Life of St Becca

Warning: contains violence and strong languages (Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Latin).

The Danes, encamped at Ely for the winter of 852 A.D., are ravaging the Fens. The Bishop of Ely and his priests, monks and nuns are slain or fled.

A gentle rise in the land to the south of the Fens, near the River Granta. A spring runs down the slope. The cell of St Becca, an anchoress, is beside the spring. Nearby stands a rude belfry, containing a single small bell, fitted with a half-wheel and no stay. Night; a full moon.

St Becca is on her knees in her cell. The Angel of the Lord is seated nearby, on a tree stump.


ST BECCA (in Latin). O God, Thou hast created me a woman and unfit to say Mass like a priest or lead Thy faithful like a Bishop, Grant me therefore, I pray Thee, the crown of martyrdom, which most befits my sex.

 

GOD (through His Angel). I’ll be the judge of that, Becca.

St Becca crosses herself piously and rises to her feet. She goes over to the belfry, where she prays again.

ST BECCA (in Anglo-Saxon). Please, God, hold the Danes off for another two hours and please, please, please don’t let me lose count like I did last time.

Receiving no answer, she looks momentarily discouraged, but then pulls herself together, spits on her palms (she is Anglo-Saxon, after all) and catches hold. She gives long, straight pulls on the bell rope.

THE BELL. Dong.

ST BECCA. I.

THE BELL. Dong.

ST BECCA. II.

THE BELL. Dong.

ST BECCA. III.

Two hours later:

THE BELL. Dong.

ST BECCA. MMMMDCCCXCIX.

Enter Guthrum and Halfdan at the head of their Danes, swords drawn.

THE BELL. Dong.

ST BECCA. MMMMCM.

 

She is concentrating so hard that she does not notice the Danes. Guthrum cleaves her arms from her body. She does not let go of the rope and her arms continue to move up and down. The Angel of the Lord, who is acing as umpire, records that Decision D(A)4 of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers was not contravened.

THE DANES (variously). Coo! Can you see that? What? You need glasses. What are glasses? I can’t see a thing. Your head’s in my way. (Etc.)

THE BELL. Dong.

ST BECCA. MMMMMXL. That’s all.

The bell, and her arms, fall. God, performing a slight miracle, reunites her arms with her body.

ST BECCA (in Latin). I thank Thee, Lord, for permitting Thine unworthy servant to give Thee glory by ringing the first peal. Now, I pray Thee, grant me a martyr’s crown.

She joins her hands and awaits her fate. Guthrum raises his sword to smite her head from her body. The Angel of the Lord whispers urgently in her ear.

ST BECCA (in Danish). Do you want to learn to ring?

GUTHRUM (also in Danish). Well, yes - I’ve always wanted to have a go. Will it take long? I have numerous other Christians to slaughter tonight.

ST BECCA. First you must be baptised. Note that you will be expected to attend all services you ring for.

GUTHRUM. Of all the silly reasons I’ve heard for becoming a follower of the White Christ, that one takes the biscuit. Give me a quick lesson before I kill you.

The Angel of the Lord whispers again to St Becca.

ST BECCA. As you wish. Put up your sword. How high can you reach? Let me put a figure of VIII knot in the rope. Now take coils. Make them a bit larger. Now put them over your head.

GUTHRUM (dubiously). Are you sure this is standard procedure?

ST BECCA (briskly). I am an ITTS-accredited trainer. ITTS is not prescriptive. It allows us to vary the exercises used to suit the student’s preferred learning style. Now pull hard.

Guthrum pulls hard. The bell is overthrown. His head is jerked from his body and bounces across the belfry floor.

THE BELL.               } DONG, Dong, dong.

GUTHRUM’S HEAD. } THUD, Thud, thud.

ST BECCA (to the Danes). Victima secunda?

HALFDAN. I really want to learn to ring, but am a bit worried about the safety implications.

ST BECCA (patiently). I assure you there is no danger, as long you take certain elementary precautions. First, as I have already said, you must be baptised.

The Danes kneel, grumbling.

ST BECCA. Ego vos baptiso in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.

The Angel of the Lord sprinkles the Danes liberally with water from the spring.

THE DANES (variously). Amen. What? What did she say? You need a hearing aid. What’s a hearing aid? You’re kneeling on my mail shirt. (Etc.)

ST BECCA. Now gather around and all watch me, please. We hold the tail end like this. Hands abutting; thumbs pointing along the rope. Who wants to try first?

Here ends the Life of St Becca, apostle to the Danes, first pealer and ace teacher of bellringing. Written down on the Feast of St Lucy, the year of our Lord MMXII, in the Towne of Landbeach (named from the Anglo-Saxon word bec, meaning stream), in the Diocese of Ely.

Footnote: St Becca is no more fictional than many other saints. Her spring is still there today, underneath the floor at the back of the nave of All Saints’ Church. The Angel of the Lord is still seated in the church, and he it was who told me this story.

Barbara Le Gallez