Chapel by David McVey

Dark. Thumping headache. Silence except for the pounding of blood. Hard floor. Cold. Mouth gravel-dry.

It had been a rough night. Where had he ended up? Still dark. Church smells? The faint scent of the sea? Of course. Last night they’d been out on the boat. On Orkney.

*

At first Copland hadn’t been sure about Orkney. Where was it, for a start? Just a bunch of islands, someone had explained, way north of anywhere. It seemed a long way to go for just two nights away. But the rest of the Bridgehall Loyal Flute Band had been enthusiastic about the idea. ‘We’re fed up going to Saltcoats,’ said Mason, who played the big drum, ‘and we’re banned from most of the pubs there now. And Orkney people are sound; didn’t they vote ‘No’ in the Referendum?’ And everybody listened to Mason, always.

Yet even Mason accepted that it was a long way to go for a weekend. Many of the band members had to take the Friday afternoon off work so that the bus could leave early enough to get them to Scrabster for the last ferry. They had pub stops in Perth, Aviemore and Golspie, and then had to spend the night in the Scrabster car park because they had missed the ferry after all.

Next morning, the air in the bus was foetid with farts, sweat and stale beer-breath. Copland climbed off the vehicle and stood at the edge of the car park, looking out over the oily black harbour. It was June, yet there was a chilly feel, with a brisk, salt-laden wind coming off the water. The incoming ferry grew from a distant dot to become a steel tower slitting a white gash through greeny-blue waters. Beyond it, across the Pentland Firth, was a smoky blue haze that might be land, might be Orkney.

Copland heard the sharp buzz of a zip and a liquid hiss. He turned to see Mason, haggard and unshaven, peeing against the perimeter wall of the car park. ‘You look like you’re praying to some fuckin saint, Copey boy,’ he said.

Two hours later they were on their way. That sharp breeze had churned the waters of the firth into a choppy ploughed field. The ship shuddered and seemed to lose momentum as each wave hammered into the bow. Orkney locals collected their Full Scottish breakfasts from the self-service cafeteria and found their seats with practiced ease. Tourists concentrated on maintaining their balance and tried hard to look as if they were taking the rough passage in their stride. However, most of the Bridgehall Loyal Flute Band (and there was some irony here) had faces in various shades of green and spent the journey miserably on deck leaning over the railings. Some of them did not quite make it that far before releasing their previous night’s intake of food and drink back into the community.

The ferry reached Stromness harbour, and the band members were able to relax and resume their seats in the bus. Soon the vehicle trundled off the ferry, away from the pier, and took the road for Kirkwall.

‘Maybe they voted “No”, but the bastards in the council here wouldnae let us march through the town the day,’ said Mason.

‘Aye. Maybe they’re all papes after all,’ said Broxie, a middle-aged flute player.

‘We’ll get wasted the night and trash the place,’ this was Billy, who played kettledrums alongside Copland, ‘That’ll show them.’

On the outskirts of Kirkwall, the bus turned into the car park of a modern but run-down breeze-block hotel. ‘Who runs this place?’ said Broxie, ‘Norman Bates?’

As he waited for his luggage to be hurled out of the deep belly of the bus, Copland looked at the soaring tower of St Magnus’ Kirk, red with time and wondered at age and history and permanence.

‘What are you staring at?’ said Mason, ‘You better watch you don’t turn into a pape or a poet or a poof, boy.’

‘That’s a proddy church, but,’ said Billy, drawing a dirty look from Mason.

‘Do we have tae go to church tomorrow morning?’ asked Cooper, a young flute player on his first band weekend.

‘What the hell do you mean?’ barked Mason.

‘Well, us being proddies and that…’

‘Church is for papes,’ Mason said, ‘they think they’ll go to Hell if they don’t turn up and say their Hail Marys and rattle their beads.’

Copland had paid a bit extra to have a single room. He dumped his luggage, had a shower, and lay on his narrow bed in his narrow room - like a monk’s cell - watching the racing on ITV 4. Through thin walls he could hear the bellowed conversations of his fellow band members and their busking on flute and drum.

As the band filed into the dining room for dinner that evening, Mason said, ‘We’ve booked a booze cruise for the night!’

‘What?’ said Copland.

‘The hotel organised it. It’s a good deal. We get a wee boat, crates of lager and some bottled beers and we go out in the water. We can play out there, all the tunes we want. It never gets dark here at this time of year.’

‘Never gets dark?’ said Cooper, ‘That’s just weird.’

‘So we can keep going all night,’ said Mason, ‘or until the boat guys get fed up.’

The sun wheeled round towards the horizon but even as midnight approached it was barely below the distant horizon. The boat chugged on, trailing a purling, rippling wake painted in sunset colours. The band played “No Surrender” and “The Sash” and “Follow, Follow” and finished, as the alcohol kicked in, with an off-key “God Save the Queen”. Cans and bottles regularly looped into the water like depth charges; the boatman and his son had protested at first but had been silenced by the angry growls from the Bridgehall hordes. Ensuring that their boat returned safely to harbour, with no serious damage - that would be enough for the day.

