“Thirsty Work,” by Robert Garnham

Apr 20th, 2020 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose


And thence did God see fit to make the top step of the main monastery staircase a little wonky, and he saw that it was wonky, and in terms of health and safety legislation, it wasn’t very good.

‘Mother Superior, on her last visit, almost lost her step’, Brother Hilarious reminded the Head Monk. ‘Do you remember all of those curse words? Never heard anything like it’.

‘Ah yes. The blue nun’, Abbot Skerswell said.

He and Brother Hilarious were at the top of the staircase.

‘What was Mother Superior doing here, again?’, the abbot asked. ‘And why was she heading towards the monk’s dormitories?’

‘The lord moves in mysterious ways’.

‘So does the blue nun, and I know which one I’d rather get on the wrong side of’.

‘She just came bounding up the stairs before anyone could stop her. I tried to warn her about the top step, but she reminded me that she puts her trust in a higher faith.’

‘Nevertheless,’ Abbot Skerswell said, ‘we shall have to get it mended’.

At that moment, Brother Copious walked past, trod awkwardly on the top step, and kind of rolled, crashed and tumbled all the way down the stairs, a furious flurry of brown robes and the occasional glimpse of bare leg, his sandals flying off in two different directions, landing in a crumpled heap at the bottom next to the portrait of Saint Deborah Among The Scrotes.

‘He just went down like a sack of potatoes, didn’t he?’

‘See to it’, Abbot Skerswell said, ‘That this is fixed’.


‘And lo! For did the lord not impart upon the multitude, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wifi?’, Brother Hilarious said to himself, logging in to the free service provided by the tanning salon next door. He entered the password, BURNTCRISPORANG3, and searched for local carpenters.

‘Jesus’, he whispered.

Jesus was a carpenter, and like the carpenters listed online, he was surrounded by joiners. Most of them promised speedy, efficient workmanship, but not many of them had an ecclesiastical bent.

The sky filtered in through the chapel windows and illuminated the worn, varnished woodwork of the benches. It was unfortunate that the chapel was the only part of the monastery where one could hack into the tanning salon wifi. Brother Hilarious looked up and saw Brother Superfluous, who was knelt at the altar having a damn good pray. Perhaps he was praying for the step to be fixed, which would certainly be cheaper than hiring a carpenter.

‘Do you ever feel’, Brother Hilarious said, all of a sudden, ‘that the only pressure one finds oneself in the modern world, is the pressure to constantly reinvent oneself?’

Brother Superfluous said nothing. His hands were clamped together and his eyes were screwed tight shut.

‘That we have to keep ourselves… somehow… interesting?’

Brother Superfluous opened one eye and looked at him. He then closed that eye and pressed his hands together even tighter.

‘Not one person noticed that I was wearing guyliner yesterday’.

‘For god’s sake!’ Brother Superfluous said, ‘can’t you tell I’m trying my hardest to have a bit of a pray, here?’

‘What are you praying about?’

‘I’d rather keep it personal’.

‘I prayed for fish fingers yesterday. And then when we had dinner, it was fish cakes. Close enough, I thought’.

‘Such things should remain private’.

‘Go on, tell me’.

‘Well, it’s obviously not working, because you’re still here’.

‘Prey harder’.

‘If you must know, I’m praying for the souls of those in need’.

‘Oh, I did that last week. It’s a tough one, isn’t it?’

Brother Hilarious continued scrolling down the list of carpenters. And then he came across one which was a specialist in ecclesiastical and ecumenical carpentry, a local firm by the rather quirky name Have I Got Pews For You.

He looked up at the stained glass windows and aw that they were lit up, somehow echoing the majesty and power of the ethereal, to which the monastery, in its own little way, was a small part. There was such mystery in the world. It made him humble, it made him feel alive.

‘How’s that prayer coming along?’, he asked,

‘For heaven’s sake!’, Brother Superfluous said.

He got up and left.


‘Ben Dover’.


‘Ha ha. Yes. I get that a lot. My name is Ben. Ben Dover’.

‘We’ve already found god, thank you very much’.

Abbot Skerswell started to close the front door.

‘I’m the carpenter. From Have I Got Pews For You?’


He only looked about twelve. Or at least, his face did. The rest of him was buff. If he were any more buff, then he’d have been a buffalo. His tight white t-shirt barely concealed his strong, muscular chest, accentuated by the very low cut v-shape of its neckline. He was wearing shorts, too. Cargo shorts, with lots of pockets.

