Simon banged on the door but it was too heavy to respond to the weight of his fist. He searched the door for a knocker. There was none nor any form of handle. He looked around for a stone large enough to hammer against the metal panel on the side. As he was rooting through a patch of cabbages a sound caught his attention. Looking up he saw a window open at head height near the corner of the building. A boy in working clothes leaned out. He must have been about nine or ten, hair roughly cut but not shaven and cheeks red from the sun.
"Hey mister, have you come here to be a monk?" he called in his treble voice.
"Er, well, I'm seeking a place to stay. I'm alone in these parts."
"You'll have to be a monk then," said the boy. "You're too old to be a boy. Can you speak Latin?"
"Yeah, sure. I studied it for GCSE. My school was really keen on the subject."
"Do you know the secret of this priory?"
"No. What is it?"
"It's a special path to holiness. No one apart from the monks knows it. They don't tell us boys in case word gets out. And if we find out somehow," he paused significantly, "we're not allowed to tell. But you'll find out soon enough if you dare come in."
Simon looked at the boy's mischievous grin and wondered whether he might not be better off going back. Then he thought about being tortured and maybe burnt at the stake. Sure there was something he was not being told. Well maybe he might have to get up three times a night for prayers or fast for forty days but he could cope with that. Besides, Mister Perthwick would not last much longer and the chase would be off. He nodded.
"I guess I can survive it OK. I ..." But the window had already closed.
Peering through the pane he could see nothing but an empty room. He walked back to the door which was as impenetrable as ever. He looked again for a stone but could find nothing. He sat down on the dry mud outside the door.
He was at a loss for anything to do. Getting up he walked the path around the building to find himself stopped at the far end by a compost pile so he had to retrace his steps. There was no sight of anyone, nor any sound from the building, but there was no deserted feel about it. He wondered where the boy had gone and whether he would reappear. Eventually he gave up and sat back down on the hard earth.
He remembered a story in which a young lad who wished to enter a monastery had had to sit perfectly still for eight hours in order to demonstrate his self-discipline. Simon wondered whether he was being tested in this way without being told. He sat still on the path, cross-legged and very uncomfortable. After just a few minutes he could feel the circulation in his legs being stifled. He wondered if this was their secret path to holiness, a form of self-mortification. It was still light, more late afternoon than evening, and quite sticky as no rain had materialised. After about half an hour he heard steps on the path behind. He tried to turn round but a spasm in his leg cut him short.
"Are you Brother Simon?"
"Er, well, Simon, yes. He stood up to greet the monk and the rush of blood into his legs made his head swim. Gradually the world came back into focus.
"We were told you would be coming. Had a message from the Bishop of Gloucester yesterday. Welcome to our little priory."
"Um, I, er, ..."
"Oh, don't worry about your clothes. We know some of the northern monks wore Spanish costume last century out of devotion to the ancient queen. But since you're to stay with us why don't we get you some of ours to make you feel more at home. It'll be hard for you to come to terms with our own path to sainthood so you may as well start off in a relaxed manner."
Simon was by now suffering an acute bout of pins and needles but he dared not say anything lest he lose his chance of a place to stay for the next few days. He noticed that the man, though not particularly fat, had a protrusion from his abdomen, and hoped he was not ill.
The monk sidled up to the door lifted it a fraction and gently pushed it open. As Simon entered the gloom of the building the first thing he noticed was a table with a bell and a placard with artfully scripted letters bearing the message Travellers to ring this bell on arrival. Sojourn no longer than two weeks.
"Ignore that," said the monk. "We get many scavengers in these parts and are duty bound to take them in and feed them. We try to keep them away from the monks as much as possible.
"Um, yes," said Simon, trying to translate the motto on the wall and wondering at the same time whether he should come clean and declare himself a traveller. He had managed no better than Redemption Through Retention when the other monks came bustling out of their service.
"Brother Thaddeus," called one of them. "How was your trip to Bristow?"
"Very tiring, I'm afraid. I fear the journey had an effect on my bolus. I have committed a sin."
"Oh dear, what a shame. You must be so close to salvation."
"Well I shan't give up now, that's for sure. Brothers, this is Brother Simon from Gloucester. He is joining our community and will abide by all its rules and regulations. As you know part of his task will be to organise our choir which has been leaderless since Brother Dominic was called to Heaven. He has ample experience in the choir at St Barnabas and despite his unexpected youth will make our offerings once more a joyous sound to the Lord. Now, Brother James, will you find him some clothes and he can wash these then get him ready for an audience with the Prior."
