“… One … Two … Three …” Arthur W. Yong mentally paced out the empty store cupboard. “That should be enough for the meddling brat.” He’d teach her not to mess with his stories. The thought of her impending misery made him feel better than he had for days.
He glanced over the paper clipping. Girl maimed in car accident, the headline read. Yes. She was 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 had 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. She’d been a little older than his character, but that didn’t matter. Such things could be changed.
He put down his pen, taking care not to smudge the ink, then raised the cup of tea to his lips between trembling fingers, blew cautiously on the hot liquid and took a tentative sip. He was parched.
Since the attack and subsequent partial paralysis, thirst was a constant companion, but drinking was always a struggle. Being unable to control half his face, liquids tended to sneak out the corner of his mouth, run down his chin and end up on his shirt. Not that he needed to be presentable –he rarely ventured out– but a stain-smattered shirt was a sure sign of decay and decline. In his condition, changing a shirt was not an easy task.
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’d just written. He cursed silently as he mopped up the ink with oft-used blotting paper, then painstakingly rewrote the lines.
So what remained to be done? The church held its own against unusually bleak weather for summer time, its tower pointing bluntly at heaven. The cloister was in place. The nuns already walked its wind-swept corridors. A hoard of ill-dressed girls cowered under a nun’s watchful eyes, reciting lessons. And to cap it all, the whole edifice bathed in a foul smell of burnt cabbage that penetrated even the most remote corners of the convent. Were he to close the pages of his book, the smell was so strong, he was sure the stench would linger on.
He took a further sip of tea, cautiously replaced the cup on his desk and closed his eyes. How would the story begin?
“Greetings Baron. How good of you to spare the time from your worldly pursuits to visit us.”
Arthur Yong was startled by the unfamiliar, deep female voice. Being called ‘Baron’ startled him too. That hadn’t been in the story, but then, according to his outline, neither had he. He’d written himself into other stories in the past, making brief incursions into the world of his characters to play his part, but never before had he been unwittingly and unwillingly transported into one. He had no desire to find himself trapped in the dismal world he’d dreamed up for the girl. That was to be her horror, not his. After all, was he not the author, whereas she was a mere character that had begun life in a book he had written.
“Baron?” the voice said tersely, pulling him back from his thoughts.
Opening his eyes, there, before him, stood a tall, gaunt nun, dressed in a black tunic over which she wore the traditional black apron that hung from her shoulders to her feet. Her stern face was framed in a white coif topped with a black veil that was attached behind her head. Her lips were drawn in a tight line of disdain below a sharp nose. The woman’s high forehead rose above penetrating blue eyes. In reality, the Abbess was far more daunting than he had described in the outline of his book. So much so, he wondered for a moment if he’d not been mistaken in thinking this was the world of his story.
“Greetings, Reverend Mother,” he replied, with a hint of a bow.
The two of them were standing in a small, sheltered doorway cut deep into the thick wall that encircled the convent. Selecting a key from the keyring attached to the sash around her waist, the Abbess unlocked the door and ushered him into the guest house, a nondescript little building, nestled against the inside of the wall around the convent. The interior was bleak and austere. He caught sight of a number of tiny bedrooms each furnished with only a single metal-framed cot.
“I trust your little community is thriving,” he said, placing his small holdall on the cot in the cell-like room the Abbess had allotted him.
The Abbess winced, no doubt baulking at the word ‘little’. From what the Baron knew from his outline, the number of nuns continued to decrease. At the last count there were barely enough to maintain the essential activities of the nunnery, let alone the orphanage and school. Yet the influx of needy girls showed no signs of easing off.
“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 of the guest house through the main entrance, into the gardens that lay within the walls.
At the centre of the gardens, the buildings surged up in a clumsy jumble of styles and materials. Parts of the edifice were built in local grey-green stone, but most of it was wood, much of which was badly in need of repair. Having drafted considerable notes about the convent before beginning his book, 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, as he expected, instead she turned left and led him along a covered walkway that hugged the wall, a sort of outer cloister, no doubt offering welcome shade when the sun was bright. As no sun graced them that day, the poor light of the overcast sky rendered the walkway grim and uninviting. 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 as she ran.
“How dare you mock me,” the nun shouted.
Intent on escaping, the girl had not spotted the Abbess who stepped out of the shadows and intercepted her. The Baron wrinkled his nose in disgust. Not only did the kid look filthy, she smelt it too.
