In Search of Lost Girls – Chapter 1 – 2020 Edition
“… One … Two … Three …” Arthur W. Yong mentally paced out the empty cupboard. “That should be enough for the meddling brat.” He’d teach her not to mess with his stories.
He glanced over the paper clipping. Girl maimed in car accident, the headline read. Yes. The perfect model for the tragic figure he needed. He remembered her well. As a young man, he’d met her once at a lunch-time concert during a visit to Switzerland. He winced. She’d stood out like a bright light in the midst of a drab, middle-aged audience. He was immediately attracted to her, but when he accosted her in the foyer, she’d snubbed him like the haughty brat she was.
He put down his pen, taking care not to smudge the ink, then raised the cup to his lips between trembling fingers. Since the attack, thirst was a constant companion, but drinking was a struggle. Being unable to control half his face, liquids sneaked out his mouth, ran down his chin and ended up on his shirt. His right hand, the only one that worked, ran nervously across his chin, checking. He breathed a sigh of relief. No tea had dribbled past his pinched lips.
Turning back to the manuscript, he reached for his pen only to have it slip from his uncertain grasp leaving a black blotch in the middle of the text. He cursed silently as he mopped up the ink, then painstakingly rewrote the lines.
So what remained to be done? The church held its own against unusually bleak weather for summer, its tower pointing bluntly at heaven. The cloister was in place. The nuns walked its wind-swept corridors. A hoard of ill-dressed girls cowered under a nun’s watchful eyes, reciting lessons. To cap it all, the whole edifice bathed in a foul stench of burnt cabbage. Were he to close the pages, he was sure the smell would still linger.
He took a further sip, cautiously replaced the cup on his desk and closed his eyes. How would the story begin?
“Greetings Baron. Good of you to spare the time.”
He was startled by the unfamiliar voice. Being called ‘Baron’ startled him too. That hadn’t been in the story, but then neither had he. He’d written himself into other stories but never had he been unwillingly transported into one. He had no desire to be trapped in the dismal world he’d concocted for the girl. That was her hell, not his. After all, he was the author. She was a mere character.
“Baron?” the voice said tersely.
Opening his eyes, a tall, gaunt nun stood before him dressed in a black tunic over which she wore the traditional black apron. Her stern face was framed in a white coif topped with a black veil attached behind her head. Her lips were drawn in a tight line below a sharp nose. She was far more daunting than he’d described in his outline. Could this really be his story?
“Greetings, Reverend Mother.”
They stood in a small, sheltered doorway cut deep into the thick wall that encircled the convent. Selecting a key from the keyring at her waist, the Abbess unlocked the door and ushered him into the guest house, a nondescript little building nestled against the convent wall. The interior was bleak and austere. He caught sight of a number of tiny bedrooms each furnished with a single metal-framed cot.
“I trust your little community is thriving,” he said, placing his small holdall on a cot.
The Abbess winced, no doubt baulking at the word ‘little’. From what he knew, the number of nuns continued to decrease. There were barely enough to maintain essential activities, let alone run the orphanage and school.
“And the girls?” the Baron enquired.
“There seems to be no end to the orphans and other down-and-outs that require the firm, helping hand of God,” Abbess Johannes said, leading him out into the gardens that lay within the walls.
At the centre of the gardens, the buildings surged in a clumsy jumble. Parts were built in local grey-green stone, but most was wood, much of which was badly in need of repair. Having drafted notes about the convent, he knew the cloister lay at its centre and beyond, the church rose sullen and neglected.
The Abbess didn’t make for the main buildings, instead she led him along a covered walkway that hugged the wall. Wind had blown dried leaves into corners and under benches, adding an air of abandon to the sinister scene.
A piercing scream ripped the numbing silence. A young girl dressed only in a tattered pinafore dress rounded a nearby building, running head down, her bare feet pounding the ground. Close on her heels came a nun waving a large stick, her robes girded up around her knees.
“How dare you,” the nun shouted.
Intent on escaping, the girl hadn’t spotted the Abbess who stepped out and intercepted her. The Baron wrinkled his nose. Not only did the kid look filthy, she smelt it too.
“Is this yours, Sister Helga?” the Abbess asked, shaking the girl.
Sister Helga came to an abrupt halt, one hand pressed against her chest as she struggled to catch her breath. When she’d recovered, she nodded greetings to the Baron then grabbed the girl by the scruff of her neck.
“This unholy specimen thinks she can mock us,” the nun said.
The girl’s eyes flashed, her fists clenched, her tall, wiry frame tensed to flee.
“What’s your name, girl?” the Baron asked, forcing himself to take an interest.
“Tania,” the girl mumbled.
For all her black eye, the livid bruise on her cheek and the scratches and cuts on her arms and legs, this one hadn’t yet been broken.
“Where do you come from?”
“Her parents abandoned her in the hard times after the Second World War,” the Abbess explained. “I’ll talk to you later, Tania,” the Abbess said, then she turned back to the Baron. “You must be thirsty. Why don’t you join me for some refreshment?”
He followed the Abbess along the covered path till the walkway ended abruptly at a long, two-storey building. Halting in front of a low door, the Abbess pointed up at the building, explaining that it had once been the gymnasium, “the pride of the convent and the region,” she said. The ground floor now served as a school for orphan girls and the first floor had been converted into a dormitory.
