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Authors: Zillah Bethel

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BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
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She'd rigged up a hammock for the baby, too, with blankets and hemp and on the table beside the bed stood the iron water as well as the medicinal herbs now decocted and tinctured into pots, a bar of soap, a candlestick and taper and a bowl of cooling water sprinkled with dry geraniums. She allowed no visitors apart from Brother Michael who brought his nourishing stews and broths, diced mutton and haricot, boiled beef, a wing of chicken and a slice of cake to tempt the invalid back to health. He must have searched heaven and hell for the food though Bernadine never asked him. She simply accepted the bounty brought out of the folds of his cassock and blue twill apron, thanking God for His grace and mercy. Once he brought an orange and she had shut her mind to the thought that he must have stolen it from some hot house in the Tuileries. Aggie had gasped in delight at the sight of it and Brother Michael had turned the colour of an orange himself, hanging about at the edge of the bed and wringing his hands, glad to be of use to the Prettiest Peach, yet saddened to see her so done in and done out as he put it. Occasionally he crouched down beside the bottom drawer of the tallboy and laid a thick and stubbly finger on the child's forehead, making the sign of the cross. Then he would sink back on the horsehair chair in the corner and hold his breath until Bernadine almost forgot he was there. He had a knack of fading into the background like a chameleon or a white cat in the snow, and once he stayed several hours before Bernadine, on the point of rendering some intimate service for her friend, had remembered he was there and shooed him away as if he were a small boy.

It must have been very late or very early, for the light that came through the narrow slit of window was too soft, too gentle. It bathed Aggie's face in a milky glow, a delicate muslin, then hit the wooden crucifix with the sweetness of a blade. The baby slept peacefully in the bottom drawer of the walnut tallboy – Aggie had managed to feed her before sinking back into a sleep of exhaustion. Bernadine watched them both, her own eyes drooping with fatigue. Up until now she hadn't been aware of her bodily functions, had felt no hunger, no thirst, no sore, aching muscles; but now an immense desire for sleep overwhelmed her and she must have dozed off for a while because suddenly she was in her beloved little garden, walking through snowdrops and shy peeping bluebells, her feet and habit wet with dew. The sun had the face of an angel, the sky new washed, new created. She smelled the smell of the earth, the grass, the sticky green sap of the trees, felt the silken downy buds of leaves. Gilded insects murmured in their flight and the chortling of toads trickled through the wall with the
kyrie eleisons
of a service. Disembodied voices of nuns and toads… She woke up suddenly in alarm and ran over to Aggie who still slumbered fitfully, her breath shallow and ragged. She dipped the flannel in the geranium-scented water and dabbed at Aggie's temples then went to check on the baby. The gentle rise and fall of the tiny chest calmed her a little and she sat back down on her chair, deciding to bring out her box of coloured thread. She would make some pretties for the baby. She must keep her hands and mind busy at all costs. When she started thinking too much about Aggie and the baby, let alone the father, an abyss opened up at her feet, too wide to contemplate.

Lighting another candle on her small workbench, Bernadine brought out the wicker basket which contained her coloured threads, scraps of satin and velvet, a wooden darning egg, nippers, a goffering cushion, pins, needles, a bobbin, leaves of green and brown paper and a pastepot. She would make a bunch of violets to welcome the baby into the world. It was a commitment to life, to the future. If she finished a bunch before the night was out then Aggie and the baby would live. She set to work with great diligence, rolling out paper stalks, sewing her satin petals, her fingers lost in the glitter and fragility of the work. It brought back memories of sewing orange blossom wreaths for the first vows, when the white veil was exchanged for the black; when there was no grey, no clouded judgement, just self-abnegation, penitence, a desire for perfection. When time was run by the hours of the convent, the singing of devotions, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None… and the anthem before bedtime,
O dulcis Virgo Maria
… How they had giggled when their shorn locks littered the Sister barber's floor – chestnut, gold, black, brunette…

‘All for Jesus,' they had smiled at each other, almost hysterical. ‘All for Jesus!'

