Vow of Sanctity, page 12
‘Oh, I’m used to roughing it a bit,’ Sister Joan said, easing herself closer to the edge of the overstuffed chair into which she had been guided.
‘It must be terrible,’ Dolly said, adding vaguely, ‘Sublimation, you know. Rory, do stop fidgeting about the place and get Sister Joan a glass of sherry. You’ll take a glass of sherry?’
‘A small one, please.’
The sherry was a vintage one. Sister Joan sipped it appreciatively, reminding herself that she hadn’t eaten all day and had best take care lest it went to her head. At the rate she was going she’d be the only nun in history to come back from a retreat as a full blown alcoholic.
‘Take a seat, Sister, and let me have your coat. Rory, you should have taken Sister’s coat,’ Dolly scolded.
‘Sorry.’ Rory hung it at the back of the door and pulled out a chair at the table.
Thankfully it was a hard chair. Sister Joan allowed her hostess to serve her with the bright pink salmon and the inevitable salad and new potatoes. Rory, looking ill at ease, had sat down at her other side and Dolly took her place with a brightly tinkling little laugh.
‘Isn’t this nice!’ she said. ‘Not as grand as the manse, of course, but there –’
‘Mother.’ Rory’s voice was warning. Dolly glanced at him, bit her lip and subsided.
‘I always think that the company matters more than the surroundings,’ Sister Joan said, jumping in with both feet.
‘And the Sinclairs aren’t exactly matey – no, Rory, it’s true. Mr Sinclair has kept himself to himself for as long as I can remember and his daughter thinks she’s better than the rest of us put together –’
‘Have some bread, Sister,’ Rory broke in. ‘Salt?’
‘Just bread, thank you.’ Sister Joan took a piece.
‘So how are you getting on up there then?’ Dolly asked with an air of reluctantly changing the subject.
‘Very well,’ Sister Joan said, ‘and the exercise I’m getting from climbing up and down is doing wonders for my figure.’
‘Oh, do you worry about that sort of thing?’ Dolly looked surprised. ‘I wouldn’t have thought it mattered, your being a bride of Christ or whatever they call it.’
‘It’s healthier to be slim,’ Sister Joan said, ‘and I’ve never understood why Our Blessed Lord should be saddled with all the fat, plain women.’
Dolly gave her a shocked stare but Rory let out a guffaw, exclaiming, ‘You see, Mum, she’s just like a real person!’
‘Could a real person have another slice of bread?’ Sister Joan enquired. The bread came from a sliced commercial loaf and was tasteless enough to offset the too rich sauce in which the salmon was smothered.
They progressed to the trifle which was unexpectedly good.
‘Well, I’ll be off then.’ Rory was suddenly on his feet.
‘What about Sister?’ his mother asked.
‘I’ll be back in half an hour. I promised to help out with Jimmy’s bike. You don’t have to rush, do you?’ He looked at Sister Joan.
‘As long as I’m not too late – but I have a torch – the one I bought from your shop, as a matter of fact,’ Sister Joan remembered, ‘so I can easily take myself home if you’re delayed.’
‘I’ll try to get back.’ Rory ignored his mother’s frown and went out, taking his anorak from behind the door as he left.
‘Coffee or tea, Sister? I favour a nice cup of tea after salmon, don’t you?’ Dolly said, bustling her visitor back to the armchair.
‘A cup of tea is always welcome.’ Sister Joan hoped she would be able to lever herself up out of the chair when it was time to leave.
‘I just hope Rory hasn’t gone down to the loch.’ Dolly spoke restlessly, bringing in the tea. ‘I know he’s past twenty and shoulders a lot of responsibility for his age but when a boy gets crazy ideas about a girl – woman, I ought to say – that one never was a girl! Born ancient she was – like her mother.’
‘Catherine Sinclair, would that be? I saw her portrait when I was at the manse,’ Sister Joan said mildly. ‘She looked very like her daughter.’
‘In more ways than one, Sister.’ Dolly snapped her lips together.
