2nd Year at University
Poverty and obedience, eh? Well, each in its turn.
Until I could get to college to collect my grant cheque I had no money to do anything. That was where Miss X found her vantage point. She picked me up from Victoria bus station, took me to her flat in Surbiton and fed me. She also moaned a lot about almost everything, especially about being very quiet when her cabaret singer woman was on the phone, and told me my symptoms were exactly the same as hers when she was diagnosed as having MS. Great. How long did I have? And could I pretend I didn’t exist while I was quietly dying in the corner?
My Avenger girl lookalike friend from college rescued me a few days later and drove me into the middle of nowhere somewhere in Sussex to spend my first weekend back on British soil shacked up with a hundred new first years in a field. I had bad memories of our stint as first years but nothing could be worse than being cooped up in a tiny flat with Miss X and the constant ghost of her other woman. Not even the Institute of Archaeology’s Primitive Technology course and its extremely rude awakening for unsuspecting new bods could be worse than that. Purdey and I had promised our services for the catering anyway. So had the Earth Mother! At least I didn’t get extremely sick on magic mushrooms like I had the year before. No, I was already extremely sick and still suffering the effects of my collapse in Prague! But anything was better than Miss X’s sofa, except her bed, which was the other alternative she’d offered me.
I made another new friend on the Prim-Tech thing. He was our IT lecturer. He had a rep for being a hard nut and hating time wasters. He was a Canadian who’d spent enough time with Native American Indians to pick up the name of Paleface. It suited him well. Why he liked me I’ll never know. We got talking while he was in between supervising primitive activities and he told me to drop in for coffee when we were back at the Institute.
I found a room in a shared house full of other UCL students in the first week of term. It was in Hendon. Miss X drove me and my stuff there. She drove me mad with her whinging on the way and I came to a decision about her. Once she’d dropped me off and I’d got settled in I blew her out. Completely.
It was almost like an exorcism. A lot of my life was like that during the second year. I looked back on the first year with a certain amount of contempt. I looked at the people who’d wasted my time and given me grief, at the unnecessary things that were taking precedence over the important ones. Then I prioritised the order of importance and jettisoned everything that wasn’t getting me where I wanted to be.
My best friend that year was a guy with a kind of pan-European name that began in Poland, ended in Ireland and visited most places in between on the way. I called him Mutley because that was what his initials spelt. Mutley was as strange as his name. Damned good archaeologist but crap person had been said of him on more than one occasion, but he was a jolly good sounding board for any outrageous ideas that might be found flying around the galaxy and attaching themselves to me, so I spent a lot of time with him. He liked to go out for dinner and as he liked company while he ate and didn’t mind paying for two I found this arrangement to be about perfect for one as broke as I was that year.
The Wild Welsh Witch and her Geography Teacher friend had already managed to waste a fair proportion of my university education for me; I wasn’t about to let myself repeat mistakes such as these for the remaining six terms of it. Mutley didn’t believe me when I told him I was forsaking the common room for the library, so I set about proving it as a reality.
The only problem with that was that I had so little energy due to my earlier collapse that I barely managed to stay around at all after lectures. I drank a lot of coffee in the computer room with Paleface, who was definitely a very positive influence, but headed off home at every otherwise convenient moment. At home I got more involved in reading spiritual works that would help me finally explore the Carmelite element of my vocation than the books about the England of between 1100-1500 AD that I was supposed to be knee-deep in.
But the worst thing was the poverty. That year, apart from the part of it I spent in Prague, was the worst of my life, without doubt. I hated being in London. It felt like my body was being forced to function in one place while my heart was existing in another place entirely. I wanted to be with my Carmelite friends in the monastery. I wanted to be in my office in Prague castle looking down on the whole city spread out before me. I didn’t want to be living in a tiny little room in a crummy house with a load of noisy students. I didn’t want to be living without enough money to feed myself properly because I’d run up such a huge overdraft the year before and spent my entire student loan for that year to pay it off. It wouldn’t have felt like life at all if it hadn’t been for the church and the RCIA meetings on a Wednesday night that gave me the only feeling of reality to hang onto.
I missed Prague terribly. Paulo had given me the name of his Czech teacher who was living in London at that time. Her husband was a diplomat at the embassy. I went to find her once I’d got settled back into my term-time routine. She agreed to teach me once a week. We spent the time talking more about Prague than we ever did doing lessons, but that was okay, comforting in a way. She became a friend too.
That year wasn’t as easy academically as the first year had been. I’d hardly had to read a book at all; my background had carried me through, except in Archaeological Science. I’d written all my essays the night before they were due in and still got straight B’s or better, much to the Earth Mother’s chagrin, and the only time I’d spent in the library was the time it took to find my friends and drag them out. The second year was completely different.
My second year was filled with specialist medieval courses that I had to work hard at to understand. When I wasn’t ill, or trying to decide whether or not I should get the Tutor charged with rape as Paleface thought I should, I spent all of my time translating Old English poems, or trying to decipher the secrets of Anglo-Saxon animal-style metalwork ornamentation. At least that was what it was filled with up until Christmas.
Then I went back to Prague to continue my fieldwork.
Actually, I went back to Prague to see all my friends in the castle and the monastery and to have a jolly good Christmas. I got the Institute to pay for it by making it fit in with my fieldwork requirements as research for my dissertation.
The Charles Bridge looked beautiful in early morning winter sunshine, resplendent in its coat of newly fallen snow, just like a Christmas card. Everything was so different to the way it had been in the summer, and yet so much the same. I walked the same streets. Crisper, colder streets that reflected paler sunshine and got buried under snow rather than the torrential rain of the frequent summer storms. But they seemed victorious to be rid of the thousands of summer tourists. These were winter streets, filled with the people who loved them and understood them. Christmas people enjoying the Christmas market stalls in the Old Town Square, buying mulled wine and last minute presents and decorations. I felt like one of these people myself. I felt as if I belonged.
I belonged in the castle too. The boss invited me to the Archaeological Unit’s Christmas party. It was strange to be sitting around the huge table in the finds-washing room with all these top Czech archaeologists who were now my friends, drinking wine with them, swapping little presents and cards with them. They had a tradition of buying something very small for each other that would hang on the tree at the end of the table. And all of them had put a present on the tree for me.
At Jezulátko the nativity scene was a work in progress and everyone was bustling around busily fixing things for the Christmas masses. It was a flurry of long brown dresses to-ing and fro-ing. The mad Italian friars’ secretary, who had helped me when I was ill in the summer, most especially with the language problem, had invited me to her house for Christmas Eve. Then there was to be a special meal in the friars’ refectory on Christmas day after the Christmas morning mass. But the thing I was looking forward to the most was going with Helena and her family to their little Benedictine church on the hill for midnight mass. It was near Barandov just outside Prague where she lived. The mass was going to be in Latin.
