A New Entrance
The car moved away from the hospital. Max was fiddling with the bag, wondering if he had brought enough food. He was hungry, could do with a snack now but probably he should wait. He was feeling better now, more like his old self. Things had become exciting again, rather than scary, and it looked as if his plan was working. He had rescued his father, done what he came for. He grinned, contented, and glanced at his father, Den.
Den was watching Max. It was so good to see his son again. Den felt as if he had been in the hospital for an age, had lost all trace of time. Walking had felt strange, it was a while since he had done any. He enjoyed the novelty of being able to move freely again, to leave that room, to not wonder who was about to enter, with food or an injection, or a move to a treatment room. He stretched, pushing back against the seat. It was so nice to be free from the hospital, to feel weather again, to see colour. The hospital had been very white. He felt hungry for colour. It was so good to feel some control seeping back, to feel human again, to be a person not a patient.
Den felt slow, fuzzy, as if he was slightly drunk. He had been told that would pass, his mind would eventually clear again. He hoped so. He understood everything, knew what was happening, but speaking was an effort, he could form the words but actually saying them was difficult, as if there was a link missing. Luckily no one seemed to be expecting much conversation, Max seemed lost in his own thoughts.
The car moved almost silently, a gentle purr, for which the father was grateful. There was something wrong with his ears. His ears or his brain, he was not sure which. All sound caused a vibration, it was uncomfortable. When people spoke, it sounded as though their voice was computer generated, like a machine talking through a voice box. It was unpleasant and he was glad that his son was now silent, fiddling with the bag and looking out of the window.
Den turned and watched the houses and buildings as they passed. Roads lined with trees, houses nestling together, the solar panels used for emergency power glinting as they faced the sunlight, each tile mounted so that it could swivel to follow the path of the sun throughout the day. Meeting places, lined with benches that were sheltered from the weather, areas of grass where people could meet, chat, children could play, practice sports. They were passed by a luxury car, fashioned like one from centuries before, a long bonnet, a low roof, tinted glass in the windows hiding the occupant.
Their own car slowed, allowing other traffic to pass. They were level with the old school and memories flooded back—arriving in the school bus, jostling with the other boys as they fought to get off, their bags snagging on the seats and each other. Walking up the driveway, fearing detention because his homework was not completed. The smell of the corridors, the hard plastic seats, the sarcastic teachers standing in front of black boards.
“I remember going there,” Den said, turning to Max, “I hated it. Always seemed to be in trouble for something”. He laughed, remembering.
Max looked at him for a long moment. When he spoke it was slowly, as if to a child.
“What do you mean Dad? When did you visit there? It hasn’t been a school for centuries, about two hundred years I think.”
Den frowned, confused. He could see that what the boy said was correct, could tell from the age of the bricks, the renovations that were looking dated themselves, that it was an historical site, preserved but not functioning, had not functioned for many, many years, possibly centuries. Yet he remembered.
He could have told Max which classes where taught behind each window, the name of the head teacher and what they called him behind his back, who his friends were, who used to wait by the corner where the school office was and try to trip people up as they passed. He knew the smell of the locker room where they hung damp coats and rummaged through wooden cubbyholes searching for books. Yes, books, pages folded in the corners, ink seeping through from where his pen had leaked, heavy hardback science manuals and thin paperback novels. Reams of paper trapped in plastic folders with rings that snapped shut. He remembered. He remembered as clearly as if it were yesterday.
Which was clearly impossible because he also remembered his remote learning as a boy, the lessons online, the occasional school sessions in a stuffy room with a teacher when they had already understood everything from the computer tutor. The two memories did not tally, and yet each was there. Each was real. Den frowned and was silent. He could not explain it to the boy, feared he might be going mad, though he felt sane. It made him feel insecure, vulnerable. If you could not trust your own brain, what did you have as a point of reference, what could you trust?
The car had moved past the school now and was gathering speed as it left town and joined one of the main arteries eastwards.
“Are you hungry?” asked the boy, pulling out some crackers. Den shook his head, still reluctant to speak, wanting to avoid those strange echoing vibrations in his head. He wanted to ask how his wife and daughter were, to explain to the boy what had happened to him. But it was too uncomfortable, and the effort of forcing words out was too tiring. Instead he merely smiled, gazed out of the window as the scenery whizzed past.
Max munched his way through a packet of crackers and some cheese. The cheese was hard, had possibly been in the fridge for too long. He was worried about his father, wondering why he had said that strange thing outside of the school. He could tell it had worried his father too, had noticed the look of panic in his eyes when he realised that he was talking nonsense. Max was not sure how well he was going to cope if his father was now insane. He needed him to help, to sort out the sleeping arrangements on the island, to tell his mother that Max needed to continue with his school sessions and his contact with his friends. He would like to start discussing that now really, but probably it was inappropriate, probably he should wait for a while, until his father looked less tired. He could do that, he was not a completely self-absorbed child, he could behave like an adult, bide his time.
The car slowed again as it entered another town. Max looked at his father. He had fallen asleep. Probably for the best, they had a long walk ahead. He looked at the houses as the car followed the main roadway down a hill which curved between buildings. Old towns were always like that, the older the place, the more twisted the roads. There had been plans once to demolish great swathes of building and re-plan towns with straight roads, like the grid system that some other countries had adopted. Of course, too many people objected, no one wanted to lose their house, and the historians had hurriedly put preservation orders on too many buildings to make it practical. That was the trouble with England, it was too proud of its history, too unwilling to destroy things for the sake of improvement.
