An Advent Journey – Worlds Without End – Chapter Twenty-Four

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Chapter 24

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3rd Year at University

Winter 1995
As I mentally prepared to go into my third year I reflected upon the previous two.  It seemed to me like I was on a treadmill, caught in the middle of a refining process, several refining processes.  Every area of my life seemed to have been put through some sort of wringer or another during those past two years.  My degree was just the vehicle God seemed to have chosen.  I could have studied anything, pretty much, and the end result would have been the same, or so I thought.  I liked neat little parcels that could be tied up with pretty string easily.  I thought the third year would be easily tied up.

I was only deluding myself.

When I got off the bus at Victoria I had nowhere to live, again, but Paleface had offered to let me be his house pest until I got sorted.

When I got off the bus at Victoria Karel seemed a million miles away.  It was easy to keep the illusion of him alive that way, and I made sure I kept it as alive as I could.  In many ways it was the same as writing to the King when he was inside and I wasn’t.  I could make the relationship seem as normal and good as I wanted to without having to face squarely up to the fact that it was built on sticks with water trickling in on all sides.

Paleface lived in some obscure part of south-east London that took an hour or more to travel into college from.  It was fun staying with him, but I had no money for the train fares every day so I took the Sex God up on his offer to use his room in halls while he shared his girlfriend’s.  Within a week I’d found somewhere if not entirely suitable at least cheap and very close to college.  It was opposite Euston station above the sex shop and the betting shop and had been a brothel in a former life.  I had nightmares for the first few weeks but it was filled with lots of my friends from the Institute who made it seem that much better than it actually was.

That was three weeks into term and I was already beginning to realise just how much work I would have to do if I wanted to get a half-decent degree at the end of the year.  It all just seemed to have gone by so fast…The first year when all had seemed so strange yet the promise of Harry Ballantyne’s perfect world had loomed so large…Fieldwork in Prague after all the emotional turmoil of the summer term and the realisation of a completely new lifestyle…The second year and all its financial and physical problems…The affair with Karel…And now I was in my third year and it was practically all over.  All I had to do now was pull myself together and get on with the work.

I wasted most of the Autumn term on writing letters to Karel, or making tapes for him, or talking about him to anyone who would stay still long enough to listen.  And I worked two days a week in the RC chaplaincy as a receptionist and book-keeper.  Academic work fitted in somewhere in the gaps that were left and I began to do sherbet again to get me through it.

I began to do sherbet again because it was easier to shut the rising tide of pain out.

By half-term I knew in my heart that Karel had gone back to his ex-girlfriend.  Don’t ask me how.  How did I know that Frizz had slept with the Gremlin?  I didn’t need Mutley to laugh at me and tell me I was deluded to listen to the inner voice of Instinct.  I just knew.

I began to do more sherbet.  And I bought a packet of needles, my first for nearly ten years.  Where had my self-respect gone?

Mutley got quite worried about me.  I cut him out.  Except for one night when I went to the student union bar with him after we’d finished work in the library.  I’d had nothing to eat all day and people kept buying me beers.  One drink after work turned into a piss-up with bottles lined up next to each other on the bar waiting to be drunk.  I spent an hour or two talking to a guy I knew who had gone to Slovakia with Fat Bloke.  He had a girlfriend, and she was a friend of mine, but after so many bottles of beer we suddenly discovered an urge to discover each other.  Thankfully no one saw us going in my front door opposite Euston station, no one saw us going into my room, and no one saw him leave at some unearthly hour of the morning after our discovery was complete.

I felt I deserved to live in a brothel after that.

I cut everyone out after that.

Just before Christmas Mutley came along and dragged me out to a Christmas party with him.  It was a departmental party so all my friends were there.  The wine and beer was free, and it was Christmas, so I had a few too many.  We all went to the pub afterwards.  Mutley and I were the floorshow.  A lot of very surprised friends stood around with their mouths wide open as we sat in the pub joined at the mouth for several very long minutes.

That was the biggest mistake of all.  I was two days away from travelling back to Prague.  I was two days away from being met at the bus station by the man I had slavishly devoted myself to all term, and had talked of nothing else for weeks.  I felt guilty enough about the first tawdry episode and here I was doing something equally as stupid again within such a short space of time?  Was this the same person who had contemplated entering a convent?

I talked to one of the chaplains at the chaplaincy where I worked, told him everything, sordid little interludes, sherbet, needles an’ all.  I told him as a confession.  They didn’t ask me to come back in the New Year.  I felt so betrayed.  Had the confidence of the confessional been broken?  That helped!

When I got on the bus at Victoria I felt like I was running away from an enemy I could neither see nor understand.  What was I running away from?

What was I running to?

The promise of my life in Prague, the opening of new doors in a new country?

The further away from London I travelled the happier I felt.  Somewhere out there I could find a suitable veneer to cover up all life’s not so little imperfections.  I daydreamed about how Karel would be there waiting for me when I got off the bus, how I’d run into his arms and be caught in that wonderfully strong embrace, how he’d look after me, ask me to marry him as I’d wanted him to for so long.  All the signs had surely been pointing that way, hadn’t they?

I’d written instructing him to pick the key to my flat up from my boss in the castle.  I’d written to my boss telling him that Karel would be along to collect it.

It was so perfect in my dream.  He picked me up from the bus station in his car, rescuing me from the cold and the gently falling snow.  We drove to my flat, went inside to get warm, drank some wine and fell into each other’s embrace before falling into bed.  It was so perfect in my dream.

I sat on the bus getting stiffer and stiffer.  I talked to the girl next to me about my wonderful boyfriend who would be waiting for me.  When we were almost there I wriggled into my short skirt and high lace-up boots, ready to meet him looking the way I wanted to rather than the crumpled wreck I felt after twenty-odd hours on the bus.

As we turned the corner into the bus station my heart stopped.  My travelling companion waved at her parents who were there to meet her and asked me which one Karel was.  Could I see him yet?

The bus stopped.  I was too scared to look and too scared not to.

Everyone got off.

I got off.

I looked through the dispersing crowd.  He would be there, the last to be seen, leaning nonchalantly on a wall, quietly waiting.  The snow fell thick and fast.  Cars and buses turned it into instant sludge as it settled on the slimy road.

Suddenly I was the only person on the wide pavement.

Suddenly reality kicked in.

I was alone.

Karel had all the Czech money I had possessed at the end of the summer.  It seemed simpler to let him look after it than to take it half way across Europe and back again.  But it was all I had, would have had, then.

Suddenly reality kicked in big time.

I had no keys to my flat.  Karel was never going to be there, was he?  Not even to give me a lift home with my heavy bags.

The world suddenly felt like a very cold, lonely and humiliating place to be.

I was freezing.  Why did I have to give in to vanity and wear such stupid clothes?

What was I going to do?  It was a Friday night and I had no hope of getting in touch with my boss at the castle until Monday morning at the earliest.

Well-honed Survival skills I’d hoped I wouldn’t need any more kicked in.  I had a tenner on me and a good enough grasp of the language to get a taxi without being ripped off.  I hailed the first one that came along.  I had a good enough grasp of the language to get the driver to stop at a bank machine I knew would change my ten pound note for enough Czech crowns to at least pay him to take me to Jezulátko.  I would find friends there, surely?

Sister Irenia was there, sweeping the church up before going home to the convent.  She gave me a hug and took me home with her for the night.  The next morning I phoned Helena from the convent and she insisted that I stay the weekend with her.

I felt so humiliated.

My friends had come through.  I wasn’t out on the street in the snow with no money and no place to go.  But that was what made it worse.  I had to sit in the midst of my humiliation and take their pity, heartfelt and genuinely sympathetic though it was.

He’d dumped me.  Right there on the street.  He knew I’d be there.  He knew I had no other way of getting into my flat if he was the one who was meant to be bringing me the keys.  He knew I had no money because he had all the Czech money I possessed.  Yet he left there at the bus station.

