The Canterbury Tales, Part II – The Tree’s Tale
The next morning, I ate a very good breakfast, with a generous cold buffet spread augmented by a hot breakfast to order. B&B’s can vary. I stayed in one in Notting Hill where the second “B” was a croissant with a pat of butter in a baggie tied around the doorknob. But not so the Ebury. It has a proper dining room (and presumably a proper kitchen, since someone cooked the breakfast.) The house itself was a lovely place, a rambling three-story brick Victorian with arched doorways and bay windows. Some of the guests at breakfast were staying in the nearby cottages and apartments that were also part of the place. I knew it had a history. I sensed it had housed many lives. The spirit of the place was a kind of resolute cheer.
Because it was a mile outside of town, and because there was a car park, most of the other guests were English. This tree adorned the car park.
Off to Canterbury! I’m a fan of walking tours, particularly when a visit is short. They are good for solo travelers, so that you have someone with whom to exclaim. One of my regrets about how my library school career unfolded is that when I started the program, the school offered a course called “Researching Local History” whose final project was to design a walking tour (what fun!) but it was taught during the day and then it fell off the curriculum entirely. (My tour, since you ask, would have been “The History of the Piano in Astoria,” and it would not have been walkable except to the extremely athletic.)
I bought a ticket at the Roman Museum in Canterbury (apparently on the basement floor, there is a mosaic going back to Roman times) and then meandered to the signpost at the Buttermarket just outside the entry gates to the Cathedral, where our guide was already addressing the other middle-aged women who were part of the tour.
In order to be a guide and to wear the sash that adorns official guides, you must attend a six-month class that meets twice-weekly and pass an exam. Further education is required if you wish to wear the sash that proclaims you a guide of the interior of the Cathedral. Our guide had both, and was knowledgeable and fun.
The history of Canterbury is haunted by two Henrys. The first is Henry II, whose frustration with his old drinking buddy Thomas a Becket led to an outburst which inspired four knights to gallop off to Canterbury and stab to death Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. (The traditional understanding is that Henry II exclaimed “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”)
Two points here: the walking tour guide mentioned that riders into Canterbury, arriving at the crest of the hill overlooking the town, would, should they arrive in the evening, urge their steeds from a trot into a “canter” in order to get into the town before the city gates closed. In other words, the rush for the gate gave the name to the gait.
Second, two of the guides I spoke with during my visit made reference to the four knights: on this stop stood the inn where the four knights are said to have stayed the night before the murder, and, it is rumored that that tree is where the four knights tied up their horses. Both times, this merry band of murderers were mentioned as though they required no further frame of reference, just the four knights, as though they had only recently cantered into history, like the Beatles. Wikipedia tells me that these John, Paul, George and Ringos were called Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton. These very French names prove that the close connection between this part of England and France was not unique to my visit.
The second Henry is of course Henry VIII, who established the Church of England, or, in the words of the guides of Canterbury, “destroyed the monasteries.” He destroyed a lot of monasteries in Canterbury, including the one at the Cathedral. Being a monk at Canterbury Cathedral seemed like a really plum job for a monk, I mentioned to the walking guide. How did one get a gig like that? Did you have to be really good at monking? Was Canterbury Cathedral a promotion? The other ladies on the walking tour thought this a hilarious question, but I admit to a certain ignorance when it comes to religious jobs of the Middle Ages. Women could only be nuns, but men could be priests or monks, bishops or cardinals, friars or priors. (I may be wrong about this; do let me know.)
The walking tour was meant to last two hours, but the guide extended a half hour longer, no doubt charmed by my ecclesiastical questions. The tour took us onto the grounds of the Cathedral, but not into the Cathedral itself. A few of the women decided they would go to evensong that evening so that they could get in free.
Admission is only £12.50 and the Cathedral employs a huge staff, as a display of signs outside inform you—stained glass makers, groundskeepers, medieval manuscript restorers. ecclesiastics and so on—so I wasn’t going to begrudge the place £12.50. Also, I doubted I could make it to evensong. Despite being the youngest of the lot on the tour, I tired first and set the precedent for sitting on a medieval wall while the guide detailed the destruction of the monasteries.
