I am sure that all of Marcia’s readers understand that she has a very deep faith: not the sort that shows itself in being preachy (she is one of the most nonjudgmental people I have ever met) nor by doing good works. It shows in a completely different way but a way that has marked people’s deep faith through the centuries: through her work and using her talents to the full.
She was, of course, a regular worshipper at our little village church but she was looking for something even though she didn’t really know what that was. Enter Greta. One of our local farmers had converted a barn: he and his wife lived in most of it but there was also an annex for his sister, Greta.
We didn’t see very much of Greta but nor did we know where she went. It turned out that where she went was to a convent set a few miles south east of Monmouth where she really helped out generally and joined the nuns in most of the services. After one service, Greta stopped Marcia and asked her how she was coping with all the pressures of writing and suggested. that she might find a week of retreat at Tymawr (the great house) beneficial on many levels.
After a bit of intense thought and conversation on the matter, the day came when she was to start her retreat and so I bundled her luggage on the back seats of our old Volvo Estate and our Newfoundlands, Bessie and Trubshawe, in the back and off we set: up the A38 and onto the M5 all the way to Bristol where we turned left on the M4 and over the old suspension bridge until we started winding through some countryside certainly as beautiful as we have in Devon.
Then we arrived. Sister Cara Mary was there to greet Marcia and we trooped up to her room. I put her luggage on her bed and, bidding them both farewell, left them to it. I was concerned that the dogs had been in the car for too long but with half a mile I found some woodland with a footpath running through it and we got out
For the next few years, five or six I suppose, Marcia would go to Tymawr twice a year for a week. While she was there she spoke to nobody apart from Cara Mary for fifteen minutes in the evening after vespers. Anything else Cara wanted Marcia to know was written on small pieces of paper and pushed under Marcia’s door. I know very few people who can be truly silent for a day, let alone a week.
One day, to my astonishment, Marcia told me that Cara Mary was going to come and stay with us during her summer holiday. Naturally I had no idea that nuns took holidays but that wasn’t the only thing about life in a convent that I was going to learn. Cara arrived and was shown her room. Shortly she came down dressed in old trousers and a comfortable looking shirt under a sweater. ‘Right,’ she announced, ‘I have put the nun away in the cupboard and so now we can really enjoy ourselves’. I was to learn that Cara always enjoyed herself – all meals became a feast over which, in Cara’s words, Trubshawe would preside. He was large even for a Newfie and had no trouble at all laying his great jowl on the table.
Some years later, she was with us while she was on holiday. We had then moved to the Hermitage. Both Bessie and Trubshawe had died and we than had Max, an elderly Labrador we had adopted when his owner died. All our dogs seemed totally at ease with Cara and she loved it when they came and leaned on her: Max was no exception.
And then, completely out of the blue, Cara started fitting. She and Marcia were in the sitting room: I was in my study upstairs and at the other end of the house. Eventually I heard Marcia’s shouts and we did what we could to make her comfortable but then she start fitting again. I had called 999 and asked for a paramedic and an ambulance. They did what they could and then put her in the ambulance and set off for Barnstaple Hospital (mainly because Cara had a niece who lived on the southern fringe of Exmoor). She never really recovered: it had been a stroke and from then it was quite rapidly down hill and shortly afterwards she died.
Marcia had already acknowledged what the nuns had done for her by dedicating Memories of the Storm to ‘Father Keith and the sister at Tymawr’: he was then chaplain to the convent and he and Marcia continue to exchange emails fairly often.
I knew that she would want to create a more specific tribute. It took some years before that was achieved and it was, of course, fulfilled in the two books, The Christmas Angel and Postcards from the Past.
Marcia writes about the nuns at Chi Meur with huge authority which would be impossible had she not lived alongside them and spent endless hours talking to Cara Mary. I called it a tribute but that’s the wrong word. Within Postcards and despite all the other things that are going on it is a celebration to the nuns who are facing a precarious future but who have found various ways to reinvent themselves with great courage and fortitude.
Many thanks to the sisters of Tymawr for giving permission to reproduce most of the photographs they have used on their website.
Also many thanks to Vivien for embroidering the head of a Newfoundland. This is Trubshawe to the life and so he still presides over our kitchen table.