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Who is Mary Winter?
By Pat Thornborough
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2009 Pat Thornborough
All rights reserved.
SISTERS – the time has come for us to consider the unthinkable. Yesterday morning I received a letter from — How was she – Sister Joan, Mother Superior of the Stella Maris Convent – going to break the news to her nuns? They had a right to know, and yet what a devastating blow it would be to them. The fact was that she had received an ultimatum from the Mother House to the effect that if their debts could not be paid and the convent fell into even more disrepair, they would be recalled, the house closed, shuttered and eventually sold. It would mean the end of a hundred years of their Order's residence there and worst of all – failure. She decided to keep the letter hidden and the bad news in her heart for a little while longer.
She watched their mechanic close the bonnet of the old Ford in the barn which was attached to the manor house that was home to seven nuns and herself. Manor sounded grand but the old house was only just big enough for them with a spare room for the unexpected guest.
'I've done the best I can, maybe she'll last long enough to get over the next hurdle but I can't guarantee that this old lady will be awarded an MOT next year. I suggest we hope for a miracle to get her over the one she's got to go through this afternoon.' Sister Imelda shook her head and wiped the grease from her hands on a rag that only served to distribute more of the same over a larger area, finishing the job on the skirt of the sacking apron that protected her grey habit. She patted the car gently. 'She's given us good service has this old girl!'
Sister Joan looked at the worse-for-wear car and sighed. The paintwork had bloomed and the Ford logo had lost its lustre. 'There's no doubt about it, she's just an old bucket of bolts,' she said. 'But – she'll just have to make it for another year. We can't possibly afford another one what with all the bills to pay and there's poor Sister Flora, I have to be able to take her to the dentist again on Monday. That tooth will have to come out I'm afraid, it's so wobbly. If we don't get an MOT – I just don't know what we're going to do.'
'You could take a chance that PC Bradley would let you off because you're a holy nun – that's if he catches you – or beg a lift from Mr Murray up at the farm. He's a kind man – wouldn't let a lady suffer. He's helped us before.'
'I know he has. He wouldn't say no even if he wanted to, but we've asked him for so much already, I don't want to be a burden, nor do I want to rub our policeman up the wrong way and it won't really solve the problem will it? We need another car – and soon.'
'Don't say that – she'll hear you.' Sister Imelda grinned. 'Let's just hope for that miracle then wait and see. If we get an MOT then we have a whole year to worry about what to do next.' She took off her apron and removed a large purple anorak from a nail in the wall and put it on over her grey skirt, white winter-warm blouse and cardigan.
'You've done a fine job, sister. What would we do without you?' Joan opened the door and they both went out into the dull morning. 'Hard to believe it's nearly Christmas.' she rubbed her gloved hands together. 'There's a real chill in the air today – rain is forecast for later. Probably just when I have to go to the garage with "Sister Ford".' They both chuckled at the pet name the nuns had given to their car.
'First of November today – can't get any warmer now until spring.' Sister Imelda pulled the hood of her jumble sale anorak over her head and clutched the edges of the jacket around her ample figure.
As they walked together from the barn to the old manor house, Sister Joan remembered the time their mechanic first came to the convent. It was just such a day as this. She had gone to the station to meet her, some miles from the house. Sister Imelda had got off the train with one small back-pack and a large wooden box containing what she called her fixings, which – although it was fitted with small castors on the base – had to be manhandled into the car by an unwilling porter who didn't think he should be doing this in his tea break. He smiled grudgingly and with a look of disbelief when they assured him that God would bless him for helping. Thank goodness for the fixings because the car had broken down on the way back and to Joan's surprise the new nun had the bonnet up, the fixings box open and was up to her elbows in no time. The old car responded like a patient under the healing hands of a surgeon.
'Funny way to follow a vocation, isn't it?' she had grinned as she closed the bonnet again. 'But I've come in handy all over the place.'
Times have changed, thought Joan. Their habits had altered some years ago from the starched discomfort of the old head- dress and black floor-length robe, to the washable grey skirt, blouse and cardigan, with just a whisper of a grey veil fixed to and held on by an Alice band. The skirt was calf length and much more comfortable for driving and working around the convent.
She smiled across at Sister Imelda who was clutching the purple anorak closer around herself against the chill wind. A purple anorak. Who would have thought it – being allowed to wear such a garment? Hardly ever did the other nuns call her by her title, Reverend Mother: they were all Sisters now. The driving force of their vocation, however, bonded them together and remained as strong as ever.
'Here we are.' Sister Imelda pushed open the heavy front door for her superior. 'Hot tea – lovely – and do I smell scones?'
