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The Bell-Ringers

  • 13th Feb, 2006 at 6:29 PM

The Bell-Ringers

Samuel Roddan

The church belfry was a wonderful place in the summer and I don’t think I have ever been so happy as on those cool Sunday mornings when, after ringing the bell, Benny and I climbed up the shaky ladder, wriggled through the trap door, and then, lying down on the flat roof and peeking over the edge, watched the people hurrying along the gravel paths in the Park by the mountain-ash trees.

“You know,” Benny would say, “if we slept in one Sunday morning and didn’t ring the old bell, I bet nobody would come at all.”

Rosedale was a sleepy little town with four churches, but the Baptist was the only one with a bell besides ours. The manse where I lived was right behind the church, which was very handy because if it was raining on a Sunday morning I could skip into the church without getting wet, but Benny had to pedal his bike uphill all the way from the docks. But even in the winter when the snow swirled across the lake Benny was never late. During the weekdays after school Benny would come over to my place and we would stroll around the church, reading what the sign at the front said about Pop’s sermons for next Sunday, and the times of the services, and when the church was build—which was 1905—and then we made her snappy through the basement door up to the kitchen where they served the hot bean suppers for the Tuxis Boys on Friday nights, then to the back of the auditorium and up the stairs to the bell room where the ropes were and the ladder for the trap door to the belfry.

There were two ropes in the bell room. The big, heavy rope with the knot in it hung through a hole in the centre of the ceiling and was fastened to the wheel on the bell. Near the little round window that looked down on the street was the rope for the funerals. This rope was fixed to a big piece of iron which Benny called the “clapper”, and, when you pulled it, it lifted the clapper which would then strike the bell and make a very deep and mournful sound. The big rope with the knot, which Benny and I pulled every Sunday at ten-thirty to get the people out for the service, moved the whole bell, and once you got her ringing you hung on to the rope and went up and down on it. After you had the knack, sometimes your head would nearly touch the ceiling. The bell was so strong and powerful it could take Benny and me both up the rope as though we were nothing. The ride was one of the reasons we were really crazy about the bell; that, and the sound, and the belfry from where we watched the town and everybody coming to church. Up in the belfry we were in a little world of our own, with only the bell, the sun, and the pigeons.

The pigeons at times got on our nerves. “I wouldn’t mind one or two,” Benny said, “because we could train them. But not this many. Look at the old bell, after we just polished her up yesterday.”

Benny and I only went up into the belfry in the summer. It was too cold in the winter, and besides Benny had warned me that if it was thirty below and I touched the bell with my tongue, I would never get it off.

“The only way it could be done,” Benny said, “would be to warm up the bell with a blow torch, and that’s pretty dangerous because it would take out her temper and then we’d only have a rattle like the Baptist bell.

Neither Benny nor I liked pulling the funeral bell. There was no ride and besides a lot of people always seemed to be buried on Saturday afternoons when we had made plans to go to Three Mile Creek after Benny had finished helping Mr. McGuffey, the milkman, do his route. If it was somebody important and the funeral was during the week we would get notes from Pop to pleas excuse us from school. The services were usually at three and we got out half an hour earlier than the others. But if it was a long service, Benny and I had to stay in the bell room, and through the window we could see the other kids on the street with their books under their arms, watching for the coffin. As soon as Benny spotted Mr. Boom, the undertaker, walking solemnly down the church steps, he gave me the signal and I grabbed the funeral rope. Benny always wanted to give the signals until one day I saw he was waving at the kids. After that I felt we should take turns at giving signals, and Benny finally agreed. His point was that he didn’t have to wear glasses and I did and he could see Mr. Boom better. But I could see from a distance pretty good too. Mr. Boom was a fat man with thick cheeks who always smoked big cigars except when he was on business. Some people said he slipped the silver handles off the coffins after everybody had gone home, but it was hard to say.

