O PEACEABLE PORCUPINE, PURE IN SPIRIT
BY CHARLES WILKINSON


 
Anselm Tarpett took one glance at the gun-toting nun, hideous and gurning in her black leather habit, her toe almost over the threshold, and slammed the door in her face. Time enough to turn the key in the lock, slide the bolts into place and secure the chain. His adversary would have been told to take Veronica alive. To open fire at once would risk depriving the Order of the joys of interrogation, the sweetness of recantation under torture, the refinements of the purifying flames. He ran down the corridor and knocked on his god-daughter’s door. She must have heard the commotion, for she was ready, her suitcase in hand.

“We’ll have to hurry. With luck, they won’t have covered the back.”

He hurried her into his room and heaved open the sash window. She slithered out, being careful to keep her hands on the sill as she lowered her body down the back wall. Once she’d staggered to her feet he threw her bag after her. Then he followed, off balance from the start, but holding his hands and legs cat-like in front of him to break his fall. The glint of a cobbled pavement careering upwards; he tried to roll with the blow.

He must have lost consciousness for a second, for the next moment he was aware of Veronica levering him upright to lean him against the wheelie bin. He tottered, a savage pain in his knees, as if they’d been crow-barred. As he lifted his hands he saw they were both bloodied, striped white with grazes. A finger dangled at an odd angle.

“Are you all right, Anselm?”

“I don’t know. I shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing at the age of seventy-three.”

A burst of gunfire from above them. The nun, whose habit had born the insignia of a crack combat unit, must have decided to blast open the lock. Anselm looked in both directions. At least there were no signs of any other sisters, either spiritual or military. 

“Can you walk?”

“I’ll have to.” 

He locked his arm through hers. Hobbling and lurching along beside her, he willed himself to move faster. Nothing could be worse than capture by the armed division of the Sisters of Divine Mercy, apart from an interrogation conducted by Mother Superior Enormica herself. 

At the end of the alley there was a main road. They waited in the shadows. Too much traffic for the time of night. Tarpett recognised the long-nosed black limousines with tinted windows used by the sisters of the Order’s security unit. Shark-like, the cars nosed and glided through the night waters, their headlights dimmed, revealing the predatory flash of their grilles. They were patiently circling the ring road, their engines almost silent as they hunted for heretics. 

Half an hour passed before it was quiet enough to cross. The steel shutters at the front of the pet shop were down. Tarpett pointed to the passageway. They made their way down it as far as the side door and rang the bell. A light went on above them; even though they were outside, they could hear Barry’s heavy footsteps as he descended the staircase from the flat. They could just see the edge of his broad white face and a single eye peering at them; he took off the chain. 

“What happened?” he said, as they edged past him.

“We only got away as they failed to stake out the back.”

“It sounds as if they didn’t know you were there. They must have been going door to door round the whole area.”

Upstairs in the warmth of Barry’s flat and to the background of the budgerigars chirruping, Tarpett explained what had happened. All of the lectures Veronica had been due to give at All Saints College had been cancelled by someone in the administration. Then she’d received a phone call telling her to report, not to Sister Nerys, the Dean of Divinity, but to Mother Superior Enormica, who wished to debate an important matter of doctrine.

“And that,” said Veronica, “is the kind of theological discussion from which there is no guarantee of emerging alive.”

Huge and flaccid, Barry was sitting on his beanie bag. He was wearing a string vest and a pair of yellow pyjama bottoms. He’d worked as a bouncer at some of the local night clubs before the Convent closed them down. Then he’d set up the pet shop, a career change that ensured he’d soon become out of condition. As he’d been careful to continue attending Mass, only Tarpett and Veronica were aware that he was a Moravian convert.

“It’s the end of any kind of freedom of conscience as we understand it,” Tarpett said, waving a heavily bandaged right hand. Barry and Veronica had cleaned him up as best they could. “And it’s only a matter of time before someone goes through the college records and discovers why I took early retirement.”

