by David Ewen
It rose from the ground and shimmied upwards,
propelled by a lungful of energy, its lazy tail strung out behind. At the top of the fast
hard climb it suddenly stalled and peeled off into a dive, swinging upwards again in an
attenuated arc. Twenty, thirty times it swooped before becoming scrappy in its movements.
Eighty feet below Father Irvine felt the rope tighten
about his hands. His wheelchair rocked against its brake, tilting sideways, before the
rope slipped from his grasp, burning his flesh as it did so.
From behind the garden wall Sister Arlyn saw the crazy
scything in the sky. She dropped her secateurs and ran towards the gate. Father Irvine was
still in his wheelchair when she arrived, his head bowed towards his abraded palms. He
turned towards the young nun panting at his side. 'Looks like I'm going to need a new
kite,' he said with a smile.
Dinner was always served at 7 p.m. The fourteen nuns were all meat-eaters which made
cooking much easier. Tonight they were having beef stew and dumplings. Sister Lindsey, the
Mother Superior, spooned two dollops onto each plate and passed it along the table. The
conversation was terse and functional and overshadowed by the chunky rain slapping against
the convent window. Suddenly there was a new, frightening sound in the hall: a knife
dancing on the floor at the feet of Father Irvine.
'Are your hands still sore?' said Sister Lindsey,
'No, I'm just a little tired,' said Father Irvine.
'A fresh knife, Sister Arlyn.'
The young nun rose from her seat and fetched the piece
of cutlery, laying it before Father Irvine whom she was seated next to. The rest of the
nuns resumed eating.
'Will you still be fit to go into town next Thursday?'
said Sister Lindsey.
'I've told you - I don't want to see any more
doctors,' said the elderly monk.
'I thought you might like to vote.'
'For your parliament,' she said wearily.
'Did you know that the parliament building was
designed by a Spaniard?' said Father Irvine, picking up his knife with a bandaged hand.
'It's based on an upturned boat. An upturned boat...' He shook his head and pushed a
dumpling onto his fork.
'Perhaps it's a symbol of a fearless, hard-working
nation,' said Sister Lindsey.
'Or one cut adrift and due to sink.'
One of the younger nuns laughed and immediately
regretted it. The Mother Superior stared at her for a second before turning back towards
Father Irvine. 'Scotland would be better off on its own,' she said.
'So would Grampian,' said the monk. 'We produce one
quarter of the country's food, most of its fish, we have reasonable claim to its oil.'
Sister Lindsey was unsure how to reply. She was about
to say something when Father Irvine started coughing violently. 'Quickly!' she shouted at
Sister Arlyn, 'we need to get him to his room.
Father Irvine lay on the bed, curled upon himself like
a baby bird. His body was pallid and degraded except for the bulbous nose which hung like
a drip from his face. Sometimes Sister Arlyn imagined he was melting, draining away like a
snowman. She would laugh at the thought until she remembered he was dying from lung
'Do you want some water?' she said when he finally
stirred. The monk looked at her questioningly. You collapsed. It's two in the
morning.' Father Irvine coughed again, gently this time, stifling the sound with his hand.
As he took it away he noticed two neat globules of blood on the bandage, joined by a
string of pinkish saliva. He closed his eyes again and lent back against his pillow.
'Help me, please . .
Father Irvine stared up at Jesus. The two men either
side of him were dead, their mouths and eyes packed with the fine red dust which reeled
around the crosses like phantom dancers. In the distance he could hear jackdaws, cawing in
the hills high above Calvary, impatient for the dawn.
'Help me, please,' said Jesus.
By morning the rain had stopped. Snow lay like
mildew across the mountains. There were few jagged peaks, few ostensible dangers, but
looking towards the sprawling,
cliff-bitten tundra, Sister Lindsey could appreciate
the scale of the Cairngorms; the ease of getting lost in mist, the difficulty of escape.
She turned away from the window and walked back towards her desk.
'We can't force him to go into hospital,' she said to
Sister Arlyn who stood before her, hands clasped reverentially.
'But that's where he belongs,' protested the young
'I agree but we have an obligation. Caring for the
sick is something we've always done. The Sisters have looked after men from his order for
hundreds of years.'
'He needs a nurse, a proper nurse.
'He knows that.'
Sister Arlyn became distressed, 'So why doesn't he ask
for one?' she said. 'Why doesn't he go into hospital?'
'Maybe he's in denial.' The Mother Superior sat down
at her desk. 'I watched my father die in the same way; watched him cough himself
inside-out. He kept working, kept joking, kept on as normal until the blood came. Then I
watched him turn into a child, just like me... ten years old... clinging to life like it
was some kind of favourite doll. It wasn't brave: it was a tantrum. He had nothing to hold
onto in death because he had nothing to hold onto in life, only politics, God bless him.'
