In June, the final volume of The Hawk and the Dove series comes out. The title of this last one is A Day and a Life. This story looks at what commitment means – belonging, responsibility, patience; the interwoven threads of the fabric of love. It’s about community, vocation and relationship.
Within the context of one ordinary day at St Alcuin’s, it looks at the small but significant things that can make all the difference to our happiness; in this one day, the warp and weft of the life the brothers have chosen is made plain.
A Day and a Life is available for pre-order on Amazon UK now. Just to clear up a common misconception, US readers can order books from Amazon UK to get their hands on a copy faster; the postage is a little more than ordering for a US address from Amazon dot com – but only by about as much as it costs to buy a cup of coffee; and I think US readers will be able to buy Kindle copies from Amazon UK once it’s out here in the UK (set me right in a comment if that isn’t so).
Meanwhile, here’s Chapter Seven, and Father Bernard facing up to tackling a very unwelcome task all on his own.
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Father Bernard has felt unhappy about this since he first had to do it. Years have gone by, nothing has improved. The problem has even been compounded by passing time, because if you do anything long enough it becomes tradition, it acquires a strength of its own. You tie a man with one linen strand and he can snap his bonds without the slightest effort. You wind the same strand round him a hundred times and you have a prisoner. There’s strength in habit. What you do every day becomes who you are. And that’s the whole problem.
It all started back in Abbot Columba’s time – whom they called Father Peregrine. To be fair, Bernard wasn’t sacristan then; that only started when Father Chad held the reins between abbots. Back in Father Peregrine’s time, he’d been sent as a novice to help out Brother Paulinus – and somehow got stuck with it, even after he’d been ordained and Father Chad made him sacristan. Bernard hoped he’d only have to do both jobs for a while, until they got a new superior in post.
And now there’s Abbot John, who apparently hasn’t noticed how extremely unreasonable and unfair this is; at any rate he shows no signs of doing anything about it. Father Bernard wonders if he can raise the matter. Not really, he thinks, seeing his only objections are that he’s sick of it, has enough to do already, and doesn’t see why someone else shouldn’t take on the job for a wonder. He suspects that on those criteria he could be the first in a very long queue asking for a change. The abbot himself doesn’t always look entirely overjoyed with the obligations his role places upon him.
There is something else, though, and if he’s honest (which just now he’s trying to dodge) Father Bernard knows this is not altogether admirable: it’s that he thinks, as an ordained man and the sacristan at St Alcuin’s, being expected to do the laundry is, frankly, beneath him.
It’s not that he has no help. Someone usually spares one or two of the novices from their regular occupations. Brother Cassian occasionally helps if the children aren’t in school – when they’re out picking the plums or the cherries. Brother Robert often comes over; there are natural spaces between jobs in the pottery. Brother Cedd hardly ever shows his face when there’s washing to be done; though, thinking about it, poor Father Clement is squinting badly these days. He’s relying on that lad, training him up in the fastest possible time. You can’t blame him wanting to make the most of what eyesight he still has. Now, Brother Boniface is a frequent assistant – because candidly he’s of little use in the scriptorium, but he delivers a mighty beating to a linen sheet with a paddle. Good thing he’s not left overseeing the schoolboys. And Colin, the new lad – ah, good value there! A hard grafter, no airs and graces; not like that Brother Felix.
Father Bernard, if he had to suggest someone else to take on responsibility for the laundry, would put forward Brother Richard. The fraterer’s work can’t possibly be as onerous as a sacristan’s duties; he doesn’t have to be up first in the middle of the night and again at dawn, for one thing. And a fraterer’s work isn’t so lofty. There’s not such a jarring contrast. What does the fraterer have to do, after all? Keep the whetstone and sand in good order, all tidy and ready in the lavatorium for the brothers to sharpen their knives. Set the table and clear everything away after meals. Make sure there are water jugs supplied and filled at mealtime – and ale. Work with the kitcheners to get the bread to the table, and the bowls of condiments – which have proliferated since Brother Conradus took charge in the kitchen with his conserves and pickles, his chutneys and mustards, and the good Lord knows what else. He has to change the towels but that’s only once a fortnight, and the last abbot put a stop to tablecloths – said they went beyond the boundaries of holy poverty – so he hasn’t got to bother with those. It’s the fraterer’s obedience to see the towels washed and repaired, but at the moment Brother Richard tosses them in with the rest of the things – as Father Bernard sees he has done today. He has to sweep the frater, of course, and the adjacent paths and cloister passage, and strew the floors with fresh herbs. He has to keep the lavatorium clean – so laundry should come naturally to him. But how long can those chores take a diligent man?