It turned out not to be the Prior but his assistant, Brother Zaccharius. He was not old, perhaps in his thirties, but seemed to be in permanent pain. I hope it's not something in the water, thought Simon. Brother Zaccharius looked at him severely.
"Brother Simon, I'm sure there is nothing I can tell you about how to run a choir. Even at your age you must have many years of experience. But handling men is a different matter. All of them will be older than you, and in some cases they have office within this small community. However, I have told them to accept your instructions, even if some of your methods are alien to us. I look forward to hearing new types of music radiating from our humble chapel.
"Now, I am sure you are aware that we are not wholly within the mainstream of religious thinking in this country. Your own monastery is run under regal permit but many in Rome itself say that the teachings here are heretical. Indeed that is the main reason we have been tolerated by the King's Church for the last century. I am sure you would agree that dangerous talk should not be indulged. However, to reassure you that we do indeed fall within the Christian Church I shall affirm your vows. Would you now kneel."
Simon remembered that one of the vows was obedience so he sank to his knees on the stone floor. The abbot opened a book.
"Repeat after me the three vows of poverty, continence and obedience."
Simon had a feeling that something was not quite right but he repeated the Latin the monk chanted at him. After an interminable time he was instructed to stand.
"Welcome to the Priory of St Wick of Wick at Wick, Brother Simon. Now you are one of us. Brother James will explain the rules. Choir practice will be at the sixth hour, which gives you about thirty minutes to prepare, and dinner will be at the eighth."
Simon barely had time for a quick tour of the main rooms of the building with Brother James before being thrust into the choir room. Twenty men and boys looked at him expectantly. He realised that his guitar lessons were hardly likely to come in useful at this juncture, but he had done some experimental work in atonal piano and voice as part of his Cultural Studies in the Sixth Form. Of course he had paid little attention at the time, not realising that his life may one day depend on being able to train people to sing. But he thought of his gospel playlist and no one could contradict a twentieth century piece. Tapping his baton on the desk he pointed at the largest man in the room. The man obediently started a plainsong chant. Simon shook his head. The man stopped.
Simon gave the man a G flat and surprised himself by being able to hold it for five seconds. The man did the same. Simon motioned to the room as a whole and they all gave various renditions of the note. Simon groaned. He divided them into two groups and made them practice the note until all were within a semitone. Then he put those with accurate pitch by one wall and the others in the centre.
"You will be the main choir," he said to the group of eight by the wall, "and those in the centre will be the chorus."
Nearly an hour later, by which time he felt they were starting to grasp the principle of harmony, the bell rang for pre-dinner prayers. They all filed into the chapel where Simon was seated opposite a mural showing the martyrdom of St Wick. According to the painting he had been encased in candle wax and his hair set on fire. It showed the flame spreading into a great halo through which his soul was ushered up to Heaven while a great cloud of steam gathered below. He wondered whether it was candles that held the key to the great mystery of the Priory. After a long and hungry ordeal the prayers finished and the monks filed out again.
Simon wanted to ask where to go to wash his hands but all the monks and boys rushed into the dining hall with such haste that he could do nothing more than follow in after. Brother Zaccharius motioned to him to come and sit on the top table. He was not sure how to make conversation and whether they would have to speak in Latin but it turned out the top table ate silently. There was quite a babble and commotion from the lesser tables. Simon dared not turn to watch. It sounded as if the novices were having a food fight with some of the younger monks. He gratefully accepted a glass of homemade red wine to offset the spartan food.
At the end of the meal the Brother Zaccharius banged on the table with his spoon. The rioting on the other tables stopped instantly. He rose to his feet and said a prayer which lasted about five minutes. Then all the other monks and novices sat.
"Brothers, we are proud this day to welcome a new member to our humble place of worship. Brother Simon has come here to teach our choir and join in our saintly observances. He is from a less strict part of the holy Christian community so do not be surprised if it takes him a while to learn our ways. You must all take care to ensure that he settles in. Now let us make a toast to admit him to our fellowship."
Simon raised his nearly empty glass and drained it while the others raised their full glasses and merely touched the liquid with their lips. The younger monks on the lower tables threw their wine over the novices who reacted by banging their mugs on the tables. One of the senior monks banged a gong and everyone stood up. The monks exited and the novices started on the process of clearing the dishes and tables.