Sister Joan drank the tea that had been pressed upon her. She had a distinct feeling of being pulled in two directions at once. She wanted to leave before she was forced to listen to what she feared might be some very unpleasant gossip; she wanted to stay because somewhere in the other’s bitter words might be some clue to the accusation that Morag had flung over her shoulder and possibly to the elusive body in the crypt.
‘Mind you,’ Dolly said after a moment, ‘I must be fair. Backaways, when they were children, Morag and Rory used to get along fine for all that we’re shopkeepers and he’s clergy – and don’t say it doesn’t signify. In rural areas it signifies all right – but with those two it didn’t seem to matter, and the Sinclairs for all their airs never had two pennies to rub together. And I never interfered between the two of them, not even when Alasdair – that’s my husband – took off. Not that I believe he did – not for a minute. I told the police that he’d not leave without letting me know. They said he’d given up his job and sold his car and it was clear he meant to disappear – and I can’t pretend I wasn’t glad in some ways to see the rear end of him because he’d never been the cherishing kind – but that didn’t mean I wasn’t entitled to have a search made, now did it?’
‘And nothing was found?’ Whatever her private reservations it looked as if she were impelled to listen.
‘Not one trace,’ Dolly said with a curious mixture of triumph and regret.
‘I suppose,’ said Sister Joan, feeling her way carefully ‘that adults are entitled to – disappear and, if there’s no evidence of a possible crime, there’s nothing the police can do. It must have been very difficult for you.’
‘Not as difficult as being married,’ Dolly said. ‘Alasdair was well enough when we first wed. He was proud of having a son but he never took a close interest in his rearing. Nor in his religion either. He was usually away at weekends anyway so he never went over to the island for mass. There were other women, I’m certain of that.’
‘You knew about them?’
‘Guessed. You see, Sister, after Rory was born Alasdair hardly ever touched me – in that way, if you follow my meaning. So there was another woman somewhere. A man can’t serve two at once and satisfy them both.’
Sister Joan felt herself wince slightly at the crudity, but merely nodded as if she knew all about such situations.
‘And I can tell you something else,’ said Dolly.
Her tongue had been loosened so thoroughly that Sister Joan wondered fleetingly if there was something stronger than tea in the other’s cup, but it seemed more likely that Dolly McKensie, starved of a confidante, was simply unburdening herself which meant that when she thought back over the conversation later she would be extremely embarrassed and withdraw from any further contact with her guest.
‘Perhaps you had better think,’ she said gently, ‘before you make so intimate a confidence – one often regrets speaking –’
‘Alasdair,’ said Dolly, breaking in impatiently, ‘was seeing Catherine Sinclair.’
‘My dear Mrs McKensie, you can’t possibly –’
‘Do you think I didn’t guess who was occupying his attention?’ Dolly said bitterly. ‘Oh, he was very clever about it – went off in connection with his work so often that we got used to his never being here. I thought for a long time that it was some woman in Argyll – he spent holidays there as a boy – and then I figured out it must be someone nearer – in Aberdeen perhaps. Well, for all I know he had his lovers staked out all over Scotland, but one of them was nearer still. Someone mentioned they’d seen his car near the manse – it was said innocently – oh, you’ll be wanting to get off and make the supper for your Alasdair. I saw his car the other side of Loch Morag, near the manse – and me smiling and nodding and thinking all the time that he wasn’t due home until the ne
‘He might have been visiting Mr Sinclair, the minister.’
‘That weekend the minister had gone down to see the daughter at her boarding-school,’ Dolly said tightly.
‘You’re sure of that?’
‘There was a notice up, saying that there’d be no service at the kirk that Sunday. It was in the post office. And his wife wasn’t going with him. She’d had the flu – I know that because I’d a bit of a cold myself and when I went into MacGregors’ to get something for it the assistant mentioned that it did seem to be going round since Mrs Sinclair had had a bad dose of it. So she was alone in the house and Alasdair’s car was outside.’
‘Did you ask him about it?’
