Authors: Veronica Black
Sister Joan of the Order of the Daughters of Compassion sat bolt upright on her narrow bed and stared into the darkness. The dream had shocked her awake, something that rarely happened after six years in the religious life. During her novitiate there had been the occasional nightmare – usually about food, she remembered. Novices, while not kept on short commons, were fed on a diet of brown bread, vegetables, fruit and fish which was healthy but lacked the sensuality of cream cakes and the odd sherry. The food dreams had long gone and any kind of remembered dream was rare these days, which made this nightmare all the more unexpected and disturbing.
She had been standing on a railway platform, waiting — for what? for whom? In the dream she’d had no idea. She’d just been waiting as train after train roared through, not stopping, belching smoke and flame. The smoke had been so thick that it was impossible to see clearly the faces of the passengers who crowded at the windows and then the smoke had cleared and she had seen Jacob, laughing at her, beckoning her. She had gestured towards her habit and he’d laughed more immoderately, the endless train rushing through his face at every window. And then she’d glanced down and realized that she stood naked, white skin blotched with soot, outlined with fire. And Jacob had gone on laughing.
The darkness was disconcerting, images from her dream still hanging in it; Jacob with the lock of black hair falling over the high, clever brow; the long snake of
iron; the windows with the black smoke billowing up from the wheels beneath. Usually after a gentler dream, when she tried to hold on to it after waking, it fell back into her mind in a tangle of grey cobweb, faint image, dying sound. This dream – nightmare – stayed vivid, disfiguring the dark.
It was forbidden to light the lamp save in cases of grave necessity. Sister Joan drew up her knees under the thin blanket and considered the matter. She wasn’t in any danger of death or seriously ill and her sharp ears had caught no sound of an intruder. On the other hand her mind was quite gravely discomposed. If she turned over and tried to sleep again she might slip back into the nightmare.
She decided upon a compromise, waiting until the shapes of the few pieces of furniture in the cell materialized dimly and then rose, slipping her bare feet into the pair of serviceable slippers at the side of the bed, reaching for the equally practical grey
that hung next to her habit behind the door. Knotting the cord she was surprised to find that her hands were trembling.
The door opened without creaking and she stood for a moment in the corridor, grateful for the dim bulb that burned in the light socket. Down both sides were the closed doors of the other cells. Five on one side, four on the other as the prioress had a larger space. Two of the cells were empty, the convent not having its full complement of Sisters. It was a complaint echoed by other houses in other orders. Too few suitable young women coming into the religious life. Of course quality was what mattered, Reverend Mother Dorothy said. There had been a period not too long before when the quality in this particular convent had fallen short – but that period was never mentioned. During the past year one postulant had joined the main community as a sister, not yet fully fledged as she hadn’t taken her final vows, but to all intents and purposes a full member of the little group of women who lived, worked and prayed in this quiet corner of Cornwall. Sister Teresa slept
noiselessly in the cell between Sister Katherine who took care of the linen and Sister Martha who did most of the gardening. A nice girl, Sister Joan thought, dragging her thoughts deliberately away from the dream. Sister Teresa helped out where she was needed during her final year of preparation. She had fine grey eyes and a pleasant manner and seemed genuinely to enjoy the religious life. Of the other three novices who had shared her time of testing Rose had decided to leave; Barbara had chosen another order in which to train; Veronica had married.
Thinking of Veronica helped to banish the nightmare. Veronica was exquisite to look at and had a nature to match. She had been sent home for a vacation and there married Johnny Russell.
‘Such a loss to the religious life‚’ Sister Hilaria had lamented gently. Privately Sister Joan had applauded the decision. Veronica and Johnny Russell made a
couple. They had sent a photograph of the
and small slabs of cake in fancy boxes. They were happy together, Sister Joan thought, and was glad for them both.
The horror of nightmare was fading. She could have turned round and quietly gone back into her cell, but her mouth was dry and her hands still shook a little. She moved out of the corridor on to the main landing that overlooked the wide front hall.
