Vow of sanctity, p.14

Vow of Sanctity, page 14


Vow of Sanctity

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  ‘That wouldn’t give me the same satisfaction,’ Morag said.

  ‘Think about it as objectively as you can,’ Sister Joan urged. ‘Don’t rush into anything. Once you start something it’s very hard to stop it.’

  She felt that she had been less than helpful, but Morag was evidently determined to be polite and murmured something indeterminate.

  ‘You will want to be starting on your car trip,’ Sister Joan said, rising. ‘And I must start back myself. The brunch was very welcome.’

  ‘I can run you back,’ Morag offered, then glanced at her wrist-watch and uttered an exclamation. ‘Hell, no! I can’t. I promised to pick up some books that Father ordered in Glenloch higher up the hill and the shop closes before one. Look, the boat’s moored at the landing-stage. Use that if you know how to row. I have to go. I can collect the boat tomorrow some time. We don’t use it that often.’

  ‘But your father uses it?’

  ‘He rowed you back the other night, didn’t he? Instead of driving you, you mean? The truth is that we both dislike cars. I’d ride Rob Roy all the way to Aberdeen if I could – and my father likes the boat. Maybe we can talk another time?’

  Her voice was suddenly young and wistful.

  ‘Yes, of course,’ Sister Joan spoke as warmly as she could. The truth was that she needed some time by herself to sort out her own complicated feelings about the events taking place around her. The problem of how far to get involved was a difficult one.

  ‘Thank you again. I’ll see myself out,’ she said and went briskly to the door. When she glanced back Morag was biting her lip, her expression troubled. Clearly she had wanted advice and equally clearly she wasn’t sure if she wanted to take it.

  And what advice could I possibly give? Sister Joan thought, making her way down the terraces. Morag believed that her mother had been having an affair with Alasdair McKensie, a belief which she shared unknowingly with Dolly. But Dolly had given it as her opinion that her husband had run off with some unknown woman and Morag had convinced herself on no evidence at all that Dolly McKensie had made away with Alasdair. Or had both of them sought to confide in a stranger to divert some possible suspicion from themselves?

  She crossed the gravel road towards the wharf, reaching it just as with a screech of brakes a small car swooped down a narrow alley at the side of the manse. Morag slowed down long enough to wave and then speeded up again.

  Sister Joan went on to the wharf, feeling a small anticipatory glow of pleasure when she saw the boat bobbing there. It was years since she had rowed a boat and she had never pretended to herself that some rowing team was the worse for not having her as a member, but to be alone and in control of her own small vessel promised a short period of enjoyment.

  She stepped down into the boat and cast off, reaching for the oars and feeling the unaccustomed strain on her muscles as she pulled away from the land.

  Though it was scarcely past high noon she was glad of her coat and scarf, the sun having hidden behind the leaden greyness of the clouds. Yet the breeze that had dispersed the earlier mist had quieted and the water was like smooth grey silk.

  She rowed steadily for several minutes, the island on her right gliding past like some imagined Camelot. She could make out the square tower of the church and the long walls enclosing the beehives and the vegetable plots. Overhead a curlew swooped low, uttering a long, sweetly piercing cry. She tilted her head and whistled back, wondering whether the cry had been greeting or warning. Animals sometimes sensed the future before human beings did.

  She rested the oars, letting the boat drift a little, her eyes idly scanning the loch. Solitude in the midst of silence calmed her agitated thoughts. She was glad that Morag, having stated her case, had decided she was in a hurry and offered the boat. Out here problems seemed far away. Closing her eyes, she gave herself up to the peace of the moment.

  The sky split open, the lead becoming purple and the absent sun fleeing further as lightning tore a jagged line down the horizon. Sister Joan’s eyes flew open and she hastily grasped the oars again, bracing herself for the inevitable downpour of rain. It had, surely, to rain.

  The sky had blackened now and the waters of the loch reflected nothing. There was a creeping coldness rising about her, blotting out feeling and another catclaw of lightning made her jump nervously. The further shore was no more than a faint blur.