She stood up and approached Sister Arlyn. 'Do you know why a newborn baby cries? Because
its first breath burns. For most people the last one's no easier. When my father started
whimpering, that's when I stopped. You've got to be strong Sister Arlyn. For Father
Father Irvine stood before Jesus, regarding his
fret then his hands, then his fret again.
'Please, help me,' said Jesus.
The monk took a step backwards and started to
undo the rope around his cassock, still staring at the crude iron pegs pinning Jesus to
the cross. He let the garment fall into the dust and remained where he was, quite naked.
'What are you doing?'
Father Irvine was jolted from his reverie and
found Sister Arlyn dragging his wheelchair backwards. You could have gone over the edge,'
she said desperately.
'I'm sorry, I must have fallen asleep.'
Why didn't you lock your wheels?'
'I thought I did. I couldn't have put the brake on
properly. It's quite stiff. It needs some oil.'
Sister Arlyn swung him around and headed back towards
the convent. You're lucky. I was just coming to get you for lunch.'
'What is for lunch?' he said calmly. Sister Arlyn was
still angry and didn't reply. 'It's apple-pie for dessert, isn't it?'
'Yes,' she conceded. 'With raspberries.'
'Will you help me build a new kite?' he said without
'I don't know anything about kites...'
'I'll tell you what to do. We just need materials -
some twine, some glue, some polythene.'
We don't have any polythene here.'
'We could even paint it.'
'I'd have to ask the Mother Superior.'
'She doesn't need to know.'
'She'll see you flying it.'
We could paint her face on it. She could watch
over us all.' Sister Arlyn suppressed a little smile.
At lunch a radio broadcast replaced the sound of the
weather. The newsreader described a serious car crash involving two German tourists. There
was some cheery news about plans to build a new sports stadium on the outskirts of
Aberdeen and then an election update. The Nationalists were said to be trailing Labour by
four points in the opinion polls.
You can switch it off now,' said Sister Lindsey to an
elderly nun. 'It looks like we'll need your vote, Father Irvine.'
'I meant what I said about independence for the
region,' he said. Why should we share our wealth with the Central Belt when the
Nationalists refuse to share Scotland's wealth with England?'
'Because we're all Scots, that's why.'
'I'm sorry but it means nothing to me. It's just a
line on a map.
'Have you got no sense of history?'
'Scotland has traditionally been at war with itself'
'Not since the days of St Columba. "That man is
little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or
whose piety would not grow warmer in the ruins of Iona." Dr Johnson's observation.'
'St Columba came from Ireland. He was a Gael, not a
'He was a Christian,' said Sister Lindsey
That evening Sister Arlyn approached the Mother
Superior about Father Irvine's desire to build a new kite. Sister Lindsey continued to
light candles in the chapel as the young nun spoke.
You mustn't encourage him,' said Sister Lindsey.
You saw his hands.'
'He said they're healing.'
'An infection could kill him.'
'He's dying as it is,' said Sister Arlyn with mild
'I've told you, we're all dying. That's no reason to
'It's only a kite.' Sister Lindsey stared at the young
nun, taken aback by her dissent. 'He said he wants to feel God's breath,' continued Sister
'And what does that mean?'
'I think he just wants to be outside.'
'He can go outside. But no kite.'
When Sister Arlyn told Father Irvine this, he seemed
distraught, inordinately so. She had waited a few days before doing so and chose a sunny
afternoon in the garden, hoping the pleasant weather would detract from his
disappointment. It didn't, yet he seemed reluctant to explain why.
'Do you think Jesus was a good carpenter?' he said.
'The Bible doesn't say much about his day job, does it?'
You sound disrespectful,' said Sister Arlyn.
'Do you think it would be it was a family business.
"Joseph and Son"?'
'It would be God and Son,' said Sister Arlyn, piqued
by the danger of the conversation.
'That's really living in the shadow of your father,
isn't it? God makes a man, Jesus makes a chair. Maybe that's why he started doing
miracles; to get his old man's respect.'
Sister Arlyn composed herself. 'It's not God's fault
you're ill,' she said.
Yes it is. He made us mortal.'
'And Jesus offers us immortality.'
'I don't feel let down. I feel like I've let Jesus
Father Irvine proceeded to describe a recurring dream.
He could offer no elucidation but admitted it left him feeling guilty. In his dream he
came upon Jesus after his crucifixion. Rather than rescuing him, he tied his cassock to
the cross and flew it like a kite, using his belt to control it.
