29 November 2007

The Church Bell

You could hear the bell ringing from almost anywhere in the island. For most people it was an indistinct distant sound.

But the bell tower was only a few metres from our house.

You might notice that the bell-ringer, Kenny Day, here is standing well back from the tower with the bell-rope at full stretch. Also, the bell is not in the top of the tower, but strung on a beam about halfway down. There is, of course, a story behind that.

The bell would normally be rung every day at specific times - 9am, noon, 5pm - and each time it was the same sequence of rings: 3, 3, 3, 9. It was supposed to be the voice of Jesus calling us to prayer. For most people it saved the bother of wearing a watch.

But when it was time to call everyone to a church service, the priest would ring maybe 70, or 100, or more times, depending on how desperate he was to get everyone there.

At Christmas there was a midnight service on Christmas Eve. In years gone by when people were more enthusiastic about their religion, everyone would come to this service. And then the whole congregation would have a procession around the village going from clan to clan wishing well and exchanging gifts. This would last until dawn, when everyone would return quietly to bed, or just sleep wherever they were at the time.

It was our first Christmas, and we were well aware that people were not as enthusiastic about the midnight procession - although Wilfred and Margaret and the kids were keen as they were with anything that might involve free food along the way. We lay in bed listening to the service one hour warning bell, counting the rings - well over 300. I sighed and turned over. Life in the tropics was so tiring and I was heavily pregnant.

Then we heard Father Tabo start ringing the second lot of bells. He was ringing as loudly as he could, pulling hard on the rope. He used to come out and stand right in front of that pink painted bell tower with its slightly lopsided look and yank hard on that piece of rope.

After only a few rings this time the bell made a strange noise, a kind of da-aa-aaa-aang ... followed by a heavy 'thud!' Then silence. I wondered if the bell had landed on Fr Tabo, but there were no cries of pain, only an eerie silence, so we went to sleep.

We were woken by the morning bell, as usual, but it seemed rather faint and distant for a change. Looking out the window we could see that someone had put a wooden beam across the very lowest strut of the tower, and hung the bell from that, barely above the ground. Fr Tabo had to bend right down to pull on the rope and get the clapper to ring against the side of the bell.

For a while very few people came to church. Partly because they couldn't really hear the bell from the other end of the village. But also because of the bad luck and bad magic - obviously the priest must have lost his power for the bell to have nearly fallen on him.