Of Love and Death – Written By Stephen Fahey. Part 4

book 1

The next morning I arrived at school and there was no sign of Winnie. I dropped Sila off and waited but she never showed. When I collected Sila she wasn’t there either. I told myself that there was obviously some logical reason and while I was disappointed I wasn’t worried. The following day was Friday and when Winnie was absent again I waited out the weekend in the hope of seeing her on Monday, but two more weeks passed and still no sign. Then, as I felt that old hurt claw its way back into me and my sense of self began to slip, three weeks late, I saw her one morning standing at the gates to her school looking anxious and impatient.

“Winnie! I was starting to worry… are you ok?”

“I’m so very sorry. I was all set to meet you as planned but that night I received a call and I had to travel to Rome. My Order was being represented in a congress and I was chosen to go. It’s actually quite an honour, but I don’t have your contact details so I couldn’t call was you.”

“Sister, don’t worry. You should be proud of yourself. You must a very good nun.”

“And what do you think makes a good nun, Mister?”

“Honestly, I have no idea. What do all of you do all day?”

“Well I’m a principle. And a scholar. I write and I restore old texts.”

“Ohhh… ”

“What? Did you think we just sat around praying?”

“Well, I didn’t know but… kinda… yeah.”

“Jesus, what are you like, Mister?”

““Jesus”?! Are you allowed to… ”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“Woah! Surely that’s out of bounds?”

“Nope. It’s just a word. The intent is the issue, you eejit you.”

I was stunned. When Winnie told me that she was a nun I imagined austere dedication of the church. Academia never even entered my mind, let alone bad language and a sophisticated sense of humour. She was unlike anybody I had even met before. My mind jumped at random from the images of nuns I had been taught as a child to hippies and shaman and ancient and far flung places where the religions all began. It was a lot to realise that this immensely interest woman was a nun. And to then learn that she wasn’t some closed off hermit, I was shocked. And in a strange way I was drawn to her. It wasn’t romantic or sexual, which suited me perfectly. I knew that nothing would happen between us other than being friends but I wanted to spend time with her. I wanted to know about her and learn who she was. I didn’t even know where she was from.

For the following week we talked each morning when I dropped Sila to school and the week after that Winnie brought me a copy of one her books; An Examination of Early Restoration Techniques. It was riveting. I had never even thought about restoration before I met Winnie but the level of detail and the range of artefacts and the materials used even a hundred years ago was mindboggling. And the way in which she explained and described the work drew me in for hours every night. I’m not a big reader but it was sublime, before long I found myself reaching the end of the book and longing for it to continue. But I couldn’t help but complete it. It was too enjoyable. Page after page of balanced tone and such succinct information left me enamoured with Winnie’s abilities as a writer and even more drawn to her as a person.

I had never known anyone who had written a book before and even though I hadn’t read a book in years back then it was interesting to be able to talk to the author. I found a deep appreciation for the craft of sharing so much knowledge in a simple and clear way. Even as a layman I was drunk on the huge array of details in the tome and even more drunk on my respect for Winnie. But she was so humble. She played down any greatness that I brought up and made her achievement sound like it was nothing important. Then it struck me, despite recognition in the academic world, she was completely unused to being appreciated in person. That’s why I insisted that she come to our house for dinner that weekend as thanks for giving me the book. She was totally out of her element and that this huge mind was shy because of my offer made me feel special, important even.

I cooked carbonara and served chardonnay, not knowing that she was a vegetarian, but, of course, she was kind about it. We made a simple tomato and garlic sauce instead and sat down to talk. Again it was easy sitting together and discussing the book. I was particularly interested in the method that she used to collate all the information and how she chose to organise it.

“There seems so much to write about, where do you even begin?”

“At the start, Mister. Chronology makes it quite simple actually. Following techniques and technology as they evolved means that the reader is familiar with the previous methods and doesn’t get lost or overwhelmed. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s a subject I deeply enjoy.”

“It shows. I couldn’t tell you the last book I read, it’s been so long.”

“Why, thank you.”

“It’s true. You’ve moulded a huge and fascinating subject into a great read. I, eh… well… would you have anything else you’ve written that I might borrow?”

“Of course. I know just the one. It’s not on the same topic though. I’ll bring it by tomorrow, if you want?”

“I’ll look forward to it. You have a great talent, Sister.”

“Oh. Eh… thank you.”

“Don’t be shy about it, it takes a huge amount of knowledge and commitment to write any book but you’ve done how many now?”

“Eight.”

“What!?”

“Yeah, eight.”

“See, this is what I mean. You don’t give yourself any credit.”

“That’s what we do.”

“Who?”

“Us Sisters, we don’t live for ourselves. Everything we do if for the greater good.”

“But can’t you see how impressive and important what you’ve done is?”

“That book could be seen as important, academically, maybe. But seeing oneself as impressive or important is vanity and that’s not how we live our lives.”

