MONDAY 7 DECEMBER 1959
The rubber soles of Sister Marguerite’s sandals squeaked on the highly polished linoleum as she hurried along the corridor to the chapel. Behind her she could hear the laughter of the audience in the orphanage refectory as the tedious black and white comedy film neared its end. Even when she was younger she had never found George Formby funny and, now an adult, she found the toothy comic from Lancashire puerile and slightly offensive.
Film nights had become a monthly routine at St Joseph’s Home for Boys and Girls since the local ‘men’s committee’ had taken it upon themselves to provide celluloid entertainment for the seventy or so resident children. She supposed they meant well, especially Leslie Parsons, who approached the charity work with a zealot’s gleam in his eye. She wasn’t so sure about the other men in his ‘committee.’ Why a group of young, fairly presentable bachelors wanted to devote so much of their free time helping a motley collection of waifs and strays was anyone’s guess. She chided herself for her cynicism. Had she become so distrustful of people’s motives? In a word, yes. Post war Britain was no longer the country where she had grown up. It was a harder, more ruthless place now, where greed seemed to be the norm, and any charitable act was viewed with suspicion.
Not that Leslie Parsons was a young bachelor. He was in his early thirties, had a wife, and at least three children to the best of her knowledge, but he was a recent convert to the Catholic faith, and like many who had heard God’s word relatively late in life, he seemed determined to prove to all, but mostly to himself, that he merited his “calling”.
She pushed open the chapel door and entered the darkened sanctuary. She genuflected automatically in front of the large wooden crucifix that hung on the wall above a modest altar, sidled into a pew at the back, bowed her head and began to pray.
It was only when she lifted her head from her devotions and realised her eyes had become accustomed to the gloom that Sister Marguerite saw that she was not alone in the chapel.
Prostrated in the aisle in front of the altar was a nun dressed in the white habit of the novitiate. There was only one novice at St Joseph’s — Sister Bernadette, sent here by the Mother Superior at St Luke’s monastery in Hitchin to learn humility and to strengthen her faith before taking her final vows.
Sister Marguerite watched the girl for another ten minutes. Bernadette continued to lie there, face down, arms outstretched, motionless. Sister Marguerite edged her way to the end of her pew. “Bernadette?” she called softly. “Bernadette?”
Getting no response, she finally pushed herself to her feet and approached slowly. She was reluctant to disturb the girl’s devotions but, equally, not wanting to nurse her in the infirmary should she catch a chill from laying on the chapel’s freezing flagstones. She trod softly, not wishing to alarm the girl. Then, from the back of the chapel, came an ungodly crash, as a pile of hymnals clattered to the floor.
She gasped and spun around in time to see a boy break from the cover of a heavy brocade curtain and run to the door.
She recognised him at once. “Raymond Oliver? Is that you? What mischief have you been making?”
The boy yanked the door open and ran out into the corridor. The curtain rippled again, and another boy broke cover and dashed towards the door.
“And if that was Raymond Oliver, then that must be Terry Lloyd. Terry, stop this instant.” But she was too late. The door opened again and Terry Lloyd beat a hasty retreat from the chapel. Marguerite listened to the footfalls and their braying laughter as they ran away.
She turned back to the girl, certain that the sudden noise ripping through the stillness of the chapel would have alerted her, but Sister Bernadette continued to lay prone on the floor, unmoving.
In an effort to steady her beating heart, Marguerite walked across to the light switch and snapped it down. As the meagre bulbs in the chapel ceiling bled out their milky light, she walked briskly up the aisle. “Enough is enough, Bernadette. You’ll catch your death lying there like that.”
Then she froze, her mouth still open to speak.
Now she was closer she could see that Bernadette was not face down at all. Instead the girl’s pretty face was turned to one side. Her eyes were open and she was staring blankly at the wall. Marguerite saw the blood that had trickled from her nose and the corner of her mouth. She ran to the girl and gazed down at the pool of blood spread out beneath her. Marguerite clamped her hand over her lips as her gorge began to rise. She spun on her heel and bolted from the chapel, back to the refectory, her feet slapping on the linoleum, giving her a solo round of applause.
Heads turned as she burst into the crowded dining hall. She dropped her hands from her mouth and a fountain of vomit exploded from her lips.
“Eeee, it’s turned out nice again, hasn’t it?” George Formby said as the credits began to roll.
FOR HER SINS - Sample