No 8 - Winter 2001
The Lay Clerk
When I was seventeen, my father was appointed a residentiary canon. A cathedral! My interest in the Gothic and the supernatural, an unhealthy interest according to my father, was to be given a new stimulus.
But my expectations were doomed to be dashed. For one thing, we didn't live in a medieval close, smothered with roses. We lived in a run down suburb in a large house that had, under its previous owners, been split up into rooms for lodgers. Draughts circulated beneath the bottoms of doors. But it had a cricket field at the back which attracted my parents as a bit of open green country. I didn’t like the house or the area and found it hard to settle. I wasn’t the only one. My mother seemed restless, uneasy, unlike her previous cheerful self. She took some time to find a suitable part time teaching job and even that didn’t seem to satisfy her.
The cathedral was even more of a let down. It was a former parish church, ennobled in the nineteenth century, when the town became a city. It certainly wasn’t York Minster.
The canons had fishing rights in the dirty river that ran nearby. I could just visualise them in their cassocks, sitting on the bridge, reeling in dead rats and rusty cans.
Only one of the canons lived up to my expectations, Canon Mellon, the precentor. We met him in the cathedral, soon after we moved. My father and I were walking down one of the aisles when we came across a figure bending over one of the gravestones set in the floor. My father hailed him and he unrolled himself to his considerable height. I wondered when he was going to stop.
We were introduced and while we were exchanging trivialities, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was tall, good looking, gaunt with hollow cheek bones and black sideburns like a Victorian don. He would have graced the cathedral close at Salisbury, perhaps that was what he was aiming for.
Though he was smartly, even elegantly dressed with a pleated stock and was exquisitely turned out, with neatly manicured nails and highly polished shoes, he had one defect.
He had sharp, slightly stained teeth as if he tore rats to pieces with them, right down to their bones. This reminded me of Dracula and I shuddered inwardly. But he took no notice of me, beyond a perfunctory handshake. I guessed he wasn’t interested women.
”I hear you play the violin,” said my father, “I play the cello. Perhaps you would like to come and play with me?”
He bowed and assented.
So he became a familiar, if infrequent visitor to our house but I usually managed to be out when he came. My father was in a dream after those sessions, saying what a superb violinist Canon Mellon was.
But the first Sunday was a revelation. One of the lay clerks, a young man who looked as though he were still at school and neither male or female in his robes, sang a solo in a high voice which my father told me afterwards was counter tenor. It soared up to the ceiling. I visualised it as being like a bird nestling in the rafters. This bird could settle in my cupped hands, with its rib cage and wings gently expanding with its breathing.
The cathedral came alive, its aisles opened out as if it were a ruin with fields all around, its pillars were trees against which the sound vibrated like water.
A week or two later, we had the lay clerks in together for coffee. They were accompanied by the precentor. I found them a jolly crowd but Clive, the soloist was silent and stared at me. He stammered when he spoke and fidgetted as if he were uneasy in his skin. But after coffee, he was persuaded to sing.
He sang a couple of folk songs. All embarrassment went. It penetrated right through me, making my insides feel as though they were dissolving. He had a normally expressionless face but when he sang, it lit up and he was almost hand-some.
Like a saint in a stained glass window. Like I imagined Canon Mellon to have been when he was young.
I was out on the moors near our old home, with a fresh wind blowing, a curlew calling and space all around me.
He stopped and I came out of my trance. I observed then that the precentor’s eyes had been similarly fixed.
When they had gone, I told my father how much I had enjoyed Clive’s singing.
“Yes, he is going up to Oxford in the autumn with a choral scholarship. We shall miss him.”
I felt sad, I would not be able to enjoy his singing for much longer.
Then, the following Sunday, as I was standing outside the cathedral after the ser-vice, Clive came up to me,
“The choir are having an outing next Sunday and we can bring a friend. Will you come?”
Completely taken aback, I accepted.
It was a lovely sunny day in early September and summer was still lingering. We all met at the station, wives, children and girl friends. And the precentor like a dark shadow on the day.
