This morning I discovered a note clothes-pegged to the back-door of my burrow. I often find notes pegged there. It is how I and my dear neighbour most often communicate. The notes are written on coloured scraps, old music sheets, official letters, flyers. She is a wordsmith, too, and the notes are filled with quotes, or word definitions, or references to leaks, bills, electrical faults, or arrows to vegetables or bowls of soup left on the step, or all of these.
The note pegged onto my door this morning was to tell me that Sister Sarah had died.
A decade or so ago, when I was drowning in my opus, my neighbour told me about a retreat near a beach not far from here. It was run by nuns three times a year. It was silent. Ten days. Meals were provided. It didn’t matter that I took no part in their religious programme. I was left to my own thoughts. This was where I first met Sister Sarah.
I went to all the retreats but I craved more – more silence, more absence of clutter and distraction. I craved the small table under the window in that unmolishly attic room, and I craved the sight and sound of the sea. Sister Sarah said to me in her lilting Irish way that I would be welcome to stay whenever I liked just so long as the place was not being used by others. I took to cooking up cauldrons of soup on Sundays, freezing it into blocks, so that I could transport myself, my food, my papers, my books and my pyjamas by bus each Tuesday.
I had been hunkering into this rhythm for a couple of years when Sister Sarah came to the attic and told me she was returning to Ireland. She had been sent to Australia when she was still in her teens and now she wanted to re-enter the convent near where her family lived. Shortly before she left we spent the day making an inventory of all the sheets and coat-hangers and towels and teapots; lists and lists of every single item. She stood at the window when I left that evening.
That image haunted me. It haunted me more when I heard that she hadn’t been taken in at the convent in her home village.
And so a year or more later, I journeyed to Ireland. It was a fiendishly cold and icy winter and not many planes were landing. My arrangement with Sister Sarah was that I would catch a train to her village – about halfway between Dublin and Cork. She was waiting, small, birdlike and alone on the platform. Her brother sat in the car. It was early afternoon; I had planned for an hour or two and had made sure I would not impose on any mealtimes.
It was after their mealtime, but they had put some aside for me. They sat and watched as I ate – Sister Sarah, her brother and sister-in-law and some great nephews and nieces: chicken and vegetables and a big pile of mashed potato and pudding, which I tried to do justice to on top of the lunch I had already eaten. They’d made up a bed for me, too, thinking I might be staying.
It began to snow. Sister Sarah wanted to show me the neighbourhood. I got into the back of the car and her brother drove. Snowflakes splatted heavily onto the windscreen. The wipers screeched and struggled. Sister Sarah wanted us to start from the house where she’d grown up and follow the route they’d taken to school, so that she could point out where they had crawled under the hedge or crossed a brook or taken blackberries. We skidded at a walking-to-school pace. She showed me the home of her grandparents and the homes of each of her many siblings, mostly deceased, and the homes of the siblings’ children. The car came to a standstill when the windscreen wipers gave up the ghost, and we scuttled back to the brother’s house. A peat fire had been lit and we drank strong tea. Then they took me back to the station.
It was pitch dark on the platform and far too cold for Sister Sarah to see me off. The train was on time. But in Dublin the roads had become so ice-impacted, so deep in snow all public transport had been cancelled. It took me two hours of slithering and clutching at railings to reach the place I was staying. I’m glad it took so long, was so memorable.