The warmth of the big hall cloaked them like a blanket as they took off their outdoor clothes and made their way to the heart of the home, the kitchen, where Sister Clare, who managed their domestic life, was setting out mugs and plates for the morning break.
Joan made a mental note to turn down the heating just a little, the fuel bills had been extra large last time. Money was certainly a big worry. They had a living allowance from the Mother House, but they were so few and the Order so small that it didn't amount to much and they were expected to supplement it. The nuns did their best, cultivating the garden and selling vegetables and fruit in season, but the work was hard and it seemed that they couldn't grow enough to meet demand with the few sisters who had been assigned to the task. They took in sewing jobs, curtains, cushion covers and odds and ends. They recited the prayers of their office daily and met in the chapel at set times. Their visits to the sick filled in those times when the social services left a gap and a need in those just wanting to talk. They were the Stella Maris Sisters, their vocation – to pray for wanderers and lost souls in life anywhere they may be and to take in those who needed a roof and a meal.
The convent was quite remote and cars usually kept to the main road which was a few miles along the narrow lane at the end of which was their old house. So, in fact, they hadn't had a wanderer for years, except, Joan recalled, some people last year who wanted a bed and breakfast holiday because the sea was at the bottom of the convent land. She had to refuse because they weren't exactly in dire need, what with the huge Range Rover and the expensive watches – and suppose she let them have the room and then a real wanderer turned up? So she suggested the public house in the village a few miles away who did bed and breakfast. Still, the nuns kept the room always fresh and ready, and food for just one genuine and needy traveller. After that the idea of doing B&B churned around in her mind for days. Times change all the time, she thought, and maybe we should change with them.
Sister Imelda worked very hard, sometimes late into the evening, mending lawnmowers for local people as well as keeping their own old car and rotavator in working order. Joan smiled to herself as she remembered the latter arriving on the back of a truck in a state of rusting antiquity, a gift from Mr Murray who worked the farm next to their land and whom they regarded as their next door neighbour. Sister Imelda nursed it back to health and it gave great help to the gardening nuns – as well as a bill for petrol. The addition of Imelda to the house brought about a change to their income. She was a dab hand at repairing most things so they seldom had to call out a man to fix the old radiators when they got noisy and needed draining. But there was never enough money and they had to rob Peter to pay Paul for most of the year. A small legacy had helped them through last winter, but this year the cold weather loomed as large as the repair bill for the old boiler.
'This one's got me beaten this time!' Imelda had sighed, placing her spanner back in the fixings box. 'I'm afraid this is a job for a professional!' She said it as if the word was spelled with pound signs.
'Here you are, Sisters – nice mug of tea. Two sugars for you, Imelda,' Sister Clare greeted them.
'Oh lovely – just what the doctor ordered.' Imelda sighed gratefully.
Their voices brought Joan back to reality. She took a mug from the tray on the table. 'Scones too, Sister Clare – you're spoiling us,' she said, looking around at them all. The news in the letter that she was hiding weighed heavily in her heart. She couldn't tell them – not just yet.
Sister Clare smiled. 'It's blowing up so cold, I thought you'd need a little sustenance – it's three hours till soup at lunchtime. How's Sister Ford? Any better?'
'As well as can be expected.' Imelda took a sip of tea and put the mug down on the table. She picked up a buttered scone, completely oblivious to the large dabs of engine oil she had deposited on the side of the mug. 'Just might make it for another year. We can only hope. She goes in this afternoon.'
'Three o'clock – that's when I have to take her to the garage.' The tea was hot and Joan blew across the top of the mug before she drank.
'We'll all say a prayer for her,' Sister Flora said, biting her scone neatly on the side opposite the wobbly tooth.
'Never mind, Flora.' Imelda patted her on the shoulder. 'We'll get you to the dentist somehow, whatever happens.'
Joan saw that their mechanic's fingers were black with grease. She said nothing. Sister Imelda would scrub them soon and those hands worked so hard they'd earned the right to be a little grubby.
Before lunch, as was their routine, they all went to chapel for prayers. They sang the chosen hymns for the day and Joan sighed as their voices rose in unison. They sounded so sweet but – oh, for some harmony. They never seemed to be able to get it right and so Sister Emma who played the small harmonium and was responsible for their music, had quietly given up trying to teach them. There was not much time for practice anyway, what with the weeding and the planting and so on, and so on.
Joan noticed that Emma's hands were dry and rough with the work she had to do and her nails were cracked, but she still played beautifully and never complained.
