This was the easiest part, climbing up to the tower. Ned could manage this, for all that the steps were dipped in the middle from the passage of hundreds, probably thousands, of feet. One hand on the curve of the wall, the stone rough beneath his palm. Follow the stairs around, a spiral leading up and up.
Light came in glimpses through the occasional narrow slit of a window. He could see the blurred shape of the rope attached to the wall, but paid it no heed. Easier, more intimate, to feel his way with his hands.
It was cool; the church walls were three feet thick. As if built to withstand an army. Perhaps it had. Or perhaps Cromwell’s men had marched through this part of the land and occupied the church, cast down its plaster saints and smashed its painted windows.
Lionel would know. Lionel had an interest in history. That was why he was so determined to teach Ned the art of change ringing. Because it connected them to the past, to the village, to England, to a heritage that stretched back centuries.
Ned hadn’t the heart to tell him that it was all rot. What good was the past, when the present was uncertain and the future forever unseen?
His lungs laboured as he pulled himself the last few steps to the door. It opened at his touch, ancient oak and medieval iron, and on the threshold he blinked as the sunlight hit his face. A jackdaw cackled. The breeze slipped by him, ruffling his shirt, disordering the neatness of his hair. At the top of the tower, the flag snapped.
Down below, the village went about its business. Mr Harrison’s Austin Twenty trundling from the tarmac to the cobbles. The roll of barrels unloaded from the dray outside the White Hart. The questioning crow of Ma Bottomley’s rooster; it couldn’t possibly be the same bird after all these years, but still the slightly strangled cry remained the same. The smell of coal smoke and horse dung and baked bread, and over it all, the biting warm scent of tobacco.
John Player’s Special. He’d know it anywhere.
Ned waited. It would be foolish for him to venture any further without assistance. The walkway was only a foot wide and the parapet was only a foot high. If he slipped, he’d be a goner. A while ago, the idea had held no fear for him, but now he shied away from it.
He heard Lionel shift and come towards him. The blur that was his friend resolved into the most basic of details as Lionel approached: white shirt loose about his rangy body, sleeves rolled to the elbow and collar unbuttoned. Dark trousers and bare feet. The glint of blond hair, frosted almost silver by exposure to the desert sun. A smile, just for him, white in a tanned face.
He couldn’t see lively blue eyes and the chiselled perfection of nose, or the laughter-lines weathered around Lionel’s mouth, but Ned remembered them from before. Remembered them as well as his own face, for he’d traced the beloved features often enough on the photograph they’d had taken a few days before they shipped out.
Ned had assumed they’d go to war together, but Lionel was the schoolmaster’s son and good at languages, and apparently fluency in French, Latin, and Greek made one an asset, one the Army could use in roles other than as cannon fodder. Lionel had gone to Egypt. Ned had been sent to France.
“Smoke?” Lionel took the dangling cigarette from his lips and offered it out.
Ned shook his head. “Told you, I’ve quit.”
He couldn’t bear the taste of a cigarette, now. Not after the gas. Sometimes the remembrance of it woke him from sleep, staring and gasping, still drowning in poison. It had eaten at his vision, rendering him half-blind, and its legacy rattled in his lungs each winter. The smell of tobacco he could still enjoy at a distance, but the taste of it, the hiss and flare of a match to light a cigarette… No.
Ned put a hand out for balance and found the slope of the copper-sheathed roof. The metal was sun-warm, the surface pitted with verdigris. The colour was vibrant against the smudged limestone and wash of blue sky.
Lionel let the cigarette smoulder between his fingers, looking out at a view that existed only in Ned’s memory. “Don’t you feel different up here? Closer to God, somehow?”
“I’m not sure I believe in God anymore.” Horrible to admit it, a weight on his mind, but if Ned could not trust his dearest friend, he could trust no one. “You know, after everything.”
Lionel nodded, then pinched out the cigarette and flicked the butt off the parapet. “I’d like to join you, but I’m not fond of the alternatives. Better the devil you know and all that.”
Ned found himself smiling. “And what devil drives you today?”
For a moment Lionel was quiet, gaze resting on Ned, then he turned his head, white-blond hair flopping, and said, “Oh—probably Old Bat-Face.”
This was their nickname for a spectacularly ugly and ill-formed gargoyle that jutted above the guttering on the north transept. It had never been established whether Old Bat-Face was the work of a medieval mason’s unskilled apprentice or the result of a dare.
