Slowly I was led forward into the darkened room by my conductor. The room would have been pitch dark, if it were not for a very light flickering orange glow that I could just make out from behind the green velvet blindfold that covered both my eyes. I couldn’t see forward but I could see downwards a little due to a gap in the blindfold and could just about make out the silhouette of my slipshod feet through the darkness below me. The conductor maintained a tight grip upon my right arm and I could feel the trembling left hand of the second candidate on my left shoulder behind me. His hand although shaking vigorously was clamped firmly to my shoulder as the conductor led only me by the arm, and the second candidate in turn was guided by holding on to me. He would have been lost in the darkness were his hand to slip. I could understand why he was so nervous. I was too. I was grateful to be hidden behind the blindfold to shield me from whatever unknowns lay ahead of us in the room, and also to hide the worry that must have been showing in my eyes. I had no idea how many people were in the room which was in complete silence, but I sensed there were a lot. There was an air of nervous anticipation which I could sense all around me.
I and the stranger behind me had met for the first time only an hour before. After being forced to strip to our underwear and dress in some ceremonial attire that had been carefully laid out for us, we had spent a nervous hour sitting together, making small talk, getting to know each other and trying to prepare ourselves for what was to follow. The two of us were known as “candidates” and were to be initiated into Freemasonry this evening. The 1st Degree, also known as the “Entered Apprentice Degree” would be conferred upon us by the Lodge Office Bearers, after which we would officially be Freemasons, or more specifically, “Entered Apprentice Freemasons”, the most junior masons in a masonic lodge. We sat together, talking occasionally in hushed nervous tones, on a leather bench in the corner of a room known as “The Adjacent”. The Adjacent was a large imposing room that emanated formality. It was a long rectangular shaped room with a large fireplace at the far end, above which hung a very large oil painting of Lord Arbuthnot, a prominent Freemason from the 19th century. One of the long walls was lined from end to end with pictures of the Lodge Office Bearers; every Master and his Office Bearers from present day right back to the late 1800s. In each picture a group of stern looking men, dressed in their regalia sat rigidly staring out of the picture frame. On one of the shorter walls on the opposite side furthest from the fireplace and Lord Arbuthnot, three tall windows overlooked the town’s market place but were shaded by the blinds which had been pulled all the way down to avoid prying eyes. In the corner, perpendicular to the windows an open doorway led back to the long stair landing and the winding staircase that gave access to the upper floor of the very large masonic building.
The only other person in the room, other than me and the stranger, was an Office Bearer of the lodge known as the Tyler. His job was to remain outside the door of the lodge and guard against any potential intruders or eavesdroppers. On the long wall opposite the one with the Office Bearers’ pictures were two large wooden doors with brass knockers and spy holes, which led from The Adjacent into the Lodge Room (also known as the temple). Every now and again there would be a sudden, sharp series of thuds from somebody knocking on the other side of the door and the Tyler would immediately repeat the pattern of knocks back on one of the brass knockers on his side of the door.
The stranger was around 35 years older than me. His name I had learned was Robert and he sold mortgages. He confessed to me while we were alone that he was joining the masons because it would be good for business, more potential clients for him and more mortgages to be sold. As an 18 year old student of technology, I knew nothing about business, nor could I comprehend how business networking worked or how a masonic lodge membership would equal a mortgage broker selling more mortgages. My reasons for joining were more straight forward. My father and grandfather were both masons as had been most male relatives in my father’s side of the family. My best friend was a member of the lodge, and he along with his neighbour who lived across the street were my “Proposer” and “Seconder” to Freemasonry respectively. Whilst my dad’s family was full of Freemasons, the same was not true of my mum’s family. Freemasonry was frowned upon and treated with suspicion by many of my mum’s family. My mum’s mum – my gran – was a member of a very strict local church, as were many of her family, and the constitution of the church barred members of secret societies from becoming members. My mum told me that while courting my dad she often had to make excuses at church to explain his whereabouts when he was at a masonic meeting. In addition to the family connection to Freemasonry, I was motivated to join out of curiosity and mystery. This was an organisation that few people knew anything about. Masons did not talk about what happened at their meetings and naturally I wanted to find out what all the mystery was about.