I lost count of the times I ranted and raved.  Helena and I sat around her dining room table drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.  She listened while I talked, and talked, and talked.  After I’d slagged him off for the total bastard he undoubtedly was I’d make excuses for him, giving it the maybe this maybe that treatment in his defence, then back to the total bastard stuff.  I couldn’t accept my humiliation, even then.  Much less could I move away from it!  And grace wasn’t a word I understood the meaning of.

Helena hardly got a word in all weekend.  But when she did she shared something with me that stopped me dead in my tracks.  It was a bit of gossip about Father Paolo.  I didn’t take that much notice of it, except to sensationalise about it for half an hour or so, until I got started about Karel again.  The implications of what she’d told me didn’t hit me until the whole Karel thing had washed itself up on the beach of misery much later.

On Monday morning I managed to get the key from my boss at the castle.  He too showered me with sympathy and kindness.  He was astonished that Karel could have been so callous.  Everyone was.

My humiliation was complete.  All my friends in Prague had witnessed it.

I went through the motions of going to work during the week before Christmas, trying to put my pain away from me so that I could at least get on with my dissertation research and enjoy the company of my colleagues in the castle.  But it was so raw.  Every time I walked into the back entrance to the castle I passed the car park where the Castle Police left their cars.  Want to or not I couldn’t help looking to see if Karel’s žkoda was there.  Like it or not every guard on duty at the gates looked at me with that awful mixture of pity and derision as I passed.  I felt as if my pain was on display for all the world to see.

I felt as if I should be seen to be coping with it, as if it shouldn’t and didn’t matter.  By the end of that week I got to a point where it almost didn’t, where I could almost have kept it all together.

And then he came back.

I knew from talking to his fellow officers that he had gone out of town for a while.  What I didn’t know was when he was coming back.

I didn’t see the car that day.  I just bumped into him in the corridor as I auto-piloted myself into some half-hearted work.

“Oh, Indie, Hi,” he said, as if nothing had happened and there was nothing to discuss.  Just a friendly meeting between two distant friends, that was how it seemed.

I was very glad I’d made the effort to look devastatingly attractive that morning, clothes, makeup and hair looking as perfect as they could.  I was a little thinner than I had been when he’d last seen me at the end of the summer.  That could only give me more confidence.  And I needed all the confidence I could get at that moment.

I hugged him to see what the reaction would be.  It was frosty.

“Karel, where have you been?”  I smiled.  No point in startling the rabbit before snaring it enough to make worrying it worthwhile.  I knew what was what.  My humiliation had been too complete for there to be any doubt left about that.  He’d gone back to the ex-girlfriend.  I’d made my mind up to let him go, but that was before I’d seen him again.  That was when I thought I’d never see him again.  But now he was standing in front of me, daring to look as gorgeous as I hoped I did.  All the resolve in the universe would have crumbled in sympathy with me at that moment.  I had to at least try and win him back again.

He wittered something I didn’t quite understand and ushered me into his office.  I stood by the window warming myself on the radiator and looking out over the pretty view of snowbound Prague that lay before me.  I stretched a bit to look at some imaginary thing out there, knowing that my legs looked particularly good in knee-length lace-up boots and a short skirt, that my slim waist and shapely shoulders would be silhouetted nicely by the light from outside.  At last I turned.  I’d left it long enough for an interested man who was familiar enough with my body to come up behind me and put his arms around me.  He wasn’t interested, then?

“Here, this is you belonging.”  He held out an envelope.

“I think you mean this belongs to you,” I replied.  The implication was quite clear.  Here’s your money, now get out of my life.

I don’t remember what I did.  I think I probably looked at him in that horribly imploring way that makes weak men turn to jelly and strong men laugh.  Maybe I told him that I had far too much wine to drink on my own.  Whatever it was I left his office with substantially more than I’d hoped for.  He’d agreed to come to the flat for a drink.

I was ecstatic.  If I couldn’t get him back now I had no right to call myself a real woman.  I would make him come back to me, be so irresistible that he couldn’t help himself .  After all, he was the type of man sex made predictable.

I planned the ultimate seduction down to the minutest detail.  I bought the wine on the way home, had a bath and made myself even more beautiful, drank just the right quantity to put a sparkle in my eyes and an ease in my manner.  Cross-eyed and falling over wasn’t on the agenda for what I had in mind.  Oozing sex appeal was.

He was late.

I drank a little more than I’d intended.

That meant that when he did arrive I was cross-eyed and falling over.

It made little or no impact either way.  He rolled up in a big red police car that was quite obviously in the throes of some form of deployment, pretended or otherwise, and dashed up the path to my front door with the sole purpose in mind of telling me that he had to work.  It was all an elaborate fix to avoid being alone with me because he knew he would never be able to resist my ample charms.  I knew that.

I asked him to come back when he’d finished working.  He said he may be all night.  I said come back anyway.  He sighed and I could see him swallowing his excuses wholesale.  He said he had to go to the ex-girlfriend because she needed him.  I said what about me; didn’t he know I needed him?  He looked at me with hard, cold resolve and said, “I need her.”

I watched his back disappearing down the path into the cold, dark night.  His long coat flapped around his beautiful legs and the scene went all mushy and Mills and Boony on me before I had a chance to really get a grip on it.  The romance of the moment was my pain, my humiliation, my realisation that I’d been sucked in.  And how!

I went back inside, tipped the remains of the bottle of wine down my neck and followed it with another.  I sat and howled and let that pain out.  It was so strong it almost took corporeal form, a tangibility I could taste, touch, see and feel.  The pain of our beautiful meeting, our new and perfect relationship, his cold-fish qualities that surfaced so slowly I’d been hooked before I could see them, his callous standoffishness and his final cowardice and humiliation of me.  I cried bitterly as all of these images of our illusory relationship surfaced into my consciousness.  I wrote an emotional letter to Mutley that got so drowned in my tears it was barely legible, then I cried myself to sleep as that consciousness drowned itself in free-flowing alcohol.  Meat Loaf’s Welcome to the Neighbourhood filtered through into my troubled dreams.  It was stuck in an infinite loop on the tape deck and played itself over and over again all through the night.

I had such a headache the next day that I couldn’t make it to the christening of Fat Bloke’s newborn daughter.  It had been arranged for weeks and I’d been rather looking forward to it.  He’d chosen the Benedictine monastery church of Strahov at the top of the town, probably because it was exclusive, hard to get for such menial functions and came with the kind of prestige normally afforded only to high-ranking public dignitaries.  They wouldn’t miss me.  They wouldn’t thank me if I went there looking like the puffy-eyed hangover monster from the back end of beyond!

I didn’t go to work either.  At least I didn’t go until late afternoon, just before tea.  Eating in the canteen seemed a much better idea than starving.  Why did I do it?  The first person I bumped into was Karel.

Karel the cowardly.  Karel the insincere.  Karel the apologetic.

As if the ultimate humiliation were not enough, now I had to endure friendly conversation with him.  Of course I went overboard on the I’m okay, I only invited you round to tell you it was over lines.  I sat and hurt while he sat and laughed in relief.  “I met someone only a few days ago,” I said, twisting the mistake with Mutley into something that would fit.  “He’s been a really good friend for years and now we have something deeper.  I didn’t know how I was going to tell you.  It’s such a relief to me that you went back to Ivana.  But are you really happy?  Oh, good, I’m so glad for you, so glad that my good news wasn’t too devastating for you.”

He looked at me as I burbled on and on.  He didn’t understand half of it so I had to translate as much as I could into Czech, where it completely lost its impact.  But he seemed to believe me.

“So, Indie, you me friend?”

“I suppose you mean are you and I now friends?”

“Yes, this I am meaning.”

“Well, yes.  Friends.  Why not indeed.”

“Then you have me for lunch soon?”

I almost choked on my salad over that one.  “Sure, Karel, we’ll do lunch some time.  How about Saturday?”

