He wasn’t sure how he found himself here. He’d never been one for historical structures, let alone religious ones, but for a reason he could not explain he had felt compelled to visit the abbey’s gardens and wander aimlessly amid nature. He wasn’t even sure how he had got here, his mind was so fractured and erratic that events no longer seemed to follow one another in his memory. Yet he was sure that he didn’t want to know, that there was a reason why he shouldn’t know, so he lumbered aimlessly with his pronounced limp around the ground.
The young golden sun basked the grass and trees in a warming shimmer. Birds sang to each other high up in the boughs of the elderly oaks as red squirrels, their tails puffed out like feather dusters, scurried in circles around their trunks. Crowds of bluebells, dotted with the last showing of snowdrops, quivered in the gentle breeze that took the midday sun’s sting away and left the skin with a kiss of warmth.
Eventually, his aching leg could pace the immaculate lawns no longer and he slumped onto a bench “in memory of Doris, who so loved to picnic here” and let his head fall into his hands. His stationary position provided him too little distraction, though, and half memories and thoughts poured into his mind. Like the opening of a sluice, tears to burst from his eyes. His whole body shook, as he violently and uncontrollably sobbed.
In front and slightly to the left of the crying man, stood the old abbey. In truth, now it was no more than a shell for children to climb as their parents spoke of ornithology and horticulture. It’s back wall had long since crumbled, and, the other three were wrapped in a blanket of ivy. However, from where the middle aged man sat, the abbey looked intact. It still had its full compliment of gargoyles and grotesques perching on it’s walls and even it’s gateway held a seasoned but solid oak door, firmly shut.
Such doors often look impenetrable to the aesthetic eye but, once examined, show little in the way of resistance to the determined visitor. However, this abbey had stood against the will of Henry VIII as well as the cunning of the Devil and as such had been fitted with a door fit for any sanctuary, either spiritual or earthly.
It was odd then, as the man finally regained his composure and wiped his cheeks with a wilted wrist, that through his blurry vision he thought he saw a young woman exit through those foreboding gates. They looked as firmly shut as a bank’s vault and as solid as the gold bars held within, yet there she was, a young woman of barely sixteen in virginal white. As she walked, her dress bushed over the grass like a lover sweeping the hair from their passion’s forehead. This, along with her easy stride, gave her the appearance of floating along the lawn like an apparition. Her face, too, was pale and had something of a spectre about it.
The man wiped his eyes once more, squinting a little as he watched her slowly glide towards him. Despite her ghostly appearance there was something comforting about her and, as she neared, her smile seemed to spread out like serenity in a moments unexpected silence. As she moved her dress fluttered gently in the wind like expensive silk, pressing against her thin body just enough to give brief glimpses of the shape beneath.
He was enraptured. Captivated by the calmness that seemed to pool around this young Aphrodite. She did not hold him, rather just prevented him from leaving, like a ship caught without wind. Over her shoulder, the abbey seemed to rise. The grotesques watched from above, smiling down upon the encounter with their mischievous grins. They eternally chuckled to themselves as she held out her slender arm, her pale fingers reaching for him as he sat their struck dumb and immovable.
Behind him a baby let out a wail. The noise of the hungry infant pierced the moment like a pin into his upper arm, and the world came rushing back. In reflex, he had glanced towards the sharp howl and, upon turning back, he appeared to be alone. Behind him the baby continued to scream despite the soothing sounds his mother was forcing on to him, and any tranquillity of the moment was lost.
The man sunk back into the bench, letting his eyes roll over the abbey before him. He felt even more empty than he had before. The hard stone of regret and anger that had lodged inside his chest for as long as he could remember, now sat in a void. A hole where it could leak out, no longer constrained by the pressure of his will. A dichotomy burnt inside him; he felt empty and full of hurt at the same time.
The world around him echoed his inner torment. It was serene and quiet. The sun still shone brightly down upon the tree tops and the birds still chattered idly to one another while the occasional lone tourist drifted across the lawns like dandelion seeds in the still soft summer breeze. Yet, around the bench where he sat, the atmosphere felt dank and heavy. His heart raced within his chest and every sound seemed like a thunderclap in an ocean storm. Where had the girl gone? Who was she? Why had he come up to him?
He remained motionless on the bench, his cheeks still glinting slightly from his dried tears. As he sat there in silence the last few months passed through his mind’s eye like memories of past lives. He watched himself stumble from one error to another, buffeted along by good intentions. Yet, as he neared the point of no return; the edge of the cliff; the last dance, the pictures dissolved away and left nothing but the haunting sounds. The click of the car door. The thud, the screech, the silence. They all paraded around in his head like figurines in a coo-coo clock; an endless circle of suffering and regret.
He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing his ears to close off and block out the sounds, but they were inside him, they were as much a part of him as his blood; They coursed through every fibre of his being. He needed them, like an addict needs the needle. The more he tried to block them out, the louder they became.
