On a day like this, there is no better sight in the world. How often have I watched the sunshine streaming through those windows, filling the church with colours like none I ever saw outside these walls?
When I was young, my grandparents brought me every week. Mother joined us at Christmas, Easter, and one or two others I’ve forgotten the names of. She never looked like she enjoyed it. For the rest of the year, she stayed home to cook the roast dinner, week in, week out.
I asked once why Father never came. When the Lord declared Sunday a day of rest, she said, He forgot to mention it to the animals. They needed feeding, and letting out, and fetching in again, regardless of whichever day it was. And the same went for broken fences and machinery.
After his funeral, Uncle Fred told me Father burned his pocket Bible on his way home from the trenches, and never spoke of God or war again. He said the only way we’d get him back here was to carry him inside a wooden box. Which is precisely what we did.
If I’d felt that strongly, I’d have made provisions at the Crem. His belief in the termination of the human spirit after the host body takes its last breath rendered him indifferent to the means of its disposal. He doted on my mother; if she had set her heart on his journey ending here, he wouldn’t deny her wish.
She regularly arbitrated between him and those who dismissed her husband as an unreconstructed heathen, adopting her line about animals and the sabbath with the predictability of comedians we heard on the radio building towards their catch-phrases.
Reverend Fenton tended a mainly contented flock. Most shared his belief that the key to a successful sermon lay almost entirely in its brevity. This approach, however, was not without its detractors and, eventually, he succumbed to delivering a marathon session on the third Sunday of the month. He placed an orange dot on the calendar on the notice board to remind the fainthearted, in case something more pressing turned up.
For my mother’s parents, however, nothing was more important than their weekly trip to Saint Theodore’s, with their grandson and his soul in tow.
I don’t remember taking in a word of his sermons, whether long or short. Before I was old enough to process and store memories, I started losing myself in the landscape among the characters on those three glorious panels on the eastern wall behind the altar, watching them let in more glory than any of us could appreciate in a single sitting.
When I was five or six, my aunt bought me a Ladybird book from the petrol station. I adored it, and she picked up another each time she filled the car. Soon I had a splendid, if somewhat unfocused, collection. One day, Mother found me copying a picture from one and asked if she could have it. My aunt and grandparents all agreed I demonstrated great promise. Father glanced quickly, grunted, and carried on talking about livestock.
On her next visit, Aunt June gave me a spiral-bound sketchbook and a set of what the man in the posh stationery shop called proper pencils. They were softer than the ones we used in school and wore down quickly. Father showed me how to sharpen them using the penknife we pretended Mother didn’t know about. I filled that book quickly, and then another. About halfway through the third, I started feeling quite proud of some of my drawings. That was when I decided what I wanted to be once I grew up.
On one bright and cheerful orange sermon morning, I pulled out my pad and pencil, intending to capture the view. Grandmother immediately confiscated both and stuffed them into her knitting bag so deftly nobody else noticed. I was rather cross, but resigned myself to doing it later from memory.
While the vicar rambled, I focused my attention on a small section in the bottom right-hand corner of the third panel, staring so intently I could recall it days later just by closing my eyes. For the next few months, I worked methodically across until I arrived at the top-left and considered my work done. During those weeks, my imagination sometimes wandered so deep into the image I felt I was living there.
It was early December when I finished. The work filled the pad I’d received on my last birthday. I removed the pages carefully and laid them out in order. They took up so much space that I had to move the dining table and chairs to fit them on the floor. Then I heard Mother’s footsteps approaching.
I expected her to shout at me. Instead, she simply stood at the door and looked at her dining room floor.
“It’s beautiful”, she said. “Best clear it up, though. Dad will be in soon. Make sure you remember how it goes together, we’ll put it down again to show June next time she’s here”.
At that age, I knew better, of course, so it took me nearly two hours to lay it out next time, after which I numbered the sheets on the back in pencil.
Aunt June wiped away several tears, and I wondered what I’d done. I never heard of anyone crying over a picture before. She and Mother stared for almost as long as two orange sermons back to back, so I left them to it. I’d seen it already.
When I returned, Aunt June pointed at panel 38, the beginning of the footpath on the right-hand edge. “Surely there's a baby there?”
I assured her there was not, but promised to check on Sunday.
“It’s going to bother me until you do”, she said. “Let’s go now”.