Afterwards, I retired to the tourist bureau, tea shop and gallery on the main drag. At that point in my trip, I had learned to address the three W’s of a tourist’s need—water, WiFi and a place to wee. Roughly five thousand French teenagers were visiting Canterbury that day. The French chaperones herded their wards through clogged streets. But the two German teachers in the tea room next to me were far more enterprising. Indulging in quiet adult conversation, they were occasionally interrupted by groups of panting teenagers, who were being dispatched on some kind of historical scavenger hunt. “Where did Henry II something something something?” the teachers asked them. “Was it A) something something, B) something something or C) I still can’t hear you.” And out the teenagers would troop again, leaving their clever teachers in peace to drink tea and chat.
I bought a ticket to a punting tour. In Cambridge, I thought I was too cool for a punting tour and then realized that I abandoned the quest for cool years ago. Punting along the Cam with a guide was delightful. I determined I would do the same along the Stroud, the so-called river that runs through Canterbury. The next tour didn’t take place until 4:15. I could take in no further fact nor ancient stone.
“I’m absolutely spent,” I said to the young woman who sold me the river ticket. “I need a place to sit and stare.”
“There’s a park by the West City Gate,” she told me. “It’s nice and quiet.”
I walked along to the park and there I met this tree.
The Tree’s Tale
Poems are made by fools like me, the poet wrote. But only God can make a tree.
Poems and cathedrals are made, and turbulent priests murdered, monasteries destroyed and cities bombed, by fools like us. I have titled this post “The Tree’s Tale,” but of course trees tell no tales. We look upon a tree such as this and imagine the tales it could tell. Does it remember the Romans? The Four Knights and their greatest hit, “Murder in the Cathedral”? Does it remember how it absorbed into its leaves the smoke from the burning monasteries? The smoke when the Nazis bombed the town? (They say the Home Guard lit fires all around the Cathedral to give the impression to the Luftwaffe that they Cathedral was already on fire.)
I felt more reverence to that tree than I ever would, or ever will, to any cathedral, or anything made by man. I felt true awe. I sat in its company for a good long time and tried to impress the sensation of being in its company into my brain, so I could hold the sensation forever, so that I could summon it when I was trying to meditate, or pray, or simply silence the clamor in my head with the memory of something long-enduring and majestic, with no ideology beyond living life.
I sat by the tree while ten-year-old boys nearby played football (soccer) and I did not suggest that they paint a picture or write a story. (See: The Witch’s Tale.) The tree and I just let them play.
Let’s take just one more look at the tree.
The Canterbury Tales: The Witch’s Tale
Perhaps fittingly, I arrived in Canterbury footsore, as Chaucer’s pilgrims did. I had spent three days in London, which was an overcrowded madhouse, and I say this as a New Yorker who works in midtown. My day trip to Cambridge did little to alleviate my stress, as I raced from my centrally-located (and well paid-for) hotel to get to the tourist office. I arrived at 4:54 to find my way barred by a teenager. “We’re closing,” she said. (The office closes at 5:00.) I managed to secure a $5.00 map off of her begrudging self, to attend an Evensong service at Kings College, where my Episcopalian confirmation training kicked in enough to keep my standing, sitting and kneeling in all the right places.
Dinner at my pricey hotel, and then to bed. I awoke to the sound of water rushing, and nearby dripping. Well, it was England, I thought, so rain. But no, the dripping was too close, so I investigated and discovered water dripping from the ceiling in my bathroom. Not a drip-drip-drip, but several streams of dripping, forming a syncopation of rhythm. Also, a crack was forming in the ceiling, just above the toilet, so when I sat, as one must, my head was soaked.
I called the front desk, who said, “OK, we’ll send someone up in a minute.”