“I see… I want to ask you something personal too but I don’t want to offend you, Sister. May I?”

“Of course, eejit. Don’t worry.”

“Ok… how and why did you become a nun.”

“Oh, Mister. That is a story in itself. I don’t know if you’ll still enjoy my company if I told you… and I won’t like that.”

“Eh, you, ok, yeah, you don’t have to. I’m just curious about you. No offense, Winnie but you’re a fascinating woman… I mean person… I mean nun.”

“Mister, mister. What are you thinking in that head of yours? And why are you nervous? I’m just me. You’re you. Isn’t that enough?”

“It’s more than enough. I can’t tell you how much having met you has already done for me. To be honest I am drawn to you and that we can only be friends is a blessing in a way. I don’t know if I’ll every be with someone else again. But getting to enjoy good company has brought a lot of colour back into my cheeks, so to speak. And I have you to thank for that. So thank you.”

“My pleasure, Mister. As long as we’re both being honest I find your company very enjoyable too. Most of my Sisters are much older than I am and have no interest in anything that isn’t either ecclesiastical or academic. It’s so refreshing to hear your opinions.”

“Well, that’s my pleasure, Winnie. It does seem to me that you’re unaccustomed to company. You’re so outgoing and easy to talk to it surprises me that you chose a life so set apart from the rest of us. I can’t say that it’s a waste but I could easily picture you married with a family and… ”

“James, please! I… I would really rather not talk like this. I’m married to God now. There are some things that you just don’t ask a nun. We’re still women. We are still ruled by nature, but our hearts and our minds belong to him.”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to overstep my bounds, Sister.”

“It’s ok, Mister. I’ll tell you one day.”

And that was it, I fell for her. This incredible being who hid a secret even she couldn’t talk about had won me. After our meal I dropped her back to the convent and returned home to lay awake all night and wonder what her past was. I can remember thinking mostly about her hands. They were delicate but strong. I’d notice during dinner that the way in which she held her cutlery was precise and yet not without grace, as if she had attended a finishing school. And that got me thinking, what if she came from a wealth? If she did then by joining the Sisterhood she would have left an inheritance behind, so whatever caused her to join the convent must have been more important than large amounts of money. Then I caught myself. I was assuming and pondering this nun at three o’clock in the morning like a schoolboy with a crush. It was ridiculous. Nothing could or would ever happen between us, alas.

I tried to sleep but the sun snuck over the horizon before I could and when I heard Sila cough in her sleep I got up and checked in on her. She had a temperature. Then everything froze, my little girl was sick. Immediately all thoughts of Winnie evaporated as I checked the clock. It was only half six. And she was burning up. I wet a facecloth and lay it on her forehead and went downstairs and made tea. I always hated when she was sick, which thankfully wasn’t often, but it unnerved me and kept me awake for days. She was my entire family. Worst of all there was almost nothing I could do to help her. But she was strong. Like her mother. I kept muttering to myself that she would be ok and called the doctor to make an appointment just in case. Then I left a message with the school to inform them that she wouldn’t be attending for at least that week.

It was the following week before Sila was back in school and when I dropped her off I hadn’t slept in days, then I saw Winnie standing by the gate looking worried the same way she did when she’d come back from Rome. They it hit me, we’d parted after my intrusion on her privacy and then I had disappeared for a week. I felt tiny. I had always prided myself on my honesty and while I hadn’t lied to Winnie I felt like I hadn’t been honest with her. The look on her face was pinched between what looked like guilt, of all things, and a raw despair.

“Sister!”

“Mister! Where have you been?”

“Sila’s been unwell.”

“Is she ok now?”

“She’s fine, thank you. She’s a tough little cookie, bless her.”

“Must take after her Mama, does she?”

“She does indeed. Can’t keep a good thing down. Listen, can we have a quick chat in a minute? Have you time? I want to talk about how we left things last time.”

“Don’t worry one bit about it, Mister.”

“I don’t feel right. It won’t take long, I just need to get this little lady to class first.”

“Ok, James. I’ll meet you back here.”

Ten minutes later the schoolyard was empty and we walked up and down the concreted grounds painted with hopscotch alongside walls painted with flowers. It didn’t feel any different, despite the guilt I had felt when I first saw her at the gate that morning.

“I know I apologised for overstepping my bounds during dinner but we’ve become friends now and maybe it’s because I’m out of practice at having friends or maybe I’m just overthinking things, but I feel like I should have sent you word that I wouldn’t be in last week. I was just totally focused on Sila getting better, I didn’t think of anything but her. I barely even spelt.”

“I can tell.”

“What?”

“You look like shit, Mister.”

She knew cursing always caught me off guard and laughed when I looked up at her in disbelief.

“I appreciate that you love Sila so much. A girl needs her father. You’re doing a fantastic job so don’t worry about me you silly yoke!”

