Not everyone was pleased to discover the conference was to be held on the premises of what had once been a thriving community of nuns. “With a name like Longview, I fully expected a wine farm at the very least!” Jamie complained loudly as the hired bus creaked its way under the arched entrance and crawled along the tarred driveway that curled around some beautiful ivy-covered buildings before drawing to a halt outside a utilitarian looking white-painted brick building sporting multiple identical single windows. “Aren’t we close to ‘wine country’?” Jamie had already established herself as the one who would find the most fault with everything we experienced over the next few days.
“Too far away to walk,” Sally muttered from behind. “It’s an alcohol-free zone too. I read that in the conference notes.”
We trooped down the long passage to collect our keys. I put my suitcase on the only chair in the narrow room and struggled to open the small window to let in some air. It was with a degree of relief that I noticed a tiny hand basin as I had been taken aback to discover there were only two unisex toilets and bathrooms on our floor.
There was no time to think about the consequences of that as we had to hasten up to the ‘Garden Room’ for the introductory session of the conference. I had conjured up a pleasant image of lush lawns and a confusion of roses, white wicker chairs and glass-topped tables, of a cool veranda and a tinkling fountain. Perhaps I was confusing wedding plans with my longing for a retreat from my over-burdened self. I was brought up short by the patchy display of pale blue agapanthus, the airless room filled with plastic chairs, and the heavy metal tables on an uninviting veranda that offered no respite from the heat.
A bus would drop us in town that evening so that we could explore various options for supper. Departure time was at a quarter past five and the bus would return at nine in the evening. Trust Jamie to have discovered the lack of bath towels in our rooms! It was largely thanks to her that an ancient nun positioned herself at the foot of the stairs to hand out the small, thin, white towels as we rushed to tidy up before going out. There were not enough towels to go around.
“We’ve a long night ahead of us,” declared Penny, a woman slightly older than me, who had become my companion by default: everyone else seemed to know each other and had quickly dispersed once the bus had dropped us in Steyn Street. I was delighted to have company for my own was too mired in misery to spend an evening alone with!
At Penny’s suggestion we did some window shopping. Neither of us was in the mood to purchase anything, nor were we keen to spend a fortune on food. We had no idea where our companions had disappeared to, so settled for a familiar pizza franchise. There Penny kept my dark thoughts at bay as we shared shards of flatbread dipped into a deliciously spicy sauce. We each ordered a glass of wine when the pizzas arrived and I gave myself up to Penny’s tales of travelling through Africa with a group of students. “That’s when I met my husband,” she smiled, her eyes misting over as people’s eyes do when looking inwards at a store of interesting memories.
“Was he a fellow student?” I had to drive the thought of husbands from my overcrowded mind.
“Oh no!” Penny laughed loudly. “He was a tour guide at the time and happened to be on hand to help us dig ourselves out of the mud after a downpour. His clients weren’t too pleased to have six filthy students camping on the periphery of their larney set-up. Vincent soon persuaded them to let us share their fire – and food. We got chatting and discovered we both hailed from the same town. He’s ten years older than me, so we never knew each other then. But,” she sipped her wine and smiled at me, “the rest is history.”
Ten years. There was an eight year gap between Felicity and Andrew. I chewed my pizza with care. Six years separated me from Stephen. It had to work.
Linda was leaning against the wall of a building at our rendezvous point. She was clutching a Woolworth’s packet. “Don’t tell me you were on your own Linda!” A rush of warmth flushed my face and neck – thankfully not visible in the dark.
“I didn’t really mind.” Linda held up her packet. “I bought a towel at least.” She had been one of the unfortunate ones not to have been issued with one.
“Where did you eat? You did have something to eat?” I was speaking too loudly; perhaps I was showing too much concern because of my overwhelming relief at having found company without asking for it.
Asking. Begging. Pleading. Praying. I had been doing that for weeks, no – for months!
As I said, not everyone was pleased to be sharing premises with nuns. Many made fun of the please be silent notices lining the stairwell and passages. I didn’t mind though. Perhaps I too will find peace at last, I told myself as I settled into the narrowest of beds.
