I was bored with looking at it. The first couple of visits had been quite intriguing, staring at a statue of a naked man up to his shins in water in the crypt of a cathedral, but now we had been half a dozen times and it held no more mystery for me. But Peter had become obsessed.
“What’s he looking at, the book in his hands? I’m sure that’s the secret.”
“I don’t know. Prayer book? Or a plumber’s manual for fixing a leak?”
“No, it’s something special. It’s the clue to the secret.”
“Why should there be a secret?”
“Because he’s here, in a cathedral. It’s something very big.”
“We’ve asked more than once.”
“Maybe we should look more closely.”
“We’re not going in the water. They’ll chuck us out and never let us back in.”
Peter moved a foot and I clutched his arm. I wasn’t letting him into the water. We stood silently for a couple of minutes longer then heard one of the guides announcing the cathedral was going to close for the evening. I felt relief.
“Come on. Time to go home.”
We climbed the stairs out into the transept of the building and ran into the guide. Peter immediately asked the question.
“What’s that man doing down there? What’s it about?”
“He means the sculpture in the crypt.”
“Reading, isn’t he?”
“Reading what? Is it something to with God?”
The guide looked baffled.
“Well this a cathedral, but I don’t really know.”
None of the other guides we had asked over the past few weeks had known.
I gave Peter and gentle tug and led him towards the building’s exit, then felt relieved as we stepped outside. They wouldn’t let us back in that day. As we walked through the garden in front of the building I wish I hadn’t brought him along for that first visit. I had thought it might do something to clear the mess out of his head, give him a quiet space where his mind could relax, but we saw that statue and he became fixated. Susan said he talked about it three or four times a day, kept insisting that he needed to see it again to help him understand. I agreed to take him back largely to give her a break at home, but it had reached the point where I thought I should refuse the next time.
When we got back to Peter’s house I could see from Susan’s face something was wrong. I began to ask, she shook her head with that look that said ‘Not in front of him’, but he picked up on it, stood silently for a moment then knew what it was about.
“It’s that noise again.”
I listened, heard nothing and shook my head.
“It’s in the creaking, in the pipes.”
I listened again. There was a mild creak from somewhere and I realised it was in the central heating system.
“Doesn’t it always do that?”
“It never used to?”
I gave Susan a look that asked ‘Is that right?’. She closed her eyes and seemed to be holding back tears. I thought I could be helpful.
“When is your heating coming on?”
“Fifteen minutes ago.”
“Doesn’t that happen as the hot water moves around the pipes?”
“That’s what the plumber explained.”
Her eyes were still closed.
“But it didn’t used to do that,” Peter said. “I’m sure of it. Why has it has started happening now?”
“I don’t know,” Susan said. “The plumber didn’t know. He said it could be the cold outside, or something had knocked one of the pipes, or that it’s just older; and he bled the radiators and told us there’s nothing to worry about.”
There was a moment’s silence. I hoped that settled it, but feared it wouldn’t.
“He can say that,” Peter said. “But he doesn’t live here. I think we should get another plumber to look at it.”
“We don’t have to.”
“I’m going to do a computer search.”
He headed towards the spare room. I began to follow but Susan tugged at my arm.
“Let him do it.” I’ll have dinner ready soon. It might distract him.”
“How long’s this one been going on?”
“Three weeks, on and off, but he’s not letting it go. I had noticed creaks before he made a thing of it, but I’m scared to say anything. I never know if it will make things worse.”
It left an uneasy pause between us. It was hard to see my brother descend into these obsessions, but she had to live it with day in and day out. And there had been that other incident in the high street, when he had become too persistent in asking a teenage girl to explain the symbol on her T-shirt. That had led to a police officer escorting him to the station and a painful explanation to her parents. It had all left Susan drained. Over the past year she had looked permanently tired, often close to tears. I spoke quietly again.
“When did you last speak with a doctor?
“Yesterday. She told me there are other medications we can try, but he won’t take the ones he’s already been prescribed. And the therapy hasn’t done any good, because he won’t acknowledge there’s a problem. She thought the only answer might be a period of supervision, where they can make sure he takes the meds and force him into therapy.
“You mean sectioned?”
“She didn’t use the word, but yes, that’s what she meant.”
That hurt. It’s hard to acknowledge your brother is messed up in head, harder to see him in a mental hospital.
“Surely it doesn’t need to go that far?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it does.”
She turned away from me, and I realised she might need it as much Peter. I felt sick but couldn’t argue with it.
A couple of minutes later he emerged from the spare room.
“Should I get another plumber, or a central heating engineer?”
Susan answered quickly.
“Think it over. You might know tomorrow.”
Peter looked uncertain but turned away. She moved closer to me and spoke quietly.
“That’ll help. He’ll let it go, just for a while.”
Two days later I was at home, wrapping up work for the day and thinking about a penne arrabiata, when my phone rang with Susan’s name on the screen. It prompted a sinking feeling.
“I can’t find him.”
“For how long?”
“He went off late morning for a walk but hasn’t come back. He always comes home by now.”
“Is he answering his phone?”
“He picked up once then the call cut off. I think he did it on purpose because he hasn’t picked up after that.”
Now I felt anxious. Peter didn’t have to be supervised all the time, but he had become less inclined to wander away from home, and he didn’t like to break the routine around mealtimes.
