The Vicar of St. Dunstan's Ep. 11byNigel Debonnaire©
Small towns and small parishes are full of odd connections, and concepts acquire new descriptions in old places. For example, spiritual direction can take on a whole new meaning. . .
The pungent, ammonia-laced aroma of disinfectant invaded my sinuses. It didn't matter that it was private hospital that catered to those accustomed to the best, with lavish decoration that could make one think it was an Continental Spa: it had a hospital smell no amount of air freshener could neutralize. I strolled down the hallway of the geriatric ward to a corner room, and entered.
The lights were dim in the brightening morning; the blinds drawn shut to protect Lucinda Parkhurst-Frazelton's eyes from the morning glare off the concrete box building across from her west window. Monitors tracked her heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, and an IV dripped into the back of her left hand. It seemed a breath of wind could crush the fragile woman lying before me, her chest barely stirring under her blanket, her eyes closed, her lips very slightly parted.
As I stood there looking at her, I became aware of a presence at the foot of the bed. It was a big, dark lump in the pale illumination, but as my eyes adjusted, I realized that it was a person, a nun praying at the foot of the bed. The contour of her face in the twilight was smooth, like a fine marble statue of a child, but I saw her lips moving slightly. Her eyes were shut and her delicate fingers traversed a simple, dark wooden Rosary. Lost in prayer, she seemed unaware of my presence, and I grew still as well in respect for her devotion.
After about two minutes, Lucinda stirred a little, looking my direction with her eyes barely closed, her eyebrows furrowed slightly. "Barbie, Barbie dear," came a surprising strong voice, "make sure Alfie gets his Altoids, there's a good lass."
My jaw dropped instantly, but the nun paid Lucinda's rambling no attention, continuing her prayer. Lucinda relaxed and faded back into a deeper slumber. When I recovered from my fright, I found myself entering a kind of meditation paralleling the nun kneeling at the foot of the bed.
I was jostled from my reverie by someone rising from the floor. She caught my eye, started slightly, and then beckoned me to leave the room with her. After a parting glance at Lucinda, I followed her out the door.
She turned to me and said: "From the Anglican Dog Collar, I would hazard a guess that you're the Vicar of St. Dunstan's."
"Yes. You may call me Alfred."
"Thank you, Father Alfred. I'm Mother Mary Rufus, of St. George's Convent."
"Alfred, please. We're in the same business, so to speak, workers in the same vineyard. I've heard of the convent, it's not far from here, is it?"
"No, just outside civilization; an easy bus ride. We run a soup kitchen nearby."
"Of course, I know where you're talking about. Kent House, isn't it? Mother Mary Rufus: that would make you the Prioress, wouldn't it?"
"Yes, very perceptive of you. You have leadership responsibility as well, running a parish."
"I thought all Prioresses were old dumpy women with warts and wrinkles." Mother Mary Rufus was almost my height; her face was smooth and clear, and her serene, dark brown eyes held an unexpected distant twinkle. Her body was hidden under her dark habit, and her face was framed by her dark wimple, white bandeau and coif, and dark rimmed glasses. Her oval face with its understated nose and cheekbones, reminded me of someone, but I couldn't put my finger on who. Her slight smile with perfect teeth communicated both serenity and amusement. A huge, silver crucifix inlaid with red stones hung from her neck: it looked sharp around the edges, particularly at the points but I imagined that wearing it over at least two layers of clothing would make it no hazard. Standing before me, her posture was perfectly straight yet relaxed. An elegant, noble woman, yet humble.
Looking me squarely in the eyes, she winked at me before continuing.
"You're very kind," she said. " In my community, all the dumpy old women with warts and wrinkles want to enjoy their retirement and leave running the convent to those of us who are younger and more energetic."
"How wise of them." A nurse passed us in the hallway and ducked into Lucinda's room. "How long have you known Mrs. Parkhurst-Frazelton?"
"A long time: she's related to one of our sisters.. She has been a very generous patron of our soup kitchen for many years, and entrusted us to take charge of her care in her old age."
"Oh? I thought she had four children. Surely one of them would be responsible for taking care of her."
"Unfortunately, their affection is mixed with greed; none of them will readily trust of one of their siblings with control of her money. So it was agreed that the Prioress of our Convent would take that responsibility, with her condition reported to the children regularly."