Christmas at Helena’s was much the same as it had been the previous year, only without the magic.  I went through the motions but my heart wasn’t really in it.  The traditional carp tasted awful, I ate too many sweet biscuity things and we smoked so much that my eyes hurt long before the Latin Mass at the little church on the hill near Helena’s house.  There was an early Mass at another church that we went to specially for the children.  It was in the middle of nowhere and Helena’s husband drove us all through the snow to get there.  The entire Mass was said in candlelight and for an hour or so I forgot all about my pain and was able to look up into Jesus’ eyes with true humility.

The Latin Mass at the Dominican church brought it all back again with a vengeance.  Our friend, Kateřina, was standing in front of me.  She’d lasted three months in the enclosed convent on the hill.  Paolo had been her spiritual advisor too, both before and after the event.  The gossip that Helena had told me concerned both her and him.  As I thought about what she’d said my pain felt more real.  I wasn’t the only one to have suffered such lasting humiliation, not by a long shot.

There was no wonderful lunch at the monastery with my Carmelite friends in their brown dresses.  In fact Paolo had seemed to be encouraging me to have less and less to do with him and the other brothers during my visit this time.  And Helena and her family went to her mother’s house after breakfast.  They dropped me off at a tram stop that was on the right route for me and I came back to the flat on my own.

I tried to convince myself that it didn’t matter, that being on my own was good for my soul or something, and took another tram out to somewhere very beautiful that Karel had shown me in the summer.  I walked the same path, only this time it was white with snow.  Dívoka žŠárka it was called, which meant wild something.  It was a beautiful valley.  Not a glacial kind of beautiful with gently rolling hillsides, but all sharply pointed and sheer rock faces, as if the eruption of the earth underneath that had caused it had in some way harnessed all its violent energy and invested it in a dramatic kind of beauty.  It was very different in the falling snow and my memories of Karel and our walks there, when the summer evening sunshine had dappled our path through the green canopy under which we walked, didn’t sting as painfully as I’d thought they might.  What a masochist!  But a walk in a beautiful valley on Christmas Day, even with the sharp twist of memory, seemed vastly preferable to sitting in alone with no telly and only one tape that I’d heard subliminally a hundred times a few nights before.  I talked to Jesus a lot, thanked Him for being born into such a veil of tears, thanked Him for loving me so much that He let Himself be crucified so horribly for me.  Then I remembered that He did it for all of us, even Karel.  Even Paolo.  Especially for them.

And Dívoka žŠárka reminded me of my Vikings course.  It made me think of the significance of doors.  In such dramatic landscape, and all covered in snow as it was too, I felt that something really dramatic should be happening, that perhaps I should be going through some doors of my own.  I felt that I should be going through some of the doors in my psyche that had been opening wider and wider in the past few years, that I should be undergoing some form of passage rituals and shutting the doors very firmly behind me.  I wasn’t sure that this was exactly what the Vikings had in mind, their doors all seemed to be involving the rite of passage from this world into the next.  But maybe mine were too in a way.  After all, they marked my passage out of this life that seemed like death and into a new life that beckoned.  At that moment my life in Jesus seemed like the life that beckoned while my life in the flesh seemed so dead.  Karel had made sure of that.  I wasn’t sure how to perform my rituals.  The Vikings had rowed their ships into new waters and drawn pictures of doors on stones that represented their passage from one world into another, but what would mark my passage from the death of emotional dependency into the life of True Love?

I thought of their spiritual development, these Vikings I was then studying, and wondered why they were making such an impact on me.  Then it seemed so obvious.  Their earlier styles of ornamentation, both in metal and woodwork, had been absorbed in the currency of the dead, in invoking their idols to give them the things they desired.  They were square and flat.  But their later styles, particularly the style called Ringerike, after Christianity had overlaid their paganism, had seemed to me to reach for the heavens with a grace and fluidity that urged life.  That was how I felt as I walked through that valley, like I’d been dead but had suddenly been given life.  My rite of passage had been achieved, and all I’d had to do was walk into it.

The realisation of how much time I’d wasted during the previous term, when I had so much work yet to do, carried a very sharp point indeed.  I made a bargain with myself to throw everything I had into my work from then on.  When I got home on the evening of Christmas day I picked up some of my text books and started reading in very great earnest.

During the week between Christmas and New Year I went to the castle to work on my dissertation, but I felt the sting of loneliness like an icicle driven through my heart.  I didn’t wait for Helena to call me about going to the country cottage, just got on the first available bus back home.

Just me and my bags it was, on a half-empty coach.  No one to see me off.  Had Prague deserted me, or was I deserting Prague?  My hope of a new life in the city of my dreams was shattered forever, but it was replaced by my faith in another new life.  My life in the City of God.  And that was okay.

It took a while to work itself out, this New Life, and establish new modes of behaviour based on its philosophy, but in the meantime I had a degree to finish.

It was still the middle of that limbo week between Christmas day and New Year and there was nobody around.  Except Mutley.  He was doing his usual anti-social thing and avoiding the places where people might be, especially his family.  I called on him as soon as I’d dumped my bags off in the brothel.

I showed him the letter he would have got in the post if there’d been any between the time I’d written it and my getting on the bus.  He thought it was a fine tribute to both drunkenness and heartbreak.  I thought his analysis of my literary style was missing the point somehow but decided not to press it.  There was a vacuum forming in my consciousness, a sort of uncomfortably man-free zone, that I might have been tempted to see him fill had he been more sympathetic.  I left him to his typewriter and Jack Daniels and went home to start on my own work.  I also went home because I knew how much sherbet I had left in my last bag.

I had six essays on various courses to write and a barely started dissertation to complete.  I had to get straight A’s for the lot if I wanted to finish with a decent degree.  This mission, should I choose to accept it, had to be completed within four and a half months.

I shut my door, sat on my bed and thought.  I looked at the bag of sherbet and the needles, weighed them against my broken heart and my Mission Impossible, and made a decision.  It was a very painful decision; at least I knew what it was going to cost me in physical, emotional, psychological and academic terms.  I knew that what I was about to do was probably morally disgusting and that the tab I would be picking up might be bigger than I could quantify, but I made my decision and I was fully prepared to walk it.

I used the sherbet to block out the pain of heartbreak and humiliation.  This time I didn’t confess my sin to any betraying priest, just to my God.  I knew He still loved me; I knew He would forgive me once it was all over.  I didn’t need a man with a warped view of his own conscience to tell me that.

I used the sherbet to maintain my level of concentration over as long a period of time as possible.

I went into my room, shut the door, and only came out to go to the library or to lectures or to get food.  I left a note on the door that said sod off I’m busy in no uncertain terms, and I wore earplugs so that I couldn’t hear anyone even if they did dare to knock.

It was a strange and fantastic world that I entered into.  It was full of fascinating pictures of Viking mythology, into which various waves of marauding Huns, Avars and Magyars made forays on their steppe ponies, and Goths and other Germanic tribal peoples brought down the Roman Empire and created their own political structures.  I witnessed the birth of Italy in the hands of the Lombards, the birth of France under the Merovingian kings, and the birth of a unified if terrified Europe through the dictations of the Emperor Charlemagne.  And finally I discovered the roots of Czech statehood in the graves of its earliest princes and the introduction of Christianity into the Kent countryside in the graves of the Anglo-Saxons.  It was like a voyage into the past, made all the more tangible because of my altered consciousness due to the sherbet.

Then something happened that wouldn’t have had I not been plundering the fast powder.
The boy next door.

He was young.  Very young.  He was handsome.  Extremely handsome.  He was tall.  With lovely long legs.  And he worked out.  So he had a body like Hercules.  But he couldn’t have been very clever, even if he was studying astrophysics.  With all these wonderful things going for him he still persisted in chasing me until I gave in and agreed to go out with him.

At first I was suspicious.  I’d been tucked up in my room with my bag of tricks and my work for so long I’d lost touch with the world outside in the corridor.  I wondered how many people were in on the joke.  Was it the whole landing or just my mate across the hall?  How much had the bet been for?  At first he tried talking to me downstairs in the kitchen during my concise and infrequent visits to refuel my rapidly reducing body, to convince me of his passion for me.  Then I just thought he must be completely off his trolley and shut the door in his face.  I reasoned that a young, lithe, handsome and totally gorgeous man who could pull any girl he wished must be either sadly deranged or need a mother figure so badly that he had to be dangerous.  Actually I didn’t work the mother thing out until it was almost too late.

