All the nuns at the orphanage were ruthless except for Sister Francis. Well, that was how she remembered it anyway. All the others had cared about was whether or not you’d learnt your catechism or been to confession or said your Hail Mary’s properly. Not about their young charges themselves. Only whether they themselves were doing their job properly. But Sister Francis had been different from the rest of them. Sister Francis had always had a few chocolates in her capacious pockets and a few kind words of comfort if she heard you crying whilst she did her rounds. When she came to you like a short, round angel if you were upset or frightened by nightmares in the cold, dark dormitory when you woke up scared and alone at midnight she had always sat down beside you on the bed and talked to you softly until you had gone back to sleep. Sister Francis had actually cared.
And then she had vanished. One day she was there, the next she’d gone. No-one knew why, no-one knew where. And if you asked about her the others would close ranks and remain silent. It was as if she had never even existed. The days had stretched into weeks, the weeks into months and the months into years. Where she had gone and what had happened to her remained a mystery. After a while they didn’t even talk about her amongst themselves, when they were alone. It didn’t get them anywhere. Sister Francis became a myth, not a real person.
But Sister Francis was not a myth and she was not forgotten. Not totally forgotten anyway. Sophie still remembered. And when she had turned eighteen and it was finally time to leave St Anselm and St Ethelburga’s she had tried one last time. She had gone to see Mother Superior and asked. Just before she’d left she’d asked. And Mother Superior had gone white and turned away. She remembered too but she was saying nothing. Well, nothing to Sophie anyway. So Sophie had picked up her small brown suitcase and left. Left the only place she had ever called home. And she had not looked back.
For the next few years Sophie’s life had followed the predictable path of every other clever young woman of her generation. On leaving the orphanage she had moved into a small bed-sit, alone, before going on to University to study for her degree. After graduation she’d gone to work for a faceless bank in the City. Not exactly the career path she had envisaged but it was well paid and she was good at what she did. Ten years passed by quickly. Ten years since it had happened. Ten years since she had seen Sister Francis. Ten years. She had hardly thought about her childhood and her teenage years, she’d been too busy. Too busy with her new friends, with her career, with a new life free from rules and chapel and nuns and harsh punishments for unknown misdemeanours and no-one that cared about her. But still she hadn’t completely forgotten. Just occasionally, usually when she had been lying in bed in the twilight zone between being properly awake and being truly asleep, she had thought about Sister Francis and wondered. She’d thought about looking for answers before but had never known where to start.
But now things had changed. Well she thought they had changed anyway. Suddenly and without any warning. She’d just stood there and stared. She hadn’t been able to believe her eyes. Had she really seen what she thought she had seen? She wasn’t sure. Maybe not. But just maybe yes. Just maybe, at last, she might get the answers she needed. But what was the best thing to do? She didn’t know. She couldn’t just stand around and wait. She might be standing around forever. Was there anywhere she could go? Was there anyone she could ask? What was the best thing to do?
She’d never been here before. The sleepy little town had looked like a good place to just rest and recuperate. Somewhere where she could just sit and think about herself. Somewhere where she could just be herself. Somewhere where she could just come to terms with being alone again. Somewhere where she could try to learn how to just be Sophie again. Somewhere to try and forget. Somewhere to try to put her life back together. Somewhere with no memories. Somewhere where there wouldn’t be reminders around every corner. The break up with Jeff had been painful. So very painful. They had been together so long. She’d thought that they would be together for ever. But no. Not after what he had done. Not after he’d done what he’d done. She had needed stability. She’d needed someone she could rely on. She’d needed someone of her very own. She’d needed someone who loved her for herself. She’d needed someone to love. And she thought she’d found that in him. But no. Not now. Not with him. But he didn’t matter at the moment. What she had seen that morning was what mattered.
She was sure. She had no proof but she was sure. It had been so long ago but she was sure. But the moment had passed. Too quickly it had passed. Was it too late? Was it too late already? Was there anything she could do? Was there anywhere she could go? Was there anyone she could ask? She didn’t know. She just knew that she had to know. One way or the other she just had to know.
She looked round. Where should she go now? Back to the comfortable little hotel she’d found? Probably not. She’d just sit and brood if she went there. But where else was there? There wasn’t much else. Some nice walks but she didn’t much feel like walking. A small museum but she didn’t much feel like going to a museum. A shopping arcade with a few bijou boutiques but she didn’t feel much like shopping. A tea room with a selection of creamy, fattening, sweet things but she didn’t feel like tea and cakes at the moment. She just wanted to sit down somewhere quiet and think. Somewhere where she could be alone. Somewhere where she would not be disturbed. She looked round. There was a little sandstone church at the end of the road. Perfect. No-one would bother her there. There wasn’t likely to be anyone there at all. Even if there was they weren’t likely to talk to her. People didn’t talk to you in churches. They usually just wanted to be alone as much as you did.