"Doesn't that take up a lot of your time?"
"Someone drops by regularly, checks in with Willikins about how she's eating and getting around, knits with her for a while, that sort of thing. We take turns."
"I thought Mary Sterns was looking after her from day to day."
"I've known Mrs. Sterns for a long time as well; we keep in touch. Mrs. Sterns does drop by almost every day and she is Mrs. Parkhurst-Frazelton's solicitor as well as her friend, but I have her power of attorney, as you Americans call it."
"Oh, that would explain a few things." I kept finding myself drawn back to the nun's eyes: they were captivating and compelling. A wisp or two of blond hair peeked out from underneath her bandeau; I tried not to stare as they caught my eye. The nurse came back out of Lucinda's room, and turned to talk with Mother Mary Rufus.
"Mrs. Parkhurst-Frazelton has improved since last night," the nurse said. "The pneumonia has cleared from her lungs, and her heart rate and breathing are almost normal. The Doctor may want to keep her here on antibiotics the rest of the day to be sure, but you can probably take her home first thing tomorrow morning."
"Well, another few days and she should be as active as she was before this illness. Don't let her push herself, and you'll be all right."
"Thank you, Sister."
The nurse took the clipboard back to the nurses' station and turned to me. "Vicar, would you like a cup of coffee?"
"Yes, of course."
"Why don't we have a cup together in the hospital cafeteria?"
As we rode down in the elevator, I found rather sacrilegious thoughts of Mother Mary Rufus running through my head. Her face, seen from the side and in harsh flourescent light, was excellently proportioned and her skin smooth and clear. The side of her mouth was turned up slightly: I focused to the side to make my scrutiny of her less obvious, but her flicking eyes told me that she was stealing glances downward at me as well. Far down, below the hem of her tunic, her sandaled feet peeked out, her perfectly pedicured toes soft and vulnerable and appealing. Just before the doors opened, she licked her lips once. I followed her as if drawn by a magnet.
The cafeteria could have passed for an upscale Paris bistro. Mother Mary Rufus insisted that I have a seat while she got two huge cups of steaming brew. The weather was promising to be a warm August day with rain likely. At this time of day with no serious caffination prior to the visit, the black elixir was most welcome. We sipped and her delicate index finger played with rim of the cup away from her, near me. Her eyes captured mine once again, and she said: "I understand that you just returned from a vacation to your home in America. How was it?"
"Good, very good. Going home is always a difficult thing, but I feel better having made the trip. A lot of things got resolved, a lot of baggage was left behind. It's good to get back to the St. Dunstan's: you wouldn't believe the state things were in when I returned last Wednesday. I hardly caught up on my jet lag and my calendar was full for three days; I barely had time to write my sermon for Sunday. Last night, I just found out Lucinda was here, so I promised myself that I'd come around before anything else happened today, and thanks to a still scrambled internal clock, I was up extremely early today."
She took another demure sip, her finger giving the rim another soft stroke. "That's so very kind of you. I'm sure Mrs. Parkhurst-Frazelton will appreciate it when she comes around." Her eyes were locked on mine, and I could swear that some rather secular speculations were happening right behind them. "Full day today as well?" She asked at last.
I looked away for a moment before returning. "No, Monday is usually my day off, and I worked like a maniac to take care of everything before I went to bed last night. I just have to be sure nobody sees me sneaking into the Vicarage to change clothes before I make good my escape."
"Well, I usually make up my day off agenda as I go along."
Another sip of coffee and she proceeded quickly. "I hope you don't find me forward, but we're undertaking a major renovation of our Chapel at St. George, and I was wondering if you could drop by this morning and give me some advice. The diocese has had its say, and Mrs. Sterns tells me that you did an excellent job supervising St. Dunstan's renovation last year. You have a good sense of architecture and history, from what I hear."
"My fame precedes me," I replied. Her eyes were inviting, enticing behind her glasses which had slipped down her nose just enough that she looked over them at me. "Yes, something artistic and abstract would be a good way to unwind compared to the stuff I've had to deal with since I came back," I continued.
"We have some very lovely grounds far away from the urban rush, with a nice small lake. If you wish, we could even give you a Guest room for an afternoon nap, and feed you as well. The organ is in good shape, although we hope to expand it in the new renovation."
