Monastic life had its ups and downs. At first, it had been quite exciting, rising at 4.30 in the old Abbey in the summer, seeing mist covering the expansive lawns, whilst a golden glow on the horizon diffused over the orchard.
Opening a window with its ancient leaded panes and breathing in that air, the air of creation. Taking it deep, deep into the lungs, holding it, thanking God for this life, and exhaling with gratitude.
As the months went past and summer turned to autumn and autumn turned to winter, it wasn’t quite so exciting. The attraction of getting out of a warm bed onto stone-cold flags, and seeing your breath misting in the candlelight, not so appealing. Then a trip down a dimly lit corridor to fetch a jug of hot water for washing and shaving. Today, there was something wrong, the water was freezing cold, an ordeal to do my ablutions.
Then out into the cold wind of the cloisters to the church and Vigils, the first service of the day. Brother Cecil greeted me, his double chin wobbling beneath his round pink face.
“Having a lie-in Brother Paul?”
“No, the water wasn’t heated, it took me longer.”
Brother Cecil’s laugh sounded like a dog barking. “When I was a novice the water was never heated!”
I looked at his fat smirking face with disdain, then mentally asked God to forgive my uncharitable thoughts.
The day proceeded as usual, 6.15, a bowl of tea, bread, butter and marmalade, then Lauds, half an hour of praising God. My thoughts had changed over the last months. Surely a supreme being who designed the universe didn’t need to be adulated? It was rather like making a vivarium for an ant colony. Yes, you’d like to observe them busying themselves with making tunnels, attending to the queen, and doing whatever in God’s name ants do, but you’d hardly need them to be singing hymns and worshipping you!
Anyway, after Lectio Divina, Terce, and Mass, I felt zombified due to lack of sleep. I’d prayed for God’s help, but he was obviously off on a mission somewhere else today. I felt truly knackered.
“Come along Brother Paul, no more slacking today!” the dulcet tones of Brother Cecil rang out. “Cellar duty for you!”
My four-letter reply stayed in my mind, the Lord be praised! I looked at a clock on the wall, 10.05, three hours to go, until after dinner I’d be able to retreat to my chamber and ‘crash out’ for half an hour before None, the fifth service of the day.
“Come along, come along, Brother Maurice is down there already!”
Down in the cellar, it was my and Brother Maurice’s task to brush the mould off an area of the wall with heavy wire brushes. Then to paint the area with limewash. Cold, damp and unpleasant work.
“Good Lord!” I heard Brother Maurice exclaim.
“What’s up?” I went over to where he was working to find a brick that had become loose, revealing a cavity. “Is there anything in there?”
He removed the brick and fished around, pulling out a small book, some candles and a wide cardboard tube about a foot long. “It’s a diary, written in Latin,” he said, examining the book. “It talks about Father Jeremiah. That was before the war!”
I took the tube and prised off the cap. There was something inside. I extracted it to find a roll of some kind of waxed paper. I unrolled it on a nearby table. “Look at this!” Inside was a copy of the Beano!
We both stared at it. Why on Earth would anyone have secreted a comic behind a wall?! Brother Maurice smoothed out the curled, but still brightly coloured paper. It showed the antics of an ostrich and a monkey in six frames. A red oval contained white lettering, BIG EGGO. “Good Lord, this is number one!”
The cover advertised a ‘Whoopee’ mask. He shook the comic and a thin black cloth mask with two elastic loops to go behind the ears tumbled out.
“Brother Maurice, Brother Paul!” called a familiar voice. The staircase creaked under the fat, brown-robed form of Brother Cecil.
We exchanged glances. There wasn’t time to hide the comic.
Later, after a 1 p.m. Sext, a short hymn and some prayers, I proceeded to Dinner. Today mutton stew, served with chips, roast parsnips, and wholewheat rolls and butter – a most welcome repast!
“Brother Paul, Brother Paul!” It was Brother Maurice.
He led me to one side. “That comic we found. It’s worth … it’s worth …. He was visibly shaking.
“What? How much?”
“Twenty to thirty thousand pounds … with that mask!!”
“What?!! Look we’d better find out what Brother Cecil did with it.”
“No need!” Brother Cecil’s booming voice interrupted as his rotund form came into view. “I was intending to speak to Father Abbot, I thought it might be worth a pound or two and suitable for our Christmas auction, but just then I heard that Brother David had a bad case of diarrhoea, and there was a severe shortage of toilet paper. Brother Cedric had just gone for a supply. That er, comic was an excellent substitute!” He looked at our ashen faces with surprise. “Apparently there wasn’t quite enough, unfortunately, so he had to use that mask thingy to ‘finish off.’ Praise be to God that you found it!”
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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