Christmas Eve at Helena’s house was very special. By the time I went to sleep on her sofa my head was swimming with newly made memories that I would treasure forever. We made last minute sweets around the kitchen table, drank coffee together and gossipped cheerfully about future plans. We ate the traditional carp with her family around the dining room table, then her four children opened their presents while we looked on sipping wine and smoking cigarettes. And then it was time to go to church.
It was snowing. It was dark. We crunched across the ice and fresh snow, four children, Helena and her husband and me, and somehow squeezed into their five-seater Lada. The little baroque church stood up on its little hill, lit by lamps at the door. It looked as if it had jumped straight out of the pages of a book of fairytales. It was everything I’d ever dreamed that midnight mass should be and I was entranced. As I walked in I felt as if I was walking right onto those fairytale pages. As the Latin liturgy, with all its heavily harmonised sung responses and purifying incense, filled the little church with medieval echoes, my head was swimming in a euphoric ecstasy I’d never known before. I felt closer to God than I’d ever felt before. If I’d reached my hand towards heaven I’d have been able to touch Him. I didn’t of course. There were too many people watching and I felt that as a visitor I ought to behave myself. Outside in the cold night air once more I watched the snow falling against the light of the lamp and fancied that I could see the face of the baby Jesus in a snowflake as it fell gracefully to earth. What beautiful memories those were in the making.
The Christmas morning mass at Jezulátko the next day was every bit as magical, but in a grandiose and theatrical sort of a way. The huge basilica, with its high painted walls, splendidly baroque architectural features and valuable artwork, was full up with Prague’s faithful, decked out in their real fur coats and hats. The music was also Baroque, the finest of Czech composers, the finest of masses, and the finest of choirs, up there in the balcony. It was like music descending from heaven on high, for the birth of the saviour into this world; a last taste of heaven before the rudeness of the world should totally overwhelm Him. Flowers and lights; fir trees and baubles; and a little plaster baby in a model of a stable with three wise dolls delivering their cardboard caskets of painted presents. It overwhelmed me.
Lunch was a happy affair. All of us crammed into the refectory together, brothers, sisters, monastery staff and their families. And me. And after lunch I took the time to steal away from everyone and sit quietly in the brothers’ private chapel, just me and my prayer book. I said happy birthday to Jesus in my own way.
It seemed very strange being back on my own in the little flat the archaeological unit had provided for me after that. I looked forward to New Year and spent a lot of time wandering around on my own, trying hard to keep the concept of cold and lonely foreigner at arm’s length while embracing the study ethic with the books I’d brought. On as limited a budget as mine was, and with as few distractions, it was only a matter of days before I was actually bored enough to hit the books with a real vengeance. And, after all, the Institute had given me a fieldwork allowance to do some work.
But New Year was different. That was another fairytale. Helena was already out at their little house in the country. She’d gone there a few days after Christmas. Her husband had stayed in the city to work. He drove me out there with him on New Year’s Eve. It was somewhere unpronounceable in the mountains about two hours south-east of Prague.
It was like walking into Hansel and Gretel the Movie or something. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. The woods, the houses, everything, it was all so fairytalesque. From the fine pointy fir trees that topped the pretty mountains, to the dainty little cottages at the side of every winding road. When we went out for a walk in the forest with the children, there was even an old woman bent nearly double gathering firewood into her basket. I felt like I was Hans Christian Anderson walking through his fairytale locations, finding the material for his stories, only my mind was working on some updates. I kept expecting Little Red Riding Hood to pop up and ask me something in Czech, or a woodsman to chop off my head or something equally as gruesome. There were no houses made of cake to eat along the way, but Helena had been busy preparing some goodies of her own in her own cottage.
Helena’s cottage was just the most delightful place I’d ever stayed. She kept apologising for it and pointing out the faults. I’m sure she thought I was just being polite when I told her how honoured I felt to be sharing it with her. There were two habitable rooms, badly in need of modernisation, and the only sanitary arrangement was a hole in the ground covered by a pile of bricks crudely constructed into a lean-to on the edge of the barn. The temperature after dark was well below freezing, which meant that nighttime trips to the loo were perilous if bracing affairs, not to be embarked upon without thick-soled footwear and a heavy duty torch. I loved it. I took pictures of that loo I loved it so much. Helena’s husband thought I was crazy.
New Year was wonderful. We ate too much, watched too many daft old Czech movies and enjoyed all the family things that I’d missed out on as a child. When the two little children were asleep Helena and the two bigger girls and I walked down to the church to visit the graveyard. Helena told me of the tradition she had of putting candles on the grave of a priest who was buried there. It was magical being in the graveyard in the dark with only the light of our candles and the memory of that priest. I forget why it was important to visit the grave, but I will never forget the magic, or the emotions it engendered.
I felt very content there in the country with Helena and her family. Leaving for London seemed forever away, but of course it wasn’t. It never was.
The bus trip back seemed to take forever and London was shrouded in the usual early January drizzle. I got back to Hendon before anyone else was up. The house seemed smaller, pokier, and I was so depressed I slept until past teatime.
I was miserable all through the spring term, marking time until I could go back to the city where I’d left my life. I hated being in London.
The only eventful thing, apart from holding conversations in perfectly conjugated Old English and watching Arian masses in my dreams, was the letter I got from Adam on the day of the exam I feared the most. Actually the letter wasn’t as eventful as my reaction to it.
He accused me of blanking him, of turning my back on a friend. All I’d done was stay home to finish an essay the night I mentioned I might go down and see him. I was frantic enough about the exam. It was on the England of AD1100-1500 course, never my favourite centuries, and I’d been ill so much that I’d already got marks well below my average for my coursework. I’d done one night’s revision, more as a token gesture than anything else, and the letter arrived just as I was trying to calm myself into a bit of last minute cramming.
The last thing I needed was to read his vitriol-loaded crap.
I phoned the Shrink. He wasn’t there. I left a message. “Yes, he can phone me as soon as he’s free. I might still be alive, just.” He phoned back within ten minutes. It took him another forty to calm me into a reasonable shape to sit the exam.
I concluded that Adam and I had grown so far apart by that time that there was very little point in keeping in touch, especially if there was a risk he was going to pull all that resentful stuff on me at moments equally as poignant. I made the decision to cut him out and I stuck by it. That was the third time I’d done that in less than a year. When I looked closely at each of the situations I could only see it as growth. I was walking down my own road and if people couldn’t keep up, or wanted to go off down their own alleys, then I would have to walk alone. The Shrink had told me this would happen. The further you travel towards the light, he would say, the fewer people you’ll be able to take with you, until eventually there will only be you on your journey and you alone. I hadn’t understood what he meant until I made that decision about Adam.