‘Come in!’, Abbot Skerswell said. Such strong arms, too. ‘Come in!’

Brother Superfluous walked past.

‘Ah! Brother Superfluous!’, the Abbot said. ‘Ben Dover’.

‘What is it with people today?’, Brother Superfluous replied, and he just kept on walking.

Ben’s smooth, tanned, youthful complexion was complemented by a head of bright blond hair. He looked around the grand entrance hall of the monastery and the portrait of Saint Deborah Among The Scrotes. He’d seen a lot of monasteries during his time at Have I Got Pews For You, and he could tell that this was one of the better ones.

‘Nice gaff’.

Abbot Skerswell led him to the stairs and showed Ben the offending step.

‘It’s a hazard’, he said. ‘It needs repairing. A monk took a tumble this very morning, in fact. It’s not the sort of thing you want to come across if you’re wearing flipflops’.

‘Do the brethren often wear flipflops?’

‘Flipflops… Bunny slippers… Generally, they’re outlawed, but I do turn a blind eye. For did the Lord not say… He who… Questioneth the apparel of the Pharisee… Shalt not… I’ve lost my train of thought’.

Ben had beautiful blue eyes.

Blue eyes and blond hair.

‘You would have made an amazing Nazi’.


‘Sorry… Just thinking aloud’.

‘I see your problem’, Ben said, studying the step from several angles. ‘I shall need to completely rebuild the step. And the landing, too. The landing has a slope, do you see that? I shall need to build it up, you see, and use a spirit level. Or shall I say, a holy spirit level’.

Abbot Skerswell said nothing.

‘Sorry, just some ecclesiastical humour’.

‘Oh, yes. Ha ha. Quite, yes. We are not immune to humour, here at Saint Deborah’s. Indeed, you might even say that it’s something of a habit’.

Ben said nothing.

‘Habits being of course… What we wear…’.

‘I’ll get my tools’, Ben said.

Abbot Skerswell watched Ben walk down the stairs and off out through the main door to his van, his pert little arse moving from side to side beneath his cargo shorts.

You’d would have made an amazing Nazi.’, the Abbot repeated, to himself. ‘You are such an idiot, Abbot Skerswell’.


Amidst the sparse furnishings of his cell, Brother Superfluous felt his conscience slither, like the tentacles of a squid, from one corner of the world to the other. It was as if he could feel the planet’s vibrations, sense the collective mood not only of every soul and consciousness, but of every creature, every plant or tree, of every speck of life. He had heard stories of minute subatomic creatures, germs and microbes that had lived for millions of years on the sea bed, whose metabolism was so very, very slow that it gave them the ability to feel time as if at a quicker rate than those creatures around them, thousands of years passing as seconds, and evolution unfolding in their midst. Such thinking was apt to give Brother Superfluous the willies.

At nights he moved so stealthily. He felt the world was more intense once the blinding sun had gone, once the planet was bathed in darkness matching the eternity of the universe. In order not to be spotted, his nocturnal wandering were undertaken from behind a blank mask through the eyeslits of which he observed nature, both human and non-human, the screech of night time vixens, lovers canoodling on street corners, the hoot of owls, late night taxi drivers, more lovers canoodling on street corners, the desperate, the downtrodden, satellites, aircraft, and rows and rows of faceless, anonymous houses behind whose walls people led lives of privacy and sin.

He had put a lock on the inside of his cell door.

A few weeks previously had come reports in the local press. The Manic Masked Monk of Melton Mowbray, a haunting, solitary figure, whose existence owed more to good old fashioned superstition rather than the serenity of grace, reportedly frightening people in their homes, late night motorists, and lovers canoodling on street corners. Brother Superfluous knelt at his bed in prayer yet again, then stopped, opened his bedside drawer and took out the mask, its clear, shiny surface a veneer, a palimpsest hiding one story from another, a life defined already by anonymity, further hidden.

He placed the mask back in the drawer and closed his eyes, and rather than pray yet again, he let his conscience wander over the continents. But the local chief of police had vowed to catch the Manic Masked Monk of Melton Mowbray, a statement which led only to a team of journalistic fever in which every local transgression, unsolved crime, peeping Tom report, dead squirrel or UFO sighting was attributed to this mysterious, mischievous monk.

