Lost in time – of those that came before
Time, they say, is relative. It is also the single thing that all of us have as much of – or as little of – as out next door neighbour. Not that everyone agrees with that statement, as it is obvious even to a blind hen that some of us (read “me”) work much more than others (read “you”). In actual fact, though, we are all free to deploy the usage of our time as we please – but we must be prepared to take the consequences. So, if person A finds his/her time well-invested by spending it on the sofa watching TV all day long, chances are person A will soon find himself/herself without either sofa or TV.
Time – or rather the passing of time – is also something of an anxiety attack. As we get older, we become painfully aware of the fact that time is running out, and those endless years that stretched before us when we were sixteen and naïve, seem depressingly finite once we have passed the fifty year mark. This is when bucket lists get written, when previously agnostic people start considering the afterlife, carefully circling the thought that maybe God exists – if nothing else because if He does exist, maybe things won’t end when we draw that last, final breath.
Some become concerned not so much with afterlife but with afterword. What will be said of us once we are dead? Will we have left an indelible impression on this world? Probably not. After all, most of us will pass into the annals of history as the merest of footnotes – as have most of our ancestors before us.
History is not made up of the famous. It isn’t the kings and the queens, it is the rank and file, the people who broke their backs over meagre fields, who span and wove, who cooked and baked, fought and died. People like us, a sea of humanity stretching back into time, most of whom had no ambition beyond surviving and leaving enough of a legacy behind for their children to be slightly better off than they were.
One of my favourite pastimes is to visit old churches. Not the fancy, huge cathedrals, but rather the small, dilapidated churches that so generously dot our continent. The gate to the graveyard might squeak, headstones stand in ordered rows that degenerate to a jumble of fallen, broken stones the further back in time we go. If the inscriptions are decipherable, there will be moments of quiet contemplation as I consider the fate of the poor woman who gave birth seven times and buried six of her boys – all of them named William in one combination or another – before they reached the age of one. Did she curse God? Did she blame herself for not being pious enough, good enough?
Then there’s the church itself. Old pews are worn shiny with use, there’s a tang of dust and candle wax, and in the furthest right hand corner there are remnants of the medieval frescoes that illustrated the Bible stories – frescoes that were whitewashed during the Reformation, proclaimed as unnecessary now that common man could read the Bible for himself. Except that often he couldn’t, because despite the Bible being translated into the vernacular, analphabetism was rife in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. I guess the people missed the frescoes, if nothing else as a feature to fix their eyes on during the increasingly long sermons.
I like sitting down for a while, all alone with the dust motes that dance in the sunlight that falls through the high church windows. Sometimes it seems to me those shimmering particles come together, forming outlines of people. There’s the soft, hushed sound of prayers, in Latin, in the languages of today. Sweeping kirtles, men in gowns and hose, here and there a serving wench with her hair severely tucked out of sight – people from all ages, an endless line of devout believers that clasp their hands and pray. For what? A safe birth? Deliverance from the Black Death? The return of their man, presently fighting at Naseby? There’s weeping and laughter, and once in a while it is as if the whole church hums with this collective prayer from the preceding generations. What did they wish for? Dream of? Probably the same things we wish for; a good life, health, future for our kids.
Recently I have developed a new fascination – old stone walls. It struck me one day as I was admiring the walls that encircle our country house, that these beautiful seventeenth century constructions are the result of very much work. Extremely hard labour, in fact. Since then, I see walls everywhere, features I had previously never taken any notice of. Each and every stone in those long, straight walls is a stone picked from a field, a little piece of rock lifted aside before it broke the precious plough. Until the field was rid of stones, it couldn’t be cultivated, and clearly this was land riddled with stone. Lucky me, I think as I caress my precious walls, and out of the corner of my eye I see a boy in ragged breeches and a filthy linen shirt, and he is crying because his back is hurting something awful, but the master will belt him if he stops shifting the rocks. He looks straight at me, wipes at his snotty nose and fades away. I wonder if the moss-covered stone presently under my hand is one he placed here.
Everywhere we look, we find the traces of the people who lived before us – in the churches and graveyards, in the ruined castle and the rotting barn. Had we met them, I think we would have been struck by how alike we are – well, once over the superficial differences. We live in a brave new world filled with technological wonders the people from long ago couldn’t even begin to imagine. But they started it, with every rock torn out of the ground to give way to cultivated land, with every spire raised to praise the glory of God – and the inventiveness of man.
Ultimately we’re all the same; we’re born, we live, we die. Some of us build cathedrals, some of us make do with a simple little wall. But somehow we all leave a trace, an ephemeral imprint that will dance like glittering fogs over the lands that once were ours.
Anna Belfrage is the author of six published books, all part of The Graham Saga. Set in the 17th century, the books tell the story of two people who should never have met. Matthew Graham is a devout Presbyterian, a veteran of the Commonwealth armies and a man who, initially at least, has a tendency to see the world as black and white. Alex Lind is an opinionated modern woman who has the misfortune (or not) of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, thereby being dragged three centuries back in time to land concussed and badly singed at an astounded Matthew’s feet.