  ‘At least I know where I’m headed,’ she said aloud to cheer herself up, and bore down more vigorously on the oars, frowning at their sluggish progress through the dark water.

  She might be able to row, she decided, a moment later, but her steering left a lot to be desired. As far as she could tell she had drifted a good distance past the place where she’d aimed to land. She cast a swift look over her shoulder and saw that the island was nearer than she had supposed. In this freak storm it would make better sense to land there and seek shelter. She changed direction and rowed steadily, feeling as if she were moving through syrup so slow was her speed.

  Below the loud groaning of the thunder and the crackling of lightning as it aimed downwards towards the loch there was another sound. She became aware of it by degrees – a sucking, pulsating noise as if some giant pump were emptying the loch. She shipped the oars for a moment to listen more attentively, to peer through the increasing darkness and suddenly both she and the boat were caught and lifted and whirled like a corkscrew. Startled she gripped the side of the boat and hung on grimly as it tilted first one way and then the next and one of the oars slipped over into the water and fell down into the blackness.

  ‘Hail Mary, full of grace …’ The well-loved words came jerkily, impelled for the first time in her life by fear and not devotion.

  The sucking sound again as if all the waters in the world were being siphoned off and, as the whirlpool lifted the little craft and spun it round a final time, the sight, gleaming weirdly under another forked spray of brilliant white light, of a row of heads, ancient and knotted, facing her as they rose up to bar her way.

  Not heads, she realized suddenly, but the tops of the polled and fossilized trees that were only revealed when there was a freak tide. To be able to find a rational explanation for her situation made her feel less at the mercy of a pitiless uncaring nature. She was half lying across the bows, the remaining oar trapped beneath her shoulder. The boat was scudding now straight to the drowned trees. She risked moving, seizing the oar, the little vessel tilting alarmingly as she tried to wriggle upward again. If she could reach the trees she could secure the boat and wade to the island before the water rushed in again.

  She struck out fiercely, her mouth compressed with determination. She had no particular fear of death though she suspected that the dying might be rather distressing, but at thirty-six she had a lot of living still to do. Well, close on thirty-seven, she admitted to herself. Still young – a mere baby in the eyes of Father Abbot.

  The nearest tree trunk was within reach but the waters were boiling coldly, as the dreadful sucking noise threatened her. She had a length of rope in her hand with no clear idea of when she had taken it up. If she could attach it to some projection on the tree trunk then she could scramble ashore somehow.

  The wet rope caught and snagged on the iron hard wood. The boat banged violently against it and then, with no more warning of its going than of its coming, the darkness lifted and an invisible hand smoothed the waters out again.

  She clung to the side of the boat, her breath ragged, hearing the last echo of that terrible sucking sound, shaking the water out of her eyes, raising her head to stare into the swollen contorted features of the man whose body had been weighted down and lashed to the fossil trunk and who, with the lowering of the water level, rose up out of the dark loch to peer sightlessly into her face.


  The water was still retreating but more slowly, sucked into some underground channel to leave the ‘stepping stones’ free for anyone crazy enough to try to reach the further shore that way.

‘And I,’ said Sister Joan through chattering teeth, ‘am just about crazy enough.’

  She wriggled back into the tilting boat and tore her horrified eyes from that dreadful countenance. She could scramble out of the craft and reach the island easily enough, but whom would she tell about her discovery? What guarantee did she have that by the time the authorities had been alerted the body wouldn’t have been moved again? Common sense dictated that she try to reach the further shore, but common sense warned her that the freak tide might as suddenly change and she be pulled under the returning waters.

  With the remaining oar she pushed herself and the boat free of the tree trunk against which it was jammed and began, slowly and painfully, to scull herself along, hearing the bottom of the boat scrape along the deeply shelving bed of the loch. With intense relief she looked down and glimpsed shale as the gloom lifted and the rushing sound in her ears warned her that the tide was on the turn again. She stepped over the side of the boat, catching her breath as the icy water swirled about her knees and, holding fast to the last fossilized trunk, made her way painfully into the shallowest water. The boat, lifted by the incoming water, spun and danced away as if it had been made from matchsticks. She was knocked off her feet by a sudden swell of water and landed on hands and knees, spitting water, on a sandbank.

