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The two ladies passed through a grand looking set of double doors to reveal the interior of a large priory. There were pews on either side and a great organ dominated the left wall. Imposing stained glass windows depicted the pentecost focusing on the virgin Mary. To the right, the vast window depicted adoration of the Magi. It took Janey completely by surprise that modern low ceilinged corridors could lead to such a magnificent place of worship. Sister Bernadine explained that the original Abbey had been added to throughout history right up to the last century creating an odd collection of buildings dating as far back as the 12th Century to the present day. “The old Crypt is still here and the monks cells are still attached to the church, however the modern extensions were due to the school that ran here up until 10 years ago.”
“Why is it not a school anymore?” Asked Janey glancing at the tomb of a noble looking king
“There was a tragedy which forced the school to close. Even when the school opened it's doors again, people were too superstitious and fearful to send their children within it's walls, so it lay destitute for a number of years. It was only when the nuns of Bermondsey Abbey relocated to this Abbey that it became inhabited again.”
“What sort of tragedy?”
“A child committed suicide, but rather than it being a one off tragic accident, it seemed to spurn on other children to do the same. There was a mass suicide attempt by 8 children. It was extremely peculiar and distressing and even though an inquiry took place, nothing came to light. The bishop of London traveled to this Abbey of St Augustine and blessed it. The nuns of The Abbey took this benediction with highest gratitude and vowed to turn the unhappy memories of this place into hope and praise for God.”
Janey stretched out her hand to touch the wooden pews, they had been ornately carved and were in very good condition. Beautifully crafted prayer cushions were aligned with the hymn books placed immaculately in the rows. Reaching over to take a hymn book, she noticed that Sister Bernadine had begun walking to the alter. She thumbed through the pages and smiled with delight at hymns she knew so well, 'All things bright and beautiful, God is love, Glad that I live am I' Humming quietly she sat in the pew nearest and continued to flick through the hymn book 'Rejoice! The Lord is King, Stand up, Stand up for Jesus' The humming changed to quiet singing as she mouthed the words she had so loved as a child
A tap on the shoulder brought her out of her trance and caused her to guiltily place the hymn book back down in its original place.
“Do not be afraid. You are most welcome to rejoice in the beauty of God through these hymns” Came a voice. It continued. “You are glowing with the love of Christ. I see you have a place in your heart for Jesus that will cause you great joy...”
“No, hold it, just....just hang on a moment there” Gabbled Janey.” I'm merely thumbing through a few hymns I knew as a child. I am most certainly not praising God or clearing particular spaces in my.....my heart for His or anyone's love.”
Janey managed to rise to her feet, though her knees seemed awkwardly big against the tight pew. The lady who had spoken did not move out of the way.
“I came here solely on the wishes of my father...I am not going to pretend that I have seen the light as I most certainly have not.” Realising, she had used this rather defensive 'most certainly not' phrase just before, she lightened her tone. “ I am of course willing to hear your ideas and do not wish to offend your beliefs, however I would strongly like not to.....” Janey stopped. What a fool she seemed. She hadn't looked once at the face of the speaker. She looked up.
With an eerie silence continuing for perhaps half a minute, Janey plucked up the courage to blurt out an “Excuse me.” and move out of the pew.
The nun sidestepped slightly to allow her through, yet her habit brushed intrusively upon Janey.
“Mother Pascal” Smiled the figure offering a hand.
“Yes I know who you are” She said “Please come with me. Do you have a bag or belongings with you?”
“Oh!”Janey called in dismay. “I must have left it in the entrance hall, when I was looking at the paintings”
“Don't worry, I'll retrace our steps and send somebody up with it” Came the voice of Sister Bernadine as she came to join them.
“Thank you Sister” nodded Mother Pascal.”Your bag will be quite safe in this building”
The two walked off towards a side door beneath the vast stained glass window of the Pentecost. Janey took her eyes from the window and instead studied Mother Pascal. She was tall for a woman, perhaps 6 ft, which added a physical grandness to her title. She was perhaps late 40s with an intense and rather masculine face, though her eyes were gentle and nose petite.
It was the sort of face Janey thought, that one may struggle to warm to initially.
On exiting the church, the two walked briskly in a drafty corridor with small stone rooms to the left.
“Are these the old Monks cells?” Inquired Janey anxious to redeem her previous rather poor attempt at conversation
“Are they used for anything now?”
“Sometimes in the summer, the sisters use them for quiet meditation and prayer, however they are seldom used in the winter months.”
The end of the cells opened out into the church yard and Janey looked with interest at the vast array of headstones, tombs and statues ordered on the most green and mossy grass. They looked predominantly Victorian with great stone tributes placed to once noble families. Knight, Stevenson, Josephson.
Many of the names and epitaphs were faded, eroded by decades of harsh weather. Mosses and lichens grew happily on fallen headstones and managed to creep up to the rather beautiful stone faces of cherubs and angels.