“I wish I could see him.” It had taken Ned months of practice to eliminate the wistfulness from his tone whenever he spoke of seeing things.
“Maybe you will again someday.” Unlike Ned’s mother, Lionel spoke with a brisk grasp on reality rather than forced cheerfulness and inflated optimism. He laid a hand on Ned’s shoulder, squeezing an affectionate gesture. “Come on, the bells are waiting.”
Still with Lionel’s hand on him, Ned picked his way across the parapet to the door to the tower. The village church was properly a minster, one of a handful in the county, and so was larger and finer than most. He ducked his head beneath the lintel and followed his friend up the second spiral staircase. Much narrower, this one; the steps steeper and the sloped roof lower, so Ned’s hair brushed against it almost continually, and he imagined dust ingraining itself into his disordered locks.
The effort of not banging his head distracted him from gazing at Lionel’s backside. Not that he could see much, between his ruined eyesight and the half-darkness, but he could imagine, and that somehow made it worse.
Ned remembered in time to lift his feet over the threshold, then he gripped Lionel’s proffered arm and stepped down into the ringing chamber.
Hazy golden light slid in through the high-set lancet windows, illuminating wooden benches and scattered methods. On one white-washed wall hung a board from the last century, hand-lettered and much amended, detailing the fines payable by anyone fool enough to ring while drunk, or roistering, or engaged in any number of other infractions against the bells.
Higher up in the loft, a pair of doves cooed.
Ned went to the middle of the chamber and looked up, as if his damaged eyes could see beyond the oak boards of the ceiling to the six great bells in their cradles. He felt the weight of them resting there, silent and watchful.
Lionel strode over to the cabinet holding the automatic chime mechanism. “No mufflers, today. Thought we’d let the bells speak out.”
All manner of superstition attached to bell-ringing, Ned knew. He put his hand to the rope of the nearest bell and untied the knot holding it up from the floor. The fluffy red and white stripes of the sally felt soft against his palm. Above him, the bells stirred; a sensation so powerful Ned asked, “Do they get upset if they’re ignored for too long?”
“Some would say so.” A click and a slowing whirr as the chimes were disabled. Lionel closed the door on the mechanism.
“But not you?”
“I’m the only one who spends any time with them now. I like to think they tolerate me.”
“Is that why you want a blind man to learn the ropes, as it were?”
“You’re not blind,” Lionel said, firmly but with compassion. “Your vision is impaired.”
“Half-blind, then.” Ned shoved at the spectacles that had slipped down his nose. They were mainly for show, so people wouldn’t pity him.
“No.” Lionel moved about, untying ropes on his side of the chamber. “I wanted you here because I’m tired of being alone.”
Ned’s heart gave a little bump. He fumbled the knot and the rope slithered against him, the tail dropping to the floor. With an effort, he laughed it off. “What do you mean? The bells speak, you just said so.”
“The same notes, over and over.” Lionel took up position beneath the treble and shook out his arms, rotated his shoulders. “You know what it’s like, talking to someone only to hear the same response.”
Ned did, but he hadn’t realised that Lionel felt the same way. The knowledge flustered him. “It can be comforting.” He spoke without really believing it.
“Suffocating,” Lionel said, a snap of bitterness.
“Why did you come home, then?” Ned wished he could see his friend’s face, wished he could read the expression he imagined upon those familiar features. “I know you were offered a job in London. You could’ve signed up again. You’d have had a promotion. Held a rank. Good pay. Men saluting you as you wrote dispatches and all that sort of thing.
“Your sister told me about it,” he added as Lionel’s silence stretched. “She’s proud of you, you know.”
“She still doesn’t understand why I turned it down.” Lionel sounded gruff. “Don’t rightly know myself, to be honest. You know I told you that in every peal, there’s one bell you never hear? It felt like that. Something was missing, even though to everyone else looking on it would seem that everything was perfect.”
“I know you do.” Affection in his voice. “That’s why I need you. To hear that missing note.”
“Which is the one you can’t hear?” But Ned remembered, moving towards the bell-rope even as he awaited the response.
“The fourth.” Lionel’s smile was visible from across the chamber as Ned stood to his bell. “And to finish answering your question, I wanted to teach you because the bells need a dialogue. We can’t ring changes with just the two of us, but maybe in time we can invite ringers from other churches to come, for weddings and suchlike. Until then, we can ring a conversation between pairs of bells and see what comes of it.”