Even in the liberal days of Mother Superior Myfanwy, Pelagianism was not compatible with holding a lectureship at All Saints College. Some on the board had argued that it was no more than an innocuous form of religious antiquarianism, hardly a major deviation from the doctrines of the New Catholic Church, but in the end orthodoxy had prevailed and Tarpett had stepped down, but not before paving the way for the employment of his god-daughter and former pupil. 

“And so what are you going to do? I can put you up here for a while, but…”

“We’ll need a week at the most. Then we’ll cross over to Mercia.”

“And how do you propose to support yourself in an atheist state? You’ll lose your pension, Anselm. And Veronica has no chance of employment as a theology lecturer.”

“Well, there’s a thing that both states have in common.”

“What’s that?”

Tarpett looked over at Veronica. She’d fallen asleep in her chair, her long pale face, the flesh thinner than ever before, half curtained by her unkempt blonde hair. He turned his gaze back to Barry.

“Whiskey!”

 

Veronica was awake well before dawn. Even though the darkness was coal-tar black, a shining surface that seemed to be pressing down, she was aware that the space around her was differently configured. It took her a moment to remember she was not in her room at Anselm’s place, but on the sofa in Barry’s flat. As her eyes began to adjust, reassembling the objects closest to her, she became conscious of a tiny red ball of light, blurred at the edges, a few feet above where the floorboards must be. She remained quite still, watching. There were no sounds, not even the rumbling in the water pipes that had disturbed her as she was trying to sleep. The edges of the red ball were ragged, but its centre glowed with a confirmatory radiance. It had followed her. First, she had seen it in her own home, hovering above the mantelpiece; then it had appeared in the corner of her room at Anselm’s; now it was resident here, as if knowing her fidelity to be absolute, her belief unshakeable, it would not forsake her. It had four tiny legs and a snout; its red coat splintered into spines of glory. Although it had not yet reached its full magnificence, she was overwhelmed with infinite peace, a solace so profound as to be ineffable. The sofa no longer seemed hard beneath her. Its presence suffused every part of the room. Everything that existed was being supported by it, as if cradled in its divinity. Protected, she decided to sleep on.

The sound of small arms fire disturbed her at nine o’clock the next morning. Anselm and Barry were in the kitchen, apparently unconcerned.

“What’s going on?”

“The nuns are rounding up the Anabapists on one of the estates. Or so they claim on Mercian radio.” During the time of Mother Superior Myfanwy, a remarkable spirit of tolerance had pervaded both Convent and town, which was greatly at odds with the Ultramontane absolutism propagated by the Arch Pope from his palace in Albuquerque. Vatican II had been discussed in the seminar rooms of All Saints College; nuns in the Divine Mercy Convent spoke of reunification with Rome; in the taverns and parlour bars of the town, Protestantism was openly propagated, even the most recherché cults not heard of since the seventeenth century—Adamites, Fifth Monarchists, Brownists and Muggletonians—found their adherents. Myfanwy, affectionately known as ‘Mother Single Malt,’ devoted her few sober hours to the management of the Holy Spirit Distillery, oblivious to the heresies swirling around her. Word reached New Mexico; Myfanwy was retired to rehab; Mother Superior Enormica arrived.

“I don’t mean to hurry you, but it’s dangerous for me to have you two here,” said Barry. “I’ve got my parrots to think of.”

“There’s one more favour I have to ask,” Anselm said.

“What’s that?”

“We’ll need a driver. Someone with a clean license and number plates that aren’t on the system.”

“Are you referring to the plan we discussed last evening?”

“I know you think it’s unworkable, but we’ve no option.”

“If you insist, I’ll park on the back road… until it’s obvious you won’t be coming out.”