Minnie and the Jazzman were my only unrelated living links to my sordid past. And that was the way I liked it. Apart from my boys – and parents, who were more like children anyway – they were the only links I considered worth bringing into my future. There were college friends, who would be around for the duration of the degree course. Then there were my new friends in Prague, my newly adopted home.
Prague. I was totally in love with the idea of life in Prague, in the Carmelite convent with Sister Irenia and the other sisters, being near the mad friars and Helena every day. It was all I could think of for that year. It had been so wonderful to spend Christmas over there with them all, and I counted off the days until I could go back to do more fieldwork in the summer.
And that was when it happened.
It was something that ripped my life apart and soaked the jagged edges in butane before dropping a lighted taper. Something that took hold of my heart, softly, and promised it every secret desire it harboured, before ripping it out and tossing it cruelly aside.
I was in charge of the students going to Prague Castle from the Institute to do their fieldwork that year. That meant I got to choose who went and when. I travelled out the day after my last exam and arranged to have my results sent over by the Tutor. I went on the bus with another English archaeologist who’d worked in Prague for four or five years. He looked like a cuddly bear, which easily earned him Teddy as a nickname. That was two weeks before the first group of students was due to arrive.
It was so wonderful to be back in the city I thought of as home, visiting with friends and catching up on all the news. For those two weeks I felt like it was for real, not just an extended summer field trip. As well as the social whirl I had work to do on my dissertation before things got too busy. But when I left the castle after a day’s work, or said goodnight to my friends after an evening drink, and went back to the hostel, alone, I was all too aware of that familiar feeling creeping up on me. In London I could easily block it out, with the hoards of people that always seemed to be around, or with television, or with any number of things so that never a moment would go by that wasn’t filled with something other than that feeling. Alone in a country where maybe one in a thousand would fluently understand me, where I couldn’t shut it out with soaps and sitcoms, or ring a friend so easily, I had no option but to meet loneliness head on and deal with it.
Then one day, as we were leaving the labyrinth of our castle offices to go across St George’s Square to lunch, all of us together, from the boss to the baby archaeologists, I saw him. And he saw me.
Through lunch I couldn’t stop thinking about him. This was the only man I’d even remotely fancied the year before, the man who always called me Indiana. Late May sunshine flooded in through the canteen windows landing on my life and brightening my heart that lunchtime. Voices and other noises faded away down long tubes, buzzing like bees, until all I could hear was birdsong, clear and distinct. Through the afternoon I was distracted. I watched blossom falling from trees in the palace gardens from my office window, pink and white confetti falling in a carpet on the gravel paths. I counted rooftops and imagined myself walking in the solitude of private gardens beneath them.
Then it was time for tea.
He almost ran me over as I crossed the square to the canteen. I can’t think why. No cars but his were allowed in there and I wasn’t walking so fast that I’d get away. He waved at me urgently and his face lit up like a Christmas tree. Two palace guards in uniform coming out of the canteen pointed and laughed knowingly and a palace fireman in red overalls behind them smiled too. They understood. So did I.
He said he’d meet me in the canteen after he’d parked the car in the courtyard of our shared offices.
I felt radiant. I felt apprehensive. What would I say to him? Would my Czech be good enough to communicate incipient relationship type stuff?
I got my food and sat down where he could easily see me. I began eating in that absorbed manner that says, I’m not waiting for anyone and if they arrive I’ll act as surprised as the next person. Then he arrived. He got his food and sat down at my table.
He spoke next to no English and I was nervous. He asked me how I liked Prague. My Czech was so limited that all I could think of to say was that I liked Czech beer. He said that we should go out and drink some Czech beer some time. This took as long as it did to politely pick around the contents of our trays. And that was that.
His name was Karel Svatoš
I visited Teddy one evening in his office in the town soon after and told him about these strange encounters.
“What d’you think it means?” I asked him.
“I think it means he’s very pleased to see you and more than a little interested,” he replied with a smile on his face. “Czech beer’s a serious thing.”
“But why? I mean, why didn’t he make a move last year when I was half the size I am now and feeling distinctly more confident about myself?”
“Not all men look for supermodels you know. Some of us are still more interested in good sturdy women who’ll ensure that our genes make it to the next generation.”
“Oh cheers Teddy!” I barked.
“Eartha, what’re you whinging at? You know you’re gorgeous. Just don’t tell the wife I told you so.” He grinned at me like the Cheshire Cat. “So, you’re really thinking about dating this guy? You realise policemen aren’t exactly well liked in this country?”
“Yes, but it gets worse. He’s castle police.”
“As was, yes.”
“Hmm, he’ll have you chained up in the dungeons before you know it, beating post-communist confessions out of you with a MacDonalds hamburger. What’s he look like?
“And are you hoping there’s an X File with your name on it?”
And so the conversation went, getting more and more obscure until I had this over-inflated silliness concerning my possible liaison with the secret policeman running around inside my head and causing all manner of even sillier doubts, most of them distinctly twilight zone material. Not the least of which was why he’d even want to go out with me at all. It was more due to my withdrawal from relationship scenarios, which had left me feeling under-confident, unattractive and quite frankly a little scared than anything else.
I should never have doubted myself. I was in the middle of some hugely life-changing transitions, if I did but know it, and I should have steered as well clear as I could. I didn’t need a man! But, somewhere in the midst of it all there was an instinct hiding somewhere deep down inside me that had so far managed to evade the scrutiny most of my instincts had already undergone. It craved recognition, satisfaction, revenge, or something, and it was not going to be ignored, even if it had to resort to methods of subterfuge to get out into the sunlight. It left me stranded on a slimy beach of romance while the tide was out and forgot to mention that I might just drown if I didn’t learn to swim, fast.
When my mind had wandered through the offices and duties of a modern day secret policeman as wildly as it could, he invited me to a party in his office. It was in celebration of his saint’s day. It was on 27th June. That just happened to be my dad’s birthday, and my parents wedding day. We’d been meeting up on corners of the labyrinth between his office and mine for weeks since those first thought provoking moments. We’d been politely greeting each other and talking, as far as our knowledge of each other’s languages would allow, and I’d almost given up any ideas of relationship, incipient or otherwise.