Gradually he took me into his confidence and I started to leave the door open so that he could come in, sit on my bed and watch me as I worked on my dissertation.  He said if that was all he could have of me it would have to be enough.  Hadn’t I already heard enough corny seduction techniques?  How short was my memory?  Such was the power of sherbet to make me forget the pain.

My mate from the other side of the landing, who was an Asian computer programmer with a sense of humour enough to call himself the Dark Avenger, had warned him off me at least until after I’d finished my academic work.  But it seemed that this boy’s Latin passion was not going to be kept suppressed for that long.  He just had to declare his undying love with only weeks to go.  The first thing he managed to give me was chickenpox.  Then he buggered off back to his Spanish mother to be nursed back to health, while I had to suffer on my own.  I was still determined to leave him out in the cold as far as lurve was concerned.

Then something else happened.  Something which scared our little brothel community out of our rooms and into the common room for a meeting.

Spring 1996
We’d had notification that the Greek club next door was threatening to re-open as a jazz club.  Or rather that someone was trying to buy the club that had once been a sleazy Greek pickup joint and turn it into what they thought would be a high-class jazz venue.  Some of us, particularly the flaky pharmacology student whose room backed onto the dividing wall between the club and our house, had opposed the re-opening on the grounds of noise and late night disruption in the street.  The Dark Avenger had wound her up to make a complaint to the council to that effect and she’d been asked to attend a court hearing to oppose the licence.

No one had seen the buyers.

When a strange blue Carrera Porsche began to hang around outside the front door we figured it was an upmarket kerb-crawler.  Until we noticed that there were two occupants, a man and a woman, and that they appeared to be watching our front door a lot more than they ought by rights to have been doing.  But it wasn’t until the Flake was approached by a bloke in fancy clothes, who she described as of Sicilian descent, that any of us began to suspect that something more sinister might be afoot.

These were the new owners of the Greek club.  And we soon found out that their tactics to ensure that they were granted the licence they needed to trade were reminiscent of guerrilla warfare.  They waited in alleys and picked us off one by one, either the suave Sicilian or his high-class tart, and tried to threaten us into divulging the identity of the person who was opposing them.  They knew it was the Flake but not that she was the one they’d first ambushed at the door.

It all got very out of hand and before long suspicions of Mafia involvement and recriminations for whistle-blowing were flying around like a swarm of fruit flies, too harmless for danger but terribly irritating nonetheless.  I probably would have found the whole thing very funny if I hadn’t been at so crucial a point in my work, and if I didn’t already have enough of a job to figure out what to do about the young Spaniard.

A meeting was called.  Not the one we had downstairs, during which we tried to reassure the Flake that she wasn’t the sole pre-occupation of some Mafia hit man.  No, this was a public meeting, next door, in the club, arranged by the new owners, Mr Sicilian, who turned out to be anything but, and His High-Class Tart, who also turned out to be mostly anything but.

They had also invited the residents of the council flats at the back of us, one of whom was opposing them so vehemently that she’d actually managed to stay sober enough to attend.  They’d laid on food and drink, which automatically ensured a good turnout from any student population invited.

The woman did all the talking, well, most of it, while the bloke skulked in the background.  He tried to put his two-penn’orth in on occasions when the discussion got a bit heated, but it wasn’t even worth half of that and she soon shut him up.  He wasn’t half as intelligent as he’d looked.  She must have had a totally different search engine in mind when she trawled the sea for him.

She was an interior designer, she said.  She had grand ideas for the club, she told us.  They included sound-proofing that would ensure a noise-free existence for those of us closest, and the kind of structural and aesthetic renovations that we would be proud to live beside.

I couldn’t fault her presentation.  She seemed to have everything pretty much sewn up and sorted out, so I said why not give ‘em a go.  I got a load of verbal from the sober alcoholic the like of which I’d never heard and just as she was about to launch a full-frontal physical attack on me something happened that I’ll never forget.  My young Spaniard, who had been sitting quietly opposite me, flew out of his seat and spread himself out in front of me so that she couldn’t get to me without first going through him.

I think it was the speed of his reactions that got to me.  He must have been concentrating on nothing but me, been conscious of my every word and movement.  No one had ever come to my rescue like that before.  Not even my dad’s reaction to the beating I took off the King of the Rats could top that.  It was a large and fearsome creature that he was protecting me from, a creature void of the normal powers of reason that hold violence in constraint, sober though she may have been.  Not many men would be that brave.

I think that was the night I let my guard down.  It was only a matter of time for him after that, of breaking down the final barriers of my resistance.  Negotiable barriers such as the difference in our ages, cultural and religious beliefs, intellectual avenues of pursuit, interests, hobbies.  There was no common ground, but the knight had won my favour so what did that matter, as long as he could come up with a reasoned or loud enough argument to counteract it?  He was just clever enough to do that!  Oh, witless fool that I was to believe it.

Summer 1996
Then came graduation.

I already knew I’d got a good upper-second-class honours degree.  I didn’t have to congregate outside the Institute with the rest of the mob and wait for them to post the results up.  But it was nice to see it written up there, finally, for all the world to see, or at least as much of it as was ever likely to pass through the Institute lobby after 2pm on 7th June 1996.

I’d been working on my dress for weeks.  It was a strapless boned fifties cocktail dress in black and white floral cotton.  I’d bought it on that sleazy trip to Brighton with the Drunken Gambler.  It had never fitted me and I’d never worn it before that day.  What I’d done to it made it fit perfectly.  Even the Big Issue vendor outside Euston station said I scrubbed up particularly well in it.  I had on the red shoes I’d also bought on that trip and never worn.  It felt good to be wearing out those old memories and creating some empowering new ones in that dress and those shoes, very good.

We had a graduation party on the lawn in Gordon Square.  The Institute photographer did the usual yearbook photos of the whole year together, then we all got drunk.  Most of my friends got very drunk.  I just sipped Bollinger with the Spanish Toyboy and another friend of mine from the brothel.

The only thing that spoilt that day was the Spanish Toyboy.  He was sulking because his results weren’t good enough for him to complete his final year and he was still trying to come to terms with the shock of being kicked off his course.  I’d warned him that he spent too much time fooling around with his mates, and with me, and that he should perhaps have started revising a lot sooner than two weeks before his exams.

The Tutor had a lot to say to me, standing there in the sun on the lawn in Gordon Square.  I knew he was scared that he was going to lose me.  After all I’d been through with him at the end of the first year and throughout the second year I still held myself partly responsible.  He really had genuinely liked me, even if I hadn’t believed the bit about me being the one he would have married if he’d met me before his wife.  There was a soft side to him that I had managed to manipulate to my advantage ever since that awful time; it was almost a form of penance that I exacted from him.  He lent me money when I needed it and helped me far more than he perhaps should with my academic work.  My history tutor helped me by giving me the confidence to do it for myself, but something in the Tutor wanted to keep me helpless and reliant on him.

I introduced him to the Spanish Toyboy and let them chat for a while to see what happened.  There were almost sparks in the atmosphere between them.  The Tutor gave him advice on what to do now that he’d been kicked off his course and the Spanish Toyboy resented it like mad.

He left soon after that, my young and very dented Spaniard.  I was glad.  He may have been suffering but he was young, he’d get over it.  I’d been waiting for that day for more years than I cared to remember and it was my triumph.  I spent the rest of the party on the lawn engaged in deep conversation about Gregory of Tours and my upcoming MA in Medieval Studies with my history tutor.  He was delighted that I was staying to do another of his courses.  I don’t know quite why he thought I was such a good student, but it was very encouraging all the same.

The sun went down on a few tired and tipsy stragglers in Gordon Square that day.  One of them was me, and it was the happiest day of my life.  It’s only rival was the day of my confirmation but that was so many memories away that I couldn’t say which caused the more euphoria.

