This story won a competition organised by English Heritage. The entrants were to be new/unpublished writers. The brief was to write a short story celebrating the famous Whitby Abbey ruins on the east coast headland.
The book 'WHITBY ABBEY: PURE INSPIRATION, An anthology of stories' is published by Spiderwize for English Heritage and is on sale in the Whitby Abbey Vistor's Centre shop.
Matt was a few miles from Whitby but could clearly see the impressive stonework of Whitby Abbey high on the distant headland. In modern times it was simply referred to by some as a ruin, but it was a majestic ruin. As he looked at the sun shining on it and the clear blue sky behind, he imagined it spectacular in it’s heyday, complete with stained glass windows.
The task was simple enough, but the 27-year old Interior Designer knew from experience, a tight schedule can destroy a plan. When still two miles from Whitby, the traffic started to back up a few hundred yards. It struck him that there were outside forces working against him in his quest. If necessary, Matt had already decided he would park up and run the last mile or two. His ‘one mile’ time wasn’t what it was at school, but with the right incentive, which he had today, he could push himself. He lifted the long blonde hair out of his eyes and promised himself yet again that he’d have his hair cut shorter.
He glanced up once again at the building on the skyline. So near, yet, so far ... then turned to look to his front and slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting a man in a motorised wheelchair. The old boy shouted something and waved a clenched fist. The young Scotsman successfully avoided any more road traffic trauma and drove towards the Marina car park. It was reputedly the easiest to find a space. Only when he was parked did he consider the ‘Pay and Display’ aspect of his decision. He raked through his pockets and as he did he found himself looking up at his goal. The old Abbey ruins seemed to be beckoning him and taunting him simultaneously. He had agreed to set this thing in motion and now wondered if it was such a good idea after all to put a deadline on it.
Matt pushed the money into the slot of the parking ticket machine. He had just enough change for three hours so couldn’t afford to have a coin rejected. One of the coins fell through three times, failing to register. Matt looked up at the Abbey for whatever good it would do as he said, ‘Please ....’ The coin dropped in.
A quick look at his watch told him that he should still make it in time, but he knew he couldn’t afford to dawdle. He was a typical Taurus. A life in good order, good at timing, and when the chips were down, he was resourceful. He found himself constantly planning. As he strode to the mini-roundabout and turned right towards the bridge he couldn’t help but look up at his destination again. It held a strange magnetism for him. Was it simply the impending meeting – if he was in time, or was it something more mysterious? On reaching the narrow draw-bridge he realised for the first time just how busy Whitby was on a fine day. What stood out more than the numbers was the lack of any urgency. For most people this was a relaxing day out to a historic fishing town, which had by way of a main attraction a particularly well known and beloved ancient monument. For some people a visit to the Whitby Abbey was akin to a pilgrimage. Matt’s 25-year old girlfriend Elizabeth was a History graduate and revered the place.
Once over the bridge Matt headed left and slowly made his way up through the small Market Place. It was becoming apparent to him that time was slipping away rapidly. The more he tried to speed up his progress, the slower it felt he was moving. He was wearing leather-soled shoes and having difficulty keeping his footing on the smooth cobbles of the very narrow Church Street. It felt as if he was swimming vertically against a sea of humanity, against the tide. Running wasn’t an option now, but the frustration of trying to move faster was telling mentally, if not physically.
Matt reached the junction at the base of Tate Hill and turned right to take in the sight of the 199 steps he had to climb. At the base of his next challenge Matt was not pleased to see a large group of schoolchildren setting off up the steps, three abreast, with their two teachers in attendance, both attempting to give an impromptu history lesson.
‘Excuse me ... excuse me ... excuse me ....’ Matt was trying to move up the steps quicker and couldn’t work out why he felt as if he was treading water.
‘Stand back children ....’ a young lady said, ‘this gentleman will show us how to go up the steps quickly... apparently ....’
