Scotland Street Volume 15, Chapter 39: The omnipresence of hierarchy

Now, sharing a table with Bruce in The Elephant House, with the light falling in shafts, butter-yellow and thick, through the windows, Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna took a sip of her coffee and exhaled with pleasure.

44 Scotland Street

“When I drink a good cup of coffee,” she said, “I am always reminded of dear Sister Angela of Charity. She was one of the cooking nuns in our order back home in Tuscany. We used to call her Sister Angela of the Medium Roast, because that was the sort of coffee she preferred to make. She made such a delicious latte. I can still both smell and taste it when I close my eyes.”

In spite of himself, Bruce was being drawn into Sister Maria-Fiore’s conversation. “Cooking nuns? Is that all they did?”

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“And other domestic chores,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “The order was a bit old-fashioned, you might say. We had the nuns whose main job it was to deal with our dear, deluded patients – the ones who had been affected by Stendhal Syndrome. And then we had the nuns who did the cooking. They were mostly – indeed entirely, as I recollect – women from very ordinary backgrounds – the daughters of small farmers, for example – what we call the contadini – or from working-class parts of Milan and Turin – the daughters of men who laboured in factories of one sort or another. All postulants were divided into two groups on their third day with the order. All were invited to have lunch with the Mother Superior, who set then a simple test by laying each place at the table with five or six knives and forks and then asking her what it was about Dante that most appealed to her. Those who failed the test – who had no idea how to deal with the cutlery, or who were not too sure who Dante was – would be allocated to the cooking stream, as we called it. Dear limited ones – even if they managed that first hurdle, there would be other tests down the line that could separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. And by and large, the system worked. People found their niche.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow. “Rather hierarchical, surely?”

Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna replied calmly. “Hierarchies are everywhere, Bruce. They are to be found in the natural world as much as the human world. Be under no illusion about that.”

“But still I would have thought …”

She cut him short. “Even amongst angels there are hierarchies – very complicated ones, too. There is no Presbyterianism in the ranks of angels, I can assure you!”

“Well, I imagine …”

He did not finish.

“We are so fortunate to have had Pseudo-Dionysius,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna. “I can’t imagine where we would have been without him.”

“No,” said Bruce.

“It’s a great pity that his De Coelesti Hierarchia is not more readily available,” she went on. “It really is most helpful when it comes to sorting out the exact order of precedence. I have a little aide-memoire, of course, which sets out the various angelic ranks, but there are plenty of people who don’t have that.”

Bruce decided to let this all flow over him. Every conversation that he had in the past with this extraordinary woman had been largely one-sided – it was too late to change that now. “You’re most fortunate,” he said.

“Yes. There are Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones at the apex. Seraphim, you may recall, have six wings. That’s how I remember them.”

“Rather like those more expensive drones?” Bruce ventured.

Sister Maria-Fiore nodded. “You could say that, yes. Cherubim, by contrast, have two sets of wings. Not two wings – that’s a common mistake – two sets of wings.”

Bruce nodded.

“And the Thrones. They represent humility and submission, while Dominions, another order of angels, have a sort of administrative role. At least, that’s the way I look at it. They are the civil servants, so to speak. Just like people who work for the Scottish Government down at Victoria Quay, although the Scottish Government doesn’t use quite the same terminology, I believe.”

“I believe not,” said Bruce, patiently.

“Indeed. Sometimes, I expect it overlaps. So Principalities, for instance, who are lower down in the pecking order perform, I suspect, some of the tasks that Dominions undertake. They are more accessible to us, though – they understand our language, so to speak.” She paused. “And then we have the ordinary angels – the foot soldiers of the heavenly choirs. These are the ones who watch over the likes of you and me, Bruce – who offer their assistance in difficult times.”

She took another sip of coffee. “Enough of angels, Bruce. I must let you into a little secret.”

Bruce was encouraging. “I can’t resist a secret, Sister Maria-Fiore.”

“I’m sure you can’t. Who can? Our secrets are the truths we dare not reveal; and the secrets we dare not reveal are the truth.”

Bruce was still thinking about this when Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna leant forward and whispered, “Antonia and I have found a delightful flat in the Grange. We have decided to buy it.”

Bruce caught his breath.

“And we have so many plans for it,” the nun continued. “I’ve already ordered some curtain material and shall make the curtains myself. I learned stitching from Sister Perdita. We used to call her Sister Perdita of the Threads – such a suitable name, that she loved, actually. We never chose a hurtful name for any of the sisters, you know – we always spoke with charity.”

Bruce was silent. It was a terrible, unanticipated coincidence. He hardly dared ask her where the flat was, as he dreaded the answer she would give him, but he steeled himself and asked the question. He was proved right.

I am about to defraud a nun, he said to himself.

“I don’t know whether you have experienced this yourself,” Sister Maria-Fiore continued, “but there is a particular sense of contentment in finding just the right place for oneself. It’s a sort of homecoming, I think. You have been on a long journey and then you find yourself in the place that you know is just right for you. You have come home. You know it. You feel that there simply cannot be another place for you – that this is it.”

He heard, with a sinking heart, how this double upper flat in the Grange was, for Sister Maria-Fiore, that place – that haven in an unsettled and sometimes trying world.

“Are you certain?” was all that he could think of saying.

And she replied. “I am completely certain, Bruce.”

He hesitated, but then said, “Of course, you realise in our system that you might not get the property. There may be others who will put in higher bids.”

“Impossible,” said Sister Maria-Fiore. “We have funds at our disposal. There are my modest assets and Antonia’s slightly larger resources. We are in a very good position to buy this house which, Deo volente, we are assured of getting.”

Then she added, “If you want a house, Bruce, then you can be sure that the house wants you.”

And with that she finished her coffee, wiped her lips, and smiled a smile of serene confidence.

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2021. A Promise of Ankles (Scotland Street 14) is available now. Love in the Time of Bertie (Scotland Street 15) will be published by Polygon in hardback in November 2021.