Thursday

grab rail

A long time ago the world was very different my child and in the town where I lived the highlight of the month was the opening of the grab rail. It was right at the end of the dusty main road fenced off to the public most days by tall wooden gates which were locked by a large and ugly padlock. Nowadays such a thing would probably have you young folks trying to pick locks or climb fences to just get in. It was an intriguing thing and I could understand such a temptation I suppose but it never honestly crossed my mind or the mind of any of the other town folks. On that one day the people from town as far as twenty or thirty miles away would journey over. I know that doesn’t sound like far to you, little one, but back then it was practically the other side of the world. So powerful was the draw of the grab rail.

The surrounding fence was a curious thing too now that I think about it, 10 foot tall and not like the fences you will know. It must have taken ages to build and cost a lot of money too because we were far from any forests. The wood had to be specially imported, my Grandfather told me, from the wagons that came through from time to time. The structure was about twenty foot square and once as a kid I, like all my peers did at one point, counted each tall pole of wood. The fence was comprised you see of tall tree trunks that had been stripped and pointed and driven into the ground. There were two hundred and eighty four tree trunks. I know you see because I counted them.

The day of the grab rail was always the last Saturday on every month, come rain or shine. On the Friday before the day of the grab rail day the women and children would take the day off and make decorations for the fence. In the summer there would be garlands of colourful paper flowers covering every inch of the fence. We’d make them more than twice as long as the height of the thing so they would be decorated inside too. In the autumn the garlands would be dried flowers, berries and bunches of tied up herbs. I liked the autumn most I think as the herbs always smelled wonderful. I was determined when my day came I would go to the grab rail in the autumn. I hoped desperately that it would turn out that way. The winter would be holly and ivy and winter berries and in the spring we would hurl and position many coloured ribbons. No one except the mayor was allowed into the grab rail fence before grab day and his role, well, it was pivotal.

Every grab rail day the townsfolk and the visitors from afar would gather outside as early as six in the morning waiting for the mayor to turn up. He wasn’t ever duty bound to arrive before 10am but the anticipation was just too much for some people. It was an event. I was often there ahead of time myself.

The mayor would wear his ceremonial robes and descend from his offices carrying a red velvet bag with a red velvet ribbon laying out and over the top for each name inside. The route for the mayor was always the same and was always decorated in the same theme as the grab rail pen. If the weather was fine there would be burning scented oils to fill the air also. Around his neck on another red velvet ribbon he wore the key to the padlock. When he reached the edge of the crowd, always a respectful six foot away from the pen, he would drop to his knees and kiss the key causing cheers of jubilation from the crowds.
When he was a younger man he’d leap back up before approaching the ornate barrel placed at the gate of the pen. Did I tell you about the barrel? Never mind now, I’ll come to it when it matters. Don’t interrupt me child I’ll forget my place. Now, yes, he used to leap up but our mayor lived to 107 so after a time he had to be helped up and after an bit more time he had to be helped down and up. In his later years he was confined to a wheelchair and the ritual of the grab bar had become outdated so he was no longer required to exert himself or even carry that key. He always did though, right up until his last breath. I have heard rumours that moments before his death as his remaining family gathered round he pulled that key from his neck and swallowed it. Died by choking on it the silly sentimental old fool; so important once was the grab rail.

The barrel outside the gate of the grab rail was placed there the evening before the day itself. It was a small little thing on a carved wooden pedestal. I’ve been told it was made by a man who was extremely happy with his grab rail day, a blacksmith who married a wealthy land owner’s very beautiful daughter, he made the barrel and the elaborate floral decoration on the outside to replace the unceremonious bucket that he’d had to put his name in. I got to admit, it was a beautiful bucket, I couldn’t imagine grab rail day without it.

Up until the Mayors appearance the men would get their names put on special slips that were folded and placed inside the barrel. I suppose a more cunning man would put his name in several times but I don’t think that ever happened. These were fairly innocent times. It might have though, it was never checked, the names were all burned on the end of day bonfire along with the decorations and everything else.

So anyway, yes, the mayor would kiss the key and make his way to the barrel where he would pause and make his silly little speeches. Always for the sole purpose of dragging out the agony of the expectant men and women gathered. He would give thanks for every inane thing that had happened over the last month and then describe the joyousness of the day with as many drawn out flourishing descriptives as he could manage. As a child I used to giggle as he went on and on, watching the distressed fanning of the women and the beads of sweat forming on the brows of the men. I wasn’t laughing when it was my turn though; I finally understood the power that mayor had over us. The bugger, I liked him though, don’t look at me like that I only said bugger and you know he was a bugger. Ok, I promise, no more curse words.