And there I was, invited to his saint’s day bash in his office. The sausages on sticks and the crisps and other nibbles in their little bowls, little fairy cakes that his mum must have made specially and bottles of wine on the table quite threw my preconceptions of a secret policeman’s role in a modern day democracy into complete confusion. I found myself sitting in a corner giggling. There I was, in the heart of the building that had been the most feared centre of the communist occupation in Czechoslovakia. I was surrounded by burly secret policemen, most of whom were responsible for guarding the president, and they were clearly far more interested in eating their sausages and sandwiches and drinking their wine than they were in the security of the state. What else could I do but laugh? Would they have considered me public enemy number one if I’d told them of my past criminal imbroglios? Would I even have been allowed into the country if they’d known? And there I was drinking and eating with them. I had no conception of what it must have been like to live through anything like a communist occupation but I felt sure that I would never have been allowed to do anything quite so liberal back then. My file would definitely have been blacklisted.
He kept looking over at me and seemed agitated with his friends. They weren’t much different to English policemen these. One of them kept on about how he could run the world on pig shit and a highly suspect brand of philosophy, just like all other dictators. Another was stowing wine away as if it was going out of fashion and getting louder by the minute. And one of them was a woman. Just one. I liked her. She was friendly and sensible, not at all like the bitch coppers I’d known from the other end of Europe. His eyes followed me around as his friends talked to me. I could feel the chemistry sparking between us like a chain reaction demanding fusion.
I had to go to Fat Bloke’s new flat for dinner that night. Okay, so I sold out. But he had recently got married. And he had recently got a new job, one that did not call for dodgy archaeological research strategies in any way shape or form. And one never knew when one might need to call upon someone in the environmental sector at some stage in one’s career as an archaeologist in the Czech Republic. I needed to leave to catch the bus if I was going to get there on time, so I disengaged myself from the charms of Karel’s larger than life boss and made my apologies.
Then the strangest thing happened. He insisted on driving me to the bus station himself and wound the party up while it was just getting into full swing. Just for me? Apparently so. I was so gobsmacked I couldn’t think of a refusal line, although getting into a Škoda should have produced more of an immediate response than it did.
Then he did one better than dropping me off at the bus and drove me all the way to Roztoky. It wasn’t that far, but far enough to let me know he must be serious. Then he asked me if I’d like him to collect me later on and got impatient with me for not making a decision. The problem was that Fat Bloke and his wife were expecting me to stop over seeing as the buses stopped at about eight o’clock and I was trying not to offend them by seeming too keen to leave. Instinct took control for me and I said yes.
Fat Bloke’s considered opinion was that I’d put on shed loads of weight since the previous year and that I must be mad if I was seriously thinking about dating a secret policeman. I suddenly remembered why no one liked him.
All evening all I could think about was why he wanted to come so far out of Prague to collect me, why he’d left his office party so soon just to bring me out there to Roztoky in the first place. Fat Bloke didn’t help with the answer to these questions, just made me wonder more. In fact I was exceedingly glad of the chance to quit Fat Bloke’s company without having to stay overnight, and if the truth be known couldn’t believe my luck at being to do so, and politely at that. Not only was I getting away after only a few hours of the British ex-pat social obligation thing but how I was getting away from it, in a whirl of unexpected romance, just about took the biscuit. I was worse than a schoolgirl on a first date. And then he turned up.
Of course I’d been clock-watching, just to see if he was going to be the punctual sort of romantic interlude. I still didn’t think he’d been serious. I must have misheard him when he said he’d be back for me, or misunderstood or something. I heard his car in amidst my disbelief, sharp on the stroke of ten.
It was a hot summer night. And the clich¾s didn’t end there.
He smelt gorgeous. He told me he’d been back to the office, had a sauna, showered and changed. I was impressed. More with the fact that our offices possessed a sauna, but also that he’d actually bothered. Then I became all the more conscious that I hadn’t showered since the morning and began to feel distinctly grubby and smelly, which didn’t help my confidence any.
As we turned the corner of Fat Bloke’s road I wondered what came next. The moon hung, bright and full, over the scene before my eyes. The road back into Prague ran alongside the river Vltava, much like the Embankment in London but with a sight less ugly buildings and a lot more enchantment. The scene before my eyes was filled with every romantic cliché that nature and man between them could possibly have contrived to provide for my ultimate seduction.
On the other side of the river was a sheer cliff thirty or so feet high. The moon hung over the top of this cliff, balanced, poised, full and gleaming. She looked down on us, shining her effulgent rays over us in fecund expectancy. How dared she snatch my destiny so easily into her control!
He parked the car. We walked across the coarse grass of the riverbank. At the water’s edge there was a huge tree. It overhung the water and split in two so that he could recline provocatively into one bit and I could lean primly on the other. The water flowed quickly underneath us.
Somehow he managed to communicate to me how swans swam on the river, swans that mate for life and remain faithful to each other. And how there were spirits that lived in the water, mischievous little green imps that could catch a man’s soul and keep it in a pottery jar by shutting it in with the lid. They were called VodnÍks. He said he would protect me from them, that he’d never let them get near enough to slam the lid down on me. And then he got around to sex of course. I told him as much about myself as I possibly could, given my limited word power, and hoped two grown up kids and a failed marriage would put him off. It didn’t. I tried the “I’m a good Catholic girl” routine on him. That didn’t work either. He said he was also a good Catholic boy, even to the point of having considered the lure of the priesthood each and every time he’d found himself in a failed relationship. So, I couldn’t realistically pull that punch on him. The truth was I didn’t really want to pull any punches.
His voice was so soft. His hands were so gentle. His blue eyes twinkled so bewitchingly in the moonlight. This was the kind of stuff that sent fingers down throats when you tried to explain it. Yet, pretty soon I was reclining in his bit of the tree with him. The part of me left in any doubt that he was indeed perfection on legs was soon persuaded.
For the next few days I wondered how I could have been so taken in. I expected him to blow cold after getting what he wanted so soon. But he seemed to be everywhere that I was. I felt awkward. I wasn’t used to having someone around. But he made it seem really easy. He took me on romantic walks to parts of the city I would never have seen otherwise. He took me to meet his mother in yet another part of the city. And just when I was getting used to him being around he went on holiday. The night before he left he whispered something in my ear while I pretended to be asleep. It was in Czech, but I knew what it meant. He loved me.
Three weeks he was away.
The first week I spent a lot of time at the church, telling all my friends about him. I got invited to a wedding and wished he were there to come with me: to prompt him into thoughts of weddings probably. It was a particularly beautiful wedding, I thought, although my knowledge of Czech traditions in such things was admittedly very limited. The bride and groom’s families walked through the streets, both parties meeting outside the church and proceeding in together. It was joyful and romantic, not stuffy and ceremonial at all.
