The hilltop monastery floated like a bird at the edge of the sea. Sergei stood on a gracious stone balcony with Byzine who was imposing and other-worldly in flowing robes.
“You spend 1 or 2 years at the first level,” said Byzine, “and then you start the deeper work.”
“How long…” began Sergei, and then saw that Byzine wasn’t listening to him anymore but staring out across the wide ocean.
“It lasts forever, if that was your question,” she finally answered.
A wind was blowing, and Byzine’s purling clothes took on a lustrous rippling life of their own. Sergei had never seen such clothes and became gradually hypnotised by the flowing shadows. Maybe if he reached level 5, and became a trainer like Byzine, he would have clothes like her. Suddenly she snapped her fingers under his nose.
“Come!” she said. “To the first room of your castle. Prepare yourself.”
He closed his eyes and let her guide him.
They used the prayer to cross the drawbridge and walked across heaped diamonds in the courtyard. To Sergei’s dismay the first room was underground.
“This way,” said Byzine, and slipped through a crooked door made of ill-fitting planks that lay low in the sparkling wall.
A spiral staircase disappeared steeply into the gloom, and as soon as he saw it Sergei felt a pull back towards the light and cleanliness of the upper levels. There was a smell down here - stale and rotten. There were faint sounds like the far-away efforts of some massive machine.
At the foot of the staircase an endless passageway stretched out of sight. The corridor was dark and vast, lit by sullen flames that guttered eternally in sconces on the walls. Along each side of the corridor were doors, and the nearest to him were of ancient greasy oak barred with iron.
“These have never been opened,” said Byzine, indicating the nearest door, seeming comfortable in Sergei’s castle. She must have done this before with other apprentices and although Sergei thought his rooms were forbidding, perhaps she had seen worse.
“Don’t start here,” she said indicating the door. It contained something in liquid, as a yellowish fluid kept squeezing through the gaps and dropping in slow strings to the corridor floor.
“Walk to the end,” she advised, “Start with the most recent and work backwards to here. You’ll be calmer then.”
Sergei couldn’t even see to the end of the corridor and felt a most miserable and cowardly desire to run away.
“What am I supposed to do in the rooms?” he managed to say.
Byzine laughed. Her laughter was so light that for a moment the corridor became silvered and all the things behind the doors seemed to quieten and yearn towards her for healing.
“You listen,” she said. “And interrogate.”
“How do I know when it’s finished?” he said.
Her eyes were deep and merry like cherries made of polished wood. She was smiling and he longed to throw himself at her hem and just ask her to take care of him.
“You’ll know,” she said. “Just call if you need me, and if I can come, I will.”
Her foot was on the bottom stair, and before he could protest, she was gone, leaving him all alone, in this corridor that he had made, with the doors he had fashioned to hold back the creatures he had created.
He reached the far end of the corridor and found there was something restless and unfinished about it like the growing tip of a great tap root. The door here was modern, like an internal door in a house, and not even properly closed. The room wasn’t threatening, so he peeked behind the door, and was heartened to see a room he recognised - the kitchen of his flat in London. There was no window, no 5th floor view over the river, but he knew the pattern on the roller blind - cheerful green and red apples - although, in this place, screening a blank frame against a stone wall. The appliances and units were indistinct, smudgy and grey, with the only sharp feature a kitchen stool, set casually near the counter and under a direct pool of light from the central bulb. On the counter, pen and paper.
He went in, sat on the stool and with great effort dragged his mind back to the last thing that had happened in this kitchen. He knew that he had been violently unfair in this room, and then closed and sealed over what had happened – told himself it wasn’t his fault and never thought of it again. But here it was. Here she was, tears still running down her cheeks and throat, having been incarcerated in this room, in this state, ever since it happened. He was swamped with shame that exploded from the four walls and covered him in a living mantle.
“Tell me,” he implored, reaching for the pen and paper.
His work at the very lightest and most trivial of levels had begun.
It was dark and cold, with the early morning breeze sighing in through the opened window. Outside I could hear Dad scraping ice off the car, and then the grinding of tyres on grit and he was gone. I remembered what day it was and felt a swoop of nervousness.
End of the Christmas holidays and first day back at school.
Also, as usual on this day, there was a test - spelling. I wasn’t worried about the test, I could out-spell the teacher, although making that obvious had made me unpopular with her, and now I kept it hidden. I usually put in one mistake for her – although I could never bring myself to put in two. Oh, there was something else…I felt another little rise of pleasure and panic. It was also my birthday.
I peered over the edge of the top bunk. My sister Karen was nothing but a lump under the covers with a tuft of dark hair on the pillow. She snuggled in further and mumbled in her sleep, when suddenly the door was flung open and the room flooded with dawn light from the hall bulb.
‘Up and doing, girls, it’s a school day!’ Mum bustled in and threw open the curtains, closing the window with a snap. She flicked on our light and peered at Karen in the bottom bunk, giving her a gentle shake.
‘I’ve got a stomach ache,’ moaned a voice, but Mum didn’t seem to hear. She turned and smiled at me.
‘Happy birthday, darling. We’ll celebrate later tonight,’ she said.
That meant she’d made me a cake and there were probably presents. I was about to tell her that I had a test, but she was gone. I clambered down the ladder from the top bunk and wandered into the freezing bathroom. I bet neither of my useless sisters had remembered it was my birthday.
Sue was already at the table dressed in her new school uniform, which had a blazer. She had started at Greensward School in September and I think she had a boyfriend. She was much too young for that, and Mum couldn’t have known. She tucked into her Readybrek and helped herself to some toast at the same time. I noticed that she was wearing tights, whereas I was still in long white socks. Surely, she was too young for tights? Karen was nowhere to be seen, and there were no noises coming from the bathroom. She was probably still in bed, and Mum whisked out of the room to go and get her up.
I helped myself to a bit of toast. Would anyone mention my birthday?
Karen was now in the bathroom, although mysteriously silent, and Mum was rifling through her briefcase.
She raised her head.
‘Karen!’ she yelled, making Sue and I jump. There was the sound of a tap being turned on.
‘She’ll have to take her breakfast to school with her,’ said Mum, frowning at the briefcase.
‘It’s not fair that I’ve got a test on my birthday,’ I offered.
‘Karen!’ shouted Mum. The tap was turned off. Mum heaved a sigh and went to help Karen get dressed.
‘I didn’t know it was your birthday,’ said Sue, taking a third piece of toast although I might have wanted another bit.
‘Here,’ she said, ‘You can have this.’ She felt around in her blazer pocket and pulled out a small liquorice chew in wax paper, about 1 cm long.
‘You’re giving me an old Blackjack for my birthday?’ I was disbelieving; you could get four of those for a penny.
She held it out to me, but as I reached for it, snatched it back, unwrapped it and bit it in half – then carefully folded the wrapper back over. Chewing vigorously, she held it out to me again.
‘There you are,’ she said.
I was speechless.