Tales from St Hilda's - part 1

By Diana the Valkyrie

Sister Diana becomes Precentor

The sound of the bells woke me again. Matins. Time to get up. 3am, rise and shine, face the world with a smile. Matins means "morning", I guess that someone somewhere thinks that 3am is morning. It seemed like only a few minutes ago I'd been at compline, and here it was, matins already. Bless the blessed bells, and bless the blessed bellringers, too. And bless the blessed bellfoundry where the bells were born. But lying in bed and blessing wasn't going to make any difference, so I dragged myself up, dragged on a training habit that wasn't looking a bit too habitual, and blessed myself down to the chapel to pray and lift, lift and pray.

The other sisters didn't look any better than I did. I really don't think that six hours sleep is enough, and you really don't want to hear my views on the subject of rising at 3am in the morning. Oh, I know the theory, time spent asleep is time that could be spent lifting and praying, but I can't help feeling that my prayers would have more, well, more quality on a good night's sleep. I grabbed a pair of dumbbells, and took up my position between Sister Amanda and Sister Nora, and on the count of three, we started on a non-psalmodic plainchant, "Adorate Deum". I heaved the two hundred pound weights forward and back, while trying to stay in tune (not my forte, so I stay piano) and in beat. Just as well the others were there to drown out my efforts. At least Sister Nora was grunting at the right places as she squatted. I assume those noises were grunts.

After the two hour matins workout, we got to shower, which is by *far* the worst part of the day. If you like showers, try it with icy cold water and home-made soap. I think they make it out of sour milk and sawdust - the sawdust adds body to it. Then off to breakfast, thank heaven! I was so hungry, I ate without speaking for ten minutes, and the other sisters the same. Eventually, the edge of hunger wore off, and Nora asked me what rota I was on today. I wrinkled my nose. "I'm bringing the blessed comfort of the blessed word to the blessed heathen" I told her. "Oh, blessed pub duty again Di?". I nodded. "What about you, Nor?" Nora grinned. "Preaching to the blessed sinners". Lucky Nora. At least she didn't have to skulk around in smoky grubby pubs looking for sinners to armwrestle, on preach duty the sinners came to you. "How about you, Mandy?" "Blessed refectory again" she said, and made a face. No-one likes doing refectory duty. Endless mountains of potatoes to peel and fish to fry, cutlery to clean and supplements to supply. "Want to trade, Di?" I thought about it, but not for long. Even blessed pub work isn't as bad as refectory. "No thanks."

Before I'd really finished eating, the blessed bells went again. "Lauds", said Nora, brightly. I tried to think nice thoughts about the bells as we trailed back to the chapel, and got into position. I was doing arms again today, so I got on the bench; Nora was doing more squats. Sister Harriet was leading the prayers today, and she always went just a bit too fast. I know I was struggling to keep up. By the end of the hour, my arms were burning; my belly wasn't feeling too great either, and wanted to know why it wasn't being given a chance to properly digest breakfast. Then, without a break, we went from Lauds to Prime, Sister Jonquil took over from Harriet and launched into "Cum Jubilo", which you'd think would sound joyful, but which sounded to me like a funereal dirge. Oh well, at least it wasn't as brisk as before, and I could switch to heavier iron to build more muscle.

After Prime, we had a break, but there's no rest for the wicked, and I must have been especially wicked in some previous life. Because Sister Cynthia (I always thought that was an unfortunate choice of name, everyone calls her "Sin") came up to me and said with a smirk, "The Mother Superior would like to see you."

Oh no! I tried to think what I might have done wrong. Talking when I shouldn't have? Maybe she wanted me to sing a bit more quietly? Oh well, speculating isn't going to make it any easier, so I rushed back to my cell to exchange the training habit for something more formal and suitable for an interview with the Mater, hurried off to her office, knocked and waited. "Come" she said. So I came.

She was sitting at her desk, and she looked up. "Sit" she said. So I sat. She stared at me. "Do you know why you're here?" I gulped, thinking about the extra helping of bread I'd had last night. It had to be that. I knew I shouldn't have, but it was very fresh bread, smelled heavenly, and very tasty. With butter. Lots of butter. Too much butter, if truth be told. But you have to eat to put on muscle. "Was it the butter?" I asked. Mother Mary Rose frowned. "Diana, stop being flippant and answer the question. Why are we here?" Ah. Metaphysics. I tried not to look relieved, and said "To serve God". Now ask me a tough one, I thought. "Yes yes," she said, irritated, "but to serve God how?" "To ease the burden of our fellow man" I replied. Hey, this was easy, you did this stuff in Noviciate. Mother Mary Rose closed her eyes for a moment, then stood up. "Diana, I don't want you to repeat the Novice Catechism. What are we trying to do here?"

