Turning Point

Peter lived a rum sort of life. It was not by any means unique - for a substantial number of people, particularly, in the south east of England , were also similarly affected - but it nevertheless struck Peter as being a life quite unfulfilled. 

Residing in Bedfordshire, Peter had to travel almost 40 miles to work each day in Enfield , on the outskirts of north London . Journeying there by public transport was practically out of the question, for it would have meant driving to a station, travelling by train into Euston, St Pancras or Kingís Cross, traversing London by bus or tube to Liverpool Street station, boarding another train for the half-hour trip to Enfield and then walking to the office! So Peter drove to and from his work, this being the only practicable way he could be present at his desk at a reasonable time each day to administer the various trusts and charities for which he was responsible.

The re was, unfortunately, no easy, direct route from Peterís home to his office. He was also competing with the vast army of others who made daily journeys into the capital, that sprawling metropolis whose morning magnetic pull radiated across the Home Counties and beyond. Come the evening, the great city would spew out these commuters in their hoards and result in an equally fraught fight on the roads back home.

Thus Peter might easily spend, in addition to his time in the office, some two extra hours every day just trying to reach his destination and a similar period attempting to journey home again. Sometimes it was longer. Road traffic is unpredictable and any kind of accident or breakdown could mean congestion backing up for miles. Arising from such bitter encounters, Peter had systematically sought out all the ďrat runsĒ, those alternative routes along minor roads, so beloved of commuters, which help to bypass the bottlenecks. More often that not, it was just as effective to stay away from the main arterial routes altogether and, instead, to meander slowly but uninterruptedly along half-forgotten Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire lanes. 

Throughout the winter months Peter saw his home in daylight only at weekends. Leaving in the darkened mornings, by the time he returned home night had fallen. So he felt himself caught up in a kind of twilight world, glimpsed largely through the car windscreen. The real daylight always seemed to be somewhere beyond the walls of his artificially lit office which, if he left it at lunchtime, was simply to rush somewhere to eat or to scurry round shopping for provisions. Peter always seemed to be tired too - this kind of travelling every day is wearisome - and by the end of the week he was physically exhausted. As a single man his routine left little time for socialising, for by the time he reached home and made himself something to eat, it was almost time to retire for the night!

He didnít particularly miss or overly crave female company - there was little enough time for that - but, having plenty of opportunities whilst at the steering wheel to think, Peter did begin to wonder if there might not be something which he was missing. A feeling - almost imperceptible at first but, over time, growing in strength and depth - eventually permeated through Peterís whole being, resulting in the firm conviction that there was definitely something, somewhere, which was passing him by. At times it felt very close, almost calling to him, seemingly drawing him towards it but, always just beyond his reach, he was never quite able to pin it down. What was it?

- - - - - 

One Wednesday in early December, Peter was just about finishing off at work when his colleague Mike asked if he would like to go for a drink. In truth, Mikeís wife had been away that day on business and wasnít returning for a couple of hours so he was at something of a loose end. Peter accepted the invitation readily enough; he got on quite well with Mike in the office, was grateful for a little socialising and it would be a good excuse, by delaying his homeward journey, to see the volume of traffic die down. Thus it was that six oíclock saw Mike and Peter on their way to the Cricketers Arms, not far from the office, ready to enjoy a well earned pint of the finest. Having lingered over the first drink, chatting about numerous work-related matters, Peter reciprocated Mikeís round and, in a similarly unhurried manner, eventually finished his second and final pint. Parting at the door in the chill air, Peter bid Mike goodnight and prepared to set course for home.  

- - - - - 

Completely unknown to him, some forty miles to his north west, two people whom Peter did not even know existed were at that same moment discussing their evening ahead. A little while later, whilst Peter was circumnavigating the delights of St Albans, these two could be observed walking together through the little Bedfordshire village of Standbridge . Reaching an entrance by side of the road, one of them switched on a torch as they swung open a gate and entered the dark area beyond.  

- - - - -

Peter had a good run across the two counties that evening. The traffic was indeed somewhat lighter and, steering through the villages with their welcoming, orange street lamps, there was little to hold him up on his journey. He had selected what to him was a well-known back route and could almost, he felt, have driven it whilst blindfolded. However, he had never motored along it at this later time. 

