It is eight o’clock. From the great Gothic mass of the cathedral a tintinnabulation of bells proclaims the hour.
Skies of grey: footsteps echo on the cobbles of the Close, and birch trees that line Cathedral Green’s flat acres of grass drip solemnly, the rain’s history whispered among their leaves. The shower has passed, they say. Yes, but autumn remains.
The Close is wide, a mediaeval thoroughfare of heraldic grandeur beside Cathedral Green. Birches stand like a guard of honor along one side, while little crooked shops built of tortured black timbers and white stucco bark and snap at the cathedral’s towering presence from the other. They ogle passers-by through bottle-glass windows, do these emporia, their opened doorways lined with racks of postcards and souvenirs. But a chill breeze plays in the alleys, and damp hangs pungently on the air. There are few abroad today who might yield to such temptations.
I for one am in no mood to be tempted. I walk this path each day on my way to work, and work, with the changes the last few years have wrought, is no longer the pleasure it once was. I am a carver. There was a time, not so long ago, when I took pride in my craftsmanship, when I was judged by the beauty of the finished article, the quality and integrity of my art. But this is no longer so. Now, my day is punctuated by my manager’s repeated insistence that I finish faster, do more, simplify those details that require precious time. Soon there will be no space for my art upon the wood; the furniture my Company makes will be faceless and bland, thrust into the world by jigs and machines that concede not a second to beauty. Last week my lifetime’s occupation was threatened by a letter. My ‘productivity’ was questioned. My work rate must be ‘improved’.
This morning my wife, Renee, added her voice to the critical accord by telling me I am too timid – I should leave the Company, set up on my own. I try to make her understand that it is not that simple, that I have no money to begin such an enterprise. She calls me spineless. With no bonuses to spend I know the privations of our poor condition hurt her terribly, and I understand why she strikes out. But I hurt. Deep inside me I hurt, and I do earnestly long for change.
There are others, though few, braving the weather this morning. Amongst them one man stands out. Marching towards me he is tall, with a determined stride and heavy hikers’ shoes which snatch at the cobbles. He wears a blue jacket slightly darkened by the rain and on his back, beating against him with each step, is a red rucksack so well filled a lesser man might be borne down by its weight, but not he. His lightly–bearded chin juts forward, his bright blue eyes stare past me undimmed by the chill, and his wide mouth is drawn back in determination. He walks rapidly, closing the distance between us in seconds, and his very presence offends me, forcing the bitter gall of my own inadequacy up into my throat.
I am angry. For a few delusional moments this man becomes the epitome of all I envy, all I hate; his determination, his focused intent, his strength. He is all that I am not and I see it in his eyes. He knows my weakness.
Deliberately – I do it deliberately. I step a little to one side, setting myself in this man’s path. As we pass, I lean in. My shoulder buffets his; his rucksack swings aside and I know the jolt must have hurt his arm at least as much as it hurt mine. Instantly I am consumed with guilt. My anger is vented and sorrow, apprehension, even fear take its place. For me the encounter is over but somehow I feel his eyes on my back, demanding that I turn.
So I do.
I look around to find he has stopped. He is looking at me with a challenge in his eyes. I mutter an apology but he shakes his head. The word is not enough, the offence was too calculated, too severe to be allowed to pass. He has started walking back in my direction, his eyes never leaving mine.
Two paces away he stops to face me, and this time his expression is questioning: is this the fight I wanted? Is this the expiation I seek? Frightened now, for I am not a fighter by nature, I glance around in hope of escape but he moves as my eyes move, stepping before my gaze, his body wound up like a spring, his hands half-raised and spread with an unspoken invitation.
“Sorry – I’m sorry.” I repeat those meaningless words. Really, my mind is travelling: why am I here? How have I got myself into this position, a poor, frustrated loser on a cold autumn morning, marching forward into nothing when I know – my very soul knows – the time for change has come. I could, I should take Renee’s advice. I should make my living by carving and selling my own work, I should take her away from this.
Yet here I am, and in a minute or less I am going to get floored by this powerful, righteous figure of a man who I challenged for no reason other than my own pain.
I move to resume my journey but he steps before me, cuts me off. As I turn to retreat, he blocks me again. Unspeaking, yet unyielding, he is too formidable for my defeated mind. In the final humiliation that must visit all who are as cowardly as I, I drop my shoulders, feeling the tears come. He nods, stepping towards me, that final pace. I cringe from him, I am shaking.
But then he smiles. He smiles and with one gentle hand he reaches out to me, gesturing with the other that I am free to pass. Stepping aside, he takes my elbow to guide me that first step or two; then he is gone.
Renee’s face is smiling, staring down at me, and there are tears on her cheek, too.
A quiet male voice says: “He’s back.”
Renee nods, acknowledges the voice with a sob. Her hand finds my arm and strokes it softly. “Thank God!” She murmurs.
There are white walls, clacking heels; there are girls in nursing blue and the steady beep of a machine. Tubes spring from my flesh in a dozen different directions. The owner of the quiet male voice comes into view. He is dark-haired, with frank brown eyes, and he seems too impossibly young to support the lab. coat he wears.
“You’ve had a cardiac arrest, Mr. Frobisher. We thought we were going to lose you for a while.”
I feel a salt splash as Renee bends to kiss my forehead, saying: “We have to leave you now, so you can rest. You’re safe now. What would I do if I lost you, my darling?”
The faces leave, the screens are drawn. Alone, with only the beeping machine for company, I have time to think; and in that blessed peace at last I understand.
For a while I was, truly, lost. I have been allowed back, given a second chance, but on one condition – that my life will have to change. The bearded man who had seemed a complete stranger is no stranger to me now, though I have been more accustomed to imagine him dressed in black.
One day I will meet him again; and next time, I will know his name.