Veronica recalled her first intimation of the turbulent days that lay ahead: a bright clear morning, with the sky cleansed by the previous night’s storm; the sky preternaturally blue, and not a wisp of haze rising from the river that ran through the town. She’d decided to walk into College, as she’d no lectures till later in the day, only an interview at noon with the Dean of Divinity to discuss an article, Sheep and Salvation: Ovine Imagery in the Art of the Italian Renaissance, which she’d submitted for publication in the faculty’s journal. As she walked through the outskirts of the town, she looked up at the extravagant baroque towers and creamy stone façade of the Convent of the Sisters of Divine Mercy, which occupied the summit of the hill. To its right stood All Saints College, resplendent in red-brick collegiate gothic, with bell towers, pinnacles and an oriel window. Lower down the slope were the more utilitarian, flat-roofed buildings of The Holy Spirit Distillery, makers of fine Welsh Whiskey and Single Malts. 

The nun in the Porter’s Lodge gave her a cheerful good morning and handed over her mail. It was only when Veronica entered the main corridor, which ran the length of the building, that she heard the shouting. At first it was not apparent where it came from. 

An inoffensive priest, a podgy little man who was one of the visiting confessors, stood in front of the notice board, which he’d been reading. But now, with an expression of mingled alarm and repulsion, he stared down the corridor. Veronica followed his gaze. A huge nun was advancing at speed, her habit ballooning about her as if she were about to ascend to the ceiling. By some trick of perspective, she appeared closer than her position in the corridor could explain. It was only as her advance progressed that Veronica understood that the nun was unnaturally tall, seven foot and several additional inches. She was heavily veiled and wore a gargantuan wooden cross that swung from side to side. 

“Father O’Napper! Stay right there.”

The words ricocheted and repeated themselves along the corridor. The clergyman began an ineffectual retreat, his eyes still fixed on the approaching threat, his triple chins wobbling. But smoothly, and without any obvious change of gear, the nun accelerated and was upon him. She picked him up under his armpits and pinned him halfway up the wall. For a moment, to Veronica’s horror, the nun appeared to be eating the little man’s right ear. When she let him drop to the ground, it became obvious that the she could not have consumed any part of him while still wearing a veil. No doubt what Veronica had assumed was the sound of mastication was in fact an aggressive form of whispering. For a while, the nun seemed content to allow her quarry to lie weeping on the floor, his face marked by the impression of part of the wooden cross. Then at last she yanked him up by his clerical collar and bundled him through the door of what had been Mother Superior Myfanwy’s study.

Shocked, Veronica made her way up the marble stairs and along the passage to Sister Nerys’ office. The Dean of Divinity, dressed informally in a blue denim trouser suit and yellow T-shirt with the words Holy Spirit Distillery in black, was re-arranging her collected edition of the works of St Thomas Aquinas on her bookshelf. A middle-aged woman, with cropped grey hair, she had the face of a retired coalminer. A cigarillo dangled from her lips. Veronica explained what she had just seen.

“Mother Superior Enormica’s method of conveying Holy Writ is somewhat direct.”

“But what on earth did poor Father O’Napper do?”

“He gave a sermon that flattered the life and work of St Aidan.”

“But what’s wrong with that?”

“He had the wrong sort of tonsure and favoured the Irish method of dating Easter. Now about this article of yours.” 

“Yes?”

“In Mother Myfanwy’s time I’d have printed it. And I’d still say it’s just about publishable, even now; although it’s a little long on art history and light on theological analysis for the new dispensation. But that’s not the reason I’m going to pass.”

“Why’s that?”

“The rumours.”

Sister Nerys opened a wooden box on her table and took out a second cigarillo, which she lit on the stub of the first one after taking a sip of her single malt.

“What rumours?”

“About you and the third person of the Holy Trinity.”

Although it had been hard not to proclaim the peace her vision had given her, Veronica had shared her experience with only a few of the most forward-looking nuns.

Evidently even that had been mistake. Sister Nerys broke into a coughing fit, which a more generous swig of whiskey cured. She sucked on the cigarillo. Her chest rattled as she exhaled.

“What’s Sister Enormica’s line on smoking?”

“She won’t notice it unless you’re fool enough to light up a Havana in her presence. The woman’s got no sense of smell. And very little taste, however you define the term. But enough of that. What’s all this about your… encounter?”

She wouldn’t dissemble… well, not entirely. “I believe that I found myself in the presence of the Holy Ghost.”

“Holy Spirit. That’s the preferred term round here.” 