Around 8.30pm, reaching a T-junction in the village of Stanbridge and turning right, Peter readied to negotiate the curve and then to turn off to the left opposite the church, which would take him up and over the hill to within the last few miles of his house. Rounding the bend, the church came into view and, to Peterís surprise, he saw that there were some lights on inside the building. In fact, more than this, he could see people silhouetted in one of the windows underneath the tower and they seemed to be reaching up and down in a macabre form of dance. At the same time, breaking into his vehicular cocoon and drowning out the music from his car radio, came the sound of church bells.

He realised that what he had seen were the silhouettes of the bellringers, hauling their ropes aloft and back down again, producing that sweet cacophony of noise, emanating from the top of the tower. With the road junction now upon him, Peter turned away from the church for the final leg home. Yet the sound of the bells did not diminish; if anything, unfettered by surrounding buildings, they seemed to follow him. 

Something compelled Peter to bring his car to a halt, switch off the radio and listen. Opening his car window, what he heard was much more than a cascade of notes, a juxtaposed pattern of high and low harmonics, a rhythmic dance of jangling tonal intricacy. Calling out to the village and to the Bedfordshire countryside beyond, the bells were triumphing forth their voices; they were speaking. The y seemed to be heralding a message of steadfastness, a chorus of past and future, a broadcast of love, a proclamation of glory, a pronouncement of hope. 

In a trance, Peter restarted the car, turned it around in the road and returned to the junction, retracing the few yards to the entrance of the churchyard where he once again stopped and listened, the car window still open to the cold evening. The sound of the bells, louder now, appeared almost drunken, reeling out and away from the tower louvres, punching through the air, whirling around overhead, rejoicing, exultant.

Shortly they ceased. The ensuing silence was overwhelming. It was like a blanket: muffling, stifling Peter. He got out of the car, overwhelmed by the contrast: the intense stillness and absolute quiet. Looking around him, he noticed there were only two other cars parked adjacent to his vehicle and he therefore reasoned the bells had been rung not to herald a late church service but as part of the ringersí practice night. As if to confirm this, the bells, without any warning, gave voice once more, their sonorous cadence again soaring away above and all around him. Yet they still possessed that insistent attraction, even more powerful than before; an almost tangible summons to draw near. 

At that moment, Peter knew without question that the bells were speaking to him, imposing their will on him, calling, pulling, clawing, dragging on his every fibre. He had to respond. 

Peter walked carefully through the black churchyard towards the sound, helped a little by the lights glowing through the windows of the church before him. Reaching a large wooden door, he located a circular handle and watched his hand turn it. The latch on the other side gave a sharp click and the door yielded to Peterís push. Stepping inside, the residual warmth of the radiators rendered a comforting air to the building, enhanced by the sweet aroma of candles, old hymnbooks and centuries of prayer and worship in that place. 

At that moment, Peter realised he had found it. 

- - - - -

Within a few weeks Peter had learnt to ring those very same bells and on one occasion noticed the shadows he and the other ringers were casting on the tower window as the bell ropes were hauled up and down. He wondered if any vehicles happened to be passing by at that moment, observing this phenomenon. Already, many times, Peter had looked back to that first Wednesday, acknowledging that if he had left work at the usual time, or had left the pub at a different time, or had taken an alternative route, or had happened to arrive at that road junction in Stanbridge a few minutes earlier or later, or had simply pressed on to home without stopping, then he might never have come to know those bells, come to know what they represent, come to recognise at last what he had been searching for in those earlier times. For it was now as clear as crystal that what had always seemed to be just beyond his reach was faith and it was faith he had found that first evening. The fulfilment Peter had sought, having beckoned, had finally descended on him.

He was blessed in another way, too. Stepping inside the church that very first time, Peter had met Lorraine and her Father, both bellringers, who had walked through the village, entered the gate into the dark churchyard and, guided by their torch, had made their way to the church door. Peterís very existence was unknown to them then before that night. Yet just seven months after that first encounter, the bells of Stanbridge church rang out in joyous tidings as Lorraine was given away by her Father and became Peterís wife. 

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire March 2016