by Noel Denvir
My name is Florence Weldon. I’m in my late thirties with no kids, nor any chance of any.
I love visiting places like museums, galleries, churches, stations or even airports. You don’t need any membership or reason for being there. It’s a wonderfully non-contractual agreement, and of course in my case I’m not burdened by companionship.
The visit can be brought to an abrupt end and then resumed or repeated without any further negotiations.
Actually, I want to tell you a story and I thought I would start by giving a bit of information about myself. Not my height, weight and so on, you’ll just have to fill in the physical details yourself, but then one does, doesn’t one?
I’m no good-looker, but, if you want to, you can make me look like one of those Hollywood actresses who is supposed to be very plain but is really rather nice, like, you know, Meryl Streep or somebody. This story is about my disappearance, so I’ll now hand you over to the narrator because I’m not here anymore. I’ve disappeared.
Florence Weldon stood blatantly yawning while an elderly Australian tourist proceeded, unbidden, to tell her all about his home town near Perth in Western Australia and then about his son’s graduation ceremony.
“How boring,” she interjected.
“No, it wasn’t boring at all,” continued the proud father, oblivious. “You know, it’s a very special moment when...”
“I’m having my period at the moment,” Florence barked, then, breathing deeply to calm herself down, resumed in a more level voice, “So, you’ll have to excuse me.”
He blinked owlishly at her. “Oh yeah... um... of course, go ahead... er, I mean...”
But she was gone.
She had wanted to visit the magnificent cathedral alone but had somehow got absorbed into a group of English speakers. And how they spoke. She had no option but to employ well-practised disentangling measures. The one about menstruation always worked a treat, but only with men: women would start giving advice. This required a different approach. Announcing that she was lesbian cleared the decks pretty well, and joyfully proclaiming that she’d been sent here by God effectively killed off the rest of them.
She strode purposefully across the sunlit square with a view to doing some back-street touring. Maybe she would discover some little gem, like a local open-air market, or a beautiful, shaded fountain.
And she did.
No market or fountain, but instead a charming, secluded courtyard. One side was dominated by a large wall. The other two sides housed what appeared to be abandoned shops but which were probably going concerns enjoying a siesta. Something she liked about southern countries was the way buildings were allowed to weather and get dusty. We northerners were obsessed by painting and cleaning. These sleeping premises only needed people, not varnish, to bring them back to life.
A cafe occupied the opposite end of the square. The faded striped awning hung listlessly over a random formation of tables and chairs and — joy — there were lots of free places.
She found a shaded spot, leaned back gratefully in the comfortable wicker chair and surveyed her new discovery.
You have to look up, someone had told her once, maybe herself. Above the shop signs and window displays was another building almost consigned to invisibility by our fixation with eye-level perception.
It wasn’t a wall opposite her; it was a church. The highly positioned stained-glass windows dulled by the exterior light nestled unnoticed in the grey-brown brickwork. The shiny, dark tiled roof swept up at a dizzying angle and then blended imperceptibly with the narrow spear-like steeple, or was it a spire? Do spires inspire? Are steeples so named because they are steep?
Florence Weldon then indulged in her favourite form of architectural empathy. She projected herself onto the steeple. You can’t go inside a steeple. That’s the difference, she thought.
There she was, hanging desperately onto the crowning crucifix. She felt her arms weaken, her fingers capitulate and then her heavy body slide ignominiously down the glistening tiles. The small railing at the edge shredded her skirt and scored her intimate flesh as she screamed into her final descent.
Now what would be the best way to fall? In this last attempt at human dignity she would refuse to land on her feet and have her legs thrust up into her torso. No, she would spread her arms, throw her head back and slam spectacularly supine onto the cobblestones, and then stare lifelessly at the sky as the crimson lake of blood haloed her head.
The waiter mistook her wild stare as an expression of impatience at the slow service and was especially polite about asking for the order.
The customer gazed at him, obviously relieved that she wasn’t dead, and smilingly requested a coffee and mineral water.
While enjoying the refreshments a few minutes later she realized that her shaded spot had become completely darkened. The shadow of the steeple had extended over the courtyard. She could feel a calming breeze caressing her skin and gently blowing away the sweat. She thought of a quotation she liked: that half the world’s problems would be solved if everybody sat down for ten minutes. Or maybe it was just the coffee and mineral water?
It certainly wasn’t the cost of the coffee and the mineral water which she received with a gasp and a look that reminded the waiter of death mask he had once seen in a museum.
It was obvious to her that the next thing to do was to have a look inside the building opposite that was so clearly beckoning to her.
“Buildings speak to you,” she said to the waiter as she dutifully tipped.
“Like nobody else would,” he, who had spent five years at his cousin’s restaurant in London, whispered as she walked away.
She crossed the square wondering what “La nobli es a ud” meant.
Following the wall towards what must lead to the main door, she discovered a recess that had gone unnoticed before. The arched entrance revealed a similarly shaped door, emphatically closed. So closed that it looked as though it had never been opened.
Well, this certainly wasn’t the way in, so she made her way round to the front of the building. The façade was positively glowing in the direct sunlight, and the sudden bolt in temperature almost made her retreat back around the corner. The main entrance was an arch housing two heavy wooden doors that closed in the middle. Two decorative handles perched at chest level about a foot from each other near the join and curved in opposite directions from each other like wings. But neither of them moved when she tried them.
She felt a flash of anger but managed to contain any tirade against the venerable woodwork. This was a church after all.
The perspiration soaked her blouse and the strong heat of the sun pressed on the back of her neck. “Closed, ” she said.
The addressed portal remained impassive.
The best thing to do now was to resume her plan to visit the cathedral. Oh, the benefits of being alone. She could do whatever she wanted.
The shaded side of the building was wonderfully cool and Florence quickly calculated that the temperature was exactly twelve degrees lower here.
This was, of course, correct because there was no one to disagree with it.
She walked past the recess in the wall, stopped, then stepped back to confirm that the door was now open.
The interior was so dark it seemed that a black curtain had been drawn behind the door. However, her eyes soon adjusted and she could make out a pale green corridor at the end of which was a short flight of steps leading up to another, more brightly lit opening or passage.
She entered tentatively, even managing to utter a husky “Hello?”
When no answer came she continued along, prepared to be the lost tourist if anyone should ask what she was doing there. She thought this fairly likely as someone must have opened the door. Perhaps they had gone out?
It had the unmistakable odour of a place of worship, of incense, candle wax and age. She was experiencing a schoolgirl’s delight at being backstage like this.
“Hello?” Why was she whispering? She spoke again but this time louder.
She jumped at the surprising volume of her own voice, half-expecting at least an echo, if not a reply. The silence bid her to proceed.
The second, lighter corridor finally led to a dark undersized door, the top of which only drew level with her chin. She pushed it open thinking of Alice in Wonderland. On entering, she bowed — more out of necessity than reverence — and then, straightening up, found herself bathed in a diffused biblical light streaming from the stained-glass windows.
To her right was that other forbidden area: the altar. It was discreetly yet very effectively fenced off by a half-dozen or so gold bollards, each attached to the other by means of a thick blood-red rope. She circled this area respectfully and took a place in one of the front pews.
Then, to her own surprise, she knelt down, leaning her elbows on the wooden rail which was integrated into the bench’s design.
And burying her face in her palms she ignored or was oblivious to the light click as the small door gently shut.
I haven’t really disappeared because no one has noticed that I’m gone.
Copyright © 2010 by Noel Denvir