When the Chancellor of the Diocese visited the Convent of the Sisters of Holy Affliction, Sister Michael always received him with a kiss on the lips. That was the closest Fr Tom got to enjoying a woman. He relished that kiss, even as he winced at the austerity of the place, imagining those who, over the years, had cut themselves off from family and comfort here.
‘Mrs O’Connor has been cooking something special.’
They walked along the hall past an old living room that, before the sisters took over, would perhaps have had a billiards table, been the room that men retired to for brandy and cigars. The house had stories, some of them bleak and terrible.
‘I hope this is only a social call, Tom’, said the bulkier Sister Bernard, coming to join them.
Both nuns were now dressed in the ordinary clothes of lay women, if a little more drably than most. They ran this house as an occasional conference or retreat centre suited to these more secular times. Instead of prayer, clients preferred to relax in the garden and enjoy a little lecture in the evening about flower remedies or meditation.
‘Well, the bishop says to say hello. He is much too busy to concern himself with the details of what goes on here.’
They had lunch served by Mrs O’Connor at a large round polished table. Father Tom said grace and Sister Michael said, ‘that was lovely; red or white?’
First they had a little bruschetta with mozzarella topped with beef tomato and basil from the green house. Then they had smoked haddock and poached egg with potatoes boiled in their skins and butter beans sprinkled with dill and tarragon.
‘We’ll claim credit for the egg and the herbs. Sister Michael made the apple tart.’
Afterwards, Sister Bernard suggested a little glass of Tokay to mark the feast of St Ursula.
Weeks passed before Tom got a chance to visit again. He was busy with other diocesan work. The bishop was preparing for a trip to Rome.
‘I’d like you to hold the fort here’, he said. This came after they had sat facing each other, eating grilled steak and oven ready chips in silence for about 40 minutes. The bishop liked a small whisky after his dinner. He said it helped settle his stomach.
‘You can act for me in many practical ways’, he said, ‘keep things ticking over.’
What he really meant was that Tom could connive with the communications officer, should scandal break, to find the least telling form of words for the press. He’d done that before.
On the morning the bishop left, Tom walked round the old empty palace and wondered how it could feel so vacant, so void of spirit, when only one person had left it. He did not want to have lunch alone.
Mrs O’Connor showed no surprise when she answered the convent door to him. Sister Bernard emerged from the corridor with a warm smile. ‘Ah, a guest for lunch. Put another spud in the pot, Eileen.’ And Mrs O’Connor, seeing the scale of the job ahead of her, turned and walked briskly away.
‘Sister Michael is in the garden. She will be pleased to see you.’
She led him into the living room and sat down, waiting as usual, for Tom to explain his business.
‘It is a small matter.’ He was thinking fast. ‘There are some groups in the diocese who have little experience in applying for funding, and I wanted to check that it would be ok to send some of them to you for advice. Not to overburden you, of course.’
He could have made a request like that by e-mail.
‘Of course. There was me wondering if the bishop was preparing an audit, whether of our funds or our theology.’
Then she asked him to excuse her as she had work to do and suggested he relax or take a walk in the garden before lunch. He sat and browsed his phone for e-mails from the bishop. There was nothing important. He also browsed the shelves and found poetry, some books on Zen Buddhism.
He saw Sister Michael pass the window on her way from the garden, in a loose cotton skirt and woolly jumper. She did not see him. His eye was drawn to the stretch of light cashmere across her shoulder blades. He was impressed by the strength of her back. The fabric of her skirt was light and – he thought this funny – pinched by the cheeks of her bottom. As she walked she tugged at the skirt to free it.
Then, on the step, she stopped a moment, before opening the door, to finish the job. She did this so neatly that Fr Tom immediately tried to replay it in his mind, recollect the precise moves. She had reached behind herself, and drew one buttock aside with a middle finger. Then with index finger and thumb of the same hand, formed like a beak, she poked in to adroitly extract from her bum a trapped fold of clothing. And the intensity of concentration she spent, for a moment, absented her from the world and all its concerns.
He knew he was never intended to see a woman do this but assumed all had to do it occasionally. That accounted for the move being so deftly executed.
And he would not have felt more intimately acquainted with Sister Michael just then if she had stepped naked from his shower cubicle and asked him to hand her a towel.