Cornwall House had been a private mansion belonging to the Tarquin family until its last owner had sold it cheaply to the Daughters of Compassion. Though it had the mingled scents of beeswax, soap and burnt-out candles that all convents seemed to acquire, Sister Joan could imagine it as it had once been, with the hall filled with well-dressed, chattering people, with curtains of scarlet and gold looped back at the long windows, with great bowls of gardenias spilling over the mirrored surfaces of the tables. She had no way of knowing if her fancies were accurate since she had been transferred here the previous year, ostensibly to help teach in the local school, in actual fact to help probe a disturbing
situation that had turned out to be dynamite.
Going down the wide stairs her hand touched the satiny wood of the balustrade with a gesture that was almost sensuous. Surfaces had always fascinated her; the soft prickly surface of fur; the round whorls of blue glinting stone; the roughness of plaster – sculpture had never been her main talent but it had excited her. To convey the texture of surface in paint had been an ever constant ambition. Her talent had not matched it, a fact that had made it easier for her to choose the religious life. She had not been sacrificing a brilliant career when she entered the convent.
‘Only me,’ Jacob had said, with his bitter, tender smile. ‘Only our life together.’
It was the dream that had brought him back into her mind. Consciously she almost never thought of him, save now and then when Easter came round and she recalled the Passover dinner he had once cooked for her – the bitter herbs, hard boiled eggs, the shankbone of lamb, and little matzo dumplings floating in golden chicken soup.
This was nonsense and she had better get a hold on her truant thoughts. She could have taken a cup of water from the bathroom upstairs. Nice, cold water. At that moment she felt a neat slug of good whisky wouldn’t have come amiss, and hastily poured it back into the bottle and substituted a mug of hot milk. It wasn’t easy to crave hot milk but it was probably better for the nerves.
To her right as she stood at the foot of the stairs, double doors led into an antechamber beyond which lay the prioress’ parlour; to her left another pair of doors gave on to visitors’ parlour and chapel. At the foot of the main staircase a narrower door separated kitchen and infirmary from the hall. The lay Sisters slept at the back of the kitchen where two ground floor cells had been made out of pantry and buttery. At present only plump Sister Margaret who cooked for the community and did most of the shopping occupied the lay section, near where the two old nuns who occupied the
infirmary, more by reason of age than sickness, spent most of their time.
Sister Joan opened the door and padded into the short corridor lit by the customary low burning bulb. The infirmary door was ajar and the sound of a gentle snoring floated out like a litany. The next door opened into a small room where the official infirmarian, Sister Perpetua, held what she was pleased to call her surgery. Here she dispensed aspirin and liniment and strong cups of tea; here were the bottles of herbal remedies with which she tried, often very successfully, to stave off the necessity to call in the local doctor. A small refrigerator held milk and various lotions that needed to be kept cool. Sister Perpetua slept upstairs in the main wing, one ear supposedly cocked for the tap on the door from Sister Margaret to inform her she was required.
There was no need to break rules by switching on the light. Sister Joan opened the refrigerator, took out the milk and poured some neatly into a beaker. It wasn’t whisky and she couldn’t be bothered to heat it up but it was cold and sweet and her trembling had ceased. The dream was assuming the normal place that dreams assumed, comfortably in the back of her mind.
‘Oh, it’s you.’
Almost dropping the beaker in fright she swung about as a footstep and a soft voice sounded behind her.
‘Sister Gabrielle, what are you doing out of bed?’ Her voice had sharpened with alarm.
‘Finding out who’s out of bed,’ the other returned, not without humour. ‘Did you think I’d taken to getting up and trotting out to buy bread at three in the morning like a senile old fool?’
‘No, of course not.’
At eighty-four Sister Gabrielle might be the biggest gossip in the community but she was very far from senile. Now her eyes bored through the darkness as she said, ‘Are you a secret milkaholic, Sister Joan?’
‘I had a nightmare and came down to get some milk.’
‘Without permission, I daresay. Well, never mind you
may confess it at general confession tomorrow – later today rather. It must have been a bad nightmare.’
‘It was.’ Sister Joan drained the beaker and conscientiously rinsed it under the tap.
‘Not about last year’s business?’
‘No, not that.’
