Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Salt And Stone

Today, a short story I wrote in memory of my dear friend, C, who has been much in mind lately. . .


The first time Tristan came to see me was the Thursday before Easter, scrolls of tightly-rolled drawings under his arm. He greeted me with a nod, walked silently across my office space to the plans chest in front of the window and set the drawings down. Without speaking, he scanned the view of the city beyond my office - telephone wires threading their way around stone and concrete, stealthy, century-old yews, the mute bell-tower of St. Catherine's cathedral. 

His initial letter of contact served as an introduction to himself and his proposed project. He’d outlined his ideas and intentions, clarifying at the outset that should I choose to work with him, my involvement would be professional, but peripheral. Nothing in his plans could be changed. There was to be no probing, no questions asked. His intention was not to be in any way awkward or obstructive – to the contrary, he would go out of his way to facilitate the process - but it was imperative that the project baton remain firmly in his hands. Plainly, I was useful to him - a man with contacts who could offer him easy access to builders, stonemasons and crafts people. Besides, he trusted my reputation for site sensitivity and my creative use of traditional materials: these had been the prompts he'd needed to come and talk to me in the first place. How else would he find the right person to create the stained glass windows? To whom could he entrust the intricate carving of a pedestal font?

He would, of course, see to it that my contributions to the building were appropriately acknowledged. Did I think we’d be able to work together on such a project? Did I think I could tolerate his restrictions?

In my office, he unrolled his drawings, carefully flattening them out on the chest’s wooden surface.

Lightening sparked from somewhere inside the piles of paper.

Despite the day’s high blue sky, I heard the far-off growl of thunder.

Dust motes collided in sudden stripes of light.

He had brought layers and layers of detailed working drawings. Black and white draughtsman-like diagrams were at the top of the pile, followed by increasingly expressive renderings of the small chapel he had in mind. I was mesmerized, under their spell. 

At first glance, his line drawings appeared stiff and brittle, embedded deep within the weave of the paper. They seemed lifeless, stuck down fast. But as we moved from one page to the next, marks begin to tremble and stir. They detached themselves and slid across the page, re-arranged themselves in the top left hand corner, mid-page, off-centre right bottom. Every now and then, one threatened to leave the paper altogether, to take off and dart instead around the room. I ducked instinctively. There was a passion in his plans that betrayed the calm and quiet of his meticulously typed letter, his careful shirt and tie. By the time he’d begun introducing colour to the windows of his building, I was shaking my head and nodding, diving to my desk for contract and pen.

Outside the window, clouds churned and massed on the horizon, misshapen athletes lining up for a race, waiting for the starters’ gun.

He’s insisting on a basic rectangular ground plan. There’s nothing complicated about this building. It’s a small, simple stone structure, foundations laid out precisely along the axes of a compass. North. South. East. West. It’s the stained-glass windows that are complex – after all, he explains, it’s the windows that will tell the story. He wants fourteen of them, is as adamant about this as he is about everything else. Ten or twelve won’t do. Yes, he knows, it’s a tiny space, but by his calculations (and given the high vertical thrust), fourteen would not present a problem.

He’s designed the two short walls to accommodate the widest, three-paneled windows. Facing due East and West, they will describe the beginning and end of the story, deliberately positioned to catch the light from the rising and setting sun. His drawings give the impression of a continuous unbroken window – a luminous wall of coloured light, held up by roughly-chiseled stone blocks, interrupted only by the necessary support of the slimmest stone pillars. Floor-to-ceiling stained glass will tempt light into the room, he says - hold it there like a slow inward breath.

Have I noticed how effectively light nudges shadows into corners?

The two long sidewalls will reveal the finer details of the story, coloured glass the perfect medium to chronicle a life – her life - chapter by chapter. One window for each of the years he had with her, for the combined age of their children. One for each day of their two-week holiday. Fourteen windows for the fourteen minutes it took from the time she entered the sea – laughing her way in, her sun-browned hands scooping up the waves – to that final moment when bitter salt water flooded through her body.

I read what he doesn’t tell me in the drawings of the windows. They describe it all - deliberate groupings of line and pattern following the passage of time, the subtleties of light moving across the hours and moods of a day. A predominance of orange and yellow glass set into the Southern wall takes me to the beach where I stand at ease, bare toes burrowing into gritty warmth on what seems like any ordinary morning. I hear children. They’re a little way away, carting buckets and spades, paddling in the shallows. A group of tanned teenagers play volleyball. Bluebottles lie washed up on the sand, foam stuck half-heartedly to their deflating balloons. Crabs sidle up to empty shells and sandcastles.

She drowned on a Sunday. First up in the morning, she’d tiptoed out of the house around sunrise, closed the door on him and their sleeping children, and gone out for a walk around the Valley. They’d woken an hour or so later to find her in the kitchen, humming - a bunch of freshly-picked flowers loosely arranged in a jam jar and set out on the kitchen table. A raw chicken sat unprettily on the marble cutting board, dimpled legs modestly crossed, attempting to conceal two lemon halves, one red onion, the obligatory head of unpeeled garlic. At the front door, the new red umbrella, four folded swimming towels, a brown paper bag filled with organic oranges…

Tracing the blue North wall now, I hear her cry. Shadows fall. Darkness stalks an unsteady sea. I hold my breath, dive below the surface, swim into the watery silence of a thousand shapes of clear blue glass.

The light in my office shifts.  I turn on my feet.

There’ll be no apse or nave, he says.

Just enough room, I say, for a font, a single pew, a jam jar of flowers.    


The windows at All Saints' Tudeley (Kent, UK) are a memorial tribute to Sarah d'Avigdor-Goldsmid who died aged just 21 in a sailing accident off Rye. Sarah's parents commissioned Marc Chagall to create each of this tiny stone church's twelve stained glass windows. This image shows a detail from the East Window.   


  1. Your story, stained glass windows, Marc Chagall's work - all beautiful.

  2. A Via Dolorosa for an private Passion. Powerful stuff, CB. Beautifully made.

  3. Claire, it's lovely--how it all weaves togeher--the story, the memory of C, the way the lines on the paper have a life of their own as if they want to be the ones to describe what happened to the drowned woman; and the rich colors with the narrator so very present in each part of that dreadful day. xo

  4. A beautiful and moving tribute, Claire.

  5. Your story is beautifully told cb. What I keep returning to in my mind is the way raw untellable grief can be transmuted into a shape. That something of its scope can be scaled into beauty, not just formless suffering. it makes me think that many of the treasures we've inherited (art and music) are linked to love and passion, loss and passion. xp