The honking of Egyptian Geese before dawn drew me out of my disturbed sleep. I breathed in the cool air coming through the slit of a window and saw that it was already six o’clock. A nun crossed the courtyard below me and disappeared from view. My heart began its familiar quick-paced throbbing and tears pricked at my eyelids. The tiny room felt suffocating: I had to get out.
I made my way towards the small ivy-covered chapel not far from the entrance to our accommodation. Someone had told me it was never locked. I entered very quietly so as not to disturb the old nun kneeling at the front pew. I sat on the wooden pew at the back and waited in silence, awed by the woman’s devotional stance. Where did her source of inspiration come from?
The nun smiled briefly as our eyes met on her way out. What had she been praying for? Did I have any right to pray? A cool breeze wafted in through the open door. I was alone. It was a relief to lean back, to close my eyes, and to allow my thoughts to drift this way and that.
Felicity and Andrew would be married within the month. Andrew was a good man. He was a sensible man. Felicity loved him – there was no doubt about that. The hype about seating, table decorations, and her wedding dress – I could feel my body shudder involuntarily as the familiar list thrummed through my mind along well-used pathways – is a mask for how we are all feeling.
A mask? Yes, a mask. How long has it been since Felicity and I had talked about anything other than wedding arrangements? Had we ever sat quietly together and shared our feelings about her and Andrew settling in Australia only two weeks after the wedding? We have both shied away from what I have started calling ‘The Conversation’ in my head. We have been too wrapped up in what has to be done for the wedding – do we have to be?
A sob escaped me. I had been crying without realising it! I wiped my tears with the back of my hands, aware that my thumping heart had settled into a more peaceful rhythm. I knew what to do when I got home. Felicity and I would have ‘The Conversation’. We would laugh and cry. I knew that now and would be able to approach it without fear. I also knew how important it was for her to know the depth of my love, no matter how far away she was going to be.
The image of serenity of the kneeling nun propelled me towards the altar. I noticed for the first time a thin wire stretched across the bottom step. A sign declared boldly DO NOT APPROACH THE ALTAR. How odd, I thought until the head part of my brain explained it was to prevent the theft of the altar-ware. That makes sense if the chapel is always open. The heart part of my brain saw a shallow wooden bowl at the base of the steps. It was partly filled with tiny scraps of paper.
Intentions! I remembered the bowl of pebbles in our school chapel that represented the prayers of my fellow boarders who, like me, were at least a plane ride away from home. I remembered my friend Andrea who constantly worried about the welfare of her family in Kenya, and how Julie would make me sit with her while she held a pebble in her hand and prayed for her mother to beat the cancer that had made her bed-ridden. Intentions.
I tore a page from my notebook filled with notes of things to check on when I got home: caterers, the florist, the dressmaker … I fumbled in my bag for a pen and sat down on the front pew.
Dear Lord, I wrote in tiny letters, I know Felicity and Andrew are right for each other. Bless their union, Lord, and grant me the courage to give them the space to start their married life in a new country. Help me to bridge that gap with grace. Please give us the means to find peace and to show our love for each other before they leave.
I folded the page into a tiny square and stood up to drop it into the bowl. At that point a breeze wafted down the aisle, caught my paper and carried it over the thin wire, dropping it on the second step leading to the altar. At that moment the enveloping peace of the chapel was rent asunder by the clanging of sirens and alarms. I shrank back, sure that a fleet of police vehicles had arrived! Three nuns rushed in, quite out of breath, followed by a burly security guard wielding a baton. All glared at me. I held up my hands, palms open, towards them.
“I haven’t stolen anything!” My voice sounded as if it had been dredged from the deep. I turned towards my tightly folded prayer lying on the stone step. “I just wanted to leave a prayer.” I bit my lip and felt as if I was gulping air until at last the sirens stopped, leaving a ringing sound in my ears. “It was the breeze. The breeze caught my paper.” My tears, those tears that had welled up and been absorbed for weeks, now came flooding down my cheeks.
An elderly nun placed her arm around my heaving shoulders. Another produced a tissue from within the folds of her habit. The third nun appeared with a glass of water. She knelt in front of me so that I could see her lined face and twinkling blue eyes. “Your message has been received loud and clear, my dear,” she smiled broadly. “We don’t often get messages that go off with such a bang!”