I gulped my coffee and sputtered. "It seems Lucinda has been telling you a lot about me."
Her eyes darted innocently back and forth a couple of times before returning to mine. "Mrs. Parkhurst-Frazelton speaks very highly of you and your many gifts, as does Mrs. Sterns. It is Divine Providence that our paths crossed today." Another sip and another delicate toying with the cup.
Gravity was pulling me, and I said: "Done. I'll be happy to drop by this morning and stay until the afternoon at least. Which bus stop do I get off at?"
A soft chuckle welled from inside the depths beneath the tunic and scapular. "Yes, you're an American. We would never end sentences with a preposition. It's the last stop on the number 53; the bus turns around in our circle before heading back into town. So you'll be there by lunchtime?"
"Sooner, I hope." I got up and shook her hand in parting: her hand was delicate yet strong as it grasped mine. "I'm just going to get a few things, grab my backpack and hop the bus."
"Excellent. I'll be in my office when you get there." I started fishing around in my trousers for change, but she stopped me. "Vicar, today is on me. I'm sure you'll be happy to get it next time."
I nodded and turned toward the door. The bus had just left the stop, so I impulsively waved for a cab to take me back to St. Dunstan's. Leaving on my working clothes, I thrust some casual clothes and a few other things into my pack, as well as a notepad and digital camera. St. George's Convent was renowned for its beautiful grounds, but few ever saw them other than the sisters. As I came back down the Vicarage front steps, there wasn't a familiar face in sight and the 53 bus was just pulling up to the curb.
As I rode out to the Convent, my imagination turned back to Mother Mary Rufus' face: angelic, child like, demure, peaceful. Her eyes haunted me, and I wondered if she had been a courtesan or royal mistress in a past life. The coffee break felt like a seduction. I chided myself for wondering what she would look like without her habit, what her gentle hands would feel like on my body, or even how she would look with her glasses off. The bus picked up speed as it approached the edge of town, and soon the spire of the Convent Chapel was reflecting the morning sun.
I disembarked before an impressive stone castle-like structure. A sister in a white veil greeted me at the front steps. "Good morning, Father Alfred, I'm Sister Mary Justin. Welcome to St. George's. Let me show you to the Mother Superior's office; she had to take care of something at the Dormitory but she'll be right back. Please, follow me."
We ascended the great exterior stone staircase with wrought iron railings into the massive structure built from huge blocks of native stone. The entryway was stately, ancient wood, and the paneling inside warmed up a dreary green tile floor and pale yellow ceiling. Passing through the corridors, I saw sisters working in the Library, a class of postulants learning about community history, a study group of lay people led by one of the sisters, among other things. After a series of offices, Sister Mary Justin led me to a huge, beautifully appointed office that had a fireplace, a somber antique table with eight chairs, a massive desk and a large collection of books. As I waited, I browsed the titles: most were dull tomes on the history of religious life and spirituality, but a shelf of 18th and 19th Century fiction had some curious choices besides Dickens and Twain: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Justine, the Kama Sutra, Tantric Worship and three 20th century titles, Catcher in the Rye, The Thorn Birds, and Memoirs of a Geisha.
I was leafing through the rare, illustrated edition of Tantric Worship when Mother Mary Rufus burst through the door, obviously fuming. She paced back and forth for a couple of moments; I hoped she didn't notice me slipping my book back into the bookcase. Flinging herself in her huge, overstuffed chair, she muttered under her breath until she realized that I was in the room waiting for her. She was embarrassed: getting up quickly, she moved toward a coffeepot and said: "I'm sorry, Vicar, didn't realize that you were here already. Coffee?"
"Sure," I said. "Tough morning?"
She poured two huge mugs of fragrant brew and handed me one. The caption on my mug was: You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps. Hers was a picture of a cross eyed cat.
"Sometimes I think that my handymen are here just to drive me nuts. We gave them a simple task this morning, unblock the basement loo and replace the hot water heater with the one sitting in its box right next to it, and now we've got to call in a contractor to get the work done right and a clean up crew to straighten up after. I swear, if there's a just God, Percy Witson and Stan Dover are doing to spend at least another century in Purgatory making all their fuck-ups right before they get to see God face to face."
"Percy Witson and Stan Dover?"