Bloody women...

Names would go into the barrel and the mayor would plunge his hand in and pull out a slip of paper for every ribbon that spilled out of his red velvet bag. He’d call each one out loudly and clearly and upon hearing their names the men would go and stand next to him. Some months it was only one or two men because there were only one or two ribbons. The record was twenty three men on one month. That was a great day I was only six but I remember it being very exciting. Once all the men were gathered the mayor would take his key and unlock the great big ugly padlock. I often wondered why they didn’t get a nicer padlock really but then I suppose folk are fond of tradition and it would have been weird without the thing.

The men would line beside the mayor and he would shake each hand and wish them luck and unlock that big ugly padlock. He would go inside and close the door behind him. There was silence after he had entered. I always held my breath and I’m pretty sure everyone else did the same. We knew what happened, what must happen, he would tie each identical ribbon to the grab rail, at the other end a tiny red pouch would contain the name of the women eligible to be wed from the surrounding areas. All women became eligible on the date of their 19th birthday. A great big register with all the names and dates of the females born for miles around was kept in the register in the mayoral office. Women could opt out of course but I think that was a rare occurrence. We never knew who had their name in exactly, we guessed sometimes, it was always uncertain. The men when they decided they were ready put their names into the barrel and if they were lucky got their names pulled out of it and went to pick a wife. It was the luck of the draw which may seem backwards to you little one but it was actually pretty fair. I don’t remember anyone being terribly unhappy with the way things went for them.

After the mayor had tied the ribbons to the grab rail he would open up the great gate on the pen and let the chosen men folk in to pick a ribbon. It was never a scrabble it was always a very calm and ordered. I wondered how they knew which ribbon to go to, how it was the right one for them, it always worked out.

The men would come back to the gates with their bag in hand looking as nervous as they had when they went in. The mayor directed them in turn do draw the paper from the bag and clearly announce the name of their bride to be. With each name there were cheers and general well wishing as the blushing young woman would go to her very-soon-to-be-husbands side.

The rest of the day was taken with weddings and celebrations. There was feasting and dancing late into the night. It was always a great day.

What? Yes I’m getting to that. Of course I did. Let me talk will you? Damned children. I first put my name into the bucket when I was 19 years old. There was a girl I’d always had a soft spot for who had turned 19 that month and I figured I wouldn’t mind being married to her. Pretty curly hair and big eyes. It wasn’t my month though and she married a butcher. Plus it was the summer. I’d never imagined I’d have any luck in the summer. I waited another two months before putting my name in again. It was October and the weather was mild, the decorations smelt great and I was nervous this time. A sickly feeling in the pit of my stomach I was convinced I was going to throw up all over everyone. Anyway, I had absolutely no idea who had their name in or how many there would be. When the mayor came out he had five red ribbons hanging over the velvet bag. When he dropped to his knees to kiss the key my heart leapt. When he plunged his hand into the barrel I was convinced I was going to pass out. I’ll admit to you now that when he called my name I jumped up and squealed. I stood alongside the other men shifting from side to side nervously. The mayor said something to me and winked but I have less idea now than I did then of what he said. I don’t know how I walked into the grab rail pen. My legs moved independently of my brain. I remember thinking how worthwhile the decorations were because they looked so beautiful. And there it was, such a simple thing really, a single pole of wood spanning the entire width of the pen. Hanging neatly and equidistant (the mayor had done a good job) where the five velvet bags. We looked around at each other, nervous laughter and looks, each of us too frightened to make the first move. Then in unison (and I have spoken to each of the men who were there that day, none of us knew how we timed it like this) we each went and stood in front of the bag that was ours. I can’t tell you how I knew but I knew, second from the left – that bag was mine.

It was over in minutes, it was always over in minutes, but it felt like days stood there holding our bags looking round at each other. For a brief moment the nerves had subsided as we had made our decisions but as soon as we had our bags in hand the nerves kicked in again. Had we chosen wisely? Would we like our brides to be? Outside the pen the mayor directed us all to read aloud the names of our chosen women. I was fourth (as this was the position of the bag – my bag) and my mouth went as dry as a – what? I wasn’t going to say that I was going to say desert, of course I wouldn’t say that in front of the kids. What? Oh, that time, well I was a little inebriated then. Now? No, no, now I’ve only had a couple. Anyway, I’m reaching the climax of our story will you shush!

My mouth went dry, little ones, and my head was swimming as I opened the bag and pulled out that little slip of paper that would change the entire future of my life. I croaked out the name and a gasp erupted from the crown as the prettiest girl I had ever seen made her way to my side. And that, children, is how I met your grandmother.

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