Ned liked the sound of that. He adjusted his spectacles, took the tail of the rope in one hand and reached for the sally. “So we’ll ring all the bells up?”
“And make an almighty noise.” Lionel’s grin flashed again.
It took several minutes to ring up the bells, a glorious discordant mess of sound that somehow made sense. Lionel put up his three with ease and came to stand beside Ned as he worked at the tenor, twenty-two and a quarter hundredweight of E flat booming and resonating all the way through the tower.
It was not brute strength that forced the bells to give voice, but patience and technique. Ned liked to think he was growing accustomed to it now, the tug and catch, the upward glide, the balance point. In the Army, they were told they were small cogs in a big wheel, the horseshoe nails that, for want of them, a kingdom could be lost; but it had felt too scattered, too chaotic, for him to feel part of anything greater. But with the bells, with ringing… he felt it.
At last the tenor tipped to rest upright, its great mouth open towards heaven. Ned let go of the rope and stepped back
“We’ll ring in pairs,” Lionel said, touching Ned’s shoulder again before returning to the treble. “You take Four, and we’ll work around.”
Ned paused to wipe the sweat from his brow. His arms were warm with exertion, but he wasn’t tired. More like enlivened, his senses attuned to the bells.
“Look to,” Lionel said, altogether serious now. “Treble’s going—” he made a slight downward movement, the rope smooth as it descended, “gone.”
Ned pulled a second later, adjusting for the greater weight of the bell compared to the treble. The rope splayed at his feet, whirred between his hands. He found himself nodding along with Four’s voice, anticipating the tremor that passed between the bell and his own body.
All too soon, Lionel indicated that they should move around. Five was apparently the most ornery bell, and in medieval times it was said to have been inhabited by a devil, but it had never caused Ned any problems. He cocked his head, listening to the note resounding around the bronze, hearing it complement Lionel’s Two—but there was something amiss. Just slightly, a duff note; too subtle, perhaps, for Lionel’s ear to catch, but audible to Ned’s heightened sense of hearing.
He lowered the bell and stood back, looking up with a frown as if he could see into the loft and discern Five’s malady. The note still hung in the air, in his mind, and he was reaching for words to describe it when Lionel returned to the treble and started to ring.
Ned moved towards the tenor bell-rope, anticipating the contrast between the spirited little treble and the mighty boom of the tenor, when he heard it—a sharp crack as the stay broke.
“Stand!” Ned shouted.
Lionel jerked a startled look at him, but was slow to react. Too slow. The rope loosened for a second then whipped up, writhing as if it were alive.
Ned didn’t hesitate. He threw himself at Lionel, hauled him away from the rope. Bigger and stronger, he carried Lionel free even as Lionel’s arms were yanked up. Ned felt the shock of it go through them both, and then Lionel let go of the rope, and the two of them went barrelling across the chamber to slam against the wall.
The treble rolled over, ringing again and again, sounding a panicked alarm.
Ned had the wit to brace his arms on the wall so he didn’t crush his friend, but the effort of ringing and the surprise of the stay breaking must’ve weakened him, for his arms gave way and he came to rest cradled the length of Lionel’s body.
He had no trouble seeing Lionel now.
Wide-eyed, Lionel stared at Ned, a flush on his cheeks, blond hair falling across his forehead in disarray. The shock faded, but he made no move to push Ned away. He relaxed, taking more of Ned’s weight against him until they were pressed together, every inch. Until Ned could feel the rapid rise and fall of his chest and the puff of his exhalation and a stirring, a lifting—
Ned looked at Lionel’s mouth.
“Hell,” Lionel said, and curved a hand around the back of Ned’s skull, taking hold of the ruff of Ned’s hair. “Why not,” he continued, daring in his eyes and a grin breaking out, and he yanked Ned towards him so hard Ned’s spectacles slid down his nose.
Habit made Ned move to push them back into place, but somehow his hand was cradling Lionel’s face, and somehow they were sharing breaths, warm and tobacco-scented and shockingly intimate, a fizzing sensation rising in Ned’s belly and a tingling, sparking, all over his body.
Lionel said something else, something incoherent and needy that sounded as if it had been a long time coming, and he turned his head, shaped his lips to Ned’s, and kissed him.
The taste of tobacco was not so bad, shared from Lionel’s mouth. Not when the savour was cut with the taste of Lionel, too.
Above them, around them, the treble rang itself down, brazen notes counting heartbeats, counting time.