A look of disbelief met mine. "Yeah, they've been working for us for about five years already. You know them?"
"Ah, yes, they do some work for me around St Dunstan's." My head started to spin: how does she know Percy and Stan, I asked myself.
'I'm sorry," she said, taking a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey from her desk drawer and pouring a generous slug into her cup. "Interested?" she asked, pointing the bottle at me.
"No thanks, it's a little early for me."
Putting the bottle away, she took a deep drink of her mug and blew out a breath. "If those clowns are doing anything significant at your place, you'd better double check their work and make sure things aren't going to fall apart tomorrow. They're nice guys and willing, but it's been a penance coping with them"
I took a gulp from my cup: it tasted wonderful. "Well, they're parishioners of mine, and we have a Sexton who supervises them, or at least is supposed to keep an eye on them. The stories I could tell. . ." An image of Percy and his wife floated through my mind from our last 'counseling session', and I lost my train of thought. After an awkward moment, I changed the subject. "You wanted me to look over some plans you had for renovations."
Mother Mary Rufus looked confused for a moment, then turned to take out some blueprints from a cupboard behind her. I pulled up a chair and looked at the upside down as she unfolded them on top of the chaos of paperwork on her desk. "These are the plans for the new arboretum behind the Chapel–oh, Vicar, please come around here and look at them directly. I promise, I won't bite." Her mouth curled up slightly at the corner and she gave me a wink as she said it.
Sliding around the desk, I stood directly in front of her chair, bending over to scrutinize the plans. She settled in next to me: her right hand pointing out details, her left hand resting on my back and a subtle fragrance infiltrating my nostrils. It was familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Do nuns wear perfume, I asked myself. I didn't remember any of the nuns I'd met before, Anglican, Orthodox or Catholic, wearing perfume, even in America, but there was a first time for everything. As we looked and talked, she had to break contact from time to time, and when her hand re-established contact with me, it rested slightly and almost imperceptibly lower each time.
She moved in front of me and bent over to show some detail in the plans. I leaned over from behind to look over her shoulder, and I could swear she intentionally pushed her posterior into my groin. My John Thomas stirred to life as I felt a crease in the fabric before me, the outline of her cheeks, and very subtly they shifted as if welcoming me. The tone of her voice and the content of her talk didn't change: she kept telling me about the plans as her body spoke to mine in another language. After she finished her point, she suddenly stepped aside to show me documentation for the organ renovation.
Standing behind me again as I bent over the organ specifications, her hand was just above my hip, her thumb resting on my belt line, when the signal for the noon meal sounded. "Please, Vicar, come with me," she said, leading me down a long hallway to the Refectory.
The Refectory was a huge room with massive wooden beams and long, polished tables. It was somber, ancient, dignified, sparse. All faced the center of the room, and when the dishes were set out, one of the nuns went to a podium to do mealtime reading. I expected the tables to be rather empty at this time of day, however, over fifty nuns showed up, most were senior citizens, but there was a group of fifteen novices and postulants at table as well, fresh faced in their innocence, girls in their late teens/early twenties. Mother Mary Rufus put me at her right at the head table as all stood. Grace was said, and she graciously pulled out the chair for me to be seated before taking her place.
As I started into my marinated artichoke salad, I expected to hear from one of the great spiritual classics, such as The Dark Night of the Soul, or The Seven Storey Mountain, but to my surprise the reader began reading a chapter from Sophie's Choice by William Saroyan. The sisters all ate calmly, at a measured pace. Mother Mary Rufus raised each morsel to her mouth delicately and serenely as the account of Sophie's residence in a Warsaw apartment with members of the Underground was recounted. Huge fans rotated slowly above to circulate the air as we turned to our entrees, salmon steak in a dill butter sauce and wild rice. The reader's voice trembled a little as the story recounted Stingo and Sophie's excursion to Jones Beach and their nude swim. Looking around the room, there were moist eyes in some of the older faces. Some of the younger women the novices and postulants were blushing slightly, their hands trembling a little as they continued eating while the narrative spoke about Sophie using Stingo's premature ejaculate as a skin moisturizer. Sophie tried to swim out far enough to drown and Stingo rescued her. Fresh fruit followed the main course, and I ate a fig as the reading and the meal concluded. All rose for a prayer of thanks, and the sisters left, chatting busily.