“Of course.”

“And what form did it take?”

Veronica paused. Perhaps too much candour at this stage would be inadvisable.

“I take it the New Catholic Church still takes the same view as Rome on the possibility of direct experience of the divine, even in these days of spiritual darkness and decline. I mean… Lourdes and…”

“Yes, yes,” said Sister Nerys, waving her cigarillo with some impatience.

“Well, in that case I’m innocent of heresy. As to the details… I’d rather keep them private for the time being.”

“We’ll leave the matter there… for the time being. But I have to say I think an urgent appointment with your confessor is desirable. Once it’s clear you’re in a state of grace we can discuss your article again. I’m sure I make myself clear.”

Sister Nerys drew as deeply as she could on her cigarillo; then, by way of dismissal, released a cloud of smoke sufficient to gladden the heart of a mad thurifer. 

“Thank you, Sister,” replied Veronica, edging towards the exit.

“And oh,” the Dean asked from behind her ever-thickening fog, “how many porcupines appear in the art of the Italian Renaissance?” 

 

Radio Mercia had news of overnight arrests: an underground Primitive Methodist conventicle had been broken up, its pastor and congregation taken into custody; the Moderator of the Mid Wales Presbyterians was discovered cowering in a cowshed halfway up a mountain in Powys; four Strict Baptists had been subjected to a violent parody of total immersion, before being manacled and led dripping and practically naked to a special court convened by Mother Enormica. All five of the Holy Spirit helicopters were now hovering over the town. Sniffer dogs handled by lightly armed nuns wearing flak jackets were searching for anyone, such as ex-Greek Orthodox monks, burning the wrong kind of incense, only that approved by the authorities in Albuquerque being permitted. 

It was mid-afternoon before Anselm and Veronica ventured out onto the streets. In the aftermath of the dawn raids, there was an air of disquiet and few shoppers in the street, but at least the presence of the Order’s military wing was less visible. Two unarmed sisters in black and white habits strolled towards the main shopping precinct. It was hard to tell whether they were ordinary nuns on their way to the post office, or intelligence officers. To Veronica, they seemed too watchful; yet perhaps they also were oppressed by the move from the primacy of intense spirituality, as privileged by Myfanwy, to the rigorous doctrinal purity enforced by Mother Superior Enormica.

They made their way down a cobbled lane. Although many of the town’s cafes had been closed down, The Sacred Heart Tea Shop was still trading, helped no doubt by its reputation for sobriety. Mother Superior Myfanwy had never frequented the inns and taverns; however, she had sometimes met Veronica for a discussion that would range from the finer points of medieval philosophy to the merits of various single malts. On such occasions, Veronica would keep a Speyside miniature to hand, with which she’d discreetly top up the Mother Superior’s coffee and double cream. It was for such services that Veronica had been admitted to Myfanwy’s confidence. As the disease progressed, the old woman had been taking as much interest in the work of the Distillery as in the running of the Convent and its attached College. She’d introduced a range of malts matured in casks, which were marketed in brightly labelled bottles. 

Unbeknown to everyone apart from Veronica, Myfanwy had found a tiny room in the bell tower that had long been empty. This she converted to a private oratory and personal bar. In the cupboard under the altar she kept a fine array of single malts, many of the best that the Holy Spirit Distillery had ever handcrafted. This collection included a bottle of the rare 92% proof HSD Special Edition, created to celebrate the Order’s break from Rome, and matured for over fifty years. No one, not even Mother Myfanwy, would have considered drinking it; indeed, she claimed that its investment value was such that she’d taken it into protective custody. There was, as Veronica had told Anselm, no reason to assume that it was not still in the cupboard. If they could somehow secure it and take it with them to Mercia, its sale would bring more than enough for both of them to finance their new lives. After all, wasn’t it widely considered to be one of the most expensive whiskeys in the world?

As the waitress bought over two pots of tea, Veronica watched her closely. The woman showed no signs of recognition.

“The sick note I sent as an excuse for not keeping my appointment with Mother Superior Enormica might have worked,” said Veronica. “Perhaps the raid on your house really was a coincidence.” 

