The following story won first prize in a short story competition.
© Beverley Elphick
St. Remy de Provence, France, October, 28 degrees
Lewes, UK, 14 degrees
Dad has lost his teeth. I have searched everywhere drawing a blank with all the normal hidey-holes. Finally, we locate a spare set in the ‘rubbish’ draw. He had all his teeth removed in the 1950’s when he was quite young. Apparently, it was the thing to do, replacing your own with dentures. Who in their right mind would take out a full set of teeth and put dentures in instead? Perhaps, even in those days he wasn’t in his right mind.
The very next day the spare set went missing as well. Hayley, the favoured carer, and I searched again finally locating the spares on top of the wardrobe, neatly wrapped in tissue paper. What was he thinking?
St. Remy de Provence, 17th October, 25 degrees
Is it a co-incidence that my places of choice to live, St. Remy in France and Lewes in Sussex are associated, in my mind, with madness?
St. Remy is the place where Vincent Van Gogh incarcerated himself in a sanatorium after mutilating his ear. I loved living there.
Lewes is where I grew up, and have now returned to, to care for my father who is suffering from dementia/madness. Actually, it is me who is suffering. Returning from the bliss and sunshine of the South of France to live with an incontinent (in both senses of the word) and doolally old man.
Dad, however, is in blissful ignorance of his state, he merely eats, sleeps and pees etc. (The etc. will lead you in the right direction of understanding.) The sky is always blue in his world.
St. Remy de Provence, 19th October, 27 degrees
Lewes, cloudy and grim
Dad went for a walk along to the shop. He buys a paper and some Werther’s Originals. The shopkeeper gives us a bill at the end of the month and sends him home if he goes in there more than once a day. Today, however, he did not come home and after he had been gone for an hour we begin searching. Eventually, after visiting all his haunts, I ring the police and describe his predicament as being lost, frail, wandering and possibly unable to find his way home; and, it is getting dark. As I told the young policewoman I could hear myself wondering why, exactly, had I let him out? I explained, even though she didn’t ask, that he insisted on going for a walk most days and his doctors encouraged him to do so.
We waited on tenterhooks until the police rang to say they had found him - in Brighton Hospital and would we please fetch him home.
He had a bump on the head and a few cuts and bruises where he had fallen over but there was no information as to what had happened to him.
St. Remy de Provence, October, 24 degrees
There are three of us living in this house now but according to dad there are ‘others’. He sits on his two-seater settee and asks me to make a cup of tea for him and the young fella sitting alongside him!
There is no one there but I have to make an extra cup of tea.
When it is time to go to bed he asks “what about the others?”
“What others?” I reply.
“Well, you know, all the others”
They have all gone to bed already I say.
“What about mum?” he says
“She is upstairs dad” I reply, even though she died 4 years ago.
He is happy with that, and follows me up.
We have a television in our bedroom where we escape to, but we never quite get away as he might come in at any time in the night, usually with no clothes on, to say goodnight, again.
I try to keep up with my friends in Remy. They are in touch to wonder at my new lifestyle. I tell them how I have had to cut giant holes in dad’s bedroom carpet. I simply couldn’t remove the mess with soap and water, or cleaning fluid, or bleach. They think it amusing, carpet with holes in.
It takes time to organise vinyl replacement and when it does come there is a further problem. Osmosis. The floor is easily cleaned but it is too late for the divan base.
St. Remy de Provence, November, I don’t care how many degrees or if there is a mistral blowing. I want to be there.
Still haven’t found the original teeth and we have now lost his glasses.
Hopefully, they are at the day centre, blessed place and my saviour of sanity.
He comes home, groping his way up the path with someone else’s glasses and cardi on. I open the front door, his face lights up when he sees me.
St. Remy de Provence. Lost to me
Lewes. I can do this. He is my Dad.
© Beverley Elphick
In the time of men, I am near 500 years, in which I have seen and heard many things. In my early years I was rudely torn from Almighty God’s grace by ruffians sanctioned by Henry VIII’s minions. His badge was stamped upon me at my casting – it saved me not.
My master, the French bellmaker John Tonne, scribed upon me, in a language not now used by the common man; his words say “I be named Gabriel”. My destiny had been assured: the towering spire of the Cluniac Priory of St. Pancras in Lewes. A mighty church, bigger than cathedrals; my role, simply to call the religious to their devotions.
I be the great bell of Lewes. Then, there was no other like me yet I, along with the leaden roof, was bartered for coin. Such misery and distress. A pious community plundered and destroyed, the incumbents scattered, losing their home, their calling, the respect of mankind. The monk who cared for me whispered through sorrow and tears that I at least was spared the melting pot. All were humbled by Cromwell, for good or ill.
I was taken to the mean and lowly church of St. Nicholas and as the centuries passed, I grew weary. My crisp tone dulled, and my form thickened with dust and bird shit. I was unloved, neglected; my pride in my status withered. I was indeed humbled.
At last a home, created for me when St. Nicholas fell. I was removed to the new Market Tower just across the way. Soon I realised that I shared accommodation with vagabonds, thieves and trampers who were locked up in the cells below, a common gaol. Still I hoped to fulfil my destiny - ring out my call to the people - bring them to joy, warn them of danger, unify them in spirit as only a great bell can do.
It has taken time, two hundred years of time, to bring me to my present state of grace. No longer do petty criminals call out to me in their misery. I am alone, still dirty and neglected but with reason to hope. A man visited my wooden framework and when he had done his mysterious work, I found my voice to ring out the hour to the good people of Lewes.
Now, in the time of men, it is November, and at eleven of the clock on the 11th day of the 11th month I do what is asked of me; I chime loud and true with perfect tone and pitch to summon the townspeople to remember. I toll with dignity for ten solemn minutes and then am stilled for men to honour their fallen. This is now my destiny. I accept it with gladness and goodwill, but I do so hope someone will come and clean me, then they will see the writing and know that "I Be Gabriel - the great bell".
Gabriel in action in Market Tower, Lewes
"I Be Gabriel - the great bell"
The view from Gabriel's current home, the Market Tower, Lewes
This is a work of fiction, but Gabriel exists and resides in the Market Tower near Lewes Memorial. Gabriel has had a chequered history and my story is based on some hypotheses. Recent maintenance work has ensured Lewes can hear the bell chime the hours as well as hear it rung on special occasions. In November 2018, Dave Middleton rang the bell as described in the last paragraph of my tale. It was very moving. We tried to film the event, but it was not to be. However the pictures on my home page give you an idea of Gabriel’s majesty.
Interestingly the same Lewes family, The Breeds, have been the official bell ringers through four generations with George Breeds holding the office of Town Crier as well.
Further reading about Gabriel can be found in: ‘A Short History of the Market Tower’ by local historian, Paul Myles and 'Sussex Bells and Belfries' by George P Elphick.