It was the first snowfall of the year…

…and time for him to go.

Again this year he had been fortunate. A minstrel could not take bread and board for granted, even at ġéol, that most festive of seasons. Twelve days of feasting, drinking and song. A roaring fire in the Great Hall, so many logs piled into it that the sparks flew high. Not infrequently these decided to nest in the tapestry hangings that lined the walls. Such hangings were priceless and must be swiftly beaten out by the two servants appointed to that task, who were armed with a ladder and damp cloths. Minstrels were much in demand over ġéol, but there were many minstrels on the roads nowadays, roaming from castle to castle and trying their luck.

You needed to be young to cover such immense distances on foot. You needed to be healthy to survive the in-between nights sleeping in barns and ditches, stealing apples from orchards and turnips from fields in passing – the occasional steaming pie from a window-ledge; the in-between days performing in market squares and taverns; the likelihood that at any time you would be attacked and robbed of the coins you had earned.

But then you also needed to be old, for the songs to be in your head. How many days and nights of walking for just one song to be born and committed to memory? How many losses and loves and close escapes for the germ of a song to expand into one of the many-versed ballads beloved of the Lord and his lordlings on winter evenings? How many days of adventuring among hedge-sparrows and serving maids, to give the songs their unique colour and beauty? How long for a complex, unforgettable tune to be born out of joy and sorrow, sunshine and snow? How many days on the road?

Sometimes, even now, there were women. This time it had been Moire, one of the kitchen girls. A brown girl, he thought with a smile: brown hair, long and horribly tangled, brown eyes, brown skin – though most of that was dirt. She had been kind to him, and he to her. He had sung for her before to lure her to his pallet in one corner of the kitchen, and sung for her afterwards, to lull her to sleep. She was weary. Kitchen girls were perpetually weary. It was a life, he supposed, but not much of one. Like him, she had survived.

He had not said goodbye to little Moire, though he knew he would be leaving when the first snows fell. He never said goodbye. In any case he would not be coming back this way. He felt it in his bones.

Felt death in his bones. He shivered, wrapping his furs more tightly around him, and hoisting onto his back the pack containing all he had in the world, including that most precious possession of all, his lute, wrapped in silk, then wool, then oilcloth. On the turn of the stone stair, through a slit in the stone wide enough to fire an arrow but narrow enough not to receive one, he felt an icy draught. The early morning sky was aflame with yellows and pinks as the sun attempted to rise and warm the earth. But the ground was frozen hard. Any snow would be bound to lay.

Soon, all would be white…

snowfall

THE BIRD OF LIGHT (Angels & Other Occurrences 1)

At the midway point in the ancient spiral staircase, looking down into the little courtyard with the fountain, Martina paused. She liked to keep an eye on her staff, but discreetly. What was he up to now? Zak appeared to be enraptured – staring into space. For goodness sake, she thought, how difficult can it be to go in with a plastic bucket and a little shovel and remove a year’s worth of coins from a fountain, skim off a few floating leaves? Not exactly rocket science, even at his age. At once she felt guilty. Fifty-eight wasn’t that old, and what she had just thought was ageist. Fierce, when necessary, Martina did at least try to be fair to her staff, and honest with herself.

The main gates should have opened five minutes ago. Gatehouse had radioed up – punters queueing nine deep outside. Pushchairs, kiddies and cameras all over the place. It was the end of September and the start of the castle’s Autumn Flower Festival. Sunny it might be, with that low, intense sun of autumn, but it was none too warm to be standing about outside. The castle looked fantastic at this time of year – red, orange and gold leaves carpeting the lawns and lakes outside; and in every room that was open to the public, one and sometimes several huge, dramatic displays of autumn flowers and foliage supplied by all the top groups in the county. People looked forward all year to this Festival; they wanted in – and in was where she needed them to be. The castle had lost money last season – combination of a dismal British summer and the failure of the static balloon as an attraction. Unfortunately, that had been her idea. Balloons went down a storm back home in the States but for some reason people here didn’t seem to want to pay £25 for a ticket, to be tethered at treetop height, not flying anywhere. It had been a blunder, and she was desperate to make up for it. No one, as the Foundation had obliquely pointed out, was indispensable.

They were waiting for Zak, just Zak. What on earth was he staring at, sat on the edge of the fountain, bucket and shovel in hand? Oh come on Zak, she thought, don’t make me come down there and tell you off. I don’t have time.

Zak was looking at the Bird of Light. There was always light in the central courtyard. It was a strange place for that. When the sun was shining it reflected randomly off the leaded glass panes of the surrounding windows. Sometimes the light dazzled him (his eyes were not too good, nowadays). Sometimes the windows looked blind, like they’d grown cataracts. Cataracts of light. It had been, for him, a place of worship, yet what he was worshipping he could not have said. But suddenly, today, there was the Bird.

He had turned his back, to begin on the coins and leaves, but somehow he knew it was there. He knew something was there. Just afraid to turn round. Terribly afraid. It was watching him. Even with his back turned he could see… unusual light. Light cascading off the walls, bouncing off the cobbles. Light shining on the fountain, light crashing into other light. He couldn’t explain it. It wasn’t natural.