Something threatened to spoil it.  By the time I got home the Dark Avenger had filled the Spanish Toyboy in on some gossipy reasons why he should be wary of the Tutor.  He used the information as a vent for his frustration and as I was pretty fed up with him for sulking on my big day I spared him no detail in my retelling of that particular tale.  Then I sat back and watched the fireworks, with a needle in one hand and a plan for my MA dissertation in the other.

He calmed down, eventually, but he brought it up everywhere we went.  He wanted to smash the Tutor, grind him into the dirt so badly for what he’d done to me that it became on obsession with him, a very jealous and dark obsession.  And the jealousy just got worse until I didn’t dare ever look at anyone or talk to another man in his presence.  I didn’t really bother to try to understand it, I was far more interested in the sherbet and in how it had started to control my life again than I was in his stupid nonsense.  Maybe age had mellowed me.  Maybe the sherbet had.

All through that summer we did nothing more strenuous than play computer games and walk up the Tottenham Court Road.  That and the sherbet were all my life consisted of, and I was happy with it.  After the months of being stuck in my room working so hard it was good to just enjoy these mindless things.

Until they reached their natural end.  Until some of my past programming kicked in and changed things.  Until I got bored with computer games and wanted the stimulation of academic work again.  Until we moved in together downstairs.

24th December 1999
It just keeps on getting more and more difficult.  To write about this stuff, I mean.  Only a few days ago I was recounting such horrific details of my life as if they were just the pages in someone else’s story.  The shrink used to tell me that it sounded like that when I was telling it to him, like the pages of someone else’s story.  But it had still been fresh in my mind then.  Yes, I found it difficult to write about the King of the Rats, difficult to remember the order in which events happened because they were so long ago and far away.  And I half fancied myself to be still a little in love with him, perhaps?  I wasn’t.  It was a different kind of emotion that kept him alive.

But Karel, now he should have been easy to commit to paper.  The time I spent with him did, after all, impress itself upon my memory as the most romantic time of my entire life.  At the time it did, at least.  But I can see the holes in the sky at sunset now, great rips in the fabric of that tensely star-studded universe where my pride and illusions have poured out, where before I could see nothing but the dream.

The ultimate humiliation!  That’s why it’s been so difficult to write.  Until the Rat all men had fallen at my feet and worshipped the ground I walked on.  He didn’t!  That was the first real shock, and it threw down deep roots psychologically.

Karel did that too, only he did it with far more subtlty.  He reeled me in, played me on the end of his line for a while, then threw me back into the sea to drown.  But the ultimate humiliation was even more subtle still.  Just like the Tutor and his refusal to accept the word no, Karel had crushed my dreams of the convent yet again.  I had been so steadfast, so unshakeable.  A true Christian rock upon which my faith could rest.  Or so I thought.  The ultimate humiliation was in how easy it had been to tear me down from that rock and make me scrabble around in the gutter again.  And all it had taken was a good-looking face and a little romance.

But it didn’t end there, did it?  No!  Humiliation had to be public.  All the friends who had respected me for the good archaeologist I was had seen me lose first my honour, then my professional integrity, and finally my head.  They had seen me slip into Obsession, with all the horrible character traits that the word implied, within the space of a few short months.  My wonderful future had been torn up like so many sheets of wasted paper and thrown out of the office window.  Pieces of it floated all over Prague and fell like an infection.

I was infected.  So infected that I did what I always swore I’d never do.  I tipped myself headlong into another bag of sherbet.  Only this time I did it in the full conscious knowledge of what it was going to do to me.  And if only one good thing came out of it, and I’m sure no more than one good thing did, it was that I managed to switch myself into the forced overdrive that earned me a very good degree and a place on the MA course as a consequence.

But what about the Spaniard?  Where does he fit into all this?  He seems to me like a fly that buzzes around my head demanding to be noticed, demanding his part in my story.  Would I then rather leave him out?  Perhaps modesty would prefer me to, but this isn’t a story about what bits I’d prefer to distort to make myself seem how I’d like to appear.  Besides, if it weren’t for him I’d never have got to the bottom of the Cambridge mystery.  Maybe I wouldn’t be here now.

I went into a new church today.  It’s in the centre of town.  A board outside with the slogan “An ancient church serving the living God” was what drew me in.  People were bustling around like their lives depended on it, doing that last minute Christmas thing, but I was calm and dignified in the middle of it, like there was a force field of serenity carrying me along.  I went in to find out what time the Christmas services were being held and the vicar welcomed me warmly.  That had never happened to me in a Roman Catholic church.  I felt as if God were saying to me “this is where I want you”.  I felt at peace.

I thought about my experience with Roman Catholic priests: the way my confidence had been broken by the priest I confessed to when I worked in the chaplaincy; how Paolo had broken the vow of chastity that he had taken up so willingly when he’d been ordained.  And I thought about the wonderful things that had happened to me in Colorado and how I’d had to leave my own dreams of the Episcopal priesthood behind when the immigration authorities had refused to let me go back to study in Denver.  Somehow none of it mattered any more.  It was as if all of it was only the experience that had led me to this new church, this ancient church which professed to be serving the living God.  I knew that God had brought me there.  I didn’t know why or what for, I just knew that He had.

Shortly before I left the house to go to the midnight service I phoned Mother.  It’s always a bit of a gamble phoning these days.  She’s not completely better because she seems to passively resist the healing power she experienced so powerfully while we were praying for her in Colorado.  But she’s so much better than the shell of a person I left only days before I flew out there.  That was a person who didn’t really even know who I was, now she knows me well enough to grumble in the same way as she always has and to welcome my prayers, if distantly.  I have to accept God’s miracles for what they are and not expect more than is His will.  That doesn’t stop me from feeling apprehensive when I pick up the phone though!

She asked me if I was coming down.  I said I’d decided not to go anywhere that I couldn’t comfortably ride home from on my bicycle.  She said, “oh how nice.  You’ve got a bike!”, and proceeded to recount the story of how she’d gone over the handlebars of her bike when she’d been visiting my dad here at John’s College all those years ago when he was a third year student.  She’d broken her collarbone and was devastated because she couldn’t go to the May ball with him.  I think she was more upset about not being able to show off the gorgeous dress she’s made for it, but I didn’t stop her to tell her so.  She said the doctor she saw told her not to be so stupid and to make a sling in the same material.  So Cinderella did get to go to the ball, and she only wore her sling until the first dance after which she was enjoying herself so much that it ceased to even matter.

It was a good call.  There are few enough moments that are as good as that.  I told her how I feel when I walk around Cambridge, how I like to wonder where they went together, my mum and dad in those wonderfully happy student days before I was born.  It’s a pleasing thought and it seemed to please her too.  After all the years we’ve both spent shouting recrimination and insult after each other it’s good to only speak when we can think of nice things to tell one another.  She didn’t even have to tell me how much my dad dislikes me, or how he can’t bear to be around me because I’m so fanatical.  It’s her who thinks these things, I’m sure, but it’s easier for her to tell me if she uses him as the third party source of recrimination.  She doesn’t like to hurt me directly these days.

She said I was quite right to stay in Cambridge for Christmas, then she wished me a happy one and excused herself on the grounds that she couldn’t stand in the kitchen on the telephone for too long as her legs were too weak to hold her.

As I walked to the church I wondered where exactly my dad might be.  I knew he was back in Colorado somewhere, I just didn’t know where.  He hadn’t bothered to visit when he came over here like he said he would.  I left Colorado the day after my birthday and he was following me over a month later with his young doctor wife.  He had numbers to contact me.  Minnie’s mum and dad’s, Minnie’s mobile, my oldest son’s.  I was staying with my oldest son at the time.  I didn’t know that the American immigration authorities weren’t going to let me go back then, so I’d made no other plans.  He didn’t even bother to ring and say hello.  My own father; my children’s grandfather!  Did he dislike me that much?  Or was it himself he disliked?  Maybe Mother had always been right.  Oh, it doesn’t matter.

Yes, it does.

