Arnold Drive

By Hugh Cornwell

The story of a man’s journey from innocence to experience where he discovers his moral compass isn’t always pointing the right way…

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Chapter Two

As he walked home that night through lamplit streets, Arnold noticed how different Corsham looked to during the daytime. The true colour of the Bath Stone buildings seemed muted in the orange light and a uniformity he didn't care for enveloped the town. It looked like the streets of any number of English towns, with none of Corsham's charm and character.  He found himself heading in the direction of St. Tobias's and didn't try to fight the impulse. Besides, the warm air was serving to dry out his trousers from the paper towel. He was still feeling irritated by Hatswell, who'd insisted on picking up the entire cost of the meal despite all their protests.


'Don't be silly, Arnold, we all fall on hard times. You may have to do the same for me one day,' he had thrown in, as he scooped up the wallet containing the bill the waiter delivered to the table.


What annoyed Arnold was the fact that he wasn't broke at all. The Diocese was still paying him full salary for another three months and after that he would be on a small monthly pension. But he'd certainly feel the pinch once he started to pay for his own accommodation. Rounding the next corner he saw St. Tobias’s church, flanked by its mature yews, and stopped to admire the building. Even the ugly amber light from the street couldn't mask the beauty of the flying buttresses supporting the tower. His fingers moved around the key fob in his right trouser pocket and felt the large key which would open the church door. He walked up the flagstone path, placed the key in the lock, and heard the familiar sound of the old mechanism turning. He unlatched the twisted iron ring and slowly pushed the door open. His footsteps echoed in the chill space as he advanced into the vestibule. He needed no light to help him navigate his way around the body of the church, as he was familiar with every little unevenness in the flagstones beneath his feet. The only light available was thrown through the windows from the streetlamps but he didn't mind it there within the church. All was as he'd left it the Sunday before and he was glad he'd decided to come by. He sat down in one of the pews midway to the nave, next to the central aisle, and closed his eyes for a few moments to pray. He was halfway through the Lord's Prayer when he heard the front door moving on its hinges. He'd left it ajar when he came in, but was panicked at the thought of being discovered there alone at night. He stood up, stepped into the aisle, turned, and was immediately caught in the spotlight of a torch.


'Reverend Drive! Relieved to see it's you, sir. Saw the door open and thought we had an intruder. Everything all right?’


'Yes, officer. Nothing to worry about.’


'Well then, I'll leave you to it. Goodnight, sir.’


The light went off and he was alone again in the darkness, blinded for a time. He heard the door pulled to, and the policeman mount his bicycle and peddle away. Arnold had felt his heartbeat quicken, and he sat back in the pew to let it slow down to normal speed. He recommenced the Lord's Prayer and got all the way through this time without being disturbed.


In the post the next day was a letter from the architects in Bath inviting him to call by and take a look at the plans. He was curious to find out how they were intending to carve the space up into pieces and make each one into a self-contained unit. He assumed one apartment would benefit from having the bell tower and he wondered what would become of the bells. He made a note to bring the subject up with the architects.


It was a dry day outside, so after his boiled egg and soldiers he decided to take a cycle ride around the meadow behind Corsham Court. He enjoyed it there as he was unlikely to bump into anyone he knew and be drawn into conversation away from his muddled thoughts. As the bishop had pointed out over lunch, there were many possibilities for him. Over the years, he'd sometimes felt a wanderlust that he'd never had the time or the money to indulge. He certainly wouldn't be awash with cash, but a man with time on his hands is a rich man. Spain had always been a place that had fascinated him and although he'd never been there he'd read a lot about its turmoil throughout history. Perhaps he would go there for a visit.


People would be surprised to discover just how much time a church took to maintain and keep ticking over, even one with low attendances like St. Tobias’s. Since the early Seventies, when he'd arrived in Corsham, there had been a constant battle against the ravages of time and the plunderings of nature. He'd also been expected to take part in the local community and its activities, and most evenings of the week there were meetings and events to attend. He knew all the constabulary by their names. Well, he had done until they'd closed the local police station.


He approached the mere and got off his bike to sit for a while and look at the comings and goings of the birdlife along the banks. Yes, you could say he'd been nothing but a glorified caretaker for the past thirty years, who each Sunday was allowed to get up on his soapbox and vent his spleen on the woes of modern society. These were some of the thoughts in his head that morning.


'Hello? Reverend Drive?’ he heard from behind him. He turned to see who it was and Lucy Cartwright came striding towards him through the uncut grass.


