Times Change For Sister Joan – Episode 46

FOR the next few days Ben was conspicuous by his silence. There was none of the usual banter at the breakfast table, nor at any other mealtime. He ate his food quietly and – asking to be excused – left the table before the others, returning dressed in his disguise to go to the beach.

He practised without fail every afternoon and Joan noticed that he played and corrected a strange piece of music time and time again.

“What is that music?” Imelda asked. “I don’t recognise it.”

“We’ll ask him.” Joan smiled. “He spends so much time on it. I suppose it’s important to his work.”

“It is so lovely.” Jan sighed. “It makes me remember when I was a child, safe and loved.”

Joan felt that she knew. In the depth of the music was the heartache longing to be soothed.

“I think that it is his own composition – a piece for his exam. Later I shall ask him the name of it.”

“Jolly talented, isn’t he?” Imelda observed.

“That is what we are here to protect,” Joan said.

“I miss Emma,” Imelda said as she stirred her tea at their afternoon break. “Since she’s gone to France I find myself singing right out of tune without her at the jolly old harmonium. It will be nice for her to see Flora again, though.”

“Ben could play for us now.” Joan turned to him. “Would you do that, Ben? Starting with prayers this evening?”

Ben looked up from his cup.

“Of course, Sister – you should have asked me days ago when Emma left. I’ll play for you this evening – is the music there?”

“Yes, Ben, everything is just as Emma left it,” Joan replied.

“Jolly good,” Imelda said. “I won’t offend the good Lord with my disharmony any more.”

Ben put down his cup.

“Talking of harmony, that’s something which you are sadly lacking, if I may say so.”

Joan was surprised that he was so outspoken.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Singing in unison is fine but a bit of harmonising would touch the soul even more, don’t you think?” He reached for a scone.

Joan smiled.

“And would you be willing to be choirmaster?” she asked jokingly.

“Of course,” he replied. “You’ve all got good strong voices – you just need a bit of discipline, that’s all.” He glanced mischievously at Joan from under his lashes.

“Jolly good idea,” Imelda declared before Joan had a chance to say anything. “When do we begin? With your permission, of course, Mother.”

“This afternoon – no time like the present.” He grinned.

“We would be most grateful, Ben, if you would teach us,” Joan replied graciously. “By the way, as we’re talking about music, what is the name of the piece you’ve been practising so intently? It is rather lovely.”

Ben’s cheeks flushed slightly.

“It’s a composition of my own. It has no name; these pieces just have numbers.”

“Oh,” Madeline said, “just like the great composers. Symphonies number this and that. So what is the number for this one?”

“I’ve numbered it Four E,” Ben replied.

“It should have a name, I think. It’s much too pretty only to be a number,” Sister Amy said.

“Much too pretty,” Louise agreed. “Have you composed numbers one, two and three E?”

“Thank you, Sisters, that’s very kind of you,” Ben said. “And the answer to your question is yes, I do have the other numbers. They’re not as pretty as Four E, though.”

That afternoon the nuns gathered in the chapel in their usual places. Ben sat at the harmonium.

“I don’t know how Sister Emma copes with this old thing,” he declared, pumping furiously at the pedals. “Now, your first hymn. It’s a very simple, natural harmony. I’ve made you each a copy of the music so you’ll know which part is which.”

“Have you chosen who will sing what?” Imelda asked.

“Your names are at the top of the page. I’ve been hearing you sing every day so I know more or less what you can do.”

Just as Ben played the first chord the doorbell rang. Joan left her place.

“You carry on. I’ll deal with this and join you as soon as I can.”

It was Bill Murray who stood on the doorstep with his old flat cap clasped in his hand.

“I’d like a word with you, Sister, if I may. I’ve a good idea to share.”

Alison Cook