‘I’d not give him the satisfaction of thinking what he chose to do bothered me,’ Dolly said resentfully. ‘And it wasn’t just that. She was in his car. When he did come home I smelled perfume in it. Alasdair may not have been very keen on getting into bed with me, but he was not female in himself. It was as much as I could do to get him to use aftershave.’
‘I don’t think that constitutes proof of his sexual orientation,’ Sister Joan objected.
‘Well, he didn’t wear perfume anyway whatever the reason,’ Dolly said, ‘and Catherine Sinclair did. She came into the shop once or twice to buy things and she was wearing it then, heavy and musky. And that same perfume was in the car when Alasdair came home.’
She ended on a triumphant note, folding her hands together. Sister Joan sipped her tea which had cooled and cast a surreptitious glance at the fob watch pinned to her habit. The evidence for an affair between Alasdair McKensie and Catherine Sinclair seemed tenuous in the extreme, but Dolly clearly felt some satisfaction in having ferreted out the truth as she believed. Perhaps it was easier for her to pin the blame on a known face rather than torment herself with faceless possibilities.
‘You must have suffered great anguish of mind,’ she said at last, seeking safety in the bland, familiar phrase.
‘I’d made up my mind to divorce him,’ Dolly said. ‘There wasn’t anything left between us – no quarrelling, no making up, nothing. I wanted my own independence – seeing to the shop, helping Rory get into a decent career – but he ran off before I could bring the subject up.’
She hadn’t meant to involve herself even verbally but at this last couldn’t avoid exclaiming, ‘But Catherine Sinclair died, did she not? He couldn’t have gone off with her.’
‘She wasn’t the only one,’ Dolly said. ‘The one nearest home but not the only one. There must have been others. That was what they must have quarrelled about –’
‘You know they quarrelled?’
Dolly looked irritated. ‘I don’t know anything for certain,’ she said. ‘I’ve had time to work it out – six long years. Alasdair disappeared and three weeks later Catherine Sinclair was found dead – an overdose of sleeping tablets. They said it was an accident, and I didn’t get to thinking about it for ages. Then Rory and the daughter started seeing each other again – Morag left school and came to housekeep for her father, and then I started thinking again – the smell of her perfume in the car, Alasdair’s going off –’
‘You think he left Catherine Sinclair and went off with some other woman?’
‘If he could cheat on me he could cheat on her too,’ Dolly said. ‘I reckon he did and she brooded about it and then killed herself. It makes sense.’
It would have made better sense, Sister Joan reasoned, if Dolly had been struck by this theory when her husband first disappeared and Catherine Sinclair died. That she had waited four years before drawing her conclusions argued that the intensifying of the relationship between her son and Catherine’s daughter had roused her to find some reason to separate them. That all this had probably taken place on her subconscious level was immaterial. Dolly McKensie had craved for a son to rear, not a husband to cherish. Her motives were sadly mixed.
‘What are your future plans?’ she enquired aloud.
‘In a year’s time I can apply to the courts to assume my husband is dead. I want to make sure of getting my widow’s pension when the time comes,’ Dolly said. ‘I’ve spoken to my lawyer and he doesn’t see any difficulty.’
‘Do you think he is still alive?’ Sister Joan asked bluntly.
‘Alive and hugging himself for fooling everybody,’ Dolly said. ‘He always had a funny sense of humour.’
‘It must have been terrible for Catherine Sinclair if what you think is true.’
‘Because she killed herself? Weak-willed, I’d call it. She committed adultery, didn’t she?’
There was no use in pointing out that there wasn’t a shred of real evidence to prove that, Sister Joan thought. Dolly McKensie had brooded over the matter and, at the precise time when it looked as if her son was seriously interested in another woman, she had drawn her conclusions.
‘Did you? Did you mention your ideas – suspicions to anyone?’ she asked instead.
‘There wasn’t any need,’ Dolly said. ‘Young Morag threw Rory over without any help from anybody. Thought she was too good for him. He’s better off without her, I think.’