Two hours later, daringly showered and packed, I arrived at the front desk. As I mentioned, this, the Hotel du Vin, was meant to be my splash-out hotel, not my splash-on.
“It’s an old building,” said one of the concierges.
“Right, well, there are cracks,” I said. Both concierges, not natives of England and recently enough departed from their teenaged years to remember the masks of eye-rolling forbearance, as in how big a deal is she going to make of this? “Look, it’s your building,” I said and watched their expressions shift to something akin to (had they been actual Englanders) well that’s just it, innit? Not our building, is it?
“That water damage is not going to stop,” I offered as my parting salvo. “Could I leave my bag here, please, until I leave for the station? By the way, is there a bus that could take me to the station, or should I just call a cab?”
“You can walk,” said the other concierge. “It’s an easy walk. Ten minutes. I’ll draw you a map.”
She drew the map, but perhaps a punishment for complaining about water pouring through the ceiling, I was sent on not an easy walk. I was by then walking 8-10 miles a day, so not quite a softie. However, my bewildered exhaustion drew the attention of a nice minister and her husband, and conversing with them shortened the (admittedly beautiful) train ride to London. I was afraid of coming off like a chatty American, because Brits think all Americans are chatty, and I’m chatty to begin with, but I learned a lot about them: that he had proposed to her in New York, at Ground Zero when it was still a steaming pile of rubble (I didn’t enquire why they went there; I will never understand why tourists do); that she used to be the minister in a men’s prison, until she had kids; that they had two kids; that they were having a romantic weekend in London and that this to them was made manifest by taking in the Harry Potter play.
(“Have you read ‘Peter Pan’?” the husband whispered to me, since we were on the subject of children’s literature. “Do you remember the part where the fairies are coming home in the morning from an orgy?” At this, I realized I had not read Peter Pan, but probably merely looked at some Disney picture-book version of it.“My boy Michael asked me what an orgy was and I said a party and now I’m scared to death of what he’ll say at kindergarten.”)
So off to Canterbury on the high-speed train, I maintained British silence until I could stand it no longer. “Why is this train so crowded?” I asked the young woman in the next seat.
“People getting off work,” she shrugged. It was three in the afternoon. “People getting away for the weekend.” It was Thursday.
“Seems a bit of a slog,” I said, although I realized that several of my co-workers do virtually the same commute, and they do it to live in crowded Long Island, not in a verdant countryside, caressed by swollen clouds.
“Kent,” said the young woman when she saw me press my fingers against the window. “You’re in Kent.”
“I love Kent,” I said. “It’s so English.”
“I love Kent, too,” she said. “I’ll never leave it.”
By the time I reached Canterbury, it looked as though we were in store for serious rain. It had only rained once during my English vacation, and at the time, I was in the British Library, having a coffee, watching the lightning fork the sky.
Now pulling up in front of the Ebury Hotel, I only hoped it wouldn’t rain just then, because the Ebury was far further out of town that I had reckoned and I was still holding out the hope of a decent meal in England.
“It is only a short walk into town,” said the hotelier, Matthew.
It was only a mile, after all.
I settled in on the patio of the “very good” French restaurant Matthew had recommended (it was a chain), and it was there that I met the witch.
The Witch’s Tale
The patio faced the cobblestoned court square of the town. In the twilight, pre-teen boys practiced, and failed at, their skateboard tricks. Failure meant that the skateboard sailed one or two feet into the air and then clattered to the cobblestones in a manner that the black-haired woman sitting at the corner of the patio with her husband found distracting.
“People come here to relax,” I overheard her telling the waitress.
She complained about various other things in a manner which made me want to apologize to the waitress (my therapist and I have yet to heal me of this compulsion). But then, bells chimed and I raised my head like a rapturous idiot, like some peasant girl in a movie on her journey to sainthood, played by Jennifer Jones or Ingrid Bergman, hearing the voice of God.