Myself and the stranger, Robert’s reasons for joining Freemasonry could not have been more different, nor could our backgrounds. He had no family or close friends who were masons and knew even less about the organisation than the very little I did. He had arrived that evening bursting with confidence and shook my hand as we were introduced and asked to sit in a corner of The Adjacent on the leather bench. In contrast to his bold and confident demeanour I was petrified and probably physically shaking. He talked animatedly about his business, arms gesturing wildly, using lots of terms that meant nothing to me. I was only half listening to him while I watched and observed all the masons dress into their distinguished looking green regalia; masonic aprons, sashes and big important looking dangly jewels. I watched as they greeted each other warmly like old friends who hadn’t seen each other for a long time using an odd looking handshake that took place far too quickly for an outsider to properly observe, deconstruct or understand. They were talking loudly, slapping each other on the back and puffing away on their cigarettes. What I was observing was a closed club that myself and the stranger were not yet part of, a clique, but not an impenetrable clique. They largely ignored us, except for the odd word of advice that was offered; some well intentioned, some not so. A few of the masons told us not to worry, enjoy the experience, every single one of them had been through it before us. Some of the more boisterous masons made their best effort to wind us up, asking if we had, “brought some carrots for the goat”, telling us it was “going to be a sore one tonight”, before turning round to their friends and having a good snigger at our expense. Eventually one by one they slipped through the big brass ornate doors into the temple until only me, Robert and the Tyler remained.
Robert was still in a very cocky, confident mood, holding court while I the younger man listened to his stories. The gentle ribbing that some of the masons had given us had worked on me, but seemed to have no effect on him. He was still very much the in control business man, accustomed to being in charge and not showing his emotions. That soon vanished very quickly when the Tyler came over to us, pointed to the ceremonial attire that had been neatly laid out further up the bench from where we sat and told us to take our trousers off. In each of the two piles of attire I could see a blindfold, slippers, white cotton trousers and a thick rope with a knot in it – similar to that which would be used to hang a criminal on the gallows. I watched as the colour drained out of Roberts’s face, he turned a strange yellow colour and the cockiness disappeared. He made a nervous comment under his breath to me that he had not been expecting anything like this.
Under the Tyler’s guidance we were prepared and dressed so that we would be ready for entry to the temple when the moment came. Our smart suits that we had worn to make a good first impression came off; both the jacket and trousers, as did our ties and our shoes. Standing in our boxer shorts, shirts and socks we were instructed to put on the white cotton trousers and roll the left leg up to above the knee. Our shirts we kept on, but we had to remove our cuff links and unbutton our top 4 buttons. Additionally we also had to roll up our right sleeve to above the elbow. We had to put on the slippers that had been left out for us and the Tyler asked us to pull the top of our right sock down over our ankle and wrap it under the heel of the right slipper, whilst keeping the sock on the foot. We were asked to ensure our pockets were completely empty and that we had no money or metallic substances on our bodies. I didn’t but Robert had to remove his wedding ring and a chain from round his neck.
The Tyler asked us to sit back down and explained that the lodge was conducting it’s regular business and once this had concluded the conductors would be sent out to collect us. We sat a little longer in the eerie silence of The Adjacent. The temple behind the two doors must have been very well sound proofed because we couldn’t overhear any talking or discussion from within, the only sounds that escaped was the occasional solemn and reverend melody from an electric organ accompanied by the hum of many voices singing.
By now both of us were very much on edge and every minute longer we waited the more nervous and anxious we became. At some point during our long wait, two masons who were late scurried into The Adjacent, scribbled their signatures into an attendance book that lay open on a small table at the entrance door next to the three tall windows, wrapped a cloth working apron around their waists and indicated to the Tyler, who was stationed outside the doors with a long bayonet sword in his left hand, that they would like to enter the temple. They were not allowed to walk straight into the temple, instead the Tyler used his right hand, which was sword free, to knock three times on the brass knocker of one of the doors. Nothing happened immediately, but after a few minutes I heard the sound of metal scraping on metal as somebody inside the Lodge opened the spy hole of the door which had been knocked. An eye appeared on the other side of the spy hole peering out and then an ear. The Tyler whispered something into the ear on the other side of the spy hole and then I heard the clap of the spy hole being closed from the inside. A few moments passed and then eventually the door opened and the two masons were allowed to enter before the door closed firmly behind them.
What seemed like an eternity passed, Robert had stopped talking as much now, clearly now as nervous as me and I began to play over and over in my head what might happen once we were on the other side of those doors. Would I be subjected to pain, humiliation, discomfort, embarrassment or even worse? Was there really a goat in there? In truth I had absolutely no idea what was to happen or what lay in wait and I was now wrestling with the fear of the unknown. My thoughts were eventually interrupted by one of the temple doors opening and two office bearers coming out.