The second week was filled with the upheaval caused by the arrival of the first student. I say upheaval because I had to share my room in the hostel with her. It may only have been until the others arrived, but I was not a little worried about the prospect of not being able to get rid of her when my knight in shining armour returned from his crusade in Italy. After the first night I was more concerned about the smell of her feet and her incessant whinging. Her name was Julie. I introduced her to a friend of mine from Sheffield who was married to a Czech archaeologist in the hope that they could moan at each other and leave the rest of us in blissful peace. She was also called Julie and she hated having to live in Prague. I couldn’t understand how anyone could feel like that about my spiritual home. Her husband was called Roman. He was a native and loved Prague as I did.
A double public holiday fell each end of the weekend at the beginning of the third week. I hired a car and the four of us, the two Julies, Roman and me, set off for a little holiday of our own, in Moravia. Anything to distract me from thinking about my Secret Policeman. Anything to get out of a hot city abandoned by all but the senseless.
Anything to get away from the monotony of one Julie’s voice without the other Julie’s ear to soak it up with. We sat them in the back, turned the volume on the soundtrack to “A Room With a View” up and Roman navigated while I drove.
We were on holiday.
It was great. I never stopped talking about my new man. It was Karel this and Karel that. I expect they all got as exasperated at the sound of his name as I was at his physical absence. When I stopped talking about him for five minutes it was only to look for a present for him. I bought him a little green pot-bellied pottery jar with a lid and spent the whole evening with my friends at a riverside restaurant soaking up the midsummer evening sun and writing something fitting in Czech on the card that was to go with it. It read something like this: “in this jar you will find my heart; it will always be yours provided you leave the lid off”. The Czech was perfect, but then I did have Roman to interpret my sentiments. Everywhere we went, and we visited some pretty spectacular fairytale castles and drove through the kind of scenery city dwellers would die for, I could think of nothing else but Karel. We stayed overnight in the most beautiful old cottage I’d ever seen and all I could think of was how soon I could get back there with him.
I’d never felt quite like that before. I couldn’t see then what it was that had changed, but something certainly had. I was actually prepared to marry him and pictures of the president giving me away and the two of us walking under an avenue of crossed swords held by the palace guard as we emerged from the cathedral filled my head abundantly. In all the years since my divorce I had never trusted anyone enough to think like that about them. What was it that was so special about him?
When he got back from Italy the first thing he did was come and find me. He bounded into my room in the hostel like a lovesick puppy dog. And like a lovesick puppy bitch I gave him his present. He took me out with him to meet all the friends he’d been in Italy with. They all told me that he’d never once shut up going on about me for the whole three weeks they were away.
He was perfect. He was back. He put my green pot-bellied jar on the cabinet in his office and carefully placed the lid beside it. He kept my card by his pillow, the one in which I told him that I loved him too, every bit as much as he’d told me he loved me the night before he went away when he’d thought I was sleeping.
We got off work every night and swanned around together. It was so hot that summer that we were continually on the hunt for water to cool off in. We planned long weekends away in the country by the side of lakes and rivers. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. On our way back to Prague each Sunday night I’d watch the sun setting over the mountains, then the wide flat plains and finally dipping down behind the tall silhouettes of the city as we approached it in the growing darkness. I once asked God if it was all a dream. I begged Him to let me stay asleep forever if it was, even though I knew I was not in right relationship with Him, then I looked at Karel and convinced myself it was real and that it would never end, that God could never wish it otherwise.
As summer progressed, and one group of students gave way to another, I realised that I had let my work slip, badly. Not the work I did during the day with the students. I was doing important recording work underneath St Vitus’ Cathedral that couldn’t be entrusted to them. I settled them to their tasks in other parts of the castle then attended to mine. But it was the work on my dissertation that was suffering. I should have been studying all the Czech history I could in the evenings, and aiming towards an understanding of the archaeology of the castle should have been my main concern. It began to gnaw at my consciousness until I felt pangs of guilt that made me drink a little more beer than usual at the pub, or a little more wine at Karel’s friends’ parties.
Then he took me to his country house in the mountains. It was supposed to be a romantic weekend for two. He’d warned me that the house was in a bad state of disrepair. I didn’t see why he thought that should bother me. I found it delightful. It had a rustic charm and a decaying pre-communist elegance that I loved. His sister, on the other hand, did not have either, and he didn’t tell me that she would be there until we pulled up outside and saw the lights on. It was still a good weekend, but I felt that my own enthusiasm was not finding a mirror image in him.
She hated me, his sister.
Not long after that I discovered that she had poisoned his mother against me. She hated me too.
Then he told me about his seven-year-old daughter and the failed relationship with her mother. Then he told me about his eleven-year-old son and his failed marriage to his mother. I began to wonder if he really was any different to most English men after all. I also began to wonder why he’d only just sprung these revelations on me when he’d had plenty time to do so before. Like a fool I reasoned that he was learning to trust me with his secrets, so I entrusted my own to him and gave him an understanding shoulder to lean on.
I suppose it was hard enough for him to accept my Britishness with all the cultural differences that involved. He had to get clearance from his boss just to be allowed to see me. But to know the dreadful truth, my prison record, my sordid past, not in glorious Technicolor, just the bits I chose to illuminate through the stained glass screen of selective memory, must have been more than a little challenging. And if it was challenging for him I dread to think what it must have done to his mother and sisters. He was the youngest of a brood of girls, his dad had been dead for years, what chance did I stand against those kind of matriarchal odds? What chance did I stand against the leftover communism that had been forced into his genes either? Both were things I had no understanding of.
Then something really horrible happened.
He changed overnight.
We went to a party at his boss’s house. It was a garden party, with a bonfire that kept nasty flying things away and more top level policemen and presidential bodyguards than I was ever likely to see in one place again. I drank a little too much and chatted happily away to anyone who sat near me, in whatever language they chose. I don’t remember getting back to the hostel, but I do remember waking up the next morning nursing the mother of all hangovers and wondering what had happened.
He kissed me on his way out the door. I was going nowhere in that state. I went back to sleep and left the piecing together of events until I felt better able to cope with it.
I stumbled into his office in the castle shortly before teatime and asked him to look over the spelling of a letter I’d written to my Czech teacher back in London. He said it was fine, but his face was grim. I asked him what was wrong. He said nothing.
He said nothing through supper in the canteen. He picked holes in my appearance all the way to the top gate of the castle. When we got to the tram stop where I usually caught my tram he said he was going home alone and so should I.
The bubble had burst. The dream was over. I knew that in my heart, but my head took a while to catch up and I ran after him screaming at him to explain to me what it was that I had done. Why did I do that?
He wouldn’t say at first, but I screamed at him some more and really embarrassed him. It seemed I’d written something to Hana that he hadn’t liked at all. He said that he didn’t want a relationship, that we were no more than friends. Well, you could have fooled me!