'Good morning,’ he replied. She came and perched herself on a tree stump a few feet away from where his bicycle lay on the bank.


'Hope you're feeling better than mum does this morning. She didn't get up till way past nine... Oh, now, I don't think I should be telling you that sort of thing, should I?’


They both laughed and he told her not to worry. She took that as license to continue:

'God, the way she and the Professor were knocking it back... Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to...’ she went quiet and blushed.


Arnold shook his head dismissively, saying 'Now what sort of a man of the cloth would I be if I couldn't converse in the vernacular? Over the years I've known your mother I've discovered that nothing surprises me about her. But don't worry, she carries herself very well. I'm very glad we're friends.’


'Yes,’ she said, ‘So am I.’


They sat in silence for a minute or so. She got up and wandered past him down to the bank and stood with her back to him, and he caught himself admiring her shape. He noticed she was wearing shorts.


'I like it here’ she said, 'It's one of the first places I come when I get back from Uni. Ducks are my favourite animals. They're so funny. The way they waddle about.’


'How do you like studying Philosophy?’ he asked her.


'Oh, it’s quite interesting. After a while, though, you realise there are more questions than answers. Don't you find that with religion?’


After saying this she felt she was being too forward and turned to see if she'd made him feel awkward, but Arnold was enjoying their conversation and paused to think of an answer for her.


'The trouble is,’ he said, ‘I'm not too sure what I understand about faith any more.’


He realised he was being far too frank with her and wished he hadn't been so honest, but he needn't have worried.


'That makes absolute sense considering what's happened to St. Tobias's,’ she nodded.

She came back up to where he was sitting on the grass and said 'Mum's terribly worried about you, Reverend Drive.’


He looked up and caught her eyes in his, and said 'Please call me Arnold.’ 


Arnold found himself marooned in various rooms at home over the next few days, due to the reappearance of the shadows on the living room carpet. He'd spent the whole of Wednesday morning stranded in his kitchen, and had filled the time scrupulously cleaning the sink and its surround. It was gleaming like new by the time the clouds came by and the latticework of the windows disappeared from the floor. On Thursday, he missed lunch as he found himself stuck in the hallway when the sun came out. He'd just got in the doorway after arriving back from the bookshop, and was taking off his bicycle clips from around his trouser bottoms, looking forward to browsing through a book about the Spanish Inquisition. He was making his way to the kitchen to get something to eat when the bars reappeared.


'Blast!’ he said to himself. He ended up sitting at the bottom of the stairs reading for several hours, and by the time the sun had gone it was past four o'clock and he was famished. The only way of dealing with these inconveniences was to keep the living room curtains drawn the whole day, but he'd tried that and it had made him feel depressed.


Friday arrived, the day he'd arranged to visit the architect's offices and have a look over the plans. Hermione had offered to give him a lift into Bath as she had some shopping to do, and at ten o'clock he heard the sound of her car horn outside.


'All set?’ she asked as he got in next to her. He nodded and they pulled off from the kerb, heading towards Pickwick. They spent the first ten minutes in silence and Arnold discovered he was quite sad not to see Lucy in the car. He wanted to ask Hermione where she was, but Hermione was able to satisfy his curiosity as soon as they reached Box.

'Lucy's gone to some festival for the weekend, called the Big Chill, or something. Can't quite see what the attraction is, camping out in a field full of strangers, using those awful smelly Portaloo things, just to listen to some music. But it's supposed to be quite civilised, so she tells me.’


'Do you have any idea if she takes drugs at these things?’ he asked.


'Well, her boyfriend from Durham looks the type, but these days it's hard to tell. She seems the same as ever whenever you talk to her, so I presume if she is it's not something desperately dangerous, or harmful. He's meeting her there, apparently.’


Arnold felt a lump come into his throat, which he thought was strange, and swallowed. Perhaps it was the mention of the word 'boyfriend', but he considered the whole suggestion too ludicrous to consider. He was glad Lucy was with someone Hermione knew and trusted. 


'I'm sure there's nothing to worry about, she seems pretty level headed to me’ he said, and they drove on towards Bath in silence.


Hermione put on the radio and they listened to Woman's Hour for the remainder of the journey. The sun was out and the city looked at its best as they drove in from the A46 roundabout past the rugby ground. Arnold rarely went to Bath unless for a specific reason, and because of this was always surprised how striking he found the architecture. The grand terraces stood to attention as they moved slowly along London Road in the queue of traffic. It took them a good fifteen minutes to get to the top of Milsom Street where she dropped him off. They arranged to meet in a couple of hours back at the same place, by which time Hermione thought she would have shopped herself out. Arnold entered an open front door on George Street and climbed the stairs to the first floor, where a receptionist sat, who checked a list of names in front of her.