'Jesus was terrified at first but then he started to
relax and enjoy himself' he said. 'He forgot about his fear and the pain in his hands and
feet' Father Irvine smiled but became solemn. 'And then the wind changed direction and he
got tangled up in a tree. Every time it happens and every time I feel so guilty, so
ashamed. Me, naked. Jesus, stuck up a tree
Sister Arlyn started chuckling.
You're right,' said Father Irvine. 'It's not
such a bad sin.' The rain had returned by Election Day but Sister Lindsey was as cheery as
she had ever been. She bullied the mini-bus along the narrow sodden mountain road, making
the nuns feel uneasy. 'So are you going to tell who you're going to vote for?' She looked
across at Father Irvine, seated next to her.
'Does it matter?' he said.
'Not as long as it's the Nationalists,' she said,
Father Irvine craned his head towards the back of the
bus. 'Is there anybody here not voting for the Nationalists?' Nobody raised their hand. He
faced the front. You should get a job as a whip,' he said. Sister Lindsey laughed again.
The polling station was a school in the centre of
town. After everybody had voted, Sister Lindsey called them together by the bus which was
parked outside. From beneath a vast golfing umbrella she told the group they had exactly
two hours to themselves in town.
Most of the nuns went shopping, others went swimming,
and some stayed on the bus to read. Father Irvine and Sister Arlyn found themselves in a
tearoom, sharing a pot of coffee and a hunk of carrot cake. They spoke about many things,
including Father Irvine's decision to become a monk.
'My dad was annoyed I didn't work in his garage,' he
said. 'He thought I was a "poof'. So did I for a while. I never felt attracted to men
but. . .I was suspicious of my calling for a long time. One day I was a young lad, smoking
fags, drinking my dad's beer, chasing girls. Next thing I was heading into a monastery to
settle down with God for the rest of my life. It felt right, but it didn't seem
right.' He poured some more coffee; it tasted so much better than the boiling water he'd
been forced to drink. 'Then I met Father Tom. He said there wasn't a day that went by that
he didn't think about having a family, but that made his commitment to God even stronger.
Feeling awkward was part of the deal.'
'And how did your dad react?' said Sister Arlyn.
'He said he felt awkward. Black-affronted. He
never really forgave me.
Father Irvine coughed and wiped a tiny trace of blood
from his lips. 'So why did you become a nun?'
'Julie Andrews. I saw The Sound of Music on
TV one Christmas. I must have been about seven or eight. I just decided then and there
that I wanted to be a nun, even when I found out you didn't spend all day walking about,
singing in fields.'
'I used to enjoy the chanting,' he said. 'I had a good
voice, even when I smoked sixty a day. It was quite rough. I was the Louis Armstrong of
When they returned to the bus, Sister Lindsey already
had the engine running. She never noticed the massive sheet of polythene hidden beneath
Father Irvine's cassock, or the saw and hammer he had bought from B&Q
Back at the convent Father Irvine set to work on his
kite. He explained to Sister Arlyn that they needed to bow the cross-beam with some rope
so the face would catch the wind. He told her about the aerodynamic principle that would
help the kite correct itself She had never flown on a plane, far less heard of a dihedral,
but could see the need for some sort of stabilisation. They also, she learned, needed some
kind of tail to anchor the kite in the sky.
They worked in his bedroom, out of sight of Sister
Lindsey who believed Sister Arlyn was reading to the old monk. Even though he was only
issuing instructions, Father Irvine found himself exhausted at the end of each day. One
balmy evening, when the hills glowed like cinders and thousands of rooks milled overhead
like insects, he was joined on the porch by the Mother Superior. For a few seconds she too
said nothing and followed his gaze, out across the unfurling green of the glen and beyond
to the Cairngorms which still wore their cornices like quiffs.
'Solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant,' he
'They make a desert and they call it peace,'
translated Sister Lindsey.
Father Irvine gestured towards the hills. 'This is
where Calgacus defied the Romans,' he said. 'Mons Graupius. The rest of Scotland
'Why are you so interested in the past but not the
'History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies,
the same defeats.'
'Johnson?' said Sister Lindsey, trying to place the
'Elvis Costello.' Father Irvine gave a liquidy cough.
'Were you disappointed by the turnout last Thursday?'
'Why vote for the right to vote and then not vote?'
'Because people are greedy.'
Sister Lindsey smiled respectfully. 'My father spent
his whole life campaigning for home-rule,' she said. 'He'd have been heart-broken. The
turnout was just half in some places.'
'Maybe patriotism's as much a myth as the Loch Ness
monster, just this big daft thing people want to believe in because they're too scared to
believe in themselves.'
'And do you believe in God, Father Irvine?'
'How can you be so sure he exists?'
'I've devoted my life to him,' said Sister Lindsey
'Your dad devoted his to independence.'
'I have faith, Father Irvine.'