Rory evidently thought differently. For him Morag’s changed attitude had been hurtful and not opportune.
‘I hope everything works out well in the end,’ she said aloud, managing to rise from the capacious chair and only too aware that her comment was banal. ‘I wish I could think of something more useful to say, but I’ll certainly remember you in my prayers. If you don’t object to that?’
‘I’d do a bit of praying myself,’ Dolly said, ‘if I thought it’d do any good. You’re not going? Rory won’t be long.’
‘If I know anything about young men once they get their heads under a motorbike time ceases to exist,’ Sister Joan said. ‘I shall enjoy the walk and I do have the torch.’
‘It’s been nice talking to you,’ Dolly said, lifting down the grey coat from the back of the door. ‘I don’t talk about it very much – in fact hardly ever. Hope I haven’t bored you?’
‘I’m only sorry I can’t be of more practical help,’ Sister Joan said. ‘I wouldn’t give up hope of a solution either if I were you. If your husband is still alive someone somewhere will recognize him – if not something will be found about that too.’
‘He’s not likely to be dead,’ Dolly said watching her guest put on her outdoor garments. ‘Mind you, I’ll stand up in any court and swear that I believe that I’m a widow. But Alasdair’s alive. There’s times I can almost feel him laughing at me because he’s fooled me and run off.’
‘Did he take any money with him?’ She had no right to enquire but asked anyway.
‘He gave me housekeeping from his job as salesman and I kept the profits of the shop. He might have had savings but I don’t know where. If he had he’s probably bought a snug little bar in Spain and he’s living there with his latest bimbo.’
‘Empty-headed blonde – page three girl – slang.’
‘In the convent we are apt to miss out on the latest slang,’ Sister Joan said apologetically. ‘It’s a very interesting word – bimbo. Well, may I thank you most sincerely for my supper. I am disgracefully fond of trifle. And tell Rory not to worry about being late. I like walking by moonlight.’
As she had expected the other made no attempt to detain her further. In a little while she would be regretting her indiscretion.
Outside the lamps cast a yellow glow over the steep, cobbled street with its curtained windows and shuttered shop front. The rain had stopped but the air was thick with curling spirals of mist that rose up beneath a sky lit by the barest sliver of moon.
Walking might help to calm the turbulence of her thoughts. Dolly McKensie was not, after all, the grieving widow, hoping for an absent husband to return. She was a woman who wanted her widowhood to be established by law, who had not even liked her husband very much – a host of shabby little deceits must have killed all her loving. Sadder still was her fixation on the
Reaching the bottom of the street Sister Joan paused to collect her thoughts and switch on her torch.
Morag had decided to drop Rory because she believed his mother was a killer. She obviously hadn’t voiced the real reason for her rejection and both Dolly and Rory had reached the conclusion that she had decided she could do better for herself. But had Morag based her own belief on anything substantial or was she too leaping to conclusions? And why would Morag believe him to be dead?
It was no use. She had tried to push away her memory of that seated figure with the modern shoes under the hem of the black habit. He returned, filling the canvas of her mind. Where better place to conceal a body than among other bodies? Which meant that Dolly McKensie could have put it there?
Sister Joan crossed the bridge and started down the gully, her torch making a broad pathway of light before her. By contrast the surroundings looked blacker. As she turned on to the shoreline she hesitated, then switched off the torch. The unnecessary use of a battery was not compatible with a vow of poverty. And the sliver of moon had been joined by stars and the wind was ruffling the mist into trailing ribbons of grey. She stood for several moments, letting her eyes become accustomed to the gloom, and then walked on steadily, her feet crunching the shale.
On her right the water was a darkly shining expanse. On her left the cliffs reared up high, crowned with bare rock off which the starlight glanced. The pines leaned a little, stretching towards the loch, their trunks faintly gleaming.
The soft plashing of water lifted by oars came to her ears. She stopped, her feet slithering on the little wet pebbles, and saw the boat approaching, the cowled figure bent over his task like some faceless Charon traversing the Styx.
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