“Did he say anything?”
“Not this morning, but yesterday he kept on about that man in the crypt again.”
“More than usual?”
“More than usual.”
“I’ll call him once. If he doesn’t pick up I’ll go to the cathedral.”
“When does it close?”
“About forty minutes. I might get there from here in thirty. I can’t pick you up.”
“I’ll make my own way.”
“No, stay home, in case he turns up.”
I called his number, got the ringing tone but no response, then jumped into the car. Two minutes later I cursed at realising I had forgotten the ticket that would get me into the cathedral all year, and thinking that Peter had probably taken his. The urgency was tangled with the fear that this was a breaking point, when he would do something wild enough to place him in an institution.
The traffic was heavy, I parked near the cathedral with less than ten minutes to spare and reached its doors bang on closing time. Two guides were seeing the last couple of visitors towards the door.
“Sorry we’re closing.”
I showed them a photo of Peter from my phone.
“Have you seen him here this afternoon.”
The male guide shook his head without looking. The woman, white haired with large glasses, peered for a few seconds then nodded.
“He was in the crypt when I called closing. He followed me out.”
“All the way to here?”
She thought for a moment.
“No, I was distracted. But he surely he wouldn’t.”
“He might have doubled back. It’s hard to explain but there’s something in his head that keeps drawing him back to that spot. Can we take a look?”
The man looked impatient, said it seemed far fetched, but the woman said she wasn’t taking responsibility if he was locked in. She walked beside me to the crypt entrance.
From the door we could see the viewing platform but not Peter. I went down the steps, looked along the crypt and saw him. He was beside the statue, knee deep in water and staring. I could see his head moving as if examining the figure from head to foot and back. His mind had created a mystery that had him transfixed.
I spoke his name. He didn’t respond. I shouted his name. This time he looked around, acknowledged me with a gentle nod, then looked back to the statue.
“He can’t stay there,” the guide said.
“I’ve got no intention of leaving him there.”
I climbed the low barrier and stepped into the water, squirmed as it soaked my legs and waded towards him. He ignored me, too deeply focused on the statue to be distracted. I touched his shoulder.
“Pete, what are you doing.”
“Trying to work it out. What he’s doing here.”
“But, we’re standing up to our knees in water, and it’s cold. Couldn’t you work out from the viewing platform?”
“I tried. I need to be closer.”
He touched the statue’s shoulder. I touched his arm but he pulled away, then took a step aside. He wasn’t going to let me lead him back. I spoke quietly.
“Pete, this isn’t good. You’ve been acting all wrong, and Susan and I are worried, and this is making me feel it’s getting worse.”
“Why should it be worse?”
I was thinking of a mental hospital, but knew this wasn’t the right time to say so.
“Because if we stand here much longer we’ll both catch colds, or flu.”
I moved and made another attempt to touch. Again he moved away. Now he was behind the statue, but his eyes settled on the point between its shoulders. His mind had locked into a question I couldn’t answer. I dipped my head, pushed back my hair, then heard a sloshing sound from behind. The guide was wading towards us, water above the hem of her skirt. For a moment I feared a rebuke and possibly worse to follow, but then saw that she looked worried, sympathetic. She slipped into the space between me and Peter and questioned him in a soft voice.
“What do you want here?”
“I just want to understand. Why he’s here, what it means.”
She paused for a moment then smiled.
“It doesn’t have to mean anything. And you don’t have to understand. We can’t understand everything.”
He turned his eyes from the statue to stare into hers.
“But we’re meant to understand the world.”
Her smile broadened.
“Really? Look around here, the whole building. Do you think anyone can understand all this? The whole thing about God? Heaven? Nobody can wrap their heads around what all that means.”
He kept looking at her, seemed to be considering what she had said.
“You mean you don’t get what all this means?”
“Not everything. I just like it. It makes me feel better. And I don’t get why this statue is standing here in the water, but I like the feeling whenever I look at it.”
“You like it. But you don’t get it.”
He looked at the statue again. We all stood silently for about twenty seconds then the guide touched his arm.
“I think we should all get out of this water.”
She moved and he followed. A couple of minutes later we were in a small room near the entrance drying our feet with paper towels.
It was clear that Susan had been crying. There was a look of defeat on her face and I suspected she had given in to the idea that Peter would have to spend time in an institution. Then she noticed we were both without shoes and in white socks that had been bought quickly from Primark. I urged Peter to change out of his damp trousers, then told her quietly what had happened. She was surprised by the way episode had ended.
“He just gave up on it?”
“On that at least. It might have been something in the woman’s voice, or just a trigger in what she explained. I don’t know.”
She thought about it for a minute. The expression of despair remained. Then Peter came back into the room.
“It’s started again,” he said. “That creak in the pipes.”
Susan closed her eyes and took a quiet breath.
“I called three of the numbers you found. I couldn’t claim it was an emergency and the earliest that one could come is next Tuesday.”
“Don’t worry. There’s no rush.”
It prompted a moment of uncertain silence.
“I can do it.”
“No, it’s OK. It isn’t serious. We can live with it.”
Peter smiled, walked to the window and looked into the garden. Susan and I turned to each other and shared a big look of surprise …. and hope.