Hail Queen of heaven the ocean star,
Guide of the wanderer here below....
It was their special hymn. It would have been so nice to do it justice. Joan sent up a silent prayer – please send us an MOT, enough money to mend the boiler and a bit over for the roof. It's so hard to pray with a clear mind and without having to ask for something all the time.
At two-fifteen Sister Joan climbed into the old car, clicked on her seat belt and turned the key in the ignition. The motor sprang into life without a single hiccup. As she moved away from the convent and up the drive to the lane she could see, in her rear view mirror, Sister Imelda standing on the steps of the old house, watching her, with both thumbs up.
The weather forecast had been right. It began to rain as she went through the ever-open iron gates at the top of the drive. She held her breath as she turned on the windscreen wipers – they started, thank heaven. The car was behaving very well indeed having responded to Sister Imelda's tender loving care; in fact it seemed perfect except for the irritating problem with the clutch from time to time. Maybe it was nothing to worry about. Let's hope that Len Harvey at the garage will think the same, she thought, as she turned into the lane. It wasn't as if they used the car for long journeys, just to the village and back mostly and sometimes into town. She thought of the dental appointment on Monday.
'Just one more time, old girl!' she said aloud. 'One more MOT and I promise you'll get VIP treatment for the rest of the year!'CHAPTER 2
AFTERNOON, Reverend Mother, you're nice and early.' Len Harvey was out on the forecourt when she arrived, holding a large umbrella over his baseball cap and blue overalls. He changed the price on a secondhand car for a lower one. 'Bring the old girl into the workshop out of the rain and I'll do the test for you.'
She drove carefully through the big double doors followed by Len. Furling his umbrella he turned to the boy who fetched and carried.
'Make the Reverend a nice cup of tea, lad – I'm sure she could do with one and so could I.'
'Yes, Mr Harvey. Can I have one too?'
'O' course you can lad – after you've made one for us and checked that all the technology is ready for the test.' He winked at Sister Joan. 'He's learnin' the business, Reverend.'
'I hope you won't be too hard on him Len, nor on our old car.'
'Ahh! I'll do my level best for you within the laws, ma'am. No more I can't do. You go sit in the office while I'm at it; no point in standing around here in the draught. The lad will bring your tea and I'll be as fast as I can.'
'That's kind of you Len, thank you.' She got out of the car, made her way to the tiny office at the far end of the workshop, opened the door and went inside. It was warm and cosy with a desk piled high with paperwork that almost obliterated the computer with which Len had been trying to get to grips since this time last year. Beside it was a comfortable chair, so she sat down and cleared a small space to put the tea when it came.
The lad knocked on the door before he opened it. 'Nice drink of tea, Reverend. Didn't know if you has sugar or not so I put in two spoonsful. If you don't take sugar just don't stir it, OK?' He handed to her nervously what was obviously their best cup and saucer with a rather stained spoon.
'That's very nice, thank you,' she said.
It was a white lie – she'd never taken sugar but the lad was so bright-eyed and eager to please that she didn't have the heart to disappoint him. He watched as she took a sip. 'My goodness, you certainly know how to make a good cup of tea,' she smiled.
He blushed. 'First thing Mr Harvey taught me. He says it's very important to know how to make a decent cuppa!'
'How right he is,' replied Joan.
The lad backed out of the door as if she were royalty and closed it quietly behind him. She could hear voices and the sound of a spanner being dropped on the concrete floor. Looking around her she discovered a little washbasin in one corner of the room and poured what remained of the tea into it, swilling away the evidence with fresh water. Maybe I should drink it, she thought, they were so kind to have made it for me, but I don't like sugar and I'm afraid I'm not martyr material. She sat listening to the rain beating down on the corrugated iron roof.
After a while the door opened again and this time Len came in, a sheet of paper in his hand. His face was glum and she feared the worst.
'Bad news I'm afraid, Reverend.'
'She can't make it this time. The repairs we would have to do would cost more than the old girl is worth. Your clutch is almost shot and you're going to need four new tyres. Your rear nearside is almost bald, and your bodywork is full of rust. I'm sorry.' He looked at her with guilt in his eyes as if he were responsible for the blow he had dealt her.
'Oh, it's not your fault, Len.' She clasped her hands together. 'It's just – it's just that she was going quite well on the way here. Sister Imelda has worked so hard and so long – we just needed another few months – then something else might have turned up. I had such high hopes that she just might be able to scrape through.'
Excerpted from Who is Mary Winter? by Pat Thornborough. Copyright © 2009 Pat Thornborough. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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