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Muriel Spark

Last Things - The Nuns of Terminus

'I hope you are both keeping an extremely careful eye on the weather,' says Sister Felicity, who is small and fat, with a shrewd mouth, 'It is perhaps the commonest way available of procuring our downfall.'

'I can't think of any reason why it should be,' says Sister Mercy, who is famous for being stupid, and for getting the weaker lines of dialogue, and who will die, in distressing circumstances, rather closer to the beginning of this story than any of the others.

'Felicity is right, of course,' says Sister Georgina, still one of the novices, but taken up by Sister Felicity for her cunning: she is reputed to have worked for the Political Intelligence Department of a certain Foreign Office during the war, 'It is a question of sustaining an adequate level of probability. Even a simple change of barometric pressure can lead with unbroken logic to a chill, and a chill to bronchial pneumonia, which in turn can have fatal consequences without disturbing at all what people are pleased to think of as the normal order of things.'

'That is why Sister Georgina urged you to put on your thickest shoes,' says Sister Felicity, walking on with her quite long stride.

The three nuns, black like crows in the habit of their order, walk, on the grass, under the trees, up and down, round and round, in the private and unseen grounds of this rigorous convent, notable for its chastity, in an unnamed northern country. It is, for the moment, a nice day. The sun is shining in an apparently pleasant way on the grass, on the leaves of the trees, and the barometric pressure, while subject to sudden fluctuation in these parts, is recorded as steady and fair in the newspapers that will, on the following day, have so much to report, in long black columns of type, about these lawns, these trees, this famous and rigorous convent. Inside the cold stone buildings, just visible over the wall, the other nuns are even now performing the appropriate observances. The Prioress, in her white habit, is looking at her watch and noting, so that she will be able to report tomorrow, when it all comes out, the extent of Felicity's absence. But, at this moment, she is not alarmed. Felicity'S absences are famous. She has been at this convent longer than any other nun, and her shrewd tongue and her authoritative manners have won her exceptional privileges, privileges now as ritualized, in their way, as the Vespers and the Complines, the duties and observances, that the reporters will record for their columns, the television crews film for their audiences, in the weeks of publicity that are to follow.

'The real torment,' says Sister Georgina, drawing Mercy away from a large puddle which has appeared before them in the path, 'is to know that there is a hand at work, yet not to know where and when it will choose to reveal itself.'

'I don't think I want anything more to do with this plot,' says Sister Mercy suddenly, putting her hands to her face, and bursting into tears. 'I'm not even sure there is a plot,' she cries, looking at the other two.

Sister Felicity stops abruptly, and looks at Mercy, appraising her with her judging brow. 'I'm sorry, my dear,' she says. 'I am afraid you have very little choice. It is the way of things to be necessary, when we wish them to be contingent. But this you know, from your faith. There is little any of us can do about it, except take every intelligent precaution. That is why Sister Georgina has brought a sunshade, as I, you see, have brought my umbrella. Of course,' she adds, 'the best thing of all is just not to be her type.'

A small white cloud appears in the blue sky above the trees in the convent garden.

'I think Felicity should notice this cloud,' says Georgina.

'I have already noticed it, my dear,' says Felicity, walking round and round, up and down.

'If one were to leave and go somewhere else under another name,' says Mercy.

'I very much doubt if that would work, except in the most exceptional circumstances,' says Felicity.

'But what circumstances?' cries Mercy.

'If, perhaps, one were being saved for something,' says Felicity, 'You must understand, Mercy, I have been in a novel before. I know what it's like. It is extremely uncomfortable, unless one manages to stay entirely peripheral to the main line of the action, and not to draw attention to oneself in any way. I have always thought,' she adds, drawing Sister Georgina from the vicinity of a large overhanging branch on an old tree, 'that the best way is to be a member of the servant classes, or to be asleep in another room most of the time.'

'It has been done,' says Sister Georgina, 'There have been some who have escaped. One was called Golly Mackintosh, who conducted herself with very sensible restraint, I thought, in remaining out of Italy entirely over the period when that English film-actress had such a bad time.'

'Which actress was that?' asks Mercy.

'Felicity will know her name,' says Georgina, 'She is stupendously well-read.'

'Annabel Christopher,' says Sister Felicity, 'There was also a sickly looking man in a plane and a hotel who was wise enough to confine himself to the minimum of conversation with Lise.' 'Who is Lise?" asks Sister Mercy.

'She is in another by the same hand,' says Sister Georgina, 'A woman of great linguistic abilities, but I'm afraid the effect of that sort of cleverness is only to get oneself noticed.'

'I think it would be unwise to say much in front of Mercy about what happened to Lise,' says Felicity, 'I fear they are much of a type. Am I mistaken, or is that cloud growing darker? I'm sure we'd be wise to return as quickly as we can to our offices.'

Under the trees, at the very end of the garden, the three nuns turn. 'I wish we could get ourselves into the hands of Mr Fowles,' says Sister Mercy, as they walk back in their dark habits, 'He's much kinder, and allows his people an extraordinary freedom of choice.'

