Working against time

For what must have been the twentieth time that day I carefully climbed the intricate contraption which served as the scaffold’s staircase to the floor above. Through the armour of steel, the river, over 200 feet below, had taken on the forbidding grey tone of the sky. Despite the keen November breeze and the detailed tedium of months of stone repair behind me, the exhilaration of being so close-up and personal with Elizabeth Tower still remained.

“You’re working on Big Ben?” Friends had been enthralled to learn I was involved with the renovation of the iconic landmark. “You can keep an eye on what those politicians are doing then!” We had been on this job for three years. The renovation was due to be completed next year. To Londoners it seemed an unnecessarily long time to be without the familiar chimes by which to check their watches. Our workers had become accustomed to being harangued by tourists angry at the enshrouding steel framework denying them the opportunity for selfies with the famous landmark. But we knew that for the painstaking work involved, it was a very tight schedule. Each time we inspected another area of stonework, more work was identified.

“We’re working against time,” was a joke which had certainly worn off long ago.

“Eh, Charlie.” Flavio’s unmistakable heavily accented voice was raised over the din from the building work and the traffic far below. “On the plans it looks like there’s a carving of St Stephen in a niche right at the back of the bell chamber. This wall,” he double-tapped the stonework, “was extended during later work and has almost cut off the access” This was the third project Flavio Agostini and I had worked on together. Although at times he could be somewhat excitable, his experience of stonemasonry was world-renowned and through the years we had formed a lasting friendship. “It’s gonna be a bit of a squeeze getting you in there, mate. But I reckon you’re the only one of us fit and slim enough!” I was to discover “a bit of a squeeze” was a gross understatement. As his torch had floodlit the gloomy corner Flavio was indicating, I heard myself make the cliched workman’s air-sucked -between-teeth sound. In my apprentice years I could have slipped through the gap with no difficulty, but in my 50s and carrying a little more, shall we say, maturity, it was not going to be so easy.

“That’s a big ask, Flavio, there’s hardly room in that gap for a child to squeeze through, but I’ll give it a go.” An uncomfortable 10 minutes later dumping my lamp on the rubble-strewn floor, I rubbed my right hip. My mason’s belt had been painfully pressing against the bone during my problematic entry and I was conscious of fresh chafing smarting on both elbows. The air had that long closed-away damp, cloying mustiness. A big surprise was that I wasn’t standing in a cramped void, but what had once been a fairly substantial room with an impressive stone door at the far end. Along the length of one side were a series of small niches, suitable for statues, but empty. On the opposite side and in a position of authority stood the unmistakable figure of a saint. Even in the gloom, I could see its stonework looked as fresh as the day it had been installed. I knew the building’s original name had been St Stephen’s Tower until it was renamed during the Queen’s Jubilee, but it seemed the existence of the patron’s statue had been all but forgotten until now.

Stepping carefully across the rubble, I held my lamp closer to examine the statue.This must be St Stephen. A male figure in ecclesiastical robes holding what appeared to be food in his left hand. My trained eye scanned the statue centimetre by centimetre.

White carrara marble; carving in the style popular to Victorians; possibly a James Bubb.

Whoever the sculptor, I was impressed by the exquisite detail encompassed in the facial features and the folds of the clothing. Nothing amiss. The statue was in such faultless condition it could have been positioned the previous day. Unlike much of the rest of the tower which had suffered a century and a half of pollution from traffic and pigeons, all that was necessary was a light cleaning. A relatively simple task. Setting out my tools in an orderly line, I worked systematically around the figure, my tiny brush and vacuum clearing the accumulated dust from each minute crevice. Through my career I had worked in some uncomfortable spots, on- high in cathedrals; in crypts, even standing in ponds, but the sickly smell in this confined space was in danger of turning my stomach. Thankfully, after just over an hour, I was almost done.

I was on my knees gently rubbing the saint’s slippers when I noticed something in the far corner by the stone door that had previously escaped my notice. It looked like a pile of rags. I stood, groaned, stretched my knees and reached for the lamp. Approaching the corner, that sweet cloying smell grew stronger. I leant down, peering closer, shining the lamplight directly onto the object. I let out a shriek, leapt back, and, stumbling on rubble, landed spread-eagled on the unforgiving stone floor. I lay in pitch darkness for what seemed like an age, before pulling myself together and managing to retrieve the lamp. Thankfully it relit after a shake. With resolve, I stood and made myself confront the object once again.

There was no mistaking it. What I had thought to be a pile of rags was definitely a body, or to be more precise, a pile of bones. The skull stared at me with that creepy knowing grin that all skeletons seem to acquire through time, but this time I noticed a large crack and fragments missing from just above the ear socket. I needed to report this. I was in luck, like the lamp, my mobile seemed to have suffered no ill effects from my hard tumble.

“Fabio. You’re not going to like this. I’ve found a body.” My voice sounded shaky.

“Yes, I said a body.” I realised I had been whispering as if I didn’t want the body to overhear.

I spoke louder. “Well, a skeleton, to be exact. No, I can’t just ignore it. We have to notify the police immediately. I’m coming out” Everyone in this business was well aware of the knock-on effect finds like this could cause to work schedules. With no knowledge of bodies and decomposition, it was still obvious to me that this person, for a person was what this pile of bones had once been, had sat huddled in this corner for many years. I wondered who had come to such a miserable end and how and when that had occurred.

Collecting my upturned lantern from the floor, I couldn’t resist a final, morbid look.

That same smirk met my eyes, but what sent a shudder through me was that lying on the floor next to the skeleton was the unmistakable shape of a mason’s belt.