She came into the library and greeted him with a warm smile, oblivious to his having spied on her, probably having forgotten already what she had done. She stepped close to him and he bent to receive her kiss again, right on the lips. Now he felt he knew her.
Lunch was chilli scallops for starters, mixed seafood tagliatelle for the main course then crème brulée with Tokay again.
‘I believe today is the feast of St Hildegard. Why that should warrant Tokay I have no idea, but neither is it theologically contraindicated. Am I right, Father?’ said Sister Bernard.
‘I think God wants us to allow the senses full –’ he was searching for a word.
‘Relish’, said Sister Michael. ‘Rapture and relish are needs of the spirit, the fullest enjoyment of grace.’
Tom wondered where she had read that.
He did not want to leave after lunch but he had no reason to stay. In the vestibule, he hugged Sister Bernard, and Sister Michael kissed him on the lips and gave him a warm smile and squeezed his arm. He wanted to be alone with her, but he could not ask Sister Bernard to leave them.
At the palace, Tom felt even more like a prisoner when the bishop was away. He was thinking constantly about Sister Michael and the more liberal atmosphere of the convent. One night, after a couple of glasses of the bishop’s whisky, he phoned her. Mrs O’Connor answered.
‘Might I speak with one of the sisters?’
Bernard said, ‘Yes, Father Tom. To what we owe the pleasure?’
‘I’m calling to invite you and Sister Michael to have dinner with me in the bishop’s residence.’
‘An honour indeed’, she said.
‘His Grace, unfortunately, will not be joining us.’
‘So much the better’, said Sister Bernard with a laugh.
The food would be a problem. He phoned his mother and she said she would make a lamb stew, advised him on a simple salad starter and said nobody objected these days to desert from Marks and Spencer’s if it was served with a choice of nice ice creams.
The nuns brought a bottle of Gewurztraminer and a box of Belgian chocolates and when he took their coats in the hall, Sister Bernard kissed him on the cheek and Sister Michael on the lips, her kiss accompanied by an affectionate squeeze of his arm. He considered the nun’s purity of heart might be sufficient to explain mannerisms that in another woman would have been thought to be flirtatious.
They sat down to set places with crystal glasses.
He said: ‘It is the feast of St Thomas so I thought we might mark it with an aperitif of dry sherry.’
The nuns giggled.
Over the salad he told them that he was tiresomely inactive while the bishop was away and they sympathised.
‘Perhaps you do not have the gift of quiet reflection?’ said Sister Bernard.
Sister Michael rebuked her. ‘Do any of us really, except occasionally?’
‘We have chosen a lonely life’, said Sister Bernard. ‘Or we were chosen for it. It isn’t always easy, true.‘
‘Should I be candid?’ he said. They looked eagerly at him. ‘I’m not good at being alone. I’ve been looking forward to this all week.’
Sister Bernard said, ‘thankfully, for us, the rules have relaxed.’
‘Yes but many have left all the same, surely?’
‘Oh yes. And some others have formed relationships that sustain them inside.’
At this, Sister Michael smiled.
Tom said, ‘this is my difficulty.’
Sister Michael said, ‘Well, we took vows of chastity but that is a word that is open to interpretation.’
‘Well, we say that we will not have sexual relationships then psychology tells us there is a sexual motivation in everything we do. I took no vow against being affectionate with my special friends. Some say that is inviting sexual temptation, but I think that argument is cancelled out by the one that says even cooking or painting or speaking with eloquence are sexual.’
Tom said, ‘I think the Church understood as well as Freud did that everything is sexual; that is why it forbade everything.’
Sister Bernard laughed.
Sister Michael said, ‘Well, if everything is sexual, then the only alternative to banning everything is banning nothing.’
Tom asked, ‘Are you saying then that you would enjoy full sexual relations with someone?’ Sister Michael was pecking crumbs of the crème brulée tart from her napkin and raising them to her lips with her index finger and thumb.
‘Well, the question is where you draw the line.’
‘And where ought we draw the line?’ asked Sister Bernard, suddenly curious.
‘Well, I think there is little doubt that the fathers of the Church ruled out the ejaculation of semen.’
‘But we don’t produce semen.’
‘Good point. But I suppose they meant that we should not facilitate the ejaculation of semen in a man, whether through intercourse or stimulation’, said Sister Michael.
