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It’s Market Day in Wells the day we arrive. Cramped and weary from our road trip across southern England, the rising cathedral spires elicit something of an excited yawn as I strain, stretch and stare out the window in waking anticipation from an uncomfortably long sleep. Being squished between the door and my overstuffed suitcase was hard enough, being made to stay there for the duration of the trip from Canterbury to Wells—a good four hour drive—was almost intolerable. But as Wells Cathedral becomes taller and more grand with every kilometer, so does my excitement.
It was my first visit to the UK and I had gone to attend Bible College for a year up north just outside Lancaster. But before my parents dropped me off at school, we spent ten days travelling, beginning in London and moving our way across and up. And now, six days into our journey, we were arriving at Wells.
I imagine Wells might be a quiet, cozy town with historic streets wrapping around the cathedral, a town where life is lived simply and without the clutter of unnecessary modern amenities. This will be perfect, I think contentedly, for a simple girl like me, born and raised in a small town on the Canadian west coast. My Daddy told me that the more I expected, the more I would be disappointed. So as my mother calls out directions from the map in her hands and the streets become windier and closer to the city center, it takes all of my strength to dissolve my expectations. But I can’t help dreaming: What if Wells truly is what I imagine? How delightful!
“Park here. The cathedral is just down the street.” I lean against the window and feel the vibrations lessen as Daddy pulls alongside the curb and parks. Click click click. Our seat belts are off, and I fling open my door excitedly. And instantly, my expectations are shattered.
There are cars as far as I can see, parked on both sides of the street, making a rather tight aisle to pass between them. On the far side of the street, clusters of people are gathered around tables set up beneath tents. I hear modern pop music blasting from an outdoor sound system. So much for a simple, historic existence. But my excitement does not wither.
“Looks like a market over there,” Daddy observes, glancing toward the crowd. “Let’s go check it out.” I grab his arm for guidance and with Mama on my other side, we set out toward the market.
We are now engulfed in the crowd and I cling tighter to Daddy’s arm; crowds make me nervous. Slowly, we move to a table and peruse its contents.This first table is filled with wooden trinkets and I hesitantly reach my hands out to touch.
“Can my daughter touch this? She’s blind and it would mean a lot to her if she could.” My mother’s familiar request, though at the cost of a bit of my pride, has enough innocence and truth to turn the vendor’s favour on us.
The vendor in question, is a short, pudgy woman with round rosy cheeks beneath cheerful aqua eyes. Taking my hand, she places it on the top of a small, smooth box.
“This is cedar wood,” she explains, as she runs my hand across the surface of the lid. “It’s strong and durable wood which is why I use it. Have you ever seen before, dear?” At my nod, she continues. “I didn’t paint this box because I love the natural look of the wood. It’s light and very pretty. And here”—she moves my fingers to the front of the box to the latch—”is the latch that locks the box, and there’s a place for a key at the top.”
Taking the box in my hands, I stroke the sleek wood admiringly. “This is beautiful,” I say. Her smile is almost audible above the crowd. Shyly, I gesture to the price tag and look to Daddy for an answer. “It’s twenty,” he says under his breath. Translating pounds to dollars in my head, I come out at about thirty-eight. I sigh regretfully.
Setting the box down on the table, I reach across to the cheerful woman and shake her hand. “I love your work, it’s very beautiful. But I’m afraid I’ll have to pass this time. Thank you so much for showing me.” She squeezes my hand. Although I don’t know this woman at all, I feel inclined to give her a hug, but I restrain. Her kind and fearless personality touches me in a way that not many people can claim; friends who accept me for my blindness and don’t define me by it are wonderful, but a stranger who does the same only raises my faith in humanity and makes life all the more worthwhile.
From table to table we move, examining various scarves, soaps, bowls and other hand-made trinkets. Once we exhaust the outdoor market, we shift indoors to a room filled with clothing and echoes. We are not there more than ten minutes when I hear a clanging bell from outside.
“I bet that’s the town crier,” I joke. They don’t exist anymore, I think wistfully, though I wish they did.
“Do you want to go see?” my mother asks. We are all growing weary of the amplified sounds in the indoor market, and I am beginning to sport a headache. I nod.
