‘Welcome to the seventh century,’ The Sub-Dean said, gliding across the stone floor of the Cathedral to shake Celia’s hand. Behind him, the cathedral organ boomed. ‘We’re privileged today to have one of Yorkshire’s top professional organists practising with us.’
‘How super. Lovely to meet you,’ Celia said briskly. ‘I’m so sorry, I’ve been given this ridiculous schedule by the festival and I only have an hour before I have to move on to my next appointment.’
‘Not a problem at all. Come on then, Alice,’ The Sub-Dean said, leading her towards the centre of the building.
‘It’s Celia, actually. Celia Fairweather,’ Celia said, a little annoyed.
‘No you’re not,’ said the Sub-Dean. ‘You’re Alice. And I’m taking you down the rabbit hole. Come on now. You’ve only got an hour.’
Celia wondered if she should actually be following this clearly deranged man down the narrow, winding stone steps, but she did anyway, finding herself in a crypt underneath the ancient heart of what, he informed her, was St Wilfrid’s original Saxon church. ‘Also, dear Alice,’ the Sub-Dean went on, ‘inspiration to a certain young writer who spent his summers in the cathedral.’
This was all very well, Celia thought, but she wished he would cut out the Alice thing.
Hardly pausing for breath, the Sub-Dean led her on, charging up the stairs at the other end of the crypt, which emerged at the base of the choir stalls. He grabbed her arm and led her to a row of misericords at the altar end. ‘Look, Alice!’ he commanded. Too breathless to object, Celia did as she was told and knelt to examine the carved wooden creatures writhing underneath the tip-up seats.
‘So, now, if you will imagine, you are the young Charles Dodgson – or Lewis Carroll, if you will – down for the summer, visiting his father, also Charles Dodgson, who was Canon-in-Residence in this very cathedral. You’re snooping around the place, and what do you see?’
Celia squinted at the carving in front of her. Annoyingly, she had to put on her glasses.
‘Good lord,’ she said, eventually. ‘It’s a gryphon chasing a rabbit down a hole. Like in Alice in Wonderland. That’s why you were calling me Alice?’
If a small look of exasperation crossed the Sub-Dean’s face, Celia failed to see it. He leapt on, away from her, so she had no choice but to follow him down the choir to the front of the rood screen The Sub-Dean talked all the while as he went, pointing out high-up carved heads, hands, gargoyles and grotesques, and mentioning something about Wilfred Owen, which Celia couldn’t quite catch as the thundering organ built to a startling climax.
And then the music stopped. The Sub-Dean came to a halt at the head of the nave, held out his arms and belted out a line of sung, ecclesiastical Latin, his voice booming around the archingly high, vaulted ceiling of the building and echoing right down to the far end.
Every single visitor in the cathedral stopped and stared, and Celia, usually happy to have everyone’s attention, found herself trying to look as if she had nothing to do with this person who had just made such an alarming noise.
‘Marvellous acoustics,’ the Sub-Dean turning to smile at her. ‘Eh?’
He led her speedily on through the Cathedral, pointing things out on the way – memorials and stuff, she supposed – and deposited her, breathless and footsore, at the entrance.
‘See our magnificent new doors,’ he said, gesturing towards them. ‘Engraved with stories of the life of the Cathedral’s founder, St Wilfrid, and made in glass to let in the light, as well as allowing tourists and the local community to witness the true majesty of the Cathedral’s interior from outside. After all, our motto is ‘here for us all’ and we have over one hundred-thousand people visiting the Cathedral annually. Er, Miss Fairweather?’ The Sub-Dean said, startling Celia as she was checking her Twitter account to see if @RiponOff44 had posted anything new.
‘Um, oh, sorry. Just checking my next appointment.’
The Sub-Dean frowned. ‘I hope I provided you with some useful information. I couldn’t help noticing that you weren’t taking any sort of notes as I spoke. I do hope you’ll be able to recall what I’ve told you.’
‘Ah.’ Celia tapped her temple. ‘I have an extraordinary memory. Nothing is ever lost.’
In truth, she was almost famous in certain quarters for forgetting just about everything. In any case, churches and crime had been so overdone – not least in her own work. There was nothing whatsoever of use to her in Ripon Cathedral.
‘Remember that people come here from all over the world and are touched by the sanctity, the history, the spirit of the place,’ the Sub-Dean said, as they shook hands in the porch.
‘I’m sure they do,’ Celia said, a little abstracted. She was thinking about the gin in her bag. Should she neck one of the Gordons in the taxi to Fountains Abbey for a little Dutch courage for her meeting with @RiponOff44?
‘And remember, there’ll be a lot of us about next year in 2014 with Dulce et Decorum est and the centenary and all that.’
‘Of course,’ Celia said, smiling and taking her leave.
What on earth, she wondered, was the man talking about?