The column

  • Posted on September 15, 2012 at 8:50 am

There was once a beautiful domed space, full of light, airy and welcoming. Everyone who visited it liked it, remembered it and found it a safe place with always-open doors. It had withstood time well, weathered, mellowed and strong. As you entered, there was a peace, but it was a working space, and alive.

One thing marked it out, that after a while became less a wonder, more a curiosity. Attractive in its own way, it nevertheless got a bit in the way, like being stuck in a church or the wrong seat of the theatre, leaning this way and that to see. It cast shadows in strong light, came between people, and in the end was protected, lest the wear and tear of time and touch constantly coming in from outside should weaken it. Circled at first with a polite rope, then with outward-facing chairs like the bench around a village tree, it was almost venerated. It was an upstanding testament to strength and endurance.

This single alabaster column was the central feature, well-polished, reaching to the top of the dome, supporting the tracery that allowed so much light to stream in. It stood alone and strong, making the whole place safe. Every day its owner and occupant would sweep carefully around the base, replace the chairs, maybe sit down a while, secure.

Then one day (as in all stories like these) a stranger arrived, looked around, tilted her eyebrows and disappeared. A short while later, the owner clattered the dustpan in the bin, downed the broom, and sat, back to the column, in a stream of sunlight.


A soft voice from behind repeated the question.


The owner turned, but only saw the white, shiny, beautiful, familiar column.

‘Who’s there?’

Strange voices in familiar places are unnerving. The owner turned to the left, but when they turned back, an elegant woman was already quietly seated, eyes resting on the sunlit floor.

‘The column.’ she said. ‘Why the column?’

The owner’s eyebrows knitted a moment, puzzled at such a naïve question.

‘It holds the dome up. Without it, under its own weight, or the wind, the dome might fall in. And then there would be less light, I would fear the rain at night, and it would be cold!’

The woman raised her eyes to the dome, to the slender balcony running around its widest point.

‘Have you ever been up there?’ she asked, quietly. ‘I’m an engineer, so I can’t help myself! And when I came in just now, I was really curious.

‘You see, as I stepped inside, I was in a shadow, so all I saw was the white column, and then the sound of the place made me look up and see the wonderful dome you have. The place didn’t seem to be in disrepair, so the column clearly wasn’t a later addition. It was almost as if the place was built around it.’

She paused.

‘And so I went exploring, found the little tower and spiral stairs, and went up there.’

There was silence. The woman was not about to continue. It was as if her explanation was sufficient in its incompleteness. There was more; but the importance of it was not for her. She could wait, or she could leave, because she understood, and that was all that mattered. The sun turned, the shadow followed, like the hand of an enormous sundial marked on the wall. Eventually, the woman calmly rose, hitched her bag.

‘I must be going.’

The owner, confused now, protested. ‘I don’t understand …’

‘The stairs,’ the woman replied, looking her directly but kindly in the eyes. ‘You must climb the stairs. You may understand, but you must see for yourself.’ And she was gone.

Sometimes you wish strangers wouldn’t enter. Sometimes you wish they wouldn’t leave. And sometimes you just don’t know. The owner found the stairs, just one set of footprints in the dust, going up, coming down. The steps were unworn, but dark, and it was easy to become a little dizzy. Then light, gleaming from above, from the dome – and out onto a very narrow, very scary balcony with just the dome arching majestically from behind, up and over, its stone beams wider than they ever seemed from the ground. Strong, yet light; robust and with a detail never seen against the light.

The alabaster column rose like an eternal tree to its centre. Its top, too high to see, was fuzzy around the edges with the dust of years, the one part of it not shiny in the light. The dome arched over it, around it, but not touching it. The majestic white pillar of grandeur, so protected, so central, so essential – was a monument only to itself.

The elegant woman engineer never returned. Somewhere, the owner imagined, she would be lying full out under some light-filled dome, staring up into some wonderful, inspiring and free space, worshiping the arch, the dome, the perfectly spread load, the strong appearing so fragile.

As time passed by (as it does in stories like these), the chairs were displaced and the curiosity of the column became an annoyance. Research didn’t appear to give it an importance or a protection, and without notability, it became just an obstacle. And for anyone who asked why, there was never really a convincing answer, just a faith. But it was familiar, and if the owned kept moving around, there would always be a place in the sun.

All the owner needed was someone to sit down with them; someone who would look up, and see a magnificent alabaster column supporting a fragile dome, and feel safe.

Or trust. And a demolition team for a few hours to safely take the column away.


The worst part of stories like these is that they have a moral. Maybe a beautiful dome won’t fall in by pulling down a central pillar. It’s about daring to wipe your finger on the top, and convincing yourself that what you thought held everything together wasn’t quite what it seemed. It all depends on which is the more important: a pillar that looks important, or the freedom to gaze upwards in wonder, freedom and light. Belief – or trust.

Just thinking …


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