The Angel of the Stories by John…
About this Feature
John Simmons has contributed two stories, Angel Wings and The Lady of the Plates, to Shortbread. We're delighted to announce that we will be featuring the collection, The Angel of the Stories, which will be published in book form in summer 2011. You can read them here first in an exclusive 20-week serialisation. The book will be illustrated by the internationally acclaimed Anita Klein, in a unique collaboration between writer and artist.
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The Angel of the Stories by John Simmons: Episode 7
2 years ago
The bells had always divided opinion in the town. Many people were comforted by the sound; they liked to hear different stages of the day marked by the resonance of bells. Yet these people hardly acknowledged the bells, so familiar, so expected. Perhaps they would have noticed only if the bells were silent all day.
For others, though, the bells were less comforting. There were some who hated the bells because they were part of the church, and some who hated them because the bells kept them awake at night. Was the town full of insomniacs? Was insomnia caused by the bells ringing at every hour of the night? The questions had been debated every so often at town council meetings. The Mayor listened and always came down on the same side, the majority, ruling that change was unnecessary.
* * *
This time, though, was different. It was named a cacophony by everyone. The bells had started ringing and despite the best efforts of those in the town who tried, the bells kept on ringing. First the priests tried to silence them, with their hands and with their prayers. They called on the most devout members of their congregations to help end the din. People dropped to their knees, they bowed their heads, held rosaries to lips, mumbled sacred words downwards then upwards to the tops of the spires. But the clanging went on insistently.
When devotion was to no avail, the churchmen called in the town’s strongest volunteers. They sanctioned the halting of the bells by physical force, blessing the firemen and soldiers with bulging muscles. Men thought of as giants squeezed their way up narrow, twisting staircases to the bell towers and reached their arms around the swinging bells. But the tolling went on, with men hanging on grimly as they were swung from side to side. They dropped to the stone floor of the tower when the priests called off the attempt.
It was time for debate and action by the town council. The Mayor summoned the council to the town hall chamber. It was an ancient room with thick walls but the walls weren’t thick enough to keep out the noise. The Mayor called the meeting to order but everyone sat doubled up, with hands over their ears. The meeting was abandoned.
The noise went on all day. They tried all kinds of materials to quieten the noise. First they brought feather pillows, then blankets and duvets, wrapping them around the bells. Then the men from the builders’ yard brought insulating materials and sealed the outside walls of the church spires in timber. The noise was a little deadened but it became a loud headache in the back of everyone’s mind.
Day passed into night. The bells seemed louder when people lay down to sleep. Sleep was impossible. A collective tinnitus buzzed inside the heads of the townspeople. Many people were without blankets or pillows so they sat on chairs and sofas and steps to close their eyes. But the darkness behind their eyes seemed to accentuate the noise of the bells.
When the sun rose, no one had heard the dawn chorus of birds. Perhaps the birds had flown away. People looked at each other with hollow eyes and they clutched the sides of their heads with their hands.
Something had to be done. The Mayor decided to show leadership so he put on his chain of office and scurried to each of the houses where a town councillor lived, beckoning them to follow him. He gathered a dozen people, town councillors all, and marched them out of town. They walked up the hill to the edge of town, past the mound, and over the brow of the hill into the valley on the other side. Here it was relatively quiet and the mayor called the group to a halt. They sat in a circle, ready to discuss the problem, but found they were all so exhausted that they just sat there motionless. One or two even fell instantly asleep. The Mayor opened his mouth to speak but no words emerged. The group seemed frozen in time while in the distance the bells clanged and clanged and clanged.
When the bells had first started ringing, and kept on ringing, Julia had watched and listened in a state of bewilderment. She’d been sitting next to Sophia and Herman, and they had continued talking to each other, reciting the words of the poet but unable to recall them exactly into a complete poem. They stayed there, constantly making the attempt, while in other parts of the town people worked desperately to bring about quiet.
Julia found her way back to the top of the house where she lived. From the balcony she could see each of the church towers and they seemed to shimmer in the heat and sound. She watched people trying the various remedies with prayers and pillows. She saw scraps of paper drifting by on the breeze, blowing through the streets of the town, gathering together into an airborne stream, then lifting higher into the sky above the town like a paper cloud. When darkness fell Julia spread her wings and headed towards the cloud.
She could think again now, removed from the thumping, clangorous noise. Up there in the sky above the town she could glide and float weightlessly, enjoying the sensation of movement without effort. The stars sparkled above and the town lights glowed below. She could hear only the humming of the wind in her ears, feel only the wind in her hair.
There was a lot of paper though. It was all around her, twisting and turning and spinning and swirling around her as she floated. It was strangely restful. For the first time when she was flying she drifted off to sleep, covered by the feathery pieces of paper.
In the daylight she woke. It was a strange sight, one she had never before experienced when opening her eyes. Surrounded only by sky, with tufts of real vapoury cloud mixed with papery swirls, and the sun red on the horizon. She enjoyed playing with the breeze, rising and falling, plunging in this direction, then that, like an early-morning swimmer through the air. As she turned and tumbled and dived, just for the sheer joy of the feeling, pieces of paper formed a trail behind her. And when she stopped a book had formed itself, nestling in her hand.
Down below she could see the town in its noisy agony. Further away, behind the hill, she could see a group of people gathered in a circle. She decided to head that way. As she got closer she recognised the Mayor and many members of the town council but they seemed to be immobile like statues. They were making movements as if to open their mouths but no words came out. Their eyes were glazed, their ears were deaf, they were locked into the positions of expectation.
Julia landed gently among them, knowing that they were not seeing her. She folded her wings into her shoulders and took timid steps towards the Mayor. She put the book into the Mayor’s hands and slowly, so slowly, as if waking from a deep sleep, he turned his eyes down towards the book and began to read the poem. As he read the poem aloud, the councillors raised their heads and listened.