“Is this yours, Sister Helga?” the Abbess asked, shaking the girl by her ear.
Sister Helga came to an abrupt halt in front of them and lowered her stick, one hand pressed against her chest as she struggled to catch her breath. When she had recovered, she nodded greetings to the Baron then grabbed the girl by the scruff of her neck, pulling the girl’s scraggy hair as she did so.
“This unholy specimen thinks she can mock us,” the nun said.
The girl’s eyes flashed defiantly, her fists clenched, her tall, wiry frame tensed to flee.
“What’s your name, girl?” the Baron asked, forcing himself to take an interest in the girl.
“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 had not yet been broken, the Baron thought.
“Where do you come from Tania?”
“Her parents abandoned her in the hard times that followed 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 after your journey, Baron. Why don’t you join me for some refreshment?”
He followed the Abbess along the covered path till the wall and walkway ended abruptly against the extremity of a long, two-storey building that jutted out from the convent. 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 under the school. The tunnel surprised him. No such passageway existed in his plans for the school. He was relieved when the Abbess finally unlocked a door at the end of the passage and they 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 of the church.
Holding the front door open, the Abbess invited him in.
On her knees in the middle of the hallway, a young girl scrubbed the tiles with a small brush. Hearing them enter, she cast a troubled look in their direction then scuttled out of the way, hauling bucket and brush after her.
The Baron guessed she was twelve, but her extreme 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 too was peppered with bruises and cuts, although she had been spared the black eye and seemed somewhat cleaner.
“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 lost amongst the dark-stained furniture and heavy 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 of the girl as she moved around the table, transferring the tea things onto its surface.
“That will do,” the Abbess said, dismissing her, much to the Baron’s relief. Before she could leave, however, someone knocked loudly at the door and entered without being invited. The Abbess introduced the short, chubby nun as the Prioress and sent Suzanne to get an additional cup. The Prioress enquired about life in London where the Baron lived and they briefly discussed the fog until Suzanne returned with a cup and another biscuit.
“That won’t be necessary,” the Prioress said, waving a hand in the direction of the girl. “Reverend Mother you are needed urgently in school. There’s a problem with one of the girls.”
The Abbess got wearily to her feet and apologised to the Baron. “I will 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 spit it out immediately. 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 had 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 alone 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 advantages 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 the peppermint tea. At the thought of her filthy fingers handling the mug, he struggled to stop bile from rising in his throat. Visions of dying a dreadful death smitten by some disease the filthy girl carried had him getting to his feet and taking refuge by the window.
Outside the sky had clouded over and the threat of rain made the unpaved drive up to the nunnery and the west entrance to the abbey 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 had not bothered to venture so far in the outline of his book. The story was to begin and end in the nunnery.
When he finally turned away from the window, hoping the girl might have left in the mean time, he caught her staring at him, a troubled, almost calculating look on her face. 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 he was sure that girls of that age could have fertile imaginations. Better to try and win her over.
“Tell me Suzanne,” he began, “how long have you been living here?”
“For ever,” the girl mumbled.
He let out a “Hmpf!” of frustration. He couldn’t help himself. 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 said.
“Tell me what you do,” he said, forcing himself to be civil.
“Learn lessons,” she said, her expression full of disgust. “Mostly I clean up here. I’m the Abbess’s special help,” she added with more enthusiasm.
It was then that the door squeaked open. Both of them spun round to see who had arrived. The Baron felt his face flush with guilt. Goodness only knew why. As for the girl, she stood stock-still, her complexion drained of blood.
A small head peeked cautiously 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 of her 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 silently out through what he had taken for a cupboard, leaving the two of them alone. The girl hastily gathered up the tea set and plate on the tray and headed for the door Tania had used.
“Ah Baron, I’m glad to find you 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 all the way from London just to pay us 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 car accident and she was severely injured.” He was pleased at the note of sadness and regret that infused his voice. “She cannot fend for herself.”
“In what way was she injured?”
“She limps badly and the accident has left her deaf and dumb.” At least, she would, as soon as he’d finished writing her miserable part in the saga.
“And what do you expect us to do?”
“Take her in for a couple of months till I can find a permanent place for her.” He was sure that would break the girl’s spirit completely. “I will pay you well. No special favours will be required. Treat her exactly like the others.” He had a hard time not smiling at the thought of the cuts and bruises and worse the girl would have to endure.
“And what is the name of this gem you wish to bestow on us?”
“Kaitling, but most people call her Kate.”