Max could see the holy place from the very edge of the town. Just as the nurse had said, the tower could be clearly seen from a long way back, growing ever taller as they wound their way towards it. When they eventually reached it, it seemed less tall than Max had expected and he realised that some of the perceived height was because it was set on a slight hill in the centre of town.
The car stopped next to a low wall surrounding the garden area of the holy place. Once it had probably been a graveyard around a church but the graves would have been cleared long ago, the remains cremated and disposed of. Now it was a garden, filled with trees and flowers, with a stone path leading to the arched entrance.
Max shook his father awake.
“Dad, we’re here, we’re at the holy place that nurse sent us to. Are you alright? Can you walk? Can you carry the case?”
His father nodded, climbed out of the car, lifted the case and put it on the path next to him. Max led the way into the building, through the wooden side door and into the main sanctuary.
Their eyes took a moment to adjust to the gloomy interior of the large space inside. There were stone pillars holding up the arched roof, the beams centuries old, wooden, and beginning to crumble in places. Max could see the signs that showed it was constantly being renovated, nearly matching shades of paint, the odd wooden beam not blackened with age. He guessed it was one of the town’s treasures, there would not be any suggestion that it might be allowed to fall into decay. It smelt of dust and old wood and was filled with pews, covered in multi-coloured cushions, all facing forwards. The front was a series of arches, the central one had a pulpit for the speaker to stand in and a large blank screen, where visual aids could be programmed. There was a raised section beyond, Max guessed that musicians and choirs would perform there, adding mood to the services.
Around the walls were symbols from most of the major religions. Max had learnt them all during school sessions, had been taught that it was important to respect all beliefs, that none was more important, more right, than any other. This had been strongly denied in the privacy of his own home, his father had frequently, strenuously, fought to uphold his own faith over all others. But there was no place for such unrelenting belief in today’s society. It was divisive, in a world that valued unity.
They stood together for a moment, man and boy, gazing at the symbols on the walls. There was the curved Omkar symbol, looking almost like numbers, representing the three elements of the Hindu Om: Brahma Shakti the creator, Vishnu Shakti the preserver, and Shiva Shakti, the liberator. There was also the Hindu swastika carved into the pillar next to it.
On the next pillar was the Islam star and crescent and the word for Allah written in curvy script. Beyond that was the Star of David and there was a seven-branched candlestick, the menorah, standing on a table at the front. Islamic and Jewish symbols were often placed together, as they were considered religions so similar that they almost blended into one.
There was an image of Deg Tegh Fateh and the symbol of Khand, showing the sword, chakkar and kirpans that were important to the Sikh religion.
Next to them, painted in heavy black paint onto the stone wall was an imposing Torii gate, marking the entrance to the spirit world for those following Shinto. Next to that, nearer to them, was the black and white Taiji, the Yin and Yang of Taoism. Right beside them was the Buddhist Wheel of the Dharma and a lotus flower of purity.
In the corner was the pentagram of Wicca. Next to it was the nine-pointed star of Baha’i.
Beyond that, on the far side, was the Christian cross, made from wood and fixed to the wall opposite the door. It looked new, and Max wondered what had happened to all the Christian symbols that must have originally festooned the walls. Only one stained-glass window remained, the light filtering through images of Jesus and disciples.
Max had come to one of these holy places a few times, had sat with his parents and sister. Most people chose to sit near the symbol that represented their own religion but Max had been told that it did not matter, that they believed that God surrounded them, that emblems were of little significance. Max was not sure what he himself believed. He rather liked the holy places, with their eclectic mix of symbols, places where people could go and celebrate all the festivals that they had enjoyed for centuries, could listen to an interesting lecture given by a different religious leader in turn, each one careful to not say anything that might be offensive to another religion, all talking about peace, unity, being generous and kind. Things that no one would dispute, would deny were important.
They had not attended recently though. Max’s father had held secret meetings in their home for the last few years. Max and Lucy knew that these were not allowed, had been declared unhealthy by the Council. They did not discuss them with friends or at school sessions. Max’s father was a music tutor, it was not unusual for a variety of people to enter their home, to receive tuition on an instrument. It was thought that those in authority either did not know or did not care that they were holding religious meetings, gatherings where it was stated there was only one God, that only the Bible was a holy book. Saying things that were banned, considered divisive and unhealthy for society.
They turned away from the symbols on the walls and walked to the Wheel of the Dharma. The floor was raised slightly at the rear of the church, with a stone walkway leading to the very back. The lotus flower was etched into a wooden door. They turned the ancient latch and found themselves in a small hallway. To one side was a notice, advising them that it was permissible to climb the tower, there were one hundred and seventy-one steps and that there was no elevator, so they needed to be capable of walking both up and down. The Global Council would take no responsibility for the health of anyone taken ill during the climb. There were stone steps leading up, winding round and round a central pillar, each step dipped slightly in the centre where a million feet had worn them away.
On their left was a small green door. It was unlocked, and ignoring the ‘Private’ sign they pushed it open. There were more steps, this time leading downwards. They looked at each other for a moment, then Max led the way down.
After they had gone, the old woman waited for five minutes. Then she rose from her place kneeling beside the cross, hidden from view by the high-backed pews. Her knees were stiff and she rested for a moment, leaning against the pillar that had the pentagram etched into it, before moving to the back of the church. In her hand she carried a large metal key and she used it to lock the small green door. Then she pulled her phone from her pocket and ordered a car to take her home. She was a link in a chain. Her job was done.
To be continued on Wednesday. . .