The Monolith

Grant Watson

t was fifteen feet tall and stood on its own in the meadow beyond the church like an iron bolt twisted into the soil. Henry Parr thought of a giant hand driving it in from above - God’s calloused fist hammering it down into the ground. But not the God of the slate grey church on the hill - a different God, an older God. One born in the frozen streams and the gnarled bark of trees. One who carried these stones in its mouth like a carpenter carries nails - staking out its territory in the dark forests and the deep, saltwater marshes.

He watched the line of schoolchildren make their way from the ridge along the narrow path in a platoon of grey blazers and knapsacks. Miss Peterson - Agnes - was already at the front handing out her printed questionnaires - directing the class around the monolith as if it were about to tell them all a story. She was wearing her red flower dress - the same dress she wore the first time he saw her. He liked that dress, especially the way the buttons unhooked from clasps tucked into the seams at the back. It was one of those vintage things, something she had found in a tatty charity shop somewhere - a thousand stories hidden up its sleeves. She would have plenty of time to trawl through places like that when she was down on the Kent coast. Nothing but charity shops and derelict shopping centres. Was she really going to go? Was she really going to take that job? What had seemed a lifetime away was now approaching fast - term was nearly over and soon she would be packing up to go. In a matter of weeks she would be gone. And that, as they say, would be that.

“Sir?’ The voice startled him for a moment “I’ve left my bag on the coach and the driver’s locked it.” It was Colin Maloney - a small, rumple-haired boy of thirteen who was always leaving his bag somewhere or other.
“You were told to take everything you needed with you Colin.”
“I know. I just…” He stopped, his voice trailing away like fog drifting across a flat lake.
“Ask Miss Peterson for a pencil. She’s got a whole load down there.”
“Yes sir. Sorry sir.” But he didn’t move. Instead he looked down the hillside to the monolith below. “Funny isn't it?”
“What’s that Colin?”
“Why would they put something like this in the middle of a field?”
“You know what this is don't you Colin?”
“Yes sir. It’s a place of worship.”
“Exactly. And worship can happen anywhere can’t it? Sometimes where you least expect it. Now go on, off you go.”

Colin nodded and bounded down the incline towards Agnes and her stack of papers. Henry watched as she smiled at him indulgently before withdrawing a pencil from her bag and handing it to the young lad along with one of her famed questionnaires. He had always admired that about Agnes - the way she was so open with her pupils. How her eyes would glisten when she read Wordsworth or Tennyson to her class, how she could reassure a child with the slightest quietening of her tone. He had never been able to do that - never wanted to. He treated his students fairly but firmly - he had no interest in revealing his inner self to anyone let alone a bunch of rowdy eleven to sixteen year olds. Why should he make himself vulnerable to them? Why should he open himself up to possible ridicule? An impenetrable exterior was to be shown at all times. Not a chink of light was permitted to escape. But nonetheless he had been impressed by the way Agnes was able to channel her own self in to her teaching. He could see the kids loved her. Everybody could see that. You'd have to be an idiot not to.

His mind wandered to the start of their relationship - how he had offered to drive her home after an endless staff meeting in the headmaster’s office. How they had stopped off on the way for a drink at The Gardener’s Arms, how he had watched her pale fingers as they drummed the stem of her wine glass, wondering at their delicacy and their smallness. Since that afternoon they had met several times, most often in the local pubs, a couple of dinners in the Italian restaurant in town. He had always enjoyed her company and when they had fallen in to bed drunk on a couple of bottles of wine it had been fun and carefree - she hadn't tried to make it into something it wasn't and he had appreciated that. But then when her parents had come to visit for a weekend she had asked him if he wanted to join them for Sunday lunch and when he had declined he had noticed a flicker of disappointment cross her expression. Quickly the disappointment had turned to embarrassment, then a sense of humiliation, that she had pushed him too far, revealed something of herself to him like she did to the children when she read out those poems of hers in class. And now this news that she was leaving the school for another job. Was it a coincidence? Or had his rebuttal sent her scuttling away - her pride hurt - but new, brighter horizons beckoning. Horizons without him.

