I make haste along the corridor to the Great Hall. I want to be there first each morning to see everyone arrive. No sound echoes through the Priory at this hour until in a chorus of opening doors the brothers stream out of their cells. Each one adds to a line of anonymous brown cowled heads snaking it’s along the corridors to the chapel where they gather speechlessly for Morning Prayer. Brother Francis breakfasts the first chord and the harmonies begin. The basses, the baritones, the tenors and the sopranos. I hear Brother John’s dulcet tones ringing out like a beacon guiding the others along the harmonics. Brother James booms out the strong tempo undercurrent. And of course Peter. His pure soprano, soaring above the mass, reaching heights which make your soul feel it is flying close to God. It takes my heart with it. Heavenly. I sing along. No one hears.
I leave the brothers to their breakfast and head off to the gardens. The scent of the spring flowers fills the air. There is still dew on the grass. Although the days are warming, the nights are still cold. I see that Brother Bartholomew has put up another Do Not Walk on the Grass sign, trying in vain to keep wandering feet from trampling the green. I sneak across. No one can see me now, so no trip to the chapter house for me and no penance.
As the sun strengthens I am driven back indoors to the dappled light of the cloisters. I love weaving in and out of the pillars like a sheep dog at trials. Making patterns in space, I hop, skip and jump over the shadows they caste, then play stepping stones round the square – “Step on a line break your spine, step on a crack break your back.” Such fun. An old man, but still a child at heart playing games. There are some advantages. Now I am at the steps leading to the kitchens. I drop down. The air is thick with the yeast for Brother Mathew’s bread. I miss its nutty, malty taste. What I wouldn’t give for a mouthful of it.
Out of nowhere the afternoon wind catches the cellar door banging it dramatically against the wall. I shudder. Can a ghost walk over my grave? The whole building has been shaken. More grains of sandstone sprinkle onto the floor. These walls are decaying, inside and out. The woodwork is being evilly wormed away. The scarcity of money means neglected upkeep: none of today’s brothers were tradesmen prior to taking their vows. It breaks my heart. I thought the Priory would last for ever. I was wrong. I’ve been able to steal in on the debate about its future, secretly privy to the deliberations on falling numbers, mounting bills, stagnating income. The seminary is selling up and moving to a smaller building the other side of town. It’s not like when I first came. Not ten but one hundred brothers then. As a new novice I was in awe of the place – its glorious majesty, its rich brocades, its cedar wood sacristy whose aroma more than made up for the coarseness of the cassock cloth. I was in awe of how easily other novices fitted into the regime. I wanted so much to fit in, to be accepted. I begun working in the kitchen preparing vegetables for the evenings stew. But Brother Martin said I had a nice hand and set me to work with him in the Library on the restoration of ancient manuscripts. I was delighted to be chosen for this important work and paid no head to the eyestrain from the meticulous, detailed work painstakingly conducted over long hours by lamplight. I loved it. My work was praised and I was given more valuable manuscripts to work on. Now I avoid the Library. I never go there.
Initially, I was very confused by my new form and misjudged distances and directions. I’d have planned to head to the chapel and would end up in the watch tower, or I’d try to get to my old cell only to find myself in the bakehouse. I’d end up at breakfast time when I wanted to appear at Midnight matins. Finally I worked out how this multidimensionality worked. Now I easily flit between locations, between times.
But back in the early days when I inadvertently landed in the Library the first time all hell broke loose. I screamed, I shrieked, pain ranged through me. I broke the barrier and the whole Priory work up. I stumbled and staggered like a drunk in delirium. I spiralled out of control until I managed to flit through a wall. Just as quickly all was normal again. The first time this happened I didn’t even realise where I had been. Later, when the urge to gaze on my own work pridefully took root in me, I tried to enter the Library and the same happened. Chaos. Shaken, my whole being resonated discordantly, losing control and struggling to maintain my form. Once more I fortuitously managed to exit the room. And once again normality returned as quickly as it disintegrated. It took several attempts to master my composure, but I could never control my shrieks and screams. The whole Priory stopped dead in its tracks at those times. I was being noticed. Moreover I had remembered and having remembered, I never went back.
It happened in the second month I was working there. Brother Martin had said we would be starting to work on a very special project, a book which could not be taken out of the vault. My heart raced at the thought of seeing one of the magnificent illustrated manuscripts I’d heard about. They were the treasures of the Priory but few were permitted to view them let alone work on their restoration. I’d only dreamt of seeing them but now the privilege of working on them was to be conferred on me. I felt so honoured to have been chosen. Illumination is a highly skilled art. The master craftsman must carefully mix the gold leaf with stag’s glue, hammer it out to an ultra-thin sheet, so it becomes soft and malleable to his touch as he gently applies it to the page without ruining existing colour or smudging prior paint work.
We went deep into the Library stacks in the cellars below the Priory, the realm of leggy spiders and their cobwebs, rarely visited even by the select few permitted access. In the shadows I could just make out the book laying open on a large table in one far corner. Thrilled to be so favoured I rushed forward. As I bent over the table to get a closer view of the master’s work in the dim light, he was on me. Thrusting and grasping. It all happened so quickly. He pressed my head down, spayed my legs and penetrated me like a dog. His obese body weighed down on me, stifling my screams, smothering my pleas. The gold leaf salted up with my tears and burnished onto my face. I hobbled back to my cell and cried all night. There was no one to turn to. I had nowhere else to go. From then on, every few days he would lock the Library door.
One evening I was alone in the cloisters before everyone else arrived for their stroll when Peter joined me. We walked together in silence, but I was not good company. I am not sure how he figured it all out, but he whispered in my ear and the tears welled up in my eyes in relief as his arm enclosed me, sheltering me from the world. We were inseparable after that night.
I still stand by him in the meal line. I watch him eat. His face never betrays his dislike of porridge. Only I know he is imagining it is macadamia nut ice cream. I watch him bathe. I become one with the water from the shower as it flows over him. Each night I lie beside him while he sleeps and remember the peace I found with him. For that moment I am happy. But I am also sad. I will miss him so much when they all move away. For where they go I cannot follow. I am bound to the Priory for as long as it stands. And for as long as it stands I will sing in its Great Hall with Peter’s voice in my ears.
© Sheila Ash, 31 March 2014