Back in my room at the hostel I cried buckets. Then I made two of the students’ lives hell by holding a relationship autopsy with them as my witnesses. They eventually asked me to leave when I’d gone over everything with a fine toothed comb for the third time.
I was a woman obsessed. Not for the first time, but this time was different. I recognised the signs, knew what I had to do and did the opposite.
We’d planned to go to the country house that weekend. He went away without me, without even telling me. I wrote him the letter from hell, in carefully crafted Czech, telling him he was a cold psycho fish, and left it where he couldn’t fail to find it.
I soon wished I hadn’t. At least I soon wished I hadn’t told him I wanted nothing more to do with him. He took it literally and not as it was intended, as bait to lure him back, contrite and pliable.
I was so wild with despair that I went to Paolo for confession. I really had been very naughty that summer. Maybe getting it off my chest would help me to repent of my sins and do what I should to get straight again. Paolo surprised me more than a little when he told me that sex before marriage was okay, that I was only fulfilling myself as a woman. I mean, he was a Catholic priest for goodness sake. He was meant to tell me I’d been a bad girl, but God still loved me anyway and I was absolved of my sin provided I made the effort not to sin any more. Something was definitely not right there, but I put it down to his youth and humanity and accepted his advice to cut out the alcohol.
Sister Irenia didn’t quite see things in those terms when I told her why I was so upset. She thought I’d done the right thing by ditching the cause. I just felt lonely and lovesick and humiliated and small.
I wrote letters to all my good friends, counteracting the earlier ones that read unbounded happiness and marriage plans. I wrote to Mutley and the Tutor, the Jazzman and my old grammar school friend, and I wrote to Paleface. They were long letters and I poured out my heart in them. I almost felt better when I’d finished, not that I listened to any of the high-flying wisdom I’d written in them, then I went out with some of my Czech friends and got very drunk.
I didn’t see Karel for ages. He went on holiday for two weeks with his daughter. He took her to the country house. I had been invited when the initial arrangement was made, but he went without me again. It rained every day he was away. I wondered if it was raining in the country too.
He took me to lunch when he got back. He said he’d missed me. He said he’d missed me a lot. I went to his office after I finished work. I noticed that the pot-bellied VodnÍk jar had its lid on. I also noticed that the ex-girlfriend’s picture was back there next to it.
We talked. We walked through the palace gardens underneath our office windows. We talked some more. We walked down town and found a wine bar that he liked. We talked a lot more. It was the first time I’d ever been in the main square with him. We went back to my room in the hostel. We stopped talking.
I felt vindicated. Hadn’t I got him back? All my friends thought I was mad to take him back. Roman said the swan thing on the riverbank was good enough reason to dump him. Julie thought pretty much the same. In the death of it vindication was never going to be enough. Any trust I’d had in him had gone. It was replaced by fear of his cold side, which just kept on growing colder and less predictable. But he was my obsession, and I let him take me for a fool.
This place, the castle and all the archaeologists I worked with there, was soon to be my home. When I graduated the next year the plan was that I should go there permanently. The paperwork was already being processed to that effect. I should have been trying to impress these people with my ability to work hard and think straight. And what was I doing? Showing them how stupid I was. I tried to let go, but I’d got so obsessed that there was nothing else to hang on to. He didn’t want me, just the ten minutes of relief that I allowed him when he whistled. I took the crumbs from his table, and when they got fewer and more bitter I made do on the starvation diet he offered.
I waited around where I knew he’d be, made it look like a chance meeting each time. One evening I sat in the sun on the steps of St George’s church in the square waiting for him to come out for supper. I wrote a poem while I was sat there. It went like this:
Perfection Flew on Butterfly Wings
Perfection flew on butterfly wings
it spoke of pretty and beautiful things
it stopped to grasp what it wanted and did
it made me do whatever it bid
It shook itself free and showed itself blue
a colour it seemed so brilliant and true
it shivered and shimmered and then it was green
it went undetected; I should have seen
It slithered and withered and turned ice cold
and made me feel so terribly old
the perfection that flew on butterfly wings
was only the loneliness stupidity brings.
It said it all. But I couldn’t stop.
Then he got promoted to the president’s personal bodyguard and I hardly ever saw him. I’d tell him to say hello to the president from me, and he’d always say that the president said hello back when he saw me next. But I was deluding myself that there was any more intimacy to our relationship than casual acquaintance with occasional sex.
Of course I carried on deluding myself. It’s hard to admit that you’ve been a pratt, let yourself get backed against a wall, especially when you should have known better and the wall is held together by pride. He started out so perfect, where did I let it go wrong? Did I get drunk one time too often? Or was it just lack of communication? He said I was dominant. Was that it? Was I too controlling?
I was too obsessive. And that’s what it had become, an obsession.
I had to move out of the hostel in September when the Czech students came back. The only place that the unit could put me was in a beautiful old historic building it owned on the outskirts of Prague. It was like living in a little piece of Bohemian Baroque history. I loved it. I hoped Karel would love it too and want to spend time there with me. I was wrong of course, although he did spend a few nights with me during that three weeks, begrudgingly, when I’d engineered it so he had no choice.
Then it was time for me to go back to college.
23rd December 1999
During the trip home at the end of the summer I felt as if I’d spent my life’s allowance of good things.
I’d spoilt what Prague represented to me: freedom from emotional ties. It had been a place where my soul could soar to the heavens and beyond, a holy refuge where I could meet God on His terms. And I’d dragged it down to my level and spoilt it by letting the whore of Babylon loose from her cage and indulging her wickedness. It was me who was to suffer the consequences of these actions. I wounded my soul mortally, killed it as slowly and surely as if I’d administered poison in a drip.
I’d spent the whole summer standing still. Worse, I’d gone backwards. Humiliatingly so. And spoilt the future too. Sister Madeline’s prayer, that was to change my life so much, did I but know it, lay at the bottom of a box somewhere, completely forgotten.
What would life back in London mean after spring’s sweet water had been made bitter by its passage under summer’s bridge?
As the bus rumbled along through night-blackened Germany I thought of the last thing he’d said to me. Something about marriage that I couldn’t quite fathom. I’d said I couldn’t wait until Christmas to see him again. He’d said that maybe he’d be married by then. “Don’t marry anyone but me!” I’d replied, and the look on his face was all I needed to keep the delusion alive. He managed to spin me the merest thread of a hope in just one smile. It was a smile I hadn’t seen on his face since the heady romantic days of midsummer and I was capable of weaving it into many a dream that would keep the denial in place a little longer.
