Holiday Sleuthing

Victor’s Watch 7

Victor’s existence in the chapel had established a rhythm and routine that satisfied his need for orderliness. He learned to keep track of the seasons, greeting the changes from one to the next with an understanding that the transformation meant time was moving on. He had no need for the time of each day and did not try to track morning, afternoon or evening even though the sun through the window would have allowed him to do so. He came to understand that his task was long term and he found that death in the Abbey was no recogniser of time.

Victor’s favourite season change was from summer to autumn, at this time of year he spent a lot of time walking in the Abbey grounds. He felt that his role in the building encouraged him to contemplate the death of the year, the leaves turning brown and falling, with the rich smell of decay, a new layer forming on the ground year after year, seed heads forming and dispersing, shiny horse chestnuts, acorns and juicy berries. Like him the year was preparing for a transition which would enable new life following the short rejuvenating sleep of winter.

Victor’s work was mainly steady, most patients and monks passed easily and did not need his guidance. During times of sickness and plague he was busier as lives were cut short suddenly and painfully. Victor became used to calming those that were confused or angry, sometimes they were scared and he could reassure. His presence at this time was an important, if hidden, part of the work of the Abbey.

Victor spent a lot of time in prayer in the chantry, he could only hope that Saint Jude remained as an overseer to the work he was doing. He was largely undisturbed in the small space, there was an annual service held at the altar where all the monks and some of the patients crowded into the small space on the feast day of Saint Jude in late October, but otherwise the inhabitants of the abbey avoided the claustrophobic, unadorned space.

Victor had heard the stories of the addition of the chantry to the Abbey from some of the more talkative monks, usually before they got used to the quietness of life in the service. He’d heard them tell of a rather arrogant local Lord, a close friend of the King, who had lost his very young first wife in childbirth delivering him a daughter who also did not live long. In dedicating the chantry to Saint Jude he was suggesting that his first wife had been a lost cause, indeed his more mature second wife had managed four healthy sons before he decided she was too old to share his bed and went back to taking young women as mistresses.

Victor wasn’t disturbed by the stories, many of those that he helped to pass were in despair, making Jude, he felt, a relevant if rather unusual saint for a chantry.

Events outside the Abbey, for the most part, passed him by. Wars were won and lost, Kings and Queens were born and died, plagues passed through, decimating the local population in regular waves for a short time but never completely wiping out the optimism and enjoyment of life. People in the Abbey came and went, sometimes patients recovered and there was a joyous celebration of farewell, a spirit successfully healed. Monks grew old and were replaced by young men, usually second sons, given to the calling as a demonstration of the godliness of the whole family. Victor didn’t like all of them, sometimes they were corrupt, gathering wealth and enforcing inappropriate papal instructions on the local people. He was resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do about this during their life and his presence mostly went unnoticed.

One autumn, Victor calculated that it had been three hundred years since his body had passed, unease spread through the monks and he sensed that there was something happening in the outside world that would affect his community directly.

The numbers of patients had been diminishing over the summer months and the Abbot at the time, an old man, who had spent his life in the Abbey gathering wealth and exploiting the local population by enforcing unreasonable tithes, and entertaining a woman in his chamber in the evening, began to roam the Abbey nervously.

He would spend a great deal of time in front of the altar stroking the bottom of a gold cross, muttering prayers and shaking his head as if in despair. Victor noticed that he regularly checked the Abbey but avoided the chantry, there was nothing in there to interest him. The small wooden cross on the linen tablecloth that was washed twice a year was of no value to the Abbot.

The day that irreversibly changed life in the Abbey came one bright morning, clear and crisp with a bright blue sky and warm sun that burned off an early morning mist to dry the crisp leaves lying on the damp earth.

Men arrived, some of them on strong horses clad in plates of armour, others on foot with long straight sticks and swords. They declared themselves as operating in the name of the King and working for the local Lord (a descendent of the arrogant Lord that had originally built the chantry) to take the Abbey. It was clear that they had been given leave to punish the monks for the inappropriate lifestyle they were perceived as enjoying and a demonstration of power was required for all the local towns people to see and talk about in the coming months.

The unfortunate Abbot was dragged from his knees at the main altar, out of the building and screaming in terror, his age and standing meaning nothing to the men who lay him on one of the flat chest tomb graves outside the main door to the Abbey with his head hanging over the edge. The Abbot screamed and writhed against the men who held his arms and legs firmly against the cold stone as the Lord swung his heavy sword against the grave and removed the Abbot’s head in one swift movement.

The head rolled onto the grass with shock still registering in his eyes and his mouth still forming the last scream coming out of his mouth. Blood spurted from his neck as his heart continued to beat until it registered that there were no further messages coming from the brain.

Quiet descended quickly as monks dropped to their knees in an acceptance of their fate, relinquishing their resistance in the hope of avoiding their own bloodshed. Victor was there to meet the Abbot, who continued to scream for some minutes after his death. The shock of the unexpected situation required a great deal of work and time to calm him down. The other monks, at the first sign from the Lord that they should go if they wanted to live, fled but in doing so they left their immobile patients to the mercy of the bloodthirsty soldiers. Some were spared, many were helped on their way to death by a subtly thrust dagger before the men removed everything of value and used the old dry wooden cross in the chantry to set fire to the beams in the roof of the Abbey.

Victor worked for many days in the ruins of the Abbey making sure everyone passed successfully. The Abbot was the last to leave. He alternated between anger, raging against the King who had ordered this atrocity, and remorse, accepting the distance between what he had become and what he had set out to do in his life. Victor’s tactic was to help him look back through his life from the very beginning to show him that he had done a lot of good before advancing years and fear of what was to come encouraged him to gather and hoard possessions.

Victor wasn’t sure, after all that he was told, whether the transition of the Abbot would be a positive experience for him and he didn’t really want to know. It wasn’t Victor’s job to enquire as to where they were going, just to ensure that they went.

When Victor was finally left alone in the ruins of the Abbey he wasn’t sure what to do next. Apart from the roof, the stone walls of the building remained intact following the destruction, but in the following months they were slowly removed by men in the local town keen to use the stones to enlarge and strengthen their townhouses at a time of growth and development. Victor was pleased that the men who came to collect stone mostly avoided the area of the chantry. Perhaps they sensed his presence there or maybe they wanted to leave the doorway to the Abbey as the chantry gave some strength to that area. Victor was pleased of the protection from the elements, although he didn’t actually feel the cold it was hard not to feel uncomfortable in driving rain.

In the following years, Victor sensed a new hope in the area. The removal of the tithes on the local people following the dissolution of the Abbey meant that they were more freely able to farm the land, selling what they grew as well as the animals they reared. Taxes continued to be imposed by the local Lord but individuals in the town began to take control of their families lives and the town grew prosperous as, in contrast, the Abbey slowly disintegrated, worn down by weather, seasons, people and, most of all… Time.

Read Victor’s Watch – Chapter 8

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