Tom was feeling braver. ‘But how are you to know you have not done this? Might not your affection arouse a man and tempt him to complete the course of arousal later in private?’
‘Oh’, said Sister Michael. ‘You know, I find that a lovely thought. I shouldn’t, should I? But that tells me that semen is a man’s responsibility, not mine.’
‘Well’, said Tom. ‘Is there any other barrier, then?’
Sister Michael said, ‘I don’t believe church law forbids lesbian intercourse. I see no logical reason to interpret Scripture in that way. The female orgasm does not deny the prospect of procreation, for no such prospect exists. So why shouldn’t two sisters in our order form a sexual bond? Many have.’
‘But surely’, said Sister Bernard, ‘the point of abstinence is to help focus the mind on God?’
‘It’s hard to focus the mind and much else if you’re sexually frustrated, though’, said Sister Michael.
After the crème brulée they moved to a small living room where Tom lit a fire and put on some music, Leonard Cohen. He took the armchair and the two nuns sat side by side.
‘I should have told you there is a guest room here, which you are free to use.’
Sister Bernard said, ‘Another time, maybe. Mrs O’Connor will be expecting us.’
‘She means she couldn’t bear to face a new day without a clean pair of knickers.’
And they all laughed.
And Leonard said, Hallelujah.
And they sat quietly listening to the song, enjoying the warm glow of light intoxication, the fire and the ease of being together. Sister Bernard spoke unprompted.
‘You know, I’m not a virgin. I had three boyfriends and I had sex with all of them, sometimes in a bed, often in the back of a car, once on a beach under a full moon, which was chilly. I gave that up for God. I was fully conscious that that was my sacrifice. I don’t want excuses for going back on that, easy rationales which say it doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t matter, then I gave up decades of loving for nothing. And I know now some of the sisters have lovers, and some of them take holidays in Spain and forget for two weeks that they are nuns and clear that with their consciences when they come home. And I shouldn’t judge them.’
Sister Michael said, ‘I’ve only ever seen a man naked when nursing him. Sometimes with the street drinkers we had to take off all their clothes that were caked into their skin. And I would comfort the body with devotion, for to me it was the body of the Lord. But I have never taken comfort from a naked man and no man has seen me naked and taken comfort from my body. And that is sad.’
She said, ‘And I think even to give a man sexual release, if that semen was otherwise only going to be spilt on the sheet beside him or into toilet paper, that can be a kindness, a chaste act.’
‘God’, said Sister Bernard, laughing, ‘I hope the bishop never hears you talking like that.’
And Tom thought for a moment that he might tell them that he too took holidays away from the priesthood, had prostitutes and occasional lovers, but he knew he shouldn’t, that whatever he said, they would think less of him, for making use of women, without having any interest in them as people, if not for breaking his vows.
He said, ‘I doubt many priests are wholly celibate or wholly confident we can be. We take it one day at a time. Port?’
And he fetched the port and they talked about other things; politics, the abuse scandals, the question of whether there would still be a church in a few years. And a little after midnight he called a taxi for them. At the door he thanked them warmly and Sister Bernard hugged him and Sister Michael kissed him on the lips and drew back and smiled and studied his face and then kissed him again and said goodnight.
On the afternoon of the bishop’s return from Rome, he summoned Thomas to his study. The bishop had a tablet computer in one hand and stroked the screen with a finger that seemed likely to scratch it.
‘Welcome back, your Grace.’
The wee man perhaps thought his rank absolved him of the need for civility.
‘I have a job for you. As you know, my fellow bishops and I have been discussing a response to the claims against the church.’
Many of those claims were for compensation for the abuse of children.
‘We have come up with a formula. We will ask each of the parishes to subscribe to a central fund out of which payments can be made.’
Tom understood that his job would be to get each parish to agree to pay into this fund.
He said, ‘Is it right that parishioners should have to pay for the wrongdoings of priests? These are hard times.’
‘The church is the people, Tom.’
‘The people didn’t rape children. Priests did.’
‘Well we must be practical.’
‘I have other doubts about my role here.’
‘Very well. You can have time to think about it. If I could sell off that convent you are so fond of going to, that would cover it, but I can’t. I will get someone else for this.’
