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Holding Back the Years

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Sister Aloysius snapped her Bible shut. It was enough that the blessed Bishop was forcing the school to go on this frivolous trip, but now the children were causing such a racket that she could not concentrate on her prayers.

She put the Bible down carefully into the dip of the fabric of what had been the least slouchy chair she could find in this Godless place. As she stood, her feet sank immediately into the sand. Sand. She scowled and pushed her glasses up her nose—as if sand had any business seeping its way into her shoes, like so many unconfessed sins. The feeling of it unsettled her.

It was Spring—and quite an unseasonably warm one, too. The Lord was testing her patience. Her habit was too warm and her bonnet felt close and choking. She greatly desired to loosen the ribbon under her chin—but desire was the enemy of the pious—and therefore a temptation she would resist.

Aloysius stumbled awkwardly through the sand over to where the children were screaming. They were throwing a ball about in some kind of disorganised sporting activity that did not seem to have any rules—but as she approached, they became marginally more subdued at the sight of their black-garbed principal.

“A shame you could not put the same effort into singing hymns. Your voices ought to be put to better use praising the Lord, not screaming like the Devil is seizing you.”

Before she could finish rebuking them, out of the corner of her eye, Aloysius saw Sister James approaching. She was holding the hand of a small child, who was limping and had tears streaking down her face.

“That’s not one of ours,” Aloysius said irritably. “Unless you’ve left one in the water too long and shrunk them.”

“No, Sister Aloysius,” Sister James responded. “She’s lost and hurt her foot on a jellyfish. May I help her look for her parents?”

Aloysius frowned. The girl looked too young to be on her own. “If her parents are looking for her, there’s no sense walking her up and down the strand when they’re most likely walking in the opposite direction. Sit her down and find something to distract her.”

Sister James nodded, and got to her knees. With this tiny girl, she had an easiness that Aloysius did not normally have the opportunity to witness. Her face, bright and pure as a sunflower, opened up as she smiled and offered the child a spade one of the older children had discarded out of impatience. It was rather too large for the child, but she was immediately captivated. The tears dried up gradually as Sister James helped her to dig a hole in the sand, her tiny fists gripped around the spade.

The ball that the older children had resumed playing with was flung between them—Sister Aloysius started, realising that she had been staring, and returned to her Bible.

“Sister Aloysius?”

Aloysius awoke with a jump. Ahead of her was a silhouette in the dark, with the loose white shapes of a bonnet over her hair and a long nightgown just visible in the gloom. Aloysius found herself wishing she could see more detail in the darkness, but she knew the sweet voice could only belong to one person.

“Sister James,” Aloysius whispered back to the shadow.

“Did I wake you?”

Aloysius gave a sharp intake of breath, and tightened her grip on the rosary in her hand. “I was wide awake, keeping careful watch, of course.”

“Of course,” Sister James echoed. “Anyway, I’m here to relieve you if you’d like to get some sleep.”

“Thank you for the thought,” Aloysius said, looking through to the dormitory. “I might stay awake a little longer to keep a weather eye out for trouble.”

“I’m sure I could do all right on my own, comforting any poor dears with nightmares.”

“Nightmares? Pah!” Aloysius shook her head at Sister James’ innocence. “Midnight feasts, more like it. Residential trips are notorious for children sneaking candy along so they can fill their mouths with sugar in the middle of the night until they can’t even lie still.”

“I’ll sit with you, then, until you are too tired,” Sister James responded quietly.

Sister Aloysius felt the wicker seat creak as Sister James lowered herself onto it next to her. The warmth of Sister James’ thigh through the single layer of cotton, now pressing against her own, made her stomach tighten. She said an act of contrition in her head to beg the Lord’s forgiveness.

“I have a blanket with me, if you’re cold?”

“I’m not cold,” Sister Aloysius grumbled. The beach house offered little in the way of insulation, and she was, in fact, rather cold. She had trusted the cool air to keep her awake, but there had been something about the lulling sound of the sea that may have caused her eyelids to lower for just a moment. Now Sister James was here, however, she was alarmingly awake.

Sister James shook out the blanket and draped it over her lap, and Aloysius sniffed dismissively. Suddenly, a warm hand closed over her own, pushing the beads of the rosary softly into her skin, and Aloysius’ heart shot into her throat at the unexpected contact.

“You’re frozen solid,” Sister James protested, and tucked the blanket around Aloysius as well.

Even after Sister James had released her hand, she could still feel the burn of the touch and the impression of the rosary beads there. “My faith keeps me warm.”

“Don’t be stubborn,” Sister James replied gently. “He wouldn’t want you to suffer.”