‘I chuffing know what’s bleeding going on here, you motherchuffing motherchuffers’, Mother Superior had shouted, after she’d stormed ho the stairs to his cell. ‘I’m on to you, and if you chuffing come round to my chuffing nunnery again, you chuffing monk, then I’m going to shove that chuffing mask up your motherchuffing arse you chuffing pervert’.

Only she hadn’t said chuffing, she’d said fucking.

This had been followed by even more chuffing as she almost fell down the stairs on the way out.

Reports of the Manic Masked Monk Of Melton Mowbray had reduced somewhat in the last week.

Brother Superfluous closed his eyes shut once more, for the umpteenth time. This prayer, he told himself, will be the one.

And then someone started using a very loud wood sander.


The sandy-haired handyman was sanding the landing. He was using a machine which vibrated and rattled the floorboards and filled the air was a constant high-pitched screaming, a screaming which sounded like an animal in pain. It was very unsettling. And it kicked up a constant cloud of sawdust which rose into the air and then settled down over everything. He ran the machine back and forth over the landing. Zeowwwwww! Zeowwwwww! Zee zee zee zeowwwww!

‘Good job we’ve already prayed for serenity foday’, Brother Hilarious pointed out.

He and the Abbot were standing at the bottom of the staircase next to the portrait of St. Deborah.

‘It must be hard work’, the Abbot replied. ‘And hot, too. He’s welcome to take his shirt off’.


‘I said, it’s great to get this work off… Off our chests… His chest… The thing is, it needed to be done’.


‘Shall we enquiry as to his well being?’, the Abbot asked.

‘Maybe we should just let him get in with it. For did Lord Jesus not say, thou… Who hast… A mighty chore… Should damn well get on with it?’

‘We could at least see what kind of service we might be able to offer him’.

They advanced up the stairs. Ben turned off his sander and looked at them. He ran his fingers through his blond hair.

‘Hi there!’, the Abbot said, in a strained, squeaky voice.


Ben kind of looked at them with the sander in his hand.

‘Nice tool’.


‘We were just wondering… How it was all going?’

‘Yeah, fine’.

‘And you’re okay?’

‘Absolutely, Reverend’.


‘Just… You know… Very parched’.

‘Oh dear’.

‘Yeah, thirsty work, this.’

Ben cleared his throat a couple of times and coughed,

‘Is this a… recent affliction ?’

‘Yeah, you might say that it’s ongoing’.

He cleared his throat again. And coughed again.

‘My, this is thirsty work!’

‘Dear me. Oh, brave soldier, we shall see what we can do’.

Ben looked down at his watch.

‘Oh look at that! It’s almost a quarter past tea… I mean, three. Ha ha, silly me. I don’t know what I was thinking’.

‘Indeed. Time moves on’.

‘And I was thinking, I could use a higher quality of varnish once it’s done that’s more durable. But it will cost an extra for-TEA pounds’.

‘Duly noted’.

‘Oh, thirsty work, this. Ahem, ahem. Such a dry, tickly throat’.

‘We shall cure’, the Abbot said, ‘that which ails ye’.

‘Cheers, Rev’.

Abbot Skerswell and Brother Hilarious walked down the stairs as Ben started up again with his sander. Zeowwwwww! Zeowwwwww!

‘This is all very serious indeed’, the Abbot said. ‘Oh dear me, yes. Very serious indeed’.


There was no lozenge to speak of in the monastery, nor cough sweet, nor syrup, nor any kind of suckable cure for a dry throat. And as Abbot Skerswell ransacked the kitchen, he could hear the situation becoming more dire with every minute. Whenever a Monk passed Ben on the stairs he heard his plaintive cry as the sander is momentarily silenced:

‘Thirsty work, this… ahem ahem… Oh, my throat is so parched!’

The Abott thought back to some of the cures that his mother would have concocted when he was a kid. Whisky and lemon. Whisky and ginger, whisky and ale. Or just plain whisky. The monastery didn’t have any whisky. And thinking back, his mother had been drunk most of the time, on whisky.

‘Oh, my throat… ahem ahem… Such thirsty work, this’.