It hardly compares with his own responsibilities as sacristan. He’s the timekeeper for the whole community for one thing. The sacristan’s is a high-ranking office; he has to be a priest. He has to care for the candles and light them, scour the sacred vessels every week, bake the hosts, launder and iron and fold the corporals – which shouldn’t cause any man to say, “Oh well, if he’s doing that he might as well take on the rest of the laundry while he’s at it.”
So now, because it’s Tuesday, he has to take the barrow and collect all the dirty linen from the big chest by the bottom of the night stairs, and cart it along to the laundry room to be scrubbed. Thank God they at least wash their own braies. Half the men put out their sheets this week, the other half the following week. It’s a big load.
The water running into the laundry troughs is clean and pure. It comes from two springs high up in the hills, piped along lead-lined masonry conduits and passing through cisterns allowing sediment to settle and pressure to build. The laundry is warm (if oppressively steamy) from the fires under the big brass water pots. Father Bernard grudgingly concedes he should be grateful; at St Alcuin’s he doesn’t have to kneel at the water’s edge and scrub the sheets in the river shallows – at least their system is properly organized. And Father John lets them have the good olive oil soap all the way from Italy. Bernard still remembers the stink of the soap his mother made from lard when he was a lad. This is much nicer, and scented with Brother Walafrid’s herbal oils furthermore – lavender and rose, rosemary and lemon balm. Right round the edges of the drying green behind the laundry room, where Father Bernard spreads the sheets to dry in the sunshine, latherwort is growing in abundance. Well organized, true, and well provided for – but there’s no getting away from it, this is back-breaking work. Especially because Father Bernard is tall. The stone troughs and their slanting stone scrubbing slabs are that bit too low. By the end of the morning he will barely be able to straighten up. He knows that already. Tuesday is not his favourite day.
When he gets to the laundry with his mountain of linen, he can hardly believe his eyes. No one has come to help him. The water is heating – Brother Richard lights the fires early on while Bernard is still busy in the vestry – but now he’s gone, and there’s nobody around. It is physically possible to tip the water from the cauldron into the trough without help – whoever built the place thought of that when they sited the firepits and the washing troughs – but it certainly isn’t easy, and Father Bernard has scalded himself on that manoeuvre more than once. He could also do with some help to haul the wet things that have been soaking in lye to be rinsed off and washed through. They get so heavy.
He stands in the middle of the laundry room feeling immensely sorry for himself for some little while. It looks as though there really is no one coming to help him. He thinks of going to look for Brother Richard, but if he’s honest (and he’s still dodging that) the sense of absolute martyrdom has a sort of horrible addictive sweetness he’s half enjoying. He thinks he’ll struggle on alone. This is his cross to bear. This is what people are like. Where is help when you need it? What’s the point of all the fine talk about faith and dedication if you can’t even see to it there’s someone on hand to help with the washing? Call this a community? Huh. Moodily, he shoves the plug into the drain, and lets the water begin to accumulate in the big stone trough.
He fetches the bats and the soap, rolls up his sleeves and fastens them back, tucks the hem of his tunic up out of the way into his belt, ties on a big linen apron, soft with wear and many times patched, and starts to pile half the linens he’s brought along, into the trough.
Struggling and sweating, his hands double-wrapped in rags against the heat of the metal, he tips the hot water into the trough. He bungs the hole where cold water flows in. It doesn’t back up and flood – that’s the point of the cisterns; their capacity is enough to regulate the system.