Aloysius slipped her hands under the blanket with some reluctance.

“My shoes are still full of sand from yesterday,” Sister James said. “I had such a lot of fun with little Anna.”

Aloysius thought back to the angelic image of Sister James making sandcastles with the child she had found wandering on her own. “You did well in diverting her from that jellyfish sting. Her parents were very appreciative. I’m— grateful you were there to handle things.”

“Thank you, Sister Aloysius. I’m sure you could have handled it on your own if you had found her.”

“A bitter old woman like me? Ha.” Sister Aloysius shook her head.

A soft touch brushed against her leg under the blanket. “You’re not bitter, nor old. Not to me.”

“That’s— charitable of you to say, Sister James.” Aloysius rolled the rosary beads in her fingers, panic setting in at the innocent contact.

“No, I meant it,” Sister James said insistently. Her hand did not stray from where it lingered against Aloysius’ trembling thigh. “You’re beautiful.”

“I don’t need beauty to serve the Church. I only need discipline and my faith.” Sister James could not know the effect her words and touch had on her. She wished she could keep her damnable leg from quivering.

“If only you could see what I see.”

Sister James’ hand traced tantalisingly up to where Aloysius was furiously fiddling with the rosary beads, stilling them. Aloysius froze, and the rosary slipped from her hand to snake into the fold of her nightdress between her legs.

“You’re shivering.” Sister James looked up into her eyes, but Aloysius avoided her gaze. “Let’s go for a walk to warm you up. You must have been sitting still here for hours.”

“But the children—”

“They’re asleep.”

It would have been so easy to deny the feeling that fluttered in her chest, but she knew that she should challenge herself. Perhaps a conversation needed to be had, where they could talk more freely in the open air, away from ears that could be corrupted. She could draw the line. She would tell Sister James to desist with whatever she had been beginning to think.

They rose from the creaky wicker seat, and Sister James wrapped the blanket around Aloysius’ shoulders tenderly. This would be a difficult conversation, but she remained steadfast.

The stars glistened in the heavens over them, and the bright disc of the waxing gibbous moon cast an unearthly glow over Sister James’ white nightgown. She could see now the pintucks that bordered the button placket down the front—but quickly flicked her eyes away from the temptation.

“Isn’t it a lovely night?” Sister James said, once they were clear of the beach house. Aloysius looked down at her, and saw a wisp of fiery red hair creeping from under the white fabric covering her head. She pursed her lips.

“The glory of God’s universe is always a wonder to behold,” Aloysius replied in as steady a voice as she could muster.

“He has certainly created a host of wondrous things,” Sister James said wistfully, and linked her hand around Aloysius’s elbow, oblivious to her discomfort.

Aloysius kept her arm straight and curled her fingers tightly into her palm. The cool air bit at her knuckles. “Sister James, I’m going to be frank with you.”

Sister James’ eyes widened and she looked up at Aloysius. The hand slipped from her arm. “What is it?”

“I— I think you may believe that you are having a particular kind of feeling,” Aloysius began hesitantly. “It’s something that a lot of young women in your position feel—for a time, before it wanes.”

“Then did it wane for you?”

The comment took Aloysius off-guard. She almost thought she had misheard it against the rush of the waves crashing over the shore. She unstuck her throat and moistened her lips with her tongue as she tried to find the words to answer, but felt only shame blooming in her cheeks.

Sister James stood up a little straighter, and the angle of her jaw became almost defiant. “I think you believe that that particular kind of feeling is sinful, and that in denying yourself it, you are defending yourself against reproach. But there’s nothing to be ashamed of. The only sin is making yourself unhappy by neglecting the part of you that craves love and companionship. You don’t need to be alone any more.”

Sister James held out her hand for Aloysius to take.

Aloysius stared at her for a beat, her heart pounding. Did she truly intend to fight against this forever? Would she be able to continue working alongside Sister James after this, or would she dismiss her unfairly? Sister James’ expression began to falter as she assumed that Aloysius was not going to accept her.

Yet—against all her better judgment—Aloysius slipped her hand into Sister James’.

Sister James cradled her hand gently as a dove, running a thumb over her knuckles. Even though Aloysius was sure her hands were dry, wrinkled, and coarse from decades of using unkind soap upon them in endless attempts to cleanse herself of her wickedness—Sister James showed no disgust, only the purest delight.

Sister James’ placed her other hand on Aloysius’ waist under the blanket—she could feel it through the linen of her nightdress, and her heart melted. And—steeling herself—Aloysius dared to brush her fingertips against her cheek. Her skin was smoother than she had imagined it.