The heavy wooden door was reassuringly dark and substantial, studded all over with blackened iron studs which looked as if they had been there since time immemorial. They probably had. She reached out, turned the large round handle and pushed. Slowly the door swung open and she went inside. The heat of the day hadn’t penetrated the thick stone walls and the place was quiet and cool, just what she wanted. She walked down the nave along central aisle past the ancient pews. To one side was the door to, what she presumed, was the vestry, and to the other the entrance to the Lady Chapel. In front of her was the chancel with the ornately craved choir stalls on either side and, shrouded as ever in crisp white line, the alter. She stood for a minute, looking up at the beautiful stained glass window at the East end before turning towards Lady Chapel. That looked like the best place to sit. Even if someone did come in they would be unlikely to see her there. She would be able to be alone as she wanted. Alone with her thoughts. She went in and sat down.
How many years had it been? How long since she’d been inside a church? Not since she’d left the orphanage. Not since she’d gone that last Sunday before she’d left. She’d forgotten how peaceful they were. She’d spent so much of her childhood in the church and her childhood was something she’d wanted to forget. All those years alone. All those painful years. And then she’d met Jeff. He had helped her forget. Helped her realise how good life could be. Helped her realise she had a future. Helped her leave the past behind and look forward. And then he was gone. What was she gong to do next? Did she want to go back to the flat they had shared? Did she want to return to the job she was growing to hate? Did she want to go back at all? She sat back and shut her eyes, lost to all but memories and misery.
She never heard the church door opening. Never heard the footsteps coming down the aisle. Never heard anything until the sound of laughing, happy children broke through. She shrank back in her seat. If she just stayed still and quiet maybe they wouldn’t notice her. Maybe they’d go away and leave her alone.
“How many have you got to do today Mummy?”
“Just the main one on the altar and the one by the pulpit. It shouldn’t take long.”
“Can we do something fun after that?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
“Can we go to the cinema? I really want to see that film.”
“I don’t know. I’ve got to get Daddy’s tea ready for when he gets home. I don’t know if we’ll have time for the cinema today. Maybe it’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
“Please Mummy. I’m going out to tea tomorrow and there won’t be time at the weekend, School starts next week and I have to get ready for that. Today’s really the last chance. I’ll help you then we can be quicker and get to go today. Please…”
The woman laughed, “Maybe. We might be able to make it to the early showing if we hurry. Why don’t you go and get me the vase from the Lady Chapel and we’ll see what we can do.”
Sophie shrank back in the pew. She really didn’t want to be disturbed.
The childish footsteps came closer.
“Do you want both vases or just the big one?”
“You get the little one and I’ll come and get the big one.”
The child came in, stopped by the entrance and stared at Sophie.
“Oh.” She didn’t look to be more than nine or ten. “Hello.”
“Is it OK if I get the old flowers? I’m helping Mummy get the new ones done. Do you want to be alone?”
Sophie smiled, “No, its fine. You go and get what you need.”
The child moved over towards alcove by the altar.
“I like helping Mummy get the church ready for weddings. We do the flowers so it’s pretty.”
“I like doing flowers too.”
“My name’s Sophie. What’s yours?”
“Is it really? That’s funny. That’s my name too!”
The child’s eyes widened, “Mummy, come here! Quick Mummy. Mummy, this lady’s got my name.” She ran to the doorway, “She’s called Sophie too!”
“Sophie, don’t bother the lady.” The woman joined her daughter and took her hand to lead her away. She turned to Sophie, “I hope she hasn’t disturbed you.”
Sophie stared. It was her. She was sure it was her. She stood up and moved towards the other woman, “Sister Francis?”
She hadn’t changed much. Older but still the same. Sophie would have recognised her anywhere. “Is it really you? Where did you go? Why did you leave us?”
“I had to leave. I didn’t want to but I had to. I had no choice.” Sister Francis held out her hands as she came forward.
“But you never even said goodbye. Why?”
“I couldn’t stay. I had to go. Mother Superior said I had to go. As soon as I told her she said I had to go. She said it was best if I just left quickly. She wouldn’t let me do anything else. So I went.”
“But why? We missed you. You were the only one who cared. You were always the only one who really cared. We missed you so much.”
“I had to go. I couldn’t stay.”
“It was complicated and I couldn’t.”
“You never even said goodbye.”
“They wouldn’t let me.”
“But why wouldn’t they?”
“They said I had to go immediately. They said I wasn’t allowed to stay.”
“I don’t understand. Why did you have to go?”
“They said I was a sinner and as a sinner I couldn’t be allowed anywhere near you all.”
“I still don’t understand.” Sophie shook her head, “How were you a sinner? What had you done that was so bad? Why weren’t you allowed to even say goodbye?”
“I couldn’t. I’d done something they just couldn’t forgive.”
“But they were nuns. They were supposed to forgive.”
“They couldn’t forgive me.”
Sophie shook head, “I still don’t understand. What had you done that was so bad they couldn’t? What had you done that meant they wouldn’t even let you say goodbye?”
“I’d done something they considered unforgivable.”
“But we weren’t allowed to talk about you. We weren’t allowed to ask where you were. We weren’t allowed to even mention your name. Not ever. It was like you’d never even existed. What happened?”
“The best thing in the world happened.” Sister Francis smiled and held out her hand towards her daughter. “My own Sophie.”