Part 1: A Life In Pieces (click here) Part 2 Another Life In Pieces, part 3 A Life in Anguished Pieces, Part 4 A Life in Mobile Words, Part 5 A Life in Coffee Part 6 A Life in Loneliness, Part 7 A Life In Rags, Part 8, A Life in Confusion, Part 9, A Life In Families Part 10, A Life in Memories, Part 11 A Life in Contemplation, Part 12 A life in church, Part 13 A Life in Lasagne, Part 14 A Life in Chaos, Part 15 A Life in Gossip, Part 16, A Life In Custody, Part 17, A Life in Doubt, Part 18, A Life in Crisis and Part 19, A Life in “It Serves Him Right”.
A LIFE IN PARADISE
Izzy had known for some time that there was one thing she had to do. Ever since she had been ignominiously rejected by her old convent when she had been discovered too close to Sister Mona she knew she had to return, to face her demons (or nuns, as they perceived themselves to be).
She had been happy there. With the exception of her brother, she had always found male company an awkward thing to accept, and there were no men at the convent. It’s all that testosterone, she thought, not knowing exactly what she meant by that.
But there had been none of it at Saint Bernadette’s, and if only the two of them had been more secretive, more careful … but she was driven by the same forces that drive men and women wherever they may be, the force for love, the force for communion, the force for physical closeness with another human being, and carefulness is rarely an element there. And it hadn’t been her fault if the gender that her inner psyche demanded was her own. It had never been a matter of conscious choice, yet her own father hadn’t seen it that way. He had treated her as though she had a sickness that could be cured, as though some panacea would make her see young men in what he considered to be the “right” light and reject what nature told her she needed.
She had known back then, and she knew right now, that there never would be a “right” light for her. So when Saphie and Rusty were full of his release and the day after the absurd drama in St Bollard’s she decided to make her way back, across two counties, to the place where she had spent the happiest years of her life. She had called herself a Bride of Christ – indeed, that was the terminology attached to all of the Sisters there – and if there was a Christ she believed it was in the minds and the flesh of those Sisters. And it had been taken from her by a Mother in robes who was more like a bitter skeleton at the end of a loveless life than any guardian of love and hope.
But she’ll have died long since, by now, thought Izzy. She was old as the hills back then!
“There’s something I’ve got to do,” she told Rusty. “Somewhere I’ve got to go…”
He looked at her and sighed. In her youth there had been a great deal of secrecy about her – of necessity, bearing in mind parental attitudes back then – and this felt the same.
Had she met someone? If she had it would be another woman, and only lead to more unhappiness for her. But she was a grown up, had been for years, and whatever it was, it was her life and not his.
“Okay,” he murmured, “But be careful.”
“What of?” she asked, innocently.
“Just be careful,” he repeated, and left it at that.
The Convent of Saint Bernardette was the best part of two hours away, mostly by train but being relatively isolated the last part of the journey had to be made on a bus that only ventured into the wilds that far twice a day. She needed, she told herself, to be watchful of the time or end up lost and in the wilds come nightfall.
But they might invite me to stay, she thought hopefully.
When she arrived at the Convent’s bus-stop she had to walk half a mile down an unmade road. The way was lined with brambles and nettles and tufts of weeds and grass grew in increasing profusion on that track, more than she remembered, but the current season was one for growing and it had been a wet winter.
The Good Lord has been bountiful she told herself.
But the shock came when she arrived at St. Bernardette’s Convent.
The grounds, which had been silently and painfully tended by arthritic hands of ancient nuns were overgrown. The windows to the cloisters were boarded roughly up with unpainted sheets of fibreboard and everywhere a gloomy air of neglect hung over the place. If she had never seen a deserted building before, Izzy was looking at one now.
What’s happened? she asked herself. Where are all the sisters…?
All the sisters. That was a joke! When she’d lived there, had prayed at the odd hours that prayers were called for, had tended the gardens until her fingers were sore and her arms had ached, until her knees were wretched from too much kneeling, pulling weeds, encouraging growth, planting seedlings … when she’d lived in that place there had truly been few, and each funeral had meant one fewer. Only occasionally did a new face appear, and few of those stayed long. Life in the Convent was never easy and modern girls seemed to crave ease.
