In the church in my village was a staircase that went nowhere. It was not such a very rare thing. Lots of mediaeval churches in my part of the world have a little alcove near the pulpit that used to lead to the rood gallery – an actual gallery, often beautifully decorated, high above the congregation from where the priest would deliver the gospel. The rood screens were, I was told, smashed by puritans during the Civil War or afterwards. Many of these little alcoves are just that, blocked up at the base level. But in All Saints Church, Great Oakley, the old, frighteningly narrow, spiral stairs, wind up and out of view. I’d often peered in as a child. It started pretty high up, several feet off the ground, so just getting in wasn’t that easy, and not the kind of thing you could really do during a Sunday service. It took until I was eleven to actually climb up there, one afternoon when the church was left open. I snuck away and wriggled into the stairway. It didn’t go far, barely higher than my head, but a couple of steps from the top my hand settled on something. I picked it up, blew the thick crusting of dust off it, and found myself holding a shell, the kind used for baptism. When I got back into the church, I inspected my find. It was indeed a scallop shell, inscribed with various markings. One of them was an elaborate cross, the engraved lines inked green, which an excited churchwarden declared was the device of Saint Alban. Here is where memory must play tricks, because the other thing I remember inscribed on it was a figure that looked remarkably like the Egyptian god Anubis. As I think back on it I know that cannot be right. Saint Dominic is sometimes represented as a dog with a torch. Perhaps it was him.
I will never know. Probably, no-one will. A while after I made my excited discovery, I realised nothing had happened, nothing further had been said. I asked the rector about it. And he denied all knowledge of ever having seen such a thing. He cut me off. I walked away wondering if I had imagined it.
I discovered some years later that the shell had indeed existed, and had been left in the vestry. A local family had decided to play a trick. It was a very odd sort of trick – they all placed their finger and toenail clippings in it. When this was noticed, somebody panicked. It was a sign of something demonic, they said. Apparently nail clippings have some significance. The hysteria spread and the shell was destroyed in a ritual by the rector.
What did this incite? A mistrust of adults. A mistrust of priests. The lesson that grownups can act in very illogical ways. The lesson that historical artifacts are not always valued, and indeed are sometimes feared? Perhaps just that people are strange and fearful.