The Christmas Fire.
It is cold in the school gymnasium where we have all convened after evacuating the convent adjoining the school. I glance at the old battered vaulting horse stowed at the side of the gym and shiver. I have bitter memories of the day I took fifty strokes of the cane on my bare behind while tied over that malignant apparatus. S****r Juliana mistakes my shiver for the chill of this cold December night, just two days from Christmas, and wraps a blanket around my shoulders. It is welcome for I am clad in the plain white cotton shift that has been my only dress while serving my Christmas holiday penance at St Margaret Clitheroe’s Finishing School for young Catholic Ladies.
There are still red marks on my shoulders from the flogging she gave me as part of my penance in the Misericord yesterday. As S****r Juliana places the blanket around my bare shoulders she sees them and bites her lip. Tenderly she reaches out to touch them with her fingers; her eyes soft. I think she is feeling guilty at having inflicted them on me. I reach up to clasp her hand. She starts guiltily and pulls her hand away hastily. I catch her eye and smile. She blushes and lowers her eyes. My heart exults; my happiness soaring with my hopes.
There is good reason to be happy and the scene before me is an enjoyable one. The nuns are stood around in dismay and dishevelment, still shocked at the sudden crisis that has overtaken their otherwise rigidly cloistered and predictable existence. Many of them are only dressed in their night attire for it is well past midnight. This in itself would be bad enough but there is worse for there are men among them; strong capable looking men, dressed in high visibility jackets and helmets, from the municipal fire department. The cringing nuns look like half plucked chickens with a fox among them!
One nun in particular is especially discomfited. S****r Claire, Mother Superior of the convent and Head Teacher of the school, is being berated by the Fire Chief. He is being most outspoken about the convent’s failure to meet basic fire regulations. He has talked at some length regarding the wretched state of the convent’s electrical wiring. He has explored in depth the consequences of a complete absence of a working alarm system and inadequate provision of emergency exits. Warming to his theme, he is now becoming quite eloquent on the absolute lack of any form of fire drills or emergency procedures. S****r Claire is shuffling her feet for all the world like any miscreant brought before her in her office for a caning! It is not often one has the opportunity to witness the formidable S****r Claire being so thoroughly verbally spanked. I am watching in enormous satisfaction determined to commit every last detail of the delightful spectacle to memory.
The Fire Chief brings his admonishment to a telling conclusion. He flings a hand in my direction. “If it hadn’t been for this young lady Mother Superior,” he declares in a carrying voice, “You might have all been burned to death in your beds!” The eyes of all the nuns turn upon me for it was I that discovered the blaze raging in the convent kitchen and alerted the convent to the imminent danger. I lower my eyes modestly but inwardly my hopes climb further. It’s not often that I get to play the part of heroine in my ill-fated career as St Margaret Clitheroe’s most notorious student and I intend to milk the moment for all that it’s worth!
With that parting remark the Fire Chief takes his leave and, the fire now being out, the fire engines depart leaving the sorrowful damaged convent to lick its wounds. There is an awkward silence among the gathered nuns in the sanctuary of the school gymnasium. S****r Claire looks thoughtful. She glances over to S****r Judith who is clutching the small golden cask containing the convent’s most holy relic that I have salvaged from its shrine in the chapel. After rushing about the convent to sound the alarm and after alerting S****r Juliana from her prayers of penance in the chapel, I re-entered the burning buildings and pulled this most revered of the convent’s treasures to safety. It is a final additional touch to my heroism this night.
S****r Claire looks over to S****r Juliana and myself. She beckons us over. “Michaela, S****r, would you attend upon me for a moment please?” When we are stood before her she pauses to marshal her thoughts. “There are one or two points that I am not entirely clear about.” she ventures hesitantly. “I would have thought that you would both be in your cell at such a late hour. Why was it that Michaela here was roaming the convent in the middle of the night s****r Juliana?” Since my incarceration in the convent for the duration of my penance I have been obliged to share S****r Juliana’s cell. It is understandable that S****r Claire is mystified as to why I was abroad at such a time to discover the fire raging in the kitchens.