He sat down on a nearby wooden bench. Suddenly his head was hurting. A high, sharp frequency pushing between his temples. He looked down at the monolith, a tall grey splinter in the middle of the field. He thought of that dreadful ancient God once again - hammering its nails into the earth, striding across the countryside. What sort of a monstrous deity had flung them out here? What possible plan did it have for them? He watched Agnes as she moved easily between the children, a clutch of adoring girls following her wherever she went. She glanced up at him sitting on the bench for a moment then returned to her work. How many months had he known her? Seven? Eight? They had kept their relationship a secret from their colleagues - why cause a fuss? They were just having fun, why complicate things by making it public? He remembered the staff Christmas party when they had arrived separately so as not to arouse any suspicion. She had looked stunning in a black velvet dress - that red hair of hers held up by pins in a French bun. He had felt a secret jolt of pride as another male teacher had commented on how attractive Miss Peterson looked that night, enjoyed their furtive glances across the dance floor as the others rotated about half cut on rum punch and the caretaker’s homemade wine. She had wanted to kiss him at the end of the night but he had shaken his head as she had leant in, afraid the others might see. He should have let her. He shouldn't have worried what any of them thought. They were young and single. They had nothing to hide. Nothing whatsoever.

Of course none of that mattered anymore. Soon she would be off to her new job by the seaside. Deputy head of an expensive all girl’s school. She had first mentioned the job weeks ago - asked for his opinion. He had told her that it would be a good move, a promotion - deputy headship before she was thirty. Most people in her position would kill for an opportunity like that. He would - if he got the chance. She had to take it - it would be insane not to. She should say good bye to this place and never look back. Again he had seen something flicker across her face when he had encouraged her. Some fleeting hurt like a frail insect drifting through the air between them. Had he made a mistake? Should he have told her to stay? It wasn't up to him how she lived her life. She had to make her own decisions. But still, something tugged at him, some dim awareness of the universe contacting around him, some tightening of the threads that held it together. It felt as if the ground were shifting under his feet - reassembling the landscape molecule by molecule, redesigning everything about him in tiny, infinitesimal proportions. He had no idea what it meant - but it unsettled him - and he didn't like being unsettled.

The pain in his head increased. A thin metallic bridge across the front of his skull. He looked down at the monolith below. He had read somewhere that these places were often built on lay lines - perhaps there was some kind of magnetic disturbance in the rock beneath. He rubbed above his eyes, trying to massage it away - but it wouldn't go. Instead the pain gripped him tighter - reverberating about his sinuses like a howling wail of feedback. The ancient God returned to him - a dark figure just on the edge of his peripheral vision. He felt it watching him as it perched on the horizon - then through the gathering waves of dull pain he was sure he could hear it laughing, its high, snorting voice carried on the air, its bared teeth, yellow and bloodied.
“Are you alright Sir?” It was Colin again. “You look a bit… pale.”
“I’m fine Colin. Thank you for asking. What do you want?”
“It’s this question sir. I wondered if you could help me.”
Colin held the questionnaire in front of his face as if he were singing from a hymn sheet.
“Who is thought to have worshipped at this site?” he said grandly.
“We don't know.”
“Don’t know?”
Henry smiled. Typical of Agnes to ask a question without a definitive answer. That was her all over.
“We think it may be Bronze Age people, or perhaps even earlier. But the truth is we have no real idea.”
“Oh” said Colin. A little perplexed. “So what am I supposed to write?”
“Just say that. It’s a mystery. Many different people throughout history have used it for worship. It was even adopted by the early Christians, hence the church over there.”
“A mystery?” mused Colin thoughtfully.
“That’s right. You can't have worship without mystery can you? Mystery is rather the point”

Colin seemed content with this and skipped away scribbling onto his questionnaire. Henry looked down at Agnes who was holding court with her familiar gaggle of young girls. She was demonstrating how to convert a blade of grass into a wind instrument - holding the stalk up to her mouth between steepled fingers and blowing through it. The pain in Henry’s head intensified. Now he was starting to feel a little sick. Was he coming down with something? There was a terrible lurgy doing the rounds but he had always been good with that sort of thing. The constitution of an ox his Mother had always said - bullet proof to the outside world. She would like Agnes - just the sort she'd approve of. A shame they'd probably never meet. Still - nothing he could do about that. The high pitched blasts from the grass orchestra below rose up towards him on the air, followed by bursts of laughter. These kids will miss her he thought. Their affection for her was genuine and uncomplicated. It was so easy when you were a child to just feel something. To just submit to it. Much more difficult as you get older. He knew that all too well. Too much at stake. He found the whole idea of submitting to wild flights of emotion absolutely terrifying. He couldn't bear the thought of getting it wrong - of looking a fool. He conducted his life in the same way he conducted his classes - disciplined, rigorous - better to be in control than to be opened up to chaos and embarrassment. That was the one thing he could not contemplate - to be absurd. He feared that more than anything else.

