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‘If Stone Could Speak’, by Penni Tanton

Short stories
Hever Castle photo credit Carron Nightingale

Many people believe that stone is cold. I don’t. Stone is a thing of beauty, and from it I am learning to create magnificent things.

The work is hard, and dangerous. The days are long. We start at daylight and end at dusk, tired but satisfied that much has been achieved in a day. Wagons roll past, bringing more sandstone from the quarry. The scaffolding creaks as men noisily haul up the stones, mounting one a top another, constructing a good strong gatehouse, part of a stronghold that John Cobham will be proud to show to his friends, and those of influence.

The Master rules with a rod of iron, but if you work well and please him, he will reward you with praise. Stone is a tough master too. It is as if the stone is a measure of feelings – it reflects your mood. Treat it with patience and kindness and all works well. If you are too anxious or full of anger, the stone reacts against it. A split, a breakage occurs, and then the Master Mason turns on you. It is amazing how he hears so quickly, as soon as a problem occurs, emerging from the Lodge where he oversees the work. If you damage the stones or treat them badly, you feel his wrath.

I work silently, but I don’t mind. I enjoy my work. This craft creates a calmness and peacefulness within my heart. It’s as if the stone and I were one. The only sound I hear is my chisel on the sandstone. The soft tap-tap-tap; nowhere near as harsh as the woodpecker hammering in the trees behind us. The marks I make blend well today, the stone melding in my hand like a potter sculpting clay.

When I touch the stone, it is as if it’s a living, breathing thing, full of feelings and pulses. The lines and marks of the stone are like fingerprints: each unique, emanating a feeling of warmth that I connect with. The stone and I become one when I am working on each piece. I work cautiously, but everything seems to be in harmony, and I realise that this will be a carving to be proud of. Soft footsteps approach behind me. It is my master, Tom. As I blow away the dust it drifts softly in the gentle breeze, like petals in the springtime. I breathe out, realising that I have been holding my breath. Master Tom lays a rough workman’s hand on my shoulder, and there is the faintest smile on his lips, as he tells me that I’ve done a good job. Now I can breathe the air and rest my back, and quench my thirst in some cool refreshing water from the pail and rest for the night.

“Won’t be long now, Sam. A few more weeks and we’ll be moving on,” Tom tells me as we rest on a large lump of stone rejected for its many fault lines.

Suddenly a cry shatters the silence. Then a loud crash. Tom and I hastily run towards the gatehouse. Such a sight meets our eyes. The wooden scaffolding lies like a handful of straw in a heap on the ground. There is a tangle of ropes and wood. My gaze captures a glimpse of another of my precious carvings – a boss for the vaulted roof. I had felt such pride in being given this task and had spent many days carefully forming the leaves and foliage. Now, it lies worthless, a chipped and broken lump on the stony ground. These thoughts only last a few seconds in my mind, as I realise that there are injured men beneath the ruined scaffold. Work can be re-done. Men’s lives are precious. Together we work, almost silently, clearing the rubble and tending the injuries.

Thankfully this time, the injuries are less severe than we feared. Together we help the wounded to the encampment for rest. Tomorrow we will re-build the scaffold and I will start carving a new roof boss. Hopefully we will still be able to complete our work on time – if the weather holds, if there are no more accidents… We live a life full of ‘ifs’ and ‘hopes’.

As dusk becomes night-time, Tom and I make our way back to the Mason’s Lodge. Here I hope soon to take my examination and gain my Master Mason’s marks. I gaze up at the structure we are building. A stronghold for John Cobham, and a home for him and his family.

I can no longer imagine a life living in one place. From the age of 12, separated from family and familiar places, I have journeyed across the country with Master Tom, learning the trade. We have seen many wonders, helped to create magnificent edifices, and soon it will be time to leave again. I wonder what it would be like to live in peace and quiet as the Cobham family will, with strong walls wrapped around you, safe as in a mother’s arms.

Later as I close my weary eyes, my body exhausted from the hard day, I think about the stones I have carved. The ornate pieces, the large blocks helping to create the stronghold, and I wonder what those stones will see. I hope the thick walls will keep the Cobham family safe, and free from danger. I wonder about the people who may pass under the gatehouse arch. Will the stones echo with the cries of new-born babes, hear children’s laughter, keep away sickness and plagues, create shelter for lovers as they whisper and snatch kisses in the shadows of the walls, or even, be party to political intrigue? Most of all I hope that the walls of this castle will play some part, be it major or minor, in the history of this great country, and, even though Sam the apprentice mason will be forgotten, the gatehouse and castle at Hever will last for hundreds of years.

Soon we will move on. Tom tells me we are going to a nearby place called Penchester. There is work to be done at the manor. Perhaps there I may become a master mason, and truly make my mark.

