The Bells of London Town by Tabitha Potts

Bell silhouetted against sky

I AM A campanologist. That is to say, a student in the ancient art of ringing church bells. It’s been several years since this pastime, I suppose you would call it, entered my life.

It had been a long day in the glass tower in Canary Wharf where I’m based. I’ve given up telling people what I do for a living as their eyes tend to glaze over with boredom, but yes, I make myself, and my bank, a lot of money.

I had been staring at my screens since 5 a.m. It felt as if I hadn’t blinked even once. Come evening, my eyes felt dry and gritty.

“How’s it going?” asked Joe Wharton, a trader at a desk immediately adjacent to mine and for whom I have a particular distaste. His smug smile suggested he’d had a good day.

“Not bad,” I said, with an equally smug expression, inviting him to guess on my fortunes that day. We both knew how turbulent the markets had been for the past few hours, which meant that profits as well as losses could be amplified quickly. I grabbed my coat and made for the office door before Wharton could press the matter any further and drive a conversation towards our bonus payments, which were due in a month’s time. Although I was one of the firm’s star traders, he was snapping at my heels and evidently saw me as some kind of competition.

I decided to walk home from Canary Wharf, starting on the Thames path to Limehouse. Sometimes, I would hear echoes of old London as I listened to the tidal slap and suck at the water’s edge, though all around me was visual evidence of the 21st century, with its sleek towers, glittering facades and corporate self-promotion.

Leaving the River Thames pathway near the Grapes pub, I decided on an impulse to walk up from Limehouse towards my home in Shoreditch. I liked to walk around London in the evenings, when the shadows softened and changed the appearance of the buildings. Trying out this new route, I cut through the marina and across Commercial Road, and after a short time, heard church bells ringing.

Following the sound of the chimes through Stepney Green, I came to a beautiful old church and yard, incongruous among the modern parks and tower blocks. A solitary raven posed theatrically on top of a graffiti-smeared monument, and beyond the bird there seemed to be no one around. It began to rain – at first a few drops and then suddenly a downpour – so I sheltered in the entrance of the church, which, while well-lit, also appeared to be empty.

The ringing stopped abruptly and a casually-dressed man, clearly not the Vicar, walked out into the nave and caught sight of me standing by the open doors.

“Are you here for the practice?” he asked.

I don’t know why I said yes, but I did. I normally only talked to strangers when I was out clubbing, drinking and getting high, but on this occasion, I was intrigued. He asked me to follow him, and soon I was standing in the bell ringing chamber of St Dunstan’s, where he invited me to help ring rounds, which was a simple sequence of bells played between treble and tenor.

Arthur, the man who’d just invited me to join him, explained how the system worked. “English bells are not chimed, but rather rung,” he said. “Each bell is mounted on a wheel facing upwards and the ringer must rotate the bell in a full circle by pulling a rope.”

I have a good ear for music and fast reactions, but it is much harder to ring the bell at the right moment than it initially appears, especially given the physical exertion and precise timing it requires.

We began with ringing a “round” and then embarked on “call-change” ringing, which occurs when the sequence of the bells is altered and the changes are called out. I was only starting to get it right at the end of two hours’ fairly constant practice. It suited me; my life as a trader also required fast reactions, with focus and calm under pressure. I knew I’d be able to do it well if I put my mind to it.

In the pub afterwards, Arthur told me more about the ringers. I learned how they played in different churches all over the East End, but this church was a favourite because of the quality of its bells and the fact that they had a peal of ten bells – more than usual.

“St Dunstan’s is one of the churches from the nursery rhyme,” he said in hushed tones, as if imparting some great secret. “All of the churches in that rhyme are near to or in the old City of London.” He leaned a little closer. With his beard and round glasses, he was the sort of person that most would immediately class as eccentric and harmless, with a penchant for real ale and a passion for stamp collecting or bird watching. Arthur’s obsession, of course, was bells.

“The Bow bells – at St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside – were rung as a curfew every evening until the nineteenth century,” he continued. “In fact, it was the sound of the Bow Bells that persuaded Dick Whittington to turn around and come back to London. And the bell of Old Bailey refers to the great bell at St Sepulchre without Newgate opposite the Old Bailey, which rung every time a prisoner was executed. Newgate was a prison for debtors and for criminals, which is why the bell’s words in the rhyme are, ‘When will you pay me?’” He lowered his voice a little. “Bells are the heartbeat of this city. Sometimes I imagine if the bells stopped ringing, the city would stop forever.”

 

RECENTLY I’VE BEEN working longer and longer. As a trader, it’s possible to make a lot of money, but that means routinely taking on a heck of a lot of risk and being in the office all hours. This means I don’t have time for much else than work. However, I am bell ringing at least once a week now, usually when the financial markets are closed, and whenever else I can, really.

I don’t know why I find my new pastime so satisfying, but I undeniably do. Perhaps I am helping to keep the city’s heart beating, or is it the sheer thrill I get from ringing a pitch-perfect peal? Peals are when you are able to ring changes continuously, with a minimum of 5,000 changes. A peal must be “true” in that there must be no repetition of any change throughout. I love the idea that truth and falsity can be so readily determined in bell ringing. I could ring peals all day if I had the time.