The train came in. There were no corridors and we found a compartment to our-selves. We played paper and pencil games to pass the time while from other car-riages we could hear snatches of song bursting forth. From time to time and much to my alarms, Clive would put his head out of the window and sing.
We left the train eight miles along the line and set off walking. The lay clerks treated me as one of them. I felt I owed this good fortune to my father who had visited them all in their houses. The only one who wasn’t friendly was the pre-centor who glowered at me but I pretended to take no notice.
We walked and walked, I wasn’t normally a good walker but the beauty of the day and the camaraderie of the lay clerks gave me extra energy. All the time, someone was singing and they sang, part songs, negro spirituals, anything that occurred to them. It was a delight to hear Clive’s voice joining in and I enjoyed my status as the girl friend of the top singer. I even took part with my faulty soprano.
We lunched out in the fields and I made a daisy chain with which I crowned myself. Flies bothered us so we didn’t stay long seated.
I came home in the evening, hand in hand with Clive, crowned like a queen, with my skin red from the sun.
After this, we spent every available minute together before he went to Oxford. My parents made Clive welcome. But I sensed an underlying unease, in my mother especially, which came to the fore one evening over the washing up.
“He such a nice boy and has a lovely voice,” commented my mother, “But you don’t want to get involved too young. Marriage is not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Tears poured down as she vigorously scrubbed a pan.
I was invited to Clive’s for tea. But first of all, we went to the local park. The leaves were dusty and the grass brown, nothing stayed fresh in the town for long. But with Clive and the memory of his singing, the trees bloomed and the grass sparkled. It came on to rain and we went in the art gallery which stood in the park.
He talked authoritatively about the pictures. He knew a lot about art and literature but not about Gothic literature and romantic poetry.
When the rain had abated, we went to his home, a small semi close to the prestigious grammar school he had attended. Everything was neat and tidy about it, well tended lawns, immaculate lace curtains.
The only photograph in the small sitting room was a big wedding photo in an elaborate silver frame of a girl whom I took from the resemblance to be his sister.
His mother was round and jolly, his father tall and silent. I had the feeling that they were on their best behaviour and conversation was rather muted. They were evidently in awe of Clive.
But after tea, things relaxed a bit and his mother showed me snaps of Clive when a small child. I could tell from the way he fidgeted and grimaced, he was not pleased.
We went for walks in the country. The conversation about the cathedral grew more uninhibited and Clive displayed a dry wit. We discussed ad infinitum cathedral personalities and the modernist Dean and his clash with the chapter. The Dean wanted modern stained glass and embroideries which the rest thought out of place in a medieval cathedral. He also had strong views on the services where he clashed with the organist.
But we never discussed the precentor. He remained in the background but a sin-ister presence.
One day, in the grounds of a great house, we came upon a ruined folly with a mountain ash growing through its roof. We went inside and while we were there, a thunderstorm broke out. I was scared of thunder and gravitated to Clive’s arms. We had our first kiss. But I suspected it was more exciting for me than for him.
Then he went up to Oxford. On the last evening, as we walked in our garden, he extracted a promise,
“Will you come and see me? At half term,” he said, looking me in the eyes. My own eyes were moist with tears whereas his were calm and dry. He kissed me goodnight and I went indoors, triumphant and sad. That would be something to tell them at school, a trip to Oxford! I spent hours looking at the railway beyond the cricket pitch that divided us as surely as the Hellespont divided Hero from Leander.
I had a certain status in school now. Though I couldn’t aspire to my contemporaries’ sweaty grapplings in the backs of cars, my visit to Oxford placed me on a higher plane.
I read Clive’s letters ostentatiously, they were mostly about work and what the chaplain had said in chapel the night before. But no one was to know that.
Then the thunder bolt came.
A letter from Clive, saying he had an unexpected visitor that weekend and he couldn’t have me stay. No further suggestions for another meeting.
That Sunday, the precentor was missing from the cathedral. My father was in a bad temper, unusual for him.
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