At times of year such as Easter, when we search for more spiritual meaning in life (or at least some of us do), I always find myself remembering my first time at Greystones Abbey. Greystones, deep in the wild hills of northern England. Rather like Wuthering Heights, but much more heavenly – or so it seemed. It was at Greystones Abbey, a few weeks before Easter when there was still snow on the ground, that I went on a sixth form retreat in search of God – who always seemed to be somewhere over that elusive rainbow – and instead encountered the shock of human rather than religious passion. It was at Greystones Abbey that I fell in love for the first time, at sweet seventeen, with a Benedictine monk who had taken vows of chastity. Just about as unavailable as they come! Not that such things put a block on the human heart …
So this is the story of a deep, enduring relationship between a romantic dreamer and a monk – call it ‘star-crossed’ if you like – that poured itself into the pages of my novel many years later, after the death of my mother. I addressed the novel to my mother, as it was she who foolishly encouraged my lifelong journey with Brother Matthew, who never expected to take such a journey in the first place! Poor man.
For the sake of anonymity, both Greystones Abbey and Brother Matthew are not the real names.
Here is the first chapter.
FOR SOME WE LOVED
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Greystones Abbey. If ever there was a single word to describe such an impression, I’d love to know it. To phrase it in geographical terms, I could say that Greystones Abbey is set in over 2,000 acres of land on the edge of the North York Moors National Park, boasting an array of woodland, valleys and lakes in a tranquil and relaxed environment. But mere words cannot cope with such magnitude of the senses. ‘Fairy tale’ comes to mind, as does magical, heavenly, celestial, otherworldly – yet none of these adjectives are any good, because aside from being clichés, they only describe part of the picture. The other part was still unknown to me in that first glimpse I had of the monastery and adjoining boarding school through the snow-spattered windows of our coach. Which is just as well. Had I known then what awaited me over the subsequent thirty-two years as a direct result of Greystones Abbey, things might have turned out quite differently. I might have made my way to the front of the coach, braving the stares of twenty-three other sixth form girls and two supervising nuns from Lark Mount Catholic School, and begged the dour-faced driver to take me right back home to Lyneham-on-Sea in the neighbouring county of Lancashire.
‘Oh wow, it’s a real monastery!’ Francesca cried out in her breathless little voice. She leaned forward in her coach seat and wiped the condensation from the window. Remember Francesca Nobblet – better known to us as Nobbles? The skinny girl with long plain brown hair that she wore like a veil, and wide eyes that always looked just a little bit dismayed? The earnest one who harboured secret yearnings to become a nun, although she ended up marrying a Protestant boy and bearing him five children whose names I could never quite remember?
‘Well, what did you expect it to be? A bloody casino?’ Good old Jenny Swarbrick with her dry sense of humour. Best friend through thick and thin. The one with masses of curly black locks that I used to envy, as well as sparkly eyes, an ample bust – almost as ample as yours, Mother – and a confidence-gene that the gods appeared to have missed out when formulating my own DNA. She had a peculiar bent for swear words, despite her God-fearing upbringing, and a tendency to take the mickey out of religion, especially with poor old Miss Palmer during RE lessons. But she could also be a dreamer, like me, though with a cutting edge that I lacked. I was just a dreamer full stop.
The coach took a sharp turn to the right, swerving into the Abbey driveway and abandoning the steep bank of forest that had accompanied us on the last few minutes of the journey. We were all silenced in one fell swoop. It was as if God had raised his mighty baton upon our teenage chorus of irreverent natter and cried out, ‘Silence, girls!’ Our youthful eyes widened at the sight of Greystones Abbey in all its monastic splendour, shivering in a snow-haze at the bottom of the long snaking driveway. For a moment I thought I was in Shangri La as I gazed upon the labyrinthine assemblage of mullioned windows, slate roofs, turrets, towers and outbuildings, like some make-believe castle in one of those illuminated manuscript books from the Middle Ages. This unearthly vision was set against a vast landscape of hills, valleys and distant forest, all coated in an undefiled layer of snow, as though reminding the monks of their solemn vows of celibacy. How could such perfection have existed all the seventeen years of my as-yet tender life and I had known nothing about it? However, despite looking like something out of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, I soon learned that the building was in fact a mock-Gothic creation of the early nineteenth century – home to a tight-knit community of Benedictine monks, who varied in age from nineteen to ninety and shared their residence with a Catholic boys’ boarding school by the name of Greystones College. But, as it was half-term, there wasn’t a single boy in sight, much to Jenny’s disappointment.
Half a minute later the coach parked up outside a large villa that commanded a prime position at the top of the driveway. Mother Bernadette drew herself up from her front seat and stood in the middle of the aisle, just next to the driver. Buttoning up her black coat to the top of her chicken-like neck, she raised her pinched face and announced in a distinctive Irish accent, ‘Right then, girls, quiet, if you please!’
As though on cue, the bus engine switched off and twenty-four restless sixth formers began to rummage for coats, scarves, bags and whatever other paraphernalia we were lumbered with. A guitar, in my case.
‘I said quiet now, all of you!’ the headmistress-nun persisted, raising her voice and casting her famous glare to her left and right. Her eagle eyes caught the tail-end of my giggle. ‘Leah Cavanagh, if you have something amusing to say, you will either share it with all of us or remain silent. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, Mother Bernadette,’ I responded, eyes lowered, giggle duly purged. Do you remember how we all used to call her Bernie behind her back? And how we used to wonder if all of her hair was the same ginger colour as the few wisps that escaped from beneath the front of her veil?
