MOTHER MARGARET'S FEAST DAY.
“I met Picasso once,” Mother Margaret mumbled as she shuffled along the cloister after the office of Terce towards the infirmary.
“I never knew that, Mother,” said Sister Ignatius as she walked slowly beside the former Abbess, now retired.
“Why should you, my child,” the septuagenarian nun said in her slurred speech. "Speaking about one's past is not encouraged in the religious life. In fact, when I entered the convent in 1951, it was very much repressed and frowned on." The old nun stopped in the cloister by the low wall and stared at the dark green lawn of the cloister garth. "Now we realize that one cannot repress one's memories; the best one can hope for is to keep them in hand like mischievous children." She placed her wrinkled right hand on the wall and slid it along slowly. Sister Ignatius stood next to her and Sister Scholastica stood just behind, her hands out of sight inside her black habit. The old nun seemed far away as if lost in her past.
"When did you meet Picasso, Mother?” Sister Scholastica asked.
Mother Margaret closed her eyes momentarily. Rubbing her right hand on her forehead she tried to remember. "1947, I think it was. My father was an art historian and he introduced me to Picasso in Vallauris or some such place." She paused and once again placed her hand on the wall to steady herself. She could vaguely see her father's face, but it was as a shadow now. And Picasso, yes, she could remember him, the face, the eyes, especially the eyes.
"It must have been quite exciting," Sister Ignatius said. "Was he what you expected?”
"Well I was only seventeen so didn't know what to expect; but my father was overwhelmed by him. I remember being told that he was a communist and a womaniser, and to be wary." Mother Margaret paused again. She moved away from the wall and shuffled a few more steps along the cloister. "Who does the gardens now?" the old nun asked. She stared at the flowerbeds as if something had been lost there.
"Sister Henry and Sister Dominic," Sister Ignatius replied.
"The flowerbeds are in need of weeding," Mother Margaret stated.
"I expect they will get round to it soon, Mother," Sister Scholastica replied softly. "They’ve been very busy in the vegetable garden, I believe." The old nun nodded and sighed. It seemed a long time ago since she had been Abbess; and sometimes she thought she still was, but then remembered she wasn't. Sister Scholastica's arm moved under her own and she felt tired suddenly. Only Sister Augustine and Sister James left now of the old school, she mused as she shuffled along the cloister again. She shook her head. It all seems so long ago. What is today? she asked herself. And what was Picasso like?
"I believe, Picasso was quite talented," Mother Margaret stated suddenly, as if the thought had rudely entered her mind like an ill-mannered child into a room marked private.
"Do you think Mother Margaret knows today is her feast day?” Sister Ignatius asked Sister Scholastica as they walked along the cloister from the infirmary after settling Mother Margaret.
"She doesn't appear to do so," Sister Scholastica replied.
"Mother Abbess said bring her into the refectory lunchtime, but will she come, that's the thing," Sister Ignatius said with a worried expression on her face, as if she were about to be scolded for some misdemeanour she hadn't committed. Sister Scholastica raised her eyebrows slightly and smiled.
"I’m sure she will if she knows Reverend Mother wishes it," Sister Scholastica said in her soft confident way. The two nuns climbed the stairs towards the Abbess's office, momentarily in deep thought.
The infirmarian, Sister Ignatius, stopped on the first landing and peered along the passageway.
"How wonderful it must have been for Mother Margaret to have met Picasso," Sister Ignatius uttered in a whispered voice. "I’ve never met anyone famous. Not even the Holy Father when she came to England. I don't suppose I'll meet anyone famous, now," she said with a mild sigh. Sister Scholastica frowned and shook her head slowly.
"You meet someone famous everyday during Mass," Sister Scholastica informed sensitively. "Who is more famous than Our Blessed Lord?”
Sister Ignatius bowed her head and then crossed herself. "You are right, Scholastica," Sister Ignatius replied. "I gave way to vanity and overlooked the one person who is worthy of our praise and admiration."
Sister Scholastica smiled, her bespectacled eyes warm and understanding. "Nonetheless, we all desire to meet people who have acquired fame. But someone once said that, fame consumes the house of the soul like a drunkard. Some people become famous without seeking fame; they are the innocent. Others seek fame at any cost and they are the damned," Sister Scholastica stated with a hint sadness in her voice.
"I can do without damnation in Hell," Sister Ignatius said thoughtfully, moving along the passageway towards the Abbess's office. The thought of Hell kept me from sleep as a child, she mused, as she stood poised before the Abbess's door, her hand raised to knock. Her features darkened. She knocked timidly as if a child again and recalled Sister Blaise's trouble some months before. She shuddered. The voice of the Abbess answered the knock and the two nuns entered the room and quietly closed the door behind them.
Mother Margaret sat on the edge of her bed and looked across at the sleeping form of Sister James. Moving her shaking hand to her mouth she wiped away spittle she felt there and rubbed her hand on her habit. Pride, she muttered inwardly, pride and lack of humility. Yes, that young Sister Scholastica was right, it is pride, she mused sadly, looking down at her hand and away from the snoring sister across the room of the infirmary. Her hand was still shaking against her thigh as if it had a life of its own. She sighed. It is a constant struggle against sin and weakness, she mused again, even after all these years. Struggle, yes, struggle. She sighed again. Then lifting her rosary with her shaking hand to her lips she kissed the Christ and smiled. Tu autem Domini, misere nobis.
Sister Ignatius lowered the lights in the infirmary and paused at the door. Both of the old nuns were asleep now. It had been quite a day. Mother Margaret, who had been rather moody most of the day, was calmer now and had gone to sleep with her rosary clutched in her hand. Turning she closed the door gently behind her and walked almost on tiptoe along the cloister to her cell.
Mother Margaret listened as the door closed with a soft click. She opened her eyes to the semi darkness. Inwardly she sensed a small glow of happiness warm her. That plump young novice who had come to see her and had helped her bath, what was her name, now? Elizabeth, yes that was it, Elizabeth, Sister Elizabeth. So gentle, she'd been, so kind. As if I were Christ Himself taken down from the cross, Mother Margaret mused stroking the rosary beads in her hand. And there seemed to be tears in her eyes. And when she dried my feet, I am sure, though I could not swear to it, she kissed them. Yes, almost sure...And Picasso, it was his eyes, the way he looked. Sister Elizabeth, yes, sure there were tears in her eyes. Mother Margaret smiled and closed her eyes, shutting out the semi darkness.
Sister Elizabeth laid her head on the pillow and gazed up at the shadows dancing on the ceiling of her cell. I have learned something today, she mused inwardly. And an image of the former Abbess seemed to form amongst the shadows above her head. She had discovered what love really was about. It had come to her suddenly and shockingly like a slapped cheek. And had made her eyes water with both joy and sadness. So overwhelmed, she had kissed the feet, had embraced the broken body. She had, she felt, suddenly, maybe for the first time, known love; felt love, had loved. Closing her eyes, she sensed tears on her plump cheeks.
Sister Scholastica closed the church door and walked slowly along the cloister. Vigil made her feel cleansed. She had watched and waited. She reflected as she walked along, how quiet Sister Elizabeth seemed during supper as if something was on her mind. And how Mother Margaret appeared happier when she made her ready for bed just after Compline and how she kept looking at her feet as if she'd not seen them before. You were right, the former Abbess had whispered to her, it was pride, and had apologised. As she climbed the stairs to her cell, she mused on the crucifix at the end of her rosary. Someone famous. Yes, always there, waiting, watching. She lifted the crucifix to her lips and kissed it like one in love.