  At least she was safe from drowning. She was also dripping wet and icy cold, the palms of her hands chafed and scratched where she had clung to the side of the boat. She sneezed violently and pulled herself upright, her feet slithering on pebblestrewn sand as she struggled up on to the shore. Behind her there was a rushing noise that filled the world as the tide turned, not gently and gradually as it usually does but with a violence that seemed to her to be almost personal. She had reached the pines and turned to look back at the loch. The tops of the fossilized trees were sinking rapidly from view; the body would have sunk with them, she supposed. There was no sign of the boat.

  She would have to get help which meant walking to the village. Turning, she forced her cramped and soaking limbs to carry her forward. The storm was fading, the thunder growling at rarer intervals, only an occasional fork of lightning splitting the sky.

  If it starts to rain now, she thought, desperately trying to find some humour in the situation, then I’ll start imagining God has a bone to pick with me.

  With the thought there came a shower of tingling drops as the heavens opened and threw down the rain.

  ‘I didn’t realize,’ Sister Joan said aloud, squinting up at the sky, ‘that You were listening.’

  Not only listening but obviously pushing her into doing something about the body she had found. It was no longer possible to turn her back and assure herself that she had imagined it or that what had happened six years before had nothing to do with her.

  Normally there might have been someone out on the loch or on the shore to catch sight of her and run to offer help – she was quite sure that help would have been forthcoming, but the storm had driven everybody within doors, and as she turned into the gully between the high, jagged walls of rock she felt small and alone.

  She had reached the bridge when she heard a shout and saw Rory McKensie leaping up the steps at the end of it.

  ‘What the devil happened to you, Sister?’ he demanded as he reached her. ‘I saw you coming on to the bridge and looking half drowned. Have you had an accident?’

  ‘I’ll be fine as soon as I’ve dried out a bit,’ she assured him. ‘What are you doing out yourself?’

  ‘Coming over to the retreat to see if you were OK,’ Rory said.

  ‘That was nice of you,’ she said in appreciation and sneezed again.

  ‘Come on back up to the house,’ he urged. ‘Mum will lend you a dressing-gown or something while your things get dry. You’ll catch pneumonia else.’

  ‘Do you have a telephone?’

  ‘Yes, in the shop. Why?’

  ‘I need to make a call.’ She broke off abruptly, remembering that the body weighted down below the water was probably the remains of his father.

  ‘Oh?’ Rory gave her a curious glance but made no further comment as he hurried her down the steps and across the road to the village. The street was deserted, the cobbles streaming with rain, and in several of the houses lights burned to combat the gloom.

  ‘I must telephone first,’ Sister Joan said. ‘It’s important.’

  ‘The phone’s at the back of the counter. Mum decided to close up early,’ Rory said. ‘Look, you give a shout when you’ve finished and you can come up the stairs.’

  He bent to push open the shop door. Crime was obviously so rare here that it was unnecessary to lock up everything every hour of the day.

  ‘I’ll get Mum to run a hot bath,’ he said and vanished into the side corridor.

  The telephone was an outmoded model, on the wall behind the counter. Sister Joan lifted the counter flap and went through, steeling herself before she lifted the receiver and dialled the emergency number.

  ‘A body?’ The disembodied voice sounded faintly disapproving. ‘In Loch Morag? Are you sure?’

  ‘Perfectly sure.’ Impatience crisped her voice. ‘By the line of fossilized trees, weighted down, I think. The freak tide revealed it; the waters have risen again but I am sure the body will still be there. I’m speaking from the McKensie General Store in the village.’

  ‘And you say you’re a nun?’ The voice still sounded bemused.

  ‘Sister Joan from the Order of the Daughters of Compassion. I can give you all those details when someone comes over, but the important thing now is surely to recover the body.’

  ‘We’ll be out there in about twenty minutes,’ the voice said.