Anselm poured out his tea and glanced around. The Tea Shop, with its alcoves and quiet corners, was a good place to meet. There were enough customers to create a cloak of conversation, a sufficient hum and rattle of cutlery to ensure that no more than a word or two of theirs would be audible. 

“You could be right. But I think the manner of our departure may have alerted them. Anyway, what time tomorrow should we start? I suggest trying in the morning. This round of arrests has been taking place early. If they stick to that pattern, the military should be busy till ten.”

“I agree. If we go to the College at a quarter to nine, they’ll be enough people arriving for us to slip in unobserved. The military are much less likely to be poking around in the Porter’s Lodge at that time.”

“Do we have to go into the College? There’s no reason why the door to the bell tower would be locked.”

“We’d be far too visible. And what business could we possibly have in there? Someone’s suspicions would be aroused. No, we need to go into the College and then take the route through the connecting corridor to the side entrance.”

A commotion on the threshold of the front door. The sound of raised voices and then a tussle followed by the thud of someone being pushed to the floor. An elderly couple had been trying to leave at the same time as a group of nuns were attempting to enter. There must have been about eight of them, led by a battle-hardened sister wearing a flying jacket, enormous black boots and a purple beret. Although a silver crucifix, incongruous against a khaki shirt, shone on her breast, an assault rifle was slung over her shoulder. The others were fresh-faced novices in fatigues. The old man was crawling around the floor, searching for his glasses, which must have fallen off in the struggle. The nun in the flying jacket raised one massive boot and kicked him with controlled savagery in the ribcage. The man howled and, assisted by his wife, crawled and staggered back into the café. 

“Stay right where you are. And look carefully at the photographs we are going to show you. Anyone withholding information will find that their penance will involve far more than a few Hail Marys.”

The cadets began to fan out. A fresh-faced novice with freckles, who would have looked more at home in a high school netball team than in a paramilitary patrol, came towards them. For a moment, Veronica wondered if she would be shown a photograph of herself. The girl handed them a folder of photographs, easily recognisable as mug shots of prominent local Moravians and Muggletonians. The last picture was of Barry.

“Do you recognise any of these people? Failure to disclose the whereabouts of known heretics is an offence under both civil and canon law.”

After she riffled through them, Veronica handed the folder back with a shake of her head. The novice’s eyes were brilliant with implacable holiness. In the sixteenth century, her unmarked hands would have held the torch that lit the kindling beneath the feet of Protestant martyrs. 

“No, a few of the faces are familiar. I may have come across them in the street, but I don’t know their names or addresses.” 

“If you do see any them, you’re to phone security at the Convent at once.”

Someone had helped the old man to his feet. Doubled up with pain, he was seated on a chair surrounded by a few helpers and his wife, who was holding his broken glasses. The novices and their leader filed out without glancing at the hapless group.

That night, Veronica lay in bed and waited for the appearance of the porcupine. It was past midnight before it manifested itself as a red blur on the ceiling. As it grew, defining itself quill by quill, its presence rebuked the world’s violence, burning not with anger but the pure flame of the serenity that voids all hurts, an essential power placed beyond the everyday. O peaceable porcupine, she found herself whispering, pure in spirit. And then she slept.

 

It was important not to appear aggressively disguised; any obvious sartorial dissembling would be certain to arouse suspicion, Anselm insisted. It would be sufficient to make a few alterations to one’s appearances, the sort of changes that would deflect immediate recognition would be sufficient. 

Anselm and Veronica left the flat first. A convoy of the Covent’s tanks rattled past them, along with trucks filled with militantly jovial nuns from a commando unit. Their Bren-guns held at jaunty angles, they sang raucous plainsong.

“All that for a few Moravians,” said Veronica. “Surely they’ll be easy meat.”

“Don’t forget the Muggletonians. They are camped in a disused hotel half way up a mountain some way to the west of here.”

“And what do they believe?”

“That Heaven is kept in a box about six miles above the earth.” 

“Will they put up much of a fight?”