'I have faith in the sun rising tomorrow, even though
I might not be here to see it. I have faith in those rooks being made from flesh and
feathers. It's easy to believe in fact. It's the little nugget of doubt that makes faith
what it is.'
'Is that what you tell Sister Arlyn?'
'Sometimes I want to tell her to leave here, find a
boyfriend, have a family.'
'Is that what you wished you'd done?'
'I really don't think people choose to have family.
When they're young they have all these ambitions. It could be working hard or not working
at all but at the end of the day it doesn't matter what they want from life, it's what
life wants from them, and that's more life, kids. At least we've made a genuine choice. We
'For what, though?' asked Sister Lindsey.
'For God.' Father Irvine looked again towards the
hills. 'For God,' he repeated quietly to himself.
By the end of May, Father Irvine's cancer had seized
control of his lungs - a spectacular coup. He sounded like a coffee percolator; his fetid
breath curdled in his throat, discharging with an ominous watery rasp. Sister Lindsey had
called the doctor. The young GP stood at the side of the bed.
You would be more comfortable in hospital,' he
'Sedated,' said Father Irvine weakly. 'I'd be more
sedated.' The doctor sighed and looked across at Sister Lindsey, clearly exasperated. She
could only shrug. His tone became impatient
'Believe me, you'll be grateful for the care you'll
get in hospital. And you will only get it in hospital.'
Father Irvine reached across to a bowl of fruit at the
bedside and tilted it upwards. 'Does anybody want a pomegranate?' he said.
You're behaving like a child,' said Sister
Lindsey, her cheeks flushing. Father Irvine let the bowl down suddenly. A pomegranate fell
to the floor and rolled across the room. Sister Lindsey turned to Sister Arlyn who was
standing behind her. You speak to him!' she commanded.
'I've got nothing to say,' said Sister Arlyn.
'I thought you were concerned for him?'
'Then talk to him!'
The doctor shook off his embarrassment. 'Excuse me for
saying this,' he said to Father Irvine, 'but you're still strong enough to hurt very
badly. You'll need morphine. God won't be able to save you from the pain.'
'I'd feel cheated if he did,' replied Father Irvine
facetiously. Sister Lindsey could take no more.
'I'm sorry doctor, we're wasting your time,' she said,
motioning towards the door. 'Give him his supper,' she said to Sister Arlyn, following the
doctor out of the room. The door shut behind them. Sister Arlyn picked up the pomegranate
and placed it back in the bowl.
'I was thinking,' said Father Irvine, 'maybe we should
have built a box-kite. They're a lot more complicated but they're brilliant things, like a
Chinese lantern but really efficient in the air. They don't even need a tail.'
'But we wouldn't have been able to hide it under the
bed,' said Sister Arlyn.
Yes, and I probably wouldn't have seen it completed.'
He let out a long, theatrical gasp. 'We'd better get the paint out.'
The following morning was the last of May. The silver birch trees around the convent
had already lost some of their vitality; the lime green leaves had grown dark and coarse.
On the high tops the snow had receded, making the vast flatbacked mountains look like
killer whales moving behind the mist.
Sister Arlyn pushed Father Irvine across the wet pink
gravel of the convent forecourt. The kite they had laboured to build rested on the
footbar, its sections screwed together. It wasn't until they had reached the cliff-top and
started to unravel the long heavy rope that Sister Lindsey spotted them. She pulled away
from the landing window and walked hurriedly down the stairs, accelerating towards the
The young nun released the kite eighty feet in front
of Father Irvine. Her hair was shorn; the plaid which had once hung down her back now
formed the tail. Father Irvine was naked. He grimaced as tried to control the kite. Blood
seeped through the bandages on his hands as the rope again tightened. Both Father Irvine
and Sister Arlyn were in a thrall to the shaking, twisting, refractory kite.
It was only ten feet above the ground when Sister
Lindsey drew near. The kite, she realised, was huge, at least eight feet wide and twelve
deep. By now Father Irvine was upright in his wheelchair, liberated by the force of the
wind. He must let go, she thought, he must, but the old monk held on doggedly. The kite
started to climb, surging upwards like a giant ray. It lifted Father Irvine clean out of
As Sister Lindsey reached him she instinctively
grabbed his legs, coiling her arms around his ankles. For a moment the kite's ascent was
halted, but it seemed only to pause for breath. The pair were five, ten feet above the
ground: too high to let go now. Father Irvine clung desperately to the rope and Sister
Lindsey to his legs as the kite rose skywards, the St Andrew's cross painted on its
polythene skin appearing brilliant in the sunlight
The kite continued out over the crag, high above the
tangle of heather and sedge grass, sweeping towards the clouds, towards the plump black
mountains, and as it did so Sister Arlyn clapped wildly, bringing blisters to her palms.