Benny was full of suggestions about looking after the bell. It was his idea to grease the bearings every day; to dry off the rope when it rained; and to keep track of the funerals. The idea here was that in the big beam that ran under the belfry roof we should make a notch each time we rang the funeral bell—a big notch if it was an important service, and a small notch if it was just an ordinary one. We kept the notches for about three months and then one day when we were up in the belfry looking around the old bell as usual, and examining the rope, and greasing her up a little, I asked Benny who the second notch from the end of the beam was, near the grease cup. Benny came over and said that was Mrs. Arbuckle. But then I started to think, if that was Mrs. Arbuckle, who was the notch on the other side of the grease cup? Benny said right away that was Mr. Johnson who used to run the hardware store. Well, I had him there, because Mr. Johnson was buried from the Baptist Church. After that we decided what’s the use, and besides, as Benny pointed out, too many notches were weakening the beam; so we took some putty and filled them in and later white-washed everything all over until it was as good as new.

Many wonderful things happened to Benny and me that summer, and while I’m trying hard to remember them all, it’s just the big ones I’m telling about first. Sometimes on Saturday nights after dark we sneaked into the belfry and lay down on the flat roof beside the bell and looked at the town and listened to its mysterious noises. And, if there were boxing-matches in the Armouries across the street, from the belfry we had the best seats of all.

One night Mike Malinowski, who was the most famous boxer our town ever had, was fighting a big man from Toronto in black trunks, and Mike was getting knocked down on the mat then getting up and falling down again. And Mr. Boom was in the front row because we could see his fat cigar and his gold-plated watch chain and his little pigeon-eyes all bloodshot and mean. “He’s waiting for Mike to kill the other guy,” Benny said softly, not meaning it that way, because we couldn’t believe anybody could ever knock Mike up and down like that. At the end, though, they lifted up Mike’s hand, the way it should be because of a foul, while three men, include Mr. McGuffey, the milkman that Benny helped on Saturday mornings, held the Toronto fighter in his corner until the brought the police wagon and took him away.

“Someday I’ll be a great boxer too,” Benny said as we climbed back through the trap door that night, “and when I’m champ I’ll let you wear my belt with all the diamonds in it.”

It was the third week of August on a Saturday morning about nine o’clock when I heard the phone ring. I was just waking up and going over the plans for the day after Benny got back from helping Mr. McGuffey with this milk route. I was wondering whether we should try the different brand of grease on the bell that Benny had been discussing with Mr. Jackson, the garageman, when my mother cried out as though she had been hurt; then the phone receiver banged on the floor and I immediately figured it was broken for sure. Pop’s voice started talking and said something about God’s will, Mrs. McIvor, and God Moves in a Mysterious Way His Wonders to Perform; and then I really woke up, because I knew what it was. Benny’s father had been sick for a long time and I would have to get right over to see Benny.

I pulled on my clothes, not figuring to wear my running-shoes because today would be different now, and black shoes were a mark of respect, and I went downstairs and asked Pop, who was staring in to the receiver with his arm around Mother, “When did it happen?”

Pop’s voice sounded hollow, like the echoes you get from a mountain, and it was telling me that Benny had been out helping Mr. McGuffey, the milkman, and the horse had bolted off the dock.

I knew everything right then, the way you really know, and it was as if someone had pulled a black bag over my head so that I couldn’t breathe. I sat down, staring at my shiny black shoes, and then I got up and took the receiver from Pop and checked to make sure it wasn’t broken when it fell, and then I puttered around the kitchen for a while, half-figuring that the fishing was off for the day anyway, but not really thinking, trying to whistle a little bit even, and biting my lip, and not believing anything and knowing that everything was really over, so I went out and got on my bike and pedalled down to the dock, but all the way I could hardly breathe for the black bag, which wasn’t there of course but which was keeping me from breathing.