Once clear of the children and the unimpressed teachers it was clear what the issue was with the steps. They were wide, so it was difficult to negotiate two at a time, but they were also low in height, which meant it felt as if an actual step up wasn’t being taken. Matt’s frustration was increasing with every lengthened, half step. At the 47th step there was a platform of sorts and he stopped briefly to look up at the ascent. He wondered if he should take a run at the remaining steps, but dismissed the thought and started out again steadily.
Arriving at the top was a relief but it was to be short-lived. Matt looked at his watch. He had just over seven minutes to make the deadline. Looking to his left he took in the tiny, quaint St. Mary’s church and adjoining small graveyard. He made a mental note to visit them both later. He looked ahead at the perimeter wall and thought all he had to do now was make his way along to a gate and he was there. A few metres further he reached the gates, but they led right and onto the Hard Garden situated to the front of Cholmley House. Matt quickly went through the gates glancing up to his left, now in close proximity to the ruins of the Abbey. Ahead of him through the gates was the impressive sight of the Borghese Gladiator. The bronze statue stood there on it’s plinth in the centre of the cobbled garden, as if challenging Matt on his quest.
Matt obeyed the signed request not to walk across the ancient cobbles and instead jogged around the smooth pathway to reach the entrance to Cholmley House. This building had been converted to be the Visitor Centre and entrance to the Abbey and grounds. As he made his way around the path he tried to remember where he’d seen the impressive gladiator statue before. In a few strides it came back to him, it was a copy of the original. He glanced back at the statue just before he entered the building. He had seen it in Paris. The original marble statue dating from 1611 was on display in the Louvre.
‘Nearly there.’ Matt murmured, looking up at the Abbey as he went into the house. His heart sank as he saw a group of tourists asking a multitude of questions at the cash desk. He glanced at his watch. Five minutes. He pulled his wallet out to pay his admission then looking at a young lady in a red shirt. He thought again. The words ‘English Heritage’ emblazoned in white across her shirt struck a chord. He pulled out his membership card and showed it to the second cashier. Inside a minute he was on his way with a gracious smile, an audio guide and a handy leaflet.
Matt took the steps up to the next floor three at a time which surprised all the other visitors. He ran along the length of the large room passing the impressive large audio visual display and the informative glass display cases of artefacts. Later, he thought. No time to look at his watch now he decided, and ran as fast as he could. Straight on out through the glass doors at the end and onto the ramp.
He’d reached the well-kept grass before he remembered once again he was wearing leather-soled shoes. As he tried to run, he found himself slipping in his frustrated efforts to gain speed. A glance at the leaflet as he’d gone up the stairs had told him the Abbey pond was at the distant end of the ruins so he now sprinted as best he could. Matt had to reach the end where the chapel would have been situated. His breathing was erratic when he reached the end of the building. This wasn’t due to the running itself, but the continual slipping as he concentrated on keeping his balance at speed.
Matt reached the end of the Abbey and stopped. He turned left, close to the far wall of the massive ruins and for the first time since leaving his car he attempted a smile. Standing with her back against the wall of the Abbey was Matt’s girlfriend, Elizabeth. Her long, perfectly brushed auburn hair was draped over bare tanned shoulders and contrasted with the pale blue of her knee length summer dress. Matt thought she looked both ravishing and elegant, but more importantly worth the efforts he had imposed on himself.
Elizabeth glanced down at her diamond studded Cartier wristwatch and her right eyebrow raised slightly which Matt knew was a good sign. As Elizabeth looked at him and smiled, Matt reached into his pocket, dropped down on one knee and opened a tiny red box.
‘Elizabeth Cholmley ... will you marry me?’
‘Of course I will,’ Elizabeth said. She smiled and held her left hand out as the most important person in her life stood up and slipped the diamond ring on her finger. She said, ‘Romance for me is all about time, place and who is sharing the moment. Would you like to tour Whitby Abbey, my favourite historic monument before we go to lunch?’
Saturday 6th January 2018
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