“Sister Isabel!” came a nervous voice from the other side of the overgrown iron gate. “That is you, Sister Isabel? Isn’t it?” I … recognise you … dear one ….”
She concentrated her eyes, shielding them from the sun that was limiting her field of vision. There in front of her stood the shambling, rather wretched figure of Sister Mona, the only one of the nuns of about her own age who hadn’t left before her..
Sister Mona had been a friend of hers. No, correction, she had been more than a friend. Izzy shivered as she recalled some of the times they had spent together, in secret, the two of them…
Had it been wrong? The Mother Superior had castigated their affection, had called it sinful. She had used much the same language as her own father had used years before. But Izzy had never felt that she was doing or thinking wrong. To her the affection … and it had been affection … that she felt for Mona had been as pure as any affection anywhere, and if it involved physical closeness, touching gently, kissing in the night, there had been no impurity in it.
“Mona?” she asked. “Is it really you, Mona? I thought you must have ….”
“Left? Isabel, everyone left, silly! When Mother Superior died, and there was nobody to take her place … according to the rules a new Mother Superior must have been a Bride of Christ for at least twenty-five years and the longest-standing, old Sister Iris wasn’t eligible … she’d not joined the order until she retired from ordinary work, you know, and she had grandchildren…”
“So what happened, Mona?”
“The convent was put up for sale and bought by a supermarket. They’re going to demolish the old place and build an out-of-town shopping centre … it will all be different here soon enough … and I came back to say goodbye… to the bricks, to the gardens, to all the memories… I loved you, Isabel…”
“Pardon?” Izzy’s heart gave a lurch.
“I loved you, Isabel…”
“Why are you saying this?” asked Izzy, but inside herself her heart was suddenly a confused mixture of remembered passions and anticipated futures created by Mona’s four simple words.
Then: “I loved you, too,” she whispered, unable to stop herself. “And, Mona, I haven’t forgotten you. I could never do that… I just thought … it’s as if life was a series of episodes like a television soap opera, and the one with you in came to a sad ending.”
“Life’s so cruel,” breathed Mona, moving closer until she was one side of the ancient gate and Izzy was the other. “I don’t know why you had to leave,” she muttered, her eyes wide with a mixture of emotions.
“This place was Paradise,” whispered Izzy.
“What? With all the early morning prayers, the long hours of work, in the gardens, in the laundry, in the kitchens, and then the fear, when you and I were alone, of being caught doing … things. I don’t remember much Paradise,” muttered Mona.
“But I remember you,” sighed Izzy. “That’s where the Paradise comes in.”
“And there was that other Sister you loved before me,” whispered Mona. “The one you told me about, the one who was forced to go much as you were made to go because of me…”
“Saphie,” sighed Izzy. “I stumbled on he recently, you know. She’s getting on now, but still quite special, and really spritely. I’ve a feeling she might end up with my brother!”
“You have a brother … I never knew!”
“I had a life, once,” remembered Izzy. “But everything went to pieces when I left this place. I even ended up in a hostel for the homeless… I’m back together, though, with my big brother now that I’ve found him. I think I’ve been rescued.”
“Then will you rescue me, Sister Isabel?” whispered Mona. “Please … for old time’s sake … take me with you … I’m very lost….”
There were tears streaming down Mona’s face and Izzy felt a surge of sympathy tinged with the memories of a past love rising up inside her. It seemed to her that life had just threatened to take a new turn and she wasn’t quite sure what it was. But it had the feel about it of something good and truthful and honest.
“I loved you,” she sighed. “Of course you can come with me! Come on, sweet Mona, let’s go and catch a bus. This place is very much the past, and it’s crumbling as we watch.”
And as if to confirm the truth behind her words the gate they were standing by slowly slipped from its hinges and narrowly missed both of them as it fell into an untidy rusty mess on the overgrown ground.
“This way, Mona, my love,” said Izzy, and she took her friend by one hand, and the two walked back up the bridleway to a future neither of them could imagine.
© Peter Rogerson 01.04.14