Monk and schoolgirl? Hmm, that title sounds a bit naughty, now I come to think of it. Maybe I should change it. But you must believe me when I say it’s honestly not meant to be naughty. It’s just meant to convey the bitter-sweet pangs of young love, from a dewy-eyed schoolgirl’s point of view. Well okay, I might as well be honest. The dewy-eyed schoolgirl is me. Or should I say was me. That faraway girl didn’t care if the love she felt happened to be forbidden. She didn’t care if the guy of her dreams happened to be a Benedictine monk in a long, scary black robe. She didn’t care – well yes, she did care – that her monk happened to be irresistibly charming, bright-blue-eyed, and drop-dead gorgeous. That’s precisely why she fell for him. When you’re sweet seventeen, isn’t the whole wide world your romantic oyster?
Okay, so let’s do some time travelling. Let’s catch a train back to the winter of 1978, where we’ll find ourselves in a dimly-lit chapel within the snowy wilds of North Yorkshire. Or at least I’ll find myself there. Care to join me?
FOR SOME WE LOVED
The three of us were seated in silence on the back pew of the Abbey church, which was built into the central part of the monastery. In front of us sat all the other sixth formers from the Lark Mount contingent, as well as our two supervising nuns. I was perched at the edge of the pew, right next to the central aisle, with Jenny and Francesca on my left. It was still dark. No bloody wonder, at 5.20 in the morning! The monastic church was coated in a thick silence, awaiting the entry of the Benedictine community and the first Divine Office of the day. Not that there was any sign of day yet. Nothing but darkness filtered in through the narrow windows carved high into cold monastic stone. Only the red candle flame that nestled below the central crucifix provided any source of light. The light of God. Except that I couldn’t quite manage to get my head round His existence, which made my entire presence on this Lark Mount sixth form retreat something of a paradox.
A shiver of electric light rippled into previously hidden corners of the domed room, taking away the brunt of darkness and providing just enough glow to read the words in our psalm books – or antiphonals, as I soon learned to call them. A hollow knocking sound echoed from the far end of the sanctified cavern. As though on cue, a long procession of black-robed monks filed in theatrical solemnity down the central aisle of the hushed church. One by one, with hoods lowered over bowed heads, they passed within inches of the secular pews to their left before dispersing amid the choir stalls to their right, where the Benedictine community chanted their devotional psalms five times a days, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
The stately procession came to an end. Two of the medieval figures separated themselves from their brethren and glided over to a podium opposite the high altar, on which stood a lectern that displayed a fearsome-looking tome. The Handbook of God, as Jenny whispered to me in a muffled giggle. Clearing his throat, the taller of the two monks launched into the opening line of the first psalm, presently joined by his companion and then by the rest of the community. Lord, open my lips …
I riffled through the pages of my own black-bound book, searching in vain for a helpful title: ‘Matins’, for instance, or ‘First psalm of the day’, or perhaps ‘Psalms for Idiots’. But there was none.
A hissing sound rang in my ears. ‘What page are we supposed to be on?’ It was Jenny’s urgent whisper. She was clearly as lost as I was.
‘You’re asking me? The only non-Catholic in the school?’ An irreverent giggle erupted from my throat and immediately spread to Jenny. But our girlish twitters were promptly halted by a swishing sound coming from the aisle behind us, accompanied by the soft padding of footsteps. One of the monks was approaching our pew!
We held our breath in terrified anticipation. What was the penalty for giggling during Divine Office? Would we be marched off to the Abbot’s office, severely reprimanded and sent back to Lyneham-on-Sea forthwith? Or worse – would they interrupt Matins in order to call us to the lectern and rebuke us in public? The mind boggled at the possibilities – titillating ones inclusive.
The anonymous monk at last halted by our pew. As I was seated right next to the aisle, it crossed my petrified mind that I would be the one to get the brunt of whatever Benedictine wrath awaited us.
No such fear!
Leaning down towards me, the monk whispered, ‘Here, let me show you.’ There wasn’t a trace of anger in his voice. He went about thumbing through the pages of the antiphonal until he found the desired psalm. His deft fingers pulled a thin ribbon out of the spine of the book and tucked it into the newfound page; then he continued his mission until locating another psalm, and another, marking each one with a new, differently coloured ribbon. ‘There you are, that’s all the psalms you’ll be needing for today’s Matins.’
As I looked up to thank the owner of such perfectly enunciated vowels, my gaze was rewarded with a close-up of the most dazzling flash of smile I had ever seen – blue-eyed, sparkling, crinkling and every other ocular description that ever existed to describe such a perfect view, coupled with a primordial spark of recognition. It was him – the monk I’d seen from my bedroom window the previous night! I was so jolted by the lurch to my heart, I didn’t even manage to smile back at him. Not that it mattered, anyway. The very next moment he straightened up and was on his way again, striding down the remainder of the aisle towards the monks’ choir stalls in their own segregated section. I lowered my eyes and tried to concentrate on the words of the psalm.
The above extract is taken from my semi-autobiographical novel, ‘For Some We Loved’.