As the two walked in silence across the cemetery, Janey enjoyed the bouncy moss underfoot, she longed to reach down and touch it with her fingers to see if it felt warm. The silence was disturbed by blackbirds cawing and flapping overhead. Janey couldn't help noticing that the flapping was mirrored most precisely by the habit of mother Pascal.
They entered the first of a series of mobile cabins that were raised on stilts, they were painted a deep grey which answered the evening sky perfectly.
“You will be sharing a cabin with three other ladies. There are toilets adjoining each cabin and shower facilities.”
On first inspection, the cabin looked like a modern classroom, but there had been attempts made at making it appear more homely with curtains at the windows and Ikea type lamps at each sidetable. The four beds were a few metres apart, with a chest of drawers and circular rug for each. There was no bed linen on the bed, only blankets underneath.
“I trust you brought sheets and a pillow case with you?”
“Yes, however if I have forgotten anything, can I catch a bus to the nearest town?” Asked Janey
“That shouldn't be necessary, we have plenty of spare bed linen in the laundrette and unless it is a medical requirement, I am sure you will do very happily without additional keepsakes to distract you. ….The other ladies will be joining you soon, so I suggest you make their acquaintance in this hour or so before the refectory opens for supper and prayers.”
Mother Pascal turned on her heel and left Janice alone in the cabin.
The dullness depressed her and reaching over to one of the lamps, she flicked it on. An orangey glow fell onto a newly bound bible resting on the sidetable. The silver cross on the front cover reflected the light causing it to glow unnaturally bright. She picked up the book and crammed it into the drawer, before flopping on the nearest bed.
Almost immediately there was a knock on the door.
“Janey? I have your bag”
“Oh good, come in!”called Janey recognizing the voice of Sister Bernadine.
The sister was not in her habit anymore and instead wore a red polo shirt and jeans similar to that worn by the helpers of the Thursday Morning group. Janey was taken aback, but pleased at the same time, the dress enabled her to relate more to this young sister.
“You've changed” She said gladly accepting her rucksack and heaving it onto the bed beside her for it was very heavy.
“Yes, we wear the traditional habit for special occasions as well as prayer and worship. The choir are expected to wear it too.”
“It's nice to see you looking so normal” Smiled Janey
“Did I look abnormal before?” Replied Sister Bernadine.
“No, no I didn't mean that...I.” She paused and changed the subject. “Do we have particular beds allocated to us? I know there are 3 other ladies expected. I wasn't sure...”
“You choose the bed that you would like and the bible is yours too.” She said her eyes flicking over to the lamp. “There are additional blankets under the bed and there are bathroom cabinets in the next room for your toiletries.”
Janey thanked Sister Bernadine and was sorry to see her leave. “What time is dinner?” She called after her, but she was already out of ear shot.
Janey must have been asleep, for she jolted awake with the sudden opening of the door.
A broad shouldered woman of perhaps 60 kicked her rucksack into the room and followed it in, brows knitted in suspicion as she surveyed the room. Oddly enough she seemed not to notice Janey for several moments.
“Whatsat?” The lady spun round most youthfully considering her years. Then noticing Janice sat on a nearby bed. “Hello m'love, they got you roped up here n'all have they?”
“I just arrived”
“Oh this is me third time, you'd think I'd have enough sense to stay away.” She paused to light a cigarette studying Janey with wrinkled eyes.
“Are we?........are we allowed to smoke?”
“Oh no love, but we all have our little vices do we not?” She winked and smiled mischievously
“Oh well, you wouldn't mind if?”
“Oh no love, that's fine with me, I've got plenty stashed away for emergencies” She offered the packet to Janey and set about opening the cabin windows.
Cigarette in hand, Janey immediately relaxed, she rather liked this rogue like character. Looking at her watch, she suggested that they should dress ready for dinner. Janice was still in her trainers and skirt and felt grubby after the journey. Selecting a rather formal looking skirt and blouse, she made herself ready, brushing her hair and mascaraing her eyes, finally with a dash of perfume, she felt ready and stood near the door with a smile at her companion.
“Really darlin' there ain't no need to be dressin' up for dinner. Though I can't blame you, you're new and I guess I'd of done the same at your age”
Unable to answer because of a sharp knock on the door, both women were distracted by the tall figure of Mother Pascal peering into the cabin.
“I sincerely hope that you have not been smoking”
“Oh no, Mother Pascal, you are very much mistaken. I could not think of such a thing in the house of God. Rest my soul, we ain't going to reach them pearly gates if we're lighting up are we?”
The look of distaste on the mother superiors face was so pronounced that Janey had to stifle a laugh
“Come this way and I will direct you to the refectory.”
The three women walked briskly across the grounds arriving at the refectory within minutes. Large oak tables joined to make 3 rows. Two were already filled with nuns in traditional habit, on the remaining table sat an array of red shirted women and an occasional non uniformed person looking a little out of place. Janice and her companion sat in silence and looked around with interest.