He remembered one day his mother running out in the street with her left slipper in her hand shouting at the milkman for making so much noise first thing in the morning. He remembered how she would offer him whisky as a cure for a headache. And when he’d announced that he wanted to join the monastery, she must have been really ill indeed for she downed a whole bottle,

‘Thirsty work, this… ahem ahem… Oh, my throat is so parched!’

Zeowwwwww! Zeowwwwww!

‘Ahem! Ahem!’

Abbot Skerswell stood in the middle of the kitchen. The situation was useless.

”’Tis a diabolical affliction’, he told Brother Hilarious.

‘And we are helpless…’.

Abbot Skerswell had a sudden thought.

‘You remember that time the shed burnt down? Do you remember that? And we all ran around like headless chickens wondering what to do? Remember all that running around?’

‘Yes, I lost a sandal’.

‘And someone suggested we have a damn good pray? Remember that? And then the moment we stopped praying, a fire engine turned up’.

‘The tanning salon called for it’.

‘Or did they? You can never discount the power of the unknown.’

‘I’ll never understand why we didn’t just call the fire brigade ourselves’.

‘They’ve got enough on their plate as it is, without us adding to their workload. With their… Big hoses… Anyway, the situation was resolved and the Lord really came through for us that day. Perhaps he might do it again, in this time of crisis’.

Thirsty work, this. Ahem, ahem.

‘I suppose we could give it a bash’.

‘Brother Hilarious, summon the brethren!’

Brother Hilarious moved to the bottom of the stairs and bellowed at the top of his lungs, ‘Oi! You lot! Down here now! We’ve got something to pray about!’


There can be no more eerie nor ethereal sight than a choir of brown-cloaked monks incanting, singing their devotions, onerous and life-affirming, both celebratory and deeply serious. It is as if the centuries themselves could make a mockery of the present moment, that the spine-chilling emotions of these holy bretheren and the certainty of their beliefs bypasses a conventional existence, wrapping up normal lived sensation and imbuing it with the timeless. It’s just a shame that the jarring screech of Ben’s sanding machine drove a truck straight through the whole ceremony.

Brother Superfluous prayed with one eye half open, scanning the door. Of late the Holy Spirit had felt more like a kick in the gonads, which, funnily enough, is also what the Blue Nun had threatened the last time that she was in earshot, and he flinched with every shadow expecting to see her stood in the door of the chapel.

In sunbeams a-slant the monks sing a chant, in silence and solitude, they show their deep gratitude. Abbot Skerswell opens a massive tome of religious writing, Latin, calligraphy, illuminated gold-leaf evocations of pious intent, and at that moment a sudden epiphany asserts itself to the forefront of his consciousness : a caretaker may care, but who cares for the caretaker?

Beloved’, he says, looking up from the text. ‘A trader, a caretaker, a craftsman… Who devotes his life to the preservation of wood and to its gradual shaping into beautiful, functional furnishings…’.


‘A man whose soul is prone and whose skin is smooth, a creamy white, like the finest Devonshire cream, whose eyes are blue, blue like the seas of the Mediterranean…’.


‘This sandy-haired handyman, sanding our landing…’.

(Zeeee, zeee, zeee, zeowwwwww!).

‘Has been afflicted with the most hideous of horrors, his throat, unable to function properly, continually dry and as parched as the Saharan sands whose lustrous golden hue is matched only by his handsome locks, that we, humble servants of the Lord…’.


‘May offer neither comfort nor solace? So let us, brethren, pray not only for the souls of dear, dear Ben… But also for a packet of lozenges, or at the very least, a mint’.

The monks patted their pockets, then knelt at the pews. Brother Superfluous still had one eye on the door, he could feel his heart beat intensifying, the blood in his veins pumping quicker and quicker, for now the handyman was rapping with a hammer, bang bang bang bang, each gal, each whack seeming to force home the certainty deep within him that something bad, oh, something very bad was about to happen.

At last the service was done and the monks gathered and shuffled out of the chapel, through the hallway next to the portrait of St. Deborah, and up the stairs, passing Ben in single file.

‘Thirsty work, this… Ahem ahem… Oh my throat is so parched… Here I am on the stairs, where I certainly understand the gravi-TEA of the situation… Ahem ahem… Oh, such thirsty work’.

Brother Superfluous was probably about three quarters of the way up the wooden staircase when he heard the front door open with a mighty crash. Instinctively, he stopped and flinched, for he knew immediately who it was. Gingerly, he and Brothers Anonymous and Posthumous looked back, and there she stood.