My name is now in the peal book at St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, where there are 12 bells for “change” ringing. I learned that this was another of the nursery rhyme churches when I saw the letterbox for “Oranges and Lemons letters” whose final destination this is. Shoreditch bells in the nursery rhyme say, “When I grow rich” because the area was so poor; at one point the church had to raise money to build a workhouse for the parish.

It’s certainly changed now. My place in Shoreditch cost a fortune. I bought it outright after last year’s bonus payment, and in this market, the value can only go up as far as I can see. I definitely see the property as an investment.

There’s a girl among the ringers, called Sara. She was talking to me about the spiraling property prices in East London and what it means for locals. Apparently they’re getting priced off the market and have to buy cheaper properties farther out. I told her that prices going up will mean more money moving into the area, and eventually it will improve housing stock, schools and retail provision.

Twenty years ago, this area was awful, I told her, and it would have stayed that way if people like her had their way. By that I meant it would have still been full of high crime, unemployment and people living on benefits. She asked me what I did for a living and when I told her, she gave a broad smile. “That makes sense.”

She was a lot better looking than you might expect, so I asked if she wanted to join me at my favourite club in London, where the whole dance floor applauds you if you buy a magnum of champagne. She declined. Her loss. She probably would have had the best night out in her life, or at least that’s what I told myself. Lately, I’ve tended to go shopping for women on the Internet. You get to have a good look before you “Buy.” There’s a huge amount of choice; guaranteed high quality if you don’t mind paying the price, and best of all, you can send them back.

 

ARTHUR TOLD ME that one of the other churches named in the long version of the nursery rhyme, St Botolph’s, was in an area infamous for prostitution and it was called the prostitute’s church. Old Father Baldpate ring out the slow bells of Aldgate in the rhyme. Old Father Baldpate is a reference to Saint Botolph’s tonsure, or possibly something slightly further down his torso. But it all comes back to money. That’s what I think the bells of London sing about.

Arthur sees it altogether differently. He believes that ringing church bells bring people together. They were rung to celebrate God, or mark a christening, wedding, or funeral. There were harvest bells and gleaning bells to let you know when to start and finish work. There was a bell to let you know when you were allowed to visit Bedlam, the asylum in Bishopsgate. Bells were supposed to protect you against fire, plague, and the devil, which is why they were rung when someone died, to save their soul.

 

THINGS ARE GETTING very tense at work. I know the ever-smarmy Wharton is watching me closely and I’m worried he might try and stitch me up for taking on too much risk and keeping it quiet. I know the bank won’t care if I cut corners, so long as I make a tidy profit at the end of it all. On the other hand, the bosses will deny all knowledge if I get it wrong. I’m not the first in this situation and I almost certainly won’t be the last. Anyway, despite the massive loss showing on my account, I’ve got some trading tactics that I know will turn it all around. For sure. After all, I understand the market better than anyone.

It was 4 a.m. and I’d been doing an all-nighter at work trying to sort things out – with the help of a few lines to clear my head – when I heard something unusual. I can recognise the sound of bells, any time of day or night. There aren’t too many and my ears are attuned to them. There’s so much noise pollution that people say you can only hear the Bow Bells in the City and Shoreditch nowadays.

What I heard was a peal that comprised at least twelve individual bells and had some changes that I just couldn’t work out. It was coming from a different direction to all the local bell towers and I couldn’t place it. I went for a walk to see where these beautiful, compelling chimes were coming from. It’s really not hard to follow the bells once you’re accustomed to being guided by your ears. I ended up in a place by the river that I hadn’t seen before. It’s strange to think I’d been working here for so long and hadn’t noticed it. There were hardly any lights on the street, just the dark, still water, and it was so late that I couldn’t see much beyond the general outlines of buildings. But the sound of the bells was getting closer all the time.

 

I GET MORE than my 15 minutes of fame and even find myself on the TV news. Mysterious disappearance of rogue trader. Bank could go under – trader missing. The headlines are many and varied.

When interviewed, Wharton describes me as seeming “ill and preoccupied” when he last saw me. Once they start checking the bank’s balance sheet and see the damage done, there is an easy explanation. Some people might think I’ve ended up on a sunny beach somewhere, grinning over a lurid cocktail. Could have happened – there were plenty of cash withdrawals from my own bank account, as well as a lot of over-spending on the corporate credit card, and perhaps it didn’t all go up my nose. Of course the police drag the river for me, but the Thames hugs her secrets tightly and nothing’s surfaced so far. What people see when they watch the security camera footage on TV – the last recorded moment of my life – is my walking under and then away from the street light, as though I briefly flicker under its illumination and then am swallowed completely by the darkness of the city around me. I become one with it, as if I have never been anything else.

Police say a search of the area is still underway.

This story was originally published in an anthology, Brick Lane Tales, by Brick Lane Publishing as part of a competition. It is reproduced with the publisher’s permission. 

 

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