  Putting the receiver back she leaned on the counter for a moment, overcome by weariness and a trembling that came from strain. Then she straightened up and went through to the corridor from which the stairs rose up to the flat over the shop. She had opened her mouth to call when Dolly McKensie appeared at the head of the stairs.

  ‘Come up, Sister,’ she invited. ‘I’ve a hot bath waiting for you and dry clothes while your own are drying out. No sense in catching your death up in that cave.’

  ‘You’re very kind.’ Sister Joan climbed the stairs, her sodden habit clinging unpleasantly to her legs.

  ‘Good God, Sister, what happened?’ Dolly exclaimed as she stepped into the light.

  ‘I fell into the loch,’ she answered tiredly. ‘There’s a – a body there, I’m afraid. I just rang the police so they’ll be on their way.’

  For a moment she feared that Dolly was about to overwhelm her with questions, but the other woman thrust at a door on the right, saying brusquely, ‘The water’s nice and hot and I’ve put some things for you to wear over the rack. If you’d like to pass out your own things I’ll put them in the spin dryer, and then give them a good pressing with a hot iron. Rory’s making a hot toddy to get the chill out of your bones.’

  Sister Joan went into the small, steamy bathroom and decided that part of the celestial kingdom must consist of a hot bath into which fragrant bath salts had already been poured. Left to herself she wouldn’t have dreamed of using them, but it would have been wicked waste to empty the water out now. Happily conscious that for once duty held hands with inclination she hastily stripped off her garments, passed them obediently around the edge of the door and stepped in with alacrity.

  Fifteen minutes later with her body comfortably clad in a loose dark dress under a navy-blue dressing-gown, and her cropped black hair concealed by a paisley patterned scarf, she pushed her feet into a pair of mules that were a size too big and shuffled out into the landing.

  ‘Come and sit by the fire,’ Dolly invited. ‘You need a hot toddy and some cinnamon toast and don’t try to argue.’

  ‘I wasn’t dreaming of it,’ Sister Joan said meekly, sinking into one of the overstuffed armchairs and accepting the steaming beverage. ‘I feel awful having to impose upon you like this but it was an emergency.’

ll be an hour or two before your own clothes are ready,’ Dolly said, seeming by the haste with which she broke in to be pushing away the offer of any unwelcome knowledge. ‘Rory’s stuffing your shoes with newspaper and giving them a good clean.’

  ‘The police –’

  ‘Will be here soon enough. They’ll likely go down to the loch first to check your story. What were you doing to be falling in anyway?’

  ‘I had been visiting at the manse and Morag Sinclair lent me their boat so that I could row myself back across the loch.’

  ‘Couldn’t she drive you back?’ Dolly asked sharply.

  ‘She was in a hurry to pick up some books for her father and then she was going to join him in Aberdeen. Mrs McKensie, I think you ought to prepare yourself.’

  ‘For the body’s being Alasdair?’ Dolly spoke quite calmly, seating herself in an opposite chair.

  ‘I – think so, but of course I can’t possibly be sure.’

  ‘Oh, it’ll be him all right,’ Dolly said, with an odd little series of nods as if she had just concluded an argument with herself. ‘Nobody else had gone missing in this area for as long as I can recall. It’ll be a relief to get it identified, save my having to go to the courts to presume death. I’ll get my pension without any bother I shouldn’t wonder.’

  Sister Joan sipped her scalding drink, glad of the excuse to avert her gaze. She had expected disbelief, an explosion of anger, but not this strange, glinting satisfaction.

  ‘I was afraid you were going to say it was a woman’s body or something,’ Dolly said. ‘I suppose you could tell? It is six years.’

  To Sister Joan’s relief the bell at the bottom of the stairs rang and the sound of Rory’s footsteps, of voices below, held both women motionless.

  ‘Inspector Mackintosh, Mum,’ Rory said, coming in.

  At his heels a burly man in a dark raincoat and slouch hat who looked as if he were about to launch into an impersonation of Humphrey Bogart entered, pulling off the hat to reveal a head of wiry greying hair topping a broad, genial face.

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