S****r Juliana blushes and lowers her head. “Forgive me S****r Claire but I was in the chapel in prayer as penance. I had left Michaela alone in my cell. I presume she awoke to find me gone and came to look for me.”
S****r Claire digests this information. “I see S****r. I am still a little puzzled however. I can hardly think that Michaela would expect to find you in the convent kitchens.” S****r Claire turns to look at me and raises an eyebrow. “Would you care to explain Michaela?”
I swallow hastily. S****r Claire has put her finger straight on the one shaky point of my story. I think furiously. I learned long ago that the best way to lie is to tell the truth.... just be sure you don’t ALL the truth! A confession of a small misdemeanour can often serve to mask the greater crime. I lower my head abjectly. “I’m sorry S****r Claire. Forgive me but I was hungry. When I saw that S****r Juliana was gone I thought perhaps to go to the kitchens and find something to eat.” It is no light confession. During my penance in the convent I have been on a frugal diet of porridge, bread and water; a fast imposed upon me for my sinfulness along with the hours of prayer, the hard manual labour and the regular whippings.
S****r Claire looks disappointed in me. “So you thought to steal food then did you?” She closes her eyes for a moment as if to seek guidance in prayer. At last she raises her head and looks at me sternly. “Under any normal circumstances I would have you thrashed for your sinful greed Michaela. That you should break the fast imposed upon you is sin enough but that you should attempt to do so by breaking the Eighth Commandment forbidding us to steal is even more reprehensible!” She takes a deep breath. “However the Lord works in mysterious ways it seems. It is you who we have to thank for our deliverance this night and if our Lord God should choose to use the medium of your sin to deliver us from danger then doubtless He has His reasons and we should humbly consider the lessons that He tries to teach us through his mercy. Perhaps it is you who should consider that in the moment of your temptation you were turned away from sin to His greater purpose and led through that to the courage and resourcefulness you have demonstrated this night in saving us all from peril. For my part you are forgiven Michaela but think well what the events of this night mean. Our Lord God turned you from the path of sin and onto the road of redemption. You have demonstrated high courage and selfless concern for those people in danger from the fire. This might yet be the saving of you Michaela and perhaps the long road back to salvation and grace in the eyes of our Lord.”
I lower my head in suitable humility but S****r Claire is not finished yet. “On one point I must however admonish you Michaela.” she continues. “That you should place your own life in danger to warn all the S****rs of the fire and to save S****r Juliana from danger in the chapel is entirely commendable and to your credit. That you should return into a burning building merely to rescue our Holy Relic however was foolhardy in the extreme Michaela! You needlessly imperilled yourself to that end and it is only through the grace of our Lord that we are not mourning your death at this moment!”
I nod contritely. “I am sorry S****r Claire. But the Holy Relic is so important to S****r Juliana and the other S****rs that I couldn’t bear the thought of it being destroyed.”
S****r Claire nods grimly. “Well we shall say no more about it c***d. Foolish though your action was at least it was done in the spirit of concern for others than yourself. Now of course the convent will be uninhabitable until repairs and restoration have taken place. We shall have to cast ourselves on the mercy of the s****rs at St Margaret of the Sacred Heart for a roof over our heads for the next few weeks. Naturally we will not be able to take you with us there so will be duly relieved of your penance and allowed to return home for the duration of the rest of the Christmas holidays. I will telephone your parents in the morning to explain the circumstances. It may be that the holidays may be extended somewhat whilst repairs are being effected. I hope you use the time wisely to reflect upon your penance here and the lessons of tonight and that when the school term finally convenes we will see a greatly reformed young lady who will sin no more.” I listen to this in triumphal gratification. My happiness is complete.
