Heavenly, celestial, otherworldly …

Following my last post, here’s the second chapter of my novel, INFINITE STRANGER, which is due out this summer.



North Yorkshire, February 1978

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 brochure 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 words aren’t enough to cope with describing such a place. ‘Magical’ comes to mind, as does heavenly, celestial, otherworldlyyet 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 Benedictine monastery through the snow-spattered windows of our school coach. Which is just as well. Had I known back then what awaited me over the coming 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 and begged the dour-faced driver to take me straight 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 seat and wiped the condensation from the window. I still think of her as Nobbles, the skinny girl with long, plain brown hair that she wore like a nun’s veil, and wide eyes that always looked just a bit dismayed.

‘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. Masses of curly black locks that I used to envy, as well as sparkly eyes, an ample bust, and a confidence-gene that the gods appeared to have missed out when forming 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. 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 grounds and abandoning the steep bank of forest that had accompanied us on the last few minutes of the journey. We were all instantly silenced, as though God had raised his mighty baton upon our teenage chorus of irreverent natter and cried out: GIRLS! Our eyes widened at the sight of Greystones Abbey in its full monastic splendour, shivering in a wintry haze at the bottom of the long, snaking driveway. For a moment I thought I was in Shangri-La as I gazed out at all those turrets, towers and mullioned windows. 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 vows of celibacy. How could such perfection have existed all the seventeen years of my as-yet tender life and I knew nothing about it?

Half a minute later the coach parked up outside a large villa in 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. Buttoning up her black coat to the top of her chicken-like neck, she raised her face and announced in her 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 cast her famous glare left and right, her eagle eyes catching 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 said, eyes lowered, giggle duly purged. We all used to call her Bernie behind her back, and wondered if the rest of her hair was the same ginger colour as the few wisps that escaped from the front of her veil.

She clapped her hands, bringing all nattering and sniggers to a swift cadence. ‘We shall be staying at the Gatehouse, which is the 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 in ten minutes’ time.’

‘Can’t we have a wander round first?’ someone from the back of the coach called out.

These Catholic girls might have been proficient in their Hail Mary’s and Communion rites, but they certainly weren’t shy and retiring, that’s for sure. I learned this fact soon after enrolling at Lark Mount upon my piano teacher’s recommendation. He was convinced that a sensitive soul like me would fare much better doing my A-levels in the calm atmosphere of a Catholic girls’ school run by nuns, rather than being swallowed up by the local co-educational sixth form college. It all seemed so different in those first few weeks: the nuns in their flowing black habits, the well-spoken girls in their neat uniforms of brown and blue, the chapel, the lunchtime Masses where I was cajoled into playing guitar, the beautiful grounds that protected the school from the outside world. Oh, and that narrow lake at the bottom of the hill, surrounded by sycamores and low-hanging willows that provided shade on those long summer days when me and my friends would take our packed lunches down to the waterside. I can still see us there, lying on the grass, staring up at the huge sky and emptying our deepest yearnings to one another. No wonder the lot of us were always late for the first lesson after lunch on those balmy afternoons.

Mother Bernadette drew her thin ginger eyebrows together. ‘All right then, girls,’ she said in that broad accent, so easy to mimic behind her back. ‘You can have twenty minutes to wander round the monastery grounds to find 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, Jenny,’ she gently chided, turning round in her coach seat and raising her attractive young face just high enough to aim a reproachful look at my friend. If anyone harboured teenage fantasies about becoming a nun, Sister Miriam was their role model.

Mother Bernadette scowled at Jenny. ‘The bogeyman won’t get you, but Father Sebastian might.’ Turning to the rest of us, she expanded, ‘Father Sebastian is Warden of the Gatehouse, and I trust you will all show him due respect, girls. Is that understood?’

Yes, Mother Bernadette,’ we all chanted in unison.

Wetting her 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 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. She was practically a nun herself.

‘Yes, Francesca dear?’

‘It’s the chanting of prayers at fixed hours of the day, like Matins, Lauds, Vespers and  Compline, according to the liturgy of the Church.’

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 for a short talk given by Brother Matthew, who is a specialist on the power of prayer.’

Kuh Pow!’

‘Jenny, that’s enough,’ Sister Miriam said. A shower of snickers ricocheted round the coach.

‘Quiet, girls!’ Bernie’s sharp eyes picked out random victims down the length of the 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, all of us being desperate to get off the coach after our three-hour journey across the Pennines. So we clambered out and trudged 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, with a neat little desk ideal for writing my diary, and a casement window offering the most divine view imaginable. I could already see myself sitting there in the evenings, gazing out at the shimmering lights from the monastery at the bottom of the hill, with the surrounding valley and milky-white forest providing the perfect backdrop, like something out of an impressionist painting.

After unpacking my travel bag, I was ready to venture out with Jenny and Nobbles to explore the territory that I was rapidly falling in love with.

Pity I couldn’t have restricted the ‘falling in love’ bit just to the territory.


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