She clapped her hands, bringing all the nattering and sniggers to a swift cadence. Gesturing towards the coach window to her left, she continued, ‘We shall be staying at the Gatehouse, which is the large old villa you can see over there. When you enter the hallway – in a quiet and orderly manner, if you please – you will see a list on the noticeboard with all of your names and the rooms to which you have been ascribed. Please find your room quickly and quietly, unpack your bags, and assemble in the common room on the ground floor to the right of the main entrance in ten minutes’ time.’
‘Can’t we have a wander round first?’ a voice from the back of the coach called out. Probably Josephine Pritchard. These Catholic girls might have been proficient in their Hail Marys and Communion rites, but they certainly weren’t shy and retiring, that’s for sure! I learned this fact soon after you enrolled me at Lark Mount School upon the recommendation of my piano teacher, who was convinced that a sensitive soul like me would fare much better doing my A-levels in the calm atmosphere of a single-sex Catholic girls’ school run by nuns, rather than being swallowed up by the local co-educational sixth form college. Do you remember how excited we were? How different it all seemed to us, those first few weeks: all the nuns in their flowing black veils, the well-spoken girls in their neat uniforms of brown and blue, the prayers, the chapel, the Wednesday lunchtime Masses where I was cajoled into playing guitar, the beautiful grounds that protected the school from the outside world. Remember that narrow lake at the bottom of the hill, surrounded by low-hanging sycamores and willow trees that provided shade on those long summer days when my friends and I would take our packed lunches down to the waterside and lie on our backs, staring up at the huge sky and emptying our deepest yearnings to one another? No wonder we were always late for the first lesson after lunch on those balmy summer afternoons!
But where was I? Ah, yes. Mother Bernadette drew her thin ginger eyebrows together. ‘All right then, girls,’ she said in her Southern Irish accent that was so easy to mimic behind her back. ‘You can have twenty minutes to wander round the monastery grounds and get to know your bearings. But it’ll be dark soon, so no more than that.’
‘Why, will the bogeyman jump out at us from the shadows?’
This time it was Sister Miriam’s turn to intervene. ‘That’s enough, Josephine,’ she gently chided, turning round in her coach seat and raising her attractive face just high enough to aim a reproachful look at the loudmouth culprit. Sister Miriam was my form teacher in upper sixth, remember? Late twenties, slim, rather withdrawn in an ethereal kind of way, yet with her own quiet authority that the girls never questioned. If anyone harboured any teenage-Catholic fantasies about becoming a nun, Sister Miriam was their role model.
Mother Bernadette aimed her fierce stare at the Pritchard girl. ‘The bogeyman won’t get you, but Father Sebastian might do.’ A few sniggers ensued, until she added to the rest of us, ‘Father Sebastian is Warden of the Gatehouse, and I trust you will all show him due respect, girls. Is that understood?’
‘Yes, Mother Bernadette,’ chanted a unison chorus of Catholic school girls.
Taking a pause to wet her thin, colourless lips, Bernie proceeded, ‘We shall meet together at five o’clock in the common room for prayers and Mass practice, and at six we shall all go down to Vespers in the Abbey Church. Supper is served at seven o’clock sharp in the Gatehouse refectory, and I don’t expect any of you to be late. Afterwards, Father Sebastian will say Mass for us in the small chapel next to the refectory, and at nine we shall go down to the monastery for Compline, which is the last Office of the day. Now then, girls, which one of you can remember what the Offices are, hmm?’
Nobble’s hand shot up, of course. She was practically a nun herself.
‘Yes, Francesca dear?’
‘It’s the recitation of certain prayers at fixed hours of the day, according to the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, either chanted or sung in monasteries.’
Jenny rolled her eyes at me and hissed, ‘Bloody hell!’
‘Yes, well done, Francesca. Good to know that at least some of you pay attention during your RE lessons. Now then, after Compline we shall re-assemble in the common room back at the Gatehouse for a short talk given by one of the monks who is a specialist on the power of prayer.’
‘But aren’t they all supposed to be experts on that?’ big-mouth Jo Pritchard blabbed out, pushing her luck. ‘Isn’t that the whole point of being a monk?’ Another flurry of snickers ricocheted round the coach.
‘Quiet, girls!’ Bernie’s small sharp eyes picked out random victims down the length of the coach aisle. ‘After that final talk it’ll be bed for all of you, because some of us have opted to go to Matins at five in the morning. Any questions?’
There weren’t any, of course, all of us being desperate to disembark after our three-hour journey. So we clambered out of the coach and crunched across the driveway to the Gatehouse, stamping the snow off our feet before piling up the stairs to find our rooms. I was delighted to discover that my own room was one of the singles, containing a narrow bed tucked into the corner, a pine desk, a built-in wardrobe, a small sink and mirror, and a casement window offering the most divine view imaginable. I could already envisage myself sitting there in the evenings, gazing out at the shimmering lights from the monastery at the bottom of the white-coated hill, with the surrounding valley and distant shadow of forest providing the perfect backdrop, like something out of an impressionist painting.
After unpacking my modest travel bag, I was ready to venture out with Jenny and Francesca to explore the alluring territory with which I was shortly to fall in love. Pity I couldn’t have restricted the ‘falling in love’ bit just to the territory.