Many people believe that stone is cold. I don’t. Stone is a thing of beauty, and from it I am learning to create magnificent things.

The work is hard, and dangerous. The days are long. We start at daylight and end at dusk, tired but satisfied that much has been achieved in a day. Wagons roll past, bringing more sandstone from the quarry. The scaffolding creaks as men noisily haul up the stones, mounting one a top another, constructing a good strong gatehouse, part of a stronghold that John Cobham will be proud to show to his friends, and those of influence.

The Master rules with a rod of iron, but if you work well and please him, he will reward you with praise. Stone is a tough master too. It is as if the stone is a measure of feelings – it reflects your mood. Treat it with patience and kindness and all works well. If you are too anxious or full of anger, the stone reacts against it. A split, a breakage occurs, and then the Master Mason turns on you. It is amazing how he hears so quickly, as soon as a problem occurs, emerging from the Lodge where he oversees the work. If you damage the stones or treat them badly, you feel his wrath.

I work silently, but I don’t mind. I enjoy my work. This craft creates a calmness and peacefulness within my heart. It’s as if the stone and I were one. The only sound I hear is my chisel on the sandstone. The soft tap-tap-tap; nowhere near as harsh as the woodpecker hammering in the trees behind us. The marks I make blend well today, the stone melding in my hand like a potter sculpting clay.

When I touch the stone, it is as if it’s a living, breathing thing, full of feelings and pulses. The lines and marks of the stone are like fingerprints: each unique, emanating a feeling of warmth that I connect with. The stone and I become one when I am working on each piece. I work cautiously, but everything seems to be in harmony, and I realise that this will be a carving to be proud of. Soft footsteps approach behind me. It is my master, Tom. As I blow away the dust it drifts softly in the gentle breeze, like petals in the springtime. I breathe out, realising that I have been holding my breath. Master Tom lays a rough workman’s hand on my shoulder, and there is the faintest smile on his lips, as he tells me that I’ve done a good job. Now I can breathe the air and rest my back, and quench my thirst in some cool refreshing water from the pail and rest for the night.

“Won’t be long now, Sam. A few more weeks and we’ll be moving on,” Tom tells me as we rest on a large lump of stone rejected for its many fault lines.

Suddenly a cry shatters the silence. Then a loud crash. Tom and I hastily run towards the gatehouse. Such a sight meets our eyes. The wooden scaffolding lies like a handful of straw in a heap on the ground. There is a tangle of ropes and wood. My gaze captures a glimpse of another of my precious carvings – a boss for the vaulted roof. I had felt such pride in being given this task and had spent many days carefully forming the leaves and foliage. Now, it lies worthless, a chipped and broken lump on the stony ground. These thoughts only last a few seconds in my mind, as I realise that there are injured men beneath the ruined scaffold. Work can be re-done. Men’s lives are precious. Together we work, almost silently, clearing the rubble and tending the injuries.

Thankfully this time, the injuries are less severe than we feared. Together we help the wounded to the encampment for rest. Tomorrow we will re-build the scaffold and I will start carving a new roof boss. Hopefully we will still be able to complete our work on time – if the weather holds, if there are no more accidents… We live a life full of ‘ifs’ and ‘hopes’.

As dusk becomes night-time, Tom and I make our way back to the Mason’s Lodge. Here I hope soon to take my examination and gain my Master Mason’s marks. I gaze up at the structure we are building. A stronghold for John Cobham, and a home for him and his family.

I can no longer imagine a life living in one place. From the age of 12, separated from family and familiar places, I have journeyed across the country with Master Tom, learning the trade. We have seen many wonders, helped to create magnificent edifices, and soon it will be time to leave again. I wonder what it would be like to live in peace and quiet as the Cobham family will, with strong walls wrapped around you, safe as in a mother’s arms.

Later as I close my weary eyes, my body exhausted from the hard day, I think about the stones I have carved. The ornate pieces, the large blocks helping to create the stronghold, and I wonder what those stones will see. I hope the thick walls will keep the Cobham family safe, and free from danger. I wonder about the people who may pass under the gatehouse arch. Will the stones echo with the cries of new-born babes, hear children’s laughter, keep away sickness and plagues, create shelter for lovers as they whisper and snatch kisses in the shadows of the walls, or even, be party to political intrigue? Most of all I hope that the walls of this castle will play some part, be it major or minor, in the history of this great country, and, even though Sam the apprentice mason will be forgotten, the gatehouse and castle at Hever will last for hundreds of years.

Soon we will move on. Tom tells me we are going to a nearby place called Penchester. There is work to be done at the manor. Perhaps there I may become a master mason, and truly make my mark.

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