In the church candles were placed everywhere there was a space flat enough to place a candle on.  It was so intimate and beautiful.  Then the organ began to play.  I couldn’t get the thoughts of my dad out of my head.  I imagined his fingers playing each note and my eyes welled up with tears, and as I sit here now they’re not far away.  Not as far away as he is.  No distance could take him as far away from me as his own heart does.  Such a loving heart, yet such a fearful and vulnerable heart.  I wish that there were something I could do to love it back to life, but I’m too fanatical, he’ll never listen to me.  I shall have to trust God to nurse him back to His heart alone.  But I’ll never stop praying, raising my own dear old dad up to our wonderful heavenly Father, whether he likes it or not.

Yes, it does matter.  But I’ll leave it for another day.

The vicar could see the tears in my eyes and he was kind and welcoming.  It was Christmas at last.  The birth of our Saviour was far more important, and the vicar’s kindness brought the joy back to my heart in a rush of celebration.  It lasted all the way back home, it has been present in all that I’ve just written, and now I shall take it to bed with me and pray that it’s still there when I cycle round to Purdey’s house for Christmas lunch in the morning.

Not before I tell you of Elysia’s final battle, though.  How could I sleep through that?  She certainly has grown into the kind of person we can all be proud of, and perhaps we could all try to be more like her and less like our old selves.  Maybe she is that other self we all wished we could get in touch with?  There’s a horribly over-used phrase There’s enough of the child in her to serve as a model to those of us who need to contact our own inner child.  There’s oodles of responsibility in her too, but it’s so well tempered with her more inquisitive and intrepid qualities that we could never become stodgily over-cautious by following her lead.  There’s so much that I’ve learned about Elysia over this past month that she’s probably already changed my life forever.

But let’s not blow any trumpets for her before we’ve seen what happens next.  Let’s just read on and see.

eng_LB_penguin_1973_bp_vol

Elysia’s Final Battle

Elysia awoke to the sound of birdsong.  She stood at her window and smiled.  Perched on a branch only feet away from her, a solitary nightingale, fully-fledged and stretching its throat up towards the blood-red sky, warbled its finest.  Her nightingale.

Muffled movement somewhere behind her in the depths of the building made her turn.  Male voices raised in plainchant made her smile.  She was, after all, in a monastery.  The abbot himself had installed her in this oak-panelled apartment overlooking the castle courtyard.  He was Italian, dashingly handsome, and she had something to say to him.  She dressed in her familiar battle garb, arranged her armour and weapons and sat down on the edge of her bed to listen to the voice in her crystal.

“Elysia, my darling beloved.”  The voice sounded more full of love than ever it had before and her heart resonated to the tender tune of her smile.  “You have come so far and today is the day when all the forces of darkness will see you shine most brightly.  Today you must be more vigilant than ever.  You must be more resolved in firmness and rooted in the Word I have taught you than at any other point on your journey.  Today there is no margin for error.  Today the seeds you plant will be the vines you harvest.  But take good heart, my love, for in your weakness you are made strong.  In your obedience to what you have earned lies the secret of your success.  In your dependence on my voice and your trust in me is your victory.  Tomorrow we will be together forever and paradise shall be yours.”

“He said how they share in my victory and how they rejoice that I’ve come so far too.”

“Do not forget the crimes that he is guilty of, Elysia!  Do not forget that his chance of salvation will not be in soft words harshly spoken, but in stern words spoken in love!”

Her heart lurched at the prospect.  “The confession turning on the priest?”

“I know how hard it will be, Elysia, but my Word is the same for the priest as it is for those he ministers to.  There are no rules that exclude him from the final judgement.”

“It just seems strange, that’s all.  I mean turning the tables like that.”

“A life lived in my Word is like that.  Otherwise it cannot become a life saved.

“You will meet all manner of souls in need of salvation today.  Today you will meet face to face with all who have held you back.  In setting their souls free you will be letting go of the ghosts of your past life and setting your own soul free to soar with me in paradise.  Tomorrow we will meet face to face, in paradise.”

The colours in the crystal faded to palest shades and His voice was only a memory ringing through her heart when the knock sounded gently on her door.

A servant had come to take her to chapel.  He led her in silence and seated her in darkened pews in front of the altar.  She watched as the monks received communion from their abbot, kneeling in front of him as if he were himself a god, and her heart sank again.

How would she tell him?  How could she save his soul from the perdition of his unconfessed sin that must indeed lay heavy upon it?  She bowed her head in prayer and hid her face in her hands.

His hand on her shoulder broke her reverie.  She could see the brown material of his habit swishing around at his feet.  “So lost in prayer, child?  Is there anything you wish to confess before breakfast?”

His monks had already filed out of the little chapel and into the refectory.  Only she and the abbot remained.  “No, not for myself.  But I was hoping to be about my father’s business on your behalf, my Lord Abbot.”

“Your father’s business, Elysia?  And in words that carry such formality.  Please proceed.  His business is after all mine also.”

“He knows what you do.  The women…the way you use them.  How can you hurt Him so and yet remain unrepentant?”  She cowered under his horrified yet vacuous stare, resolve almost crumbling.  The voice from her crystal called out loud and clear in her heart…in your trust in me is your victory…his chance of salvation will not be in soft words harshly spoken, but in stern words spoken in love…it rang in her ears until she could do none other than obey in love of Him.   “Put your sin and shame behind you.  Go forward into His love, a new creation, forgiven.”

She had risen from her knees as she spoke and his face was level with hers.  Tears welled up in his eyes, big pregnant tears ready to fall.  She prayed that he would let them stream onto his sin, cleanse his soul and re-affirm him in the love of his Father…her Father.

Their eyes met, she and the Lord Abbot hiding his dreadful sin, and a vision of the paradise promised her by her beloved flooded into her mind and filled her with a warm sense of contentment and security.  She loved and was loved back.  And that was enough.  His tears flowed, channelling in gushing rivulets over the precipice of his eyelashes and soaking his cheeks.  Silent at first, until he could no longer control the gulping convulsions of his sobbing emotions as his shame flowed out.

“Oh, my Lord…oh, my Father,” he rasped through his tears, falling slowly to his knees.  “Have I been so dead to my own sin that I have allowed myself to abuse the bodies of your handmaidens so shamefully?  That I should fail to see the wrong I have done both them and You?  That I the confessor should become so unwillingly confessed?”

Inside her heart was a depth of peace she had never experienced before.  “My Lord Abbot, you are forgiven.  Just be sure you don’t do it again!”

It was a righteous, just and good feeling she wanted to share and as she laid her hand on the abbot’s shoulder he too seemed to be filled with it.  His sobbing subsided and a fresh glow covered his face.  “Thank you,” he whispered softly.

As she left him at the door by which she had entered the monastery he stood transformed.  Sin and guilt had been washed from his face and he shone like a beacon, his aura brightly consuming all other light.  The greyness seemed not to be so grey as she stood facing him to say her final goodbye.

“Straight across the courtyard and up those steps on the other side,” he said.  “That’s where your path lies.  And I will pray for your success.”

The red and grey seemed darker still as she turned away from him and set out on the path that crossed the courtyard.  It was wide and long, with no shelter, and the wind whipped around her knees and ankles.  In her ears the faint raspings and rustlings of the Chittering Things threatened to break through her resolve, but she refused to give them the headroom they craved.  As they got louder she walked all the faster, more determined than ever to complete the task given her.

At the centre of the courtyard she turned to survey her progress.  To her rear, to her left and to her right the path appeared to have graduated uphill.  The ground now fell away on all sides, except for the way forward.  With every step she took forwards the gradient in these directions increased and magnified, until she found she was walking along a promontory that was narrowing out in front of her.  She no longer walked the path; the path was leading her.

It was leading her steadily upwards, so the backs of her legs were beginning to tire.  It was using her fear of height to try and deflect her, to distract her.  And it was prolonging this last stage of her journey and making her face the things in her psyche that she would meet face to face at its conclusion sooner than she should, and all the more scary for being left to her imagination.  But all she could see in front of her was the face of Him she loved more than life itself and nothing, nothing, was going to stop her from being with him in paradise as he had promised what seemed like aeons ago.  She turned these negative things back on themselves and made the extra time work for her.  She prepared herself for them in silent prayer.