OK, I guess she isn't looking for me to just repeat the dogma. "St Hilda founded this order in 582 AD because she realised that men need the guidance of women to come to God. And because men think that Might makes Right, we make ourselves strong with nutrition, prayer and weightlifting, so that they will follow our guidance, and if they don't, we beat the tar out of them. It's for their own good." Mother Mary Rose nodded. "What's your experience in pub work, Diana?" Well, that was a very easy one. "They take no notice of me whatsoever until I roll up my sleeve and show them what a 24 inch arm looks like. And even then they don't take much notice until I crush a few of them at arm-wrestling. But then they listen."

Mother Mary Rose smiled. "So St Hilda was right?" "Most definitely. You can hit them with faith or discourse, belief or logic until you're blue in the face and it just bounces off, but once you've slammed a few arms to the table, and punched a few fists into a few bellies and watched them fall to the ground writhing in agony, you start to get converts." "I've heard you're rather good at that." I grinned. Maybe this wasn't about the extra bread I'd scoffed. Maybe she didn't even know about it. "Well, the convent has a problem, and I'm hoping that you are going to help me solve it. And for the sake of all twenty seven of the Sisters of St Hilda, I hope you succeed."

This sounded serious, so I put on my serious face. "What's the problem, Mother Superior?"

"Fifteen hundred years ago, life was simpler. We kept cows; we got milk, butter and cheese. We kept sheep, we got wool and mutton. We gathered the herbs to make our secret 17-herb supplement, and we used large stones for weights in the chapel. And when one of the Sisters walked into the local alehouse, she got instant silence and a keen audience, and any heretic dissenter got the devil crushed out of him between the massive thighs of a St Hilda's Sister." She paused. "We can't live like that now. You have to pasteurise milk or it's illegal to drink it, you can't make cheese without a licence, and the foot-and-mouth got all the sheep." That was sad. I liked sheep. Especially roasted. "The simple fact is, we can't run the nunnery without money, and lots of it. I could mortgage the convent and raise some cash that way, but no-one will lend on a convent, because what would they do if we defaulted on the loan, throw us out?" She pulled her sleeve up a few inches, so I could see her rather massive forearm. "Throw *us* out?" she asked, rhetorically.

"So how do we earn enough to run the convent?" I asked. Mother Mary Rose lay her hands flat on the table. "Diana, I don't know. But you've spent the most time out there in the world of Men, I was hoping you'd come up with some ideas." I checked inside my head, but there was nothing there. Play for time, play for time. "How much do we need?". Mother Mary Rose opened a filing cabinet and pulled out a tome that made the Doomsday Book look like a paperback. "Accounts" she said. "Come see."

I peered over her shoulder, and tried to understand what was there. It wasn't helped by the fact that everything was in Roman Numerals, and there were no totals; I commented on that. "It's the way it's always been done", she said. Well, I suppose in DLXXXII they still thought that adding up was rocket science, and if you try to subtract using Roman Numerals you'll see why they did. "Do we have a bank statement?" I asked. "Bank statement?" said Mother Mary Rose. Oh yes. Bank statements hadn't been invented in 582 AD. "Mother Superior, I think I'm going to need some time to study this problem". "Sure, take all the time you need - come back to me just after Vespers and let me know what you're planning." Vespers, that's only about six candles from now. I did the little submissive curtsey, picked up the Accounts book, and started to lug about forty pounds of parchement and vellum back to my cell. "Oh, and Sister Diana?" "Yes?" "If you need more bread, just ask the refectory."

Sisters Nora and Mandy were sitting embroidering a tract in my cell when I heaved the Accounts book in and looked around for somewhere to put it. The only place, of course, was my bed, on account of that's the only piece of furniture that you have in your cell, and that was already bowed under the weight of two very muscular nuns weighing about three hundred pounds apiece, especially Nora who was more like 320 and ripped, so I stood there and waited until they stood up. I plonked it down on the bed, opened it up, and we all knelt on the floor in the Standard Praying Position and tried to read it. "It's gibberish", said Mandy. Nora nodded. Neither of them are noted for being heavyweights in the brains department, but I can't help feeling that even Einstein would have had trouble workiing out the Theory of Relativity if he'd had to use Roman Numerals. What I wanted, was to know what our monthly spending was, and this Accounts book had the data, but not the information.

