Copyright 1996, Sarah Hartwell

The pinstriped visitor to the old monastery tried his best to look impressed by the ruins. The columns of the old cloister loomed tall and majestic; the stone walls of the refectory and dormitory (according to his guide) were blackened, stained by the fire which had devastated the monastery during the dissolution. Now, like so many more famous ruins, the bare bones of the building remained shattered and scattered, fossils of a former way of life. Indeed, the cloister's pillars resembled the rib-bones of a dinosaur, relics of bygone glory and bygone devotions. A large grey cat slipped noiselessly between the columns and slid into deep shadow, no doubt in search of the myriad wildlife that found sanctuary among the roofless buildings and the labyrinthine crevices beneath fallen stonework.

'Sadly it's not a listed monument,' explained his wistfully smiling guide, one Father John whose order lived in the newer monastery a short distance away. 'Perhaps that is how the Good Lord wills it - after all we are only selling the land to raise the funds for our hospice project, something which will benefit the community much more than clinging to our past.'

'The Lord moves in mysterious ways,' said the pinstriped man, a land developer's agent and a devout atheist with an eye for a bargain. Already he could envisage the profitable office complex that would net his client far more in a single year than the pittance sought by the monks.

The grey cat flitted from the shadows at the base of a column, inscrutable in his feline pursuits as he padded between the tumbled, weed-strewn stones of fallen roof supports.

'Yours?' asked the developer in an attempt to maintain friendly conversation, 'To keep the vermin down? He'll have to find a new place to hunt when Friars Place is built.'

Father John smiled, 'You see him then. We know him as Brother Matthew and he has a long history of association with our order. Indulge me, let me enlighten you. Brother Matthew only shows himself to a few people ...'

The pinstriped man managed not to snort in contempt, he nodded for the middle-aged monk to continue. Though supremely uninterested in anything other than the potential profitability of the site, the hardnosed business man allowed the monk to prattle on. Most likely, he thought to himself, the man is vowed to silence in the confines of his monastery and needs to get the chatter out of his system.

'...Brother Matthew used to keep down the rats which were attracted to out granaries and stables. He also hunted the rabbits which were attracted into our fields - and believe me rabbits can eat their way through plenty of vegetables which should support a monastery. Frequently he brought rabbits to our kitchens and these were seen as a gift by the grace of God and much appreciated by the brothers. The rabbits were a welcome year round addition to the tithe from the village.

Good grief, thought the land agent, the practice of tithe ended back in the seventies thanks to the EEC.

Father John invited his visitor to follow him as he walked slowly through the cloister towards the shoulder high walls of some building whose former function meant little to the money-minded businessman.

'Brother Matthew was feared lost in a particularly hard winter, no tame cat could have survived those weeks of heavy snow and icy wind. But then the brother monks mentioned seeing him from time to time and rabbits were left at our kitchen door. Please, this way ...' said Father John, pointing towards the left, 'For almost a Century the brothers glimpsed Brother Matthew within the buildings or in the grounds. In the days of the dissolution the monastery was set ablaze with the Brothers within. It was said that the monks were wakened and led to safety by Brother Matthew, indeed not a soul was lost to the flames.'

'Miraculous,' said the land agent without conviction.

Father John smiled warmly, 'Just so. Alas brother Matthew's favourite 'haunts' must now make way for progress ... ah, here we are.' Father John indicated a fragment of fire-hardened plasterwork in which the land agent could see the imprint of a cat's paw. 'Brother Mark was lighting tapers when Brother Matthew - before he left us in body, of course he never really left in spirit - when Brother Matthew stood on his hind legs for a better look and placed his paws on a freshly mended area of plaster.'

'Just like a cat,' the agent said though he took care not to let his scorn creep into his voice.

The sale of the monastery plot was concluded soon after and within eight months an office complex - Friars Place - had been built and was fully let to businesses. To lend the place an air of 'belonging', drawings of the monastery and photographs of its remains prior to land clearance were hung on the walls of the foyer area. The fragment of plaster with the cat's pawprint was also mounted in a frame with a small explanatory plaque explaining that the item had been found in the ruins. Some eight months later the building stood vacant after the occupants complained of an ethereal grey cat which wandered the rooms and corridors. After dusk forlorn mews were often heard as Brother Matthew wandered, lost and confused, in the modern building. Sometimes on Saint's feast days when all is quiet it is said that you can hear the distant chanting of monks.

The cat's ghost was only laid to rest when the plaster pawprint, along with the drawings and photos, was removed from the foyer and taken to the new hospice which had been funded by the sale of the ruined monastery. And sometimes patients in extremis whispered of seeing a grey cat waiting close at hand as if to lead them into the light.

And the land developers? Well God's work was done, for the hospice is much-needed, but it seems the Devil also had his due.

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