The unpleasant business that had brought her to Cornwall House in the first place had been solved, neatly tidied up and sorted away in the method of convents.
‘Sometimes,’ said Sister Gabrielle, tapping her way to the table and sitting down on the chair there, ‘it helps to talk about things.’
‘This nightmare isn’t for talking about,’ Sister Joan said.
‘Then it probably concerns a member of the opposite sex,’ the old lady said. ‘In my young days the tribe caused me plenty of nightmares, I can tell you. It was a relief to be rid of the creatures. How old are you?’
Age was not important when one was no longer in the world. One counted the years from the time one made one’s profession.
‘Thirty-six,’ Sister Joan said meekly.
‘Too young for the menopause and too old for girlish moonings,’ Sister Gabrielle observed. ‘An old lover, was he?’
‘We thought about getting married,’ Sister Joan said, aware that in talking of her secular life she was breaking another strict rule.
‘And he jilted you,’ Sister Gabrielle said.
‘He did not!’ Sister Joan’s dark blue eyes flashed indignantly. ‘He was Jewish and he wanted his children to be Jewish which meant that I’d have to convert or there wouldn’t be any marriage.’
‘A difficult choice.’ The old nun spoke with a genuine sympathy. ‘Judaism is a fine and strong faith. Otherwise I am sure Our Blessed Lord would have chosen to be born into some other tradition. So you parted.’
‘I found out that I had a different vocation,’ Sister Joan said. ‘I think that I was finding it out even before
Jacob and I split up. It wasn’t a case of rushing into a convent to hide a broken heart.’
‘It very seldom is,’ Sister Gabrielle said dryly, ‘though to hear some people talk you’d imagine convents were stuffed full of broken hearted women – those that weren’t perverts, that is.’
‘Oh, how the old can shock the young when they speak their minds,’ the other mocked gently. ‘I was twenty-three when I entered the religious life and I didn’t spend all the years before wrapped up in cottonwool. Though we weren’t as frank about things in those days. So now suddenly you begin to dream about your young man.’
‘I was standing on a railway platform and an endless train was rushing past with Jacob’s face at every window,’ Sister Joan said. ‘I wasn’t wearing my habit, Sister.’
‘You mean you were naked. Don’t be
‘In dreams trains can represent life itself moving on.’ Sister Gabrielle laced her fingers together over the Knob of her walking stick. ‘What happened to your Jacob after you split up?’
‘I don’t know. He went off and married someone else, I suppose.’
‘His life moved on without you. At your choice, but still –’
‘I was stark naked,’ Sister Joan said, blushing at the memory.
‘Without defences.’ The old woman pondered for a moment more, then said, ‘I think your subconscious is telling you something, something that frightens you, makes you vulnerable. Can you think of anything that’s happened recently to cause it?’
‘Not a thing.’ Sister Joan was frowning. ‘Everything is chugging along nicely at the moment. Even the children are being good – astonishingly so.’
‘A sure sign that something’s brewing. When you go
into school on Monday have a closer look at your little angels. And pray for your old friend. Send him good thoughts.’
‘Thank you, Sister.’
She would have liked to reach out and hold the old hand for a moment but physical contact was forbidden save on public, ceremonial occasions.
‘Now I shall go back to bed,’ Sister Gabrielle said, rising heavily. ‘Between us we have broken almost every rule tonight, I imagine – include the grand silence.’ She went out again, her stick slowly tapping.
Sister Joan waited a moment, resisting the temptation to offer help that would be proudly rejected, and then went out herself into the hall. Sleep had fled, a rare occurrence since she generally slept like a log. A white night was best coloured in with prayer. She glided across the hall and opened the door which led into the chapel wing.
Here was the antechamber with a door leading into the nuns’ half of the visitors’ parlour. At the other side of the grille was space for the visitor and a side door. A corridor with windows along one side led past the parlour into the private chapel. Dim lamps burned at intervals and in the chapel itself the sanctuary lamp glowed with a steady blue flame. At the side, steps twisted up to the library and store rooms above. Sister David was combining the jobs of librarian and sacristan at the moment, scurrying from one task to the other with her rabbit nose twitching, enjoying every second of it.