'Ah, yes. Reverend Drive. Here you are,’ she said, finding his name. ‘Please take a seat for a moment and Mr. Cubitt will be with you shortly.’

A few minutes later a door opened and a bespectacled man in his mid-forties and shirtsleeves appeared who led him into an office.


'So glad you could make it in, Reverend. We're all really excited about this project. I hope you'll find what we've come up with interesting.’


He took him towards a table by the window on which sat a remarkably accurate scale model of St. Tobias's. Next to it there were some large detailed sheets bearing the elevations and proposals. Cubitt pulled up a chair for him.


'Please take a seat and have a good look. May I offer you a cup of tea or coffee?’


Arnold asked for some water and turned his attention back to the plans. Cubitt left the room and Arnold tried to make sense of what he was looking at. It was unfamiliar to his eyes, and he was just recognising certain aspects of the building when Cubitt came back with a glass of water in his hand.


'It's going to be three marvellous apartments. The one on the top floor will inherit the bell tower, sans bells, of course, and the lower two will lie to the left and right of the stairway.’


'The Holy Trinity,’ Arnold said.


'Sorry, I don't follow you?’ Cubitt replied.


'Three apartments...The Holy Trinity,’ explained Arnold, ‘I thought it may have been intentional. Perhaps not.’


'Oh, I see. Yes, quite. Well, as you can see we've made a point of making as few structural changes as possible to the layout of the church. That way each apartment becomes a unique piece of its history. Distinctly different, but linked? It should create an atmosphere of community amongst the owners. Well, that's the theory. Look, I'll leave you alone for a while. Take your time. I'll be next door if you need anything.’

He smiled and left Arnold to come to his own conclusions.


It became clear the architects had paid great attention to detail. Not only had they resisted the temptation to tamper with the basic structure of the church, they'd also tried to retain many of the internal features and incorporate them into their designs. This came as a pleasant surprise to Arnold, who recalled being told by someone in the building trade that the initials RIBA stand for Remember I'm the Bloody Architect. All the stained glass windows had been preserved in their entirety and the choir stalls had a footnote attached, allowing them to be kept in place if a prospective buyer so desired. This he was especially relieved to learn, as they bore some interesting misericords. A tightly spiralled, wrought iron staircase ascended into the bell tower where there was a bench seat for viewing purposes. This would afford views across to the Almshouses and Corsham Court, which were a good half mile away.


He spent half an hour studying the plans, as he knew Hermione would quiz him when they met up later on. Drawing his chair back from the table, his eyes fell upon the scale model of St. Tobias's. He noticed a provision for underground parking - so as not to disturb the graveyard - but realised that in itself could be problematic. The last thing they wanted was to disturb any of the poor souls lying underground.  Many of them had been victims of the Black Death. He picked up his glass of water and drained it. The door opened and Cubitt entered, and Arnold sensed his time was up.


'How's it going? Anything you'd like to ask?’


'There was just one thing. What will happen to the bells?’ he ventured.      


'Ah, the bells..... Well, I presume they'll remain the property of the Diocese. I suggest you take it up with them. They'll be stored, no doubt, until their final destination is determined. Anything else?’


Arnold couldn't think of anything, but did enquire as to what would become of the scale model, as he'd taken quite a fancy to it. Cubitt reassured him he would be welcome to it after the project had been completed.


'Please accept it as a present. I'll make a note to that effect and attach it to the project file. All we'll need is an address, or phone number, to let you know when it can be collected.’


He took Arnold back to reception and down the stairs to the front door, adding 'Yes, my wife was baptised at St. Tobias's, probably by your good self. Her parents used to live in Corsham in the Seventies. In fact, that's where she was born.’


He didn't recognise the surname Cubitt, but was grateful for the promise of the miniature St. Tobias's to keep.


Strolling down George Street to Queens Square, he realised everybody he met cleverly avoided the subject of what would happen to him. It bemused him that he was never, ever seen as a normal human being, doing normal things, and subject to the vagaries of existence like most people in society. He supposed most would think he'd be sent to some other church somewhere in the country, rather like a supply teacher, or a member of the armed forces, going wherever he was needed, to the latest campaign somewhere. That's how they probably saw it, a constant battle between Good and Evil, and he was the crusader, struggling to save the fallen souls from landing in the lap of the Devil. How out of touch they all were!


He'd been made redundant, it was as simple as that.

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