Ever so softly, Sister James turned her face towards Aloysius’ hand, and kissed where her palm met her wrist. Aloysius trembled at the feel of those precious lips in such a sensitive place—and realised how close they were. The cool air between them seemed to pass away—their lips were moments from meeting. Aloysius cast away her doubts, and sank into a kiss more heavenly than she could ever have imagined.

Just as she was beginning to suddenly feel heat flush her skin—Sister James shed the blanket from her shoulders and laid it on the sand. Aloysius allowed herself to be helped down onto the blanket, where they lay together under the stars.

“Sins,” Aloysius hissed, attacking the nightdress with a clothes brush. In the cold light of morning, the sand reminded her of the previous night—how she had failed to follow through with her plan to dissuade Sister James. She had done the opposite. Tears of bitterness flooded her eyes.

“Don’t hold back,” Sister James had crooned in her ear. “Let go of your fear, until you can feel only me.”

A knocking sounded at the door—and banishing her transgressive thoughts, Aloysius straightened up, and wiped away her pathetic tears with a handkerchief until her eyes felt raw.

“Come in, then. Don’t make me wait.”

The door swung open slowly—and there stood a tired-looking Sister James, the pleats of her capelet pressed neatly, spread over her shoulders, and her collar prim and starched under her chin. Her expression fell when she saw Aloysius’ hard eyes, and her hands folded over each other in front of her in piety.

“Sister Aloysius— I just wanted to call by to check—”

Aloysius pursed her lips. “You’ve done your checking, now be off.”


Aloysius felt her heart twinge as Sister James looked up at her with pleading eyes, but said nothing.

“You’re struggling,” Sister James muttered, hurt clear on her face. “Which is only natural.” She ventured to step closer to her. “I’m sorry that I made you feel ashamed, but you don’t have to feel that way.”

Aloysius felt her defences begin to crumble, to hear her emotional state read so truly. Her voice was low and cracked as she spoke, “I didn’t think I would ever— get to experience love again, after my husband died. And you made me realise that— I had never felt it until last night.” Tears stung at her eyes again.

Sister James touched her arm as if to test her boundaries—and at her nod, drew her into an embrace. “It’s all right. I’m here now.”

Aloysius’ determination had all but broken. Before Sister James had taken her into her arms, anxiety had blurred her thoughts and she wallowed in all her regrets, but when she was close—everything seemed to crystallise. “When you are near, my doubts scatter to the wind,” Aloysius murmured, pressing her face against the top of Sister James’ bonnet.

Sister James broke away, to gaze up at Aloysius with sparkling eyes. “Then perhaps I should stay.”

She cupped Sister James’ face, fingers tracing the edge of the ribbon of her bonnet. “Please.”

Aloysius saw to the arrangements for the day’s activities. They were leaving the children in the care of a sailing club in the village a few miles north, who were offering a class on boats—learning the anatomy, the principles behind sailing, and they would be taken out in small groups to have their own chance at sailing. For some of them, it would be their first time aboard a boat. Sister Raymond and Sister Veronica could handle overseeing what would likely be a trying day of herding children and listening to dull workshops—but Aloysius had quite the different plan for herself and Sister James.

There was a coastal path along the cliffs that Aloysius had intended to take by herself, heading up towards an old church in the same town as the sailing club, where she would meet up with the children at the end of the day. It had been the one thing that Aloysius had been looking forward to, because it was going to be the only alone time she had—and now she was going to share it with Sister James. Yet it was a sacrifice she was making with entirely no regrets.

“I confess I get quite seasick anyway,” Sister James admitted with a small smile as they waved off the bus of excitable children. “So your plans for the day seem far preferable.”

“Is that your only reason?” Aloysius looked down at her through her spectacles, allowing a smile to play at her lips.

“Of course not—” With a quick glance around to ensure that they were alone, tiptoed up and kissed her cheek.

Aloysius blushed slightly, before offering her elbow to Sister James so they could link arms. “I’m— sorry I was sharp earlier,” she said after a pause, blundering over her words.

“That’s all right,” Sister James responded, leaning her bonnet against Aloysius’ shoulder. “You’ve spent a long time feeling one way, but now you have me to help you heal.”

It was a fairly quiet path, but there were a few occasions when they had to fall apart when they saw hikers coming the opposite direction—who were all pleasantly surprised to see two nuns on the path, and unsuspectingly tipped their hats or bade them a “good morning” as they passed. Each time they slipped by unnoticed, Sister James would let out a small laugh and kiss Aloysius on the lips—and Aloysius would draw her into a deeper kiss, daring the world to challenge the new love she had found.