Simon wished he had not drunk the wine as his bladder was starting to become full and he did not know where the toilets were. Brother James hustled him into a draughty room where the monks were waiting to hear a sermon by Brother Zaccharius. A long hour later they were free for a short time before retiring to their dormitories.
"Er, Brother James, can you tell me where the toilets are please."
"Oh, the, er, privy I guess."
Brother James looked at him strangely.
"It's not time. You have to hold it in."
Simon groaned. They went into the dormitory. The monks had beds at the far end and the novices by the door. Simon was in the middle of the room. The beds looked hard and cold. Brother James left the room and Simon was on his own for the first time. He looked into the novice end and quickly altered his gaze as he saw a boy taking his work clothes off.
"Oh, excuse me, is there a toi - er, privy in here I can use?"
The boy started to laugh and then checked himself. A couple of others came into the room. They looked at each other and started to laugh too. One of the boys pulled a blanket off a bed and started beating the others with it. They ran out the room. Simon went back to his part of the dormitory.
A couple of the monks had come in while he was out of the room and were kneeling on the floor saying their prayers. Simon followed suit. A few minutes later a figure appeared in the doorway. It was Brother Zaccharius. He beckoned to Simon.
"Are you having difficulty with your vows?"
"I am told you have been looking for somewhere to relieve your bladder."
"Well, as a matter of fact ..."
"I realise that it may be a little difficult for you to become assimilated to our lifestyle. However, although we are strictly speaking a continent order of monks this does of necessity allow for various degrees of freedom among those who are not ready for abstinence. There is a midden ground which you will be permitted to use once a day and during this time, which is after Matins according to the rule of St Benedict you may relieve yourself, up till Christmas. You will be expected to work up your length of abstinence until after Christmas you manage with no more that once a week like the other monks. You will find that like the others you start to develop a bolus, the sign of great holiness."
Simon took his clothes off like the others and went to bed, trying to ignore his discomfort. He fancied there were fleas crawling onto his skin then realised they had been all over him for at least the last two days. He managed to sleep for an hour or so, woke and was unable to keep still. He dozed off and was jolted out of sleep by a shadow standing above the bed. It motioned to him to get up and follow.
In the faint starlight on the stairwell he could see that his guide was a boy still undressed and he was afraid of what might be expected but they descended the stairs which were cold to the bare feet and the boy silently undid a small door and flitted outside. He could see it was one of the boys he had seen in the choir, about fifteen years old with a good singing voice and unlike the others not yet fully deepened.
The boy stood by one of the vegetable patches and directed a huge jet which travelled yards across the earth. Simon more modestly followed suit.
"Is that it?" he asked.
"That's what you wanted. For those who can't wait till Matins. This is the secret place you come when your vows are too much to bear. Not all of us are strong enough to grow a quavver as big as the Prior's."
"I'm surprised they don't burst."
"Oh but they do, sometimes. What do you think happened to Brother Dominic?"
"Oh, shit. I mean, oh hell. I mean ... oh, I don't know. Brother Dominic. He was the previous choirmaster."
"Yes, and you're not really are you? Don't worry, we all know."
"All?" asked Simon nervously.
"Only some of us. You see, Simon, we were doing work in the front grounds while you were in the Prior's study when a monk came along. He was dressed in the cowl of St Barnabas. He claimed to be Brother Simon from Gloucester. But we didn't want to get you into trouble so we dealt with him. It perfectly ok. We buried him under the cabbages."
"Huh? You killed him?"
"No me. It was Luke. With the blade of a spade. One blow," he said admiringly. "Well you didn't want to get found out, did you?"
"ER, no, but..."
"Well let's get on back to bed then. It'll be a hard enough day tomorrow, getting up an hour before dawn. Summer's a bad time for getting any sleep."
As he uttered the words he looked round in alarm. Grabbing Simon by the bare arm he pulled him to an alcove in the side of the building. They could see one of the monks coming out. Even though the hiding space had ample capacity Simon felt unpleasantly close to his companion in sin. The monk, checking the coast clear, relieved himself mightily and went back in, locking the door behind him.
"Do they all do this?" he asked as soon as it was safe.
"Most of them. They're not as holy as they like to think. Or as secret."
"So what do we do now?" he asked, cautiously stepping out from the hiding place and suddenly feeling exposed. "How do we get back in?"