Which is how Tom came to be staying at the convent, ordered by his bishop to take a retreat to consider his vocation, hopefully to strengthen it with prayer.
‘You didn’t tell him’, said Sister Bernard, ‘that you had friendships here, distractions? Perhaps temptations?’
‘No’, said Tom. ‘What did he say to you?’
‘That you were to be given peace for prayer and reflection.’
Tom’s room was out of character with the building. It was a cell. In the past, when the order was still recruiting young women, this room was home to a succession of lonely novices; later and still occasionally, it was accommodation for people who had come on retreat, to dwell on their sinful lives and pray for grace.
There was a single, tube-frame bed with crisp sheets and a woollen blanket. A crucifix hung from the wall. There was a bookshelf and a sink. The bathroom was in the corridor.
He sat on the bed and listened. He heard birdsong and the distant traffic, the voices of women in empty rooms. He was expected to stay here or walk in the gardens and pray for the grace to be a good servant to his bishop, to recover the strength to be celibate and to tax the poor to preserve the church’s treasures against the claims of the church’s victims. He didn’t feel like praying.
In the evening, Mrs O’Connor brought him his dinner, a couple of grilled sausages with a boiled potato and baked beans. And a mug of tea.
He lay back down on his bed afterwards and wished that Sister Michael would come and visit him. He was left alone to suffer his thoughts.
He would wake early and contemplate the prospect of freedom, sensing change before his circumstances even crystallised in his mind. His thoughts were often sexual. He would recover the memories of the few times he had been naked with a woman, embellishing the picture in his mind until the image of her was compelling enough to stir his flesh.
In that way he recreated moments with a maths student he had known at university, with a young prostitute in Nice, visualising again the lines of their bodies, sniffing the air to recall the scent of them. And he would try to imagine women he had never known with their clothes off and undress them before his inner eye, attributing not just shapes and colours to them, the spread of hair, but even mannerisms and attitudes, the slick application of their own fingers to disentangle clothing.
Each morning he said mass in the convent chapel, usually for a congregation of fewer than ten people, the two nuns, Mrs O’Connor and some Catholics from the town.
The women would take turns at being altar servers.
Each morning he met the server in the changing room, or sacristy, beside the chapel when donning his vestments. On the first morning, Sister Bernard helped him. The convent had a full range of vestments for the liturgical year, made by hand by previous generations of nuns, and still maintained by Sisters Bernard and Michael.
As she fitted the chasuble on him Sister Bernard ran her thumbs along the border and checked the old stitching.
When younger, donning the various bits, Tom felt almost like a warrior gearing himself up for a martial arts challenge.
Sister Bernard was familiar with the whole routine. For her it was a preliminary ritual too, preparing her mind for devotion. She walked ahead of him, leading him to the altar. Tom liked saying Mass. As a boy he had watched priests who seemed bored, reciting the words in a lilting drone. Now he realised that it was good to have assimilated the ritual so that he could feel it almost happening without him.
At the Eucharist, Sisters Bernard and Michael would come forward for communion. Sister Bernard would hold her hands out for the little disc but Michael would stand in front of him, her eyes closed, abstracted, her mouth open, inviting him to place the body of Christ onto her tongue. The edge of his index finger would touch her lip. He would watch her returning to her pew, to kneel and pray with her head in her hands. He would monitor the movement of he haunches under the drape of her loose fitting skirt.
At the end, Sister Bernard came to the sacristy and helped him out of the chasuble and other robes and folded them and stored them. She did not speak much.
He had breakfast in his cell.
But on the third day, Sister Michael was waiting to serve him. She stood before him, not expecting him to speak and raised her hands to touch his cheeks with the tips of her fingers. He lowered his head penitentially and she kissed his brow and then his nose and then his lips.
‘Let me give you all the comfort I can.’
He lowered his arms around her and hugged her close, and when she felt the stirring of impatient flesh she looked up into his eyes, acknowledging it and smiled. She said, ‘He is risen.’
The chasuble would cover it.
The mass passed quickly and he found himself almost singing the words. He smiled at the severity with which Sister Bernard received the Eucharist into her hand, picked it up then with her own fingers and placed it on her own tongue. Afterwards, Sister Michael helped him out of the robes and folded them and hugged him. ‘I have a plan’, she said.
‘We will run away.’