“I think they may be pacifists, but their curses, incredible though this seems, have been known to work.”

In contrast to the dull red brick of its neighbour, the grey stone of the bell tower glittered, almost silvery, in the cold morning light. As they reached the gate house, they separated so as to seem unremarkable, lost in the flow of the theology students and lecturers heading to the main entrance. The porters appeared busy inside and disinclined to check more than a couple of passes. Within a minute, they’d walked down the corridor and through the fire door leading to the bell tower. 

Myfanwy’s hideout was just beneath the belfry. As they panted to the top of the spiral staircase, Anselm asked himself whether they’d arrive to find the door locked. To his relief, it swung wide. Veronica opened the cupboard, seized the bottle of HSD 92% proof and stowed it in a canvas bag. Somewhere an alarm sounded. On the bottom shelf, there was a row of miniatures of the same liquid; these Anselm scooped up and put in his pocket. 

As soon as they were outside, they saw a line of leather-jacketed seminarians, auxiliaries known to be trigger-happy and badly trained, spread out and moving with obvious intent up the hill.

“What set the alarm off?” asked Veronica.

“I’m not sure. Did you notice any camer…”

The first shot took off the right wing of a sculpture of an angel five metres to their right. 

“Don’t run,” said Veronica. “Try to act as if…”

A loud report followed by a sharp crack of disintegrating glass and an overwhelming smell of whiskey. Veronica stared down at the neat bullet hole in her canvas bag. They were close to the entrance of the Distillery. Anselm gestured to her to follow him and ducked through the doors, just ahead of an ill-directed fusillade. Still clutching the bag, which was leaking a trail of whiskey, Veronica followed.

Inside, there was an atmosphere of incongruous calm. Nuns in white overalls were going about the rituals of mashing. Copper pot stills gleamed. Against the wall a neat row of oak casks, their wood imbued with golden sherry, sat patiently like so many Buddhas prepared for decades of quiet maturing.

“Do you know the way out?” said Anselm.

“I think there’s an exit at the back.”

They rounded the largest of the stills. Gliding, as if on roller blades, and seemingly taller than ever, Mother Superior Enormica advanced from the far end of the building. Today her enormous cross was made out of metal, which glinted like a breastplate. She was holding a handgun. Anselm at once sensed the unappeasable malice beneath her veil. Behind them the seminarians were streaming into the building, yodelling Hail Marys and riddling the walls with bullets, although they had no clear sight of their targets. Anselm looked over at Veronica.

“I was wondering why I kept hold of this bag. Have you got a match?”

As he passed her the box, Mother Superior Enormica raised her gun and fired. A bullet pinged off a copper still and punctured a squat little barrel of ten-year single malt. Whiskey fountained. Veronica dropped a match into the bag and hurled it to towards the accelerating nun. It fireballed. For an instant, a wave of heat drew back the veil, revealing a face of incomparable hideousness, the flesh raw from decades of self-mortification, the nail marks visible not only on what remained of her flesh but striated on areas of exposed bone. The mouth was reduced to two thin and lipless red lines. Only her eyes remained unmolested, conduits for a hatred almost palpable in its intensity. Anselm flung himself to one side, and as he rose he saw Mother Enormica, brilliant in her fiery habit, grasp Veronica in an incendiary embrace. For moment, the two women danced together, caught in a waltz of indescribable pain. Somewhere a barrel exploded, beating back the approaching seminarians. Anselm made for the far wall.

He found the exit and scrambled up the hill to where Barry was waiting, his car engine running. Anselm related the death of Veronica, the form of her spiritual revenge. 

“How are we going to live?” asked Barry.

Anselm drew a miniature out his pocket. “I’ve got more than a few of these.”

As they drove away, they heard a series of detonations and then one huge explosion. Had one of the copper stills just gone up? Once they were high enough up the hill, Barry stopped the car and they gazed back. The whole distillery was on fire. Just for a moment it seemed as if the flames coalesced in the morning sky, becoming a recognisable animal shape, possibly a porcupine, emitting slender spines of fire. 



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