The further away from Prague I got in both time and distance the more I thought of how much hard work I had ahead of me in the coming year if I wanted to do well. I started to read a course book on the Vikings that I’d taken out there with me. A bit late, but I made a start on it. Something struck me as I read. The bus journey was like an eighteen-hour transition from one world to another, a chance to debrief one and embrace the other. These Vikings I was reading about used chariots and boats in their depictions and artwork to carry people from one world to another too. Seemed much more glamorous than a noisy, smelly coach to me. And doors figured very strongly in their imagery, doors that represented rites of passage from one world to another. It wasn’t perhaps the most profound thing ever to have hit me, but I did feel a tremendous affinity with these people I was about to study as a consequence. And it got me thinking about all kinds of things I’d left in uncharted parts of my brain for all too long.
Remembering those thoughts makes me think of rites of passage and transitions now. While everyone’s going mad buying stuff, and the town’s so crowded that navigating a path through it takes twice as long as usual. I detach myself from it all to think about what it really means. It’s two days away, this event. This is the event that has shaped our culture for the past two thousand years. And I wonder how many people would tell me that if I asked them what Christmas means to them? It used to make me angry. Now I can’t help but feel that God surely has a plan and that my anger isn’t part of it. Each of us has our part to play and there’s little point in me taking on any more of humanity’s shame than my own. I can’t even resolve the difficulties I have within my own heart regarding which church I belong to. The same old theological chestnuts are re-surfacing to plague me and I’ve decided that I’ll look around for another Anglican one for my own personal Christmas celebrations.
It’s a journey through the darkness of mid-winter with the promise of light and a new season at the end of it. I wonder how the three wise men would deliver their gifts today.
Elysia Forgives them all Their Sins
What was it, this force on the edge of the forest…on the edge of hearing…on the edge of consciousness? She had dreamt of Things, things that lurked in shadows waiting there in semi-darkness everywhere awaiting the innocent to prey on. She’d dreamt of sharp teeth and hooked claws, evil intents and no lack of practical application for them.
The hobbit-hole had been a welcomed luxury on a strange and dangerous journey, a luxury Elysia had appreciated in all its warm fire and hot toast detail, let herself become lulled into a safe and secure sense of refuge for the space of just one night, dreams or no dreams.
But now it was a new day. And she had to face whatever it was out there that lurked at the edges.
She rose from the comfortable low bed under the lower end of the vaulted hole, dressed in her soft leather undergarments, buckled on her armour once more, and sat down to another well-imagined breakfast of bacon and eggs and toast and tea. Her crystal began to glow as the last mouthful reached her stomach.
“Forgive them!” His voice sounded in her heart, loud and clear. His face looked back at her, lovingly, from the deepest purple of the crystal.
It was a face she loved back. “Forgive who?”
“Yes. Forgive all of them.”
“I suppose your next line will be that they know not what they do – ”
“– for they are creatures of the flesh? Yes.”
“But who all am I to forgive?”
“All those whom you will meet.”
“Aha,” the Purple Voice in her heart seemed to have grasped her difficulty. “You need not class your Shadow Lurkers as all, or even as any. Elysia, they are not creatures of the flesh, they are simply the offspring of that part of your mind which senses the presence of evil and gives it a tangible form. They will always remain in the shadows all the time you remain in the light.”
“Does that mean that I can control Them as I control everything else in this place, with my imagination?”
“All the time your imagination walks with you in the light, yes. These Things feed only on negativity, on all the things that you are not whilst guided by the light. They seek to win you back into the darkness of their inception, the darkness of your fear, and the further away from them you travel the harder they will fight to bring you back. But they are no more than the dirt under your feet; they cannot win, provided you stick to the path prepared for you.”
“And what of that ugly monster that tore away my bridge yesterday? Will I meet any more of that like?”
“You will meet plenty more monsters, Elysia, but most of them you will recognise from now on. You must go to the citadel today, use your resources to get past the gatekeepers. Refuse to do their bidding, but forgive them all their sins.”
“Who are the Gatekeepers?”
“You will know them. The world is full of gatekeepers.” The crystal began to fade once more. “Go in peace, Elysia, and take my love in your heart.”
A warm sensation coursed through her veins and she felt her limbs fill with strength and vigour as she left the security of the hobbit-hole.
Which way though? The thought took no time at all to find an answer. Stick to the path prepared for her he had said, and the path couldn’t have been more obviously prepared as the wide stretch of brightly coloured road that cut a livid gash through the familiar red-grey gloom. Her eyes followed it as far as they could; it wound and twisted around the base of flat-toned mountains, in and out of sickly-pink woodland, but always remained visible, like a streak of golden sunlight piercing a stormy sky.
She took her first step along the bright road.
Out of the corner of her mind’s eye she could sense Something. Whatever it was it kept pace with her. Each step she took felt measured, imitated, by Something. Fear engulfed her, for a split second, until she heard His words resound in her heart: they are not creatures of the flesh, they are simply the offspring of that part of your mind which senses the presence of evil and gives it a tangible form. Shadow Lurkers He had called them. She laughed. His description had left no doubt. Whatever these Things were they certainly could not harm her…provided she stuck to the path prepared for her.
The sound that had remained just on the edge of hearing grew louder until an almost deafening chittering filled her consciousness. “Is this damnable racket going to continue for the rest of my journey through this hell hole?” She stamped her foot in exasperation and the noise reached consciousness-shattering proportions. Were the Things laughing at her? Suddenly her anger broke, the tension soaked away and her bright laughter filled the air. The sound of it bounced off several seemingly blood-soaked mountains in succession drenching them in peals of cheerfulness. The chittering stopped. “You really can’t hurt me, can you?” She aimed the question at the bottom of the hedgerow at the side of the bright road. “Oh well, come on if you’re coming. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover before we stop to rest.”
Elysia followed along the bright road. It led her around bends at the bottom of black and red mountains, through forests of grey and pink, always inclining gradually up and up into the thinning orange atmosphere. Her Hedgerow Companions kept perfect pace yet made not another sound. Their presence was as unobtrusive as her confidence was great. Awareness posed no threat; demons with no bodies could do no harm.
The road disappeared into the mountain. She disappeared into the mountain along with it. Her staff began to glow softly as it had done before at the beginning of her journey. It seemed so long ago that first day. Her first step had been so filled with fear. It made her laugh to think of it. The sound bounced off the walls and pushed ahead, like a vanguard heralding her coming.
The road emerged from under the mountain and began to incline more sharply up the side of another mountain. She stopped to survey the new territory. Half way up the mountain facing her, on a plateau encircling it, were shapes that stood out from the terrain. Moving shapes.
A shrill voice called out: “There it is. That’s yer laughing thing, darling. Look! There. It’s down there.”
Elysia strained against the bloodstained shades of her environment to see what it was that talked so shrilly. Surely a woman…a witch…or worse. She could see a long thin body, long bony fingers with long red-painted nails, long thin bleached hair, a long pointy nose, and sharp cruel grey eyes. They were the eyes of a scavenging predator, and they had found their prey.
