The monastery had two kinds of monk – Fathers and Brothers. Fathers were priests with university degrees first and four years of Theology after; Brothers were for the most part less academically qualified and often came from working class families, and on the whole were more down-to-earth and streetwise. Despite the holy environment of the order and in theory the good intentions there was always some friction between the two kinds; well, monks or not they were human, and brothers felt, usually quite rightly, priests looked down on them.
Father Nivard was a rotund, self-important pain in the arse and a self-confessed expert on every matter theological, angels balancing on the heads of pins and all that. No other monk, priest or brother, liked him, but Nivard – or Nivo as he was known – didn’t much care. He’d taken the name Nivard after Saint Nivard the 7th century Bishop of Reims, and had ambition to become abbot one day. After all, an abbot is a bishop.
Brother Laurence was Dublin working class through and through but after an adolescence of hanging out in back streets with other little chancers more than going to school he took a course in nursing and much to the relief and delight of his mother became an SRN. A few months later, he joined the monks, a move his mother considered a waste of career and a lost opportunity to make something of himself. Later, she conceded she had no right to question his decision and said to a neighbour, ‘Sure if it’s God’s will, it’s God’s will, and the call is the call.’
In the monastery, Laurence was in charge of Sick Bay, and the infirmary was the one place where monks were allowed to speak in case of any misunderstandings regarding ailments or treatments. Of course only the most devout kept silence in all other places, whispering was usual, fashionable even.
One time, Father Nivard came down with flu, a much less serious condition than the good theologian admitted. No one else’s bout of flu was as serious as his and instead of putting up with it till it passed he took to a bed in Sick Bay, and Brother Laurence had to attend to him. Nivard’s presence inconvenienced Laurence mightily, he couldn’t smoke in his usual corner or drink his bottles of Guinness or send the gardener into town to put five shillings each way on the 33/1 outsider running in the 2:30 at Kempton Park, all three practices he was supposed to have left behind the day he donned the cowl. He relayed to the gardener, a local hire, that he wouldn’t be availing of his purchasing and betting services until the priest was better and gone, and this news pissed the gardener off, he wouldn’t be getting his usual tips. ‘Shite!’ said the gardener.
As if Nivard’s presence wasn’t bad enough the priest expected to be waited on hand and foot and for the purpose of summoning Laurence had carried into Sick Bay with him a small bell which he rang with infuriating frequency.
‘What’s it now?’ Laurence would ask in the flattest voice he could manage.
‘Laurence, be an absolute darling and bring me another glass of cold water, and while you’re at it close the curtains completely, there’s a small shaft of light molesting my eyes, and do fluff up my pillows, you’ve not fluffed them since morning.’
Lurence would mutter something unmonkish and bring the water and close the curtains and fluff the pillows, muttering all the while.
Three days of tinkling bells and Laurence was at the end of his tether – no smokes, porter or horses – and the pain in the arse showed no signs of leaving. The end came when Nivard rang and said, ‘Laurence, be an absolute angel and bring me a nice pot of tea, scalding hot and properly strained, and in the good floral pot.’
Laurence looked at the pompous rotundity now sitting in a chair beside the bed and not a thing the matter with him and said, ‘Nivo, as long as you’re still consuming oxygen, and I must say you’re a disgraceful waste of oxygen, and as long as you’re capable of the vertical and are not on the permanent horizontal you can make your own fucking tea.’
The exchanges were overheard by a third monk with genuine reasons for being in the infirmary, and after his recovery and discharge he was more than happy to whisper details to the entire community, and beyond.
A hieromachy is a quarrel between clerics.