There was a great crowd at the dock and a diver whose name I have forgotten was going down into the water. I watched Mr. Jackson, the garageman, working the air pumps and waiting for a turn was Mr. McGuffey, who was sitting on an apple box with this head in his hands; and then I squirmed to the front where Mr. Jacobs, the school principal, was standing. Mr. Boom was already there, and so was Dr. Seldon. The bubbles were boiling up from the water coming from the air valves in the diver’s suit, but when I got down on my hands and knees I could see the diver, half-floating like a big black fish on the bottom. He seemed to be dancing, and then I remember what Benny said once about divers—that they have to wear leaden shoes on their feet for otherwise they would dance all over the bottom of the lake. I could see the wagon pretty clear but the name was too blurry to read. Then I saw the horse. The diver was trying to bend over and undo the harness, but finally he had to crawl flat on his stomach and then he started to come up lifting the horse with one hand to the top of the water where Mr. Boom was ready with a rope which he slipped through the collar and made fast with a number eight knot on the cleat. Now the diver was going down again, moving his hands as though he were a huge black moth, and he balanced on the side of the wagon and pulled on the door. It came open pretty slowly and then I saw Benny swimming around inside. Benny was a very good swimmer and he looked as if he were coasting underwater at the Current River Pool, only here he had all his clothes on, which made the difference.

The diver moved like a very stupid moth with his big feet going up and down as though he were riding a bicycle, while Benny looked like a long sleek trout that knows exactly what he is doing because he slipped right out of the door, twisting in a graceful circle that I had never seen any swimmer do before. The diver didn’t even know the first thing about swimming underwater. He could lift a horse with one hand to the top of the water but he couldn’t catch Benny. Then the diver went into a little crouch with his big feet going up and down and then I saw him clearly now with a long silver hook in his hand, and I knew that Benny didn’t have a chance. Suddenly the water started to boil with white bubbles and the diver came to the surface with a great splash, and when the water had drained away Benny was resting over the diver’s shoulders and Mr. Boom reached down, grabbed Benny by his collar, and flopped him on the dock.

I pedalled home very slowly and put away my bike figuring I wouldn’t be needing it now, and in the garden I picked a few red raspberries but they were actually black currants I was eating and I have never been able to eat black currants, so I spat them out, and then I asked Mother where the red raspberries were. She told me they were over against the fence, at the back, beside the chicken coop where they have always been since I could remember. I ate a few red raspberries and tried the black currants again and went into the house biting my lip because the black currants were very bitter.

I guess it was on a Tuesday the funeral service was held. Anyway, everybody from the school was out, but before this, there had been a lot of talk about the pall-bearers. Pop thought it would be much better if the men teachers acted as pall-bearers, because you would not want the service interrupted by children who might stumble with the coffin. I figured that if we could carry big armfuls of wood into the basement, six fellows like Jim Brown and Stu Roberts and myself, who all played on the rugby team, could handle it easy. I had the argument too, about the weights, because I had Benny’s ticket on me from the weighing machine outside Mr. McCurdy’s drug store on Wednesday I had loaned Benny a penny to get weighed. And after he had read the ticket which said, “Still Waters Run Deep”, he gave it to me because it was mine. But when he got his pay from Mr. McGuffey on Saturday I would give it back. We both weighed the same, which was eighty-six pounds. But the real point, as I tried to explain to Pop, was that we were all volunteers. Anyway, the way it worked out, they made Jim and Stu and the other fellows ushers, and I guess it was all right. I was to look after the bell as usual, and things would be in the best interests of everyone concerned, was the way Pop finally explained it to us.

It was a big funeral because the people started coming about two o’clock to parade by the coffin and the service wasn’t due until three. All the school kids were lined up to march past at two-thirty, and I got behind Jim Brown, who is a pretty good pal of mine, and we walked down the aisle and then past the flowers including the school wreath which was on the bottom part of the coffin. Benny had a little smile on his face and he seemed fine. I didn’t look at him too long because there was an awful crush behind Jim and me, but I checked the silver handles and the inside lining which was smooth silk speckled with grey dots. It was the neatest coffin I have ever seen.