Another voice growled back at the first. It was low and gravelly, softly malicious, like a fist full of granite wrapped in a velvet glove. “Orright, darling, you don’t have to shout. I’m standing right here next to you. I hear you.”
Her eyes tuned the second voice into vision. If the first voice had been of the female, this must surely be her mate. As Grendel was to his dam this male was to his mate. An inverted triangle of hefty shoulders and slim loins, a shock of black hair and hands that could rip the arm out of any socket, legs so muscly no trousers could ever contain them and eyes of such dark and brooding ferocity that no sunglasses could ever hide.
“The Gatekeepers,” she said softly to herself. “That’s who you pair must be.”
Sure enough, on the plateau behind them, she could just glimpse the top arc of what must be the Gate buried deep into the side of the mountain extending above the plateau.
“Ah well,” she continued, mostly to herself. “Ever onwards and upwards. Let’s see what you two like to do for fun on a cloudy red sky day.”
She trekked cheerfully up the side of the new mountain, temporarily losing sight of the Gatekeepers. As she neared the top she could see their grotesque faces peering down at her like pantomime dames, all eyes and pursed lips.
“Here she comes then, the Wanderer, the Strange One—” began the male Gatekeeper.
“The Weakling, darling, the Waste of Space,” continued his mate.
The Witch, for certainly witch she must be, had picked up her Warlock consort’s childish singsong refrain and thrown it out towards Elysia with such malevolence in her voice that she almost fell back down the mountain path. Stumbling over the edge and onto the flat plateau she could see the pair close up in all their dread detail.
In richly tailored suits and dripping gold from every finger and limb, the monstrous pair breathed greed from every pore. Their eyes were empty and cold, joyless grimaces shaped their mouths showing teeth set with precious stones. Even the buckles on their shoes were cast from precious metals and nestling among the finest materials and workmanship. They seemed weighted down with it all, Elysia thought as she sprang easily over the threshold and into their domain.
“You two really look like you need to lighten up,” she said. “I’m Elysia. I’m going through the gate in just a minute, but if there’s anything I can do to help while I’m passing, you know, just don’t hesitate to ask.
The pair stood in front of her, close to each other, feeding each the other’s malevolence. They surveyed her, the eternally damned structure of her free soul, as she breezed into their immediate presence. She appeared to have confused them, momentarily. They looked at each other. “What’s she saying?” they said together.
The Witch looked back at her with eyes that bore holes as they fell slowly from her head to her toes, pausing as long as she dare for dramatic effect. “She thinks she can help us, darling, this weakling, this soft and ineffectual creature standing there in all her common animal skins, smiling benignly. Just look at her, darling! Does she really think we shall let her through our gate?”
“And, darling, does she really think that we need her help? What could she possibly have that we could want? We who have everything?” The Warlock’s nostrils flared and his gem-studded teeth flashed as he threw back his head in deep gravelly laughter. Several parts of him shimmered and chinked together as he shook.
“Not everyone has to be rich and aggressive you know.” Elysia continued to stand her ground as the blighted pair strutted and preened like two monstrous peacocks.
“Kindness and mercy are not always signs of weakness. Did you never stop to think about it before?”
The pair stopped performing and stared at her, hard. “How dare you!” they chanted in unison. “You’ll never get past us.”
“Well, it’s like this. Whether you like it or not I’m going through that gate. Of course I could always leave you a little something behind.”
Their indignation was instantly transmuted. Curiosity met Caution, shook hands with Distrust and, as Elysia produced her Box of Gold from within her animal skin rucksack and displayed its contents, Obsequiousness was born. They fawned. They made disgusting obeisance to their idol. They weakened. They laid bare souls whose structures truly were eternally damned, and all for the love of Gold.
“So kind, Miss Elysia, so generous,” they said in annoying unison. The Witch looked at her with a wheedling little smile.
“So strong, so free, don’t you mean?” Elysia replied. Her face was set in grim realisation of Truth and Reality. “All your sins are forgiven. Go in peace and learn the lessons of True Love.”
As she spoke her words seemed to have that same sense of power and authority as they had on the bridge with the monster. And, as the monster had done only the day before, the Witch and the Warlock also seemed to grow into some new kind of consciousness, as if they had been blind and sight had been restored. All their posturing stopped and they were embarrassed. They hopped uneasily from one foot to the other, unsure of how they should behave in their new souls.
Elysia stepped forward and they parted to let her pass. She knocked upon the huge gates. It was a small knock. They slid effortlessly open and she turned to wave at the new creations as she began to walk inside.
The huge iron gates closed soundlessly behind her.
She had entered a new world.
It was a walled-in, closed-off, dark-grey new world built of stone and iron and slate. Seven towers each stretched five pinnacles high up out of the circular walled enclosure into the dark red and grey sky. They were hard grey arms, crooked at the elbow, with archaic pointed fingers at their ends. Seven winding staircases led from the central courtyard in front of her. It seemed to stretch away forever and made her feel small.
With her entrance through the huge iron doors she had gained her place on the next phase of her journey, rite of passage was hers. She felt the success of the last phase, its victory still tasted sweet on her teeth, but it mingled with the bitterness of apprehension.
“Don’t give in to the feeling, Elysia!” The familiar voice came again from her crystal.
“Stay with the victory. You’ve earned it well.”
She suddenly felt very tired. “Shouldn’t a castle of this size have a monastery, or at least some kind of hostelry that I can rest in?”
“Look around you,” said His voice.
“What at? There’s nothing here but high stone walls.”
“Where’s your imagination?”
As she looked at the wall on her left she began to see windows and a door. A coat of arms above hung the door. Carmelite friars lived there.
“A monastery,” she sighed with relief. “No more battles today. I can rest easy there.”
“You can rest easy wherever you are, my darling, just trust in my love.”
“Should I not be able to trust in the hospitality of these men of God?”
“There is good and bad in everyone, Elysia. You know that. But you may only trust fully in me. Not all may be as it seems within these walls. Remember that only the ghosts of your past will be found in this place. Be ever vigilant to do spiritual battle, no matter how fatigued you might be.”
The crystal faded as she moved towards the monastery door. But it was open long before she had reached it to knock.
A man in a brown dress stood in the doorway. His arms were spread wide in greeting and a smile graced his handsome face.
“Elysia, we have been expecting you. We share in your victory and rejoice that you have made it so far.”
He hugged her a little too tightly, a little too long.
See you all on December 24th with Chapter Twenty-Four! I wish you luck with your own Gate-Keepers!
Brightest Blessings and a Happy Advent Journey to any and all of you who are reading this,
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!