the clasped hands of the volunteers and in the domed mouths of the visitors. They are etched into your skin, exhaled in the music and the prayers, exchanged in meetings and chance encounters. Vast bodied, archival, you bear witness to it all: the scars and the ornament, the endless river of human secrets, past and present, half told, half lived.

For two days I sit under your vaulted roof, close to the memorial to the Danish merchant seamen who lost their lives during the Second World War.  They are the reason I, a half Dane, asked to come here. Your city became their home port when Germany invaded their small kingdom. Your saint, Nicholas, friend to the mariners and the candle makers, keeps watch over their names inked by a patient hand into a book of remembrance. Every day a page is turned. Every day four candles burn. Today, Søren Peter Brink, a young steersman, who perished on the Charkow, a cargo ship that was torpedoed and sunk in the North Sea in March 1940.

Above him, a window, different to the others with its small blue lights and clear textured glass, evokes the islands of Denmark scattered in a white sea. Below, ragged slabs of dark slate bear the inscription:

Du som læser deres navne

Husk

Those who read these names

Remember.

And I try to re-member Soren Peter Brink, limb by limb. Instep, hip, shoulder. A lover of jazz and schnapps, perhaps, for now his salt-washed bones lie on the seabed, rolling, rolling until they turn to sand, so that now we will never know.

At times under your camouflage, our human energy seems held back before spilling out unexpectedly.  A soprano voice arcs through the milky air, the organist’s notes thunder through it causing us all to stop mid-breath, mid-step. At the end of the day a mother and child dance, light-footed and joyful, around a labyrinth chalked on the chancel floor.

Then people come and tell me things, small things, half stories, anecdotes. You see me catch onto the edges of them; stuff them into my pockets for later. A man says he is an insomniac and, in the small hours of the night, teaches himself to speak Russian forty years after his father forbade him from doing so for fear that it would lead to communism. A Dutch couple from the DFDS cruise ship in port remember a friend who died in the city ten years ago. An elegant woman with moth-coloured eyes flutters a yellow cloth over marble feet. ‘We are the holy dusters,’ she tells me.

One morning a church volunteer takes me to a stained glass window designed by the artist and suffragette, Caroline Townshend. I am drawn to her and later I look her up. She was part of the Arts and Crafts Movement, worked at the Glass House, an artists’ studio, in west London. She lived with Joan Howson, her apprentice and lover, and took a commission in 1907 to create the window that sparkles on your northern flank. It is a window bright with cobalt, crimson and green, a window for Cuthbert and Oswald, Northumberland’s favourite walking saints.

On my last afternoon I set off in search of the memorial to Reverend John Brown, a former vicar of yours. Described as an acute controversialist, musician and poet, John Brown, despite his many accomplishments, received only the most discreet of memorials, due it seems to one final indiscretion. Invited by the Empress of Russia to frame a new code of laws for the Russian empire, he set off for St Petersburg, but his progress was halted by a severe illness. This caused a disappointment so great that he fell into despair and, at his lodgings in Pall Mall in 1766, he cut his own throat.

My two days watching stories and dreams between your walls are nearly over. I like working here, under the light of the stained glass, close to the café and the warmth of the passing volunteers and the heating pipes. A man of the church asks what I am writing about. I tell him about the steersman, the stained-glass artist and the poet.

‘Ah the dead,’ he says, as if he hasn’t noticed them. He is far more concerned with the living and, perhaps I think, it is time for me to be too.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Bostock is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, having completed the MA in 2012.  Her work in progress, Seabirds of Jutland, is a war story set in 1943 in a provincial town in occupied Denmark. The novel, inspired by her family history, draws on her research into life in Denmark during this period. Her grandfather, Asger Holmboe, was a member of the resistance group in Horsens and her great-grandfather, Christian, kept meticulous journals during the Occupation from 1940 to his death in 1945.  Her research for the novel includes work on these journals, as well as the translation of recorded interviews with Asger about his resistance work and the memories of living relatives.

Her short memoir, The Problem with Scandinavian Grandmothers*, was published in the US in 2011. She lived in Brussels for several years where she was a freelance contributor to Brussels Weekly and Rendezvous.  She is also a founder member of Caravan Press (www.caravanpress.eu), a not-for-profit organisation which runs writing competitions and workshops for the Brussels expatriate community.

She now lives in North Yorkshire with her husband and two children.

*Elizabeth Bostock, ‘The Problem with Scandinavian Grandmothers’, in Grandmothers, ed.by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Amy Newmark (CT, USA: Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing LLC, 2011).