It is only a few days later. My beloved Jacqueline and I, reunited at last, are enjoying a belated Christmas. Jackie’s parents are away abroad for three days. We have the whole house to ourselves. After the f***ed absence of my incarceration in the convent we intend to make the most of it. We are both wearing the presents we bought each other for Christmas; little wisps of lacy frivolity that will be more fun to take off than they were to put on. We are sat on the rug by the big open log fire eating chocolates and loving each other immensely. Jacqueline is listening to my account of the fire at the convent in wide eyed wonder and horror. She tells me again and again that I was very brave.
She is a little upset with me though. “Why?” she asks, “Did you go back in to the building when everybody was out? The Holy Relic must have been terribly important to you.”
I wave a hand dismissively. “It wasn’t that dangerous sweetheart! The fire had hardly touched the chapel buildings. I had all the time in the world to get in there.”
“But it must have been important to you to save the Relic.”
I snort in derision. “Poof! Do you really think I went back in there to save a worthless sliver of wood?”
“Well it’s supposed to be a piece of the true cross isn’t it?”
I laugh shortly. “Darling! I love you so much! You are so naive! There’re enough pieces of the true cross to make a fair sized forest by now! Middle Eastern sharps have been flogging them to gullible pilgrims to the Holy Land for centuries!”
Jackie looks puzzled. “But then why did you go back in?”
I wink at her and delve into my bag. Like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat I produce my booty. It is a bottle of Whisky. “I went back in for this! Father Ignatius keeps his stash hidden in his office behind the chapel. I thought the bl**dy convent owed us a little Christmas cheer honey!”
“You went back in just for an old bottle of Whisky?”
“Not just any old bottle of Whisky sweetheart! This is Tullamore Dew twelve year old single malt! This stuff retails at over forty quid a bottle! It wasn’t just one bottle either! Father Ignatius had stocked up for Christmas. There was a whole crate of the stuff! Two dozen bottles! I kept one bottle just for us. I’ve flogged the rest for a tenner a bottle so we can have a nice Christmas!” Actually I sold the loot for fifteen pounds a bottle but it doesn’t do to reveal your whole hand.
“You’ve pinched Father Ignatius’ whisky? Oh Michaela what will he say when he finds it missing? He keeps that door locked as well! Please don’t tell me that you broke in! Oh Michaela! You could get into terrible trouble!”
“Relax darling! Yes I had to kick the door in, which wasn’t hard because it was half hanging off anyway, but the fire brigade battered half the doors in the convent down while looking for traces of fire so one more door isn’t going to be noticed. I just passed through the chapel, grabbed the Relic to cover my traces, kicked the door in, grabbed the booze and hopped out of the window. I hid the stash in the copse round the back until I could recover it the next day.”
“But what will happen when Father Ignatius finds his whisky missing?”
“So what’s he going to do? He can hardly report to Mother Superior that his secret stash of whisky has been purloined! Even if he could he can hardly point the finger at me. There were firemen all over that building that night. As far as he knows, his clandestine stash of booze is enlivening the fire station’s Christmas ball this year.”
“It was wicked of you Michaela!”
“I thought it was very Christian of me! Think of the good I’ve done for Father Ignatius’ immortal soul by removing the temptation of his stash of whisky! Come on darling! Don’t be mad at me. I just wanted this to be a lovely Christmas for both of us! Now give me a kiss and go get us two tumblers and we’ll break this bottle open. After I get you tipsy I’m going to tear that silly little nightie off you!”
Jacqueline giggles happily. She rarely stays angry with me for long. She kisses me fondly. “Michaela! You’re so bad!”
I wink at her. “I know darling! Now go and fetch us some glasses.” She jumps up merrily to comply while I busy myself opening the bottle. I am completely content. The only awkward question has never come up. My little Jackie is ingenuously innocent. Like the S****rs at the convent, she has not asked the one question that might have spoiled our Christmas. During my incarceration at the convent I shared a cell with S****r Juliana. So far nobody has thought to ask WHY S****r Juliana felt it incumbent upon herself to spend the night of the fire on her knees in penance in the convent chapel. I know why but I’m damned if I’m going to tell my beloved Jackie that!