"Don't worry, there's an emergency route." The boy led the way to where there was a window with a broken clasp, just above head height. "It comes half way up the stairs. You'll have to bunk me."
Putting his inhibitions to one side he lifted the boy by the foot so he could secure the ledge and hoist himself then saw him having gained access lower his hands to pull Simon up after. Once they had scrambled in they sat on the stair to regain their breath.
"Not sure I can stand this for too long," he said.
"Careful," said the boy. "We're in it with you now. But not to worry really, you saw for yourself there are different degrees of observance."
"There's something else though. He faced the boy even though his face could hardly be seen in the darkness below the level of the window. The other boys your age have broken voices. I didn't realise before. Are you really only fifteen?"
"Sure," said the boy though Simon detected a trace of nervousness and did not want to ask too much. There would be plenty of time to find out.
"What's your name?" he asked as they gained the top pf the staircase near the door to the dormitory.
"I'm Simon too," said the boy. "Simon Wyche."
Simon was glad the boy could not see his expression, or the ghostly goosebumps that suddenly covered his body.
They worked in the fields most of the next day and he was relieved not to be put anywhere near cabbages. It was windy, and he had trouble with the habit and cowl until Brother James gave him a cord to tie around his waist. They stopped to watch the sun disappear behind a cloud.
"Isn't it strange," said Brother James, "how the sun disappears behind the clouds but when it comes out again it is still just as bright and hot as before. It is as if all the clouds and rain in the world cannot dampen its enthusiasm."
"But the sun is millions of miles away. How could it be affected by clouds or rain?"
"What are you talking about? It crosses the sky behind the clouds. I hope you haven't been exposed to heretical teachings in your abbey."
"Er, no, but it was worked out by Aristotle two thousand years ago. You don't mean to say it is on a giant tortoise or something?"
"Aristotle? Tortoise? No wonder. Brother Simon, you must learn to rely on faith rather than the teachings of heathen who lived centuries ago and whose misguided principles have no relevance to our enlightened modern age. The sun is the face of God, who may appear to mortals as eclipsed by sin but cannot be excluded from any place for long. When the clouds part, His brilliance will shine through."
Brother James looked serene as he scanned the fields, despite the fact that the wind was whipping up his robe and baring the tops of his legs to public view. Lifting his hoe he scraped a thin ridge in the heavy soil. He placed some seed in the furrow. "May the grace of God shine on you like the sun." He looked up towards the monastery.
"Brother Simon. The Prior has arrived."
Simon looked across the fields. All the monks had stopped work. He could see a carriage with four horses which were being detached and led off for grooming. A man was taking some trouble to alight, despite having several monks to help him. They left their tools where they had been working and walked across.
A monk Simon did not recognise ushered him into the Prior's office. The door closed behind.
The Prior was well into middle age, almost entirely bald and a little fat. Simon couldn't help staring at the huge protrusion from his abdomen.
"Well may you look, Brother Simon." Simon flinched away in embarrassment.
"No, carry on. It is true what they say. I have neither tasted nor passed water these seven years. Every year my sufferings increase and I feel closer to Christ. I hope you may do as well, my son."
The priest told him about the history of the monastery and the discovery of its great secrets. He told him about the efforts of European orders to bring them back into line and the way in which their heretical tendencies had endeared them to the King of England. Simon felt so moved at the priest's words that he believed he could indeed try to live up to his vows. He tried to imagine living in the monastery year after year in service of devotion and thought perhaps it might be a preferable alternative to the unpleasant world outside. The Prior rang a bell and Simon left the room. Brother James was waiting for him outside.
"You look as if you've undergone a spiritual experience. He's a good man, the Prior."
"He seems like someone very much at peace with himself."
"He's close to Heaven," said Brother James.
"Tell me," said Simon. "How do you put up with the strain of adhering so rigidly to this vow. I mean, I know you can go once a week but it must be dreadful if you need to go and it's only the start of the week."
"Mind over matter, my friend. If you hold it long enough you get bigger and can hold more. Then you release it at the end of the week and get a bit of relief before you stretch it again. When you've been doing it as long as Brother Thaddeus it'll be second nature. And of course you don't drink any more than you absolutely have to and avoid some foods which cause a problem. Salt pork is very bad, for instance. But cabbages are fine. You'll soon learn."
The next day and the day after passed in orderly fashion. He thought he might get used to the place. But he was fascinated by the young man who seemed to be neither novice nor monk but something in between and who had usurped his name.
