The Ascent of Mount St Stephens

Submitted into Contest #8 in response to: Write a story about an adventure in a small town.... view prompt




    “You PROMISED, Auntie Deb!” Rowena insists.

    If there are words that are more poignant, more irresistible, and more manipulative than those, especially when they come from the mouth of a five year old, then I would like to know them. Or maybe I wouldn’t! 

    Anyway, did I? Did I promise in so many words, or did I just mention? Something tells me that my niece Rowena, and my nephew Robert (they’re not actually brother and sister – Rowena is my sister’s daughter and Robert my brother’s son, but they only live three doors away and they might as well be, as they’re the spitting image of each other and partners in crime when they’re not trying to murder each other!) who’s barely a year older, wouldn’t have any patience for such distinctions and I wouldn’t get away with it. 

    Fair enough. I’m to blame. A church tower, even an unusual and twisted church tower, isn’t the kind of thing that children, even observant and bright children, notice of their own free will, is it? Or not one they pay much attention to, even in a town when there isn’t much else to capture their attention. So in an effort to distract them from the allure of yet another ice-cream (I’m not as strict on such matters as their parents, especially Rowena’s, but three within an hour really would be overdoing it) I pointed out the twisted tower of St Stephen’s. It was twisted by design and not accident, though it’s generally acknowledged the finished article was more twisted than the original intention. As towering but quirky attractions go, it’s never going to rival the Leaning Tower of Pisa or even the twisted spire at Chesterfield, but especially caught against a fairly dramatic sky (though the heavy grey and purple cloudbanks presaged a far more interesting thunderstorm than the rather puny article that materialised) it’s undeniably eye-catching.

    It’s a shame there’s not some early-warning device that can be fitted to adult tongues when “miss nothing” children are listening, but in the absence of such a device I mentioned that it was possible to climb to the top of St Stephen’s tower, and that when you did there was a fantastic view, and that some people even called it Mount St Stephens. I suspect that the Mount St Stephens business was more likely the product of some bygone tourist information exercise than a nomenclature that grew organically, but it’s a fact that without too much imagination the top of the tower looks a bit like a mountain peak. From the right angle. In the right light.

    Anyway, so here we are in the nave of St Stephens, and there’s some organ music playing, though I’m pretty sure it’s a CD and not live, although there is a proper organ and a proper organist in residence sometimes. Mount St Stephens isn’t the only appeal of the church – the stained glass windows are quite impressive, though as you might expect from Victorian stained glass windows (despite appearing older, St Stephens only dates back to the 19th century) Jesus and His followers are decidedly too blonde. 

    “Very nice,” says Robert, as I point out my own personal favourite, the feeding the 5,000 (the expressions on the crowds’ faces are really rather moving though I doubt either biologist or chef would be able to identify the species of fish), in the tones of condescending boredom that achieve their greatest mastery before the age of ten. “But we’re here to climb Mount St Stephens.”

    “You promised, Auntie Deb!” Rowena’s tone is less strident now, more cajoling, but I realise full well that doesn’t mean she is any less intent on her mission.

    I ask myself if I would have told a white lie (yes, in a church!) and said the tower was closed for repairs or the like, but was spared such moral dilemmas by the fact that they’re both already fluent readers and the sign telling when the tower was open is plain to see.

    And it’s open now.

    “Will the children be okay?” the nice lady selling the little tickets, whom I know I’ve seen in town, it’s a small town after all, asks me. “It’s quite a climb.”

    “We’re not little kids, we’ll be fine!” Robert says, “Even her!” pointing at Rowena. “Manners!” I remind him sharply, well aware that there’d be more point to him pointing at ME than his sister. 

    “Well, if you’re sure.”

    I’m sure. Both of them have the energy of a hundred triathletes and are as sure-footed as those gazelles you see scaling sheer mountain escarpments in David Attenborough films. The 157 steps to the top will present them with no trouble at all.

    I’ve never been to the top of Mount St Stephens before. It’s easy to drag out that old truism (and there’s a reason they’re called truisms) about not exploring the sites of your home town, but it’s not only that. I don’t have a phobia about steps or anything like that, but I did once take a tumble down a little flight of stone steps, no real harm done, only cuts and bruises, but the feeling of stone scraping bone is not pleasant and lodges in the memory. It’s very easy to get into the habit of avoiding things.

    I may as well admit I’m out of condition, too. I mean – I walk every day – most days, at any rate, but getting out of my comfort zone, literally and figuratively, isn’t my style. You couldn’t pay me to join a gym, but I know I should get more exercise. I am by no means sure that my stamina will hold out for the trek up Mount St Stephens. At least not without regular pauses and a great deal of panting and legs aching that I know will ache even more tomorrow.

    No point to denying it. I’m at an age when unless folk have made an effort to keep fit aching legs and breathlessness after too much exercise (after too little!) are to be expected. I am middle-aged. And no matter what they say about whenever being the new whenever, that’s not a nice thought, especially when it’s too late for a lot of things already, and time only goes one way.

    I could live without those thoughts. The thing to do is to shut them out and think about something else, and at the moment that isn’t difficult. One foot in front of the other will do. Perhaps there’s some truth in what they say about walking being therapeutic after all. She said ironically, as Robert, who had discovered the dramatic effect of referring to himself in the 3rd person (though, bright as he is, I doubt he’d say ironically) might observe.

    Talking of Robert, where is he? “Don’t get too far ahead!” I call to both children. It’s the kind of thing you’re supposed to say. But it does not have quite the desired result. Instead of stopping where they are and assuring Auntie Deb they’re fine, they scuttle down again, and I wait in dread for the missed footing and the scream and what I’m going to tell the relevant mother(s). Of course, it doesn’t transpire. They are also not remotely bothered about making extra exercise for themselves by going down and going up again. Their only regret appears to be that they’ve lost count of the steps. “Well, it’ll be fine,” Rowena says, logically, “We’ll have done the 157 and more besides.” Robert is still not quite satisfied and wants to know how many more. I dissuade him from retracing his steps to find out. 