Turn, Zak.

It was a soft voice, but he hadn’t turned.

I am here, Zak. I have something to say to you.

He kept trying to shovel up the coins. Delusions? After all these years? How long have I been sober? Will it never let me go?

It’s good news, Zak. Please turn.

It was the ‘please’ that did it. He turned. And saw the Bird. At least that’s what it looked like. What it might have been. Except it was so tall. Could birds be tall. White wings, but they gave off light. It must be…

It’s about Beth.

And now it was replaying in his mind, the night he met Beth. It was if the Bird itself was controlling his memories.

They had met in the Station Hotel. He’d been drunk, as usual. He was rehearsing his last order. Time for another one, Joe? He was rehearsing his walk across the room to the bar which, by this time of night, felt like being on a fairground ride. So many chairs. And the chairs seemed to tilt and move. So easy to trip and then… there wouldn’t be another one. Joe would tell him he’d had enough. Joe would call him a taxi and pay for it himself. Joe was a good bloke.

But this night, there was this girl. He didn’t remember her coming in but there she was, perched on a bar stool, chatting to Joe as if they were old friends. Yet she’d never been here before, he was sure of it. She had long hair. Fair. Real fair, not dyed, that almost-mouse colour. She had dropped her carpet-bag at her feet. It was battered, that bag. She had been places.

And there was that picture again, the one he had seen before. He had seen her in some African market, or somewhere like Zanzibar. She was ahead, then she turned and smiled. Such a beautiful smile, and for him. And at her wrist there were bangles of all colours. They glittered in the sun, and the sky behind her head was so very blue, like no sky he had ever seen before. The Bird brought this back to him.

And then something strange had happened. Her train pulled in and he watched her get up to leave and he was thinking, that’s it then, she’s going, but she didn’t go, or least not at once, no, she stopped and came over to him, and she stood in front of him, looking into his eyes, and she said, My name is Beth. Come with me.

And then she was gone, and he couldn’t believe it had happened. He must be imagining. And then… Zak was up and staggering full pelt towards the door, chairs scattering in all directions as the room rocked and swerved around him. He was running across the gravel, he was heading for the platform. The whistle blew, train doors were slamming. He had to make it to that train; he had to catch her…

He had something to say to her. Good news. Such wonderful news.

She was fifteen years younger than him, but after that she never left his side. They had travelled the world for a while, then did what others do. They found a house and married, and tried for children. But the children hadn’t come.

They’d had all the tests. He’d assumed it was him, being so much older, but it wasn’t. There was something wrong with her. She’d had operations, and tablets, and tests. Nothing worked. Beth hardly ever mentioned it nowadays, but he knew it still hurt. Yes, he had wanted children by her, but she… It was something different for women, a greater grief.

It’s about Beth. Good news.

When he emerged from the courtyard he was dumb. The Bird had punished him for his disbelief. How am I to know? Zak had asked. What proof can you give me? I am getting old and Beth – she’s getting on. Forty-one next birthday. How can this happen?

His name will be John, said the bird. His name will be John. He will touch no drink. He will give you both great joy. He will be filled with light – this light. He has come to prepare the way.

The way for what? Zak was trying to say. Only no sound come out.

*

Today of all days, thought Martina, as she followed Zak in the ambulance. She guessed it must have been a stroke – something in the brain department – yet he was walking OK – in fact there was a  spring in his step. But, she thought, people don’t just suddenly forget how to speak if they’ve got nothing wrong. Maybe something less scary, like laryngitis. But it wasn’t as if he’d had a sore throat, even – not that he’d mentioned. And the man seems so ridiculously, insanely happy. Positively joyous. What sort of lunatic would be happy on their way to hospital? Poor Zak, she thought, he’s got a wife and… now she thought about it she wasn’t sure. He had never mentioned a family. But definitely a wife.

Martina reached across and laid a hand on his arm, hoping to reassure. For all his faults, she had a soft spot for Zak. He was a sweet old guy. He smiled at her – the biggest and broadest of smiles. And there was this weird kind of shining-ness about him.

VISITING THE CASTLE

In this courtyard, overborne and

Cramped by shuttered rooms,

The leaded panes grown cataracts of light,

Moss grows between the stones

And a marble fountain plays.

It is small, unremarkable,

Nobody in here to view it, just a sparrow

Thirsting in the furnace of July;

Nobody in here and yet

The bowl is full of coins.

 

Maybe each of us comes alone

And again discovers what queens and princes knew;

Maybe they too, in their moments of distraction,

Trailed their finger-ends beneath the water

And, feeling it cool and simple,

Sighed and threw silver, leaving behind

Battered portraits of their ancestors,

Distorted by refraction

And by motion.

 

I will not throw a coin.

For all their praying, those who threw before

Are no less saved or lost. I would rather just

Recall them, these unknown dreamers, feeling

The benediction in the sun, the wish in the stone,

Their lives and mine

In the sound of

Water falling.