The Bellwether Revivals
A sophisticated debut novel about a group of friends whose devotion to one among them leads to unimaginable consequences.
An assistant at a nursing home, twenty-year-old Oscar Lowe has made a life for himself amid the colleges and spires of Cambridge and yet is a world apart from the privileged students who roam its grounds and study in the hallowed halls. By chance, he meets the wealthy, charismatic Bellwether siblings, Iris and Eden, after the otherworldly sounds of an organ entice him inside the chapel at King's College.
Oscar falls in love with beautiful, quirky Iris, a medical student, and is drawn into her opulent world. He soon becomes entangled in the strange obsessions of her brilliant but emotionally troubled brother, Eden, who believes he can heal people with his music—and who will stop at nothing to prove himself right. Oscar and Iris devise a plan to determine just how dangerous Eden really is, but it might already be too late to keep him from his next treacherous move.
Benjamin Wood was born in 1981 and grew up in northwest England. He was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to attend the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, Canada, where he was also the fiction editor of the literary journal PRISM international. He now lectures in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.
Oscar Lowe would later tell police that he couldn't remember the exact date he first laid eyes on the Bellwethers, though he knew for sure it had been a Wednesday. It was one of those late October evenings in Cambridge when the gun-grey light of the afternoon had faded well before six, and the cobbled avenues of the old town were dark and silent. He had just finished an eight-to-five shift at Cedarbrook, the nursing home on Queen's Road where he was a care assistant, and his mind was slow and heavy, laden with the details of his workday: the vacant faces of the older residents, the pallor of their tongues as they took their pills, the give of their skin as he lifted them into the bath. All he wanted was to get home, to fall upon his bed and sleep right through until tomorrow, when he would have to wake up and do the same things over again.
By cutting through the grounds of King's College, he knew he could shave some time off the walk. In the old city, everybody cycled: the students skittered along the narrow lanes with loaded backpacks, the tourists pin-balled from college to college on rented wheels. At any time of day, on any given pavement in Cambridge, someone could be found unlocking a bike from a lamppost and riding off towards the next one. But Oscar preferred the solace of walking.
He crossed the Clare bridge and took the shortcut through the grounds of King's, hearing the flat echo of his footsteps on the path, still glassy from the afternoon rain. Everywhere was quiet. The clipped lawns seemed unusually blue with the indolent glow of floodlamps, and, somewhere close by, woodsmoke was rising from a cottage chimney, giving the air an impression of fog. As he went by the face of the college chapel, he tried his best not to look up at it, knowing exactly how it would make him feel: tiny, irrelevant, godless. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't help but stare at it—that formidable gothic building with its tall spindles needling the sky and its giant blackened windows. It was the picture-postcard on every carousel stand along King's Parade. He'd always hated it. Up close, in the near darkness, the place only haunted him more. It was not the architecture that troubled him, but the age of the building, the scale of its history; the royalty who'd once communed there, all the serious people whose faces now thickened encyclopedias.
A service was underway inside. He could already hear the muted thrum of organ music behind the chapel walls, and when he turned into the Front Court, the sound grew louder and sweeter, until he was close enough to make out the fullness of the instrument—a low, hoarse purr. He could almost feel it against his ribs. It was nothing like the over-powering dirges he remembered from school Christmas services, or the blundering renditions of Abide With Me he'd strained to sing over at his grandparents' funerals. There was a fragility to this music, as if the organist wasn't pressing down on the keys but hovering his fingers above them like a puppeteer. Oscar stopped in the entrance just to listen, and saw the sandwich-board near the open doorway: "Evensong 5:30, Public Welcome." Before he knew it, his feet had carried him all the way inside.
Stained glass windows surrounded him, barely showing their colors. The vaulted arches of the ceiling seemed to roll out into the distance. At the heart of the building, a wingspan of organ pipes bellowed from a wooden partition, and he could see the somber congregation waiting in the candlelight on the other side. He found an empty seat and watched the choir filing in. The younger boys stood on the front row in their white gowns, cheerful and distracted; the older boys stood sheepishly behind them, aware of themselves in that teenaged way, fidgeting with their sleeves. When the organ stopped there was a momentary silence, and then the choir began to sing.
Their voices were so synchronized and balanced that Oscar could hardly tell them apart. They surged and retracted with the ease of an ocean, and he felt a rush in his heart as he listened. He was sorry when their hymn ended and the reverend stood up to recite the Holy Creed. Across the aisle, people were gamely muttering the prayer, but Oscar stayed quiet, still thinking of the music. By the time he noticed the blonde girl a few spaces along his pew, the congregation had reached "and sitteth on the right hand of God." She was mouthing the words grudgingly, the way a bored child recites times tables, and, when she saw that he wasn't joining in the prayer, gave a slow roll of her eyes, as if to say: "Get me out of here." The simple profile of her face excited him. He smiled at her but wasn't sure that she noticed.
Now the reverend was reading from Jeremiah ("If thou take forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth. . . .") and Oscar watched the girl and her encumbered, self-conscious movements. Like him, she didn't seem to appreciate the strange etiquette of the church. She kneed the hymnbook to the floor midway through the sermon, causing the reverend to pause, and while his dreary lesson continued she toyed with the bezel of her watch, until two pale-faced choristers began a new hymn and the organ started up again. The only time the blonde girl sat still was when the choir was singing. Her chest rose, inflated; her lip quivered. She seemed awed by the tapestry of their voices, the clarity of their sound, the swelling harmonies that flooded the yawning space above them. Oscar could see her fingers counting out the rhythm on her knee until the final "amen." The choir sat down and silence—like a deployed parachute—descended in the chapel.
At the end of the service, people filtered out by order of importance: first, the choir and the clergy in a procession of white, then the congregation. Oscar hoped he could follow the girl to the door, get close enough to spark a conversation, but he ended up between a group of men debating the merits of the sermon and a softly-spoken French couple consulting their guidebooks for the route home. He lost the sound of her small, scuffing steps behind him as she disappeared into the crowd. Weary tourists moved slowly along the aisles, putting on their jackets and packing away their cameras; young children slept in their fathers' arms while their mothers baby-wiped their fingers. Oscar couldn't see the girl anywhere. He put some change on the collection plate as he went out, and the reverend said, "Thank you, good evening." In the vestibule, the air seemed colder, sharper. Darkness had settled fully over the city and he could feel that familiar, constricting tiredness returning to his shoulders. He turned his collar to the night. It was then—as the crowd dispersed in front of him—that he saw her in the shadows, leaning against the grey bricks of the chapel.
She was reading an old paperback, tilting the pages into the second-hand light of the vestibule with one hand, and cradling a clove cigarette between the fingers of the other. Her reading glasses were too big for her face, square with round edges, like large projector slides. After a moment, she glanced up from her book and smiled. "One thing I know about church," she said, "is to learn where the exits are. It's like being on a plane. Have to get out in an emergency." Her accent was genteel, proper, the stuff of elocution lessons; but there was also something uncertain about the way she spoke, as if she was trying hard to rough up the edges of her sentences (she had dropped the "g" of "being" and it sounded strange).
"I'll try to remember that for next time," Oscar said.
from The Bellwether Revivals