    Though it’s not as light as it is in the nave, there is, to my relief, lighting in the tower, and some window-slits let in natural light, too. But it’s still rather claustrophobic. There’s something a bit intimidating about a narrow space with steep, irregular spiral steps and no apparent “passing place”. I know there are others in the tower – I can hear their voices, and think they have already begun the descent. I am already foreseeing an awkward situation and one of those instances when you think there must be a simple solution and it’s nothing that hasn’t happened hundreds or even thousands of times before.

    But I’m very relieved to discover that there is – well I suppose a kind of niche in the walls of the tower. There’s a slightly bigger window, and even a little bench below it. I wonder if sitting down will be wise as experience tells me sometimes taking a rest can be counter-productive. Anyway, Rowena and Robert have beaten me to it – but not because they feel any need to rest! “This is our Bivvy-Whack!” Robert exclaimed. I translate it, without too much difficulty, to bivouac, and am glad they crunch up together to let Auntie Deb join them. “I wish it was snowing!” Rowena says, wistfully, though as it’s only October, that’s hardly likely, and I think underneath she knows it, too. “Or that we had paper to make it LOOK like snow if we tore it up!” Luckily, none of us does. So I am spared having to decide between encouraging their imagination (not that it needs much encouraging!) and reminding them that littering is NOT A GOOD THING. 

    I remember sitting on a stone bench with a view before – when I was on holiday in the Lake District with Ron. I hadn’t exactly expected him to propose there (though he could have chosen a worse spot) but I hadn’t expected him to give me the hope we’ll still be friends spiel either. He said he expected I needed time to think and very considerately left me there on the bench looking out at the fells and not bothering to wipe the rain off my face. At least some of it was rain. 

    Well, I’m not going to say that put me off exercise for life, though it’d make a handy pseudo-psychological cop-out, but it didn’t help. 

    The children have decided they’ve had long enough in the Bivvy-Whack, and so we carry on up Mount St Stephens. Contrary to my misgivings – well, perhaps I haven’t got my second wind, but my first one hasn’t entirely given up the ghost. 

    It’s a shame, but I suppose inevitable, that there ‘s no lack of graffiti on the walls of the tower. Mind you, we have a curious hypocrisy about graffiti. If it’s recent we tut-tut and say it’s vandalism, but if it’s older, we call it a fascinating and moving historical document. Sandra loves Mark, and somebody supports Man City and some of the more ribald one, well, I hope the children don’t ask me what they mean. They’re taking far too much interest for my liking! But the one Rowena calls my attention to is decent, and if not centuries old, is old. It has been dated, 2nd June 1944, and the writer, or carver, I suppose, wants us to know he is PRIVATE Leonard – I think Barton, though it’s a bit indistinct now, possibly Bolton – and he loves Emily, and has also said “We’ll meet again.” Both eye and instinct tell me the age is genuine. Did Leonard perish on the Normandy beaches, never to be reunited with Emily – if he was local, it would probably be on the War Memorial. I don’t know if I want to check or not, or if it brings me any more comfort to think of him maybe being an old man with no friends in a nursing home. Perhaps neither is true. 

    “What is it, Auntie Deb?” asks Robert. Perhaps I’ll tell them later on, but for now I only say, “Something a long time ago,” and they let it pass, and are too eager to get to the summit to question me further for now. 

    To tell the truth, so am I! Oh, my legs ache and will ache more tomorrow, and I still wish there were more passing spaces and wish I didn’t keep having thoughts about betrayal and war, and the passage of time and losing my balance, but I know we can’t be that far off, now, though I decided against keeping track of the number of steps as I climbed! 

    We’re there! We have emerged from the tower to the viewing platform, and on auto-pilot I caution the children not to get too near the edge though there’s a fairly substantial wall around it. We cross over with a couple about to start on the descent and exchange a few words.

    I have been higher up, and seen more spectacular views, but there is still something about the familiar from an odd angle that is both disconcerting and satisfying. “Can we see your house, Auntie Deb?” asks Rowena. The supermarket blocks the sightline, so we can’t, but she doesn’t seem especially disappointed – the opposite if anything. It’s most unlikely we’d be able to see it from a real mountain.

    Of course it’s not a real mountain, and even the children know that underneath, but I have got caught up in the spirit of it, too, and feel positively exhilarated, and not nearly as daunted by the thought of the trek in reverse as I thought I might be. We linger for a few minutes. I catch my breath and wish I’d thought to bring a water bottle up with me, and Rowena and Robert spend as much time looking up as looking down, and saying how much nearer to the clouds we are. Looked at logically, the difference is so small as not to matter, but I can feel something of it too, and I’m not imagining it – it most definitely IS colder up here! Much colder.

    And it’s no wonder. Because a soft, feathery October snow has started to fall on the summit of Mount St Stephens!


The children have gone home now, and I miss them, as I always do, after sighing with relief for a day or so. 

    I couldn’t resist doing a little bit of research about Leonard, helped, initially, by some folk I know in the local British Legion.

    He didn’t perish on the Normandy beaches, but he passed away twenty years ago, just a couple of months after  his beloved Emily. Dear lad, you had a long and happy life, and I’m glad.

    How do I know? At least, how do I know that your life was happy? Because I know your granddaughter. Our paths had crossed before, but cross far more often now, and by design.

    Her name (which I must have seen on her name-badge, but like most folk, to my shame, I don’t really take note) is Dorothy Jenkins.

    And she’s a guide at the church. She sends people on their way up Mount St Stephens!

September 27, 2019 06:59

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