They stopped at a bench for a lunch of sandwiches and tea from a thermos flask, sitting even closer than they had done the night before. They looked out over the sea, as the sun rose higher over it and shimmered on its surface. It was a gorgeous day, and both sat in quiet contentedness as they ate—occasionally brushing fingers together and tracing patterns on each other’s palms.

Aloysius judged that they only had a little farther to go beyond there, for the steeple of their destination could be seen in the distance. They decided to be a little more discreet from then on, just in case they should be seen—for the path down from the cliff was more exposed to the small village clustered about in the valley.

The church was a beautiful red-brick early nineteenth century building with a square tower and gabled roof, topped with a cross rising into the brilliant blue sky overhead. The church door at the foot of the tower eased open as Aloysius pushed it, and they entered, both muted in reverence.

It was surprisingly bright within, and multicoloured light filtered in through the stained glass windows. They genuflected before the altar, and knelt to pray in one of the pews. Aloysius thought she would be distracted by Sister James’ presence—but instead, she felt more at ease than she ever had done before, and if it were possible, more connected to the Lord, now knowing that the woman she had adored for years was at her side.

Off to one side of the sanctuary was a stand with the stubs of many candles dripping down over the ring holders.

“Would you like to light a candle with me?” Aloysius asked Sister James.

“I would love to.”

Aloysius slipped a quarter from her purse, and put it into the donation box. Sister James took one of the unlit candles from the box beneath, and wedged it into one of the rings. Aloysius folded her hand over Sister James’ as she picked up the thin wooden taper from the stand, and they both drew the flame from the central candle to theirs, each with a prayer of her own as they did so.

Sister James formed her lips into an O to blow the taper out, and Aloysius glanced away to prevent herself from wanting to kiss her right there and then—where she was certain someone would walk in on them at any moment.

They spent a little while longer exploring the church, particularly admiring its stained glass windows. Their hands brushed against each other as they went around, and every time, Aloysius felt a wave of warmth pass through her. She sprang about five feet back from her, however, when the sacristan appeared—and they began to make a show of discussing the architecture. He came over to make boring small talk with them both about their visit and where they had travelled from, which Aloysius answered evasively before announcing that they had better get on their way.

“I wish he hadn’t interrupted us,” Sister James said, once they were in the churchyard. “Still, he seemed pleasant.”

“Hmm,” Aloysius responded. “He was flirting with you.”

“Really? I didn’t notice it,” Sister James said, bewildered. Then, after a pause, she continued, “Sister Aloysius, am I to understand you’re jealous?”

Aloysius flushed. “Me? Jealous? Of course not,” she returned, bristling. “Why would I be jealous of that man?”

Sister James only smiled secretively to herself and said nothing.

Aloysius checked her watch. “We have a little while before we’re due back. Would you like to walk around the village?”

“That sounds lovely,” Sister James nodded.

Seagulls cried high above as they walked through the pastel-painted shops on the promenade looking out over the bay. Aloysius permitted Sister James to go into a candy shop advertising “the best fudge in Maine” that made her eyes widen in delight. They walked out with several bags of mixed flavours of fudge and two ice cream cones, at Sister James’ insistence. Aloysius winced as the sugar sent a spike of pain through her jaw, but admitted it “wasn’t terrible”. The part she most enjoyed was seeing Sister James with a spot of chocolate ice cream on her nose, which she wiped off with her handkerchief tenderly.

They sat on a bench by the bay, watching the boats come and go as they finished their ice creams. It had been a wonderful day—but their time alone was dwindling all too fast. Next to her, Sister James appeared to be slightly deflating in enthusiasm and was looking wistful. Aloysius’ followed her eyeline and saw that she had spotted the bus in the distance by a building on the seafront—the bus that was to take them back to New York.

“Do we have to go back?” Sister James asked.

“Yes,” Aloysius sighed. “But when we do, things will be quite different.”

“I hope so,” Sister James admitted. “This has all felt like such a dream, and one I don’t want to wake up from.”

“You won’t have to,” Aloysius said, putting her hand between them on the bench.

Sister James placed her hand next to Aloysius’. Aloysius let the most fleeting of smiles ghost across her lips, before delicately hooking her pinky finger over Sister James’.

“But if you ever wake up from a dream as good as this one, I want to be there beside you, waiting for you to tell me all about it.” Aloysius pursed her lips to keep herself from smiling at how overly sentimental her words sounded.

Sister James glowed with pleasure, and turned her face to the sun over the sea. “I’ll hold you to that.”