The simple meal was conducted in silence aside from the prayers and once the plates were taken away, the nuns filed out in an almost military fashion.
It couldn't have been much after 3am when the cabin door opened. There were muffled whispers and shuffling feet. Janey sat bolt upright but immediately felt a palm clap across her mouth. Her arms were seized and without knowing how, she was bundled out of the room in nothing but her nightdress. She looked from one figure to the other with a fearful gaze, yet could see nothing more than dark shadows. The profile of a man spat a whisper which resulted in some sort of cloth being pulled across Janey's eyes.
The party walked for a considerable amount of time turning corners and opening and shutting doors. Once Janey tripped upon some stairs and was saved by such a cruel grip upon her shoulder that she cried out.
Then they stopped. And just as instantly as they had appeared, they disappeared. Loosening their vice like grips, the men let go, leaving Janey shaking and shivering with her hands raised to her face.
Very slowly and cautiously she removed the cloth from her eyes and saw what appeared to be a panel of suits. Mother Pascal sat to one side on the steps of the alter. The room was not large, it was adorned with paintings of Christ, though they were gruesome in their depiction of his death.
“What is this?”
“You are at the first step of your redemption my child.”
“I hardly think being.....being manhandled by a group of …....of thugs is..”
“You are to stand before God and seek his forgiveness. You have sinned, that is why you are here. You have sinned (God help you) and only by clutching at the feet of Christ the Lord and begging his forgiveness...can you be saved.”
“What!? What .... is this?” Janey looked from one face to another, yet could not maintain her boldness. Fear crept in from somewhere in her throat.
“I'm sorry, I really think you've got me confused with someone. I don't have to answer to anyone, I don't really know who you are. I came here for some kind of course....some kind of path to spiritual enlightenment.....you know? …....I...I.” She backed away towards the door, but felt a hand upon her shoulder. It tightened causing her to wince.
“You will confess your sin, even if only the Lord himself hears it and you will seek forgiveness.”
Janey was thrown onto her knees.
“Good god, what is this?” She murmured to herself, clutching vulnerably at her nightdress
“Redeem your sins child. Raise your arms to God and cry for his forgiveness, bitter soul, cancerous creature that you are, vile as damnation, crouch upon your knees and implore the lord to forgive you!” Mother Pascal almost screeched the last command and with her gnarled hand slapped Janey across the face.
In utter bewilderment Janey stared at her attacker.
“The Lord knows what you did” Mother Pascal spat “and without sorrow for what you have done, you only make things worse.”
Suddenly, Janey leapt to her feet, she twisted herself from the grip of the man and bolted for the door. Perhaps five strides of freedom took her but soon she was restrained and pulled to the alter. One of the men that had been seated in the panel was stood by the lecturn with his eyes flickering over the pages of his bible. His hands held the text steady as he mumbled passages, stopping only to turn the page.
Clutching at the marble step Janey heard a gunshot crack followed by a crippling burn across her back. Her head pressed onto the cold marble as another crack was heard. Once again the searing pain engulfed her body. Pulling her knees to her chest, she tried to bury herself into the cold marble but couldn't fend off the relentless beating.
Then it stopped.
“The pain you feel is nothing to the pain that Jesus felt dying agonizingly on the cross.”
Janey did not know, whose voice hissed those words but they stuck hard in her brain whispering themselves over and over again “...agonizingly on the cross”
“Are you okay Janey?”
Janey groaned and turned to the direction of the voice.
“I've brought you some tea.....and toast if you want it..” The voice trailed off. “You know it will get easier Janey....things are going to get better.”
Janey opened her eyes. By her bedside was sister Bernadine. She looked concerned.
“There's been no damage done. The pain will subside quickly...there's no lasting damage.”
Janey felt a tingling sensation on her face and could almost trace the hand of Mother Pascal upon her cheek. “Sister Bernadine.....”
“Do you know what......what has just happened to me?”
“Yes Janey I know”
“It happens to all of us Janey.”
“Wha....what?” Janey gasped
“It happens to all of us. It is the way in which we purify our souls before God...”
“Sister Bernadine.........are you mad?” Janey looked straight into the eyes of her companion.
“Janey...I know it seems so strange, but...but you have to trust me on this one.”
“You mean to say that those....those creatures down there go about beating up young ladies....on a regular basis?”
Sister Bernadine smiled. “But....but Janey. Do you not feel.....Do you not feel better? Do you not feel a sense of relief?”
“Good god, I'm out of here...” Janey mumbled and drew aside the covers. She sat up but winced at the pain in her back.
“Janey, I'm only asking you to hear me out. You have no reason to distrust me. I am like you. I am more like you than you know.”
Janey felt grit under her eyelids and looked hungrily at the toast on the bedside table. She felt tired.
“I think you're as nuts as the rest of them.” Said Janey reaching for the toast. “I'll hear you out, but then I'm off. I'm off to find a policeman to report an assault or grievous bodily harm or whatever the hell else you call this kind of madness.