One of the men was a short, slightly tubby chap with a ginger moustache and ginger greying hair. He introduced himself as the Senior Deacon and his accomplice as the Junior Deacon. The deacons’ role this evening, he explained, was to act as our guides and conductors throughout the 1st or Entered Apprentice Degree. The Senior Deacon was a warm looking man whose eyes sparkled as he talked. He made a few lighthearted jokes in an attempt to lighten the mood and get us to relax. The Junior Deacon was slightly taller than the Senior Deacon, a slim balding man in his mid 50s with gray hair and a bony face. He reminded me of a hawk, with his chiselled bony face, staring us up and down suspiciously with sharp piercing eyes. His demeanour was much more regimented and formal than the Senior Deacon, no small talk, no jokes. I strongly suspected this man wore a uniform for a living. An army sergeant or perhaps a police officer.
The deacons checked that the Tyler had dressed us properly, meticulously going over every detail of our preparation. Again we were asked if we had any money or metallic substance upon our persons, if we did it was important that we were divested of it now. We confirmed we had none. A few last minute adjustments were made to the already peculiar mode of dress; the deacons turned our shirt collars inside out and arranged our shirts so that our left breasts were exposed. On both of us the large hangman’s rope was put around our necks with the long end hanging down our backs. Finally the blindfolds were placed upon our foreheads and we were warned that these would be pulled down over our eyes before we entered the temple.
It was explained to us that the Senior Deacon would go into the temple first on his own to make a report. We were to remain outside with the Junior Deacon who would lead us into the temple at the appropriate moment. The deacons lined us facing directly toward the left wooden door that led into the temple, one behind the other. The deacons had determined that I should be first due to me being taller than Robert. The Junior Deacon would be leading me in by the arm and Robert was instructed to place his left hand on my left shoulder and follow behind me. We were briefed that once inside the temple the roles would be reversed; we would be made to turn around, Robert would then be in front being led by the Senior Deacon and I would follow with my hand on his shoulder. The convention was that once inside the taller man had to be at the back hence I was to enter first.
Once this had been explained and we confirmed we understood, the Senior Deacon gave a nod to the Tyler. The Tyler rapped three times firmly and crisply on the brass knocker as I had seen him do earlier for the latecomers, this time on the left hand door. As before the peep hole of the door was opened, a beady eye stared out at us and then an ear. Again the Tyler whispered through the peep hole, this time his voice audible to me, “Conductor with report seeks admission”, he said. The slider on the other side of the peep hole was slammed shut and the two deacons pulled the blindfolds over our eyes. I then felt the Junior Deacon, the bony faced hawk like man taking my arm firmly. He held my whole right arm which was tucked between his left arm and his body with his hand gripped to my wrist. It felt similar to the manner in which a father would walk a daughter down the aisle at a wedding, except this was a much firmer vice like grip. I wondered again what the Junior Deacon did for a living and if this was how he manhandled criminals before throwing them in the back of a police van. Now unable to see I heard the door open and the steps of the Senior Deacon disappearing inside. I realised that the blindfolds had been put in place before the door had opened to stop us gaining a glimpse inside the temple.
I felt my heart pounding beneath my chest, my breathing got heavier and my mouth started to dry up with nerves. This was it, no going back now. The door eventually opened and I felt the strong grip of the Junior Deacon pushing me forward, my arm firmly clamped into his. Behind the blindfold I was still aware of the overhead lights in The Adjacent and realised we were passing through the door to the temple as everything turned to dark. Slowly edging forward, my conductor led me further inside, with the stranger behind me clinging desperately to my shoulder. I felt our conductor stop still causing Robert and I to pause several steps inside the door, both of us shuddering with nerves and waiting to find out what lay in wait for us. I heard the door slam shut behind us.
We had just entered a different world I realised. Here we were, two strangers together in the darkness, putting our trust completely in our conductor. Despite my nerves and the Junior Deacon’s strong grip on my right arm, I reflected within the darkness that I finally stood within a masonic lodge, as had my father, grandfather and great grandfather before me. Acutely aware of the nervous energy all around me, from those present in the room, the other candidate and my conductor I gave myself over to the darkness and uncertainty, hoping that my trust in my conductor and god would be well founded.
Waiting in the darkness, the voice of another broke the silence, “Candidates, in the name of God The Great Architect of The Universe, enter this lodge of Entered Apprentice Freemasons assembled”. At this I felt my conductor pulling on my arm, taking me and the other candidate further into the darkness and the mysteries of Freemasonry.
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