The following is the beginning of the first chapter of In Search of Lost Girls to be published in September 2014.
“… 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?”