The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
To find the chapel nestled in an East London hospice I walk corridors more recent, more restless and easier to clean than the venerable hall. Both built to help care for people living with dying. Those who know their death is close and those helping them through the knowing.
I have visited the old chapel before, but still feel delight at the rich space opened by the heavy door swing. Relief at a place which is not busy or programmed. Release from hospital associations of those corridors. A thickening of air. Being still in the chapel feels alright. A nervous flicker: am I disturbing a private mourning? I see nobody else.
As I cross the threshold the leaf of long-seasoned oak hints at qualities beyond. My left hand warm with wood’s touch and reassured that this door will not lead to another place like those led to by firedoors flapping. This sensation flows to impressions of panel wrapped walls: oak linings up to window cills give comfort in scale and feel, countering both the chapel’s height and flimsy finish of corridor partitions.
Facing me the ancient influence of an axis to altar, struck by gleaming nave, drawing me forward. Laid with white marble, edged with honey stone. My feet are used to the give and pad of vinyl. This stone feels defiantly hard; sounds unyielding as footsteps echo from peach paint walls and barrel vault ceiling.
Plasterwork coffers entice my gaze upwards, stretching my throat, pulling me to organ pipes above the door. A music source hidden when entering the shaded narthex. No sound now, though archetypal elements touch faint memories of corbelled vaults reflecting glooming song. Corridor ceiling grids hovered within touching distance. Emerging here from beneath the balcony, expansion to double volume serves services not concealed.
Daylight that finds this place is treated by coloured glass in eight arching windows. Careful frames framing panes tuned to rose-water frequencies. Eyes and jaw soften as I settle in this glowing. Spaces that I came through to get to here fade. Sitting, I hear a muffle of voices from outside those leaf-shadowed windows. Muted by heft of stone and brick, plaster and oak. They add to the silence.
I notice now the unseen other person sat bowed. I feel a self-conscious tourist. What am I distracting them from? Trying to mourn, to remember? To forget the day’s latest cruelty? How blessed to be in this room without the pain that most carry to it.
This soft space of renewal is full of dying and need. I think this and touch the feeling and pull back to the thinking. Not now the feeling. Lowered eyes on scarred aisle parquet. My hand imagines how satisfying the blocks must feel fitted into palm. Bare feet would find grainy tickle of herringbone and flat marble coolth. The pew is hard on my spine and it creaks. It corrects my posture and lifts my look.
I am impressed first by the craft and then by the cleaning. Which is not something little. The chancel gleams white. Carrara, gilt and gold. Pulpit, credence table, altar cloth draped creaseless. The sanctuary seems a cradling promise of comfort at the axis end. My stare is returned by a stillness of statues more static even than the walls that they hold. Faint smells of scuffed polish and soap and occasional wafts of lunch from kitchens below remind my stomach of the time.
I hear the other leave and I stay, stand and see the transept door ajar. Tools of cleaning and respect stored high: hymnals; candles; baskets; buckets; a statue turned away; a mop. Attesting to the efforts of keeping this place like this. Radiators tick behind scallop-fretted metalwork warm tothe finger I run across. How poorly I consider radiators in buildings.
Leaving, I pass a book of remembrance not noticed as I followed the nave in. The feminine biro loops and thanks the hospice for this peaceful place, visited so much when visiting Mum. Not now.
In the corridor outside I am compressed and neon washed. As my experience of the chapel was primed by corridors, so roles now reverse. The chapel’s after-image paints colours synthetic. Tones of toothpaste and smells of mouthwash.
There are no cracks. Joints all sealed and light is flat on magnolia eggshell. Small-mindedly I judge it small after the chapel’s grandeur. No variety in volume. No thought of views or sequence. No handcrafts or enveloping curves. Here is prosaic architecture of movement and doing a job after the quiet shelter I have emerged from.
Immense care has been taken though. In design and maintenance, details are attended to, not for their delight but to ensure no super-bug is breeding, no force growing to bring more misery to the miserable. People are fighting hard here. How foppishly vain to consider suggesting alternatives to gridded ceilings might offer some relief for those wheeled on their backs. Might it help just a little?
In a lobby alcove fresh flowers are arranged just-so. Aromas of that institutional lunch approach fast now with rattle of steel trolley, pushed up hygienic routes just the right size. Floors chosen to withstand castors. Walls to be wiped clean if sauce slops. Doors have kickplates and vision panels guarding against disastrous collisions. Food on this trolley could well be the last food eaten ever by someone’s Mum. The corridors should work.
Part of me wants the floors to be marble in the corridor, the walls to be oak, the ceilings to be vaulted and tall, to extend the chapel’s dignified detailing and material textures. I would prefer for last memories of a loved one to be in a less institutional frame. There is reassurance of a different kind in the corridor. People, and the building made to help them, get on with working today and making it as good as they can. A lady half-smiles as she mops the vinyl.