'We understand your feelings,' says Sister Georgina, 'but it's a very secular judgment. In any case, you'd find with him that what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, if you understand me.'

'I think not,' says Mercy.

'One would almost certainly find oneself being rogered by one of his libidinous heroes,' says Felicity, 'At least our context here is not particularly Freudian.'

'It could be interesting,' says Mercy.

'I have never myself taken any pleasure in the sex part,' says Georgina, 'It is all right at the time, but not 'afterwards.' 'I think I could put up with it,' says Mercy, 'I expect one could enjoy it a great deal, if one was prepared to become famous at it.'

There is a sudden burst of lightning from the darkening cloud above the trees, causing Mercy to fall inert to the ground. The other two nuns, in their black habits, kneel beside her. In a moment they rise, their faces solemn. 'It was lucky she murmured something sensitive just before she passed on,' says Georgina, looking down on the recumbent body, which before the night will lie in the chapel of the convent, the composed and stupid face staring sightlessly up at the nuns who file by and, later, at the police inspector who finally orders the autopsy.

'I am afraid we were not paying sufficient attention,' says Felicity, 'We had dropped our guard.'

Georgina breathes hard, as if fighting off inevitable tears. 'It is not very kind of Miss Spark,' She says, 'And it is hardly as if Mercy were a full protagonist.'

'Come,' says Felicity, 'I think we should sit over there by the wall and be quiet for a while. If there were no dialogue, there could be nothing to incense her.'

The two nuns, in their black habits, walk to a corner of the garden that is treeless and, putting down the sunshade, putting down the umbrella, they seat themselves, backs against the wall, at a place that, in tomorrow's papers, will be marked with a stark X. They look across the bright trimmed green of the turf, beyond the crumpled black corpse, to the columns of trees, the once again blue sky. In the blue of the sky appears a white plume rather like a feather, the trail of an aeroplane that carries many travellers from homes to meetings, from holidays to homes, travellers who will read with surprise in their next day's journals of the events that unfolded, apparently without connection, below them.

'Even she could hardly want to push coincidence too far,' says Georgina, inspecting the plane with some anxiety. 'Surely her critics would begin to talk.'

Felicity, too, looks at the plane. 'I think you may be right to see a hand,' she says. 'And I am afraid the critics themselves are not entirely innocent in these matters.'

'I had not known there could be others,' says Georgina.

'You have not heard of a Professor Kermode?'

'I had not thought of him in this connection,' says Sister Georgina, 'I thought he was usually in America.'

'The Atlantic may be a substantial stretch of water, Georgina,' says Felicity, 'but it is not an outright barrier to intellectual intercourse. I think we should go in.'

But Sister Georgina is still looking at the plane, with its many travellers, and glimpsing, with a growing horror, the silvery piece of metal, a part of a wing perhaps, a piece of a wheel, that has detached itself from it and, twirling, changing in shape but not in direction, angles down through the air towards the treeless corner of the garden. She rises and runs, her gaze fixed in the air. The aeroplane part whistles in its descent and falls harmlessly into an adjoining field. Felicity rises, in her black habit, and runs to Georgina who, looking upward, has stumbled over a crocquet hoop, inadvertently left in the grass, and fallen to the ground. 'You were lucky; Georgina,' she says, 'You might well have been dead.' But a closer inspection reveals the truth; the fall has clearly been a heavy one, for Georgina, in fact, is.

For a moment Sister Felicity stands there, in her dark habit.

She looks at the two crumpled bodies that lie in the grass, in spots which, tomorrow, will be staked around, and examined intently by many policemen. Then, in a sudden movement, she disappears behind an adjacent bush. 'She's caught me,' she shouts, in seven languages. There is a sound as of cloth ripping: a white coif flies above the bush and falls some distance away on the grass. A short while after a figure appears from behind the bush, in familiar street clothes, a dress of slightly more than miniskirt length. The shoes are perhaps heavy, and the blackness of the material of the dress duller than would suit most people's tastes. The figure rapidly crosses the grass of the convent garden, walking not towards the buildings but away from them, towards the high wall that shuts out the diurnal world beyond. And now the figure reaches this high stone wall, climbing it with agility and some speed. It gives a last glance to the garden that will be in so many newspapers, and then disappears from sight.

Later Felicity will do many things. She will fly to Africa, to Canada, to South America. She will hunt tiger in India, and take a small canoe down the Amazon river, through disease-infested waters and snake-inhabited swamps. She will climb precipitous mountains in the Tyrol, where sheer drops overlook green and church-filled valleys far below. She will die, in New York City, in the year 2024, at the age of ninety-eight, of benign old age. She will lie in bed at the last, and look up, and say: 'What did you want of me? What have you been waiting for all this time?' But I don't feel that it's my business to go around answering questions like that.

Malcolm Bradbury




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