And the coif that framed the head and made you look like a tortoise poking your face out of a starchy carapace. What a lot of ebullience she'd had to subdue! The little conscience notebook and flail with its ring and five chains to overcome pride and carnal desire, the leather belt of rosaries, the wooden robe worn beneath the scapular to symbolise the yoke of Christ and the bronze crucifix above the heart. A life against nature, her father had said and it was true. But in those days it truly had been all for Jesus. In those days. Before she met him.

The shy knock broke into her thoughts and she looked up to see Brother Michael creeping into the cell as if he were a fugitive.

‘Brother Michael,' she smiled. ‘What have you brought this time?'

‘Sister Bernadine,' he replied, walking over to the workbench after a quick glance at Aggie. ‘I have brought eggs!' And taking a red knotted handkerchief out of his pocket, he placed it on the work­bench and slowly unwrapped it amidst the paraphernalia of bobbin, silk and pastepot. Four plump eggs sat gleaming in the candlelight, boiled and peeled and sprinkled with what looked like a dash of cayenne pepper.

Bernadine felt a jolt of saliva come into her mouth and she stared in astonishment.

‘Well, what do you think? Will they do? Will they tempt the invalid back to health?'

‘How on earth…?' Sister Bernadine began, shaking her head in wonderment.

Brother Michael grinned in delight, tapping the side of his little snub nose, a nose which turned quite violently heavenward. ‘Easy for them what knows!' And he proceeded to tell her the tale of how he had travelled far and wide, evidenced by the state of his torn and muddy cassock, the scent of outdoors and smoke about him; his vigil by the chicken coop in the moonlight, holding his breath and fearful of farmers, foxes and pecks from cocks… his hands slithering through the straw until, with a shiver of delight, they came upon the warm, round eggs… the retreat, a flurry of feathers, a dog barking, a farmer brandishing sticks and the perilous journey home, stumbling about through the undergrowth, holding his apron out in front and then just a few moments ago, boiling them hard in the saucepan before the steward was up and nosing about.

‘And how are your struggles with the steward?' Bernadine asked politely after congratulating him on his great adventure.

Brother Michael snorted. ‘The steward talks very finely about
carpe diem
but he won't share his spice rack for love nor money.' He took an egg and popped it whole into his mouth so that it stuck out of his cheek like a sugar plum. ‘One for each of us,' he indicated.

Bernadine smiled at his naivety and told him gently that it might be a while before the baby had any teeth to sink into a boiled egg. She didn't voice her concerns about milk or lack of it and the fact that there were no milch cows left in the Bois de Boulogne which meant that if Aggie died…

‘Oh well,' Brother Michael joked. ‘More for me!'

Bernadine helped herself, biting a small chunk from the top and chewing slowly then finishing the rest gratefully and greedily. ‘That was delicious,' she smiled, wiping her mouth.

Brother Michael licked his fingers and stared at her seriously. ‘You know the Mother Superior is on the warpath.'

‘It had occurred to me that she might be.'

‘She feels that the baby is, well, not best placed here.'

‘That is for Aggie to decide… when she is well.'

Brother Michael stared at her in surprise. She looked frail as a May butterfly at her workbench but her voice was hard, almost defiant. He wanted to say more but one look at the Shady Lady's face told her he had better not. He decided to entertain her instead with stories and gossip from inside the convent. One young novice had been upbraided for wearing her hair curled up
à la mode
because she thought it looked very saintish.

‘Saintish? Saintish?' the Reverend Mother had apparently whispered, white as a sheet. ‘Devilish!'

And another poor girl who'd hung a black apron behind a pane of glass to cast a dark reflection was to be punished by begging for soup for a week in the refectory.

‘I
have
missed a lot,' murmured Bernadine, going back to her bunch of violets.

‘What is that you are making? Brother Michael asked curiously.

‘Oh, something for the baby.'