‘Now I’ve chuffing got you, you chuffing bastard’, the Blue Nun said.

And just like his vision earlier, she was a silhouette, hands on hips in the monastery doorway. Then Ben stopped his incessant hammering and looked up, astonished.

‘It’s not what you think’, Brother Superfluous said.

There was an odd sensation inside of him. It felt like the bottom falling out of a cardboard box, and the contents of the cardboard box were his own life, and existence itself. He’d felt so sure of himself the last couple of months, but the angry figure in the doorway, he now realised, stood for something else. She stops for history. She stood for righteous truth. The angst she displayed, the seething contempt, her body language, all of them were aimed against him and only now, at this split second three quarters of the way up a staircase, did he realise that she was correct. She was angry and she was right to be so. And everyone else that he had met, interacted with, offended, scared, they were all angry at him, too.

‘I think we all chuffing know what’s chuffing going on here’, she said.

And he felt bad, not only because of the wrongness of his actions, but also, he suddenly realised, the way that he had compartmented her in terms almost sexist, that she had been a caricature in his own mind. But she wasn’t a caricature. She was an actual living person whose existence was framed through centuries of sexist male behaviour.

‘I’ve called the police’, she said, ‘the chuffing rozzers. I know is you, Brother Superfluous. I know you’re the Manic Masked Monk of Melton Mowbray’.

‘Actually’, Ben said, standing up, ‘its me’.

‘And who the chuffing hell are you?’

‘Ben Dover’.


‘Sorry, that’s my name. Ben Dover. I’m the one all the papers have been talking about. But I meant no harm, you see. I’m an ecclesiastical carpenter, it’s not the most fulfilling of jobs. So I go out at night, dressed as a monk… Fighting crime’.

‘Fighting crime?!’

‘Pickpockets. Cat burglars. Fly Tippers. Just small-scale stuff’.

‘I don’t believe it’.

‘Here’, Ben said, opening his tool box and pulling out a face mask.

‘That’s not a mask’, Brother Superfluous said.

‘It’s the mask I use. It’s not my fault that people… You know… Embellish things when they speak to the press’.

‘Oh’, Mother Superior said.

She stood in the doorway for a bit.

‘I may have to admit’, she said, ‘to being ever so slightly wrong’.

‘I must say that my… crime fighting… might eave misconstrued. But I can assure you that my intention, at all times, was to make the world a better place ‘.

‘In that case’, she said, ‘I suppose it is really rather sweet of you, my child’. She smiled, and then turned to Abbot Skerswell. ‘This young man is a gem, Abbot. And he’s doing a good job on those stairs, I almost had a tumble myself the other day. I’m sure you monks are looking after him and keeping him going with plenty of tea’.

With that, she departed.

‘So, then…’, the Abbot said, ‘would you like a cup of tea?’

‘Go on, you twisted my arm’.


Ben Dover was packing away his equipment. The top step of the stairs had been fixed and varnished and looked better than ever. His coughing seemed much better, too.

‘You know where we are’, the Abbot said, ‘if you ever want to pop in for a cup of tea ‘.

‘Thank you, Rev. Though you gave me—what was it—about six or seven cups there. I’ll be running to the loo all night’.

‘No problem’. The Abbot smiled. ‘Your t-shirt is awfully dusty with all that sawdust. If you need to pop yourself out of it…’.

‘I’m off home, now. I’ll have a shower when I get in’.

‘Sure. Sure’.

Brother Superfluous was waiting at the door.

‘You didn’t have to do that’, he whispered.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Take the flak. For me… I mean, for the Manic Masked Monk’.

Ben looked slightly confused.

‘I could see that she was on to me, so I had to tell her the truth’, he replied. ‘But in a way, I’m glad that it’s all out in the open. There’s been so much negativity about the Manic Masked Monk that this might actually quell some of the speculation. Unless, of course, some other nutter was going around, dressed as a Masked Monk…’.

‘Ha ha’, Brother Superfluous said, ‘yes’.

Ben picked up his equipment, put them in the back of his van, and left with a cheery wave.


Robert Garnham is a comedy performance poet and writer based in Devon, UK. His work has appeared in various magazines and he has performed widely at various festivals and fringes. For more information on Robert, visit www.professorofwhimsy.com.

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