Now an old man, Tom Birkin, looks back at the idyllic summer of 1920 when he was hired to uncover a medieval mural on a wall in the village church of Oxgodby in Yorkshire, England. Arriving in the pouring rain, ‘nerves shot to pieces, wife gone, dead broke’ he admires the ancient church that’s to be his home but when the rain clears and the blackbirds begin to sing he relishes the tranquility of the countryside around him ‘letting summer soak into me – the smell of summer and summer sounds.’ and determines to live simply and be happy.
From the top of his ladder in the bell-tower he can see Charles Moon an archaeologist, living in a bell tent in the meadow, digging for a medieval grave. The two become friends and Tom is soon accepted by the locals including the Ellerbeck family and their Chapel community, the troubled vicar in whose church he’s working and his beautiful wife Alice. It’s a time of rabbit-and-potato pie for dinner and seed cake, greengage pie and ‘scalding tea in a can’ at 4 o’clock. The slow sultriness of a hot summer day pervades every page, emotions are heightened and time seems to stand still:
‘The butterfly flew into the air once more. For a moment it seemed that it might settle on the rose in her hat, but it veered off and away into the meadow. The sound of bees foraging from flower to flower seemed to deepen the stillness.’
This is a glorious, cloudless, golden summer with swathes of hay at dusk and dew drying on fields of barley but it also feels very real and the quiet unchanging rhythms of village life provide an unexpected refuge for Tom and Moon both damaged by their experiences at Passchendaele.
Absorbed in his work, Tom describes his restoration of the huge mural depicting the day of judgement:
‘So, each day, I released a few more inches of a seething cascade of bones, joints and worm-riddled vitals frothing over the fiery weir.’
There are four outsiders in Oxgodby, Tom and Moon, the Reverend Keach and his wife Alice. Each of them has their own demons, their own version of hell and gently through the mural these are voiced and at least for Tom points towards some hope for his future.
I think it’s easy from the busyness of the 21st century to look back on the turn of the 20th century still lit by lamp and worked by horses and see comfort in the slowness of life. Even Tom in his old age sometimes doubts his memory when he’s getting particularly carried away in some pastural reverie:
‘Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain . . . Day after day it was like that and each morning I leaned on the yard gate dragging at my first fag and (I’d like to think) marvelling at this splendid backcloth. But it can’t have been so; I’m not the marvelling kind. Or was I then?’
and sometimes he just excuses himself with a ‘well, I was young . . . ‘! I think these reality checks are partly why I loved this book so much and I like to think he’s remembering correctly because for Tom, the slowness and calm brought to him by the rituals of living in the belfry are what makes it possible for his healing process to begin.