‘We don’t need to run. Our freedom is ours to take, if we want it.’
‘No, we will steal the money from the safe. There’s hundreds of pounds. We can be in Paris tonight.’
He said, ‘We don’t need to steal anything.’
‘Oh, you are so boring’, she said. ‘I thought we were going to have some fun.’
‘You don’t really want to leave here, do you?’
‘No. It’s lovely. But I wish it was different.’
‘Whereas’, he said, ‘I do want to leave the bishop and the church and be done with all of it. I just don’t know what else I could do.’
‘You could get a country parish and I could be your housekeeper. And no one would know that when I was running your bath it was for both of us, or that I was making your bed and getting into it beside you.’
‘That is indeed how many priests live.’
‘I want to give you my virginity.’
‘Let’s just go for a drive.’
They walked out, arm in arm, down the corridor and smiled a greeting to Mrs O’Connor who looked smugly confirmed in her suspicions. Starting the engine, he did not look up to see if Sister Bernard was watching from a window. Five minutes later they were on the coast with the tide in and lightly chopping waves glinting. ‘Are we being very silly, Tom?’
‘A bit late to ask this now.’
‘You don’t really want to take me into bed, do you?’
‘I want to take somebody into a bed.’
‘I’m too old for you.’
Then his phone rang and he answered it on the hands free set.
‘Fr Thomas, what are you doing?’ It was the bishop. ‘Sister Bernard tells me you have abandoned your retreat.’
‘I’m just going for a drive with Sister Michael. I don’t see any harm.’
‘Well, come over now to the house. I need you to show me round your computer. I’ll be getting a new man in and he’ll be lost in this.’
Sister Michael said, ‘Won’t tomorrow do? Tom and I are so enjoying ourselves.’
The bishop said, ‘You’re a big disappointment to me, Tom. But I have seen it before, men who’d swear before God that they’re getting out on principle when they’d be perfectly happy to stay if they could have a woman in their beds. I wish you’d be bloody honest about that anyway. Well, you’ll make plenty of compromises with principle when you’re working in the world for a living.’
He drove 50 miles or so and stopped at a fishing village and went into the hotel on the main street.
‘Father Tom’, said the young receptionist. ‘How nice to see you.’
He smiled. This was probably a woman he had married. They booked a table and went through to the restaurant.
‘This is the sort of food my daddy ate’, said Sister Michael.
‘But I bet he never tasted wine like this.’
‘He only ever drank out of a mug or a pint glass.’
In the room, they took off their shoes and he his jacket. She went to the bathroom and came back in her slip and a thermal vest, with no bra underneath. Her breasts sagged thinly. They lay down, first on top of the duvet and hugged each other, kissed briefly on the lips, said nice things to like, ‘You are lovely’ and ‘God, are we mad?’ And dozed off.
The evening chill drove them under the duvet, without fully waking them, and Tom managed to get his trousers off without thinking about how or whether.
It was dark when they woke. They could almost smell and feel each other and they moved slowly and instinctively, taking the rest of their clothes off and each feeling the other’s skin. She was kissing him with her tongue in his mouth. But he was lumbered with the awkwardness of hard flesh which he would have preferred to introduce to her more gently. She stroked it at first as if she was afraid it would retreat from her hand, not knowing how robust and determined it was.
He kissed slack breasts and felt pity for them, but she was as fit and firm in her belly and limbs as a teenager.
When they were fitted together he found her snug and hot.
‘It’s okay’, she said. ‘My vibrator is bigger than you.’ And she laughed. ‘No offence.’
She reached down between them and worked herself with her own finger, the way she was used to, and freed him to take his own pleasure as vigorously as he pleased. They went at it like a race. And they yelped like puppies almost in unison, and hugged each other and, when they recovered, laughed together.
She said, ‘You can come and take me out like this any time you like. But you mustn’t feel you have to.’
‘Where do you think we will be in the year from now?’
She said, ‘I will be minding the garden and saying my prayers. And I will be as happy as I am now. You will be — let’s think — selling insurance? I hope not. Maybe teaching. And you will have a girlfriend. Does that sound right?’
‘It will do for now’, he said.
And they were hungry and got up and saw each other naked for the first time and made tea and ate biscuits and went back to bed and snuggled up and slept till breakfast time and a decision.