It seemed as if she had been walking for hours, across a courtyard that had seemed so small and contained before it had transmuted itself into something so arduous, when at last she reached the steps.  They wound away from her, around the huge granite precipice they were hugging, cruel living steps cut into the face of a harsher mountain.  She followed them up, up, and up into the interminable grey redness of the atmosphere, until many hundreds of feet above they turned back on themselves and levelled out into a flat plateau almost on the mountain top.

There was no colour, only the grey of the granite, covered in the blood hue of the atmosphere.  She let her eyes be led over the surface of the plateau and eventually her gaze collided with the pinnacles and turrets she had seen from far, far below, from before her meeting with the monstrously beautiful, rude and stupid Gatekeepers.

The Citadel.

“How am I supposed to get in there?” she asked no one in particular.

The Chittering Things answered her, their strange mimicry ringing louder in her ears than it had all the way across the courtyard and up the side of the mountain.  “Turn back,” they seemed to say.  “You cannot win out against such strength as ours,” they hissed and whined.  She laughed.  “Oh, yes I can, for I have something in my heart that is much stronger than anything any of you can ever use against me.  You’ll never pull me down with your sniggering, cheating, lying and deceiving.  You who can’t even take corporeal form, or crawl out of the shadows in which you lurk.  You are made only of the darkness and I am heading into the light, where you can never exist.”  The screeching that reached its crescendo in her ears was all the reaction she needed to know that she had won out against that particular enemy.  It lasted only a few moments.  Then silence reigned.

“But how am I supposed to get in there?” she asked again.

Her staff began to glow, as it had done in the tunnel at the very beginning of her journey, when she had been consumed with fear at the top of the steps that took her into the darkness.  It began to pull her forwards, slowly at first but gathering momentum until she found she was almost running across the plateau towards the huge wooden gates that held the Citadel fast.  It stopped so suddenly when it reached them that she almost banged her head on one of the iron studs banged into them.  The staff thrust itself high into the air in her grip and launched itself headfirst at the gates with a loud resounding knock.  It repeated this movement three times then abruptly slid back to its usual place, in Elysia’s left hand with its pointy end on the ground beside her left foot, not a glow in sight at the other end.  There was a grinding sound, like the slow turning of many cogs against each other, and the gates began to open, inch by slow tormented inch.

The scene inside the Citadel also opened itself inch by slow tormented inch to her widening eyes.

Was it a wedding banquet?  Figures in vibrant colours swayed and staggered in front of her, fat and laughing.  As the doors opened on the whole scene she could see tables and benches under brightly coloured awnings in a courtyard.  Lining the courtyard walls were victuallers of all sorts, their wares spread out on boards resting on barrels under lean-tos.  The scene was at once as intimate as the monastery courtyard had been bleak, yet that very intimacy seemed bound by a detachment Elysia could not understand.

Minstrels fiddled and riddled in every corner, their music filling what space wasn’t already taken up by voices raised in the laughter and song of celebration.  But what was the celebration?

She stood in between the doors surveying the scene, baffled by its purpose or meaning.  As she moved forwards into the courtyard she seemed to come no closer to the goings on within it, as if she was not meant to become a part of the proceedings merely by walking into it.  But why?  No one looked at her; no one even seemed to acknowledge her existence.

For a few moments she stood there and just watched, trying to figure it out.  She watched the women in their brightly coloured dresses, some serving girls, some portly matrons, some young and lithe, but all with lascivious grins on their faces, and all in some way wrapped around a man, whether to serve him from pots and jugs or in some less seemly way.  Then she watched the men.  Young and old alike, all were stuffing their mouths with some delicacy or another, be it drink, food or some part of a woman.  Cards whizzed around tables so fast she barely caught sight of them, closely followed by money and sexual favours of all kinds.  The longer she looked the more she saw, and she stood aghast at the spectacle as these deceivers and thieves, dupes and dullards, takers, makers and breakers operated their scams and debaucheries in untroubled revelry as the bards played on.

This was no wedding feast!

But what was it?  And why?

As the awful debauched truth of the scene before her dawned she began to recognise some of the characters involved in it.  Faces from her past life began to reveal themselves to her in all their awful identity.  She watched as women she had known let themselves be wheeled around by familiar men, like whores publicly plying their wares.  Minstrels whose tunes she could name played faster and louder, and the whole company danced and drank and gambled and fucked until the scene erupted into an orgiastic harvest bearing nothing but rotting and foul-smelling fruit.

As it reached its climax she screamed.

Nothing happened.

To her right a trough of water, meant no doubt for livestock, caught her attention.  A bucket on the ground beside it caught her imagination.  “If they won’t damned well listen…”

In one fluid movement she filled the bucket from the trough and swung it behind her in as big an arc as her arms would allow her.  She watched the faces of the people before her, rapt in their empty thrills, and swung forwards with all her might.  Water sprayed out in front of her in a circular wave that somehow caught the entire crowd.

“Stop your mindless sinning,” she shouted, “be baptised, and be forgiven!”

Silence fell on the courtyard as one and all were stopped dead in the climax of their revelry.  Every one had been baptised.  Every one had been forgiven.  From revelry to revelation, every one was transformed.  But their transformation gave them awareness of themselves, left them embarrassed for their actions.  And like Adam and Eve they felt their nakedness.  And it was comical to watch and made Elysia laugh aloud.

The deceit, duplicity and debauchery that she had witnessed in the scene did not.  There had to be more.

She looked around the courtyard.  At the far end a stone staircase rose out of the awnings and stalls.  Her eyes followed it to the top where there was another door, smaller then the gates through which she had entered the courtyard, yet equally as closed and imposing.  As she began to walk across water-soaked flags transformed minstrels seemed to have recovered from embarrassment and began to play again.  Soft and beautiful phrases were lifted to her ears on wings of love.  She could hear the chatter of transformation and forgotten embarrassment in the voices of the crowd enjoying this new music.  It was chatter of an altogether friendlier and restrained sort, the sort that made her smile gratefully.

Someone tugged softly but persistently at her elbow as she passed by.  “You be careful up there now dearie!  They might not be so easy to deal with as us lot down ‘ere.  Their evil’s altogether of a more dark variety up there dearie.  But you be taking our blessings with you as you go, and our thanks now, you hear!  Oh, an’ you might be wantin’ to take this with you?”  The bucket was pushed into her hand, refilled.  She found the bucket, refilled.

She gathered her thoughts and emotions together and headed for the steps.  Behind her she could hear voices from the crowd cheering her on.  The same crowd she had so recently convicted of sin and doused with water from an animal trough.

At the top of the steps she let the staff do its knocking thing again and prepared herself for what she was about to see.

The door refused to open.

The staff did its thing again.

The door remained firmly closed.

“You gotta shout real loud, duckie!” came a voice from the crowd below.  “Thems won’ ‘ear ya’otherwise.”

As the staff did its thing for the third time Elysia raised her voice: “I demand that you open these doors!”

“In ‘ose name!” came the faint but caustic reply from the inside.

“In the name of my Beloved, of course.  And I demand that you open them NOW!”

With a loud crack something that held the doors fast from the inside fell out of the way and the doors threw themselves open, violently.

“Oh, here she is, the queen of feeble minds and weak hearts.  The queen of filth and adultery.  How long we’ve waited for this.”

She recognised the voice long before the face came into focus.  Such sarcasm and ridicule belonged to a telephone engineer she had all but forgotten about.

“Tie her up and fuck her stupid!  She loves it.  Can’t get enough of it.  Leave her in a hotel room on her birthday and run back to your wife.  She’ll keep running back for more.  Too stupid and lovelorn not to.”

The voice of a managing director.

