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The Scrivener: Fragmentation

...Inside the heavy door, which opened with welcoming ease as if expecting a visitor, there was a darkened passage leading to a staircase. I glanced round, to ensure that nobody had seen me enter. An unnecessary move, I later thought, as I was doing nothing extraordinary. However, what was to take place upstairs, I would come to realise, was quite out of the ordinary as I understood it...

In this unforgettable article Brian Barratt finds himself amidst ancient mysteries and secretas.

It had happened in a meeting room over the butcher's shop in the corner of Newark market-place. For some reason I could not think of, I had noticed, as though I had never seen it before, a door a few paces along from the shop. It was not unusual in itself but I had looked at it a second time on this occasion. It bore a sign, an engraved brass plate, announcing to the world that an accountant had offices within. Beside the door, to the left, not adjacent to the butcher's window, was another less grand sign placed there by another tenant. Who or what it was seemed irrelevant at the time.

I had felt an irrational impulse to open the door and enter the building which, like others around the market square, was very old. The shop window had been a later addition, perhaps at the end of the 19th century. The upstairs windows were large and square, each surmounted by a plain device that gave away no secrets regarding its age. The actual date of the building, once embellishing the wall high up near the gable, in accordance with bygone practice, had long since been obscured by years of paint and plaster. Careful examination seemed to put it in the l8th century. The windows themselves were heavily curtained or, seemingly, painted over, as if to conceal whatever happened inside the upper rooms.

Inside the heavy door, which opened with welcoming ease as if expecting a visitor, there was a darkened passage leading to a staircase. I glanced round, to ensure that nobody had seen me enter. An unnecessary move, I later thought, as I was doing nothing extraordinary. However, what was to take place upstairs, I would come to realise, was quite out of the ordinary as I understood it.

The heavily carpeted floor on the upper landing diminished the sound of my footsteps, providing a feeling of security, as I had no idea why I should need to explore the rooms which led off to my right. In retrospect, I could not be sure, either, that I had seen any signs indicating which room each tenant occupied. The door I had chosen to enter was plain, apart from a curious device painted fairly roughly on a small wooden board above it. From within came the muffled sound of voices. No light came from beneath the door, which was hardly surprising at the time as the afternoon was blending into evening and I had, after all, noted the closed curtains and painted windows.

Once through the door, I found myself in what appeared to be a small ante-room. Another door which stood ahead of me was set in an archway of two fluted Greek pillars surmounted by a rounded arch, in the centre of which was fixed a keystone. A symbol similar to the one I had seen earlier was set into this keystone. At the time, I had no hesitation in pushing open the inner door to see what lay beyond. In afterthought, I marvelled at my temerity, for this was a place of secrets, a place only for initiates into the Craft. I was surprised that no one had challenged me as a cowan; it was as though I was meant to be there, a partaker in the ritual that was to follow.

But, I later pondered, had I been inside the room at all? Nobody else seemed to notice me. Whatever was happening seemed to take place outside me, independently of my presence. There are times when an outside event, overpowering in its nature, numbs the senses and reactions in such a way that the observer seems to be totally separate from it even though he may also intrinsically be involved, even part of the event itself. To be a witness for the first time of a tropical sunset is such at event. The onlooker becomes so absorbed by the colours and radiance of it all that he ceases to be an onlooker. He becomes something quite apart, or it becomes something quite apart from him, notwithstanding the fact that he is also totally within the experience. It is only in retrospect that he is able to define and delineate what he had seen.

This was the only way I could describe my presence in the room. In after-years, it became as a memory of something that perhaps had never happened, or something from a future that I was yet to experience. Any self-assuredness I might earlier have had now gave way to a foolish uncertainty.

I heard men speaking words from a ritual, couched in an archaic form of language that was only slightly familiar to me.

'... whence doest thou come and whither art thou travelling?'

'...from the west, and travelling to the east.'

'Why didst thou leave the west, and travel to the east?'

'In search of more light.'

On either side of the room were rows of seated men, huddled close together only because the room was too small to accommodate either the number of partakers or the breadth and solemnity of the occasion. Other men sat, or stood, in apparently symbolic positions around the room. They held, variously, candles, rods and wooden pillars representing the orders of classical architecture. Other furnishings and ornaments seemed to be in place, but in the dim light I could barely discern what they were.

When my eyes became accustomed to the half light, I saw the figures of a quaintly dressed young man kneeling before an older man, who was dressed in normal, everyday, but nevertheless quaint, attire to which had been added various items of regalia associated with the assembly and the ceremony. It was difficult to discern the nature of the regalia, and the everyday attire seemed anachronistic. It was certainly not of the 1950s, nor was it of the Victorian era, and yet it seemed to be at once 'old fashioned' and 'contemporary'.

At the time, there had been nothing unusual about this anachronism, as I had been a partaker within, and yet outside, the event. Perhaps, I thought in retrospect, it had been a trick of the half light.

A single small window in the ceiling was not of clear glass, but painted white or slightly frosted, to let in a limited amount of light and, perhaps, to deter outsiders from looking in, should they be brave enough to mount the roof in order to eavesdrop. In the centre was a blue triangle. Within the triangle was a yellow, or gold, representation of a blazing star, with the single letter G at its centre.

My past reading told I that I had stumbled into a lodge meeting, and was witnessing and hearing things known only to members of the Craft. The dim rays spread below, not only on the main figures in the event whom I noticed were also in dress from some past time but also on a large book, perhaps a Bible, open on a pedestal near the centre of the room. Spread out on the pages were several tools that seemed familiar but which I did not immediately recognise. Again in retrospect, I realised that they had been a square and a compass, symbols of the Craft. Another wooden pedestal had borne a further open book, which appeared to list names and esoteric marks.

The words of the ritual continued.

'...After traversing from west to east, I was commanded to kneel and hear and receive the benefit of a prayer; and having been taught to repeat it from the delivery of the proper officer, my possession of this faculty was fully acknowledged.

'...In the second round, the Volume of Sacred Law was presented to me, from which I was desired to read that passage where the Lost Word is to be found. This ceremony proved the faculty of seeing.

'...In the third round, the compasses were opened at an angle of ninety degrees, and applied from the guttural to the pectoral part of my body, till my countenance, on some particular emotion, denoted that I retained the noble faculty of feeling.

'...In the fourth round, the pot of manna was presented to me, and having partaken of its contents, and declared the same good, the proper officer acknowledged my possession of the faculty of tasting.'

My eyes now completely accustomed to the half-light, I noted that the master and the candidate were standing on, or near, a small mat on which were embroidered signs and symbols, apparently related to the rite. The surrounding floor bore a pattern of square tiles, black and white, laid alternately in a regular mosaic style, which extended to the areas where the participants were standing or seated. At each edge were the compass points.

The atmosphere, as I attempted to re-experience it, was intense, even heavy. The solemnity of the occasion was conveyed by the measured words, and reinforced by the acrid smell of candle smoke mingled with a sweet indication that incense previously had been burning somewhere in the room. There was a stillness, a quiet impact, different and away from the movement and hubbub of the market-place outside. The identity of those present was a mystery, and remained so as I later went over the sequence of events. Nevertheless, I felt strangely as though I had been the young initiate. From being an onlooker, a hidden observer, I had felt drawn into the centre of the ceremony. The contradictions mounted: I had seen something that had taken place at an earlier time, perhaps, judging by the clothes, two hundred years previously; I was a secret onlooker and yet had been at its heart. Beyond a progression of three doors, I had lived a present continuous fragment of time.

Copyright Brian Barratt 2012

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