It was a wild, windy day, the kind I loved. I peered through the tiny panes of my window at the racing clouds and cavorting trees and felt very left out. I wasn't sure about this place. Music, definitely okay. Father Joseph Warrilow, more than okay. Otherwise monastic life seemed like a gentlemanly version of jail.
All of a sudden, the squeak of sandal on lino, that swoosh of skirts, and there he was in the doorway, ears as big as before, feet as flat--I hadn't exaggerated my image of him at all. He was funny-looking enough to make you smile whenever he made an entrance. Before I could stop myself I was laughing.
"Dear Tony, sorry to be late. I do so love the organ, it's hard to tear myself away. How about a walk? It's wild and windy today, my favorite weather!"
He thrust his arm through mine and off we went down the stairs, out into the enclosure, and through one of the huge gates marked PRIVATE.
A broad earthen path ran beside the church and past a tiny cemetery containing rows of plain stone crosses, then through massive oaks to curve around a great sweep of newly ploughed fields, brown and soft against the wild blue and gray sky, disappearing into a grove of horse chestnuts and dense woods of more oak, beyond which heaved the turbulent, white-capped Solent. Off to the right in a lush sea-level meadow were scattered the ruins of an early 12th-century Cistercian monastery. Where white-robed monks had once tended their ancestors, a flock of sheep chomped on grass rooted in their shepherds' remains.
It took my breath away: the curve of the great path, the contrasts of raw earth against rushing cumulus, of tumbled old stone against tall young grass, of leaf-speckled oaks against the sea. A very different landscape than my placed green-shaded Hertfordshire: this was impeccable and classic, every element of natural beauty in exact harmony, a foretaste of perfection, an amuse-bouche of Paradise. It had the dignity of a mighty painting, but I felt in it and of it. I knew this place. I had read about it in a poem or dreamed it once.
I stopped and he did too, our arms still linked, his eyes doing their signature blink, his rodent nose twitching with pleasure in the swirling air.
"Oh yes, dear, yes yes yes. Whenever I come round this corner, I'm sure I'm seeing it for the very first time!"
I was bit old for the game itself, but no English male worth his salt could pass under a chestnut tree without assessing its conker potential. These trees looked very promising, young and robust. "There'll be some terrific conkers under here in a few months," I said.
There will indeed," he replied: "they give wonderful conkers." He searched the ground as we walked. "There's one!" He picked up a medium-sized nut from under some leaves.
It must have lain in a dry place, for instead of being soft and rotten, it was wizened and hard as a rock.
"A beauty!" He tapped it with a practiced knuckle. "At least a tenner or a twelver."
"But, Father, it's from last year! You can't use that."
The venerable monk shot me a rubbery naughty-boy grin. "Who says I can't?" He pocketed the conker.
We stood arm in arm, still, gazing at the far-off mainland. It seemed much farther than two miles away and getting farther by the minute.