Late in the second afternoon there were none of the senior monks and they all took a rest from the endless field work. Simon took the opportunity to seek out his alter ego and they separated from the young monks and novices.
They walked to the edge of the fields, some way from the buildings. "How did you get here?" asked Simon.
He could see the boy looked nervous. "You are not me. You have taken my name but I don't know why. Why are you hiding? Which time are you from?"
"I haven't taken your name. It is my own name. And how would I know I am not you? I don't understand this place. I don't like the way I've been dumped here." Simon could feel his vulnerability.
The younger Simon sat on a dry wall, hands on his legs. Sitting back he rubbed his face. He looked into the distance, where the city lay eight or so miles away.
"I was walking one day and it went cold. I couldn't find my way and my webring stopped working. And my glasses couldn't see any more. And no autocars. But I knew my way so I walked home. It took three hours and when I got there there was nothing so I walked another hour and found these buildings and they let me stay here, no questions. But it took ages to cope with their strange ways and they took my stuff away and my clothes and its all weird. Cold and uncomfortable and I'm hungry all the time. And every time I see something I go to snap it with my glasses then I remember."
"You don't need glasses. Your sight is ok."
"I have implants. Everyone does. Glasses are for communication."
"Hmm. Have you had civil unrest? Breakdown of society?"
"No but there's a load of trouble in the Middle East. And Africa is virtually gone."
Simon looked around cautiously but there was no one near. "You're the second I met. Third," he corrected, remembering the Reverend at his interrogation. "You must be from the mid twenty-first or so."
"Born 2057. How about you?"
"2002. Who were your parents?"
"My father is Jonathan Rupertus. Mum was Austen before she married. My granddad is called Simon too."
Simon felt his skin prickle. "What is his middle name?"
"Harold. All the blokes in our family have old-fashioned middle names. Mine is Montgomery." He looked at Simon curiously. "Is that you?"
Simon nodded, put his arm briefly around the boy.
He thought for a while, stood up and looked into the distance.
"You know, if this is true then I must get back at some point."
"How will that happen?"
"Who knows? A witch promised me fame and good fortune. Maybe someone will let me out the same way they forced me in."
"You think it was deliberate?"
"It is hard to think anything here. I don't know. Just have to hope for the best don't we. But if I do find a way, stay here, I'll come and rescue you."
"I thought about that," said the younger SImon. "When I came here I was just desperate to get back. No one I could talk to, nothing worked, not even an old fashioned telephone. The first few days were like a nightmare.
"Then I had a dream. In it the pure air wafted over me and told me, it could be a better life here. The world is simple unlike your sin and suffering. Be the one, Simon, and you can make people's lives better. It is easy. You can start a dynasty that will not be forgotten."
"A dynasty? How can that happen? I'll end up being your own descendant."
"I don't know what it means. But then I thought, why not? It is strict and isolated out here and there's loads I don't like but the air is fresh and unspoilt and working in the fields is easy enough and I can do the simple music. I don't have to record everything I do and avoid going into girls' bedrooms till I am sixteen and ..."
"What? You can't go into a girl's bedroom?"
"That's your fault. You Elizabethans were so busy abusing each other. It's in the webnews all the time. Not to mention all the terrorism and disease you brought. Now we have the bring and the glasses people are kept in check and it can't happen any more."
"Now I think about it yes. But I wouldn't have known it till I came here. And no sashes and lanyards and green jackets and safety helmets and registering everywhere, just a practical rough uniform and everyone has a bit of a laugh from time to time. My dad always said, people are so scared of dying they don't know how to live. So I think don't bother rescuing me, just find a way of getting back yourself. Otherwise I might have difficulty being born."
The boy walked off, not wanting to be noticed for being away too long. Simon wandered towards the buildings deep in thought but was alarmed to see Thaddeus and another monk striding towards him.
"You're not who you say you are," said Thaddeus, and now Simon could see Mister Perthwick and two other men standing in the rough stonework to the front of the building. He held Simon's clothes in his outstretched hand. "You belong back in Bristow and the Bishop's son has gone missing. These men are here to find out what's happened."
Bio: Having taken early retirement from the local council I now try and inspire young chess players with my work as an organiser and coach. In between I take time to write a bit. Have been writing short stories on and off for about thirty years and the three novels on this site are gradual updates of old stories I have put online as one of my lockdown projects.