Back in the street market, we follow a crowd moving toward the town square, and to my utter ecstasy, the town crier is there, ringing his bell and attracting quite a crowd of onlookers. I drag my parents to the front of the crowd.
“Wells is a beautiful city,” the town crier begins in a loud, dramatic voice. “Take in the breathtaking scenery, the market, and Wells Cathedral, built in 1175. Why not take a tour there or explore its beauty and historic stain glass images at your leisure?” With unmitigated delight, I realize that he is not only the town crier but also a tour guide! I am eighteen, but my childish excitement cannot be contained as I clap my hands and let out a high-pitched squeal.
“There’s actually a town crier! They have a town crier!” My shock and delight are repetitive, for as my parents and I walk down the street toward the entrance of the cathedral, it is all I am capable of saying in my amazement. As we draw closer, my former shrieks of delight change into quieted awe. Nothing makes one feel so small and insignificant than when faced with such immense beauty. I look up and take in its outward grandeur and wonder what greater beauty may lie inside.
What first greets my eyes is not what I expect. In the front entrance perched on the receptionist’s desk is a bony, black and grey cat. An identification tag hangs around his neck, and he sits stalk still next to the computer keyboard. As I approach, he scowls at me and flattens his ears. Despite his threatening demeanor, I laugh.
“This is Louis,” the middle-aged receptionist explains in a welcoming tone. “He kind of just lives here in the cathedral. You can pet him, but please don’t pick him up. He might claw a bit.” Smiling wide, I reach down and stroke Louis’s back. Just by one touch, I can see that Louis is an old cat, his bones sticking out at awkward angles all over his frail figure. His fur is a bit matted, but nonetheless, I fall in love. So it’s not just old cathedrals that have beauty, I think, old cats do too.
“Someone loves you, hey Louis?” The voice of the speaker I discover, is an elderly man with a thick British accent and spectacles to match. I nod happily and he moves beside me to scratch Louis’s head.
“Come on Rhi, we better get a move on into the rest of the cathedral,” Daddy says, and I know that I cannot stall. As I move to join my parents, the old man follows and shakes hands with my Daddy. “My name is Neil. I would love to show you and your daughter around the cathedral if you would like.”
“Oh, that is very generous of you. That would be wonderful.” The four of us set off down the main hall, and it is not long before Neil stops at a statue of the Virgin Mary. Taking my hand, he gently shows me the features of her face, veil and body, explaining how it was constructed and its significance to the cathedral.
I don’t say much as Neil explains, but I listen intently. I find it all fascinating and quite beyond me: As he takes my hands and shows me ancient statues, stain glass images, trunks and other relics of the Catholic faith, I feel as though I have travelled beyond anything of my own world and am in contact with things I am unworthy to touch. They are sacred, and I am not, but yet, I am with them, touching them, and experiencing them. And the experience is something I can hardly describe nor understand.
A good hour passes before Neil returns to the front desk and my parents and I exit the cathedral. To my disappointment, Louis is not at his post on the reception desk, but I’m told he is wandering about the cathedral. “It’s completely normal,” she assures me brightly, “he’s a cathedral cat.” I’m not quite sure what she means by a “cathedral cat” but I smile and wave farewell to Neil and the kind receptionist and wonder if Louis might be perched upon the Virgin’s shoulder or a thirteenth-century trunk.
I walk out of Wells Cathedral, down the street where the market is now closing down, back to our car and climb in. I am overcome with a sense of wonder; the woman selling the cedar boxes and kind old Neil in the cathedral both greeted me with kind and fearless smiles and took me in in ways many people are afraid to. What may have seemed like a mere moment to them became timeless to me, offering me more than trinkets or historical facts and stories—they gave me acceptance.
And as I lay back in the car and close my eyes, I think of Louis and his perpetual scowl, and smile. The spires fade from view, the crowd noise disappear and I fall into dreaming with the feeling that I have left home washing over me. But I know I am not alone as the car takes me farther and farther away from this delightfully unexpected city. For the most unexpected thing of all is still with me out of the corners of my eyes and at my fingertips: Louis, the cat in the cathedral.