So he begins, his red, wet hands scrubbing and slapping the linens viciously on the grooved stone slabs. He repents of that fairly quickly; he knows perfectly well the way he’s going at it could rub the sheets into holes there and then, and linen is expensive. He pauses, stands quite still, discreetly smites his breast with his soapy fist, muttering “Mea culpa.” He comes back to the scrubbing more gently; but there’s nothing to stop him smacking the hell out of the wet linen with the bats.
In a weary pause, as he stretches his aching back and wipes the sweat off his brow with the corner of his apron, he hears footsteps approaching. Oh! Now they turn to, when the job’s half done!
He bends to the trough again so that they’ll find him hard at work and all alone when they come through the door. And then it’s his abbot’s voice saying, so humbly and full of concern: “I’m so sorry, Father Bernard, please forgive me. I didn’t remember until just now that Brother Thomas was meant to be helping you with this today. I sent him out on an errand first thing, and promised to look out somebody else to help you, and I completely forgot. I am so sorry. Here – let me help. What shall I do? Those bits in soak, in the other trough?”
As Father John rolls up his sleeves, kilts up his habit, dons an apron, and sets about it, Father Bernard steeps in shame. He can well imagine their former abbot, Father Peregrine, involving himself in menial tasks around the place. But if he had, it would have been in conscious self-abasement, humbling himself to the way of service Christ had chosen, and showed those who loved him, to follow. It would have been an intentional act of lowliness, to vanquish the stubborn pride of his aristocratic instincts. This man is different. Father John has scrubbed more sheets than he’s eaten hot dinners, in the course of the years of loving service he’s given in St Alcuin’s infirmary. And the linens he washed there would, for the most part, have been fouler by a long way than anything dropped off routinely from the dorter. It occurs to Father Bernard, he has never once heard Father John complain – nor yet Brother Michael, their infirmarian now. They just got on with it, cheerfully and kindly; the service of their love, for the care of the old and sick.
When the job is done, they spread as many sheets as they have room for on the drying green, towels draped over the bushes of rosemary and lavender, whatever cannot be accommodated here hung on lines strung across the cloister garth, the washing prevented from drooping too low by forked props cut from saplings in the spinney above the burial ground.
“Back aching?” asks the abbot with a sympathetic grin, as Father Bernard straightens up. “Let me take the baskets back, then. I got there late, it’s the least I can do. Then I think it’ll be all about time for the midday Office. These’ll dry nicely in this sunshine.”
“Father John,” says the sacristan. This is difficult, but he knows it should be said. “When you arrived, I’d been wrapped up in a very long internal monologue of bitter complaint. Thank you for coming to help me. It makes all the difference.”
He feels the warmth of kindness and understanding, sees it in his abbot’s face, those observant, evaluating eyes.
“Have you maybe been taking care of the laundry long enough, Father Bernard?” John asks him. “Is it time I asked someone else to pick this up? I think maybe you have enough to do with your other duties.”
And Father Bernard starts to dismiss it, to protest that he doesn’t mind. “Oh, don’t you worry about me. I can fit it in. Today was an exception; there are usually two or three here to lend a hand. I’m used to it, Father. I –” Suddenly he stops. Why do this? Why pretend? His abbot is listening thoughtfully to his lies, his prevarications.
“D’you know,” he admits, “I am fed up to the soles of my feet with this job. I’ve been doing it for years. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t – somebody’s got to. But, a break from it… oh, dear heaven, what I wouldn’t give!”
And his abbot is laughing at him, affectionately, understanding the way it feels. “I’ll sort it out,” he says. “Maybe Brother Richard, maybe Brother Giles. Let me give it some thought. I promise you faithfully, I won’t forget!”
In the cloister garth, as Father Bernard watches his abbot pick up the laundry baskets to return, the warmth of the September sun brings out the fragrance of the herbs, of the roses Brother Fidelis trains up every inch of stone he can reach, knocking nails into the mortar for the twine that holds them up.
And it takes him by surprise, coming back to him as sharp and vivid as when he first came here, not much more than a lad: that this is a beautiful place.