He opened his eyes again and pulled himself to his feet. Weighed down by the sounds bouncing around his head, he stumbled towards the abbey. He wasn’t thinking, as any startled animal he just fled in the direction he was facing. As he lurched against the cold stone wall of the building tears once again started trickling down his cheeks. He pressed his forehead to the wall, treating the centuries old structure as a giant icepack for his fevered brow.
The cold stone started to sooth him and. slowly like the leaving of the tide, the sounds started to drift away. Like in a mothers embrace, all his pain and anger dissipated and even the constant whine of his leg was quieter, but he needed more. The sounds were still there. He spread his arms out wide, with his palms against the stone, and forced his torso tightly forward into the abbey. He turned his head to one side to place his cheek against the forgiving structure but as he did so he saw her.
Slowly, in front of him, the pale girl drifted by. This time she wasn’t looking towards him, she just slide towards the abbey, towards the wooden gates. As he watched, she reached and let her fingers caress the large iron ring of the door handle. She paused and, turning her head slightly towards him, gave him the sweetest of smiles. Her eyes sparkled like diamonds and, now he could see her closer, he saw that her face was not as wan as he had first suspected. Her cheeks were a soft apple red and her forehead a light olive.
Her glance lingered on him but for a second, and then she was gone, opening the abbey’s heavy door a fraction and slipping through into the world beyond. His sensibilities lost, he rushed to the wooden door and tried the handle. It would not turn. He twisted it again and then through his shoulder at the door as he tried a third time to break the door open. His body was instantly hot and sweaty from his exertions and his leg yelled out in agony. Yet, he tried again and again to force his entrance, but the cold oak refused to shift. Finally, as his head cleared of the empty muzziness the girl instilled in him, he remembered the collapsed wall on the far side.
Running as if in a three legged race with an invisible partner, he circumvented the abbey’s towering walls. Above him the grins of the grotesques continued to cackle with glee and, within him, the sounds returned along with the thumping of blood in his ears. Panting, he leapt in one bound, the weed encrusted rubble that used to complete the abbey’s perimeter and scanned the inside for the young apparition. Save for a few moronicly staring children, the whole inside of the abbey was uninhabited. There was no white figure, no beautiful girl, no end to his torment.
He sank down to his knee’s and rubbed his two hands together like a man who had forgotten how to pray. Rocking backwards and forwards he let out a low and guttural howl of pain. The sounds were back, the click the thud the screech. The silence. The silence, why did it sound louder than all the others? He clamped his hands over his ears and cried out again. The children around him fled in fear as he collapsed onto his side, crying a lifetime’s worth of tears. The sounds wouldn’t stop, they were louder than ever. They were shouting at him, they were blaming him, they were cursing him.
Then the pictures came. The images his brain had forced him to forget. He watched, over his own shoulder, as he pulled the car door shut with a loud click. He watched as he pulled out of his drive and drove off down the street. He did such mundane things. He changed the radio station, he checked to see if his tie was pulled tight, he did nothing someone should do before such a horrific event.
Then there she was, the young girl. Younger than the apparition he had seen, but no less angelic. Why was she standing in the middle of the road, just around the corner? He slammed on the breaks and the tires screeched. Such a clear, distinctive, useless screech, followed by an equally plain thud and horrible silence.
He coughed loudly as he struggled to breath, pressing his head into the ground. He couldn’t breathe. The scenes repeated themselves again and again. The click of the car door. The screech of the tires. The thud and then the silence. That wasn’t right. The thud came before the screech. The thud always came before the screech. Every time it had been thud, screech, but this time the sounds had gone with the pictures. He had seen the girl and hit the breaks. She had dived out of the way in panic. There was no thud. No thud until the car tires stopped screeching. No thud until the car had hit the wall. He coughed again as the world darkened despite his gasps.
He opened his eyes. Around him the world was dark and he felt cold. Night had fallen. How long had he been lying on the ground? His head ached as if he had been knocked unconscious and his chest hurt like an asthmatics but, for the first time since the accident, his leg felt fine. He stood up and looked around himself, by the light of the moon he could just see the outline of the abbey. He should get home, he thought, and scrambled his way over the tumbled down wall and round towards the path. As he neared the front of the abbey, though, he swore it was getting brighter.
Looking around in puzzlement he noticed a glow, as bright as the moon’s coming from the entrance to the Abbey. He cautiously moved towards it, and there she was. The girl, glowing in the darkness. She stood by the door, her arm out stretched towards him.
He was caught once more, and started walking slowly towards her. As drew closer, the scenes of his accident played out in front of him in ghostly images on the floor and walls, as if a weak projector was lodged in one of the trees, pointing at the abbey. This time, however, there was no pain and no suffering. This time he felt no guilt, he felt no anguish, he felt relaxed. Soon he was standing next to the girl, who was smiling sweetly at him, and he took her hand. It was colder than ice but as soft as wool. Yet, as he looked at his hand in hers he struggled to work out which was which. He had the same numb feeling he used to get when holding something in a thickly gloved hand. The world felt distant and out of focus.
The girl silently turned and led him towards the big wooden door of the abbey, the scenes of his crash still playing around them, dancing on the lawn and building like candle light. It was over, all pain and all desire had left him. He was content. It was over.