Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A case of music to their ears for some, but not for others when the VAT-man calls!

This is Saint Cecilia, who is the patron saint of musicians and church music, and who sang to God as she was dying. In a little hamlet along the coast, and not far from our village there was a church dedicated to her. A beautiful small church, used regularly by the lords of the Manor, their household staff and estate workers, back in the days when there was a Manor to be a lord of, which hasn't been the case for many a year. And although the church continued to be used occasionally, gradually it fell into disuse and disrepair, with holes appearing in the roof allowing rain and pigeons in, the one and only stained glass window becoming moss covered and the picture of St Cecilia barely visible. Cracks appeared on inside walls, the porch became full of debris blown in by the wind which comes straight off the sea in that area, and the only thing which stopped it becoming completely wrecked is the fact that it lies off the beaten track and is hidden from the road by a copse of pine trees, reached only by a narrow dirt track. There were no signs alongside the road to tell you there is a church hiding away, and so vandals hadn't been attracted to it. In fact, the only people who knew about it were a handful of enthusiasts who see it as their life's work to rescue small churches like this and restore them where possible.
And so it was that our village became involved in church restoration. Not the whole village, but a handful of people who care about such things, the usual stalwarts who can be relied upon to get involved when fund-raising or holding events for the village are concerned. As well as the odd one or two who like to be involved in case they miss something, like Elsie of course.
So on a wintry evening last January, the first meeting of the 'SAVE ST CECILIAS' committee was held in our village pub, attended by Elsie, the Major, Phoebe, Pru and Leonard (from Orchard Farmhouse), Esme and Daisy (from the Post Office), Hugh and Tilly Bartholomew as well as several people from two of the other villages which sort of surround the hamlet and it's old church. Over the course of the following year, various events were held to raise money, once a surveyor had been brought in to examine the church. This was an old friend of Hugh's, so it cost no more than a good dinner, but everyone involved waited with nervous anticipation for his report. When it came, it was better than any of them had hoped for... true, the roof would need replacing, but the church is only very small really. Several walls needed to have the plaster taken off and redone, the stained glass window needed a complete clean, but mainly it was cosmetic work, and a good scrubbing out. Elsie, having lots of experience as a cleaner immediately offered to lead a team of cleaners, get it all properly organised she said. And thanks to favours being called in, a cousin in the stained glass field, several builders willing to work for nothing other than being fed and watered, all the work was able to be done without too much expense or hard cash exchanging hands.
It's almost finished now, and inside totally unrecognisable from the sad little building of fifteen months ago when it was first 'discovered'. Now it has been adopted by the three villages, and is going to be reconsecrated in April - it had been hoped it would be ready for November last year, as St Cecilia has her feast day on the 22nd of that month, but there were several delays which meant the work fell behind schedule and so it is all arranged for this Easter, and then arrangements will be made to make use of the church more frequently. But plans are afoot to hold a music festival once a year, using the church as a small concert hall, but with events going on outside and around it, as well as in venues in the three villages. Again, it had been thought originally that this would be good if it were held on her feast day, but November can be a tricky month as far as the weather is concerned, and so it was unanimously decided that to hold it in August would make more sense from that point of view. Though there is always one voice of doom, and somehow Elsie seems to think it falls to her to be that voice, as she had to remind people of the 'dreadful August we had last year, despite them metalologists telling us it was going to be a barbecue summer - and the year before wasn't that hot either' she added for good measure.


It was a bit like a scene from High Noon, or some other western film. The village street was deserted, there was a cool breeze blowing bits of litter along (the dustbinmen had been that morning), and as Elsie walked along to the Post Office, a strange car pulled up beside her. She quickened her step, mindful of strangers in cars offering sweets as the children were often warned. She glanced sideways, carried on walking resolutely towards safety, as she now viewed the village shop, ignoring the 'Excuse me Madam, can you ....' from the open window of the car which kept pace alongside her. Not used to fast walking, she was soon out of breath, with a stitch in her side, and against her better judgement, had to stop, placing her right hand over her side to squash the stitch, and her left hand somewhere in the region of her heart, in an impression of 'be still my...' She put her head down, looked to the side and watched as the car pulled to a halt, the drivers door opened, and the man got out.
He walked around the front of his car asking was she all right? Elsie wondered what she had in her ancient bag that she could use to fend him off with, annoyed that this morning she'd bought her Roy Cropper special with the zip, and not the open gondola basket she'd had since the Sixties. But she knew that all she had inside were her pension book and purse, plastic rain hat, and a half-empty (not a half-full sort of woman, our Elsie) packet of TicTacs - hardly much use in the field of self-defence. It was no use, she was a defenceless, feeble old woman, there was nobody about for it was just after lunch when most folk along here were either still eating, having a snooze or catching up on chores.
She looked up and saw a balding, slightly overweight man of medium height, sporting a growth under his nose to rival that of the green guru Dick Strawbridge who she used to watch, not so much for his green ideas but more to wonder at his moustache, imagine how much food it harboured and what would he look like minus it? Anyway, she knew this man was 'official', there was something about him... bit stuffy looking, a regular jobsworth if ever she saw one, she thought.
'Are you all right Madam?' the man repeated. 'Only I wonder if you could point me in the direction of the garage please?'
Elsie's breath escaped from between her pursed, wrinkled lips in a Phew. She straightened up, realising this man was no threat, just looking for the garage. Elsie told him which way to go, with much arm gesticulation, even though it was only 'down to the bottom, turn left and carry on up the hill a mile or so'. The man thanked her and got back in his car, but not before Elsie had seen the black briefcase on the passenger seat. Her steps quickened as she hurried along to the shop to impart this latest bit of news to anyone who would listen, though sadly, she realised, it would only be that dozy Daisy at this time of day. Still, one thing about Daisy was that she could be relied on to act with interest, excitement even, unlike stodgy Esme who always, always had to come up with plausible reasons for things, and if she couldn't, would announce imperiously that it was 'really none of our business'.
George-the-VATman, for that was the man in the car, arrived at the garage, prepared for a lengthy, tedious morning, but left at the end of the day more than happy, which is more than could be said for the owner of the garage. Known to all and sundry in the area, and seen as an upstanding citizen, always ready to help out villagers in an emergency to save them time waiting for the AA or whatever organisation they belonged to, it seems this was all a bit of a front. Behind closed garage doors, so it transpired later, were some dodgy deals involving secondhand car parts being used in repairs, but new parts prices being charged, amongst other things. It wasn't long after the VATman cameth, that the garage closed down, an event which was the cause of much speculation in the pub more than the shop, it being more the domain of the men of the community, amongst whom were regular male Elsie's who had, of course, seen this coming a mile off, and seemed to take great pleasure in discussing someone else's misfortunes. But then of course, the inconvenience of not having a garage in the village struck them all, and the pleasure went. Now there is speculation as to what will happen to the garage, and most villagers are hoping that it will be taken over by someone and kept as a garage... though there is a rumour that a certain supermarket giant may do so and open one of their little pop-in supermarkets alongside. This could be the next thing for the village to have a say in, but not in a positive way if early signs are anything to go by.