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Friday, 29 August 2014

Saturday Story - 'My life's most important work'

In a departure from the norm for our regular weekly slot, the following ‘story’ hasn’t been published in this format before.

In 1995, I wrote a couple of novellas featuring a nun, Sister Hannah – A Sign of Grace and Silenced in Darkness. Prior to joining the order of nuns, she’d been a cop in New York. The mother house was situated in Stockbridge – of Norman Rockwell fame. Silenced in Darkness was written in a day and was a runner-up in the One Day Novel Writing Competition, 1995.

Some years later, while responding to a writers’ circle prompt - My life’s most important work – I decided to incorporate something about Sister Hannah, extracted in letter format from the fledgling novel. (These scenes do not appear in the two novellas, only the novel).
That novel eventually transmogrified from its setting in the US to UK, swapping Sister Hannah for Sister Rose, and exchanging New York and Charleston, South Carolina with Newcastle Upon Tyne and London! I also changed it from third person to first person. Quite a rewrite, really. The first chapters of the new version won the Harry Bowling prize in 2006.

I hope it’s of interest, anyway.


                                                                                                                                    Mission, Peru

Dear Reverend Mother,

I appreciate you asking me to send you an epistle from time to time.  I’m only sorry that there is so little time to spare here to write more regularly. I hope the snows are not too severe at Stockbridge.  Of course I miss the other sisters at the Mother House, but I console myself with the thought that each day I am doing my life’s most important work.

It is strange, how before I took the veil I thought having children would be the most important work in my life, to nurture them and to teach them responsibility and the wonders of the world all around them.  But sadly after that terrible experience while I was a cop, I was never destined to become pregnant.  If I wanted to have children, then they would be adopted, and there, on reflection, I have been blessed.

When we novices were sent out to our various missions, I was apprehensive about coming to Peru.  It’s so unlike the life I was used to.  Still, the months I’ve spent here may have been harrowing yet they have also been most enriching.

            I worked hard and long, in the mud, in the rain, in the strength-sapping heat and in the mind-numbing cold. 

            During the hot months I wore the white cotton habit, and in the cold the black serge. I endured the bites of mites and lice and more than once had to dig out fleas that burrowed under my toenails to lay their eggs.  

            For the first few weeks I wondered how Saint Francis Solano, a seventeenth century Andalusian priest, survived twenty years among the Indians and Spanish colonists. Like him, I learned a number of Indian dialects, but was never going to be in his league - the possessor of a ‘supernatural gift of tongues’. 

            At first, too, I never thought I’d become accustomed to the variety of unpleasant smells: burned grease, onions, smoke, and mildew, body odour, faeces and urine.  The comb of eucalyptus trees, planted to break the tearing Andean winds, offered some relief.

            Sister Colette - named after the fourteenth century nun, not the French writer - was the Mother Superior of the mountain-side white-washed adobe mission.  She was frail of body but strong in spirit; she was untiring, wise and full of good humour. 

            Sleeves of my white habit rolled up, I hoed the hard sun-baked red earth.

            Alongside me worked four villagers, all resplendent in their bright coloured clothes, weathered faces creased by their harsh existence in the mountains.

            For a moment, I paused and straightened up to massage my lower back.  The secret was to stop frequently, to change the body's position.

            The mountains were glorious at this time of year. Purples and rich greens, cleft with mauve shadows, surrounded by white fleecy clouds and brilliant blue sky.  And the air I gulped in was a heady concoction, delightful, filling my chest with a fresh invigorating tang.  I felt I could almost touch the sky from here - or even God.

            Truly, the training at Stockbridge hadn't prepared me for the real thing: nothing could.  For the hard work, the dirt and smells were all mitigated by the generosity of spirit these native people exhibited.  Their loyalty and innocent humour carried me through many a mood-swing - as did prayer, of course.

            Now that I had adapted I found it difficult to recall my existence before coming here: the time at Stockbridge and in New York seemed a very distant memory, almost a dream. 

            Since I came to this mountainside village as a novice, my hands had hardened so no longer broke out in blisters. Occasionally, a stray vain thought made me wonder if I would ever be rid of the calluses.  But time will heal, I reminded herself.  Time was already building a fresh veneer over my New York trauma and tragedy.  Thankfully, the nightmares were less frequent.

            Crows called from the tall trees that skirted the field.  The sowing would have to be carefully done if those sinister birds were not to enjoy a free lunch!

            When the terraced fields were finally flush with maize, I sat in the warm breeze on an outcrop and experienced a pleasant glow of satisfaction.  The crop was good for a change.

            ‘I don't think God will mind you feeling pleased with yourself, Sister,’ said Mother Superior gently.

            Startled, I stood up and turned.

            Sister Colette was smiling.  ‘Yes, indeed, my dear.  In the fields of the Lord, truly it is a labour of love.’

            Two months later, during an abortive attack by four Shining Path terrorists, the old lady was fatally wounded. 

            Remembering Isaiah, Therefore have I set my face like a flint, I stoically buried Sister Colette while the nasal five-note songs of the Andean Indians - in Spanish - echoed the loneliness of their bleak mountain country and the lostness of a people stripped and despoiled. 

            With the aid of the villagers and a little cunning, we beat off the next assault and, surprisingly, thereafter came to arrange an uneasy truce with the terrorists. For the remaining eight months until a relief arrived, I was in charge of the mission. 

            In that time I was strengthened by my own faith and the people's belief in my ability; I bargained with and cajoled the authorities to get medicines and to protect the villagers' meagre lands; and I taught the children. 

            The stands of trees, palm and banana, often shrouded by vines and air plants, presented a gorgeous natural cathedral for our prayers.  I will always be able to picture the villagers milling around the huge boles of those trees, their heads bowed, the men in their wool ponchos and the women in their heavy shawls, the bright colors of their clothing vying with that of the lush flora.

      When the time comes for me to depart - the people from all around have already pleaded for me to stay - I know I will be truly reluctant to go.  But Obedience decrees that I must.

            I must close now, the children are asking for their history lessons.  They have such a thirst for knowledge.  It’s wonderful. 

God be with you,

Your Sister Hannah

The finished novel became Pain Wears No Mask and was published in 2007; it is now out of print.
If you liked this, you might like the first person narrative in Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat. Leon Cazador, private eye, half-English, half-Spanish, ‘in his own words’.

Spanish Eye

Amazon UK – 2 good reviews

Amazon COM – 6 good reviews


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