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Authors: William Brodrick

A Whispered Name

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A Whispered Name

 

A novel
by

 

William Brodrick

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Anne

 

 

 

 

He lifts his fingers toward the skies

Where holy brightness breaks in flame;

Radiance reflected in his eyes,

And
on his lips a whispered name.

‘How
To Die’, Siegfried Sassoon

 

 

 

 

Part One

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

The Prior, in his wisdom,
had made Anselm the beekeeper of Larkwood. As with many decisions made by
Authority, the architecture of the ‘Why?’ remained obscure. Anselm’s
relationship with bees had never got past the sting issue. He’d made that clear
when the Prior first raised the matter. But neither zeal nor aversion for a
pending task had ever carried much weight for the Prior — his asking what you
thought was simply another factor, as much a warning as an inquiry ‘The hives
of Larkwood have been silent for too long,’ he’d said, summoning the poetry of
the Gilbertines. By that route, Anselm attended a beginner’s course in
Martlesham on apiculture; he bought the simplest how-to manual he could find
(as he’d done with law in former times); and he duly took up the title and
craft that had passed from Larkwood’s life with the demise of Brother Peter who
had loathed the taste of honey.

The
hives were not well situated, according to Chapter One of the manual. But the
choice of location had nothing to do with maximising productivity Charm had
been the deciding factor. Larkwood’s cemetery was situated — literally — in a
grove of aspens. At the eastern corner the trees thickened, rising on a gentle
incline to a clearing. Here, among ferns, nettles and wild flowers, eight hives
had been arranged in a circle. To each of these Anselm had given the name of a
saint. For his own comfort, he’d secured a spot for himself, dumping an old pew
between Thérèse de Lisieux and Augustine of Hippo. Memorising who was where
among the rest had not been an easy task. Anselm only succeeded after
Sylvester, the Gatekeeper, gave him a Christmas present after midnight mass:
oblong labels cut from a worn leather apron. Upon these, in India ink, the old
watchman had inscribed a name in glorious copperplate. Within the hour they’d
baptised the hives.

It was
summer and the time of harvest was fast approaching. The sun, low upon the
Suffolk dales, cast long, lazy shadows. Now and again a breath of wind sent the
aspens into a tinkling shiver. Anselm heard nothing. He sat legs crossed on his
pew reading Chapter Seven on how to remove the main honey crop. Turning a page,
he glanced up and saw a woman in a long black coat threading her way between
the trees and white monastic crosses. She was in her fifties. Auburn hair,
drawn into a bunch, fell behind her shoulders, giving contrast to her pale
face. At intervals she paused to read an inscription like someone checking an
address. Anselm’s attention crept on, behind her … to a large, hunched figure
with a rugged white beard. An old man had come to a sudden halt at the edge of
the copse, leaving his escort to advance as though he dared not enter this
strange place of graves. His capped head slowly fell and moments later his shoulders
began to shake, like the leaves around him. His hands, one flat on top of the
other, rested upon the bulb of a crooked stick. Anselm’s eyes flicked back to
the woman. She, too, had come to a halt; she, too, had lowered her gaze.
Evidently, she’d found what she was looking for. Sunlight slipped through the
branches, settling a reddish mist upon her head. Anselm laid his book on the
pew and took off his glasses. Gingerly the skin on his back prickling, he left
the safety of the hives.

‘Good
afternoon,’ he said, quietly ‘Can I help you?’

The
woman raised her face and fixed Anselm with a look of unconcealed
disappointment. Her features were cleanly drawn, with care lines around the
eyes and mouth. A scattering of freckles patterned her nose and cheeks.

‘Unfortunately
no,’ she replied, a natural smile vanishing as she spoke. The Irish intonation
was unmistakable, as was the hint of irony ‘The only person who could assist us
lies buried here’ — she arched a faint eyebrow — ‘in quiet extraordinary peace.

Anselm blinked
at the cross between them. The paint was flaking and the work of roots had
levered it to one side. A small plaque revealed the essential details of a monk’s
life: his name, birth, profession and death:

 

Father Herbert J Moore

1893 — 1925 — 1985

 

Anselm
had first met Herbert at the outset of his own journey towards Larkwood. He’d
stumbled upon the elderly monk in a remote part of the enclosure. There,
sitting in a stranded car, Herbert had dropped some chance remarks about the
monastic life that Anselm had never forgotten. They’d foamed in his mind like
yeast. Upon joining the community Anselm had looked to him as friend and guide,
though death was to take Herbert far too soon.

‘We
came here to see Father Moore,’ resumed the woman. Delicate fingers reached for
a necklace of shining black beads. ‘I’d hoped against the odds that he might
still be alive. I would so very much like to have met him … to have asked him
so many questions.’

Her
diction was exquisite. There was a fatigue around the mouth that would have
looked like sorrow if it were not for the narrowed, unyielding eyes. Behind
her, the old man had taken out a handkerchief and was dabbing his beard. A
suit of tweed, too heavy for the season, blended naturally with the soft greens
and blues of the landscape. It was like camouflage. He pulled down the nib of
his wide cap, shuffling his bulk out of Anselm’s line of vision.

‘I knew
him,’ ventured Anselm, ‘are you sure there isn’t something I can say on his
behalf?’

