Saturday, 4 March 2017

Sites of Memory

How can it be nearly a quarter of a century since I worked in Wimborne? Of course I’m still there quite often, as my sister lives there, but it’s been a while since I was in the Minster, a church which fascinated me ever after we went on a trip to look round it, when I was in the last year of primary school, I think. I remember making a cardboard model of it. It’s far from obviously beautiful – though that east end with its three soaring windows is a sight you won’t forget (despite the glass not being all that good) – but it works on an intimate scale for such a big building. When I became a Christian, if that’s what I was then, the Minster was where I went to worship, first only at the Midnight Mass, then, gradually, more often.

Thursday this week was so sunny and bright I took the chance to pop down to Dorset, to look for a holy well, and to see my mum who’s been poorly. I decided to stop off briefly at the Minster on my way between well-site and mum-site. In one of the side chapels I saw a new oak altar rail and a little plaque on them, discreetly to one side: ‘In memory of Phyllis Saville, 1908-1994’.

Phyl was a profoundly lovely lady. She was President of the Museum Trust in Wimborne when I worked there, all those years ago, as well as being involved in other charities too. Widowed many years then, she had an optimism in her approach to life that put my early-twenties misery to shame. She was tough but immensely warm and open to everything that was going on around her, and a stalwart ally in my boss Stephen’s efforts to make the Museum a more up-to-date and welcoming place. Her flat was bright and white with the occasional cross or icon on the wall.

One Sunday morning Mass at the Minster was interrupted and words were whispered to the Rector. He rushed to a nearby lane where Phyl was dying. It transpired that she’d been stabbed by a disturbed teenager – she may have found him damaging a wall and told him to stop – and her death quite naturally shocked the small town. Stephen the curator looked ashen on the national news.

‘That’s really disturbing,’ said Ms Formerly Aldgate when I told her the story. Strangely, at the time it wasn’t. Of course it was tragically sad, a brutal end to a life of quiet hopefulness and dedication in so many different ways. But, whatever the national media made of the event (and they tried their best to turn it into a you’re-not-safe-on-the-streets kind of story), I never heard anyone locally drawing any broader conclusions from what happened to Phyl. It was simply a horrible tragedy, and aroused neither anger nor fear. Everyone seemed to accept that the boy who killed Phyl was a kind of victim too. A prize for young musicians was set up in her memory, and there she is, in the Minster, memorialised in the altar rails.

It always seemed to me as though the deeply Christian life she had led had absorbed the pain and rage of that terrible act before it had even happened, as though not even that could truly touch her. In my memory, at least, the gentle radiance of this one old lady has never been extinguished by the way her life came to an end. On the contrary, perhaps the way the town reacted to her death was her last service to the world. Then again, maybe not her very last service: perhaps she prays for Wimborne, even now.

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