He thought of Agnes lying next to him in the narrow bed of her flat. Her red hair unfurled across his chest like the embers of a furnace, her hand resting on his cheek. There had been many girlfriends in his life and he liked to think of himself as a man of the world. He had drifted from one to the next with varying degrees of passion and involvement. But they had all fallen away into the darkness beyond, his memories of them faint and interweaving. Agnes had once said to him she knew all about men like him - they could never give themselves over to anything truly - theirs was a life of convenience. They would live, then find a convenient woman to have a convenient life with at a convenient time. Everything set, Everything in its place. She was right. He knew she was right. He had watched his college friends be de-railed by this girl or that. He had seen them compromise their plans to get married and have kids. He couldn't believe they could let something like that throw them off course. There was plenty of time to settle down in the future. Plenty of time to have a family and a mortgage and all the accompanying business of adulthood and responsibility. Oh yes - there was plenty of time for all that.

The pain pressed down on him like a deadweight. He felt as if he could be sick at any time. And there it was again - he was sure he could hear it. Laughter. Distant and barely audible. The old God was having a high old time of it, crouched down on its haunches laughing into the vast sky. Henry concentrated on Agnes - she was still blowing into her blade of grass. The girls were following suit - they sounded like party whistles - as if they were having some kind of celebration. She looked so happy down there - her cheeks flushed as she tried to play a tune, her eyes wide and filled with joy. But soon she would be gone and all this joy would go with her. She would be a memory, a pleasant detour. And it suddenly occurred to him that his whole life had been a series of pleasant detours - country drives going nowhere in particular - zig zagging down deserted lanes, never alighting anywhere for very long - his life blurring past like the trees in his rear view mirror. And in an instant he felt dreadfully alone, as if he were a buoy cut adrift and floating aimlessly out to sea, forever drifting this way and that, entirely at the whim of the tide. Once again he felt the universe decrease in size - tectonic plates recorrect beneath the surface. It was as if the world were shrinking all around him, closing in on him like the bud of a flower, the light falling from an opened doorway suddenly extinguished.

He looked down at the monolith, a flat slab of rock pointing towards the heavens. Why had they brought it here? Why was this particular spot so important? A place of worship? But why? What was there here to worship? Here, in the middle of nowhere? Here in this windswept field? How many generations had performed their rituals at its feet, laid their sacrifices, burned their incense? All to some series of imaginary Gods - strange nightmares dancing at the borders of their imaginations, all of them as substantial as smoke, all of them chalk on some mud hut wall. The laughter he heard on the air wasn't real. The dark figure twirling about the edges of his consciousness wasn't there. There was no ancient God pushing nails into the ground, hammering its granite markers across the muddy landscape. It was vapour. It was not physical. But she was. She was here. She was right in front of him. Flesh. Blood. Bone. He thought of her hair on his chest, her hand on his cheek. The expression on her face when she laughed, the tears at the corners of her eyes when she read her damned poetry. Why hadn't he gone on that blasted dinner? Why hadn't he kissed her on that bloody dance floor? Why hadn't he told her to forget the job and stay here - with him? Why? Why?

The pain in his head seemed to arc up and plateau. A high pitched tone that sang between his ears. Suddenly he found himself walking down the hillside towards her. He felt his footsteps become strides, became aware of the schoolchildren watching him, wondering what on earth was going on. Agnes was watching him too - the blade of grass still held up to her lips as if in earnest prayer. She stood up and glanced at the children nervously - What was he playing at? Had he lost his mind? Finally Henry found himself in front of her at the edge of the monolith. The singing in his ears was huge and inescapable. The pain in his head now constant and overwhelming. He tried to speak but found that he could not. It was as if his entire life had brought him to this point, guided him to this strange and towering rock sticking out of the ground, as if he were being drawn by something greater than himself, something he had no resistance to, something he could no longer ignore. Then with one swift action he fell to the ground and lay prostrate at Agnes’s feet - as if it were the only place on Earth he were meant to be - as if it were the only place on Earth he really belonged.

Grant Watson is a playwright and screenwriter whose last play Perfect Blue was awarded three international awards. He has written extensively for UK television including Holby City, Family Affairs and Doctors. Grant is also a singer-songwriter whose EP Figure in a Dark Landscape is due to be released in May 2020.

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