After Pop’s sermon and before the last hymn, which was “Onward Christian Soldiers”, I slipped out and went up to the bell room. Jim Brown, my pal, was to give me the high-sign from the street as soon as Mr. Boom came out the church door. I would then give the usual twelve strokes. At least that was the first idea. Then Jim and I figured, because we had been talking about this before the service that for Benny we should give him eighteen—because he was nine, and twice nine is eighteen. So I agreed, although I knew I might have to speed up on the extra six to get down into Jim’s father’s car for the ride to the cemetery.

The bell room seemed a little empty without Benny but I was kept busy watching out the window, checking over the rope and waiting for Jim to give me the signal. As soon as Jim spotted Mr. Boom coming down the steps, he was to lift his right hand and point his finger to the sky, and then he would bow his head as a mark of respect to the dead. As I watched from the window I saw Jim take up his position on the sidewalk, and then his right arm started to go up and it seemed to me it was as high as it could go and I think he must have been on tip-toe although he never said later. Then he slowly bowed his head. Just as his head went down, so that of course he could only see his shoes, I saw Mr. Boom hurrying down the steps towards Jim, who was standing where he had to be to give me the signals. And Mr. Boom came up behind Jim and grabbed him by the collar and pushed him off the sidewalk onto the grass.

I can’t quite tell how I felt then, but it was as if the silver handles were already in Mr. Boom’s back pockets and he had a big fat cigar in his mouth and was spitting a great wallop of spit on the street. And so, because I didn’t have much time left, yet making up my mind quickly because I could feel someone pulling a black bag over my head and not being able to breathe again, I reached over and grabbed the rope for the big bell.

And I let her have it. Gentle but firm at first, the way you have to be to get her swinging, but when the clang came at last it was like a clap of thunder. Then I leaned into the rope and feeling her burn into my hands I gave her everything I had. On the third swing I let the rope pile around my feet on the floor, then rode her right to the ceiling and pulled a double clang at the very peak, which Benny had always claimed was impossible. Then I got her going faster and faster and made another double clang and a triple rocket which was a special pull Benny had invented.

And now I rang the bell for all the glorious memories that were past and gone; for the great fishing expeditions; for the green grass down by Three Mile Creek; for the sweet smell of the mornings we tramped to Current River; for the long hours spent in the belfry planning great adventures; for the belt of sparkling diamonds that one day would have been Benny’s; for all the quiet evening when in silence we had watched our little town grow dim in the fading light. And I rang the bell for Benny’s father and mother and for his sister, and Mr. McGuffey, and for my own aching heart.

It was on the last great pull and I was coasting to the ceiling for the triple rocket when I looked down and in the room I saw Mr. Boom and behind him was Jim, staring up at me. From the ceiling I saw their white faces and Mr. Boom’s face was wide open and great tears were running down the creases into his mouth. And somehow at that moment I knew everything would be all right now, and so the next time to the floor I let the rope burn out of my hands and we all stood together and watched it go up and down by itself until finally the old bell rolled to a halt and only the knot swished back and forth like a pendulum.

I put my hands in my pockets and Mr. Boom stepped back from the door and we went slowly down the steps. And outside in the bright sun all the people of the town were standing as far back as the mountain-ash trees in the Park, and they bowed their heads as a mark of respect to the dead and Mr. Boom led us to the chief mourner’s car, which was crowded already with Benny’s sister, Mr. and Mrs. McIvor, and Mr. McGuffey—but Mr. Boom squeezed Jim and me in and shut the door. And Benny’s mother stared at my bleeding hands and I couldn’t hear the torrent of words that spilled from her lips but my eyes were cool and very still, and I was not remember much nor feeling hardly anything except knowing in my heart that we only do what we must when we pay respect to the memories of a great man.