“Is that the Cathedral?” I asked, so dumb and humble that the husband took pity on me, and then so did the wife. Too bad I had come at such a time, they told me, the Cathedral was undergoing renovations. If I went the next day at Evensong, I wouldn’t have to pay to get in. How long was I here for?
When the wife went to the restroom, the husband told me that she was an artist. She’d earned her art degree here in Kent, and then her master’s in London. We then ate and drank privately until a particularly loud clatter of skateboard startled us back into a community.
I shook my head at the sound.
“I know!” cried the wife. “Why must they do that! Paint a picture! Write a story!”
Well, I for one thought they did that because they were ten-year-old boys, and for a ten-year-old boy, mastering a useless physical skill is its own delight. But since she said, “Paint a picture,” I went to her, unwisely emboldened by the wine I’d drunk, the miles I’d traveled, the nice minister on the train, the orgiastic fairies of Peter Pan, the ardent Miss Kent . . .
“Your husband says you’re an artist,” I said. “I do these.”
I showed her my push-pin art on my phone.
She took my phone and began swiping.
“Do you have OCD?” she asked.
“Sorry?” I asked.
“What’s this? Magritte.” Swipe. “Munch. Who’s this meant to be?”
“Am I meant to take this seriously?”
“I just do it for fun,” I said. “It’s relaxing. I work in a cubicle farm. My colleagues like it, and I’ve learned a lot.”
“Oh? Like what? What have you learned?”
And here I confess to an is-that-the-Cathedral level of stupidity. The hostility in her tone was rising like a cobra ready to strike and I should have backed away.
“Oh, you know. How to direct the eye. How to saturate color, how to diffuse it with clear push-pins. I’m limited, you know, because I’m dealing with push-pins . . . ” I laughed but her eyes were by then slits.
“Look, do you want my honest opinion?”
Again, that question never leads to anything good. It never leads to I think you’re the whole package and the only one for me or this is the best manuscript that’s come across my desk in years or no, actually, that skirt makes your butt look quite flat.
“I think it’s absolute crap,” said the woman. “Absolute crap. This paint-by-numbers nonsense, this . . . ” Swipe, swipe, swipe. “Crap. Crap. These people, these people with no training at all, who think they can just . . . I don’t mean to upset you. But it’s absolute, utter crap!”
“It’s just for fun. It brightens up the nine-to-five.”
“It’s crap. I don’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset,” I said.
I wasn’t. My therapist and I have managed to heal this compulsion, of becoming upset because other people are upset. Push-pin art has been to me like those desktop Zen gardens that were popular awhile back, or like a scavenger hunt of the mind. One’s resources are very limited. Even in a mosaic, the artist can shape the tessera (the name for an individual mosaic piece, for you crossword puzzle enthusiasts) but push-pins are almost always round. They come in only a few colors. The challenge of how to re-create a certain visual impact through a standard-issue office supply has been a soothing challenge to occupy me while I try to tease out solutions to the problems of my day job. The cubicle murals, in fact, had attracted so much congregating at my desk that I had decided to cease operations, even before this encounter.
“It’s crap. Crap. I don’t care how many Instagram followers you have.”
“I don’t have that many, actually.” Gently, I reclaimed my phone. Her husband had been laughing this whole time. “I’ll leave you alone now. Enjoy your dessert.”
“Oh, we will!” snapped the woman.
Walking back to the hotel, I reflected on how many times she had snapped “I don’t mean to upset you!” when upsetting me was clearly her aim. Amateur comes from amator, Latin for lover, and I did my push-pin art because I loved it. But there was no ego in it.
And that woman’s rage definitely came from ego. I tried to think of what occurrence, in my own field, would inspire a similar spite from me.
Maybe someone getting a three-book deal from a publisher based on a joke tucked into a fortune cookie? But would I say crap two dozen times?
But there was no money involved, no fame, no acclaim. Just me messing around with the masters using push-pins. I couldn’t figure it out.
The next day, I realized she must have been a witch. The kind the heroine meets on her journey in a fairy tale. The kind who tests her.