It was cold and dark, but at least it wasn’t raining. Monday evening was, and still is, bell-ringing practice, so we knew we’d be able to get in.
“See?” I said.
“I could have sworn it was there. I saw it at your christening and thought how much it looked like you”. She laughed, and pointed to another figure, a little way along the path, to the left of her missing infant. “Now you look more like that one. What on earth is a boy with a paintbrush doing there, anyway? I always thought that window was mad. Does it make any sense to you?”
I’ve drawn and painted it many times now, and often find details that take me by surprise.
I found so many mistakes in my first draft that I returned to draw it from life once Christmas was out of the way and time allowed. That was the first time I caught my memory playing tricks, which made me cross. What was the point of trying to remember things if you can’t get the details right?
Soon, however, I realised things were far stranger than I’d imagined.
“Auntie”, I said. “Do you remember looking at the church window?”
“When you saw the artist, was he standing up?”
“No, I’m sure he was sitting down. On a log, I think. Why? Has he got up again?”
Weeks, months and years rolled by. Every Sunday, the Reverend Fenton addressed the converted, and I carried on not listening to a word he said.
With the arrival of spring, I spent most of my spare hours helping Father in the fields. He said I grew more useful during each passing season. Compliments, like conversation, didn’t come easily, and I remember smiling for the rest of the morning. During the summer, my voice broke, whereupon I considered myself fully grown.
One day, towards the end of August, we finished getting the hay in from the high field early and he gave me the afternoon off. I ran home for my sketch pad and went straight to the church to make the most of the light. I’d skipped a couple of services to help when one of Father’s men took poorly and was missing my hobby. When I got there, Florence and Ethel, the Misses Hatchard, were busily arranging flowers for the weekend. They were twins, now in their seventies. I never did learn to tell them apart.
They smiled brightly and wished me a good afternoon. I rushed past, hoping not to appear impolite, impatient to start work on the section I’d messed up last time. I settled in the middle of the front row, took out my pad, and looked up at my subject.
Now it was my turn to wonder if I was going mad. My last set of sketches showed the figure of the artist facing the congregation. Now, though, his face was clearly in profile, and he stood beside a young lady wearing a red rose in her golden hair and a summer dress which cast the deepest, richest swathe of light I ever saw. I sketched quickly, afraid they might wander off before my eyes.
Fully engrossed, I hadn’t noticed one of the Hatchard spinsters hovering nearby, bearing an armful of blooms. Suddenly, she called someone by name. I jumped in surprise and dropped my pencil, which rolled forward several feet. I got up to retrieve it.
Unknown to me, and probably anyone else under a certain age in the village, Florence and Ethel had a brother. He married young. They moved away when his bride threatened to desert him if he forced her to spend another day here. Not even the Misses Hatchard themselves seemed sure how many children they produced, but at least one of them, they told me disapprovingly, was not slow to set about generating more.
Among this second batch was Margaret. And that was the first time I saw her.
While, fortunately, she looked like neither of her great-aunts, she bore a terrifying resemblance to the lady on the window. The one walking with the artist my aunt said reminded her of me.
I had given no thought to feminine beauty until then, but Margaret was, without question, exceptionally beautiful. My first glimpse of her was like watching fireworks at the village green on bonfire night.
Terrified that she might speak to me, or even smile, I packed my things and dashed away. My head was so full of her, I could barely face dinner that evening, and I don’t think I slept before sunrise the next day.
During that school summer holiday, I saw her almost everywhere I went, although I avoided eye contact for the first few weeks. During sermons, I even found myself distracted from the window, gazing instead towards the corner where she sat between her aunts.
One evening, at a loose end and bursting with adolescent energy, I walked past their cottage. I didn’t see her until it was too late. She stood by the gate and must have seen me coming.
Without a word, she stepped out and pushed a rose into the buttonhole of my jacket, then smiled and skipped away.
Next Sunday, I mustered my courage. Usually, she dashed away as soon as the service finished. She looked like she was waiting for someone. I wondered if it was me. I turned out to be right.
I thanked her nervously for the flower. She told me I was welcome. Would I like to walk her home? We gave our relations the slip and spent the afternoon sitting with our backs to a pair of seventeenth-century gravestones in the quieter end of the churchyard.