Copland stepped outside the roofed section of the launch and looked back at the town. The tower of St Magnus seemed to gather Kirkwall around it to protect it against the brief night. The lights of town gleamed closer as the boatman tentatively began to inch back to harbour. His passengers were growing quiet. Low, slurred talk and guttural snoring were the only sounds they made, now. Copland heard Mason say, ‘Spying at churches again, Copey boy? Ye’ll turn into a Roman priest soon…’ It was hard to believe how Mason could hold his drink.

*

Copland sat up stiffly, rubbed dry eyes and saw that the darkness was not, in fact, complete. There was some light filtering in, dimly transformed by coloured windows.

What was this place?

Was he alone?

‘Hullo?’ he roared, and was answered only by short, sharp echoes.

He got to his feet and wished he hadn’t. His legs were wobbly half-set jellies, his stomach churned, his head was being torn apart by earthquakes, his mouth was a desert and his bladder strained, desperate to be emptied.

There must be a light switch somewhere. He staggered forward, pushed his hands in front of him to seek out a wall and immediately clattered into some scattered wooden chairs and fell among them.

He took a full minute to get back to his feet, pushed the chairs out of the way, and eventually his hands found a wall, low and curving. He swept his hands up and along the wall in a kind of French Mime, seeking a light switch and eventually finding one. He clicked the switch and the space was flooded with light. His eyes immediately stung, as if light were vinegar, and he rubbed them and staggered back into space.

Gradually the pain in his eyes eased; he opened them and found himself face-to-face with the Virgin Mary.

There was no mistaking her, gentle-eyed, wistful, cowled in blue and holding a curious, bright-looking infant Jesus. Copland turned away and there was Jesus again, an adult now but smaller, impaled on the cross of sacrifice.

He lifted his eyes to the heavens, but there weren’t any, just a low, curving ceiling that had been painted to make it look like medieval vaulting. There was an altar and figures of saints and more crucifixes, all things that Mason would hurl abuse at. At least he knew the truth, now - he was in a church. Well, a chapel.

At the far end of the chapel he saw a door. A handful of strides took him to it and he turned the knob, but the door didn’t yield. He banged on the door and yelled, but the eruption of noise felt wrong, inappropriate. He stopped, picked up one of the lightweight wooden chairs he had capsized, and sat in silence. The Virgin continued to look at him kindly, keeping a firm hold of her precious charge. Silence rose and filled the space.

But not complete silence. Copland could just make out a distant pulsing of waves on a shore, steady and sure as a heartbeat. Encouragingly, there was also the occasional sound of a car zipping past; he was near a road, and a main one, too. But he sat on in the stillness, trying to avoid the soft eyes of Mary and the harsh reminders of crucifixion. He tried to think of Mason.

Mason! Someone had left him in here and locked the door. Who else could it have been but Mason? He never got as drunk as anyone else and he’d been like a judge compared to the rest of the band late last night. Was this his rough-hewn joke? Let’s dump the pape in the chapel?

He turned to the door again. The light had filled out through the tiny windows and he examined the doorknob again. There was a snib! He hadn’t seen it before. He clicked it and turned the knob and opened the door on a world of green grass, morning gold, blue seas with white foaming breakers and a single-decker bus turning in off the main road.

Outside there was yet another crucifix and a statue - like the one at St George’s Cross in Glasgow. People began to pour out of the bus, familiar faces.

‘Aye, Copland,’ said Cooper, ‘ye got to church after all?’

‘Chapel,’ said Copland. ‘How did I get here? Who done this?’

‘Och, it was that arse Mason. Managed to get the bus going after the boat had dropped us back in Kirkwall and thought it would be great to leave you in a chapel since ye were acting like such a pape.’

‘Where is he?’

‘When he got back to the hotel he started singing Lodge songs and that, so the polis came and lifted him. He told us where ye were before they carted him away. We’re banned from the hotel now.’

‘Mason’s worse sober than the rest of us drunk,’ said Broxie.

Copland emptied his bladder down by the shore and then returned to take a last look inside the Italian Chapel while the bus reversed to head back to Stromness for the ferry. He couldn’t hate, however much he tried. The Bridgehall Loyal Flute Band wasn’t everything; there were other bands, other kinds of bands, who could use someone who played the kettledrums like Copland. But that was something to think about later. There was a long journey to get through first.

‘What about Mason, eh, Copland?’ said Billy after he’d resumed his seat in the bus.

‘Aye,’ said Broxie, ‘who are we gonnae get to play the big drum now, eh?’

The bus roared back northwards to Kirkwall and then west to Stromness. They all had work tomorrow and they couldn’t miss this ferry. Of course, Mason would have to.

***

David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.

 

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