"Mandy, whizz down to the Scriptorium and fetch me a quill and ink. Nora, see if you can talk the Refectory out of a long table and a couple of benches." Meanwhile, I stared at the columns of MDCXLVIs as if they might make sense. Which, of course, they didn't. When Nora came back, she had one of the eight foot tables in her hands; those things weigh at least three hundred pounds, and although I knew that Nora could easily manage twice that in iron, on account of last time I measured her bicep it was a tidge over 26 inches, but carrying an ungainly table isn't easy, especially if you aren't wearing a training habit. She put it down, and went to get the benches. Mandy came back laden with quills, ink and parchment, showing some initiative, I thought. When Nora got back with a bench under each arm, I got her to read out from the Accounts book, and Mandy wrote the items down, but using Arabic numerals. I started practising for my new role in management by lying on my bed with my eyes closed, thinking.

I was woken by the bells for None. Mandy and Nora looked like they wanted to go pray; None is voluntary of course. Voluntary as in "take the names of absentees" kind of voluntary. Woe betide any nun who isn't there, unless she has a blessed good reason.

I nodded to them and they scuttled off, but I had other fish to fry.

I looked at Mandy's figures, and got out my abacus. I'm pretty nifty on the old wire-and-beads if I do say so myself, and within an hour or so I had the figure I wanted. I wrote it down on a large piece of parchment, and stared at it. We were spending about eight thousand pounds per month, against an income that was as close to zero as you could get, allowing for the fact that there is no such thing as zero in Roman Numerals. The only thing that remotely resembled income, was a few chunky figures on the plus side that came from selling the silverware. I had wondered where the old thurible had gone, and why the new one was Tupperware; now I knew. And, thinking about it, the plastic cutlery in the refectory was fairly new, too. And there used to be a bunch of paintings in the vestibule which had recently been replaced with nun-embroidered quotations from the Bible. Hmmm. Well, at least now I knew the size of the problem. So I lay down again, and did some more thinking.

I was woken again by the Bells, the Bells, the Blessed Bells. Honestly, if you live here for a few years, you start feeling like a blessed fire horse. Although I doubt if I could eat a whole one. So I chucked off my formal habit, pulled on my training gear, and glided down to the chapel (nuns don't run, don't even walk, we glide, you have to practice, it's covered in year two of the Novitiate). I got there just in time, and stood next to Sister Nora (and wondered for the umpteenth time how with biceps like those she managed to use a toothbrush) and started pumping out reps to the beat of "Christus Factus Est Pro Nobis", one of my top faves. After we'd finished the worship session, Nora and Mandy were all over me. "Well?" I smiled mysteriously, and said "Welp, gotta go see the Mater, talk to you two later" and rushed back to my cell. Off with the chapel gear, on with the good rags, and knock knock on the Mother Superior's door. "Come". I glided in.

"Ah, Diana. Well, did the Good Lord give you guidance?" Oops. Eeek. At some point in all this, I should have prayed for inspiration; I was too busy with perspiration to think of it. On the other hand, He Works in Mysterious Ways His Wonders to Perform, and He must have given me guidance, because here I was with an absolute killer-diller of a plan.

"Mother Superior, based on the figures in the Book of Accounts, we need about eight thousand pounds per month to keep twenty seven nuns in food, supplements and good habits." "And what is your plan for acquiring this income?" she inquired. "Dotcom", I said. Mother Mary Rose looked blank. "The internet". Mother Mary Rose looked blanker. "Uh ...". Oops. We don't have internet in the convent. We don't have TV in the convent. Bless me, we don't even have telephones. Mother Mary Rose still thinks that printed books are a pretty neat idea, but not as good as manuscript. So I started to explain to the Mater about the internet, which led me into explaining about computers, and how they talk to each other "Computers talk?" "Well, er, not exactly talk, but you type and you see pictures and, er, ... "

Mother Mary Rose had the expression of one who is perfectly secure in her faith that she didn't and never would understand any of this stuff, and nor did she want to. So I changed tactics. "It's like bringing the Word to the Heathen, but instead of me talking to a dozen scruffy men in a pub, we talk to hundreds of millions of people all round the world, it's like the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, but it's just using Modern Technology." The Mater got to the core question immediately. "OK, that brings St Hilda's to the people, but how do we make #8000 per month?"

The trouble was, I was a bit vague on that part. I mean, how do dotcoms make money? It seemed to me that all was had to do was create st-hilda.com and cash would start to roll in at once. But I have to admit, I was a bit uncertain of the exact mechanism by which that happened. Still, that's what Faith is for, isn't it? And Hope? Not to mention Charity? So I told Mother Mary Rose the truth. "I haven't actually worked out all the minor details yet; remember I've only just now started on this. But remember, God helps those who help themselves, and I'll find a way."

And that was how I found myself appointed Precentor for St-hilda.com