The next evening, we waited for the bells to start, then crept into the church. I spent the time between worrying that she might not come, or that the artist and his companion on the window might have moved along, both in equal measure. She arrived three minutes early, according to the clock above the door, and they hadn’t. Not yet, anyway.
We sat at the back in the shadows, hoping to avoid being seen by the bell-ringers.
“Look”, I said. “That’s us”.
She barely glanced at where I was pointing. Instead, she nuzzled her head into my shoulder, which set my legs and arms tingling in a way I hadn’t expected. Even now, I remember the smell of her hair as it brushed across my neck. “Do you think we look happy?” she asked.
I assured her, so far as I could tell, we certainly did.
Throughout the years, our figures moved from right to left together along the path across the window. When Margaret walked into the church on our wedding day, we waited together at the far left-hand edge of the first pane. By the end of the service, we had crossed unnoticed onto the vast central panel.
It took her the best part of a year to accept I wasn’t making it all up. Meanwhile, I carried on documenting our characters’ journey in my sketchbooks.
Apart from Aunt June, we never mentioned it to another soul. She believed it was a message from God, and wanted to share the miracle with the world, or at least the upmarket Sunday papers. Eventually, we persuaded her life would be easier if we kept it to ourselves. The next span of our journey, across the great central window, lasted almost half a century and recorded the most significant events of our almost entirely happy lives together.
When Margaret fell ill, she asked me to bring her back so we could sit where we did on that first evening together. We listened to the bells. I held her hand. Our figures now stood at the limit of their journey across the central frame.
There we remained until Mr Brown arrived to close the building. I pushed her home in the chair, helped her to bed, and stayed until she fell asleep. Then I drew a series of sketches to record what I had seen and turned in myself.
I returned with my pad the next morning. Overnight, my figure had moved across to the last window; his companion was nowhere to be seen. I had tears in my eyes when I left, and, by mid-afternoon, Margaret had gone.
That was five years ago. The eyes of the old man on the far edge of the window have turned back to the right, as if searching for shadows, or ghosts, along the road on which he’s travelled.
I don’t expect to come here again.
Before long, the figure will move on and I don’t think I could bear it. I was never as brave as Margaret. My word, that woman was fearless. If, as I believe, there is no afterlife, her spirit alone could create one through sheer force of will.
Me, I take after my father. Once you go, nothing remains. I think I’ve almost come to terms with it now. Long ago, I tried to imagine the sensation of nothingness after death. Eventually, I realised it probably doesn’t work like that. Otherwise, it wouldn’t - couldn’t - be nothing. I suppose He never hedged his bets. Despite my scepticism, I’ve always tried to live a good enough life, just in case
Since Margaret passed, I’ve been putting all my drawings in order. I’ve written extensive notes and made several copies, which cost a small fortune. I’ll get Ben Turner to look after them until I’m under the ground. One is for his boy, Daniel. He popped up on the path across the window soon after they bought the cottage Margaret inherited from her aunts.
But here I am, rambling on like some drunk at a party, talking only of myself. I completely forgot to tell you I was never alone on my journey. Sometimes we’ve had quite a crowd. Young Daniel just sat down on the very log which Aunt June saw me stop at with my paints and easel when I was in my teens. He’s holding what looks like a guitar. Perhaps he’s getting one for his birthday.
Neither do we all move in the same direction - nor even follow the linear path I followed. Holly Evans set off from somewhere close to the middle and went both ways before ending where she began. Sometimes we move quickly, other times slowly. One of my favourite pastimes has been looking for newcomers at services to identify new travellers upon the old road. Daniel will be the first I’ve told about it. I will never know whether it’s the right thing to do, or whether he will believe me. Would I have listened to me at that age? I don’t imagine I would.
If I could meet a single historical character before they turn the lights out, I’d wish to shake the hand of whoever created that window. What a marvel it is. Did the artist even know what they had created?
The bell-ringers have finished for the evening, their chimes replaced with the sound of Christopher’s keys rattling as he walks towards the door. He’s a charming young man, always apologising for asking me to leave. Tonight, however, I intend to slip quietly away, without fuss, as if I was never here at all. Tomorrow, next week, whenever the time is right, my likeness will do the same and nothing will remain of me here, or anywhere but the memories of those who know me.
I think I’m ready now. It’s all been rather wonderful.