“Yeah, then get ‘er into jacking up sherbet and really fuck ‘er brains out by gettin’ ‘er banged up for a few years while you figure out how else you’c’n get ‘er at it for ya.  She’ll stand fer it.  Use ‘er up an’ throw away the leftovers, mate.”

A king among rats.

“Nah, mate, beat physical fuck out of ‘er an’ teach ‘er ‘ow to make ya real money.  Then, when ya gets yerself banged up, nah problem, cos’ she’ll jus’ break y’out, jus’ like ya wan’ ‘er to.”

A prince among both rats and thieves.

“Stupid whore’ll only smash your car up and leave you while your away on holiday.  Might as well just fuck ‘er over before she does.”

Someone who once played good bass.

“Yeah, but she’s good fer a few grand to blow down the casino, an’ looks okay ‘angin’ on yer arm.  At least until the naggin’ starts.  Then…yeah, yer all right, fuck ‘er over fer what ya can an’ get so fuckin’ drunk that ya really do ‘er ‘ead in.”

A drinker who likes to gamble.

“No.  Tha’s not it at all.  The coup de grace comes in waiting until you’ve really got her confidence, until she feels safe and comfortable with you, safe enough to start really dealing with those deep psychological things women deal with, like rape.  Then you tell’er it’s all just a bit too much, that you didn’t really love ‘er, and that you don’t even really fancy ‘er any more, an’ that it’s just as well she never put out for you because you couldn’t face the rest of yer life tied to something as ugly as ‘er.”

A geography teacher.

“No, no, that’s not it either.  You see, what you should really do is lull her into a completely false sense of security by pretending to be her friend.  Then you get her drunk enough not to slip into your office late at night and completely forget what the word no means.  All this, of course, is standard fucking practice, because what woman is ever going to turn down the offer of a good fuck?”

A tutor.

“You’re all wrong.  For a start you have to be young and devastatingly attractive, like me.  Then you just flatter her into thinking that she loves you and that you’ll do anything for her, promise her the earth and, of course, deliver absolutely nothing except your over-inflated ego which is full of the hangups of Oedipus.  Then you actually help her to sort out those psychological womens things, before demanding that she give you back your beautiful young life because you’re fed up with her particular brand of Catholic virtue.”

A young Spaniard.

They jeered.  They laughed.  They taunted.  They abused.  And they were not alone, just the foremost faces and the most audible voices in a sea of other familiar faces and a cacophony of jeering, taunting, abusing laughter.

Elysia looked further than the faces, searched further with her inner antennae.  On a raised platform at the far end of a long timber-panelled hall were two thrones, not stately, more carved out of ancient usage, worn and weathered to the shape of their occupants, to their shape in Elysia’s psyche.  They seemed to be miles away, distorted representations at the end of a long timbered tunnel that she could see only with her inner eye.  A small throne and a big throne…next to each other…or perhaps only visually apparent as being so?

The sea of faces between her and the thrones she could only as yet sense was coming closer, their expressions and taunts becoming more menacing.  Like giants they grew until they towered over her, threatening to snuff out more than just light and air.  The temptation to panic was replaced by brave action.  The bucket of water in her right hand swung into motion as another high-arcing circular-sweeping jet of baptising water swept over the evil faces from her past.  They were stopped in mid-insult.  Suddenly she was looking down onto a neat oblong-shaped timber-panelled room full of apologetically embarrassed men and women looking very silly as they affected variously menacing attitudes of violent hostility, badly.  All except one.

“You might be able ter catch them lot wiv yer magic wat’a, but ya won’t catch me.”

“Oh, no?”  She swung the bucket once more, this time aiming more directly.  “Be baptised, be forgiven, be your true self.”

A high-pitched screeching and a lot of scratching accompanied a large brown rat with a wooden crown balanced precariously on its head as it scuttled off the main stage of events.  Elysia was sure she heard it talk.  “I’m sorry,” it seemed to be saying.

The thrones were now fully visible.  One small and one big, right next to each other.  Her mother on the big one, her father on the small one.  The king and queen sitting next to each other, as awkwardly and unwillingly as if they were merely two pictures juxtaposed together for the purpose of one made up incident.  A huge one of her mother and a tiny one of her father.

She walked across the room to them, up the steps and onto the raised dais, right up to within inches from their faces.  They didn’t move, they didn’t blink, they could have been cardboard cut outs for all the input they invested.  At least the others had expressed emotions, even if they had been negative and violent ones.

“So, what do I do with you two?” she asked.

A voice in her head replied. “Heal them, Elysia.  Anoint them with the healing power of my love.  Make them feel.”

“Healing power?  Ah, yes.  Of course.”  She fished around in her knapsack and pulled out the Seed of Hope.  Only by this time it had germinated and sprouted some small green shoots.  As she held it in her hand it began to grow some more.  It continued to grow until it was a small tree.  She put it down beside the thrones and watched it with wonder in her eyes as it sprouted perfect green leaves, then perfect green olives.  She smiled broadly as the olives began to ooze oil down onto the dais and put out her hand to catch a few drops in her palm.

With the forefinger of her other hand she took some oil and smeared it onto her tiny two-dimensional black and white father’s forehead.  Colour instantly flooded his face and his eyes lit up.  As he stood to hug her he grew to normal size.  “Thank you Elysia,” he said, plainly and simply. “I love you.”  And he walked off down the steps to join the others in their new songs and dances.

Again she took some oil on her forefinger and reaching up to the top of her mother’s head she gently smeared it over her forehead too.  Nothing seemed to happen for long seconds.  The black and whiteness remained, the two-dimensionalness also remained.  Then, slowly, so slowly, one single blood-red tear oozed out of her mother’s black and white eye.  As it fell on her cardboard cheek it hardened and a single red ruby fell into her lap.  Elysia picked it up and held it in her hand.  As the remaining oil covered it the large cardboard image of her mother crumbled into a tiny heap of dust on the throne.

Elysia stared at the heap of dust.  With a real tear in her own eye she turned away.  She knew that her mother would walk with her again in complete healing some day.  She clasped the ruby tightly to her heart in the hope that it would be soon.

As she turned she noticed that the walls of the inner sanctum had crumbled and fallen into rubble and where there had been only a few wet flagstones in the courtyard there was now a pool in which all the baptised people from her past were swimming.  She could see this water tumbling down over the walls of the Citadel, cascading down the mountain and flowing in a crystal clear river over the whole mountain.  From there she could see the whole length and breadth of the territory she had travelled through since the beginning of her journey.  Across many mountains and valleys she could see her garden, all green and vibrant against its backdrop of blue sky.  As her eye surveyed the distance she had travelled from the garden to the Inner Sanctum of the Citadel her heart leapt with joy as she realised that the grey evil of the blood-soaked regions was no more.  Rich and fertile greens and the vibrant colours of spring has replaced it. Life sprouted everywhere.

As she watched the walls of the Citadel began to rebuild and rearrange themselves.  Walls of pure gold built themselves up on the mountaintop around her with a river flowing out from it in a waterfall that fed the lower mountains and the foothills.

As she turned back to the place where her mother and father’s wooden thrones had stood only moments ago it was to see that they had replaced themselves with golden thrones of beautifully ornate decoration.

She looked down to her feet and saw that she too had been reclothed.  On her feet were golden slippers.  She wore a dress of purest silk adorned with pearls of Ophir and finest embroidery.  She could see herself in the fine glass of the new windows and on her head was a crown of pure gold and jewels were woven into her hair.  She was beautiful.

“Yes, you are beautiful, my dearest love.”

 

See you all tomorrow on December 25th with Chapter Twenty-Five, the final chapter in our journey with Eartha and Elysia! Who will you be fighting in YOUR Last Battle?

Brightest Blessings and a Happy Advent Journey to any and all of you who are reading this,
Tally :-)

PS: If you’d like to read Worlds Without End whole and uninterrupted on your Kindle, or on iBooks, you can go to the My Books tab at the top of the page, or just click on the ad in the sidebar on the right, to download the complete book now. You won’t get the wonderful pictures I’ve found to accompany this Blogging Advent Journey though!

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