Brother Michael turned a little red and he said suddenly in a loud, almost nervous voice: ‘Our physical lives are ours to expend, indeed we are expendable but our spiritual lives are not ours to do what we want with. I shall eat the rest of the eggs, Sister Bernadine, if you do not put your face in at Lauds.' And he made as if to swoop on the handkerchief.

‘I shall attend Lauds,' she promised, half-smiling, half-sighing. ‘I shall attend Lauds.'

The bell for Lauds had spoken and the nuns flitted one by one from their honeycombed cells, flat as shadows or worn-out crows. Bernadine felt as if she were sleepwalking as she crept down the nave past the fourteen stations of the cross, and the yellow, red and blue of the Passion burst upon her like a dream. She thought she could hear birds chirupping from beyond the stained-glass panes and the sunlight straggled through in flames and rays, illuminating motes of dust like messages from heaven. Messages from heaven. She knelt behind a row of ancient backs, some crippled with arthritis and rheumatism yet still proud and straight for as long they needed to be; and she felt a wave of shame wash over her. The altar cloths were white and gold for Christmas and heart necklets decorated the altar of the Virgin. She avoided looking at the one where masses for the dead were held and fought to gain an interior silence. Beside her a nun threw coarse salt on the ground to torture her knees even further and Bernadine recognised her as the old abbess who'd been brought to the convent for shelter. They'd found her in the library, cutting up rare and illuminated manuscripts because the glowing gold of the parchment had seemed to her like a sin against poverty. Now she had the air of a small child, laughing and singing with her coarse salt and calloused knees. She might have been building sandcastles or watching a Punch and Judy show.

The words of the psalm were quite lost to Bernadine, she couldn't sing the devotions or pray – her conscience troubled her too much – and when she closed her eyes the only face she saw was Aggie's, pale and wet, and the tiny blue baby's beseeching eyes. She struggled to remember her favourite psalm from Tierce.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains… He shall not let thy foot slip. The sun shall not burn thee by day nor the moon by night. The Lord shall keep thee from all evil.

She was out of step with the others, quite out of step and she thought they must be aware of it. Once, just once she felt the eyes of the old abbess upon her, eerily calm and smiling as if she knew everything, understood everything, and then they turned away. The Lord lets happen what has to happen, they seemed to say, at least they did in Bernadine's imagination. Her imagination attributed the words to the nun who'd gone mad in the library, cutting up her rare and illuminated manuscripts into inch-thick pieces. The Lord lets happen what has to happen. In the old days she would have believed it but not now. Now her mind spoke the words but her heart did not, they had an empty, hollow ring to them. Her lack of faith dawned on her with the clarity of daylight; and as the Sisters lifted their hearts all together for the
Deo Gratias
, she sat a sinner amidst a sea of worthy souls, a wolf in sheep's clothing, a hypocrite. The confessional stood in the shadows like the outlines of a sentry box, beside the bell rope, knotted and black from greasy hands. How many times had Father Stephen sat in there nibbling on a tablet of chocolate to keep his strength up for the inevitable list of petty slips, vanities and misdemeanours that waged war in the souls of the perfect nuns. How many times had real secrets of the soul passed from lip to ear, been understood, forgiven? She wondered how she could have gone on so long believing herself to be forgiven, believing she was living in accordance with the Holy Rule when all the time her body and soul raged against it.

She bowed her head and cried out from the
De Profundis
.
Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord. Do not forsake me now
. The words echoed in her head but there came no reply. No reply but the murmur of nuns like a drone of bees and the boom of guns in the distance like an Almighty reprimand. They filed out, one by one, flat as shadows or blackened ghosts and Bernadine noticed that the shoes of the old abbess were torn and misshapen at the toe from the press of praying. Her heart cried out within her. Humility was endless here. Humility was endless. She crept past the Passion with the self effacement of a gnat, catching sight of the Mother
Superior who wafted towards her like a zephyr breeze and whispered softly in her ear, so softly Bernadine thought she might have been dreaming.

‘No keeping! No redeeming. No keeping! No redeeming.'

BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
10.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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