At once we were back in a balance that was both and exciting reassuring. I felt my feet want to step forward to stand closer to her but I put my hands in my pockets and pushed on my legs to stop myself while we talked about whatever it was we discussed. In no time at all the bell rang and a short but mad bustle filled the air as children ran and screamed their way to a field next to the playground. They lined up and a teacher walked out with a whistle around his neck and a bag of balls.

“Look, James. I do want to tell you things but it was a very painful time for me before I came here. I’ve hardened myself to be used to a lack of physical affection but if I start talking about my past I’ll open a door that I bricked up a long time ago. I’ve spent years not thinking about my past and it has been very costly to do so. I would love to be married. And I would dearly like to be more to you and for you. I can see that you like me too but I’ve sealed myself shut and you can’t count on me ever opening up again. Jesus, it could kill me.”

“Winnie,” I took her hand, “you don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to.”

“But that’s the problem. I do want to. I really, really want to. But I’m afraid that if I allow myself even an inch of emotion then everything will come undone. I’ll be that person again and that person is not the person you care about. That person will destroy me and everything I’ve work so hard for. Including the friend I have in you… My only friend.”

“I didn’t know that there was so much you’ve put behind you.”

“How could you know?”

“You don’t have to tell me anything and I won’t ever ask again. I promise. Let’s continue as we began. Ok?”

“I’d really like that. But I’m afraid you’ll eventually want to know more.”

“I liked you before I knew you had a painful past and I like you still. It doesn’t matter to me. You’re you and I won’t ever try and force you to do anything.”

With those words Winnie put her hands to her face and I saw her shoulders tremble.

“Come on now, Sister. That’s the exact opposite of what we’re going for here.”

“No. You don’t understand, James. I’m happy… I just… where were you ten years ago?!”

“Right here, like I am now, Winnie. Come on, chin up now. You’re dribbling on yourself for fucks sake. Now how about that second book?”

With a golden laugh and a smile like the sky on a clear night she coughed and straightened herself up then ushered me into the teachers’ lounge. Once there she reached up to a shelf of books and pulled a considerably thick one down and handed it to me; The Life of the Prophet Mohammed. Took aback I looked at her and she nodded at me like she’d just handed me a cup of tea. I hadn’t been expecting something religious, let alone from a religion that wasn’t her own. Again I saw her in a new light. I marvelled at how broad her understanding of the world must have been. Such diverse topics and yet she seemed unfazed by the gravity of her accomplishments.

“Thank you, so much, Sister,” I smiled. “I’ll begin devouring this tonight.”

“You’re more than welcome, Mister. Just remember to chew.”

“Go on. I gotta get to work.”

“Be safe, James.”

I looked at her as she said that and she looked different. She looked softer and warmer, not just kind or friendly but for the first time she looked feminine. I didn’t say anything because I was surprised myself but as she walked away I turned towards my car and when I looked back I saw that she had too. She had already begun to turn away again so she didn’t see me see her, but I felt her words to “be safe” on my lips and thought of her lips, then snapped myself back to where I was and got into my car and drove home to catch up on my work both confused and happy.

That day was the beginning of a new level in our friendship. I felt different about Winnie and after that day she acted more comfortably around me. We began to have dinner once a week and she taught me many vegetarian dishes that I still haven’t mastered. It was a simple time and that year Sila became used to having a woman in our home. Winnie was great with her, often tucking her in at night and reading her bedtime stories. They used to make Sila’s packed lunch for school together and played every evening in the garden the following summer. But one morning after almost a year Winnie met us at the gate of the school with an expression on her face that sent a chill up my spine.

“What is it?”

“They’ve summonsed me.”

“What does that mean? Who summonsed you?”

“I have to go away.”

“For how long?”

“I don’t know, James. I don’t want to go. I want to stay here and keep living this life but when you’re summonsed you go. No matter what.”

“Go where?”

“Rome. They haven’t told me why. They never do.”

“What? When?”

“Now. I’m already running late but I had to tell you. That’s the way that they operate. They book a flight before they call you.”

“You have to call and tell me that you’re alright.”

“I… ”

“Winnie, please. Call me when you get there. You have my number. Don’t leave me wondering. Please.”

“I’ll try but I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to. James, I have to go.”

“I trust you, Sister. Go, it’ll be ok. Don’t worry.”

I stepped forward and put my arms around her and hugged her, then whispered in her ear, “Be safe, Sister.” Then I held her by the shoulders at arm’s length and nodded, then she nodded and Sila nodded beside us with a smile. To give her strength I took Winnie by the hand, then Sila too and squeezed them both with a big smile. Winnie and Sila looked at each other, then looked at me with silly faces and then giggled together like two children. Then I took Sila into the school without looking back. I wanted to grab Winnie and kiss her and take her away form a journey that she didn’t want to take, but I knew that she wouldn’t stay even I begged her to. She wasn’t the type to shy away from duty.

To be continued…

© Stephen Fahey

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