He was
acutely aware of the gentleman who would not approach Herbert’s grave. Though
out of sight now, his distress had charged the air between the three of them.

‘You
knew him well?’ The woman appraised Anselm with what seemed to be a last look
of hope.

‘Yes.’
But not well enough, he thought. Not as much as I would have liked.

‘Did
you know that Father Moore had been an officer in the Northumberland Light
Infantry during the First World War?’

Her
eyes searched Anselm’s face, knowing already the response.

‘I’m
afraid I didn’t.’

She
sighed, and her voice fell. ‘Then you won’t know that he was a member of a
court martial that tried an Irish volunteer, Private Joseph Flanagan.’

Regretfully
Anselm shook his head.

‘And
that is the pity of it,’ she said, ‘no one does. Neither you, nor anyone over
there.’ A tilt of the head brought Larkwood into the conversation, and Herbert’s
decades of close community living; the people who’d lived alongside him not
knowing a part of his personal history.

Anselm
was genuinely surprised to learn of Herbert’s military career. He couldn’t
easily picture the man he’d known in uniform. He couldn’t see him saluting or
barking an order or holding a weapon of any kind. Herbert had been, if
anything, a man wholly associated with peace and reconciliation. But the not
knowing was hardly out of the ordinary. The Gilbertine value on silence tended
to pare down both trivia and facts of substance. For this reason everyone was a
surprise, at Larkwood. All it took was a loose question to prise out the most
astounding personal details. What troubled Anselm, however, was the manifest
importance of Herbert’s past for this woman, or perhaps more particularly the
old man who’d blended into the trees. Without being able to justify his
impression, Anselm sensed an ambience of blame; the suggestion of a wrong in
which Herbert had played a part. He felt a sharp confusion in his spirit — to
understand the aggrieved but also to defend the memory of a very special man.

‘Was
the court martial a matter of consequence?’ Anselm blenched at the awkwardness
of the question; but he could think of no other way to open up the central
issue. And he sensed that the woman was ready to pull away that this visit to
Herbert’s grave had run its course.

‘For
Joseph, I’d say so,’ she replied, with her natural smile. ‘The army sometimes
shot a deserter.’

The old
man cleared his throat. It was a gruff plea to leave in haste, to stop
answering the monk’s questions.

‘This
was no ordinary trial, Father,’ she whispered with sudden feeling. ‘It had a
meaning, a special meaning among so much that was meaningless.’ She fastened
her disappointment on Herbert’s cross. ‘I’d hoped he would explain it to me …
and bring an old man some peace before he died.’

Anselm
fiddled with his belt, arranging the fall of his scapular. He was out of his
depth, now, as much through ignorance as incomprehension. At such times he
held his tongue.

‘I must
go,’ she said, holding out her hand. ‘Forgive me, I haven’t even introduced
myself. I’m Kate … Kate Seymour.’

She
turned and stooped under a branch. All at once she slowed and said, over her
shoulder, ‘What does the middle date on the cross mean?’

‘That’s
the year a man took his final vows.

‘I see,’
she murmured, one arm resting on a branch. ‘Over sixty years a monk and not a
word to a soul.’ Her voice was low and drained of colour. ‘You know, Father, I
get the impression this trial was almost as significant for him as it was for
the man with his back to the wall. To keep quiet about something so important …
well, it’s almost a lie, wouldn’t you say?’

Ms
Seymour didn’t elaborate. She tiptoed out of the shaded copse into a flush of
sunlight leaving Anselm helpless, his arms swinging at his side, as though the
activity might pump something sensible out of his mouth. Moments later he
watched the two visitors on the track that led to a hotchpotch of red-tiled
roofs huddling round a bell tower. They moved slowly arm in arm, while the old
man’s stick rose and fell like a steady oar. They moved with the closeness of
family.

Presently
Anselm was alone. Frowning, he went back to the hives and tried to enter the
mysterious world of bees. He turned the pages of his manual, forcing himself to
examine the funny diagrams and the bullet points in bold; but he kept seeing
the judder in an old man’s shoulders and the sunken head. There is nothing
quite so painful to witness as the tears of the elderly he thought. They accuse
the natural order of things. Old age was a time for nodding by the fire, not
hiding behind trees. Anselm tossed the book to one side, chewing his lower lip.
He sensed again the vague atmosphere of wrong-doing; the hint of blame. Herbert
had been one of the founding fathers of Larkwood, revered as much as loved —
for his simplicity, as for the largeness of his heart. He was part of the Priory’s
ambience, a tonality that attracted believer and non-believer alike. The idea
that someone could look on his grave and speak of a lie — in however abstract a
fashion — was inconceivable. Inwardly, Anselm groaned. He sensed a movement
beneath the trimmed lawn of what was familiar and securely established in his
understanding of things. ‘Those moles are at it again,’ he murmured. They
turned up every so often, leaving little heaps of disappointment and
excavations that couldn’t be filled in. Herbert’s face seemed to rise before
him: fine bleach-white hair, meandering veins around the temples, hollowed
cheeks, a mouth open as if ready to cry or laugh. The image dissolved. Soberly
Anselm eyed the labels on his hives. He liked to have his saints, he thought,
without the stain of things he need not know.

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