Sister Flora’s First Day of Freedom 1
They did their best to be generous to Sister Flora when she left the convent, but the dresses they gave her left something to be desired. A great deal, in fact, according to some.
“Well!” muttered one of the laywomen who helped with the vegetable garden. “Did you see the outfits they gave her? You wouldn’t think it was 1961—more like 1931!”
She was right about the dresses, of which there were two. Both had been donated to the convent by the women’s guild at the local church, and both were irretrievably dull. One was made of beige bombazine, the other of a rough wool fabric of the sort that a rural schoolmistress might have worn decades earlier. Both had been retrieved from somebody’s wardrobe, both had a faint odour of camphor, although neither appeared to have suffered any moth damage.
They also gave her an unbecoming grey cardigan, a plain, full-length coat, and a pair of shoes that was slightly too small. The shoes, at least, were new, although they, too, were far from fashionable. Then there was a small suitcase, a sponge bag of toiletries, and an envelope containing fifteen pounds.
“We might have entertained the possibility of giving you a slightly larger sum,” said the Mother Superior, “but since you are going to be living with your aunt you will have no rent to pay, and I imagine your aunt, being the pious woman she is, will provide necessities.”
Flora smiled. “I don’t really deserve anything,” she said. “I brought nothing with me when I came ten years ago, and I don’t think I should leave with anything.”
“That’s a very good attitude,” the Mother Superior continued. “Mind you, I gather that money is not going to be a problem. This sum is purely to tide you over until such time as your . . . your arrangements are in place.”
“I have been most fortunate,” she said. “I am not intending to forget that, Mother.”
“No,” said the Mother Superior. “I don’t imagine you will. You always had a very good disposition, you know. I’m sorry that one or two people have been passing . . . well, what can only be described as uncharitable remarks.” She looked away, her lips pursed in disapproval. “I heard somebody say they thought that money had interfered with God’s plan for you.”
“I don’t think that’s entirely fair,” said Flora.
“Neither do I,” said the Mother Superior. “And indeed I imagine there are circumstances that suggest that God’s plan for certain people is that they should
have money. After all, if nobody had any money, then who would give to the Holy Church?”
“Precisely,” said Flora.
The Mother Superior looked out of the window. “I was very reassured to hear that you hadn’t lost your faith. That was a great comfort to me, you know.”
“I haven’t lost it,” said Flora. “It’s just that . . . oh, I suppose it’s just that I decided that I’m not cut out for the religious life. I’ve enjoyed it well enough, but I feel that somehow life is passing me by.”
“Quite understandable, my child,” said the Mother Superior.
“And I thought that I really had to make a decision one way or the other. So I decided that I would go out into the world. It just seemed the right thing for me to do.”
“We all understand,” said the Mother Superior. “I under-stand; poor Sister Frances understands—just; and Father Sullivan understands. You’ll be happy doing God’s work in the wider world—whatever that happens to be.”
“I hope so.”
“And, of course,” continued the Mother Superior, “you will be a wealthy woman.”
Sister Flora lowered her eyes. “I didn’t reach the decision because of that,” she said. “I had already decided.”
“Oh, I know that,” said the Mother Superior. “I wasn’t for a moment suggesting post hoc, propter hoc
. But being wealthy will be . . . well, rather nice
, don’t you think?”
It was difficult for her to remember when it dawned on her that she had a vocation. Some people spoke of a moment of revelation—a moment of certainty—the meaning of which was completely clear. One of the younger sisters had said that it had come to her one morning when she got out of bed and opened the window. “There was a particular sort of light,” she said. “It filled the sky, and I knew at once that I was being called.” Another said that it had come to her in a dream, when she had seen the Virgin herself, who had beckoned her. That, she said, was a sign that would only come once in a lifetime and should not be taken lightly, nor questioned.
It had been different for Flora. She had never had a sense of controlling her own future, of making decisions about what she would do—this, it seemed to her, had been done for her by others. It was not that anybody imposed their will on her; it was more gentle than that. There were suggestions that she had been thinking of a religious life all along; that it was something for which she had somehow shown an aptitude. And then, just as she was about to leave school, there had been that fateful conversation with Sister Angela, a particularly sympathetic nun, who had said, “There will always be a place for you in the Order, you know.” And she had been flattered that she should be thought of in this way.
At university she had become involved in the Catholic chaplaincy, and again assumptions were made. “It’s easy for you,” one of her friends had said. “You’re obviously going to end up in the Church. You don’t have to look for something.”
Flora had simply said, “No, I suppose I don’t.” And that, she thought, was the moment at which the decision—if one could call it that—was made. She finished her degree, and took a year’s teaching diploma after that before entering the convent as a novice. They were delighted that she had joined them; they ran a school and there was a shortage of nuns with recent, recognised teaching qualifications. A newly minted graduate of the University of Glasgow—in mathematics, of all things—was exactly the sort of young woman the convent wanted.
Her parents were proud of her. They were now elderly, and she was their only child. Any thoughts they had about losing the daughter who might care for them in their old age were eclipsed by their pleasure in having provided the Church, which was at the core of their lives, with such a charming servant.
Her father died a month after she took her final vows, and her mother survived him by barely a year. Thereafter her only family was her aunt and uncle, a childless couple, who lived in a small town on the Clyde estuary. This uncle had been a successful hotelier and caterer, who had made wise investments in land on the outskirts of the city. Flora was aware that he was well off, but it had never occurred to her that he would direct that a large part of his estate was to go to her. She had met the lawyer at his funeral, a thin man with a nasal voice, who had been introduced to her by her aunt at the funeral tea.
“I was always a great admirer of your uncle,” said the lawyer. “His good works were legion, you know.”
She smiled. “He will be missed,” she said.
The lawyer adjusted his tie. “I will need to speak to you at some point,” he said. “Not here, of course—this isn’t really the moment. But you are, you may know, his heir.”
She looked at him blankly. “But my aunt?”
“She is very well provided for already,” said the lawyer. “You’re what we call the residuary beneficiary, and that will involve a substantial amount. A very substantial amount.”
Copyright © 2016 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.