“Keep your head down,” the Abbess warned, as she opened the door onto a dark, dank passage. The tunnel surprised him. No such passageway existed in his plans. He was relieved when they finally stepped out. They were once again outside the convent, close to the main entrance where the drive curled up in front of the church.
They skirted the library, which, according to the Abbess, would have housed many a treasure had it not been for the hoards of Protestants that had ransacked the place during the Reformation. Finally they reached the Abbess’s House that lay between the library and the West Porch.
Holding the front door open, the Abbess invited him in.
On her knees in the hallway, a young girl scrubbed the tiles. Seeing them enter, she scuttled out of the way, hauling bucket and brush after her.
The Baron guessed she was twelve, but her skinniness and her hair cropped short made her look even younger. A tattered pinafore dress hung over her emaciated frame barely reaching her thighs. Like Tania, she was peppered with bruises and cuts.
“Clear that away, Suzanne, and prepare tea for two,” the Abbess ordered.
The Baron followed the Abbess into the reception room. A small casement window let in a hope of light, most of which got squandered amongst the dark-stained furniture and dull drapes. The musty air hung heavy and suffocating.
The Abbess was boring him with the difficulties of getting extra money to pay for the children – apparently the local council had withdrawn part of their subsidies – when a timid knock came at the door and Suzanne entered carrying a tray bearing two cream-coloured mugs, a pot of tea and a small plate with two tiny biscuits on it. The Baron leaned away, overpowered by the smell as the girl moved around the table, transferring the tea things onto its surface.
“That’ll do,” the Abbess said, dismissing her, much to the Baron’s relief. Before she could leave, however, someone knocked and entered. The Abbess introduced the short, chubby nun as the Prioress and sent Suzanne to get an additional cup.
“That won’t be necessary,” the Prioress said. “Reverend Mother you’re needed. There’s a problem with one of the girls.”
The Abbess got wearily to her feet and apologised to the Baron. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. If you need anything, just ask Suzanne.”
The girl moved closer and poured him a mug of tea. Ignoring her, he took a bite of a biscuit and almost spat it out. Leckerli! He should have known. It was a local specialty. He couldn’t stomach the mixture of candied peel that gave it its distinctive taste.
Replacing the half-eaten biscuit on the plate, he glanced at the girl. She’d returned to her position, leaning against the wall, her head hung, her hands clasped tightly in front of her. He wished the Abbess had dismissed her. He needed time to think.
Despite it being Summer, the room was cold. He clasped his hands around the mug, savouring its warmth, savouring also the ability to use his hand again, one of the few perks of being in a world of his imagination. Then he raised the mug to his lips, only to wrinkle his nose and put it down without drinking. It smelt so strongly of the girl that her odour masked any hint of peppermint. At the thought of her filthy fingers pawing the mug, he struggled to stop bile from rising in his throat. Getting to his feet, he took refuge by the window.
Outside the sky had clouded over and the threat of rain made the unpaved drive look all the more mournful. Somewhere in that direction, further down the hill, hidden by the folds in the landscape, lay the town, although he hadn’t bothered to venture so far in the outline of his book.
When he finally turned away, hoping the girl might have left, he caught her staring at him, a troubled, almost calculating look. What could possibly be going through her shrivelled little brain? He didn’t want her telling wild tales to the Abbess. He’d done nothing wrong, but girls of that age could have fertile imaginations. Better to win her over.
“Tell me Suzanne,” he began, “how long have you been here?”
“For ever,” the girl mumbled.
He let out a “Hmpf!” of frustration. Conversation was not going to get him far.
“Tell me about school. I’m intrigued.”
She stared at him, her lips pressed in a firm line, her fists clenched. What had he said wrong?
“Dunno,” was all she finally uttered.
“What do you do?” he asked, forcing himself to be civil.
“Lessons,” she said, her expression full of disgust. “Mostly I’m the Abbess’s special help.”
It was then the door squeaked open. Both spun to see who’d arrived. The Baron’s face flushed with guilt. Goodness only knew why. As for the girl, she stood stock-still, her complexion drained of blood.
A small head peeked round the door and surveyed the room, then Tania emerged. Her wild array of scars and wounds now included fresh red weals on the back of both hands.
“You all right?” she asked Suzanne, ignoring him completely. “Did this bloke hurt you?”
Suzanne shook her head, glancing fearfully at him.
The sound of the front door opening had Tania scuttling out, leaving them alone. The girl hastily gathered up the crockery and headed for the door Tania had used.
“Ah Baron, I’m glad you’re still here,” the Abbess said as she entered. Noticing that Suzanne was not there, she enquired after the girl.
“She cleared away the remains of tea.”
“Well Baron, you haven’t told me the reason for your visit. I’m sure you didn’t come just for a social call.”
“I have a favour to ask.”
The Abbess frowned as if she’d been expecting as much.
“The twelve year-old daughter of acquaintances has fallen on hard times. Her parents were killed in a terrible accident and she was maimed.” He was pleased at the note of sadness that infused his voice.
“In what way was she injured?”
“She limps badly and the accident has left her deaf and dumb.” At least, she would be, as soon as he’d finished writing her miserable part in the saga.
“And what do you expect us to do?”
“Take her in till I can find a permanent place for her.” Long enough to break the girl. “I’ll pay you well. No special favours required. Treat her like the others.” He had a hard time not smiling at the misery the girl would have to endure.
“And what’s the name of this gem?”
“Kaitling, but most people call her Kate.”