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 8
2 years ago
One by one the bells stopped ringing, not immediately but like a clockwork mechanism winding down. As, some distance away, the Mayor declaimed the last word of the poem, the bell at Holy Trinity gave its final clang, returning to peace. And the silence was wonderful.
People stood up, walked around in a daze, and smiled at each other as if they were renewing lost friendships. Some people hugged each other, hands folded around backs. No one said a word, the silence was too precious.
It took some time to return to normal. After a few days the priests got together to discuss what had happened but there was no enlightenment. They sent for engineers from the city but that simply spread the bafflement. After a while, it seemed more like a miracle, so the priests wrote reports for their superiors and spoke prayers of thanksgiving in their churches. People from villages around, and even further afield, came to see the town and paid money to climb up the bell towers. A new cottage industry sprang up as the foundry made miniature bells to sell in the town square on market day. And visitors, as well as townspeople, started wearing the little bells on their lapels and blouses and shirts.
* * *
The stream burbled down from the mountain, cold and clear, and skirted the town until it disappeared into the valley below. Following the stream became a favourite walk for Julia in the still, warm days of autumn, when the daylight hours shortened a little and the sun no longer scorched the skin. She still enjoyed being alone and it pleased her that she rarely met another person during this walk. In the morning she would walk upwards, sometimes having to clamber over rocks, using the roots of trees to gain a foothold. There was always the gentle sound of flowing water, running downwards as she climbed up. At midday she would stop to eat her bread and cheese, then make her way down, following the course of the stream and the declining sun.
One day in November she started her walk, moving upwards, with the white-walled houses of the town still in view below her. She saw a young woman sitting on the grassy bank ahead of her. The way was narrow so the woman began to rise to her feet but Julia motioned to her not to worry. Now that she was closer, Julia could see that the woman was heavily pregnant.
They were both shy but a conversation limped to its feet. They exchanged names, Julia and Marta. Neither came from the town itself, and Marta had come from the north having followed a young man here. For she had fallen in love with José, and he had asked her to come with him to his home town.
Yes, she admitted, he was the father of the child inside her. No, they were not married. Yes, they intended to. No, the family was not happy.
The birth of the baby would change everything, Julia suggested, and Marta nodded. She didn’t seem at all concerned. The silence that fell was companionable not awkward, with the tinkling murmur of the stream behind them. So they sat, looking and listening, enjoying the autumnal warmth in the shade of the overhanging trees.
Julia stared into the stream, becoming intrigued by the stones she could see through the clear water. She reached down and lifted a stone from the stream bed. It was grey with a metallic-blue sheen, spotted with dark dots. She felt its round smoothness in the palm of her hand and it nestled there comfortably. Then she passed it to Marta who held it while Julia dipped her hand once more into the water. When she fetched up another smooth stone, oval in shape, also blue in colour, water ran down her arms onto the grass. She stood up and shook off beads of water.
“You keep that one,” said Julia, “and I’ll keep this one.”
It was time to move on before the day was past its peak. Parting at the streamside, they wished each other well. Julia slipped her stone into the pocket of her skirt, while Marta sat holding hers like an egg that might break. As Julia made her way upwards, she turned and waved, but Marta was already out of sight.
Stones in the stream became a new source of wonder for Julia. She particularly loved them for their smoothness and colour. The stones were all different but similar in the roundness of their shapes, none of them bigger than an orange or smaller than a lemon. Although the ground of every stone was grey, they each had a distinctive wash of colour laid over the grey. As the water dried from the stone the colour deepened and did not fade. So when she laid half a dozen stones in the sunlight on the mountain side, she had to admire the collection in front of her: silvery white, russet, olive green, umber, leathery yellow, midnight blue.
She put them in the bag she had brought with her to carry her bread and cheese. The stones were surprisingly light, so she swung the bag happily on the way down, thinking that she would return on other days to build her collection.